Category Archives: Television

Freaks and Geeks S1E04: Kim Kelly Is My Friend

The fourth episode of Freaks and Geeks is the first to turn the primary focus of the hour onto someone lacking the last name of Weir. “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” focuses on, surprise, Kim Kelly, the one member of the freaks who had yet to warm to Lindsay. A young Rashida Jones guest-stars as a friend of Kim’s and a tormentor of Sam’s. You can see my other posts on Freaks and Geeks here.

Lindsay’s efforts to warm Kim Kelly’s icy heart have been met repeatedly with put-downs and insults, so when she gets an invite to Kim’s house for dinner, she is more than a little bit skeptical. Kim brings Lindsay home to meet her mother and stepfather, both of whom are selfish, bitter, and abusive. The dinner quickly turns sour over Kim’s purported failings and Lindsay’s relative affluence and the two girls flee the scene, only to find Kim’s boyfriend, Daniel, flirting rather heavily with another girl, Karen. Anger and sadness follow in equal measures.

I don't have a comment for this one.
I don’t have a comment for this one.

Sam is having his own problems with that same Karen, after an honest mistake where he tries to open her locker, she makes a point of humiliating him on a daily basis. Sam’s embarrassment is compounded when he realizes that his sister is going to dinner at Karen’s best friend’s house. Sam’s frustration leads to friction with Neal, who still thinks he is too cool for school, when he actually is too school for cool (I know it doesn’t make much sense, just go with it).

The episode culminates and climaxes (in more ways than one…) at the Weir house, where all four Weirs, Kim, Daniel, and Nick all come together and hash things out. Everyone is left a little bit happy, a little bit sad, and a little bit worried. Except for Nick, he has a fruit roll-up, and therefore all is right in his world. Mr. and Mrs. Weir are also given their first full meeting with Lindsay’s new friends, and they are far from reassured about the influence they are having on the ex-Mathlete.

This is the first time the Weirs are not the central focus, though they are pretty close to the center, and the show is better for it. As much as I like Sam and Lindsay, giving other characters the spotlight contributes greatly to an ensemble show like it has ensemble, and Kim was a good choice to start with. Having her and Lindsay spend a good portion of an episode away from the rest of the gang allowed for the characters to realistically develop something of a bond, without having it feel forced by anything other than minor contrivances of the plot.

So much resignation in one picture.
So much resignation in one picture.

“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is thus far the most focused episode of Freaks and Geeks to date, Ken does not appear and most of the recurring characters are completely absent, while Nick gets very little screen-time. I am personally a fan of shows not using characters when they are not needed for the plot (or it doesn’t make sense for them to be there, etc.), so I appreciated the tighter focus in this episode.

The subplot with Sam being bullied is a touch repetitive, but is also different in that there really isn’t a physical threat to the bullying, it is all about emotionally breaking down the freshman for the kicks of a screwed up upperclassman. It is always nice seeing Rashida Jones doing something besides The Office or Parks and Recreation, and she is delightfully against type here as the slutty-tough girl with a massive chip on her shoulder.

This is yet another strong episode from NBC’s Freak and Geeks, and is one that was not actually aired in the initial run of episodes, despite its importance to the development of several characters and some key plot development. Anyways, I liked this episode and I liked the focus on someone from the supporting cast. Oh, and Quincy Jones’ daughter is in it, so that’s something.

Freaks and Geeks S1E03: Tricks and Treats

Ah, Halloween, it is a time for dressing skimpily, eating wantonly, and vandalizing frequently (honestly, it’s a great day to be alive if there ever was one). Halloween also unleashes an onslaught of holiday episodes upon scores of television screens; Freaks and Geeks was no exception to this rule, though it did manage to play with traditional holiday episode conventions. Sam wrangles with his rapidly waning youth and Lindsay is torn between going out with her friends or staying in with her mother in “Tricks and Treats”, the third episode of the show (my other write-ups for Freaks and Geeks can be found here).

In the episode, Sam is tasked with reading Crime and Punishment for a book report after his own literary choice, the novelization of Star Wars, is rightfully shot down. So, feeling the relentless onslaught on aging coming upon him (he shouldn’t have, I read Crime and Punishment for the first time when I was fourteen and I didn’t embrace nihilism until at least two years later), he decides to grasp more firmly onto his youth by going out trick or treating with his friends, something he had previously determined as being a younger man’s game. He decides to go as Gort, the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, while Neal goes as Groucho Marx, and Bill goes as the Bionic Woman. As you can guess, they look really cool.

I can't imagine why girls don't go out with them.

I can’t imagine why girls don’t go out with them.

Meanwhile, Lindsay would much rather hang out with her new friends than spend the night at home in an embarrassing costume handing out candy. Lindsay, like most teenagers, lacks the tactfulness to avoid making it a huge issue, and winds up exiting the house at the last second to go drive around, and maybe commit a little bit of minor vandalism, with Daniel, Ken, Kim, and Nick. This leaves her mother hurt and a little confused, considering how convincing Lindsay had been in saying she was looking forward to spending the night in. Lindsay’s mother may have been a little (or a lot) naive, but Lindsay’s timidity made a non-issue into a time-bomb.

