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.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 5: "There's coffee in that nebula."

5. A show you hate.
Again, I bet you're really surprised.
There's no getting around it, kids: Star Trek: Voyager was a wretched, wretched television show. They made 168 episodes of this thing, and out of them maybe -- maybe -- ten are what I would call "good." This is not a show that started well and went off the rails; it wasn't marred by executive meddling; it didn't lose a powerful creative voice midway through its run and suffered from the vacancy. It set up all its dominoes from the start, gave itself lots of fascinating directions to move and a whole galaxy to explore, and then chose wrong for every single decision. For seven years.

The premise is pretty solid -- a Federation ship gets blasted across the galaxy by a Mysterious Godlike Being*, then has to make the long, 70000 light year trip home alone. A thousand possibilities! Think of the endless universe they had to work with: they bragged that the completely new setting would allow them to really shake things up, leave behind all those tired villains everyone was bored with. (Which they really did leave behind for, um, seven whole episodes.) The unexplored Delta Quadrant would let the franchise return to its roots, a show about exploration and testing the limits of humanity. So why did everyone seem so bored? The characters, I mean, not just the audience? And why did it all feel so...the same?

Interesting concepts are introduced, then either abandoned or botched completely. The tension between the Federation officers and the Maquis freedom fighters, forced to work and live side-by-side? I think it came up three times. The idea that the ship had limited resources to use and had to make do with what they had? The only one who seemed to bring that up was Neelix, the ship's resident annoying goofball, and it was only a handful.

But hey, that's fine -- you want to write boring, fallow characters, that's your business. But Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (the show's creators and creative voices) took it a step further and gutted Star Trek**. The Borg, the Maquis, the Q -- classic Trek creations that made their way to Voyager, and all of them marred beyond recognition. Which shouldn't surprise anyone: Braga made no bones about this indifference toward the franchise's continuity, and pretty did whatever he wanted. Why he wanted to do this, no one knows.

The show is infamous for its most well-worn storytelling device, the dread Reset Button ending. I know how quickly I got tired of the "We have to go back in time to save the ship from being destroyed" story line, but thought it was a crutch they developed in later seasons; I was mildly surprised to do some research and discover this was the crux of the third episode of the series. But when presented with Star Trek's most obvious chance to do some real, deep character work, to actually tell a coherent story with characters who changed and grew, they did the opposite: sitcom writing in space. A problem popped up, they solved it in 44 minutes, and everything went back exactly as it was -- very often, literally exactly as it was, thanks to time travel.

I many episodes of Voyager. I'm a Trekkie die hard, no question. And I was waiting for it to be good. Because, hey, Next Gen struggled at the beginning, didn't it? Surely Voyager will improve! But no. It never did. In fact, it got worse. And by the time it finally limped to its half-assed, laughable conclusion, Star Trek had been dealt a grievous wound. I'm not sure it will ever really recover.

*Which was just laziness. The original Trek started with Mysterious Godlike Beings; Next Gen started with Mysterious Godlike Beings; DS9 started with Mysterious Godlike Beings. Voyager couldn't get out of its goddamn pitch meeting without being a boring retread.
**They would later create Enterprise, a show so vapid and dull that it's actually difficult to hate. I guess after gutting the corpse, they wanted to piss on its grave. (Braga, incidentally, would also destroy the 24 series. So it's not just Trek he hates.)


So last night I wrote that endless essay on Lost (one of several to come, of course), and then I come across an article on the new Weezer album, set to disappoint us next month.

Now, I've talked about Weezer before, more than once. Short version: I love their first two albums like best friends, but find their output since frustrating, inconsistent and boring. (BOCTAOE.) But one thing I do like about post-Pinkerton Weezer is Rivers Cuomo's refusal to take the band's image seriously. Here, take a look at the cover of 2008's self-titled "red album":

And then, their (wretchedly awful) 2009 release, Raditude:

I love those covers. They're funny, even if the music they represent is not so great.

So last week, Weezer announces the title of their new record, Hurley. Yes, like Hurley from Lost. And everyone's like, "Huh huh, they should just put a picture of Jorge Garcia on the cover, heh heh."

So they did.

That's it. That's the cover of Hurley, Weezer's eighth album. Not even any words, not the band name, nothing. Just Hurley. Hurley.

