Corporate reshuffling: A critical review of “Ghosted” season one

In fall 2017, a little program that kinda could came out on Fox called “Ghosted.” While it followed the standard “X-Files” format of having an enthusiastic Mulder and a doubting Scully, it shook things up a big by having those roles respectively played by comics Craig Robinson and Adam Scott. Robinson was former LAPD detective Leory Wright, and Scott was disgraced Stanford physics professor Max Jennifer, both trying to regain their former glory by working at the Bureau Underground, a paranormal wing of the United States government.

The series–of which both Robinson and Scott are executive producers–kicked off with a surprisingly well produced pilot, which featured some truly twisted images, including glow-in-the-dark messages in a storage facility and a zombified factory worker pursuing his screaming head, as well as a funny, albeit now slightly uncomfortable, joke about Kevin Spacey, all covered in a glossy 1980s sheen.

Further episodes featured some fairly freaky set pieces. Episode seven–a send up of ghost hunter TV shows–was set in an abandoned hospital with a doorway to a labyrinthine dimension soaked in murderer-friendly plastic tarp; episode eight centered in part on a girl who refuses to speak after being yanked off an LA area haunted hayride by an invisible force–but she will growl in Latin.

Of course, the show was never supposed to be scary. That was just a delightful side effect. The point was mostly to get Scott and Robinson together on screen so they could play off each other, which they did marvelously well. Their offbeat banter was oddly fitting for a show that dealt with the paranormal, and their relationship was refreshingly simplistic. Not to mention Scott’s efforts at unrequited office romance with Annie, a sarcastic weapons tech played by Amber Stevens West, were relatable. At least I thought they were…

And then, the little show that kinda could stopped after nine episodes, although more were promised. Fox delivered them this summer, and the results are different. This second half–episodes 10 through 16–seems to have caught a case of “The Office.” Symptoms include dry humor and quirky drama, a lot of handheld camera and sudden zooms, and an excessive amount of interior settings.

For the record, Robinson was on the American “Office,” and Scott was on “Parks and Recreation.” Also notably, Kevin Etten–who worked on the comedy-horror TV series “Reaper”–was out as showrunner, and Paul Lieberstein–who worked on an “Office”-esque show called “The Office”–was in. Maybe it was an attempt at sparking interest in the show–there are always a few shows that do things in an “Office” vein. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that the format is much cheaper.

The first few episodes barely left the Bureau Underground’s underground facility and mostly dealt with internal politics given a slight paranormal twist–the commute home takes a dark cast after a psychic’s prediction; an efficiency expert is called in after the existence of aliens is leaked to the public. The first half of the show kept things in the building sometimes, but there was usually a Deep One running around in the air ducts and tearing off people’s faces (episode four).

It’s not until the 14th episode that the boys finally leave the office and possibly see a UFO on the PCH, but the following episode has them investigating a paranormal airplane exclusively at an isolated airport–one location, no monsters and less focus on Robinson and Scott and more on the ensemble cast.

Which isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny any more. There’s still room for quality Hitler jokes, and there’s occasionally even a gag about Los Angeles traffic. It’s still all right, especially when Ally Walker, who returns as a no nonsense superior officer, deadpans or Robinson and Scott get to be alone and do their thing.

And, perhaps trying to keep with the spirit of the first half, underlying each episode is a single narrative thread concerning conspiracy theories, wiretapping and a secret society that might be in touch with the multiverse, but that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of jump scares and set pieces. It was nice to have a funny scare-a-normal show on broadcast television. I can’t remember the last show like that, but “Freaky Links” springs to mind.