Lindsay is given her first true taste of something uniquely “freaky” in this episode, as the quintet decide to go around and vandalize. Over the course of the evening, the vandalism increases in severity, from quite mild to something more in the realm of moderate. Eventually, after crushing a few pumpkins and smashing a mailbox or two, Lindsay goes a little too far and does something she can’t take back.

This episode is the one most centrally focused on the Weirs yet, and that includes the parents for the first time. Lindsay and Sam’s parents are really only seen through the eyes of their children and, even taking that rather biased lens into consideration, are quite cliched. When Lindsay or Sam do something to avoid spending time with their parental units, I can’t judge them because, well, I simply would not want to be around those people for any length of time. “Tricks and Treats” does, however, take steps to humanize them a bit more than they had been.

So much worry in one picture

So much worry in one picture

Joe Flaherty’s father figure is prone to hyperbole but, for the first time, demonstrates some degree of wisdom regarding how Sam’s night would turn out. The gist of his good advice: a child at heart is not actually a child. Becky Ann Miller’s mother figure is about as naive as they come, but it is hard not to sympathize with her as so many things go wrong: her daughter ditches her for greener pastures, her homemade cookies may contain razor blades or hallucinogenics so they are not fit for consumption by costumed children, her husband can’t help but to say I told you so, et cetera.

Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley each continue to do strong work in their roles, fully willing to give in to the more negative traits their characters display. Lindsay Weir has a lot of positive traits, but is also possessing of the most unattractive of character traits: desperation. Lindsay is desperate for the approval of her new group of friends, but the very act of trying too hard is just what is keeping her from being fully embraced (by Kim and Ken at least, Nick and Daniel both seem to have accepted her).

Sam Weir may be in high school, but he is still struggling to learn when it is okay to be childish and when not to. If you want to play Dungeons & Dragons with your friends, go for it because it is fun. Whereas, if you want to walk around at five o’clock getting candy along with little kids, it is probably best to hold off. The lesson here: buy your candy on the first of November when it is cheap and unlikely to see you beaten up. Secondary lesson here: it is much more worth your time to read Crime and Punishment than the novelization of Star Wars (or any novelization of any movie really).

This episode is as well written as the previous two, but has a resolution that is much too clean for comfort. Lindsay buckling under the pressure of guilt rang hollow (as does her agreeing to wear a costume sight unseen), though Sam finally reading of Crime and Punishment works by virtue of it being a homework assignment (and a good book). Something potentially interesting I noticed just now: Lindsay is the only one to commit a crime, but Sam is the only one to receive something actually akin to a punishment. I blame society.

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

“Tricks and Treats” also sees Martin Starr continuing to be the most reliable, and frequent, source of laughter on Freaks and Geeks. His choice in costume and nonchalant manner of going about making and wearing it made me guffaw at least three times throughout the program. Neal’s struggle to do a mustache befitting Groucho Marx without descending into Hitler territory is also quite funny. Sam’s pair of geeky friends may lack as much development as Lindsay’s group at this point (excepting Ken, that man is still very much a cypher), but may have an edge in entertainment value.

The attention to period detail on Freaks and Geeks is always strong, but this episode kicks it into high gear. From the paranoia about the what people are putting in Halloween candy (it still occurred when I was of a trick or treating age) to Bill going as the Bionic Woman, it all felt authentically eighties. My opinion may not be totally worth listening to, however, considering I was born early into the following decade.

Halloween episodes of shows tend not to be as strong as other episodes in whatever program unleashed them, but “Tricks and Treats” manages to sidestep this particular trend with aplomb. It is a strong episode of Freaks and Geeks that contains some of the funnier moments of the show without sacrificing any dramatic heft. Plus, Martin Starr cross-dressing is worth price of admission on its own.

Spaced S1E01: Beginnings

This weekend, The World’s End was released stateside and I was unable to swing my schedule to be able to go see it. I was able, however, to finally gain the proper motivation to push Spaced to the top of my Netflix queue and actually watch that program. One of the initial collaborations between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, Spaced lasted for two series of seven episodes a piece. Spaced  was created by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, who also starred as a pair of friends who decide to pose as a professional couple in order to move into a quality apartment with a reasonable price. Anyways, here are my thoughts on the first episode of the first series, titled “Beginnings.”

Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Stevenson) are both down on their luck. Tim, a prospective comic-book artist and the assistant manager of a comic-book store (his boss is named Bilbo; personally, I never trust a man named Bilbo: he may disappear on you), has been broken up with by his girlfriend, who has started to date one of his friends, and kicked him out of their flat. Daisy, a “writer”, is tired of living in squalor with a bunch of squatters and decides the time has come for a real place to call home, assuming it is reasonably priced. Tim and Daisy meet and talk daily in a coffee shop for several weeks while they apartment hunt separately before deciding that they should become roommates who must pretend to be deeply in love and in a committed adult relationship in order to fool their new landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin).

None of them looked particularly spaced.

None of them looked particularly spaced.

