Sword Art Online (2012)

SAOZ

I wasn’t particularly interested in watching this series as the premise seemed really hokey. However, I found it on Netflix and at a loose end, thought I’d give it ago. Turns out that watching a cartoon about players trapped in World of Warcraft was quite entertaining. Who knew!

The basic conceit is that in the near future, people have virtual reality “Nerve Gear” to plug into their computers which hijacks their nerve impulses and allows them to play MMOs as if they were really there. The new game, Sword Art Online, has just been released and uses a new interface unit that you have to buy specifically for it.

That in of itself is probably fairly realistic. Given the prevalence of online gaming and the direction technology is going (Google Glass, Kinect), we will see an early prototype of this kind of thing within the next 10 years. Hell, early attempts at Virtual Reality in the ‘90s were only abandoned because the money was in home gaming and that wasn’t a million miles away from what SAO is suggesting.

SAO has been released and thousands of people rush out and buy it, get it home and log in. Obviously, in the future, games are completed before released and don’t require a 10 GB patch just to play it…

Once people have been logged in and playing around, there is an in-game announcement which states that no one can leave the game until the 100th floor is cleared and that anyone who dies in the game, dies in real life.

Obviously, everyone then immediately tries to log out but the option is missing from their display. They can’t physically remove their own gear as their nerve impulses from their brain are rerouted by the Nerve Gear. They are trapped!

Worse, the Nerve Gear to use the game, designed to kill anyone who dies in the game, will also kill anyone who has their unit removed in real life (cue: lots of people disappearing  in game because of well intending family members and medics).

"The future, as designed by Blizzard."

“The future, as designed by Blizzard.”

Lastly, everyone’s in-game avatar is forced to reflect their real life self image (and gender).

And so begins the story… this is all one big set up to effectively tell a story about an online roleplaying game: it has all the hallmarks, including guilds (and the subsequent guild politics), grouping together to fight bosses, levelling, loot (and the politics of who gets what) and all the other things you associate with playing these games (no one is cussed out for being a “shit healer” however).

The main protagonist is Kirito (the handle of Kazuto Kirigaya), a massive gamer nerd and beta tester on SAO. Consequently, he knows quite a bit about the game from beta test and quickly advances in the game.

The series follows Kirito around the game world in different adventures. He normally works alone (exploiting his knowledge of the game by himself) but occasionally teams with others.

I’ve actually played MMOs with people like Kirito: the sort of person who plays at their own rate, doesn’t really socialise and apparently just wants to be involved in the thing that everyone else is involved in. I personally find Kirito-type players to be strange: why play an online social game to be antisocial?

One of the reasons why I like watching animé series, is that they go into detail about things Western animations don’t bother with. Here, the show explores the psychology of people trapped in a deadly game. There is a community and people seem to settle into a semblance of virtual society.

It is quite interesting that as soon as their actual life is on the line, they lose interest in fighting. And that people still find a way to screw one another over: yes, even in a game where there are clearly defined good guys (players) and bad guys (computer generated enemies) with a definitive goal to free themselves, the human players still find a way to exploit the game mechanics to the detriment of one another.

Kirito is quite good as a protagonist. He’s interesting and not a bad guy, just a bit selfish. He does get involved with other people and that’s when the show starts to get better. The politics of grouping and guilding, while obviously dramaticised here, is still worth showing. It’s his relationship with some of the other players which are quite endearing and through that, makes Kirito a much more relatable character. By the end of the series, I had grown quite fond of Kirito and his friends.

The game world itself is quite cleverly created. It doesn’t have any magic in it for two reasons, the first, to make life more deadly and two, so that a person’s talent with a blade (and timing in the use of their powers) is paramount. Because it is virtual reality, the players are genuinely learning to sword fight. It’s a cool idea and I can imagine people actually wanting to play it.

Elsa couldn't be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Elsa couldn’t be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Consequently, the battles are big focus of the show and they are very well done. Obviously the animation is quite a bit better than what we are used to in current MMOs but it does evoke the feeling that they are in a complex, futuristic game but a believable one.

There is a major issue with the narrative in SAO. The story takes a random turn and I really didn’t like it. It comes right out of left field and I think the reason why I don’t like it, is because it offends my Western sense of narrative. However, the story doesn’t actually end there and goes off in another tangent (almost like half way through, they are told they have more episodes, so they tack on second storyline) but it is all tied together in the end with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess there is a payoff to the random choice in the story. Maybe?

