There’s simply no denying it. Even the most jaded television consumer has to admit that the medium is entering, if not a new golden age, a new high plateau. One can almost trace a line of strong television storytelling starting with HBO’s BAND OF BROTHERS and DEADWOOD and follow it on to more contemporary shows like GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, and THE WALKING DEAD. High-production value television shows with strong and deep content. Level all of the criticism you want at any of these shows and “shallow” won’t be on the table.
Netflix, especially, seems to be dominating the 2016 season, coming out of the corner swinging with unblockable hay-makers like the Nintendo version of Mike Tyson: STRANGER THINGS, LUKE CAGE, THE GET DOWN, HOUSE OF CARDS, JESSICA JONES, etc. etc. etc.
Television is becoming a competitive game, and the name of that game is “quality.” This is a great thing. When you’re pushing for artistic vision and high quality, in the long run there really is nowhere to go but up. We may have to light a candle for the projects that falter or can’t keep up, but really… there’s something out there for everyone. So much so that this year’s FANTASTIC FEST, the nation’s largest genre film festival was invaded by three television projects.
To be fair, FANTASTIC FEST hasn’t been a stranger to television, hosting big-screen viewings of shows such as DANGER 5 and ZOMBIE ROADKILL. However there was a certain feeling of prestige when 2016’s FANTASTIC FEST boasted television shows from two major cable networks as well as a New Zealand import not yet seen by American Audiences. Television as a visual storytelling medium is going toe-to-toe with the feature film, and FANTASTIC FEST won’t be caught off guard. Here is a brief review of the television shows that invaded this year’s film festival.
HBO, known in the 80s for being the channel on which you could watch feature films (unedited), now seems to be known more as a skilled practitioner of long form television entertainment and as an online streaming pioneer. In the world where we’re invited to “cut the cable” when it comes to television providers, HBO all but handed us the scissors when it launched HBO NOW earlier this year. HBO fans (or… let’s face it, GAME OF THRONES fans) clamored to the service that offered HBO’s full line of programming without the need for a cable subscription. Television viewers (GAME OF THRONES fans) rejoiced as they were able to check in with the high-dollar, high-production value television show about medieval fantasy and political intrigue, without the costly subscription to premium cable packages.
However, shortly after the arrival of HBO NOW, the network then announced that GAME OF THRONES would be wrapping up with an abbreviated 8th Season in 2017. So… what now? We’ve got all of these HBO NOW users, what show will they be binge-watching next?
Enter the late Michael Crichton. Probably best known for his work in technothriller novels like THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, CONGO, and JURASSIC PARK; it’s important to note that Crichton had plenty of work behind the camera in Hollywood as well. He directed such films as THE RUNAWAY (that movie with Gene Simmons and the robot spiders), COMA, and the seminal classic WESTWORLD. In a way, WESTWORLD (starring the iconic Yul Brenner) is a dry run at JURASSIC PARK (which in turn would become it’s own wildly successful film franchise.) The original film is about an exotic theme park where things go haywire and people get hurt.
In the original film, tourists can pay top-dollar to interact in a historically accurate atmosphere with the lifelike cyborgs who make the park come to life. Tourists can joust with the Black Knight in Medieval World, get involved in a sticky orgy of carnal pleasure in Roman World, or try their hand at rustling cattle or being the town sheriff in the title park: West World. Of course, being a Michael Crichton joint, the hubris present in the reliance on technology becomes all to apparent, when the machines malfunction and start murdering the tourists. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve likely seen a lot of jokes on THE SIMPSONS about it.
The series continued in a sequel and a short-lived television series in the 70s and early 80s, but the expanded tales never seemed to capture the imagination quite as much as the O.G. film.
HBO’s 2016 WESTWORLD series is an updated relaunch of the property, the first episode of which HBO screened for FANTASTIC FEST audiences, after HBO plied them with free beer and western-style chuckwagon chili. I’m not sure if this amounts to audience bribery, but please be assured that such bribery was not needed, because HBO’s WESTWORLD is shaping up to be the goods.
