Friday, April 3. 2009
Laura Miller: Goodbye, "Galactica" I hardly watch any TV these days, but got roped into this somewhere in the second or third season, and found it entrancing enough I went back to the DVDs for the necessary refresher course. I did watch a lot of TV when I was a teenager -- sheesh, it's not like we knew any better where I came from -- so I do have some vague recollection of the original TV series, with Lorne Greene way out of his depth and a lot of badly modelled war sequences. Alien bashing was happy hunting in the early stretches here, too, but gradually it faded into a small part of everyday life. I never paid much attention to the mythopoetic overtones -- all the prophecies and shared dream sequences and the like, which were clearly artifices of fiction meant to provide some plot that everyday life lacks. That the finale managed to tie all those loose strings up into a nice, neat ball was less a matter of truth or luck than the writers' will to keep their story straight -- as they put it in Slumdog Millionaire, it was written.
Miller laments this neatness, but I actually found it gratifying, and the whole finale -- indeed, the whole final season -- immensely satisfying. So what if in the end you wind up with another crackpot human creation story. That, of course, is also one of the charms of the The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe -- I loved the movie there, especially for the immense wonder of the graphic construction of the earth. Both cases amount to a form of creationism even further removed from the Bible than Darwin. It's fiction, but at least it's true to itself -- unlike, I dare say, the Bible -- and it's clean and clear enough you can play with the model. Whereas most TV puts your brain out to pasture, this show has been a constant treat to the cerebellum. I doubt that this is really the end of it, but it's nice to see how neatly a piece of fiction can be wrapped up. Verity to real life isn't necessarily a good thing.
Laura Miller: Finale wrap-up: "Big Love" Also watched this series, billed as "America's favorite polygamist drama," as if there was another one. This seemed like the season where they finally jumped the shark, but in the end they scrambled to give Bill Hendrickson at least one episode where some of the things he plotted to do worked out -- a little taste of "Father Knows Best," even though he's really pretty far out on the limb. The thing that really shifted this year was that Barb fell into a deep vat of religious nonsense: obsessing over the future size of the family, with attendant worries about the other wives' fertility; freaking out over her excommunication from the LDS church. She had previously seem to hold reservations not just about the fundamentalist compound but the whole concept, but this year she emerged as the true believer -- and belief you don't share and can't really conceive of quickly turns annoying and creepy. The motivations of the other two (or for that matter three) wives were relatively practical and tangible. Bill, too, seems to be moving off the deep end. His whole fixation on an ultimately fraudulent letter that he saw as legitimizing his polygamy helped to transform him from money-grubbing businessman to ideologist proclaiming his own prophethood. I'm not sure that the former wasn't overdue some come-uppance, but the latter is very likely to bring his downfall, and I can't expect much sympathy when it does.
I figured the original premise of the series was raising the question whether polygamy could be incorporated into an otherwise normal, respectable even, American lifestyle. In that scenario, Juniper Creek was history -- something the Hendricksons set out to overcome. Three years in, however, Juniper Creek has won out, mostly for its prurient entertainment value, turning this more and more into a freak show, not to mention a sit-com. That says nothing much about America, but speaks volumes about show biz.
As I started to lose interest midway through the season, I started speculating on an alternate universe version of the same show. Let's start with the most famous polygamist in the world today: Osama bin Laden. He's tended to marry relatively educated, sophisticated wives, which puts him closer to the Hendricksons than to Juniper Creek -- admittedly, his business downturn has done the opposite, but it may just be a matter of time before Bill Hendrickson is on the lam from the law. Both combine piety, arrogance, and a reckless disregard for the law. Even while the bin Laden version of Big Love remains a faraway concept, it may be amusing to identify the analogies.
Also watching 24, which is currently about three-fourths of the day done. As you know, 24 takes place in an alternate universe, vaguely resembling what the United States would be like if terrorism became a common practice in the corporate world, like bribery and cover-ups. In such a world, it's not surprising that politics should be so routinely infiltrated -- that politicians should be so perversely motivated is another matter altogether. (There seems to be a right-left tradeoff here: the right gets to portray politicians as fools, and the left gets to root evil in the shadowy corporate world.) The show obsesses over torture because the world has been synthetically deranged to form test cases for the efficacy of torture. (Propagandistic as it is, it's hard to find cases where torture actually works except when Jack Bauer is pushing the buttons.)
Half of this season was stuck in a rut trying to figure out why anyone on any side gave a shit about Africa -- except maybe the lady president as humanitarian warmonger, a species of stupidity that is almost plausible on this show. The Africans managed to impress with their technical expertise, an effect somewhat spoiled by a midday shift in villains that at least fits with the degree of government intrusion. Still, Starkwood's motivations remain murky -- patriotism is, as everyone knows, the last refuge of scoundrels -- but they may be a fair measure of the distance between 24 and reality.
One thing you can always count on with 24 is that you can hire mercenaries to kill everyone from presidents down, and they can be granted immunity from prosecution to set up the next hour of the show. I keep wondering what the background is: why are there so many jaded mercenaries, and what happened to this country to produce them? Surely something more profound than the political kickbacks from Halliburton and Blackwater. Of course, answers to such questions are beyond the attention span of the show's format. They recklessly push action to a dangerous extent, all to frequently blowing up their story line along with a gaggle of expendable actors. I got hooked on the show not for what it tells me about ourselves but for the sheer perversity of its internal logic.
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