CAPRICA: Taking stock

Those of you watching Caprica have likely seen the mid-season finale. I only wrote about the pilot episode, opting then to soak in this first installment of the Battlestar Galactica prequel and ultimately determine what’s working and what isn’t.

Working (Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales): As the tormented patriarchs of the core families, these veteran actors are incredibly well cast. Arguably, Stoltz, as genius Daniel Graystone, has more to work with as he balances the loss of daughter Zoe combined with his quest to bring her back to life, his often strained marriage to Amanda, and the threat of losing the success he’s built. Morales, as lawyer Joseph Adama, initially played the stages of grief admirably after losing his own daughter and wife in the same terroist attack that claimed Zoe. Once he discovered there was a virtual version of his daughter trapped in cyberspace, he neglected his work and the son who would become BSG’s “Old Man.” Some of the fire went out as he plugged into a virtual world. With that chapter of his journey apparently closed, at least for now, Joseph needs to get back to sparring with Daniel, blaming Daniel, and possibly entering into an uneasy alliance with the other grieving father. Watching Stoltz and Morales in the early episodes called to mind the best BSG political and philosophical debates where both sides were right and both sides were wrong. These actors are doing some of their best work in these complicated roles.

Not Working (Polly Walker): An accomplished and exciting actress, this categorization isn’t entirely her fault. Her Sister Clarice is an ill-defined character, initially presented as a mother figure with an agenda to Zoe’s bereaved friend, Lacy, then a commune dwelling polygamist with radical religious inclinations, then a relapsing drug addict, then Amanda Graystone’s “friend” with lesbian overtones, and finally, awkwardly coming full circle, a terrorist at war with those in her own movement. Walker has done her best with the material, but without a through line her performance seems disjointed and the character does not work. The writers either have to get a handle on Clarice’s role in the story or cut their losses with the schoolteacher/self-appointed prophet/junkie/bisexual/terrorist (you see the problem?).

Working (The Trinity): When Alessandra Torresani’s Zoe was bumped off in the pilot episode, I thought she’d stick around as the Zoe Avatar for the foreseeable future if for no other reason than her face was on all of the advertising. When Daniel made the fateful decision to implant her essence into the U-87 Cylon model, and the Avatar program was apparently lost only to reappear trapped in the robot before the final credits, I’ll admit I wondered how this was going to work. Pretty damn well as it turned out. Through a series of camera tricks that constantly switched from the first Centurion to Zoe and back again, the Trinity that is Zoe, the Avatar, and the robot was revealed. Now Torressani still got the chance to play Zoe as something a little more flesh and blood, at least in the virtual sense, via secret meetings with Lacy in the virtual playground that is V-World and an ill-advised and ill-fated courtship, also virtual, with Daniel’s lab assistant, Philemon. But the moments that really stood out were Torressani unable to speak and sometimes even move as Zoe hid in the robot and watched her parents’ grief and her father’s business machinations unfurl around her. The penultimate episode, “Ghosts in the Machine,” was a tour-de-force for the young actress as Daniel, suspecting Zoe’s presence, proceeded to psychologically torture his daughter in order to draw her back to him. Torressani played horror, resolve, hatred, and affection with little more than her eyes to work with. The fate of Zoe is up in the air until the series returns (sure Daniel can rebuild the robot, but is the Avatar lost for good)? Probably not, but even if it is, I highly doubt that Torresani is finished as the actress has far too much to add to the show.

Not Working (Amanda Graystone’s sudden visions of her dead brother): Paula Malcomson, as Daniel’s wife and Zoe’s mother, is a welcome presence on-screen simply because she looks her age and looks lovely. For the first few episodes, Amanda progressed logically – grief-stricken after Zoe’s death, horrified by the implication that Zoe engineered the bombing, but finally pulling it together to support her husband on television and persuade him to fight for his crumbling empire. Then in the last three episodes, Amanda started seeing visions of her dead brother, which piqued Clarice’s interest, revealed her past stay in an institution and suicide attempt, fell to pieces when Daniel’s business rival labeled her husband a murder, and finally stood ready to fling herself off of a very high bridge. I get the feeling that the writers decided to change directions with the character midstream, and the effect was incredibly jarring. Had Amanda been painted as a neurotic on the verge of a nervous breakdown even before Zoe’s death and started to see her dead daughter and toyed with the notion of suicide even before the finale, you’d have a different but far more consistent character than the successful wife and career woman who morphed into a wet eyed, chain-smoking mess in the blink of an eye. Moving forward, pick one Amanda (I’d personally go with the borderline insane version just because there are more storyline possibilities), and take it from there.

