Contracted – The Most Disgusting Zombie Movie of All Time

If you know me, or if you’ve read enough of this blog, you know that it takes a bit to disturb me. As a former anatomy instructor, I’m no stranger to, not only dead bodies, but actively dismembering them. Sure, we call it dissection, but tomato/tomato. During my short term as a doctor, I’ve sewn up mangled hands and facial lacerations, driven a needle into a man’s stomach to draw fluid off (paracentesis), and, well, you get the idea. It should surprise no one that I am into the more extreme forms of horror. With that in mind, I want you to know that I am deadly serious when I say that Contracted, and its sequel, the inventively named, Contracted: Phase 2, are two of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. These films fall squarely into the subgenre of body horror. What makes them more horrifying than most is their focus on sex.

Before I say more, let me tell you what these films are about. The first movie, Contracted, follows a young woman named Samantha (Najarra Townsend of Breakfast Buddies and Medinah) who is basically date raped at a party. Over the following days, she begins to feel sicker and sicker and fears that she has an STD. The rest of the movie is a slow burn, as we watch Samantha deteriorate, her symptoms becoming more and more disgusting. How disgusting, you ask? Well, there’s an awful lot of vaginal bleeding, hair and teeth falling out, vomiting, maggots under the skin; I could go on, but I’ll spare you the details. Equally disturbing is the gradual mental decline as the infection takes over. Her impulse control goes out the window and she begins to have violent outbursts. By the end of the film, she has become a full fledged zombie. Knowing this in no way takes anything away from the film; there is never any glimmer of hope for poor Samantha, as we watch her life crumble.

I can’t stress this enough, but absolutely do NOT watch this with someone you are romantically/sexually interested in. This is the opposite of a date movie and will completely destroy any sort of interest in sex, or even human contact. At least, it did for me. The is also the opposite of a feel good movie. I mean, it’s no Come and See, but the grim, bleakness embodied by this film will have you looking at the world through filth-colored glasses for a few days.

The sequel, Contracted: Phase 2, is not as good as the first movie. I would recommend skipping this one altogether, as it doesn’t improve the story any, exploring ideas within the first movie that didn’t really need exploring. Here we follow Riley (Matt Mercer of Auteur and Beyond the Gates), a friend of Samantha’s from the first movie, the two of them getting hot and heavy in one of the most skin crawling scenes I’ve ever seen. Starting to feel sick himself, and hearing of Samantha’s fate, Riley is appropriately worried and sees a doctor, who is frickin’ worthless. Allow me to digress a little here, since I’m a doctor and it always bothers me to see medical inaccuracies, but both of these characters received the most inept treatment possible. Fever, bleeding out of places that should not be bleeding, vomiting; if these people came into my office, I would be like WTF? The doctor doesn’t do a pelvic exam on Samantha, no blood cultures taken, and, in the second movie, where we learn that the government has knowledge of this virus, there’s no CDC alerts. I’m not saying that medical science is the end all, be all, but I wish they had a medical consultant for these movies, because the care they received did not at all ring true.

Anyway, enough of my rant. The second movie basically follows the exact same arc as the first, as we watch Riley slowly decline, oozing pus and peeing enough blood to stock a blood bank. Seriously, this movie took the disgusting theme and ran with it. No lie, the scene where he nose bleeds into the dip at a party, which is subsequently eaten by one of the guests, made me gag a little. Into this mix is thrown the additional plot behind the man spreading this virus, as a terrorist device, being hunted down by a police detective and, ultimately, the U.S. Government. This had the potential for adding depth in the narrative, but instead comes off as half baked and haphazardly tacked on. Where as Samantha was a tragic figure, I just wanted Riley to die already. There have been rumors about another movie, Contracted: Phase 3, but I have yet to find any solid information on this.

I like body horror, both because of the medical nature of most such films and because there is little I can think of that matches the terror of feeling one’s self rot away from the inside. The Fly, Cabin Fever, Splinter; I love these kinds of movies. I would contend that Contracted is a worthy entry into this genre, and that Contracted: Phase 2 is a sorry imitator. The first movie is like a case study in misery, Samantha’s life, health and, finally, sanity all slowly decaying with a morbid inevitability. If the second movie had just been a repeat of the first, only following Riley instead of Samantha, it would have been better. The terrorist side plot feels clunky and poorly executed and takes away from the film. But maybe that’s just me. Watch them for yourself and make up your own mind. But remember, and this is very important, DON’T see them with someone you love.

Happy Death Day

Spoiler Alert! I think I tried to avoid spoilers for these movies in this post, but I can’t be entirely sure. Therefore, I am placing the ubiquitous spoiler warning here. Consider yourself warned.

Much like my attitude regrading sit-coms, I’ve kind of lost my taste for slasher flicks. I saw Halloween and Friday the 13th when they first came out at the theater. At the drive-in, to be honest, which is an experience worthy of its own blog post, but I’ll save that for another time. The jump scares, the gore, the violence; it’s all sort of old to me now. There’s only so much you can see before it all looks pretty much the same and, let’s face it, I’ve dismembered several human bodies myself. No biggie. So, when I first heard about Happy Death Day, I wasn’t very interested. I probably would have remained completely ignorant of the franchise were it not for my unending hunger for things to watch. As chance would have it, I happened to stumble across Happy Death Day 2 U, the second movie, and figured, “What the heck?” I didn’t think I’d really be watching it, but surprise! What I found was a fun filled thrill ride that kept me intently watching the action.

