Friday, February 11, 2011

Diane... Twin Peaks Is a Damn Fine Cup of Coffee

Twin Peaks created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Eric Da Re, Sherilyn Fenn, Harry Goaz, Michael Horse, Piper Laurie, Don Davis, Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, Kimmy Robertson, Russ Tamblyn and Kenneth Welsh.

Popularity is a subjective concept when it comes to television. There are mainstream TV shows that it seems like everyone is watching, such as Friends, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost and American Idol (hopefully, that'll be the only time I ever mention American Idol on this blog... except for just then, when I mentioned it a second time). Others have large viewerships, but only appeal to certain niche audiences: Star Trek for sci-fi enthusiasts, True Blood for vampire aficionados, Desperate Housewives for those who enjoy night-time soap operas, Degrassi for teenagers, Saved By the Bell for the kitsch crowd and so forth.

And then there are those that attain cult followings—comparatively small, but passionate, highly dedicated fan bases who prefer series far outside the mainstream. Shows in this category tend to struggle when it comes to maintaining sufficient ratings to remain on the air, as a lot of people will inevitably either stop watching or never bother tuning in in the first place, believing such fare to be too eccentric, too esoteric, too out there, too unapproachable or just too weird. Some examples: Beauty and the Beast, Jericho, Alien Nation, Arrested Development, Firefly, The Prisoner and Spaced.

Twin Peaks also falls into that category. Twin Peaks is that category.

When this program aired on ABC from 1990 to 1991, I was not among its viewers. I was aware of it, of course—who wasn't, given all the hype over its iconic "Who killed Laura Palmer?" storyline? I heard talk of characters called the Log Lady, the Giant, the Man From Another Place and the One-Armed Man, and I was intrigued. I read TV Guide articles making a big deal out of Agent Cooper's love of cherry pie and his search for a "damn fine cup of coffee," and I was curious. I remember hearing the phrase "The owls are not what they seem," and I was confused. And I saw photos everywhere of Lara Flynn Boyle, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn and (particularly) Mädchen Amick, and I was male.

For whatever reason, I never tuned in. Still, I often wondered if I should have, as it sounded like a good fit for me. The series is frequently mentioned in articles about strange or cult TV programs, and I'm a major fan of Kyle MacLachlan, who (Showgirls aside) always elevates whatever projects he's working on, from Dune, Blue Velvet and The Doors to Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and even The Flintstones (a film I'm not afraid to admit I thought was hilarious).

So when I heard about Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition, containing the entire series, the long-missing pilot episode, a European cut of that pilot, MacLachlan's Saturday Night Live Twin Peaks spoof and the special "Log Lady Intros" filmed for Bravo's 1993 rebroadcast of the series, I decided it was time for me to bite the bullet. The only thing missing was the theatrical follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which I also picked up.

My intention with Twin Peaks was to watch an episode a day and write about it in this space. Knowing its reputation, I figured a one-hour daily dose of overt weirdness would be my limit anyway. But a funny thing happened: I couldn't stop watching. Instead of blogging about Twin Peaks—indeed, instead of blogging about anything, or spending any time writing my next book, which I was supposed to have been working on—I spent pretty much every spare moment I could find devouring Twin Peaks. In only a little over a week, I'd viewed all 30 episodes and Fire Walk With Me.

To quote Keanu Reeves, "Woah."

Right from the haunting and beautiful opening theme music from Angelo Badalamenti, played over serene footage of forestland, natural wildlife and wood-mill machinery, I was hooked. (You can view that intro here, by the way. They sure had long opening credits back then, didn't they? These days, it's just the word "LOST" and the sound of an airplane taking off.)

I began posting little asides about my Twin Peaks experience at my Facebook page, starting with a simple comment, "Rich Handley says... Twin Peaks just might be the weirdest TV show ever made." (My friend Steve, if he's reading this, will no doubt remind me that Facebook is evil. And he's right. But in this case, I'm glad I have an account, or else this particular blog entry wouldn't exist.) Apparently, many of my Facebook "friends" are fans of Twin Peaks as well, because 54 follow-ups were posted to that first comment over a two-day span.

