EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, contributor Ian Grey looks at how genre TV is reflecting and transforming the idea of family. Warning: This piece contains spoilers.
By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor
Sometimes I worry that I spend way too much time scouring TV shows for metaphors and coded cultural messages. This becomes so much easier when you’re dealing with TV and family and genre. TV loves family narratives because they let advertisers reach multiple generations of viewers in a single shot; it’s good for the network, good for advertisers. Creators love genre TV because it lets them play around with subject matter they could never touch unless it was painted with a shiny coat of genre metaphor. And critics with an interest in the way culture reports on the reality of family love all of this, because the families that TV portrays in genre drag are shimmering funhouse mirror reflections of what’s probably going on in that place outside our offices, often referred to as The Real World. And still I worry that I’m reading too much into shows where there’s barely anything.
Then a series like Alphas (SyFy channel, Mondays 8/7c) comes along featuring a single Mom who kills with Oedipal super-powers and storylines that play like an advocacy class for extra-bio-family formation skills, and I’m like: Who needs subtle metaphors when in-your-face ones do just fine?
Alphas is one of three genre shows doing brisk trade in family matters on basic cable. The others are TNT’s Falling Skies and my pick for the year’s second best new show, MTV’s Teen Wolf.
Yes, I’m saying Teen Wolf is up there with Breaking Bad, Justified, and Mad Men. Bite me.
Alphas is turning out to be much better than a SyFy show needs to be, especially in its nuanced performances. It uses the plots, metaphors and stressors of genre to get our minds off the fact that it’s doing strange work for fascinating reasons, — starting with that aforementioned Oedipal wrecker, which neatly segues into an in-show soliloquy for extra-familial utopianism. No, really. I’m not creative enough to make that up.
Some basic Alphas stuff: They’re a group of genetically super-powered people who work in a shleppy Queens, New York office under the guidance of Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn). Dr. Rosen is a welcome change from that current trend in genre TV — the one that Matt Zoller Seitz identified as a plague of TV industry “autocratic mentor-leaders.” You know the characters I mean — those super-hip, grouchy, middle-aged know-it-all males who prance around dominating, insulting and ultimately instructing their too-stupid underlings: think Gary Sinise on CSI: New York, Hugh Laurie on House, Tim Roth on Lie to Me. (Seitz suggests that the preponderance of such assholes on TV can easily be explained because network suits and show-runners prefer dramas that mirror themselves — their imaginary selves, to be precise. I agree.)
Anyway, Dr. Rosen is not one of those characters. He is often the last guy to know what the hell is going on in an episode. He’s refreshingly written as an absent-minded mensch Magneto who loves vintage glam rock. That means we get lots of T. Rex and David Bowie rarities integrated into the soundtrack, which I say can never be a bad thing.
As super-powers go, well, let’s just say these alphas are in keeping with a basic cable budget.
Gary (Ryan Cartwright, in a brilliantly distracted turn) is an autistic teen who can sort of hack himself into any wireless signal. The incredibly adorable Rachel (Afghan-American actress Azita Ghanizada) is able to experience all five sense to such an extreme that she’ll never be able to kiss or hold anyone. And in an ongoing morality subplot, there’s highly foxy Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who has the power to fog men’s minds and get what the team and/or she, wants.
The Alpha men are less interesting. There is Bill Harken (played by Malik Yoba), a Hulk-like figure with better anger management and Cameron Hicks (portrayed by Warren Christie), a slightly broody telekinetic sharpshooter. (He is cute, though, I gotta say.)
What I enjoy most, though, are the overlapping dialogue/mumblecore groove and the way these diverse personality types come together to create a coherent, interdependent family. There is a scene where Rachel, the most vulnerable member of the team, is attacked by the Oedipal Wrecker I mentioned at the top of this piece. The villain chooses her because Rachel feels the most rejected by her biological family and is in dire need of some kind of parental love. We also learn how the Wrecker kills, and it’s a doozy: her love causes the secretion of chemicals in your brain that are like super love-heroin, and when she tells you to scram, your body goes into a withdrawal so severe it nearly causes your head to explode. What a bitch.
Anyway, the Wrecker is eventually captured, but not before Rachel is on the edge of death in “love-withdrawal” agony. Doctor Rosen draws in close and with fatherly tones tells Rachel to listen to his voice. He tells her that his love is real love. That he loves her so much she will never know how much he loves her. That she must listen to the love in his voice and come home … come home to Queens with Gary, Nina, Bill and Cameron. And so he saves her life. The end, and holy shit.
