Saturday, October 21, 2017

Life Without Reruns

Cutting the cord has had an unexpected side effect that I wasn't expecting.  I've almost completely stopped rewatching media.  And this is a big shift for me, because I remember watching so many television shows and movies multiple times, simply because they were on when I was channel surfing.  A huge chunk of my viewing time went to syndicated series, the ones that played in the early evenings before dinner when I was a kid.  That's the way I first started watching "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and so many other shows I couldn't watch in prime time because my parents were watching something else.  I watched most movies on weekend broadcasts, edited for television.  They were always at least four or five years old.  Newer media was rarely accessible until my teenage years, when we had more than one television in the house, and the ability to go to the movie theater unsupervised.

And I think back to all those episodes of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" that my generation practically had memorized because we all watched them over and over in the 7PM rerun hour before the network programming started.  Would I still be so fond of the "Miss Chanandler Bong" line if I hadn't heard it multiple times when I was younger?  I certainly wouldn't be able to repeat dialogue off the top of my head or recall tiny details from those episodes.  I suspect that's why I've got so much nostalgic attachment to shows from that period of my life, while the more recent ones don't stick in my consciousness nearly so well.  I loved "Breaking Bad" and "Community," but I've only seen the majority of the episodes once.  The only media I rewatch regularly these days are the kids' movies my younger relatives like.  It's very nostalgic, hearing songs from Disney musicals so many times that I've unconsciously memorized them, but it's not a common occurrence anymore.

As a result I find that I'm less connected to the popular culture in some ways.  It used to be impossible to avoid familiarity with certain movie stars like Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis, and everyone had seen at least one episode of a popular sitcom like "Home Improvement."  Now, I've successfully avoided watching any Adam Sandler movies for a decade, and haven't seen a single episode of the ubiquitous "Modern Family."  I don't have anything against "Modern Family," but if I were still channel surfing like I was in high school, I'm certain I would have stumbled across an episode or two by now.  Instead, if I have a half hour to kill, I'm more likely to be catching up on the late night comedy monologues or listening to a podcast from one of the movie reviewers I follow.  There's always more content waiting for our attention these days, and I never have to simply settle for the least objectionable option.        

Then again, I've noticed  that I've started keeping a running list of movies that I want to revisit sometime when I have the chance, because it never feels like I have the free time for it anymore.  The vast majority of the time I prefer watching something new, but once in awhile I'm struck by the urge to rewatch a particular bit of media, to re-experience a certain moment or to refresh my own memory.  I often resort to Youtube clips to help patch the gaps.  The ending of "Cinema Paradiso" is one I tend to revisit a lot.  The accessibility of so much media through the internet has mostly assuaged any fears that if I don't watch something at a particular time, it's going to disappear into the ether forever.   

As with most changes in my media consumption, I don't know if this is a net good or bad outcome. It may just be a sign of the times.  I have to work a little harder to check my blind spots and make sure I'm not dismissing media that doesn't immediately conform to my tastes, but on the other hand I feel like I'm wasting so much less time now.  Watching media feels less like vegging now, and I don't miss that feeling at all.          

Thursday, October 19, 2017

My Top Ten films of 1993

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Schindler's List - Steven Spielberg began his career as a wunderkind, but no one could deny he was one of the filmmaking greats after "Schindler's List." Filmed almost totally in black and white, over three hours long, and packed with human suffering in every frame, it's a difficult watch but an endlessly rewarding one. You could see Spielberg evolving here as a filmmaker, leaving behind old stylistic conceits, and digging into deeply personal themes. More than a few sequences still strike me as nearly unwatchable - in the best way possible.

The Piano - Holly Hunter delivers her best performance in this haunting romance, set in 19th century New Zealand - and she never utters a word. As with all of Jane Campion's films, the natural world plays a major role in setting the tone and mood, with a considerable assist here from Michael Nyman's stirring, haunting piano score. But as alien as the New Zealand frontier is, Hunter's curious Ada may be even moreso, a woman very much in the process of discovering herself as she confronts the possibility of choosing a different way through life.