Amused by the strong response, I kept posting additional comments, often snarky, and people kept replying; over the course of only one week, in fact, nearly 300 comments were posted to my Twin Peaks-related commentaries, including, to my delight, several by two of my favorite writers: Swamp Thing comic scribes Nancy A. Collins and Stephen R. Bissette.

With that in mind, I decided to plagiarize myself and present below some of the observations I made on Facebook. These are not all of my comments, nor do they necessarily flow together smoothly, and they're slightly edited for space constraints (or to fix grammatical errors), but I thought it would be good to capture them here for posterity since not a week goes by that I don't consider deactivating my Facebook account. I'll try to keep them relatively spoiler-free for those who haven't yet watched the series, but a small amount of spoilage is unavoidable, so beware.

Twin Peaks just gets weirder and weirder. I'm watching season 2 now, and I'm starting to wonder if someone slipped acid—hydrofluoric acid, not LSD—into the White Russian I drank earlier today.

• Season 2 of Twin Peaks is causing me to raise my eyebrows so high that they're starting to fill in my receding hairline.

• I'm still very much enjoying it, despite my frequent desire to smack myself in the face with a two-by-four—largely due to the performance of Kyle MacLachlan, who is absolutely brilliant as Agent Cooper. His tape-recorded messages for his assistant, Diane, are hilarious ("Diane, never drink coffee that has been anywhere near a fish." "Diane, I'm holding in my hands a small box of chocolate bunnies."), and I get such a chuckle out of the sheer glee in his face as he learns the name of a local tree, enjoys country cuisine and so forth.

• Watching this series has been like riding a bicycle through a hilly countryside. The mystery of Laura's murder unfolds, and I grin at the ride ahead. James and Donna come onscreen, however, and the road's pitch increases by 60 degrees, forcing me to pedal [Ed note: I actually wrote "peddle" on Facebook, much to my chagrin, so I'm fixing it here... it's my blog, damnit, and I'll resort to historical revisionism if I want to] harder to stay with it. Switch to Cooper, Truman and Hawk, and the pitch slopes back the other way, allowing me to coast breezily and enjoy the scenery. Then Bobby, Leo and Shelly take the spotlight, and suddenly, the road banks sharply uphill again, and stays that way until Ben, Jerry and Audrey take the stage, and then it's smooth, downhill sailing and a relaxing ride. But all of a sudden, just when I'm feeling the wind at my face and the freshly paved blacktop beneath my tires, BAM, Nadine and her inane super-strength grab the camera, and the road changes so unexpectedly that I find myself sitting in a ditch on the side of the road, watching my bent and punctured bicycle tire spin awkwardly with a cacophonous creak. Luckily, right about then, the Log Lady drives by, accompanied by Leland Palmer, a pair of owls, a dancing dwarf in a red leisure suit, an angelic Dutch giant, a one-armed man, and a maniac killer with a jean jacket and unkempt hair, and I realize that I'll be OK.

• This is a series I've always wanted to watch, as I've heard a lot of great things about it. I had no idea just how WEIRD it was, though. The acting style, the direction, the dialog, the little character moments, the music, the mood... it's all so odd and surreal—jarring and awkward, while at the same time sleepy and serene—as if something out of a dream born out of a long night of burrito consumption, following the conclusion of a three-day bout of feverish insomnia.

• Best thing about Twin Peaks: Leland Palmer—I love this guy! Worst thing about Twin Peaks: Nadine Hurley—I keep hoping she'll be the killer's next victim so I don't have to watch her anymore. Scariest thing about Twin Peaks: Bob—CREEPY! Weirdest thing about Twin Peaks: Agent Cooper's visions of giants and dwarves—WTF? End result of Twin Peaks: Half my brain has dissolved after only 12 episodes.

• The Log Lady... I may not get her in the slightest, especially her nonsensical intros to each episode, but I really like her wise, cryptic, "I'm not really crazy even though I carry around a piece of wood as though it were a baby" approach.

