Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Under the Dome 1.09: "The Fourth Hand"

I've enjoyed Under the Dome more frequently than not, but even during its best episodes I've occasionally found myself secretly shaking my head a bit, wondering why it isn't better.  It seems like every week, there is at least one scene that just makes me want to slap myself in the face.

And to be honest, that's the way I felt about a great deal of this episode.  I liked parts of it, but on the whole, it's my least-favorite episode since "The Fire" way back in the show's second week.

To help explain why that is, I've lined up a special guest interview with none other than yours truly, Bryant Burnette.  Let's see what the two of us had to talk about!




Q:  You didn't like this episode, did you, Bryant?


A:  Bryant, I really kind of didn't.  I wish I had.

Q:  Do you really?  Or are you just saying that?  I mean, look...people on various messageboards and Facebook and whatnot have accused you of being "humorless," "ponderous," "tedious," "pedantic," and "an asshole."  Be honest: aren't you at least a few of those things?

A:  Well...probably.  I'm also fresh out of give-a-shit on those subjects.  What's your point?

Q:  My point is, haven't you secretly been hating this series all along, but writing good reviews of it in an attempt to...

A:  No.

Q:  You didn't let me finish.

A:  I sure didn't.  Whatever you were going to say wasn't worth me hearing.  No, I have definitely not been hating the series all along.  I've liked every episode except for...well, if you count this one, I've liked all of them except for three (1.01, 1.02, and 1.09).

Q:  Okay.  I stand corrected!

A:  I have secretly -- or, in some cases, not-so-secretly -- been feeling as if it isn't a particularly good show, though.

Q:  You've been...wait, what?  I thought you just said you like it!

A:  Oh, I do.

Q:  But you...hold on a second here, you're confusing the mess outta me.  How can you like it if you think it's not "a particularly good show"?  That don't make sense!

A:  Sure it does!  I love Taco Bell, and nobody is under the impression that what they sell at Taco Bell is good food.  Right?



Q:  Uh...I'm not following you.

A:  Okay, think of it like this.  What does the word "good" mean?

Q:  It means, uh...it means...hell, I don't know!  It means "good."  I don't know other than that!

A:  Let me help.  One definition is "satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree."  So, in the case of assessing a television show, we'd focus on the "satisfactory in quality" element.

Q:  Why not quantity?

A:  Well, I mean...if you're judging a series based on whether there are a satisfactory number of episodes, then you and I may as well be speaking different languages.  "Yummy!  What a great meal!  My tacos had dog turds instead of ground beef and fresh green grass instead of shredded cheese, but at least there were nine of them!"  Ya know?

Q:  Gross.

A:  Gross, indeed.  So, "satisfactory in quality" it is.

Q:  Okay, fair enough.  But I still don't understand how you're saying something you like is bad.

A:  Well...I'm not saying it's bad.  I wouldn't go that far.  But at the same time, I'm not sure Under the Dome is good.  In fact, I'm fairly sure it isn't.  But that still leaves a lot of room in the middle.  That's where I think Under the Dome lives; parts of it are good, parts of it aren't, and the sum total of the whole is...just somewhere in the middle.

Q:  .....

A:  Think of it like this.  There is no universally-accepted definition of what the phrase "satisfactory in quality" means, is there?

Q:  No.

A:  Right.  So, if "good" means "satisfactory in quality," how do we know what good is?

Q:  It's...individual opinion?

A:  Yes!  Yes, indeed.  Every one of us ends up deciding what is and isn't good.  We've all got different criteria for doing so, too.  Some of us might decide that "good" is merely defined as being "things we like."  And if that's as far as you want to go with it, then I guess that's far enough. For you.  For me, I try to go a little further with it.

Q:  I don't know what that means.

A:  It means that in the case of a series like Under the Dome, I'm watching it in two different ways simultaneously.  One part of me is watching it for the sheer entertainment value, meaning I'm watching on the "I like this" or "I don't like this" level.  The other part of me is trying to figure out the intent behind the show.  What is it communicating?  Is it doing so effectively?  Is it inventive in terms of how it goes about it?  Stuff like that.  But sometimes, the answers to all of those questions can be "no," and yet I'll still find myself enjoying the sum despite my feelings that the individual parts aren't that great.

Q:  That's...weird.

A:  Maybe!  Maybe.  It's all really quite natural to me; to me, it's a matter of having standards, but not always feeling the need to be beholden to them.

Q:  You've mostly made my brain hurt.