The Remains of the Day - My favorite of the Merchant/Ivory costume dramas, largely because of the fantastic work of Anthony Hopkins. A beautiful study of the strictly regimented, tightly controlled world of an English country estate, mirrored by the ever-dutiful housekeeper, Mr. Stevens, who cannot bring himself to show any emotion, even in the face of personal tragedy and heartbreak. Subtle, intimate, and deeply moving, it's very much a film of small moments. However, those small moments have proven to be timeless ones, and impossible to forget.

Groundhog's Day - As the reputation of this unassuming Bill Murray comedy has grown over the years, it's revealed a rare universality in its themes and its humor. As Phil the weatherman is slowly redeemed by love and a newfound kinship with mankind, so too is the film revealed to be a humanist fairy tale in the same vein as Preston Sturges' and Frank Capra's classics. This was a key role for Murray, one that helped him transition from smart-aleck to more mature roles. However, that gloriously morbid suicide sequence still makes me guffaw like nothing else.

Short Cuts - Robert Altman puts together one of his best ensembles to examine the lives of Los Angelenos in crisis. Based on the writings of Raymond Carver, the stories are full of odd coincidences, strange connections, and reprehensible behavior. I especially appreciated the little moments of biting humor as Altman contrasts the often beastly behavior of his players with the sunny suburbia of Southern California. Of the immensely talented cast, the performance that really stuck with me, amusingly, was Lyle Lovett's appearance as a vengeful baker.

The Nightmare Before Christmas - Though stop-motion animation has seen a revival in recent years, there's nothing that looks quite like Tim Burton and Henry Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," or has nailed the same combination of delightful whimsy and nasty-fun horror. I think it's because "Nightmare" follows and benefits from the template of animated Christmas specials of the past, even as it's slyly satirizing them. It's also a legitimately engaging musical, with some of composer Danny Elfman's most memorable, hummable work.

Food - A collection of three shorts from the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, all revolving around eating. Each course provides a metaphor for human behavior and social structures through the act of consumption - the rich eat the poor, the gluttonous devour themselves, and everyone has terrible table manners. Svankmajer uses a combination of live actors with stop-motion animation and prosthetics to create some fiendishly clever and grotesque images. All together, "Food" runs barely more than fifteen minutes, but it offers a full meal for cinephiles.

Three Colors: Blue - Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski's "Three Colors" trilogy is regarded his masterpiece, but the only installment that really resonated with me was the first one, "Blue." This is the film I think of when I hear the term "tone poem," because it depends on immersing the viewer in the world of Juliette Binoche's Julie, including her delicate emotional state after a grievous loss. Not just the set design, but the music and the cinematography mirror her state of mind. The color blue dominates, but in a way that is far more than a gimmick.

Blue - This is likely the most esoteric piece of film that's ever going to be discussed on this blog. I'm generally not a big fan of pure art or experimental films, but the starkly simple premise and emotional intensity of Derek Jarman's final piece of cinema is a singular and affecting experience. The solid blue screen and Jarman's narration together are perfectly mesmerizing. It can be debated how cinematic "Blue" really is, but there's no denying that it's a piece of art that truly captures the final vision of the artist who created it.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? - A family of oddballs is treated with the utmost dignity and compassion in Lasse Hallstrom's best coming-of-age tale. Plenty of praise has been heaped on Leonardo DiCaprio for playing mentally-challenged Arnie, but it's Darlene Cates as the Grape family matriarch who is the heart of the film, and Johnny Depp is excellent as the most down-to-earth character he's ever played. Quirky family comedies are definitely not in short supply these days, but ones as warm and humane as "Gilbert Grape" are rare.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Finishing The '70s

So, I watched 162 films from the 1970s in roughly a year, including a mad binge of Sam Peckinpah films at the end. I didn't end up finding the "Minamata" documentary or a lot of the more obscure foreign films I wanted to see. I did find Jan Troell's "The New Land," however. As promised, I want to spend this post talking about some of the differences I've noted in these older films compared to modern ones, as well as the overall experience of watching films from my parents' generation.

Firstly, there was a lot of culture clash to overcome, mostly with the foreign films. If I'd had trouble navigating the political and historical references in modern foreign films, it was even more difficult in these older ones. I could admire the cinematography of Wojech Has's "The Hourglass Sanitarium" or the performances of Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other So Much," but the nuances of their social commentary were mostly lost on me. Many French comedies also continue to elude me, like Truffaut's "Love on the Run" and "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000," but I keep trying.

