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‘The Terror,’ Ep. 1.01: “Go for Broke” Is the Rare Horror Show With Powerful Frights

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What kind of person names a ship “Terror?” That answer to that question helps explain the awful plight of the sailors aboard the eponymous ship in AMC’s new series. Someone who names a ship “Terror” assumes the aforementioned terror will be doled out by the ship, and not the other way around. That kind of hubris haunts The Terror, an adaptation of Dan Simmons 2007 novel about the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, two Royal Navy vessels that became stranded in the Arctic in 1846. The horror TV show was created in the wake of The Walking Dead to replicate its success, but The Terror is something far more impressive: a horror show that actually works, that is as chilling as it aims to be. Horror television has a poor record of delivering frights as effectively as films, but The Terror is an admirable exception.

The Erebus and Terror found themselves packed in Arctic ice thanks to the nineteenth century’s exploration fever — the ships were attempting to chart a way through the Northwest Passage, a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific that traverses the Arctic. Though the ships were retrofitted with steam powered propellers and metal panels to protect against ice, they still fell victim to a rapid freeze and were encased in ice. Still, the crew members survived for multiple years. The final group of survivors started a march in 1848 toward the nearest civilized outpost, but all members perished hundreds of miles from their destination. The wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and forensic analysis of crew members indicated that some resorted to cannibalism.

Simmons’s novel, from which the series is adapted, adds horror to an already terrifying situation. In his telling, the crew aren’t only victims of starvation and poisoning from lead cans, but are also pursued by some kind of supernatural monster. Showrunners David Kagjanich and Soo Hugh have adapted the novel with painstaking detail. The ships’ routines are minutely detailed, and the characters are all named after their historical bases.

Jared Harris in AMC's The Terror

In the show’s first episode, “Go for Broke,” the claustrophobic nature of the vessels is overwhelming. Although the officers (led by Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies) dine on multicourse meals with wine in an elegant stateroom, the crew eat their meals in a packed mess hall, stuffed to the gills. A few men private rooms only slightly larger than their beds, but most are crammed together in communal areas. The larders are stocked with three years’ worth of food, plus some perishables. (One character laments that the Erebus has already run out of beef tongue in the first episode.)

The expedition is led by Sir John Franklin (Hinds), an explorer who has twice before explored northern Canada and the Arctic. His first expedition ended in disaster, with some of the crew forced eat their boots in the face of starvation. Sir John was not the first choice for the mission, but nonetheless attains the post when smarter or less deluded men refused. He’s supported on the Erebus by Captain James Fitzjames (Mendies) a blowhard who tells warmed over stories of his heroics at dinner and licks at Sir John’s boots. Harris plays Captain Francis Crozier, the Irish captain of the Terror and Sir John’s son-in-law. Crozier approaches his duty with a near-constant weary look, as if he’s picturing every possible disaster that could come of the expedition.

The Terror is executive produced by Ridley Scott, and it’s clear that Alien is a major inspiration, both on the series style and plot. There an incident at dinner early in the episode — the less said the better — that will instantly draw comparisons to Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. More importantly, though, Kagjanich and Hugh have opted to pace their show much in the style of Alien. Although there are some shocking developments before the first episode’s opening credits, much of the episode is quite slow. We see the machinations of disgruntled sailors and the derision that Crozier bears toward Fitzjames behind closed doors, but the moments of horror are initially few and far between. This won’t work for many viewers with short attention spans, but for those who can wait, or are entranced by the period details, the pacing can be sublime. When The Terror chooses to be, well, terrifying, it hits with a gut punch. Although it often uses suspense to great effect, these long periods of calm also make its horrific surprises all the more effective.

Ciarán Hinds in AMC's The Terror

Even the moments that have nothing to do with supernatural arctic monsters are frightening. It was only after watching a scene where one sailor goes underwater in a primitive diving suit to fix a blocked propeller that I realized all of my muscles had been clenched. The idea of being all alone in the faint crepuscular light under the frigid water is even more terrifying than some carnivorous bear creature. This underlying fear of abandonment in unforgiven environs harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), another horror story of men terrorized by a creature in the Arctic cold.

“The show’s visuals, combined with its elegant pacing, make it one of the most effective horror shows ever created.”

