Monday 16 February 2015

Constructive Critisism: ISAZA

That's I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse to you.

Hmmm. This was an interesting watch.

Firstly I have to say that overall I think the first episode was decent, and the series will probably be decent, possibly edging towards good. I wouldn't say it was a disappointment and I wouldn't really be too quick to criticize the show's watchability. I watched this after a long day, an hour is fair amount of television, and at no point did I feel like packing it in.

There are also a lot of areas where ISAZA has displayed some real quality, of the type that makes you think 'someone's done a good job there'. The set, in particular was excellent, with enough miscellaneous junk and detail to be totally convincing. The zombies were also excellent, both as visual impact, effective gamerunners, and actors. The post-production, although very noticeable, I think, has a nice feel that keeps things immersive. 

Titles: Also excellent

On a grand level, this show is a hybrid: part people-living-together reality show, cf Big Brother, part action-adventure-gameshow, but with added horror, cf Release the Hounds, although for me, the action side of this show feels more similar to Raven: TheIsland, in which zombies are substituted for Raven's iconic hooded demons, but otherwise the basic idea of 'do tasks while evading the baddies' and 'one mistake deaths' are carried over.

Before zombies were cool
Another obvious comparison might be I'm a celebrity, with each episode mixing tranquil scenes from a central location with difficult and testing challenges from a wider area around that location. I'm no fan of the people-who-are-a-bit-interesting-but-not-that-interesting-sit-around-together side of things, but I can accept it as part of the project here.

I can also accept, on a conceptual level, that subjecting the contestants to these long periods of inactivity within a dangerous wider environment is a good part of the game being created here. Nothing interesting will happen, but, by keeping the players in 'game-mode' near permanently, the responses when things later do happen are more genuine.

I don't really mind this; if you're going to have a lot of nothing happening, you might as well film it, and if you're going to film a lot of nothing happening, you might as well take the best bits and use them to add depth to the show. The result is a slow show, slower than I would have liked, but I can understand that, in general, this show will be, in part, a genre I do not really engage with, so it's not too distressing. Also, this show has nothing like a diary room, indeed, there is none of the now ubiquitous confessional interview self-commentary.

No, instead of any traditional means of commentary, we have... well, mostly silence, as often the players aren't talking, either due to focus on a task or to need for stealth. However, occasionally, we hear comments from two 'army-style' disembodied voices. Their conversation explains what is going on, but is too curt and infrequent: short phrases are used instead of full sentences, making the dialogue seem unnatural for what it's trying to evoke, and unhelpful for describing things to the audience.

The cut-away public information sequences bothered me for two reasons. First, they were too slow. I didn't actually think they were unfunny, but they were providing too little joke for the amount of time I had to watch them. But second, and more significantly, they confused me conceptually.

In this world, a zombie apocalypse has taken place. It goes without saying. We see the events taking place, often through the building's cctv cameras, via radar, and via the army feeds. We see profiles of the contestants recorded as if they were at home, recording a video diary themselves. That's fine, but we also see 'on the ground' cameraman-style shots of the action. We see ambient shots, showing us the environments from the contestant's pov. We see overhead shots, taken by drone, that could be presented as surveillance footage, but isn't. During challenges, we see close-ups of important objects. But mainly, we see a lot zombies -- the problem is that we nearly, but do not quite see a programme which could have been made within the universe that the story is set.

Greg James, who does a good job in terms of balancing the tone between fun and scary, contributes to this problem by living in a sort of middle-state: his world is similarly ravaged by apocalypse, but so far we have yet to see him harassed by zombies. Perhaps it will come in later weeks. He is presented as a broadcaster, reporting on the events, but he displays knowledge of what's to come, and he jokes around. Add into this the public service interruptions, and, it feels like the cannon here is perhaps supposed to be that Greg James is presenting a super light-hearted version of the news crossed with the most morbid reality show ever on the post-apocalyptic BBC, which not only doesn't make sense, but doesn't correlate with the way the actual show is put together -- a lot of emphasis on this novel community, this group having to live in difficult circumstances.

Greg James: A good host, but where is he?

This is a problem that really affects my suspension of disbelief. The show declines to acknowledge that is isn't real, and present itself, as almost any drama does, as a window from our world into theirs. Instead it claims, mildly, to be from its own universe, and by having that pretence run over into the structure of the show, it ends up drawing the audience's attention to the reasons it can't be a real piece of transmission, and, zombies aside, there are enough of those to bug me.

