Saturday, November 6, 2010

Caprica: RIP

So you might have guessed, from my taste in funnybooks, that I was a big fan of Battlestar Galactica. Or you might not have ever given it any thought; lord knows I wouldn’t have if I were you. Regardless, though, my love of Galactica carried over to its bastard offspring, Caprica, which has recently been cancelled. Now, the writing’s been on the wall for that cancellation since the spring season wrapped. Ratings weren’t good, and they didn’t get any better when the show resumed in the fall. So we’re left to wonder why. It would be easy to blame sci-fi fanboys’ obsession with action-adventure material, something the deeply character-based Caprica lacked. But that’s too easy an answer, and so tonight I’d like to take a look at the show and what, exactly, might have gone wrong.

But maybe I‘d better outline why I like it so much first. Essentially, I just appreciate the sheer raw quality of it. Caprica, even moreso than Galactica before it, offers up a cast of complicated and deeply-flawed characters that I love to watch. The best example of this is probably Eric Stoltz’ Daniel Graystone. Arguably the series’ central figure, Graystone is the creator of the Cylons. He’s a driven visionary, a scientific artist and hyper-successful Type-A businessman. His genius and magnetic personality make me want to like the guy, even though he’s also arrogant and unthinking, and possessed of a ruthless practicality that drives him to intellectual (and literal) theft. I’m left riveted by him as he slowly learns that he’s not as good a person as he thinks he is. It’s a great look at the making of a villain, and one that keeps him more relatable than (though not as much fun as) JR Ewing.

Which brings us to the “Dallas” thing. Caprica was conceived as a science fiction family drama. In other words, a sci-fi nighttime soap opera. Or in yet still other words… Dallas in space. Robots instead of oil. Virtual reality addiction instead of alcoholism. But otherwise… pretty much the same thing. Now, times being what they are, Caprica was also conceived as the “quality drama” version of the nighttime soap. So the leering villains and bitchy heiresses have more depth, and the moral dilemmas are shaded with gray. I dig this aspect of the show, too. TV sci-fi (hell, sci-fi in general) doesn’t often venture into the realm of character-driven drama, where emotions are as important as plot, and character motivation isn’t always spelled out or easily-explained.

But Caprica jumps in with both feet and handles it well. Going back to the Greystone family for example, we have Daniel’s daughter Zoe, who’s a real piece of work. Raised by loving but neglectful parents, Zoe craves her father’s attention so much that she creates an AI program more advanced than anything he’s capable of (which he promptly steals as the basis for the Cylon brain). And her relationship with her mother, Amanda, is so far gone that she joins a monotheist cult out of disgust. Zoe’s motivations unfold over the course of the season, difficult to discern clearly because she dies in the pilot episode, but slowly revealed through the AI copy she made of herself. Until finally it hit me that the show’s major storylines, these things that so many grown men and women are willing to fight and die for, are only important to the story because of the pained and spiteful lashing-out of a petulant (if brilliant) teenage girl rebelling against her parents. Heh.

Though far from perfect, Caprica is for the most part a polished piece of dramatic writing, filled with complex and conflicted characters moving through a well-imagined, interesting, and most important of all relatable, science fiction culture. It’s well-written and -acted, has an interesting look and feel, and is directed with style and flair. It’s just damn good television.

So why did it fail?

Well, for one thing, sci-fi fanboys (much like funnybook fanboys) seem resistant to things that don’t feature enough running and hitting. Yeah, yeah, I know what I said in the intro. But, hey. Just because that’s not the only thing that went wrong doesn’t mean it’s not a contributing factor.