It’s worth considering what makes The Terror so effective as a horror show. A common problem with horror shows, from American Horror Story to True Blood, is the lighting. Horror films tend to be quite dark, and it’s an essential part of setting the mood (sometimes unintentionally exacerbated by cheap theater chains using underlit projectors). But horror shows on television tend to be lit brighter, which diminishes the sense of dread. Sometimes that’s at the behest of a network (HBO) that worries its show (True Blood) will be too dark for viewers with poorly calibrated TV sets. It’s also an unfortunate side effect of the rushed speed with which a television episode is filmed. Great cinematography requires time, and TV episodes have to be shot much quicker. Without time to perfectly calibrate the lighting so that it’s neither too bright nor too dark and just moody enough, shows end up looking overly bright and washed out.

The-Terror-Feat

The Terror almost certainly had these same limitations, but its setting (Arctic ice packs) changes the lighting equation. The same lighting rules don’t apply when you’re shooting on white ice (or ice substitute). It creates a different, very forlorn atmosphere that perfectly suits the mood. The show’s visuals, combined with its elegant pacing, make it one of the most effective horror shows ever created.

AMC’s recent horror shows, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, have stumbled in recent seasons. They lack a reason to keep existing (much like their characters) and any clear endgame. The Terror is different; from its opening scene we know that the men aboard have all perished. The mystery is what happened to them, and it’s worth finding out.

Find our weekly recaps of The Terror here

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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American Horror Story: 1984: “Camp Redwood” Puts the ‘Camp’ in Summer Camp

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American Horror Story 1984 Camp Redwoord Review

The ninth installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series embraces nostalgia and horror iconography as it heads back to the ‘80s for a hilarious send-up of slasher movies that buries a surprising amount of surprises under buckets of gore.

There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie…

These days, everyone knows the rules of how to survive a horror movie — and no one’s ever laid them out quite as well as Randy Meeks in the Scream franchise. With its witty self-awareness and sharp deconstruction of modern horror tropes, Scream was a truly groundbreaking horror film when it was released in 1996. By subverting audience expectations, the movie managed to be a critical and commercial success, delivering an unpredictable plot and an iconic villain alongside some refreshingly clever moments of dark comedy. And if there’s one thing the Scream franchise never let you forget, it was the rules you needed to follow in order to survive.

Much like Scream, this season of American Horror Story promises to be a savvy reconstruction of the all-too-familiar subgenre, jumping back and forth between 1970 and — you guessed it — 1984, which is arguably the golden age of the slasher genre. While the rules of modern horror movies have changed since Scream was released, American Horror Story: 1984 seems set to return to the formula that made franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween so incredibly popular. Take, for instance, the cold opening, which features three camp counselors in the midst of a threesome before being massacred by a stalker. Not only is it a direct reference to the opening of the original Friday the 13th, but it reinforces that if anyone is bound to survive this season, they best not have sex — and given how horny these teenagers are, I don’t expect many of them to make it out alive.

AHS Review

While we have yet to see just how far Ryan Murphy is willing to play with genre conventions and bend these rules, American Horror Story: 1984 thus far honors the genre with numerous callbacks to a number of genre classics and lesser-known gems that mostly lived and died on home video. The ‘80s references come hard and fast too, with nods to such films as My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, Psycho II, Black Christmas, and of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Set in 1984 and in Los Angeles during the midst of the summer Olympics, American Horror Story: 1984 follows a method-trained actor named Xavier (Cody Fern) who brings a band of unemployed teenagers to work as counselors at the newly re-opened Camp Redwood. Among them is disgraced athlete Chet (Gus Kenworthy), who lost his chance at Olympic gold by failing a drug test; an aspiring aerobics competitor named Montana (Billie Lourd); the obligatory nice guy, Ray (DeRon Horton); and Brooke (Emma Roberts), the last virgin in town and recent survivor of an attack by the infamous Night Stalker.

The hapless teens are quickly introduced to a delirious hitchhiker and the obligatory voice of doom in the form of a surly local gas station attendant (Don Swayze), who warns them of Camp Redwood’s bloody past and tries to scare each character away before “bad” things happen. With the injured hitchhiker in tow, the fledgling counselors arrive at Camp Redwood, where they’re greeted by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), a devout Christian who intends to spend the summer teaching impressionable youth to love Jesus. As it turns out, Margaret has a secret past of her own: fourteen years earlier, on this very campsite, she was the sole survivor of the worst summer camp massacre of all time.

American Horror Story 1984

Three Killers?