What makes these movies different from the standard flavor of slasher movies? If you’ve read my previous posts, I’m sure you know the answer; because they’re fun. We follow the protagonist, Tree (Jessica Rothe of La La Land and the upcoming Valley Girl), the stereotypical sorority girl and total bitch, as she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard of the Bling Ring and Extinction), all around, mild mannered nice guy. Her hangover doesn’t help her disposition any and she storms off across campus back to her sorority, where she’s an asshole to her roommate, a fellow sister and several random college students before fooling around with her married professor. After it’s established how shitty a person she is, true to slasher movie tradition, she is butchered by a masked killer, whereupon she awakens, once more in Carter’s bed. And so goes the pattern, as Tree is killed again and again, each time waking up, ala Groundhog Day, until, it is presumed, she solves her own murder.

With my love of comic books, it’s no big surprise that I enjoyed Happy Death Day; it was written by Scott Lobell, a comic book writer who has penned such titles as The X-Men, The Teen Titans and Superman. He stated that he wanted to follow the pattern of having the bad girl die first and the good girl to be hunted last and (in some cases) survive, and that he wanted the main character, Tree, to be both of them. To achieve this, Tree’s character changes, grows throughout the course of the movie, this character development being one of the most satisfying aspects of the movie. I’ve talked about certain movies being genreless, but Happy Death Day leans into genres and tries to stuff as many of them as possible into the film. It is undoubtedly a horror, but the mystery of who the killer is also a central feature. It is a romance, has comedic elements and, regarding the change in Tree’s personality over the course of the movie, feels a little like a coming of age story.

The Sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U, released just 16 months after the first movie, picks up immediately where Happy Death Day left off. It follows roughly the same pattern, throwing an element of Sci-Fi into the mix. This is the movie I saw first, but I recently watched Happy Death Day and went back to rewatch the sequel. Both certainly work as stand alone films, but seeing the first does make the second more enjoyable. In the second film we get to see the reason that Tree was trapped in a time loop, which is a fun pay off to wait to explain until the sequel. I would love to hear about a Happy Death Day 3, Lobell has even intimated some of his ideas for that, but the word from the producer, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions (of Paranormal Activity and The Purge, to name a few), is that it is unlikely, though not impossible. I’m not holding my breath.

If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a horror fan, I sincerely recommend these movies, preferably seeing them close to each other as possible, for maximum Easter Egg detection. There have been countless films featuring a knife-wielding maniac in countless variations of this theme, but Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U are both a breath of fresh air. It’s fast paced, quickly getting the setting and character introductions out of the way to start the killing and mayhem as soon as possible. Hat’s off to the editors on these movies, as they feel like films expertly trimmed of all fat. I applaud Rothe’s performance, as she proves that there are no small roles, as she expresses a range of emotions never before seen in Slasher movie history. Or, at least, that I’ve never seen, most horror movie protagonists seemingly limited to stunned bewilderment and shrieking terror. These actors have been a big source of my dislike of slasher films, since I find myself rooting for the killer. Tree becomes a very likable, somewhat relatable main character, that will have you cheering even minor victories. In that respect, it throws in more more genre to the mix. An action movie.

The Endless

To a movie lover, like myself, it’s always a joy to discover something new, something fresh and unexpected, and that is what I recently found in The Endless. The movie involves two brothers, Justin and Aaron, who had escaped from a “UFO Death Cult” when they were young and are now eking out a meager existence. Justin accepts this, as he feels that they escaped an inevitable mass suicide, but Aaron just remembers being loved and cared for, not to mention being well fed, and hates the life they are currently living. So when they receive a video cassette tape from said “cult”, involving a mysterious message, Aaron convinces Justin to return for a short visit. They are warmly welcomed back and everything seems just as they has left it, but, little by little, odd things keep happening until the truth of their community is revealed.

The movie is good, the mystery captivating and pulling the viewer deeper and deeper, but I am more amazed at the film makers, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and what they were able to create on a (relative to Hollywood) shoestring budget. I haven’t been able to track down the actual budget for this film, but, for reference, their first film, Resolution, was made for $20,000. I’m willing to bet that most blockbuster movies spend more than that on food for the crew. How do they do it? By wearing a whole shit ton of hats. In addition to the both of them co-directing, editing and handling the special effects, Moorhead does the camerawork and Benson writes the script. In the movie The Endless, they both co-star in the movie, as well. They get amazing mileage out of the simplest of special effect and editing tricks.

Many movies have been called genre-less, but The Endless spans so many styles that the term is especially apt. I’ve already called it a mystery and that is truly what is at the heart of the film. It’s also a horror, the brothers often stalked by otherworldly creatures that drive other characters to madness and suicide. The creatures’ effect on time push the film into the realm of sci-fi and the interactions of the two brothers, between themselves and as prodigal sons to the “cult”, makes for excellent drama. After seeing The Endless, I was inspired to track down their other works, but, so far, the only other movie of theirs I’ve seen is Spring.

Their first movie, Resolutions, 2012, is about a man trying to get his methed out tweaker friend clean. Tracking him down to a backwoods cabin he’s in, the man handcuffs him to a pipe, forcing him to kick cold turkey. Then, weird things start to happen. Benson and Moorhead followed this up with the short film, Bonestorm, 2014, featured in the movie, V/H/S: Viral. They put Spring out in the same year, the most romantic monster movie I’ve ever seen. The Endless came out in 2017 and I just discovered, while researching for this blog post, that they’ve got a new movie coming out called Synchronic. The movie is about two New Orleans paramedics who arrive at an overdose victim and stumble upon the drug, Synchonic, that allows its user to be able to see all time at once. I cannot frickin’ wait to see this!