The episode was released to general HBO audiences on October 2nd, and what we were treated to was a long, cool, and satisfying drink from the fire hose, as WESTWORLD builds its universe. The setup is the same: rich tourists can swing into a super-realistic old west town, where people can interact with the cyborg population. The train rolls into town, the guests arrive, the attractive young cyborg daughter of a cyborg rancher walks out of the general store with an armful of groceries, a posse is building to help hunt down a murderous villain. The next day- the same train arrives, the same daughter with the same groceries walks out of the same store, the same ornery townsfolk are trying to muster a posse to gun down the same cold blooded villain. The only way the story changes is when the tourists begin to interact with their environment. If a tourist joins up with the posse and gets the bad guy, the story and the surrounding townsfolk will react accordingly. The next day, the reset button is hit, and Westworld begins again.
Behind the scenes we have the park’s founder, Dr. Robert Ford (I assume the name isn’t a coincidence), is tinkering and toiling away to make his creations even more real. This comes to the frustration of some of the other park staff, as the changes and updates aren’t always announced and sometimes have strange and unintended consequences. When the changes roll out, the cyborgs begin to malfunction in noticeable ways. Stalling out, going into seizure like convulsions, and generally terrifying the tourists. In the meantime, a lone gunslinger dressed in black is stalking the dark shadows, and he is clearly going off-script. Is this black rider a cyborg run amok like Yul Brenner in days of yore? Is he a rogue tourist that never went home? Is he something else? We don’t know. A lot can happen in ten episodes.
Moving forward, we’re being promised a very compelling surface story about a park gone awry, and a potential look at how dark humanity can be. After all, you’re basically giving rich tourists carte blanche to do whatever they want with zero consequences, and people use it to quell their hedonistic desires as well as their blood lust. What’s going to happen when the comely angelic town blonde becomes self-aware and remembers all of the tourists that have come through and raped her? What about the cyborg that’s programmed to be her protective father?
Digging a little deeper we’re also finding traces of the heavy science fiction that could potentially be tapped, giving fans of the genre something to really sink their teeth into. When discussion is happening between park staff about the ways the machines are malfunctioning, one can’t help but remember Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics. This is more than C-3P0 and deus ex machina gadgets. HBO’s WESTWORLD feels like it’s going to be hard (yet very accessible) science fiction. Something that we can’t wait to get more of. Add a cast of actors like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Jeffery Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood… this can’t be missed.
ASH VS. EVIL DEAD- SEASON 2
Speaking of hedonistic desires and blood lust, what better way to segue into the further adventures of Ash Williams? These themes are played for dark comedy in the returning series about the shotgun wielding and chainsaw clad demon hunter. Based on the cult classic trilogy of EVIL DEAD films, Season 1 of ASH VS. EVIL DEAD provided fans with a long-awaited sequel to the horror-comedy franchise. The iconic Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ashley “Ash” Williams, as he takes on two proteges, a tough-as-nails kick-ass woman and a kind of mousy cowering young man, to fight some monsters and reclaim the ancient Necronomicon (a book of forbidden knowledge) from the supernatural forces of evil.
The first two episodes of Season 2, pick up after a shaky truce has been struck between Ash and the Evil Dead. This finds Ash and his companions drinking hard liquor at a resort in Jacksonville, Florida. However, as the power structure of the forces of evil begins to shift, the treaty begins to dissolve and Ash and company find themselves, once again, the reluctant heroes standing in between Evil stomping all over good. If you’ve seen Ash bumble his way through his quests before, you have to realize that this is a disquieting prospect.
In the wake of the complex nature of WESTWORLD it might be easy to dismiss ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD as being pedestrian fan service. However, over the course of season 1 and into the two episodes of season 2 screened at FANTASTIC FEST, this series has really found its stride and is allowing the property to go in some interesting directions. For one, my podcast partner Matt Foster (comedian extraordinare) will point out that ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD has struck it’s comedy/horror balance by finding the similarities between the two genres, and we’re not talking about the fact that some people will giggle at an especially gory decapitation. We’re talking about the fact that both horror and comedy are built largely on surprise and the unknown. Set up, punchline. Set up, scare.
Furthermore, we’ve come to see Ash evolve as a character. In THE EVIL DEAD, he’s an incompetent dweeb and the story is largely played for the horror of a man out of his element. In THE EVIL DEAD 2, Ash snaps and he’s ostensibly a bumbling maniac, the franchise taking a sharp turn into the darkly comedic to compensate. By ARMY OF DARKNESS Ash has seen it all and comes off as an egotistical son-of-a-bitch, the comedy jabbing at Ash’s ego more than anything. In ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD Ash has grown into a dirty old man, and as a result the themes skew a little more ribald than they have in the past. So what we have is a change in theme and tone from the original Sam Raimi horror film from 1981, but it still feels like the same world and characters, they’ve just grown.