• I'd tune in religiously for a show just featuring Cooper, Truman, Hawk, Ed and Albert tracking down Bob every week, beginning and ending with a tape recording for Diane, with appearances by Leland, Lucy, Ben and Jerry [Ed Note: Ha! I just noticed, while typing that, that these brothers are named after the popular ice-cream vendors.] for comic relief, and the Log Lady to confuse the hell out of me. Those characters are pure gold. Everyone else could be removed from the series and I probably wouldn't even notice.

• Wow... so Laura Palmer's murder gets solved and the case is closed... and then Twin Peaks almost immediately ceases to be interesting. It's like I'm watching a completely different show. Me no likee. Laura's murder is solved in episode 16, which means halfway through the series, I was still really enjoying it. And then... the bottom drops out. Leland's off the show, Lucy's boyfriend Dick is insanely uninteresting, Truman has gone from being a great sidekick to a cardboard cutout... What the HECK happened?

• Who the heck thought it would be a good idea to have Nadine go back to high school? Putting aside the illegality and immorality of a 35-year-old woman being enrolled at a high school... it's a stupid, nonsensical idea. What's more, having Ed go along with it kills HIS character as well. And that's a shame, as I really liked him until now.

• Is the James/Evelyn Marsh storyline going to in ANY way ever connect to what's going on in Twin Peaks? [Ed note: No. It didn't.] I keep wondering why this storyline is even happening, as it seems entirely peripheral (not to mention tedious).

• Don Davis rocks. [Ed note: He basically plays the same character he played on Stargate SG-1 (General Hammond), but with a supernatural angle. As my friend Patrick Drake brilliantly put it, "Don Davis didn't have to steal every scene he was in, the scenes recognized and acknowledged that he was their rightful owner."]

• Ray Wise's Leland Palmer is the best character on the show, and so far, it hasn't recovered from his loss... I love how he jumps without preamble from ballroom dancing to manic crying and back to dancing. Mesmerizing!

• Someone please tell me that a mass murderer will soon come into that town—perhaps one of the owls, even—and slaughter Donna, James, Nadine, Josie and Evelyn Marsh. If I have to endure those pointless characters for the final eight episodes, I may have no choice but to grab the Log Lady's log and bash myself repeatedly in the face. Thanks.

• I became addicted to the show over the past week, and did no work whatsoever on my third book because I had to get my next fix. But now, I feel like someone replaced my fix with baking soda.

• I live for scenes involving interactions between Sheriff Truman and Albert Rosenfeld, the cynical FBI agent. Every time I see the name Miguell Ferrer in the opening credits, I get all giddy, thinking, "Ha! Albert! I wonder if he and Truman will hit each other or hug today." Albert's "I love you, Sheriff Truman" speech is a highlight of the series.

• The good news? That chewing gum I like is going to come back into style.

• I watched the Twin Peaks finale this morning. That just might have contained the single creepiest, scariest TV moment I've ever seen [Ed note: Actually, come to think of it, that title would have to go to the window-tapping scene in Salem's Lot, followed by Tim Curry's "They all float down here, Georgie" speech in It. But the Twin Peaks scene I'm about to describe comes damn close.]. I may have nightmares now. I can't stop replaying it in my head... The scene of Laura in the Black Lodge, running at Cooper, all crazy-eyed and screaming... holy crap. I can't un-see that. When she starts screeching and runs at the camera, I could feel my pulse triple, and when it was all over, I hit pause, blurted out "Holy shit!" and had to catch my breath before continuing.

• "How's Annie?!? How's Annie?!? Hahahaha! How's Annie?!? How's Annie?!?" {{{{shudder}}}}

• Well, I've watched Fire Walk With Me... and I think this film fails on a very basic level: Cohesion. The only way to enjoy it, or even to remotely understand it, is to first see the entire TV series. Anyone viewing it in theaters without first watching the series would have had NO clue whatsoever what was going on at any point in the film, or who characters like Harold or Mike the One-Armed Man or the Log Lady were, due to a near-complete lack of exposition. It's no wonder the film tanked so badly. But even for someone who HAS just watched the entire TV series, the film still comes off as nonsensical and disjointed. What a disappointment.