Some articles have also listed After Midnight to their credit, but they didn’t have the near total involvement that they did in those other films. While The Endless isn’t the only great film that was produced on pocket change, think Primer and The Man from Earth, but there’s so regrettably few of them that it definitely stands out. It’s probably what made the biggest impression on me. In the current atmosphere of blockbuster movies that have more money than some small countries and are absolute crap, seeing a movie made by someone who is really passionate about their craft is a reminder of what good filmmaking can do. After all, attention to details is what makes any art, be it culinary, graphic or orchestral, is what makes a piece great. With the duo of Benson and Moorhead, their love of the craft shines through and makes their movies something that sticks with you, long after the credits have rolled.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Part 2

Even with another blog post to work with, there’s so much I want to say about this show, it feels almost overwhelming. I could hem and haw about how this is going to go, but I’m just going to start writing and see where it goes. As I said in my last post, I didn’t start watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) until the third season. Which is good, because the first two kinda suck. I mean that in the most loving way possible. I went back and watched them after the series had ended and all I can say is that it was only the deep love I had developed for the show that made them watchable. I’m going to give a spoiler alert right here. I know, I know, the show’s been over for more than a decade, with countless reruns and pop culture references floating around the internet since then, but I exist in a culture that is hyper opposed to anything even resembling a spoiler and the last thing I want to do is ruin the show for some noob seeing Ms. Summers in all her glory for the first time. So, consider yourself warned. The rest of this post will have information about specific plot lines and episodes.

The first two seasons are important mostly to establish two long time cast members that I haven’t mentioned yet. From the very beginning, we are introduced to the vampires, Angelus or Angel and Spike. Sure, there are other characters who come back from time to time, but, really, Angel and Spike are central to the show. Hell, Angel got his own show, which I will discuss in glorious detail (or endless tedium, depending on your view point) at another time. Spike (James Marsters of Smallville and Hawaii 5-O) is easy to describe; he’s the Jonny Rotten of vampires, played as a punk Brit to his core, with very little character development beyond that, until much later in the show. Angel (David Boreanaz of Bones and SEAL Team)is a bit more complex, in that he has a duel personality. He’s the vampire with a soul. What that means is that he was originally like every other vampire on the show; cruel, violent and with an undying hunger for blood. Then, at some point, he gets cursed with a soul, and magically becomes kind and remorseful. Throughout BtVS, this device is used like an on/off switch so sometimes he’s is Buffy’s worst enemy and other times, he is her true love. Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention they’re in love? They play the starcrossed lovers trope to the hilt, which would have probably gotten real old, so I’m thankful Angel left when he got his own show.

Season 3 introduces Faith (Eliza Dushku of True Lies and Dollhouse), another vampire slayer, and Wesley (Alexis Denisof of Angel and How I Met Your Mother), her Watcher. Wesley is pretty much a one note character in BtVS, but he undergoes crazy development in the spin off Angel, to, ultimately, become one of my favorite television characters of all time. Seriously, you kinda have to watch all the other seasons of Angel to get the story, but season 5 of Angel is a fucking masterpiece in my opinion. But back to Buffy’s show. Faith is the bad girl slayer. Sexy, tough, rough around the edges; she wreaks havoc on the show in season 3. Wait, had I mentioned earlier that there could be only one slayer at a time? Yeah, the break that “rule” constantly during this show. Faith eventually does jail time on the show, resulting in Dushku getting mountains of creepy fan mail from prison inmates.

Season 4 is kind of flat. There are definitely high points, like Hush, but, on the whole, the season feels like a jumbled mix of ideas and storylines. It’s still good, it doesn’t backslide to season 1 levels, but the arc it follows seems less cohesive than season 3. There is a lot of transition in the season and most of it feels like it’s setting up season 5. Spike starts becoming one of the good guys, Willow starts becoming a gay witch, Buffy gets a new bae, as well as a sister. No, her mom doesn’t have another baby, Buffy’s teenage sister, Dawn, appears. I don’t know why, but I never got to like Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg of Eurotrip and Gossip Girl), but I never did. Maybe it was because of her abrupt introduction, with little explanation. Maybe it was because they wrote her as the bratty, younger sister. I couldn’t tell you, but, to me, her character never really seemed to work well.

Season 5 really outdoes itself. The Slayer ups her game by facing off against an evil, gender-shifting goddess. She kicks Dracula’s ass. We are introduced to the Nerd Trio (if there’s an actual nickname for these guys, I don’t know about it) and the Buffy Bot. And we get episodes like The Body. In the episode before The Body, I Was Made to Love You, the show ends with Buffy walking into her house to find her mother, dead, on the couch. The camera freezes on the scene and the episode ends. The Body picks up at that exact same shot. There is no intro, no theme music, it just starts with Joyce Summers, the maternal unit that we’ve grown accustomed to on the show, now a motionless corpse. I had mentioned the emotional swings on this show and there has been death and loss in other episodes, but this one is like a punch to the gut. It is stark and tedious and sad. I believe there’s actually one vampire fight, but, for the most part, this episode is an exercise in grief. I never thought that the cast, as much as I love them, were great actors, but they do a stellar job in this episode.

Season 6 builds on the grief of season 5 and then ramps it up to 11 and breaks the knob off. The season starts off with Buffy dead and the Scoobies bring her back to life. Unfortunately, she had happened to be in heaven, so now, every day, normal life is hell to her and she spends most of the season in a self-destructive depression. Talk about giving the audience something relatable! This season is pretty rapey, too. Spike tries to rape Buffy, which was a brutal and unsettling episode. The Trio loom large this season and whether they’re making devices to mind-control women or sex-bots that look like Buffy, these guys turn the creep factor WAY up. Willow gets addicted to magic, like junkie on the streets addicted. The writers build up the romance between her and Tara, just to have Tara murdered right before her eyes. She goes off the deep end and becomes the Big Bad for the season finale. Evil Willow is pretty awesome, particularly when she rips some guy’s skin off and sends him to hell. Good times.

