Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #7: Television Terrors


As the economy begins to constrict like some leviathan of the deep taking victims one by one at the bottom of the sea, people are turning back to television as a source of a broad range of entertainment genres. Hopefully, that means the death of the “reality” craze, but some horrors will never go away.

Speaking of horror, this is a genre that seems to have become explored much more in depth by television of late than it has in the past. There are cable series that have gotten major network exposure, anthology horror series have been filling the gaps of the off-seasons, and there have even been some mainstream hits that have crossed boundaries into the areas of horror.

There was a day when sci-fi/horror anthologies gained some notoriety on TV, with the original runs of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits”. For many years television tried to regain some of the success of those shows with revamped versions along with news shows like “Amazing Stories” and “Tales from the Crypt”. But very little took beyond mild cable success. Then in 1993 a little television show that could showed up called “The X-Files” and from there an new obsession with horror began on television. First through horror soaps like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, to new found success for the horror anthology with shows like “Masters of Horror” and “Fear Itself”, and even on to outright horror vehicles like the serial killer drama “Dexter”.

This year I took a look at two new horror-themed dramas in their first seasons and an HBO miniseries from last year.

“Fringe” is the latest outing from television maestro J.J. Abrams of “Lost” and “Alias” fame. It is fitting that it should have found its home at FOX, since it is not entirely unlike “The X-Files”. But this is “The X-Files” as done by J.J. Abrams. It follows an FBI agent tapped to form a team of investigators to explore nearly unexplainable phenomena. But in true Abrams conspiracy form these strange happenings have a connection known only as the Pattern.

There are no aliens in “Fringe”, but it does often start with the feeling of some of “X-Files” stand-alone horror episodes. But as each episode progresses it gets further and further from the “X-Files”. It contains a cast of quite original characters, all grounded by Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who drives each investigation and every episode.

By presenting a new investigation with each episode, Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci avoid the necessity for the audience of having to see every episode, as you pretty much must with their other creation “Lost”. But as the series progresses you begin to see more signs of their intricate overall storyline involving the Pattern and deep secrets that each character holds, ala the conspiratorial nature of both “Alias” and “Lost”. It’s a show that had to grow on me for a few episodes, but now I’m just as hooked as I was for their two other television classics.

A show that only took one episode to hook me, however, was HBO’s new ongoing vampire series “True Blood”. Adapted from the Sookie Stackhouse series of books by Charlaine Harris—unheard of by me until this television show—“True Blood” imagines a world where vampires have been outted after centuries of hiding their existence from humans.

In the greater world of “True Blood” vampires are campaigning for equal rights, producing a synthetic blood supplement that is sold like alcohol (although drinks like a non-alcoholic version of human blood), and generally going through their own civil rights movement. But the story takes place in a small bayou town in Louisiana. It has a large cast of characters, representing a vast tapestry of individual types, and lead by the romantic leads Sookie (Anna Paquin), a human with the ability to read minds, and Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a vampire trying to go the straight and narrow by “mainstreaming” with normal humans.

Recently, “True Blood” has drawn some negative criticism and comparisons to the new teen vampire romance movie “Twilight” from vampire purists for changing the rules of vampirism. The vampires in the series can be seen in mirrors and are not intimidated by crucifixes. But these criticisms are unwarranted since these vampires still deal with the traditional vampire themes of sin and temptation. Their existence is closely related with sexuality and most of the vampires in the series are not very nice. But then neither are most of the humans.

The series is rich with themes of tolerance and discrimination. The issues of race and homosexuality are explored through both the vampire and with gay and black characters. Addiction is seen through vampire desire for human blood and human need for drugs and the heightened experiences of vampire life. No stone of our compulsions and vices are left unturned in the series’ exploration of our humanity.

Cable networks have become the driving force for television. Ideas are tested out there before they’re attempted on mainstream television. HBO has been a pioneer in developing television into a format on the same level as cinema. Their partnership with BBC television has resulted in shows like “The Office” and “Extras” and many award-winning documentaries.

2007 saw these two companies’ collaboration on the miniseries “Five Days”. While not precisely a horror story, it presented the horror of lives touched by an abduction. It depicts five separated days throughout a long investigation into the abduction of a mother and her two children. We see the pain and distress of the family of the abductees and the investigators involved in the search. The quality of this episodic telefilm remains as high as those the BBC and HBO have become renowned for, and by the end of the series the audience has witnessed just a small portion of the exhaustion felt by all the individuals in the compartmentalized roles they each must play during such an ordeal.

Quality television such as this often has to be sought out to be uncovered. But it makes all the “Deal or No Deals” and “Hole in the Walls” seem like petty entertainments that are fine for our kids to endure but leave an unsatisfactory emptiness for those who demand some form of substance in their television viewing.

1 comment:

SecretAgent said...

I am a shape shifter purist. HBO has done all shifterists an injustice portraying our kind as sexual deviants. if history can show us anything, it shows us that shapeshifters are NOT sexual deviants.