Beyond that, the show doesn’t really stand out. The primary selling point is its main conceit. If you have played MMOs, you’ll get it and I think you’ll enjoy it. If not, the animation isn’t particularly exceptionally, nor is the plot or anything else about it. It lives and dies by the sword art online.

TL:DR “Sword Art Online is an animé about people stuck in the Matrix (if the Matrix was made by Blizzard). While entertaining, the only thing which makes it stand out is its conceit. If you don’t like that, give it a miss.”

Death Note (2006)

death-note-cartoon-image

I’ve had a long break away from watching animé for no real reason. Having regained my animé mojo, I have been chasing recommendations for shows I’d enjoy. One of the regular recommendations was Death Note. Seeing it was on Netflix, I decided to give it a try.

It’s an old series now (and has been succeeded by numerous live action movies in JP) but as a major US live action version is forthcoming, I’ll avoid any out and out spoilers.

The show is about Light Yagami, a Japanese collegiate, who finds a Death Note lying on the floor. That is, literally the notebook of a shinigami, a Japanese spirit of death.

Inside the cover of the notebook are the rules on how to use the book: essentially, write someone’s name in it while picturing their face in your mind and they will die of a heart attack within 40 seconds.

Light experiments with it (because having a magic killer diary would be awesome?) and confirms that it is genuine…

He really likes Granny Smiths.

He really likes Granny Smiths.

Any human who uses a Death Note can now see the usually invisible shinigami. Light notices Ryuk, the spirit who left the notebook for someone to find, which is when Light learns the rest of the rules governing the Death Notes. After which he goes on a killing spree, targeting criminals.

This of course garners the attention of the Police who, having little to go on beyond “Someone is clearly killing criminals”, bring in the world’s number one private investigator, “L”. Thus begins the main thrust of the show: two people with the level of intellect which only exists in fiction in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

And it’s brilliant.

To start with, the show does not ignore the questionable morality of whether it is right to murder criminals and murderers, i.e. capital punishment. Good people fall on both sides of the divide and no definitive answer is given within the show. A quick Google search reveals that Japan has the death penalty for treason and homicide but has increasingly fallen out of favour in more recent years.

As the show is seen through the eyes of Light, it also examines his character (and to be frank, he must have a very fragile psyche, as any time he has the notebook, he swings from lawful good to lawful evil in a heartbeat). It transpires that Light is in the same high-functioning sociopath genius club as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

He seems highly moral, with a strong sense of justice, which of course is why he believes killing criminals is his duty. As “L” states himself, this is a very facile way of looking at the world. Light even starts to conceive of himself as the “God of the New World”.

While Light is obviously highly educated and highly intelligent, his long term plan seems to be;

  1. Kill all criminals
  2. ???
  3. Become God of the New World

Presumably there is a lot of detail in step 2 which is never revealed (though judging how dark Light goes, it involves the threat of death by diary and lots of it). Whether this is a fault in the writing or intentional is unclear. I tend to err on the side that he had a plan but got caught up in trying the cat and mouse game with “L”.

And it is that cat and mouse game which makes up the bulk of the action.

light-l

Quickly, “L” learns that the person murdering criminals is in Japan, has access to Police information (Light’s father is the Deputy Director for the Police in the area) and clearly has a childlike view of justice. This rapidly profiles the murderer, narrowing the suspects.

As the killer can literally kill with a name a photograph, an anonymous team of specialists, led by “L”, with fake identities and cover stories is created to investigate the suspects. The world names the unknown murderer “Kira” (a play on the Japanese pronunciation on the English word, “Killer”) and so begins the battle between L and Kira.

And it is extremely well written. This is ostensibly a character driven morality play between the two of them and it is absolutely dripping with characterisation (just check out the write up on Light Yagami on TV Tropes to see just how detailed it is).

Alone, that couldn’t keep a story going for 37 episodes, so how “L” figures things out and how Light only just manages to stay one step ahead of “L” is as equally well written. In fact, largely because Light is making things up as he goes along (and isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is), is how he keeps “L” on his case, despite the fact he has no real tangible evidence, motive or method for Kira’s activities.