Tim is the kind of guy that argues his ability to be emotional by referencing how he reacts to some of the more “touching” scenes in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and will stop dead in his tracks when someone speaks ill of The X-Files. Daisy is the kind of woman who blurts out insignificant factoids about her faux-life-partner in order to seem inconspicuous to an apathetic landlady. Fun fact: Saying “fun fact” before stating random facts and trivia makes it slightly more palatable to the unsuspecting victim. Sad fact: I do this quite a bit.

The supporting cast of this off-beat sitcom includes Nick Frost as Tim’s best friend Mike, a weapons “expert” and the recipient of very little screen-time thus far. Katy Carmichael plays Twist, Daisy’s best friend who works in “fashion”, and the recipient of even less screen-time than Nick Frost thus far. Mark Heap portrays Brian, the downstairs neighbor of our protagonists, and an off-beat artist motivated by pain, anger, fear, and all those other buzz words. He possesses a strange bit of sexual tension with Marsha: she gets sexual, and he gets tense.

key_art_spaced

Spaced is an intriguing animal thus far, it is possessive of a very standard setup (I’m nearly certain will they or won’t they tension will be rampant by the end of the second series.) but it also has a surrealistic style all its own and some decidedly quirky humor. Tim and Daisy are also different from your typical leads: Tim is as nerdy a nerd as you can get, but does not possess the redeeming sort of extreme intelligence usually found in nerdy characters in sitcoms (at least American ones from the 1990’s and CBS ones from the 2000’s) , and Daisy is apparently a slacker and lacks a supermodel figure.

Thus far Spaced has entertained me, and seems poised to entertain me even more considering the setup and expository dialogue appears to have been dealt with in the first episode. The show was funny, I got the geeky references, and I still like it when Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright work together, so Spaced remains atop my queue and I am even more excited to go see The World’s End sometime in the near future, assuming the world doesn’t end before then.

Clear History: Curb Your Expectations

Larry David is one of the great comedic forces of our age. His fingerprints are instantly recognizable on any one of his projects (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and he has earned the right to be as caustic as he wants on any project that he wants, no matter how very underwhelming it is. Clear History is a film made for HBO, and stars David along with a veritable stable of quality talent in this comedy about a man who threw a fortune away over a minute detail. Greg Mottola directs a cast consisting of Jon Hamm, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Michael Keaton, Kate Hudson, Eva Mendes, Philip Baker Hall, J.B. Smoove, and Liev Schreiber alongside the inimitable Larry David.

Nathan Flomm (Larry David as a variation of Larry David) had it all: a job all but guaranteed to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, an attractive girlfriend, and a glorious mane of hair. He also had a mouth and a stubborn streak. The latter two cost him the first three, and he became both a disgrace and a laughingstock. His decision to jump ship and give up ten percent of a surefire money-maker may have been idiotic, but, to be fair, naming an electric car “the Howard” is pretty stupid no matter what Ayn Rand novel his boss, Will Haney (Jon Hamm), had taken it from. Flomm’s towering mistake led to his public humiliation: he was laughed out of coffee shops and made fodder for late-night monologues. Faced with the relentlessness of the public’s scorn, he disappears.

I'm not sure whose hair is more impressive.

I’m not sure whose hair is more impressive.

Ten years later, Nathan lives in the idyllic Martha’s Vineyard, goes by Rolly, and has traded in high profile marketing gigs for being the caretaker of an old woman even more unpleasant than himself. His life lacks the glamour and the importance it did before, but he is happy. He plays poker with his friends, he is on good terms with his ex-girlfriend, and he seems content to wile away his remaining years in the comforting embrace of obscurity.

Then, Will Haney moved to town and everything changes. All the bad memories and resentment bubbling beneath the surface become Nathan’s primary motivators once more, and his mind becomes focused on one thing: revenge. He drafts the help of his best friend (Danny McBride) and a couple of crazed locals (Michael Keaton and Bill Hader) in his plot to destroy the grandiose new home Haney has built. Nathan also manages to befriend Haney’s wife (Kate Hudson) and seeks to woo her away from her chiseled husband.

Are denim jackets still a thing?

Are denim jackets still a thing?

Larry David shines while playing a(nother) modified version of himself, but his reassuring sort of unpleasantness can only do so much to elevate this movie beyond being a sterling example of a bloated cast. So many roles are filled by actors of various levels of star power, it becomes both distracting and detracting. Worst of all, there is not an actor here, aside from David, Hamm, and maybe Smoove, who doesn’t have their talents wasted by virtue of a lack of development and the inherent superfluity of so many of their roles.

Clear History is just a case of a bunch of celebrities getting together to have a good time with each other by being politically-incorrect and engaging in a bit of improvisation (without the quality of, say, This Is the End). If this made for television film sounds a lot like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, you would not be even a little bit off base. The problem with Clear History, however, is that it just isn’t very good. It is overstuffed, indulgent, and in desperate need of someone to go through it and trim all the fat, and Clear History is mostly fat. This is a shorter review than normal because I just can’t think of aspects of this film legitimately warranting discussion, and that is a bad sign.

Anyways, I guess I will list some random observations to pad this out.