It’s also not entirely fair of me. While I’m sure the lack of action hurt the show in the ratings, I don’t think that all sci-fi fans need action, necessarily. It’s more that they’re accustomed to shows that are more plot-driven, and Caprica’s character-based soap opera template doesn’t work that way. The biggest criticism I heard of the show, again and again, was that it was too slow, that nothing was happening. Which confused the hell out of me at first. Because I felt like all kinds of stuff was happening, all the damn time. I was riveted by it, and I just didn’t get how anyone could say that it was moving slowly. But the things I was thrilling to didn’t involve much in the way of physical action or plot movement. It was all character moments, or corporate/political/religious stuff. Intrigue and interpersonal pyrotechnics. Which, for me, count as “things happening,” but apparently don’t for an audience trained by Star Trek, Stargate or even Galactica.

This is not to say that the show moves briskly. It doesn’t. It takes its time setting up the characters and the world they live in, and moves the various plots along at a deliberate pace. There’s not necessarily a major event in each episode, but I always feel that the combined weight of the numerous smaller moments gives the show a nice heft every week. And when big things do happen, the build-up makes them that much more explosive. That’s the kind of writing that makes shows like Deadwood beloved favorites. But in sci-fi, it evidently doesn’t fly.

Not that I’m saying Caprica is as good as Deadwood. Because, frankly, it’s not. While I think both shows do a nice job of immersing the viewer in a different culture, and of presenting complex characters in interesting situations, there’s a vitality to Deadwood that Caprica never matches. As complex and realistic as Daniel Graystone is, for instance, he doesn‘t quite feel alive. He’s multi-faceted, but there‘s not enough blood in him, somehow. And he’s not alone in that: Caprica is a complicated and at times fairly cerebral show, but it feels just a little bit cold. The characters are complex and flawed, but I sometimes feel like they’re being kept at arm’s length from me. I don’t feel their pain so much as I figure it out, like some sort of emotional detective story.

Now, I think that’s entirely intentional, a commentary on the dysfunctional relationships the show revolves around. All the major characters keep things close to their chests, and the misunderstandings and secrets that arise from that habit are the source of the show’s drama. So it’s only appropriate that the viewer has to figure those things out along with the cast. That’s interesting as an intellectual exercise, and is exactly the sort of work I enjoy doing as a consumer of fiction. But it isn’t as viscerally satisfying as it might be, and I can see how it might drive viewers away. Shows like (again) Deadwood or The Sopranos dealt with similar dysfunctional characters, but kept them alive by instilling them with a bit of blood and thunder, or interesting quirks that satisfied the voyeuristic side of the audience. Caprica doesn’t do that, and thus feels a bit cold.

Granted, the comparisons I’m making here put the show in pretty rarified company. I mean, “not as good as Deadwood” isn’t much of a criticism. That’s like saying something’s not as good as Shakespeare. But, still. Any fiction that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, or at least present a viscerally-entertaining surface, isn’t going to attract the mass audience that just wants a little simple escapism. And Caprica certainly failed to attract that audience in spite of its attempts to do so. Of course, those attempts were pretty piss-poor.

I’m referring here to the side of the show that really drives me, personally, nuts: V-World. Or, to be more accurate, New Cap City. This is a key element of the show, the virtual reality world from which Zoe Graystone developed her AI programming, and the center of some of Caprica’s more vital moral issues. As presented in the pilot, V-World was decadent and dangerous. We were shown the V-Clubs, illegal virtual nightclubs where teens would go to experience any pleasure, perversion, or cheap thrill they wanted, all without any real-world consequences. The V-Club sequences were sensual and disturbing, sweaty sex raves filled with undulating young bodies dancing to a techno beat, punctuated with outbursts of meaningless horrifying violence and human sacrifices put on as performance art.

But perhaps even more disturbing was the appearance of Zoe and her friend Lacey, who looked like smokin’-hot adults in the V-Clubs, only to be revealed as the underage schoolgirls they were when we saw them in reality. That particular transformation was a triumph of the show’s make-up artists, and solidified the swirl of sex and guilt and just plain wrongness the V-Clubs represent. It was brilliant, understated television production, and gave Caprica the visceral edge it’s otherwise missing. Then they had to go and screw it all up.