THE FINAL VERDICT: Unfortunately, the above comments take a negative turn at times. That's because the series does as well—though I'm happy to report that I really dig the finale. After the fiascos that were the Lost and Battlestar Galactica finales, it's nice to see a series ending that I can thoroughly enjoy (even if I don't entirely understand it). Although my love for Twin Peaks waxed and waned over the past week, depending on the particular storyline and character being spotlighted, one thing remained consistently true: I was eminently entertained. Even when the series frustrated the hell out of me, it kept me watching.

It's a damn fine cup of coffee, Diane—I highly recommend tasting it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quantum Leap, Season 1: Putting the "Cheese" in "Swiss Cheese Memory"

Created by: Donald Bellisario
Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell
Season 1 episodes written by: Donald Bellisario, Deborah Pratt, John Hill, Deborah Arakelian, Paul Brown, Scott Shepard and Tom Blomquist

Enjoying classic television on DVD is something best planned out ahead of time. Watching too many intense, downbeat shows in a row can be depressing, whereas too much time spent watching goofy, cornball humor can make a brain feel like its wading through a swimming pool full of half-frozen maple syrup. Therefore, having recently plowed through the entire runs of such context-heavy shows as Lost, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Babylon 5 and the complete mind-screw that is Twin Peaks, I've switched over to something more lighthearted and fun.

To that end, I'm currently watching a classic science-fiction series that aired on NBC from 1989 to 1993. It told the tale of scientist Sam Beckett, who, theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey was Al, an observer from his own time, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Sam could see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett found himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap... would be the leap home.

Yep, you guessed it: I've been watching Bonanza.

Just kidding. Obviously, it's Quantum Leap.

Watching Quantum Leap in 2011 is a bit like visiting an extended relative who's a bit out of touch with modern-day customs, who tends to wear embarrassingly outdated clothing and hairstyles, and who sometimes makes too many corny jokes that he seems to find a lot funnier than you do—but whom you have a great fondness for nonetheless, and whom you always enjoy visiting... for finite periods of time.

Created by Donald Bellisario, known for his work on Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, JAG, NCIS, Tales of the Gold Monkey and the original Galactica, Quantum Leap is a show that I have a great fondness for, and that I've often considered re-watching. In the early 1990s, I watched the series in syndication over and over again, though I'm unsure if I actually saw every episode, given that for some reason, I never watched any first-run episodes—despite the fact that the series was still on the air while I was obsessively watching the repeats. Go figure.

So now, two decades later, I'm finally enjoying the entire series on DVD in chronological order. But as I popped in the pilot episode, "Genesis," I worried that I might not still enjoy it. The late '80s and early '90s were not exactly a golden age for television. This was the same period, after all, that produced The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Who's the Boss? and other painfully corny sitcoms. Would I find myself groaning loudly at the dated '80s sensibilities? Would I roll my eyes at the predictable plots and telegraphed conclusions? Would I frequently face-palm at the larger-than-life, Hollywood-ized depictions of past eras?

Well, I've watched the first eight-episode season over the past several weeks (nine, if you count the pilot as two episodes, as it's presented in syndicated form), and I'm torn. Do I still love the show? Yes. But were my worries justified? As it happens... also yes.

There's something about Quantum Leap that is very endearing. It could be the amazing chemistry between lead actors Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, that is still as visible now as it was 20 years ago. It could be the tongue-in-cheek approach to Al's tacky 1999 fashion sense, with his brightly colored ties, clashing pant and shirt designs, flamboyant vests and always-present cigar. It could be the series' fish-out-of-water, Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur's-Court premise, with Sam never quite fitting into the lifestyles and eras of his hosts. It could be Sam's occasional brushes with famous historical figures. It could be the abundant use of humor in Al's over-sexed gawking at every woman in sight (and many others not in sight), and in the awkward situations in which Sam often finds himself. Or, heck, it could be the never-ending string of beautiful, Al-gawked women with whom on-again-off-again-prude Sam gets to fraternize in the bodies of other men.

I pick choice (f): All of the above.

But the unfortunate truth is... the show is sadly dated. The 1980s sensibilities ARE corny. The plots ARE predictable, and the conclusions telegraphed. And the past DOES often seem like a typical larger-than-life Hollywood production.

