Category Archives: TV Shows

Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

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In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

AHS S1

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With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

AHS S2

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And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

AHS S3

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And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

AHS S4

(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

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So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

AHS-S5

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Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

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THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

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Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show (Conjoined Twins)

Just realized that we put this poster/art together two months ago, but that I never tossed it up on the blog (and hence, it’s not showing up on Google), and now has missed the big conjoined casting announcement revealing that Sarah Paulson would play a two-headed/conjoined twin this season, that went out last week. Balls. But here you guys go if you haven’t seen it over on my Facebook page.

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

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American Horror Story Freak Show: Nails

Still on a roll with our American Horror Story: Freak Show fan posters and teasers. This video might be my favorite we’ve done so far.

As always, huge thanks to our director, CJ, over at Something Random Media for getting everybody together to do these!

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American Horror Story: Freak Show

(Edit: I’ve added in the more recent couple posters to this post, in order to bring them all together for you guys into one epic AHS:Freak Show post. The one starting us off is a recent re-design on the original that I did in black and white. I was hoping to just change it up to include the new hashtag and real release date — had a fifty fifty chance, sorry — and it pains me that I didn’t see the potential originally, because this one is awesome. )

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Freakshow Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show : Beauty

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show Abracadabra

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AHS-Nails-2So I’ve spent a couple looong days working on this project with my buddy CJ from Something Random Media. Of course it’s just a fan project. American Horror Story has a really immersive and rabid fan-base. That — in addition to the ultra-stylized and image-heavy marketing promos FX releases for each season — pushes a lot of fan speculation on both promo videos, as well as their own posters. Because CJ and I are so passionate about photography and video, we thought we’d toss our hats in to up the fan standard (and, if we’re honest, maybe fool a couple people!) We’ll be posting some behind the scenes type info about how we did certain elements, and we’ll be posting more posters and videos in the coming weeks as we execute more ideas. So definitely stay tuned. But do let me know what you think in the comments section down below! And then a couple wallpapers for you too. Because I’m a photoshop addict. American Horror Story Freak Show Title Card

American Horror Story Freak Show Beauty Wallpaper

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown Wallpaper

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AHS-Nails-Wallpaper

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iTunes TV Show Album Art

Thought I’d toss up a quick blog post for you guys about iTunes Album Art.

I’m an aesthetic person living in a digital age. Where I went through college proudly arranging my TV on DVD collections on display, and a book fetish that involves tossing as many around my room as I can, I’m still all about the look of art that I love, even if that art is brilliant television or literature.

And, appropriately, bad art bugs me. Whether it’s inconsistencies in the spines of series (Thank God for Scholastic’s treatment of Harry Potter and the beautiful packaging for all nine seasons of the X-Files!), or just cluttered promo images, it’s gotta look good.

Given my background in photoshop and photography, I’ve made it a hobby to modify the iTunes Album Art for all of my favorite shows so that they’ll look snazzier in my media browser (ignoring, of course, the update that collapsed all seasons of a show into the most recent cover. Blasphemy, iTunes, blasphemy). And, to boot, I’ve gotten a massive kick out of editing the official promo poster for new seasons of my favorite shows long before the episodes will drop on iTunes.

So if you need to add album art to any shows purchased outside of iTunes, or if you want to modify what’s already there (Right click your season, go to info, and paste into the Artwork tab), here’s a list of some of my favorite modifications.

American-Horror-Story-S1

This is the original iTunes cover for season one of American Horror Story. Though the later subtitle would be referred to as “Murder House”, I love the simplicity of the design, and keeping the images defining which subtitle the season was. So as Hollywood later added subtitles to the art, I kept the minimalist design.

American Horror Story Season 2 Asylum Itunes Art

American Horror Story Coven iTunes Art

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(The better version of this one is on its way when I can find a higher res shot of the face)

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Then, to keep beating the AHS horse, I also have supplied consistent album art with the subtitle of each season, but without the small differences, like FX logos and changing around the logo layout. The season 4 one is an alternate cover because it worked better with the top-hatted lady.

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Hannibal’s Season Two poster was so brilliant, it actually brought me back to the first season, which I binge-watched in a week. iTunes has an annoying “Season” two title above the Hannibal title, but this is so much sleeker and closer to the first season artwork of just Mads wiping his mouth.