As this is the first episode of the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Camp Redwood” takes its time introducing the cast while fleshing out the backstory of both the summer campers and the killers who continue to terrorize the citizens of Los Angeles. To that end, this season introduces two (if not three) serial killers, starting with Benjamin Richter — aka Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) — who escapes a nearby mental hospital (in an extremely Halloween-esque sequence which even includes a female version of Dr. Loomis), and is headed straight to Camp Redwood, where he murdered several students a decade earlier. Then there’s also the Night Stalker, based on a real-life serial killer who terrorized California and horrified the nation. It’s been a banner year for fictionalized depictions of serial killers, and now American Horror Story: 1984 joins the likes of shows like Mindhunter by including Richard Ramirez, whose highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985.

While the Night Stalker will most likely be the central threat for the upcoming episodes, one of the reasons behind the popularity of American Horror Story is that each season contains at least one major plot twist, usually involving the mystery surrounding who the killer or killers really are. And with just one episode, American Horror Story: 1984 already seems to be teasing a third killer in the form of Cody Fern’s Xavier who — wait for it — is a method actor trained by Stella Adler who was recently offered the role of a serial killer on a TV show. Of course this is just speculation, but there is a good reason to believe that Xavier can’t be trusted, since he could have an ulterior motive for inviting the teens to the camp.

Theories aside, what makes American Horror Story: 1984 so fun so far is how it painfully recreates the low-budget aesthetic of the slasher films we once watched on well-worn ‘80s VHS cassettes or on late-night TV. Everything about this season nails the tone and style of the slasher films of that era, from the synth score (that calls to mind the music of John Carpenter), to the fantastic title sequence, to a soundtrack which includes tracks from Frank Stallone, Bananarama, Def Leppard, Hall and Oates, and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” The cinematography is especially on point, with jittery tracking shots, over-the-head bird’s eye views, and even missing film grain. Take note of the especially inspired sequence of a panic-stricken Brooke running from the killer that is juxtaposed with the torch lighting ceremony from the 1984 Olympics. It’s scenes like this that make me keep coming back to American Horror Story year after year.

Maybe it’s because I adore the slasher genre or maybe it’s because 1984‘s tone is so much lighter and stylized than previous seasons, but whatever the case, American Horror Story: 1984 is promising to be the most enjoyable installment yet. Whereas last year’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse is an acumination of eight seasons of crossovers diving deep into the mythology of the series (while indulging in too much fan service), 1984 feels like a breath of fresh air and a far step away from the sometimes nihilistic tone the series has become known for. There are still plenty of Easter eggs that connect to seasons past, and there is still plenty of blood that is shed, but overall the season premiere titled “Camp Redwood” is relatively light on gore and heavy on lustful undertones that potentially confirms the hugely popular fan theory about how all the seasons are connected.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have always found clever ways to remix classic horror films and movie tropes, and while American Horror Story: 1984 isn’t necessarily doing anything new, “Camp Redwood” is an exciting way to kick off the season. With every installment, AHS hooks viewers in with a radical new premise and plenty of shocking twists, and I personally can’t wait to see how it will shake up the slasher genre over the course of the next twelve episodes. With a new cast, a new tone, and a new decade, American Horror Story: 1984 could potentially be one of the show’s best seasons yet. All in all, 1984 presents a gory, funny, and affectionate skewering of the slasher genre. If you are a fan of the exploits of the 80s cinematic stalkers, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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‘Veronica Mars’ Explores Our Dark Obsession with True Crime

Veronica Mars’ fourth season explores America’s true crime obsession, both admiring and skewering the community in tandem.

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Veronica Mars

*Please note that this article contains spoilers for the 4th season of Veronica Mars*

After a five year hiatus, the long beloved mystery series Veronica Mars returned this summer with one of the only TV comebacks to be actually worth a damn (yes, we’re looking at you The X-Files.) While the Hulu revival has been widely acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, one of the key elements of the 4th season that hasn’t seen much coverage is its stellar exploration, and at times skewering, of true crime culture.

Even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years.

Over the last decade, there has been a wild resurgence of true crime. While movies like Zodiac and TV shows like The People vs. O.J. Simpson have achieved great success in their respective mediums, it has been the true crime podcasts which have been most responsible for this boom. Wildly popular shows like Last Podcast on the LeftCriminal and My Favorite Murder have blown up to be some of the biggest podcasts in the world, and with so many people listening, fans don’t feel so ashamed or morbid talking about the gruesome details and awful circumstances behind some of humanity’s most horrendous crimes.