And I would think they were making fun of Jorge, except (a) they're not mean people, and (b) I'm pretty sure Jorge and Rivers are friends. As seen in this photo...

...which is, of course, where they cropped Jorge's face for the cover.

I really don't know what to make of it, honestly. Is it joke? Is it a tribute? Is it brilliant? Is it lazy?

You tell me.

(Credit: The A.V. Club.)

Monday, August 09, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 4: "It only ends once. Everything that comes before is just progress."

4. Your favorite show ever.
You're shocked, I'm sure.

(How about we try to get through this without spoilers?)

I've talked about it incessantly. I've written about it incessantly. Some part of me -- the part that likes to be unpredictable -- thought about tossing a curveball here and not going with the painfully obvious, but who are we kidding? The prompt is blunt and to the point, and so I should be: Lost is my favorite show ever. And since a number of these prompts ask you to write about your favorite show -- I'm counting five or six appearances for Lost over the next thirty days -- you should buckle up.

Trying to summarize Lost comes across as stupid, really, because reducing it to its barest essentials -- "It's about the survivors of a plane crash on a deserted island" -- misses the point entirely. Lost is a show about the power and fragility of faith, the lure of the mysterious, the importance of learning from our mistakes so not to repeat them, guilt and redemption, the meaning of life and death, the collision of the spiritual mind and the scientific, whether people -- on their own or as a society -- are capable of rising above their selfish and vain interests and working for good, and the nature of good and evil (and how maybe they're not as different as we think). Lost is about taking a step back from our narrow perspective and seeing our place on the timeline of history -- all that came before us, and all that will come after us. That everything matters, whether we know it or understand it, and that each and every choice we make, each and every person we meet, affects the rest of our lives and the lives of others in ways we are often unable to comprehend. It was about everything.

And the survivors of a plane crash on a deserted island. Also: polar bears.

Lost is incredible enough on its own, of course: six magnificent seasons of gripping, revolutionary television. But it's more than that to me -- the community that sprang up around the show was almost as much fun. The fan-created podcasts (I'm a Jay and Jack Podcast fan, myself), the endless message boards, the three-thousand word essays dissecting forty-second scenes from four-year-old episodes -- the show felt alive, somehow, a growing entity that spread beyond the hour a week it aired. And unlike Star Trek, which I always felt kept its fans at arm's length*, the creators of Lost fully embraced that community, welcoming it and adding to it, giving fans a wonderful give-and-take that only endeared us to them more. They gave us elaborate panels and sketches at conventions, they gave us internet-only episodes, they published tie-in novels and video games -- hell, even the official jigsaw puzzles were canonical.

Of course, I'm this far in and I haven't really explained why I liked it so much. And that's because I can't. Which is not to say it's a mystery; it's to say that every answer to that question feels incomplete. I loved everything about this show -- even when it screwed up, it screwed up in a way that was fascinating, somehow. I loved the writing, I loved the characters and the actors, I loved the directing and the music, I loved the fluid nature of the storytelling and the way the show insisted on defying convention and expectation at every turn. I loved the way it confronted the Big Questions about life, the universe and everything; but I also loved the way it examined the smaller problems, the problems we all have in life. It's pretty hard to believe one could look at a story filled with Smoke Monsters and magical islands and say, "I can relate to that," but that's what Lost did.

And, finally: it was just flat-out entertaining. The mysteries were dense (some would say obtuse), but I never really got that sinking X-Files feeling, the feeling that the writers had climbed up their own asses and lost the way. (I almost got that feeling. Once. For a week during the third season, between the episodes "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead," I got worried. But it passed. And I was rewarded.) I've loved a lot of shows, but none have made the impact that Lost did on me, and I doubt any show will do it again. It changed the way I look at television -- I have a feeling I'll be looking for a show to effect me on all levels like Lost did for a long, long time.

