Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mawaru Penguindrum 2: Risky Survival Strategy

A lot of the shows I talk about here are ones that you have to work to read things into, to notice the more symbolic meanings that lay at the centre of what are ostensibly ordinary genre shows. Mawaru Penguindrum is not one of those shows.

On a pure plot level the show is hard to make heads or tails of, except as an absurdist comedy. All kinds of weird things happen – Himari revives from the dead at the price of being occasionally possessed by a magic penguin hat with mysterious motives, penguins appear to serve every whim of our three main characters and are invisible to everyone but them, and then there are the sequences where the brothers get whisked off to some kind of pocket dimension and receive bizarre instructions from their possessed sister as she strips off her clothes.

All of this follows the reputation of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, creator of the surrealist magical girl series (and anime masterwork) Revolutionary Girl Utena. Like Penguindrum, Utena is so full of sequences unrelated to plot or character and strange stylistic choices that it practically begs for interpretation in the same way so many modern literary works do. This is I suppose another variety of the “puzzle anime” I discussed last week: the viewer is charged with deciphering not what is happening but why it's happening on a metafictional level. (Some shows, such as Evangelion (or Lost, for an American equivalent), demand deciphering on both the narrative (i.e. “what the heck is going on”) and symbolic levels.) Penguindrum is the first show Ikuhara's directed since Utena, which ended (if you count the movie) in 1999. As you might expect, the twelve-year gap has expectations quite high for this show, and the reputations of Ikuhara and Utena cast quite a long shadow on the new show.* So I'm going to try to avoid a head-on comparison between the two shows, although they do have similarities that deserve being called attention to.

On the surface, Mawaru Penguindrum is sweet and innocent. The colours are bright pastels, the central three characters all love each other in a warm-fuzzies sort of way, and much of the action (at least in this episode) revolves around cute penguins doing cute penguin things. The design of the siblings' house (which is notably differentiated by the more mundane dwellings around it) reflects this kind of gumdrops-and-lollypops atmosphere.

(The above screenshot is interesting because of just how crowded the shot is, especially in a form that is known for artistic simplicity. And in amidst all of these distractions, Himari has quietly put on her penguin hat again. This is just snuck into the background of the scene. Mawaru Penguindrum is asking us to pay close attention to even its backgrounds, or else we'll miss what's about to happen.)

Even the girls' bathroom is sparkly and fantastical.

So this is a world where cute little girls literally shit stars. But the cute world of Mawaru Penguindrum also has its seedy, base and depressing sections. After all, the first episode includes the sweet little girl at its centre dying of a terminal illness. And in “Risky Survival Strategy” we begin in the toilet, travel through a lingerie store, and end up under the baseboards with a crazed stalker.

We open in the above-pictured girl's bathroom, with a shot sicklingly cute pink toilet flushing. The opening, pre-credits scene is a mirror of the one from the first episode, featuring a previously unintroduced character (in this case Ringo) going about their daily business while monologuing in voice-over about fate. Whereas Shoma (at least I'm pretty sure it's Shoma) hates the concept of fate, relating it to his sister's terminal illness, Ringo has a more positive idea of it, viewing it in the lens of the romantic “fated meeting”. Ringo's idealized view of the world, gleaned from popular depictions of romance, is set up aside Shoma's jaded perspective based on his own experiences. This leads them to opposite conclusions: for Shoma fate makes everything pointless, and for Ringo it makes nothing pointless. (Day over at Gar Gar Stegosaurus has a good post up about the nuances in translation in these two speeches, and the fansubbers' decision to render “umei” as “fate”. Given how disastrous my attempt to learn Japanese was, I'll leave the question of translation to her and encourage you guys to go check out that post.)

This contrast between cynicism and romanticism holds true to their characters even outside of the question of fate. Shoma is the cynic, refusing to accept the occurences of the supernatural (and cute) around him, which is contrasted with his brother Kanba's easy acceptance of the inexplicable. On the other hand, at least as seen throughout “Risky Survival Strategy”, Ringo is a born romantic who refuses to accept the negative – she cannot see how surrendering her future to fate could lead to anything bad, or how her love could possibly be unreturned. It would be a bit facile to say that both characters are equally in denial, refusing to accept the parts of the world that do not fit their worldview. Shoma's perspective is at least informed by a part of reality and not a fiction, and all it has lead to so far are a couple of freak-outs and not a stalkerish obsession.

“Risky Survival Strategy” then turns to light comedy about taking care of the mysterious penguins. For most of this episode's runtime it is in a distinctly comedic mode. The jokes are unusually broad – see the gags that involve the penguins in lingerie – but I don't think that makes Mawaru Penguindrum any less worthwhile or thematically interesting.

After that we have another “Survival Strategy” sequence, where Himari is posessed by the penguin hat and sends her brothers to some kind of strange otherworldly place in order to give them orders. It's hard to tell since we're only two episodes in, but I'm assuming that this is going to be a bit of repeated animation like the “transformation sequences” of many shows a la the stair-walking prebattle sequence of Utena. These sequences started out, like so many signature anime techniques, as a practical measure to save time and effort – if you could use the same ninety-second footage of the giant robot transforming in every episode, that was thousands of frames of animation you didn't have to worry about. (Lengthy credits sequences are another anime trademark that may have originated this way.) However, I have to think that this isn't the main motive here. After all, in this digitized day and age the savings of chopping out a small amount of the animation work has to be smaller, and it doesn't really suit an animation studio like Brain's Base who has begun to attract a reputation for quality.

Rather I think it's a conscious stylistic trait of Ikuhara. These kinds of repetitive sequences have shown up in every anime he's directed (Utena and much of Sailor Moon), and especially in Utena they're thematically linked into the show, representing the repetition Anthy is forced to go through as the Rose Maiden. In addition to whatever meaning it may have in the context of the show, it's also a nod to the history of the medium, drawing on its history in much the same subversive way as Utena draws on the tradition of the magical girl genre and Mawaru Penguindrum draws on the current cuteness craze (but more on that later.)

Here's the sequence, which really deserves to be watched in its entirety, starting at around 0:20:

It's kind of hard to decipher this scene, if only because it has such a surplus of random symbols – and I mean that literally, as we see little icons fly past the screen faster than we can keep track of them. To a certain extent, it's meant to be indecipherable -- which is to say that a major point of the sequence is just this postmodern rush of simulacra, a submersion into a chaotic world with endless layers of referents. Then again, there are other aspects of the sequence with hard-to-ignore symbolic meanings – the blatantly phallic rocket-thing slamming into that pink thing definitely calls attention to the incestuous undertones to the series.