Of course, even these modern marvels, Veronica Mars included, are only really scratching the surface of an obsession that has hid beneath the shiny veneer of modern Americana for hundreds of years. If the murder ballad folk songs of the early 20th century or the detective novels of the late 19th century weren’t an indication of this fact, surely the hundreds (or thousands) who might gather to watch criminals being publicly executed in the middle ages (often stealing a possession or lock of hair after the execution) surely is.

However, there is an even darker side to true crime and the public’s obsession with it than a simple morbid souvenir or two. Killers like Ed Kemper (recently made famous by Netflix’s Mindhunter) or BTK have sometimes been known to ingratiate themselves into the investigative process, misleading those searching for them or gathering information on how much the police actually know.

This is the most interesting element that Veronica Mars taps into in its latest season. After a string of grisly bomb attacks rocks Neptune, there’s no shortage of suspects who might be responsible. There’s Big Dick, a real estate maven who stands to profit from the plummeting market values the attacks create, and his Chino cellmate Clyde, a former bank robber. There’s a violent bar matron with a vendetta against sex offenders (who make up some of the victims) and some squirrely frat brothers who definitely seem to be hiding something. Hell even the cartel and a scandalized senator avail themselves as possible perpetrators before long.

With that laundry list of usual suspects, though, comes a lowly pizza delivery man. Penn Epner seems to have little going on in his life, and while he comes across as charming and affable, his true crime leanings hide a much darker secret. As he consistently makes himself the center of the investigation, standing up to accuse people at town meetings, talking to any journalist who will listen, and constantly visiting the police and Mars Investigations, he attempts to direct the focus of the investigation toward his enemies and away from himself.

Meanwhile, Penn is responsible for nearly all of the criminal carnage being perpetrated around Neptune. Though the first bombing is indeed revealed to be part of a real estate scam, the remaining copycat crimes, committed by Epner, are a part of his sick manifesto: to punish the unruly spring breakers who rudely accost him and strike fear in the hearts of the political and financial elite he despises. A brilliant man who was kicked out of college for his part in a sick game that mutilated a classmate, Epner takes a sort of ironic outrage at being teased and berated by today’s students. He also feels unable to utilize his strong intellect for anything truly worthwhile, which causes him considerable frustration in his true crime group, a group which is filled with otherwise very successful people.

Of course, he is only revealed as the perpetrator of the bombings in the final episode of Veronica Mars’ fourth season. Up until that point, he’s the last person you would expect to be responsible for so much death and destruction. Portrayed by the amusing and likeable comedian, Patton Oswalt, Penn is usually the comic relief or the wacky side character to the proceedings, giving viewers little reason to suspect he might be the one behind the crimes he seems so intent on helping to solve.

There’s actually an interesting real-life correlation there as well. Oswalt’s wife, Michelle McNamara, was a very serious true crime enthusiast before she passed away in late 2016. She was instrumental in the final stages of the Golden State Killer investigation, and her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, explores her rich, dark obsession with the vicious killer that she never lived to see unmasked as former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018. This additional kernel of knowledge leads one to wonder if his role in the 4th season of Veronica Mars is meant as a loving tribute to his late wife, as the background knowledge seems to close for coincidence.

In any case, Veronica Mars‘s exploration of true crime isn’t all doom and gloom. The rest of Epner’s true crime obsessive group, dubbed The Murderheads, are more or less well-adjusted and useful members of society. Ranging from a librarian to a political consultant, the other Murderheads seem to be intelligent and analytical thinkers who genuinely want to help law enforcement find the person responsible for the Neptune bombings. Like in real life, the majority of true crime aficionados in Veronica Mars are people who are just as fascinated by the dark underbelly of society as they are troubled by it.

Epner, though, remains a vivid portrayal of the real-life criminals who return to their crime scenes, taunt law enforcement, or purposely direct the flow of an investigation. While they may not always be as nefarious or calculating as their fictional counterparts, these people do exist, and the latest season of Veronica Mars serves as a welcome reminder to keep our eyes open for them.

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The Righteous Gemstones Season One Episode 5 Review: “Interlude” Is an Early Series Highlight

The Righteous Gemstones flashes back and delivers its best episode yet.

