Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Star Trek Discovery: Midseason Review

            Now that Star Trek Discovery has reached its midseason finale, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit the show and take a look at its strengths and weaknesses. We last looked at Discovery after its first two episodes, and now several months later, much of what we wrote back in September, good and bad, remains true seven episodes later.

            Discovery’s greatest strength is its compelling characters. Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is a compelling protagonist. Rescued from the stockade after six months, Burnham finds herself Shanghaied on the Discovery. Given the chance to try to end the war that she started, Burnham finds herself surrounded by a group of scientists led by chief engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), the battle-scarred captain with questionable motives, and Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham’s roommate and overeager Starfleet cadet. Later, Burnham has a growing relationship with former POW and new security chief Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). The two bond over their shared traumas as a result of the war. Discovery’s strongest material stems from playing these clearly defined characters off of one another in interesting ways. Tilly’s enthusiasm against Michael’s world-weariness. Tyler’s trauma against Michael’s. Lorca’s need to defeat the Klingons against Stamets’ love of science. These different pairings lead to interesting character conflicts about respecting life, scientific advancement, and the difficulties of living up to one's principles--the heart of any Star Trek show. 

            Back in September we wrote that Discovery suffered from “clunky writing and exposition dumping.” Unfortunately, these problems remain in spades. Episodes telegraph obvious plot points in heavy-handed ways. In one episode, Michael’s surrogate father, Sarek, boards a shuttlecraft with an aide cast right out of the inept traitor’s handbook. Sure enough two scenes later, the young man gives a speech about Vulcan racial superiority before blowing himself up (and failing to kill Sarek). In that same episode, a Starfleet admiral falls right into a clearly obvious trap during a meeting with the Klingons. In the mid-season finale, Lorca asks Stamets to make one final jump with the ship’s magical spore drive so the crew can make it home safe. The show spends multiple scenes emphasizing how this will be the last jump. Stamets may as well be talking about how he’s two days from retirement and showing people pictures of his beloved boat.

            Additionally, the show suffers from a broader structural problem, its placement within the Star Trek timeline. There’s simply no way that Discovery is a prequel to the Original Series. Visually and technologically Discovery is lightyears ahead of the original Enterprise. The show’s spore drive is more advanced than any technology found in Next Generation or Voyager. There’s a robotic crewman wandering the bridge decades before Commander Data became the first android in Starfleet. The show’s guttural and growling Klingons look nothing like those seen ten years later on TOS. It would have been better to set the show in the future and avoid these problems entirely. 

Discovery also leans too much on prior knowledge of Star Trek than standing on its own. The emotional crux of one episode reveals that Sarek had to choose between Michael or Spock joining the Vulcan Expeditionary Force. That choice has no emotional impact if you don’t have the prior knowledge that Spock turned down that opportunity to join Starfleet.

            When Discovery returns in January, we’ll see if the rest of the show can catch up to the show’s strong characters. Until then, Discovery will struggle to match the highs of previous Star Trek. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Netflix Recommendations

             With so many streaming services and television networks, keeping up with the never-ending torrent of television shows is impossible. According to research from FX, there were 455 scripted shows that aired in 2016. That was almost three dozen more than the previous record set in 2015. In this new television environment, television critics have become less critics and more gatekeepers. Episode by episode breakdowns are less important than the question of—should you tune in at all? In the past two months or so, Netflix has dumped a bevy of new shows including Mindhunter, Alias Grace, and American Vandal to go along with returning shows like Stranger Things and the upcoming second season of The Crown. So for this week, let’s dive into two of those shows: Alias Grace and American Vandal, two very different takes on the ubiquitous true crime genre.

Alias Grace—Based on a novel by Margaret Atwood—who is having quite the year with the Handmaid’s Tale winning the Emmy as the best drama on television—Alias Grace is the story of Grace Marks, a Canadian woman convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper in late 1830s/early 1840s Canada. Based on a true story, Grace’s story is largely told in flashback as she recounts her life as an Irish immigrant in Canada. The series unapologetically and straightforwardly reveals the horrible circumstances that led to Grace’s imprisonment. Relentlessly beaten down on all sides—by her alcoholic father, prison guards, asylum keepers, the handyman who also committed the murders and blamed Grace for putting him up to it, and the double-standards of her time—Grace maintains a calm, dignified presence.

            She’s also an unreliable narrator. A committee of well-meaning Canadians have hired an American doctor to question Grace and hope to win her a pardon. Grace, however, has told so many stories and had so many told about her that it’s hard to know what is true or not. In a voice-over, Grace admits to constructing a narrative of her life that she believes the doctor wants to hear. She’s also become an object of curiosity at the prison where she lives. The warden’s wife has Grace brought over to her house every day to perform household chores. Grace also satisfies the morbid curiosity of the warden’s wife and her social circle, after all who wouldn’t want their afternoon tea served by a convicted murderess?

            Alias Grace is only six episodes, running about 45 minutes each, so the time commitment is minimal and well-worth it.