It isn’t all as one sided as it sounds, though. Light frequently outwits everyone with plans within plans. There are times when Light has convinced everyone he is not Kira save for “L”, who despite evidence to the contrary, refuses to believe otherwise for no reason other than he’s the only one who fits the profile. The writing is extremely clever at times and I can safely say that there is no point where anything seemed too convenient or impossible to have planned for (despite more than one of Light’s plans being based entirely on the successes of his own investigators).

I do have one criticism, however. One problem I find with JP narrative is that they have tendency to stretch things out or go off on wild tangents (Sword Art Online suffers with this really badly but does manage to bring it together at the end). Death Note is no exception: I’m sure that this could have been reduced by 10 to 15 episodes and would have been stronger for it.

DeathnoteBig

The ending is really, really good. Which is highly unusual for most animé (my understanding of JP story structure is that they are less concerned with the destination and more with the journey, hence the endings generally suck by Western standards). I am reliably informed that the live action movie, while apparently not as good as the series, does have a stronger ending. Having read the summary, I can agree with that in principle.

Obviously, this is an animated series and the style employed varies wildly from studio to studio. It’s a subjective matter (for instance, as much as I liked Fafner, I did struggle with the weird ‘whiskers’ that were drawn on some characters) and sometimes can be off putting. The animation is fairly realistic here (there aren’t any random penguins in it or overly cute girls with massive eyes and bright pink hair) and is very consistent.

One thing which was particularly impressive was the score. The music is definitely in the rock camp, very atmospheric and of high quality. Some of the music sways from alternative rock to straight up heavy metal (some of it sounds like it could have been made by the JP version of System of a Down). It really suits the show.

As awesome as this show is, I can’t resolve is the idea that it is 37 episodes long. It doesn’t need to be that long and at times, I did feel that the show needed to get on with it. If it weren’t for the sheer unnecessary length, I would have no problem recommending this to non-animé fans.

TL:DR “Death Note is a brilliant, character driven drama about a game of cat and mouse between two dysfunctional intellectuals. Probably a bit overlong but definitely worth your time.”

Posted in TV.

Attack On Titan (2013)

"Can I interest you in a copy of the Watchtower?"

“Can I interest you in a copy of the Watchtower?”

Like most 30-something Westerners, my first experience of animé was Battle of the Planets, a very heavily edited and dubbed version of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. If you are from America, you are just as likely to have seen Star Blazers, another re-dubbed Japanese animé originally called Space Battleship Yamato. Not that any of us knew this at the time.

In the United Kingdom, we had very limited access to such imports. Aside from the occasional random video in the video rental shop, we could only see the very small amount of programmes dubbed for TV. Oddly, these programmes ranged from the European/Japanese co-productions of classic European stories, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold to Laputa: Castle In The Sky (the first film from the now very famous Studio Ghibli).

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Channel 4 took an interest in the genre, that the UK started to see more sophisticated and adult animé outside of expensive imports. Satellite channels, like FOX Kids, also broadcast dubbed TV series. Later, several companies, like AD Vision and MANGA, started offering official releases of movies and TV series (the latter, usually a measly 2 episodes a VHS tape). That’s when we got to see things like Akira, Patlabor, Ghost In The Shell, Guyver, Tenchi Muyo!, Gundam Wing, Serial Experiments Lain, and the seminal, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Believe it or not, this is actually a review of Attack On Titan.

Believe it or not, this is actually a review of Attack On Titan.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was game-changing. It was immensely well written, sophisticated with exceptional animation. Unsurprisingly, it was extremely well received both in Japan and the international market. It was a deconstruction of so many tropes of the ‘giant robot’ genre of animé (children piloting giant robots, which are the only defence against a giant monstrous enemy) and it was truly excellent. It borrows Judeo-Christian themes and ideas, which, seen through the eyes of a non-Judeo-Christian lens, adds a sense of uniqueness to the show.

It was a phenomenon which continues today, nearly 20 years later (a third film in a new series of ‘rebuilds’ just having been released).

The reason for that rather long introduction is because I wanted to establish that I’ve been fan of animé since the very early 80s and, while I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s out there, I’ve seen a fair amount over the years. That’s why I feel I can say that in this post-Evangelion world, Attack On Titan is close to being another game-changer.

"This is why we should be working on giant robot technology right now."

“This is why we should be working on giant robot technology right now.”