The last episode of the first season airs tonight. Presumably it will tie up enough of the conspiracy to keep us involved, but not enough to spoil a second season (one which looks fairly unlikely at this point); it will expand or confound the relationship between Leroy, Max and Annie; and maybe it will get the boys and girls out of the office. It would be another thing entirely if it tosses in some monster hunting, but it certainly would be welcome. Although there is something oddly satisfying about Robinson playing the “Ghostbusters” theme on piano…

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A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 3 “Psyche”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The third episode is a little harder to figured out based on its title, as it’s called “Psyche,” and “psyche” has a long and varied history. In mythology, Psyche was the mortal princess who fell in love with and, eventually, married the god Cupid; in religion and classical philosophy, psyche came to mean the human soul, and in the modern, literate world, it retains that meaning as the human spirit; in Freudian analysis, psyche refers to the totality of the human mind: the id, ego and superego. No doubt one sees the trouble here. “Lain” is just as comfortable borrowing from Freudian analysis as it is from classical religion.

Every meaning of psyche is distinctly human: a human princess who achieves godhood, the soul or mind of an individual. If previous episodes introduced the blurring of the real world with the Wired, then “Psyche” is the episode that starts to blur human identity online and offline. One doesn’t even have to venture into the Wired to ask what is human. Alice asks why her friends are not more shaken up after watching someone shoot himself in the head the previous day.

The character whose humanity is most blurred in Lain’s. This is the first episode that asks who is Lain–the question is asked verbatim (and repeatedly) by a disembodied voice during one of Lain’s visions. Earlier, in the opening scene, the narration that usually covers the ubiquitous shot of a crosswalk is gone. Instead, a cryptic voice waits until we see the chaos exiting Cyberia after the shooting to ask if we have heard of “Lain of the Wired.”

Within the confines of the show’s narrative, psyche refers to a computer processor. However, a droning voice informs us that: “If you look at the Psyche as a mere processor, you lose sight of the whole.” This sounds like gestalt theory, the understanding that a whole is greater or separate from its parts and is perceived like a structured process.

Intriguingly, the second half of the episode opens with a series of disembodied voices communicating about a variety of seemingly unrelated topics–including some that predict events that will occur later in the series. The only visual is of the ubiquitous telephone poles.

This is, in a way, a gestalt way to view the Wired, as a flow of communication that is composed of smaller conversations but is greater than any individual conversations. And, if the references to past and future events in the series is taken into account, it is perhaps a way to view the series as a single process rather than unique episodes. It’s as if the entirety of “Lain” is happening at the same time. This is the psyche, the soul or spirit, of both the Wired and the series at once.

On the smaller scale, when Lain applies the Psyche processor to her Navi, she is installing a spirit or soul, an animating element, to her machine (recalling Darren Aronofsky’s indie debut, the metaphysical thriller “Pi”). Notably, the Psyche does not replace the main processor; Psyche augments the main processor, interpreting the data that flows through it. The soul is not simply the brain. It is an elevated consciousness or meta-self.

Toward the end of the episode, Lain gets an impromptu programming lesson from some younger kids in Cyberia. One boy asks if she is Lain, and reveals that he saw her in the Wired. He says, “Most people take on a personality in the Wired that’s different than what they have in the real world, but yours are total opposites.” He doesn’t say that people are different than who they are but than “what they have.” An identity in the Wired is already understood to be an augmentation of an identity in the real world, if only in passing. The knowledge is there. It’s simply waiting for the proper interpretation.

Perhaps it is important to remember a final meaning of the word “psyche.” The word also meant “butterfly,” which is how the Greeks imagined the soul to appear. No doubt the symbolism of the creature that begins as one thing and transforms into another would not be lost on the authors of “Lain.”

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 2 “Girls”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The second episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Girls,” and the title is significant for a few reasons. The first is a simple matter of subject. Oddly enough, out of all the ways to interpret “Lain,” there does not appear to be a feminist reading lurking around out there. And yet, “Lain” is about a series of female characters coming of age psychologically: The series begins with Chisa committing suicide in order to transcend biological identity; it follows Lain as she expands her consciousness and explores her identity in the virtual world; and its strongest relationship is between Lain and Alice, the latter a student who fulfills herself through a series of female friendships.

