what i watched last week
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temporary finales: the walking dead and helix

Over the past week, two shows that feature altered humans finished off their seasons. For Helix, it was the end of Season One, with a Season Two renewal just announced. For The Walking Dead, this was the conclusion of Season Four (Walking Dead doesn’t worry about renewals … it’s perhaps the most popular show in cable history, with a scheduled spinoff and even a post-episode talk show each week). It’s hard to keep track of what season we’re on with Walking Dead … there was a break of more than two months between episodes 8 and 9 this season. But it’s not hard to keep track of the basics of the plot: zombies on the loose, humans becoming more like walking dead with each passing day.

Last week, I mentioned Matt Zoller Seitz’ essay on form and film criticism, and it has stuck with me, even as I disagreed with much of it. Seitz has me trying to watch movies and TV with a different eye, more attentive to form. I’m not trained for this, though, and there’s also the thing about old dogs and new tricks. It is still true that when I watch The Walking Dead, the closest I come to thinking about form is when I consider the numerous ways the show finds to kill zombies. A solid close reading of the last few minutes of the S4 finale was just posted by Tim Goodman, whose specialty as a critic isn’t form but rather with the nuts and bolts of TV networks and how that affects what we see on the screen. He’s good enough, though, that he can swing at pitches outside his strike zone (spoilers):

Alternatively shot from above -- emphasizing power and giving viewers a long shot of the railroad/cattle car at the top of the frame and the futility of Rick, Daryl, Michonne and Carl in the foreground -- we then got the crowning elements. Gareth, the leader of Terminus, is going to walk them to slaughter (though it’s important to remember this is all implied -- the finale made no hard nod toward cannibalism). Still, the scene all but seals it. If you research how cattle are killed, the optimum approach is to have them take a series of corner turns before getting close -- if they see they’re being led to slaughter, chaos ensues. The camera follows Rick and company in a circular route through Terminus until they get out into the clearing.

About the only thing I consciously noted at the time was the way the Terminus folks were shooting to miss.

Meanwhile, there are the old standbys, plot and character. The return of Rick to the center of the story does not fill me with joy … I know he’s the central character, but 1) I like the ensemble more than I like any one character, and 2) if there’s only one character at the center, there are others I’d rather watch than Rick (Michonne more than any, or Daryl). This isn’t about the performances of the cast … Andrew Leonard is just fine as Rick, I just don’t much care about his character.

So, after four seasons, I’ve barely advanced beyond my early feelings about the entertainment value of zombie killing (high). I still don’t think The Walking Dead is much more than an excuse for pushing the envelope on how much violence can be shown. But I have come to realize that the creators of the show are trying for more than that, and that many people do indeed find deeper values in the series than I do. Meanwhile, I’ll keep giving it a B+.

Helix is nowhere near The Walking Dead on the cultural water-cooler hierarchy. It’s stuck on Friday nights … on SyFy. Ronald D. Moore is listed as an executive producer, and I admit that’s the only reason I tuned in at the beginning. I don’t think Moore has a lot to do with the show (probably about as much as Joss Whedon has with Agents of SHIELD). The cast is largely unknown, at least to me … nothing against Billy Campbell, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who was a regular on Crime Story, but he’s not exactly an A-list star, and he is the biggest name in the Helix cast. Hiroyuki Sanada probably has something of a cult following in the U.S., and Jeri Ryan turned up for a couple of mid-season episodes, but that’s about it. You could argue that The Walking Dead had a similarly unknown cast at its beginning … the cast is well-known now, because the show is popular, but until Scott Wilson turned up in Season Two, there wasn’t anyone for U.S. watchers (Andrew Lincoln was known to TV watchers in the UK, but his claim to fame, if that’s the right word for it, prior to Walking Dead was being the son-in-law of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull).

You don’t need big stars to make a good TV series, or a popular one. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica came to mind, until I remembered that Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell were there from the beginning. BSG established a few actors as icons (hello, Katee), but the highly-recognizable Olmos and the twice-Oscar nominated McDonnell always lent a bit of class to the production. What interests me about Helix is that it has retained my attention for a full season … I like it more now than I did when it began … and the acting is good across the board. Yet I don’t think any of these actors are primed for success, even on the level of a Katee Sackhoff. (Mark Ghanimé has hunky good looks, but he’s already in his late-30s, as is Kyra Zagorsky. Meegwun Fairbrother also has the hunky good looks, although they are mostly hidden on Helix.)

Helix did a good job of enticing the viewer into sticking with it, and while at times I felt it was a bit elongated and repetitive, it worked on enough levels to bring me back for Season Two. There isn’t one particular thing I can point to which might induce you to check it out … it’s unlikely to ever be part of the Cool Factor of TV Watching, it’s good but not great. It’s just the kind of solid series that exists on the right side of watch-ability. And I don’t mean that to be damning with faint praise. Helix is like the guy hitting 8th in the batting lineup of a major-league team: it may not be as good as the first seven guys in the lineup, but it’s a lot better than most of the baseball-playing universe. Grade for Season One: B. Grade for Season Finale: B+.


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