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Image credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

What we're watching: 'The Room,' 'Mindhunter' and 'Star Trek'

(And Chinese imperial drama.)
Richard Lawler, @Rjcc
12.17.17 in Art
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Patrick Harbron/Netflix

This month we're diving into the film that served as the basis for The Disaster Artist, Tommy Wiseau's The Room, as well as the Netflix series Mindhunter. Also, Cherlynn Low explains what you've been missing in Chinese imperial drama YouTube series, and Dan Cooper has (so many) thoughts about Star Trek: Discovery.

Empresses in the Palace (AKA Hou Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan)


Cherlynn Low

Cherlynn Low
Reviews Editor

I'll admit - I'm super late to the Empresses in the Palace hype train. That's because I've been far too busy catching up on my 'murican TV. But then I hung out with my best friend Valerie for a week, and she introduced me to the series, which is entirely available on YouTube. And despite my resistance, I was hooked after episode one.

Here's the basic premise: Zhen Huan enters the royal harem against her will, after an audition of noble ladies. Her friend joins at the same time she does, and they try to survive treacherous concubines, evil consorts and other villains, all the while trying to win the Emperor's favor. Some of them even fall in love.

TV shows keep you watching by making you relate to or grow to love its characters. But Empresses reeled me in by creating characters I hate and couldn't wait to watch die. After each episode, I would frustratedly ask Valerie, "When is that bitch going to die?"

Every character on this show is a scheming manipulator out to protect their position in the palace. The few truly good souls ultimately die, often at the hands of the wicked jerks. Scratch that -- everyone dies. Everyone on this show (except the protagonist) dies and you'll just have to wait for it to see when and how it happens. And oh -- count the miscarriages. Oh, the miscarriages.

That's the beauty of this 76-episode series -- I had to keep watching to the very end to see every single person I hated die. But I also love its attention to historical detail. As someone who grew up watching Chinese imperial dramas, I appreciated how Empresses captured what it was like to live in the Emperor's harem in a refreshingly vivid and realistic way. From the ranks of the ladies in the harem and the food they ate to the gifts they gave each other and how their chambers were furnished, every little detail added to the show's intricate environment, making it easier to hate the many, many antagonists.

Mindhunter


Rob LeFebvre

Rob LeFebvre
Contributing Writer

I have never seen a television series with a more pronounced sense of foreboding and dread. Mindhunter is more than just "based on a true story." It centers on Holden Ford, idealistic young FBI agent and his irascible career partner, Bill Tench. It's more than just about discovering the psychological make up of what came to be known as "serial killers." Mindhunter is, ultimately, about being human. Ford and Tench begin the ten-episode series as explorers. Tench is old-school FBI; he wants to teach local law enforcement around the country about catching the bad guys.

Set in the late 1960s, the social fabric is changing — Tench, and to a lesser extent, the younger Ford — are part of the Hoover-era FBI. That a "behavioral sciences" unit exists at all is a testament to the social upheaval of the times. As is Ford's sociology-studying college girlfriend, played with unsmiling intensity by Hannah Gross, who brings a feminist perspective to every moment on screen. As we spend time with these characters, joined by the incomparable Anna Torv as driven, hyper-smart, lesbian Wendy Carr, we learn more and more about them as characters. Ford pushes to interview men who have been convicted of unspeakable, repeated homicides. These are the serial killers we know today, but every bit as human as the FBI agents coming into their prisons to interview them. Edward Kemper is incredibly smart; a large man with a serious creep factor, Kemper takes a liking to Ford. The early conversations get the behavioral unit off to a solid start and extra funding, even against the better judgment of their supervising FBI agent, Shepard.

As we watch across ten episodes, we realize that we're seeing three broken individuals confront the worst humanity has to offer. Torv plays Carr with a dry, clinical perspective. Hers is the academic world; the benefit is in many years of careful, replicable academic study and publishable papers. Yet we see her longing for companionship when she begins to leave cans of tuna out for a barely-heard lost kitten in her laundry room. We see Tench, the veritable old school man's man veteran FBI agent. A stickler for the rules, Tench allows himself a grudging respect for Ford's results while remaining wary of Ford's less-than-proper investigative techniques and language. Tench has a young boy with autism at home; you can see his paternal instincts at war with his disappointment that his own son is unable to even hug him. Ford, played by Groff with an earnest enthusiasm, is truly gifted at reading the criminals he interviews, yet can barely make sense of his relationship with his girlfriend. It's not until the final episode of the season, directed by David Fincher, where Holden finally must deal with the emotional fallout of his early success.