I consider season 7 to be the last season of Buffy, even though this isn’t exactly true. Technically, seasons 8, 9 and 10 were put out in comic book form and while these were pretty good, they’re just not the same. 7 isn’t a bad season, but it takes a little while to get going. Buff and the Scoobs gets their asses handed to them for most of it. Xander gets his eye gouged out by the always great, Nathan Fillion, playing an evil, supernaturally strong priest, Caleb. I know a writer needs to bring the protagonist down before the inevitable turning of the proverbial tables, but for a good chunk of season 7 it’s just one loss after another and that gets a little old after a while. The turn around is pretty good though, and I felt like it was a worthy ending for the show.

Speaking of writers, I’ve always put forth BtVS being a Joss Whedon creation, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Marti Noxon and David Greenwalt. I’m sure there were a host of great writers for this show, but Noxon and Greenwalt are the one’s I remember. Noxon joined the BtVS writing staff during season 2 and wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. She was promoted to co-producer in season 4. In addition to her work on Buffy, she has also worked on Angel, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men, Glee and Sharp Objects. Greenwalt, in addition to his work on Buffy, wrote for Angel and Grimm, which is near and dear to my heart because it’s set in Portland, OR. I think I’ve dedicated enough ink to BtVS, but I’m glad I got to write about something I loved. And, maybe, just enough time has passed to rewatch the show and fall in love all over again. Happy viewing!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Part 1

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I’m reluctant to even write this post. Buffy looms so large in the history of television, particularly for the sci-fi, fantasy nerd set which is me, that I feel inadequate to do it justice. Even so, it’s been such a love of mine, and the metric by which I judge so many other shows, that I feel compelled to try and pray my humble words are worthy. If you’ve been living under a rock, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) is a Joss Whedon creation, based on the movie of the same name, and claimed by some to be the greatest television show ever. The movie was so abysmally disappointing that I didn’t even watch the television show until season three, and even then, grudgingly. Soon after, Tuesday nights became Buffy nights and few things would keep me away from my TV at the appointed hour. I don’t usually get emotionally attached to television shows, or, hell, most people for that matter, but I’m unashamed to say that I did with this one. It had a worthy ending, but I was sad to see it go and miss it to this very day.

The show was so fresh and stood out in a sea of TV banality. It was the origin of so many terms that I use, such as “Big Bad” and “Scoobies” and, as I will talk about ad nauseum, gave birth to many, many imitators. Like many works of art, I can’t quite pinpoint what, exactly, made the show so amazing. I can only guess that the combination of Whedon’s vision and the cast’s chemistry and the crazy number of talented people that worked with them created some magic television alchemy that countless others have tried to repeat.

I probably don’t need to tell anyone what BtVS is about, but for completeness sake, and to stay with the form of the blog, here it goes. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller of Ringer and Scooby-Doo), who happens to be imbued with special powers to fight evil, also known as a Vampire Slayer. They have existed since prehistoric times, are always women and only one exists at a time, another being chosen when one dies. The Slayer has heightened strength and agility and instinctive fighting skills. The Slayer is assisted in her duties by a group of individuals known as Watchers, who act as repositories of knowledge of the creatures she finds herself fighting against. They also serve as the straight man to the flippant, high school girl that is Buffy. In this case, that man is Rupert Giles ( Anthony Stewart Head of Merlin, Dominion and The Stranger), who is specifically responsible for the support and training of Buffy. Also helping her fight against evil are her friends, or scoobies, as they came to be called, Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan of How I Met Your Mother and American Pie), Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon of Criminal Minds and Coherence), Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter of Angel and Charmed) and Daniel “Oz” Osbourne (Seth Green of Austin Powers and That 70’s Show). They all exist in the fictional, idyllic, California town of Sunnydale.

The show followed the Monster of the Week format, with larger story arcs layered over that, some spanning multiple seasons. True to her name, vampires were Buffy’s primary enemies, but over 7 seasons, she fought mummies, demons, cyborgs and even a god or two. The tone of the show skillfully mixed a gothy angst feeling with humor and witty banter. It is this back and forth play of emotions that sinks those barbs of pathos deep into your heart strings and gets you right in the feels. The victories make you want to cheer, but they are companions to devastating losses. Relationships loom large in BtVS and you can be sure that any happy couples are going to, at some point, become painfully heartbroken. It’s not uncommon for an episode to have you laughing in one scene and have you close to tears in another.

Even with this this level of emotionality injected into a well written, supernatural action drama, the show trailblazed in so many other ways. In season 4, the episode, Hush, gained recognition for having only 17 minutes of dialog in its entire 44 minute run time. Whedon had heard a claim that the only reason the show was as sucessful as it was was because of the back and forth banter between the characters. He took this as a challenge and wrote an episode in which the Big Bad were a group of creatures known as The Gentlemen that steal everyone’s voices. In season 6, Whedon wrote a musical episode called, Once More With Feeling. In this episode, a demon arrives in Sunnydale and compels everyone to break into song at random moments. With a run time of 50 minutes, roughly 8 minutes more than a standard episode, the cast sings a variety of song that were collected into a soundtrack with over 20 separate tracks. Called the “greatest television soundtrack of all time” it rose to 49 in the US Billboard 200. Once More with Feeling is still considered one of the most popular episodes of the entire series and has been shown in theaters to sing-a-long audiences.

There’s a lot to talk about, when talking about this show. In addition to the soundtrack I mentioned above, there have been several books, a role-playing game, video games, a collectible card game and a few podcasts dedicated to BtVS. After the television show ended, Buffy’s stories lived on as a comic book, writers churning out three more seasons. There’s been one spin-off, Angel, two others proposed, but never developed (Buffy: The Animated Series and Ripper), and a potential re-boot (but don’t call it a re-boot) currently in the works. Even this might not be surprising for a popular television show, but if we want to fully comprehend the cultural significance of BtVS, we need only to look at academia. Since 2001, there has been a quarterly publication called Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies. There are multiple colleges that offer classes based off of BtVS, touching on topics from media to gender studies. Meet-Up groups, Buffy focused conventions and other references to the show continue to this day. Buffy remains a force to be reckoned with and there is more to be said, but I’m going to wait for another day. I knew this subject would be too much for one post, so I’ll continue this next week. Until then, stay 5 by 5.

