I Disagree with David Lynch

everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-twin-peaks-revival

Twin Peaks fever has taken hold for the first time in 26 years. The original series is being celebrated, re-analyzed, dissected, and is sourcing all manner of “listicles” for “best episodes,”  “scariest moments,” “favorite characters,” etc. Suffice it to say, interest in the new season airing on Showtime this Sunday, May 21st at 9 PM EST is high.

But amidst the feverish interest in the new series are two perspectives I find troubling, which impact the show’s lasting legacy and 27 years of fandom. I must defend Twin Peaks season two and the story of the series as a whole.

The first wrongheaded perspective is codifying Twin Peaks as a cult show. It’s revisionist history and it demeans the show’s legacy. It’s certainly true that since it’s been off of the air only the hard core fans have remained invested in the series, but when the show was airing live everyone watched. Not just a rabid, cultish few. Everyone talked about Twin Peaks around the “water cooler” (whatever that was…).

I challenge this idea mostly because classifying Twin Peaks as a “cult show” isn’t accurate. It twists the truth and turns potential future viewers away. When Twin Peaks was hot, it was sizzling and everyone was watching it. Recent reflections on the series have revealed that even state leaders like President George H.W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth were enamored with the story of the murdered prom queen and the mystery of who killed her. Rocky Horror Picture Show, my dear The Big Lebowski, and heck even Firefly are cult works. By contrast, Twin Peaks was a national phenomenon.

The second and more pervasive perspective is “Season 2 of Twin Peaks went off the rails.” I’m distilling a lot of criticism into one sentence for simplicity, but bear with me.

Season 1 is universally beloved. It’s tightly plotted, engrossing television that, to this day, still manages to astound with its peculiar dream imagery, emotional soundtrack, gorgeous visuals both in locations and in set design, and outrageous characters. Despite taking place in 1990 (1989?), it feels timeless. There’s a reason for this, of course. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost crafted the genre-bending, transformational pilot movie and the subsequent 7 episodes together. It’s true that other writers and directors were involved, but the “bones” of the story were assembled by Lynch and Frost.

It’s inaccurate to say that Lynch and Frost were uninvolved in Season 2 and I wish that particular legend would die already. Even Brad Dukes’ great oral history of Twin Peaks dispels this notion. What really happened is more mundane — the first season was a limited season event and season two was picked up for a full 22 episodes and it needed to be run more “traditionally.” In short, the machinery of TV bureaucracy intruded. Lynch and Frost couldn’t just secret themselves away and design the whole season. TV didn’t work that way in 1990. Now, folks like Vince Gilligan (who walks firmly in Lynch and Frost’s footsteps), of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, can develop a season from start to finish albeit with more concise 13 episode counts.

But all of that is beside the point. Despite the added pressure of success and the winding maze of 1990 era TV bureaucracy, Twin Peaks season 2 should not be minimized as lesser work. Indeed, I argue that what season 2 ultimately did was build the world far beyond just the murder of the seemingly innocent homecoming queen.

There are some who say the whole season is rubbish, but much of the criticism is leveled at many of the episodes following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer. Some is certainly fair. Let’s start there.

David Lynch (and Mark Frost to a lesser extent) have long lamented pressure from the network to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch has argued that it killed “the golden goose.” I’ve never understood this, much less agreed with it. In other descriptions of Twin Peaks, Lynch has described Laura’s murder as the doorway into the strange, bucolic town full of secrets. If that’s true, then once we’re in the town, we’re in. Laura’s murder being solved should be immaterial. You could make the case that people would have abandoned the show anyway after awhile because they’d feel strung along with no answers in sight. In fact, some viewers were already leaving over the feeling of being strung along during early season two!

But from a story perspective Laura’s murder was merely the first layer of the onion. Once you peel it back, you could reveal greater truths and deeper mysteries (which is what happened!). The criticisms I will agree with about the second season have to do more with the poor transition from Laura’s story to the next big story and some of the subplot choices the show pursued. But simply solving Laura’s murder shouldn’t have ended the show when exposing her killer opened the door into the shows deeper mythology which was (and is) rich with even more story potential, hence the fact that we’re getting more show 27 years later!

Following Laura’s murder, the show should have transitioned directly into the Windom Earle story line. Or, perhaps, maybe just one episode of transition and denouement instead of three or four. I’m not proposing anything new or insightful here, I think this idea is almost universally shared. And, to me, that suggests that the late Season Two stories have merit and are good and the slow build to get there were the real problems. I certainly think the Cooper vs. Windom Earle and Hunt for Owl Cave stories were very strong and breathed some new life into the show, further bending the genre into which Twin Peaks falls.

I’m also not willing to let David Lynch and Mark Frost off of the hook for these Season Two matters. Many of the ideas sewn into those stories originated with David and Mark. Brad Dukes’ book, for example, noted that putting Josie into the drawer pull originated with David Lynch. He also appeared as Gordon Cole in audio and in person. If he didn’t like what he was seeing from the material and the approach, why didn’t he say something or do something? Mark Frost apparently did a writing pass over every script; one or both of the creators was involved in every story the show produced. Lynch, of course, famously reasserted himself in the amazing season two finale (if you don’t know, Lynch used very little of what was scripted for the Black Lodge sequence at the end). But why wait? Some Lynch sycophants won’t like this, since he “walks on water,” but these questions deserve answers especially when he piles on season two as well (as recently as today!). I say, “Own it.”

Putting the leadership questions aside, it’s also worth putting things into their historical context. Twin Peaks season two, particularly the post Laura Palmer episodes, aired and were preempted by the Gulf War. For a deeply serialized show like Twin Peaks, that was a fatal blow. Add to that the show was moved to Saturday nights–hardly a good night for cultivating a TV audience. Original fans, even diehards, likely had a tough time finding the show. But even if they did, with huge gaps in episodes, it was harder to pick up the threads from previous episodes. And it was 1991. There weren’t reruns like there are now and no way to find missed episodes unless you taped them.

I point this out because I’m a “second-generation” (third?) Twin Peaks fan. I was introduced to the show in a college course about transformational TV dramas and subsequently watched it on DVD. I was able to watch the show one after the other. A pre-Netflix binge, if you will. While the post-Laura Palmer episodes are certainly different, in that they lack the central plot thread (at least initially), I still enjoyed them. And if you watched them in close sequencing, without weeks or months long gaps, they hold together much better. I can certainly understand fans’ frustrations in 1991 about watching Ben Horne reenact the Civil War in his office or James mope around with a melodramatic married woman while not advancing the main story much about Windom Earle, the missing Major Briggs, or where BOB had gone. But revisiting these episodes in a more streamlined fashion is enjoyable and easier to pick up the thread.