American Vandal—Netflix has, at least partially, made its name with its true-crime documentaries and serial killer type shows (think Making of a Murderer or Mindhunter). It’s all the more impressive that the network commissioned an eight episode parody series about uncovering who vandalized a bunch of high school teachers’ cars. American Vandal brilliantly mimics the structure, visual style, and documentarian as narrator style that made shows like Serial and The Jinx so popular. The show has it all—talking head interviews with high school students, computer generated reenactments, and attempted recreations of the act of vandalism itself.

            Ultimately though, the show succeeds by making itself about the experience of high school. There’s Dylan, the profoundly dumb student accused of the act of vandalism. The first episode features a list of the reasons Dylan has been given detention. They include “Making whale noises” and “faking diabetes.” There’s Peter, the over-eager documentarian just seeking the truth. There’s the mass of students, willing to condemn and lionize Dylan with ease. There’s the vandalism itself, an act so stupid but taken with such seriousness by everyone involved in the show that it just becomes funnier and funnier as the series progresses. There’s the titles of the episodes, each a play on words about the vandalism. But American Vandal is more than just the sum of its jokes. By the end, it makes you care about Dylan’s fate and wonder, “Who did the dicks?”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Saints 2017: Half-Seaon Check-In

            Halfway through their season, the New Orleans Saints are 6-2 and leading the NFC South, a game ahead of the 5-3 Carolina Panthers. After opening the season with a pair of losses to the Vikings and Patriots, it seemed like another lost season for the Saints. The defense allowed 29 and 36 points to Minnesota and New England and the offense struggled to keep up. Sam Bradford and Tom Brady threw for 346 and 447 yards against the New Orleans passing defense and all the talk about an improved Saints defense seemed like that—just talk. Six wins later, however, the Saints are in prime position for a playoff run thanks to improved defensive play.   

            FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Saints to win 11 games, the most of any team in the NFC South. They have an 80% chance to make the playoffs, a 63% chance to win the division, and a 38% chance to get a first-round bye. To get a better sense of just how much and where New Orleans has improved, let’s look at Football Outsiders DVOA ratings (expressed in percentages relative to a league average of 0, positive offensive and special teams DVOAs are good, negative DVOAs are better for defense).

Saints 2017 DVOA (rank)
Special Teams
21.5% (5)
19.4% (3)
-4.4% (16)
-2.3% (23)

There’s nothing new about the Saints offense being near the top of the league. In the Payton-Brees era, they have finished outside of the top 10 in offensive DVOA once—in 2010 when they finished 11th. Throughout the last three seasons of 7-9 finishes, the offense has never been the problem. 

            Instead it’s the Saints defense that is responsible for the team’s turnaround around this year. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, in 11 seasons under head coach Sean Payton, New Orleans has finished in the top 25 of defensive DVOA only 4 times. In each of those years, 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2013 the Saints have made the playoffs and won an average of 11.3 games. If New Orleans can give Drew Brees a defensive that isn’t terrible, good things happen. Now let’s look at what the 2017 defense is doing to distinguish itself from its inglorious predecessors. (Just a reminder, for defensive DVOA negatives are good, and positives are bad, a -4.4% means New Orleans’ defense was 4.4% better than league average. 13.1% means they were 13.1% worse than league average)

Defensive DVOA (rank)
Pass Defense DVOA (rank)
Run Defense DVOA (rank)
13.1% (31)
26.0% (31)
6.3% (32)
26.1% (32)
48.1% (32)
-2.4% (27)
14.6% (31)
27.4% (30)
-3.2% (23)
-4.4% (16)
-12.3% (4)
5.8% (29)

The Saints defensive improvement is driven by their improved pass defense. Through seven games this season (DVOA won’t be updated with this weekend’s games until later today), New Orleans has seen a nearly 40 percentage point swing in its defense. Over the last few years, the Saints have invested significant draft capital on their defensive secondary and it finally seems to be paying off. 2013 saw the addition of safety Kenny Vaccaro whose career has been erratic, but has played well this year. This past year, the Saints spent first and second round picks on cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams. In 2016, they added safety Vonn Bell and in 2015 added cornerback P.J. Williams. Combined with the injured Delvin Breaux, the Saints finally seem to have the talent to stop opposing pass offenses.

            The Saints defense has benefitted from a couple other factors. According to Football Outsiders drive stats, the Saints defense has had the 4th best field position to defend. That’s a testament to the kickoff and punting skills of punter Thomas Morstead, who has been effective in pinning opponents deep in their own territory. It’s easier to stop opponents when they have more of the field to cover. Additionally, the Saints are sixth in opponent’s turnovers per drive. They have intercepted nine passes and recovered three fumbles. Getting the opposition to turn the ball over is a great way to stop them from scoring any points.

            With all of these improvements, the Saints defense still ranks 16th in DVOA. In their last six games, they haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of opponents. Football Outsiders has them as facing the 12th easiest schedule in the league. But the bigger point is, New Orleans’ doesn’t have to field a good defense to win a lot of games. They just have to field one that isn’t terrible. We’ll see how well they hold up over the rest of the season.