This all serves to highlight my main issue with the show: almost all of the action sequences are having to resort to alternating very close and therefore shots not shot at the same time as the action was happening, shots of zombies with the shots of the contestant doing the task, in order to convey the sense of threat from zombies. The money shot: the shot we want to see because it conveys danger, is the shot with contestant and zombie, one in the foreground and one in the background. It happened so frustratingly unoften in ISAZA, perhaps around 3 times in the hour that I started to wonder whether the contestants were really even ever in much (fake) danger of getting killed by zombies, and that made the sequences a lot less exciting.

In Raven: The Island, they perfectly flipped this by having no suggestive shots of the demons, then having the demons actually arrive very suddenly, creating a noticeable and growing tension that they could be here at any moment. Conversely, ISAZA, by the third time it's done a, contestant (no zombie) / ZOMBIE / contestant (no zombie) / ZOMBIE sequence of shots, is not only drawing my attention to the fact that the zombie shots are clearly pickups (and hence this show isn't real, etc. etc.), but also telling me that the zombies are not going to strike for a while and so everything is currently fine. And that's not tense.

Towards the end of the episode we got a couple of good chases, and those were fun, they gave the opportunity for the contestant and zombie shots this show desperately needs more of, although this opportunity is agonisingly still not taken. I can't help but think that something has gone wrong if twice in this episode a player can be chased the length of the shopping centre without a decent shot being captured.

The only shot in that entire sequence to show both parties.

In all of the main challenges so far, the contestants have succeeded, and often 'just in time'. This makes me a little cynical, but I still hold out hope. The nature of the show means we see challenges where a producer can adjust the difficulty at their whim, we have to trust that the games are fair. Hence, I really hope the challenges are being controlled by a passionate game designer, or perhaps zombie fanatic, rather than a committed TV exec determined to play out the narrative they have imagined.

Take, for, example, the supplies challenge from the 2nd half of episode 1: (mild spoilers) the producer could make the challenge impossible but probably safe by having the zombies wake up as the players search for the key; they could make it very dangerous by having them wake up just as the players enter the supply room (an evil game designer might do this). They could make a guaranteed close result by having the zombies wake up just before the contestants are ready to leave, alternatively, they could make the game exciting but very winnable by having the zombies wake up just as the players are leaving.

To do any of these seems a little dishonest though. The game is appears a test of speed, a hit-and-run burglary on the zombies' base, and so surely the right way is that the zombies 'ought' to wake up after a fixed time, regardless of the contestants' progress. Doing things this way has its disadvantages: the game might be catastrophically lost, or very easily won without the big scare moment taking place. It also presents an extra danger: if the players are slightly below par, the zombies may well wake up while they are obliviously in the store room: this is the worst outcome for the players, but not the one correlated to worst performance, that would be failing to find the key and simply getting chased back home. Some might say such an outcome would be unfair: especially with the stakes so high. A more mischievous person might point out that the danger was apparent, and if the players had both entered the storeroom without appointing a lookout (as happened), they risk their own (fake) lives.

The fact that the zombies woke up so perfectly suggests this was not the case. Perhaps, then, there was a Fort-Boyard France timer clause going on: the players might have been timed out if they took too long, but if they ran under, the zombies wake up and give chase feebly so that the audience can be presented with a just-in-time narrative: in practice this seems like the best option, although use it too often and it becomes predictable.

I can hold out hope this was the case, it correlates with the outcome we see later in the episode when Leah arrives: the contestants open the door as quickly as possible, and let her in just before the zombies arrive. Had they resolutely decided not to let her in, she would surely have been (fake) killed; but had they hesitated a little before going for the door... we know the zombies would have arrived at some point, and I hope that that point might not have been too much later on.

Leah running from zombies. No, this was the best shot they had of it.

On this front, a few more episodes will be needed to tell: do games always go perfectly, or is there a proper correlation between player performance and outcome? This, for me, will be a key point in whether I enjoy the series or not.

What can I say to wrap things up then? ISAZA is a very ambitious programme, and a tragedy of brave, ambitious programme making is that the weaknesses stand out much more than the strengths. Mostly, ISAZA delivers, the fear it creates in the challenges is notable, and if nothing else, the players are totally engaged: always a good sign. The stylistics of the show are very good, and really, there are lots of areas where it does well. I praise and thank whoever made it, but there are currently a few too many barriers for me to say I really like it.