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The Walking Dead continues to be heartless and brainless

The unrelenting, un-dead behemoth that is The Walking Dead continues to dominate, but why are we watching?

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“Why am I still watching this?”

This is the question I often find myself asking during every episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead. The show continues to do ridiculous numbers in the States, over 13 million for last week’s episode, which on cable is incredible, but this is a question that’s been there since the really low point of Season 2 and doesn’t look likely to go away anytime soon. For viewers the show unfortunately still shares the lack of cerebral power and capacity for sudden violence with its main antagonists.

The answer though is probably the same one most people give – for the zombies. It certainly can’t be for the plot, character development or dialogue, as the art of subtlety and story-telling deftness in The Walking Dead was long-ago hacked off like a bitten limb. If a show came along with equally good zombie effects (which do continue to be excellent) then I suspect I and many others would drop this show in a flash. Watching zombies kill or die is always entertaining, but this show is beginning to challenge that idea. It looks like back when ‘the suits’ decided to fire Frank Darabont at the end of Season 1 they took the old zombie adage of “remove the head and destroy the brain” too close to heart.

With such a premise, when the characters’ lives are always at stake, perhaps it would be an idea to create individuals who the audience actually care about it. Neither caring if someone gets eaten, nor actively wanting anyone to die doesn’t result in much viewer investment. What little we know about these people isn’t fascinating, and others we know nothing about. When they have the opportunity to dig a little deeper into a character, to add some nuance into the cast, the writers have more often demurred. Michonne, for instance, holds so much potential if they would actually spend some time developing her, delving into her past. She began as a mysterious woman with a sword and now, after over a season of scowling, she’s still just the chick with the katana but now allowed to smile a bit more – now that’s either lazy, or just stupid. The writers cannot keep attempting to generate surprise, suspense and plot merely using violence. Yes we all want to see fights and deaths, but as well as, not instead of, plot or character development. A character can be killed off and for a moment it’s unexpected, but when you don’t care about the person it might as well just be another zombie.

There’s no room for subtlety here, everything is shoved in your face, with characters expositioning all over the place and symbolism made as obvious as possible – “Hey Rick’s not wearing his sheriff’s hat any more everyone! Get it? See, SEE!” Character depth is not aided much of the time by the acting – the main character of Rick Grimes is still achingly dull, and Andrew Lincoln seems to mistakenly believe that staring off into the distance with your head at various awkward angles will accurately convey the grief, the loss of confidence and fear his character should be feeling. Thankfully this season we have another The Wire alumnus in Lawrence Gilliard Jr to join Chad Coleman, and hopefully up the acting quality average. And this all isn’t helped by the monotonous tone. There’s no room for anything but the reinforcement that life is shit and hope is weakness. There’s never any humour or light in the darkness (something that Breaking Bad in contrast achieved expertly), and there just has to be something more to it or it’s not just depressing, it’s boring.

Last season’s attempt to create an external villain with the Governor was the right move after the dreadfully boring infighting of Season 2, but it was handled poorly. A character who was supposed to be menacing one minute, charming the next, and psychotic at another just didn’t work – there was no real basis behind him or his actions. The time at Woodberry became an annoying distraction, a great opportunity to expand the world wasted, and closed off in a damp squib of a finale. Now we’re back in the confines of one location, a la Hershel’s farm, and we all know how well that went.

The creation of an internal conflict with a mysterious individual(s) in the latest episode is promising, but for me the whole situation was just symptomatic of the show’s lack of brains. I know it’s just TV and I’m probably being pedantic, but who has the strength to overpower two adults, and then get them to be nice and cooperative and lie down while they’re set on fire, all in the middle of the day, without being discovered? And while we’re being pedantic, why not spend some of the last six months reinforcing the weak chain link fence this is basically your only protection?

What the writers need to do is ignore the zombieness for a minute and imagine a scenario in which there are small pockets of people left around the country after some nationwide disaster. How are the groups going to function, what will the conflicts be, how will they survive? Now create a gripping drama under these circumstances, with rich characters that have their own differing motivations, desires and ideas, not just two dimensional cut-outs who do and say the same things all the time. Then add in the zombies – imagine how much better that would be than what we’ve got at the moment.

We continue to watch The Walking Dead in the hopes that it will get better, that watching might require more brain-power than the undead, that we will be surprised again, that we might one day care about a character other than Daryl (because he’s awesome), but mainly we watch because they have become so good at creative zombie deaths; someone might as well edit out all the other stuff and we can just watch hours of that instead.

Television

Why Fleabag was the most important show of 2019

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come

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fleabag

How is it that even among the award show sweeps, iconic jumpsuit copycats, and seemingly universal acclaim, Fleabag still seems underrated? Maybe it’s because, on paper, little about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play-turned-Amazon-series should have worked all that well for mass acclaim — particularly for American audiences. Half of the characters in the show are nameless. There is constant breaking of the fourth wall. And, perhaps most surprising to its success in the U.S., the show comprised only two seasons of just six half-hour episodes apiece — released an agonizing three years apart. (We typically like our TV shows abundant and delivered fast, the cinematic equivalent of a cheap dinner at a strip mall buffet.)

But paper can’t capture the brilliance of Waller-Bridge’s tale of a woman drowning her guilt and trauma in sarcasm and casual sex (and occasionally guinea pigs). Fleabag is packed with raw humanity, top-notch writing, and impeccable comedic timing. 

The ingenious writing and acting of Fleabag is matched only by the show’s ensemble cast. Brett Gelman is delightfully disgusting as swarthy, pitiful brother-in-law Martin. As Fleabag’s season two love interest, the Hot Priest, Andrew Scott exudes turmoil so heavy you can feel it through the screen, as he struggles to navigate sexual desire with spirituality. Sian Clifford beautifully embodies Fleabag’s high-powered sister Claire, whose Type-A rigidity is as palpable as her deep unhappiness. 

And who can forget the incomparable Olivia Colman? She is hysterical as Godmother, a self-important artist whose fixation on alienating Fleabag is only as cringeworthy as her pride on her wedding day in showing off the diverse identities of her “friends.” (“This is my verrrry interesting friend Daniel, who’s deaf. I picked him up at a student gallery opening. Utterly fascinating. Can’t hear a thing.”) 

But it so much more than outstanding casting and indulgent black humor that makes Fleabag the most important show of 2019.

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come. Fleabag has proven that you can teach an old cinematic device a brand-new trick. The show has taught us that these techniques aren’t doomed to become a shtick or a crutch. And it has taught us how compelling it can be when stories of women’s sexuality and humanity are explored authentically (see: why fewer men should be writing these stories). 

But more than anything, Fleabag has raised the bar. 

We have much to thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge for — Fleabag is as deliriously funny as it is heartwrenching. But we should also thank her because, in the vein of Twin Peaks, her show will blaze trails for other artists. Just like David Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-opera-tinged supernatural series paved the way for shows like Northern Exposure and True Detective, screenwriters in the coming years will owe an equal creative debt to Fleabag

So we may clamor and beg for seasons three and four — which we will never and should never get — but we should appreciate Fleabag for exactly what it is: near-perfect television and inspiration for the amazing shows that we haven’t even seen yet.

Fleabag airs in the UK on the BBC and internationally on Amazon Prime.

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Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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