And then there's the dialogue after that sequence. In the three episodes of Mawaru Penguindrum released so far, the visual aspects of this scene are more or less the same – Himari stands on top of a stage while her brothers are below in handcuffs, she dictates things to them while slowly walking down the stairs and shedding clothing, and then Shoma gets dumped through a trapdoor – although the dialogue is different each time. This is similar to how the repetition worked in Utena – similar, but slightly different each time. I also have to wonder at the significance of Himari's movements during this sequence. Given that she is (in her normal personality) sort of subordinate to her brothers, being the object they look after and protect, this sequence represents a reversal where she is elevated and they are at her mercy. (This leads to a weird bondage-y vibe to the scenes.) However, she then comes down to their level – perhaps a sign of the iminent restoration of normal family relations. Interestingly, so far there's no indication of how this weird trance ends – in all three episodes we've just abruptly cut away to something else. This may simply be another way in which these sequences are established as breaking the laws of time and space, or there may be some greater significance to this revealed later.

Himari instructs her brothers to find the Penguindrum, which besides being in the title is completely mysterious to both characters and audience. This continues the absurdist nature of the series, with the brothers searching for something while having no idea what it is. Anyway, Himari says it's in the possession of Ringo, the girl we met at the start of the episode. This leads to them stalking her, using their invisible penguins as scouts.

In this way the penguins are coming to represent the pure id of their associated characters, able to get away with their owners' forbidden desires. This is hinted at early on in “Risky Survival Strategy” with the penguins' insatiable appetite for fish and sardines. In the first episode the penguins simply aided the characters in fulfilling their immediate, banal desires – cleaning the house, providing an umbrella in the rain, etc. However, they've already escalated to more sexual desires, and are out doing them themselves instead of simply aiding the characters. As invisble and somewhat magic, the penguins can do things that the humans can't, without shame or fear of repurcussion. In this episode alone they engage in voyeurism, wearing women's underwear, and bisexual ass-groping. The lingerie store in particular is the perfect example here – this is a place that the boys cannot go but that doubtlessly holds a spot in their inner desires, and the penguins allow them to enter this area.

(To be fair, so far these deviances have always been framed as accidental or essential for the plot, but it's hard to ignore how often the penguins seem to do these things.)

The final reveal of this episode highlights the inappropriateness of the brothers' behaviour. They use the penguins to rifle through Ringo's belongings and stalk her around the city, following her eventually to the home of her teacher, who they discover she's been psychotically stalking. “She's doing the same thing we're doing,” says Shoma. Of course, the brothers have the excuse of following the orders of the spirit possessing their sister – but we have no real basis to say that these visions are more real or sane than Ringo's “diary” which she believes predicts the fate of her and the teacher. The penguins seduce our protagonists down these roads, and it is only at the final beat do they realize what they've turned into.

With that said, in the world Ikuhara constructs there's every reason to believe in the supernatural. Things are presented stylistically instead of realistically. This involves both minimalizing details extraneous to the plot – the blank restroom-sign shapes that replace the “extras”, the subway stations replaced by white voids – and adding on a sheen of enchantment, as can be seen most clearly in the romanticized bathroom at the start of the episode and the weird lingerie store with its floating bras and technological slickness. Reality is subjugated to the will of the plot, lathering extra focus on what matters to it and less detail on what doesn't. It's difficult to tell right now whether the characters see the world like this, or whether this is a visual representation of their psyches, or something even further removed.

Of course, there's all kinds of interesting stuff that I didn't get to in this review – the weird underwater motif, the importance of subway trains, literary allusions, the uncertain role of real-Himari, not to mention the normal plot questions of what the penguin drum is and what Ringo actually has to do with it. Mawaru Penguindrum is one of those shows where the more you look into it the more you constantly find new dimensions, and so for the sake of time and my sanity I'll stop here. I would, however, encourage anyone to watch this unique and (so far) high-quality show, through whatever illicit means you prefer.

*For the anime-illiterate, think of how much difficulty Treme has had getting away from the shadow of The Wire and being judged on its own merits, and then add in over a decade of anticipation.

Next Week: Our first wildcard slot. I delve into the wider world of television and hope to come up alive.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Kamisama Dolls 1: A God Arrives

We open in confusion. A raging battle is going on, with strange creatures duking it out and people shouting things that are hard to understand without context. There's a giant explosion, and then we fade...

...into normal life. An ordinary guy with his ordinary guy problems, relating to an ordinary girl (well, ordinary except for her massive, torpedo-like breasts) and an ordinary college experience.

This is, give or take a few details, a standard (if not the standard) anime opening. Something crazy*, then something mundane. Watching a lot of shows in the new anime season looking for gems I've already seen it in Sacred Seven, No. 6, and Blood-C (which bases its entire first two episodes around this beat), and I expect to see it again. This kind of opening is a promise to the short attention-span viewer: this may look like a realistic series but don't worry, the supernatural stuff you came for will show up later. In this way it manages to reaffirm itself as a genre show while still having time to situate its main character in normality and build up that sense of normality just enough to have it mean something when it's disrupted. It also adds a kind of puzzle element to the show: how does this (a college party) get here (an apocalyptic hilltop battle)? Sci-fi anime has a long tradition of presenting its mythos as a puzzle for the audience to figure out, often with no clear explanation given in the show, with examples ranging from Neon Genesis Evangelion to Eureka Seven. This kind of opening serves as a miniature version of that puzzle.

So Kamisama Dolls seems to be thoroughly following the rules of sci-fi/fantasy/action anime, and is (at least judging from the first episode) a fairly normal installment in that tradition. But it's better than two more high-profile aforementioned shows in the same vein, Blood-C and Sacred Seven. In part it's just the absence of high-school cliches, brooding bishounen and bad writing, but it's also the fact that instead of keeping its cards pressed to its chest Kamisama Dolls is willing to let the audience in on most of its backstory and mythos. By the end of the first episode we know that the protagonist, Kuga, comes from a secretive village where certain people named seki can control crazy doll monster things named kakashi. We don't know everything, but we know enough to make sense of the action. This is a nice contrast to the typical anime trend (as seen in the two aforementioned shows) to try and keep the viewer in the dark as long as possible. This is done partly through voice-over narration and partly through Shiba, that generously endowed co-ed, who acts is the surrogate for the audience who doesn't know anything. Refreshingly, Kuga lets her in on his secret by the end of the episode, saving us from a lot of derivative plotlines about him trying to conceal things from her.

(Seriously, she's got to have back problems.)

Of course, I'm always wary of reviews that praise a show (or book or movie or whatever) more for what it isn't than what it is. And so while I can say that Kamisama Dolls is definitively a better show (or at least had a better first episode) than Sacred Seven, I'm not going to go out and call it good yet. It's a competently executed genre production in a genre that frequently lacks competent execution. But it's also the kind of genre story that is simply a collage of elements from other stories. This is most obvious in the characters, who are already easily identifiable types: the nondescript everyman protagonist, the accomodating love interest, the energetic little sister, and the psychotic villain. The central conceit of young characters commanding giant monsters is also extremely familiar. For genre fans there's a certain joy to a show like this: a hodgepodge of things you've already seen before, a new universe that you're already familiar with. But as an artistic achievement it leaves something to be desired.

I've stated before my belief that the credit sequences of just about anime house it's soul, so let's take a look at those of Kamisama Dolls.

