Monday, September 06, 2010

Miracle man

So. That happened.

A routine doctor visit turned into a second doctor visit; that visit turned into an overnight hospital stay; that turned into a three-night hospital stay; and, on Friday, that stay turned into this:

Jacob Christopher, this is the world. World: Jacob.

Friday morning, Christy was amazing. I can't even describe. I put on my Brave FaceTM, but I was absolutely terrified. While they prepped her for the surgery, they dressed me up in Hospital Ninja scrubs and left outside the room to wait. I sat there for a hundred thousand years about twenty minutes, almost shaking in fear.

And then I saw the doctor walk past me into the operating room. He looked up at me, sort of gave me that I-am-acknowledging-your-presence head raise, then returned his gaze to his Blackberry. He held his fanny pack slung over his shoulder. He was the least impressed, calmest man I've ever seen. He might have been on his way to retrieve a bag of Hot Fries from a vending machine. I watched him walk by, unable to even speak.

A few minutes later, a nurse beckoned me in, and Dr. Nonchalant cut open my wife and removed our son, acting for all the world like this was the 17893rd of these he's done. Which it may have been.

"Okay then," he said, as though he hadn't just been a central figure in the most important moment of three different lives. Yeah, here you go, I've just brought life into the world, hope you like feeling the universe shift beneath you. *yawn*

But Christy...seriously, you guys. I don't know another word to sum it up, so I'll have to return to amazing. Something like six hours later, she was crawling back out of bed to go see our new son. She has no use for the hospital's recovery schedule. If it was me? I would be dead. No doubt. She's refusing help walking and grumbling that she can't drink as much Diet Coke as she wants. She's a goddamned superhero.

And then there's the little one himself, the tiny little thing. Jacob is here almost two months early, he just cleared four pounds, but he's a shocking bundle of life. The enormous incubator they keep in at the NICU makes him look even smaller than he is, really, but he acts for all the world like he wants nothing more than to break out of that plastic box and ride out of this hospital on a gigantic motorcycle, probably with flames shooting out of the back. Maybe I'm projecting.

I'm not used to this. Life-Changing Moments, for me, have happened gradually. My relationship with Christy has grown over these years, and there have been incredible moments to remember for sure, but they felt like the slow building of something much larger. This? Jacob was not here at 3:12 Friday afternoon, and at 3:13 he was. The entire world changed in that one minute while I was watching him. It's hard to explain how exactly, but...

Home Alone 2 came on some random cable network last night, and we watched it in Christy's hospital room. You know that part at the end, when Kevin's mom tries to get an NYPD cop to help find Kevin, and she goes into that sappy monologue about how he deserves to be at home for Christmas, with his family and his Christmas tree?

I almost completely lost my shit. I have no excuse for this.

Except for, of course, Jacob, who was probably smirking to himself in the NICU.

Yeah, Dad. Don't think I wasn't paying attention when you read me The Lorax last month, you sappy son of a bitch. You can fool everyone else, but you can't fool me.

He's been alive for all of a holiday weekend, and he can already see right through me.

I couldn't be happier.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Comics

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
I Have a Scheme
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The genius of Jon Stewart. Congratulations to The Daily Show on their Emmy win.

Also, Glenn Beck is a terrifying madman, and the "Restoring Honor" festival this weekend was a travesty. That is all.

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 18: "Things ain't been the same since the blues walked in our town."

18. Favorite title sequence.

This is one of the few no-brainer prompts on the list -- there's just no competition. For me, a great title sequence should do more than just list off the cast members; it needs to encapsulate the series, show the viewer the world they're about to enter. And no series did it better than The Sopranos.

Everything we need to understand about the show we're about to watch is communicated in those ninety seconds: we meet Tony Soprano, and get a sense of the power he wields (the extreme close-ups, the cigar, all tell us this man is something to fear); we learn the setting (New Jersey, but New York looms in the near distance, both geographically and metaphorically over the characters); and see the divided worlds at the heart of the series, the tough neighborhoods were Tony does his business and the enormous home where he sleeps.

Also: the song is awesome.

(Honorable mentions: The Wire, Mad Men, The X-Files.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 17: "Baby, can you dig your man?"

17. Your favorite miniseries
Stephen King's The Stand
This is almost cheating. The Stand is Stephen King's best work, and my favorite novel of all time. But what else could my favorite miniseries be? It's an epic piece of television, the type of grand-scale masterpiece that was completely alien to network TV in the early '90s. It's dark, violent, and just fucking weird for so much of its running time, that I don't think any project like it would have survived without a name like King's attached to it. It makes a few errors, mostly in casting (rail-thin Corin Nemic as overweight Harold? Anemic Laura San Giacomo as the sexy, alluring Nadine? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*?), but it's otherwise a brilliant adaptation. They took an eleven hundred page book, a shoestring budget, and created a miracle.