Hannibal Season 2 iTunes Art

Then of course, a month out of the third season premiere for Hannibal, official season 3 art, and an international variant if you like it better.

Hannibal-S3 Hannibal-S3-2

House of Cards isn’t available in digital yet, as part of Netflix’s push to get you to get a subscription, but if you’ve ripped your first season DVDs or find yourself in sudden possession of digital files in your iTunes library just out of the blue sky, you might just want some nice art to spice them up.

House of Cards Season 1 iTunes Art

Season two took a bit of photoshop finesse, as a simple crop of the promo poster doesn’t quite work, with either useless text or too much negative space, so a touch of title shifting and we’re good to go.House of Cards Season 2 iTunes ArtAnd I’m hot to trot off the presses on turning out the brand new Season Three poster into your itunes album art only two weeks before the big premiere! Might not be quite as sharp as the first two seasons, but it’s still a damn good poster, I think.

House of Cards Season three 3 poster itunes album art promo

Supernatural has always had some of the most inconsistent digital album art, mostly just grabbed from various promo posters, but their DVD art has always been gorgeous and consistent. So I’ve cropped them down for you! (Apologies if you own past season five, but that’s where I’ll always insist the show actually ended. Anything after is just the network leaching off its success. Kripke left, the arc wrapped).

Supernatural S1

Supernatural S2

Supernatural S3

Supernatural S4

Supernatural S5

True Detective is another that you should grab some excellent art for in case it somehow may have appeared on your computer out of the blue. Though the show is chock full of amazing images and great promos, there’s one that truly speaks as a future DVD cover. Most of these as posters so far have a bunch of useless text atop the photo too, but since I couldn’t find a blank one to shop, bad content-awareing will have to suffice. Still does the job though.

True Detective Season 1 iTunes Art

And last but certainly not least, like its HBO counterpart, True Detective, if the new season of Game of Thrones should appear on your computer, you’d better get yourself some spiffy album art.

Update: True Detective is now available on iTunes with a free trailer and featurettes. The official cover art for the show looks just like this one, only without the crummy content-awareing, so it’s easy to freely download the trailer and copy paste the art onto your files.

Game of Thrones is usually tricky, as they come out with Character Posters each season, but these are never DVD covers. Last year’s dragon-shadow poster became the DVD cover just this past month, so I’d be willing to put my money on the three-eyed Raven official poster being this season’s media art. A quick photoshop later, and this is my best guess for next year’s digital release art.

Game of Thrones Season 4 iTunes Art

Game of thrones season 5 s5 poster itunes art HBOHope this helps you guys out!

UPDATE:

Penny Dreadful just premiered its pilot and I’ve got to say, it’s pretty good. Hard to find a great promo poster, but this is a modification of the best one I could find.

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And, even though it’s not out on DVD yet, some Hemlock Grove.

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And to celebrate the dropping of season two of Hemlock Grove:

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And if anyone is still watching this trainwreck of a show… well, you’re in good company. Here’s the final season of Californication:

Californication S7

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American Horror Story: Coven – “Boy Parts” Review

AHS-True-Blood-Album-Art
Following the smash premiere of the third season of “American Horror Story” (the numbers registered at five and a half million viewers, more than doubling season two’s finale), episode two, “Boy Parts,” hits the ground running, as the season’s plots begin to take off (like a witch on a broomstick, perhaps?). But I’m already starting to wonder… what’s on the way? Check out the full review over at ParanormalPopCulture.com  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap-boy.html

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American Horror Story: Coven – Premiere Review

FX_AHS_ImageGallery_0000_02Catch the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night? Spoiler: it was fantastic. Still trending on Twitter, if I saw correctly. So where’s the season going? What’s working and what’s worrying? Check out my review up at ParanormalPopCulture.com:  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap.html?spref=tw

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How the Series Finale of Dexter Was Brilliant and Why it Sucked

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(Needless to say, there’s gonna be spoilers)

Let’s just get it out of the way first, shall we?

