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TV WASTELAND: Lost in the Village

TV WASTELAND: Lost in the Village

Do you ever look at something and think, “Has no one else noticed this?” That’s exactly what I did when I sat down to watch The Prisoner in a marathon session earlier this week. Think about it. You have an isolated location honeycombed with strange bunkers where bizarre experiments are being carried out on unsuspecting subjects and no one’s quite sure who are the prisoners and who are the wardens. There’s an unconventional sentry in the form of Rover. Even those who seem to have power might be pawns in a larger, unseen game. Does this sound increasingly familiar? It probably does if you watch Lost.

These are broad points of comparison, but one could get even more specific—the raft Number Six builds in “Many Happy Returns” is reminiscent of Michael’s similar endeavor while the crew of the boat that picks up the Prisoner in “Checkmate” has much in common with the motives of the Other called Tom in “Exodus Part 2.” The Prisoner’s excursions outside the Village in “Many Happy Returns” and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” serve the same purpose of exposing his backstory that the character-oriented flashbacks do in a given episode of Lost. The overriding notion that the government has the right to keep a former employee with specialized knowledge under lock and key in the Village seems to be the same attitude underlying the DHARMA Initiative Island, simply substituting the corporate power of the Hanso Foundation for the British (or enemy) government behind the Village. Both shows, at their ethical roots, are about the individual enslaved at the convenience of an all-powerful organization with no recourse to appeal.

I could go on and on, detailing correlations perceived in reviewing Patrick McGoohan’s televisual masterpiece, but all these cosmetic and philosophical similarities seem to point to one key notion imbedded in the creation of both shows. In each case, the series seem to serve as a weekly Rorschach test for the audience. You come to the episode with all your personal baggage and you perceive the hour’s presentation through the lens of your own experience and opinions. Take, for example, my first experience with The Prisoner. I was around 13 years old and had been a fan of Doctor Who for at least a couple years. I had seen a mail order catalog of sf merchandise and noted The Prisoner’s proximity to Doctor Who in the British ghetto at the back of the publication. When I noted a listing for the first episode on my local PBS station, I stayed up to midnight to watch it—there weren’t many opportunities to catch obscure UK shows in those pre-DVD days. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it, but that didn’t stop me from trying to grasp what it was doing.

I watched the first 16 installments religiously and suffered something of a crisis when a power outage caused me to miss the 17th and final outing. Luckily, the advent of Suncoast Video in my local shopping mall solved the problem for the hefty fee of $29.95 (six weeks’ allowance, plus sales tax), and “Fall Out” rolled over me like an 18-wheeler with a radar dish on top. I still didn’t get it, but I was certain it must be brilliant. It did, however, give me what I needed—a nice dose of something foreign and thoughtful. A few years later, I saw the series again and my teenaged mind locked onto the notion of rebellion and the need to challenge the status quo. Of course, I wasn’t sure why I needed to rebel or how to go about it; looking back, I see shades of the finale’s Brando-esque Number 48 in my thinking. “Whadda you got?”

Later viewings found me refining my appreciation of the ambiguities proffered by The Prisoner, although my estimation of the four episodes filmed during the second production block (“Do Not Forsake Me…,” “Living in Harmony,” “The Girl Who Was Death,” and “Fall Out”) has not fared as well as my sentiments toward the whole, but that’s a talk for a different time.

I hope, in future viewings, that my feelings toward Lost will continue to evolve and change, depending on my situation in life. The series has captured the public imagination and is committed to asking more questions than it answers in true Prisoner-style. The larger cast offers a broader array of perspectives from which to perceive the action of the story and, like the surreal campus of the Village, the island is an iconic setting for the philosophical struggles at hand. For the moment, I find my allegiances rest most often with John Locke, Eko, and sometimes Sawyer. I suspect that as I grow older, I may find other characters closer to my sympathies. Regular readers of my opinions here on Cinescape know that I can’t abide Charlie or Michael and there’s probably a marvelously Freudian reason that I’ve yet to ascertain. I find Kate an enigma at best and a two-dimensional cutout at worst. Maybe I lack something in my own make-up that prevents me from relating to her.

In developing the cast, the creators of Lost have represented every man rather than The Prisoner’s Everyman—a statement on the divergence of our society or an embracing of diversity in our cultures…I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I’m held captive by both shows and escape seems unlikely.