  • Larry David’s epic hair worked for me.
  • Liev Schreiber, Danny McBride, Larry David, and Jon Hamm are all leads on television series currently.
  • Apparently the band Chicago still exists.
  • Michael Keaton is still weird as hell.
  • What was the point of hiring Eva Mendes if you aren’t going to have her look like Eva Mendes?
  • I agree with Jon Hamm about seersucker jackets. This makes me happy.

Freaks and Geeks S1E02: Beers and Weirs

The second episode of the under-seen classic Freaks and Geeks sees Lindsay Weir attempting to fit in and gain some credibility in the eyes of her new circle of friends by hosting a keg-party at her home. Meanwhile Sam and his friends worry about the potential for tragedy when alcohol is involved and concoct a plan to marginalize the risk. You can also see my write-up on the first episode of Freaks and Geeks here.

Like most high school students struggling to fit in with a new group of friends, Lindsay Weir is willing to do quite a bit to win their approval and gratitude, particularly if one of them (James Franco’s Daniel Desario) looks like he could one day play James Dean in a television movie. The opportunity arises for our heroine when her parents go out of town for the weekend and the house is suddenly a space in which a party where a moderate amount of alcohol can be served to a bunch of moderately rebellious teenagers willing to drink it without moderation, and exclaim to anyone willing to listen, “I’m so wasted.” Even if the beer doesn’t technically contain alcohol.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The lack of alcohol stems from a rather ingenious plot by Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, and his two friends Neal and Bill. The geeky trio has their rational, if exaggerated, worries about the dangers of beverages with a bit more kick, exacerbated after viewing a school assembly in which three students espouse the virtues of being cool without drinking (you can, but the assembly failed at showing it). Sam, Neal, and Bill use some of Neal’s Bar Mitzvah money to buy a keg of non-alcoholic beer, in order to exchange it for the real one. The perfect blend of shrewd and idiotic, their plan actually manages to work. Also, all three of the assembly “actors” show up to the party, two of them get drinks, while the other prefers to get high on life.

This episode’s central focus is on Lindsay, but aside from the implied crush on Daniel Desario being made more blatant, we really don’t learn much more about her than we learned from the pilot. The episode’s primary character development is centered on Neal (Samm Levine), and to a lesser extent Nick, Kim, and Daniel. Neal is revealed to have maintained a crush on Lindsay for the majority of his life, and is extremely disheartened to see her starting to hang out with a “bad” crowd. Neal also proves himself quite clever a couple of times throughout the episode and leaves a more positive impression on the audience in this episode than the last.

Look at how natural they're acting

Look at how naturally they’re acting

As was hinted in the pilot, Nick has taken a shine to Lindsay, and makes an ill-timed move on her. Additionally, when the nerdy Millie starts to (effectively) humiliate herself, he is the only person present that gets up to help her out. Admittedly, there is not much to be done when the girl voluntarily starts singing “Jesus is Alright With” at a keg-party, but it is the thought that counts I suppose.

This episode sees Daniel and Kim’s their relationship clarified to the extent their relationship lacks anything resembling clarity, they are perpetually swinging between the on and off sides of their relationship, and sometimes they make-out in Lindsay’s bedrooms. Lindsay seems to make headway with Kim, who has a genuinely non-caustic remark as she exits the premises following the party. There is also a telling moment where Daniel is legitimately puzzled as to why Lindsay is embarrassed about being a mathlete: he may lack motivation, but he doesn’t resent those who have it. Sam also seemingly makes headway with his crush Cindy, as she both comes to the party and strikes up a conversation with him rather than the other way around. We the viewers, however, can see the trap that Sam is unknowingly walking into regarding what he might see as his burgeoning relationship with Cindy.

They are not amused, but I am.

They are not amused, but I am.

Oh, it would be a crime not to mention that Martin Starr once again steals the show as the super-geek Bill. His standing up for his favorite television program, Dallas, is probably the biggest laugh of the episode. His getting drunk after being left alone with the keg filled with beer that actually contains alcohol is hilarious as well. Starr is both riotously funny and able to take a character type that could easily have been cloying and made him endearing in a very short period of time.

This is another strong episode for Freaks and Geeks and one that makes the most out of a situation that could have easily devolved into a big bundle of cliches towards the end. The considerably smaller and quieter bundle of cliches we receive is a rather welcome surprise. Strong performances are had all around and the writing is sharp, “Beers and Weirs” does not disappoint. I must also add that the large aspect of my personality that almost entirely subsists on wordplay and bad puns really appreciates the title of this episode.

Freaks and Geeks S1E01: Pilot

When listing off shows that went off the air before they had received a fair shake, odds are that the 1999 cult classic Freaks and Geeks settles somewhere near the top (along with Firefly). Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980 and centers on Lindsay and Sam Weir (Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley), and their circles of friends, as they deal with all the trials, tribulations, and awkward situations that high school can throw at them. The show was produced by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig and launched many of its cast-members to movie-stardom, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel. Anyways, here is my review of the first episode, christened without much originality as “Pilot.”

