This franchise has taken a lot of heat for not living up to the glory years of its past. Despite new directors and a couple all-star level cast members, the latest entries in the series have been retreading the same dark themes: hopelessness, misery, fate. This installment, however, is a bold step for a franchise that has grown stale.
It picks up just after another brutal chapter in the series, and tells the story is of a dying man giving it one last shot, a feeble child seeking to assert his place in history, a Random Guard rising above his station, and a Bearded Stranger attempting to do the impossible: Save. In order to rescue the evening of an entire city, they must first grapple with Emperor Thumbstorm.
#1—The Unheralded Cast
The cast is made up of a mix of side characters from the series, but, despite some uneven performances, the idea of elevating the lesser-known made for a fresh, new look for the tired series.
Mike Leake as Dying Man/Derrith Sleazenbag
Most people may remember him from his role as a young entrepreneur as Death Stick Salesman
But as the protagonist he took a method approach by operating with the urgency of those that know their time on earth is limited to but a few puffs.
Dylan Moore as Helpless Young Child
Tom Murphy as Guard #3
Anthony Bass as Bearded Stranger
Mike Trout as Emperor Thumbstorm.
Pitting Mike Leake, a guard, and a stranger as the heroes was a bold decision. While it was fun for the night, it’s something that likely won’t hold up with repeated viewings.
#2—Fresh, Innovative Story
The franchise has really been spinning its wheels with the gritty realism schtick, showing us the meaning of human suffering in 12 of its last 15 entries. Sure, most things in life decay slowly and die, but entertainment doesn’t have to remind us of what we already know; it should distract us, delight us, make us see hope even in the worst of moments.
The piece begins slowly, as many have before it. Derrith Sleazenbag breezes through the first three scenes without challenge. The cinematography tries to liven up the picture, but there is really no conflict to speak of other than the joy of watching Sleazenbag take down the competition.
The narrative picks up after Guard #3 stands on third in a tie game. Up walks The Helpless Child. We feel his fear, we share his doubts.
The enemies close in around him.
In previous installments, he would have been ripped limb from limb, his body tossed around between enemies until they became bored. Here, something surprising happens: he defends himself. Crying out as he breaks his bat and wills the ball into the grass.
We feel elation, disbelief. The narrative twists again, though, as we are reminded of Icarus and his journey, his wings burning near the sun. We see the pack descend on his mistake.
He is lost. His father cannot bear to look. Another one lost to his own hubris.
This theme would resonate throughout the second act: the recklessness of hope, the warnings against becoming too comfortable with success.
Oh yes. The villains are back and they are despicable. Both Emperor Thumbstorm and his partner Chancellor Armethbroke accounted for every run with two home runs and a single. They waged war—catching and bludgeoning everything in sight.
Look at this face.
Ugh. Hats off to the makeup department.
#4—The wow factor
Something missing from the other entries was the wow factor. I’m talking about things that make you sit up in your chair and go, “wow,” and then think: “that’s going to be a factor.”
Mitch Haniger’s character (unnamed), though cast aside for much of the action, swoops in to remind us that yes, he’s still the leading man he’s always been.
"Never tell me the odds." —Mitch Haniger pic.twitter.com/P3M72aVabo— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) June 1, 2019
And who could forget the lovable alien Kyle Seager plays, who after suffering a brutal injury in a previous episode, manages to return in time to deliver a well-executed set piece.
#5—Character Arcs that Actually Arc
In A Little Bit of Hope we see that not all arcs need to trend down.
Early in the piece, Jay Bruce’s character Dad was one swing away from 300 HRs, the ultimate achievement, but fell just short. Later, he managed this:
From defeat to dugout hugs, one moment capped an entire season of emotion. Though long-time viewers still hope he leaves the franchise soon.
Lest we forget about Guard #3, who has been confined to a periphery role for much of the season despite his obvious strength. The fact that he of all people chipped in with two major hits (including his third home run) and gunned down a thief shows us that there are days when it all comes together, even for the nameless.
#6—Actual Narrative Tension
Here’s the thing. Not only have the other entries been dark, but the conflicts are non-existent, with no stakes and therefore no suspense. In A Little Bit of Hope, however, there is actual conflict in that characters are confronting obstacles they don’t know if they can overcome, and the stakes of the entire evening are on the line with every passing scene.
Take this scene in the third act.
Only one run separates victory from loss and the nameless cannon fodder has loaded the bases. With two outs, out of the bullpen comes: The Bearded Stranger. No one knows who he is or where he came from but he arrives looking to reverse the fortunes of thousands.
He throws this pitch:
A mistake from the Unknown Man. Contact. The ball flies to left.
The fate of the game is on a line drive trajectory to the worst outfielder in baseball. Our hearts sink. Our knuckles whiten. And yet? It resolves, plucked easily from the air. Teaching us that things will not always fall into chaos, will not always descend to the lowest point. Sometimes it will do the incredible, sometimes fate is on your side.
This was different.
Finally. So much of the series has been set-your-watch predictable. The audience has expectations of defeat. So, knowing this, the director put the newcomer armed with a 97 MPH heater and a devastating slider back out for the save. The audience groans. Until, that is, they realize the genius of having their expectations manipulated so easily. It comes down to the final final scene. We watch as a simple pitch, well-executed, defies the narrative of an entire month.
There are good moments left to be had, there is light amongst the darkness. That is the takeaway from A Little Bit of Hope. Die hard fans will not enjoy the departure from the gritty realism no doubt, but it’s pieces like these that remind us anything is possible. There can be moments of joy, the series still has a little bit of hope left in it.