By the way, I thought the “Ben-as-a-Civil-War-general” story was funny. Ludicrous in the way only Twin Peaks could do. Josie’s story ramped up and, as a result, Sheriff Truman became a more well-rounded character with more to do. I thought the story about Jean Renault conspiring to get Cooper drummed out of the FBI and ultimately killed was good. Renault has a particularly good quote in his final episode:

“Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place. My brothers sold drugs to truck-drivers and teenagers. One-Eyed Jack’s welcomed curious tourists and businessmen. Quiet people lived quiet lives. Then a pretty girl dies. And you arrive. Everything changes. My brother Bernard is shot and left to die in the woods. A grieving father smothers my surviving brother with a pillow. Arson, kidnapping. More death and destruction. Suddenly the quiet people here are no longer quiet. Their simple dreams have become a nightmare. Maybe you brought the nightmare with you. And maybe, it will die with you.”

It encapsulates quite nicely why I think the post-Laura Palmer episodes have merit. Before Laura died, all of the town’s secrets lay dormant with no one particularly interested in exposing them, if that was even possible. Laura’s death was a gateway into these secrets and the deeper mysteries waiting in the woods and solving her murder did not put the cap back on the bottle–it was broken open and could not be resealed. That’s the beauty of TV storytelling, iterative stories that build off of what’s come before and the resolution of Laura’s murder and what happened in the aftermath were worthwhile stories. Poorly executed, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the story should not have been told.

I’m defensive about season two because all we have had for years is the episodes that were made. No comic books. No further sequels. Just these episodes and a movie. Beyond that, I loved the story of how Dale Cooper became a town deputy and embedded himself deeper into the town and it’s people. His friendship with Sheriff Truman, Andy, and Hawk grew. And he wanted to buy property in Twin Peaks. To me, it was the natural evolution of Cooper’s character that he had completely and utterly fallen in love with Twin Peaks. The real love story of Twin Peaks isn’t Cooper and Audrey or Ed and Norma, it’s Cooper and the town itself.

Coming back to the main point, many of the things people remember about Twin Peaks originated in Season 2. Iconic moments, characters, and stories: the Giant, Laura Palmer’s secret diary, white-haired Leland, Denise Bryson, the white and black lodges, Josie in the drawer knob, “How’s Annie?,” and more. It’s just become fashionable to dump on Twin Peaks season two so people do it and I’d venture to say that many who do haven’t seen the episodes they’re trashing in a while (if at all).

After 27 years (12 for me), the only content fans have had from the world of Twin Peaks are 29 episodes and a movie. We’ve lived with those stories for years, theorized about them, debated them, dreamed about them, wondered what would happen next. We may like some stories more than we like others, yes; that’s true of anything. But those stories are all Twin Peaks.

We can lament that David Lynch didn’t direct more episodes, but the fact of the matter is: he didn’t. Episodes that are probably well loved were written and directed by people who are not David Lynch. Mark Frost directed the season one finale quite capably. Lesli Linka Glatter, Caleb Deschanel, Duwayne Dunham, Tim Hunter… all great directors who brought life to the stories and characters. The show was orchestrated by all of these people, not just David Lynch and Mark Frost.

When the new show continues, it will be guided firmly by David Lynch and Mark Frost. More power to them. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. But I do hope that 27 years of stories, because that’s what they really are, are not cast aside casually. It’s been 27 years in real life, perhaps just 25 years in the show, but life moves on. I get it and that’s license to forget about some things. I really don’t care much about the pine weasel or Little Nicky all grown up, but it would be nice to learn if Ghostwood was ever developed. Does Josie still haunt drawer pulls in the Great Northern Hotel? Is that what happened to the Log Lady’s husband? Is Ben Horne really Donna Hayward’s father? What, if anything, did Major Briggs do with the communication from Windom Earle via Sarah Palmer (“I’m in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper.”)?

Twin Peaks is the sum of its 30 parts, counting the movie, too. I’m a completionist. I’ve never been able to say, “Well, Star Trek seasons one and two are really great, but season three is terrible so I don’t count it.” No. The work is the work. Frankly, I think it’s a fun bit of fandom to analyze and criticize the best and worst parts of a series. To stick with my Star Trek analogy, The Next Generation season one is, to put it kindly, not it’s best. But it’s not like the events of that season are ignored because the episodes didn’t turn out as well as we would have liked.

Life is that way, too. There are things we are proud of in our lives. There are things we wish we had not done or that we had done them differently. But all of our experiences make up who we are now. We can choose to ignore some parts of our pasts, but those things happened and they affect us regardless.

I say accept Twin Peaks the same way. It is the sum of its parts, some good, some Evelyn and Little Nicky. But soon, there will be more parts and that cannot be anything but exciting.

Enjoy your coffee and pie this weekend, folks.

MST3k Review: 1102 – “Cry Wilderness”

Rowzdower!

No one is happier than me to report that episode two of MST3k’s new season is an improvement over the premiere/pilot of this reboot/reimagining of the series.

The characters are getting more comfortable in their roles, the riffing is stronger, and the movie is suitably goofy and accessible for the new team to tackle.

But the series apparently won’t have a traditional MST3k theme opening. It starts with a cold open and then Jonah is forced to reenact the opening because Kinga can’t record it for some reason… I suspect this is being done because if you binge episodes on Netflix it will skip over the opening if it’s the same and I guess the show runners don’t want that? I don’t know how I feel about it yet… it’s strange, but it doesn’t lessen the experience. I’ll wait to see how I feel in a few episodes.

This episode’s experiment is a wonderfully odd film from 1987 called Cry Wilderness. It has no discernible plot that I can detect, but I suspect this one could become classic over time. It’s just so strange and the characters are exactly the kinds of goofy personalities that make for MST3k history. Time will tell.

Basically, a young man escapes from a boarding school because he’s been dreaming (having visions?) about Big Foot and wants to find him. He goes from boarding school to the untamed wilds of forested park land in about 4 seconds and there are cougars and tigers and skunks and every other kind of animal just wandering around on the paths within easy reach. He finds his father, a park ranger, and an assortment of other strange characters and they do… something. It’s better if you watch it.

The riffing is much improved. The performers aren’t saying everything really fast like they were in the premiere. But the riffing does still feel overly polished. It doesn’t feel like a guy and his robots reacting to a movie in real-time. In fact, there are a few riffs that start a split second before the thing or event they’re reacting to. That’s a bit dizzying in the moment, but since there’s already been huge strides made in the riffing it’s encouraging.

And while the characters are improving, the Bots still feel like background characters. Just other voices with which to make jokes. They show up a little bit more in the out of theater sketches, but just barely.