And the American films? It's breathtaking how different our image of America and the American public was forty years ago. The landscape in '70s films always looks so much more vast and empty, with bigger skies and dustier vistas. The filmmaking was slower, more pastoral and less bombastic. Most of the ordinary heroes were small town and middle American folks, often veterans. Cities were the setting for crime pictures mostly. The action movies of the day almost always involved car chases, so they needed plenty of open road and scenic vistas to navigate. Road movies and chase movies were everywhere, often headlined by Burt Reynolds. There were still a few Westerns too, becoming darker and more morally complicated with each passing year. Sci-fi and fantasy were usually more grounded, simpler stuff.

Social issues were very present, though handled differently. As I noted before, the Vietnam War wasn't really addressed in films before 1978 with "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Instead, most of the war films of the era were still playing out WWII, with big spectaculars like "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Midway." In Europe, Holocaust dramas like "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Mr. Klein," and "The Night Porter" were common. However, there were a lot of films about the generational divide, about race and class and those darn hippies. I loved digging into not just the blaxploitation films, but other films about the African-American experience like "Sounder," "Cooley High" and "Blue Collar." I didn't spend as much time with woman-centric films as I probably should have, but it was nice to get glimpses of the female experience of the decade in films like "Girlfriends," "Smile," and "An Unmarried Woman."

I think I benefitted most from watching the comedies and dramedies of the era. The gentler, more situational humor is much more in line with my tastes than what we see in more aggressive modern comedies. Take "Real Life," Albert Brooks' satire about a man essentially trying to run a reality show before the concept of reality shows existed. The buildup is much slower and there's much more time taken to make sure the audience gets to know the characters first. Even zany stuff like "Silver Streak" and the Mel Brooks movies gave their jokes more time to breathe. Occasionally the slower pacing and more incidental narrative structures were an issue, but not often.

And it was a curious moment when I realized, about halfway through "Catch-22," that I was watching a movie with a cast that included Angelina Jolie's father and Charlie Sheen's father, and I'd just finished "Kelly's Heroes," which had Kiefer Sutherland's father, and "An Unmarried Woman" with Jill Clayburgh, who is Lily Rabe's mother. I'd gotten so immersed in watching these films, it slipped my mind exactly how far in the past they were. A few big stars like Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are still around, still active, but many of the others are already gone. Carrie Fisher's screen debut was in 1975's "Shampoo." Bill Paxton's was in "Crazy Mama" the same year.

I'm going to be taking a considerable break before I start in on the 1960s, in part because I've worked up quite a list of '80s and '90s films I want to take a look at first, and I've definitely been neglecting more recent films and television. I went a little overboard, as I often do, which is why this latest update came so much quicker after the previous one. However, I definitely feel informed enough to make those '70s top ten lists when their turn comes around. And I'll talk about these films some more then.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Leftovers," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for the whole series.

I'll remind you that I greatly preferred the cathartic misery of the first season of "The Leftovers" to the more experimental, existential second season that most viewers prefer. The emotional core of the series and its characters were always what drew me to the show, and I felt that this had become a little compromised by the wilder ambitions of the later episodes. So while the third season isn't very different from the second in tone or scope, I was very happy to find that the emotional throughlines were more at the forefront, simpler and clearer to follow despite an abundance of off-the-wall elements included in the plotting.

And where do we start with the plotting? Australia? The lion sex cult? The nukes? The "Perfect Strangers" running gag that turns into a full subplot? The Wu-Tang Clan? No, let's start with the Garveys, Jamisons, and Murphys, who are still in Jarden, Texas after a three-year time jump, with some notable absences in the premiere episode. It initially looks like everyone has reached a new normal, but this is soon revealed to be not the case at all, especially for Kevin and Nora. I found the way that the show dispatched with some of the more problematic storylines and characters from previous seasons very satisfying - Lily, Jill, Mary, and the Guilty Remnant are all shuffled off with very little fuss.