In "Genesis," Sam finds himself in the body of U.S. Air Force pilot Tom Stratton, in the year 1956, after his time-travel experiment goes wrong, causing him to become lost in the past with a fractured recollection (or "Swiss cheese memory," as Al often calls it) of his own pre-leaping life; and then baseball player Tim Fox, circa 1968. The introductions of Sam and, later, Al are fascinating to watch all these years later, but one thing I'd forgotten is how tedious Sam's narrations were in the very beginning. The writers and actors had yet to find their footing at this point, and so his inner thoughts are at times awkward. What's more, neither Stratton nor Fox have lives that are all that interesting, making the two-part pilot somewhat lackluster. Still, the potential for something great is clearly there, in spades.

Luckily, the writing improves over the remainder of the season, as Sam becomes sleazy 1972 English professor Gerald Bryant and meets Donna Eleese (Sam's future wife, as we'd learn in a later episode, portrayed by an astonishingly beautiful young Teri Hatcher), and inadvertently exposes the Watergate scandal; Kid Cody, a boxer in 1974 whose contract had been purchased by nuns looking to raise money for their church (not one of the series' high points); "Doc" Young, a veterinarian on a ranch in 1956, in whose form Sam would help young Buddy Holly write the lyrics to his hit song, "Peggy Sue"; gangsters Frankie La Palma and Don Geno Frascotti (a rare double-leap, during which Sam causes the North East Blackout of 1965, leaving 30 million people without electricity); Jesse Tyler, a black man facing racism in 1955 while serving as the chauffeur of an elderly Southern woman (basically, Quantum Leap's version of Driving Miss Daisy); Cam Wilson, a dorky teenager in 1961 with an abused sister and a crappy car (during which Sam teaches a very young Michael Jackson to do the Moonwalk); and Nick Allen, a Humphrey Bogart lookalike working as a gumshoe detective in 1953 (a violation of the show's premise that Sam—born in 1954—could only travel within his own lifetime... but, hey, he got to make out with Babylon 5's Claudia Christian, so I doubt he minded the bad physics).

Quantum Leap does, ultimately, stand the test of time, in that it's still fun to watch. But whereas I was able to breeze through my rewatches of Lost, Galactica, Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks without coming up for air, I find that the same is not true for Quantum Leap, which I've been viewing at a much more leisurely pace—an episode here and there, as I have time. Much more than that, and I find that my eyebrows end up threatening to roll right off the side of my head. It's partly for that reason, in fact, that my momentum on this blog came to a grinding halt after only three entries—the thought of having to write about Quantum Leap on a daily basis made me cringe.

Or, as Sam would say: Oh, boy...


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I'm Still Here!

Fear not, all four or five readers of this blog, for I have not abandoned it after only three entries. I simply didn't have time this past week to watch the shows I was writing about. However, I will be returning to the blogosphere tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Episode 2: "The Avatar Returns"

Writers: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Director: Dave Filoni

The path that a hero must take is not always a clear one—even if he has a large blue arrow on his head, pointing the way. In the second episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, "The Avatar Returns," Aang, the century-frozen Avatar and last surviving member of the Air Nomads, discovers that sometimes, the path may zig when expected to zag.

The trouble begins when Aang inadvertently sets off a trap aboard an abandoned Fire Nation vessel, alerting Prince Zuko to his presence in the village of the Southern Water Tribe. The angry young prince, having spent two years tracking the Avatar to present him as a gift to his father, orders his crew to steer their ship to that village, where he demands that Aang—who'd been banished for endangering the tribe by triggering the alert—be surrendered to him. Aang returns despite how the tribe treated him, agreeing to turn himself over if Zuko will leave the villagers alone. But once aboard Zuko's ship, Aang uses his airbending skills to free himself and face Zuko in battle.

As is often the case in fiction, the friendship between Aang and Sokka—one of two siblings who, in the first episode, freed him from the ice in which he remained frozen for 100 years—does not develop immediately. In fact, their relationship takes a rather sour turn early in this second chapter, when Sokka urges his people to banish the child for triggering the Fire Nation's trap and endangering them all.