I'm sure everyone knows the plot: a manufactured virus escapes from a government lab and spreads rapidly to the general public. Within weeks, 99.7% of the world's population is dead from this "superflu," and those remaining -- totally immune to the virus, without clear explanation -- are plagued with dark, prophetic dreams that call to them as a summons. Some are drawn to the home of Mother Abigail, a kind and wise old woman in Nebraska; the others are compelled to seek out Randall Flagg, the "dark man," a smirking representative of pure evil who takes up residence in (of course) Las Vegas. A (final?) battle between good and evil begins to brew.

That's dark stuff, and, again, not what I'd call typical early '90s network fodder. There's grisly material here: endless shots panning over piles of corpses in all states of decay, extensive sequences of jackbooted government thugs violently stomping out those who try to spread the truth of the superflu -- ABC just let it fly. While a lot of the truly wretched stuff never made it out of the pages of the novel -- the really explicit sexual stuff, mostly -- the tone and style is remarkably faithful. As is the content: while several scenes are moved around chronologically, or composited together, the miniseries doesn't bear any narrative scars, which is remarkable for any kind of adaptation.

And I know I took a shot at the actors a couple of paragraphs ago, but most of the cast is stellar. Especially some of the smaller roles -- Ed Harris and Kathy Bates drop in for minor performances that cast long shadows indeed. Rob Lowe (pre-West Wing comeback) is a perfect Nick, and Corin Nemic is actually quite good as Harold, despite being disastrously miscast. The best, though -- and it's not even close -- is Matt Frewer, who is positively transcendent as the Trashcan Man. He practically steals the entire series: his psychotic desperation almost turns him into a hero.

The Stand was so great that ABC essentially handed Stephen King a blank check and carved up hours of prime time in later years for him to do with pretty much whatever he wanted. But none of those other projects -- The Shining, Desperation, Rose Red, even the mammoth Kingdom Hospital -- could measure up to his masterpiece.

*Okay, in fairness, that's just a cheap shot at Kareem: he's in three scenes, tops, and has maybe one total minute of screen time. And you know what? I actually like his character, which is one of the few original to the miniseries.

"I guess he's an XBox / And I'm more Atari"

Oh, man. If you haven't heard this song yet, prepare to hear it everywhere. This is going to be a smash hit for the ages.

Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo Green, with "Fuck You!" And if you hadn't guessed from the title alone, it's not exactly work safe.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 16: "You know, when we're in college we're going to laugh about this."

16. Your guilty pleasure show.
One of these people is still on television every day. It's not the one I would have expected.
Oh, dear.

This is usually the part where I say "I can explain," but that's just it -- I can't. I cannot for the life of me explain this. I don't like the show. In fact, I don't think I ever liked the show. But that didn't stop me from watching every single one of the 86 episodes of Saved by the Bell, a half-assed no-budget comedy series NBC parked on Saturday mornings in 1989.

I can't really say I watch it anymore -- I haven't watched it regularly in probably fifteen years. But if I see it while going through channels (if for some reason I'm awake at five in the morning when it still gets aired every day), I will stop. I will watch, for at least a few minutes. If it's a "good" one -- like when Zack and Kelly break up, or Jessie gets hooked on caffeine pills -- I might watch the whole goddamn thing. It's the television equivalent of eating a tube of raw cookie dough. And about as healthy for you.

Saved by the Bell was a heavily retooled version of Good Morning, Miss Bliss*, after they realized the kids were more interesting than the lone adult. It took place in southern California, but it might as well have been set on Vulcan for all that it matched reality. I mean, maybe I'm weird, but my high school certainly had more than one classroom, and I don't think it was attached to a diner owned by a magician. And how many students did Bayside have? Twenty, twenty-five? And our principal had been as abominably clueless as Mr. Belding, the drug dealers would have a much easier time.

As I said, I can't explain what attracted me to this show. It was about teens, but they were so alien to me that they I couldn't relate to them. It was a comedy, but it wasn't funny. It had an ensemble cast, but I'm pretty sure I hated all of the characters. It dealt with real issues kids faced every day, but did so in a laughable, cartoonish manner that rendered it ridiculous. Screech had a goddamn robot, for crying out loud.

I understand why I can enjoy it now: nostalgia, pure and simple. I can watch Saved by the Bell and reflect on the innocence of my youth.

But why the hell did I ever watch it back then?

I don't have a damn clue.

*Okay, a) Why the fuck do I know this? b) Don't act like you didn't know it, too, and c) Have I also seen every single episode of Good Morning, Miss Bliss? What do you think?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Oh, how true

Once again, Penny Arcade rolls twenties.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 14: "How many times do I have to tell you, John? I always have a plan."

14. Your favorite male character.

(MASSIVE spoilers for Lost. In fact, even giving you this character's name spoils pretty much everything past the halfway point of season 2 for you. So feel free not to read today's if you would rather not know. In fact, I'm putting the rest of this under a jump break, though you won't be helped if you're reading in a RSS feed. So then.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 13: "I think so, Brain, but if the plural of 'mouse' is 'mice,' and the plural of 'louse' is 'lice,' shouldn't the plural of 'spouse' be 'spice?'"