This leaves more time to focus on the show's best characters, and every second counts when there are only eight episodes in the final season and so much ground to cover. There are loose ends left everywhere, but I found that "The Leftovers" provided satisfying conclusions to the journeys of Kevin, Nora, Matt, and Laurie. And for those searching for answers about the Sudden Departure, one was provided, but left tantalizingly unconfirmed. All the main actors did excellent work, and were well served by scripts that were frequently bizarre and off-the-wall, but never lost sight of their storytelling or the importance of the primary relationships. There was a lot less clutter to distract from the big stuff, more answers provided more quickly.

With that in mind, I really enjoyed the unpredictability of these final episodes, where not only the landscape but the tone could change dramatically from moment to moment. This was the first time that the show's humor really worked for me, especially Nora bouncing on a trampoline with Erica in the middle of one of her most painful business trips. And then there's Kevin's big sequel to "International Assassin," where he plays twin brothers and spars with Patty one last time. And yet, the deadly serious moments still pack a real punch, from Laurie's contemplations of suicide, to Matt's talk with God, to Nora and Kevin's breakup and reconciliation.

The worldbuilding continues to be one of the show's greatest pleasures. I found the adventures of Kevin Sr. in Australia to be a little underwhelming, but the location offers so much in terms of new visuals and a new culture to explore. Even now, the series keeps finding new ways that people in the "Leftovers" world are dealing with the Sudden Departure, new stories and theories coming out of the mystery. Also, a big piece of the show's success this year is the music, which includes a slew of interesting song choices alongside the familiar Max Richter themes. The second episode's replacement theme song is one of the most sublime in-jokes I've seen on any show.

I think "The Leftovers" could have gone another season or two going in this new direction - we were sorely missing a wrap-up episode for the Murphys - but at the same time the creators stuck the ending so well that I'm glad that they stopped where they did. The show couldn't have sustained this level of daring experimentation for much longer, not without pushing the characters in directions I'm not sure I wanted to see them go. It was amazing to watch the series transform over the seasons, into something very special, very different, and very worthwhile.

Expect a Top Ten episodes list in a month or two, after I've had a chance to let the finale marinate in my head for a while.


Friday, October 13, 2017

A Beast of a "Beauty"

It's a surreal experience watching Disney's live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast." Of all their recent adaptations, it's the one that sticks closest to its animated source material by far, practically recreating it beat for beat. With an additional half hour of running time, the story is expanded a little, letting the romance breathe and giving more time to some minor characters, but otherwise don't expect any major deviations. And while Jon Favreau brought back two of the songs from the 1967 "Jungle Book" in his adaptation last year, the new "Beauty and the Beast" sees it fit to include every single number on the soundtrack, including the "Belle" reprise and "The Mob Song."

I expect that newcomers who haven't seen the 1991 "Beauty and the Beast" probably had a much better time with this new film than anyone familiar with the cartoon. Because the two versions are so similar, it's impossible to stop drawing comparisons between the them, and I'm sure that was intentional. Nostalgia was clearly a huge factor in the film being made in the first place. To Disney's credit, they did find a perfectly lovely, engaging Belle in Emma Watson (though her vocal performance is obviously heavily autotuned), and a total scene-stealer of a Gaston in Luke Evans. Everything else, however, became a game of seeing how director Bill Condon and his crew would tackle one familiar character, or scene, or song number after another. And in many cases, I'm sorry to say that the results are pretty lackluster.

The 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" suffers the same problem that many of the other Disney live-action adaptations do, which is that they are frequently overwhelmed by their production design and special effects. Everything looks terribly expensive, but the CGI animation simply cannot match the charm and expressiveness of the traditional 2D animation, especially where it comes to characters like the enchanted household objects and the all-important Beast. Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and all the rest are back, with a showy, star-studded cast of familiar names to provide voices. But as hard as the animators try, the more photorealistic designs required to mesh with a live-action environment end up undercutting the performances. This is the most obvious in the new "Be Our Guest" number, a glittery but empty affair.

The Beast has his good moments, thankfully, with the help of Dan Stevens' performance. He can't match the physical presence and affecting pathos of the animated version, and has none of the leonine humor of Jean Marais, but this Beast is more articulate and more intelligent than his predecessors, and shows more signs of hidden depths. He also benefits from a longer second act where the Beast and Belle's romance is allowed to develop more gradually. One of the better additions here is that the Beast is given his own song number - though oddly it is not the popular "If I Can't Love Her" from the "Beauty and the Beast" stage musical. The handful of new songs are all originals, written by Alan Menken, and strong enough that none of them feel like obvious padding.

