If you didn’t catch “My Struggle III,” the first episode of season 11 of The X-Files, you missed a stunning transformation.

Apparently, Fox Mulder has turned into Philip Marlowe.

There’s plenty not to like (as Daniel Kurland points out in an extended critique over at Bloody Disgusting) about this opening episode, but to me the most cringe-worthy decision was to have David Duchovny launch into several voice-over monologues as his character is driving to track down the Cigarette Smoking Man. Such sudden and protracted narration creates a jarring note in and of itself, and the actual content of Mulder’s expressed thoughts makes these scenes that much more difficult to sit through. His lines sound incredibly stilted, as he frames what is at stake and poses a series of questions to himself (Kurland’s article cites the following passage as a prime example of Mulder’s purple turn: “I was running only on adrenaline and Scully’s premonitions, but was it hope I should be feeling, or fear that Scully’s right and that a man that I had come to despise, my own father, was alive? And if he were, he had become mad with power.” ). If the writing here were any lazier, Mulder would be in danger of going comatose behind the wheel. Not since Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun has there been such laughable use of hard-boiled voice-over; the problem is, the audience is meant to take Mulder’s words seriously.

Critics who screened the first half of season 11 have reassured despairing fans that subsequent (monster- rather than mythology-based) episodes do get much better. So there is hope that The X-Files can go down swinging in what appears to be its final round. Based solely on the premiere episode, though, the show looks like a washed-up fighter who unretires to chase one last payday and ends up giving a legacy-tarnishing and utterly embarrassing performance.

Dead Wrong

These days, the Internet is riddled with fanboy rants (“This show sucks!”) and media critics’ alarmist (and largely click-baiting) articles about the declining ratings of The Walking Dead. While I don’t have a lot of patience for such rhetoric, I will admit that AMC’s hit zombie series has gone into decline. Rather than just take potshots, though, I would like to consider why the show has gotten off track. I offer the following half-dozen reasons:

  • The ensemble has gotten too numerable. As TWD plays out its “All Out War” storyline this season, the show finds itself juggling too many characters (in too many different locales). Major figures end up being cast aside for weeks on end. When they do reappear, they are prone to unconvincing speechifying (about topics of suddenly vital personal import) or stupid decisions that land them in peril (e.g. Aaron and Enid’s ill-advised excursion to recruit Oceanside–the very group of women that has had their weapons previously stolen by Rick’s forces). In seasons past, TWD has thrived in its depiction of the moment-to-moment struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world; this season, it seems more preoccupied in setting up its various characters for Dramatic Moments.
  • This “All Out War” is a little too Tolkienesque for this writer’s comfort. TWD is striving too hard for epic grandeur with its collision of battling factions (the gravitas of King Ezekial’s arc is also reminiscent of Theoden’s withdrawn moping in The Two Towers). Accordingly, an opportunity for grim and gritty realism–the inglorious gore of warfare–has been missed.
  • Negan’s the reason. Even those who find his dialogue tiresome and juvenile cannot deny that Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a commanding performance as the smiley sociopath. But the problem is, Negan is so colorful, he ends up overshadowing the other characters and making them appear drab by comparison. At the same time, it’s hard to get too invested in Negan, as the audience knows this archvillain is destined to be defeated.
  • The Trash (People) buildup is a mounting problem. These refugees from a bad 80’s sci-fi movie are jarringly out of place in the world of TWD. Their existence is nonsensical, from their strange speech patterns (as ridiculous as King Ezekiel might come across at times, at least there is a rationale for his affected rhetoric) to the head-scratching choice to live in junkyard squalor. To its credit, TWD is always trying to push the envelope of originality, but the show arguably has gone too far with this tribe of exotic squatters.
  • TWD has gotten carried away with a modernist storytelling approach, in which the timeline is fragmented and the narrative backtracks and overlaps. At best, this causes a loss of immediacy; at worst (as seems to be the case this season) it results in viewer confusion and an overall disjointed feel to the proceedings. The show might be best served by following a more linear trajectory, and flashing back selectively for special episodes (such as Season 6’s “Here’s Not Here”).
  • Lastly, in the midst of “All Out War,” TWD seems to have forgotten about its eponymous monsters. In the mid-season finale, I counted a single walker shambling around (perhaps the undead were downplayed throughout to make Carl’s closing reveal that much more shocking). Some of the best aspects of the war narrative thus far were the siege tactics Rick & company employed to surround the Sanctuary with walkers; alas, even that came to an abrupt (and thus far off-screen) end. TWD would be wise to remember that its rotten populace serves as more than mere background noise or hand-cannon fodder.