What’s stopping Alphas from attaining Comic-Com critical mass reverence is that its mutants haven’t yet totally committed to their new, non-biological family like those in Firefly, Dead Like Me, or Battlestar Galactica. For several characters this “Alpha” gig is just that — a “gig.” It’s not a home yet.
Deal is, genre-loving viewers have special needs. They attach themselves to, and find themselves in, fantasies like Alphas, to the point where they love them. Marvel’s X-Men wouldn’t mean much if Wolverine, Cyclops and Beast clocked out at 5 p.m. and went home to dinner with a spouse. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is their home. Until Alphas‘ characters cut the cord, until Dr. Rosen’s office becomes their primary residence, there will be a ceiling to Alphas‘ level of alt.family awesome.
As you, your family, friends, cat and aquarium fish may already know, Falling Skies wasn’t awesome. It was godawful. At first, anyway. The series from Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat (screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan) managed to take a fool-proof concept — a scrappy Boston crew fights the extaterrestrials who have already leveled most of the Earth—and turned it into some of the worst TV that God’s once-green Earth ever suffered through.
I’m going to call this initial overview of this TNT show Falling Skies 1.0 because — as alluded to earlier — most of the first season episodes suck fantastically. Then about a month ago or so ago, something inexplicable happened; the show pulled a creative 180, becoming perverse, funny, creepy, and compulsively watchable by default, right up until its finale a week ago.
But back to the suck in progress. Skies 1.0 featured the heretofore bulletproof charming Noah Wyle. He rendered eleven years of ER tolerable, even engrossing, but here he was a mopey, dirty, exposition machine named Tom. Since he’d been a history professor prior to the alien holocaust, Tom was promoted laterally to co-run the mighty “Second Massachusetts Army”, which looks like a bunch of Hollywood extras with lightly smudged faces and terrific haircuts. Heck, at least a Bee and bumble cutter survived the initial onslaught. The only part of Earth history Tom seems to know about is the American Revolutionary War, about which he talks endlessly, especially the bit about how a small band of highly motivated resistance fighters beat a vastly larger force. He especially likes to say this in front of a flag or a painting of JFK, one assumes, just in case the viewer is unsure which Revolutionary War he’s referring to.
Someone — presumably either Rodat or Spielberg — was convinced that people who watch TV are incredibly stupid — even more stupid, I would argue, than those who pay to see Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, which Spielberg executive produced. So along with Tom’s not-so-helpful history lessons, Falling Skies 1.0 fronted some of the most annoying, trite dialogue ever uttered in a genre TV series. For example, Tom liked to clarify who was related to whom — a lot. This resulted in Tom shouting things along the lines of “I’m his father!” or “He’s my son!” or even better, “He’s my son and I’m his father!” Others characters came out swinging with variations on “We lost his mother in the war with the aliens!” and “As a father, I must take the fight to the aliens, who recently decimated this land, which is in Boston!” “Yes, this battle,” Tom shouts. “It reminds me of the American Revolutionary War, where a small band of highly motivated resistance fighters beat a vastly larger force!” It was genre TV for slow people.
Those early episodes followed the same pattern. Every so often a ‘skitter’ (a mildly gross multi-tentacled alien) or alien centurion robot (think ED-209 from Robocop) attacked and killed members of the Second Massachusetts, and we watched Tom run to check on his sons. Roll credits. Characters routinely recapped last week’s story in dialogue, and even the ‘skitters’ themselves started looking increasingly Ed Wood-ish. (Think the octopus in Bride of The Monster.) Anyone who has seen those early episodes knows I exaggerate by maybe five percent.
But the undeniable low point of Skies 1.0’s had to be the aesthetic demotion of Moon Bloodgood, who played Dr. Anne Glass. In real life, Bloodgood was number 20 on Maxim’s Top Hot 100, and was one of People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People, but the hair and makeup numb-nuts working on Skies 1.0 managed to render a luminously lovely woman a blah, dowdy, downright unpleasant-looking whiner.
But then came Dr. Anne’s Skitter skull-fuck … and welcome Skies 2.0!
First Bloodgood started looking more like her usual, gorgeous self. Then the plot strand she occupied—something about her use of a blowtorch to sever the alien bio-mechanical mind-control harnesses attached to POW adolescents’ spines—began offering premium David Cronenberg-ian mind-body disturbances. Skies 1.0 lousiness officially bit the dust when Dr. Glass decided she’d just had it up to here with a jailed skitter and rammed her arm through the bars and down the creature’s throat while it whimpered, ripped its brain out, and flung the ickorous mess on the table.
