Archive for February, 2008

prozzies and other respectable women

Ashes to Ashes 1.03

Ashes to Ashes continues, hitting many of the same notes as Sam’s stint in Gene Hunt’s world.  Since the pilot, Alex has reliably featured moments of headdesking stupidity in the presence of her mother and her mother’s law firm partner (in 2008, the godfather of her daughter).  Abandoning her ‘you are all figments’ stance, she alternates between amazed gawping and craven attempts to elicit approval.  Rather than backing away slowly from the crazy woman, they offer brief but meaningful insights into their perspectives that inadvertently guide Alex through her hallucinatory new world.  Again like Sam, the gang surprisingly takes her lapses of cranial continence in stride while being horrified by her minor futuristic faux pas…but I suppose without this contractual genre blindness (or just plot-induced stupidity?), the show would be called Special Woman Is Instantly Institutionalised and Spends Thirteen Episodes Heavily Sedated.

Still, it bugs me.  Almost as much as Alex’s club-appropriate workwear, set in a time when a female professional, let alone a detective, would have been strapped into restrictive chin-to-knees pseudo-Victorian armor, heavily featuring those awful high-necked blouses with sewn-in bows and boxy pleated wool skirts.  A few years later, she’d be clad in a solid-color power suit with shoulder pads up to her ears.  Professional specifically did not equal sexy, outside of fetishes similar to those surrounding schoolgirl uniforms (and bearing as much relation to the reality).  A white-collar female was an impenetrable tank.

Margaret Thatcher

Despite this incongruity, the show is starting to play with a more complex morality.  Along the lines of the impenetrable tank…after subtly hitting on Gene and being shot down, Alex lets herself be picked up by a red suspender wearing Thatcherite, who she drunkenly boffs to the energetic beats of Bucks Fizz.  Her coworkers start out teasing her when she drags herself into work the following day, hungover and exhausted, but she reacts the way a modern woman working in a chauvinist environment should: yes, I’m dead tired because I was up all night shagging a total stranger, and it was bloody fantastic.  No shame, no cringing, just one of the boys.

Unfortunately…1981 wasn’t quite modern enough for that, or at least for these blokes.  No matter what Aaron Spelling and his Starsky & Hutch taught us in the late 70s, a confident, pretty woman interested in getting laid wasn’t a great girl but someone who should be far more discrete.  The men are uncomfortable, Gene is furious and offering the hard truth that she won’t be respected if she’s known to have sex—part advice for someone working beneath him who needs the respect of his crew, part fury that a woman who’d made herself ‘his’ in some vague but definite way by hitting on him had flipped over to someone who wouldn’t look after her.

This is set in an episode focusing on prostitutes, specifically whether one can be raped, as she claims.  Gene & Co display the sentiments that continue to linger in many minds today—prostitutes, as people who sell their bodies for sex, cease to be properly human.  A woman who doesn’t strenuously resist having sex with men, let alone chasing them for her own pleasure, becomes something closer to a prostitute.  These aren’t rational preconceptions, by any means, but divisions usually instilled before a child hits puberty and are rarely challenged.

Ray, however, possibly the thickest member of Gene’s squad, does rise to the challenge.  He befriends a traumatised young woman and, while he’s obviously disturbed by her revelation that she’s a ‘lady of the night,’ it leads him to the second moral quandary of the episode—framing the man who raped and assaulted her for cocaine possession.  Ray is now unable to accept that a man could go unpunished for violating just a prostitute, and betrays the law he is sworn to uphold in a satisfying but disturbing way.

Even more jolting, this takes place during the denouement, and Alex and the police watching the rapist being arrested on an obviously bogus drug possession charge applaud and congratulate Ray.  None of them acknowledges Ray’s legal violation or suggests there was a better, legal way to go after him—ideally by following the bugger and establishing relationships with the local prostitutes to catch him repeating his crime, rather than bunging him up on a charge that will likely fall apart in court.

This department feels that, together, they can answer to a higher morality than the law when the law fails them.  What terrifying disaster awaits this crew of celibate ersatz Dark Knights if they continue to follow this ‘higher’ calling?

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fire up the quattro!

Ashes to Ashes:1.01
2008

The spin-off from the acclaimed (if sometimes excruciating) Life on Mars is self-consciously extreme, with both the drama and dark humor ratcheted up to the appropriate 80s excess.  This year’s timetraveller-slash-madman is DI Alex Drake, a police psychiatrist and single mother who has been investigating the suicide of Sam Tyler.  Familiar with Sam’s fantasy world and characters that suddenly surround her after being shot in the face by druglord-cum-vagrant Arthur Layton, she believes she’s having an elaborate hallucination in the seconds before she dies, but still fights to wake up from it and return to her demanding, impulsive daughter.

