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Old February 24th, 2011, 04:26 AM  
⚡Multiple Man
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The Wrong Way of the Samurai

(Note: This is long, so if you dislike reading lengthy posts, feel free to duck out now. The pretty version can be found at heropower. Thanks.)

So... I was planning on doing an extensive recap of the last two episodes of "Power Rangers Samurai." But, to be completely honest, I just didn't feel like doing that for now. I suppose I'm just a little depressed as a fan that the show has turned out in a way that I'm not all that happy with. Which brings me to this.

I'm sure a lot of what I have to say will just be an echo of what I might have alluded to before, or what others have already said elsewhere. But I thought it might be worth it to bring these things up for discussion, since most people reading this are interested in seeing the show do well, and it's better to talk this stuff out than to just sit there and let it wash over you, whether you like any of it or not. And I'd just like to preface this by making it clear that this is just the two-cent opinion of an interested fan, and thus should be taken for what it's worth. Your mileage may obviously vary.

As I finished up the most recently-aired episode of "Power Rangers Samurai," the word "frustration" came to mind.

It was something that I'm sure a lot of fans had been feeling for a while now with the franchise. Going back a few years, fans didn't always love the direction the show was going in. Then came "Power Rangers RPM," and my frustrations were tempered by what I honestly believed to be one of the best seasons of the show in a very long time. Of course, frustration set in pretty quickly after the season ended, because that marked the end of the entire franchise. Aside from the horrible reversioned reruns of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" that aired for a few months between then and now. But new Power Rangers was over. At least until it was announced that Saban Brands was bringing the show back to be on a great network, with new episodes.

While a lot of people were overjoyed by this (and I count myself among them) I have to say that I always felt a lot more cautiously happy than a lot of my friends. At least that's how it seemed. I appreciated that the franchise was being revived so quickly, and that it was potentially going to get some major exposure. But I also wasn't ready to just assume that everything was going to be perfect in the end, because... Well, how often has that actually happened, whether it be under Saban's watchful eye, or anyone else's?

I had certain reservations about how the series might be handled. Such as the tone of the show. The dynamic between the characters. The comedy. The drama. The overall mood of the story versus what we might have seen in other seasons.

Looking back, it's actually kind of amazing how so many of the things I was afraid of just materialized in nearly the exact form I imagined. Almost everything I thought was a possibility- it happened. I mean, this isn't a case of a fan setting themselves up to dislike something. I was ready to accept whatever we got, and would have loved to have been wrong. I just... wasn't.

I mention this in my recap for the first aired episode, but it seems fairly obvious that whatever "The Team Unites" was, it could not have been created as a legitimate beginning to the Samurai story. If it was, then I'm sorry to say, but it's the worst premiere in the history of the franchise for me. Not because the episode itself is bad. But because it does nothing at all to set up the world in which the characters live. Hell, half the characters themselves feel hollow and near-lifeless to me in that episode, because the show hasn't done the proper work needed to introduce them to me. And this is a trend that continues for the next two episodes we're shown.

I suspect that, if I had been given the opportunity to see these characters meeting each other. To learn their names and at least get a brief hint of their individuality. To understand why they were chosen for what is obviously kind of an important job. Then I'm sure I would have liked these three episodes a lot more. Unfortunately, since I wasn't shown any of this in a way that feels natural or sensible, I'm forced to continue on, hating that the show doesn't seem interested in giving me any of the basic information I need to really enjoy it all.

Some fans might argue that the first aired episode was handled in a similar format to that of the "Power Rangers RPM" premiere. Because we began that season not knowing how the Rangers got their powers, and were only shown their backstories later on in flashbacks.

I have to say, I really don't know what people are talking about when they use this as an example. I mean, the differences in the two episodes seem so monumentally vast.

For one thing, the first two minutes of RPM's premiere include a voiceover from Doctor K telling us exactly what's been happening in the Ranger world lately. We then proceed to watch as Flynn is introduced as a caring Scottish guy, who saves a bunch of people despite his obvious lack of affiliation with Rangers, or even the defense forces of this world. Then we come to Summer, who heroically rides in with Scott at the last minute, just before a barricade would have locked them out, insisting that she told Scott they would make it, solidifying her role on the future team. Right after which, we see Scott refer to his father, and to his fallen brother, immediately explaining to us who all three characters are, and what their eventual roles will be. Next we come to Dillon and Ziggy, whose personalities we are clearly shown throughout more than half the episode, during which they are introduced to the world of the Power Rangers.

In every conceivable way, this is a clear and specific introduction to every major aspect of the RPM season. It's not confusing, and it's definitely entertaining. And most importantly, it feels like this was always meant to be the beginning of the story.