 

Attack On Titan is a riff on the giant robot genre, however, here, it asks the question: how would we deal with the traditional giant monsters of that genre if we didn’t have access to the technology to combat them?

Usually, in that genre, there are giant robots or monsters or some reason for the protagonists to pilot giant mechanised robotic vehicles to combat them. Sometimes it just happens that mecha is the pinnacle military technology but other times, as in Evangelion, form follows application. In Attack On Titan, they have nothing larger than a traditional cannon to fight the titular bad guys which forces the defenders to be creative…

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the show, as part of the entertainment is learning as you go along. Suffice to say, none of what happens is what you think based on my précis. Plus there are plenty of twists and turns in the action, particularly how they deal with a society on the verge of collapse while surrounded by giant monsters who want to eat you whole. It’s really well written and I’ve adopted one of the show’s sayings as a personal motto.

One of the things about this show which sets it apart from others is just how brutal it is. People die. A lot. And while it is bloody and gory, it never feels gratuitous because the setting is just that macabre.

And it’s not just the monsters but the citizens themselves. From civilians desperate to escape (and just how desperation can drive a person to do terrible things) to authority figures having to make some pretty brutal decisions to how people can be quick to take advantage of others. This is not an uplifting or endearing show. It is unforgiving, harsh and utterly enthralling.

The closest show I can think of in terms of themes is the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Both try to have a sense of realism in an unrealistic setting. Both follow a group of humans somehow trying to eke out an existence with limited resources and even more limited capacity to be humane. Both face bleak prospects with little hope of success. So if you liked Battlestar and like animation, you’ll probably like Attack On Titan too.

As always in most (animé) series, there are a number of mysteries to be uncovered in Attack On Titan. Unlike a lot of other shows which hold back mysteries, they are revealed in a timely fashion and new questions are raised. This is extremely refreshing after sitting through the likes of Fafner In The Azure (which I thoroughly enjoyed but they held their cards close to their chest long enough for it to get boring) and, dare I say it, Lost. Shows which hang on raising questions and drip feeding the answers need to take a lesson from Attack On Titan (on how to do it). And maybe Lost (on how not to).

Suffice to say, series one ends on a cliff-hanger which was as frustrating as it was brilliant, that is, very.

TL:DR “Attack On Titan is a brutal show about people surviving on the edge of a knife. It has layers like an onion which are peeled at exactly the right rate. This is an important show.

Renegade: Opening credits, in appreciation of

Opening credits are special. The art of the opening credits has expanded exponentially since the standard of simple title cards with an orchestral accompaniment in the formative days of cinema. A major change with the advent of developing technologies and heightened creativity was the addition of imagery behind or interspersed with the text to give a contextual idea of the programme it precedes. Jean Cocteau would prove ahead of his time with his technically smart credits to La Belle et la Bête in 1946 and by the 60s major studios and directors would develop these techniques further as The Pink Panther (1963) did with such ingenuity by featuring a cartoon pink panther (rather than the precious stone in the film) comically evading the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. Television shows would also follow this loud new format too, think I Dream of Jeannie or Bewitched. This style would be known as the ‘title sequence’.

 Directors would also play with having the credits over an opening scene or a prologue. Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) follows a mysterious man dragging a coffin along a dirt track while blood red fonts appear, lingering fiendishly over the solemn imagery giving the nihilistic impression of the death to come. More recently Jason Reitman would utilise a minimalist, retro sequence of beautifully measured aerial shots in-between clouds and of roaming American landscapes that wipe and sweep from one image to the next for his 2009 film, Up in the Air.

I love a good opening credits or title sequence, obviously I can’t list every single one here that’s given me a tingle or I’d bore you to tears but the cold simplicity of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s title cards throughout his canon to David Fincher’s brash cut-ups in Se7en (1995) to the epic nostalgia of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and the haunting and actually quite distressing credits for The Innocents (1961) are just a few examples of how opening credits have been utilised to increase the holistic impact of the feature.

This leads me nicely into my personal favourite introduction for any moving image, and the whole reason for this article, Renegade. For the uninformed, Renegade was a television show created by the tireless Stephen J. Cannell that ran for 5 seasons from 1992 to 1997.

Reno

Despite being dyslexic, Cannell was an exceptionally prolific writer creating (or co-creating) nearly 40 shows including The Greatest American Hero (which is rumoured to be getting the reboot treatment), Silk Stalkings and The Commish but is perhaps most famous for The A-Team and 21 Jump Street which both now have big screen adaptations. Sadly he passed away in 2010 so hasn’t been able to witness the success of these. If you don’t recognise his name but have seen any of these shows you’ll recognise him as the guy at the typewriter, post-credits, who throws the sheet of paper into the air, an iconic image from many an 80s childhood, that.

Renegade was Cannell’s modern update of the Lone Ranger and Tonto stories and starred Lorenzo Lamas (now Lorenzo Lamas-Craig after taking his fifth wife’s surname, who incidentally is younger than his eldest daughter) as Reno Raines, the eponymous renegade, and Branscombe Richmond as his friend & Native American sidekick, the wonderfully named, Bobby Sixkiller. Cannell himself would play series antagonist and all-round bad egg, Lt. Donald ‘Dutch’ Dixon, one of the best, most ruthless and nastiest small screen baddies you’ll ever encounter and Cannell pulled it off, the guy had acting chops.

Dutch-gun

The set-up sees a police officer, Reno, and his girlfriend, Val, disturbed by Hog Adams (Donald Gibb), a known felon whose intent is to murder Reno but he misses and shoots Val instead, putting her in a coma. The instigator of the would-be murder, crooked cop, Lt. ‘Buzzy’ Barrell (Art La Fleur) arrives on the scene only to be shot and killed by Dixon who seizes the opportunity to frame Reno for the murder and therefore sets into motion the multi-talented Mr. Raines’ new life on the road as a renegade.

The show spanned 110 episodes across those 5 seasons so there was plenty of opportunity to explore Reno’s life on the road in either canonical or random one-off stories. The continuity stuff usually involved Dutch and his lackey, Sgt. Woody Bickford (played by real-life detective Ron Johnson) going to extreme lengths to incarcerate Reno. In episode 1.1 ‘Renegade’ they hire Sixkiller Enterprises, Bobby’s bounty hunting firm, to make the capture but after he does, Bobby hears the true story, believes his bounty and they conspire to turn the tables on the unscrupulous Dixon. Incidentally, Reno takes a position as a bounty hunter at Bobby’s firm under the alias of Vince Black. Then there’s the labyrinthine 3 parter to open season 3 in which Dixon & Bickford lay a series of intricate traps which bear fruit but ultimately Reno rides off into the sunset again after a successful prison break in episode 3.3 ‘Escape’.

6killer-ent

Some of the earlier non-canonical episodes were real show highlights usually always resulting in Reno learning a new skill or the audience learning that he already worked in whatever trade features in the particular episode in his younger years. For instance episode 1.8 ‘Payback’ sees Reno’s friend Phil Fondacaro (Land of the Dead) murdered by Jesse Ventura (The Running Man) so Reno goes undercover as a ranch hand to flush Ventura out and claim revenge. Episode 3.8 ‘Black Wind’ sees Reno help out his former sensei track down a dangerous pupil who has gone rogue so he trains and becomes a black belt in a new discipline and in episode 1.11 ‘Lyon’s Roar’ we discover Reno was once a Ranger when he is challenged to a game of survival by an ex-colleague who is now a drug-addled psychotic and has tied Bobby to an exploding toilet to ensure our hero’s participation.

These examples give you an idea how the show would take itself seriously, especially when dealing with the main narrative, but couldn’t help be tongue in cheek. The casting of Lamas, a B-movie action lead, and of Richmond, a television actor who has had small roles in Commando, Batman Returns and The Scorpion King, was perfect in setting the contrasting tone as they strike up a great partnership and have a distinct chemistry that fizzes as the crux of the show.

B6K

Lamas himself I find fascinating as he’s not a natural at the acting game and his delivery is slower than my brain after a night on the gin, and he walks around in fluorescent 90s shirts or bare-chested underneath a leather waistcoat, not to mention riding his Harley without a helmet on but I can’t help but like him. He has an inane charisma, you want him to succeed and I find myself yearning for him to clear his name but he keeps getting sidetracked by small town criminals and by many a damsel in distress who often challenge his love for Val. He gets really wholesome lines which he says through his teeth like ‘Being a cop is in my DNA, like dark hair and green eyes’ and (talking about his mother to his long lost brother and brainwashed cage-fighter, Mitch (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid)) ‘She had a shock of red hair and a knockout smile. She loved ya, Mitch’. He just seems to be a really likeable guy or maybe it’s just the hair. Oh the incredible hair.

Talking of incredible hair, no matter how good Lamas’s mullet is, he’s got nothing on Branscombe Richmond. In fact Richmond’s barnet is more of a mane and I’m sure it has its own trailer and wardrobe department, it’s seriously one of the highlights of the whole show. Anyway, hair aside, Sixkiller provides the perfect foil to Reno’s often inwardly philosophical ramblings by acting as the comic relief or the shoulder to burden his many woes on. His cheerful demeanour hides a strong man and true friend to our man-on-the-lam and his other concern is his sister, Cheyenne, played by then Mrs. Lamas, Kathleen Kinmont. Lamas would eventually divorce Kinmont during the show which saw her part heavily reduced then cut altogether.

Reno-tat

As with many hit television shows, Renegade was a draw to a plethora of guest stars including, amongst others, Jackie Earle Haley, James Cromwell, L. Q. Jones, Tiny Lister, Kano and Shang Tsung from the Mortal Kombat movie, Don Swayze, Charles Napier and Johnny Cash, who guest starred in a bizarre Renegade re-telling of It’s a Wonderful Life where Cash showed Reno what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born. Terrible of course.

Like Deadwood, Renegade was another behemoth of a show to be axed before its conclusion but unlike Deadwood the lead actor returned for shooting after the post-season break with a freshly shorn head, so, what with Reno’s hair being a major part of his character, he donned a hairpiece for what would be the show’s final season as it wasn’t soon after this that everyone involved noticed that the shark was mid-jump and they quietly decided to call it a day.

Anyway, I hope that’s all gone some way to setting the tone of the show as now we’ll look at the opening credits and then I’ll break it down and explain why it’s brilliant.

First we hear the rumble of the approaching Harley, silhouetted and driving toward the camera ahead of the gorgeous red orb in the sky, then the greatest introduction ever growls the premise in broad strokes-

‘He was a good and good at his job but he committed the ultimate sin and testified against other cops, gone bad. Cops that tried to kill him but got the woman he loved instead. Framed for murder, now he prowls the badlands, an outlaw hunting outlaws. A bounty hunter. A Renegade.’

With the last two words the backdrop changes to smoke with the Renegade logo flashing through bold as brass, reminiscent of the deep south USA with its metallic eagle snarling at its prey and Mike Post’s energetic theme song kicks in. Reno then bursts through the smoke on his wheels and we’re taken straight to the open road giving the impression that that’s where he’ll be spending a lot of his time. The action doesn’t let up there though, thanks to some quick editing we see Reno wield a huge rifle and pop off a round before cutting to an image of him kicking a door open. More impressions given here, this time that the show is going to be action packed and I’ll talk about the significance of the kick later because right now we’ve already cut to a helicopter chasing Reno, clad in his leather waistcoat as he runs to his next adventure.

This next shot is interesting as it juxtaposes officer Reno Raines with his alter-ego, Vince Black before more quick cutting from a close-up of his smouldering eyes to a metal embossed imprint of the word ‘framed’, because that’s what he’s been, to his mugshot from the wanted poster, which he hides in a saddlebag on his bike. He’s then chased by police dogs and another wanted note goes up in flames to signify he’ll fight like an angry inferno to prove his innocence. There’s more running and a slow motion jump, then a beautiful woman, as the show often turns these up, then there’s a break for a couple of seconds as Reno kicks a man coming up behind on a flight of stairs. I touched upon the kick earlier and it’s important as his signature, and strongest, move is his kick, affectionately dubbed ‘The Reno Kick’ (by me anyway). He uses this to kick down a prison wall early in season one.

After another quick shot of the beautiful woman we return to the stairs where Reno takes down a felon in front of him with an impressive right hook to the jaw, he will often take down more than one opponent at a time in the show. No letting up though as a pistol chamber spins, much like Reno’s wheel of fate then he’s back on his motorcycle, hair flowing in the wind. A look to the camera and another quick fight later brings us to Reno cooling himself down by pouring a tub of water over his exposed torso while leaning against his treasured Harley, incidentally the bike does actually belong to Lorenzo Lamas and is one of his most prized possessions. After another nifty cut from a fight and a dog barking we arrive at his credit and what a shot this is. The camera lingers on our man as he takes an extended glance toward it while wearing a subtle blue shirt on his back and a pout on his face. Then he’s off again, this time down ‘Z’ road and up some stairs to wield a sidearm and check his reflection on a broken shard of glass, then he enjoys another bare-chested refreshment break before a lady poses on a window ledge.

From all this we gather Reno’s a complicated man. Okay he’s strong, 90s good looking and he likes gun play and beautiful women but he’s oppressed, his freedom has been snatched away from him thus making him the underdog and a sympathetic character for us to believe in and boy does he fight the good fight.

Okay, now things get interesting as you’ll notice the music changes key and almost genres as we’re introduced with a bang to Bobby Sixkiller. He evades a baseball bat swung at his temple and delivers a counter punch to his attacker’s midriff then he shows us his lighter side by pretending to shake a man’s hand but pulling away and chuckling at the gag. Oh Bobby you joker. Similar to Reno’s earlier juxtaposition we get one here for Bobby too when we see him as a cool guy with shades on (the best pair of sunglasses he wore were some chunky, colourful Nikes in episode 2.9 ‘Wheel Man’ where Reno becomes a race car driver) compared to his spiritual side which is explored more in episode 1.7 ‘Eye of the Storm’ where he helps Reno take down some prison escapees by getting more attuned to his ancestor’s beliefs. By the way, if you were wondering, Bobby’s special move is the clothesline.

After Bobby comes Kathleen Kinmont but she doesn’t really do much other than look at the camera and stand near some flowers which is a pretty fair representation of her input to the show. Okay, she did some sleuthing early on when she was still on speaking terms with Lamas but in the later seasons she was all but sidelined. Interestingly after season one this was changed slightly as Bobby’s Hummer (which was introduced in season 2, he would drive a huge Winnebago in season 1) was added but Kinmont would come first and Richmond’s title card was changed from ‘Branscombe Richmond’ to ‘and Branscombe Richmond as Bobby Sixkiller’.

Then we’re back to some quick cuts of Reno running, fighting, training, jumping from a great height, doing a roundhouse kick and swinging on a rope while firing another rifle. Then there’s a rattlesnake which is symbolic of the show’s unpredictability as its tongue hisses and its tail rattles angrily and intently ready to strike at anyone or anything in range. The sequence then draws to a close as it started with Reno riding off into the sunset ready to fight off all that comes his way tomorrow. Most episodes end like this too.

Well there it is, a magnificent specimen I’m sure you’ll agree and also a wonderful, and even wistful, look back at 90s television programming, it was loud, proud, brash, colourful, silly, romantic, action-packed, carefree and many other things in excess just like the decade it came from. Then with the 2000s more serious and downright brilliant shows courtesy of HBO were developed and from there the quality of television has snowballed to such an extent that a show such as Renegade is now consigned to a bygone era but no matter how cinematic modern TV is these new shows will never have the spine-tingling impact of that rumbling engine prowling those California roads.

– Greg Foster

The Crow Road (1996, TV)

It was a sad day at my house when the news of Iain Banks’ death came out. A brilliant author, and a really decent fella, who almost ruined my second year at Uni – I discovered him and spent most of a term reading everything he’d written up to that point, rather than course-books. I had very fond memories of the 1996 TV mini-series based on “The Crow Road”, so I decided to watch it again, introducing my wife to it in the process.

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“The Crow Road” is three stories in one – the gradual coming-of-age of Prentice McHoan, and his struggles with love and a family of oddballs; a murder-mystery about the death of Prentice’s Uncle Rory seven years previously; and flashbacks to Rory’s life, framed as Prentice discovering his Uncle’s papers and piecing together his sort-of autobiography. They intertwine, and the way they don’t exactly come together but inform and enrich your understanding of the other strands of the story is one of the great things about both the book and the show.

I’m getting ahead of the show, though. Joe McFadden, who slipped into early-evening family drama roles after this, it seems, plays Prentice, a student at Glasgow University who is brought back to his family’s home village of Gallanach thanks to the death of his grandmother. He’s fallen out with his father, the sternly socialist and atheist Kenneth, played absolutely brilliantly by Bill Paterson. Prentice at the start of the story sort-of believes in God, and this tension between the two drives some clever and philosophical discussions between the two of them and other characters; Kenneth’s brother Hamish is in a Christian sect with only one member (himself) and their brother-in-law Fergus is the Laird of the local castle. Their sister, married to Fergus, died in a car crash years previously, before the disappearance of Uncle Rory. Prentice becomes interested in Rory’s life after being given some papers by Rory’s ex Janice.

That seems like a lot of information to take in, but the show does it beautifully. There’s a flashback inside a flashback in the first ten minutes of the show, and all the performances are note-perfect, with two unfortunate exception. Verity, the object of his desires in the first few episodes, never gives any indication why she so bewitches Prentice and is a bit of a non-character, as things go (she’s really there to drive a wedge between Prentice and his brother Lewis, a successful standup played by Dougray Scott before Hollywood came calling). And then there’s his best friend Ashley, played by Valerie Edmond. I had such an enormous crush on her when I first watched this – she’s beautiful, funny, independent, passionate, and clever (okay, I still have quite a large crush on her). The problem is, she’s really struggling to act in some of the scenes. It feels like she’s reading dialogue from a book rather than acting it, and while it’s not that bad, and may have been a deliberate choice – a naturalistic performance to counterpoint the high emotions on show from the rest of the cast – it’s weirdly out of place.

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If my gushing wasn’t obvious, I love this show. A lot of the heavy lifting was done by the book, one of those times when you’re the perfect age to discover a book for the first time. I was about the same age and doing the same thing as Prentice when I first read this – although my family have fewer murderous secrets, and I don’t live in beautifully picturesque Scotland. When I first watched it, my sympathies were more with him than with his Dad, but as I age and capitalism gets worse and worse for the daily lives of us all, Kenneth becomes more sympathetic. Normally, I’d be upset that merely ageing could change my mind on something, but this show is rich enough that it supports both the teenage me and the late-30s me.

Debate was inspired, and the four hours of the show flew by. I hope it’ll be as well regarded in another 20 years, as it deserves to be. One of the genuine classics of 1990s TV. Oh, and Iain Banks thought it was better than the book in lots of places, and given  he didn’t shower any of the other adaptations of his with the same praise, I think it’s safe to say he liked this one.

The Crow Road on IMDB
Buy The Crow Road [DVD]
Read The Crow Road

TV – “Twitch City” (1998 – 2000)

A TV series? Don’t worry, we won’t do it very often (or ever again, I suppose). Still, we can now have an extra section for TV reviews and get all those sweet page hits that come from this pop culture business.

And to show how finger-on-the-pulse I am, it’s a Canadian show from the late 90s that looks like it was filmed with the world’s worst colour filter!

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“Twitch City” is a show about being young-ish, and living in scummy rented accommodation with people who you wouldn’t give the time of day to in your 30s. It manages this job better than just about any other show on the subject you could care to name – the recent UK series “Fresh Meat”, while admittedly about university, not the young unemployed/unemployable, can’t come close to this. And it was created by one of the Kids In The Hall, one of my favourite sketch comedy troupes ever!

Curtis is a bit of a shut-in, and spends most of his time watching TV, specifically the Rex Reilly Show, a Jerry Springer-like show presented by Bruce McDonald and Mark McKinney, both former Kids In The Hall, playing the same character (the difference being explained by a cranial transplant, brilliantly). Hope moves in, complete with a distant sort-of boyfriend, and the show becomes the two of them living their lives, trying to get people to move into the spare room, attending Nazi rallies (well, one Nazi rally) and so on.

Callum Keith Rennie, one of my favourite actors, brilliant in Due South, Californication and Battlestar Galactica, makes regular appearances as Newbie, who is that guy you all know, who knows a bit about everything and is just…around. He makes a lot out of a little too.

TV can be a bit ephemeral, and unless it gets established in the pantheon of great shows quickly it can sink out of the public eye completely. That goes double for shows like Twitch City, which probably belongs in the same group as that weirdass “sitcom” David Lynch made at one end, and “Peep Show” at the other.

Series 1 was broadcast in 1998, and series 2 in 2000. I’m a big fan of Kids in the Hall, but I’d never heard of it until recently (and am not sure of how I first heard about it, either). It’s available on DVD, and there’s probably a load of it on Youtube too. Move in with Curtis and Hope, why don’t you? Actually, don’t, their spare room is tiny and you’d probably catch something.
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Twitch City on IMDB
Buy Twitch City: Complete Series [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]