Friday, February 5, 2010

TV Review: Caprica (2010)

Set 58 years before the remake of Battlestar Galactica (“BSG”), Caprica is the story of two families. One is the Adama family, with the focus being on Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), the father of future Galactica commander William Adama -- William is a young boy at this point. The Graystones are the other family. Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is the inventor of the Cylons. All in all, I’m not thrilled with the show and I think it has serious problems going forward.

** spoiler alert **

The story begins with the death of Graystone’s daughter and Adama’s wife and daughter in a terrorist bombing on a train. The terrorists are a militant religious fringe that believe in “the one true god” instead of the pantheon of gods that are generally accepted (though largely ignored) by the vast, vast majority of people in the colonies, of which Caprica is a member planet.

After losing his daughter Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), Graystone, a talented cyberneticist with a huge military contract to build the first combat robot, inserts an avatar of his daughter (kind of a mental imprint) into his robot’s meta-cognitive processor. This robot, a “cybernetic life form node”. . . “Cylon” for short, becomes the first Cylon. Because of this blending of Zoe and robot, the show intersperses images of the Cylon robot and Zoe, and we watch her reaction as lab techs respond to the robot, unaware of her presence. From there, wackiness ensues.

At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I do not like or respect Ronald Moore, the show’s creator. The man has serious issues. In several interviews, he’s stated that he believes characters should suffer and he would never allow characters to redeem themselves with their actions or to have happy endings (excepting, of course, studio demands). This was on full display in early BSG, where his characters entered a downward spiral with no end -- a downward spiral completely inconsistent with the human experience apart from a few true, manic depressives. Also on display in BSG was his creepy relationship with women. He claims to like “strong” female characters, but they always seem to end up cruel if not sadistic, corrupt, and with strong hints of lesbianism. His male characters fare no better, tending to be self-absorbed, pathetic alcoholics and whiny, über-wimps.

I also do not respect the way he used cheap marketing tactics to gin up interest in BSG -- he has admitted since the show ended that the changes he made to character races and genders were done purely to outrage fans of the original show so they would tune in. What’s worse, as a story teller, I think he’s a coward. I will admit that he flashed moments of brilliance in BSG, but he was always too afraid to take those moments as far as they should go. For example, (1) he started to toy with the idea that the Cylons, who are extremely religious, were the good guys; (2) he gave us a Starbuck who came back from the dead, (4) he gave us terrorists, out of control death squads, and a mutiny, and (5) he gave us Baltar, who started building a massive, twisted cult. Each of these was a moment of brilliance. Yet, in each instance, he dropped the story lines right before the hard choices had to be made, often relying on the age old hack-writer's tool of des ex machina to solve his storyline problems.

Yet, BSG had several things going for it. The first season was virtually unwatchable with the characters basically running around whining and acting like depressives at a two-drink minimum funeral, as they re-enacted each of the original BSG episodes while Moore did interviews disparaging the original show. But over time, he stumbled into ideas that gave the story interest: the realization that some of the humans were actually Cylon agents, the discovery that there were hidden Cylons (who did not know they were Cylons), the discovery that Ellen Tigh was not human, the discovery of Earth. These moments of brilliance and the tension they created made up for the whiny moralizing (like BSGs thinly veiled support for the Iraqi insurgency against US troops), the failing story arcs and the unrealistic, unpleasant characters.

Further, BSG benefited from some great acting: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Grace Park, James Callis, and Michael Hogan all turned in stellar performances. And, most importantly, Tricia Helfer gave us a Number Six who was dangerously psychotic, wildly passionate, and absolutely compelling.

Why do I bring this up? Because Caprica has none of these benefits. In place of the compelling, manipulative and unpredictable Number Six, we have Zoe (Torresani), an erratic, monotone, dark-haired version of “save-the-cheerleader” Hayden Panettiere. She’s a poor replacement because her character just doesn’t have the range that Number Six did, nor am I convinced that Torresani can hold a candle to Helfer screen presence. By the same token, Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction) just doesn’t have the ability to carry off either a believable scientific genius or a grieving father. He’s more of a moody lab tech. The subplot involving young William Adama’s indoctrination into the mafia doesn’t seem all that interesting either: "gee kid, here's how you break a window. . . ho hum." As for Joseph Adama, Esai Morales is a weak trade for Edward James Olmos, and his character seems to have little more to offer than being the hot-blooded foil to Stoltz’s Doctor Thorazine. . . if they ever end up on screen together.

I am concerned about the plot as well. Whereas BSG was able to offer all kinds of mysteries and surprises, all central to the plot, Caprica seems more like a show that gave away the big surprise in the opening act and is now scrambling to remind you how surprised you were. What is left to reveal or to present a mystery? Nor are the intrafamily or interfamily dynamics very interesting. The show is set up to create tension between the two families and within the families, but the families don’t seem to be on an equal footing, they are bound together only by the thinnest of bonds, and they don’t necessarily interact. And the intrafamily relationships seem non-existent -- apparently, some of the characters are married, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell which. So while this is where the writers will likely look for drama, it seems like it’s going to be a stretch.