I feel, somehow, that I need to defend the show -- the internet turned on it, and turned hard, towards the end, and its final episode unleashed an ocean of hate. I know the endless cries of "They left so much unanswered," and I could respond. I could tell you that, in fact, almost nothing was left (entirely) unexplained, and the gaps in the story had far more to do with the unfortunate realities of creating a television series than they did with poor writing or bad choices. But I won't -- I don't think Lost needs a defender. Because the show speaks for itself. Like any epic story worth the time, it rewards the patient and the observant. The central conflict of the show for most of its run was that of Faith vs. Reason, and in the end, the show came down on the side of...neither. The world is what you make of it, however you choose to engage it, and you just have to try to do the best you can. As it is with Lost: if you want to devour each episode and break down all of the clues and hints and foreshadowing and references, that's there for you. If you just watch it for the gripping story, that's there for you, too.

It's funny. It's stunning. It's action-packed. It's moving. It's science-fiction. It was romance. It was adventure story. It's buddy comedy. It's tragedy. It's parable. It's methodical. It's spiritual. It's contemplative. It's classic. It's post-modern. It was the last great show of the Old Media; it was the first great show of the New Media.

It was Lost. My favorite show ever.

*By that I don't mean the actors -- I mean the producers and executives, the big-wigs, who always seemed (at least to me, as a young fan) to be dismissive and confused by the Trekkies, and even their attempts to reach out felt unabashedly mercenary. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof hosted an almost-weekly podcast on Lost, inviting and responding directly to fan questions and criticism with honesty, openness and aplomb. I cannot see Brannon Braga or Rick Berman ever doing something like that, can you?

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 3: "9/11 was pretty much the 9/11 of the falafel market."

(This one's a lot shorter, friends -- I spent most of the day completely revamping our living room. New furniture is awesome.)

3. Your favorite new show (that aired this television season).
"Turns out my law degree was not legitimate."
"I thought you had a Bachelor's from Columbia."
"Now I need to get one from America. And it can't be an email attachment."

This was my original pick for day two, but realized then I'd need to write about it two days in a row. So, Leverage got the bump yesterday, and I can give what is easily my favorite new show, Community, the spotlight it deserves.

What can one say about a show as brilliant as Community, that doesn't simply boil down to "You have to watch this show"? It's hilarious, it's poignant, it's smart, it's the most self-reflexive and self-referential program to hit the air since Arrested Development, the cast is spectacular, and it's instantly memorable and forever quotable. And -- I said it once before, but it bears repeating -- it is riotously funny. Even the pilot is a work of beauty, and the episode "Modern Warfare" (pictured above) might be the funniest half-hour of television in the last decade.

Again, it's a simple premise -- a Breakfast Club-style gang of misfits form a Spanish study group at a local community college -- that bears unbelievably deep rewards. Most shows this funny don't bother with engaging the audience emotionally; when they do, it can come off as manipulative, pretentious or even disingenuous. Not Community, which connects you with its characters, despite how ridiculous and far-fetched they might seem on the surface. Even Chevy Chase -- perhaps the personification of impenetrable smugness and distance -- is (something of) a sympathetic guy, despite how cruel and vain he is most of the time?

Of course, I can already see the premature cancellation in the distance: last season, it spent most of its run scheduled against Glee (masterfully skewered in "Modern Warfare," as the gang annihilates the glee club with paintballs); next season, CBS has shifted The Big Bang Theory to take it down. But as long as it's on the air, I'll stick around.

In conclusion: You have to watch this show.

(Also considered for this prompt: Cougar Town. Forget the idiotic title and the first half-dozen or so episodes; once they get bored with the whole "cougar" concept, it becomes a brilliantly funny show.)

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sunday Comics

Philly's own Paul F. Tompkins. You should find your way to the Pod F. Tompkast.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

30 Day Television Challenge - Day 2: "Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys."

2. A show you wish more people were watching.
It airs on TNT. You should be watching.
Okay, so maybe I have something of a dog in this hunt: I've been reading the blog of John Rogers, the show's co-creator, for years, and followed Leverage since before it aired. Wil Wheaton and Mark Sheppard, geek heroes both, have recurring roles. Jonathan Frakes -- Commander William F'ing Riker, you guys -- has directed several episodes. Rooting for this show feels like rooting for the home team.

Convenient for me, then, that's it so good. Leverage is, more or less, a television version of one my very favorite film genres: the heist picture. Intricate scripts, funny and compelling characters, and people stealing things -- it's like The Sting: The Series. Only better.