One thing that we can look forward to in ASH VS. EVIL DEAD 2: a peek into Ash’s history. We meet Ash’s father (played by SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN Lee Majors), who is every bit the egotistical dirty old man that his son has grown into. We also get just a sliver of a glimpse at Ash remembering that he had a sister that died a horrid, horrid death in the first EVIL DEAD film, and was never mentioned again. Could it be that Cheryl Williams will finally get her day in the spotlight? Ash was always pretty torn up about the death of Linda, his girlfriend, why not Cheryl?
Again… it remains to be seen. ASH VS. EVIL DEAD season 2’s first episode released early to STARZ online subscribers on September 27, and was broadcast for air on October 2. The second episode, which fans MUST watch because it contains the most memorable man vs. corpse sequence that I’ve seen in years, will air later in the season. It’s a comedy of errors that will give the Ash vs. his own hand sequence in EVIL DEAD 2 a run for its money. I’ll put it this way: ASH VS. EVIL DEAD uses the full length of their premium cable leash on this one.
Are you still with us? I certainly hope you are. Because, in all honesty, if you’re here you’ve probably heard about WESTWORLD or ASH VS. EVIL DEAD, and you’ve probably already made up your mind on if you want to see them. You certainly don’t need my help to make your life decisions. However, I’d like to also submit for your consideration TERRY TEO, a New Zealand television series that has not secured American distribution… yet.
I’m calling out AMAZON, NETFLIX, and HULU right here and now. Calling them to the carpet. This television show is ripe for the picking. TERRY TEO is a series that spans six half-hour episodes, comprised of three story arcs. To keep things fresh for FANTASTIC FEST attendees, we only got to see episodes one and two, and episodes five and six. I say this in full disclosure, I want people to be excited for this series, I want this series to get picked up because it’s good. However, there is also a part of me that wants all of this, just so I can finish watching the season, and any subsequent seasons we might have coming from the land of Kiwis.
Please don’t get me wrong, TERRY TEO is not high art, but it is deeply entertaining and actually managed to scratch an itch that I’ve had ever since VERONICA MARS packed up her story and made the jump from television to film. What’s more is that this is one you can watch with younger and more sensitive viewers. Fun for the whole family!
Terry is a teenager of Polynesian heritage, living in New Zealand, and he’s a thief. Quite an accomplished thief as it turns out. Terry has a knack for rooting out details and putting pieces together to find an answer that others would have overlooked. However, Terry’s cat burglar career comes to a screeching halt when Terry’s Police Investigator father is killed by a crime syndicate, whose leader just happens to be sleeping with Terry’s mother. While simultaneously dodging the nefarious criminals, as well as the well-intentioned police officers, Terry and the new kid at school team up to act as ad hoc boy detectives, and bring the criminals to justice. Terry’s pretty good at being a detective, and in a move that’s not exactly a spoiler, he decides to keep at it.
Terry Teo began as a comic book in New Zealand and was ported over to a television show in the 80s, and did quite well. This most recent adaptation, a back-to-the-drawing-board reboot, was announced in 2013 and debuted on New Zealand television this summer.
All six episodes of the 2016 series are directed by Gerard Johnstone, a FANTASTIC FEST alumni who directed the criminally underrated and under-watched feature film HOUSEBOUND. This horror-comedy is currently available on Netflix and follows the story of a troubled woman in her twenties, who is put under house arrest following a botched ATM heist. The catch is that she has to be remanded to the custody of a responsible adult, and the only people who will take her are her mother and step-father. As she begins her house arrest it turns out that there might be a few angry spirits dwelling within the walls of her childhood home.
While TERRY TEO is a pretty straight forward boy detective series, it doesn’t take pulling back too many layers of the onion to see the themes of mystery, whodunnit detection, young delinquents, and redemption being shared by both HOUSEBOUND and TERRY TEO.
Truth be told I have no idea what TERRY TEO’s desired release mode would be for something stateside, but I (personally) think it would be great fodder for Netflix. It’s a fun and funny family television series that comes from half a planet away, yet it’s still accessible enough for the youngsters, as everyone is still speaking English. I’m going to say that a REALLY good bet would be to petition your favorite streaming service to pick this up, and if they’re streaming HOUSEBOUND (*ahem* Netflix,) check that out in the meantime. I’m not sure how up on auteur theory Netflix is, but the added traffic couldn’t hurt plus… it’s a really good movie.