Stumptown

This is not what I thought I’d be writing about. So much of what I write, or draw or paint for that matter, is driven by what has “sparked my joy” in the moment. With my last post about the TV show, Reaper, I was all excited to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with just having watched the season finale of Stumptown, a show I’ve been enjoying way more than I expected, I’ve decided that it will be my topic for today. Stumptown, by the way, is a crime drama on ABC based on a comic book created by Oregon writer, Greg Rucka. Obviously, that is where my interest began.

Given my interest in comic books, I’ve been aware of Rucka for some time. He’s written for several titles, such as Batman and The Punisher, in addition to putting out a few mystery novels. A number of years ago, I saw him talk at the Jack London Lounge. It’s a jazz club now, but back then it was an eclectic space, hosting everything from bands to lectures to monthly comic book events. I was at one of these events on a night Rucka was there talking about his (at that time) new title, Lazarus. It’s a great comic, but that’s not the point. He was so excited to talk about this title, he displayed such passion about his work, I’ve been a fan ever since. He started writing Stumptown in 2009, the title being a reference to a nickname of Portland, OR, where the story is set. The homage to this fine city certainly boosted my estimation of the comic. You might think my appreciation for Stumptown, the comic, would color my opinion of the TV show in a favorable light, but, on the contrary, it made me more critical of it.

Which is why I am surprised at how much I like it. Cobie Smulders is perfect as the main character, Dex Parios, a Marine back from Afghanistan, turned private investigator. I remember enjoying her range as she shifted from comedy (How I Met Your Mother) to action (The Avengers), but she works surprisingly well as the abrasive, hard drinking Dex. She lives with her younger brother, Ansel (Cole Sibus, the Spare Room being his only other acting credit), who has Downs Syndrome and works at the bar, The Bad Alibi. This bar is owned by Dex’s best friend, Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson of New Girl and Get Him to the Greek), an ex-con trying to go straight. Occasionally assisting Dex in her investigations is Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy of Barbershop and Almost Human) of the Portland PD and his boss, Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim of The Magicians and Person of Interest). Then there’s Tookie (Adrian Martinez of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Focus), Portland food truck owner whose purpose of the show is something of a mystery to me, but he is amusing as the passionate chef.

The show is fun, which, now that I’m writing a (near) weekly blog about television shows, I’m realizing is a major factor in whether I like a show or not. I find the mysteries that Dex is tasked with to be well written, the winding path to her solving them to be exciting joyrides. The cast has great chemistry with each other and there is a fair amount of character development, even in just the first season. I like the show’s use of music and the running gag of Dex’s car stereo playing random songs at random times, that can’t be turned off, is effective and, thankfully, not overused. There’s a nice combination of mystery of the week and longer story arcs. As comic book turned TV show, it’s not the usual fare. I’m not saying that this is the best TV show I’ve ever seen, but I do like it, more than I thought I would. I’m really hoping for a season 2, but, as of this writing, I’ve heard no news about whether it’s been renewed or not.

My biggest complaint is that, as Portland-centric as the comic was, and the show claims to be, it’s clearly not filmed in Portland, and it shows. It’s filmed in Los Angeles, which is about as far from Portland as you can get, setting-wise. I have a real connection to place and, even though I wasn’t born in Portland, I immediately fell in love with it. There is no easier way for me to be interested in a show than to set it in Portland. Shows like Leverage, Grimm and the Librarians used Portland like a cast member and I would tune in just to see shots of my adopted hometown. One episode of Grimm was filmed at a house across the street from where I was living and it was a blast to watch. Stumptown will have the occasional shot where a Portland landmark can be seen, but for a show that’s named after the freakin’ city, I want more. Heck, even when Leverage was supposed to be set in Boston, they showed more of Portland than Stumptown does.

But, really, that’s my only complaint about the show. I’m sad to see it end, but I have high hopes that it will come back for another season. Not that I’ll be surprised, particularly after writing about the all-too-short run of Reaper last week. Whiskey Cavalier, Pushing Up Daisies and, while we’re on the subject, we have to mention Firefly, which has become the patron saint for shows that ended too soon. So be it. It’s not like there’s any shortage of programming, especially when everyone and their uncle is coming out with a new streaming service every other week. Still, when it comes to Stumptown, I’ve got my fingers crossed for another helping of Dex and friends.

Reaper – Only the Good Die Young

If you weren’t into television in the late aughts, you might have missed the blip on the radar that was Reaper. A CW show that ran from 2007 to 2009, only 2 seasons, I’ll always think of it as one of the Slayer’s most favored children. Perhaps I need to explain. The first thing you need to know is that I LOVE Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love Joss Whedon, I love Angel, I love Firefly; I’m all in and I am a fan forever. As such, I am a fan of all the artistic progeny that follows in Buffy’s (BtVS) footsteps. That includes, Supernatural, that includes Charmed and, in my world, that includes Reaper.

Reaper was a comedy-horror that focused on Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison of The O.C., That 70’s Show and The Ranch) who, on his 21st birthday, discovers that his parents sold his soul to the devil. Now he is the Devil’s servant, who tasks him with tracking down souls who have escaped from Hell, Big Bad of the Week style. Assisting him in his various assignments are his co-workers, Sock (Tyler Labine of Deadbeat and Tucker and Dale vs Evil) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez of Arrow and Mr. Robot), two slacker types that serve as sidekicks and comic relief. Rounding out the cast is Andi (Missy Peregrym of Rookie Blue and FBI), as the obligatory love interest.