Lindsay Weir is a fairly ordinary high school student, apparently an ace mathlete, and at a bit of a loss of exactly what to do about anything. She is very intelligent and excels scholastically, but is intrigued by the titular “Freaks” made up by Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel), and Kim (Busy Philipps) who skip class and get high, yet are also generally accepting and lacking in obvious pretension, even if they are a bit rougher around the edges.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

Lindsay is also, like so many slightly-outcast teenagers, a bit self-righteous and mistaken in thinking that withdrawing from social-situations is really some vague protest. So when she is coerced into attending the homecoming dance by her parents (fun fact: I did not attend any of mine, it wouldn’t have been fair to the all the girls who would be heartbroken by my attending with someone else. My nobility astounds even me.), she decides to take the mentally-handicapped Eli (a young Ben Foster), who is perpetually happy, but often the butt of jokes. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, is struggling to find a foothold in something other than his clique of friends (the titular “Geeks”). Sam is close with his friends Neal and Bill (Samm Levine and Martin Starr), but he is viciously bullied regularly and can’t get up the courage to ask his crush Cindy, a cheerleader, out. Cindy is friendly, attentive, tall, and, like so many girls, is even further out of reach because she is actually willing to stand close. Sam, put in the same homecoming dance conundrum as Lindsay, resolves to ask Cindy to the dance and finally stand up to his bully (by ganging up with his friends and beating him up).

"I had a dream it would end this way."

“I had a dream it would end this way.”

This first episode is, rightfully, primarily a showcase for Linda Cardellini as Lindsay and John Francis Daly as Sam (who both excel), but some of the supporting characters are also given a chance to shine. James Franco is both greasy and charming as Daniel Desario, and Jason Segel as Nick Andropolis is a surprising source of wisdom for our heroine. Additionally, Martin Starr steals most of his scenes as the geekiest of the three geeks, Bill Haverchuck. Also: Seth Rogen plays acerbic rather well.

Part of the reason Freaks and Geeks has latched itself so strongly in the minds of its viewers despite such a short run (eighteen episodes, three were unaired), is how strong it came out of the gate. The pilot is a good introduction to the show and a strong individual episode in its own right, which something commendable (I commend you Freaks and Geeks, fourteen years after the fact).

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

Freaks and Geeks greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is that the adolescent characters are all believable and realistic. Even, the characters that are more thinly drawn at this stage of the game appear to have complexities, even if they haven’t been revealed yet. Furthermore, the fact that none of the characters are really black and white in their moralities, is a welcome change from the typical geeky/popular paradigm. Sam has a bully and cannot be described as popular, but the popular Cindy is nice to him without any apparent motivation. Nick goes out of his way to cheer Lindsay up, but his method ends with her in trouble with the school. Inherent complexities and contradictions like this can make a show feel as real as life, and can turn a one-season network run into something much more enduring.

Freaks and Geeks starts out strong, and if you haven’t seen it, it is probably something well worth your time, if only to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen it” when asked, unprompted via some thin conversational connection by someone as arrogant in their particular brand of television-watching as myself. Anyways, this pilot episode flew straight (as always, the pun is intentional).

Firefly, a Rewatch: Episode 3, “Bushwhacked”

Firefly is renowned for its more philosophically hefty episodes, and the third episode, “Bushwhacked”, was the first in the series to really delve into truly dark territory. “Bushwacked” sees the crew of the Serenity coming across an apparently abandoned transport ship in deep space, but the truth of what happened might just be something they aren’t prepared to face. This episode was both directed and written by Tim Minear.

After a pickup game of some sport vaguely related to basketball, the Serenity comes across a ship built to transport families to the outer planets that has apparently been abandoned. On a salvage mission to the ship, Mal and his crew discover that the crew didn’t abandon ship: they were slaughtered. They rescue one man from the carnage, but the savage, unflinching brutality of what he had witnessed the Reavers do to the other passengers on the ship may have shattered his hold on sanity. A chance encounter with an Alliance ship, and a misunderstanding between them, threatens to put everyone on board both ships in danger.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is the first time when we really get to see what the Reavers are capable of. They were a significant presence and one of the drivers of the plot in the pilot, and while we still don’t see one in the flesh here, we get the impression of what they do, and not just hearsay, and it isn’t pretty. The Reavers, at least at this point in the Firefly universe, are more of a conceptual threat than a physical villain. They are the darkness that lurks within and the bestial nature that we all struggle to keep below the surface. Their mere mention turns Mal, rarely without a quip, solemn, and makes Jayne, typically itching for a good fight, fearful.

This is also the first episode where we get a legitimate look into the Alliance and its workings, and not just the secondhand, and admittedly skewed, opinions from Mal and other crew members. The Alliance is still portrayed in a primarily negative light, being shortsighted, wasteful, prejudiced, etc., but there is shown to be a greater thoughtfulness beneath the veneer. The Alliance hounds the crew of the Serenity unfairly, but they believed, and not without good reason, that they may have slaughtered the people aboard the transport ship. In addition, the captain of the Alliance cruiser is shown to take Mal’s advice, despite the violation of the traditional bureaucratic process after gaining a better grasp of the entire situation.