Ray Carling, who BBC informs us is now “The Bear,” tells her with regret that her acquaintance Sam Tyler died with the 70s a year earlier, crashing his car into a river after leaving Gene behind on a police chase.  His body was never found, allowing speculation on his Schrödingeresque state to rampage on.  He tells Alex that they key to surviving is to stay with Gene, not only expressing his own philosophy of life but possibly offering a key to why the two officers have been drawn back into the past.

The pilot was a conscious retread of the Life on Mars pilot.  Set-up of current life in the present, spotlighting the few personal connections?  Check.  Introductory Make Ass Of Self scene?  Check.  Enigmatic flashbacks in old-film filter?  Check.  Parent issues centring around that year?  Check.  There’s even similar avatars of hostile knowledge in the form of different childhood icons (which, lacking a UK childhood, had no more significance to me than ‘sort of like Sesame Street’ and ‘some freaky Euro-clown’).  The subject is partly aware of this reality—or only thinks she is—and seeks out the missing signifiers from Sam’s reports.  Unfortunately, phones, radios, and tvs give her nothing; her only communications come in dreams and visions.

Most of the direct communication from the hostile avatars in fact goes over her head, couched in subtle visuals only the viewers see—such as the clown’s head on a shelf in Layton’s junk store, or its reflection looming over her shoulder in a shiny interview table.  While Life on Mars followed Sam’s point of view, DI Drake of more an active object of the mystery than an identification figure.  The audience has more pieces of the puzzle.

Alex thus far seems to be a less sympathetic character than Sam, but a more confident timetraveler-slash-madman, hopefully less likely to likely to commit the forehead-smackingly boneheaded moves that Tyler’s run included at least once per episode.  Instead of acting generally unhinged in a manner that would leave most professionals escorted by security carrying a box of personal belongings, Alex calmly treats the others as both people and figments in turn and with equal sangfroid expects to be treated with respect while stuck wearing uncomfortably revealing clothes.  She also gains a few points by getting drunk with the team and groping Gene on her very first night in the past, thus ensuring they’ll overlook a greater proportion of weird behaviour than if she’d remained in the remote and dismissive pose Sam initially chose.

This spinoff so far seems to retain the parent show’s flaws, particularly in the imbalanced drama/comedy tone.  Particularly, scenes and setups still misfire as often as they catch.  The “A-Team”’s emergence in the gunfight via speedboat with machine guns, while a good visual gag, destroys the delicate dream vs time-travel question.  That could only be a modern person’s fantasy moment.  When scenes catch, though, they really really catch.  When Ray tells of Sam’s death, he is a man more comfortable with his place in life than the resentful demoted DI of the earlier decade.  Gene’s frustration while on the phone to his superior shows a big man who’s time has passed, and knows it.  And entire shows could take place in their new hangout, a wine bar where a long-suffering Magical Italian possibly takes Nelson’s place as the wise bartender.

There is one unbearable bit, though.  I don’t know how I’ll get through a season of an entire cast in those terrible pleated trousers and white jeans.  For the love of Oxford Street, let no lazy designers take those on as this fall’s new look!

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: blood and ethical sociopathy

Dexter Season One

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
2004

Dexter, Season One
2006

Dear Dexter is a single white male in his thirties who lives alone and works peripherally in law enforcement, and is generally considered to be a quietly well mannered and quirky guy.  He is, of course, an insane serial killer preying on the residents of Miami.

However: that “prey” is only those who he can prove to his own high threshold of satisfaction are like him: serial predators who have escaped the law’s prosecution who will continue to kill innocents.  The undisturbed lives of those innocents, unfortunately, are an incidental by-product of scratching his itch to main and kill.

The novel upon which Dexter’s first season is based calls this urge the “Dark Passenger”.  It’s worth experiencing this introduction in all its purple glory:

Moon.  Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.

All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.

Urgh.  Take a moment—that was a thick chunk of corrugated prose to force down an unsuspecting reader’s throat.  The series, fortunately, lacks the Dark Passenger.  The Dexter who partially garrottes a secret paedophile, forcing him to confront the bodies of the boys he’s murdered, before antiseptically dismembering him, is the same Dexter that greets his girlfriend’s children warmly and patiently guides the career of his impatient sister.

