Sunday, 28 February 2016

Grimm: how a bad show becomes better

My latest TV obsession, beyond the CW's Arrow and Flash, and my rewatch of Batman: the Animated Series, has been NBC's supernatural cop show, Grimm. Not too long ago I'd have put it down as a guilty pleasure, something schlocky but fun, but over the course of four full seasons, and a fifth season in progress, it's turned into a pretty decent show.

The premise is of a Portland cop who discovers that he can see monsters from out of legend, and that he has the power to hunt them. I kind of need to talk about what happens at various points, so consider this your spoiler warning:

It's always fun to dust this picture off, btw.

When it started, Grimm was, as I said, just a bit schlocky - Nick Burckhardt, the hero, is essentially a super-hero who fights enemies with bizarre (and mispronounced) German names - for instance, werewolves are known as "Blutbaden", which translates to bloodbath. Over time he draws more and more characters into his secret world, from his partner Hank, to his Blutbad friend Monroe and finally his girlfriend, Juliette.

Juliette, unfortunately, was a character that they didn't know what to do with, almost from the very start, and so she would get saddled with some pretty dumb storylines. One example is the beginning of the second season, where she's placed under a spell in which she doesn't remember Nick, and is madly in love with his boss, Sean Renard, into the bargain.

And yet, when they decided to turn her into a Hexenbiest in Season 4, that quickly became the show's high point, as everybody's shocked reactions to her new powers quickly pushed her toward the dark side. I was left totally holy-shitted at the end of the season, where she goes so evil that she causes the death of Nick's mom and then gets killed herself.

She now seems to be back, because in superhero stories death is never the end, but what I love is that all of it, from her evil-ness to her death and her re-emergence working for a secret organization, feels organic. Not only was she given an incredible level of power, but the fact that the people around her, including her fiance, quickly became afraid of her, felt like the most logical choices to take her story.

I mean, ignoring the facts of how she got her powers, which is a little bit ridiculously complicated, but let's move on...

I suppose what I find fascinating about the show is that it started out, as I said, little more than a guilty pleasure. A bunch of storylines failed to go anywhere over the course of the first few seasons, characters have changed sides more times than I can count, but somehow, the creators still managed to pull it all together into something that I don't feel I have to hide anymore.

For a show to start out bad and then turn good isn't so atypical, but what's remarkable is that Grimm has managed to do it at the end of its fourth season. Star Trek: the Next Generation, for example, didn't get good until its third season, while the Big Bang Theory only hit its stride in Season 2 (and now is pretty bad again).

The other interesting thing about Grimm is, as of Season 4 it was NBC's second-longest running drama, after Law & Order: SVU. Clearly it was doing just well enough in its time slot for NBC to keep it going, and that consistency has allowed its writers to figure out its strengths.

Which is, I suppose, yet another example of why consistency is so important, whether in physical pursuits or creative ones. I just hope that Grimm can maintain this streak of quality long enough to take the show in for a dignified landing, unlike (for example) the X-Files, which dropped off pretty sharply in quality around its sixth season.

But I think that even if Grimm does drop off again, I'll still be able to come back for the bad German pronunciations and the laughable CGI. Not everything can be Mr. Robot, can it?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Why I want Leicester City to win the Premier League

Like a lot of folks, I've been following this year's English Premier League title race more avidly than usual, for the simple reason that, in a lot of ways, the table's been turned upside down. There's still about a third of the season left, so any of the traditional powers could reassert themselves, but the main highlight has been how Premiership minnows Leicester City have managed to carve out a place for themselves at the top, after having come so close last year to being relegated.

At the moment there are four title contenders: Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City. Winning would be a great narrative for any of these teams, although to different degrees (oddly enough, in the order that I've listed them, which also happens to be their ranking in the league as of this past weekend). But I'm more invested in Leicester winning, for a number of reasons.

The first is the fairytale aspect of it all. As I said, they came within a few games of being relegated last season, and managed to save themselves in the last seven matches of the season. I think everybody was expecting them to go down this season, but instead they've carried on their form and now sit, quite improbably, in first place. More importantly, if they win the league, this will be their first top-flight title ever - their highest placing was second, in the 1920s - and this will be the first time since 1995 that a less-fancied team wins the title (Blackburn being the champions that year).

Another reason I'm hoping Leicester wins this season is Claudio Ranieri, the manager they hired for the start of this title campaign. For years, he had a reputation in English football as the "tinkerman", a kind of buffoonish figure who couldn't leave well enough alone. He was the manager of Chelsea when Roman Abramovich bought the club, and was let go somewhat shabbily after having guided them to second place.

After leaving Chelsea, Ranieri bounced around Europe, including stints back at home in Italy, but his star was possibly at its lowest ebb ever when Leicester hired him, as he'd just come off a disastrous four-match spell in charge of the Greek national team. He'd just overseen Greece failing to qualify for the upcoming European Championships, and guided the Greeks to two losses (home and away) against the Faroe Islands, a country of about 57,000 way out in the North Sea whose main claim to fame is puffins and sheep. So folks in England were justifiably apprehensive when he was hired, but I'm pleased to see that he's confounded all the doubters and rescued his reputation.