Why Dexter was so Awesome:

1. The final shot. The buildup and crushing rejection of Dexter’s entire growth as a character for eight seasons.

2. Both the thematic potential of Dexter’s new-found family and the parallels with his old family.

3. The way he killed Debra. It had to happen. And it was poetic.

Why Dexter was so terrible:

1. The final shot was unearned. Dexter’s decision came out of nowhere and barely made sense.

2. The family-figures were meaningless. Man of Steel all over again. Simply shells with unearned emotions.

3. There was no tension in the first 11 of 12 episodes in the final season.

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That all said, I want to go a little more in depth on exactly why this episode was brilliant, and how it was equal parts such a godawful letdown.

I want to start with the final shot: Dexter, sitting down in a logging cabin. Isolated. Gray. Alone. Hard.

Though many online took up arms to make fun of Lumberjack Dex, the moment itself was incredible.

The brilliance of this shot came first in the filmography. For a show that fell apart at the seams in the final three seasons in terms of technical appearance (look no further than those godawful Florida skies in the final episode, which could have been photoshopped by the kid who played Harrison), this final shot was commanding and moody and emotive. The symmetry. The careful camera motion. The lighting. It all spoke toward the darkness we know as Dexter.

The only problem with it was the whimpering fade-out rather than a hard cut.

But the emotion was astounding, if overlooked.

One of the staples of old-school television is that the characters don’t change. Networks want to hook an audience and keep them. By changing their main characters radically over the course of a show, the network model believes that this will ultimately alienate the audience that grew attached to such a character in the first place.

Not only does this give little credit to the audience, but it limits the range of good storytelling. Any basic writing class will emphasize that, in short work or long form, the character has to undergo a change.

Dexter has been quietly at the forefront of the changing landscape of the television industry because Dexter himself has been undergoing a radical change for years. He’s becoming a human being. He’s learning that he’s not so much a sociopath as he thinks. This wasn’t just an abandoned season eight plot point, it’s been developing since season one.

Season One: Dexter learns that his need to kill may be less genetic so much as born from his childhood trauma. Season Two: Dexter learns that he can have feelings. Whether that’s in a relationship, in sex, or in the thrill of being on the run. Season Four: Dexter learns that by pretending to be a father, he actually likes having a family. Season Five: He learns empathy, and that trauma-based dark passengers can be lost. Season eight: He learns that he might not even be a sociopath, and that he’s capable of truly loving.

The writers had two places they could go with this progression: they can either let Dexter go off on his happily ever after and embrace the fact that he’s finally human. Or he reverts back to the stone-cold Dexter of first season.

As we watch the final shot push in on Dexter at the end, we see that this is again the Dexter that we’ve always known: the cold, calculating, closed-off Dexter that nods to us in the opening credits each week.

And this feels very right, to see Dexter back here: alone, cold, but back full-circle (a lot of finales seem to love this idea of coming full circle. TV is a very cyclical beast, it would seem). It might not be very happy or pleasant. But it’s very right.

Now, even though the writers recognized the right end, they failed to present it well. They didn’t earn this finish, and that disparity threw most viewers. The immediate impression of the last shot felt tacked on rather than right.

On first viewing, it seemed that Dexter’s decision to bail on his new family was out of the blue. Deb died because of a series of badly-written accidents stemming from Dexter’s decisions. And that was enough to prompt him to abandon the only things in his life that make him happy?

It’s a stretch only if you forget that it wasn’t Deb’s death alone–but also due to the loss of his mother-figure, Vogel, and his son-figure, Zack. The problem here is that, well, I actually did forget this.

For having such an instrumental impact on Dexter as pieces of a life he’s trying to build, their deaths had no drama. I was bored as I watched Vogel bleed out. I was unsurprised to see Zack, dead in Dexter’s chair. And of course Cassie, the passing-love-interest-neighbor, was so clearly a throwaway character that I was betting friends against how long it would take for her to be killed off (Seven episodes. There’s twenty bucks I won’t be seeing again).

This is purely a problem in execution. A problem in pacing, in filming, and writing. We didn’t understand whether these people were really important to Dexter. We weren’t convinced that we ever really wanted them around–or that Dexter even really wanted them around. There was no tension, no suspense. No risk.

And so, not only were their deaths relatively meaningless, but they were easily forgotten.