His sister, Katara, not yet the confident warrior and fierce ally she will become, accepts Aang's banishment with only a small amount of protest.

The villagers, Sokka in particular, recognize their mistreatment of Aang, however, when the youth puts his own life at stake to protect them, and then surrenders so that their lives may be spared. Stunned to discover that their new friend is the long-lost Avatar, Katara and Sokka vow to rescue him—though a canoe is little match for Zuko's massive sea vessel, and certainly unable to match pace with it.

That's where Appa comes in. It's a staple component of fantasy and science fiction for heroes to be accompanied by beasts and creatures somehow able to communicate with them. Harry Potter has his owl, Hedwig. Jake Sully, in James Cameron's version of Avatar, has the Toruk, a deadly flying predator only he can tame. And so forth. In Aang's case, his loyal companion is a humongous flying bison, which requires a special command to begin flying. Sokka, providing the episode's humor, dismisses the idea of a flying bison, and sits in the beast's saddle, bored to tears as he humors Katara by trying several commands, expecting none of them to have any effect whatsoever. When he hits upon the correct phrase—"yip, yip"—Appa takes to the skies. His grumpy, cynical nature momentarily forgotten, Sokka is openly amazed to find himself flying high above the lands of the Water Tribe. It's a genuinely charming moment.

The nature of airbending is further explored in this episode, as Aang, no longer concerned about endangering the villagers once safely out to sea, uses his skills to confound the Fire Nation guards leading him to his cell. The Bending Arts are, in many respects, what Jedi powers should be—varied, unpredictable and amazing to behold. Whether due to technical limitations, budgetary restraints or a simple lack of imagination, the benders' Star Wars analogs, the Jedi, tend to do the same tricks over and over again: swordplay, jumping, hurling objects and so forth. But when it comes to airbending and firebending (the two Bending Arts showcased so far), the stunts are more visually complex and varied, and are thus more effective. How interesting can yet another lightsaber battle really be compared to watching someone summon a massive, churning column of ocean water, or propel himself across a room with a furious explosion of wind? It's no wonder the film adaptation of The Last Airbender was focused more on spectacle than on characterization—the sight is impressive as hell.

Humor is a large component of this. Amusingly, Aang warns his guards that he can best them with his hands tied behind his back—which they are, and which he does, using a gust of wind to disperse his adversaries.

But the situation becomes dire when Aang is forced to again fight Zuko, causing him to fall into the icy waters below. It's at this point that the series reveals a fascinating aspect of Aang's powers: the Avatar State. In danger of dying, Aang unconsciously undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts. His eyes glow, and he innately begins waterbending—a skill inherited from prior Avatars, and one he normally does not exhibit. This enables him to thrust himself into the air on a column of sea water, and to create a spinning wall of liquid that sends Zuko and his guards flying. Appa and the Water Tribe siblings then arrive, and Aang makes his escape.

We learn something interesting as Katara and Aang discuss what happened aboard the ship. The child has no idea how he managed to waterbend, or why he no longer has the ability to do so after leaving the Avatar State, and says he never wanted to be the Avatar in the first place, but was cast in the role against his will. The reluctant hero is another staple of fiction, and the audience is left wanting to know more about Aang's rejection of his Avatar status. Why did he resist becoming the Avatar? Why was he forced to take on the role? And why do his other bending skills come and go if the Avatar is supposedly able to master all four elements?

My one fear with Avatar: The Last Airbender is that this series could quickly become redundant and formulaic if not handled properly, and it'll be interesting to see if the writers can avoid this trap. Zuko, after being thwarted in his efforts to bring Aang to his father, vows not to underestimate the boy again—a major cliché—and I can't help but hope this will not turn out to be a common trend.

It would be all too easy to have Aang and his friends continuously pursued and attacked by Zuko, only to repeatedly get away at the last minute, with Zuko shaking his fist in fury and yelling, "I'll get you some day, Avatar!" Anyone who has read the vast line of novels and comics based on Star Wars, or other big-name franchises, is well familiar with how that can damage the credibility of a mythos. Consider The Incredible Hulk's Mr. McGee, or The Fugitive's Lieutenant Gerard, or Star Wars' Asajj Ventress, or any of countless other protagonists who constantly fail to capture their prey—eventually, it makes them less of a threat in the eyes of viewers.

