Review – DMZ

Based upon the DC comic of the same name (published under the Vertigo imprint) and produced (with the first episode directed) by Ava DuVernay, DMZ almost harkens back to old school TV character dramas that feel to have gone out of fashion in the past decade. It’s a miniseries that takes a large scale, high concept world and boils it down to a personal affair that, as Alma gets involved in the politics and machinations due to personal connections, creates more of an impact on the grander stage of the DMZ, yet never losing sight of the intimate nature of the drama.

The show follows Alma (Rosario Dawson), as she quests to find her son Christian in the DMZ. Meanwhile, Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt), the strong-willed, powerful and conniving head of the Spanish Harlem Kings, who, with the help of his enforcer Skel (Freddy Miyares), scares and bribes the island into submission, and Wilson (Hoon Lee), a charming, charismatic man who runs Chinatown in this warzone of an island, fight to become the first governor of the DMZ in a ploy to bring some modicum of peace to the disputed zone. Alma, in her mission, gets caught up in the rivalry, and in order to get her son back, she has to interrogate the nature of and imbed herself into the politics of the island, before all-out war returns to Manhattan.

It is a somewhat loose adaptation of the comics, more akin to a reimagining, following similar plot threads, of course taking much of the core ideas and characters of the source material, but reinventing them to explore a much more emotionally and personally charged story. While I can’t speak for the comics, having never read them, this feels somewhat smart for the series. It does add this layer of emotional connection to the story and much of the drama comes from this, adding a personal element to this unnerving dystopia.

Therein lies something charming and alluring about the intimacy of it, an almost somewhat restrained and throwback-y nature to the way the show is constructed. It feels like this could have been pushed as a prestige limited series that goes wider in scope, the world feels ripe for expansion and complex enough to dig into a whole wealth of stories and characters within, and outside of, the DMZ, and yet it would have been all the worse off for it. The smaller scale and the somewhat rough edges of the craft add all the more draw and charm to it, especially in an age where much of what is released is vying for that prestige designation, with glossy, overly perfect production to go along with it. It’s a show that has no allusions about the fact that it is a TV show, it is structured accordingly, each episode playing into the overarching narrative, but very much with its own beats to reach to keep viewers hanging on. It feels like it plays in a lower budget field, much of the show being cordoned to reusing the same locations, and that brings so much of the texture to the show. It feels personal and intimate, despite the plot having these larger ramifications, especially as the series continues, it always feels like it boils down to the drama at the centre of the show, will Alma get her son back?

The first episode is the least engaging of the four, though that is in no small part due to the heavy expository lifting it has to do as it introduces the audience to the world and Alma to the DMZ. It resists doing a lot of exposition dumps bar the one it opens within the processing centre, but rather lets the audience acclimatise to the characters and the world. Sadly though, it’s not always the most interesting event to watch, but the world is intriguing enough to stay with. Thankfully, as the show jumps into its subsequent episodes (directed by Ernest Dickerson), with all the groundwork laid in the first episode, the show gets to run free, and run free it does. 

Showrunner and screenwriter Roberto Patino revels in letting the characters argue and discuss their emotional headspaces and the political upheaval in the DMZ, relegating much of the action to singular moments of the highest tension. It makes for fairly compelling TV drama, it’s not overly complex, it’s all very grounded and human, easily watchable and understandable, despite this alternate future, it feels all too familiar and sympathetic. Yet, it never feels like it really finds its emotional crux. For all of its excellent worldbuilding and watchable drama, the show never really feels like it can crack the fundamental empathetic emotionality of the story, we may watch and understand it, yet over the course of the four episodes, it feels like there is a lack of emotional connection between the characters and events of the show and the viewer. This show consistently feels like something to watch rather than be invested in, connected to, almost like the viewer is being held at arm’s length, in spite of what it is trying to do, and at the cost of emotional and thematic resonance.

DMZ isn’t going to revolutionise TV, but it has its charms and it’s entertaining and compelling once it settles into itself, but in spite of some all too current significance surrounding its interrogation of those left to fend for themselves in a warzone, and the arrogance of leaders, despite being very clearly focused in its themes, it never really hits a strong emotional stride. Patino’s writing and DuVernay and Dickerson’s direction is solid in that way, often dramatically interesting, often textually feeling intimate and personal, but not particularly emotionally charged. The performances are all good, Dawson is always a watchable presence, Bratt has a charisma that is key for Parco, yet is totally hateable and scary even, and Lee is both charming as hell and kind of terrifying. DMZ makes for an engaging series, even if the emotional core and thematic interests aren’t as poignant as it necessarily wants. It leaves off at the end of episode four with a feeling of interest yet not quite fulfilment.

DMZ premieres 17 March on BINGE, with all four episodes dropping at once.

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