Tuesday, April 16, 2024

TV Re-Watch: The Expanse, Seasons 1-2

Like a lot of people, I tried to watch The Expanse twice before a third attempt got me hooked. 

I believe it was just before the 6th and final season of The Expanse debuted that I gave it that third shot, and I think through the power of subtitles and being told I needed to power through a few episodes, I'd be richly rewarded, I made it to the fourth episode and was all-in.

To that end, I have notes for any new show-runner on what is a turn-off on a very good show and why they should not do the things that the pilot for The Expanse did, even if I know perfectly well why it did those things in retrospect.  

Based on a series of novels by two writers working under the shared pen-name of James A. Corey, the show follows the events surrounding the introduction of a new technology to an all-too-buyable vision of the future in which humanity has not yet left our solar system, but has made it to the edge of the solar system, driven by the needs of humanity and the joys of commerce.  

Essentially, three populations are of concern 
  • the Earth of about 300 years in the future
  • Mars - a now semi-self-sufficient entity, highly militarized and suspicious of Earth
  • and the Belt - now hundreds of years old, a series of huge space stations, small stations and colonies clinging to asteroids and mining the asteroid belt for the materials needed by Earth and Mars to advance and survive
This year I did try to start reading the novels, but all it made me want to do was re-watch the series.  Well, Jamie's brother and dad had been watching the show, and my brother's family named their dog after one of the characters (Drummer) and Jamie was finally of a mind that she'd wade through those first episodes and see what the noise was about.

Like the best sci-fi, the world-building the of the series is so well done, it feels intuitive.  This is a deeply used future, and mankind is still mankind.  This is no Star Trek future where there's a bunch of reasonable species being reasonable.  And while not technically dystopian, there's a certain... inevitability to the future imagined.  Clearly the novelists understood what capitalism tends to do, what governments definitely do, and what it means to be born into systems that seem fundamentally fucked, and you have more or less no say in it.  Which, despite what the kids on social media think, is more or less the operating model for humanity.

And that's the thing.  The show is so very, very human.  We're not going to strange new worlds.  We're not space wizards waving wands at each other in karate suits.  We're still us, and we've somehow taken our shit and made it part of how we live all the way out past Jupiter.

So to be a good person is, in fact, extremely difficult.  And everyone's definition of what it is to be a good person, to care about other people and proactively help comes from an understandable viewpoint.  It's just that, as in life, those viewpoints collide enough that they spill out into violence.  And the keg is pretty set to blow already when the first episode opens.

The Expanse manages to balance the weight of character and plot remarkably well.  Which is remarkable considering how many characters the show requires against numerous plot threads.  It is *work* to keep up with them, as the threads don't end.  They twist and morph and grow, while also showing us bits and pieces of who our main characters are along the way, reacting to the events of the show.

the best dressed character on TV

I'm fairly certain Jamie was previously aware my favorite character on the show is Chrisjen Avasarala, played by the phenomenal Shohreh Aghdashloo, but I also am fairly certain Jamie had no idea why Chrisjen was a favrote prior to watching the show.  But it doesn't matter who my favorite is.  Everyone is going to have characters they dig, and there's plenty to latch onto for whatever reason clicks with you (I successfully pre-guessed Jamie's favorite to date, just sayin').  

One thing the show (and, from my experience, the book series) does is - without ever saying it explicitly- present a future in which competence is highly favored, regardless of gender.  I am certain it will look as dated in the decades to come as original formula Star Trek can look now, despite Roddenberry's better intentions.  But for now, it's a fairly gender-balanced show that seamlessly pulls in different ethnicities, and it's fascinatingly organic.  That said, as with a lot of media, there is a curious lack of Latino representation, including among background players, which is possibly impacted by the fact the show was shot in Canada.  

Much like Game of Thrones, the show benefits from the existence of novels upon which the show is based.  The showrunners managed to keep the authors in the loop and onboard, even as they made changes - some cosmetic, some structural.  But the show is not the book, and those are reasonable liberties to take, even as the show doesn't need to guess about where it thinks it should go.  There was always a map in place.  And when you're dealing with a story at this scope and scale, keeping the pieces aligned is of the utmost importance.  And it introduces a bible for who characters are and where they're going, which I imagine has to be gold for actors and showrunners.