13. Your favorite childhood show.
"...but where are we going to find rubber pants in our size?"
Okay, I might be stretching the definition of "childhood" just a bit. These characters first debuted when I was twelve, but didn't get their own show until two years later, squarely in my teenage years. But it's my blog, so I call the shots, and Pinky and the Brain was my favorite childhood show. They were my favorites when they popped up on Animaniacs, and my fanaticism only grew when they launched their spinoff series. Not only was this my favorite childhood show, it's still one of my favorites.

I can't imagine you don't already know the plot: two mice, genetically engineered as part of vague scientific experiments by the ACME Corporation, escape from their cage each night. One, called the Brain, got the intelligence, the methodical scientific outlook on the world, the dry wit. The other, Pinky, got...well...he got big feet. Their only goal in life? To take over the world. They fail. A lot.

Pinky and the Brain was so brilliant to me because it embodied one of my favorite approaches to children's entertainment -- it's clearly geared at kids, but contains a steady band of gags and references that would only appeal to the adults. (Or, in my case, older kids to happened to wander onto the channel.) The Brain, especially, seems geared specifically to keep the parents happy. Who else would find it funny that his voice sounds exactly like Orson Welles? Or would even understand dialogue like:
THE BRAIN: As you know, people in today's body conscious society are obsessed with losing weight. My plan is to secretly replace all the artificial sweeteners in the world with real ones, thus rendering the world's population fat, slow moving, and completly toothless.

PINKY: You mean, like the guests on Jerry Springer?

THE BRAIN: Exactly.
THE BRAIN: Pinky! Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

PINKY: I think so, Brain, but -- Kevin Costner? With an English accent?
As it happened, Pinky and the Brain hit me at the perfect crossroads between those two points. I could chuckle at Pinky's crazy slapstick, while appreciating the higher-level humor the Brain had to offer. I can only hope my son can find a show that affects him the same way.

Or, I could just let him watch Pinky and the Brain.
THE BRAIN: Pinky! Are you wondering what I'm pondering?

PINKY: Well, I think so, Brain, but if Jimmy cracks corn and no cares, why does he keep doing it?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sometimes karma throws that broken bat right back at you

Roger Clemens has been indicted by a federal grand jury. On six counts, including perjury and obstruction of justice. Oh, I knew today would be a good day when I woke up this morning!

Clemens, throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza
during the 2000 World Series. Stay classy, Rocket.
Clemens is only one of this generation's legends that have been tainted by the steroid scandal that have tainted baseball with the steroid scandal -- Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds form the other two points of this pathetic triangle. McGwire has been ostracized by the baseball community, kept of out the Hall of Fame, and will likely finish his career as coach a half-remembered punchline. Bonds will have his day in court in March, having also been indicted for making false statements. And now Clemens.

I hope he goes to jail.

Of course, he should -- he lied to Congress. He committed perjury, several times. Those are felonies, and he should go to jail for them.

But those crimes are not why I hate Roger Clemens.

Roger Clemens is not like Mark McGwire, who took steroids as a way to boost his performance and instill his name is the record books. He's not like Barry Bonds, who did it to assuage his massive ego, and make sure that everyone on the planet finally gave him the attention he thought he'd deserved his whole life.

Roger Clemens took steroids because he's a bully. He's a mean, savage bully, and steroids were a way to make him bigger and stronger and meaner. I supported the man when he played for the Astros (prior to the outbreak of most of this steroid mess), but even then, he was a nasty, despicable bully -- he strutted around the team, making outrageous contract demands that the fawning ownership was only too happy to accept. He arrived in Houston convinced that he was King of the Goddamned World, and let no one suggest otherwise. But of course, he was a cheater. All of that money, all of that adoration, all of it, earned by cheating.

"Cheater" is just one word I could use to describe him. Another: thief. Those tens of millions of dollars were earned under false pretenses. He is a fraud.

When his name came up in the Mitchell Report, what seems like a thousand years ago, his first response wasn't to deny anything. It wasn't to vehemently defend himself against the allegations. No: his first response was to pout. "I am disappointed that my 25 years in public life have apparently not afforded me the benefit of the doubt," he said at the time, as if he had become bulletproof to the slightest suggestion of impropriety. I'm too famous to be a cheater, I guess he wanted us to think. Yes, how dare we even think about thinking he could do wrong! "Twenty-four, twenty-five years....You'd think I'd get an inch of respect. An inch." Oh, poor Roger. Poor, put-upon, perfectly innocent Roger. You don't deserve the whips and scorns of an ungrateful public!

No. You deserve to go to jail.

He won't. Of course he won't. We know that. We know how our society works. There will be a deal. He will walk. And he will never admit the truth. Every sharp stone that gets hurled at his fat, oversized-thanks-to-steroids head will be another brick in the They Hate Me wall. And baseball's open sore will keep festering.