But the big news is CAMEOS! Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy show up in a brief sequence midway through the episode. I had been looking for an anchor and it was great to see them inhabiting those roles. Something was off about Bobo’s face prosthetics, but I didn’t care. Kevin Murphy was there to help me ignore it. From a character standpoint, Kinga was overjoyed to see her grandmother and Pearl didn’t really seem interested, which was exactly the Pearl Forrester reaction I would have expected. Good stuff.

When the show improves with each episode, it makes it easier to continue on knowing that each one will be better than the last one.

MST3k Premiere Review: 1101 – “Reptilicus”

Movie sign!

I shared my broad, non-spoiler reactions to the new MST3k’s premiere episode here. Since I can finally talk spoilers and refer to the movie, I’ll share my impressions beyond those broader thoughts.

As I noted before, there was certainly a lot of good aspects to the premiere. I’m encouraged to watch more.

The show opening is spirited and it certainly covered a lot of narrative ground. It did not, however, explain why the Satellite of Love or the Bots are back in space. As a fan of the original series, and one who was particularly moved by that show’s conclusion, this rubbed me the wrong way. I made this comment to Joel Hodgson on Facebook and he actually responded to me! Joel said (I made grammar edits for clarity and OCD reasons…):

“I appreciate your note, but I didn’t feel like sewing all those elements together up front. Felt “top heavy.” Also, I’ll explain how the bots got back into space downstream. Next season.”

First off, I’m glad to hear he thinks there will be another season. More MST3k can only be a good thing. But while I respect that Joel took the time to respond to me, it doesn’t persuade me to his view because he dedicated a lot of upfront narrative as it is.

I would say explaining how the Bots, who escaped their previous captors, ended up stranded on the satellite again is a worthwhile story to tell. Or at least acknowledge. The previous iteration of MST, while goofy, still maintained a loose but straightforward continuity. That’s why I think the transitions from Josh to Kevin, Joel to Mike, Frank and Trace to Pearl, and Trace to Bill were about as smooth as could be expected given the affection for those characters. The show acknowledged something was different and, while not dwelling on it, at least gave it attention so the audience didn’t feel unmoored. Since this is being positioned as a new season and kind of a reboot, it clearly doesn’t play by those same rules, but it’s why I, as a “legacy” fan, feel it’s a rough start.

It also doesn’t help that Tom Servo and Crow, who were last performed so vividly by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (and Trace Beaulieu before him), are shells of their former selves. Again, I recognize I may just be longing for the old performers who embodied these characters for so long. But even when I try to account for that bias, it’s undeniable that in this premiere episode Tom and Crow are merely additional voices to deliver jokes. I have no idea what their new personalities are supposed to be. For new viewers, they may not care. But for legacy fans, I can’t imagine I’ll be alone in this.

Even in Bill Corbett’s first episode as Crow, arguably the second toughest character transition for the show (after Joel to Mike, of course), he began developing a personality that was somewhat of a hybrid between Trace’s Crow and the one he would eventually perfect, that “barely contained East Coast anger” Crow. He left an impression. I have no impression of the new Crow, voiced by (but not puppeted) comedian Hampton Yount.

It’s even worse for Tom Servo, now voiced by comedian Baron Vaughn. It’s inarguable that Kevin Murphy was Tom Servo for 99% of MSTies. Yes, I know the character originated with Josh Weinstein. But he had two (sorta) seasons with Tom and the show was barely defined at this point, he didn’t have much time to make a mark. I don’t see any huge contingent of “Weinstein was better” fans coming out of the woodwork other than the “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE” guy. Kevin Murphy inhabited Tom Servo from Season 2 to the end. His mark on the character is indelible. The singing, the swaying to music in the theater, the unique deep baritone, even the odd quirks he developed over the years like an underwear collection… It’s unfair to compare Vaughn to Murphy, but it will happen. Particularly because Murphy’s Tom was so memorable and developed.

Jonah probably comes out the best, from a character perspective, in the premiere. But he’s definitely more Joel than Mike. And, of course he does because this is Joel’s party. What do I mean by this? Well, Joel “Robinson” was a thoughtful, easy going father figure who didn’t really rock the boat. He did inventions, he taught the bots lessons, he tried to focus on the positive aspects of movies, and was pretty much an amiable lug content to watch bad movies while being held hostage.

Jonah’s not much different. He has that “millennial,” Chris Hardwick vibe (the two are real life friends, actually) where he seems to get excited and geek out on subjects of interest. But in the premiere, Jonah plays very much of a Joel role. He doesn’t really act like a guy who just got kidnapped and is forced to watch bad movies.

Mike Nelson started off “cooler” than he would ultimately be by the end. “Insecure, beefy Midwestern guy.” He bucked the Mads. He tried to escape a lot. And he didn’t police the Bots’ riffs in the theater like Joel did. He was like a big brother, if Joel was akin to a father figure. Jonah has been pitched as akin to your friend’s little brother who you don’t really want hanging around you, in terms of his relationship with the Bots. But if that’s the idea, it’s not apparent in the premiere.

The strongest additions are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” or just Max. He prefers the former. They’ve got a good chemistry together. I like Felicia Day from her other work. Patton Oswalt is hilarious and I’ve enjoyed him at least since The King of Queens. Their “evil” goal is somewhat different than Dr. F or Pearl’s; it’s more meta. Kinga is resurrecting Mystery Science Theater 3000 and wants to inflict bad movies on Jonah because that will get better ratings. I think it’s an inspired choice. My only fear is that meta stuff can get tiresome fast if not well balanced. We’ll see.

Finally, the movie: 1961’s Reptilicus. If there’s a definition of a “cheesy” movie, this is it. It’s got everything a MSTie could want: drab, lumpy white guys in coats talking about made up science, hot 60s babes, and more models of buildings and a green lizard monster than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the monster spews green acid that looks like Ecto Cooler and is an effect added after the fact and so doesn’t render well. Ripe material for riffing.

The riffing: this episode bears re-watching, but the riffs came so often and so fast that it was hard to react to them. It was definitely a case of the new riffing team getting comfortable because this gets better as the episodes go on and everyone settles down. I laughed out loud a few times, but was more bemused than anything.

The new MST3k feels very much like Joel Hodgson is behind it. It’s feels like the show rewound to its Season 3 and Season 4 sensibilities. I have no problems with Season 3 or 4 of MST3k; there are great episodes in those seasons: Pod People, of course, Master Ninja, Gamera, Manos, Monster A-Go-Go, and more. It’s just that the show evolved after those seasons. The riffing got tighter and the characters grew into their roles. It felt more like a guy trapped in space forced to watch bad movies. The riffs became more conversational than some guy doing a voice shouting at the screen (although those riffs still happened).

