Saturday, October 17, 2015

Television Reviews: Power (Season One), The Strain (Season Two)

Power (Season One)
This was a gift from my brother. I liked it more than I thought I would although it was crammed full of plotholes, unrealistic writing and leaps in logic. Nevertheless it sort of grew on me like a mosquito bite. You could say that this series was a reworking of Superfly and many other blaxploitation films but I suppose you could say that about a great many movies or tv shows. In this story, as in many other stories, the hero -or to be accurate-the protagonist is faced with moral conflicts, challenges and betrayals. The action of the story comes from how he deals with these issues or in some cases if he even knows about them. The setup is simple enough. James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) is the owner of a very popular and extremely profitable NYC nightclub named Truth. Truth has become the "it" place to be among the NYC beautiful people class. Models, actors, musicians, wannabes, heirs and heiresses and anyone who wants to be seen as coming up all try to get into Truth. James is a dedicated and hands on owner. He leaves nothing to chance. If there's a problem he's on it immediately to fix it. Nothing is beneath his notice. However his zeal for work is starting to cause a problem with both his wife Tasha (Naturi Naughton) and his best friend/business partner Tommy (Joseph Sikora), albeit for slightly different reasons. Tasha is concerned that James is neglecting her and the children for his club work. Her mother (Debbie Morgan) warns Tasha of the temptations that a sharp dressed wealthy man like James faces. Tommy is concerned that James is abandoning him for a higher class of people and forgetting why they (Tommy is a secondary and silent partner in the club) opened the club in the first place. You see James, known as Ghost to his wife and Tommy, and Tommy aren't just club owners. Tommy in particular only cares about the club to the extent it allows him to run game on women. No James and Tommy are partners (James is the leader) in one of the city's largest drug distribution rings. James originally opened the club as an avenue to launder money. His wife is fully aware of her husband's activities. She provided both detailed and some unspecified assistance to James when he was coming up. Tommy is constantly irritated that James is skipping out on business meetings/sitdowns to handle club issues.

A chance meeting with Angie (Lela Loren), a woman he grew up with and more importantly The Old Flame Who Broke His Heart And Got Away, causes James to ponder what he's doing with his life, what he wants and what it all means. Needless to say it also causes him and Angie to take up where they left off. Whatever was there before was still there. They both have an itch that needs to be scratched. And they scratch it often. In the morning. In the night. Lying down. Standing upright. On the floor. By the door. Against the wall. In the hall--well you get the idea. The problem with this, besides the little matter of James' marriage vows, is that neither of these two lovebirds know what the other one really does for a living. Angie tells James that she's a lawyer but in fact she's an assistant district attorney involved in a task force to take down a Mexican drug kingpin who just happens to be James' main supplier. And Angie is good at her job. And obviously James isn't going to explain that his club is just a front, particularly since Angie is incredibly impressed that he's left his old knucklehead days behind. I found this to be a little unbelievable. If your long lost girlfriend tells you she's a lawyer chances are you'd ask at which firm. The chances are also quite good that James, who shares some of the same social networks as Angie, would have heard about her hiring as a prosecutor or I don't know SEEN HER IN ACTION WHEN SHE'S TRYING TO CONVICT SOME OF HIS ASSOCIATES!!! You would have to be the DUMBEST drug dealer in NYC not to know who the prosecutors were, especially since that is all public information. And a Hispanic woman prosecutor would be news, even today. I guess we're to expect that James never heard of Facebook or Linkedin. 
Anyway sleeping with the enemy isn't even James' biggest problem. His network is under attack. Some of his dealers have been murdered. If he can't find out who's doing it and stop them his dealers may turn on him, turn on each other or find different suppliers. And his Mexican boss makes it clear that if THAT happens James and Tommy will not be long for this planet. James gets advice from his incarcerated mentor Kanan (50 Cent). The show has a few interesting points to make about quiet racism and microaggressions. Some of James' upperworld white business rivals can barely hide their amazement that a black man can tie his own shoes without help. Power has a lot of eye candy for both genders. Perhaps it's explained more in Season Two but it also seems unrealistic that neither James nor Tommy have seemingly spent any time in prison. It's difficult to get where they are and not have been busted a few times. But even if they hadn't been, quite often police or other law enforcement groups know who the players are. I would have liked to see the show go down that path more. This is very slicky produced by 50 Cent. We're definitely meant to identify with James. With a few exceptions we don't see the negative impact of the drug life. We don't see addicts. Most of the settings are filled with beautiful people with tight bodies, white teeth and expensive clothes. Tasha is a bit pushy though I guess she has her reasons. This is nowhere near The Wire or The Sopranos in quality but is fun. Sikora's Tommy is brimming over with energy while Hardwick's James tries to think things thru before reaching for the gun. You definitely want a Tommy on your side if things go down hard, but he's not the one you want making executive decisions or being required to do too much thinking. On the other hand James isn't as smart as he thinks he is either. This is a glossy semi-soap opera that can probably appeal to anyone looking for some escapism.