At some point (specifically, in episode 5), we’re introduced to the V-World computer game New Cap City, and it all goes off the fucking rails. The AI avatar of Joe Adama’s deceased daughter Tamara (created by Daniel and released into V-World by Zoe’s AI avatar) meets up with some V-World gamers and learns about a super-secret part of V-World, accessible only through special hidden backdoors, where the meaningless (but oh-so interesting!) V-Clubs can be left behind in favor of a virtual world with a purpose! A purpose which, it seems, is to figure out and win some kind of complicated gangster video game, the secrets of which are… secret. And… mysterious, and… Uhm… Well, that’s about as far as it goes, really.

Because New Cap City was really, it seems, just a way for them to change the visuals of V-World from something vital and contemporary into something that’s intensely nerdy and annoying. It’s a 1930s gangster pastiche, peppered with airships and antique aircraft, and that sort of faux-industrial-decay look you see in video games like Bioshock. Essentially, it’s zeppelin-punk. Which could be cool if done right, but they took the “video game“ aspect of it too far. Where it should have some verisimilitude, it instead has artificiality. The extras look like players from somebody’s Call of Cthulhu LARP, but without all the cool sanity-blasting horror. It seems intended as the visually-captivating aspect of the show, the part with the guns and silly violence that’s supposed to pull in the casual escapist audience. But it’s a poor fit with the realistic documentary style of the rest of the show, and it’s driven me insane from pretty much the second it came on-screen. It hit its nadir, I think, in the final episode broadcast by the Sci-Fi Channel, in which the AI avatars of Zoe and Tamara had a sword fight.

No shit. A sword fight.

They had a bunch of extras. In bad ‘30s dress. Standing around cheering. From a balcony. Above what looked to be some kind of feed silo. Turned into a sand-floored gladiatorial pit. While two teenage hotties. In club clothes. One of them in skin-tight silver pants. Fought with katanas.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! It’s funny, but not in a good way. On a different show, one that wasn’t built on subtle character development and spider-web plotting, that might have been awesome. Hell, if they’d just done it better, it might have still been awesome. As it was, it just came off like a desperate, pandering attempt to draw in people who liked The Matrix. But The Matrix came out 11 years ago, and has been copied endlessly ever since. So I’m sorry, but… No cookie for you! Even the guilty masochism shown by the Zoe avatar in the scene, though a fascinating step for that particular character to take, doesn’t make up for the sheer unadulterated LAME the scene as a whole was made of.

Sigh. What’s even worse about New Cap City is that it’s not just supposed to bring the show exciting visuals. It’s part of Caprica’s on-going theme of decadence. After its mysterious introduction, it swiftly took the V-Clubs’ thematic place as a means for people to indulge their darkest desires. And because of that, I think it’s supposed to have a seedy decadence about it, something that conjures up the feel of Cabaret, or the Threepenny Opera. But it just… doesn‘t. It’s neither opulent nor sleazy enough for that, like the producers pulled back from giving it that extra punch for fear of making anyone uncomfortable. It is, on the whole, entirely too safe, when the whole point of the place is that it’s supposed to feel dangerous. And that, as Yoda said, is why it fails.

As for why Caprica itself failed… Well, I still don’t know the answer to that. I think it was probably a combination of things. I think that, if they’d kept up the edginess of the pilot in the series proper, they might have done better. Edgy attracts attention, after all. That said, I also wonder if the morally-compromised nature of pretty much all the characters might not have hurt it; people do love a clear hero, after all, and Caprica didn‘t have one. And though the intensely character-driven nature of the early episodes gave way to more plot-driven stuff later, it was too late. The audience that wants more plot and action wasn’t going to come back, and the audience that was enjoying the original approach may have been alienated by the change. I know I was a bit dubious of “Action Lacey,” for instance. The New Cap City stuff may have hurt the show as well. I’m sure it had its fans, but honestly… If the Fall season had jumped right back into it, I might have stopped watching.

So… there you go. Regardless of why Caprica failed, I will miss it. It’s been one of the better things on television this year, warts and all. RIP.

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