Nothing would be the same. From that moment until the end of the season, it felt as if the writers had changed the locks to the writers’ room, refused to tell Spielberg about it, and just went punk-rock crazy. First, they turned the skitters into pedophiles. Those harnesses? Well, turns out they inject the kids with this super-heroin that makes the kids feel reeeaalllly amenable to being fondled and caressed by skitters. Bet you didn’t see that coming!
Skies 2.0 replaces Skies 1.0’s retrograde patriarchal set-up with a sense of tables being turned, of things falling apart, of familial anarchy in the USA. Dr. Anne now blowtorches harnesses off of kids’ spines, rips skitter brains out of their heads, shoot guns effectively, and basically Ripleys things the fuck up.Meanwhile, Pope (Colin Cunningham), Falling Skies 2.0‘s resident scumbag, is being rehabilitated into a semi-father figure who can make armor piercing bullets and IEDs while charming Tom’s youngest son. And Tom’s middle kid, Ben (Connor Jessup), is turning into the show’s Christ figure. Via hand-cranked tube radio broadcasting (don’t ask), Ben– with his halo of flaxen hair, eyes of lake-water blue, and spiritually submissive demeanor — is able to zoom in on the frequency used by the Krylonites and totally screw up their killer robot deployments. He’s able to do this because he was harnessed once. Without Ben, the Second Massachusetts—and his father—would be useless.
Along with Falling Skies 2.0‘s boldfaced cathartic craziness and familial reversals, these episodes have also tumbled to something quiet that’s intrinsic to the appeal of all post-apocalypse entertainment, something given extra urgency during the current dismal economy spin: It’s the idea that whether it’s nuclear war, zombie plague or alien apoc, you can have your extended families obliterated without feeling obligated to even act like you’re bummed about it. In Skies 2.0, it’s a dark economy fantasy of relief, that, aside from a mother or father or the occasional skitter, there are no nuclear or extended families left after the alien apocalypse. No uncles or aunts, no nieces, no grandfathers, nothing. The entire Monopoly board has been cleared. In a time when viewers can’t afford to buy gas at Wal-Mart, Falling Skies offers the sweet dream of a vastly shortened gift list.
While Alphas works its small patch of mutant family ground hoping to build enough viewership to get another season, Teen Wolf provides the most complex, mature and existentially unsettling look at the American family around.
Juxtaposing Buffy, the Vampire Slayer-style wit and deep-core humanism, Teen Wolf reaches inside the minds of its young characters and finds a near limitless compassion for their suffering. This doesn’t make watching Teen Wolf easy, though. In fact the series can be downright excruciating to sit through, because you’re constantly aware that there is no such thing as a safe moment for these beautiful young people. In Teen Wolf everything and everyone is up for grabs. Key people die while others suffer grotesquely, pointlessly, horribly.
Miraculously, Teen Wolf unfolds without the slightest hint of cynicism. It seems sharply aware of and mirrors in its worldview those 2008 Census statistics — the ones showing forty per cent of marriages end in divorce. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer found a loyal audience because it created a vampire lore and a monster mythology that could be used as a metaphor to examine a young women’s difficult journey from little childhood to womanhood. Teen Wolf takes a similar approach, but with werewolves.
The show’s sensibility can be summed up in one scene. Sixteen-year-old Scott (Tyler Posey) was turned into a werewolf via the bite of another mourning creature. He now has superior athletic skills, great vision and the ability to heal rapidly. He’s working on his enhanced hearing abilities when he hears his Mom (Melissa Ponzio) sitting in the beat-up single-family car, weeping quietly.
Suddenly, child and parent find their roles abruptly recast and reversed. As Season 1 moves along, we see young Scott transformed from social outcast to werewolf protector. It’s a lonely road, however. He does have a BFF in ultra-wired Stiles (Dylan O’Brien), who is not a werewolf. But in the same way that Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) in Buffy struggled to aid “chosen one” Buffy in her journey, nerdy Stiles can never truly understand Scott’s emotional and physical transformation. With familial support diminished — if not entirely gone, Scott’s experiences a deep loneliness. It is this pain around which the show turns. Scott has to make adult decisions whether he likes it or not. He also has to manage old childhood relationships and create new ones — including a romance with a girl named Allison Argent (Crystal Reed). (Wolf’s complex, relentless, dark-dreamy weave of sound and music prominently features Frightened Rabbit’s The Loneliness and The Scream.)