The OP is actually quite well-done from a technical standpoint, featuring great animation and a song that's a pleasant relief from the usual J-Pop. On one level the visuals are pretty standard opening credits material – lots of images of the major characters staring off into the distance and a few tantalizing action shots. The major artistic conceit is the coloured panels which overlap with all the images and contain fragments of other scenes and images, sometimes shadowy and indistinct, sometimes in clear contrast with the main image. This reflects what is at least the basic premise of the series, if not its overarcing theme (which it's probably too early to talk about): things showing up outside of their carefully constructed categories, the breakdown of the divide between country and city and tradition and technology. This is encapsulated in the final shot, a juxtaposition between an idyllic forest landscape and a modern Japanese city. The device of the coloured polygons is gone: the two sides are given equal space and equal prominence. In other words, the OP of Kamisama Dolls is preparing us for a conflict between the old and the new. This is a thematic conflict that appears in a lot of anime, most famously in Hayao Miyazaki films like Spirited Away, and only seems appropriate for a country whose change from traditional Shintoism to Western modernity was so sudden and violent.

Kuga has wholeheartedly embraced modernity, abandoning his village steeped in supernatural tradition and taking up an urban college life. He explicitly dismisses his hometown as a “village that time forgot”. But as soon as he arrives he learns that tradition extends even into the cities, as the diaspora from his old village helps him get set up in the city. This is a positive effect. When his little sister shows up with a gaint monster, with a more vicious beast in pursuit, this tradition seems not so positive.

And yet the “gods” can't be described as wholly creatures of the past. Kukuri, the good-guy monster that Utao hangs around, has a distinctly sleek and mechanical design, so much so that if you look at his back I'd expect you'd find the Apple logo. Aki's monster is less so, but reminds me more of a science-fictional alien than a traditional mythological creature. Both have a tendency to appear in elevators, and Aki is able to defeat both the traditional samurai-style warrior that the village sends after him and the crew of modern sanatorium-style workers they send afterwards. The music also plays into this kind of juxtaposition, mixing dissonant woodwinds with the mechanical la-laing that seems to constantly accompany Kukuri (which may or may not be diegetic.) Kamisama Dolls presents us with a past/present dichotomy, but there are encouraging signs that it doesn't entirely trust that dichotomy.

The ending credits, which I can't find a Youtube video of for the life of me, is a pretty slapped-together affair, which mostly consists of clips from this episode and the next one. The interesting element is the lack of a clear dividing line between recap and preview: I didn't realize at first that it had switched over until I realized how unfamiliar the scenes had become. It echoes the fixation on breaking down the past/present dichotomy, blurring together two timeframes which are usually scene as entirely seperate. This blurring only seems to be occuring at the edges of the series, where the main plot can't get in; whether or not this is thematic foreshadowing will only be seen in the weeks ahead.

There's also another kind of blurring, which occurs in the matter of genre. While outwardly a supernatural adventure show of the type patented by anime, there's also a distinct undercurrent of horror in Kamisama Dolls. Kukuri is allegedly one of the good guys, but that's hard to reconcile with his appearance, emerging ghostlike from the bottom of the elevator, looming in front of Kuga and trapping him in the elevator. His creepy musical cue and the fact that Utao doesn't entirely have control over him suggests that not everything is sweet and wholesome in the unnamed Village (which sounds kind of Prisoner-esque, honestly). As E Minor documents here, there's been a bumper crop of recent series recognizing horror in the quaint Japanese village recently, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kamisama Dolls continues the trend. The writing is telling us a straightforward adventure story for now, but the series' visual and auditory choices are telling us to be on guard.

Kamisama Dolls is adapted from a manga by Hajime Yumamura, which I have read nothing of. The series is directed by Seiji Kishi and scripted by Makoto Uezu. Both have worked on a lot of stuff, mainly adaptations, and notably worked together on the goofy comedy Astro Fighter Sunred. That doesn't show up much here, although there's some (pretty banal) comedy in the second episode. They also both have shows under their belt that would lead one to suspect a horrific twist here (the Persona 4 anime for Kishi and School Days for Uezu). Then again, I'm not sure how much you can really glean from crew lists here -- as I mentioned in my Game of Thrones review an adaptation usually calls for less artistic vision and more workmanlike skill, and Kishi and Uezu seem here to do the former and not the latter. (ANN doesn't have individual episode credits for this one, so I'm assuming that these two have worked on all the episodes so far.) It's made by the increaingly prolific Brain's Base studio, whose work I've already talked about here before (Dororon Enma-kun). This show and the art in it doesn't quite live up to their reputation – like everything else, it's an acceptable, workmanlike performance but I feel as though the increased workload for the studio might be weighing on them.**

You know, I like this show, but I'm really not finding that much to say about it in general. Most of the interesting elements are things which could happen, incongruous stylistic choices which reflect a different ambition than the series outwardly presents. In a way there's something soothing about a show like this, reminiscent of the 90s adventure anime I grew up on, that so escapes critical analysis. It's a fun way to spend a half hour, but so unambitious that I'm just going to cut this review short right here before I produce any more blatant filler.

* Re-watching the sequence after having seen the rest of the episode, it's now pretty clearly a flashback, featuring younger versions of Aki and Kuga. There's nothing to indicate this on the first watch-through, though.

** Though to be fair, this is probably their B-project after the excellent Mawaru Penguindrum.

Next Week: ...well what do you know? It's that thing I just mentioned in the last paragraph. Welcome to the bizarre world of Mawaru Penguindrum.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Shield 3-13: Fire in the Hole

The third season of The Shield has had this frenetic element of impending doom to it, like everything is about to fall apart and the characters are rapidly scrambling to hold it all together with increasingly tenuous threads. In this way it can be seen as an antecedent to Breaking Bad (returning tonight! Holy shit!), which takes the standing-on-a-rickety-bridge-over-an-abyss plotting and extends it to the entire series. At the beginning of the series Vic used his shady and sometimes brutal tactics to gain more power, whereas now he is forced to use them merely to hang on. Becoming an honest cop, as he tried to do earlier in the season, is no longer an option. In “Fire in the Hole”, as in several previous episodes, the strike team has to get to a criminal before the legitimate police do for fear that if the criminal enters the system alive he will reveal too much. By stepping outside the system for their own ends, they have found that they are now trapped outside the law, and whatever initial goals they had are consumed by the endless cover-ups and cover-ups of cover-ups of what they did. Criminality becomes not a means to an end but means, end, and universe.

This is also a description of a good percentage of all crime stories, including the aforementioned Breaking Bad. Walter White and Vic Mackey have similarities both superficial (baldness and disabled sons) and deeper (their prevailing narrative arcs, as discussed above, and the fact that both come from trusted public-servant professions). While Walt is driven by stubborn pride and ideology, Vic's urges are baser and more animal. So even as he lives in constant danger, Vic puts another pot on another burner by starting an affair with an engaged police dog handler (the animalistic imagery is obvious). The entire money train robbery which is causing Vic's current problems was motivated by a mixture of naked greed and a macho need to be his family's sole breadwinner.