“Bushwhacked” is an episode that gives a lot of insight into the characters on board the Serenity. Simon, while not a fighter by any stretch, is shown to be one of the more resilient and least squeamish members on the ship. Jayne’s terror at the prospect of even seeing the Reavers’ handiwork indicates much about what makes him tick. Mal’s more overtly compassionate side is shown for the first time towards outsiders, in this case the dead aboard the transport, while his ability to calculate and manipulate those around him is further exemplified in the same instance (an interesting combination). 

The entire cast is given room to flex their acting muscles in this episode, and all of them are up to the task. Nathan Fillion does some of his strongest work in the series during this episode when he is confronted with the dilemma of what to do with the survivor of the Reaver attack. Sean Maher’s performance is less stiff than in the previous episodes, as his character is increasingly comfortable aboard the Serenity. The rest of the cast, Baccarin and Baldwin especially, is also superb throughout the episode.

The third episode is a strong one, and the earliest episode to demonstrate the more philosophical bent in this sole season of Firefly. “Bushwhacked” is one of my favorite episodes from the entire series, and maybe the best, as far as I can remember, before the halfway point of the series.

Firefly, a Rewatch: Episode 2, “The Train Job”

So now it is time for part two of my Firefly rewatch, with the second episode chronologically, and the first one aired: “The Train Job.” This episode functions as a second pilot for the series, reintroducing most of the main characters in a more action-packed manner than the real pilot. This episode also includes the introductions of several recurring antagonists, and sees the crew of “Serenity” plan a train heist. Read my thoughts on the first episode here.

Following a bar brawl in which Mal, Zoe, and Jayne engage in fisticuffs with former Alliance soldiers, the crew meets with Adelai Niska, a crime lord with a vicious reputation. The job involves going to a small planet on the outskirts, and stealing several crates of alliance goods off of a moving train. Mal and Zoe’s infiltration on the train leads to a successful theft, but complications prevent their clean getaway. The revelation that the items stolen contained the medicine needed to treat a degenerative disease most of the citizenry of the population have causes a moral dilemma for Mal, while the other crew-members of the Serenity ponder what to do in regards to the missing Captain, and the brutal crime-lord expecting them to return.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is a picture of the cast.

This episode was reportedly written in two days by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear because Fox wanted something more exciting and suspenseful than “Serenity” as a premiere episode. The episode does a proper job introducing the main cast members, if in a less substantial way than the previous episode, but much of it feels redundant considering what had been seen prior, if watched in the proper order, that is. Many of the conversations feel like retreads of character interactions in the previous episode: Mal and Inara’s contentious manner of caring for each other, Kaylee and Inara’s sisterly bond, etc. The script is solid, but the rushed nature of it shines through, with an overly simple moral dilemma and significant overlap with the previous episode.

The sequences on the train are suspenseful and possess good action-sequences without overwhelming the episode with them. The special effects remain excellent for a television show, but lack the cinematic feel of those found in “Serenity.” The town definitely plays up the western element of the space-western: a dusty frontier settlement needing medicine must fend off a train heist. This episode also continues the efficient manner in which Mal will take out his adversaries, he’ll just shoot, he won’t wax poetic on why he’s doing it.

Glamour Shot

Glamour Shot

“The Train Job” introduced Adelai Niska, who would return in a later episode, and the “hands of blue” who are searching for River and Simon for the Alliance. This episode reveals more about River Tam, providing the first demonstrations of her prodigious intelligence, and sees her beginning to reveal minute bits of information regarding her time detained by the Alliance (“two by two, hands of blue”). Niska, as played by Michael Fairman, is a stereotypical crime boss, but a rather intimidating one. Fairman is hammy and serviceable in the role. The “hands of blue” are only seen briefly near the end, after being ominously mentioned by River throughout the episode. They are suitably creepy, but their presence doesn’t add anything to this episode, aside from indicating their malicious intent and their future presence in the series.

This episode does provide more insight into several of the characters, notably Simon, River, and Shepherd Book. Simon’s quick thinking and surprisingly decisive manner of keeping Jayne from taking off without Mal and Zoe reveals much about the character. River is shown to be the genius, she was stated to be in “Serenity”, and hints into just how fractured her psyche is, and how it happened are present throughout the episode. Shepherd Book, revealed to be a surprisingly competent hand-to-hand combatant in the last episode, is shown to be knowledgeable of underworld dealings, which once again hints at a less than savory past for the man. In addition, Mal’s frustration with the Alliance and the Independents’ loss during the war is reiterated when he picks a fight in a bar on U(nification)-Day in a bar known to be friendly to the Alliance.

I enjoyed this episode, though I feel it was one of the weakest during the show’s brief run. The action is exciting, and the special effects are good, if not quite up to the standard set by the first episode, and there are plenty of character moments. But the screenplay felt, and was, rushed, and there is too much overlap in terms of exposition between “The Train Job” and “Serenity.” Though one must remember, lesser Firefly is still excellent television.

Firefly, a Rewatch: Episode 1, “Serenity”

I have decided to watch Firefly again for the umpteenth time and to also write about my thoughts on all fourteen episodes and the film in blog-form. I chose Firefly for this experiment in consistent blogging (I will be aiming for one episode write-up a week) for one reason: it is short. If I get bored or frustrated, my obligation will be minimal, whereas shows that actually received proper runs, would require a more arduous undertaking on my part. I also really like Firefly and I have learned that one way to get a nerd, like myself, excited is to talk about it, so I hope that you, my very modest readership, will enjoy hearing my pretty standard opinions on this space-western staple.

