Wolverine and the X-Men – A Review

WWCXD?  (What Would Charles Xavier Do?)

Even though there’s “no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’”, Wolverine seems to be on every team in the Marvel Comics universe.  So it was only a matter of time before they put their most well known and popular member ahead of the rest of the group.  He is the Gladys Knight to Cyclops, Iceman, the Beast, et. al’s Pips.

The show begins after a psychic attack of some sort takes out Charles Xavier and Jean Grey.  With Charles Xavier out of the picture, the individual members of the X-Men lose faith in their mission and slowly go their own way.  It’s up to Wolverine to put the band back together.  That’s essentially the storyline for season one, though along the way, the writers give plenty for diehard fans of the comics and movies to enjoy.  From the convoluted time jumping/parallel universe storylines to familiar villains and heroes, the show is every bit as beholden to the X-Men’s extensive history.

From the movies to the comics, the story of the X-Men is about a mission: the reconciliation between people groups, mutants and humans, to bring them together for peaceful coexistence. The mutant struggle has been used as symbolic commentary on racism for much of its run (such as in the classic X-Men graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills), but has come to also symbolize the plight of homosexuals (the legacy virus that afflicted mutants standing in for the AIDS virus or even the current worldview of mutants suffering from a genetic condition that possibly has a cure). The X-Men have sworn to use their gifts for a world that fears and hates them.

They are about an ideal, the peaceful coexistence of people, one in which they often can’t live up to themselves. Mutants may see themselves as a community, and that may be the goal that they work toward, but they aren’t there right now. The X-Men start by trying to be an example, a team. Despite their different gifts, their different temperaments, their different socio-economic backgrounds, they rally around a common goal. Unity in diversity.

“You’re more like family.” –Rogue

This set apart group of mutants see themselves as an elect, a group called for a purpose. Part of their mission is to provide a place for “evil mutants” to find redemption for their actions.  We are looking for a story to define us, a community to belong to, be it punk (the anarchist story), militia (the story of ”patriotism”), gang (the story of street families), or being a mutant (the story of how they were born). When institutions fail to do what they were created to do, be what they were supposed to be about, other places–not often looking like one expects–will spring up to do their job. Professor Xavier preaches a gospel message of peace and reconciliation. He believes that the best way to spread this message is by providing a safe place for people to work out their questions all the while teaching them ways to discipline themselves so that they can control themselves. Such safe havens involve first being a community, allowing people to have a sense of belonging before believing. People need to find a place to call home, a place to belong, and people to call family.

There have been several series based on the X-Men:  X-Men: The Animated Series, X-Men: Evolution, and Wolverine and the X-Men.  The characters which comprise the X-Men are so rich and developed and the team has such a varied history to draw upon, that any iteration seems to strike gold.  One might get tired of them treading the same stories every time (all have variations of the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix saga, for example).  The best part about Wolverine and the X-Men is that it really feels like it picks up by ignoring the last movie and “fixing” it for the sake of better continuity and story.  I only wish there was a second season to see where the show would go.

Men of a Certain Age – A Review

“You ever get that?  You  look in the mirror, you see yourself, I know I’m standing here I see myself and you … you recognize yourself … but there’s that little bit of you that you don’t.” –Joe

The pain and awkwardness of middle age.  That special place in life where the parts don’t work like they used to, where you reflect on your life, navigating the perils of a spouse, job, kids, and that existential dissatisfaction with life and how things turned out.  Wondering if you are where you were meant to be, where you dreamt of being, and trying to figure out a way to move forward anyway.  That special time when you may find yourself dating again, with the dawning realization that when it comes to relationships, we never truly leave high school  (and that even at 40+, we revert back to what we know).  Where we may be raising kids while still being a kid; yet at the same time we might be in jeopardy of having overnight  become “that old guy in the night club.”  The reality of aging yet not being “old” is what Men of a Certain Age explores.

“He has a full head of hair, no gut, owns his own business.  For his age, that’s hot.” –Melissa

Everybody Loves Raymond’s creator and star, Ray Romano brings his patented brutally observational honesty to his place in life.  All of the characters’ insecurities and foibles on full unapologetic display, luckily personified in a trio of faces familiar to television.  Starring as Joe, it might be his opportunity to dominate the show with an over-the-top character, yet we find a depth to Romano’s acting in the vulnerability he portrays.  And he has a lot to work with in flexing his acting chops as an almost golf pro with a gambling habit, a failed marriage, who flounders on the dating scene.  His trademark humor only adds to the character as it is an obvious shield to the slings life aims his way.