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The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

One of Peak TV’s most pervasive trends is an addiction to the flashback episode – what was once a silly device to fill episode requirements on long-running comedies became essential backbones to modern dramas. Propelled by shows like LOST and Orange is the New Black, which utilized frequent, lengthy flashbacks to build out its array of characters, the last few years have seen an uptick of these “retro” episodes – from Arrow to Westworld and even Carnival Row, modern shows have a penchant for self-indulgent episodes full of wigs and retro fashion. And while “Interlude,” The Righteous Gemstones‘ best episode yet, initially feels like another one of these unnecessary digressions, by the time it reaches the stunning conclusion of its 40-minute running time, it firmly establishes itself as one of the best episodes constructed in this very specific, suddenly popular mold.

As “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes.

Where most flashback episodes fall apart is their sense of self-importance; what “Interlude” understands is that it is possible to recreate a moment in the past without having to build some sense of mystery around it. “Wicked Lips” already gave us the foundation of the central conflict between Eli and Baby Billy, which means “Interlude” exists simply to give context and texture to stories and people we already understand. Billy’s opportunistic ways, Eli’s disgruntled sense of self, Judy’s strange, unappreciated uniqueness… all of these elements are well defined in the first four episodes of the series, and “Interlude” smartly doesn’t try to play coy with these long-festering conflicts.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

Centered around Aimee Leigh discovering she’s pregnant with Kelvin, “Interlude” is a careful observation of the ripple effect the news sends through the family. In doing so, The Righteous Gemstones goes through a radical emotional shift; rather than just being a black comedy about a falling evangelist empire, “Interlude” reveals a deeper, more complex emotional core to the young comedy – so much so, it almost feels like a different series, the humor of “Interlude” often taking a much subtler route than the abrasively juvenile style of the opening episodes.

But as Eli said, change takes time to understand; as “Interlude” slowly lays out the many personalities and loyalties in Aimee Leigh’s life, The Righteous Gemstones begins to build out some of the more meaningful, contemplative ideas teased in its earlier episodes. And it does so across a broad spectrum of characters; Billy’s desperation to stay relevant, Eli’s slow transformation into the imposing figure he’d become, and Jesse’s misbehavin‘ ways are all given voice in “Interlude,” injecting Gemstones with some much-needed emotional depth, which helps deepen the many Biblical parallels Danny McBride and his creative team are beginning to flesh out.

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

But where “Interlude” surprises the most is with the two OG Gemstone women; both Aimee Leigh and young Judy spring to life as characters in this episode, offering intriguing perspectives on the two “true” Gemstone women. It’s a tough act to nail; Aimee Leigh is essentially the God of the Gemstone kingdom, her absence the foreboding catalyst for the downfall of the evangelical empire -you only get one shot at a first introduction for such an important character, and “Interlude” absolutely hammers it out of the park, as dynamic a combination of writing and performance by (the eternally incredibly talented) Jennifer Nettles.

“Interlude” offers a look at so many different shades of Aimee Leigh; as the family matriarch, the famous face of the burgeoning Gemstone empire, a sister, and a woman in her 40’s facing a difficult, unexpected pregnancy. In an episode with a lot already on its plate, the most impressive part of “Interlude” is how her character is brought to life; it’s hard to make a woman who manipulates poor people with cheap platitudes and displaced righteousness, but goddamnit, “Interlude” does it with nuanced grace, a highly unexpected (but entirely welcome) turn that nonetheless helps the many plot threads of the series find their harmony.

I mentioned Judy as another highlight; perhaps this one is more personal, as a one-time contender for “child in the family with the weirdest habits,” but where “Interlude” does so well is informing Judy’s character in the present. As the Gemstone family plans the future of their family business, she’s left to sit on the stairs alone, or be admonished for her stranger habits and indulgences; of course, this leads her to lash out, in the form of being an absolute bitch to her guests, during an elaborate birthday party thrown by her parents (perhaps as some sort of compensation for how intentionally excluded she is from the normal rhythms of the family).

The Righteous Gemstones Interlude

That party is the absolute highlight of the episode, the “pushing all the chips to the center of the table” moment for The Righteous Gemstones. While watching Judy piss and moan about the gifts she’s being given, Eli is admonished by his father for the people they’re turning into, tarnishing the humble legacy of their family name with extravagant gifts and exploitative practices. They talk about what Eli’s birthday used to look like (he’d usually get chores off for the day), leaving Eli to contemplate the generational chasm that inevitably forms in families, and how hard it can be to stay eternally loyal to the amorphous, irrational idea of what a family “should” be.