In all honesty, I still find TWD to be an enjoyable show, and am sure to tune in weekly. Still, I cannot deny the recent decline in overall quality. Hopefully, things can turn around again, and the current stumble doesn’t lead to an all-out sprawl.

The Allure of Lore

Aaron Mahnke’s popular podcast Lore has grown into a multimedia phenomenon, recently expanding into a book series and a six-episode anthology series streaming on Amazon Prime. It is this televisual incarnation that I would like to briefly address here, focusing on its various attractions.

What do viewers get beyond the merely auditory experience of the podcast? For starters, there is some incredibly creepy animation on display (both in the show’s title sequence and within the episodes themselves), presenting unconventional imagery worthy of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, or Tim Burton. Interspersed photos and video clips meanwhile add an arresting realism to the proceedings, providing glimpses of crime scenes or outre events (e.g. the radio-broadcast attempt to contact Harry Houdini via seance).

The episodes’ most distinctive feature, though, is their use of dramatic reenactments. These creations have all the haunting atmosphere, jolting scares, and production value of a full-length horror film. Fans of Magic or Annabelle are sure to squirm delightfully when watching the story of Key West’s legendary malevolent doll Robert (a figure who makes Chucky look like Strawberry Shortcake).

The dramatizations are also expertly paced, as they build to moments of heightened suspense and then cut away to the narrating Mahnke’s insightful commentary or segue into interpolated coverage of related topics/stories. One thing thankfully missing here, it should be noted, is the podcast’s breakaway to commercials, with Mahnke spending considerable time hawking sponsored products.

The Amazon series might not be well-suited for binge watching; smaller, periodic bites are apt to be relished most. A pattern does emerge, though, when the episodes are screened in close sequence. Again and again, we witness people, driven by desperation or derangement, commit disturbing acts against their closest and most beloved kin. While Lore (which deals in witches and werewolves, revenants and changelings) more than slakes viewers’ thirst for knowledge of the macabre and offbeat, it also serves to remind us that the most frightening monsters are those that hide within the human psyche.

Can Things Get Any Stranger Than This?

After some belated, post-Thanksgiving binging, I have finally finished Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. This new batch (Gremlins reference intended) of episodes was very well done, and transformed me into one thoroughly satisfied viewer. At the same time, though, I was plagued with concern at season’s end, because I can’t help but wonder: is Stranger Things henceforth doomed to diminishing returns?

The show’s sophomore effort adeptly (and no doubt self-conconsciously) follows the Alien to Aliens trajectory: the blight is more widespread, and a singular menace expands into a multitude of monstrous antagonists. And just as Sigourney Weaver’s explosive heroics at the end of the second film seem to shut the door on LV-426’s alien-infestation problem, Eleven’s climactic closing of the gate (mending the plot-inciting rift she accidentally created back in Season 1) in the finale appears to draw the two-season story arc to its logical endpoint. At least until the just-when-you-though-it-was-over final shot shows the shadow of the Mind Flayer still looming over Hawkins. But if the coming seasons of Stranger Things continue to reach out with Lovecraftian tentacles and the same cosmic-horror Sturm und Drang, could viewers grow fed up with the Upside Down? The dilemma here is that if the show actually takes the story in a whole new direction, it inevitably does so at the risk of believability, since its hard to imagine something else significantly paranormal just happening to be visited upon the same small town in the middle of the Indianan nowhere.

Season 2 repeatedly recurs to the previous year’s episodes, sounding variations on established themes. For instance, Upside-Down-linked Christmas lights festooned the Byers’ house last season; this time around, it’s a mosaic of crayon drawings that aids Joyce’s attempt to rescue her son Will from otherworldly clutches. But can Stranger Things keep dipping into the same well? At what point do such callbacks have to be called formulaic? When does familiar imagery (I’m looking at you, blood-dripping-from-Eleven’s-nostril) start to become cliched and uninteresting?

The nostalgic feel of the series is undeniably a big factor in its success, and timely pop cultural references are just as plentiful in Season 2. Again, though, I worry that this can’t last. My concern isn’t that the writers will run out of 80’s source material to invoke, but that the expectation of such allusive maneuvers (the Internet is inundated with enumerations of Stranger Things’ movie/music/Stephen King references) will cause the Easter eggs to grow too numerous and distractingly overt rather than subtly dispersed.

