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Gargoyles “Eye of the Storm/The New Olympians”

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After last week’s mediocre outing, Gargoyles takes a step back on course with “Eye of the Storm” and “The New Olympians,” although it’s a small one. I’ve mentioned earlier that unlike more fans, I prefer the one-off type episodes, where the gargoyles crew find themselves in an insular mystery and have to solve it via brain and brawn, usually with the help of a one-off character. Of course, the core mystery has to be sustainable; both these episodes function fine but lack the heft to make it intriguing throughout.

Gargoyles 2×36 – Eye Of The Storm

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“Eye of the Storm” in particular is as straight-forward as it comes, with a simple conflict and an obvious twist. The crew arrives in Norway, and they meet a guy in a wizard robe, who just wants the Eye of Odin. Well, the guy turns out to be Odin himself, but he doesn’t really reveal himself to be so until late in the episode, but by that time everyone’s just throwing fists at each other. There’s a bit of an “Idiot Plot” here, Elisa’s too damsel-in-distress-y, and the two Norway residents are fairly useless.

Also, Goliath punches a polar bear.

Granted, the polar bear isn’t a real polar bear, but Odin in disguise. And you don’t actually see Goliath punch the polar bear – the moment is framed so that Goliath punches the screen (the screen acting as the bear’s POV). But it is what it is, and “Goliath punching a polar bear” is the kind of thing the internet lives for, so it’s cool-funny to see, and I’m glad this was done in the pre-Internet days.

I digress, but in some ways the whole “Goliath punches a polar bear” represents the off-key nature of the episode, which moves through its beats harshly to get to the crux of the episode, which is when Goliath puts on the Eye of Odin and becomes corrupt and obsessed over his role as protector. Over the course of the show, Gargoyles has presented various angles to its theme of finding a purpose, and obsession over one’s purpose would make a fantastic direction to take the show. But the process to get there is flawed, it doesn’t tell us much about Goliath, and it doesn’t say much about the idea of taking one’s purpose in life too far, other than “don’t.”

Odin and the world tourists meeting for the first time and immediately coming to blows (without any attempt at a reasonable discussion) is way outside Gargoyles’ normal purview. The show tries to wave this off by declaring Odin being out of touch in how to deal with mortals, but it probably would’ve just worked better to portray Odin as being a giant dick. By ending the episode with Goliath and Odin coming to an understanding, it raises the question why Odin just didn’t come out and say, “Hi, I’m Odin. That’s my eye. Here’s some magic shit to prove I’m who I said I was. Can I have my eye now?”

Because we wouldn’t get all the fighting and battling, hence the Idiot Plot. We wouldn’t get to the crux of the episode either, where Goliath adorns the Eye of Odin and levels up, going way overboard with his inherent desire to protect, trapping Elisa, Angela, Bronx, Gunther and his father (who do nothing but warm Elisa up at the beginning of the episode) in a cave and instigates dangerous weather to pin on an angry Odin. Angela discovers this (Angela seems to be developing an uncanny ability to notice details when things are way off), and everyone tries to get Goliath to pull back from that kind of power, but it’s proven elusive. The only way is put Angela in harm’s way, harm devised by Goliath himself, who realizes how far he has gone, saving her and ripping the Eye of Odin off in the process.

It’s okay stuff, but the lack of discussion of any type between Goliath and Odin makes it hard to stand up for the episode, and Elisa just gets captured a lot, which is always a detriment to her as a character. The more questionable thing here is the Eye of Odin itself. They say the Eye brings out your basest instincts to its most viciously aggressive point, and they point to Fox and the Archmage as examples. But… that’s not exactly what happened with them, is it? It’s a stretch to say Fox, internally, metaphorically, whatever, is a raging man-beast. And the Archmage was so pumped full of magic drugs, it’s hard to say what the Eye specifically did to him. It’s a bit of a retcon, and an unnecessary one. The Eye is just a powerful piece of magic that does crazy shit. There’s no need to shoehorn-in a specific purpose. The Eye of Odin is just a thing – leave the “purpose” stuff to the characters. You may have had a stronger episode.

Gargoyles 2×37 – The New Olympians

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And now Gargoyles will tackle racism.