In typical Gemstones fashion, this leads to a drunk Jesse (thanks, Uncle Baby Billy!) getting shitfaced, puking on the hamburger grill while yelling at Eli about pissing on the face of his unborn sibling. But those moments of humor only act to illuminate the deeper conflicts The Righteous Gemstones is beginning to surface, ideas about legacy and loyalty that should illuminate characters like Kelvin, Judy, and Billy as Gemstones moves back into the present, and the temptations of power and money only continue to tear the inter generational bonds apart.

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Freaks and Geeks Episode 1 Review: “Pilot” Remains Iconic and Subversive

Our rewatch of Freaks and Geeks begins with the show’s infamous pilot episode.

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Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Even after twenty years, the opening minutes of Freaks and Geeks‘ first hour feel subversive; it opens on an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) on the bleachers, only to immediately shove them off-frame to introduce us to the “freaks” hanging out below. In one beautifully-crafted shot, “Pilot” sidesteps so many of the shows of its era, from big names like Dawson’s Creek, to other fare like Hang Time or USA High (both notable as female-led series airing in the late 1990’s). This wasn’t a show about the stress of winning regionals or melodramatic love triangles; Freaks and Geeks was interested in more fundamental truths about adolescence, about those formative years of life where elements of the real world begin to seep into the sugar-coated fictions of childhood. At its very core, it is about the infancy of identity, the beginning of the lifelong struggle to figure out who we are.

Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience.

The first characters we meet are the male freaks – who, ironically, would be the three actors who would become the biggest stars of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about the “edgy” Molly Hatchet t-shirt he wore to church. Daniel’s aghast at why the priest wouldn’t let him in: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.”

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Both an interesting framing device for it’s most complicated character (he’s wearing someone else’s shirt to form an identity, something we’ll see explored more later in the series) and an indictment on what the high school experience is like, writer Paul Feig’s opening lines are laser-focused on upsetting the stereotypes and expectations of what a high school story is; though many series of its ilk posited themselves as explorations of identity, few even attempted to explore the psychological (and existential) implications of high school in a way the first ten minutes of Freaks and Geeks quietly does.

From there, “Pilot” slowly begins to build out its expansive cast of characters, set against the backdrop of the first day back to school after summer vacation – one that just so happens to form a demarcation of the Weir children’s identities, as they begin to break out of the archetypal boxes placed on them by their class mates, teachers, and society as a whole. Seeking nuance where most shows would look to establish familiarity, it’s the little touches to Lindsey and Sam’s characters that flesh them out so magnificently; while there are certainly the familiar notes of “suddenly rebellious teen” and “nerd striving for more,” there’s great care built into the show’s two central protagonists. Lindsey suddenly wearing her father’s army coat, Sam’s absolute fear of any kind of emotional interaction… these notes are subtly surfaced throughout the first hour, and help establish an impressive ability to build characters, of which it would do so about a dozen times in the first hour (save for maybe Rogan’s Ken, who is just an insufferable douche in his few starring moments).

More importantly, Freaks and Geeks captures the poetic dichotomy of high school life: how every small personal or moral victory gained in the four years between middle school and college, is often met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders in painfully awkward fashion (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).

What remains impressive is how Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, or conflated those struggles with sentimentality for the space between a child’ts life and adulthood. It explicitly rejects that approach for something more contemplative, and in its unassuming honesty, something far more layered and exploratory.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She reveals she was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when her grandmother saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying.

“She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of a life? It’s a trauma most adults can hardly contend with, forget teenagers who barely know what their life will look like six months from now; “Pilot” places Lindsey squarely in the center of that essential internal conflict – and more importantly, observes just how ill-equipped the world around her is to answer her question, the well-meaning intentions of others, like her parents or Mr. Rosso, the school counselor ultimately empty, self-serving gestures to assuage their own fears (or in Rosso’s case, trying to win the academic decathlon).

It’s a rather unconventional approach to take for a high school series, to immediately marginalize many of the events it contains – particularly those of the “geeks”, and their fear of bullies – dismissing the typical high school narratives as the vapid pieces of work they are. Like a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused (or a predecessor to Linklater’s other young adult masterpiece, Everybody Wants Some), the typical high school experience is but a lens for more meaningful explorations of character and identity, and not the other way around.

