Friday, August 18, 2017

A Study in Opposites: Bloodline Failed Abysmally, while Ozark is a Triumphant Joy

In general, I’ve never been a big advocate of making snap judgments; to my way of thinking, it behooves no one to be too hasty when deciding on something—or someone’s—merits.

That vegetable you think—for no good reason—you don’t like (because crazy Aunt Ida managed to massacre it into oblivion each Thanksgiving, and you vowed to never, ever let it pass your lips again)? It may be absolutely delicious prepared by more skillful hands. That book your workmates are raving about, which just isn’t "your genre"? Could prove to be as all-absorbing as the watercooler talk purports it to be. Or that guy/girl who, at first blush, isn’t really your “type”? Might turn out to be the one who values your worth and ends up stealing your heart.

The point is, you just never know… which is why I always try to give things that don’t immediately hook me a fair shake. I’ll read sixty pages into a book I’m not enjoying if I have reason (say, trusty recommendations) to think it might actually be good. I’ll give a food I’ve never tried—or never experienced made really well—a shot, if it sounds or looks appealing. I’ve gone on dates with men who didn’t tick off every box on some mental checklist of “must-haves”, because I saw potential there. And, I’ve given TV shows which were hard to stick with—but showed promise—ample time to hook, wow, and impress me.

Sometimes, though, the magic simply doesn’t happen, no matter how much effort you put into trying to like/understand/”get” something… as in the case for what should’ve been a much better show than it was, Netflix’s Bloodline. (Note that I’m using the past tense to talk about Bloodline, as it has--thankfully--concluded the third of its three seasons.)

The situation isn’t all grim, however, since I found Ozark--another Netflix entry, interestingly enough--to be the show that Bloodline could have been.

First, though, the mess which was Bloodline… With a great cast, including Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Enrique Murciano, Chloe Sevigny, John Leguizamo, Beau Bridges, and—in a small role—the late Sam Shephard, the show boasted plenty of talent in front of the camera. The setting—a little family-run hotel in a hamlet in the Florida Keys—was promising, as well, particularly as it hasn’t been done-to-death. And, in the beginning, I held out plenty of hope; although it was an extremely languid show from the get-go, that felt true to the hot, sticky climate in which the action took place (plus, I assumed it had to pick up the pace, eventually).

A ne’er-do-well brother (Danny), returning home to the fold (with anything but familial open arms waiting to greet him). A mess of unspoken undercurrents, which clearly put both the straight-arrow policeman brother (John) and litigator sister (Meg) on edge. A baby brother (Kevin) who seemed to be a perpetual screw-up. The long-suffering parents (Robert and Sally), who were far more concerned with the running of the inn than with their adult children’s respective issues. And then, a sudden death… which highlighted the worst in everyone, and threatened to bring long-buried secrets out into the bright Florida sunlight for the world to see in this crime drama that also functions as family melodrama. 

With so much promise, then, how did it all go so very wrong (for me, at least)? In pretty much every other way possible, frankly. I have both read and sat through some incredibly-slow burns, but Bloodline took the (not-hotly-contested) cake, on that front. Egads, was this show’s pace slow! Some of the side plots were way too contrived, really pushing the envelope of un-believability, which didn't help. The most egregious wrong about Bloodline, though? The sheer unlikeable-ness of Every. Single. Character. (Okay, I actually didn't mind one character who got killed off in the first season… but, like I said, he died.) I have never before found myself watching a show in which I truly disliked everyone, but that was my experience with Bloodline… and that, it seems, is my personal full-stop limit of that which is tolerable/intolerable: I need to like/identify with/root for at least ONE character in a show (book, movie, etc.)--something which I just did not do with this hot mess.

Had it been enjoyable enough to be a so-called “guilty pleasure”, I wouldn’t quibble, but there was so little pleasure to be derived from sitting through Bloodline, it might as well have been non-existent.

(Sidebar: I stuck out two full, tedious seasons of Bloodline, but after forcing myself to watch the first episode of the third/final season… found I simply couldn’t stomach any more. How everything was resolved? Don’t know, and honestly don’t care.)

As alluded to earlier, though, my experience with Ozark (a new-in-the-2017-season show) was the exact opposite, despite there being some surface similarities between the two shows.

Like the previous example, Ozark can claim some impressive talent, including Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, and Esai Morales. There are dual settings for the action, here, with part occuring in Chicago, and the remainder happening in Missouri, in the eponymous Ozarks. (Again, places we don’t see portrayed every day—especially the latter, obviously—which is instantly attention-grabbing.)

And what about that action? Without saying too much, it revolves around one family, the Byrdes (financial advisor dad, Marty; part-time professional mom, Wendy; and their preteen and high-school-age son, Jonah, and daughter, Charlotte) who find themselves forced to vacate the Windy City for parts remote, humid, and lacking in any excitement whatsoever when Dad runs afoul of the drug cartel for which he’s been providing some shadier services over the past decade. (Of course, you know that means going from the frying pan and into the fire, right? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a show…) 

What makes the two shows so very different, then, separating them by multiple country miles, as it were? Aside from the obvious situational similarities, the short answer to that question is, “pretty much everything else”.

Where Bloodline was a study in just how long the writers and directors could drag out any scene, every plot point, and yet another ridiculous scenario (making the whole a torturous slog), Ozark is all about the pay-off, with things happening right now, and everyone scurrying to keep up and figure out how to deal with it all (kinda like in real life), before the next blow happens (as it invariably will)… keeping things moving along briskly.