But the title of the second episode refers to much more than its central characters. A girl is a young woman, and one of the most curious elements of “Lain” is its juxtaposition of young and old. In the second episode, the club Cyberia is introduced. Although the club is presented as being a hot spot for dancing, drinks and drugs, it caters to children–not only Lain and her peers but younger students as well. In short, Cyberia is a club for women and girls.

Further, the episode is called “Girls,” not “Girl,” and the fact that the title is plural is important. The girls of “Lain” exist as a clique, a demimonde, a unique social reality that exists, like the Wired, within or alongside the larger social reality. It is a reality that Lain has trouble fitting into. The theme of social isolation continues to thread its way through the series as we watch Lain awkwardly attempt to interact with her peers. In the second episode, this is visually illustrated when Lain meets the other girls at school. They stand in a composed group, and opposing shots depict Lain by herself. A “spinning camera” effect is used to cut between these shots, exaggerating the distance between Lain and her classmates.

The two themes of social isolation and old/young juxtaposition come together in a scene in which Lain joins the other girls at the club Cyberia dressed in a floor length skirt, a pink sweater and a ski cap that sports a cartoon bear graphic. This is sharply contrasted with the other girls’ much more mature outfits. Alice, who wears a short skirt and midriff-bearing top, attempts to smooth things over. “We’ll pick out something a little more grown-up for you next time,” she reassures Lain. The girls might all be the same age, but Lain is easily the youngest–at least socially speaking.

However, there is a final permutation of the plural “Girls” to consider. This episode marks the first mention of Lain’s mysterious doppelganger, who is spotted by the girls in Cyberia. As the series continues, it develops the idea that Lain is more than one person. Lain will decide that she exists, at least in part, thanks to the perception and memory of everyone who has encountered her, which means that Lain is both a girl who exists physically and the girls who exist psychologically in the collective consciousness.

This concept is stated both in the vulgar forms of narrative like dialogue and animation, but also in the abstract form of multimedia–there is a different Lain that exists in the anime, the manga and the very cultish (even by “Lain” standards) Playstation game. While there is a psychological continuity between these characters–or between these seemingly disparate versions of the same character–they are purposefully blurred just a bit, so that whichever Lain you’re watching is paradoxically both the one Lain and one of the many Lains. Ultimately, Lain exists in the minds of the characters on screen, the artists who created the characters, the audience that watches those characters and the media that expresses them. This is a concept that is much better stated by Lawrence Eng on the website Thought Experiments Lain.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger allegedly said: “Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” If Lain indeed has more in common with mystics than the average 14-year-old girl, then perhaps the point of the series is that she has transcended death by not dying as a single person but continuing to exist within everyone who is willing to perceive her.

A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode 1 “Weird”

We’re trying something a little different at Idols and Realities this summer. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, the oddly influential series has been given technological readings, psychological readings, existentialist readings and conspiratorial readings. In fact, the only reason there probably haven’t been more analyses of the series is that it’s too small and strange for most critics to have bothered looking.

Well, I think that time has proven I’m not most critics. Each episode of “Lain”–technically they’re called “layers,” which is pretentious as get out, but if anything deserves to take that approach it’s this show–sports a one-word title. Each title provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, we’ll be posting an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole. Don’t worry if this isn’t quite your cup of tea–there will still be other reviews folded in as well. Probably.

The first episode of “Serial Experiments Lain” is called “Weird,” which is as fitting a description for the entire series as ever there was. The word “weird” was used in multiple contemporary reviews of the show. And yet, to call “Lain” weird and leave it at that fails to open up the depths of the series.

Weird itself is more than a weird word. Although it has come to be a synonym for strange, the word originally meant “fate,” as in Shakespeare’s weird sisters who gave Macbeth his damning fortune. From there, the word picked up its supernatural and otherworldly connotation, eventually becoming the word H. P. Lovecraft used in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to describe things that were unexplainable or unknowable, things that made ordinary humans question their perceptions or realities.