And while the cast is likable, the absolute star of this show is Ray Wise, who plays the Devil himself. If you’re interested enough in this type of show to be reading this, chances are you’ve seen Ray Wise. From his role in the 1969 movie, Dare the Devil, to his presence in the 2019 Netflix show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, he has been in an absolute butt-ton of shows. I’m in no position to judge his acting ability (what do I know from good acting?), but Ray has such a presence on the screen that makes him impossible to ignore. Seriously, this man is a goddamn national treasure and deserves to be recognized as such.

As I have intimated, this show follows the Big Bad of the Week formula, in that the Devil assigns Sam a different soul to recover each week. While he’s not “The Choose One” or a Slayer, being in service to the Devil does have its privileges. When he receives an assignment, the Devil gives him a unique item with which to defeat and trap the escaped soul. In addition to the special “weapon”, he has certain powers. In the course of the show, he has demonstrated the ability to move objects with his mind, he can sense the lost souls he must hunt down, he has shown super strength when he gets angry and it’s even been hinted that he is invulnerable.

Sam also has his Scoobies, as well. None of them have any powers, but they more than pull their weight in the recovery of lost souls. Sock and Ben are, for the most part, portrayed as bumbling idiots, but they display quite a bit of bravery, despite being mere mortals, and the occasional flash of wisdom. For the first season, keeping Sam’s diabolical secret from Andi is a running gag, but, by season 2, despite the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship, she becomes a full fledged member of the team. The effective chemistry between them is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show.

In preparation to write this piece, I rewatched a few episodes and it has not aged well. That being said, I still think this is a great show that ended too quickly. I’ll be talking more about shows descended from The Slayer, and while Reaper is certainly no Supernatural, I enjoyed it more than Charmed and it may be an equal to Grimm. I don’t believe the show ever won any awards, but it still maintains high ratings on both Rotten Tomatoes (81 out of 100) and IMDB (7.7 out of 10), and one could do a lot worse if they’re looking for a horror-comedy to watch. I may be biased about the whole thing, but I’d tell people to watch it for Ray Wise alone. A goddamn, national treasure!

The Matlock – Star Trek Connection

Before I start this, I feel a few words need to be said. It has taken me months to make this post happen and it’s been one problem after another. First, I wanted to track down and watch the episodes presented here, before I wrote about them, which proved exceedingly problematic. I’ve always prided myself on being able to find any show online, but, for some reason, Matlock episodes were a closely guarded treasure. It took some time to track them all down. Once the post was written and I started to create this page, I began to look for YouTube clips to connect with the different episodes and, lo and behold, YouTube is filled with Matlock episodes and very few actual clips. But, I wanted to post this, so some of these clips are not the best, or even from Matlock. Please take this as an apology and I hope you still enjoy my post. 

Matlock has been a guilty pleasure of mine for as long as I can remember. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a mystery/crime show that ran on NBC from 1986 until 1992, when it found a new home on ABC for 3 more years. The program followed titular, geriatric superhero, Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith of the Andy Griffith Show), a Georgian (the state, not the country) lawyer who solved crimes and saved his clients with a combination of shrewd wits and dogged persistence. He was aided by a younger blonde woman and a black assistant. If that description of his co-stars seems generic, it’s because it is. 

Seasons 1-3 has Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday of Carter County and the voice of Roadblock on the cartoon G.I. Joe)) working as Matlock’s African American private investigator and Charlene Matlock (Linda Purl, who guest starred on several other shows, including True Blood and The Office) and Matlock’s daughter, another attorney working with him in season 1. Charlene moves to Philadelphia after the first season, to be replaced by Michelle Thomas (Nancy Stafford of St. Elsewhere and Sidekicks), a different blonde lawyer, who moves in as Matlock’s partner. In season 4, Tyler has left for greener pastures and another black private investigator, Conrad McMasters (Clarence Gilyard, Jr or Walker, Texas Ranger and Top Gun), has taken over. Trust me, I could write a book about the series, Matlock, but I’m afraid it would have a very small audience. Instead, I’d like to talk about the Matlock-Star Trek connection. 

Given the relatively small world that television is, one of my idosyncratic joys is seeing television actors in roles very different from the ones they are famous for. In that respect, Matlock is a repository of joy. There are countless (mainly because I haven’t bothered to count) famous actors that have walked on Matlock’s stage, the likes of which have included Randy Travis, Don Knotts and Milton Berle, but I would like to talk about the oddly numerous Star Trek alumni that have appeared on this show. Cause if there’s something that I love more than Matlock, it’s Star Trek. And Star Trek actors have thrived amongst Matlock’s stage. I haven’t done exhaustive research into the subject, but here are a few episodes that feature Star Trek alumni.

The Angel – S01E11

I’ll kick it off with a twofer. When a rock diva, Angel, gets black-out wasted and wakes up in her manager’s house with his murdered corpse, she needs the expertise of Matlock to save her from life in prison. She is the slutty brat who is brought into line by the daddy dom that is Matlock. No, seriously, there’s a real Daddy Dom/little girl vibe going on here that gets kinda weird. Jonathan Frakes (AKA the ever dashing, William Riker, AKA Number 1) plays the prosecuting DA opposing Matlock and Steward Moss (Made two appearances in the original series. One was episode 4, the Naked Time, and the other was episode 21 of the second season, By Any Other Name) makes a brief appearance as the soon to be dead manager. 

The Other Woman – S03E11

This episode shows a very different side of Kira (Nana Visitor) as she plays a woman crippled by tragedy. Visitor’s husband (on the show, not her real husband, Matthew Rimmer) is murdered and Matlock defends the psychiatrist accused of the crime. Even Odo couldn’t have unraveled this tangled web, and it’s good he doesn’t have to, because Visitor’s character is crazier than a shit house rat. You’ve never seen the Major like this before, but, then again, she didn’t have to live in Atlanta in the 80’s.