I realize that I may be coming off fairly negative. It’s not my intent. But I had high expectations. Probably too high. And since my preferences come from Season 5 Joel and the Mike era of the show, my expectations are probably even more uncalibrated. I just see too many people heaping praise on the premiere and, while decent, it really doesn’t warrant it. It succeeds at launching the new show and reestablishing the premise, but so far it only honors the “Joel” era of MST3k and there were 4 ½ other seasons (and a movie!) to draw upon.

Fortunately, I saw enough good things and lavish attention to detail that I’m not calling it a misfire. And since I’ve already watched ahead beyond the premiere, I know that each episode forward is an improvement.

New MST3k Restores Creator Joel Hodgson’s Vision

(image: Netflix)

Mike fans might be left in the dust.

Before the full season drops on Netflix next week, Kickstarter backers received an advance streaming screening of the season premiere (pilot?) of the new Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I’ll keep spoilers light in case you are trying to stay fresh for the new episodes.

Full disclosure: I’m an original fan of MST3k, with a preference for the Mike Nelson hosted episodes. I’m not a Joel hater by any stretch (he’s the creator for goodness sake) and happily cite “Monster A Go Go,” “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “I Accuse My Parents,” “Eegah,” “Mitchell,” among others as personal favorites. But the sensibility of the Mike episodes was a little more mature, both in content and in the characters’ personalities, so it was a fully formed show by that point and the riffing was stronger because they had it down to a science by then.

For the uninitiated, the show premise is the same as it ever was: a mad scientist traps a man in space and subjects him to bad movies to torture him (Mike), find the worst one to take over the world with it (Joel/Mike), or get better ratings (Jonah, I guess?). He’s joined by robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and they make fun of the movies sent their way.

The new show concept is blissfully unaltered in that way. Comedian and internet personality Jonah Ray is the new host, comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn are the new Crow and Tom, actress Felicia Day, of Buffy and Supernatural fame, is the new mad scientist, Kinga Forrester, and actor/comedian Patton Oswalt is the new henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank.

The pilot opens to show us how Jonah has been captured and segues into the new theme song and then dives into the episode like any MST3k begins. It was a cute, maybe slightly too precious sequence featuring a few cameos including one original cast member cameo that, jarringly, went unexplained. The production values, while still mostly kitschy scale models and strings, are more polished here than the original series and feature more green screens. There are also a bunch of cast extras around which is a change from the “intimate,” sometimes “claustrophobic” feel of the original series. Even the MST3k movie, which had a bigger budget, still focused only on Mike, the bots, and Dr. Forrester. Here, there is a villain band that plays at “commercial” breaks and it’s certainly different, although not necessarily unwelcome. The movie is Reptilicus and is a classic MST3k-type film, so solid on that front.

But the first thing that struck me was a sense that series creator, Joel Hodgson, is reclaiming his show after leaving under contentious circumstances halfway through the fifth season in 1994. Since then, Joel has seemingly made peace with the departure, but watching this new version of the show makes me think he’s working out some of his issues and unapologetically reclaiming his creation.

For one, Jonah Ray works for the Gizmonic Institute, which is where Joel and the Mads worked in the original series. After Joel left, the institute disappeared from the show as it was Joel’s IP. Second, the invention exchange has returned—Joel’s stand-up comedy featured hand crafted inventions sort of like a prototype Carrot Top routine. The inventions only survived a few episodes into the Mike era before they were jettisoned in favor of more “life on the satellite” bits and random skits that kept the story moving forward more smoothly. Third, and this is more of a feel thing, the episode’s sensibility and riffing more closely match that of a, say, third season episode. There are some sharp third season episodes to be sure, like “Pod People” and “Cave Dwellers,” but the show was still finding its feet at that point and the riffs and skits sometimes feel detached. Even though the show was scripted and they were trying to create the feeling that the characters were spontaneously reacting to the movie, it wasn’t until the later years that the characters felt truly embedded with the movies and like they were in a theater being forced to watch them. In this new episode, the riffs feel too polished and the characters seem detached from the movie. There’s also quite a bit of silence and a dearth of riffs at some points. Even if the characters just made sound effects, sighed, laughed, or muttered to one another, in the original show’s best episodes the silences were usually filled with something interesting. That’s missing here.

Finally, the new show completely ignores the original series conclusion. Or at least it appears to. At the end of the original show, Pearl Forrester accidentally puts the Satellite of Love into reentry mode and Mike and the Bots escape the crash to live together on Earth continuing to watch bad movies on afternoon TV. In this new series, Jonah is put up on the Satellite of Love with Tom and Crow with nary a mention of how they got back up there. I’ve already seen some fans question this and the series’ staple response of “It’s just a show, I should just relax” being used to repel the question. But that doesn’t do it for me. It feels like Joel is taking back his show and ignoring anything inconvenient or which he doesn’t like.

While, yes, this is a show with a guy shot into space to watch bad movies with human intelligent robots, MST3k always had a pretty solid story continuity that they referred back to often:

  • The transition from Josh Weinstein’s Dr. Erhardt to TV’s Frank was at least acknowledged in a backhanded way (he was “missing” on a milk carton).
  • Since Weinstein also originally voiced Servo, Joel reprogrammed him with Kevin Murphy’s voice.
  • Mike helped Joel escape the satellite and was subsequently kidnapped as the most convenient option. The bots even needed to give him some training in his first episode.
  • TV’s Frank was absorbed into sidekick heaven and Dr. Forrester needed his mom, Pearl, to help him recover from Frank’s absence in the following season.
  • Forrester lost his funding and was reborn as a star baby in a 2001 homage while Mike and the Bots became beings of pure energy at the edge of the universe.
  • Mike and the Bots were then brought back to the satellite by Pearl Forrester who confessed to smothering Dr. Forrester in his sleep because he grew from a star baby into another “idiot obsessed with his experiment.”
  • It also turned out that Crow got bored at the edge of the universe and lived on the satellite for 5,000 years before Mike and the others returned and he “changed his bowling pin” and had a different, Bill Corbett-sounding voice now. Crow also didn’t seem to know Mike anymore, which was a story point that continued for a few episodes.
  • The whole of season eight followed Pearl and her henchmen and the Satellite of Love 5,000 years in the future flying around the galaxy getting into funny scrapes everywhere including Mike blowing up 3 planets and being put on trial.
  • Everyone made it back to present day and Pearl began her quest to be a fully certified mad scientist and take over the world.
  • Even Joel and Frank came back and updated us on what they had been doing since leaving/dying.
  • Then, in the final episode, Mike and the Bots prepare to go back to Earth in a surprisingly poignant farewell. Even Pearl and her minions’ goodbye is sweet.