With his deserving victims, Dexter is a more honest version of himself, ironically closer to connecting, but he stalks and kills on his own impulse rather than obeying a voice in his head.  Unlike the common perception of a sociopath, Dexter does want to connect, and with some logic seeks an understanding from monsters like himself as much as he tries to force upon them an understanding of their own crimes.

Blood

“Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos.”

Dexter works as a blood splatter technician with the Miami police department.  Early on, he tells the viewers (or the inside of his own echoing head) that he chose this position and city to monitor his own criminal activity, and feels Miami, with its law enforcement’s 20% solved murder rate, is the best setting for a journeyman killer.

Blood is the one indulgent memento he keeps from victims, single beads dried onto slides and tucked away in his ac unit.  He enjoys flicking through his collection and remembering his work, fingering the dry red ovals.

He reveals in later episodes a great antipathy toward blood, despite making it his life’s work.  His plastic sealing of his killing scenes turns out to be not only a practical method for hiding DNA but a way of containing the splash and gush of sticky blood.  His job, as well, while it requires he confront and contemplate his personal bugaboo, allows him to explain and contain it as well, like his kills, tidying away his corner of the world.

Dexter begins to realise why he has such an intense connection to such an abstract bit of life, eventually unearthing a long-repressed memory of not only witnessing his mother’s brutal murder at the age of three but also spending over two days in a drying pool of the victims’ blood.  He was discovered and rescued by Harry Morgan, then an ordinary policeman, who fostered and then adopted the young boy, but his fixation with blood and murder was already set.

Sociopath

Harry recognises in dear dark Dexter (to follow the book’s alliterative nomenclature) the signs of a budding sociopath, specifically the torture of animals and lack of normal emotional responses.  When he pushes young Dexter into admitting his need to hurt and kill, the boy clings to his foster father for comfort.

Harry, by now a detective and growing jaded with the justice system, becomes a more sophisticated Pa Kent.  He teaches Dexter how to fake normal with the rest of the world, encouraging a dual identity.  One side he makes into the perfect son, helpful, happy and obedient, and shows him how to feed the other side with socially acceptable murderous acts, like hunting.  This doesn’t totally satisfy Dexter, and perhaps doesn’t totally satisfy his mentor, either.  Dexter’s high intelligence and physical strength, combined with his need to ritualistically murder, are wasted on deer when there is a city full of dangerous men outside the hunting range.

Dexter voiceovers that he can’t connect with people, and to the degree that someone without remorse can be bothered, he is bothered by that.  Here is where the book and series diverge most sharply; book-Dexter ends up breaking from the Code of Harry, killing LaGuerta and planning to kill Doakes to remain undetected.  Deb has learned the truth about him but he’s sure she’ll come around to approving what he does, like their father.

Series-Dexter comes to care for Rita, becomes frantic that Deb will be tortured and killed, and mourns after killing his truly sociopathic brother.  He is helped by talk therapy (even if he does later murder the therapist).  He leaves a session that has begun to bring up memories of his Traumatic Event to finally have sex with a girlfriend without creeping her out.  He also seeks out a connection with a young serial murderer, intending to be the mentor to the teenager that Harry had been to him.  In the end he imagines himself surrounded by normal Miami residents who would cheer him on, even love him, if they knew what he did, and smiles.  The saving of innocents is no longer purely a byproduct.

His way of life is only possible because of his bond with Harry, whose approval and comfort he needed as much as understanding and protection.  Young Dexter really really really wants to kill people, especially a bullying jerk at school, but he doesn’t because of Harry—not because he doesn’t want to be punished or imprisoned, but because Harry would be disappointed and hurt.  The 1 sociopath in 25 individuals one encounters any day wouldn’t have that connection to prevent his or her destructive actions.

Brian deliberately brings Dexter to the realisation of his past, in the hopes he’ll be free to join him in the ritualistic killing they share.  They’re both the children of criminals, and may possess the faulty mental wiring in their shared DNA.  Harry thought that Dexter might be young enough to remain unaffected by his gruesome experience, leaving Brian to mental institutions, but when proved wrong labelled the boy a sociopath and trained him like an attack dog.  But, while he’s a deeply disturbed man with a compulsion to kill, Dexter’s emotional growth suggests he’s something less than that.  More pathetically, he may have spent over thirty years with the emotional acuity of a three-year-old.

Ethics

To come: Bats and Supes In Tropical Bowling Shirts