Terry (Scott Bakula, late of such geek squad favorites Quantum Leap and Enterprise) plays a still single out-of-work actor, slowly realizing his life hasn’t exactly gone the way he would have liked.  Yet he clings to his womanizing ways and in some ways is trapped not only by the way his long time friends remember him, but also their living vicariously through him, not allowing him to grow and change much.

Andre Braugher is typical cast as the smartest guy in the room, which is how he anchored Homicide:  Life on the Street and Gideon’s Crossing, and what made him the equal when jousting with House.  With his character on Men of a Certain Age, Owen, he gets to play a regular guy, an overweight schlub who struggles to find his place in his father’s business while married to his grounded wife, Melissa (the always wonderful, Lisa Gay Hamilton, The Practice).

And yet, despite the situations they find themselves in, these three middle-aged friends, despite their defeats and setbacks, are not losers.   They are ordinary guys in the throes of middle age, trying to chart the course of the next phase of their lives.  Their lives are marked by little victories to cling to which help them carry on, along with the warmth and humor of their friendship.  The intimacy of which, especially as seen among men, is not a very common occurrence.

“Is not wisdom found among the aged?  Does not long life bring understanding?” –Job 12:12

Everyone wants to be loved and be loved by someone. Everyone wants to know and be known by someone. When people speak of intimacy–trying to define what it is they are wanting–they talk about genuine trust, vulnerability, and transparency. They want to feel connected to someone. This sense of connectedness is a characteristic that we want in all of our close relationships. We want to share our lives, be accepted, and be intimate with others. Especially an other.

We are relational beings, created to form relationships with one another. Intimacy with others is a need hard-wired into us. Because friendship is a beautiful and unique form of love, it truly provides a genuine opportunity for our need for intimacy to be met apart from family and romance. One protection against isolation and loneliness is to create and sustain solid friendships. Their benefits range from emotional encouragement to spiritual support and stability.

“You reach a point in your life when you have to draw a line.” –Terry

Life constantly presents opportunities for us to love and to learn to love better. Difficult circumstances can cause relationships to dig deeper, driving each other to get to know one another on more significant levels. And there is a spiritual point to it all. Our friendships, limited, temporary, and transitional as they are, are meant to drive us to a higher friendship. If only to prove that we can’t live without love. Even the loneliness, the grief, the deficiencies of friendship prepare us for something more permanent, more eternal. We were made for higher companionship, an infinite hole within us that can only be filled with the Infinite. A love that does not pass away.

Men of a Certain Age is thoughtful, moving, and filled with a genuine humor.  The characters are kept from becoming clichés by the layered depth of the writing.  Their genial banter and traded jibes is done with a warmth which is easy to get caught up in.  In other words, very little about this show is a draw for the coveted 18-35 demographic.  In fact, this show serves as a cautionary tale, if they bothered to tune it, that this is where their life is heading and the decisions they make in their youth can set the course and tone for their future.  But even then, all is not lost, after all, in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Steve Harvey, “don’t trip, God ain’t through with you yet.”  Like this show, your journey is not over and things can still be fresh and exciting.

Thundarr the Barbarian – A Review

Very often, the television shows we remember as great from our childhood aren’t nearly as cool when we re-visit them as adults.  I will point to Land of the Lost, Wonder Woman, and Space: 1999 as my first examples.  I can still clearly remember spending many a Saturday morning eating my bowl of Count Chocula while watching the exploits of Thundarr the Barbarian:

The year 1994: From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Man’s civilization is cast in ruin.   Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn… a strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil.  He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

A weird blend of Star Wars (Sunsword = light saber), Planet of the Apes (the Statue of Liberty even makes an appearance in the first episode), and Conan the Barbarian, Thundarr the Barbarian thrums with a innocent vitality.  Like all great barbarians, either from the past or future, from Imaro to Kamandi, Thundarr lives for the journey, wandering from adventure to adventure.  While he travels with his “tribe”, Ookla (an obvious nod to the non-speaking sidekick made popular by Chewbacca the Wookie) and the wisecracking and powerful Ariel (a woman of color!), Thundarr is about his greater mission to free slaves wherever he encounters them.