The show is weird in every sense of the word from the start. Its name has seemingly little connection to its narrative, and neither does its opening animation, which doesn’t display anything that’s in the series. Instead, it depicts its main character in unusual situations, like trapped inside television sets, ascending escalators or surrounded by flocks of frozen pigeons, images which are backed by a British alt rock song instead of the expected J-pop selection. Also, the phrase that opens each episode–“Present day, present time”–is followed by such a mocking laugh as to make you question whether any of the show happens contemporarily at all.

There are visual oddities as well, introduced in the first episode that will appear throughout the series. The shadows of buildings and the ever present telephone wires are harshly black, and they stand in stark contrast to the minimalistic white of the illuminated outdoors. Combined with splatters of deep red in the shadows–which “The Asian Horror Encyclopedia” compared to blood pools–the environment is given an otherworldly spin.

This other world isn’t a classically supernatural world, however. It is the ubiquitous Wired, the Internet of “Lain’s” reality, itself an anagram of “weird.” However, while modernity was supposed to sweep away the fears of the primitive world, “Lain” suggests otherwise. The old concerns of identity, purpose and connection are not gone, they have simply changed from issues relating to a supernatural reality to a technological one.

Lain herself is weird because she exists outside of her society. She stands out from her peers at school visually, with her asymmetrical hair and her size-changing eyes, but she also stands out socially because she doesn’t hang out with girls in her class or check her email regularly. The animation backs this up: in class, Lain is the only student without a monochrome palate. Given how important the themes of communication and connection are to the series, it’s telling that what distinguishes Lain is what separates her from the group.

Lain also seems separated from her family at home. She tells her mother about an email she received from a dead girl, and her mother does not react at all. Later, Lain’s father says lectures her about how connections create society. Lain opens her mouth to answer, but no sound comes out. Whether that’s symbolic of a deeper failure to connect or simply more awkwardness at home, it’s weird either way.

But Lain’s world would be weird enough without her social awkwardness. She has visions of smoke coming out her fingers or pouring through streets, ghostly figures wandering through the halls of the school or the subway, and a woman struck by a train whose head is caught between two faces. These visions, often rapidly edited together like a film school montage, are something that puts her outside of the everyday world and into the realm of mystics–or mental patients, if that’s your interpretation.

At the end of the day, something that’s strange has the added benefit of being memorable. The weirdness of “Lain” is part of what makes it an intriguing series. “Come to the Wired as soon as you can,” Lain spots on a chalkboard. It’s an invitation for Lain to enter a new reality, but she–and the audience with her–is already there.

Adult fear: A critical analysis of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

June 28 is an important day for horror fans: It’s the birthday of Adrian Woodhouse, the titular baby of Rosemary in Ira Levin’s classic psychological thriller novel and Roman Polanski’s subsequent cinematic adaptation. Polanski’s “Rosemary” is an interesting feat because it is one of the most faithful adaptations ever filmed–unsurprisingly, it was Levin’s favorite adaptation of one of his works.

Part of what made “Rosemary” such a success, and an enduring horror classic, is the depths of its psychology. In the modern social world, adults are supposed to be capable, responsible and independent. “Rosemary,” particularly the film, peels away the layers of the apparent capability of adulthood and exploits the child within.

Horror is often thought of as a childish genre–fears of the dark, spirits and , in the modern world, are not considered “adult.” But “Rosemary” is about unsettling juxtapositions. Horror often takes place at night in a distant woods or isolated suburb; “Rosemary” takes place in place in broad daylight, and it buries its horror in the heart of the city, and not just any city but New York City.

The juxtaposition goes further. A cult of megalomaniacal Satanists is made up of eccentric old people in a crumbling brownstone. The horror–the “childish” element–intrudes upon the modern world–the “adult. In “Rosemary,” horror does not happen somewhere over there; it happens right in the audience’s modern midst.