The third reason I'm hoping Leicester win it all is their main striker, Jamie Vardy. He was plying his trade further down the divisions not long ago, at the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town, but from there has helped fire Leicester into first, while also picking up a record for scoring in the most consecutive games since Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Admittedly Vardy's had something of a checkered past, having been tagged for assault and racial abuse, but the signs seem to point to a real rehabilitation, which can only have helped his focus on his way to this record. Apparently there's even a screenwriter following him around, with the intention of writing a Jamie Vardy biopic.

Of course, Vardy's achievement isn't meant to overshadow the rest of his teammates, including Riyad Mahrez, the French-born Algerian international player who's also emerged from the obscurity of the lower leagues to make a name for himself, or Robert Huth, a German defender who also seemed to disappear after leaving Chelsea.

So these are the reasons I'm rooting for Leicester, and why I'm sure large parts of the English public are too (apart from fans of local rivals Coventry, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, of course). In fact, my cousin in Italy tells me that people there are following Leicester's exploits too, so it wouldn't be off base to assume that a lot of Europe is behind the plucky underdogs, who have, of course, shown themselves to be contenders this season.

Sure, Spurs stand to win their first Premier League trophy, and their first top-flight trophy since 1961, which would be an amazing achievement too. And Arsenal, if they win, will take home their first title in 12 years, since their "Invincible" season. Man City, meanwhile, would cement their place as the top club in Manchester over hated rivals United, while also giving their outgoing coach Manuel Pellegrini a last gift before Pep Guardiola (formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich) takes the reins.

But Leicester would be a win for (most of) the rest of England. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note that titles in Europe typically go to one or two of the big cities. London and Manchester have shared almost all of the titles in the Premier League days (Blackburn is just 20 miles from Manchester), and that ever harder for smaller teams, from smaller cities, to break in. Leicester winning would spread the honors around, just as their success is (surely) being financed by an epic TV rights deal that seems to have raised all Premier League clubs, rather than just the top two or three.

So it's Leicester for me this year - surely they'll collapse again next season, and Pep Guardiola will launch Manchester City to a new period of dominance. But in the meantime, I'm reveling in a Premier League season where just about anything can happen, and has.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some Men Just Want to See the World Burn: Why Donald Trump is the Joker

Just a quick one this week, as I prepare for the Super Bowl this afternoon, but I've been thinking about this all week. Specifically, how Donald Trump is not just A joker, but also THE Joker, ie Batman's archenemy.

So I was stretching my legs the other day at work with a quick walk around the neighborhood, and as so often happens, my mind started wandering to what I'd do and say if I were running for president. And given that nobody seems to know how to respond to Donald Trump's various incivilities, I was wondering how it would go down if some just told him to fuck off.

It occurred to me that, satisfying as that would be, it would mark his total victory in the way politics is played these days, because it would have meant whoever told him to fuck off would have fallen to his level. This isn't, btw, a question of standards and "fair play" and all that bullshit - telling Donald Trump to fuck off means that he's gotten under your skin, and effectively turned you into his own mirror image.

And, because Batman is never too far from my thoughts, it occurred to me that this is the same dynamic that Batman has with the Joker. The Joker's whole M.O. is to corrupt people, and Batman remains the biggest prize of all - if the Joker could get Batman to kill someone, even (or especially) the Joker himself, that shows that the Joker's been right all along. To put it another way, the Joker wants to show that society is an illusion, and people are all raging beasts underneath it all; while Batman represents the people who work in the shadows to make the rest of us safe, at least as Christopher Nolan's films would have it, he maintains a very strict line that he won't cross.

So how does this apply to Donald Trump? Well, without questioning his motives, it's fair to say that he's certainly appealing to the very worst tendencies in the American electorate at the moment. He's telling people the things they long to hear - that everybody's laughing at us (which they are, but not for the reason he thinks), that we're being swindled (again, not by the people he says are swindling us) and that he can fix it all.

Given that so many are still feeling the after-effects of the latest recession (btw, when do we get to start calling it a depression? It's been going on for the best part of a decade at this point...), and so many are terrified of what's happening in the rest of the world with ISIS and civil wars and drug wars, I think a lot of the simple answers he's peddling are comforting. And, not very many of the candidates on either side of the aisle are talking about how to make Americans feel better (despite being an ardent Democrat and leaning toward Bernie Sanders, I have to say that Sanders doesn't strike me as very strong on foreign policy).

But the problem is that Trump is encouraging people to give vent to their darkest impulses. The short term answer to international terrorism may seem to be "Close the borders", but we'll be safer if we take on ISIS and Al Qaeda (and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin) with a view to long-term solutions, and in an adult way.

In the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman film, the climax of the Joker's plan is to wire up two ships with explosives, one full of convicts and the other full of civilians, and essentially dare them not to blow the other up. The "law-abiding" citizens loudly insist on their right to take a vote, and driven by fear, vote to blow up the other ship. The convicts, on the other hand... don't.

The Joker's plan was to turn the people of the city against one another - and Donald Trump, whether or not he means to, is doing the same. But we're better than what he's telling us we are, and we deserve candidates who know that.