Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dark Angel: The Complete First Season (live action TV series)

I had seen a few episodes of this show back when it was still on the air, and there was one thing made it stick in my mind - the romance between Max and Logan. The butt-kicking action, near-future, dystopian, slightly sci-fi environment, and various genetically engineered characters were nice, but the romance hooked me. I wanted to see Max and Logan get together.

I was never hooked enough that I watched the show regularly, though, and then it went off the air and I forgot about it - until I saw it at Walmart. Seasons 1 and 2 were sold as a set - I thought the show had gone on for longer, but apparently those two seasons are the entire thing.

Anyway, it was fun watching this first season. On the one hand, the dialogue and several of the fight scenes were worse than I remembered. On the other hand, the romance between Max and Logan still had me hooked, despite my frustration with their ongoing refusal to recognize that there was anything other than business and friendship between them.

Synopsis:

In 2009 (which, when this show originally aired in 2000, was the near future) an electromagnetic pulse of some kind decimated the US economy. Computers everywhere were wiped - no more bank account records, hospital records, police records, etc. No one could access the Internet, phones no longer worked, and there was no electricity. A few years later, the US is still poor, and certain commodities are in short supply or just generally hard to find - however, people are managing to survive and to find a kind of normalcy.

Not long before the pulse, a group of genetically modified children escaped from a secret government installation. One of those children was Max. Max, like all the others, has a barcode on the back of her neck. She's made of a combination of DNA from all kinds of famous people, as well as various animals (at the very least, she has cat DNA, and possibly shark). She can see in the dark, perform amazing feats of athleticism, see great distances, process information quickly, etc. Also, she rarely sleeps.

Years later, Max has a relatively normal daytime life, hanging out with her friends and working at Jam Pony, a messenger service that delivers packages to people. At night, she breaks into places and steals things she thinks she can fence for a decent amount of money. Unfortunately, one of the places she breaks into is Logan Cale's condo. Using the alias Eyes Only, Logan regularly exposes corrupt people and practices that have flourished since the pulse. Logan quickly figures out that Max must be one of the genetically modified children he had heard about. He eventually convinces a very reluctant Max to do the action-oriented parts of Eyes Only's investigations. In return, he agrees to try to find Max's "siblings," the other escapees.

The Big Spoilers: At the end of the season, Max and Zack, another X-5, try to rescue Tinga, an X-5 who was captured. Tinga dies, but at least Max and several X-5s are able to destroy all the genetic data at Manticore, effectively shutting the project down. Unfortunately, when she encounters an X-7 created from the same DNA stock as her, Max meets her match and ends up getting shot - as far as Logan and the others know, the wound is fatal. However, what they don't know is that Max and Zack are both picked up by Manticore people. Max needs a heart transplant from another X-5, so Zack shoots himself in the head so that Max can have his heart. Unfortunately, when she wakes up, Max is a captive of whatever remains of Manticore, and none of her friends know she's still alive and needs help.

Commentary:

I have a girlie crush on Logan Cale, which probably has a lot to do with why I liked this first season so much - because this was not really a super excellent show. The dialogue was sometimes a bit laughable (everything Zack, Max's genetically engineered "older brother" figure, said felt a bit off to me, but maybe that was more the actor than the script). I couldn't stop thinking how fake some of the fight scenes looked (although at least some of those scenes probably showed Alba actually hitting someone, since she was apparently accident-prone). Some things were cheesy and not intended to be so (Buffy the Vampire Slayer occasionally aimed for cheese and camp, while this show took itself pretty seriously, occasional jokes and snappy one-liners aside) - as much as I wanted to see Max and Logan end up together, I couldn't stand some of the "romantic" scenes, like Max and Logan dancing in their dream. Gag.