Levin had a gift for describing people at their most vulnerable: away from home in “A Kiss Before Dying,” moving to an unfamiliar suburb in “The Stepford Wives” and pregnant for the first time in “Rosemary’s Baby.” In the novel, Rosemary is separated from her parents because she married a non-Catholic. She communicates only with her sister via the phone when the sister tells her she had a premonition of danger for her, a premonition that Rosemary ignores.

In the film, this is exaggerated even further. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) never interacts with her family, and she barely even mentions them. Instead, Rosemary relies almost entirely on her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) for psychological support. Modern audiences are sometimes frustrated with Rosemary’s helplessness, but it should be understood to be childishness, like a child’s unwavering faith and reliance on a bad parent.

Rosemary is often dressed in comically childish outfits, like an oversized red velvet outfit that resembles a child’s Christmas pajamas that she wears before the surreal rape scene. On her increasingly pregnant yet still spindly body, the outfits hang like adult clothes on a little girl, giving her an unnervingly Lolita look. This is compounded later in the film by her short hair, which makes her look youthful and androgynous, like a child’s doll.

Polanski was very careful with his camera. He used a tripod for all but a couple of shots–even the first scene, a continuous shot of the new apartment, is rendered cinematically smooth. Doing so saves the shock value of the realism that handheld shots are meant to evoke.

One of the most shocking is a shot of Rosemary jaywalking across the street, cars slamming on their brakes and honking as she keeps her head down. The reactions of the cars are not scripted. Polanski told Farrow to cross the street impromptu and not to worry–no driver would hit a pregnant lady in New York. The result is a moment that codifies “Rosemary’s” most frightening juxtapositions: a nightmarish situation in a daylit city, a childish mistake made in the all too adult world.

Through the eyes of madness: A critical analysis of “From Beyond” (1986)

Director Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” is an amazing work because of how much it manages to embody at the same time. It is initially an exploitative horror, full of ripped clothes and gore, but it’s also a black comedy–tongues might be mutated and torn out in “From Beyond,” but they remain firmly in cheek. It’s also a literate film, one that further familiarized audiences with the work of H. P. Lovercraft.

Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” was pure pulp, a tightly written meditation on the limits of human vision. It is a minor masterpiece by the author, still worshipful of Edgar Allan Poe but further developing his singular literary identity. Gordon wisely used the short story as a springboard for a more complex, yet still compact, examination of how the human drives of vision, evolution and sexuality relate to madness: each of them exists within us as frightening potential.

Everything in “From Beyond” is personal. The film is almost entirely shot from subjective perspectives–there are no crane shots or overhead views that stand out (the cinematography was by Gordon collaborator Mac Ahlberg). There is even an infamous monster POV–mutated researcher Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) spotting a brain in Dr. Bloch’s head via pineal gland-vision–but there are also POV shots during the chases through the hospital and the house during the film’s climax.

One of the most intimate shots occurs when police officer “Bubba” Brownlee (Ken Foree) forces psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) to confront herself in a mirror. Under the influence of Dr. Pretorius’s alien Resonator, McMichaels swaps her modest attire for a kinkier leather outfit. She attempts to seduce Brownlee so he’ll let the group stay and keep experimenting with the Resonator, but Brownlee turns her head toward a mirror.

What appears to be an overhead shot is actually a shot of a mirrored ceiling. We are not seeing McMichaels from above; we’re seeing her reflection from her point of view. “Look at yourself!” Brownlee demands. “Is that who you are?”

The relationship between Brownlee and McMichaels is fascinating because it breaks the convention of many horror films of having a sober scientist as the voice of reason. Instead, street-wise cop Brownlee takes the role. He also acts as the movie’s Lambert, stressing the importance of getting out of the haunted house setting, something with which everyone in the audience ought to be agreeing.

It’s interesting to note that all three of the main characters are stripped naked at some point in the film. Nudity is often symbolic for vulnerability, but McMichaels and Tillinghast are both stripped for reasons that go beyond normal humanity–McMichaels is stripped when she gives in to her animalistic sexuality and Tillinghast is stripped when he is mutated beyond his human nature. By contrast, Brownlee is naked because he just got up. By retaining his humanity, he gives us an entry point and keeps up the personal perspective of the film.

