Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Quantico

Alas, “Babylon”

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David Duchovny on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for The X-Files episode “Babylon.”

By now, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the realization that the tenth season of The X-Files will consist of five forgettable episodes and one minor masterpiece. Since the latter is the first true Darin Morgan casefile in close to twenty years, the whole thing still shakes out as a pretty good deal, even if the ratio of good, bad, and mediocre is a little worse than I’d expected. But an installment like this week’s “Babylon” is particularly infuriating because its premise and early moments are so promising, but get systematically squandered by a writer—in this case Chris Carter himself—who seems to have no idea what to do with the opportunities that the revival presented. The first image we see is that of a Muslim man in his twenties on a prayer rug, framed at floor level, and it instantly got my hopes up: this is territory that the original run of the series rarely, if ever, explored, and it’s a rich trove of potential ideas. Even when the young man promptly blows himself up with a friend in a suicide bombing in Texas, I allowed myself to think that the show had something else up its sleeve. It does, but not in a good way: the rest of the episode is a mess, with a mishmash of tones, goofy music cues, dialogue that alternates between frenetic and painfully obvious, an extended hallucination scene, and a weird supporting turn from the gifted Lauren Ambrose, all of which plays even worse than it should because of the pall cast by the opening scene. (Although seeing Mulder in a cowboy hat allowed me to recognize how David Duchovny turned into Fred Ward so gradually that I didn’t even notice.)

In short, it’s not much worth discussing, except for the general observation that if you’re going to use an act of domestic terrorism as a plot device, you’d better be prepared to justify it with some great television. (Even Quantico did a better job of moving rapidly in its own ridiculous direction after an opening terror attack. And the fact that I’m getting nostalgic for Quantico, of all shows, only highlights how disappointing much of this season has been.) But it raises the related issue, which seems worth exploring, of the degree to which The X-Files benefited from the accident of its impeccable historical timing. The series ran for most of the nineties, a decade that wasn’t devoid of partisan politics, but of a kind that tended to focus more on a little blue dress than on Islamic extremism. It had its share of dislocating moments—including the Oklahoma City bombing, which was uncomfortably evoked, with characteristic clumsiness, in The X-Files: Fight the Future—but none that recentered the entire culture in the way that September 11 did. For the most part, The X-Files was free to operate on a separate playing field without much reference to current events, a situation which might not have been the case if its premiere date had been shifted even five years forward or backward. It came after the Cold War and before the war on terror, leaving it with the narrative equivalent of a blank canvas to fill with a cast of imaginary monsters.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Not surprisingly, Chris Carter has stated elsewhere that the show benefited from occurring before the fall of the World Trade Center, which inaugurated a period, however temporary it turned out to be, in which people wanted to believe in their government. Carter implies that this is antithetical to what The X-Files represented, and while that seems plausible at first glance, it doesn’t really hold water. In many ways, the conspiracy thread was one of its weakest elements of the original series: it quickly became too convoluted for words, and it was often used as a kind of reset button, with shadowy government agents moving in to erase any evidence of that week’s revelations. Aside from one occasion, the tag at the end of the opening credits wasn’t “Trust No One,” but “The Truth is Out There.” Paranoia was a useful narrative device, but it wasn’t central to the show’s appeal, and I’d like to think that the series would have evolved into a different but equally satisfying shape if the politics of the time had demanded it—although the damp squib of the reboot, which was explicitly designed to bring Mulder and Scully into the modern world, doesn’t exactly help to make that case. (The clear parallel here is 24, which was transformed by uncontrollable events into something very unlike what it was once intended to be. One of my favorite pieces of show business trivia is that its producers briefly considered optioning The Da Vinci Code as the plot for the show’s second season, which hints at what that series might have been in some other universe.)

In the end, an episode like “Babylon” makes me almost grateful that the show concluded when it did, given its inability to do anything worthwhile with what might have been a decent premise. And it’s an ineptitude that emerges, not from the fog of cranking out a weekly television series, but after Carter had close to fifteen years to think about the kind of story he could tell, which makes it even harder to forgive. The episode’s central gimmick—which involves communicating with a clinically dead suicide bomber to prevent a future attack—is pretty good, or it might have been, if the script didn’t insist on constantly tap-dancing away from it. (A plot revolving around getting into an unconscious killer’s head didn’t even need to be about terrorism at all: a rehash of The Cell would have been preferable to what we actually got.) It’s hard not to conclude that the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files was a run of nine seasons that uniquely positioned it to ignore contemporary politics and pick its source material from anywhere convenient, with time and forgetfulness allowing it to exploit the nightmares of the past in a typically cavalier fashion. But just as recent political developments have rendered House of Cards all but obsolete, I have a feeling that The X-Files, which always depended on such a fragile suspension of disbelief, couldn’t have endured conditions that forced it to honestly confront its own era—which suggests that this reboot may have been doomed from the beginning. Because the incursion of the real world into fantasy is one invasion that this show wouldn’t be able to survive.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

Quantico and the pilot problem

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Priyanka Chopra on Quantico

Note: Spoilers follow for Quantico.

