Squawk Box: Troy, Longmire and Babylon 5

Editor's Note: I'm changing up the format of Squawk Box a bit because I feel like it's getting way too long and way too disorganized and I want to streamline it a bit.

Nerd Watch: Troy, Fall of A City. Y'all. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love The Illiad. When I was a kid, Greek mythology was my jam and The Illiad was the toast on which I smeared it on. I've read a variety of translations multiple time and I have been waiting and hoping for a really good adaptation of The Illiad for most of my life. The movie Troy was disappointing enough that when I saw Troy: Fall of A City appear on Netflix and gave it a try, I was somewhat apprehensive, but by the end of episode one I was all in. This. Was. Incredible.

The show opens with the birth of Paris (Louis Hunter), whose birth is perceived as a curse, thanks to black blood and a vision by a very young Cassandra (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) of the destruction of the city. King Priam (David Threlfall) and Queen Hecuba (Frances O'Connor) on the advice of their seers abandon the baby, but he's found by a shepherd and raised in the hills near the city. When grown, Paris- unaware of his true origins is confronted by the Zeus (Hakeem Kau-Kazim), Hera (Inge Beckmann), Athenta (Shamilla Miller) and Aphrodite (Lex King). The Goddesses wish to know which of them is the most beautiful and Paris chooses Aphrodite. This pisses off both Athena and Hera, but Aphrodite rewards Paris by promising him riches and the most beautiful woman in the world.

In short order, Paris finds out he's a Prince, is welcomed back by his family and is sent to Sparta to do a trade deal with King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong). Instead of doing that, however, he falls for Helen (Bella Dayne) and the two run back to Troy, which begins the whole tragic saga.

The story that unfolds is familiar and yet drenched with an impending sense of tragedy. Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) joins with his brother Menelaus to launch a thousand ships and an army to go get Helen back. Artemis (Thando Hopa) demands a sacrifice for favorable winds, so he's forced to sacrifice his daughter to get them there, at an act which haunts him for the rest of the series. (And, presumably, incurs the wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra, which leads to another unfortunate ending which we don't get to see on camera.)

The Greeks arrive and I found myself anticipating, wondering if they were going to get the story right and every single time, they didn't disappoint. Achilles (David Gyasi) is humiliated with the loss of Briseis and refuses to fight. Patroclus takes up his armor and his killed by Hector. Hector, in turns, is killed by a vengeful Achilles. The horse! They do the horse thing! And it works! David Gyasi is so good as Achilles...  he's a more introspective Achilles looking for a pure and honorable fight and wrestling with the pressure of being 'the perfect warrior.' Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) is somewhat less charismatic than I feel Hector should be, but it's a solid performance. Hector comes across as an honorable man, who loves his wife, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) and his son, little Astanyx. Joseph Mawle is incredible as Odysseus, the brains behind the operation, who doesn't really want to be there and is a secretly (I think) honorable man. (Oh man, the scene at the end where he has to throw the baby off the wall... so brutal. So, so brutal.)

TL;DR: If you've been waiting for an excellent adaptation of The Illiad, then you've got it right here with Troy: Fall of A City. I don't know if this is a one time mini-series or not (I'm hoping not), because they leave both interesting possibilities to explore The Odyssey (though how you can beat the Armand Asante adaptation of that, I don't know... I still remember him shooting that arrow through the axe handles) or The Aenead. My Grade: **** out of ****

New Watch: Longmire. Anyone who's flipped through A&E anytime in the past five years has probably seen some kind of advertisement for this show- even though A&E decided not to renew it after the third season and Netflix picked it up for the subsequent three and now has all of them available for streaming. A modern Western crime drama, Longmire is based off the 'Walt Longmire Mysteries' written by Craig Johnson and is centered around Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) who is the sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming. He's assisted by his Deputies Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), 'The Ferg' (Adam Bartley) and Moretti (Katee Sackhoff). His daughter, Cady (Cassidy Freeman) is a local lawyer and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) help him investigate many crimes in and around his jurisdiction.