But Brownlee isn’t always the best judge of the situation. He suggests that the Resonator is changing everyone in the house, but he’s wrong. Instead, the Resonator brings out their potential–for raw sexuality, for the next step in evolution, for seeing beyond the normal scope of human society. These are all states of “other-ness,” the other-ness that exists dormant in all of us, the same other-ness that is called insanity by the rest of the world. Brownlee is closer to the truth when he says to a Resonator starved McMichaels: “You may be a scientist lady, but right now you’re acting like a junkie.”

There is a general agreement that addiction is a psychological disease. Junkies are sick, and it’s a sickness that can claim even the film’s psychiatrist, and by extension the most educated, worldly and seemingly rational amongst us. What she’s addicted to is the ability to see more, a vision we could all unlock at the cost of our sanity. The horror of “From Beyond” isn’t that the monsters are somewhere out there–it’s that we’re already carrying them within. We just have to start looking.

Some girls: A critical review of “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” (2017)

We here at Idols and Realities aren’t just a pack of thriller-thirsty things, exclusively reviewing crappy Netflix originals. We can do other tricks. We can read. We know the classics. Some of them, at least. If you come back next week, we’ll have balancing balls on the ends of our noses all figured out too. In the meantime, below please find a review of the novel “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” Theodora Goss’s pastiche of Victorian sci fi and horror.

“Strange Case” is a book that begins with the ending of another book, with Mary Jekyll, her mother recently dead and her family funds drying up, remembering the less recent death of her father, the infamous chemist Dr. Jekyll. Seeking to increase her cash flow, she starts looking into the alleged reappearance of her father’s old colleague Mr. Hyde, a wanted murderer whose head comes with a substantial reward.

Her investigation leads her to a conspiracy involving murders in Whitechapel, an international society of alchemists and a new family in the form of some other young women with monstrous histories: Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappuccini, Justine Frankenstein and Catherine Moreau.

For the most part, the book is well written. The prose evokes the era without overdoing it, resulting in a brisk and readable text. The only real flaw story-wise, and it’s not much of a flaw all things considered, is that so much time is spent building up the heroines that there isn’t a lot of time left for the central villain to be built up–and yes, you will recognize him.

Goss’s book is appropriately literate, and if you’re not careful it can turn into a game of “spot the last name.” Goss digs deep. Mary Jekyll I got. Cat Moreau I got. Beatrice Rappaccini had me reaching for my pocket guide to literature.

For the record, I thought it was a wise move to include Sherlock Holmes and play him fairly straight. The master detective plays an important supporting role, never intruding on the main plot but buttressing it up where necessary and grounding the novel in the literary tradition it so clearly appreciates.

Of course, pastiches can become precious if you’re not careful, and this one’s preciousness is in its book-within-a-book structure. Readers might find endearing or annoying depending on their respective temperaments–it probably falls somewhere in the middle. See, the book we’re reading is actually the book that’s being written, after the fact, by the characters who experienced its events. They break into the narrative from time to time to reminisce, point out unnecessary embellishment or comically bicker.

There is one place where this is actually a strength. Any critiquing of Victorian culture–something that you almost can’t avoid if you’re doing a female-centered Victoriana re-write–is done in the margins of the book, leaving the action to be action. And, to Goss’s great credit, having a few “narrators” on the sidelines means that no one viewpoint is hammered into our heads. Readers are allowed to consider the events and the era without feeling pigeonholed.

There are plenty of Victorian pastiches out there. If you want cynicism and transcendence, you go for “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “From Hell.” If you want romance, both Gothic and erotic, you go for “Penny Dreadful.” If you’re looking for something a bit more fan fictional, try “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.” In a way, it’s the ultimate fan fiction; it corrects apparent failings of its source material not by rewriting the past but by recreating the future.