Arrested Development Dies Another Day

The 2010-2011 TV season was a particularly rough one for me. It seemed like every new show that I took a chance on was cancelled (Lone Star, Chicago Code, Detroit 1-8-7, Lights Out, Rubicon, Mr. Sunshine, No Ordinary Family).  It was a real disappointment – so many of these new shows were well done and had tremendous potential for future seasons. Unfortunately, due to poor marketing, time slot completion or trigger happy network executives, these shows never found an audience and the vision of the creators was never fulfilled. For people who love television, it was particularly frustrating to see these shows pulled from the schedule when they surpassed the quality of many of the shows that were renewed.

The television graveyard is littered with great shows that were “gone too soon.” Many of these shows were critical darlings that just never gained the traction needed to continue. Insult is often added to injury for fans when people discover the show after cancellation and sing its praises. If only all these people had tuned in originally, the show may be still on the air! Usually, the best the fan of a cancelled show can hope for is to get together with like-minded people and grumble about the ignorance of the public, the greed of executives and take solace that they got to be part of something special, though short-lived. They can cling to their DVDs of the show and think about “what might have been.”

But every once in a while, the television gods smile upon the fans of these cancelled shows. Sometimes – just sometimes – these shows find ways to come back. For the fans that refused to let their show die, who continue to talked about it and introduced it to new people, their faith is occasionally rewarded. It happened with Family Guy (cancelled on Fox in 2001, to be brought back in 2004); it happened with Southland (cancelled on NBC and picked up by TNT); it happened with Futurama (cancelled by Fox in 2003 and resurrected by Comedy Central in 2010).

And much to my delight, it’s happening for Arrested Development.

I was all in on Arrested Development from the beginning. I don’t know what made me decide to tune into the quirky little show about the wonderful dysfunctional Bluth family, but I was hooked from the get-go. It was clever, smart and ridiculously funny. It had subtle running jokes that rewarded loyal viewers. Though its ratings were low, it cultivated a devout cult following of rabid fans over its brief 3 year run. We stuck with the show through its shuffle on the schedule and while the rest of the world was watching the opening ceremony of the 2006 Olympics, we were watching as FOX burned off the final 4 episodes of the show. We bought the DVDs, loaned them to friends, and annoyed people by quoting the show.

And we waited.

After years of rumors, it was announced in 2011 that not only would there be an Arrested Development movie (as many had been clamoring for), but that there would also be new episodes that would air on Netflix. This seemed almost too good to be true. Would all the actors sign on? Would there be a script? Would their best laid plans fall apart?

Yesterday there were some positive developments. It was confirmed that the entire original cast is under contract and production has begun on the 10 episodes, which will air in 2013 and be followed by the movie. While one shouldn’t count their episodes before they air, it is exciting to think that the wheels are in motion. Hopefully they can recapture the same magic that they had during the original run.

The downside of this phenomenon is that it gives false hope to the fans of other canceled shows. For every show that is resurrected, hundreds more will never see the light of day again. 99% of the time a show that is canceled stays canceled. There is probably never going to be a Veronica Mars movie and the Dillon Panthers have probably played their last football game on Friday night. But every once in a while a show beats the odds. So keep the faith. There’s always money in the banana stand. 🙂

Thoughts on War Horse

When the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, I had only one thought.

Please don’t nominate War Horse for best picture.

This was 100% a selfish wish. Every year, I try to see all the best picture nominees. This has become more of a challenge in recent years with the expansion of the category and then the rule change for 2012 that there could be anywhere from five to ten nominees. But this year the problem wasn’t the increased uncertainty in the number of films.

I just really, really didn’t want to watch War Horse.

Sometimes, there is a movie that comes along that seems to be custom designed for you and your preferences. This year, that movie for me was Moneyball. It combined two of my favorite things (baseball and Brad Pitt), was co-written by Aaron Sorkin (whose work I respect and enjoy) and was based on a book I had already read and liked.