Given how nice of a swan-song MST3k’s original finale was, it’s jarring to see it just casually ignored. I would have preferred just a brand new reboot if they’re going to do that. Given how much time went into Jonah and Kinga’s introduction, I don’t see why there couldn’t have been some attention paid to the series’ original closing. Even if it was as simple as noting that these are duplicate bots and a duplicate satellite. That would have been more satisfying and respectful to the original series legacy and solid finale.

OK. Geeky fan rant over.

What I liked:

  • Jonah Ray has a good temperament as a host and has, by far, the funniest riffing delivery.
  • Patton Oswalt, while not given much to do, makes the most of it and is funny as always.
  • The updated mythology is interesting and I’d like to learn more about Kinga et al (aside from the aforementioned rejection of the previous series’ conclusion).
  • Movie riffing is still the main ingredient, as it should be.

What Needs Work:

  • While there were some good lines, and I laughed out loud more than once, they were infrequent. The riffing is definitely not as sharp as the series’ more refined later season efforts.
  • The characters in-theater chemistry needs work—it feels a little too much like people reading a pre-written script with little interplay between them.
  • Jonah’s, Baron’s, and Hampton’s voices are all a little bit too similar sounding. And Jonah’s joke delivery, while the best, feels like he’s doing a voice. Clearly some seasoning is needed for the riffers.
  • Tom and Crow should be over sized characters and they barely registered in this episode. Perhaps that was by design, but Hampton and Baron have big shoes to fill, particularly Baron since Kevin Murphy was the Tom Servo for most fans. I hope the Bots’ new personalities stand out more in episodes to come. As it was, they were just additional joke voices in the theater.
  • The “celebrity” cameos were too over the top for my taste. I hope these get better as the season goes on.

Summary:

I’m an original MST3k fan. I can’t hide it. I also won’t apologize for it. My initial reaction to the pilot is mixed.

The series concept is as solid as it ever was—making fun of bad movies. Clearly, a lot of care and attention has gone into the new series from the writers, performers, and set crew. The riffing was serviceable; not “The Final Sacrifice,” “Mitchell,” or “Space Mutiny” levels, but certainly not the worst. And it really does seem like the writers and performers have tremendous upside. I mean, Dan Harmon is one of the writers!

But I’m bothered by the omissions to the new story as they pertain to the original series ending. It’s a complaint only a fan would have and even maybe only a complaint a Mike-biased fan would have. Joel seems to be trying to restore MST3k to the pre-1994 version that he hosted. He’s the creator and he drove the revival effort. But I think he may be forgetting that many MST3k fans came onboard during the Mike years and after through DVDs that were initially heavily weighted by Mike episodes. Discounting that fan base and perspective is dangerous because Rifftrax, run by Mike Nelson and featuring Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, exists. If these new episodes don’t measure up, fans have alternatives including just re-watching old episodes.

As a fan, I want MST3k and movie riffing as a genre to continue. I’m skeptical after what I saw in this premiere, but encouraged enough to continue.

REVIEW: The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Spoilers)

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I love Twin Peaks.

I was too young to enjoy the show when it originally aired in 1990-1991. I was too busy watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. My first exposure to the show was eleven years ago at college. I took a class at Syracuse University called “The Modern TV Drama: 1980 to Present” taught by a quasi-famous pop culture expert, Professor Robert Thompson. We met once a week on Thursdays for two hours and we watched and discussed the first shows to treat audiences like they had any intelligence, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting… etc.

We spent three classes on Twin Peaks. I’m not going to recap all the reasons why you should watch it; I’ve already done so. But I’ll say this: the pilot for Twin Peaks is something everyone should see. It’s TV history. It changed everything. If you like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad… (more!), thank David Lynch and Mark Frost. Professor Thompson showed it to us and I was intrigued by the melodious and indulgent opening credits and gripped at once by the series’ opening images of a mysterious, beautiful woman looking at herself in the mirror and a rumpled man going out to fish and making a horrific discovery—a dead body wrapped in plastic.

I sought out Twin Peaks DVDs and ravenously devoured the show. At the end, I made the horrific discovery that my progenitors made fifteen years earlier: the show ended with a hell of a cliffhanger. ABC cancelled the series after its second season. The “follow-up” movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is actually an R-rated prequel covering the last seven days of the victim’s, Laura Palmer, life.

For 25 years, the original fans of Twin Peaks languished until 2014 when it was announced that David Lynch and Mark Frost were reviving the series on Showtime and would also deliver a tie-in book about the town. The series has since completed filming and is slated to arrive “sometime” in 2017. But first, Mark Frost’s book The Secret History of Twin Peaks arrived on October 18th. This is the first new content in this story in 25 years and to say I was excited to read it is an understatement of the highest order. There was also an audio version announced featuring some of the show’s actors voicing their original characters as well as a smattering of others.

Originally titled The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks, the book’s press release said it would “…[reveal] what has happened to the people of that iconic fictional town since we last saw them 25 years ago.” This book does not do that.

Instead, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an epistolary novel which means it’s told through letters, articles, memos, and commentary by a couple of people. Essentially, the “book” is a dossier found at a crime scene in July 2016 which the FBI is investigating. Could this be a plot point in the coming season? No clue, but it’s exciting that there are new mysteries to consume. FBI Assistant Director Gordon Cole has assigned an agent to review the tome and discover the identity of the “Archivist” who put it together.

In summary, I enjoyed the book. I was riveted. The “story” begins in the “real world”  explaining where the dossier was found and setting the stage before diving headlong into a deep historical narrative concerning Lewis and Clark’s exploration in the Northwest Territory (Twin Peaks is in northwest Washington near the Canadian border in the present sovereign borders). It winds through early American history, secret societies, conspiracies, and myths of Native Americans and the early North American peoples featuring some interesting linkages to the opaque mythology of the show.

However, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. While Twin Peaks and the history of (some of) its characters factor into the story, much of the novel follows an ancillary character from the show, who has been given a rigorous backstory more grand than his minor appearances on the show would indicate, and his adventures outside of the town. Major historical figures appear throughout the story and the scope of Twin Peaks’ connections to the wider world are expanded upon in ways that were only vague hints towards the close of the show’s final season and partially in the film. It’s a testament to Mark Frost’s writing and the vivid tapestry he weaves that all of this information is gripping and holds attention even though, for large portions of the story, the links to Twin Peaks are marginal at best.

