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Kings and Commanders

Posted on Mar 15, 2009 by billsimmon in Joss Whedon, SF, Star Wars, TV | 20 Comments

It’s a momentous week for SF TV. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” ends its first season this week. Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” is poised to start getting interesting next episode (or so says its creators and cast). And perhaps most notably, “Battlestar Galactica,” the bloated and over-rated outer space melodrama, is finaly coming to an end on Friday.

As an aside, I’ll add that all of you SF TV junkies who are wringing your hands over the end of BSG and the creative and ratings success of “Dollhouse” are missing the 400 lb. gorilla in the room. “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” kicks both of those shows’ asses as far as being consistently good SF TV. That’s the show I’ll be sad to see get cancelled because of the Friday night death slot. Let’s hope Joss doesn’t take that show down as collateral damage if his own adjacent show fails.

It’s fitting that as BSG grinds toward its final, overwrought episode, a new light is shining on the horizon…

I’ve just finished watching the two-hour premiere of “Kings” on NBC and it was without question the best series opener I’ve seen since 2004′s “LOST” premiere. The setting is the Kingdom of Gilboa, an alternate-reality place that looks an awful lot like our own world, except for the fictional political structure and place names. “Deadwood’s” Ian McShane plays King Silas Benjamin, who rules his country and court in a manner not at all unlike what you’d expect from Al Swearengen — though perhaps with fewer F-bombs. The political intrigue is thick and draws heavily from the various court/church/military/romantic relationships and rivalries of real historical kingdoms. The English courts of Henry II and Edward II (and to a lesser degree, Henry VIII) have some specific corollaries in the plot so far, which has set up enough political and personal dramatic knots to keep us interested for several seasons. There are heroes and villains and plenty of shades of gray, though one potential red flag may lie in the few transparently villianous characters. I’m hoping their personal motivations become more sympathetic as the series progresses.

The pacing and story-telling in this episode of “Kings” were top-notch and the acting is what you’d expect from the likes of Ian McShane and Dylan Baker — outstanding. You can still catch the premiere at NBC.com.

Steve Benen recently called BSG “the most overtly political program since ‘The West Wing’” in Variety. I think we are witnessing the unseating of that title. Set your DVRs.

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  1. On March 15, 2009, Nathan Beaman said:

    Ill have to check out the kings premiere- my DVR only caught part of it!
    I did get to peak around the sets a few times and they looked awesome.
    Can’t wait to check it out.

  2. I checked out Kings last night out of curiosity, and was very pleasantly surprised. I see what you’re saying about the transparently villanous characters – if Dylan Baker had a moustache, you can rest assured that he would have been twirling it. That aside, I’m pretty psyched to see where this show goes.

    I’m also really looking forward to the end of BSG. Not only do I NEED to know what happens at this point, but I feel it’s also time to put the old girl to bed. The phrase “bloated and over-rated” definitely applies to BSG now, but it was truly awesome at one time.

    Dollhouse and Terminator: SCC – what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Good shows, for sure, but doomed.

  3. On March 16, 2009, Lev said:

    I’ve been trying to come to terms with BSG’s not-so-sudden suckitude. I’ve come to the conclusion that all the praise the show got in the critical press went straight to Ron Moore’s head. But it has the following problems, so far as I can tell:

    1. Obsession with being “dark”. It just feels like pathetic goth poetry at this part. One of the things that made The Wire so good was that it understood that a bit of humor would make the difficult subject matter go down easier, and a little bit of humanity would keep people watching despite the fact that things rarely worked out well. BSG feels like a show made for emo 15 year olds these days. Even the occasional humor and flickers of hope from the early days, gone.

    2. Lack of narrative discipline. How many episodes of BSG have there been in the past two seasons where nothing happened? There weren’t too many draggy episodes during the first two seasons, so much as I recall.

    3. Lack of interesting and sophisticated storytelling. This was actually a strong point during the show’s early days–there was usually a lot going on in each episode, and we’d go from Galactica to Kobol to Caprica, etc. Now it feels like Moore and his team either pull tired old threads that nobody cares about anymore, or less interesting new ones that are quickly forgotten. Starbuck/Apollo is a good example of the first tendency (though we have had blessedly little of that nonsense recently) while that dude from “Hero” is a good example of the second.