This essay originally appeared as the 31 July 2006 installment of my TV Wasteland column at Cinescape.

©2006 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.


DVD REVIEW: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The culmination (or rather, the missing link) in a 28-year cinematic saga, Revenge of the Sith aspires to tell a tragic tale, but instead succeeds in dismantling the classic mythology it seeks to complete. As writer-director George Lucas continually reiterates in his DVD commentary, the six films are of a piece, and this component undermines the whole.

As the clone soldiers of the Galactic Republic fight a devastating battle with the droid armies of the rebelling Separatist faction, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) race to rescue the Republic’s Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the Separatist leader, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and his cybernetic henchman, General Greivous (voiced by Matthew Wood). Anakin falls increasingly under the charismatic politician’s influence despite the warnings of his pregnant wife, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), and soon Palpatine—secretly the puppetmaster behind the Separatists—initiates his endgame against the Republic.

The key events of Revenge of the Sith are known before the 20th Century Fox logo opens the film: the Jedi will fall, the Empire will rise; Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, Luke and Leia will be born. The broad strokes are expertly realized with the unfettered visual style that George Lucas has developed across the prequel trilogy, but the details reveal philosophical gaps that paint a troubling picture of the saga’s central conceits. From the casual (and casually easy) extermination of the order Kenobi (Alec Guiness) called “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” in Star Wars (1977), to the questionable metaphysics of the Force and Anakin’s redemption in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Sith dismantles the magic of the Star Wars universe.

The Jedi, described with reverence by the elder Ben Kenobi in the quote above, are somewhat less impressive than audiences were led to believe in 1977. In a matter of minutes, they are systematically exterminated by their clone soldiers, offering virtually no resistance as they are gunned down from close range seemingly oblivious to their betrayal. Few of them even seem to see the attacks coming, and those that do barely react. Only Kenobi, by chance, and Yoda, by evincing minimal awareness of his surroundings, manage to escape. Were these two warriors the only lions in an order of lambs? If the Jedi instincts for survival are questionable, their capacity for mercy is of even greater concern. Kenobi’s abandonment of his apprentice at a moment of incomparable suffering is unforgiveable. Surely, a noble Jedi Knight would ease that pain with a merciful slash of his saber, but the great Kenobi manages only a sneer of disgust as he leaves his best friend to burn alive. Given the temper he exhibited in other installments of the franchise, Vader showed remarkable restraint when he dueled Kenobi 20 years later.

Sith’s greatest betrayal rests with the undermining of Anakin Skywalker’s “redemption” in Jedi, rendering the sextet’s climax laughable 23 years after the fact. As Yoda explains, in a speech that seems like an afterthought, he and Kenobi will learn the secrets of becoming one with the Force from the departed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Apparently, no less a acquired skill than summoning one’s lightsaber from a distance, this ability to return from the dead has long been the spiritual coda of Anakin Skywalker’s story—he appears alongside Kenobi and Yoda in Jedi’s final scene—which Lucas revised for the 2004 DVD release, replacing the elder Anakin Skywalker (Sebastian Shaw) with Christensen’s youthful incarnation…forgiven with a complimentary facelift, no less.

In Jedi, we see Vader kill the emperor and reconcile with Luke before expiring aboard the Death Star. Lucas has made it clear that the Sith is a religion of two—a master and an apprentice—and that ascendancy is based on betrayal, as Vader suggests in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when he implores Luke to join him in overthrowing Palpatine. Why then does the killing of Palpatine in Jedi indicate a change of heart? Vader is well within the parameters of Lucas’s Sith philosophy, and only his own death preempts him repeating his solicitation for Luke to become his apprentice. Vader is a man whose violent temper belied every assertion that he voiced about his motives for delving into darkness; a man who, having grievously wounded a fellow Jedi in a misguided rage, decided to finish him off simply because he may as well finish what he started; a man who slaughtered an entire community Tusken Raiders on Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), murdering children in cold blood. Are we to accept that a final act—completely consistent with Vader’s adherence to Sith philosophy—undoes decades of sin that he doesn’t bother to apologize for upon his death? Apparently so, the Force having restored his youth in death, a boon not granted to either Kenobi or Yoda who stand beside him, all quarrels forgotten.

In completing his story, Lucas has pulled a bait and switch. The audience, via the original trilogy, is offered a tragic tale ending in redemption. The prequels offer something far more cynical, the idea that one debatably noble act can redeem a lifetime of atrocities. This isn’t how things used to be done in a galaxy far, far away.