It's not enough, unfortunately, to make the 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" really feel like its own separate production apart from the other versions. The few changes to the plotting are promising, but too slight and underdeveloped to really add anything substantial to the story. The only performance I found memorable was Luke Evans.' In the end, it was only the odd line here, or a new gag there, or an unexpected cameo that managed to grab my attention every now and again. For most of the running time, the movie just felt like an awfully expensive facelift of the best of the Disney Renaissance cartoons. And that doesn't bode well for the many, many other adaptations that are currently in the Disney pipeline.

It can all be summed up by the lovely ballroom scene, where Emma Thompson did her best to deliver a new take on the film's title song. However, it only made me wish that I were listening to Angela Lansbury singing and watching the animated film. And any film that makes you wish that you were watching a different film has pretty well failed to do what it set out to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Favorite Brian De Palma Film

It's October, which means it's appropriate to write about a horror movie. And there's also no better time for me to stop putting off writing about Brian DePalma, who I've frankly had some trouble with as I've worked through his films. Though his early slashers and thrillers are a lot of fun, there's a campy gratuitousness to them that I always find a little off-putting. And the constant Alfred Hitchcock homages, while impressive, also frequently left me wondering if he was more of a pastiche artist than a true great in his own right. However, De Palma has made some undeniable masterpieces, including "Blow Out," probably his best film, and my favorite, his adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie." And it's worth pointing out that it was the very first cinematic Stephen King adaptation.

One of the big reasons that I'm so fond of "Carrie" is because of Sissy Spacek in the title role. She perfectly captures the misery of adolescence, and the despair of being trapped at the bottom of the social order. As Stephen King observed, "High school is hell," and there was never a more perfect victim for mean girls and bad parenting than awkward, soft-spoken Carrie White. I rooted for Carrie, and I'd still have enjoyed the film even if it were simply about her struggles with her school and relationships, and weren't a genre picture at all. Many of my favorite scenes involve her slowly blooming romance with William Katt's Tommy, culminating in the fantastic rotating prom dance sequence that De Palma accomplished by sticking his actors on a spinning platform and his camera on a dolly.

De Palma's penchant for showy visuals are all over the picture, from the languid, slow-motion opening scenes of the girls' showers at the school, to the famous split-screen horror that Carrie unleashes at the prom, to the dream-like finale with Amy Irving that was shot backwards to make it feel more unreal. And yet all the style is somehow never too much, and the film's thrills and chills are as effective as ever. Even the much-copied jump scare ending, which was itself yet an echo of "Deliverance," is still a wonderfully jolting surprise. I think that this is because everything in the film has a consistently heightened, visceral quality to it, allowing even the most outrageous elements to feel perfectly appropriate in context.

Take Piper Laurie's performance, for example. As Carrie's mother, she's so over-the-top and melodramatic that her performance easily could have been come across as camp or satire. Laurie saw the film as a black comedy at first, and viewed her character as "preposterous." In the film, however, Margaret White's operatic, self-loathing meltdowns are absolutely riveting to watch, and just plausible enough in context that we can take them at face value. After all, this is a universe where Carrie's rage manifests in equally intense and unfettered telekinetic destruction. "Carrie" is still one of the few horror pictures that was ever nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including nods for Spacek and Laurie's performances.

Both Carrie and her mother are prime examples of feminine cinematic monsters, which are all too rare even today. Notably, the inciting incidents for Carrie's transformation all tie into her emerging sexuality - her menarche, her prom, and her resistance to her mother's repressive religious indoctrination. Margaret White's fanaticism also ties into her sexuality, namely her attempts to eradicate it, and her guilt for sexual transgressions that Carrie comes to represent in her mind. These themes are more commonplace today, but In the 1970s they would have been very much in line with Brian De Palma's penchant for pushing the boundaries of onscreen sexuality and exploring taboos.

I consider it a stroke of extraordinary good luck that the exact right director made "Carrie," at the exact right point in his career. I suspect that the Brian De Palma of the '80s probably would have pushed the material in pulpier and more exploitative directions. And by the '90s and 2000s, the content would have been a challenge to get through the studio system. All the subsequent "Carrie" spinoffs and remakes have been comparatively toothless, compromised things. They may have upped the violence and the gore, but nobody else nailed that potent mix of body horror, religious hysteria, and the merciless subversion of so many idealized cinematic images of teenage girlhood.