The Play – S8 E1

Matlock has been cast in a local play production, by none other than our favorite, shape-shifting security office, Rene Auberjonois (AKA Odo, from Deep Space Nine). One of the running story lines in this episode is Matlock being a horrible actor, but he’s really bad at playing that role. It’s almost too meta for me watching an actor, Andy Griffith, badly play a bad actor. It’s kind of mind blowing to see. Needless to say, Rene’s character wants Matlock off the stage, until he gets accused of murder and then he lets his desperation cloud his artistic integrity. As they say, the show must go on. 

The Haunted – S8 E8 & 9

This two-part episode has more going on than Bourbon street during Mardi Gras and guest stars our favorite Star Trek character with a god complex, John de Lancie (AKA Q). Fittingly enough, he plays a plastic surgeon, who is being sued by Matlock regular, the bumbling Cliff Lewis (played by Daniel Roebuck of Nash Bridges, The Devil’s Rejects and Three From Hell. Oddly enough, he was in an episode of Star Trek TNG, “Unification”). Secrets and lies fill this episode as Cliff is reduced to little more than a gigolo and  Matlock has to save the day. 

Fatal Seduction – S8 E2 & 3

Jeri Ryan (AKA 7 of 9, from Star Trek Voyager) shows up around the 7 minute mark of this 2 part episode, sporting a white bikini and looking like trouble. She turns out to be deadlier than any Borg, as she uses her feminine wiles to use men like her personal playthings. Not the greatest of episodes, except for the gratuitous amount of skin that Ryan shows. Matlock needs his whole team on board to outsmart the young femme fatale, which is odd considering that he’s supposed to be one of the best lawyers in the country and she’s just a teenage girl, but those are the writers for you. 

There you have it. There may be more episodes floating around out there, but, for the love of God, there’s only so much Matlock that even I can take. I figure 5 episodes is enough for one day. I haven’t looked into why this connection exists, but it seems sort of odd, particularly because Star Trek is CBS’s baby, but maybe the shows shared some casting agency. Whatever the reason, seeing a member of Star Fleet face off against the genteel and shrewd Ben Matlock fills me with endless delight.

Manifest – In Defense of Bad Television

Manifest is NOT a good show. In fact, it’s downright bad. Which is what makes it the epitome a guilty pleasure. For those not in the know, Manifest is an NBC supernatural drama, now in its second season and, in my opinion, has its place along with the other religious-centric shows that I’ve been writing about. But as guilty as these pleasures are they are still pleasures, and even more than that, they are perfect for my art purposes. As I said weeks ago, while some people listen to music or podcasts, I watch videos while I do art, and I can’t do that if they’re too good. I’ve tried doing art to the shows Dark, Mindhunter, The Wire and the like, and it’s simply impossible. Either I get too caught up in these shows and don’t get any art done or I can’t follow the show, because I’m too focused on doing art. I’ve learned to choose my shows carefully and I’ve become quite good at figuring out which shows will work or not. Manifest fits this bill to a tee.

If you are unfamiliar with the show, Manifest follows the passengers of Flight 828, a flight that disappears on its return flight from Jamaica and reappears 5 years later. To the passengers themselves, no time has passed and it’s not until they land that they discover that everyone else has considered them dead. This sets up two parallel storylines. One is the mystery of the flight itself; what happened to it, where were they during that lost time, etc. The second is the effect their return has on everyone they left behind. People who were not on the flight have continued to age normally, marriages dissolved and new relationships formed; five years doesn’t sound like a lot until I think about how different my life was that far back. These are both solid plots, but, of course, they’re not enough for the writers and the show adds one more by giving all the passengers psychic powers.

Not cool ones, like Professor X or Martial Manhunter type psychic powers. No, that would be too useful. These are vague visions that plague the passengers, at times, driving them to suicide, that must be deciphered and agonized over. And this is the primary religious aspect of the show. They start calling these visions “callings”, and, while they seem to make little sense, if they have faith and persevere to follow these callings to wherever they lead, then they will be rewarded. Lives are saved, evils punished, wrongs set right. God or religion is never mentioned, but there is a lot of focus on faith, and the overall tone is so “churchy” that I gotta wonder if they have a religious consultant on staff. The core cast begins to recognize a higher power behind these callings and following the direction of this higher power becomes their mission.

All of this is not why the show is so bad, but it doesn’t help. Although the simplistic nature of the show is so heavy handed, a deft writer and a solid cast could potentially allow the story to rise above these short comings. This is not the case. Central to the show is Ben Stone (Josh Dallas of Once Upon a Time and Zootopia), a mathematics professor, who after returning, commits whole heartedly to his role as holy crusader. Unfortunately, he comes off as such a goody two shoes that it’s hard to root for him in his various quests, his over whelming demeaner being self-righteousness. Equally as bad is his son, Cal Stone (Jack Messina of, well, the only other thing he’s been in is an episode of The Marvelous Ms. Maisel), who seems to be more in tune with these visions, this higher power, than anyone else. Not sure how the show runners envisioned him as, but he comes off as the consummate creepy kid, complete with eye-rolling seizures and portents of death. Rounding out the cast is Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Star Trek Beyond and Legends of Tomorrow), Ben’s sister and a New York police detective, Grace Stone (Athena Karkanis of Suits, Zoo and House of Cards), Ben’s wife who was not on the plane and a few others that I frankly can’t be too concerned over.