Dexter’s final decision seemed impulsive because we didn’t get to watch him with his struggle. We didn’t understand deeply enough that he blamed himself for these deaths. When we watched Dexter with Hannah and Harrison, we didn’t get to see Dexter questioning whether he deserved such happiness or whether he’d ruin it.

The risks of Dexter’s  lifestyle were never risks to the people most important to him: Hannah and Harrison. His lifestyle was a risk to Deb, and it proved fatal, but he was leaving Deb. The writers had already established that Harrison and Hannah were more important to Dexter than Deb, despite Deb and Dexter’s relationship being the crux of the series.

Instead, for eleven episodes, the characters we had no investment in were the ones experiencing all the risk, and the characters that we actually love, Hannah, Harrison, Deb, and Dexter were only ever at risk due to Hannah’s exploits. And, when it came to risk, those scenes were more awkward than suspenseful, with the final undoing straw being Harrison running on a treadmill and–“Ow. I cut my chin.”

Where’s the tension of season two? Where’s the unraveling of Dexter’s life the way we’ve been waiting for since then? Where’s the edge-of-our-seat tension as we wait for the law to come down on Dexter, as we wait for some master serial-killer to put Dex out of his misery? Where’s the drama of Dexter’s police family unraveling as everything they knew about Dexter crumbles? Where’s Dexter, a wreck, because he’s trying to build a life as it all comes falling down?

Where’s the possibility that now, here, in the final season, literally anything can finally happen?

Instead, the only thing that crashes down–until the final episode–are tacked-on characters we don’t care about.

If we’re going to fully appreciate the final scene, we need to have the appropriate build-up for it. We have to watch Dexter struggle as his world falls around him. We have to watch Dexter’s decision to be a human being crash down far more epically than Deb’s being shot in the stomach. (If not, I mean, at least give us a bit of finesse).

For threatening Deb’s death, did they even bother to take their time with it? To bother with some close ups? Some slow motion? Some kind of emotion in finding Deb shot on the floor of an abandoned hospital?

Nope. Cut to soap opera wide. Deb’s cop family chatting normally about whether they should call Dexter.

The only way that we earned the final scene was in Dexter finally killing Deb. If there were two moments the writers needed to build to in the final season, it was Dexter killing Deb–or vice versa–and the final shot on Dexter, alone and empty.

Dexter killing Deb is massively important because it takes the essence of Dexter (the drive to kill) and puts him in the most dramatic of situations, in which he must finally break his code to kill someone not only innocent, but someone that he actually and truly loves. The flip side is that Deb has to kill Dexter, bending her own morality for the greater good, and in essence becoming the very thing that she’s killing. These types of murderous moral ambiguities have always been at the heart of the show.

Of course, if Deb can’t kill Dexter because we need the final shot of Dexter, then we’re left with the former. And the writers set up a good situation. Deb’s a vegetable. Dexter is forced to kill her to put her out of her misery. If not cliché — with uncomfortably transparent moments for goodbyes and flashbacks — it is a relatively poetic and twisted situation.

Even still, I have to wonder how the show-runners didn’t include a nod to almost every murder from earlier seasons? How did Dexter not run a thumb across Deb’s cheekbone before he pulled the plug? Where he sliced the cheek of his victims as trophies, how did they not allude to this STAPLE of the show in Dexter’s final kill?

It’s oversights like this that characterize the season as a whole. Rushed. Inattentive to the details: pacing; character; the small, dramatic, artistic moments.

The way we earn the final scene is to take our time with these dramatic moments. To pace the play of emotional extremes that are ripping and tearing at Dexter, that push him to turn his back on everything that would make him happy for everything he most truly is. We earn the final scene by watching Dexter make every effort to be human and have those efforts destroy the ones he loves and the life he lives. Have him actually ruminate on the fact that it’s only in his humanity that such hurt stems.

Deb’s death (too little too late, overall) wasn’t enough to convince us. Deb wasn’t Dexter’s whole world. Deb wasn’t enough to make Dexter give up a life. For that matter, Vogel and Zack weren’t Dexter’s whole world either.

As a viewer, I didn’t believe that Dexter’s trying to be a human being would result in tragedy for those he loves. That, single-handedly, is why the ending didn’t work. That’s bad writing. Plain and simple. We have to make that decision with Dexter. But we didn’t.

