Monday, September 26, 2016

The New MacGyver Reboot is Lame (and I am Not Just Saying That Because They Did Not Include My House)

A few months ago, my in-law's house was taken over for the shooting of a pilot for a reboot of the classic show MacGyver. For those unfamiliar with it, MacGyver features a genius secret agent, who manages to make all kinds of useful things on the fly from what he finds about himself. My in-laws got to live in a hotel for a week. Since we live in the guest house, we got to stay. It was cool to go outside and see the production. Everyone we encountered was really nice for letting us watch and not complaining that we got in the way. The episode was supposed to feature a wedding, shot in the garden. Miriam and I were married in that garden. How cool was it going to be to say we got married in the same place as a television wedding. The interior of the house itself was supposed to be MacGyver's house.

I was looking forward to seeing the show and being able to pick out what stuff was shot at the house. In fact, an early trailer featured a sequence shot on our front steps. It turns out that the original pilot was scrapped. So far it seems that MacGyver is going to be living at someone else's house. No hard feelings. It was a fun experience. What I find more frustrating, having become invested in the show, is that it is pretty terrible. The show's flaws are worth examing as an exercise in what can go wrong with an action/comedy.

It does not take much to imagine this show being pitched as a 24 with a tongue and cheek sense of humor, something like Chuck. If I were that producer, I am sure I would have been tempted to greenlight the project. The problem is, as my father once taught me, comedy is the hardest kind of acting to do. The material can sound great on paper, but you get out there and it just does not work. With drama, you can save some entertainment value even if things fall apart. There is no saving comedy that is simply not funny. What is particularly perilous about comedy is that it is all too easy to try saving a failed drama by deciding it is a comedy. You find the story stupid; well you do not appreciate that it was supposed to be funny.

This is exponentially the case when doing tongue and cheek. The temptation is to take material that lacks the laughs to be a comedy and lacks the plot and characters to be drama and call it tongue and cheek. To do tongue and cheek comedy properly you need something that works both as drama and as comedy. The difference between successful and failed tongue and cheek is the difference between Joss Whedon's Avengers and Zach Synder's Justice League or the original Star War films and the prequels. In both cases, the superiority of the former is matched by the difficulty in explaining why, particularly for anyone working on the project, not seeing the final product. With the later, we simply do not care about the characters or what happens to them so when they say something that is supposed to be funny it just sounds dumb.

The first episode of MacGyver (and here is to hoping it improves) featured plenty twists, turns and moments of peril mixed with banter packed into forty minutes that should have made it a fun ride. I mean MacGyver's love interest gets killed in the first few minutes in an operation gone south. The team needs to capture a biological weapon before it causes global mayhem. As it turns out, the love interest was a double agent who faked her death, leading to an intense standoff with MacGyver. In terms of action and peril, this episode probably outdoes most episodes of 24. On top of that, MacGyver has a sardonic older military side-kick and a clueless black roommate, telling jokes. So why do I think the show was a waste of time? Someone thought that peril and jokes could substitute for characters we care about when peril and jokes only work if we care about the characters. It is useful to compare the plot of MacGyver to 24. Season one of 24 ended with the revelation that Nina Myers had been a double agent the entire time and she murders Jack Bauer's wife. This was dramatically effective because we spent an entire season liking Nina and becoming invested in her complex relationship with Jack. She is his tech support and the main person he trusts at CTU even as they once had an affair and Jack is now trying to repair his marriage. Nina returns in seasons two and three and is an effective villain precisely because we get how she brings out Jack's anger and guilt. This emotional foundation allows Nina to be a formidable physical danger as well, capable of getting the edge on Jack.

I can easily imagine the material for the MacGyver episode working over the course of several episodes. After spending an entire season becoming invested in MacGyver's relationship with his techie, in a season-ending cliffhanger, she dies in a mission and MacGyver is left floating in a lake with a bullet in his shoulder. We pick up the next season with the bad guys still having their WMD and MacGyver coming back into the field. This would have provided some actual emotional heft for him to find out out that his love betrayed him. This would be a conflict with intrigue. Give me that and I might even start laughing at some of the jokes.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Let the Force be Your Guide

I recently started showing Kalman Star Wars. We can now add that to Wriggles, "Hobbes," and Superman to the list of things he likes enough to ask for by name. Out of curiosity, I ended up watching the original trailer for New Hope.