None of this is true for the first aired Samurai episode. It doesn't matter that we didn't see the exact moment when the RPM Rangers were given powers. It's enough that we are shown why it happened. In Samurai's first aired episode, at best, we see evidence as to why one or two of them are good at being Rangers, but nothing more. And even that feels incidental. As if no one even thought about it. Or that this episode wasn't meant to be the beginning.

There has been speculation that the "real" premiere of the series will eventually air as a special event, or just as a regular airing, and so we will eventually see all of the things that seem to be missing from the show right now. I agree with this assumption. One way or another, we'll see the lost beginning. And I'll be glad for that. However, that doesn't really help me in the meantime. Because someone has apparently chosen to air the show out of order, I'm now stuck in this limbo space where everything I see feels wrong. Even the comic relief.

Honestly, I've never been a big fan of comic relief characters. In my view, any character of any TV show has the potential to be funny, if the writers choose to make them that way for any given scene. In fact, that's exactly how it works most of the time. Comedy springs up naturally, wherever it needs to, regardless of whether there's a "funny guy" present. So the inclusion of a character made strictly for the sake of comedy seems redundant. The show will have comedy either way, because the writers said so. And they most definitely do, in the case of Samurai.

I knew ahead of time that we were going to have Bulk and Spike in the show. And I accepted that, despite the fact that their brand of humor wasn't really for me, they were in the show and I should just get used to it. Regardless of my feelings on the humor, I can appreciate that Paul Schrier is a fantastic actor, and it's a joy to see him still working. Sadly, his part in the story suffers from the same problem that the new characters do. As I watch the episodes, I'm struggling to find the point to Bulk and Spike's place in it. I mean, they show up to do their shtick- Bulk gets something messy thrown in his face and Spike does a high-pitched laugh. And then... nothing.

And I really mean NOTHING.

It's easy for some to say that Bulk and Spike are just doing what they've always done, and so we shouldn't be surprised. Except I don't think that's entirely true. Yes, Bulk and Skull always got into ridiculous antics in their Mighty Morphin days. But at least they felt like they were more of a part of the show during their first few appearances.

Bulk and Skull frequently shared scenes with the Ranger teens in the opening episodes of the franchise. It was established right away that these guys knew the Rangers, and they were all familiar with each other. These opening scenes helped to show us the dynamic between the seven of them- juxtoposing the "good kids" with the "punks" of the school they all attended together. We knew exactly what was going on with all of them from the word "go."

Even if Bulk and Skull weren't often important to the plot, we at least were aware of their function in the fabric of the show itself. Bulk and Spike, on the other hand, have no connection to the rest of the show in evidence, at all. They have not shared a single solitary scene with any of the Rangers (or anyone else, for that matter) in the past three weeks that the show has been on the air. For all we know, Bulk and Spike aren't even aware that they exist. Yes, we can infer and assume that this might be the case, but the show hasn't bothered to let us know one way or the other. The most we know is that Spike wants to be a samurai. For some reason. Somehow. And that's all.

It's unfortunate that I might know more about Spike from reading an internet blurb about him than from actually watching him on three consecutive episodes of the series- the only ones that have aired so far. It's made even worse by the fact that I frankly don't even like that the character is here doing what he's doing to begin with.

And I know what some people might say. That the slapsticky nature of Bulk/Skull/Spike was designed to appeal to kids, and that it makes sense for me not to like it because I'm not a little kid anymore. Ya know, it amazes me how often we bring up the age differences only when it comes to things people don't like about the show, versus what they actually do. It feels like we're ignoring an obvious truth here- that we're watching a kids show and we like it, despite the silliness.

And not to get into another tangent about the overuse of the "it's just a kids' show" phrase. But to all those who would suggest that the reason I dislike Bulk and Spike's brand of comedy is because I'm an adult, I just would like to say. That's not true at all. I didn't like Bulk and Skull as a kid either. I have never really liked them. I've always seen them as more of a distraction from the show, than a compliment to it. What I cared about as a kid were the Rangers, their lives, and their mission to save the world. If Bulk and Skull were a part of that, then I was fine with it, but when they moved too far away from the central story, I pretty much hated it as a kid. I may not have been able to articulate it the way I can now, but my feelings toward them were the same. Actually, I take that back. I disliked them even more as a kid than I do now. At least as an adult I can appreciate the talent that the actors bring to the table, and I really respect them for their work. But no, I'm not a fan of this type of comedy, nor have I ever been.

As much of a broken record as it might seem to those that follow me regularly, I have to say that I would have loved for the comedy to be more similar to that of the RPM season. In recent years, the comedy on the show seemed to have turned a corner. Changing in some ways from outright slapstick bufoonery, to something a little more clever. Something that was more focused on the main characters and the craziness of their own lives, rather than some external force coming in for two minutes to re-enact a bit that has existed in hundreds of other shows and movies throughout history. Not that RPM's comedy was breathtakingly new for television- but for Power Rangers, something had changed. In my opinion, for the better.