Vic may be a whirling ball of id bound together only by a mass of schemes and self-rationalization, but lately he's become strangely sympathetic. This is simply the human inclination to sympathy: when we see a person in a bad situation, even if they're a bad person and may have contributed substantially to their own troubles, we feel bad for them. Just as Breaking Bad positions White's personal precariousness as a symbol of the nation's economic struggle, The Shield emblematizes the psyche of the Bush era: we have wealth and power and something like success, but it comes from something terrible, and we all know it won't hold together for long. This makes Vic much more sympathetic than the early seasons' heavy-handed attempts to portray his heart of gold (helping out his pet hooker or his autistic son) ever could.

Fire in the Hole” opens, as every episode of The Shield does, with rapid cuts between a scene and the opening title cards. This is an immediately disorienting and claustrophobic experience, and helps to establish the panicking, uncertain mindset that underlines the show, especially in its third season. This time the opening scene is a fire in Corrine's kitchen, accidently set by Matthew. This is a typical in media res opening, common in The Shield, but the sudden appearance of another problem on top of everything else creates the sense of mounting tension and the slow but inevitable slipping away of control out of nowhere. After a long week between episodes a TV show needs to quickly re-establish its atmosphere, and The Shield's opening sequences almost always do the job. In the previous episode, “Rice Burner”, Vic asked his team to use some of their stolen money to help pay for Matthew's counselling, but was turned down. This is, then, the immediate result: another issue Vic was juggling, his children, spiralling out of control as his fumbling for a solution fails. The fire also foreshadows another, more important fire that occurs in the climax of the next episode. On top of all this it creates a very striking visual: the burnt kitchen, a symbol for Vic and Corrine's ruined domesticity.

Immediately after this scene we have another problem that's been left on the back burner for a couple of episodes rise to the surface: the ill-fated fifth Striketeam member, Tevon, who we discover has just woken up from his coma and remembers the fight with Shane that lead to his accident. The following scene introduces another problem, this week's major episodic plot: a planned biker gang robbery revealed by the police force's ongoing hidden-camera scheme. After that we have another plot thread introduced, where Danni and Julian discover a car crashed into a storefront full of bootleg liquor. The next scene continues the biker gang plotline, but ties it into the season-long power struggle between Vic, Claudette and Acaveda. These kinds of interwoven plots are textbook television, although tieing them to season-long arcs is a more recent invention. However, there's something distinctive in the way The Shield structures its multiple plotlines, throwing all its balls up in the air with a lot of doubt as to whether it will catch them on the way down.

But no sooner has “Fire in the Hole” established its structure, getting the audience used to the idea, then it begins breaking it. After spending ten minutes setting up these four plotlines, another is thrown into the mix: the escape of O'Brian, the strike team's designated fall guy, who they then have to track down before he can be killed by the Armenians. This added complication, seemingly going against the narrative flow, creates a sense of chaos, a disordered world in which even television convention can't be held onto. The return of the Decoy Squad, whose plot seemed to have concluded several episodes ago, both further disrupts narrative expectations as well as reinforces one of this season's major themes: nothing ever truly ends, and every problem you thought was solved will resurface and create further complications.

This atmosphere is heightened by the series' distinctive directorial style. In addition to the washed-out colours and almost grainy video quality, the camera in The Shield frequently shakes, hovers, and zooms in and out abruptly. It never stays still, cementing the aura of instability that affects all of the series' characters. Series regular Guy Ferland, who directed thirteen episodes of The Shield in total, continues this style and does it well here. For an example of this style in action, look at the video below – a fairly regular scene from the show, but filled with small but constant camera movement and shifting.

Fire in the Hole” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Kurt Sutter, both veterans of the show as well as TV in general. Sutter in particular would go on to create Sons of Anarchy, which inherited the “gritty FX crime drama” spot from The Shield. There's a possible link between this episode's biker gang plotline and that show, although The Shield's horde are more similar to the Nords than the righteous rebels that Sons of Anarchy centres around. Looking at the crew lists for each season there are an awful lot of co-written episodes. The Shield has been praised for its consistency of both tone and quality, and that may stem from this process, sublimating individual writers' voices into a communal one. While some television shows are the product of a single creative vision – Babylon 5 stands out as the most obvious example, although that didn't lead it to quality – most are produced along these lines. This is what makes an auterist television criticism so difficult, although that hasn't stopped some from trying.

Still, this kind of communal consistency is key in a serial drama. When I was much younger I used to be interested in “impros”, stories where one person would write the first chapter then hand the reins over to another writer, who would write another chapter and let another write the third and so on and so forth. They were fun, but the tug of different writers was clear – characters would act different from chapter to chapter, plotlines would be dropped without notice, and there was no hope of a consistent tone or style. On an episodic show this isn't really an issue – one episode can be more serious than the norm while another can be raunchier and it won't make the show seem any worse. (Such variety can even help.) But major shifts in style in the midst of an ongoing storyline demands. And so an episode of The Shield becomes less of a product of Shawn Ryan or any other single writer's vision but a collectively authored entity. The trend towards co-writing only reinforces that.

The re-emerging storylines first two scenes, despite forming a dramatic opening, are not really the central focus of “Fire in the Hole”. These two plotlines – Vic's family troubles and the Tevon dilemna – are both thoroughly serialized storylines, in large part because they're about slowly shifting family relationships. (The strike team functions as more of a family for Vic than his actual family.) Tevon's plotline could be theoretically condensed into one episode – a new guy joins the strike team, does well but gets into a fight with Shane, and Vic has to deal with the fallout. But this is a kind of pat and obvious plotline when put in episode form, precisely because the viewers expect any “new team member” to be gone by the end of the episode. The Shield is very clever about undercutting viewer assumptions – see putting Reed Diamond in the opening credits only to kill him off in the first episode. By serializing the Tevon plotline The Shield allows him to settle into the series space and make it seem as though he might just stick around. Vic's family is serialized simply because it's something that will never go away, short of the show simply choosing not to focus on them any more. Another plotline introduced early that doesn't make up much of the episode is the bootleg liquor storyline, although that's just because it's an insignificant C-plot thrown towards the resident insignificant C-plot characters. (That seems to be especially true this season. Danni and Julian have always been heavily involved with trivial and comic subplots, but in previous seasons they also had more substantial character arcs, which despite some attempts have mostly vanished in the third season.)

After all these we are left with the episode's two major stories, both of which are classic The Shield: a mostly episodic story based on an ethical dilemna, and the latest chapter of a serialized narrative in which Vic Mackey desperately scrambles to fix his mistakes and conceal his crimes, trying to stay one step ahead of both other police and more typical criminals.