    4. Superficial examination of social/political issues. In my opinion, anyway, the show hasn’t done anything interesting here since the Pegasus episodes, which were pretty compellingly anti-Bush.

    5. Lack of vision for the show. This has been obvious for some time, and some people actually praise the show for it as being dynamic. I disagree because Moore’s instincts have proven very bad in terms of storytelling, but I suppose we’ll just have to see how the finale turns out. Though the setup (rescue the little girl) has the magnitude of perhaps an okay season finale, I suspect it will prove disappointing as a series wrapper.

    What’s really amazing is how unable the creators were to keep all the threads together for an 80-episode show. Making Ellen Tigh a cylon, despite the fact that we saw her doing Cavil without the back glowing thing, is merely one example. I once compared watching the show to being a Soviet intellectual, with trying to convince yourself of the antilogic of the whole program. I was wrong. It’s the opposite of a Marxist show: it has no interest in history at all.

  4. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    All good observations, Lev. Also, how many times do we have to witness Adama refusing to do what’s right, getting into a big fight over it that results in him firing, punching or locking someone up in the brig, then he has an epiphany prompted by some overwrought emotional moment, then he changes his mind? My English there got a bit fracked but you know what I mean? ugh.

    Gerry said this on Friday and I agree – if next week’s ep. is as bad as this week’s, I’m done with this show.

  5. Haven’t seen Kings, so I’ll have to argue about BSG instead. (So easy to do, isn’t it?)

    I’m getting the feeling from various people dissing BSG that the crappy episodes in season 3 and 4.0 got them so pissed off that they aren’t even paying attention to what’s been going on in 4.5. Because in my opinion, there have been some real artistic triumphs in this last run of episodes.

    To be a little more specific, I’ll take on Lev’s series of points above.

    1) “Obsession with being dark.” Believe it or not, there are some people on the other side of the argument who say that the show is an utter failure because it hasn’t depicted how dark things would actually get after 99.99% of the human race was destroyed and the rest were being relentlessly pursued for years on end. IMO, that could be true, but there is no way you can sustain ratings over several years with a diet of non-stop despair. The beginning of the latter half of this season was really close to the line, but I think the tone has lightened significantly in the last few eps. I’ve certainly laughed a few times.

    2) Episodes where “nothing happens”. This is completely a matter of taste. What to some is “nothing” is to others riveting character drama and nuanced depiction of the human condition. Ronald Moore described his process of producing the last string of episodes and how everything became easier once he came up with the credo of “it’s the characters, stupid”. I’m really glad of that, personally.

    3) “Lack of interesting and sophisticated storytelling.” This sounds like a description of season 3, not what has been going on for the past two months.

    4) “Superficial examination of social/political issues.” Totally disagree on this point. I found both the occupation and mutiny arcs to be devastating and profound. Not something I would want in every episode, though, because I might just slit my wrists (which goes back to point #1).

    5) “Lack of vision”. Also totally disagree on this point. No other science fiction show has taken present-day themes and naturalism to this level. Has the show been able to maintain consistent quality? No. But I think everyone involved has done an amazing job of taking science fiction TV out of the realm of kitsch and into the realm of cinematic art.

    As for the thing about the Cylon glowing spine… you did get that the “final five” are not the same as the other skinjob models, right? So there is no inconsistency, at least in that particular instance.

    This question is for Bill: As a film geek, don’t you think the show’s cinematography deserves some praise? I think they’ve some some amazing stuff, myself.

  6. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    As a film geek, don’t you think the show’s cinematography deserves some praise?

    I think there’s lots to praise about BSG, from the production design to (some of) the acting. The cinematography is a tad too NYPD Blue/Leslie Dektor for my tastes, but that’s just me being a film snob. I think the snap zooms in space (that Firefly coined, if I’m not mistaken) are a little silly too — Documentarians… In… Spaaaaace….