Working (Sam Adama): Joseph’s gangster brother and young Willie’s favorite uncle is a fascinating character. Shown murdering a government official in the pilot, stripped to the waist, bearing his Tauron tattoos, this is not a man to make an enemy of. While his brother spent the early part of the season in grief and anger, Sam stepped up to the plate, took Willie under his wing, and while he kept his young charge out of school in smoky backrooms frequented by men of ill-repute, Sam also passed along advice that would serve the future Admiral well once the Twelve Worlds were decimated like staying on a path once you’ve started (so that’s why Adama followed Roslin’s hunch to Earth). Sam is also homosexual, an accepted sexual orientation in this civilization. He is not a stereotype. In point of fact, he’s probably the toughest man on the canvas. Where Daniel gets others to do his dirty work and Joseph is the indecisive predecessor of his grandson, Lee, Sam rolls up his sleeves and gets things done. He would have killed Amanda as revenge for his murdered sister-in-law had Joseph not backed out at the last minute. Sam’s crimes will undoubtedly catch up with him, but let’s hope his final act is a long way off. Actor Sasha Roiz is creating a bold, complex character that challenges and reinvents the notion of masculinity in any time and any place.

Not Working (Too many characters too fast): One of the joys of BSG was how the ensemble naturally grew even though they were stuck on that ship. Pilots, knuckle-draggers, resistance fighters, and previously unknown Cylon models gradually came to the forefront. By the final season, every character earned the ending he or she was given. Now my problem with Caprica isn’t the characters themselves (late arrivals such as Tomas Vergis and Barnabas Greeley, the rivals of Daniel and Clarice respectively), are intriguing. It’s the way they’re pushed into the spotlight so quickly, often getting large chunks of entire episodes when we’re still learning their names. The denizens of virtual New Cap City are the best example of this. Their first taste of screen time essentially consisted in devoting an entire episode to their alternate reality. Visually, an amazing piece of work, but who are these people and why should I care about them? Here’s an example from BSG that the creators should look to – Cally. Now while she was never my favorite character, look at her evolution. She started out as a somewhat nondescript deck hand whose single most memorable moment in the first season was biting the ear of a man who tried to rape her. Over the course of the show she became more of a major player (surviving on Kobol, shooting Boomer, marrying Tyrol and bearing a child, pushing her husband to start a labor union, and finally becoming unhinged upon discovering who and what the man she loved really was). Cally’s last episode, which ranks among one of BSG’s best, hits all of the right notes because we’d taken a journey with the character instead of having her jammed down our throats So I say to Caprica, slow it down. We’ll care more if we get to know these people first.

Not Working (Bear McCreary’s Pre-Finale Score): McCreary’s work on BSG might be the most inspired score of any television program ever (I have the soundtracks for all four seasons on my iPod.) But where BSG was a mix of classical, new age, primal beats, hard rock, and even opera, the Caprica score was merely a variation on the main theme and a few somber incidental tracks. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if viewers didn’t know that McCreary is capable of so much more. Now in all fairness, the music for BSG’s first season is my least favorite of the soundtracks, a far cry from the epic nature the score would achieve in the later seasons, especially Three and Four. So as I watched and listened, I hoped that McCreary would start to flex his musical muscles as the series progressed. And then…

Working (Bear McCreary’s Finale Score): Here he got his mojo back. Even prior to the closing montage, pounding beats, tragic strings, and haunting vocals worked to heighten the action. Moving forward, I hope that we get to hear the skilled experimentation with genres that made the music as important a player as any of the actors on Caprica’s sister show.

Caprica is unique and thought-provoking, but it’s still finding its way. When the show returns, and based on the quick preview clip last Friday night I believe it is even if I’m not sure when, let’s hope that most of the kinks are worked out, the writers get a handle on who these characters are and how to more gracefully weave them into the action, and the music keeps getting better. I can’t see myself loving this show with the same fervor with which I worshipped BSG, but who knows?

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