“The struggle is useless.” –Gemini

The over-arching story of the Bible is one that specifically resonates with oppressed people. The poor have the Exodus gospel/model to look to. How the Israelites rise up, decry oppressive powers, looking to Yahweh as savior to an oppressed people. As slaves in Egypt, He heard their groaning. We see in the story of Israel the history of our own people – from their Exodus out slavery to their Exile in a land not their own, with their hope of future Exaltation.

“Then we shall all be saved.” –enslaved villager

The Gospel message is one of liberation.  It understands theology as social, shaped to affect our present situation. It understands evil as systemic (not only individual as the American brand of gospel is prone to promulgate). It understands that no matter what binds us—a destroyed civilization, cruel leaders, or the tyranny of magic—can be a means of oppression while reminding us that God is for the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten – or, as the book of James puts it, the widows and orphans.

“Now that we know such a force does exist, we’ll search even harder to find the secret.” –freed slave

Though it went off the air in 1982, Thundarr the Barbarian is now available as a full series, four DVD set from the Warner Archive. As with other Archive titles, there are no extras. Each disc has a no frills menu of either “play all” or “episode selection”.  The animation may be crude by today’s standards, but the show holds up well.  Nostalgically at least, as  I was a huge Challenge of the Super Friends kid though, so that the standard by which I judge whether or not Thundarr the Barbarian holds up.  And, like Johnny Quest, it does.  Of course, Thundarr was originally created by Steve Gerber (the creator of Howard the Duck) and designed by comic artists Alex Toth and Jack Kirby, so that stands to reason.  Then again, it was up against Rubik the Amazing Cube and Pac Man, so it was always King Lear by comparison.

TV Justice Special Edition: Detroit 1-8-7, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Outlaw

Every television season we subjected to a new batch of cop and/or law shows (typically in addition to medical dramas, though not too many of those have snuck in this year considering the run of them there was last season).  There seems to be inexhaustible demand for them, probably mostly because the cases are the most intriguing part of the procedurals and the characters have to be just interesting enough to frame the story.  Since we’ve already looked at Hawaii Five-O, let’s look at one law show (Outlaw), one cop show (Detroit 1-8-7), and one that splits the difference (Law & Order:  Los Angeles).

“Following the rules doesn’t always lead to justice.” –Cyrus Garza

With Outlaw, we have the ridiculous premise of a conservative Supreme Court judge who quits the bench in order to go into private practice and pick the cases he wants in order to fight for the ordinary citizen.  The ridiculousness of the premise is supposedly leavened by the fact that said justice, Cyrus Garza (the great Jimmy Smits, NYPD Blue and The West Wing), feels guilt over the death of his liberal crusading father … and has made more than his share of enemies on the bench and has a womanizing and gambling sides to him.  Somehow we’re to imagine that life in private practice would afford him more protection that, say, sitting on the most powerful bench in the land.  The show pins itself to Smits’ likeability and charisma, which makes for a better anchor that his forgettable supporting cast (the bulk of whom are there to lower the target demo of this show).  As for the writing, well, it likes to remind us that Garza is an “outlaw” the way Senator McCain enjoyed tossing around the word “maverick”.  But we love the idea of being renegades, of thinking the rules don’t apply to us as long as we’re working toward the greater good.

“Every murder tells a story.” –Narrator on Detroit 1-8-7

Detroit, home of Motown, 8 Mile, and Eminem, is the setting for Detroit 1-8-7.  Starring The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli as Detective Louis Fitch, ABC has a shot at launching a successful police procedural, a slot which has remained vacant since the days of NYPD BlueDetroit 1-8-7 even has another NYPD Blue alum, James McDaniel as Sgt. Jesse Longford, a 30-year veteran on the verge of retirement.  Anyway, Fitch imbues his odd detective with believability as he meets his new partner, a rookie detective (Jon Michael Hill) who talks too much.  Fitch is a double edged sword:  he unnerves perps with his intense stare and sustained silences and rubs his colleagues the wrong way with his anti-social tendencies.  The cast is diverse, taking another hint from Homicide:  Life on the Streets, and has hints of humor to smooth out its often dark vibe.  Detroit 1-8-7 has a vibe somewhere between Homicide:  Life on the Streets and The Shift, probably because Detroit 1-8-7 was originally conceived to be seen through the eyes of an ever present documentary crew (a la The Office).  But that has been abandoned.  The remains of the procedural hint at a show that isn’t groundbreaking, but can be a standout vehicle for its ensemble.