Though philosophically flawed, Revenge of the Sith ends on just the right note—one of optimism and hope. Recalling Luke’s longing glance into the setting suns of Tatooine, the final shot reminds us what we love about Star Wars, and though the later installments of the saga no longer speak with the strength of the original trilogy, they still stir an element of wonder in the imagination. That can’t be all bad—after all, Anakin wasn’t, was he?

Originally published in the 4 November 2005 issue of CS Weekly. Copyright ©2005 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

DVD REVIEW: Carnivàle: The Complete First Season

HBO’s admonishment that “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” couldn’t be more accurate in assessing a series that takes place in a unique setting, at an eccentric pace, with a remarkable sense of foreboding, and a penchant for unanswered question. Take a ride on the merry-go-round and hang on for your life as this biblical battle between good and evil starts to turn, like clouds becoming a twister.

Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), escapes from the chain gang in time to watch his mother die cursing him. As the bank prepares to demolish his house while he buries his ma, a travelling carnival comes out of the dustbowl to offer him a strange new life on the road. Meanwhile, in California, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister, begins to experience supernatural power over members of his congregation—a thief vomits money while a pederast sees visions of his evil acts. Vanishing into the wilderness in an effort to hear God’s voice, Brother Justin is unaware that his unsettling dreams are shared by Hawkins, half a continent away, as he learns, under the tutelage of the sinister seer Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), that he has the power to resurrect and to kill.

In a television universe where doctors, lawyers, and cops are de riguer, anything that steps outside these well-walked genres is something to get excited about. A series that takes the added step of venturing out of contemporary settings and exploring an interesting, and little explored—unless Steinbeck is involved—era of American history through the eyes of itinerant performers and a Methodist minister is to be applauded for covering new ground. That these characters are archetypal cannot be denied, but when Daniel Knauf’s writing staff plays against the archetypes, the audience gets a real surprise or two.

In considering characters, it should be noted that, thus far, the series has offered two casts: the carnies and Brother Justin’s flock. Neither side has crossed paths with the other, save the shared dreams of Hawkins and Crowe (birds of a feather?), themselves avatars of the forces of good and evil (respectively?). The writers tell the audience that both men are of a kind, but their nature is only obtusely examined through scenes where others discuss them. This third-hand exposition makes the show’s characters a veil through which the audience experiences the events and thus clouds the reality of the series with half-truths and lies.

While the depiction of character is a foremost accomplishment, the show’s slow, deliberate, and moody pace is another departure from the norm. Unlike network television, which must get the action going and build to forced climaxes for every ad break, the pay-cable medium affords much more latitude in structure. There’s no particular need to play up the tension to retain the audience through the commercials, and the viewer knows that HBO won’t pull the plug mid-season. As chapters in a book, the breaks between episodes seems almost arbitrary in some cases and one feels that the whole twelve-hour run could be seamlessly edited together. This disregard for traditional televisual values even extends to a flat refusal to tidy up the unanswered questions posed by the end of the year. There is a confidence in the writing that assures the viewer that all matters will be attended to, but it will happen in the show’s time, not the viewers’.

Creator Daniel Knauf and his collaborators offer informative looks at the evolution of the Carnivàle concept from a spec feature by Knauf to an HBO series following in the wake of the network’s success with innovative dramas like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Much is discussed of the show’s carnival advisers and their input and influence in the creation of stories for the show. Aside from the obvious chat over the pilot, two other episodes—“After the Ball is Over” and “Hot and Bothered”—seem peculiar choices for commentary since the mid-season stunner, “Babylon,” and the climactic “The Day That Was the Day” both feature more meaty material. Still, the nearly one-hour Museum of Television seminar featuring almost the entire cast, Knauf, executive producer Howard Klein, and the HBO programming executive responsible for commissioning the series, is worth the investment in time as the creators of the series discuss in detail the style and content of the show and how it differs from everything else in the market.

With its utter apathy toward the standard “rules” of the television, some might suggest that Carnivàle is an exercise in rebellion, but the bottom line is that this irreverent take on the medium is wrapped around a cracking story of good versus evil in a time when the world was more innocent and even more strange.

This review originally appeared in CS Weekly, circa December 2004, just before the second season debuted on HBO and the show’s cancellation was announced.

Text ©2004 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.
Images courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment.