Wednesday, June 29, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x1)

Ah, summer television. A time of high drama, mostly poor narrative, and usually a fair amount of snark from yours truly. With Under the Dome off the air (mercifully) after three seasons, I desperately needed a new show to review while my normal TV shows are on hiatus. Thankfully (?) the creators of OUAT decided they didn't have their plates full with a 23 episode fairy tale drama and went to the more "family friendly" outlet of ABC to launch a brand-new sudsy camp filled program. Sounds like it is absolutely something I need to review! Reading the press releases and synopsis for Dead of Summer made both my eyebrows risee; a mix of LOST levels of mythology with OUAT fantasy and Pretty Little Liars type of cliche characters does not sound like recipe for anything other than a disaster. But summer TV is supposed to be slightly disastrous (maybe I'm biased after reviewing Under the Dome for three years) so I had prepared myself for laughable dialogue and an easy to read text and it's definitely all that, but what I got from the series premiere, "Patience," though, was something more and something unexpected. Don't misunderstand; this show is laced with the sort of cliches you'd expect from a summer-camp horror narrative, but these cliches are so apparent and so typical that it's hard not to wonder if the writers aren't playing to their audiences expectations and creating an overly dramatic, melodramatic, satire about teenage gothic summer camp stories. In other words, the show is laughably bad and predictable, but maybe it's supposed to be. Grab your hot dogs and marshmallows and let's go!

If anyone would like to hazard a guess as to why creators Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis set their campy camp (pun!) drama in 1989 then, by all means, lay it on me cause goodness knows I found the (semi) recent period piece aspect of this show a little too silly for words. On a network that targets directly to the generation that comes after me (still a baby chick, born in the twilight year of 1987) it's a weird step to take. There are no cell phones, no social media accounts, no insta-wifi connections that link our techno brains to the rest of humanity. Perhaps its nostalgia; the idea of being cut off from everything we think of today in terms of communication and connection creates a deeper story. Maybe it's fondly remembering when you could be one with nature without needing to snap a sunset photo to Instagram. Or maybe it's just that a soap opera derived camp horror flick doesn't make a lot of sense in the 21st century--everyone, at all times, has a camera, a video recorder, a phone, and literally a link to thousand, if not millions, of other people at their finger tips. Whatever the case, the 1989 setting gives rise to a contradiction for the viewers; it gives the show a totally out of touch feeling with the music, outfits, and general power dynamics between the genders it deploys; but at the same time, there is something very familiar about all this. It has been years (and years and years) since I attended a camp, but Camp Stillwater could be any Midwestern, off-the-beaten-path patch of youthful indiscretion that you remember from days gone by. Cliches might be obnoxious but we readily insert our own memories into their fully made forms. Everyone knew someone like one of these characters on Dead of Summer. Maybe you were even just like one of them--be it popular and cool, or a loner and struggling. Cliches don't necessarily have to be a bad thing and some of the best stories are as laudable as they are because of their rote direction, but in the 21st century, when TV is supposed to be making inroads in depictions of culture, society, gender, sex, and life in general, cliches are there to be made fun of; to be deconstructed so as to understand why certain attitudes, feelings, and sentiments belong to an age that has passed us by. And it's hard for me to believe that Adam and Eddy don't know this; I give them a lot (a lot) of grief over on my OUAT reviews--as does a good portion of the fandom these days--for adhering to traditions in storytelling that need to be placed by the wayside. After five years of that show, and the ever growing criticism around it, am I expected to believe that these two professional writers haven't realized that what their target audience wants is something that pushes the envelope beyond the stereotypical? That is why I'm inclined to read Dead of Summer as a clever satire of its tropes. These cliches are played to the hilt; played to such perfect type that if I didn't know any better, I would say this show was the first outing of a junior writer who is drawing from what he knows--and what he knows is the simple, un-nuanced, free from complications narrative that is like following a straight line from plot point A to plot point B.

So, if the story is so rife in cliches, what kind of narrative are we looking at here? Well, I believe the entire thrust of the show can be summed up from a scene straight out of "teen horror 101." Sitting around a campfire, smoking weed, and drinking cheap beer one character (a cliche "watcher and storyteller" figure who records everything on a old fashioned video camera) says, "anyone could come in here and kill every single one of us. They wouldn't find out bodies for days!" This eye-roll worthy line is followed up with the equally tropeish creepy janitor--who takes a little too much enjoyment in capturing animals in traps--speaking cryptically to the lead character, Amy, informing her, in a dull monotone voice, to leave Camp Stillwater because "you have no idea what this place is!"A tree also bleeds at one point. Demons, literal and metaphorical, abound at Camp Stillwater. Amy, as is her right as main character, is damaged, haunted, and, of course, the new counselor at Camp Stillwater. She's the outsider, one of two characters who didn't spend her golden childhood years by the lake with the rest of the gang. Amy's story is to find herself while figuring out the mysteries of Camp Stillwater, navigating all things personal and mythical. These mythical mysteries include all the classics: ghosts, magic, Satanism, and weird local legends. It's hard to get a handle on the full scope of the mystery in the first episode but given that the show begins with the murder of a negro piano player a century ago, and that all the ghosts so far were seen in the piano player's lake, it's not hard to guess. Lemme take a stab...the dead negro was accused of witchcraft and killed by racist townies to "protect their own." It will turn out that the dead man was a practitioner of magic--and possibly a Satanist who killed all the folks in the lake to appease some sort of demonic entity that resides at Stillwater and to keep the world at large safe--and is seeking revenge (and/or continual appeasement of said demonic force) using the natural magical properties of Camp Stillwater to continue exacting his revenge. Deb, the head counselor (who was miraculously brought back to life and defrosted from her time as the Ice Queen), knows all this but can't bring herself to shut down the camp because she sunk all her money into trying to bring her childhood camp back to life (this action reawakens the camp ghost, if I read the cliches right!) On the whole, there are too many characters (each one as opaque as the next), too many mysteries, too many narratives balls in the air, for anything to make a ton of sense right now. But I don't know that it needs to; as terrible and hokey as the premiere was, it's not without action, intrigue, and it does manage to create a desire to see how it ends--even if you could write the ending without seeing anything else from Dead of Summer.

Miscellaneous Notes on Patience 

--There really are way too many characters on this show. It's as if the writers couldn't narrow down to just a few cliches--they needed to have ALL of them. There's the ugly duckling who became the super hot swan (Jessie); there's Blair (who is supremely gay and needs everyone to know it); there's Alex (the popular but probably insecure alpha male); along for the ride is Drew who's only character trait so far is long hair and sullen silence and Cricket who fills our quota for the "stupid nickname" cliche.

--Amy's flashbacks reveal that the first friend she ever had 1) died (of course) 2) is the reason she went to Camp Stillwater (again of course) and 3) imparted the great life lesson that sometimes you have to do stuff that scares you.

--How about a round of applause for me for NOT making an Amy/Anna joke? Elizabeth Lail isn't nearly as captivating here as she was on OUAT, but she's also just being asked to act mopey, sad-eyed, and scream at everything that startles her (which occurred approximately every 5 minutes).

--Do I smell a love triangle between Amy, Garrett the Deputy, and Jessie? Adam and Eddy just can't resist, can they? On the other side of cliche romances, we have the somewhat icky set up of Deb and Joel in an autumn-late spring type of romance.

--The lake is apparently shaped like a ram/demon's head and the Camp sits at its heart. Naturally.

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