After twenty years, Law & Order signed off.  Though Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) will have to hold down the New York fort, the latest franchise hopes to wring the grime from L.A./Hollywood.  The Law & Order franchise has always had its emphasis on the procedural aspects of the show in that, with the exception of Special Victims Unit, the process of the show has always been larger than its actors/actresses.  Dick Wolf has famously had a revolving door of cast changes on his shows.  The formula remains the same:  detectives we know little about pursue cases “ripped from the headlines”, and name drop locations about town.  Then the case is turned over to the lawyers for some mighty fine speechifying.  It hits every traditional note one expects from Law & Order, just with new scenery.

“People say there’s not justice.” –Cyrus Garza

What is it within us that gives rise to this need for justice? C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, makes an argument for a Law of Human Nature, those laws of right and wrong written onto men’s hearts. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) After all, ethical disputes presuppose some common standard of human decency.”

However, as we look around at the people around us, we’re disturbed by how men actually behave versus how they ought to behave. Even at our best, we struggle with the already/not yet tension: that we are already redeemed, though not yet fully redeemed. Already holy, not yet fully holy. Something in us tells us that there is a standard of behavior that we ought to adhere or at least aspire to. And if there is some kind of code written into each of us, the fact that we don’t live in a state of lawlessness still points to a Lawgiver. So on the one hand, there will be ultimate justice; while on the other, Jesus is our Advocate (1 John 2:1), pleading our case before the Father like a defense attorney.

In the pantheon of great cop shows, The Wire, The Shield, Homicide: Life on the Streets reign supreme.  NYPD Blue and Hill Streets Blues will always be known for their groundbreaking work.  Pilots aren’t the show, but more of the promise of what the show might become. None of these new shows threaten to break new ground or even threaten the pantheon.  Detroit 1-8-7 is the most interesting of the bunch.  Law & Order:  Los Angeles has legs if only for the weight of the franchise.  Outlaw, no matter how bright Jimmy Smits’ star power, will probably be the first casualty of this lot.

No Ordinary Family – A Review

You can almost picture the Hollywood pitch meeting for No Ordinary Family:  “what if you take a mildly dysfunctional suburban family and gave them … superpowers?   It’s 7th Heaven meets Heroes!!!”

Best known for his tour de force performance as Vic Mackey on The Shield, Michael Chiklis now plays Jim Powell, a “failed painter, an ineffectual police artist” who feels a growind distance from his busy, successful scientist wife, Stephanie (Julie Benz, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), and their teenage kids, Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and J J (Jimmy Bennett). So in a bid to cop some family together time, they all go on their mother’s research trip to Brazil.  Their plane crashes in the Amazon River.  Soon thereafter they begin to manifest powers based on their personalities:  Jim, impotent in his family’s life, now is invulnerable and strong; the every busy Stephanie now can move so fast she can almost be in two places at once; what teen wouldn’t want Daphne’s telepathy to know who’s saying what about them?; and struggling student JJ becomes a genius.

“The family isn’t broken.  You two are.” –Daphne

So on one level, this show is about perceptions: who we are and our need to fill certain roles in life. The quartet of heroes gains its powers due to an accident of hubris as they were in pursuit of learning the origins of life. Each of them gains powers based on personality.  It’s like they were all trapped by these false ideas of themselves. These false selves, these false ways that we see ourselves, start developing when we’re young. How our family shape us, how we let our friends define us. We derive our self-worth from what we do, we’re of value because of how we behave or what we have. And yet some part of us is miserable under this definition of who we are and longs to find a way out from under it.

So we need a better definition, a new identity, one that we can find in God. A true self, coming as a result of loving and being loved by God. Once we have our identity in Him and in loving others, we can start building this true self. Understanding and living this truth is what brings true freedom. Once the Four refused to define themselves by what they had (or didn’t have) or what people said about them, they were on the road to being the heroes they were called to be.

And then we move to the next lever, since none of us are living up to our full abilities. We have huge potential that sin has taken away [think of sin as human error, a failure to fulfill human potential (and thus sin becomes that which dehumanizes us)]. In fact, a lot of us would rather believe the lie that we are not different, that we are not special. We then get caught up in empty ways of doing life, going through the daily grind, going through the motions, un-engaged and missing the point of life.

Our journey begins by appreciate who you are and your own gifts. We are Eikons of God, created in His image to relate to Him and to others. Created for a purpose.  As each character figures out their gift, they have to then choose how they want to use what they’ve been blessed with.