The world they’ve created isn’t all that exciting either. Whereas BSG followed the golden rule of unveiling slowly and keeping people wanting more, Caprica showed us their entire world right out of the gates. . . and it wasn’t all that interesting. Indeed, their world seems like a stylized 1950s with an incongruent mix of 1990s technology and far future technology, with a few taboos thrown in to shock the audience (like the nod to Hollywood’s new cause du jour polygamy).

Right now, I just don’t see the compelling characters. I see no story arcs that will keep you guessing. I see no drama or twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. And I see little else to satisfy your sense of wonder. The themes are well trodden (racism, the pros and cons of religious extremism, power corrupts) and, even worse, the writers don’t seem to be offering anything new.

There are also strange moments you need to overlook to enjoy the show. For example, how does the Cylon, an eight foot tall multi-ton robot, escape the lab and go visit a friend of Zoe’s without anyone noticing? And why don’t the lab assistants seem to care that the robot appears to be psychotic and out of control?

Now, I could be wrong? It could be that the writers have something very different planned than what they’ve shown so far, but based on what I’ve seen at this point, Caprica made an ok short story, but has little to offer going forward as a series.

I guess we’ll see.


16 comments:

Writer X said...

Andrew, I wanted to like this show. On the surface, it seemed like it would be a little different and that alone intrigued me to tune in to the first couple of episodes. Unfortunately, none of the characters are very compelling and the story has just kind of bored me. And I'm not sure I get this "I'm stuck in the 1950's but let's give it a futuristic slant" either. I mean, if you want to create a futuristic story, make it in the future. No one's going to be driving a 1955 Buick or wearing a goofy Dragnet-type hat in the future. At least I hope not.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I was willing to give it a chance, despite my love-hate relationship with BSG, but it just isn't holding my interest. On BSG, there were moments that I couldn't pull my eyes from the screen (and moments that I could barely keep watching). But this has been the kind of show that slowly loses me during the course of the episode and before it's over I'm looking to see what else is on.

And for the reasons I note in the article, I think it's only going to get worse.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: As a sci-fi fan, I was like WriterX in wanting to like this series. But since I hated BSG redux, the chances were slim. Subtleties and plot development are wonderful things, and the original BSG had very little of that. But it redeemed itself with humor and space opera. BSG2 was like watching a therapy session at the institution for the bipolar politically-correct. I didn't watch a single episode of the final season.

Caprica is depressing, depressing, depressing. And that's only when it isn't being boring, or declaring all monotheists to be completely nuts themselves. The acting is unbelievably wooden, the dialog stilted, and the plot development incoherent. Oh, and the science is bad, too. I watched the two-part intro, and the first regular episode. If the series improved by 300%, if would still stink. If it's supposed to be cutting edge--well, so is the guillotine, which should be used on the writers, producers, directors and actors.

If I want to be depressed, I can go to a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. I expect to be entertained by TV, even when it's drama. Caprica fails on all counts. I don't even like the CGI. But other than that, it's a great series.

LL said...

Television is the opiate of the masses. Religion has lost its appeal to many. I am watching Caprica to see if it develops into anything worth watching. It has that potential, though it already seems to be settling into a moribund space opera.

Unlike Writer X, I think the Dragnet hats are one of the most appealing parts of the wardrobe. I want the snap brim fedora to return to fashion. I want to pretend I'm Bogie saying demanding, "play it again, Sam"...

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I'm sensing you're not a fan? ;-)

Like I said in the article, I had kind of a love/hate relationship with BSG2. There were times it was enthralling and times it just made you want to blast your television set. Caprica hasn't hit those points yet. For me, it's just dull and depressing. It's too bad too because the concept has a lot of potential.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, A "moribund space opera" is a very good description at this point -- plus it tends to skew toward 90210 land too much. Everything feels too shallow.

I will keep watching for a while to see if it goes anywhere. I think the idea of the conflict between the two religions could make for truly compelling drama, but I suspect they aren't willing to go far enough with it -- just like they pulled back abruptly in BSG every time they got close to the interesting parts.

We'll see I guess?

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I'm glad my nuanced review of Caprica made its point. LOL

Star Trek and all its progeny, good, bad and indifferent managed to weave in drama, plot lines, science and science fiction, and space opera. Yet even its worst updates, spinoffs and sequels never made me want to hang myself five minutes into the episodes. That's what Caprica (and to a similar extent, BSG2) make me want to do. I will now watch infomercials with great relish if Caprica is the only other thing on TV.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Sounds like it's good time to invest in the infomerical business!! LOL!

I don't get that kind of reaction at all from Carpica, I just get a kind of bored indifference. That's probably the problem -- it's hard to either love or hate the show.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: My ex and my kids all agreed over the years that I have a low threshold of frustration. And when I get frustrated, I get depressed (OK, maybe it's just annoyed). I reach that level of frustration about halfway through the opening credits for Caprica, so I guess the show itself doesn't have much of a chance with me.