    Ron Moore’s it’s-the-characters-stupid credo would be more compelling/convincing if…

    A: the characters behaved according to previously well-established norms (like Adama, say, NOT agreeing to give Gaius Baltar a bunch of guns — just one example of dozens), and…

    B: Character arcs didn’t repeat themselves over and over (e.g., Adama’s epiphanies that I mentioned above). The “all of this has happened before” theme is a bad excuse for lazy storytelling.

    I admit that the specific mutiny episodes themselves were taught and the characters were mostly consistent in them (I think having John Dahl direct was a big help), but the crazy plot machinations that had to transpire to get us to a place where those episodes could happen were infuriating.

    Was Earth really a red herring all along? If so, I want my fracking money back.

  7. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    aha, I mean the mutiny eps were “taut.” Though perhaps someday they’ll be “taught” in school as being the only decent eps in the last season. :)

  8. Giving Baltar & Co. guns is just plain stupid, true, and not in character for Adama. He has not been served well by the last few episodes. But last Friday’s episode had some great background material on Roslin, Anders, Baltar, and Kara & Lee’s relationship. I felt that it brought the show back to what really makes it shine compared to other SF shows.

    Plot just is not the show’s strength, and I am not very invested in what happens as far as the prophecy, Hera’s role, etc. As long as each of the characters I care about gets some closure that makes sense, I will be satisfied.

    Re: Earth being a red herring. I thought it was really daring of the show to destroy the hope of Earth. The fact is, people believe in all kinds of things that don’t exist or are never going to happen, and having the audience buy in to the whole “search for Earth” plot line only to brutally invalidate it is a great demonstration of what it feels like to see a dream turn to ashes.

  9. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    So as I was thinking about how to respond to your comment just now, Therem, I started thinking that basically BSG’s problem is really one of plot… and tone… and characters… crap. I can’t do it. It’s all bad. Okay, there are good individual episodes with interesting character dynamics and there’s lots of good production design, and when RDM is REALLY on his game, there’s passable scripting, but I think way more eps were terrible than good (esp after the 1st season).

    To your specific points (warning, rant-like behavior ahead directed toward RDM and cohorts, not at Therem):

    last Friday’s episode had some great background material on Roslin, Anders, Baltar, and Kara & Lee’s relationship. I felt that it brought the show back to what really makes it shine compared to other SF shows.

    Had these flashbacks occurred at the beginning of the season and not in the penultimate ep. I might be intrigued a bit about where they were going, but I know in 2 hours we’re done. All that back story won’t give us anything meaningful in the next 2 hours. And what about Anders’ flashbacks compelled you? And what in the name of lame metaphors was the pigeon all about? The editor sure put a lot of importance on that damn bird — it was the first image in the episode and when we come back to it, Lee is drunkenly fighting it… uh, what did i miss there? The music got all heavy and we’re obviously supposed to be moved by this heavy-handed, ham-fisted, overwrought scene with the pigeon that relates to NOTHING else in the ep. We don’t even know why Lee is drunk (a friend speculated he was coming back from Zack’s funeral, but so what?)!

    The problem is that RDM turns it up to 11 all the fracking time. Someone needs to tell him that sometimes less is more. I’m so tired of all the intensity. It’s not “darkness” that frustrates me, it’s that the show is so damned amped up emotionally that there isn’t anywhere interesting for it to go, narratively. And the narrative is why I watch TV. It’s a storytelling medium. I can listen to Wagner if I want overwrought emotional melodrama and no coherent story (that’s actually doing a disservice to Wagner, who sometimes told very clear stories).

    Plot just is not the show’s strength, and I am not very invested in what happens as far as the prophecy, Hera’s role, etc. As long as each of the characters I care about gets some closure that makes sense, I will be satisfied.

    My problem isn’t so much plot, it’s that RDM has never seemed to have any sense of where the story was taking him or us. Long ago I stopped having any faith that story elements that seemed REALLY IMPORTANT at the time would have any long term bearing on the future of the show.