We didn't need over five main heroes, plus comic relief characters. The main heroes themselves could be funny on their own. You could argue that Ziggy, despite a lot of depth that was written into his backstory and involvement in the plot, was a comic relief character himself, while also being a Ranger. And even without him, the show was often hilarious, just because of the wackiness of the situations the other characters found themselves in, or some of the banter between them. Whether it's a moment where poor Flynn isn't allowed to finish his smoothie because of a robot attack, or a time when Doctor K is ready to tear someone's head off for insinuating that her precious power suits are made of "spandex." It's fun times!

But honestly. I could talk all day about why I loved the comedy of RPM, and why I prefer that style. Ultimately, even if I loved every minute of Bulk and Spike's comedic stylings, there would still be a lingering feeling of confusion. That we should know by now where exactly Spike came from, and what he's doing hanging around with his "Uncle Bulk" (beyond the obvious). Why is any of this happening? Where is this going exactly? I get the feeling the answer could be in the "premiere" that we haven't been shown yet.

Meanwhile, the rest of the show spends a great deal of time adapting from the japanese source material, "Samurai Sentai Shinkenger." Which, by the way, I think is an excellent series in its own right.

Now, I'm not the type of fan to say that, just because Power Rangers has decided to follow the same formula as the japanese sentai, that it automatically sucks. In fact, there are a number of sequences that Samurai has recreated almost exactly from Shinkenger, which I think were extremely well done. My favorite parts in the whole show so far have been those major training sequences, which were taken almost shot-for-shot from Shinkenger. At the same time, I do prefer originality over what is essentially copying of the sentai plot, with a few bits added or subtracted.

As a fan of Shinkenger, I could go on a rant about how I feel like I already know the whole story, thus Samurai just feels like one big rerun with different actors. But if that were the only issue, then I honestly wouldn't feel the need to bring it up very much.

A popular response to the Shinkenger complaint is that most people watching Samurai (especially the kids) have never even heard of Shinkenger, and thus really aren't affected by the fact that Samurai uses the same story, dialogue, and cinematography. I would argue that this is not necessarily true.

Okay, obviously, if you don't know what Shinkenger is, you probably won't know that what you're seeing is a remake of some other show. I fully agree with that. But sometimes, there's an interesting effect that takes place when Power Rangers copies sentai so rigidly, while also making certain additions and subtractions. They tend to leave out a lot of the details which would seem to be important, in favor of "smoothing things over" or simplifying the story. The problem is that eliminating some of those details actually removes some of the substance of scenes, thereby giving them a hollow feel. A feel which may not have been present if they had actually conceived a story of their own making, and did everything exactly as they wanted, without feeling the need to just stick with the sentai on everything.

I'm certainly not suggesting that they totally remake the show from the ground up. They obviously need to use the sentai footage and keep the suits and merchandise-related elements intact. But the same has been true for seasons like "Power Rangers in Space" and "Power Rangers RPM," both of which took sentai fight footage and crafted a virtually brand new story around a majority of the episodes, creating a whole new show independent from the original. And fans that were watching at the time went completely wild over this. Space in particular could be arguably seen as the season that saved the show from cancellation, until the ending came about and did so well with viewers that it demanded that a follow-up be produced. Twelve years later, we're still going.

I wouldn't say that it's impossible to produce a good series while using a fair amount of sentai plots. We've seen in the past that it can sometimes work reasonably well. But when it comes to which seasons of the franchise are my absolute favorite, most of them included a great deal of original concepts- sometimes changing the characters and the premise of the show to the point where they're almost unrecognizable from the sentai. Aside from the fight scenes, of course.

And I wish I could say that the few elements of originality in Samurai have been a delight to see as well. But there are honestly several things I'm not too thrilled about. I've mentioned Bulk and Spike. The strange thing about Samurai is that it seems to be working very hard to be two different shows, neither of which is actually new. On the one hand, it desperately wants to be "Samurai Sentai Shinkenger," going so far as to translate the japanese dialogue almost exactly into english. On the other hand, it also seems determined to be the spiritual sequel to "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."

I noticed in the first aired episode of Samurai that the characters are all written in a way that seems a little strange to me. What I mean by this is how incredibly cheerful and supportive they all are with each other, even when the situation would seem to be an obvious opportunity for human conflict. I completely understand the logic of certain writers or producers wanting the Rangers to act as the champions for "model citizen" behavior, and thus the characters don't get into serious conflict with each other. The thing is, it just seems a little fake.