It's beyond festered at this point, actually -- I think the sport has become gangrenous, and needs to be amputated for its own good. Alex Rodriguez, who at least had the temerity to admit taking performance-enhancing drugs, hit his 600th home run a short while ago, and the world at large could not possibly have cared any less. ESPN met the feat with barely more than a shrug. Baseball expert Buster Olney showed up to say he'd be voting for A-Rod for the Hall of Fame, despite his known PED use, just as he'd voted for McGwire and would vote for Bonds. Because there's no way to known who cheated and who didn't, let's just ignore the issue and move on.

No. We cannot just ignore the issue. I don't care how widespread their use was. I don't care how great an athlete Barry Bonds was before the steroids. I don't care that A-Rod only used them for a short time and believed they didn't enhance his performance. I don't care.

They cheated. Period. They did it on purpose. Period. They don't get into the Hall of Fame. They don't get acknowledged by history. They don't get to put themselves on the same level as Ruth, as Aaron, as Gibson, as DiMaggio, as Musial, as Matthewson, as Jackson, as Clemente. They are liars, cheaters and frauds. They should be banished.


Baseball has always been my favorite sport. Part of what attracted me to the game was its connection with its past: each game, each season, it felt like a piece of a constantly shifting, living history. Every moment was tied with those that came before.

And now, an enormous part of that living history is stained. Baseball's lifeblood has been poisoned. And those who did it don't seem all that torn up about it. They don't seem all that bent out of shape that they ruined the very sport that made them the rich superstars they are.

In 1919, eight players from the Chicago White Sox accepted money from gangsters to throw the World Series. While there's little-to-no evidence the players actually did lose on purpose -- especially the star, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson -- baseball could not tolerate the perception that the great game was anything less than legitimate. The eight players were tossed from baseball and barred from it for life. The taint from the scandal so damaged the game that, from that moment, anyone involved in baseball caught gambling on it -- like all-time hits leader Pete Rose -- was given a similar treatment.

The steroid users have done baseball a far greater disservice. The Black Sox threw one series; these cheaters have ruined decades of the sport, and done it all under a shroud of lies and unprovable allegations. And yet...Mark McGwire still works for a Major League team. Their names will come up on Hall of Fame ballots. Alex Rodriguez has yet to pay back any of the quarter billion dollars he's earned under fraudulent pretenses.

I don't expect Roger Clemens will actually go to prison. But I hope he will. I have to.

Because sometimes the bullies get their due.

Don't they?

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 12: "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!"

12. An episode you've watched more than 5 times.
(This will have spoilers. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who genuinely cares about seeing "Darmok" hasn't already done so.)

Temba, his arms wide.

An easier question, really, would be what good episode of television haven't I watched at least five times. I'm an obsessive rewatcher -- I love going back and finding new details in the things I love. But if I had to narrow down the one episode of TV that I've gone back to the most, it would probably be "Darmok," a classic fifth-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's one of the best episodes Next Gen ever made -- one that I still love, and find myself revisiting again and again.

The premise is a simple one: a mysterious alien race makes contact with the Federation and wants to communicate. The Enterprise is sent to investigate, and runs into a minor snag: the aliens, called the Children of Tama, are completely incomprehensible. Oh, the universal translator seems to switch their speech into English (or whatever it is they speak on Star Trek), but the words don't add up to anything intelligible: "Rai and Jiri, at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons." When talks quickly get nowhere, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, holds up a pair of daggers, tells Picard, "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra," and transports the both of them to the surface of the planet beneath them. Alone, Picard has to figure out the true intentions of his counterpart, without either of them able to communicate with the other.

It's brilliant, largely because it pokes at the way all of these bumpy-headed aliens in the Star Trek world don't seem to have any trouble talking to each other. Even with a universal translator, so much of language is based upon a shared history -- communicating with someone without that shared history can be close to impossible, even if you do share a language. "Darmok," in the way of good science fiction, takes that to an alien extreme: the Children of Tama speak entirely in metaphor and allusion; everything they say is a reference to something from their history books. Without that shared knowledge, the Enterprise crew is left hopeless; so too are the Tamarians, who are left completely baffled at even the simplest attempts at conversation.

It could have turned pretty silly, actually, without actors who really bought into it. Patrick Stewart is as reliable as ever, and the late Paul Winfield is excellent as the Tamarian captain. But on the most recent viewing, I really started to appreciate what Michael Dorn brings to "Darmok" as Worf: the Klingon, of course, finds the constant attempts at talking and discourse to be increasingly frustrating, and Dorn pulls off Worf's warring impulses perfectly. There are also some great tricks of staging that I appreciate that play to the nuances of the crew's interactions -- the episode opens with a meeting in the conference room, everyone seated, Picard leading the discussion just like during any crisis...but when Picard is abducted and Riker is charge, suddenly no one is sitting, the whole crew standing around in a crude circle yelling at one another.

The episode's best moment -- and one of Next Gen's very best moments, period -- comes as Picard discerns what's going on. Darmok and Jilad were warriors who came to Tanagra separately, but left as allies after defeating a common foe -- like the vicious, invisible monster that hunts Picard and his new friend. This is Dathon's last-ditch effort to forge an alliance with the Federation, but it doesn't go as he planned. He is mortally wounded by the creature, and turns to Picard for comfort during a moment of quiet.

