Monday, June 6, 2016

Spiritual slump

Today's musical interlude is descriptive, but not determinative. In other words, despite what follows, don't lose all hope yet.


Ongoing series will often run into the problem of the sophomore slump, in that their second season will often be much less interesting than their first, either because their writers have gone down too many bad trails or because they blew their wad in the first season and weren't quite ready for the follow-up. Of course, normally that takes an entire season. After having seen the second episode of Preacher, I'm mildly concerned that writer Sam Catlin and directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are having premature... troubles.

Two weeks ago when I wrote about the pilot, I mentioned that I thought the elements of the story that more closely resembled something like Carnivale were the ones that I could really see working for the series. Part of that is the willingness for the writer and director(s) to say: "This is our world and welcome to it." In other words, you can't play up the fact that weirdness is happening. It simply is what happens, similar to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That involves all elements of the production, from sets to score. Too much of this second episode spent time emphasizing just how "weird" these events were supposed to be. The most obvious point was when Jesse stops in the road to investigate the baby seat before Tulip effectively kidnaps him. At that point, the screeching violins were telling you that "THIS WAS A MOMENT OF CRISIS AND YOU SHOULD FEEL CRISIS"/Zoidberg. Why? Do we need to be told that this is a tense moment? The lack of lighting and the fact that a baby seat is in the road should tell us that (although it was kind of tough to tell what it was; a direct shot with the camera might have been better than having Jesse and Tulip tell us later.) That was a director saying: "This isn't WEIRD enough. Hit the strings!" That's not someone who's sure of his story or his setting.


Similarly, we spent a lot of time doing obvious establishment shots like the one of the bounty hunters up there (I'm trying so hard to not spoil stuff...) Even more prominent was Jesse meeting Cassidy back at the church before the whole "origin story" drinking session. That was basically the director(s) saying: "Here's the home turf of our hero, where he feels most comfortable, and where you should feel at home while we take another long look at the run down building that represents the complicated faith of our hero and his flock." But we get that already. We don't need to keep being reminded of it. And, also, what gives with the whole "So, what's your story, Cassidy?" That's a direct quote. Two guys are drinking and you can't come up with a subtler way of getting into Cassidy's past than simply asking for it. You're not telling a story there. You're reading from a pitch. Give me a story.

I still like some of the details. The hunters using dark steampunk tech is good; very Gilliam-esque. Cassidy slurping blood off the floor is a measure of what he is in more ways than one (vampire and addict.) But, by the same token, I'm also a little distressed at the lack of some detail. This is out in the sticks of west Texas (which is pretty much all of west Texas...), right? Then why is it that the outside of the church looks like a meticulously groomed movie set? There's no dirt other than what's been perfectly raked and smoothed. There's no debris, natural or otherwise. There's nothing that indicates that people actually, y'know, live here. This is a problem (among many) that the Constantine TV series had. John Constantine is supposed to be someone from the underbelly of society, but every time he appeared on camera, his clothes looked like he'd just walked out of a dry cleaner. Similarly, Jesse and Cassidy are supposed to be fairly lowdown guys, but you can't convince me that these guys are salt-of-the-earth if there ain't no earth.


Once again, the person that seems to have most embraced his or her role is the her. Despite Tulip being given the fairly boilerplate tough girl activities (beating the guys at poker, etc.), there's enough mystery in what she's doing for us to at least be willing to follow her around. She also seems to have the most complex motivations, which means that she's interesting to think about between episodes. Think about Don Draper and you'll know what kind of character I'm speaking of. I would have gladly spent more time watching Tulip do her thing than seeing them build up to the second use of The Word. Yes, we realize that Linus has issues at the baptism. Yes, we get the symbolism of the bus driving by. So we're getting to the payoff and his first line is: "You can't just walk into my house and turn the tub on!" Wut? OK, fine. Maybe it was ad-libbed. Maybe they really didn't think there was a better line that, you know, could involve the fact that they both knew why Jesse was there and how they both knew that they'd been together at another, more conventional, baptism.

Alright, fine. Never mind. I'm quibbling about details, right? In fact, I liked some of the details; like the large CD collection in the front room. If this is taking place in the 90s when Preacher was originally written and published, that would've been normal. But if it's in the present day, maybe it's just an indication of the "other side of the tracks" nature of the whole town. Great. That works. And then he uses The Word...


So, when Jesse uses The Word, it's usually a crisis moment. I've written about the problem with abilities that only appear when the story needs them before and Preacher, the comic, avoided that snafu to a certain degree. It is, of course, way too early in the story to be overly concerned about the problem of trivializing the greatest manifestation of what makes Jesse "the Preacher", but it's also too early to have it easily explained by those it affects, too. When he uses the power, instead of Linus being utterly disoriented, he recovers in seconds and begins asking plot questions: "What'd you do to my brain?" How is it that obvious? This guy's face is burning, he's soaking wet, he's lost a chunk of his memory, and he's immediately aware of what happened to him? Hm. Yeah. I don't buy it. It sounds too much like the directors trying to spoon feed the story (in episode 2), rather than letting it develop.


OTOH, they introduce Odin Quincannon (yes, that's who the old guy (Jackie Earl Haley) is; no, that shouldn't be a spoiler) and spend exactly zero time giving any detail on just who he is and what he means to the local community. We get to see Donny break a guy's nose on the car horn, but don't know why we've had this little interlude and aren't given anything particularly strange to make us remember it. Why not? They came in, got a deed, and demolished a house. I mean, I guess that's weird but there didn't seem to be any follow-up to it that made it particularly memorable. The only reason I'm mentioning it is because of the lack of substance, not because it was particularly interesting.

So, yeah. A lot of problems. I'm far less enthused about this week's production than I was about the pilot and I wasn't head-over-heels about the latter in the first place. I actually looked at the clock while I was watching this one, if that gives you any indication of just how enthralled I was. I'm not bailing yet. It's not Constantine-level of god-awful. But I have a far more jaundiced eye for what's coming.

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