What could bring us to that decision? What about killing Harrison? What about forcing these moments four episodes before the end? What about giving Dexter some time to deal with the emotional drama of these consequences? Rather than a shot of him standing in front of a thunderstorm, in which we don’t really, fully grasp or share in what is most truly pushing him away from what’s left of the life he tried to build.

By taking our time, by watching Dexter’s world ripped away, only after he loses almost everything–only then would we understand why he’s sitting alone in a logging cabin. This way, we’d understand, immediately, as we slowly zoom in on the beard and the hollow cheeks, as we watch him close his eyes–only then would we see the way he blocks out the humanity he’s discovered. Only THEN would we understand that this is who Dexter truly is: walled-off, flat, hard. And intentionally so. He’s a human being who doesn’t allow himself to love.

THAT’S tragedy. THAT’S drama.

But it seems the writers were more interested in tacking this kind of drama on in the last five minutes and leaving the rest of the season to focus on Masuka’s daughter.

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Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Early Review of NBC’s Siberia

TL;DR Review: Tons of great potential, shaky execution, flat first episode, boring characters, intriguing — though very contrived — plot. Will probably flop. But I want to see it be brilliant.

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NBC, on July 1st, is airing the pilot episode of its new summertime series, Siberia. The official press release describes the show thusly:

In 1908, a meteor hit deep into the remote Siberian territory of Tunguska. Now, more than 100 years later, 16 contestants descend on Tunguska unknowing of the land’s mysterious past. When a contestant is badly injured and no help arrives, the contestants are met with the chilling realization that the strange occurrences are not part of the show. With their safety threatened, competing contestants must band together in an effort to survive.

The pilot episode is now streaming on Hulu and NBC.com, and I checked it out today to bring my thoughts to you guys.

My first thought: these people could be a part of the biggest interdimensional cross-rift since the Tunguska blast of 1909! 

Concept:

My second thought: there is tons of potential here. I was caught up in it the moment I saw the first promo spot on NBC. Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve been playing with a number of concepts about the same kind of idea recently, myself (reality television and, well, reality), but this sounded like a wonderful idea.

See it with me? A reality show that breaks down around the contestants, constantly playing with the idea of whether or not what’s happening is indeed reality, or is indeed reality television set up as part of the game. That tension could go a long way in a series such as this. Especially with the introduction of potentially supernatural elements, we further have play over what is “really” happening.

Here, I’m a bit bummed that the studio didn’t try more to treat the presentation of this as actually real. I think that with a concept such as this is not only a chance to play with fundamental concepts of modern-day television, but also with the modern-day audience. I’m a fan of playing with the lines of reality when it comes to storytelling, of involving the audience as deeply as possible. That’s the heart of post-modernism: breaking the barriers of classical storytelling in order to make some thematic use of that breakdown. If it’s seeing the strings and behind the scenes, use it. If it’s destroying conventions to unsettle your viewing experience, do it.

Leak a news story a couple months early about a reality show going terribly wrong where it was filmed in the remote areas of Siberia. Perhaps a shady article about a cast member who died accidentally, and the fallout from that.

Get some hype for the show before it releases. Get some people discussing the ethical components of airing a reality show where it actually becomes strikingly, and graphically, real.

And then when it airs, let the audience hinge for a while before we come to the realization that it’s a scripted show.

Unfortunately, with most of the press on Siberia, many articles and blogs are quick to jump on emphasizing and underscoring the fact that it’s scripted. In less of a way that’s about reassuring their audiences (which would be missing the point entirely, as I see it), but in a way of chest-thumping: “Ha! Hollywood didn’t fool me with another Blair Witch! I knew all along it wasn’t real! It’s so not real! Ha!” Which feels childish.

Execution:

That aside, the pilot episode itself was a bit dry. I can’t really stand reality competition shows because they feel phony, it’s hard to find likable characters, and the over-produced nature just feels like that fake sugar coating that reeks of distrust. Siberia keeps that sugar-coated feel here, with that kind of Apprenticeesque crescendoed music and the perfectly-staged interview setups. I’d have liked for a bit more of a gritty feel. The candy got too sweet. And making it through the first episode was a bit of work, because I just didn’t care.