The first episode (chronologically, not in terms of the date it aired) of Firefly is titled “Serenity” and is the setup episode for both the series’ premise and its characters; so the logic behind Fox airing this episode last continues to mystify. The episode is double length, and around half of that time is spent meeting all of the characters and defining their roles and relationships, while the other half involves a typical Firefly plot: do a job, get screwed, and adapt. This episode is both directed and written by series creator Joss Whedon, best known at this time for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and more recently known for writing and directing The Avengers.

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a war hero on the losing side of the war against the Alliance, the governmental body that rules the system of terraformed planets and moons that humanity has come to inhabit. His ship, named Serenity after a bloody battle in which he fought, houses himself and his crew, a band of people with both pasts and skill-sets not conducive to stable living. Salvaging and smuggling, they live paycheck to paycheck while travelling from planet to planet, and all the while they attempt to stay off the radar of the Alliance.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is a picture of the cast.

His crew includes Zoe (Gina Torres), a fellow soldier as his second in command. Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the Serenity‘s pilot, and is also the husband of Zoe. Jayne Cobb (Alan Baldwin, a non-Baldwin-Brother Baldwin) is a mercenary that provides the ship the extra muscle it so often needs. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is a young woman and genius mechanic that keeps the ship flying when it reasonably should not. One of the passenger shuttles is occupied by Inara (Morena Baccarin), a companion (essentially, a very high-class courtesan) that left the comfort of her home planet to see the universe.

This initial episode sees the Serenity gain three new residents: Shepherd Book, Simon Tam, and his sister River. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is a religious man and a pacifist, but possesses a mysterious past that was more than likely quite violent. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) was a young trauma surgeon with a promising future until he abandoned his home and fortune to rescue his younger sister River (Summer Glau), a prodigious intellect cruelly experimented on by the alliance. Each of these three comes to accept the ship as a sanctuary, if not a home, despite contentious relationships with the captain.

The main plot involves the crew trying to unload salvaged goods (nutrient-rich food) before the Alliance catches up with them. After dealing with Badger (Mark Sheppard), a gang-leader, the crew must deal with Patience, a woman whose last dealings with the crew ended with Mal being shot. The crew also chooses to take on passengers for both the cash and the implied legitimacy. But an encounter with Reavers, men turned mad and vicious in the vast emptiness of space, and the presence of an Alliance mole threaten their safety and their payday.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

“Serenity” accomplishes everything a pilot should, it establishes the character’s motivations and relationships with each other, and it sets up an ongoing arc involving River and just what the Alliance was doing to her. The two cases of frustrating sexual tension in Firefly are also introduced in this episode, with Kaylee developing a crush on Simon, and the smoldering looks between Mal and Inara when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Unlike many pilots, “Serenity” chose to develop its characters through conversation rather than to introduce them with wiz-bang action sequences (though there are a couple of those as well), this is especially true in the cases of Mal, Inara, Simon, and Shepherd Book.

This is one of my favorite episodes of the short-lived series, primarily because of the interactions between the characters and the fact that the extended running time means that none of the characters play a minor role, which is inevitable with a typical running time of forty minutes. Whedon is known mainly for his dialogue, and his skills are on full display here, but what he is even better at is creating a cast of interesting characters that seem well-developed from the moment they are on the screen. There is a reason he was chosen to helm The Avengers: the man knows how to work an ensemble. He gets good performances out of all of his actors, particularly Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin.

The episode has one legitimately surprising moment, and a few twists that are easy enough to see coming, even if that surprising moment is pulled straight from a space-western anime called Outlaw Star (it isn’t bad, but Firefly is better). But the fact that this episode isn’t chock-full of surprises is fine, as this episode is all about setting up the characters and the primary arc of the show, plus the action scenes are done well enough that their outcomes don’t need to shock (or awe).

This is the Serenity.

This is the Serenity.

This is the most western heavy space-western I have ever seen (Trigun comes the closest), and I like it. The big shootout near the end literally has people using horses as cover, and if that doesn’t indicate a western, I don’t know what does. Many of the characters also fit rather neatly into common archetypes of the genre: Mal is the former soldier looking for a cause, Inara is the hooker with a heart of gold, Book is the preacher with a violent past, and it goes on. The flavoring of the English language with Mandarin words and phrases works well in establishing the world these characters live in, and doesn’t seem that unnatural given where our world is currently heading; it’s also a clever way of giving the show’s dialogue its own unique feel.

The special effects are excellent and hold up well, this episode even won an Emmy for them, especially for a decade old television episode. One aspect I really appreciated with this show is that when something is shown in space, there is not any noise. There is no sound in a vacuum, so I love it when something demonstrates that without the pew-pews and the vroom-vrooms so common in most space-set science-fiction (cough Star wars cough).