A:  Sorry 'bout that.  Here's a photo of Colin Ford chasing a chicken:






Q:  I feel better now.  Thanks!

A:  Don't mention it.  You might want to ask me something about this episode, though; otherwise, we'll be here all night.  And I'm friggin' tired, so let's get a move on.

Q:  Okay.  So, if I'm reading you correctly, I think you probably are of the opinion that "The Fourth Hand" was a bad episode?

A:  Hmm...well, again, I don't think I'd go quite so far as to say "bad."  There were good scenes; too many of them to write off the whole episode.  But some of it really was bad, I thought.

Q:  Was Joe chasing chickens on that list?

A:  Eh...sorta.  I mean, in and of itself, it's okay; if this had been Hurley on Lost, I'd probably have loved it.  Even better if it was Sawyer.  But Joe, to me, is a problematic character in general.  Mostly this is because I just don't think Colin Ford is a very good actor.  I feel bad about saying that.

Q:  Well, you have been called an asshole, so...

A:  Yeah, yeah.  Maybe it's true.  But I'm sorry, I just don't think Colin Ford is very good.  He's got this "aw-shucks" kind of blandness to him; he seems like he got scooped up by a TARDIS in the year 1947, and then dropped off in 2011, and having had two years to learn how to fit in has only sorta managed to get the job done.  He's all wide eyes and "gosh!" and "gee-whillikers!"  He never actually says that, but he may as well.  And when Norrie does things like talk about him being shirtless, it makes me a little ill, because that must be what it sounds like to hear a pederast talk.  Dude looks 13; let's leave all forms of sexiness out of the equation, mm-kay?

Q:  He apparently has lots of fans.  They call themselves "Colinites."

A:  They need to call themselves up a better obsession.

Q:  Don't be a dick.

A:  Sorry!  I mean, look, I'm sure he's a nice kid and everything, but he's just got no edge to him; it's like watching a bowl of oatmeal chase a chicken.  "Man," you say to yourself, "that bowl of oatmeal ain't goan catch shit..."

Q:  Let's move on.  What else did you not like?

A:  In a word: Maxine.  In two words: Natalie Zea.

Q:  Really?!?

A:  Yeah.  Yeah, I thought she was really, really bad.  Not the performance so much as the character; but I don't the performance helped the character much.  She -- I think -- is supposed to be this powerful enigma, a walking mystery who has the ability to take the series and turn it on its head.  And hey, who knows?  Maybe that'll happen.  I've changed my mind before (such as with Alexander Koch as Junior, who is now one of my favorite parts of the show, but was someone I thought was terrible the first couple of episodes).  For now, though, I don't buy a second of it.  I don't buy that she is the type of person who would wield that much power; I don't buy that she would be able to keep herself hidden inside the dome for that many days; I don't buy that Barbie would have had a fling with her (there were zero sparks between Zea and Mike Vogel, and say what you want about the Barbie/Julia plotline, but there are at least a few sparks between the two actors).  Every moment she was onscreen just felt flat and phony to me.  It might merely have been bad writing and/or bad direction; but I'm afraid it's more a case of a bad character.

Q:  Did you notice who directed this episode?

A:  Sure did!  Roxann Dawson, who was once B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager.

Q:  Big Voyager fan, are you?

A:  Yeah, you know?  I am.  It's pretty solid.  Dawson has done a lot of directing, including a very good episode of Lost from the second season, "The Long Con."  She felt a little lost here at times, though.

Q:  Example?

A:  Well...the scene where Big Jim goes to get Ted Bundy's guns.

Q:  Ted who?!?




A:  IMDb says the character's name is Ted Utley, but when I heard it, my ears insisted on hearing "Ted Bundy."  So that's how I'm going to think of him from now on.  Either way, the scene just didn't work terribly well.  There was no particular tension to it.  If there isn't going to be tension in a scene like that, there'd better be pathos; and there was no pathos, either.  The actor playing Ted wasn't at all convincing; that was the problem.  Dawson probably couldn't do much with the scene, given that, but regardless, it didn't work.

Q:  I didn't much like the scene with the meth addict, either.

A:  This is about ME, not you.

Q:  Sorry.

A:  But yes, the meth-head was kinda crappy.  And for the record, the drug is evidently called "rapture."

Q:  Sort of summons up images of a super-ecstasy.

A:  Yeah.  I'm sure we'll find out way more about that.  I'm already not sure I care.

Q:  So, what do you care about?  What worked for you here?