As it happens, I've seen "Darmok" so many times that I can actually understand what the Tamarians are saying. Which is what happens in the episode itself: Picard doesn't figure out how to communicate with the Tamarians by finding a history book or doing research on the computer; he just listens, remains patient, and waits to reach understanding. When he does so, and Dathon howls with joy, "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!" his rapture is contagious. And when Picard reports Dathon's death to his officers -- "Uzani, his army...Shaka, when the walls fell." -- the sadness is overwhelming.

I think what appeals to me most about "Darmok" is that it reminds me how my friends and I (and this blog) must sound to someone who doesn't have the deep ocean of geek history to draw on. Christy can quickly find herself lost and baffled if we step too far off the path and start speaking entirely in The Big Lebowski quotes. "Darmok" is also a reminder that, no matter how little you may have in common with someone else, communication and understanding are possible. It doesn't matter if you speak the same language: Picard tells us, "Communication is a function of patience and imagination." May we all have both in sufficient measure.

Temba, at rest.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 11: "Because I was LOADED, okay?!!!!" -or- "It's never lupus."

11. A show that disappointed you.

I had a little bit of a struggle deciding exactly what this prompt was asking for. Did they mean a show that started out well, then went slowly-but-surely off the rails (like The X-Files, undone by an increasingly ponderous mythology with no clear purpose or definition)? Or did it mean a show I had high expectations for, and then watched in horror as it met none of them (like Voyager, which I'm apparently still not done jabbing a fork into)? I couldn't make up my mind. So: I'll answer them both.

First, the latter -- and I'm pretty sure a year ago I had a vision I'd be writing this very essay...

This image looks like how watching it felt.
My disappointment in Flashforward is no secret. In fact, I wrote about it before, at great length, and made my bottomless disdain for what was presented very clear. I called it the "most frustrating show in the history of television," and the said the show might end up forcing me to "kill everyone on the planet in a screaming rage." But I was still hooked, and vowed to hang in there, hoping it might get better.

I lasted three more episodes.

The failure of Flashforward was a tricky one, it turns out, and I think most of my expectations can't really be blamed on the program itself. (This is another case, as with Battlestar Galactica, where research would have served me well -- if I'd known beforehand that Brannon Motherfucking Braga was one of the show's creators, we would not be having this discussion right now.) If Flashforward had aired on NBC, or CBS, or even, Gods help us, SyFy, I wouldn't have given it much thought at all. But Flashforward aired on ABC, behind an army of promotion, most of it aimed squarely at my personal demographic -- that is, people who loved Lost. The first promos aired during the fifth season finale of Lost, and ABC positioned it as the heir to Lost's mysterious supernatural throne.

Which was overblown beyond imagination, of course. Flashforward was an unbelievable train wreck, a program whose few original bright spots were quickly blotted out by its flaws: bad writing, worse acting, and an unshakable feeling that no one involved in the production thought we were smart enough to understand what was happening.

But, most fatally for a serial mystery just wasn't interesting. If you can, for a moment, reflect on the show's central mystery -- every single person on the planet blacks out for two minutes and sees a vision of themselves, six months into the future, without any idea why -- and then realize that these people managed to make it boring. Inescapably, indescribably boring. When you have one of the best concepts ever seen on a science fiction television series and you can't make it any more compelling than a random rerun of CSI: Miami, I find myself profoundly disappointed.

Then again, I was also profoundly disappointed by...

Putrid discharge, indeed.
Oh, this hurts. This hurts bad. Because I loved this show. Couldn't get enough of it. It was appointment viewing, every single week. Some of its best episodes -- "Cursed," "Three Stories," "The Mistake," "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart" -- still rank among my favorite works in all of television.

But House collapsed. Oh, Gods, it collapsed like a cheap wooden bridge in a hurricane.

The premise of House is what we in the business* like to call "high concept." This means it can be explained in a single sentence: "A curmudgeonly genius solves medical mysteries." And for the first season, that's pretty much all it was: a patient comes in, is sick, they treat him/her, he/she doesn't get better, they treat him/her more, he/she gets a little better then a whole lot worse, House sees a weird coffee stain that leads him to the answer, patient is cured (except for the rare instance when they'd die anyway). Simple, clean and fun. Season two upped the ante by making the doctors' lives a greater focus: suddenly, the B-plot of every episode was devoted to some personal struggle in House's life or the life of his team. And the show was suddenly better.

But something happened, somewhere. I'm not sure I can actually point to any specific jump-the-shark moment --  except maybe when House's team "left," but they never actually went anywhere and weren't even removed from the main titles even when they were gone for half a dozen episodes at a time, which kind of made it hard to buy their departures -- but it just fell down and never got back up. The personal stories were less interesting. The constant spelunking into House's psyche became painfully repetitive and never went anywhere at all. And the medical mysteries -- which were the whole concept of the show, remember -- went from compelling-if-formulaic to formulaic to dull-and-formulaic to just being an afterthought. The poor sick people felt like invaders from another show altogether.