None of the characters are likable, all overly dramatic and lacking in any sort of logic in their actions. Compounding this is an outlandish story that includes a shadowy government agency and human testing in a secret laboratory, a hiker who survived being trapped in a cave for a year that has a mysterious connection to flight 828 and a cult of worshipers of the passengers of flight 828 that pops up almost overnight. And, with all this, I still can’t stop watching this show. The mystery surrounding these visions, where they will lead and how they came to be in the first place is just too damn compelling. I don’t know why that is! All my criticism is valid. Hell, if you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes yourself, and you’ll ask yourself, what the hell does he see in that show, and I honestly couldn’t tell you. Some have called the show the reverse Lost, a previously lost flight returning home and bringing their mystery with them, and they’re not wrong.

And much like Lost, whose mystery made the first season so addictive, Manifest is at risk of being buried under its own questions, if it goes on long enough. Seriously, as much as I love this type of show, unless some of those mysteries are resolved, it’s going to lose its audience. There’s only so far curiosity is going to hold someone. To anyone looking for an hour (or 43 minutes, if I’m being truthful) of mindless TV fun, it’s worth a look, if only to marvel at how cheesy it is. If you’re looking for the next great television show that will stand the test of time, you may want to give this one a pass.

Messiah

For as controversial as I thought this show would be, I have heard surprisingly little about it. Much of what I have heard is a general condemnation based purely on its religious nature. Personally, I loved it. I’m not one to usually binge watch, but I found myself unable to look away. Each episode seemed to end too soon and I needed to know what happens next.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Messiah is one of Netflix’s originals, all 10 episodes dropping on January 1st, 2020. It essentially asks the question, what would happen if the second coming of Christ occurred in our current political climate. Central to the story is Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi of Tyrant and London Has Fallen), an enigmatic figure that begins to amass a following in the Middle East and then, somewhat mysteriously, winds up deep in the heart of Texas. Swept up in his path are a wildly disparate group of individuals. First, we meet Jibril (Sayyid El Alami of Zombi Child), a Syrian orphan convinced that Al-Masih is the Messiah. Two government agents, Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan of True Detective and Boston Public) working for the CIA and Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley of We’re the Millers and Eyewitness), who is possibly a Mossad operative, are both convinced that he is a terrorist. Felix Iguero (John Ortiz of Little America and Kong:Skull Island) is a Christian pastor who has lost his faith and has it restored when Al-Masih saves his daughter, Rebecca (Stephania Lavie Owen of The Carrie Diaries and Krampus) from a tornado. He becomes a dedicated follower, as does his daughter, which drags his reluctant wife, Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton of Rectify and How to Get Away with Murder), into the mix.

And the best part about this show is that we just don’t know who is right about Al-Masih. The way his character is written, and fantastically portrayed by Dehbi, is delightfully ambiguous. The best description I’ve heard of this show is political thriller. They sidestep the entire religious aspect and focus on the effect this charismatic figure has on those around him and how he shifts the balance of geopolitics. Dehbi performs with the imperturbable confidence of a man who has the full support of God himself, unnerving those who attempt to question his mission and his faith. He acts and talks as one who has an unshakable belief in carrying out God’s will and the acceptance for whatever that may be. His seeming lack of Earthly agenda throws the lives of both Eva and Aviram into disarray, used to being in control, but now letting self-doubt creep into their minds. The pastor, Felix, is initially swept up Al-Masih’s faith, but must wrestle with his own doubt as he finds that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

The pace of the show is a bit slower than I normally like, but there was a sustained tension around the mystery surrounding Al-Masih. Is he the second coming of Christ, or is he the Antichrist, or merely some con-man terrorist with his own plan? Tantalizing clues are sprinkled throughout, each one supporting a different conclusion. There is a constant feeling of, “What’s going to happen next?”, to the extent that, if there isn’t a season 2, I’m going to be a little annoyed. That being said, while IMDB is rating Messiah at a 7.6, other critics haven’t been so kind. With the religious baggage such a story line is going to carry with it, I’m not sure Netflix will want the risk of a second season.

But the premise is such a fantasy fulfillment theme that it seems like it would have a guaranteed following. Given the predominance of the Christian faith, the second coming of Christ is a wish fulfillment that cannot be ignored. I know few people who would say that the current state of society is great. I’m not going to make the obvious MAGA reference, but I know few who are happy. And the returning of Christ is the equivalent of daddy making it all right again. Whether one hates gay people or their persecution, whether one champions the separation of races or complete integration, or so many other societal controversies, the return of God satisfies the culmination of all of these conflicts. To have a higher power descend and give a clear indication of what should and shouldn’t be? Holy fuck, how satisfying would that be? Not to everyone obviously, but most of us feel that we are living right with God and that those who oppose us would be wrong, so having an actual emissary of God come down and give us a definitive answer would be a fantasy of almost anyone who believes in a JudeoChristian structure of the universe. The premise of this show is an extension of the revenge genre, except the viewer doesn’t have to accept the role of revenant. I am not the aggrieved one, but I find satisfaction in justice being done.

Given that attractor, the show itself never commits to what is wrong and what is right. Rightly so, as how could anyone who is not an omnipotent God could ever say that. Instead, it examines what that question would do to the cast, in particular, and to society in the broader sense. This is the central mystery. As much as I love shows like Lost that make me question what the island actually was or the Expanse that makes me wonder what the alien molecule is, what bigger mystery is there than, am I actually living my life right? When judgment comes “like a thief in the night”, will I be found lacking? Shit, you don’t get much more suspenseful than that. I mean, I love watching TV, but my existence is going to end sometime and what then? This show is actually ballsy enough to present that question to its viewers, and that ultimate, end-of-the-world shit is what makes this show fascinating for me. As Al-Masih says at the start, “This is the end of history”, and what the fuck is more final than that. This isn’t just for the people in the show, but it speaks to the audience itself. One can’t help but think, while watching this show, with the way I’m living my life right now, if it were all to end right now, how would I be judged? And it’s been a long time since a show has confronted me that directly. And I love it.