And sometimes a movie comes along that has all the elements that you don’t like in a movie. It doesn’t mean it is necessarily a bad movie, but it just not going to do it for you. And I could tell just from the commercials that War Horse was going to be that movie for me. It had a number of factors going against it:

  • Steven Spielberg directed it. Spielberg is perhaps the most commercially successful director of all time. He’s been behind some huge blockbusters. But while there are some exceptions (E.T. when I was a kid, Schindler’s List, Minority Report), I generally find his films lacking. They tend to be too safe, too conservative and too sentimental. He relies on emotional moments that feel forced and that aren’t necessarily earned through his storytelling. His movies just tend to run a little too old-fashioned for my tastes. I lost a lot of respect for him when he went back and digitally edited the guns out of E.T. and I honestly think his involvement in Super 8 kept that movie from being truly great. He tends too much toward whitewashing the world. He is, in a word, schmaltzy. My tastes run much edgier; my favorite director is Quentin Tarantino, who is pretty much the antithesis of Spielberg.
  • It’s a war movie. For some reason, movies about war, especially those that are pretty sweeping in scope, do absolutely nothing for me. I’ve tried. I keep watching them hoping I’ll find one that holds my interest, but I always come up empty. I’m possibly the only person who didn’t really like Saving Private Ryan. I sat through the miniseries The Pacific last year and just did not enjoy it except for the episodes that were more removed from the war. I don’t know if I find them confusing with all the chaos of battles or if I find a general lack of character development that makes me not as invested in the characters. Maybe the horrors and drama of war are is something I just can’t connect with. One thing I know is that the issue isn’t the violence; I watch a lot of other types of movies with violence and that doesn’t faze me at all. Unfortunately, Spielberg loves war movies (he directed Saving Private Ryan and was executive producer on The Pacific), which is yet another reason we are probably not destined to be good friends.
  • It’s about a horse. This is probably what will surprise most people, but I don’t consider myself an animal person. I like animals just fine, but I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time with them or watching a movie about them. You aren’t going to find me at a zoo on weekends, nor do I stop in pet stores to look at the adorable animals. They do their thing and I’ll do mine. My relationship with animals has become more complicated now that I am a pet owner. I’ve noticed, somewhat to my surprise, that since I’ve become “mom” to Pumpkin the cat, I have a really hard time seeing animals in pain. Of course, I didn’t enjoy that before I got a pet, but now I find myself getting upset much more easily. What I used to be able to see as a routine plot point, like a horse being put down in True Grit, now means I’m going to tear up and possible cry. I can’t even sit through the Sarah Mclachlan commercials about animal cruelty. So the idea of a movie where a horse goes to war, and presumably gets injured and/or mistreated, had high potential for me turning into a blubbering idiot. And I don’t like being a blubbering idiot.
  • The movie is almost two and a half hours long. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. But when you already think you are going to have zero interest in the film a run time of over two hours does not sweeten the deal.

But I am a completest. I wasn’t going to not watch the film and abandon my project just because I had reservations about it. I managed to get my hands on a screener of the film, so I didn’t have to drag myself to the theater to see it. This was crucial since this then gave me the option of stopping and taking a break if I got bored. The commitment of sitting in the theater was proving to be a major hurdle to me seeing the film.

I’d love to say that I was pleasantly surprised by War Horse and that all my preconceived notions went out the window. But they didn’t. I tried to go into it with an open mind, but the things I feared would be an issue were in fact so. I stopped the movie a few times and found myself playing “Word with Friends” on my cell phone throughout. It just didn’t hold my attention and would have benefited from a more aggressive editor. John Williams’ score sounded identical to all his other scores. I found the plot drawn out and a little ridiculous.  It was a chore to watch.

If you are a fan of Spielberg’s movies, you may enjoy this one more than I did. It wasn’t a terrible; it just wasn’t for me.

Paradise Lost Trilogy

I like Metallica. I tend to wear a lot of black.