What I've Seen - Brian De Palma

Sisters (1973)
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Obsession (1976)
Carrie (1976)
The Fury (1978)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Blow Out (1981)
Scarface (1983)
Body Double (1984)
The Untouchables (1987)
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Snake Eyes (1998)
Mission to Mars (2000)


Monday, October 9, 2017

"American Gods," Year One

I've read Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," but long ago enough in the past that I don't remember most of the details. I feel this was the best way to go into the new Bryan Fuller and Michael Green adaptation, which expands significantly on the material. The first season of eight episodes only covers roughly a third of the book, covering basic introductions of all the main characters and getting the ball rolling on bigger conflicts to come. For those unfamiliar with "American Gods," however, the show functions like an anthology of different stories about this peculiar universe, and a pretty uneven one, I'm sorry to say. Still, the good parts are good, and there's every indication that the show can improve considerably.

The basic conceit of the "American Gods" universe is that gods exist, and when various groups immigrated to America over time, they brought their gods with them. However, times are tough for the gods who originated in the old world, and many are largely forgotten, eking out a modest existence sustained by the few bits of belief they can still muster. One of these old gods, who introduces himself as Wednesday (Ian McShane), finagles a recently released ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), to accompany him on a cross-country mission to recruit other old gods for a coming war against America's new gods - flashy young upstarts like the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson).

The road trip narrative makes for a very leisurely, incidental show that doesn't really build up much momentum as Wednesday and Shadow have encounters with various gods like Czernobog (Peter Stromare) and Vulcan (Corbin Bersen), and other mythological creatures like the six-foot tall leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and a Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Most episodes include "Coming to America" segments, little vignettes that show how gods like Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) first came to America in the past, or there are interludes showing how the old gods have transformed over the years, and how they interact with mankind in the present day. Other memorable figures include the fertility goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an Egyptian god who goes by Mr. Jacquel (Chris Obi), and Easter (Kristin Chenoweth).

The pacing of the series is all over the place, and more impatient viewers might worry that there are whole episodes devoted to minor characters, and big questions often go unanswered for a very long time, but exposition dumps and rushed encounters are common. While some of the vignettes are excellent, others can drag or seem pointless. It doesn't help that Bryan Fuller is still indulging in some of the bad habits he picked up during "Hannibal," using hyperstylized visuals, discordant music, and superfluous, surreal, dream imagery to excess. There's a flame-eyed bison that is a little too reminiscent of the "Hannibal" stag. It has to be said, however, that this is the series with the best production values I've seen all year. The visual work is fabulous, the casting is almost totally perfect across the board, and the many, many special effects shots are beautifully realized. The show's ambitions are very impressive, especially the way it's committed to showing the audience things that no one else in television is.

Alas, a major weak spot in the cast is our lead, Ricky Whittle, which isn't helped by the fact that he shares so many scenes with Ian McShane, who is charisma personified. Shadow is actually much stronger here than the quiet, anonymous figure he was in the book, but Whittle isn't helping as much as he could. However, as with everything else in this show, I can see him improving considerably over time. Another big change is that Shadow's deceased wife Laura (Emily Browning) is now a major player in her own right, and a considerable chunk of the narrative follows her instead of Shadow. She's a pretty good character, but I worry that the show's creators have Laura shouldering more than she can handle. Having Browning also play a second, minor character, was not a good idea.

By the last episode "American Gods" does coalesce into something mostly cohesive and intriguing, but like last year's "Preacher," it takes an awful lot of patience and faith for the show to get to that point. I think that the good far outweighs the bad, however, and there wasn't a single installment that didn't offer up some surprising delight, from Mad Sweeney's odd partnership with Laura, to Wednesday wooing a Slavic goddess played by Cloris Leachman, to Media manifesting as a vulgar Lucille Ball to Shadow. With a lot of sex scenes, an unconventional format, and so much surreal, high concept fantasy involved, "American Gods" will inevitably be a niche show.

However, it's so often so perfect at what it wants to be, I can also see this easily becoming a cult show too. Pun intended.