But most of all -- House never lost. Ever. The world would fall on him and ask him to change some abhorrent part of his behavior, and he would, only to reveal at the end of the episode that he hadn't changed at all. He'd kick his vicodin habit, everyone would be happy, and then it would turn out he'd never quit after all and we were right the hell back to where we'd started. The personal side of House, which improved the show in its early stages, was now its biggest weakness. It was treading water, and poorly. I went from watching the show live every week, to watching it on DVR a few days later, to just letting weeks' worth of House pile up and forgetting about it. And then it was gone.

*Full disclosure: I am not actually in the business.

Monday, August 16, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 10: "Bright, shiny futures are overrated anyway."

10. A show you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving.
Battlestar Galactica
It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, of course. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is one of the bravest, most significant, and flat-out best examples of serial television ever made, to say nothing of science fiction television. Tossing aside the typical trappings of space opera, Galactica dives deep into a messy, heady world of flawed, complicated people at the very frayed edges of humanity. It's about what it actually means to be human, and explores the nature of life and civilization. It is uniformly brilliant in virtually every respect, and is one of my very favorite shows.

But I never gave it much of a shot when it first aired. Why? Because it was on the frakking Sci-Fi Channel.

I mean, come on: think of what Sci-Fi was broadcasting at the time.* Mansquito? Original films starring the guy who played Chakotay? The very worst kind of mediocre-at-best dross that Sci-Fi is (quite rightfully) known for? I remember distinctly when the channel first hit the air, and I remember how excited I felt at having -- finally! -- a channel devoted entirely to my interests! And then I saw it was nothing but crappy monster movies and reruns of Space: 1999, and I realized I'd been duped. The best things the channel ever did were the occasionally watchable Stargate: SG-1 and the last few seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000...and they managed to fuck that up.** So the news of a brand-new BSG from these people did not fill me with excitement, particularly when I didn't like the original BSG to begin with.

The problem, it turns out, was that I hadn't done my research. If I had, I would've seen the man overseeing the show was Ronald D. Moore, whose work I was very familiar with from his work on Star Trek. The man wrote handfuls of episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, almost all of them excellent -- some of them all-time classics like "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Trials and Tribble-ations," "The First Duty" and even "All Good Things...," the Next Gen finale. "The First Duty," particularly, would be emblematic of his work on BSG: no goofy science stuff, just decent people making impossible decisions in bad situations. Not only that, but he was hired as a producer on Voyager -- which we hate, don't we? -- and then had the good sense to get the hell out of there once he saw the circus Brannon Braga was running. If anyone could take the cheesetastic Battlestar Galactica, put it on Sci-Fi, and still get something useful from it, it was Moore.

Which, it turns out, was the case. And I finally did catch up with the show at the behest of a friend after the conclusion of the second season. And felt so, so stupid. Moore did it, of course, by putting aside everything Star Trek had lived on for decades and wrote a real, gritty series -- it just happened to be about robots on a spaceship. Moore's bible for BSG -- which you should read -- shows he knew exactly what he wanted right from the start.

And of course, if I'd known that, I would've been on board from the beginning. Oh well -- better late than never, right?

*Or, hell, what the fuck are they airing now? Sharktopus? "All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again."
**Seriously, that's a great story. When they picked up MST3K following its cancellation at Comedy Central, Sci-Fi demanded the writers add a "story arc" to keep viewers coming back. "We don't need a story arc," Kevin Murphy told them. "We're a puppet show. We just need an excuse to tell jokes." But Sci-Fi insisted, and the Best Brains guys complied, providing the show with a (surprisingly well-constructed) story arc. So then, of course, Sci-Fi ran the episodes out of sequence. You see why I was reluctant to give BSG a chance?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 9: "This America, man."

9. Best scene ever.
The Wire
The sad fate of Snot Boogie.
(You might think there's a spoiler here, but there isn't. So continue on, unafraid.)

Some shows take a little while to get on their feet. Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of my favorite shows, needed two whole seasons before it could really move on its own power. Other shows, though, hit the ground running -- magnificent pilot episodes, characters that grab you right away and stories that pull you in before you know what's happened. The Wire, however, hooks you like no other show ever has. My choice for Best Scene Ever is actually the first scene of The Wire's first episode. It might be a strange choice -- there are no thunderous monologues or gut-wrenching drama; no shocking plot twists. But I've never seen a television program announce itself with such power right from the start. And certainly not with something as laid-back as two people chatting.