I have yet to see a quality animated episode of a cartoon that focuses on the differences between “people,” tackling the social tension between groups defined by those differences and the antagonistic history behind it all. Part of it is sheer laziness, all coming down to “treat everyone the same!” type lessons, which tends to be muddled with the actual content of the episode. Part of it is the episode’s length – it’s hard to get into the nuances of such an issue with only 22 minutes. Part of it has to do with the crew being mostly comprised of middle-upper class WASPy men, who more or less understand prejudice and bigotry in terms of heresay, as armchair outsiders looking in. The one animated show that came very close to truly “getting it” was, surprisingly enough, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, in the episode entitled “Serpent’s Tooth” (before they borked the ending). And while “The New Olympians” make an admirable effort, it still does the same generic, simplistic stuff that cartoons of this stripe do.  Considering that Elisa is both a woman and black, there’s a whole ‘nother angle on this that the show never bothers with.

Gargoyles isn’t above dealing with an episode that uses societal tension to build its stakes, but the introduction of a shapeshifter named Proteus (Oberon’s child, yadda yadda) is proof that the writers here are tip-toeing around the broader topic (apparently this was supposed to be a backdoor into a spin-off pilot, which never materialized, but that’s hardly an excuse for anything). Proteus is cool and all, and he’s definitely one of the smarter shapeshifting villains on television (and one of the coldest), but using him to pair Taurus and Elisa together – ie, to create a common enemy – is the simple writers’ way out of this quagmire.

I know full well Greg Weisman is committed to the portrayal of diverse faces in his work. I will always commend him for this, no matter what issues I may with his material otherwise. Yet when a cartoon attempts to engage into historicisms of diversity, historicisms, fabricated or otherwise, that contain systematic oppression, subjugation and violence, only to end on the ideology that these people should just forget all that and come together, I have to call foul. To be fair, this episode doesn’t exactly end on this note – there’s still a bit of simmering tension when the Olympians conclude that, soon, they’ll be meeting up with the humans, and that future meeting is going to be very, very awkward. Yet overall this episode, and episodes of its ilk, overall still tend to impart the same misguided social concepts.

Part of the problem is that Gargoyles, I think, is trying to be funny here. Not overtly funny, but sort of clever/ironic funny, with the portrayal of various Greek-deistic creations voicing their oppressive opinions against Elisa based on past human atrocities. Taurus even describe the tale of the Minotaur from his perspective, as an ancestor unfairly trapped by humans, thrown in a maze, then subsequently killed by a human. This is cute, but then you consider the Minotaur was a killer of men most of his life, and then he was killed by a half-human, half-god. In fact, none of the various god-descendents in the room are innocent here, and Gargoyles is making a point about how these years of misguided violence begat more misguided violence, and at some point someone needs to say stop.

Yet Gargoyles doesn’t really make this point clear. This clever observation, even within the show’s made-up history, is undermined by the lack of self-responsibility (kind of like the awkward realization Goliath had in “Outfoxed,” but across thousands of years). Elisa says that she shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of the human race from years ago, and of course that is true, but it’s self-serving and not at all empathetic (as a black woman, she should know better, but I’m willing to chalk this up to being in a tense situation). Likewise, the behavior of the crowd that grows hostile just by the presence of Elisa in public casts them as just a wrong-headed group of thugs and not at all people tied close to a powerful, depressing history. No one speaks about how wrong this behavior is. No one works to try and understand the other side. This isn’t an episode about coming to terms and some kind of understanding about a messy, brutal era of (creatively concocted) history, but of just random spouts of violence mixed in vague allusions to real life, socially charged historicisms, then the villain comes in so everyone can band together.

Gargoyles isn’t above getting deep into its more socially charged topics, which makes me think that this could have been truly powerful and special, had they removed Proteus and truly focused on the pain and struggles of two groups of people in conflict and attempting to come to some sort of understanding (which I think they did fairly well way back in “Awakenings”). Perhaps that was going to the very point of the spinoff. Yet as it stands, “The New Olympians” is just part of the “take it easy” approach to society’s most painful past moments that harm most cartoon episodes of this type, and I know that this show, and creators as a whole, can do better.

[I do apologize for taking my particular frustrations out on Gargoyles here. It is, at its core, a decent episode, but the show can, and has, done better.]