It’s even more unconventional for a high school series to center itself on a young woman, one not concerned with boys, popularity, or some strange intersection of the two: Lindsey’s conflicts are decidedly internal, rejecting the empty sense of accomplishment garnered from her intelligence and achievement in competition. She’s still young and naive – her visible crush on Daniel’s freewheeling approach to life a clear sign – but she’s both in control of her emotions, and isn’t dismissed as a superficial entity, as so many other high school shows would do with their central female characters (I’m looking at you, Gossip Girl). She’s not a cheerleader or an Ugly Betty; she’s Lindsey Weir, a complicated, confused person trying to find her way – Freaks and Geeks‘ ability to personify her, without judging or manipulating her into a stereotype, is still a fascinating thing to deconstruct.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

Another reason Freaks and Geeks remains an all-time favorite of mine is how this approach is eventually applied to every character in the series,big or small. Though this isn’t necessarily conveyed effectively in the first hour (after all, it’s only 49 minutes, which leaves little room for characters like Millie or Ken to be developed), but as the series continues, Feig’s signature becomes defining a set of archetypes by breaking down and redefining the stereotypes it employs. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy tells Sam and company when they’re seeking options to solve their bully problem, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and one it would further expand on, in later episodes like “Chokin’ and Tokin'”.

Oddly, the part of “Pilot” Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which later serves another purpose, when they share a dance and Freaks and Geeks reminds us just how trivial and easily solved so many dramatic high school moments can be).

Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest, often leading to overt platitudes, forced emotional moments, or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside in its final minutes to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud backing track, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes any room I’m in extremely dusty when watching it.

Freaks and Geeks Pilot

It really can’t be understated the use of “Come Sail Away” in this scene; as the song’s ludicrous lyrics ebb and flow through the ever-changing instrumentation, Freaks and Geeks uses its licensed music in “Pilot” as a parallel for the series to follow. So often Freaks and Geeks would take the normal, almost operatic approach to high school conflict, and re-contextualize it, immediately undercutting the expected conflicts to tug away at the deeper truths forming during those times, transforming moments we’ve seen so many times before, into uniquely moving, haunting pieces of contemplative art.

We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are few blemishes of failed story lines, and no time for controversial cast changes or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it. Even if there’s nothing waiting for us in the end, Freaks and Geeks argues that the journey of discovery is worth the trip itself, as long as we’re suffering through it all together.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to our 20th anniversary Freaks and Geeks celebration! I’m going through all my original Sound on Sight/PopOptiq reviews from back in 2013, re-examining each episode and expanding each of my original pieces on the series over the next two weeks.
  • Seriously, if you’ve never seen the closing sequence of “Pilot,” it is perhaps my favorite five-minute sequence of television. Watch it.
  • Nobody ever knows how to say Neal’s last name correctly.
  • the dodgeball scene is pure art.
  • Mr. Ross makes a great point to Lindsey about her relative privilege; her biggest concern is being sentenced by her prosperous family to attend a homecoming dance, a bit of sorely-needed perspective so many other genre counterparts willingly ignore.
  • Among other things, Nick’s drum kit has 2 gongs, 10 cowbells, 12 toms… and four kick drums, as overwrought and useless as it sounds. It’s construction does a lot to explain the comment he makes earlier about shop being the only class he can pass, though.
  • It’s difficult to watch Eli’s character through the pilot: in a series that often explores the lack of genuine support systems for its characters (and how fundamentally important it can be to healthy development), seeing Eli struggles to exist and be accepted are heart wrenching.
  • Between Freaks and Geeks and Other Space, Paul Feig is behind two of my favorite “why the fuck did they cancel these after a single season” series.
  • Bill asks Neal a poignant question about his bullying: “What’s the point of all this?” Alan doesn’t have an answer, so of course, he compensates with his aggression. We’ll learn more about where that comes from later on.
  • Sam’s “that could be good” when Cindy says she’ll save a dance for him… it is awkward perfection, a perfect showcase of how well-casted John Francis Daley is in the role.
  • Nick talks about how much disco sucks, and Bill threatens someone who makes a joke about dating his mom… even though it is only the first episode, Freaks and Geeks is smartly planting seeds for future episodes to germinate in fascinating ways.
  • Neal suggests enlisting Kim to beat up Alan after she intimidates the hell out of Sam – probably not a terrible idea.
  • Bill just wishes his mom would leave notes inside his lunch, instead of writing them in ink on the front of the bag, giving him the “Little Man” moniker he is frequently mocked with.
  • “Should I wear a cup for this?” “That’s between you and your God, Bill.”
  • I always forget how much the opening credits of this show fucking rock.
  • “For the record, I weigh 103 pounds.” Line kills me every time.
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TV

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is a Superlative 30 for 30 Documentary

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Dennis Rodman in "Rodman: For Better or Worse"

The question of whether a professional athlete who supposedly causes a lot of trouble off the field or in the locker room is worth the trouble for his team — and the accompanying question of whether such framing is fair to the athlete after all — remains frequent in professional sports discourse. At pretty much all times, that debate is being had about one sports star or another. Throughout the 1990s, the most frequent subject of such discussion was NBA forward Dennis Rodman. He’s in the basketball Hall of Fame, was on five NBA championship teams, and is generally considered one of the best rebounders in the history of the game. 

