Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Excursion to somewhere

I've been DVRing Into the Badlands (And Legion. And Taboo. And a couple other things. Maybe I'll get to them, at some point, but Orange is the New Black starts in a couple weeks...) ItB was something I was watching in the same way I used to watch The Walking Dead: I was interested in where they were going to take it, more in a clinical sense than from an "I'm really entertained by this!" perspective. They'd combined two relatively disparate elements: a post-apocalyptic setting and Hong Kong-style martial arts. I'm a mild fan of the latter and a huge fan of the former, so I was willing to watch the 6-episode first season... and then kinda forgot about it until the second season started appearing on the DVR a couple months ago. So I sat down and binged it over the past few days and had two reactions: 1. I'm more intrigued by the setting, as they fleshed out the world considerably. 2. I'm still not ready to plant myself in front of it every Sunday night.

On 1, as I noted in my post about the premiere episode last year, the setting was redolent of an old RPG known as Gamma World that I used to run campaigns with as a kid. The Badlands is a totally restructured society that still clings to some parts of the old technology (oil), but rejects others (guns), lacks more (computers), and treats others as something bordering on magic (the items surrounding the legendary city of Azra.) Gamma World was like that, too, in which some members of society remembered the old technology or had learned to adapt it to their world, while others would be completely mystified by it (think Donald Trump's attachment to Twitter and confusion at the concept of press releases and you'll be on the right track.)

How does that work again?
Season 2 expanded upon pretty much everything as they went along; showing the less organized world outside the Badlands (and the massive wall that separates the two), as well as the various factions present there: miners, smugglers, the monastery, etc. The mine of the first couple episodes showed some of that "past world as mystery" flavor, with people being rewarded for digging up detritus from our world. But the monastery was the big story outside of the politics and not just because MK spent a good chunk of the season effectively imprisoned there. The abbots appear to be constraining the emergence of mutations like MK's. This again hearkens back to Gamma World, where mutation among people, animals, and plants was the order of the day because of the radiation left as the aftereffect of the disaster that created the setting. There is no such radiation in the world of ItB. So is this a "natural human progression toward higher power" approach or something different?

And that question kind of leads into point 2: Why is ItB still not compelling TV? There are a number of answers to that question.

I'm not sure 'penetrating gaze' is the right phrase here.
1. Acting. I don't think anyone has done a particularly poor job, where you're wondering why the producers had to settle for this or that person. In fact, I think Madeleine Mantock did quite well as Veil in season 2 and Marton Csokas continued to be interesting to watch as Quinn, even if he was chewing the scenery a bit as his character became more desperate/deranged in the later episodes. By the same token, I don't find anyone's performance particularly gripping, either. There are no Don Drapers or Walter Whites among the cast, where you're just waiting for that person to come back on camera. Unfortunately, one of the weaker roles has been Emily Beecham as Minerva/The Widow. She has a ton of screen time, but often seems to use it to "be acting", rather than be Minerva. Of course, she's often not helped by...

Day in the life.
2. The writing. I don't have an objection to the plot, but some of the pacing and dialogue is still pretty weak. Beecham was repeatedly subject to this, as the writers seemed to think that being a strong and/or ominous presence meant her having to look into the camera and deliver a line like "They'll see what happens when *I* get involved.", accompanied by a slow pan in and rising music. It's melodrama in TV production 101 and it's pretty dated. People don't remember setup lines. They're goofy and people usually mock them. People remember lines that are delivered in the course of an action other than staring at the camera/audience. If you want ominous delivery, think: "I find your lack of faith...disturbing." or "I am the one who knocks!" Both of those instances are memorable and lacked what we used to call a posing panel in comics: where everyone stands and looks menacingly at the camera, serving no purpose to the story, but just filling pages and/or giving the artist something to sett at conventions. There are much better ways of closing a scene.

Dance, pigeon! Dance!
3. The overuse of "bullet time." That's the technique made famous by the Wachowski Brothers in The Matrix. I'm using it as a euphemism for the proliferation of slow motion backflips that seem to be present in every action scene of every episode. The producers seem to think that the only style of fighting possible is not only kung fu (normal for many HK-style films) but kung fu with as large an amount of Olympic floor exercises as can be executed. Having practiced a sword art, I can't tell if there's any particular style being employed there, as most of those combats still tend to be edge-on-edge clatterfests. There is a point where style overwhelms rationality in some of it, as well, like when Sunny meet Silver Moon and ends up walking away with his sword that has multiple gold rings drilled into the top of the blade. No sword-wielder in his right mind would do such a thing, as there's way too much chance of it catching on armor, bone, or someone else's weapon and disarming you at the worst possible moment (pretty much all of them.) That's me being pretty technical about it, but it's also a measure of a larger problem, in that the fights became so repetitive that my absorption in the story pretty much disappeared and I began tuning out of them except to notice technical details like that insane setup on that sword.

Yeah. No way, man.
And if I'm getting bored by the fight scenes, pretty soon it leads me to asking myself: Where are they going with this? I liked the semi-resolution that introduced Azra as a reality, rather than just a legend. Combine that with the image on the medallion and the book apparently matching up with a cover of n old copy of Wired and it creates a mix of possibilities, some of which may be shockingly disappointing to our characters and some of which may be interesting to us, the audience. On the other hand, Sunny's situation went from purely linear to Lone Wolf and Cub. Sunny is now the ultimate ronin, ex-regent for the most powerful baron in the Badlands, trusted by no one, and now seeking to raise his son in a gentler manner than the savage world around him would have it. That's not exactly the most original approach and it leaves me wondering if the presence of the baby is intended as a humanizing element for a man who already demonstrated a distinct streak of humanity for a killer with 404 (not found?) victims (and, honestly, many more than that by now.)

Overall, I'm not disappointed. I'm just kind of keeping my clinical distance for now. I'll definitely watch the opener next season and see what they've developed in the new production. AMC apparently has faith, since it went from 6 episodes in season one to 10 in season two and a reported 15 for the confirmed season three. AMC's shows often develop into things like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (even though I've parted ways with the latter.) But they also sometimes linger on without direction like Hell on Wheels. Here's hoping for more good than bad(lands.)