Perhaps my biggest fear is that Stranger Things will lose dramatic steam if it continues to allow its cast to survive dire straits. Call it the X-Files factor: the weekly jeopardy that Scully and Mulder were placed in failed to be terribly moving, because there was little doubt that the duo would be right back on the case in the next episode. Conversely, The Walking Dead creates maximal tension because the audience is painfully aware that any character, of any age, can go at any time (for me, the fate of Sophia remains one of the biggest gut-punches that show ever threw). Will Stranger Things ever have the courage–and the green light from Netflix–to kill off someone other than a minor (adult) character or a Hawking Lab spear-carrier?

Lastly, time does not appear to be on the side of the producers of Stranger Things. As can already be seen in Season 2, the show’s young actors are maturing rapidly. They are likely to be approaching puberty’s far border by the time Season 3’s episodes roll around. At that point, will these characters still strike viewers as cute and lovable, as vulnerable? As Mike and company move from middle school to high school, will their nerdy activities continue to be endearing or start to feel awkward to behold?

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeonly critic or doomsayer. To date, the Duffer Brothers have given us no reason whatsoever to doubt their storytelling prowess, so it’s not inconceivable that they will masterfully navigate any potential obstacles in the show’s ongoing path. I am holding out hope that my concerns will prove unfounded, and that Stranger Things will furnish more episodes of the same high quality, yet also marked by an entertaining difference.

Now You Know Poe

The latest episode of PBS’s American Masters series, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive points a corrective lens at an author who is ever-popular yet has been long misrepresented/misunderstood (thanks in no small part to the character assassination performed by literary nemesis Rufus Griswold, and to Poe’s own crafty adoption of an offbeat public persona). Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the 90-minute documentary is stuffed with commentary by Poe biographers and scholars, film directors and novelists. The true highlights, though, are the interspersed scenes in which a Poe-impersonating Denis O’Hare performs monologues or equally-dramatic readings (the actor might not cut quite as striking a figure as John Astin did in his earlier “Once Upon a Midnight” one-man shows, but he does superlative work in bringing classic Poe creations such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Raven” to life). Writer/director Eric Stange’s film excels both in its placement of Poe’s life and work within the historical context of the first half of the 19th Century and in its exploration of the psyche of the unfortunate and often-tormented writer. If there’s one shortcoming here, it’s that Buried Alive conducts the postmortem of Poe posthaste; more time could have been devoted to delving into the mystery of Poe’s death, weighing the various theories as to what actually befell him and taking an interpretive stance. Nevertheless, this is an undeniably enlightening biography of the dark scribe, and the viewer will be left thinking of Poe as just some deranged, depraved drunkard nevermore.

Still Great at XXVIII

Happily, the latest edition of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween episode, “Treehouse of Horror,” was no “Doh!”

The intro, “The Sweets Hereafter,” offered some wonderful CGI eye candy. Like a trick-or-treater’s tote bag, this quick scene brimmed with assorted delights: the visual (Maggie as a ring pop) and verbal puns (“Barterfinger,” “Kit-Kang,” “Peppermint Selma”) the show is so well-known for. I actually had to hit pause in order to take in all the clever jokes stuffing that candy bowl. Homer’s cannibalistic attack on a fellow chocolate–a world-weary Easter bunny–also hinted nicely at the carnage to come in the episode’s closing segment.

An iconic horror film received a long-overdue spoofing in the first segment, “The Exor-Sis.” There was some witty cultural satire (the Pazuzu statuette shipped as a baby gift from Amazon; Maggie’s growl of “Go Daddy!” upon being dispossessed), genuine silliness (Lenny’s lament of “Aw, she’s got red eye” after trying to capture the image of the demonized Maggie with his cell phone), as well as gleefully graphic violence (Maggie stabbing Dr. Hibbert in the throat with a baby thermometer). Perhaps the episode’s wickedest bit of humor came when the summoned exorcist insisted Maggie be unbound, reassuring the family, “If you can’t trust a Catholic priest with a child, who can you trust?”

“Coralisa” featured a terrific call back to the previous segment, as Maggie–still dealing with a “touch of Pazuzu”–spewed green goo all over the kitchen on two separate occasions. Although the content of the segment wasn’t the most riveting, it did boast some arresting, and creepy, animation (after passing through her bedroom wall to an alternate dimension, Lisa broke the fourth wall by knowingly proclaiming, “For a Halloween show middle segment, this is amazing!”). Coraline author Neil Gaiman also gave the segment a clever turn, as the droll voice of Snowball V.