“Eye of the Storm” B/”The New Olympians” B

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Tumblr Tuesday – 07/22/14

In surprising (lazy) news, today’s Tumblr Tuesday has been released on Wednesday! Did I just blow your mind? No? Well, maybe these Tumblrs will.

GEX is awesome and we need to see more of him again

The best depiction of Princess (Peach) Toadstool in the history of Super Mario Bros., ever

Spongebob Squarepants tackles sexism

 – More Cats Don’t Dance concept art (I will always post Cats Don’t Dance stuff)

And a hilarious short joke from Dark Place

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Gargoyles “Mark of the Panther/Pendragon”

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And thus the World Tour begins to break down.

I’m not sure if “Mark of the Panther” and “Pendragon” are a sign of things to come, but after a string of solid, enjoyable episodes, we’re provided two surprisingly weak, unfocused ones. Previous episodes were willing to take their time to develop their central plots, usually through the exploration of a various historical/cultural factoid. Now the show is trying to squeeze its way back into the long term mythology, forcing things to happen way too fast without adequate explanation. This is Gargoyles when it struggles the most, when it tries to do way too much with so little, sacrificing proper setup and storytelling for spectacle.

Gargoyles 2×34 – Mark of the Panther

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The core problem with “Mark of the Panther” is that the story should be about something that directly (or indirectly) ties into the complicated parental problems between Goliath and Angela, and Elisa and her mother. The story told here has to do with a kind of rapey-and-revenge love tale. They connect at only a superficial level, and while Goliath and Angela’s relationship woes are understandable, the confusing relationship between Elisa Maza and Diane Maza is just that. The episode fails to clearly explain what exactly is the issue between the two, and Diane’s explanation – that she “disappeared” is vague at best and perplexing at worse – especially since she’s been in Africa all this time. This is the pre-cellphone days, what exactly was she expecting?

Other issues plague the episode as well. It seems to start off as an episode in which Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa have to chase down some poachers. Which is a bit low-key on the Avalon scale, but it’s something. It then devolves into a strange love tale – one of the poachers, Tea Gora, is actually seeking revenge on a Fara Maku. They fell in love, then Tea wanted to move to the city, but Fara didn’t want her to go, so he made a pact with the African god trickster Anansi, which ultimately turned them in were-panthers when they get upset. It was a act of selfishness on Fara’s part that so enraged Tea, that she hooked up with the unnamed poachers to kill every panther in Africa (I guess?) to ensure Fara was killed.

Already you can see the flaw here. We also don’t learn about Fara or Tea, unlike the characterizations we get of Hatsilane in “Heritage,” Max in “Golem,” or Rory in “The Hound of Ulster.” They just seem like two terrible people. Instead of a closer look into their relationship and the destruction of which, we’re treated with a stylized animated sequence detailing the specific Anansi tale that the episode is based on. No offense to the sequence, which is lovingly rendered with stiff movements evoking the classic forms of African paintings and sculptures, but why are we presented this, when Cu Chullian or The Golem of Prague wasn’t? It’s a somewhat more complicated piece of folklore than those stories but not so much so that the episode needed to explain it at the risk of sacrificing its characters. I suppose the writers felt it was such a fascinating tale that it was worth visually depicting. I admire the attempt but it was unnecessary and a bit too aloof from the show proper, particularly for a tale that could have been simplified to get to the meat of the characters.

The interesting stuff is the parental conflicts, but they’re never given room to breathe. Angela and Goliath fight again over the degree of affection the latter should give to the former due to their biological connection. Elisa and Diana fight over their separation and Elisa’s secrecy. The first conflict is fine, the second one a bit clunky. Didn’t Elisa introduce her mother to the transformed Derek? Just seems odd to place so much emphasis on Elisa being secretive and distant, considering all the stuff they’ve been through. There are aspects of this that make sense, but overall it doesn’t really work. Plus, none of this really connect to the Tea/Fara story, so nothing really comes together.