    Cylons stopped being different from humans in any meaningful way at the end of season 3. That was a central driving focus of the show — it drove our characters’ motivations (both the cylons and humans) and the plot. Making Tigh and the Chief — two of the most “human” characters on the show — Cylons was a further jumping of the shark for me. And it felt like another curve ball, thrown at us not because RDM thought it was good storytelling or because he’d been planning it all along, but because he so desperately wanted to surprise us. I don’t care if BSG keeps me guessing, I want it to have some internal consistency and be narratively compelling and not just seem like it’s being made up as it goes along by a middle school kid GMing a role playing game.

    I thought it was really daring of the show to destroy the hope of Earth.

    Really? because I thought it was the central plot of the show I was watching. Also, there are all kinds of bad SF problems here involving just exactly what “Earth” is. Why even call it “Earth” if the planet they’re calling that name is not literally Earth, unless it’s supposed to be Earth in the distant future or distant past (which seems unlikely given what we know). The word has at this point lost all relevance since it was clearly not “our” Earth they were referring to. (there is still a slim possibility this issue will be addressed in the last ep. – I’m not holding my breath)

    The fact is, people believe in all kinds of things that don’t exist or are never going to happen, and having the audience buy in to the whole “search for Earth” plot line only to brutally invalidate it is a great demonstration of what it feels like to see a dream turn to ashes.

    So I’ve heard this defense a lot for all kinds of bad fiction. It’s the “but that’s how real life is” defense. Plenty of things that are “real” are also uninteresting or make for bad TV/film. “Because it’s real” by itself isn’t enough to make a story worth telling — the story has to give us something — a good yarn or a worthy insight into human nature, or a punchline — something. But that’s not why the abandonment of the Earth story was frustrating. It’s frustrating b/c we’ve been teased for years into expecting the Earth story to pay off in a good way. Then it was dropped.

    And here’s the thing: the specific dynamic you’re talking about — seeing a dream turn to ashes — could be a compelling story under certain circumstances, but that’s not only not the story we’ve been watching for all these years — it’s not even the story we’re watching now — that was the arc of a few episodes early in the season. That’s it. Now we’re onto different territory. So much for all the energy put into telling that story!

    I’m ranting a bit, I know. I obviously care about BSG because it was SO GOOD once and had so much potential. I honestly don’t think I’ve gone 3 eps in a row without rolling my eyes and yelling at my TV since season 1. The surface of Kobol was where I started to recognize the red flags of bad storytelling. The New Caprica occupation was the official shark-jumping moment for me, followed by more sharks.

    I’m done now (even though lots more stuff is coming up as I type).

  10. On March 16, 2009, G C said:

    Had these flashbacks occurred at the beginning of the season and not in the penultimate ep. I might be intrigued a bit about where they were going, but I know in 2 hours we’re done.

    It’s arguably not even the penultimate episode. It’s Daybreak—part 1. If this is a single three-hour episode, as it’s been advertised, it’s even more inexcusable.

    My problem isn’t so much plot, it’s that RDM has never seemed to have any sense of where the story was taking him or us.

    Which is ironic, because a lot of his initial hype for the show had to do with his assertion that this has always been the problem with Star Trek. In particular BSG was hyped as an anti-Voyager, which never quite panned out.

    The New Caprica occupation was the official shark-jumping moment for me, followed by more sharks.

    Quibble: while this is true, it’s also true that the New Caprica storyline was the last time I thought the show really hit on all cylinders. The problem was that he actually hit the reset button afterwards…

    The fact is that Daybreak Part 1 was utterly horrible and suggests that RDM, to the bitter end, has no idea what originally worked about BSG or how to salvage the mess the show turned into. A huge, anti-climax is coming our way, bet on it.

  11. Thanks for the rant, Bill. :-)

    Here’s my question, which has occurred to me while reading many anti-BSG rants in the past year and a half: if the show jumped the shark for you during the occupation arc — which was almost two seasons ago — why are you still watching it!? Seriously, if a show pisses me off and makes me think the producers have no idea what they are doing in nearly every episode, I stop wasting my time with it. (This is what happened with Heroes at Season 2, ep. 1 for me.) If you continue to stick around FOR TWO SEASONS, you are either a masochist or not accurately representing your opinion of the show with your rants.

    “I thought [the hope of Earth] was the central plot of the show I was watching.”