Now, The Wire is, at a very passing glance, a cop drama. You'd be forgiven for assuming it was up to the usual cop drama tricks. After all, it does open with a homicide detective investigating a homicide. There's a corpse on the street, a lone witness reluctant to talk with the police. But right away, you can feel that The Wire is going to be different. The mood is off, the dialogue unfamiliar. And as this very simple exchange unfolds, you realize The Wire is not going to be your typical Cop DramaTM. Our detective, McNulty, arrives on the scene to investigate the murder of the unfortunately-monickered Snot Boogie. And the story he hears from his witness is a unique one indeed:

Because The Wire wasn't about solving mysteries. It couldn't have been less interested in the usual Law & Order or CSI melodrama, with brilliant detectives bringing ruthless yet clever killers. The Wire used the guise of a cop drama to examine the soul of the American city at the turn of the 21st century: the show could have used "This America, man," as a subtitle. And it's all set up in this opening scene, with the mystified grin that spreads on McNulty's face at his witness's accidental poetry. Right away, you know The Wire won't wrap things up in a nice, network-approved bow, with the bad guys punished and the good guys celebrated.

And in the end, McNulty never does find Snot Boogie's murderer. Because that's what happens.

(You'll notice I chose a video that included The Wire's brilliant title sequence. You're welcome for that. I wanted an excuse to post it, because it's my second favorite title sequence of all time. My favorite is the subject of Day 18's prompt.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 8: "We can have unlimited juice? This party's going to be OFF THE HOOK!"

8. A show everyone should watch.
Arrested Development
"You haven't auditioned yet?"
"Oh, no, no. I'm not in the group yet. No, I'm afraid I just blue myself."
"...There's got to be a better way to say that."

Of course, it won't do them much good now -- the ship has long since sailed, and it's long since been canceled. But Arrested Development is the one show I would recommend to everybody. Why? No big mystery, no great revelatory ta-da: it's hilarious. That's all -- Arrested Development is probably the funniest, smartest comedy in the history of television.* More than that, it's a universal humor: Arrested Development has something for everyone.

"I don't want no part of your tight-ass country club, you freak bitch!"

Considering the wake of similarly-styled shows that followed it -- sitcoms done up documentary-style, no laugh tracks, addressing the audience directly -- Arrested might do better in today's television market. But at the time, it was revolutionary. It's also shockingly dense, and not just for a comedy -- rarely has any television show been so carefully scripted, filled with foreshadowings and allusions and callbacks. (My favorite device on the show are actually the occasional callforwards, subtle jokes left in that are only funny when you're watching certain episodes for a second time.) Not only that, but the show shatters the fourth wall at every opportunity, tossing in constant jokes and references to the cast's previous roles and careers (such as a throwaway moment when Henry Winkler, famous for playing the Fonz, jumps over a shark that's been left on a pier.) Of course, most of the more obscure stuff is tucked safely in the background, or sails by at such a quick pace that it doesn't bog things down -- if you don't understand why it's funny that a character played by Scott Baio is hired by the family to replace a character played by Henry Winkler, because he "skews younger," well, that's okay. The joke is gone and onto the next before you realize.

[Jessie]: "Daddy lost his shot at happy, and it's all your fault, Opie."
[Narrator, played by Ron Howard]: "Jessie had gone too far, and she had best watch her mouth."

There's a plot between all those jokes, of course, but it's succinctly summarized by Ron Howard in the opening title sequence, and it isn't all that important here, so we'll skip it. Arrested Development is a show that can't really be all that summarized, anyway -- even the quotes I'm providing here, while funny, only truly take life in their original context. The universe of the show is so deep and rich, so brilliantly realized, that it's amazing to realize they did all in just three seasons -- the show's most iconic moments and creations will stick with you long after you've finished the series.

"Okay, Lindsay, are you forgetting that I was therapist twice over? An analyst and a therapist: the world's first analrapist."
"Yes, and you were almost arrested for those business cards."

There's really nothing more to it than that -- no deep themes, no meaningful insight into the decline of the American family. It's just funny. And that's why I'd recommend it to everyone -- as I said, I think it's truly a universal show. If each episode deals out about a hundred jokes (which is probably fair to say), there's a good one in there for everybody.

"Oh, and I know you're the big marriage expert -- oh, no, wait, your wife is dead! ...I'm so sorry...."

*Honestly, the only one that comes close for me is Seinfeld. And...yeah, I'm not sure which I one like more.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 7: "It was imaginary peanut butter, actually."

7. Least favorite episode of your favorite show.
Season 1, Episode 15
(Spoilers. Couldn't get around it this time. If you'd like to avoid them, bail after the first paragraph.)

Picking my least favorite episode of Lost was actually even easier than choosing a favorite. Because "Homecoming" is the one I most wanted to skip over during my recent rewatch of the series. Now, I should point out that it's actually not that bad -- it's not the worst episode the show ever did, as far as actual quality is concerned; that might be something like "Adrift," or maybe "Stranger in a Strange Land," which was so awful it kick-started the writers out of complacency and forced them into "We need to wrap this up" mode, resulting in the rollercoaster final three seasons. But the prompt asks for my least favorite episode, and while those episodes were bad, they were also interesting failures. "Adrift" ends with a banging cliffhanger and features a few great character beats with Michael and Sawyer; "Stranger" at least tries to mine some insightful psychological drama from Jack's backstory, even if it's undone by poor writing and worse acting (thank you for coming, Bai Ling). "Homecoming," on the other hand, is just plain boring. It's lazy, ham-fisted, over-obvious, ridden with clichés and concludes with one of Lost's most bald-faced attempts at avoiding a narrative resolution.

