I’ve gotten behind schedule on my recaps and commentary. Here we go…
Let’s get this out of the way. There’s the old Orson Welles quote about peanuts and television. Here is one about Z Nation and Chex Mix.
Z Nation is like a bag of Chex snack mix. Yes, I said it. It has a bunch of really awesome offerings at its core (The seasoned Chex), some superfluous additions that are okay for texturing (pretzels, cheddar crackers) and then the big melba toast pieces you end up tossing to the side because they are just flavorless filler.
Season Three only has four episodes left as of this writing. Characters have disappeared and the party has split up. We spent an entire episode in a looney bin (see also: Ash vs. Evil Dead) and another enduring a parody of the Presidential election, a retrofit “prequel” season premiere to shoehorn in a new villain, an episode that prominently featured people vomiting into buckets, a lot of Nat Zang running around looking lost and sick, and a lot of monologue by Keith Allan as Murphy, Lord of The Blends. Then there’s the inexplicable story of Citizen Z who exists in his own, boring storyline. I will say that Citizen Z and 10K’s ongoing mind control storyline are the Melba Toast in this mixed bag of a series. The humor and the action are the Rice and Wheat Chex. The rest is a mix of okay comfort food.
ZN is notable for having a strong, black, female lead (though this season, Kellita Smith has been MIA for half the episodes) and some solid performances from the core cast. It’s just that the budget doesn’t have the power to convey the ambitious story it’s telling. Murphy has restored power to all of Spokane but we’re stuck in his Spartan headquarters behind a zombie moat seeing the same few extras and walk-ons week after week. We’re not seeing any new scale or power here. Murphy is always on the edge of hatching some new phase of his master plan, but the old phases haven’t amounted to much. All of this is like reading and complaining about the ingredients and sodium level in a bag of snack mix.
Reviewing Season Three feels about as useful as reviewing a bag of snack mix, too. You know what you’re gonna get when you open the bag so there’s no sense in arguing its health benefits. If you consume it, you get what you get until it’s over and you move on. This is neither a good nor bad thing because Z Nation has never aspired to be anything more than easily consumable and forgettable entertainment with just enough tasty bits to stand out on the shelf on the next shopping trip.
Ash versus The Evil Dead
I’ve always believed that one of the main characters in an Evil Dead movie is the direction and the cinematography style. “Raimi-cam” is as much a part of the Evil Dead experience as Ash with its weird angles, smash-zooms, dramatic lighting and rear-projection techniques. In this way, AvED often feels lacking.
As Season One approached, I was not convinced that Ash’s “kid pals” were such great idea. Man, I was glad to be wrong. Ray Santiago’s Pablo and Dana DeLorenzo’s Kelly are just messed up enough and game for anything that it makes the relationship work. Bruce Campbell may be older, but he’s perfected the Ash that I don’t think existed as much in the films as our memories of the character that evolved in the years since Army of Darkness. Due to legal issues, discussion of the events of that film are Verboten in the new series, but that character’s oblivious charm and destructive cockiness are amplified from that film and put to great effect here. Lucy Lawless is always wonderful to watch but her character is a lot of exposition and unnecessary arguing. There’s no tension or chemistry between her character and Ash as they banter ideas. On the other hand, she and Pablo share these great moments where you’re not sure who the puppet is in the situation.
Making Pablo literally become The Necronomicon over the course of several episodes is a brilliant stroke of pain, weirdness, and hilarity. The introduction of Baal as a “level boss” was inspired, especially after neutering Lawless’ Ruby and forcing her to work with the Scooby Gang. Bringing Ash home, meeting the locals and especially his father (played by a delightfully dark and skeevy Lee Majors) was a fan’s joy.
The only downside to this season was the “Am I mad?” episode that put Ash in an asylum where hijinks ensue. Like the Z Nation episode with an identical setting and similar set-up, it felt like filler. Otherwise, even the illogical batshit crazy plots (the bar party to attract the thieves who stole the Delta 88 and the possessed Delta that killed Ash’s dad — the 6-Million-Dollar Man jokes wrote themselves) were so well written and performed with an “all-in” mentality that I overlooked the plot failures that would have crushed an episode of Z Nation.