One big fault of the show (let's not talk about its science, which I have a gut-feeling was laughably bad) was something that I'm sure the show's creators would insist didn't exist, since the commentaries and featurettes repeatedly emphasized how well-thought out this show and its details were - the discrepancies in Max's world, and the things that were just glossed over. I couldn't see any logic in how her wold's material goods situation worked. In a world where chickens are hard to come by (although she manages to get some at least two or three times in the season), a person must wait in line for gas, and toothpaste can't be bought in a store anymore, Max wears lovely clothes, has peppermint oil on hand, and can ride her beloved motorcycle anytime she feels like it. It felt like rarity or availability was determined entirely by plot or scene convenience, rather than a coherent, well-thought out vision of the world. The world felt a bit cobbled-together.

That same feeling carried over to one of the characters, Col. Lydecker, the man who oversaw the various Manticore genetic engineering projects and badly wants to recapture Max and the other escapees. While I was listening to the commentary for the pilot episode, certain comments made it seem like the final bombshell, that Lydecker really did care for these kids in his own way, already showed somewhat in John Savage's acting. However, throughout the season, Lydecker is all over the map. As the kids are escaping, he orders any that make it out killed. He says he wants the X-5s (all the escapees are X-5s, the fifth generation of the experiments) back for their own good. He says he cares about them. Then he offers to sell them - but was he only bluffing? At the end of the season, it's revealed that Max is most special to him because she has part of his dead wife's DNA in her - and yet, there had previously been no signs that Max was anything other than a particularly tricky nuisance to him.

One of the things that I hate about a lot of American television that is another one of this show's faults is that characters often don't develop - too often, they're just one note, over and over again. If you're watching a show as it's being aired, this can be beneficial, because if you jump in at random points during a season or miss something, all you usually need to know is the show's basic setup and you'll be fine. If you're watching a show all at once on DVD, the lack of progression in characters tends to be very pronounced. Take Original Cindy, one of Max's best friends. When her lover dies, she cries a bit and she and Max have a talk at the end of the episode, but the experience doesn't seem to have any longer term effects on her, because she's entirely unchanged in later episodes.

Most of Max and Logan's first season relationship was "one note" as well. They'd get a bit closer, but then deny that there was anything romantic between the two of them. Then something would happen that either one of them felt they had to keep a secret from the other, and the other person would get upset at their sudden chilly reception. Repeat. You'd think that eventually Max and Logan would start to trust each other and, in order to demonstrate that this was happening, the writers would work something in where, although previously one of them would have hid something (in Max's case, stuff to do with her not-quite-humanness, like occasionally going into heat, and, in Logan's case, any sign of unmanly weakness), they now actually talk to each other. Whenever Max and Logan do tell each other things they don't really want to, it isn't until well after they should have.

So, gosh, there was a lot that was frustrating about this season. However, I stuck around and, when I wasn't annoyed with how certain things were playing out, I tended to enjoy it. I didn't expect this to be fantastic, mind-blowing television, no matter what was said in the commentaries and featurettes - there was a lot of surface "cool" and appeal, like the heavy use of hip hop style, bare bones appealing romance, and sexy male and female main characters.

That said, the show wasn't just surface "cool" and appeal. There were some aspects to the show that seem to me like they must have been a bit unusual when this was aired (I can't remember what else was on TV at the time) - things like a lesbian character (Original Cindy) and a very racially diverse cast. Although some actors may have been cast because they weren't white, quite a few of them weren't, as far as I could tell, cast because they were a specific race. For instance, in a cop show with an Asian character, you know that, at some point, the character's Asian-ness will be important for cracking a case involving other Asians. In this show, people are usually just people, no matter what they look like. Except the gang members. I think those are always black, or maybe sometimes Hispanic. ::sigh:: And the rich people and annoying management people are always white.  But at least you couldn't say that all black and Hispanic characters were gang members and all white characters were rich and/or annoying types.

I've been a soft sci-fi fan for a while, so, in addition to the romance, another one of the appeals of this season/series was the near-future elements - the flying security cameras, watching everything everyone does, the genetically engineered soldiers at Manticore, the post-pulse environments. I may not have been hopelessly riveted, but I wanted to see how things turned out for Max, Logan, and the world they lived in. All in all, this series isn't necessarily in my "keep forever" pile, but I don't regret spending my money on it. I look forward to watching the second season (although, from what I've read, it may disappoint - we'll see, seeing as how I'm not a rabid Dark Angel fan and might not care so much if the show's format and tone changes).