He was also once referred to, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as “the NBA’s weirdest player,” and probably made more headlines in his career for his various antics than for what he did on the court. He dated Madonna. He cross-dressed, hinted that he was gay, and once “married himself” while wearing a full wedding dress. He joined pro wrestling’s NWO. He had ugly divorces from multiple NBA teams (and from multiple women), and after retirement, he befriended North Korean dictator — and supposed Bulls fan — Kim Jong Un, claiming credit for his subsequent summits with the president. 

Now, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has released a documentary about Rodman, titled “Rodman: For Better Or Worse.”  Directed by Todd Kapostasy, the husband of figure skater Tara Lipinski, the film goes through the entire history of the man known as “The Worm,” from his troubled youth up through his career, his many controversies, and his post-retirement life. It’s a fair, accurate and balanced depiction of Rodman that understands why he was a significant figure in NBA history, but also doesn’t let him off the hook for some of his antics. For instance, the film has no interest in making excuses for the North Korea stuff, or for the time Rodman kicked a cameraman for no reason during a game. 

To its credit, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” cares about Rodman’s actual on-court game, and why it was important and revolutionary. He was a dominant rebounder who hardly ever shot or scored — the the type of player who might not have a place in today’s game, when rebounding matters a lot less. And yet Rodman was a significant player, part of the Detroit “Bad Boys” teams (subject of their own 30 for 30 a few years ago), as well as the first contending David Robinson teams in San Antonio and the second cycle of championships of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. His career concluded with ill-fated stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” is far from a pure hagiography and apology. For one thing, it includes footage of Rodman’s adult daughter revealing that her father was hardly ever around for her childhood. This evokes shades of the Ric Flair 30 for 30, which had as a primary takeaway that the wrestling legend was a terrible father. The film also goes into the incident where Rodman considered suicide when he played for Detroit, and indicates that the player has battled mental illness and substance abuse throughout his life. 

“Rodman: For Better or Worse” mostly leans on media members as talking heads, although there’s also some presence of his former teammates. John Salley is all over the film, while Isiah Thomas and David Robinson appear briefly, with Thomas even walking off camera while crying. The producers were also able to land the big fish — Michael Jordan — who doesn’t do this sort of thing often. (And in traditional Jordan fashion, he has nothing of note to say.) 

All of that works, but there’s one thing in particular that doesn’t. For some reason, weird metatextual touches that accompany an intrusive narration by Jamie Foxx are tacked on at points. Not only are the touches a bit too cute, but the film doesn’t even commit to them. It’s also not exactly clear why footage of the Broadway production of Oklahoma! needed to be used to demonstrate that Rodman lived in Oklahoma. 

The 30 for 30 series began ten years ago next month as an ambitious series of documentaries meant to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary, while encroaching on HBO’s then-dominant position in sports documentaries. A decade on, 30 for 30 isn’t quite as ambitious. There are only five or six of them each year, they’re no longer being made by famous directors (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson made some of the early films), and seemingly half of them somehow involve the University of Miami football team. At their best, they look back on sports stories you probably barely remember, and do them justice. These includes docs like Big Shot, the 2013 story about how a guy named John Spano lied about having money so he could buy the New York Islanders. There’s also the following year’s The Day The Series Stopped, about the earthquake that disrupted the 1989 World Series. At worst, there’s ridiculous stuff like where Deion Sanders talks about the time he played both baseball and football on the same day — which probably doesn’t crack the top ten of intriguing stories from Sanders’ sports career. 

Occasionally 30 for 30 gets super-ambitious, like with the Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America from 2016, and 2017’s Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies; and they’re doing it again next year, with a long documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams on which Rodman played.  The show also has branched into podcasts, including a terrific recent series about the fall of racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. “Rodman: For Better or Worse” isn’t quite up to those heights, but it’s still a winning entry. 

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