“Serenity” is a good episode and, while it may lack the innovative nature of some of the other episodes, it is a great introduction to Firefly and its world. The fact that every character in the ensemble received adequate screen-time and gets some development differentiates this from most television pilots. I definitely enjoyed it again, even on my fifth (or so) watch of the episode. Return next week for my review of episode 2.

Black Lagoon

For my first post on this shiny new blog of mine, I am going to write about an anime show I discovered quite recently and am so very glad I did: Black Lagoon.  Adapted from Rei Hiroe’s manga of the same name by Madhouse, Black Lagoon has two twelve episode seasons (aired in 2006) and a five episode OVA (original video animation) titled Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail that was released sporadically during 2010 and 2011.

Black Lagoon details the (mis)adventures of the Lagoon Company, a small seafaring group of mercenaries (or pirates, if you prefer) based in the fictional city of Roanapur, the criminal capitol of the world, after they pick up Rokuro Okajima, aka Rock, when the company for whom he pushes pencils decides that they would cut him loose in the South China Sea rather than to have to deal with a scandal. The three other members of the Lagoon Company are as follows: the captain Dutch, the tech-guy Benny, and Revy, the muscle.

From left to right: Benny, Rock, Revy, and Dutch

From left to right: Benny, Rock, Revy, and Dutch

Black Lagoon is a show that has taken all of its beats from the all-too-frequent excessive action films of the eighties and nineties and decided to raise the insanity another couple of notches, plant tongue firmly in cheek, and let the bullets fly. And the result is bloody and brutal and hilarious and about as fun as it is possible for a television show, or any other work in a narrative medium really, to be.

An aspect of Black Lagoon that I find refreshing for a work so unabashedly over-the-top (at least in terms of its action), is that Rock is not suddenly some bad-ass gunslinger after hanging out with mercenaries, pirates, and Revy (especially Revy, the girl will end you without batting an eye), but he also isn’t portrayed as anything close to useless. Rock, fresh off of a job for a Japanese mega-corporation, doesn’t have an obvious skill set for the mercenary lifestyle, but he does prove useful very quickly when it comes to things like negotiation, translation, and analysis. Later in the series, Rock seems to be able to talk his way in, and out, of just about every situation. In addition, Benny never picks up a gun as well, he just mans his computers and is useful without killing dozens of redshirts.

Yes, those are nuns. Also, Rock is able to talk his way out that situation.

Yes, those are nuns. Also, Rock is able to talk his way out that situation and get the eye-patched .nun to give him what he wants.

I have a confession to make: in real life, I am nothing close to a romantic, but when it comes to television (and movies, and comics, and books, and…) I tend to be on the other end of the spectrum than my real life self. This bit of minutiae is relevant for one(two?) reasons: Rock and Revy. Rock and Revy, as characters, have some of the best chemistry between leads that I have ever seen, and they aren’t even flesh and blood. Their relationship is surprisingly subtle, develops naturally and possesses some rather frustrating (and therefore realistic, sigh) unresolved sexual tension. Rock and Revy are the central characters of the series, and they probably each have at least triple the screen-time of Dutch and Benny combined, and the fact that the characters bounce off of each other so well makes that imbalance almost unnoticeable.

She fired a bullet point blank at his not five minutes before this moment.

She fired a bullet point blank at his head five minutes before this moment.

The central premise of Black Lagoon is, admittedly, a bit thin, but the slack is always picked up by the unique and visually striking characters occupying the city that is Roanapur. The most important of these is Balalaika, the head of Hotel Moscow (the Russian mafia), who possesses a beautiful face scarred by burns, and ice water running through her veins; she has the makings a great villain, if she wasn’t the Lagoon Company’s greatest ally. There is even an arc where she takes Rock to Japan to work as her interpreter, Revy tags along as well to make sure he stays alive (spoiler alert: it was a good decision). The other heavy-hitter in Roanapur is Mr. Chang, head of the Triad’s Roanapur branch, who possesses a fragile peace with Balalaika and a killer pair of shades. He also is just as cold-blooded as Balalaika and he is also a friend of the Lagoon Company (they are pirates after all).

Rock and the gang tend to frequently cross paths with such colorful characters as Roberta, a South American maid who is even tougher than Revy (and Revy is one tough cookie). Shen Hua is a pretty and somewhat ditzy Taiwanese mercenary with a penchant for using knives instead of guns. Not to be left out are Eda and Yolanda, the sisters of the Ripoff church, where they traffic enough firepower to take over a moderate sized nation. Eda is also the closest thing Revy has to a female friend (despite the fact that she is pointing a gun at her in an above picture). Sawyer the Cleaner, who uses a chainsaw, and Lotten the wizard, who just wants to look cool while he kills, also populate the background of the city where-you-should-be-afraid-to-sleep among many others.

Balalaika is kind of scary...in a good way.

Balalaika is kind of scary…in a good way.

Is Black Lagoon the best show I have ever seen? Not even close. Is it just about the most enjoyable show I have ever seen? Hell. Yes. The show may not be for the feint of heart, but just about any fan of action movies should give it a try or they are missing out on a treat. To quote Revy from the first episode of the show, “This is way more entertaining than Hollywood is ever going going to be.”