The episodic plotline centres around the question of whether the Farmington cops should compromise the decoy squad's investigation into child porn in their hunt for a lead on the Horde's planned robbery. The decoy squad has enough evidence to convict the producer of the videos but not the procurer, a corrupt social worker. They decide to give up on the procurer in order to quickly arrest the producer in hopes that he'll flip on them and lead them to the Horde gig. On the surface this is presented as a turf war: the Farmington cops getting even with the decoy squad by pushing their case ahead, no matter who it hurts. Even Claudette, normally the show's moral clarion, goes along with it. And yet to me it seems like a bad bargain, letting go of a sure conviction of someone responsible for victimizing many children in order to possibly get information to stop a robbery that will only possibly result in violence, even given the Horde's apparent propensity for bloodshed. I think beyond inter-department strife, there's also the issue of which victims matter. In this case, business takes priority over black children who are already in perilous situations even before the pedophilia comes in.

(I should note that I love the moment where Waylon shows up seemingly out of nowhere. It's played perfectly here, with the camera positioned so that we don't notice his true identity until Vic does, with him appearing to simply be a regular hobo at first. The sudden reappearance of a character whose involvement in the story appeared to be over, as mentione above, cements the idea of past troubles being constantly dredged up again. It's also remarkable to see his transformation, which is later contrasted with Claudette's undercover guise that is convincing despite basically consisting of Claudette putting an old jacket on. Then again, as she monologues about hating her job and ex-husband, it seems like Claudette doesn't have to act too hard for this role.)

The other major storyline concerns Vic Mackey as the centre of a crime story, which is a lot more interesting than Vic Mackey as the centre of an ethical dilemna, which is what the first season or so attempted. Vic and company now have to save their fall guy for the money train robbery, a lowlife named O'Brian, from the vengeance of the Armenian mob. For a tantalizing moment it seems like it will work, then O'Brian's greed gets the best of him and he remains in town long enough for the mob to catch up with him. The strike team then has to dispose of the body in a scene that seems like a predecessor of Breaking Bad's second episode, body horror and all. The Shield is in itself following from The Sopranos' long tradition of “how are we gonna get rid of this body?” storylines, the most notable (read: most horrific) of those occurring in the fourth season episode “Whoever Did This”. This is basically a scenario designed to produce heebie-jeebies.

Both O'Brian and Margos Desarean, the murderous leader of the Armenian mob, fall under The Shield's usual characterization of the criminal. Unlike a show like The Wire, where crime is driven by circumstance and social conditions, in The Shield crime is for the most part caused by base desires grown out of control – it is essentially a personal and not a social phenomena. O'Brian's suicidal greed is one example, but a better one is Margos (played by the aforementioned Kurt Sutter) who is mainly known through his kind of psychopathic foot fetish, cutting off the feet of his victims. It is then natural that O'Brian goes back for the money and Margos kills him and takes his feet: neither man can control the impulses that make them a criminal.

O'Brian's death is also yet another crime that can be laid at the feet of Vic Mackey. For all Vic talks about how O'Brian was a criminal and a bad guy, we've basically seen him do nothing wrong in the show: he takes the bag of marked money he found outside a bar, as just about anyone would, and is reluctant to leave town at the proddings of a group of abusive policemen. Vic is basically responsible for his death. There's a paralell between him and the procurer in the episode's other major plotline: just because you don't commit the crime yourself doesn't absolve you of setting up the conditions for it to happen. Once again we have the feeling of everything spinning out of control, and this time someone's wound up dead.

At the end of “Fire in the Hole” the strike team have disposed of O'Brian's body, ensuring that the police will keep looking for him and not pursue other leads. However, Terry points out the grim reality: the Armenians know that O'Brian is dead, and the strike team has really not solved any of their problems. Despite all the events of the episodes, at the end all of the core problems still remain: Tevon's testimony, Vic's children, and most of all the careening consequences of the money trainf c robbery. Even this week's episodic plotline ended with loose ends: the procurer is still out there and probably still exploiting children. Like so many episodes this season, “Fire in the Hole” briefly creates the sense that problems have been resolved, before ultimately reminding the viewer that things are more out of control than ever.

Next Week: It's a new anime season, and that means more giant monsters and mythological weirdness. I take on the premiere of Kamisama Dolls.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Game of Thrones 1-03: Lord Snow

Thus far Game of Thrones is less of a TV show and more of a show that just happens to air on TV. The concepts I've been fumbling towards in the past few weeks, things like series space and genre fusion, hardly seem to apply to this series. Whereas even serial dramas typically establish a kind of status quo to tell stories within, Game of Thrones is constant motion, telling one big story without stopping for breath. It seems like not a television series but rather a 10-hour movie split up into manageable chunks. In this regard it's very reminiscent of Rome, which for all its virtues had enough rapid-fire plot twists and scenery changes that in the end you just wanted to throw up your hands and beg for a filler episode where Vorenus and Pullo go to the beach or something.

So “Lord Snow” starts with Ned Stark arriving in King's Landing, being promptly whisked into a meeting of the governing council, and finding out that the kingdom's finances are basically in the shitter and it's going to get worse with King Robert's demand to hold a tournament. In a way this is a big scene: the past two episodes were mainly about getting Ned here, and now he finds out that the problems are much deeper than he thought. It would seem more naturally to be an episode-ending cliffhanger, not an opener, especially when the two conflicts it introduces – the kingdom's debt and the upcoming tournament – both go unmentioned throughout the rest of the episode. “Lord Snow” touches a lot of plots and characters the same way: we have one scene with Joffrey, one with Sansa, a couple with Arya, one scene back at Winterfell, and so on and so forth. Some of these scenes are worthwhile while others are just versions on “Hey, just as a reminder this thing is still happening.” It's acceptable, though somewhat questionable, to space plotlines far apart in a movie or novel, but watching a story unfold one scene a week is kind of excruciating.

“Lord Snow”, however, does more closely resemble a typical episode of television than its two predecessors. (Yes, I am terribly behind on this series. I watched the first couple episodes a couple months ago, but only had TV-time for one new show, and I decided The Killing looked more promising. Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm catching up on Game of Thrones now because, well, the only real alternative is watching another season of True Blood, and I'm not falling for that one again.) It has three major plotlines, one in each of its three settings, which advance the plot without creating a completely new status quo. It's the type of quiet episode dramas secretely thrive on, where everything calms down a bit and we have a chance to start getting comfortable with these people.

The world of Game of Thrones is split into three seperate spheres, two of which are related and one of which seems far away and connected through only the different past. The series reserves specific colour palettes for each setting: dark blues and whites for the north and The Wall, fiery reds and yellows for the Dothraki desert, and regal gold and ruddy brown for the urban world of King's Landing. It's a simple visual device, but very effective, and for better or worse makes it seem as though the plotlines are taking place in different worlds.

(I also appreciate the set design, which really recognizes that it's the Middle Ages and everything is basically pretty shitty. It's not so much true in the royal palace, but go back and look at the Stark's castle, which is really quite crude – and they're the lords of the place!)