The series takes place in a fictional Northern California suburb called Beacon Hills (actually Atlanta) and seriously, you can’t throw a rock in that place without hitting a sign that says “Familial horror—Next stop.” Standing between Scott and his new love Allison are Allison’s family and — you guessed it! — they happen to be a clan of werewolf hunters led by the disturbingly mercury-eyed Chris Argent (J.R. Bourne). Even more family horror comes via season one’s ultimate big bad, a creature called The Alpha — a mysterious, fanged, 20-foot tall, laser eyed CG monstrosity who morphs into human form. That human side of the character bears a grudge against a certain werewolf because a certain someone obliterated his entire family.
And then there’s Derek (Tyler Lee Hoechlin), the almost ridiculously hot dude who wants revenge on a mysterious someone for slicing his sister in half at the waist. It’s an image that’s become Teen Wolf’s Lynchian visual leitmotif.
As this show hit its operatic finale, Teen Wolf uniqueness has became self-evident. The show’s creative team takes its viewers deep into the souls and thoughts of its characters, presenting multiple hearts of darkness. It was a courtesy extended even to the show’s ultimate Big Bad, The Alpha. Our heroes Scott, Stiles and Allison do eventually confront the creature with lab-class IEDs, but just as we’re supposed to feel all triumphant watching the teens engulf the thing’s body in flames, director Russell Mulcahy and creator/showrunner Jeff Davis switch to the Alpha’s point of view. What we see is unsettling. Weeping, the torched beast flashes back to the image of his family trapped in a basement, burning to death while he helplessly watched. In that moment, viewers come to understand this boy chose to become a werewolf only to gain vengeance on his family’s killers, and that fateful decision corrupted him and cost him everything. He dies, screaming with the pain of loss and and horrified by the realization of what he had become. Just when you think you’re about to get a boo-yah hit of vengeance, the ultimate villain becomes a tragic figure and viewers can’t help but empathize with him and mourn his fate.
In an era where Focus on the Family twists statistics to match a radical theist ideology, Teen Wolf has to gall to present its viewers with a vision of family that all too familiar and tragic — a dark metaphor for mournful, shattered relationships. The result has been a moderate but strong hit; season two is already in production. In a way, I’m almost glad it’s not a monster hit, because the world of Wolf is beyond grim. In Beacon Hills, the good, single-parent families are defined/unified by one thing: exhaustion. There’s an ache in Scott’s generation of parents — an ambient sense that nobody has had time to understand — that everyone has, in some deep way, failed. Scott and Stiles become parentified children, trying to reassure their own parents that everything will be okay.
But it’s the job of the horror genre to point out how it won’t. Mom’s tentative try at dating leads to a night with a literal monster. Stiles’ father, the boy’s rock-ribbed center of gravity, is starting to show some cracks. Too much drink causes a verboten topic to rise: “I miss your mother so much.” The look on Stiles face is one of naked panic. Meanwhile, Chris Argent turns out to be a noble man. His sister’s murderous break with the Code, her attempt to turn Allison into a sister killer– were they byproducts of his failure to snuff the contagion? Stay tuned.
As for Scott, he’s running as fast as he can. Teen Wolf touches audiences, I believe, because its good people struggle in a world of such diminished expectations. If Scott can get through the day without passing out from exhaustion or letting his Mom get killed, and if he can just sit still with Allison in the dark without the roof he’s sitting on collapsing, it’s amazing.
But it won’t last.
Successful genre television shows like Alphas, Falling Skies and Teen Wolf reflect their viewers’ fears, secret desires and perceived realities. Alphas is a hit because, like X-Men, it not only assuages the viewer’s fear of their otherness — their feelings of not belonging — but it also creates a fantasy family of Odd, and depicts relationships that viewers can rely on, maybe ones they enjoy because they never experienced anything like them in life. (Series co-creator Zak Penn also co-wrote X-Men: The Last Stand) There’s a bumper crop of cultural energy serving this need, in Lady Gaga, P!nk, extreme metal, the Gathering of the Juggalos. and on and on. The variety and persistence of such cultural icons filling this niche for viewers says something, I think, about the way the traditional family is changing in America. When there is no solace to be found in the real world, fantasy will do just fine.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column “Grey Matters” runs every week at Press Play.