When Twin Peaks and its characters, or their parents and grandparents, are in focus the story is damn fine. We learn dense backstory and interesting tidbits about the major families who founded the town and who are, unsurprisingly, related to most of the main characters from the show. One character, Josie Packard, whose backstory was largely shrouded in mystery on the series, receives a good bit of coverage and all major gaps are filled in. Josie’s history is not likely to get a lot of attention in the new season, for reasons fans will understand, so it’s nice to get closure on that thread. There are a few other examples of this, some more interesting than others, but I’ll let readers discover those on their own.

But let’s face it: the real reason Twin Peaks fans wanted to get their hands on this book is to find out what happened after the cataclysmic events of the series’ final episode. But unfortunately, if that’s all you came to find, you will be disappointed. The events covered in the book go just barely past the end of the show* and only fleeting answers are provided. But one of the finale’s major events (not the one you really want to know about) is addressed in clear detail and provides interesting, if not unsurprising, resolution. In the course of addressing that hanging thread, another character whose fate was up in the air is unceremoniously declared alive and well with no mention of his own violent encounter.

Which leads me to a subject about the book, which is already an Internet point of debate: there are a number of glaring historical and Twin Peaks plot inconsistencies. In some interviews, Mark Frost has addressed this in a couple of ways: 1. He has noted that the nature of the novel is one where the narrator(s) are not always reliable, and 2. A cryptic response “All will be revealed in time…” Let me address these in order.

Regarding the “unreliable narrator,” that would not explain certain incorrect important historical dates. It also would not explain characters who should have had direct information on events giving conflicting information. The most obvious and harmless example to mention is a retelling of what happened with the Big Ed, Norma, and Nadine love triangle. I won’t recount it here, but the book directly conflicts with what the show told us happened. It’s particularly egregious because the story was told in the season two premiere, which was written by David Lynch and Mark Frost (the author), in a funny and memorable scene that’s easily one of my favorites which you can enjoy here as a matter of fact. There are several other examples like the wrong date for the moon landing. There are also a number of stunning omissions** such as no mention made of the White or Black Lodges (directly), no mention of Annie Blackburn, “blink and you’ll miss them” entries about Windom Earle, and a handful more. For non-fans, this is gobbledygook, but for people who have watched and re-watched the series many times over the past two and a half decades it is clear and it’s troubling.

There might be hope, though. Frost’s response that “all will be revealed…” hints at what some of us have already suspected about this book: that it is, in of itself, a mystery to be solved. The changes and the omissions may be deliberate obfuscation by the “Archivist” (who is identified eventually). Or maybe something happened to the Dossier after the “Archivist” parted with it (maybe not intentionally?). In fact, given what I’ve noted about the Big Ed story above, it’s hard to believe that Mark Frost would have been that careless. I would have hoped that he reviewed the series again before diving back into the new season and this book. Even if he just skimmed some episodes, I would hope that he’d have paid close attention to the ones he and Lynch directly generated. So, it’s difficult to swallow that he just screwed it up or simply wanted to retcon it. It seems likely (or maybe I’m desperate to believe) that Frost made the plot changes on purpose because they are obvious and fans would notice. Perhaps they point the way to some hidden truth. Fans on Reddit are already pouring through the text to see if there is some kind of embedded code—I love the Internet, by the way.

Setting aside any plot or historical errors for the moment, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an engrossing read. It’s new Twin Peaks content for goodness sake! Two years ago, no one thought we would ever see new Twin Peaks anything let alone a novel and a new season (seasons??). There was clearly a lot of energy put into the book. It’s also exciting to think that maybe the items I initially perceived as continuity errors might point the way towards some hidden truths that a plain reading of the text doesn’t reveal.

Since I also listened to the audio book, I’ll say that the voice cast is quite good. Annie Wersching of 24 and Bosch fame provided the narration for the FBI agent investigating the dossier and I wish she was a listed cast member for the new season. She did a great job here and she’s a good actress otherwise. Perhaps, one of the many actresses listed in that 217 deep cast list will be portraying the character she voiced? I wish David Lynch had voiced Gordon Cole as I was expecting some yelling at the start and didn’t get it, but I suppose his time is better spent in the editing bay getting us a damn trailer for the new season. Otherwise, Len Cariou narrated as the “Archivist” and the guy should read all my books for me—he had a rich timbre that lent itself to the material well.

All in all, if you’re at all a fan of Twin Peaks, this book is essential reading (or listening) for you. It’s a great appetizer for us to snack on while we wait for the main course coming next year. Pick it up and read slowly; 2017 will be here before we know it.

 

*Given that the initial press release said the book would cover what happened to the people in Twin Peaks over the last 25 years and offer a “deeper glimpse into the central mystery that was only touched on in the original series,” I wonder when that approach changed. Or if the publisher simply used provocative language to promote the book’s plot and Frost never had any intention of doing that? Some of the Twin Peaks fan sites have done interviews with Frost, but they’re so busy falling over to complement him and gush over the show that they haven’t asked about this significant discrepancy in marketing.

**I wonder if Lynch asked Frost not to put some topics in the book like Annie and The Black Lodge, directly, because he would prefer they only be addressed on screen. Purely a guess, but it might be a “real world” reason why those rather important topics aren’t mentioned at all.

Viral Twin Peaks Marketing?

Cooper and the gang use the

Cooper and the gang use the “Tibetan Method” to solve a mystery.

This afternoon a veteran editor at “The Twin Peaks Experience” posted a link to a site: http://doublerdiner.squarespace.com/ which appears to be a restaurant site for the fictional “Double R Diner” from Twin Peaks.

The only link on the page “Menu,” actually goes to http://www.playinglynch.com/. This site only contains a clock, which as of this writing is counting down from 7 days, 14 hours. Will the long-awaited Twin Peaks season three trailer appear in 7 days and 14 hours??

However, there is an interesting detail on the “Double R Diner” site. It notes the diner is famous for its “Huckleberry” pies. While I believe that kind of pie was served on Twin Peaks, even casual fans of the series know that cherry pies were the menu item in demand (that, and coffee of course). Is this detail significant? Maybe this site isn’t related to Twin Peaks officially and is merely a fan attempt for attention. Or, if real, could the change be deliberate to indicate some kind of change in the town over the past 25 years?

As a huge fan of Lost, the spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, I didn’t realize how much I missed trying to figure out TV mysteries. I’m excited to see where this return to Twin Peaks takes us.

Watch “Person of Interest”

maxresdefaultA very good, special show ended last week and I bet many of you don’t even know it. The good news is you can still watch it because it now lives in the digital realm thanks to Netflix. I hope you heed my suggestion.

