Friday, January 16, 2009

DVD Junkie #5: Battlestar Galactica

You may have noticed in your school or workplace that any resident nerds have become increasingly distracted as this week has progressed. Has productivity in the IT department slowed to a crawl? Has that guy in HR that always says good morning to your chest showed less interest as of late? Well, there's only one explanation. Tonight, the last season of a little SciFi show called "Battlestar Galactica" is beginning, and the nerds, as they say, have their little star wars printed panties in a bunch over it.

Now, I know what you're thinking - A first-run TV show on the SciFi channel that airs on Friday nights? Something to do with robots and space ships and other subjects that tend to make you think of conventions and internet forums and people with more action figures than sexual partners? I thought that too. I resisted Battlestar Galactica for a long time, as more and more of my friends were converted. It reached a critical mass point, when I was being told to watch it by everyone I knew, practically, and my resistance only grew stronger. But finally, this winter, I had an excuse.

I get most of my TV seasons through Netflix, like any normal twentysomething, but every once in a while I like to pop down to my local blockbuster and peruse their DVD section. I've discovered some shows that never would have made it to my queue online otherwise, even though their selection is lacking as only a blockbuster can be. But at the beginning of the TV aisle, nestled between 24 and Desperate Housewives were three or so seasons of Battlestar Galactica. With their charcoal colored packaging and hey-haven't-I-seen-you-somewhere-like-maybe-on-a-law-and-order-or-something cast, I never felt the urge to pick up the first few discs, until I got my first nasty cold of the season, and decided to see what I thought.

Little known fact: Cylon skin is designed to secrete an adhesive,
so no double-stick tape is ever needed to keep her dresses up.

Anyone who's watched even an episode or two of BSG in passing will tell you that show is a serious commitment. When there's more Battlestar to be watched and you're not watching it you feel like you're wasting your life doing anything else. That sounds hyperbolic but when you're in the thick of getting caught up with the seasons it sure as hell feels true. You're glued there, to your TV, as every relationship you have in the real world slowly disentigrates. You stay in on saturday nights. Your work performance suffers, and whenever you're pulled away from the Galactica and its crew you get resentful. I've called other shows addictive in the past, but Battlestar is worst than anything I've ever had occasion to watch. It's worse than the second season of Dexter, worse than the first season of the Wire. Worse, even, and if you know me, you know this is saying something, than the Shield. It's cripplingly good, it's almost viciously awesome.

Battlestar Galactica tells the story of a battle spaceship that's about to be decommissioned but then gets attacked...
Or, it tells the story of a scientist who seems to be losing his mind with guilt...
Or really, it's about a minor cabinet member who is suddenly thrust into the presidency...
Oh, fuck it. I can't write a real logline for this show, without spoiling it for someone. it's too big, and much of the fun of BSG is the discovering of how the show evolves into its 40 or so plotlines. Basically here's the premise: Humans vs. Robots in a race across the galaxy, and the robots are really smart, and everyone's fallibile and cuts the corners off their books and wears their tanktops backwards. Oh and Lucy Lawless is there. and EVERYONE'S A FRAKING CYLON. ALL OF THEM. AAAH! not really. I hope. Maybe.

Kris Kross was apparently very popular back on good ol' Caprica

But really, what sets BSG apart from Sci Fi gems like, say, Aztec Rex, is three things: The casting, the effects, and - once agian, dear readers - the writing.

First, the casting. Every person or cylon has been cast with pinpoint precision. The cast is a long list of newcomers or sci-fi TV show veterans (Xena, Warrior princess? Al from Quantum Leap? And even the Capt. Apollo from the orignal Battlestar Galactica in the 70's makes an appearance in the show [he's Tom Zarek for those of you playing at home]), and I'm hard-pressed to think of more than one or two actors who have been miscast or thrust into a role that's over their head. A perfect example of the spot on casting is Dr. Gaius Balthar, played to the hilt by James Callis. He's one of the most polarizing characters on the show, and could have been expressed in many different ways - from sleazy to angelic or self-pitying - but the way his character is acted walks a razors edge, getting just a little of each, and never too much of any of it. So much so, that I've noticed there are two factions of BSG fans - those that swoon at his feet, and those who want to put the guy out an airlock. We're all watching the same show, but the character is left human enough and open enough to interpretation - from the writer to the actor to the viewer - that everyone has formed disparate and conflicting opinions of him. And that's how you act a well-written character, kids. And almost everyone does it - from Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck to the most marginal of Red Shirt-esque characters. Everyon'e in their place, eveyone's talented as hell, and the show's real guts are in their performances.

Complete dick or nerdcore sexpot - YOU decide!

Secondly, the effects are extremely important, because even if the the acting and casting of each character is spot on it is still a show, you know, set on a space ship in space, so if that aspect isn't belieiveable then there's something seriously wrong. The effects in this show, to stretch a metaphor to the point of breaking, are not like the $400 a head valentines day tasting menu you get at major film studios, nor are they the five-star but slightly overhyped $200 dinner at the latest hot spot that you get with major cable shows like heroes. The effects on Battlestar Galactica are like that perfect niche restaurant that you only know about because you walk by it every day - like a Cuban restaurant under the manhattan bridge or the thai place where all you have to do is walk in and they bring you the usual - they're not anything special in the grand scheme of things, but damn if they don't get the job done well, and with as little fuss as possible, and at a higher quality than you would ever expect from some hole in the wall in alphabet city -or- the cable network that brought us Yeti.

And finally the writing - this is one of the best planned and executed television series I've ever seen. Plots flow seamlessly into each other, and the twists and turns would put most rollercoasters to shame. Now there are a few genuinely bad episodes. One of the few flaws of the series is that every once and a while it feels like their plots got stretched, so there will be one of those infamous "filler" episodes, where there's action going on in another part of the universe and you're stuck, say, watching someone make out in the woods or deal with their inadequacy through an addiction to food. This happens to the best of series, so I don't count this too heavily against them. These pepper the later seasons - but when BSG is on, it's on so well and in such a hardcore awesome way that this sort of thing is entirely forgivable.

Just make out already, guys, Jeez.

Before I was made into a believer, I heard Battlestar Galactica described as "The West Wing in space", and that was the way I looked at it before I ever watched the first episode (which is 4 or so hours long, it was actually tested as a miniseries before it was 100% greenlit as a show). I would say that that's a fair assessment of about 50% of the action. There's a lot of office politics and backbiting and the human element comes into it quite a bit. Through this scifi lens, the show is able to touch on just about every moral deliema you can put someone in, and then you're able to look at it from every angle, and see all the pros and cons on every side. But what makes this show more than just the West Wing in space is the action side of it, which usually slams through with little or no warning. and the fascinating part is that it does both ends of the spectrum equally well. the action is great, and the drama is excellent, and it's just about always equally matched. it's a wild, wild ride, and the writers should all have drinks bought for them on a regualr basis for their work on this show.

So, this review is going out a bit late, but just trust me. If you have a week or two to kill, settle down and introduce yourself to BSG before the show ends so you can start effectively hitting on cute nerd girls. If you have a life or a girlfriend or something and can't catch it on SciFi Friday nights, Hulu's totally got it, and you can get all the seasons on DVD or the iTunes store. Just watch it.

DVD Junkie is a weekly review of TV Series on DVD. Kosmic actually doesn't have anything better to do on a Friday night, thank you very much, and would have shoved Baltar out an airlock as soon as she got a chance and without a second thought. You can follow her on Twitter @kosmicblues