“The problems we face may no longer be ordinary, but then again, neither are we.” –Jim

Well, actually, they are.  Very mundane.  Once the premise is established, the show immediately loses steam.  Where No Ordinary Family falls short is that it lacks ambition.  The show plays it safe.  It’s … nice.  The characters are nice, if not especially interesting.  Their friends are nice, if not especially memorable.Michael Chiklis is playing some reprisal combination of  his previous roles of The Commish and The Thing (from the Fantastic Four movies).  In fact, that’s the rub.  This is a very Disney-fied version of the Fantastic Four.  Or think of it as The Incredibles:  the Series, except without the movie’s depth, action, or interesting/explorable characters.

The Event – A Review

We’re always a little suspicious when a show bows with a build up like that accompanying The Event.  The sense of anticipation is set so high, that the show has to really deliver.  It wasn’t but a few years ago that Heroes bowed with such an ad campaign and the show never quite lived up to the promise it showed in the first season.

“They saved us?” –Sophia

With head nods to FlashForward, Lost, V, and 24, The Event plays out on a broad canvass of eventually intersecting stories.  Through Rashomon-esque, non-sequential, time-jumping story-telling, the show revolves around a mystery, conspiracy, cover ups, and secrets.  We have the president (Blair Underwood) demanding that no secrets be kept from his administration and gearing up for a press conference that would “change everything.”  We have Sean Walker (Jason Ritter, Joan of Arcadia) preparing to go on a Caribbean cruise where he plans on proposing to his girlfriend and trying to thwart the hijacking of a plane.  We see the mysterious Sophia (Laura Innes, ER) held in a secret detention camp being urged to warn the president of “the event”.  However, the president’s advisors, chief among them being CIA Director Blake Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek, Homicide:  Life in the Streets), strive against him finding out and has great suspicion of the origins and motivations of Sophia and the rest of her 79 detained brethren.

“Protecting the country involves the keeping of secrets.” –Blake

Against the backdrop of Guantanamo Bay, Blake is always seeking “alternative narrative” aka better cover up stories to explain away the activities of the government.  But secrets have a way of being found out and all sorts of innocents tend to pay the price of keeping the truth buried.  And his alternative narratives spring and foment mistrust of competing stories, propelling the need to negate them.  They end up missing the point of these identifying stories and failing to see that all their stories are actually quite similar.

For example, there is the story of aliens in a foreign land whose existence seems determined as crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival. That story, in turn, had been the source/inspiration of their art. The songs that bound them as a culture. The folk tales passed down that shaped them as a people. On a symbolic level, anyone can participate in this story, and, in fact, we all do. Especially since that was the story of the Old Testament Israelites. It is not as if black people have a monopoly on a story of crisis, struggle, resistance, and survival.  A story that defines us and continues to form us. When stories are reduced to law or dogma, their vitality is drained. When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. In fact, when people become so removed from another’s story, they become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for they suggest other ways of living. Their stories become a threat.  Every people has a story to tell, but that does not negate our particular story.  What we can’t afford to do is let one story keep us from participating in other stories.

“I haven’t told you everything.” –Sophia

Science fiction shows with great deal of back story and mystery, from the X-Files to Fringe have enjoyed a great amount of recent popularity, especially as studios try to fill the void in the television landscape left by Lost going off the air.  We still don’t know if we’re dealing with aliens (a la V), future humans (a la The 4400), or alternate universes (a la Fringe).  The first few episodes work their way building tension, layering the mystery, and doling out answers with its backward and forward storytelling.  Show producer, Nick Wauters, wrote a show bible detailing the show out for three seasons thus hoping to avoid the second season drift of Lost and Heroes. The show also takes home another learned lesson from Lost:  it knows the true strength of the show lies in complex characters.  If the audience buys into them, they will buy into the show.  Even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense, uh, leaves a bunch of unanswered questions in the end.

Hawaii Five-O – A Review

To be honest, though the original Hawaii Five-O was on the air during first ten years of my life, I don’t remember anything about it beyond the iconic theme music and the phrase “Book ‘em, Danno.”  So there was no treading on sacred cows or any particular expectations I had when watching the remake of the show.  Here’s what I do know:  this iteration of the show not only works well, but was surprisingly good.