Equally notable are the characters in Ozark, which I find myself—if not precisely rooting for everyone (I’m not a monster, so of course I’m not sitting there hoping the bad guys come out on top)—nonetheless completely intrigued. As for the characters I do like—the Family Byrde, en masse, the thieving young woman and her equally-sketchy (but woefully-less adept) family, the bordering-on-sociopathic Feebie, the slow-to-trust bar owner, and the suave cartel hombre, to name a few—they are all deliciously compelling.

In short, while both shows have overlying story arcs involving basically “good” people being put in positions where doing bad things seems the only realistic option (and is, indeed, always the chosen one), it’s the combination of writing—the characters, the situations, and the motivations—the acting, and the directing which makes the earlier show (Bloodline) an abysmally-disappointing failure for me, and the new show, Ozark, an utter win.

Final Verdict:
Bloodline: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; not recommended at all;
Ozark: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; highly recommended


Monday, August 7, 2017

What Happens Next... When the World Goes Dark & Scary

No matter how you cut it, there's a lot of scary stuff out there that we humans--regardless of how technologically-advanced, smart, or just plain ingenious we think we are--can do basically nothing about. 

Fortunately, many of the things which once plagued us no longer loom quite so large; some diseases have been virtually eradicated, while other conditions--which would once have been death sentences--can be managed, if not outright cured. We understand more about the nature of storms and tectonics, so are better equipped to take precautions against natural events. As a species, we humans are pretty darn plucky at the whole business of surviving-and-thriving.

But that still leaves an awful lot of unknowns and variables out there, the sorts of things that--well, there's just no way to say how we'll respond... unless/until they happen.

One of those impossible-to-prepare-for scenarios plays out in Matthew D. Hunt's chilling debut, Solar Reboot.

What starts off as a pleasant father/daughter trip--with Alex and daughter Piper flying from Seattle to New York City so that she can compete in a big swim meet, after which their plan is to do a little sightseeing--takes a turn for the strange when the sky overhead becomes an unnatural hue, and meteorologists report being stumped. The strangeness isn't confined to the east coast, either; Alex's wife Cameron describes a similar phenomenon back home in Seattle during their nightly phone call.

A park ranger by trade (and bit of a doomsday-er on the side) whose job requires him to pay attention to weather anomalies, Alex is concerned, but no one else--certainly not his preteen daughter, whose mind is full of Big Apple fun--seems inclined to share his worries. Not until the morning breaks, with the sky still oddly dark and the city experiencing a total power outage, in fact, do others start exhibiting signs of alarm.

Unwilling to hold out for the power to come back on so they can catch their flight home--feeling the wrongness of whatever is happening down to his bones--Alex hurries his (extremely put-out) daughter out of the hotel, posthaste... making their way across the blacked-out city to New Jersey, where they eventually finagle a rental car for a (very) long drive home, instead.  

Meanwhile, Cameron (normally a cool-as-a-cucumber surgeon, herself) wakes up to similar chaos on the west coast; power outages and some pretty scared neighbors (who, to her dismay, all suddenly seem to be waving handguns and rifles)--combined with the uneasy phone convo with husband the night before--persuade her to load up the car with some of the supplies he'd been stockpiling, and head up to their remote weekend cabin in the mountains... just to be on the safe side.

It soon becomes apparent to everyone that those weird skies and the nationwide disruption of power grids are only the tip of a gigantic iceberg, though; the earth's atmosphere has been hit by fluke solar flares (which apparently go whizzing by us all the time, but almost never hit the teeny-tiny target that earth is, astronomically speaking), and all sorts of meteorological hell is about to break loose. 

Solar Reboot is, at its core, a classic "road story", in which characters must undergo a journey fraught with perils to (hopefully, eventually) reach their destination. I've always found road tales to be particularly-compelling action stories, when done well, and this one doesn't disappoint; Alex and Piper endure hardship after hardship on their long cross-country odyssey, and I found myself worrying how/if this or that trouble was going to resolve itself (especially complications caused by Piper's diabetes, which would be an unimaginably scary, life-or-death concern in a world temporarily gone all to hell).

It is also, obviously, a work of science fiction (granted, not too heavy on the science, but with enough to likely please all but the biggest sticklers for the inclusion of copious scientific facts), and for me, it acquits itself admirably here, too.

Lastly, Solar Reboot is a story about relationships. Of course most books are about people, but sometimes relationship dynamics can take a backseat to the action. Such isn't the case here; Hunt draws not only his three main characters--the family unit (something he clearly knows well, as illustrated in a few particularly lovely, poignant scenes between father and daughter)--but also his side characters, both the ones who have larger roles and those who have quite minor (yet meaningful) ones, with great care. 

My one (very) minor quibble is that things occasionally get a little heavy-handed, as the author does his part to try and undo some stereotypes and common tropes. It's just one of those things I'm always hyper-sensitive to, though, and definitely isn't enough to detract me from any of my enjoyment of the book.

Solar Reboot is one of those stories I really hated having to put down when it was time to go to bed (or work, or to make dinner, etc.); I was completely invested in the characters, and couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next. So, this debut gets my enthusiastic recommendation... and this author has earned himself a place on my must-read-right-away list for any future works. :)