    If you thought that, you were thinking the way a lot of the show’s characters were. And there were indications from the very beginning of BSG that by dangling the hope of Earth in front of the fleet, Adama and Roslin were exploiting people’s need to believe in something in order to keep going. What might seem like lazy plotting or an insult to the viewers to you looks like psychological realism to me. I have read enough about what happens behind the scenes in TV productions to know that planning things out five years in advance almost never happens, and even if it does (Babylon 5 is the only example I know of), it doesn’t mean that the show is going to be better for it.

    I keep coming back to the music metaphor. BSG and Farscape strike me as being like improvisational jazz… sometimes kinda noodly or kinda annoying or even maddening, but then winding up to something really exciting and groundbreaking and the best thing ever. Until the next thing. Or something.

    Incidentally… what is with all the love for season 1 anyway? Have you watched it recently? I haven’t, but my impression of it is not nearly so favorable as yours or the various other critics who harken back to it like it was the Good Old Days. It had some pretty silly stuff in it.

  12. On March 16, 2009, NickC said:

    Last week I changed to Nacho Libre as my backup channel during one commercial when BSG was on, then stayed there because Nacho Libre had noticeably better dialogue and more action (if you can believe it). Then this past week I only stayed on BSG 10 seconds and went somewhere else…just not worth watching at all. I look forward to re-watching the pilot fresh in a couple years.

    I also deleted it from my hulu subscriptions. Who cares? It’s a bunch of wrinkled space wankers having fantasies about a regular Earth-like world (you know, the one I am trying to escape from by watching the show in the first place) and doing nothing but yak, yak, yak at each other endlessly…

  13. Oh, and to respond to your questions:

    And what about Anders’ flashbacks compelled you?

    I liked that it made sense in a poetic way. He was a machine, even though he didn’t know it, so what mattered to him were the moments of perfection, not the moments of victory over other teams or the connections with his teammates. I liked that I could interpret his words either as quasi-autism or greater attunement with the universe in an almost Buddhist way. I liked that there was fruitful ambiguity. I also liked that he was in a physical therapy hot tub. Kind of obvious in a way, but also a real tie between his past and present in a way that made sense.

    And what in the name of lame metaphors was the pigeon all about?

    I don’t know. I wondered about that too. But how can you call it a “lame metaphor” when you don’t even know what the metaphor is? I think it is premature to say that there is something wrong with the storytelling when we both know that the last three hours of the show were intended to be a narrative whole, and we haven’t seen two-thirds of it. I’m willing to withstand a little confusion given the circumstances.

  14. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    why are you still watching it!?

    I kept watching at first because the show really was great once (more on that below) and I hoped RDM might find his way back into the light. Indeed, even this season there are glimmers here and there of that old fire. At 10 episodes/season, it’s easy to say “I’ll keep watching to the end of the season, it’s only a few eps away.” At the end of last season I said (and this is recorded on PSFR so I can prove it) “If there were any more than 10 more episodes, I would not keep watching. Now I’m just waiting to see how it ends.” I’m not holding out because it’s good, but out of a morbid curiosity and because it cost me little to do (and I get to have discussions like this). I gave up on Heroes too. BSG is better than Heroes, but of course, that’s a terrible bar to set.

    What might seem like lazy plotting or an insult to the viewers to you looks like psychological realism to me.

    I think I addressed this in my previous comment. The psychological realism you’re talking about (loss of a dream) served a two or three ep. arc (and not all that well, IMO). That’s a pretty paltry payoff for all that time. Is the psychological realism of my feeling cheated out of any sort of narrative consistency supposed to be the point? The characters aren’t even discussing that loss on the show now, or Earth. Or the occupation. Or Pegasus. They’re barely mentioning the mutiny that just happened. And remember how a blood transfusion from Hera saved Roslin’s life several seasons back. They haven’t even had a passing line of dialogue explaining why they never tried that trick again. It’s insulting to my intelligence. It’s as if RDM isn’t aware of the fact that he’s making something large that has a continuity that he needs to respect. Does he think nobody has been watching since the beginning? Uh oh, I’m ranting again.

