Friday, May 4, 2018

Reflections on a Video Binge

To celebrate my acquisition of a flat-screen TV, the first tubeless boob tube I have ever owned after several years with no television of any kind in my home, I browsed the Walmart DVD aisle. Actually, "browsed" isn't quite accurate. I made a close study of practically every movie or TV show on display. I finally picked two movies: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Stronger.

I won't belabor my review of the movies. I have already written about Fantastic Beasts, and the fact that I bought it on DVD after seeing it in the theater says pretty much all that I need to add to my first review.

I recently read the book on which Stronger was based, and I thought it was all right for a ghostwritten memoir that one can find on a supermarket newsstand, where one can't expect to find anything of really high literary quality. (Something Ursula Le Guin said about the books sold at airport newsstands suddenly comes to mind—but rather than quote it here, I'll remind you that you really need to read her book Changing Planes. Wouldn't it be funny if you find it at the airport?)
About the film I will only add that it struck me as being, texturally and emotionally, as nearly as possible totally unrecognizable from the source book while telling basically the same story. I didn't get the "inspiring story about a reluctant hero" vibe from the movie that I got from the book. It was more on the order of "depressing story about a complete loser." It makes you wonder which version of the story is closer to reality. If Jeff Bauman felt flattered by Jake Gyllenhaal's depiction of him, I would guess the film; if not, the book. I hope it's the book, because the book kind of moved and uplifted me, but the movie just got me down. So down, in fact, that I went back to Walmart to buy more shows to take my mind off it.

So, I got Season 1 of two TV series: Midnight, Texas and Trollhunters. In a succession of evenings after work, I have binge-watched them in that order.

Midnight, Texas is a paranormal horror/romance/mystery series based on novels by Charlaine Harris, whose True Blood novels also spawned a TV series. Perhaps amazingly, I haven't read any of her books, nor have I seen either TV series before now. I didn't recognize any of the actors in this show, so I won't indulge in my usual name-dropping, but it has an attractive and mostly effective cast. The show depicts a remote town whose (insert New Age babble) makes it popular with supernatural characters, including a vampire, a witch, a weretiger, a fallen angel and his mellowed demon boyfriend—these days, it's supposed to be the angel/demon bit that shocks you. The point-of-view character is a spirit medium who was raised by his clairvoyant grandma (now a ghost tethered to their RV) and who is apparently destined to save the town from falling straight through a crack into hell. There are "normal" people in the story, too, but they have issues of their own—like the female assassin who has an energy-leeching relationship with the vampire, the waitress whose teenage brother turns out to be a serial killer (Oops! Spoilers!) and the studly pawnshop owner whose fiancee turns up murdered in Episode 1. In spite of conflicts between them, this group of characters basically evolves into a family, standing up together against the increasingly nasty threats that roll into town every week.

Adult and Occult Content Warnings are in full force. Solution to the danger facing a virgin whom a demon wants as his consort? Deflower her! Method of showing tough love when the kid brother (previously a nice enough kid, up to that episode) proves to be a psychopath? Snap his neck! Strategem to deal with the boss demon who wants to turn Midnight into a staging area for Armageddon? Get demon-possessed and shoot evil energy at him, Harry Potter wand-duel style (only without wands). It's a pretty dark story, kept watchable mainly by the expectation that somebody's shirt will come off at least once per episode. But what's the biggest thing I took away from this series? I'll come back to that in a bit.

Trollhunters, from DreamWorks Animation, is created by Guillermo del Toro, who directed Blade II, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II, Pacific Rim and last year's The Shape of Water, which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. It revolves around a teenage boy from Arcadia, Calif. named Jim Lake Jr., voiced for the first two seasons by the late Anton Yelchin (sob!) and in Season 3 by Emile Hirsch. The voice cast also includes Kelsey Grammer (best known as TV's "Fraser"), Jonathan Hyde (who played Van Pelt in the original Jumanji), Ron Perlman (who was Del Toro's "Hellboy"), Tom Hiddleston (Marvel's "Loki," though in a role recast after the pilot), Clancy Brown, Anjelica Huston and (in later seasons) Mark Hamill.

It's a dark fantasy in which an ordinary kid is thrust into the role of protector of an entire race of magical beings who live under a bridge in his hometown, while they are menaced by an evil troll from the shadow realm, a conspiracy of changelings (which here means "trolls who were swapped with human babies") and hordes of savagely dangerous, though also slightly silly, goblins. Jim's own history teacher, later principal of his high school, is one of the enemy—and at the same time, a fiendish love interest for his single mom, a doctor who knows nothing about all this. His best friends are the chubby kid across the street, a cute girl whose brother has been swapped with a changeling, and two or three trolls who are misfits even among their own kind. In spite of at first knowing nothing about fighting, Jim has to stop the return of the evil troll Gunmar, survive the menace of a warlock assassin, and (eventually) rescue little Enrique from the dark trolls' changeling nursery.

In spite of being chopped up into half-hour bites, the 26-episode first season is a terrific thrill ride, full of humor, action, scariness, a bit of romance, and a complex web of character relationships that really work. The dialogue is great. The acting is terrific. The art work is magnificent. The animation is mostly pretty good and sometimes superb. Not for nothing did this program win seven Daytime Emmys (including two for writing, one for directing, and a performance award for Grammer) and set a record as the most successful Netflix original program for kids.

But now I get to the topic I really wanted to write about: how these series depict the family. In a sense, both series depict an oddball group of unrelated characters coming together as a sort of family in a dark fantasy setting. In fact, there are lines of dialogue in both series that acknowledge this, like "We're family," etc. That's all very nice, I'm sure.