The Strain (Season Two)
To say that this was something of a disappointment would be an egregious understatement. Even to say that it was a dumpster fire of a season wouldn't fully capture the horrid nature of the writing (and less frequently) acting on display here. I can't believe that the uneven but potent promise of Season One deteriorated into the mess that was Season Two. It's even more unbelievable because the people who wrote the books were also intimately involved in creating and producing the television series.The fundamental problem with this story is that it lost its internal logic. There were wild and wide shifts in characterization depending on what the writers or show runners wanted to do in any given moment. The viewer should be prepared to accept some B-movie shoddiness. That was actually part of the initial charm in Season One. As I wrote previously the major theme of The Strain was that it was a shift back to vampire as monster. It was a reaction to the overdone current idea of the vampire as bi-sexual goth pretty boy/girl or moping Byronic love interest of a misunderstood heroine. That was all well and good but once you got past that welcome change, The Strain had nothing much to say. And it continued the horror genre convention (or maybe this is just a Hollywood convention) of having weak African-American characters who are either stereotypes or die quickly. For example in two seasons or so the primary African-American characters have been (1) A rock star's female manager who was last seen running away, (2) an incompetent, cowardly, weak and possibly corrupt mayor who blusters a lot and dies, (3) a holier than thou Sacrificial Negro who dies to protect one of the most irritating child characters ever conceived and (4) a greedy thug with silver teeth who has evidently watched Escape from New York too many times and fancies himself to be the Duke. And that's pretty much it. Out of all the black people in NYC and the surrounding areas the only black people who get more than a few lines are clownish, thuggish, cowardly or apparently eager to sacrifice themselves for white people. This is about par for the course. Although this stuff irritates me more and more as I get older I might have been more willing to give The Strain a reluctant pass were the stereotypes a few discordant notes in an otherwise exquisite symphony of horror. No such luck.

Do you remember the panic over Bird Flu and more recently Ebola? Although the impact on American citizens proved to be less than minimal, many people (to be fair including yours truly) were worried about transmission of these diseases into the United States and to their loved ones. The President was forced to address the nation and be seen to be taking action, though each crisis was largely a false alarm. Now I want you to imagine a world as described in The Strain, in which NYC, the financial capital of the world and the largest city in the US, has been placed under attack by a confirmed "virus", if you like, that raises people from the dead, can turn living people into ravening monsters with six foot tongues, has no cure, is not stopped by any natural immunities and is spreading like a proverbial wildfire. Imagine sudden and persistent attacks on online and electronic systems which make communications difficult and cause stock prices to plummet. Now wouldn't you think that all of this together just might get the attention of the New York Governor and the President of the United States? Wouldn't the Army and National Guard be in the streets? Wouldn't you think that the proven display of people rising from the dead to feed on their loved ones would have religious figures tripping out?  Not to mention that billions of people watching this all occur on live television might start secondary panics of their own? Wouldn't transportation be even more hopelessly snarled than before as millions of New Yorkers tried to leave the city?

Well apparently in the world of The Strain, everyone gives a ho-hum and leaves NYC to its own affairs. Even New Yorkers are still trying to go about their business. One Indian-American family is still trying to run their restaurant-including night time delivery service. Yes, the city is overrun with vampires who come out at night but these brain surgeons are still offering night time delivery. There's a quarantine, except when there's not one for the writers' purposes. At the end of Season One the intrepid vampire hunters discovered that the head vampire was apparently immune to sunlight (at least in small quantities). Depressed they dealt with this in different ways. Professor Setrakian (David Bradley) spends all of Season Two searching for a legendary magical book about vampires which he is sure is conveniently hidden in NYC somewhere. Dr. Eph. Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his main squeeze Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) try to create a disease that will kill vampires. Renaissance Man Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) likes killing vampires by hand because that means he gets to show off his large phallic weapons to hacker/cliche action girl Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas). Unfortunately for Fet, Dutch goes both ways and is unsure if she's ready to drop her girlfriend for Fet. Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), the old billionaire financing the vampires' attack on NYC discovers love with his personal assistant/secretary, the ridiculously named Coco (Lizzie Brochere). He also starts showing a bit too much independence for the liking of the number two vampire, Eichhorst (Richard Sammel). And Sammel might tell the ominously named Master. Sammel is the best thing about this series. Well that's not hard to accomplish because he's about the only good thing. City councilwoman Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis) attempts (generally successfully) to bypass the mayor and impose her own vampire fighting plan.  Never mind separation of legislative and executive authority! A stereotypical Mexican gangbanger named Gus (played completely charisma free by Miguel Gomez) rounds out the main cast. His primary role to is look tough and snarl "Say what white boy?" every so often. Well I should say he rounds out the main adult cast. Goodweather has a pre-teen son Zach (Max Charles) who must be the single most irritating and unwholesome youngster in the history of television. 

Despite knowing that his mother Kelly (Natalie Brown) is a vampire and seeing her KILL people, Zach spends the entire season alternately blaming his father for not saving his mother and attempting to get his father to reunite with his mother. This includes actions like opening the door of their hideout to vampires. Personally I would have thrown young Zach to the wolves a long time ago. Even for a kid he's insufferably stupid. This sarcastic little s*** gets people killed. Key plot points are raised for one episode and forgotten the next. For example the vampires all carry millions of tiny worms. Just being touched by a vampire, let alone being close to a wounded one with worms spurting out of its body is deadly. The worms can infect you without a vampire bite. Despite this our mostly unlikable heroes spend the season in close combat with hundreds of vampires. For the most part only the secondary characters get infected. This is about as plausible as engaging in a boxing match without getting your opponent's sweat on you. The aforementioned idea of infecting vampires is inexplicably dropped after initial success. Finally there is a retread plot from Del Toro's Blade 2 but it's not worth detailing here. I won't be watching Season 3. The pacing, writing, and themes just weren't very good. This worked better when it was medical bio-horror mystery and not lesbian love triangles.

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