And when I say "fake," I say it in full recognition that I'm talking about a show where kids in spandex fight guys in rubber costumes in a paper machet city with giant robots. I get it. This is a silly kids show, and it's meant to be that way. But when I use the word "fake" it's not in reference to the fantastical elements of the show, which most of us love. I'm speaking of the human interactions of the characters. Every show, no matter what the genre, establishes a certain level of dramatic realism. Power Rangers is not immune to this. You wouldn't expect Zack to suddenly become a crossdressing gypsy who listens to nothing but country music all day, because the dramatic realism doesn't allow for this. It would be totally unrealistic for a character like him to act this way. The audience would think that he was betraying the idea behind his character.

Now, these Samurai kids are all new, so we can't say they're acting out of the ordinary. My concern isn't that they're behaving out of character. Just that their characters are so unreal that I struggle to relate to them as human beings. And again, I have to mention that I felt the exact same way about the Mighty Morphin team during the first season when I was a kid. They always seemed so overly nice. Every single one of them got straight A's in school, until the plot of the day demanded that they didn't, and of course that was all fixed by the end of the episode. They showered each other with love no matter what they did, or what the situation was that would normally cause them to clash. In fact, the only major times I ever remembered them having any conflict at all was when they were placed under an evil spell, effectively keeping them all squeaky clean for the entirety of the series.

And really, it's fine that the characters get along. I would never suggest that they need to be at each other's throats all the time, or that they can't really show how much they care about each other, their friends, family, the evironment, etc. But there are ways to do that without coming off like some kind of ghastly Hallmark Channel, "after school special" production. I mean, who doesn't get frustrated with their friends every once in a while? How does no one ever have a disagreement about anything? Is it so much of a sin to be upset for a few minutes and allow yourself a moment to not just be totally cool with absolutely anything your friends throw at you, even though everyone knows they've just done something wrong? Shouldn't the characters be allowed to express dislike of things sometimes? I'm not asking for total anarchy. I just would like to see human beings acting like human beings, for a few of the dialogue scenes, every once in a while. As it is, these guys are like martians to me.

And if Power Rangers as a franchise had always been like this, I might not have minded much. But since the show has already proven, season after season, year after year, that it can do conflict without destroying the general morality of its heroes, I just don't understand why we now are forced to erase all of that beautiful progression and hit the reset button to Mighty Morphin. I mean, I don't think Mighty Morphin is all bad, but of all the things for a new season to emulate, this "super happy, super nice" thing is among the worst for me. The Space season showed me that people can have conflict and still be friends. The Dino Thunder season showed me that kids in school can clash over their different personalities, but still come together in the end because they realize how much they need each other. And the RPM season showed me that, despite the drastic mistakes we make and the arguments we have because of them, we can still do our best to make up for misdeeds. And we don't need to be coddled every miniscule babystep of the way. Because nobody does that without it being commented on. It's just not realistic. Not even for a show about teen superheroes and foam rubber aliens.

Despite the fact that this entry probably doesn't prove it, I'd like to think that I'm a fairly positive person. I mean, I recently wrote up two extensive reviews for "Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger," where I pretty much just gushed about how amazing I think it is so far. I obviously hold last season's RPM in pretty high regard. And I don't want to end on a note that the whole of "Power Rangers Samurai" is horrible, because I don't honestly feel that way.

I do believe that the attention to detail when it comes to adapting the visuals of Shinkenger is extraordinary. The use of certain visual effects is so well done that it's become my favorite part of the show. The flaming sword effects for Jayden's training sequences are fantastic. The cinematography on Mike's training sequence in the first aired episode is a joy to watch. Hector David plays Mike fabulously, easily rising to the top of the cast, second only to Paul Schrier, who still has the acting chops to do just about anything. Even the Mega Mode suits, which I had previously mentioned I was unsure about, turned out to be a welcome addition for me.

And it's things like that which make it so depressing that I don't love the rest of the series so far. I didn't even mention the fact that the villains of the series still don't seem to have as much presence as I was hoping they would, or that it's frustrating to see people confused about the CGI animal that was crawling around Jayden's body a few weeks back, when I know the answers to both could have easily been there had The Powers That Be in the studio and network really worked to make that more clear.

I'm honestly not sure how much the show will be able to improve this season, particularly if the creatives behind it don't see any of these things as a problem. And I grant that there are plenty of people that wouldn't mind. My only real hope is that, if we're lucky enough to get future seasons of Power Rangers, we can start to try to earn back some of that evolution that the franchise had been undergoing for the past decade or so. The show has never been Shakespeare, and I would never expect that. But the show has been a lot better for me than it is at the moment, and I would at least like to get back to that some day soon.
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