Person of Interest ended on Tuesday night after a quick burn of its final 13 episodes over the last month and a half. Its final season was cut down from 22 to 13 episodes. The reduced runtime really honed the writing and the story. In fact, credit where credit is due: CBS could have just cancelled the show outright or let the producers wiggle on the line regarding renewal. But they gave them a final run and the show’s creators made the most of it.

The series centered on Harold Finch played masterfully by Michael Emerson. Finch build a surveillance Machine for the government to fight terrorism after 9/11 with access to camera feeds, phone calls, emails, text messages, internet searches… everything. It feeds information to the government about terrorists based on all of this collected data so it can stop terrorist attacks. There is a privacy compromise, however: the government can’t see or access this information. The Machine communicates a social security number or another unique ID associated to a person. The government must then determine if that person is a terrorist, a terror target, or somehow affiliated with terrorists on its own.

But because the Machine sees everything it knows about non-terrorist violent crimes, too. The government wasn’t interested in those, though. Those crimes are labeled “irrelevant.” Harold set up a connection with the machine so that he receives the “irrelevant” numbers so he can intervene. However genius Harold may be, he’s not equipped to stop these crimes on his own so he partners with a former CIA operative, John Reese, played by Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel. Reese is cast off, adrift, and probably close to death either by his own hand or otherwise. Harold gives John a purpose and they get to work receiving numbers and helping people.

Every episode opened with a “saga sell” kind of like Quantum Leap had (the first 48 seconds of this clip), which explained the show’s premise. Watch POI’s “saga sell” from season one. It’s more succinct than my summary. And here is a scene from the pilot episode with our two leads discussing it as well.

On the surface, Person of Interest was like any other CBS crime procedural. A new number—a new case—every week. Good guys and bad guys. Easy enough, right? For the first third of its first season, Person of Interest seemed to conform to that, but a dense mythology was brewing under the surface. How did Harold build this Machine? How does it reach the conclusions that it does? If the government wants to keep this a secret, what might they do if they found out Harold can access the Machine and receive information from it?

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the Machine helps them stop crime and the government stop terror attacks, it is a massive overreach of power. The government’s system can see everything we do. Harold’s defense might be that only the Machine sees that data, no human can view the private information the Machine sees. Is this right? The end result is good, but at what cost? How might this kind of technology be abused?

But the most fundamental question of all: what really is the Machine? It’s better if you watch to find out, but I can say concisely: artificial intelligence. The Machine is not just a database. Not just an algorithm. It thinks. And it learns. It makes judgements. That’s how the Machine can make determinations about if a violent crime is going to occur—it’s not just if Steve says, “I’m going to kill Judy.” The Machine sees that Steve purchased a gun, he has a violent felony arrest record, he’s bought plastic sheeting, and he’s made an appointment with Judy late at night in a secluded part of town. All of those facts taken together (and much more) factor into the Machine’s decision-making. In practice, the Machine would send Steve’s SSN to Harold and he and John would need to investigate to find out what’s going on.

While POI never really shed its “procedural” shell, it transitioned from a crime thriller to a modern science fiction show with the introduction of a mysterious hacker, Root (played by the ageless Amy Acker), who had figured out that the Machine existed and, realizing what it was, wanted to free it. Root saw the Machine as a higher life form, an ASI—Artificial Super Intelligence—a god even. But Harold had “shackled” the Machine with rules so that it couldn’t be abused and so that it would not grow too powerful in its own right. Here, the show started to show its true colors. It was a CBS crime procedural, yes… but it was also about a nascent artificial intelligence and all of the ethical questions associated with its creation, how others might seek to use it, and its very existence.

The show gave us many glimpses into the past about how Harold not only created the Machine, but also how he taught it judgment, logic, and, most importantly, the value of life. Arguably, that education continued between Harold and John; Harold discouraged John from killing and encouraged less lethal means. It was also a way for our series lead badass to not kill 20 people an episode and just shoot them in the legs. CBS probably would have frowned on the excess murder, but gunshot legs are fine.

Meanwhile, as the show continued, evidence of another artificial intelligence loomed. If Harold’s Machine was a passive conduit for our heroes to help people and save lives, the introduction of “Samaritan” showed that there was another way artificial intelligence could go. Samaritan was an ASI unshackled like the Machine. Its handlers weren’t trying to protect privacy or restrain its power and access, they wanted Samaritan to amass knowledge, influence, and power. While the Machine made no direct action itself, Samaritan changed police records, deactivated security systems, influenced stock market prices, texted people with monetary incentives to do its bidding, and was basically a precursor to Skynet from The Terminator.

But it has to be emphasized that the show kept all of this grounded in reality. And that’s the scary part! Nothing Samaritan (or the Machine) did seems out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the show makes explicit references to actual, real government programs to build something like the fictional Machine or Samaritan. If you don’t know, the government actually tried to do something like this. Three such projects were TIA, Stellar Wind, and Trailblazer. The show was science fiction, but just barely.

And like any good science fiction, it’s the characters that breathe life into the “fantastical” situations and story. We begin, like we do with any CBS procedural, believing our heroes are the chaste, white knights chasing down bad guys. But think about what Harold has created. It’s true that he’s trying to use the Machine for “good,” but he’s effectively hacking a government program. And the Machine exists as a tool for violating personal privacy and rights of search. That it’s a “benevolent” intelligence is beside the point. Our “heroes” are vigilantes. And, more to the point, may have opened Pandora’s Box. Had Harold not created the Machine, would Samaritan exist? Would the government have simply found a way to build this technology anyway with a less altruistic creator? These are questions you might have and the show, God Bless It, addresses.

In my zeal to sell you on the concept, I’ve left out a ton of things you should discover on your own. Taraji P. Henson plays Detective Joss Carter, who is on John Reese’s tail as well as facing down an inter-departmental ring of dirty cops. Kevin Chapman plays Detective Lionel Fusco, a crooked cop in which John Reese takes an interest. Sarah Shahi plays Sameen Shaw, a government operative initially working on the list of numbers from the Machine’s “relevant” list, who may also be a high functioning sociopath. And there’s a host of other recurring characters that “Team Machine” encounters along the way who only enrich the universe the creators have crafted. There’s even an awesome dog who is probably my favorite character, but really it’s because it’s a dog.

Ron Swanson once said, “Son, you should know that my recommendation is essentially a guarantee.” This is true of my recommendation as well. I hope you check out Person of Interest. The first four seasons are on Netflix right now. In a pinch you could get the final season on iTunes or Amazon Video, whatever. But for those of you (I’m one!) who have lamented the lack of quality in broadcast network TV, Person of Interest was a rarity. It broke the mold of CBS’s usual, tired premises and aspired to be a thoughtful, exciting, dynamic show with real heart and purpose at its center.

