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The L.A. Complex

Apologies for the hiatus during the warm months. It was certainly not for a lack of great viewing options. In fact, this summer brought to mind how much we’ve progressed from the dark and dreary, pre-ubiquity of cable past of not having anything at all to watch between the season finales of May-June and the premieres of September-October. I once spent a whole summer just watching reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess. Oh, how I miss Lucy Lawless and the New Zealand countryside. But it was a tragedy nonetheless. These days, the bounty of new offerings on summertime television work, along with climate change, to tear down whatever semblance of seasons we once had — way back when we had ice in the arctic or when social media was just for the living. Times are a’changin’, premieres are a’premierin’, but before that, let’s look back at a summer show that The CW feigned interest in as they waited for Gossip Girl to return. Shall we?

I want to discuss The LA Complex for two reasons: 1. Canadians are pretty much our summer saviors here in the states whether we like it or not; and 2. Degrassi: The Next Generation. The second reason pointedly alludes to television’s yesteryears in that, as many of us know, Degrassi: TNG, the most recent installment of a Canadian teen drama franchise that stretches as far back as 19791, was a angsty, rapey, stabby-shooty gem of a series that completely ended after its seventh season — completely1 — but before then, it brought the lovely Cassie Steele into our lives as the incorrigibly adorable Manny Santos. Fundamentally, Manny is back in The LA Complex. She has the same penchant for making poor romantic decisions; same confusingly misguided Hollywood aspirations; same infuriatingly naive disposition; same Manny. And we love her for it through thick and thin. But somehow she manages to find herself again playing second fiddle to the rest of the ensemble despite The LA Complex being transparently a vehicle for her to shine. Her character Abby Vargas (subtly, almost repentantly Latina, same ole Manny) galavants around town in a way that actually gives me pause to criticize because I would hate to get caught up in something like slut-shaming. Because it’s not her sexual body count (which is high and rising) that is an issue, it’s more so that as a character and as a storytelling channel for the show, her hook ups and the usage of her sexual body seems primary to her contribution to the show. And that comes across to me as either lazy or demeaning; demeaning maybe to women, but definitely to those that wanted to see Manny as a full-fledged adult, as the series was implicitly billed.

Luckily, The LA Complex offers Jewel Staite as Raquel Westbrook for our fix of all-grown up favorites. (She’s Canadian. Did you know? See the first reason above why this series is worthy of note.) With Stargate Atlantis and Firefly not too far from anyone’s mind (read: nerds), Staite portrays a bitter has-been actress down on her luck but very much up on her scheming. In fact, she plays the role so well that I’ve bookmarked her IMDB and Wikipedia pages just to remind me not to despise her.3 The premise of the series, young people struggling to make it in the city of angels, is legitimized through Raquel Westbrook. Her ofttimes noxious and wicked interactions with the wide-eyed other characters is at points the only way to distinguish this Faux Angeles from the soft-pedaling melodrama of Degrassi Community School. And then like a cute toddler with a sharpie in an all white upholstered room, the viewer is almost forced to forgive Raquel’s misdeeds. She’s too cute. She’s still young (sort of). She’s an imperfect vessel, like us, after all, and she just wants to be loved and have nice things, like we do. She aggressively pursues ends like the woman-of-action we wished Manny had grown up to be, and suffers for it each step of the way. Raquel Westbrook is the most LA the show has to offer, as well as one of the most complex characters the show has bothered to roll out up to this point, and she is the unexpected heart of the series — not the whiney children running around humping one another. And she’s damn good at it.

But then there’s Kaldrick King. Besides filling the series to the brim with just the right amount of heated man-on-man-against-wall-or-floor make out scenes and (literally) explosive sequences of violence, the hip-hop superstar caricature, played by Andra Fuller, brings a dimension to the series that — while so distant from the rest at times it seems like its own show — is needed to dilute the white whines. At its core, The LA Complex is about a bunch of self-indulgent dreamers living and building their dreams — gigs, parties, big city, sex aplenty, ostensibly cheap rent — but blinded to it by their self-indulgence. It’s an interesting contrast to see the Black man with all the money and fame, taking indulgence to another level, struggling with it so much, and desperately seeking repentance and acceptance. His kisses appear distinct from the other kisses in the series, not because they’re with other men, but plainly because they mean more. They speak to indulgence in more than flesh and conflicts of interests that are more than just fame and fortune and glitz and glamour. Not to give the super two-fer tokenism too much credit, there’s certainly a lot of unflattering discussion happening over this story arc of the show, but Kaldrick King and his new budget Obama love interest is surely compelling, provocative drama if not just an unconventional sexual aesthetic for primetime network drama. He also doesn’t look too bad in a tank top. I definitely look forward to seeing him the season finale next week.