Mindhunter is a tour-de-force with incredible acting, deft direction brilliantly shot scenes and a "true" story that will engage anyone interested in the depths of our shared human condition. It's not a procedural nor a thriller; most of the action takes place during conversations (some taken from real interviews from the actual behavioral unit) between the characters. The serial killers are human — devastatingly so — and to watch the actors imbue them with three-dimensional spirit and intelligence is a sheer pleasure. As I finished the amazingly stunning final episode, I was struck again and again by this show's ability to astonish, not with gore, jump scares, or other supernatural twists, but with solid plotting, incredible dialogue and a stylish take on the late 1960s as seen through the eyes of the establishment. Give this one a chance, if you haven't already, and be prepared for a masterpiece.

The Room


Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Associate Editor

Somehow, I've made it the last 14 years without seeing The Room in its entirety. I knew the story behind it and that the movie had a cult following, but aside from the infamous bellybutton sex scene I saw (heavily edited) on Adult Swim at some point, I'd never seen the "Citizen Kane of bad movies." I'd always wanted to watch it, but because it isn't streaming, I didn't quite have the access. Which, in hindsight is probably for the best. Why? Because as I discovered this weekend, watching it with a theater full of die-hard fans is the superior way to experience Tommy Wiseau's writing and directorial debut.

People were throwing plastic spoons, cheering the awkward panning shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and counting every successful pass of a football. It felt like a party, honestly. Or a Rocky Horror midnight screening. At one point, I leaned over to my date and said this would probably be better than it already was if alcohol were involved.

Yeah, the movie is absolutely terrible. But unlike some of the dreck I've watched on Amazon or Netflix, it has heart. Wiseau tried to make an amazing movie, but he fell so, so, so short. Whether it's the green screen reflecting off his actor's faces in myriad rooftop scenes or a seeming total disregard for continuity, everything about the movie feels like a bad community college film-class project. That goes for the script's random plot threads that are never resolved like Claudette's breast cancer revelation, too.

But that didn't matter to the 300 or so people in the theater Saturday night; we just wanted to see how many times an apartment door would get left open.

Star Trek: Discovery


Daniel Cooper

Daniel Cooper
Senior Editor

"Time is a predator, it's stalking you," snarls Dr. Soran towards the climax of Star Trek: Generations. It's emblematic of Star Trek's core anxiety: that time is running out, and you'll never get it back. Which is odd, because Star Trek has outlasted all of its rivals to become the elder statesperson of science fantasy. Star Trek was a cross-media cinematic shared franchise platform universe zeitgeist long before Disney started buying them in wholesale. And yet, Star Trek: Discovery is here, and its biggest problem is... time.

An aside: if you don't believe me, then re-watch the first ten Trek movies, where at least eight of them concern our anxieties around aging. The first six explicitly document the life of Peter Pan fan James T. Kirk as he fights the urges to grow up, beyond the captain's chair of the Enterprise. Generations and Insurrection, meanwhile, see Picard battling villains who will stop at nothing to aggressively reclaim their youth. Hell, look at the subtext of the Borg: a race that has embraced technology to avoid dying.

Time hamstrung Discovery's production schedule, mostly thanks to Sonequa Martin-Green's tenure on The Walking Dead. The delay helped foment tensions between CBS and Bryan Fuller, the hotshot producer called in to revive the franchise. Clashes with the top brass meant that Fuller walked away, blaming a lack of time due to his other commitments on shows like American Gods.

Then there's Discovery's placement within the Trek canon, which places it just a decade before the original dayglo adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Which serves to highlight all of the jarring inconsistencies where we're expected to see switches-and-velour as an upgrade. Yes, it's a TV show, and one that didn't want to be hamstrung by the production design of a show made 50 years prior. But that doesn't stop your suspension of disbelief being ruined by every damn inconsistency and technology change.

The worst thing is that it would have been so easy not to ruin things simply by setting matters in Star Trek's ostensible present, rather than its past. Swap in different names for the Klingons, Sarek and Harry Mudd, and the show would have worked so much better as a sequel to Nemesis. Imagine it: an exhausted, jaded Federation, knackered from conflicts against the Borg, Dominion, Son'a and Romulans would look like easy prey to a new, gothic horror-inspired race from beyond the Beta Quadrant.