It is amusing as an example of a trailer cut by someone, who did not understand the movie or its true significance. A perfectly understandable mistake considering that George Lucas never understood Star Wars. Most obviously, at this point the iconic "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" has yet to make its entrance, leaving us with the embarrassingly awkward "somewhere in space this may all be happening." In retrospect, implying that there is a romantic relationship between Luke and Leia is downright creepy. At a more profound level, though, the trailer misses the key feature of Star Wars, the Force. Contrast this with the prominent role played by the Force in Force Awakens trailers.

In a similar vein, if I were to create a trailer for New Hope, I would open with Obi-Wan Kenobi's monologue about the Jedi upholding order in the galaxy before the dark days of the Empire.
Instead of the Force, the original Star Wars trailer gives us this Flash Gordon type adventure. Granted, this is what Lucas originally intended, but if Star Wars was all you see in the trailer, Star Wars would have been just one more campy space film from the 1970s to be treated with the same embarrassment as bell-bottoms. There are many cultural pieces from my childhood that I have no desire to share with Kalman; why Star Wars?

What makes Star Wars more than spaceships and lazar guns is the drama of the Force. By this, I mean the struggle between the light and dark sides as played out on the galactic scale in the battle between Republic and Empire and on the human scale of the Force user tempted by darkness. As with J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit, Lucas initially introduced the Force as a device to move the plot forward without understanding its true importance. By the time of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien recognized that it was the ring that was all that stood between his story and a generic fantasy about a quest to defeat an evil dark lord and his army of orcs. As fans of the series know, Lord of the Rings is not about saving Middle Earth from Sauron. The real villain is the ring, which corrupts all who are near it. Frodo's quest is a personal journey to save his own soul from the ring. He fails to destroy the ring, but, providentially, saves himself along with all Middle Earth through his pity for Gollum. Instead of seeing Gollum as a monster, Frodo recognizes the fallen hobbit and realizes that, if not for grace, he would be equally liable to fall.

When evaluating Lucas, it is important to keep in mind how little he had to do with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Those responsible for these films realized that Star Wars needed to be about something more than plucky Luke defeating the vast armies of the Empire with the magic of the Force. The big game changer for Star Wars is in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke's father. Instead of simply being a scary villain, Vader all of a sudden becomes a failed Luke. Now the threat of Luke falling to the dark side becomes frighteningly plausible. As we move to the climax of Return of the Jedi with Luke facing Vader and the Emperor on the Death Star, Luke's task is no longer to defeat the empire, but to save himself from the dark side by not fighting his father. Luke also attempts to save his Vader by recognizing the human underneath the suit of armor. Luke's faith in Vader allows Vader to believe that there is good in himself and that he has a choice. In the end, it is not Luke's strength in the Force that prevails; it is Vader's human love for his son that saves the galaxy.

Writers of the Expanded Universe have appreciated the narrative possibilities of this tragic temptation and fall to the dark side along with the hope for redemption. Take a look at the graphic novel of Exar Kun, who is essentially forced to the dark side. Play Knights of the Old Republic, the greatest narrative video game ever, and discover the truth about Darth Ravan. The Darth Bane trilogy features an oddly moral, if murderous, Sith Lord. He does not seek power for himself. Rather, he selflessly works to advance the Force by training a student, who will one day possess the power to kill him and take the title of Sith Master. For Bane, being murdered by his student is not some kink in his system that he failed to perceive, but an essential point.

One way to see the failure of the prequels is how Lucas, having reasserted his control over Star Wars, failed to properly use the Force. We fans, who counted down the days until Phantom Menace in 1999 "knew" that we were going to watch the downfall of Anakin Skywalker culminating in the mother of all lightsaber duels between Vader and Kenobi. It is still shocking to see the extent to which Lucas ran away from that story, leaving it almost as an afterthought to the last half of Revenge of the Sith. By the end of Attack of the Clones, Anakin should have known Palpatine's true identity and have given himself, at least in principle, over to his Sith teachings even as he is yet to do anything irredeemably terrible.

The Force Awakens, for all of its flaws, understood the Force. Kylo Ren is a uniquely empathetic villain and not simply another bad guy in a mask. He is fallen, but he is still tempted by the light. In order to give himself completely over to the dark side, he murders his father, Han Solo. Someone who must go to such extremes to escape good must have a lot of good within him. Much of the success of the future films will depend on this continued struggle. Rey will have to defeat him, not in a lightsaber duel, but in recognizing his humanity. If Rey fails to see this and chooses to believe that brute force can win, she will fall to the dark side. Ironically, it is this struggle with the dark side that might allow her to empathize with Kylo, saving herself and the galaxy.