Extras:

There are three behind-the-scenes featurettes, audition footage for all the main characters and quite a few of the main minor characters (i.e., all of Max's regularly appearing friends, her boss, and Zack), a blooper reel, a preview of the Dark Angel video game, and audio commentary for several episodes. I've watched everything and listened to one and a half of the commentaries - only one of the commentaries features any actors (Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly), and I tend to prefer actor commentary over director/producer/other commentary. Since I hadn't bothered to read anything about the show's history, it wasn't until I listened to Alba and Weatherly's commentary that I realized that the reason this show was so short apparently had something to do with creative changes prompted by either the network or the studio - or at least that seemed to be Jessica Alba's take. The blooper reel was one of my favorite extras - the part with the rat made me laugh, even though, as a pet rat owner, I cringed every time I saw her pick the poor thing up by the tail, and I'm still wondering if the part where Jessica Alba lit on fire really looked that horrifying or if they enhanced it for the blooper reel (it was like a ghostly wave of fire flowed over her robe...).

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (live action TV series) - This show has a similar attitude, kick-butt heroine, and a good-sized helping of romance mixed in with all its action, humor, and drama.  Sure, it's a more contemporary setting instead of the near future, and there are vampires and demons and things instead of genetically modified soldiers, but it's still got a similar feel.
  • The Pretender (live action TV series) - This show is total cheese, with a heaping mountain of "feel good" on top, but I can't help but like it.  I think it's because I had a serious crush on Michael T. Weiss when I first saw this.  Anyway, at least at the beginning, this show is even more formulaic than Dark Angel (Jarod finds out about some horrible wrong done to someone, he pretends to be someone who can do some sort of interesting job, he rights the wrong in a "scary good guy" kind of way, and then he goes on to his next project, leaving behind a treat for his pursuers).  Those who liked Dark Angel may like that this show has a similar setup - this show also focuses on a character who was part of a secret experiment, escaped, and is now on the run.  There's even a bit of romance, although some may find the romance in this show even more frustrating than the romance in Dark Angel - I don't think it ever gets resolved at all.  Whatever.  
  • When the Wind Blows (book) by James Patterson - Oh my gosh, I think Dark Angel might have been copying off of James Patterson - either that, or they were both copying off of something else.  In this book, a little girl runs away from a secret facility.  She has been genetically modified so that she has the wings and various other characteristics of a bird.  She wants to save her siblings, but she can't do it alone - she ends up getting help from a vet and an FBI agent.  Other than the vet, FBI agent, and James Patterson limiting himself to just a couple types of DNA getting mixed together at a time (the Dark Angel Way = any DNA that strikes your fancy), this book and Dark Angel are amazingly similar, and I'm pretty sure this book came first.  So, which version of the story is better?  I have my opinion *cough*Dark Angel*cough* but why don't you try it and decide for yourself?
  • Firefly (live action TV series) - Far shorter even than Dark Angel, it packs a lot of awesome into one brief, unfinished season.  If you'd like more action, humor, enjoyable character interaction, and romantic tension, try this one out.  It's even set in the future, quite a bit farther in the future, although it's a future that more a mix of Chinese culture and aesthetics and the American West - not so much Dark Angel's hip hop future.  The only thing it doesn't have is a main female character parading around in tight outfits (Inara glides around in gorgeous outfits, which is entirely different), although it does have Captain Tight Pants.  As a female TV viewer, I much prefer Captain Tight Pants.

2 comments:

  1. You musta been a kid when this originally aired. I remember watching it too. Did you know Alba and Weatherly were an item for a while? Weatherly as you know has gone on to co-star in N.C.I.S.

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  2. Yeah, this was during high school for me. I didn't realize Alba and Weatherly had an off-screen relationship until I listened to the commentary for this. Weatherly was one of the reasons I enjoyed watching NCIS for a while. :)

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