As for actual families, however, I detected a difference between the two shows. In Midnight, the only prominently featured family units are: (1) a female assassin who is worried about her estranged father's efforts to track her down, after he abandoned her to a life of child trafficking; (2) a clairvoyant guy who was raised by his gypsy medium grandma, since his mom abandoned him as a child, and who mainly learned to be con-man; (3) a gypsy father whose controlling nature, and his willingness to sell his daughter's hand in marriage, drove her to suicide; (4) a witchy aunt who takes in her witchy niece and shows her the ropes after the niece's parents get fed up with her; (5) a guy who ran away from his white supremacist family after they committed an act of domestic terrorism; (6) a gangster who sends his wife to seduce another man in order to spy on him, whereupon she actually falls in love with the rube and they get engaged (while she's still married, mind); and (7) a waitress who tells her father she never wants to see him again after she realizes he's been using her to help keep her serial killer kid brother in check; and meanwhile, she went from caring deeply about the kid to not being terribly upset to see him put down like a rabid dog in a matter of minutes.

These examples don't just add up to a negative depiction of real families. They are part of a depiction of a reality in which a natural families are practically non-existent. They are the only exceptions to an apparent rule that none of the characters ever think or care about their real families. They are background noise in a signal advertising a world in which the family is meaningless.

Now, compare that to Trollhunters, Season 1. Sure, Jim Lake Sr. walked out on wife Barbara and son Jim Jr. But mom and son are really devoted to each other. Even when their relationship is strained, it is depicted as a real and valuable relationship. Sure, Jim Jr.'s best friend Toby lives with his grandma, though only because something "happened" to his parents (never specified, to my recollection). And though Toby spends a lot of time sneaking around behind his grandma's back, he also cares about her so much that even when she drives him crazy, he only has to think about how much he loves her to regain his patience. The hero girl has both of her parents, and even though she and changeling "Not-Enrique" grow to accept each other as a sort of family, she remains devoted to getting the real Enrique back. Some father-son pairs of trolls are depicted in the series: at least one that is evil and one good. But even the evil pair is devoted to each other, and the good pair share a bond of regret that the dad troll's career (as the Trollhunter before Jim) meant they couldn't be closer. So, even while acknowledging that not all families are intact with both parents still together, and parents and kids have serious issues to work through, etc., the show essentially depicts a reality in which moms, dads and siblings are important to one another.

Another interesting difference between the two shows goes to the issue of character. Though both groups of hero characters come to feel a kind of family bond connecting them, I think the ones in Midnighters show at the same time a group of self-involved personalities who don't readily trust others.

To some extent, they grow in this area during Season 1. For example, the Rev (a clergyman of unspecified denomination, who also happens to be a supernatural being) confesses late in the season that he has come a long way from being socially dislocated to feeling himself to be part of the family. Manfred, the clairvoyant POV character, takes an inventory of his personal shortcomings and works to overcome them. Bobo, the guy on the run from the white supremacists, admits that he misses his mom and the family's Thanksgiving dinner, etc. And amazingly (Spoiler!!), the season ends with a wedding.

Nevertheless, it's a group of people who are prepared to kill to keep their little enclave of weirdness safe from the outside world—even, if necessary, to kill some of their own. They are so inured to unnatural death (understandably, since it is constantly happening around them) that it doesn't faze them much. Don't expect anything resembling a qualm of sexual morality to cross their minds. They don't want anything bad to happen to the normal people in town, and the Rev in particular doesn't want to hurt anyone, but they are still, at the end of the day (or night), a group that includes a vampire, an assassin, and a guy who can stomp the @#$% out of a jail cell full of outlaw bikers when the sheriff's deputy throws him in there to teach him a lesson. OK, that last one was cool.

On the flip side, observe the people and trolls of Arcadia. They're not perfect. Sometimes their impulses run away with them. But in general, they model the virtues of courage, loyalty, friendship, honor and self-sacrifice that I think could inspire young viewers to practice the same.

The scene that "made it for me" is the one in which Jim Jr. tells Graal, the troll who guards his home, while being scolded for risking his life to save one of his friends, "I would do the same for you." The one-second reaction on the animated troll's face was the most eloquent moment of acting I saw in half a week of binge DVD watching—an expression of moved surprise. I actually got choked up. The basic decency practiced by Jim Lake Jr., even when it is heckled by some of the other characters as a weakness, is one of the things that can make fantasy a tonic for the soul.

But there are many other examples. The initially antagonistic trolls Graal and Vendel are gradually won over by the very special boy Jim Jr. is. The mostly evil changeling/teacher Strickler develops real feelings for Barbara. The doomed troll AAARRRGGHH!!! develops a touching friendship with Toby. Toby's pet gnome, Gnome Chompsky, risks life and limb in an attempt to find the real Enrique in the shadow realm. Not-Enrique, though mischievous, grows more genuinely attached to his "sister" Claire and proves helpful in some crucial battles. Even the warlock-assassin Angor Rot shows a glint of a sympathetic something; as villainous as he becomes, there are moments when the possibility that he may have been otherwise elicits a moment of pity.

What I'm basically saying is that I would love watching further adventures of Jim Lake Jr. and his friends, for the sake of the story itself, the beauty of the world where it takes place, and the variety of characters in it. On the other hand, I would mainly recommend Midnight, Texas to someone whose fantasy is of a world, however dark it may be, populated entirely by sexy 20-somethings who have trouble keeping their clothes on.

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