“Mmm…Homer,” in which the Simpsons patriarch discovered the culinary splendor of auto-cannibalism, formed one of the grisliest bits in the history of “Treehouse” (no wonder that Lisa forewarned in a pre-segment p.s.a, “What you’re about to see is so disgusting, you’ll watch Game of Thrones to calm down”). The segment presented a smorgasbord of gore seasoned with black humor, starting with a barbecued finger as hors d’ouevre. I couldn’t control my laughter viewing the unabashed twistedness here, the sight gags (Homer’s brain being small enough to fit on a cracker like pink pate), the puns (fast food restaurants rechristened El Pollo Homo and Fatso Bell), the hilarious dialogue (when asked why he sported a pair of oven mitts on his hands, the self-maiming Homer claimed, “Well, I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and thought I could be more elegant”).

With its visually stunning Halloween-scene intro, its instant classic of a closing segment, and sharp humor and horror throughout, the latest entry in the “Treehouse” series proved that XXVIII is anything but enough already.

Prints of Darkness: American Gothic Impresses

CBS’s 13-episode series American Gothic (not to be confused with the more supernaturally-oriented drama of the same title that ran on the network for one season in 1995-1996) enjoyed neither critical acclaim nor hit ratings during its Summer 2016 run; dismissive commentators and disinterested viewers, though, jointly missed an entertaining and well-executed dark crime narrative.

From its opening scene, American Gothic lives up to its genre-asserting title: a ceiling collapse in the Eiffert Tunnel uncovers the belt used by the notorious (and never apprehended) Silver Bells Killer, a strangler who terrorized Boston for several years a decade and a half earlier. Sins of the past come to ominous light, as the bloodstained murder weapon implicates the patriarch of an upper-crust New England family (unsubtly surnamed the Hawthornes) that appears to be closeting more skeletons than Spirit Halloween in the offseason. Much of the subsequent action is centered in the Hawthorne mansion (which features a winding staircase that proves integral to the storyline), and the show also recurs to other prominent American Gothic settings—the woods, a cornfield—for further macabre doings. Recalling The House of the Seven Gables, the show sounds the theme of the generational curse, as father Mitch’s seeming transgressions cast a haunting shadow over his family’s lives, threatening, for example, to derail the mayoral campaign of daughter Alison. The Hawthorne children repeatedly fret about a deviant gene passed down the bloodline (is suspected serial killer Mitch’s grandson Jack just precocious, or a prepubescent sociopath?), but environment must also be considered as a corrupting influence. It’s interesting to note how, in unrepressed retrospect, son Cam’s adult struggles with heroine addiction trace back to a deadly household scene from his teenage years.

Cooking up more than soap-y melodrama, American Gothic exhibits an appreciable level of cleverness. It gives several fresh and intriguing twists to the hoary serial-killer plot.  From week to week, the “wavering finger of suspicion” (to borrow literary theorist Northrop Frye’s phrase) is adroitly wielded; even when characters eventually are exposed as killers, surprising turns of the screw are then given to their motivations. The series also offers intelligent subtext, as each episode’s titular and visual echoes of an American painting (e.g., Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field) point to a dark undercurrent running through the nation’s art history.

Incidentally, American Gothic fails to restage the Grant Wood painting from which it draws its name, perhaps because the rustic couple depicted on that canvas have since become so iconic, any invocation of them would prove too distracting. The graphic from the show’s title sequence (see above) transforms a quaint-if-pretentious Iowa homestead into a palatial estate, but nonetheless manages to tap into hints of the sinister in the Wood work. Notice how the mansion’s bloody roots suggest an inverted pitchfork.

I don’t want to misrepresent American Gothic as a picture-perfect effort. No doubt the show has its flaws. Alison’s husband Tom inexplicably disappears from the story (at the precise point when he should be considered a prime suspect in one of the murders), and the suspension of disbelief is strained as one character knowingly consorts with the relative of her father’s killer. Still, most of the strokes are deft ones. The grimness is offset by just the right amount of comic relief, such as that provided by pesty neighbor Phyllis in her perennial search for her missing cat Caramel. Virginia Madsen shines in her role as Madeline Hawthorne, devoted mother and keeper of dark family secrets. The actress gives a restrained yet multifaceted performance, and like the show overall, never descends into campiness. Ultimately, the murder-mystery-driven American Gothic satisfies the needs of the most ravenous binge-watcher, while also providing more substantive fare for those viewers determined to reflect on the artfulness of the creators’ endeavor.