There is a level of intelligent storytelling that is lacking in Z Nation which makes the splatterporn that much more shocking and appropriate. One minute the show is twisting the plot with layers of character drama and the next it shows us an animated colon pulling Ash up into a corpse’s butthole and making him run around peeking out through the autopsy incision. It’s the kind of thing only Raimi and Co. can pull off as comedy.
I wish that we could have a story where the Ash from Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, and this series would cross paths in the space-time continuum and have to fight together. They are so different that it would be like a Doctor Who crossover episode.
There are only two episodes left and I am looking forward to another end of the world.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove
Now that the story is over and I can put the events together, I just have to admit that this was a trippy ride with many elements that didn’t play out either as I expected or at all. The story itself was more satisfying than the conclusion which was reminiscent of the kind of ending Stephen King would tack on to a short story when he ran out of things to say or creepy images to conjure. In fact, the “small town old friends club” setting felt quite familiar and established the horror conventions in my mind that played out as I expected.
The inspiration for this season’s “Candle Cove” story is a creepypasta tale played out in a message board thread. The story by Kris Straub is effective because it uses a modern communication tool as its medium to connect people to a faded, yet scary part of their collective past. It works for those of us in our 30s and 40s raised on UHF/VHF television, where we could turn a dial and pick up snow-faded images from distant television signals or scrambled cable signals. After four decades, those old memories have eroded to sketches, feelings, and ideas embellished by fanciful imaginations. What were we REALLY seeing in those faraway, locally-produced afterschool shows? As grown-ups it is easy to see the scary parts that our impressionable, innocent minds overlooked. The story also works because it is an intimate story that could apply to anyone reading it. Those of us who remember that time remember real moments in our youth that might have a connection to the story being told, even if it is a half-memory or a dream. The intimacy and realism of the tale is ultimately what fuels that sense of horror.
The television version changes this premise to a childhood tragedy involving several children murdered by someone who was never caught. The brother of a victim, Mike Painter, returns to town after many years claiming to want to write a book on the subject. Really, the television broadcasts that led to the murderers have started up again and haunt his dreams even far away from his childhood home. Echoes of “It” and “Sometimes They Come Back” and “The Body” including the corruption of innocence, mind control, possession, extra-dimensional forces posing as familiar children’s entertainment, dormant tragedy, and unresolved childhood angst, all come straight from Castle Rock or Derry, Maine. Mike reunites with some of his childhood friends (the local Sheriff, his deputy, and his former crush who went on to marry the Sheriff) and they open the old wounds of the murders.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I might…so be warned.
There are great ideas that worked best in the promotional video for the show but that had limited impact on the show itself. The twisted image of a child made entirely of teeth and the “reality” of the Candle Cove puppets made for great optics, but that’s about it. The true identity of tooth child, its origin, its nature…all that was lost in the ending of the story which reveals that Mike’s twin brother was possessed by the spirit of Candle Cove (or something) and obtained mind control powers that allowed him to talk kids into jumping off a ledge. This continues until Mike kills his brother and hides the body so the killings would stop. It’s a boilerplate horror ending where the dead bad twin wants to come back to life in the good twin’s body. The good twin tries to trap the bad twin and they both end up trapped to save everyone. With the good twin stuck, I’m supposed to believe that everything ends well.
I expected to see the souls of the children “sent to Candle Cove” in addition to the killer, the skin curtains, and the one creepy monster wandering around the set like Donald Trump during the second Presidential debate.
There was no decent resolution here. The story enveloped several local children, including Mike Painter’s daughter. In the current time period, several children, including the children of the sheriff and his wife, are converted to murdertots under the instruction of an old elementary school teacher. They kill the Sheriff’s wife in a kiddie pool with metal hooks. The sheriff’s daughter tried to gut her brother with a metal hook. They somehow come to an understanding about that and join the murdertots. When it is all over, these kids are still going to have the memories of murder and plotting more murders.