The father of Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) is killed by bad guys hiding on the island.  The governor of Hawaii (Jean Smart), grief stricken and angry as she was also a friend of McGarrett’s dad, comes to him with proposal to head up, a task force that doesn’t have to play by the rules, comes complete with immunity agreements, and a magical budget to fund it.  He then gets to put together his own team, which includes:  Danny Williams (Scott Caan) a former New Jersey cop who refers to Hawaii as “a pineapple-infested hellhole”; Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim, most recently from Lost), disgraced officer no longer on the force due to accusations of corruption; and Kona Kalakaua (Grace Park, Battlestar Galactica), the disgraced officer’s surfer cousin cum almost ready to graduate from the academy officer.

“You don’t have to like me, but right now there’s no one else to do this job.” –Steve

An Annapolis-educated former Navy SEAL, Steve McGarrett plays outside the lines. He’s a just this side of loner character, a maverick who plays by his own rules whose cowboy mentality gets frustrated with bureaucracy and red tape, rules and authority as they more often than not get in his way.  His focus is mission oriented, get the job done.  So he assembles a team of other square pegs in a round system who are similarly good at what they do.  Team interplay becomes key to the show’s success.  McGarret shares a “whose is bigger” chemistry with the gruff played Danno and they come across as brothers trying to out-do one another.  Chin and Kona play against one another in that family sort of way.  And the show works.

“In a civilized society, we have rules.” –Danno

Balance between being slaves to the law and adhering to the spirit of the law (justice) rather than the letter, but believing in a procedural correctness only takes people so far in their journey.  We don’t get to make up the rules as we go along; the Law is meaningless if it isn’t consistently applied. Of course, that’s the rub, isn’t it: the Law isn’t consistently applied. It can’t be because the appliers (humanity) aren’t consistent – no matter how much talk there is about applying the law “for the greater good.”  McGarrett chooses the path of investing himself in a few, those that had been called for a purpose. They became his disciples of justice and he calls others to join in their mission of justice.

“No task is too big when done together.” –Chin

Hawaii Five-O approaches a CSI Miami level of ridiculousness when it comes to how it handles its cases, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be playing procedures straight.  These are action heroes with badges, Tango & Cash with immunity agreements.  The action is well-choreographed, filled with tension, and executed with an eye for detail. It’s enough so that each week you look forward to hearing those magic words:  “Book ‘em, Danno.”

Undercovers – A Review

I go all the way back to Felicity when it comes to J.J. Abrams (I even tried to hang in after she cut her hair … but just couldn’t do it).  I hung with him through every season of Alias (or on the big screen when he called it Mission Impossible III).  I was a fan of Lost and I loved he re-imagining of Star Trek.  In Fringe he has one of the best television characters ever (Walter!).  So with that sort of history in mind, I looked forward to see what his latest television endeavor would bring.

Undercovers, the latest Abrams vehicle, hopes to inject life into the struggling NBC lineup (as it moves away from its all Law & Order all the time strategy).  It brings together Abrams love of romance (Felicity) with his love for action spy stuff (Alias) and might as well be called “Felias.”  The premise on the whole is a married couple, both of whom are (ex-)spies, go on missions together.  Steven ( Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Bloom are CIA operatives turned caterers who are then tapped to come back into service (suspension of disbelief alert).

The Blooms had vowed to put their marriage above their missions/duty which led to them eventually leaving the world of secrets and compartmentalization known as espionage.  Catering becomes their escape into a “normal life.”  However, Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney, television’s go to guy when it comes to needing someone with a military bearing) shows up and “God, duty, and country” speechifies them into going on one last mission.   The agency needs their help in finding Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), an agent who has fallen out of contact on a mission … who also happens to be Samantha’s ex-lover.

“How did we end up here?” –Samantha

The show has all of the right ingredients:  action packed plots, globe-trotting, intrigue, beautiful to look at lead actor/actress, and solid supporting staff (such as Bill Hoyt (Ben Schwartz, this show’s equivalent to Alias’ Marshall aka the loveable nerd sidekick … though this one has a spy-crush on Steven).  So we get a Mr. and Mrs. Smith: the series type show, with characters who are pretty, decent, and nice.  But the show does quite work.  There’s no romantic frisson in the background, which should drive a banter-heavy show like this..  I don’t think that’s because the couple is married, as opposed to the will they/won’t they tension normally used in such a scenario.  It’s more that there’s lackluster chemistry between the leads.