A:  Well, all the stuff with the minidome going missing was cool.  I like that it went missing; I like how they discovered it was missing; I like the revelation of where it went, and how it got there.  And I like the things they find out at the end: that Joe, Norrie, and Angie all seem to be serving as three parts of a four-part lock of some sort.  Now, they've just got to find that fourth hand, to figure out what this is all about.




Q:  You don't actually think it'll be that easy, do you?

A:  Nah.  Not for a second.  But so far, I feel like this particular element -- the mythology of the dome -- is in good hands.  I've enjoyed all of that so far.  Another thing this scene brought out for me -- and here I have to give credit to Bryan McMillan of Dog Star Omnibus, who pointed this out in an email before I'd thought of it in such terms -- is that it introduced a nice new dynamic into the mix character-wise.  So far, the producers have been quite good at finding ways to move those character relationships into new configurations on a regular basis.  The result has been that even when the plot is letting me down, or even when the performances are letting me down, I'm still interested in the characters.  Tell me the truth: based on the first few episodes, did you assume Angie would be trapped in the fallout shelter the entire season?

Q:  Yeah.  I did.

A:  Me too.  Instead, that got flipped on its head, and she's out.  And she's quickly built substantial relationships with both Big Jim and Norrie, and also now with the tandem of Joe and Norrie, turning that into a trio.  It's a trio that seems destined to turn into a quartet, too.

Q:  Who do you think the fourth will be?

A:  The obvious choice would be Benny.  But my guess is that it ends up being someone we haven't met yet.  Or maybe even -- horrifyingly -- Junior.

Q:  Ick!

A:  Yeah, which is why it'll probably end up being him.

Q:  But you still like Junior?

A:  I do.  I think he's turning into a very interesting character, and I think Alexander Koch continues to do well at playing him.  He's got edge when he needs it, he's got softness when he needs it; he's crazy, but he's also obviously right about some things, and yet clearly that doesn't negate the craziness.




Q:  Anything else you'd like to mention?

A:  Hmm...  Yeah, how about Carolyn still being offscreen?  That's unacceptable for two consecutive episodes.  Unless it ends up having major ramifications for the story, that feels to me like a writer's room that was either too lazy to write Carolyn into these episodes, or was too unsure about the willingness of the CBS audience to watch a lesbian in explicit grief.  One episode, I could kinda live with; two is just bad.

Q:  What did you think of the gun-buyback program?

A:  I thought it was a bit too on-the-nose.  And I'm not sure it matches up with King's politics very well, which concerns me a bit.  What I mean by that is that I get the feeling that King himself would probably advocate a massive voluntary-gun-buyback program.  So the fact that the series sticks that plot into the scheming hands of Big Jim Rennie, who is maybe not quite a villain on the series but is certainly an antagonist...I don't know that that is keeping close to King's sensibilities.  That feels like a minor misstep.  Apart from that, I thought there were probably things left on the table there, thematically.  On a better version of this show, the focus might have been on one of the minor characters we already know, wrestling with the decision.  Do I give up this tiny bit of freedom in favor of bringing in a bit more food and power?  Or do I gamble that at some point down the line, I might need this weapon?  There's a powerful, complex story to be told there; this series seems to have no interest in telling it.  I mean, what would that have looked like on Battlestar Galactica, you know?  So far, this series isn't in the vicinity of that show; and it's really not showing signs of trying to go in that direction.  And that seems like a bit of a shame to me.

Q:  So...in some ways, you think this is a good show because it mostly entertains you.  But in others you think it's a bad one because it's failing to live up to its potential.  Have I got it?

A:  Yes!  Yes, you've got it.  Others will disagree; some will think it's garbage all around, and others will think it's great all around.  Me?  I'm in the middle, and I can move to one side or the other depending on how an individual episode works for me.  This week, I'm further toward the negative.  Let's hope next week shoves me back the other way.

Q:  Maybe you'll even like Maxine next week.

A:  Stranger things have happened.

6 comments:

  1. Things I liked this episode:

    I agree about the Dome trio element (probably soon to be a quartet (Ka-tet?) and yes, I also had the horrifying thought it might be Junior).

    I did at least like how the dynamics between Jim and Dale ply out in this episode, as it seems to be going in a more wary observer kind of way. I can't explain in any way except to say it seemed like the right way to go with these characters. Unfortunately that leads to

    Things I can't decide whether to be negative or on the fence about (which technically makes me still on the fence).

    I don't know if the Ted scenes work, partly because I wondered if it wasn't needless repetition. I still liked the dynamics between Vogel and Norris in this scene, which is sort of the lifesaver of these moments.