BTW, do you realize how many different kind of hand vegetable-choppers there are available at really reasonable prices? Some of them seem to have the capability of doing your laundry and feeding the pets as well. And if you purchase them right away, you get extra gifts at no additional charge!

StanH said...

My wife and I are giving it a try as well and have found it ok! However we are still going to watch in hope for improvement. The fedoras, smoking is back in vogue, the vehicles are a bit confusing ‘60s era, but on the other hand they’re working with robotics, and Avatars, disjointed. I don’t have as much trouble with the characters, though not overly compelling, where you learn the names, Kirk, Spock, etc. But we’ve got the DVR set and are going to keep watching, as you say…we’ll see!

ScottDS said...

I watched the pilot movie but officially decided to wait until the first season shows up on Blu-Ray so I can Netflix it. While I certainly don't mind dark dramas (and I enjoyed BSG for the most part), the thought of tuning into this soap opera every week didn't sit well with me. So I shall wait.

As for the pilot movie, I have to agree in part with you guys - where can they go from here? But then again, maybe they have some master plan. Sure we all knew Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader but the "fun" was seeing how that happened (I know the prequels are far from perfect but you know what I mean :-)).

I do, however, enjoy Bear McCreary's melancholy score for the pilot. I listened to it while I wrote some of the upcoming blogs. And the technical credits and craftsmanship were what you'd expect for a sci-fi series in this day and age.

And I don't mind the 50s aesthetic! I agree with LL - I like hats and trenchcoats and all that.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I don't think we'll know for sure for some time, though it's not getting off to a great start. They may find their footing and put something interesting together, or it may just devolve into whining. I don't know which way it will go yet, but the set-up doesn't give me a lot of hope.

Tonight's episode struck me that they are already reaching for drama. They're also running smack-dab into cliches.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't mind the 50s set, it just doesn't fit at all with the mix of technology. It would have been better if they had designed the cars to look 50ish rather than use 1950's technology. As for hats, I have no opinion either way -- don't wear them personally.

I don't mind dark stories, but BSG went far beyond dark into unbelievable land. It also struck me that it got to the point of wallowing. It was like they consulted manic-depressive teenagers on each plot points. "The world sucks man!"

In terms of prequels, I think that a well done prequel can actually have some great advantages because the audience has superior knowledge to the characters and they can watch the mistakes happen. (I thought the Star Wars prequels stunk badly, but that's for another day.)

The problem with this one is that it seems like they are expecting that our knowledge that the Cylons will turn against man is enough to make us forgive a meandering story and indifferent characters. But you don't find yourself saying, "wow I never thought of that" or "cool, that's how that happened" during the episodes. Instead, you just kind of wonder if you're going to bother watching the next.

Plus, they've already hit the point that they are relying on shock to keep you watching -- gay mobsters, polygamists, scantily glad girls, etc. That's never a great sign.

ScottDS said...

I don't wear hats either, even baseball caps. I just like that whole film noir style. (One of my friends said I'd do pretty well if I time-travelled back in time to the 40s!)

Without seeing subsequent episodes, I can only go so far. With regards to the shock value, when does the storytelling end and shock value begin? I know the pilot film featured a couple of gratuitous topless shots but with things like polygamy - how organic is it to the story?

To go off on a slight tangent - this is part of the problem with Star Trek and why they never had gay characters. You'd think there'd be gay people in the 24th century but: a.) if it's accepted in the future, why call attention to it?... but b.) if you don't call attention to it, why do it at all?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think there are several moments when things become gratuitous. First, when they have nothing to do with the story -- basically a "put the plot on hold as we bring you this...." moment. Like when two characters visit a strip club in the middle of the movie just to get lunch and you end up watching the stripper dance for three minutes.

Secondly, when the shocking material is used to bolster weak writing -- like when the story is about two people fighting and the writers decide to make then naked because they fight isn’t compelling enough on its own. Or when the shocking material is used as a revelation that isn’t necessary to the story. “OMG, the bank robber was gay!”

Third, when it substitutes for plot -- like the explosions in an action flick.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. In terms of gay characters in Star Trek, there are many reasons/problems. The biggest reason is probably that TNG was on before the gay lobby really got their hooks into television. If they made TNG today, they would probably include some.

Secondly, Roddenberry was aiming for a world in TNG where everyone was normal and well adjusted, and he used the middle-class American definition of normal as his base. The only real allowance he made for non-normal was Geordi's eyes, which fit with the Americans With Disabilities Act going through Congress at that time -- it was an attempt to show that disabilities would be a thing of the past once technology caught up.

Also, continuing on his theme of well adjusted, there is a massive contradiction with gay characters. If it's learned behavior, then it's abnormal and can't be included in the "perfect" future that Roddenberry wanted to project because it would have been cured. But if it's genetic, you run into the problem of why they can't fix the broken gene since they can apparently fix everything else? So again, you have a problem either way. That's why they substituted episodes where Riker fell for the assexual chick/dude and the episode where B. Crusher fell in love with the parasite alien who was killed and ended up in a woman's body. Those were basically the "gay" episodes.

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