The King's Landing plotline concerns Catelyn's ill-advised information-gathering mission and how it is quickly derailed by an old suitor with schemes of his own. Of all the stories here this one is the most blatantly setting up pieces for later episodes. Most importantly we (and the Starks) learn that the dagger that was used to attack their youngest child Bran belongs to Tyrion Lannister.

In contrast to the hey-this-person-exists scenes this is good serialization: we spend a significant amount of time with these characters and get a definite advance in the plot. It also introduces Littlefinger, one of the few characters that lives up to Martin's reputation for complexity. Littlefinger is a schemer, inherently untrustworthy and always with a secret up his sleeve, but he's also kind of pitiful. Being threatened in the same manner by both halves of the Stark couple makes him look sympathetic and misunderstood, and his genuine (albeit unrequited) love for Catelyn in a society where women are married off for convenience is a burning, resentful passion at the centre of his character. He owns a whorehouse, but is still hung up on a childhood flame and devoted to her, like the sap that always follows the cheerleader around doing her homework (say, does that count as Vocational Irony?) He stands out in contrast to the “I know everything” superhumanity of his co-schemer Varys, who is admittedly helped out a lot by a genuinely creepy performance by Harry Lloyd.

The benefits of televization (that's totally a word. It's perfectly cromulent) are most apparent in the Wall plotline. When I was reading Game of Thrones (which I only got about halfway through before putting down in disgust) I groaned every time Jon Snow and Tyrion would show up. They were such blatant author favourite characters: Jon with his angst and Oh So Special qualities, and Tyrion with his one-liners and bad boy attitude. I felt as though Martin was really trying his hardest to make me love Tyrion, which seems to have worked on many but just made my contrarian soul irritated. It didn't help that Martin felt compelled to drop a pithy line about being a bastard or dwarf every page whenever one of them was in the vicinity. So a plotline centring around Jon and Tyrion was doubly groan-inducing.

But for some reason the Wall plot in “Lord Snow”, important enough to even give the episode its title, didn't bother me nearly as much. It's not just that I don't have to slog through Martin's prose: visually seeing Jon tossing his fellow recruits around makes him look like more of a bully and less of a man who's just better than everyone else, which both makes him less of a Mary Sue and makes the other recruits' angry reaction seem more justified and less like shallow envy. Jon's arc in “Lord Snow” then becomes not a condescending step down to the “little people”, but a lesson against flaunting his priveledge, even unconciously.

And then we have Tyrion, who still suffers from the “Look, isn't he a badass?” factor – look at the scene in which he walks into a room where Jon is being cornered by his fellow recruits and tells everyone off in a glorified fashion. But it helps that Peter Dinklage actually has the charm that Martin tried so hard to impart to the character. And in the later dialogue scene between him and Lord Mormont he manages to get in some good lines but still comes off as a flippant observer unappreciative of the men who keep him safe.

We usually talk about “adaptation decay”, but I think Game of Thrones is an example of the opposite. Martin's book, despite a basically interesting core plot, is so laden down with pet characters and bad prose that I couldn't finish its admittedly huge length. But a TV series is naturally a group production, and suffers less from one man's love for his own creation. In addition, the economy required for a ten-episode season means cutting out a lot of the repetitive angst from Jon and Arya*. There's also the fact that a visual media like television allows a more direct experience than a novel, and can be more immediately wowing. So while I'm pretty contemptuous of Martin's novels, I'm so far reservedly enjoying the TV show.

The third area of the show and the one most disconnected from the rest is the adventures of deposed royalty Viserys and Danaerys in the Mongol-esque society of the Dothraki. This is one area of the adaptation that has proved most problematic: in a visual medium it's inevitably more obvious that the “savage” culture just happens to be the one made up of the show's only non-white characters.** This is only made more exploitative by the overt sexualizing of the “savage prince white princess” storyline. Some of the shots look like the cover of a sleazy “erotic fantasy” novel. As if that weren't enough, Emilia Clarke's dead-eyed stare and last episode's subplot which rolled into lesbian contortions with her handmaid as a way of teaching her how to properly please her husband is enough to make you think that you turned on the wrong pay cable station.

However, one thing David Beinoff, D. B. Weiss and the rest of the adapters have done well is to juxtapose the Dothraki storyline with that of the Seven Kingdoms. When the out-and-out selling and rape of Danaerys is juxtaposed with the negotiations over Joffrey and Sansa's engagement, it invites the observation that although Sansa's marriage is less outwardly brutal than Danaerys's, neither has any concern for the women involved. (As we find out in “Lord Snow”, Joffrey isn't too fond of the marriage either, but at least he'll get to be king.)

In addition to learning she's pregnant, in this episode Danaerys is confronted with her violent brother Viserys, and just as he's about to abuse her she finds the Dothraki warriors interceding. (Viserys basically belies the series ad copy that “in Game of Thrones nobody is all good or all bad”, which is in itself less of a point of praise and more of a basic prerequisite for interesting characterization.) The abused Dany suddenly finds that, as the Khalisi, she has gained the power to escape her brother's abuse. Of course, this comes at the cost of bowing down (ifyouknowwhatimeannudgenudgewinkwink) to another patriarch in Khal Drogo.

If there's a paralell to the main storyline here it doesn't involve Sansa (who's barely in this episode) but rather the new ruling class of the Seven Kingdoms. There's a series-original scene that involves a drunken King Robert berating a servant (who is apparently a far-flung member of the Lannister clan) and then commiserating with Jaime about their past in the war that gained them the throne. Like Danaerys, they have both thrown off one tyrant (in both cases a mad Targaeryn) but in exchange for their powers have gained new masters. Robert is constrained by his debtors and the duties of his positions, while Jaime is forced to serve under a man who abuses his family and fucks the sister that he's in love with. Ned is in a similar position, having fought long against the Targaeryns only to establish a kingdom infested with the Lannisters he despises. The fact that this scene is immediately followed by the Viserys/Dany confrontation establishes what is really Game of Thrones' first interesting idea: that servitude to some form of power is basically inescapable, and by overthrowing one master you may gain much, but will inevitably have to serve a new one. It's a pessimistic and maybe conservative message, but one that is hard to argue against given the histories of both Westeros and Earth.

Lord Snow” is written by series creators Beinoff & Weiss, as the past two episodes have also been. As adapters it's up to these two to be more workmen and less creators, and they rise to the challenge admirably. (You can see this in the first episode not scripted by them, 1-04, which is noticably clunkier.) David Beinoff is a crime novelist as well as a screenwriter for genre pictures like Troy and, uh, Wolverine: Origins. Game of Thrones is a series that draws on both of these genres, transplanting the gritty scheming of crime novels to a high fantasy environment. This is at least the reputation of Martin's novels, and the grimy surroundings of the TV series make it fact. The fact that the early plot is driven by what is essentially a murder mystery just further emphasizes this. D. B. Weiss brings the nerd cred, being the author of a video game tribute novel Lucky Wander Boy and various sci-fi and fantasy projects. The episode's director is Brian Kirk, who's worked on a lot of very different shows. Among those credits are historical dramas like The Tudors and Boardwalk Empire. To the extent there's a clear directorial style to this episode, it stems from this genre – the camera frequently stops to take in the carefully rendered scenery and costumes. Game of Thrones is technically not a historical show, stemming from no history of our world, but often acts like it – especially what John Perich has described as the “Blood, Tits, and Scowling” subgenre. As in Steins;Gate two weeks ago, the staff reflects the unique mix of genres involves in this show – high fantasy, crime, nerd pandering, and historical epic.