    As for Maxine: again, I genuinely don't know whether to go with it or follow my initial thought of "Are you sure this is necessary/is going to work?"

    Still, the preview make it clear she's going to turn the town into a kind of quiet despotism, so we'll see.

    To take this from the particular to the universal, I hear what you say about different takes on "Satisfactory Experience", and I've wondered what that must mean for any possibility of determining what works and what doesn't in film and book.

    T.S. Eliot posits the idea of a "literary tradition", and I wonder if that idea of his might in some way be based on that "quality" you talk about.

    My sort of theory is there might be an thoroughly objective standard of artistic quality (Eliot's Tradition) and that everyone approaches it from whatever spot of that quality they respond to.

    Just an idea.

    ChrisC

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    1. I'm sort of with you on the notion of there being an objective standard of artistic quality. (I think we've had this conversation before! I may be beginning to repeat myself as a blogger, but if so, I'm cool with that -- this particular topic is one of my favorites, and it's unsolvable, too, so it's worth repeating once in a while.) The problem lies in defining it, which I think is an impossible task.

      For example, is it a purely democratic process? I don't think so. If it is, then as society gets stupider and stupider, then we eventually have to accept the notion that dreck like "Duck Dynasty" has artistic merit. I'm not prepared to do that.

      Ultimately, it's probably best for me to not put too much effort into trying to define where the boundaries are. Like I say, doing so is impossible. Instead, I should just try to continue to define where my personal boundaries are, and explain why I feel the way I feel about those things. Then, anyone who's interested can make up their mind whether they agree with me or not. Plus, that seems like the path that's most fun.

      By the way, I forgot to mention the Big Jim and Barbie scenes, but yes, I enjoyed most of those, too.

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    2. Expanding on the idea of Satisfaction as criteria by going wayyy off topic.

      Assuming that means different things to different viewers/readers, it's equally interesting to consider the effects of dissatisfaction and how that can make other react.

      Most people when dissatisfied with a story usually just call it a fail and leave it at that. I sometimes (not often) wonder what could have been done to improve a bad story.

      To give a recent for instance, I decided to compare Disney's Pinocchio with the original book by Carlo Collodi. So I looked up the wiki page the original Italian book:

      seen here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Pinocchio

      ...and my reaction was....I never said anything, but I was staring in horror because as I read the story synopses I realized there was/is no story.

      The original Pinocchio is really just a series of poorly strung together vignettes that operate almost like a nightmare Victorian's children's primer. it was rambling, made little to no sense, one scene didn't logically follow another, and the morals were so twisted it would be more fair to call it a kind of sick power play or something like that, rather than anything to do with honesty's the best policy.

      This is one of the few occasions were I think Disney did everyone a favor. Yet for all that, I still see it as a story with potential that was never really developed and so it's a book that's never really been written, if you get the idea.

      So, nothing is down, but I kind of mentally retold the story in my head the same way different versions of Little Red Riding Hood were tossed around once upon a time.

      This is just one example (and probably a rare die-hard one) of the various responses to poor writing, or at least an opinion of poor writing.

      I'd like to leave off with a film trailer for an upcoming flick that looks interesting, as I'm convinced that at it's core it's a film about the writing process and that the question at the center of it is just what does or doesn't constitute art, and artistic integrity (by the way, yes, that is Tom Hanks and yes, he is playing THAT guy).

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

      ChrisC


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    3. I'd actually already seen that trailer. The movie looks fantastic, although Hanks doesn't sound anything like Disney. Then again, who did/does? He was a one-of-a-kind. I know a lot of people aren't fans. I most certainly am. It won't surprise you, I bet, that one of my major goals is to eventually write a book wherein I critique Disney World as a living/breathing work of art. Kitsch art, perhaps; but art nonetheless.

      I'd also love to do a blog that reviews all the major animated Disney films (and maybe a few of the live-action ones, too). Ideas, ideas, boy; I got 'em.

      I read Collodi's book once, long ago, and while I don't remember much about it, I remember having much the same reaction as you: thinking, gosh, this really is QUITE a lot different from the movie. And yes, I think the Disney version is better. Man, that animation is gorgeous. Also, the recording of "When You Wish Upon a Star" is one of the best songs ever recorded. I'll put that up against just about anything.

      "Most people when dissatisfied with a story usually just call it a fail and leave it at that. I sometimes (not often) wonder what could have been done to improve a bad story."