So they confront the actual Anansi at the end (wiki says he’s another one of Oberon’s children but the episode doesn’t say, so it’s a development that comes out of left field – I guess we’re to assume all magic people/creatures are Oberon’s progeny?) and he’s less of a trickster and more of greedy Southern plantation owner without the accent. They defeat him by cutting his magic web and stabbing him. It’s an okay sequence but nothing special. Fara and Tea getting together at the end undercuts Fara’s actions, though, but I guess being African-were-panther heroes is good enough. Goliath acknowledges Angela as his genuine daughter, and Elisa tells Diana the whole story of her gargoyles encounter. I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing Diana again though, adding to the superficiality of their conflict. “Mark of the Panther” is too messy for its own good.

Gargoyles 2×35 – Pendragon

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“Pendragon” is slightly worse than “Mark of the Panther,” but not by much. Here, the problem is turning the tragic figure of Macbeth into a power-hungry villain, which is insanely out of character. I mean, this is the guy who is desperate to kill Demona so he can finally end his tortured immortality. Suddenly he’s casting spells and vying for Excalibur’s power? Where did THIS attitude come from?

This episode really was an excuse to get Griff to New York (but what about Leo and Una? The whole main issue was Griff being gone [Una being Griff's 'lover'], and now we’re just moving away from them again?). Macbeth and his henchmen, and the rest of the Manhattan clan are concerned about the random disturbing weather that’s occurring in New York. I think that has to do with King Arthur’s arrival in London (he left Avalon after the events that transpired there). The episode doesn’t really connect the two, but it is what it is.

Arthur wanders into a church, where the stone that hosted Excalibur is, and Griff follows him. The stone talks to Arthur about finding his sword, Griff recites a legend about it, and the stone deems the two worthy. Meanwhile, Macbeth himself recites an incantation that summons Griff and Macbeth to New York, and the Manhattan clan gets in on this. Macbeth is disappointed in the result and runs off, but is now aware of sword’s existence, so he decides that, since he was a king once, he can take the sword for himself. So he uses a plug-in crystal ball to summon will-o-the-wisp to track them.

I quickly wrote up the summary of the first half of the episode because of its ridiculousness and half-assed nature. It feels as chaotic as that probably read, and looks as messy and scattershot on the screen. I’m not sure what the hell is going on with Macbeth here. I feel like A) they’re missing a key scene (or episode) where we note Macbeth is still vying for power and/or recognition, or B) meant this to be another character entirely, but something went very wrong, and the writers had to scramble to put Macbeth in the role. It’s feels way off, in a manner that’s completely off-kilter to what we know the show is capable of.

The rest of the episode is somewhat better, but not by much. The Lady of the Lake is probably another one of Oberon’s children, who presents another challenge to Arther with some lame water monster he and the Manhattan clan dispatches easily. Then it’s off to Brooklyn, inside a hedge maze that they could’ve flew over easily to find the stone dragon in the middle, which hosts Excalibur proper. There’s a Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but there’s no mention of a hedge maze or a stone dragon centerpiece. The problem isn’t that they made these concepts up, the problem is that they feel as forced as Macbeth-as-villain. I’m not sure why they didn’t just do a Arthur/Griff fantasy detective story, keep the events in London, and bring Una and Leo into that mix. It would’ve been more focused, with the current situation among Griff/Leo/Una clarified, and without Macbeth’s sudden character change (no villain is really necessary, really – the trials and riddles were strong enough).

The obvious sword that Macbeth pulled from the stone dragon was fake. It triggered the stone dragon to come alive and attack everyone, but Arthur discovered the real Excalibur was inside the ruby rock on the stone dragon’s chest. After snagging it, the dragon is destroyed, and, in the show’s most ridiculously contrived moment, Arthur and Macbeth come to a mutual understanding and level of respect. That’s bullshit, particularly that Griff and the Manhattan clan are okay with this. But they were probably as confused as I was what with Macbeth being evil out of nowhere. I did like Arthur knighting Griff. It’s a nice moment, but the underlying problem is… who is Arthur? He was kinda useless in “Avalon,” and while he holds his own here, I’m failing to see how or why he’s such a big deal. Griff standing by his side because he’s royalty is inexplicable, considering how loyal he was to Britain and his clan back in “M.I.A.”

“Pendragon” doesn’t work except at the bare minimum. I kind of regret writing this, as the details soured me more and more as I gave this episode thought. Here’s hoping the next two episodes continue the string of good episodes instead of these lackluster ones.

“Mark of the Panther” B-/”Pendragon” C-

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