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Roswell: New Mexico was better than it had any business being

Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t.

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In an era where audiences are over-saturated by television remakes, it is a hard task to find one that is worth more than a dose of fleeting nostalgia. Some shows found solid ground to stand out (Hawaii Five-0 is entering its 9th(!) season?), some have rightfully disappeared into the dustbin of canceled TV shows (24: Legacy, Charlie’s AngelsHeroes: Reborn), while others have somehow continued to plod along as caricatures of their once glorious selves (how is that terrible MacGyver remake still on?).

Roswell: New Mexico, The CW remake of the 1999 series Roswell (which originally aired on The CW’s precursor channel The WB) was, like any and all remakes, met with an initial level of skepticism. Any show that manages to build an almost cult-like following will be shadowed by its cult, and anything that threatens its place will inevitably be met with derision (see the kind words left on our Nikita remake piece from a few years ago). I was one of those skeptics, as a fan of the original Roswell; a remake of a show that was good, but not great, was just plain unnecessary (although to be honest, that can be said about all these remakes).

The new show’s first season has just concluded and through the 13-episode run, surprisingly there was plenty to be impressed with. But let’s get some of the fundamentals out of the way- Roswell: New Mexico doesn’t stray too far away from the original text, both the Roswell High book series and the 1999 series. The characters involved are essentially the same- Max, Liz, Michael, Isabel- but the settings and relationships have in a way, been given a decade-long time jump. Where the book and the original series played out in the hallways of high school drama and politics, Roswell: New Mexico shows us the characters ten years later, navigating the drama and politics of dusty roads and small towns.

With that comes the added weight of current day politics, and Roswell: New Mexico does a good job balancing the political discourse of building walls, illegal aliens (the easiest of double meanings), and cultural backlash in the shadow of nationalist politics. The Liz in New Mexico is also more accurate of the original text: no longer is she Liz Parker but, as in the books, Liz Ortecho. The Ortecho family are crucial to the story of the new series, not only driving the story but setting the tone of the conflicts between the characters as well. Thankfully the Ortecho family are no caricatures of a Mexican-American family but come across as genuine and believable- which is a hard thing to do at times on the small (or big) screen. It’s small things too- language, and the use of it, being prominent. It goes a long way. With television representation becoming more diverse, Roswell: New Mexico finds itself in the funny place where their original text is finally finding its rightful place in an adaptation instead of being whitewashed for audiences.

Much like the 1999 adaptation there are enough twist and turns to keep the story progressing. It’s gripping enough for network television, but avoids being overly convoluted, with much of the drama mostly resolved by season’s end. The absurdity of aliens amongst us is done a little less kitschy, but can still come across as… aliens living in a small town. A lot happens in 13-episodes, seemingly compacting multiple story arcs presented in 1999, but the season closes out on a surprising note and one that should draw viewers into a second.

But what makes Roswell: New Mexico better than it had any business being?

The series is airing in a television climate where appeasing the current social agenda for diversity often becomes an exhausting exercise (see Charmed reboot). Often it doesn’t feel genuine, or for the reasons we should push diversity in entertainment. This comes across in the content, whether intentionally or not. A lot of this stems from the idea that diversity should be pushed through originality and fresh stories (Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish) instead of rewriting what was already written. Roswell is lucky then, that the original text was subverted to fit television, and now the series has the opportunity to be a little more faithful. It isn’t perfect- small town Caucasian characters portrayed as over-the-top bigots and racists is no better than minorities portrayed in all the ways they have been before. But I suppose the scales will have to find a balance somewhere down the road. What you have with Roswell: New Mexico is a good series that will not get the kind of press one of those glossy but flimsy shows receives (why do we care so much about Riverdale? How come no one else sees how bad Shonda Rhimes shows are?), but goes by its agenda quietly.

On a slightly more superficial note, the show’s nostalgia-tinted use of music- both in diegetic and non-diegetic terms- is a warm and fuzzy welcome to those who spent their formative music years hooked on 90s radio. Roswell: New Mexico does a great job of being fans of 90s music while using it as MacGuffins to progress its plot. Someone on that writing staff was a starry-eyed teen who lived it, and now they get to soundtrack a show to a mixtape someone made them in 1998. Third Eye Blind’s “God of Wine” as a significant plot point? Sure, why not? Plus, it’s a nice to hear Counting Crows instead of Post Malone. The show’s tribute to the 1999 show’s theme song is a small but fitting ode. It’s the small things that New Mexico get right.

For now, Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t, and that’s generate interest past its initial run.

Maybe they got some of the big things right too.

Roswell: New Mexico airs on The CW in the United States and on Fox 8 in Australia.

Television

Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue

Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work

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At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”

This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.

What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:

“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”

Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?

With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;

“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”

Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.

The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.

Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.

Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.

He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.

A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.

And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:

Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”

The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.

Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:

“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”

That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.

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Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing

DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it

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Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.

Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.

It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).

Abby Arcane
Crystal Reed stars as Abby Arcane

I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.

Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.

Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.

Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.

Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.

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