Lord Snow” is not a monumental episode of television, but because of that it moves Game of Thrones in the right direction. Of all the episodes of the series I've seen so far, this is the one that feels more like a well-constructed episode of television, that moves the story forward while being a satisfying product in its own right. Game of Thrones still has a lot of work to do – for starters, someone needs to send all actors (not just the ones on the show, but actors in general) a memo about how being in a fantasy epic doesn't mean you have to speak in a quasi-British accent and chew scenery relentlessly. Of course, the dialogue they're given, full of bold pronouncements and self-satisfied quips, doesn't help matters much. As some critics have noted, the Dothraki sequences are the weak link here, the only case of the series simplifying the novel. But “Lord Snow” is a move towards what this series promised it would be: a complex political drama with nuanced statements about power and society. It is becoming an adaptation that elevates instead of merely translates.

*I'm not going into a lot of focus on Arya, who had the only other real storyline in “Lord Snow”, concerning Ned discovering her sword and getting her fencing lessons. The struggles of a tomboy against a patriarchal society has been done to death and neither Martin nor Beinoff and Weiss bring anything new to it. Worse, the foil to Arya is usually not society but her girlier sister Sansa, which reduces the whole thing to a “swordfighting is cool, weddings drool” re-phrasing of macho values.

**Franchise partisans defend stuff like this by claiming that it's only reproducing what the historical medieval period was like. Ignoring the fact that in the Middle Ages it was actually the white Europeans who were the backwards culture, there's no reason why this would have to be transplanted onto a fantasy world at all. Personally, if I was in charge of the Game of Thrones adaptation – well, first I would do everything I could to change it into a Perdido Street Station TV series, but if that didn't work then I'd cast all or at least some of the Seven Kingdoms characters as black. Pissing off fanboys would be a nice side benefit of this.

Next Week: A careful examination of a cultural relic from the ancient year of 2004, specifically an episode of The Shield.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Futurama 6-14: Neutopia

You never forget your first love. Well, okay, Futurama isn't my first televisual love by a longshot – that would probably be Sailor Moon, which is enough to get my man card officially revoked – but it is a show I loved as only a show with a limited fanbase and constant ratings trouble could be loved. So its recent ressurection on Comedy Central after a long drama that involved a spate of straight-to-DVD movies was a bit like running into a friend you haven't seen in years, and slowly beginning to wonder if that friend wasn't as cool as you used to think.

Don't get me wrong – outside of a couple rust-shaking episodes the sixth season of Futurama regained the quality of its previous run. The issue is that looking at a television series (especially a prematurely cancelled one) through rose-coloured glasses it's easy to only remember the great episodes and not the solid-but-not-earth-shaking ones. So season six, like every other Futurama season had some half-hearted duds, some of the best episodes of TV ever, and a lot of good episodes that hung a ton of killer one-liners on a somewhat ramshackle plot.

(I should say season six thus far, because in an attempt to make their season numbering even more arcane the Futurama guys have dubbed the thirteen episodes that aired last year the first half of season 6 and the ones that air this year the second half, with a similar split-season schedule set for season 7 in 2012 and 2013. I'm still trying to get used to this.)

Neutopia” is one of those Futurama episodes of the third category, one of those meat-and-potatoes episodes that makes up the bulk of a series. These episodes are important for a TV show too: not every half-hour can be a highlight, and the B/B+ episodes cement a kind of normalcy for the series that is necessary for the “A” episodes to be able to break or threaten it. I also think they're every bit as worthy of study as the flashier episodes, and there's plenty to dive into here.

Futurama is of course created by David X. Cohen and the needs-no-introduction Matt Groening. After the universalism of The Simpsons, Futurama seems like Groening's attempt to create something slightly more idiosyncratic and personal which has no qualms about delving into geekiness every once in a while (although it's still pretty approachable). This particular episode lists series newcomer Edmund Fong as a director, who sticks to a functional and conventional style here, and J. Stewart Burns as the writer. Burns is a veteran of both Futurama and The Simpsons, and while he doesn't have any hall-of-fame Futurama episodes under his belt he is credited for some really fun ones, like “Mars University”, “A Head In The Polls” (the Nixon one), and “The Deep South”. This is his first episode since the return. (As usual with American comedies, the actual writing is done mostly by committee, with the credit episode writer just trying to cobble all of the jokes that get thrown out there into a semi-coherent episode. Still, if his past episodes are any indication Burns is good at cobbling.) In other words, the staff seems set-up specifically to produce a fun re-introduction to Futurama that isn't going to aim too high.

Vaguely a riff on the LeGuin/Tiptree-esque gender-questioning science fiction, “Neutopia” begins by re-establishing the Futurama status-quo. We begin with Hermes counting down on his watch the moments until Planet Express officially goes bankrupt. This is interspersed with shots of the Professor padding his way frantically down the hall in fuzzy slippers. Hermes finishes his countdown, but the Professor bursts in anyways with his catchphrase of “Good news, everyone!”, and we are given the impression that he has a job that will save the company. However, after a lot of rigamarole (including a giant lifter suit controlled and mis-controlled by Amy), the package turns out to just be a letter the Professor is sending himself.

This opening is interesting because it could be excised from the episode without much concern – we aren't even losing much in the way of jokes. What it does do is refamiliarize the audience with the cast members and tenets of the series – Planet Expresses' perpetual desperation, Amy's ditziness, “Good news everyone!”, etc. This is basically a message of “Hey, we're back and we're just like you remembered us.”

The structure of the gags also aids in this. We open on a misdirection gag – we think the Professor has to get to Hermes before he finishes the countdown, but in fact it doesn't matter (as such dramatics often don't.) This is followed by another misdirection, in which we're lead to believe that the Professor has a major delivery job, but we then find out he is only sending a letter to himself. However, this time we're prepared for the joke and almost expecting it – after all, there's no way the Professor has done something wholly competent. If Futurama could be described as comfort television (and in many ways it is) then the purpose of “Neutopia”'s opening sequence is to demonstrate this, gently letting the audience know how its jokes are going to work, the text not an adversary but an aid.

From this basic conflict – Planet Express is broke – we head into the rest of the episode. Since this is one of those Futurama episodes where everyone suddenly becomes a sexist, the men of the company decide to raise money through a girly calendar, which is hamstrung by the fact that they only have three women (even counting Hermes's wife.) So they instead decide to turn Planet Express into a commercial airline.