The story is so concerned with showing Mike as the hero that it totally overlooks the aftermath of the whole thing. The show ends in tragedy, but somehow it’s okay because ghost daddy Mike is there to shut off the TV when Candle Cove appears to his daughter Lilly trying to start the cycle over again.
In all, the journey was far more intriguing than the destination. Some great costume and prosthetic work can be found here, too, which is a bright contrast to the subdued, almost Valium-fueled performances by all players.
Finally, I conclude with an admission that I have only seen the first two episodes of this new season. I’ve been keeping up with recaps, so I have an idea what’s going on. It looked for a time as though Darryl was going to take the part Carl had in infiltrating Negan’s headquarters but last week put us back on track to what was a creepy but well-told psychological story between Negan and a much younger Carl than we see in the show. Part of comic book Carl’s reason for surviving that encounter was how he impressed Negan with being such a sociopathic bad-ass at such a young age. Despite all the horrific things Negan showed him, Carl never broke down. No really, anyway. TV Carl is clearly a teenager who I imagine is old enough to understand the choice of “serve or die” once he’s in the compound and the same situation as Darryl.
My comments on why Glenn HAD to die seem to be justified in the press coverage that followed. Abraham was often glossed over or forgotten in recaps of the first episode. It was a bloody episode followed by a ridiculous episode (I already discussed it elsewhere). But it established an important truth about this series: There are characters who have outlived their usefulness or who have been so underutilized that they’ve been forgotten by the audience.
The romance between Denise and Tara, for example, was a great opportunity to take the load off our main characters for a while. But then it just ended. Denise had to die in place of Abraham (who took the arrow to the eye in the comic) for no good reason (as he just got clubbed later on). The show has FOURTEEN “MAIN” characters, SIX “ALSO STARRING”, and EIGHTEEN “Recurring” characters this season. The season only has SIXTEEN EPISODES split into chunks of eight with a two-month intermission! Sorry about the excessive caps on that, but do you see the problem with the math? When was the last time you saw a good storyline with Father Gabriel? What’s going on with Spencer or Aaron? DO you remember them? Are they even still alive?
I know hindsight is often clearest, but if TWD was going to spin off into a new series, I would have suggested a show that followed the “B” team as they set off on their own missions and did their own things. It would be better than the quality of what we’ve gotten from “FEAR…” and helped propel the story along. Even if that show was entirely web-based and had a similar budget to “FEAR…” I would prefer it to that show and the minute-long slices of a story spread out over six months.
My big prediction here is that I believe this season marks the beginning of the show’s inevitable decline. It will either stop with a strong season 8 or limp through a ninth, but unless it enjoys a radical re-invention soon, I think the audience is tiring of the misery and tragedy.
It may be the culture is changing and no longer needs TWD to help it escape because the show itself is trapped inside its own insurmountable prison of despair. To many, we already have the prospect of a tyrannical leader rising to power in our lives and Negan isn’t a helpful escape from that idea. To others, the shift from run-stop-fight-run to a more static set piece takes some of the danger out of the show that always seemed to be there. Being in Alexandria feels a lot like the Greene farm again. With walker herds pushing the group on, sometimes apart, and into undiscovered parts of the countryside, there was always room for something new to confront them. Like the comic, we’re entered a time where flight has turned to settlement and the walkers become a toxin in the environment more than a threat. The show will have to change and I’m curious how that change will keep it distinct from other post-apoc dramas. Sure, we have the big war coming up against the Saviors (not a spoiler – you know that’s got to happen, right?) and after that the comic points to a time jump and a weirder arc at the end of it. TWD will become even more of a western than it is right now. I will also predict that Enid is a spy for the yet-unseen Whisperers.
I will catch up at some point, but right now it isn’t drawing me in the way previous seasons used to.
Westworld and Dirk Gently will follow…