Because of this, I could have been suspected of murder in West Memphis, Arkansas.

In 1993, three eight year old boys were found brutally murdered. Believing the killings were “satanic” in nature, the police focused their attention on three teenage boys who did not fit in with the culture of their Bible Belt community. The Paradise Lost documentaries follow the trial and conviction of the three teenagers and the efforts to get them released from prison.

I was vaguely aware of the “West Memphis Three,” as the teens came to be known, before watching the documentaries but didn’t know much about the specific details of the case. I was prompted to watch the Paradise Lost trilogy after the first film was featured on Current TV’s series, 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die and because the story had been back in the news relatively recently. What unfolded in the series was a fascinating case of the dangers of being different and a clear miscarriage of justice.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hill Hills (1996) is the story of the investigation and trial of the three teenage boys. After the bodies of the three young boys are found sexually mutilated in the woods, the police assume that the killings were part of a satanic sacrifice. Based on the confession of 17 year old Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Misskelley were arrested and charged with the murders. Misskelley, who claimed his confession was coerced, was tried first and was found guilty and sentenced to 40+ years in prison. Echols and Baldwin were tried together. Both were found guilty; Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sentenced to death. Misskelley refused to testify in their trial and his confession was not admissable. No physical evidence was introduced in the trial that tied any of the three to the crime scene, but much was made of Echols interest in Wicca and the boys preference in clothing and music. From the prosecution’s closing argument:

Anything wrong with wearing black in and of itself? No. Anything wrong with the heavy metal stuff in and of itself? No. Anything wrong with the Book of Shadows in and of itself? No. But when you look at it together, you begin to see inside Damien Echols. And you look inside there and there isn’t a soul there.

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) picks up five years later and looks at what life is like for the three boys in prison and their efforts to have their convictions overturned on appeal. The filmmakers also profile some of support groups that have formed for the West Memphis 3 and who believe, based on viewing the first film, that the boys were wrongly convicted. A large amount of time is spent with Mark Byers, adoptive stepfather to one of the slain boys, who has been rumored to have something to do with the killings.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) focuses on the final push to overturn the convictions of the West Memphis 3, now imprisoned for almost 18 years, before the execution of Damien Echols. DNA and other forensic evidence, not available at their original trial, has been discovered that lends credence to their claims of innocence. Issues of possible jury misconduct were also examined, as well as new rumors as to who the killer may actually be. The third film has been nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for best documentary.

The three films present a riveting case study of our judicial system and its failings. The boys clearly did not receive a fair trial. They were the sacrificial lambs that gave the town a quick resolution and allowed the police to close the book on the case. The fact that they didn’t fit in made it even easier to convict them with nothing more than rumor and the questionable confession of Misskelley. The trial in many ways was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. While I was not immediately convinced that they had absolutely no involvement in the crime after the first film (Echols narcissism at 18 did him no favors), there was more than reasonable doubt. As someone who studied the courts during graduate school, it was frustrating for me to see it all unfold. It is one thing to know that false convictions occur; it is another to watch it happen.

While the clear focus of the films is the West Memphis Three, the time spent with Mark Byers is fascinating as well. He looms especially large in the second film and his bizarre behavior and checkered past raises serious questions about his involvement in the murder of his stepson. However, by devoting so much time to him in the film because of gossip and his “eccentricities,” it could be argued that the filmmakers are guilty of the same prejudice that convicted the three teens. While the Paradise Lost documentarians are ultimately not concerned with uncovering the person responsible for the crimes, that subject is the focus of the documentary West of Memphis which is currently being shown at Sundance.

William Blackstone once said that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The Paradise Lost trilogy convincing demonstrates what happens when we fail to live up that principle. Three young men lost almost 20 years of their lives. Three eight year old boys are still waiting for their justice.

The Paradise Lost films are now available on www.hbogo.com.  Some of the graphic images in the films may be upsetting to some viewers.