Drama and tension quickly fade when the audience has no doubt that the heroes will escape unscathed. The real question is this: Will Avatar walk the fine line between unpredictability and "good shall prevail in the end"?

Before continuing with The Last Airbender, I'll be taking a look back at season 1 of Quantum Leap. Oh, boy!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Warming Up to Avatar: The Last Airbender

Episode 1: "The Boy in the Iceberg"
Writers: ‎Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Director: Dave Filoni

It would be difficult, with a son soon turning nine, not to be aware of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Joshua has been re-watching the entire series repeatedly for the past couple of years, and has often asked me to watch it with him. Being a nice dad, I kept finding ways to avoid having to do so without hurting his feelings.

Not being a fan of anime, I was initially put off by the styling of Avatar (I've been told the show isn't technically anime since it wasn't produced in Japan, but still, if it walks like a Japanese-animated duck and talks like a Japanese-animated duck, it's a Japanese-animated duck). As such, I tended to ignore the show whenever it aired while I was in the room, even though so many people—fans, critics, kids, teens, adults, friends, strangers—seemed to be raving about it.

But a funny thing happened.

Flash back for a moment to the early 1980s, when I was still in high school. One of my sisters used to watch General Hospital every day, and I'd mock her for it. Because I knew that my mocking annoyed her, I began watching the series as well, so that I could keep making fun of it. But it wasn't long before I started actually paying attention to its convoluted and ridiculous plots, and when she eventually stopped watching the show, I stayed with it for a good year or two before finally realizing, "Hey, what the heck am I doing? I'm watching a stupid soap opera, for crying out loud!"

Avatar: The Last Airbender isn't General Hospital, in that it's neither a soap opera nor stupid, but history seems to have repeated itself. Despite my best efforts to ignore Avatar, I began finding myself paying attention whenever it was on, and although I missed more than I actually saw, I began to wonder if I'd been hasty in my prejudgment of the series.

Last year, I took Josh to see M. Night Shyamalan's film adaptation, entitled The Last Airbender (so as not to confuse the masses who'd already seen James Cameron's Avatar). I had my doubts that I'd enjoy it, and given the largely negative reviews it was receiving, I wasn't sure Joshua would, either. But I think the reviewers may have been a tad too harsh in their trashing of the film. Yes, The Last Airbender was a clunky film, marred by plot holes and subpar acting, and yes, it was odd to hear the main character's name mispronounced—but visually, it's a feast for the eyes. Airbending and firebending are COOL to watch. More importantly, I could tell, with what limited characterization the film offered, that if handled properly, the story might actually be worth knowing more about. In other words, the film's greatest strength is that its weaknesses made me more open to seeking out its animated source.

Josh's disappointment in the movie—he liked it, naturally, being a child of eight, but like so many others, he considered the TV series far superior—cemented it for me: It was time to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. So, I did what any self-respecting TV-on-DVD junkie who enjoys watching television shows with his children would do: I bought Josh the entire series for Christmas.

Last night, we sat down to watch the first episode of the series (not the unaired pilot, which I'll watch and review after finishing the aired episodes, since it differs greatly from the final product). And you know what? Josh was right. The critics were right. The raving masses were right.

Although, at first glance, the show seems... well... cartoony (a rather absurd thing to say about an animated series, I realize), and although the dialog and occasional sight gags may seem aimed at children, it turns out that there is a good deal more to The Last Airbender than meets the eye. This show, I'm surprised to discover, is funny. Very funny, in fact. It's fast-paced and exciting. And, at times, it's sad. Most notably, it's an ongoing story with an epic scope—an atypical concept for children's cartoons on Nickelodeon, to be sure.

Avatar, for all its silliness, is the stuff of which legends are made. It's Star Wars. It's Harry Potter. It's The Lord of the Rings. In a version of the world similar but not the same as our own (presumably in some distant past, given the relative lack of technology), humanity is made up of four nations, each representing a different element: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation and the Air Nomads. Within each nation, certain individuals have the ability to manipulate the corresponding elements—a practice known as bending. Benders are kind of like Jedi or wizards, but with powers specific to the individual elements of their particular nation (by weird coincidence, George Lucas' original name for the Jedi Knights was the "Jedi Bendu").