The official line was that the creators wanted to set Discovery before a time where Replicators and Holodecks were easy shortcuts. Writers wanted to mine more drama out of simple crises, like resource scarcity and missing parts, and you can't do that if there's a magic box that makes anything you need. Which is why it's so frustrating that the show then burned that bridge by featuring "synthesis machines" and a "holographic battle simulator" in the first six episodes.

Time is also an issue with Discovery's 50-ish minute running time, which is barely enough to contain the multitude of shows contained within. There's a conventional Trek show in there, about the trials of the brave few exploring the galaxy and trying to make the world a better place. But there's also a more Battlestar Galactica-esque show about the compromises people have to make in times of war. Sadly, aside from Lt. Stamens glowering at Lorca a couple of times, that narrative is barely hinted at.

Then there's the touching character drama of this much-hated criminal being reintegrated into society on a warship full of misfits. The plot of episode seven, for instance, is basically geared toward simply encouraging Burnham to engage romantically with Tyler. But that, like the other plotlines, are suffocated by the sheer volume of story each Discovery episode is trying to tell. Oh, and let's not even go into the Klingon scenes, which see stock characters bellowing cliches at one another -- even if Voq does turn out to be Ash Tyler, the tedious scenes of Voq looking bored won't feel retrospectively justified.

As a consequence, Discovery takes plenty of shortcuts, including making each character act according to plot, rather than consistent with their nature. Only performances by a universally excellent group of actors banish some of the bumps evident in Discovery's writing. But even their heavy-duty work can't compensate for how lightweight and uneven everything feels -- take Choose Your Pain, where Lorca is captured and rescued in less than half an hour.

This lack of weight means that you get scenes like the one in the aftermath of an attack on Corvan II, when the survivors emerge blinking into the light. Of course, there has to be a wide-eyed kid staring at the sky wondering what magical superhero saved them from doom in the nick of time. On first watching, I howled with laughter at the jarring levels of cheese being thrown at my TV,

Time is money, of course, and Star Trek has always been an expensive show to make, while a lot of that cash goes to the basics. It meant that the show often couldn't afford pricey location filming or anything too grand -- it's why so many episodes from TNG through to Voyager feature plenty of action scenes in caves, in reality, a concrete semi-permanent set on Stage 16 of the Paramount lot. As a consequence, Star Trek had to rely upon its semi-secret weapon: the actors, who did the heavy lifting when the budget could not.

Deep Space Nine featured a drawn-out, bloody war against the Dominion, with the toll on Starfleet being immense. The show couldn't show too much violence, blood or corpses, so instead, the team just pointed a camera at Avery Brooks and used the face of TV's finest glowerer to show the real cost of the conflict. In contrast, Discovery's war has affected naught but the dirt-smeared rubes on Corvan II, save for the odd snipey chat between Lorca and Cornwell that sounds more like C-Level executives arguing over spreadsheets.

"Who is this for? I don't understand how this is meant to appeal to me, a Star Trek fan," said Rich Evans on re:View, adding "this isn't Star Trek." I see where he's coming from, but also reject anyone who believes that Star Trek has a definable series of parameters about what it is or is not. Star Trek is a show about everything and nothing on a week-by-week basis. Don't like the tense submarine duel of Balance of Terror? Don't worry, you can watch comic knockabout The Trouble With Tribbles instead.

Star Trek, as an idea, has accommodated a joyful enviro-romp about saving the whales and an hour-long treatise on the price of a person's soul for the greater good. It has locked a survivor of torture and one of their former captors in a room and forced them to duke it out for the notion of forgiveness. It asks the big questions, and the small, and can excite, terrify, make you laugh or all of those things at once. The idea that Star Trek is about anything, beyond the power of humanity to overcome its problems, is bunkum.

And yet, I see Evans' point, because Discovery doesn't feel like the sort of Star Trek we've seen before, or to put it another way, it's not "my" Star Trek. To enjoy it means that you need to let go of that sense of ownership that can so often lead to toxicity and try and appreciate it on its own merits. And, fundamentally, it's an intriguing show that, at its best, helps you to overlook its numerous and jarring flaws. You want to spend time with this crew and you're invested in their future, even if you know it's going to disappoint.

But hey, Star Trek: Discovery is getting a second season, and my hope is that they'll iron out some of the more nagging issues second time around. But I'm prepared to give it time.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

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