It also presents a vision for the world that everyone can work from.  While certainly some aspects were changed, you get an idea of the utilitarian world of the Belter, and the art design team brings that very much to life.  For what few glimpses of beauty we see, we see far more of the tunnels and pipes that make that beauty possible.  Of the humans packed in elbow to elbow in cramped, poorly lit spaces.  Or what it means to be plugging in at High-G in a Martian attack ship.


The first two seasons deal with the multi-pronged story arc of the disappearance of an heiress, told in classic detective noir style, borrowing directly from the Gene Tierney film, Laura, and shown through the work of a cop on a station in the belt.  Meanwhile, the crew of an ice-hauler gets pulled in to what appears to be a trigger event in a third party setting a war between Earth and Mars that will inevitably drag in The Belt.  Unlike the books, we also get a look at the current state of affairs on Earth via Avasarala, and how Mars operates via Martian Marine Bobby Draper and her crew.  And, we start getting an idea of the fractious politics of the Belt, a tribal construct with shifting loyalties and methods.

It's fair to say Season 1 is almost all preamble for what's to come, and even the detective spin on the narrative doesn't last as we enter into the political and economic realities driving the rest of the story.  Folks attached to Miller - and I thought he was a great character - are going to get that his storyline had a natural conclusion, and it's okay that he disappears from the narrative.  Just as more characters are brought in and more complex stories.

Season 2 unravels the realities of what's been going on behind the scenes, and that our leads in the crew of the Rocinante should just be specks out there in the cosmos, but their proactive approach and desire to set things right is at odds with the expectations of the political and financial players.  

It's a huge thrill when the two seemingly wildly unrelated stories of the missing Julie Mau and the crew of what is now the Rocinante meet - the pieces starting to click together.  And I think the show does a great job of putting all of those pieces into a complicated but coherent picture.  

NO, REALLY, SPOILERS (if you've only seen seasons 1 and 2)

An additional aspect of how it's nice to be working from novels and know what's coming, a re-watch favors the viewer with what seem like throwaway lines and bits of character business, which seem relevant, but don't really telegraph what's coming.  But, man, some of those bits really do.  

We're actually told a shocking amount about the Rocinante crew in seasons 1 and 2 that will be relevant as the show goes on, and actually inform a lot of seasons 5 and 6.  

Jamie asked me if I was enjoying a re-watch, and the answer is a resounding "yes".  Rather than see holes or problems with the show, I'm getting a richer understanding of the story and characters.  On a first viewing, so much is thrown at you, you're just hanging on to keep up.  But once you've done it once before, you can better see the pieces and appreciate the artistry that went into the thing.  

I've also grown to better like some of the characters I liked well enough on round 1, but - for example - I'm way more invested in Naomi and Amos's personal stories, when I think the first time around I was focused mostly on Jim, Chrisjen and Bobbie.  It's just good stuff, and I think everyone is really turning in good performances.  

In conclusion

I'm digging my return to the show, and am enjoying watching Jamie get into it.  I'm enjoying the "novelistic" approach to how the show unfolds even more this time, and getting more out of it.  

We're one episode into season 3, and I think we'll probably blaze right through the series.


RHPT said...

I watched the first two (maybe three?) seasons, and I could never really get into the show. It's a great show, definitely, but I thought the plot was predictable despite the great characters. And I did not like Holden, not matter how much I tried, which did not help. Maybe I missed the point of the show, and I could also never fully buy into Ted Lasso, so this is most likely a character and intellectual flaw.

I think maybe the accurate portrayal of humanity/capitalism is what ultimately turned me off the show. I don't need to see that in my fiction when I can turn on the news for it.

The League said...

one topic I was saving for after seasons 3 and 4 was to discuss how the show is *barely* a sci-fi analogy. It's not hiding an idea inside of another idea, it just bluntly is about those ideas. We're not using how we discuss robots for how we discuss labor, we're just discussing labor, for example. So, yeah, it can get bleak.

And Holden is an interesting character. He definitely struggles with likability as sort of the cypher-ish central figure, and also a guy who struggles with how he expresses himself as a person and as a Captain making decisions. On my review, I went from "okay, he's our throughline for good or ill" to "he's the audience stand-in for making hard decisions in impossible situations". Like a lot of leads, he can be blanker slate, and in a show with other more obviously colorful characters, he's not exactly Han Solo.