As I noted at the beginning, Person of Interest’s series finale aired last week. Finales are hard to get right. In my humble opinion, Breaking Bad and The Shield are probably the best, most satisfying TV finales ever crafted. POI breathes that rarefied air, too. So, if you’re not looking to get invested in a show only to be disappointed by the end, you can relax. If anything, you’ll wish there was more Person of Interest to come and really, that’s the way to end a show: make the audience miss it, not be glad it’s dead.

I miss Person of Interest. If even a few of you pick it up on my recommendation, it will have been worth it. You’ve got a hell of a good show ahead of you to watch and I’m envious.

I’m on a Podcast!

Hi all!

There’s a great YouTube channel, and Facebook page (!), called “Obnoxious and Anonymous” that populates great entertainment news and opinion. I’ve recently joined as a contributor and I’m fortunate enough to appear on some of the weekly podcasts. It’s exactly my taste (in that we talk about nonsense), so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy the podcasts too.

This week’s podcast includes two members of the YouTube group “The Sausage Factory,” Cole and Orc. They have some great film discussions and “live watches” on their channel. They’re also big 80’s slasher film fans and I’m also a mega fan. TSF has a new episode premiering tonight, so check it out.

But this latest “O&A” video is one of the best and Cole and Orc are a couple of smart, funny guys so we have a pretty good discussion. I hope you enjoy and, if it floats your boat, subscribe to the channel! And this one!

 

Fear “The Walking Dead’s” Return Because the Spin-off Doesn’t Match Up

…but we won’t explain HOW it began.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I’m not hyper-critical about sequels and spin-offs. I usually like them.

If I like the source material, I’m generally excited to see more adventures with the characters or see new angles of the universe through new characters and situations. If the creators of the “main” show, or original movie, are doing their jobs they’ve constructed a living, breathing world where all kinds of things can happen.

The Walking Dead does its job. Other than some logical and pacing missteps in its second season (rife with behind the scenes turnover and drama), TWD is a rich, fully realized world with a number of potential story paths to follow with our original cast and to explore away from them if they so choose. Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead mines the missteps from TWD season two as its concept—domestic drama.

The spinoff takes place in L.A., 3,000 miles away from where Sheriff Rick Grimes rests in a coma in Georgia. By all appearances, the new show takes place in the time when Rick was out of the loop. Society still exists. Kids go to school. Drug addicts get high. You get it.

The pilot introduces our main characters, a mixed-race family featuring Cliff Curtis (Travis), Kim Dickens (Madison), Alycia-Debnam-Carey (Alicia*), and Frank Dillane (Nick), in the midst of turmoil of the domestic variety – Nick is a drug addict and is in the hospital following a car accident precipitated by a proto-zombie attack. Of course, no one believes him because that’s crazy. This is another mistake FTWD makes – much of the show’s drama is based around the fact that the audience knows what’s happening and the characters don’t. In interviews, creators and cast cite this as a strength, but I think it’s a weakness. The show should stand on its own and create stakes based upon this story, not source cheap scares and suspense from the fact that we already watch The (superior) Walking Dead. What’s interesting about this story? Why should we invest in these people?

It’s unfair, but I have to compare the FTWD pilot to TWD pilot. When you do that, you see there’s no comparison at all. TWD pilot is cinematic, evocative, and tells a whole story in of itself – like a good pilot should. Rick Grimes is shot and goes into a coma; when he wakes up, he is alone and the hospital is abandoned. We enter this world with Rick as he discovers barricaded doors covered with a scribbled warning “Dead Inside.” The viewer is Rick’s companion as he stumbles deeper into a barren, empty, frightening world where the dead “live” and the only safety he finds is with a lone man and his son surviving in the abandoned suburbs near his empty house.

That pilot is highly visual, too. Rick riding down the highway in his sheriff’s uniform on a horse towards an apocalyptic Atlanta horizon, Rick weeping over an almost dissolved zombie body that still lives in unending torment, Rick shooting a zombified little girl in the head, and more! There’s hardly any dialogue, but the pilot communicates everything you need to know with powerful cinematography and crisp scripting.

Fear the Walking Dead’s pilot is nowhere near as strong. There’s nothing powerful happening here. Creator Robert Kirkman emphasized how this was going to be a story about a family and, man, he wasn’t kidding. Variety’s review suggested that FTWD is like Parenthood with zombies. The only problem with this is Kirkman and his co-writer, Dave Erickson, are not nearly as sharp as Jason Katims at crafting engaging family drama. But the question remains: why do we care about this family’s drama at all when we know there’s a zombie holocaust underway? One of the most fascinating episodes of the original show is “TS-19,” the first season finale where Rick and company arrive at the CDC and encounter the last surviving scientist who doled out tantalizing nuggets of mythology. I wasn’t asking for a show about chemistry, but some exploration of an outbreak that reanimates the dead might have been interesting.

FTWD’s focus on the family feels like a tease. I know Kirkman is dedicated to telling “ground-level” stories in his zombie universe, but he’s at a disadvantage here. After spending years with Rick Grimes and his motley crew, I have many questions about the zombie outbreak, the government response, what people knew and when, and so on. Since that show just threw us into the world after zombies, when we occasionally took a break to explore what family and friendships mean in this environment it was interesting (sometimes… I’m looking at you, Season Two). But FTWD has inverted that formula. We start with a family and, presumably, we will follow them into the apocalypse and see what that means for them. But there’s no hook. I have no reason to keep watching other than my foreknowledge about what’s coming. Kirkman’s insistence that he will give no answers or insight on the zombie virus (?) or sickness (?) is maddening. That’s the hook. That’s what would invest us in this story. Simply dropping us in a story of another group of people at a different point in time is just not a compelling reason for this show to exist.

Finally, if you forget the fact that The Walking Dead exists and evaluate this show on its merits, it’s OK. It’s not great. But if this had been the first show, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. Again, what’s the hook? The measure of any great spin-off needs to be whether or not that show can be its own thing. FTWD would not have shattered ratings records if not for the fandom of the original show. I can’t begrudge the show for having a successful predecessor, but I can try to look at it objectively. If I do that, what was remarkable? Name a memorable scene. Name a character other than Nick and don’t cheat by going back in this post.

I’ll watch next week and, odds are, I’ll watch all the way up to The Walking Dead’s season six premiere. But, honestly, I’ll do so to pass the time until the exciting show I want to watch comes back. Maybe Fear the Walking Dead will grab me in the meantime.

 

*It’s distracting that Alycia Debnam-Carey is “Alicia.” Feels lazy even though I’m sure the name was set in the script before Debnam-Carey was cast.