“You don’t make the rules.  There is protocol.” –Shaw

The life of a double agents is a mercurial one. By necessity they have to lead secret lives and while at first or on the surface it may seem exciting, it takes its toll. Living with the desire to tell their friends and family, be honest and real with them, about who they are. Only allowed to tell the truth when convenient or absolutely necessary. And when the truth comes out in drips and drabs, their friends are left with a sense of betrayal, not knowing if a single thing said was true, and leaving them feeling like they were only dealing with a stranger.  A lifestyle of hidden agendas and a world of lies can reap a devastating toll on a marriage.

In the same way we can compartmentalize our spirituality as well as our lives. Our duplicitous lives lead to a sort of spiritual dissociation. This is the way of how (secret) sins work, how they infiltrate our lives and we manage to continue to function. They may start small or innocent enough, manageable enough that we can put it away, lock it up in a box in our heart. Boxes we can control and keep hidden. But those boxes stack up, become bricks in a wall eventually sealing us off from God’s rebuking and restorative voice. We rot behind that wall.

“We’re not the police.  We don’t follow rules.” –Steven

Unlike Alias, Fringe, or Lost, Undercovers doesn’t get bogged down in lots of twists or a dense mythology.  It is bare bones and mostly forgettable, the television equivalent to comfort food.  It strives to be an action-packed, banter-heavy (though without any particular bite), spy show that also explores modern marriage.  While I’m ecstatic to see people of color in starring roles (an all too frequent occurrence in the television landscape – though Abrams has a long history of diversity on his shows that never feels forced), sometimes I wonder if the catering version of this show might be more interesting.

Desperate Housewives (Season 6) – A Review

“Good neighbors. They loan you cups of sugar. They tell you why your car won’t start. They even help you find your lost pets. Good neighbors also come over at the slightest hint of trouble, whether you want them there or not.”

Long after her mysterious suicide, the deceased Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) continues to narrate the events in the lives of her friends living in the suburban neighborhood of Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. Added to the mix of Susan Delfino (Teri Hatcher), Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), Bree Hodge (Marcia Cross), Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria Parker) and Katherine Mayfair (Dana Delany) comes Angie Bolen (Drea de Matteo) and her family who become the focus of this season’s mystery. Season six saw the lowest ratings of the show’s history, particularly in the second half of the season.

“No one things about evil until it shows up on their doorstep…which it soon would.”

Season five ending with a five year jump at the end ensuring essentially a reboot of the show. Susan re-marries her true love, Mike. But soon thereafter her ex-husband Karl dies, leaving her a share in a strip club. Lynette hides her pregnancy but loses one of the unborn twins in utero. Her son Preston returns from Europe with a Russian gold-digging fiancée in tow. Bree’s affair with Karl ends, but the consequence of it leaves her ex-husband, Orson, wheelchair bound. She also has to contend with her son, Andrew, acting out as Sam, the son of her first husband, Rex, comes on the scene. Gabrielle, now mommy to two girls, also has to contend with her husband, Carlos’, niece, Ana the new neighborhood/barely legal, sexpot. Katherine probably has the most bizarre character arc as she goes from borderline insane with jealousy over Susan’s husband, to complete outcast, to marginally accepted, to lesbian. Plus there are the twin mysteries: what is the secret of the Bolen family and who is the Fairview Strangler.

The show basically asks “how much do you really want to know about your neighbors?” Everyone has things going on beneath their perfect surfaces. In a lot of ways, all the ways we’ve come to identify success, these women have everything anyone could ever want. And yet, there is still something missing: a (desperate) search to connect, to find something meaningful in their lives.

“We all know that evil exists. But we don’t pay attention because we’re worried about our marriages, concerned about our friendships, anxious about our employees. Yes, we don’t pay attention to evil because we thing it will never come to our house. But it does. And sometimes we let it in.”

The big draw of Desperate Housewives has always been its humor, soap opera drama, over-the-top action (this season features a plane crash, a serial killer, and explosions), cat fights, family feuds and mysteries. Unlike some series where you could miss whole seasons and pick up as if not much has happened (Lost says what?), Desperate Housewives packs so much into an episode a scorecard is needed. However, there was too much of a good thing going on in season six. Katherine was lost as a character. Also, not since Alfre Woodard was wasted with the mystery of her Applewhite family has a mysterious family not been very engaging. All in all, season six showed its age a bit and strained its ever tenuous credibility with its audience. It’s a short leap from engaging farce to a cartoon of a show.