      Me too. Not always, but sometimes. I've found myself doing that with "The Stand" a lot lately. That exercise I went through with writing the faux-screenplay opened those floodgates. I've found myself thinking a LOT about how I would go about adapting the novel, and I continually come back to wanting to make sweeping, wholesale changes. But then I think, well, no; that's not adaptation, that's creation hobbled by stealing somebody else's good ideas.

      It's a really complex topic. I'm glad somebody else is interested in it.

      By the way, back briefly to the point about most people being good with just calling it "fail" and forgetting about it: yeah, that's most people, I think. But I also think that most people, if you find the right way to engage them on the subject, will happily start digging into the whys and wherefores. I do that with co-workers all the time; most of them are a lot younger than me, and have never thought about why they do or don't like movies. Get 'em going, though, and they have fun with it.

      In the end, I think that opening dialogues like that is a major part of what this blog is all about. I'm thankful that I've got a few regular readers who share the same interest!

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  2. I heard Ted Bundy, too! I even had a little conversation with myself about it. Lost was always naming characters after real people and sending people to their computers, and UTD has very much been Diet Lost. (Lost Zero?) And I wondered if they were doing that then what on Earth for? Was this King indulging an in-poor-taste in-joke, given his one-time album of serial killer clippings? Or to a greater purpose? Then I figured I just must have heard it wrong.

    Good point on Natalie Zea. Her character’s appearance felt exactly like what it probably was. “Oh, we’re a hit? Okay, who can we get for middle-season relief?” I could be wrong; maybe the idea was to bring her in all along, but she felt like a late addition.

    And really, that’s the way I’ve been approaching the show. Maybe she was meant to pop up all along, but even if so, it’s an addition that has a Gilligan’s Island quality to it. It only makes sense for episodic tv. What happens in the Chester’s Mill of the show makes sense from a writing-a-soap-opera perspective (and sometimes not even that) but very little in any other way. (Ditto for all the characters and character dynamics, actually, but that’s a separate topic.) Two quick examples from last night: 1) “Where’s Carolyn?” “She’s still grieving.” i.e. Aisha Hinds needed a break to do other projects. Not a dealbreaker and like I say, one is accustomed to it from years of internalizing tv-writing gimmicks and what not, but it’s as ridiculous as: 2) I was howling at Angie’s wanting the deed to the diner and to “make a go” of the place. It’s absurd on so many levels and would almost work if the actress playing Angie wasn’t so irritating. When watching her and Dean Norris share scenes together, I feel bad for Dean Norris and kind of wonder how long he’s going to really want to do this.

    But: it was good to team her up with Norrie and Joe. Here, I must agree with this Dog Star Omnibus character. (Who I wish they would call Scarecrow Joe more, just because I think the name is cool.)

    “Manufacturing the Rapture” is an interesting compartmentalization of several aspects of the novel, but I’m also not sure why they’re bothering with anything from the book at all. It’s kind of weird. Like doing a Spider-Man movie and making him an alien and set in Kansas but then having him attend high school with “Flash-bang Thompson-san” or something. You know? Like, why even nod to source material you’ve already pureed? But, I got a chuckle out of that broad-strokes there. BIG JIM IS MANUFACTURING THE RAPTURE! Etc.

    The gun buy-back and standoff and everything involved it was so poorly written. But again, I’m not expecting deep stuff, here. If Dawson’s Creek had a gun buy-back episode, it’d have looked and felt very much like this. And that actually kind of amuses me.

    I, too, am in the middle, but leaning more towards the it’s-terrible side. I still enjoy tuning in, though.

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    1. "What happens in the Chester’s Mill of the show makes sense from a writing-a-soap-opera perspective (and sometimes not even that) but very little in any other way."

      I think you've hit the show's main problem square on the head here. Ultimately, I just don't buy any of it. If I let my mind go slack, I can find enjoyment in it. But I suspect that over time, I'm going to find it increasingly frustrating if the show doesn't begin taking its themes and situations a bit more seriously.

      Now, on to the subject of Angie, which I'm sure Bryant intended to mention when he was interviewing me last night...

      Angie, Angie, Angie...

      Thing is, I like Angie. I think she's an interesting character, because I never really know how she's going to react. Maybe that's the result of poor writing, I dunno.

      What I'm less sure of is Britt Robertson, the actress playing Angie. At times, she's really good; like the scene at the end with the minidome. At other times, not so much. Any time she starts screaming, for example; and something about the way she runs really irritates me, too.

      Still, I find myself liking her more often than not. I wonder sometimes if it isn't purely because of all the tight jeans and skimpy shirts. If so, well, what can I say?

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