1Apparently TVs did exist back then. Whodathunkit?

2Yup.

3 OMG, she was in Flash Forward too!

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Continuum is a new sci-fi crime drama airing on Canadian network Showcase. The series explores time travel interlaced with socio-political upheaval in the Vancouver of 2077 and today. A group terrorists on deathrow (or justified revolutionaries, if you broaden your perspective in a way the series seems reluctant to allow) hop back in time to 2012 accompanied by Protector Kiera Cameron, played by Rachel Nichols1 — a title bestowed upon future cops who enforce the laws of our big business overlords. Fundamentally, the future painted in Continuum is in direct conversation with our present day Occupy movement, painting a world controlled by corporations where laws and legislation are plainly the manifest will and interests of the 1%. Thus the so-called terrorists are merely the expected backlash to oppression and diminished liberty. Heroes in the guise of villainy. Who knew Canada had the cynicism to pull off such an Orwellian feat?

They don’t really. The gang of thoroughly diverse (almost par for course in a contemporary Canadian series2) terrorists proves to be unavoidably, almost cartoonishly, villainous — they murder without remorse or even a thought out plan it seems. And the Protector turned Detective is undeniably and often robotically the heroine of the story. Arguably unfit for police work, she consistently solves cases using a combination of technological advantage and sheer good guy good luck/bad guy bad luck. The characters of the series are pretty linearly drawn out this way for easy consumption.

And sure, there’s an ideological greying on the horizon, having briefly been lampshaded early in the series and foreshadowed in the awkward subplot featuring telecommuting sidekick Alec’s interactions with his clearly shady family, but it can’t possibly function as an actual revelation. It’s largely expected at this point and may actually disappoint if, for example, Kiera grows a little more pessimistic about the benefits of having an evil corporation place a monitoring chip in her brain to record her every waking moment; or if the terrorists stop relentlessly and aimlessly murdering people to further their plans of making the world a better and more fair place; or if the Vancouver PD simply realize that terrorist threats might be of serious concern and not something a clearly fake FBI agent and the guy from Charmed can handle on their own. I for one don’t want any of those things to happen. It’ll ruin the fun.

The fun of Continuum is reminiscent of that late 90s-early 2000s golden era of guilty pleasure television. There’s certainly a Cleopatra 2525 vibe entwined within the premise of this series, along with an Alias or Dark Angel-esque belief that sending a cute brunette on action adventures will always work out, we’ll figure out the kinks of the adventures later… Ooo, look tight leather. As the examples given can attest to, the philosophy had mixed results back then, yet was always fun.3 But to give the show a bit more credit than that, there is surely a concerted effort to make Rachel Nichols more than just a pretty face. She is effectively given two male subordinates and has a maternal bend to her character that gives her a concurrent strength and weakness, a staple of captivating female leads in television. The poor man’s Olivia Benson or a Det. Linden that smiles.

There’s even something fun about the Canadian take on sci-fi action. The gadgetry is humble, and the science fiction seems almost apologetic. We see Keira sport toys that are just a bit past touchscreen. Of course, 2077 isn’t that far away, so how advance could everything really get? But it’s nice to learn that the future has pregnancy tests that you can just lick and stick to a bathroom mirror. Also, throughout the series, the paradoxes that often arise from time travel in fiction are considered pretty matter-of-factly and ever so slightly touched upon. Physicists across the land must find that considerate. But atop all of that, the violence is surprisingly satisfying. People, main characters, are expendable in Continuum, often perishing in drawn out fire fights. Hand to hand combat is fairly entertaining too. There’s no Canadian jokes to plug into this aspect of the series.

Overall, Continuum may prove to be a universally rewarding series if it plays to its many strengths and utilizes the bit of suspense and intrigue that arises from a beloved protagonist trapped in the past in the pursuit of justice and a way to get back to her family. Well perhaps “beloved” was a strong word. Come to think of it, I can’t say I feel that strongly about any of the protagonists. I sort of like the terrorists. Yeah. Canadian terrorists are cool. Watch Continuum.

1It was actually pretty difficult to think of a brief description of why Rachel Nichols should be familiar. She sits somewhere strangely between ubiquitous and obscure. She’s been in blockbusters and high-rated CBS shows, played significant characters in major plot arcs and minor forgettable roles. Her Google image results look like 2-3 different people. Apparently she was blonde at some point. Apparently she’s not even Canadian! Those are the main things about Rachel Nichols. You’re welcome.

2Not necessarily a bad thing. And I base this solely on Degrassi reruns and half an episode of The L.A. Complex. Sorry, Canada.

3Oh and you can do it with blondes too — remember when Pamela Anderson was a bodyguard in the most amazingest show ever? — but for some reason it was rare. Late-90s. Go figure.