Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Over Too Soon

A few days ago I watched the final episode of Final Space. A few days before that, I watched the final episode of the live action remake of Cowboy Bebop. A week or two before that I watched the final episode of October Faction. A little while before that I watched the final episode of Wolf Like Me.

All four of those final episodes have one thing in common: they weren't supposed to be final at all.

I don't know exactly why each of them came to an end when they did. Underwhelming viewing figures, too expensive to make, poor critical response, internal politics at the studios. Any or all of the above. Whatever the explanation, one thing is absolutely clear from the outside: the people making the shows weren't expecting to stop. If they had been, they wouldn't have ended them way they did. 

Of the four, only Wolf Like Me could conceivably be taken for a completed project. It would make for an unusual piece of work but it doesn't end on a cliffhanger and it does have internal consistency and the narrative reaches a resolution of a kind.

Even so, it's plain the six episodes were intended as an introduction, a prelude, a set-up for a longer story, something I would very much have liked to see. Wolf Like Me is a solid, well-made, entertaining show. All the main characters are engaging, the setting is unusual and idiosyncratic (American actors in a suburban Australian location.) and the take on a very familiar fantasy trope is unusual, thoughtful and nuanced. There did occasionally seem to be a little confusion of tone but nothing that time wouldn't have smoothed out.

Or that's what I thought, until I read the reviews. As previously discussed, I prefer to read the reviews after I've seen the show, so as to compare my reactions with those of others and, with luck, have my feelings and interpretations reflected and confirmed. 

Not what happened. At least, not at first.

When I looked at the ratings for Wolf Like Me on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic a few weeks ago they were terrible. I didn't take a note of the scores at the time but I'm sure all of them were well under fifty per cent. I'm pretty sure I remember one of them being in the thirties. The general opinion seemed to be well-reflected by the infelicitous title  of The Guardian's review :"Wolf Like Me - So bad it's good? No, just the former."

As I check those same sites today, though, I find my original opinion of the show has been retrospectively vindicated. The Metacritic rating is much healthier 69%. IMDB is even better at 7.3/10 (with a strongly upward trend) and while the Rotten Tomatoes critics' rating is just barely in the green at 56%, the audience score is a stratospheric 92%.

Those are the kinds of figures that, along with rising interest and appreciation from those who, like me, came to the show late, can sometimes lead to a revival or a reboot. I can't see that happening in this particular instance but it is a possibility now. 

I'd be more than happy to see it come back. I felt like things were just getting started when they had to stop. I doubt it will happen, sadly. It's much more likely the show will be forgotten, another lost opportunity along with so many others. At six episodes, Wolf Like Me just doesn't have the heft to become the cult classic it could have been, given more time.

October Faction is a show I'd very much have liked to see continue but it's easier than it is with Wolf Like Me to see why it didn't. It's one of probably too many shows that follow the path forged by the X-Files, the premise being, as in The Secret World, that all the weird and wicked hiding in the shadows are really real. 

That's a very well-trodden path now and I wouldn't make any claims for October Faction having taken it in any new directions, although it might be the most militant take on the trope I've seen for a while. I really liked it but I suspect the things I liked the most wereprecisely those that saw it received with a deal more ennui, not to say hostility, by the majority of those who watched it. 

The writers seem to have not merely a disdain but an almost aggressive disinterest in explaining how any aspect of the reality they've created works. In many respects it patently doesn't. Structural conceits are dropped on the viewer like pianos falling from a skyscraper and you're apparently meant to keep on walking and let the wreckage lie. Major elements of the premise simply make no sense at all when looked at logically. 

I not only didn't care about any of that, I was happier not to have to care. When I'm caught up in a tale, I like coming out the end of the story feeling more confused than when I went in but I realise appealing to that attitude generally doesn't pay the bills.

But October Faction has a lot more going for it than lax world-building and contempt for logic. It has wit. It has style. It has energy. It's vital, exciting and fun. It's a cartoon with real people and occasionally real emotions. It also has two very charismatic leads and a very charismatic villain (Or maybe anti-hero. We'll never know.) all of whom happen, very unusually, to be middle-aged parents.

Unfortunately, as most of the reviews were quick to point out, it also has two of the least charismatic leads of any comparable series in the teenage twins of said parents. (Yes, of all three of them. It's complicated, although apparently not too complicated to also turn up in much the same form as a plot twist in Final Space.) And if the twins are dull, their coterie of teenage friends and lovers are even less interesting, hard though that is to imagine. 

Plenty of shows I've watched have seen wooden actors turn in increasingly supple and subtle performances as they grew into their roles. There was every possibility that could have happened here. Equally, some shows run for season after season with the least charismatic actors heading the cast list (Smallville is available to give notes.) 

October Faction enjoyed good plotting and offered strong special effects to back up the impressive chemistry between the older leads. I had the sense it would have matured well. Never going to find out if I was right.

If October Faction died from lack of interest, Cowboy Bebop was killed by failing to live up to expectations. A live action reboot of a much-loved anime series, almost all the genre-specific reviews I've seen have one complaint above all others: it doesn't do justice to the legacy of the original. 

I had never seen the anime so I had neither preconceptions nor expectations. I knew about it only because the bookshop where I work has stocked the manga in the past and I've put it on the shelf. Never read it. Just shelved it.