Charlie Pace is actually a character I short-changed quite a bit during Lost's original run. The second time around, I found him to be quite a bit more compelling, thanks largely to Dominic Monaghan's giddy performance. But "Homecoming" -- Charlie's second flashback episode -- fails him on every level. They gloss over (read: delay) revelations about Claire's disappearance by chalking it up to amnesia -- yes, amnesia, the hoariest soap opera cliché of them all -- then spend the rest of the episode telegraphing the inevitable end: Charlie guns down a potential plot thread before it can go anywhere.

It's telegraphed, of course, by the flashbacks -- while all of Lost's flashback stories reflect and illuminate the present events, "Homecoming" deals them way too on-the-nose. Charlie feels responsible for what happened to Claire and is afraid he won't be able to take care of her -- sure, we got it. Do we need a woman from Charlie's past coming right out and telling us, spelling out the theme, "You'll never take care of anyone"? And when it's over, no one seems all that bothered by the idea that Charlie has murdered a man in cold blood; no one seems to mind that much that he's killed their only lead into the mystery of the Others. No one knows why he took Claire, no one knows where he came from, no one knows anything.

And it's not just me that hates "Homecoming": Damon Lindelof, the show's co-creator, claims it's also his least favorite. He said that it's "as flawed on almost every single level that an episode of Lost could be." And he wrote "Homecoming." It's good to know that someone agrees with me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 6: "Every equation needs stability, something known. It's called a constant."

6. Favorite episode of your favorite show.
"The Constant"
Season 4, Episode 5
(Are we going to do this without spoilers again? We're damn sure going to try!)

You'd think it would be harder to narrow down my favorite episode of Lost. It had an awful lot of fantastic episodes, after all. But two years ago, the moment "The Constant" ended, I knew it was the best episode yet. Watching through the series again, it still easily stands out. The narrative is spellbinding, the performances are riveting (Henry Ian Cusick was never better as Desmond Hume), and it packs a massive emotional punch. That's something about Lost that people usually forget -- sure, it had four-toed statues and smoke monsters and a crazy, psycho mythology to carry around, but its heart was always with its characters, which led to some astounding emotional resonance. (Also, a mass uprising at the show's endgame, which resonated deeply with its characters but didn't stop to explain every little middling detail of the psycho mythology. But we're not going to have that discussion now. No matter how badly I want to.)

Oddly, "The Constant" has, at its core, a love story, which is the one thing Lost never did very well. Oh, they certainly tried, bless their hearts: the whole Jack-Kate-Sawyer mess took up most of the series, and never felt very natural -- I never got hung up on the "Which one will she choose?" angle, because it felt ported in from another series, a stock soapy plot the writers offered up because we have to have something to draw in casual viewers, I guess. Instead, they found gold almost by accident: the painful, tragic tale of Desmond Hume and Penny Widmore, lovers driven apart by time, mistakes and -- literally, it seemed -- the universe itself. Desmond found himself in hell after hell, and each time, held himself together by focusing on his love, and the idea that was out there, somewhere, waiting for him.

(Okay, can't get much farther without any spoilers. So, a mild spoiler alert. If you want to stay clean, you can skip the rest.)

"The Constant" takes that idea and makes it starkly literal: Desmond doesn't just need to find Penny to hold onto his will to live -- he needs her to live at all. Trapped in a swirling mess of confusion and terror, the only thing he can find to stop it -- the only thing that can bring him back to sanity and to life at all -- is Penny, the only constant that's always been there for him. Even outside of its relationship to the show's arcs and mythology, it's a powerful metaphor for how real love feels -- watching "The Constant" before and after I found the love of my life certainly gave me different perspectives.

I also want to talk about the show's narrative technique, but I'm not sure I could do it justice in text. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the Lost's executive producers, wrote "The Constant," and called it the most difficult episode they'd ever had to write. Just explaining the concept to people made them sound like idiots...but the episode itself manages to make it crystal clear, almost entirely visually. Lindelof and Cuse set aside the show's typical flashback structure for something that is...well, a lot more visceral. It echoes Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which is (oddly enough) one of my favorite novels. It also foreshadows some pretty major events in the fifth season, though not in a way that would be immediately obvious. (That's Lost for you -- always running the long con.)

It doesn't have a mind-blowing cliffhanger or a game-changing plot twist. It's just a beautiful love story, thrown into Lost's mythical blender. And that's why "The Constant" is my favorite episode -- because it shows you where its heart truly is.

(Runners-up, presented without commentary and no particular order: "Through the Looking Glass," "Walkabout," "Ab Aeterno," "Numbers," "?," "Flashes Before Your Eyes," "Jughead," "The Man Behind the Curtain," "The Economist," "Confirmed Dead," "316," "LaFleur," "The Substitute," "The Candidate," and "The End." Yes, "The End." I told you, I'm not having this discussion right now.)