In episode 1, "The Boy in the Iceberg," two Southern Water Tribe teens, siblings Katara and Sokka, discover the long-lost Avatar—the planet's spirit incarnate in human form, whose duty it is to master all four elemental disciplines in order to maintain balance among the four nations (in other words, he's Anakin Skywalker, Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, all rolled up into one, with a bit of Swamp Thing thrown in for good measure)—frozen inside an iceberg. Every generation, only one Avatar is born, and this one has been missing for 100 years.

A century prior, the boy had encased himself within an orb of ice to prevent himself from drowning after falling into freezing antarctic waters, and had remained thus preserved until the siblings' discovery of his frozen form. The Avatar is a young child named Aang, and though he is playful and immature, it is clear there's more to him than meets the eye. The two youths—whose garb appears to be based on Inuit culture—bring Aang back to their simple Eskimo-like village, where all are amazed to discover that he is an airbender. The wind-manipulating, flight-capable airbenders are thought to have been rendered extinct during a genocidal war waged by the Fire Nation, so the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a child displaying their abilities is awesome (not in the modern-day "Woah, that's totally awesome" sense, mind you, so much as the word's actual meaning—the Water Tribe is filled with awe upon seeing Aang effortlessly flying through the air and summoning wind—though I suppose both meanings would apply).

Katara, a waterbender with fledling skills, is fascinated by Aang's abilities. A wide-eyed optimist, she believes he can return hope and peace to the war-ravaged nations, despite his age. (Plus, there seems to be the spark of romance budding between them, even though she's a few years older than he is... think Anakin and Padmé, only more believable and better acted.) Sokka, unlike his sister, possesses no supernatural abilities, and seems a bit defensive about this fact, and perhaps even jealous of her skills. An immature teenager, prone to whining and pouting, Sokka nonetheless is clearly a good soul, and it's obvious, even in this first episode, that he will become a great ally to Aang as the series progresses, and a hero in his own right.

This inaugural episode also introduces two other important characters: Prince Zuko, a facially scarred Fire Nation prince hell-bent on proving the Avatar still lives, and on delivering him as a prize to his father, and Zuko's uncle, Iroh, a portly, sleepy-voiced old warrior—not your typical Fire Nation type (think Sith, or Death Eaters, if you prefer)—whose easygoing and hedonistic manner contrasts that of his hotheaded, emotionally charged nephew. The two have traveled the seas in a massive vessel, searching for the Avatar, and one gets the feeling that Iroh is less than thrilled by the assignment, and that he'd rather be peacefully drinking tea and enjoying a nice meal than tracking down the Avatar—but as Zuko's kin and protector, he seems determined to keep the angry teen from unduly harming himself, or others.

With a cartoon episode running only 20 minutes or so in length, there's only so much storyline that can be crammed into each chapter. And yet, Avatar: The Last Airbender's first outing is a strong one, hinting at a much larger universe yet to unfold. There's a great deal of humor, particularly with regard to Aang's desire to experience the joy of childhood play despite the much heavier fate awaiting him, as well as Sokka's clumsy mishaps and awkward attempts to assert his competence in the company of two individuals possessing powers he could never hope to wield (and with a dose of sibling rivalry complicating the issue).

But beneath that underlying humor is a looming darkness that could—and, if the film is at all accurate to the series, will—eventually engulf and consume the characters. Aang's youthful naïvete will give way to pain and suffering as he grows older, and his hero's journey, accompanied by Sokka and Katara—his own personal Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger—looks to be a fascinating one. Sokka's teenage immaturity will fade as he develops a strength of character to match his youthful bravery. Katara's earnest drive will lead her to help her people and improve her waterbending skills. And Zuko's furious quest to find the Avatar and earn his father's respect will see him question the nature of good, evil, right, wrong and the roles he and his family play within those constructs.

Count me in, Josh. You were right all along.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, episode 2—"The Avatar Returns"