I'm watching the anime now. I'm on episode five. I started immediately after I got to the end of the live show because I wanted more of the world and the characters. It's an interesting experiment in whether first exposure trumps actual quality. So far, the anime feels thin, weak and unstructured compared to the live action series. It's decent enough that I'd watch it anyway but it has no sense of being any kind of classic.

The live Cowboy Bebop isn't a classic either but it's a very good show. All the main characters, the main villain, the supporting cast, they're all convincing and charismatic. The stories are episodic, picaresque even, but there's a tight through-line that's resolved only partially by the final episode. It's evidently intended to carry on and I would have liked to have seen where it was going. 

As with October Faction, there's not even the barest lip-service paid to explaining how the world in which the characters operate came to be the way it is, let alone how it could possibly sustain itself. A few seconds' thought blows holes in the logic of just about every scene. None of that matters in the least. No-one expects realism from a setting like this, or no-one should. 

What viewers have a right to expect of a show based on bounty hunters, jazz and the Old West is style, rhythm, cool and great fight scenes. Cowboy Bebop has all of those and then some. Another thing it has in common with October Faction and Final Space, although not so much with Wolf Like Me, is that getting shot or stabbed a bunch of times is a minor inconvenience, something you'll recover from in a matter of hours. Maybe minutes.

It's probably because all of these shows are based on comic books of one kind or another and they carry with them some degree of comic book sensibility. Death is rarely the end and injury is barely an inconvenience. They are all live action, though, so the injuries at least look like they hurt, for a moment. 

Final Space is an animated show and it takes full advantage of that fact. Its universe makes considerably less sense than any of the others I've mentioned and it takes more to kill a significant character there than it does to destroy a planet. 

Cartoon logic operates at all times, except when the storyline is focused on the characters internal monologues, at which time things get uncomfortably serious. I can't immediately bring to mind another action-oriented, animated series that spends so much time focusing on depression, inner doubt and existential loneliness, let alone one that purports to be a comedy. It's no Bojack Horseman but it's not a barrel of laughs, either.

The ostensible reason for Final Space not being renewed was the merger between Warner Media and Discovery but it had already moved channels three times by then. Maybe it was the whiplash from those wild mood swings that did for it in the end.  

Final Space did a lot better than the other three, managing three seasons before it got cancelled but the showrunner, Olan Rogers, had plans for a story arc lasting twice as long. All the shows I've been talking about end with a whole bunch of questions unanswered, a whole lot of plot threads left hanging and, in three out of four cases, a whopping great set-up for a Next Season that will never come.

It's discouraging. Not that I expect every show to last for a decade. Things run their course, have their time, run out of road. I know that.

It's more that I don't think it's too much to ask that they be allowed to conclude rather than merely stop. It doesn't even necessarily have to be in the same format or on the same platform, especially given that most of these shows were adaptations from other media in the first place. It'd be nice to get some kind of closure, however it's delivered. 

Dropping underperforming properties cold may save networks money in the immediate moment but I wonder what damage it does in the longer term. I know I'm starting to get into the habit of checking before I start watching a new show, how long it ran, whether it was prematurely cancelled. I'm beginning to steer clear of anything that only ran one season just on general principles. Why get invested when there's never going to be a payoff?

I may be missing out on some short-run gems that way but I suspect I'm more likely to be saving myself a lot of irritation, frustration and annoyance. And then again, maybe not. For all the disappointment and disatisfaction of their untimely demise, I would heartily recommend all four shows to anyone who hasn't yet seen them. They're good enough for as long as they last to make up for what's not there and never will be.

And at least you'll know what you're getting into before you start. That's more than I did.


  1. I had forgotten I had watched October Faction until I read about it here. It started off interesting, grabbed the viewer right away with the mystery of what was going on. I don't think it developed very well and by the end I could see why it did not get renewed.

    I am disappointed that we'll get no more live action Cowboy Beebop. The last two episodes were a little weak, but overall it was tight, stylish, and smart. But I never saw the anime.

    1. Yes, the early episodes of Ocvtober Faction have real presence but the premise seems to get away from the writers as time goes on. The real problem, though, is that someone obviously believes the show needs to focus on the high school characters whereas it's blindingly obvious the interest lies squarely with their parents and other adults.

      I don't think that's a anything that couldn't have been turned around in later episodes, though. I've watched enough shows start shakily then improve in the mid-run before winding down. And that goes double for Cowboy Bebop, which is much stronger all round.

  2. Looking over this list I think of the whole Samurai Jack debacle and its bizarre conclusion. There wasn't much about that final season that couldn't have been crammed into two or three episodes at the end of the first round.

    I'm sure it's just the Dunning-Kruger talking, but TV executives sure seem bad at their jobs.

    1. I hadn't heard of Samurai Jack. Looks intriguing. I'll investigate further.

  3. Is that Normal from Dark Angel in the October Faction screencap? [googles] Yes it is! J.C MacKenzie.

    So of these 4 shows, I think Cowboy Bebop is the only one I've heard of, though October Faction is kind of tickling something in my brain.

    There are SO many shows coming out now, on so many different services, that I think discovery (or maybe, marketing) is becoming a huge issue.

    1. J. C. McKenzie is excellent in October Faction. I'd watch him in something else very willingly but as you say, it's getting very hard to keep up. I hadn't heard of Dark Angel, for example.

      And it's even harder to see the things I want without subscribing to far more services than I'd like. I'm going to have to sub to Disney+ at some point I'm sure but there's a ton of stuff elsewhere I'd like to watch as well.


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