Alias, Rimbaldi, and Redemption

“That’s the word he used. Prophecy. Does that sound good or bad?” –Sydney

So many great science fiction shows have an underlying mythology behind them. X-Files and their alien mythos. Fringe and “The Pattern”. Lost and their “what the hell is going on?” mythos. Alias had its own mythos, the Rimbaldi mythology, which often threatened to overwhelm the precarious balance of the themes of the show. Many of Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) missions centered around the search for and recovery of artifacts created by Milo Rambaldi, a Renaissance-era combination of Leonardo da Vinci and Nostradamus. Rimbaldi was an artist, inventor, and Pope Alexander VI’s chief architect whose advanced designs got him labeled a heretic. The Rimbaldi scavenger hunt often felt reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code and like with Lost, early on in the show, one might have had the impression that the writers were making up the mythology as they went along.

“Do you believe in redemption?” –Sloan

To SD-6 supervisor Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), Rimbaldi was a prophet and through his journey, he might find eternal life. Sloane was always a complex villain, which is what made him both so charismatic and interesting. As is the case with all well rounded villains, he believes himself to be the hero of his own story. In him we can learn a few things about the perils, cost, and necessities of being a disciple. He was a simple man of faith pursuing the object of his faith with his entire heart, sacrificing all in pursuit of the ultimate Truth.

It began with an epiphany, a moment of truth or an end of self moment of clarity. An encounter with Rimbaldi changed his life, giving it meaning and purpose. It was ancient text he and the other Rimbaldi followers were asked to put their faith in; an ancient text with a vitality for modern times. Through it they managed to divine patterns of hidden meaning in ordinary things. He immediately abandoned his old life, the life of a patriot serving his country, and turned away from people he loved. His friend, Sydney’s father, Jack (Victor Garber) even confronted him about it: “I used to feel sorry for you. Couldn’t you sense it? You’d been abandoned. Left for dead. Disgraced. I pitied you. That you needed Rimbaldi to fill a void in your life. It was like a religion for you.”

“I should never have heard that man’s name.” –Sloan (speaking of Rimbaldi)

Like many disciples, after a difficult path, full of sacrifices, Sloane comes to a place where he regrets becoming a disciple. Jesus once warned his disciples about counting the cost of being a disciple:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-35)

The path of a disciple is marked with hard choices fraught with peril and errors in judgment. As Dietrich Bonhoffer argues, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ … costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.””

Sometimes people come to a point where they feel betrayed by their faith. Many a time, Sloane was left wondering was it all worth his, his own brand of a dark night of the soul. Some folks simply walk away. I’m reminded of the passage in John 6 starting in verse 60, when many of the disciples deserted Jesus. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” they grumbled. And after Jesus questioned some of them (“Does this offend you?”) many turned their back and no longer followed him. So he turned and asked the rest of his disciples “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” Sometimes we may feel like the remaining twelve disciples. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

“I don’t know what your beliefs are. If you have a faith. If you expect that something follows this life. You might have none. But if there is a chance that there is something else, that we face the consequences of our actions in this lifetime … this is your last chance to do what’s right.” –Sydney

Jesus never claimed that his purpose was to come to have a personal relationship with us. He did, however, say that He came to build his church and called for the church to go forth and make disciples. I’m reminded of this quote from identifying a disciple:

Following Jesus as a lifestyle isn’t a matter of do’s and don’ts as much as an expression of a new identity in Jesus. This identity as God’s image bearers gets expressed toward specific audiences – toward God we are worshippers, toward other Christ followers we are community and towards the very world of people Jesus came to earth on mission to rescue – we join him on mission. While we all sign on to the same calling, God is big enough to creatively invite each of us to a personal pursuit of following Jesus.

Spiritual journeys are difficult. Some people persevere, realizing the importance of questioning and investigation. It’s frighteningly easy to go off of a path as Sloane so tragically found out. Perhaps the object you were following wasn’t meant to be followed, perhaps you made an idol out of something which was good. It can happen in degrees, a slight deviation, and then further down the road you are left lost. What should you do in the face of feeling betr
ayed? What do you do with your questions and doubts? How do you remedy that? What can you do to prevent veering from the path we’re called to? We’re not called to ignorance. Each of us has been gifted with a will and intellect of our own. The only true betrayal of faith is to abandon thinking about it and seeking to know God. The path may look different for each of us, but the journey must be persevered.