As a contemporary western, this show works. Robert Taylor imbues Walt with a certain amount of gravitas and just enough anachronistic tendencies (he refuses to own a cell phone, for example) to make you think that the character would fit into the old west and be just fine. The proximity of the fictional Absaroka County to a Cheyenne Reservation allows the show to explore issues of Native American life today-- and to give the show full credit, that's something that, if handled incorrectly, could go very wrong in multiple ways, but they approach those explorations carefully and respectfully enough to do it right.

As a crime drama, this works really well. Crime dramas usually make me yawn, but the setting and the characters in Longmire are compelling enough that I stuck around and once this show had it's claws into me, I couldn't stop watching. It falls down a little bit here and there, though: a Sheriff and three deputies for an entire county? (It's actually not that much of a stretch. Niobara County which is the least populated county in Wyoming has a Sheriff, an under-sheriff and two deputies.) None of them carry portable radios and they never seem to wait for back-up even in situations and they don't seem to have a 911 PSAP anywhere in their fictional county, they have Ruby the Secretary instead. (That last one is a long standing complaint of mine- cops in these crime dramas always seem to know where to go without needing a Dispatcher, which just aint't true- though shows like 9-1-1 don't exactly help resolve my irritation.)

TL;DR: If you like a good western and a good crime drama, you can't go wrong with Longmire. My Grade: *** out of ****

Nostalgia Watch: Babylon 5. I've watched Babylon 5 before and own about three seasons on DVD, but when it came back to streaming (this time on Amazon Prime), I fell down the rabbit hole almost immediately. Even if science fiction is not your jam, you have to admire the ambition and epic scope of the show and the impact it had on the television landscape of today. The big serialized story arcs of Game of Thrones and Lost? That kind of serialized story telling was pioneered on this show, which was conceived as a 'five part novel for television.' So the arc for all the characters? It was all pre-planned. Going back through and watching it again, you can see the seeds of character development be planted and start to grow over whole seasons of television, which makes the payoff, when it comes, all that much more satisfying.

Set ten years after the end of a devastating war between the Earth and Minbari, Babylon 5 is a space station in neutral territory where the various species in the galaxy can come and trade and negotiate their differences (it's sort of like a League of Nations with a council and everything.) A dark new power is returning however and the protagonists have to fight against it. There's so much to like about this show: the characters had 'exit clauses' written into their characters in case an actor wished to leave the show (Michael O'Hare departed as the lead after one season to seek treatment for mental illness and returned to close his characters arc out in the third season, is a good example of this.) I love the blend of fantasy elements with traditional science fiction, though sometimes, the parallels with Lord of the Rings get a little direct (the Rangers, the 'shadows', Zha'hadum) for my liking.

But where Star Trek took a more utopian view of the future, Babylon 5 recognizes that humanity's flaws and foibles probably won't evaporate anytime soon. In stark contrast to the secular humanist worldview of Trek, as an example, religion is alive and well in the B5 universe- both human and alien varieties, while it may seem like a relatively small aspect of the overall show, it's little touches like these that make the overall Universe feel richer, more complete and more realistic.

Each of the characters has an arc that ebbs and flows over the course of the show, but I've got to give a shout out to the Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and the Narn Ambassador G'kar (Andreas Katsulas). Both their characters and their arcs are probably some of the best in science fiction, if not in television itself. Exploring themes of power and what you'd sacrifice for it (Londo) and issues of genocide, occupation and oppression (G'Kar), the two characters simultaneously hate each other and respect each other at the same time. It's fascinating, it's complex, it's incredibly well written and it's one of my favorite parts of the show.

TL;DR: Great science fiction and surprisingly important television, given how popular the serialized format it pioneered became, check this out for a messier, more complex and more richly imagined universe than Star Trek (I hate to say it, but in many ways it's true) and the characters and the writing are all delicious and satisfying. One of my all time favorites. My Grade: **** out of ****


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