Saturday, March 21, 2009

Power Plays

The grand finale of Battlestar Galactica (the end of a three-hour two-parter that we'll just call "Daybreak") was a fine encapsulation of the series' five-year run: superbly acted; exciting in patches; muddled in spots; relatively thought-provoking; a little full of itself. I've been watching near-regularly for the past few years and caught most of the episodes, mainly to see possibly the best ensemble ever assembled -- led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell -- for a sci-fi show. Their performances were among the high-points of "Daybreak," though the most transcendent moment was Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) finally fulfilling her destiny -- as well as the ingenious use of "All Along the Watchtower," a musical motif implemented a couple of seasons ago that reached a climax with its opening few notes becoming the coordinates for the planets in our solar system. I've never been able to take my eyes off Sackhoff, a fascinating actress who always seems to be channeling seven or eight different emotions at once, who always risks looking ridiculous but here concluded her character's arc with some lovely grace notes.

I've been less invested in Battlestar's mythology, especially its more thuddingly literal parallels to our times. Ron Moore, the series creator, has many gifts -- namely knowing how to build a narrative to a satisfying pay-off, as when the Galactica ship rammed into the Cylon stronghold, leading to the Cylons' ultimate defeat. But he doesn't have a figurative knack for interpretation, a sense of poetry. (Unlike Olmos, who also directed a couple of episodes that made evocative use of Catholic imagery, or composer Bear McCreary, whose music was sublime to the end.) Represented no better than by his humans, cylons, and human-cylons, Moore has a way of blending disparate elements that somehow end up exactly the same as their original conception. He's better at building on an already established idea -- such as the cheesy original 70s Galactica -- rather than being a visionary himself.

The crew's discovery of a "new Earth" led to an occasionally rambling denouement that I forgave much the same way as I did the long close of The Return of the King (which another critic has already compared it to). After so much darkness and pain, both characters and viewers earned a lush respite. "Daybreak" offered satisfying closure and a cautious sense of hope -- at least until the finger-wagging preachiness of its final few minutes. I'm given to understand that didacticism goes with the genre, but a show that always made a lot of noise about upending convention would have done better to end simply with the beautiful view from Adama's mount and spare us the subsequent sermon.

There's an episode of The Wire where Stringer Bell, a Baltimore drug kingpin, starts taking college courses and has a thoughtful after-class discussion with an economics professor about how to re-brand a product. That character has now amusingly morphed into Charles Minor, efficiency expert and Michael Scott's new supervisor on The Office. Part of the fun of "New Boss" (the latest episode) was watching the same actor, Idris Elba, embody his current persona in exactly the same way as his former -- imposing, no-nonsense, overcalculating, indignant and ruthless but never angry. It's a toss-up whether Minor's most unsettling moment was when he snapped open the blinds in his office to glare at Jim (who spent the day wearing a tux, for reasons the latter belabored hilariously to explain) or his speech about the company not being immune to the economy, which was so chillingly boilerplate I had already heard it recited almost verbatim by our institution's proverbial CEO a few months ago.

Elba is an inspired casting choice for many reasons, not least of which because Michael (Steve Carell), who oft-quotes The Wire, has always fancied himself a black man trapped in a white man's body. Whereas Darrell (Craig Robinson), the African-American warehouse manager, is content to subtly mock Michael and take advantage of his desperate overtures of friendship, Charles's total rebuff -- taking away Michael's 15th anniversary party, and with that, his dignity -- creates the most intriguing dramatic development on the show in its five seasons. I've always believed that Michael as a character is much more tolerable, sympathetic and interesting when he has something to push against, and he's never had a tougher obstacle than Charles Minor.

The Office is, ultimately, a naturalistic depiction of surrealism, and "New Boss" offered the sensation of watching Stringer Bell spring out of Michael's subconscious. Some have complained about the regular cast behaving out of character for this episode (Jim's verbal floundering, Angela unleashing her passions), but I can excuse uncharacteristic behavior if it's in response to a new element, a form of narrative re-branding. Moreover, Michael's decision to quit (a scene played with touching clarity by Carell that has nonetheless resulted in one of the dumbest debates in IMDb message-board history, no small feat) was completely in sync with what we know about him. He's a child at heart, driving Dunder-Mifflin head-honcho David Wallace (Andy Buckley, whose whimpering just keeps getting funnier) to exasperation. This won't prompt an invitation for The Office's wonderful cast to the United Nations any time soon. Yet none of the socio-political-spiritual profundities on Battlestar Galactica have ever led me to ponder the mysteries of the universe -- or laugh harder -- more than the effortless brilliance of Michael's observation: "I thrive under a lack of accountability."

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