Wednesday, January 18, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror: "Homecoming"

One aspect of Showtime's new original series, Masters of Horror, that I've really appreciated thus far is the sheer variety of stories. There's been old school, savage horror (Coscarelli), a sampling of Lovecraft (Gordon), film-noir (Garris), post-apocalyptic nihilism (from sentimentalist Tobe Hooper...), and more. With Joe Dante's contribution, "Homecoming," the series presents a political satire that fuses the zombie plot of Night of the Living Dead (1968) with the behind-the-scenes political posturing of Primary Colors (1998).

Since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was released nearly forty years ago, many critics (including me!) have interpreted the ghoulish dead rising from their graves in symbolic fashion; as a kind of protest of the Vietnam War; a return of the dead soldiers to menace the homeland that let their deaths occur in an unjust conflict.

"Homecoming" makes that concept literal, when - on a talk show that looks a lot like CNN's Larry King Live (only here it's Mandy Clark Live) - a political operative for a Bush-like president named Shelly trades commentary with a Gold Star Mother (just like Cindy Sheehan...) who has seen her boy die in the Iraq War, and wonders what it was all for. This conservative operative, David Murch (Jon Tenny) says that if he had just one wish, it would be that all the dead soldiers could come back to life...so they could testify about how proud they are to have given their lives for this war.

The president likes that line so much, he actually uses it in his convention speech, as Election Day draws near. Meanwhile, the line also wins Murch the not-very-tender sexual affections of an Ann Coulter knock-off named Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill). The episode's satire works particularly well in this aspect of the tale: there's a photo of Jane on her new book cover that mirrors the famous "distorted" legs photo of Coulter from Time Magazine last year.

Anyway, Murch's wishes do come true. Dead veterans of "this engagement" arise from the dead...and the only way to stop them is to let them vote in the election. At first, the Karl-Rove like Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo) believes that this will be the perfect propaganda for a President running as a war hero (even though he never served in a war), and the Religious Right (led by a Falwell look-a-like) quickly notes that the zombies are giving the President "a stamp of heavenly approval" for his war.

But - shock - the zombie soldiers are against the war. They're against it because they fought it based on a lie and misinformation: no weapons of mass destruction; no nuclear program. Suddenly, Kurt Rand, David Murch and the President don't like these undead veterans anymore (since they no longer agree with them), and begin rounding up the ghouls in internment camps. But the zombies still cause a problem as election day looms. "What if we just ignored em?" asks one official. "Treated 'em like regular veterans?"

As you can guess from this description, Joe Dante's "Homecoming" serves as a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration and its approach on everything from re-election to prosecuting the War on Terror. The zombie soldiers just want to be heard; want our citizenry to look into the faces of those who sacrificed their lives based on misinformation and lies.

Of course, this is gazing into the eyes of those who sacrificed is not permitted in the United States today. Remember how right wing groups threatened to boycott Ted Koppel's Nightline in 2004 when it was going to honor them by featuring photographs of fallen soldiers? Even more to the point, the Administration doesn't let the press see (let alone photograph) the flag-draped coffins returning home to American soil from Iraq. This is ostensibly so that Americans won't lose faith in the cause, but honestly, the policy shortchanges these veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They died for the highest calling imaginable: protecting their country, and for some reason, our leaders don't want to acknowledge that. Which is weird. The President tells us constantly that we are engaged in a war that will last our lifetimes (though it is undeclared, actually...), and you'd think he'd want to remind Americans exactly what's at stake by honoring the troops on the front line of that conflict. But I guess that's just too messy...

Back to "Homecoming:" This episode had some great humor in it (particularly the line about the Ann Coulter knock-off being a "skank"), and more to that, a great point about how "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," and how entrenched power - on any side of the political aisle - will say and do anything to stay that way. Picardo plays his Karl Rovian character to perfection, and the result is a trenchant satire.

Of course, one might argue that this episode is in bad taste. That it too uses the soldiers as props (like the President at his carefully-screened "major speeches.") Perhaps that is so, but yet turnabout is fair play, and all art (even horror) has the responsibility to make us think about the times we live in. "Homecoming" isn't really scary, but if you keep abreast of politics, you'll get a big kick out of it.

This episode also makes of fun of voting irregularities, and offers the best explanation of President Bush's so-called popularity I've yet heard. "He's not stupid," says Murch of President Shelly. "He makes stupid people feel that they're just as smart as he is."

Dante's "Homecoming" reveals the real problem with Bush and his war. It's not that he was wrong-headed or made a mistake, or that he's not liberal "enough". It's that, when it comes down to it, he's a hypocrite. He pretends to be one thing (a God Fearing Conservative who loves the troops) when the opposite appears true. He cavalierly dispatches men to die and the cost to America in blood and treasure just keeps growing and growing. (What, after all, is conservative about "nation building" without the aid of a significant coalition to share the burden?) Bush claims to love the troops, but he won't stop fund-raising long enough to meet with a grieving mother, and many soldiers still don't possess adequate body armor in combat. Three years after the war started...

And there's nothing conservative- or decent - about that either. It's nice to see Masters of Horror wade into the great debate of our times, especially with so much humor. But I fear it's just preaching to the converted.

1 comment:

  1. There is nothing like the feel of that classic phaser in your hand. I never could figure out how STNG personnel could fire those dust busters, as you mentioned, with any accuracy. Can't wait to see a new and better Trek (than Voyager and Enterprise)on the small or big screen. I aggree with the previous observation that the franchise lost its sense of simple morality play storytelling, which can be very powerful when properly handled.

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