Halfway through the series premiere of Quantico, the new drama being sold to viewers as Homeland meets Gray’s Anatomy, it occurred to me that they had filmed the pitch for the show without bothering to write an actual episode. A second later, I realized that this is exactly what a network pilot is supposed to be. If democracy, as Churchill is supposed to have said, is the worst form of government except for all the others, the process by which shows are picked up on the basis of standalone pilots is the worst possible way to get good television, except that nobody has managed to come up with anything better. A pilot is less the proper opening for an ongoing series than a commercial for what the show could become, and if the industry were smart about it, it would treat those two objectives as totally separate: the network could be sold on the premise with a highlight reel alone, or, maybe better, with an extended trailer followed by the real thing. Instead, we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that these two functions are really the same, which means that nearly every series starts off with an overstuffed, vaguely desperate advertisement for itself. And in a television environment in which the pilot may be all a show ever gets, it’s no wonder that so many series—especially dramas—burn themselves out within the first couple of installments.

It’s too early to write off Quantico entirely, but the omens aren’t particularly promising, as much as I enjoyed a lot of what aired on Sunday. The series certainly has a nice, juicy premise: it’s a soapy look at a class at the FBI Academy, intercut with a flashforward that reveals that one of the trainees—we don’t know which one—is a sleeper agent who will later be responsible for a devastating terrorist attack at Grand Central Station. We can set aside, for now, the issue of how blithely the show trades on images of terrorism in New York mostly as an engine to drive a show in which pretty people sleep with one another: viewers, including me, are ready to forgive almost anything if the result is slick and entertaining. But the show hits all of its beats with such robotic precision that it’s almost unsettling. It isn’t particularly curious about what it would actually be like to be an FBI trainee, or really about anything except how to keep its own plot in motion: within a few minutes, it’s clear that the vision it presents of the academy itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. This isn’t to say that the result can’t be watchable on its own terms, and there’s plenty to like here, particularly in the primary cast. In the leading role of Alex Parrish, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra more than lives up to the hype. I was pleased to see more of Johanna Braddy, who made such a strong impression on UnREAL. And it might be a lot of fun to see these characters collide.

Johanna Braddy on Quantico

What’s less fun is how impatient the show feels: it wants to do everything at once, rather than let the story unfold at its own pace. Every network drama these days starts out with a series bible, a document that outlines the premise and characters in enough detail that the writers can draw on a consistent body of material. One of the unwritten rules of these bibles is that every important character has a secret that will only be exposed later on. Quantico, hilariously, discloses all those secrets in the pilot in the most guileless way imaginable: the trainees are told to investigate one another to find out their secrets, which are then laid out for us in a series of mock interrogation scenes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more surprises coming, or that the ones we see here won’t reveal additional wrinkles later on—at least one of the trainees, after all, is allegedly a terrorist. But having the characters essentially deliver their secrets to the camera is such a blatant narrative shortcut that it almost starts to feel inspired. I’m not even mad; I’m just impressed. Still, it gets old pretty quickly. At one point, there’s a conversation between two supporting players in which one all but says to the other: “Hey, remember how we used to date?” That kind of bald exposition is standard for any pilot, and we’ve learned to accept it. But nearly every scene serves the same kind of double duty. It’s like a briefing on the show that we could be watching, but aren’t.

That said, the pilot is full of punchy moments—a trainee who commits suicide out of fear that his past will be exposed, the reveal that one of the characters is actually a pair of identical twins—that have an undeniable impact. But they’d be much more interesting if we’d spent more than ten minutes with these characters beforehand. The showrunner, Joshua Safran, is clearly an intelligent guy, and he presumably knows that a character’s death is more powerful if we’ve gotten to know him over the course of a few episodes, or that it’s more fun to produce a set of twins if the series has managed to mislead us for most of the season. But he doesn’t have the time to do it properly, or he’s afraid that he won’t get it. Quantico is like a shaggy dog story that repeatedly tells us the punchline before the joke is even finished, out of fear that we’ll stop listening before it’s over. It shows us a twist as if describing the episode to somebody who hadn’t seen it, and then invites us to admire how great it would have been if it had been allowed to unfold for real. It’s possible that it has more up its sleeve, but precedents here aren’t encouraging: shows that make a point of burning through ideas rarely have enough to sustain a whole season, let alone an extended run. (Even The Vampire Diaries started to run out of steam after its third year.) But it’s exactly the kind of show the pilot system was designed to create. And until somebody comes up with a better way, it’s the best we can expect.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2015 at 8:52 am

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