A lot of the battle-of-the-sexes jokes seem over-the-top, but they're also eerily similar to reality. The bit about Leela's airplane suggestion being ignored until one of the men suggested it is apparently a common experience for women, and Leela (the only qualified pilot) not being allowed to fly the plane is reflective of a deep misogyny in the industry as reflected by this guy. In a television show it comes off as hamfisted, but it turns out the world can be pretty hamfisted at times.

Of course, the plane eventually crash-lands on a random planet, on which a godlike being takes an interest in this human notion of “gender” and decides to put it to the test. Until things get a little crazy, the jokes here are pretty run-of-the-mill – men don't ask for directions! Women like to shop! It's enlivened only a bit by the presence of some familiar background characters – Scruffy, the kajigger lady, and others I'm probably forgetting.

Including so many recurring characters in this episode also ties into the re-familiarization that is natural to the season premiere (which, effectively, this is.) A steady stable of recurring characters is essential to almost any good comedy series, not just because it provides a toolbox of gags for writers to go for but because it creates the sense of a fuller universe out beyond the main cast members. For “Neutopia”, these characters are essentially part of the background, not adding more than a line or two, but they're a familiar background and that's what important -- “Neutopia” is all about the feeling of “Hey, I remember this. It's funny”, and Scruffy mumbling in the background certainly accomplishes that. As a comedy builds up enough of a background it can achieve laughs merely by referencing past gags, calling back the memory of humour and thus reviving it, although this is something that can definitely be overused.

After a long string of tired “battle of the sexes” jokes, this literal battle of the sexes ends up in both teams realizing that they needed to combine parts from Bender and Amana (the female refridgerator robot) in order to escape an oncoming volcanic eruption. The episode sets us up successively for two pat and predictable endings – first, the two sides will realize they have to co-operate to survive and all Learn A Valuable Lesson, or later that the two groups will simply steal each others' parts and both end up doomed because of their bickering. However, both of these sets of expectations are undercut: Hermes and LaBarbara meet up on the mountain and fuck, forgetting their vital missions. Thus ultimately both sexes fail their trials not due to their separation but through their unexpected joining. (As an aside, is anyone else as sick of “argument turns into sex” scenes as I am?)

(The marriage between Hermes and LaBarbara is strangely central to “Neutopia”, existing as something that can withstand all of the gender-challenging chaos around it. There's no over-exaggerated love between the two: rather, it seems to be implied that the normalcy and sometimes mediocrity of the relationship is what allows them to both return to it so readily, no matter what the circumstance. This is one of the few genuinely interesting points in the episode.)

So all of the characters are then neutered by the god-like rock being, and promptly construct a genderless* utopia. This brings out the underside of the battle-of-the-sexes trope: that gender is essentially the root of conflict, and without it we would live in harmony. (Weirdly, certain strains of radical feminism and boorish stand-up jokes end up in the same place.) This isn't a very convincing notion, to be honest, but it's one of “Neutopia”'s more explicit serious suggestions. Of course, this idea only stands up in a narrative explicitly constructed around gender quarrels – if the rock guy had showed up in the next episode, whose conflict revolved around Bender's laziness and the Professor's madcap inventions, turning everyone genderless wouldn't really solve anything. The simplicity of the solution almost seems like a parody of post-gender utopias, but they're probably too niche a target even for this show.

However, this serenity only lasts for a short while before Hermes and LaBarbara convince the alien to restore gender so they can have sex. Once again their relationship (or at least their desire to bone each other) transcends whatever wacky situation they find themselves in. Building off the premise of gender as the root of conflict, the episode then counter-proposes that even if this is true, it (or at least the desires it generate) are also key to our humanity. This is really quite a problematic ideal, situating sex (both the activity and the descriptor) as the unjustified centre of the universe.

The final stretch of the episode consists of the cast having their genders returned, but reversed. This leads to fewer gags than one would think – the main purpose would seem to be to display every cast member as the opposite sex. Some of the reimaginings are interesting (LaBarbara's reincarnation as a dreadlocked stud similar to her man in “Bender's Big Score”), others are fairly normal (Fry-with-boobs) while others are just kind of terrifying (the strangely unchanged Scruffy.)

Matt Zoller Seitz writes about Futurama as having a Vaudevillian aspect, and if this is true then “Neutopia” functions as the freak show. This is the cinema (well, television) of attractions: the appeal of this sequence is not based on sharp writing or funny jokes but on mere concept and spectacle. Seeing the cast neutered and then have their sexes reversed certainly fulfills that role, and even if the episode isn't that great it has the appeal that “what if” storylines always do.

(It also fulfills certain urges in certain fans who are doubtlessly out drawing perverse fanart of gender-flipped Fry. I guess this is a bit of fanservice then, acknowledged by a later comment that “our fans are perverts.” But seriously, there are a lot of Futurama perverts out there. It's nice of the show to make a joking, almost accepting nod to them, which fits into Futurama's indulgent and warm attitude towards its fans. This has been contrasted a lot with The Simpsons' mocking of its disappointed hardcores – seriously, can you imagine a modern-day Simpsons episode making a joke like that, almost approving of the most deviant elements of its fanbase? (Then again, half of the characters on The Simpsons are minors, so I guess it's a different situation.))

Unfortunately, this carnivalesque aspect doesn't last for terribly long before everything is resolved and the episode ends. This makes “Neutopia” feel like an episode that took so long getting to its premise that it couldn't explore it any. This is the downside to the Groening-style narrative style of starting out somewhere irrelevant and then slowly tangenting yourself to the main plot – sometimes it doesn't give the main plot all the time it deserves, and you just end up with a lump of interconnecting scenes. “Neutopia” does have some narrative structure – the return to the beginning concerns of money and the girly calendar at the end is a nice touch – but it's still hurt by this.

All in all “Neutopia” is not a good episode of Futurama, and maybe not even a good episode of TV in general, but it does work as a re-introduction to the characters and the anything-goes setting of the series. As a pilot this would be pretty dire, but it draws on the extensive history and mythos of Futurama to elevate it through mere memory, as well as the voice talents of its cast, most notably the ridiculously versatile Billy West, and the steady stream of slightly odd jokes that the writing team can consistently produce. These are assets that even the worst episodes of Futurama can and do draw on, elevating them to something better than they would be individually. There's a tendency in TV comedies to create “continuity” by sticking serial drama plotlines in the show haphazardly, but episodic comedies already have a kind of continuity. Every episode creates not just another part of the show's expanding universe, but forges a relationship between show and audience. If that universe and relationship are good enough, even the dwarves can stand on the shoulders of giants.

* “Neutopia” seems to use sex and gender (both the terms and the concepts) interchangably, which makes my inner queer theorist shoot steam out of hir ears. Obviously you can't expect a mainstream TV comedy to use the carefully prescribed language of academia, but it would be nice if there was at least some attempt to distinguish the two concepts and not have characters discovering themselves neutered and exclaiming about how their gender is gone.

Next Week: Our intrepid reviewer tries to get caught up on Game of Thrones.