That said, I think the show needed to start this way. It needed to get itself grounded in the reality feel. It needed to hit all the mindless reality show tropes that characterize the genre. It didn’t make it much fun, but it all needed to happen.

It’s in the second episode of the show where the real potential will start to unfold. The plot takes off slowly in the pilot, but when it does, it’s compelling and holds my interest. I can only see that such plot will unravel more and more in future episodes. Which makes me want to stay.

This quote, from the producers, also intriques me:

“The concept of survival, when mysterious elements are at play, makes for a compelling show,” said Jeff Bader, President, Program Planning, Strategy and Research for NBC Entertainment. “We believe a scripted series that offers an insightful behind-the-scenes view of how a reality concept comes together – especially when things don’t go according to plan – will connect with our audience in a very satisfying way.”

Lost

Before getting to the good stuff in this quote, I have to talk about Lost. Everyone who knows TV is going to compare this show to Lost. It’s a bunch of stranded people in the middle of nowhere, trying to survive, who begin to interact with mysterious elements (particularly seemingly-large beasts who make lots of noise in the night while everyone huddles around a campfire — familiar?). Indeed, those who really know Lost even know that it’s the same as the original concept for Lost, that of a survivor-type reality show going off the wheels when it comes into contact with mysterious forces.

But this doesn’t bother me. I think that Lost was a different show, with different goals, and a different endgame. However, the one real comparison to Lost here will come in Siberia‘s vision and characterization. What made Lost strong was in making friends with the characters, and trusting the mystery (when we could). We need that here too, or Siberia will fizzle. So far, I’m not seeing much of the characterization yet.

What I am seeing, though, is a feeling of real people in a situation. And that’s important. Playing with the mysterious and possibly supernatural in a way that demands a re-envisioning of both reality, and television, for both the characters and the audience, is very good for dramatic and thematic tension.

There’s always a kind of separation in supernatural horror movies because you know it’s fake. You know, with every camera-shot, that there are people behind the camera. Horror movies try their absolute hardest to make you forget about the cameras and engage with the story. That’s the goal of most classical cinema: to have a good emotional experience.

But Siberia sets itself up to go beyond this classical experience of television. It sets itself up as a way of breaking that fourth wall between the audience and the film. It tries to go to the heart of the experience (the way that Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre that followed do), in a way that makes it real for the audience.

This is why I was immediately disappointed that the studio couldn’t slip this one secretly in as being more real than we’ve already learned that it is. If they could have, they would have had an even greater play with audience’s experience of the real thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this was the first and biggest opportunity to recreate the Blair Witch experience here, fifteen years later. It’s already been done in the movies. We’ve already had the experience of a fast-one pulled. But on television? Television is changing so fast that this types of storytelling can still be pulled on us if done properly. And here, it wasn’t. Worse, given that this is the first time this concept will be truly novel, we may never see such an opportunity again.

But away from that, I want to point out what an incredibly difficult task it is to play this line of reality and experience for the audience. We have to trust the actors more. We have to trust the filmmakers to give us both an immersive experience, but also a believably real one, a balance that — if you’ve ever compared novel-dialogue to real-life-dialogue, you know is hard to strike.

But that’s what the show promises. And that’s the bar that it’s set for itself. The comment Bader makes, above, also gives me hope, in that, as they move the cameras back to show the strings of the reality show, they fully embrace showing that behind-the-scenes element that would be so compelling for audiences. The moment at the end of the Siberia pilot — when the producers and other camera guys dragged off the injured camera-man — that immediately captured my interest, and not just because I’ve been on reality television before, where seeing behind the scenes is refreshing. I think the television-watching audience at home wants to see that too. We want something fresh. We want to trust the show by the show trusting us.

The same way that Syfy’s Ghost Hunters got a feel of deeper reality when the normally-very-skeptical camera guys would interrupt with experiences, here, we trust stepping back and showing the strings, because that’s when the audience feels that they’re on the same page with the show, when the show recognizes that it’s a show.

This, in addition to Bader’s promises that this will not only be a behind the scenes look at the making of reality television, but also in the process of executing a concept, we could be in for a meta-aware, metaphysical, thrill-loaded treat.

Given the nature of network television today, I can’t expect that kind of execution. But I can hope for it.

Siberia premieres July 1st on NBC at 10pm EST.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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