    I have read enough about what happens behind the scenes in TV productions to know that planning things out five years in advance almost never happens, and even if it does (Babylon 5 is the only example I know of), it doesn’t mean that the show is going to be better for it.

    I don’t need the show to be pre-scripted for five yrs. You mentioned Farscape. Farscape did not suffer from the inconsistencies of BSG at all. The characters on Farscape were consistent and changed over time in realistic and narratively compelling ways. That the plot got tied up at the end was a bonus, but I’d be singing Farscape’s praises even if the Peacekeeper Wars was never made. LOST is an even better example — that show has been working toward a known goal without having been pre-scripted ala Bab5. Hell, Chuck does a better job of this than BSG.

    what is with all the love for season 1 anyway? Have you watched it recently?

    Yes, chunks of it. You should watch the mini series, “33″ and “Water” again right now — before you write your next comment. I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. Night and day.

  15. On March 16, 2009, Rob said:

    Thank you NickC. Spot on. I didn’t have the guts to say it among all the Galactica heads.

  16. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Yeah but Rob, you never liked the show. I suspect Nick feels the sting of lost potential like I do, or he wouldn’t have had his Hulu subscription to begin with.

  17. Farscape did not suffer from the inconsistencies of BSG at all.

    Respectfully, I think you are on crack. Farscape was chock-full of plot holes and repeatedly tied up cliff-hangers in the first episode of the next season in a really annoying way that cheapened the whole arc. I have been re-watching it on DVD for the past two months, so I have been recently refreshed on these points. I still love the show, but there is no way that it beats BSG in this race.

    I abandoned Lost after the first (very good) season. It didn’t crap out as badly as Heroes, but the beginning of season 2 gave me a foreboding of X-Files mythology failure even so. I never was interested enough in Chuck to watch more than a couple of episodes.

    You should watch the mini series, “33? and “Water” again right now

    Those are good, agreed. (Although I don’t like “33″ as much as a lot of people.) The offenders I was thinking of were “Bastille Day” and “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”. But I am planning to rewatch all of BSG once this season ends; I will let you know if my opinion changes.

  18. On March 16, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Okay, well you’re the one who was arguing that it’s the character on BSG more than the plot that you like. That’s the context in which I was comparing BSG and Farscape. The characters on Farscape behave in ways that make sense for those characters all the way through the series, from episode to episode, without fail. It is light years ahead of BSG in this regard. Moreover, the characters and their relationships to each other grow in realistic and enjoyable ways over time on Farscape. That’s critical to a show’s success and BSG fails at that in a big way.

    I was starting to lose faith in LOST season 2 and the 1st half of season 3. From season 3.5 on it’s been firing on all cylinders and is currently the best SF on TV (even better than SCC). The Chris Carter syndrome is definitely NOT in play and that’s quite clear now. It has also embraced a more traditional SF story line (relying less on magic and mysticism) and again, the characters are growing in realistic and compelling ways — ways the BSG characters never did, despite really strong performances from some actors (Sackhoff and Callis in particular).

    BSG was firing on all cylinders in the mini series and the first several eps of season 1. Not all of season 1 was great, but show-for-show, it’s head and shoulders better than season 2, which was in turn better than season 3 and so on. Now there are only faint glimmers of goodness, sad to say.

  19. On March 17, 2009, Rob said:

    Your wrong Bill, I did like the pilot mini series and perhaps 2 or 3 episodes after that. The show lost me as soon as it was obvious the human looking Cylons would dominate the story.

  20. Thanks for the update on Lost, Bill. Maybe I will give it another shot now that I know it improves later on.

    Re: Farscape. In my view, it wasn’t just the plot that lacked consistency. The cliffhanger episodes I mentioned were pretty important as far as character developments go (the introduction of Stark, Crichton suffering brain damage, Aeryn dying), and could have been awesome if they were followed up in subsequent episodes. Unfortunately, they weren’t, and the characters soon carried on as if nothing had happened. Then there was the whole Jothee misfire and a number of big cast changes starting in season 3. Rarely did the show take the time to follow up on its developments in a way that I found satisfying. After a few seasons of it, I decided that David Kemper, the producer, must have ADD or something. But I still found it enjoyable in its wacky way up to the end.

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