The reason the show works as well as it does -- aside from the fact that it's made by talented people who know what they're doing -- is the wrinkle in its central premise, the wrinkle that separates it from pure heist porn* like Ocean's Eleven. The Leverage team are not thieves -- well, now, okay that's not even close to being right. They're Thieves, all right, but they're not crooks, if that makes any damn sense whatsoever. They're a modern-day band of Merry Men, stealing from the evil and corrupt and returning to the mortal and powerless. The team's leader, Nate Ford, was once an insurance investigator, and watched too many people get ground under by cold corporate steamrollers. So now, they fight from the other side: when an evil corporation strikes, they strike back. Sometimes with explosions, if Dean Devlin is directing that episode.

Even more interesting: the show is a fantasy, but only in the idea of a Leverage team fighting back. The villains? Terrifyingly real. The scripts are exhaustively researched, and it seems the more evil the bad guy, the more he/she is actually based on a real live person doing real live things. When one of them goes down, Leverage takes on a sense of wish-fulfillment you don't get at the end of most heist movies. (This is especially gratifying when the show takes a swing at a low-hanging piñata, like a second-season episode that obliterates a Nancy Grace stand-in.)

Now, Leverage is a hit -- it just began its third season and has already been picked up for a fourth. So why write about it here? Because I told you: I have something of a dog in this hunt. I love this show, and I love all of the people who make it happen. I want them to be superstars.

(Also considered for this prompt: Community.)

*Not that heist porn is bad. Not at all. I love those Ocean's movies.

Friday, August 06, 2010

30 Day Television Challenge - Day 1: "I thought being a private eye was all about shooting dudes and making out with sexy widows."

1. A show that should have never been canceled.
Veronica Mars, canceled in 2007
Well, this is a tricky one. Trickier than you think, actually; the knee-jerk answers aren't actually right. Sure, Arrested Development was cut off at the knees, but its inevitable cancellation led to some of its best episodes in the third season, as they threw all of their rules and morals right out of the window and gave Fox a gigantic middle finger every week. I wouldn't want to have lost those. Firefly? Yeah, maybe. But the network would have picked the show to pieces and ruined it in an effort to get more viewers; really, it was doomed from the start. So instead, I'll go with Veronica Mars, the best detective show I've ever seen.

Veronica got a bad rep right from the start -- it was a high school show, starring a bunch of teenagers, running on the WB. The second episode featured a prominent cameo from Paris Hilton. Not something likely to be taken seriously by anyone. But here's the catch: it was phenomenal. Right out of the gate, it's clear that creator Rob Thomas* has more on his mind than just a silly locker show -- his characters are sharply drawn and fully realized right from the pilot, realistic people with complex motivations. The mysteries are compelling and well-told, and the performances are electrifying. What more could you want?

On the surface, it's something of a simple premise -- Veronica Mars is the daughter of Keith Mars, a private detective. She follows in her father's footsteps and solves cases of her own, most having to do with her fellow students at Neptune High, the unluckiest and most scandal-ridden school since Bayside High. But of course there's more than that -- Keith used to be the sheriff of Neptune, until he was run out of office for (allegedly) bungling a high-profile murder case. That case was the murder of Veronica's best friend, Lily, who was (a) the daughter of the richest, most powerful man in town; (b) the sister of Veronica's boyfriend, Duncan, and (c) the girlfriend of Veronica's perpetual nemesis**, Logan Echolls. The new sheriff quickly made an arrest and got a conviction, putting the whole affair to rest...except for the Marses, who continue to search for evidence of the real culprit. Veronica, meanwhile, has become the outcast of the school: ridiculed for her father's public failure, ostracized for no longer fitting in with the ultra-rich cool kids, and labeled a whore after being drugged and date-raped at a party she crashed.

And that's just the backstory, of course -- the pilot picks up as Veronica and Keith have already fallen from grace, with him picking up bail jumpers to pay the bills while Veronica dodges hate from all sides at school. Veronica's angst-filled voice-overs, the stylistic camerawork, the seedy plot lines -- this isn't just some high school show, it's a film noir for the 21st century. This is especially true in the show's magnificent second season, when the numerous arcs and mysteries are no longer partitioned into separate threads, but blur together in an almost impenetrable soup of lies, deceptions and murders. It's dense, which is a word few would use to describe the overwhelming majority of WB programming. But even beyond the mysteries, underneath the surfers and the sunshine, there's still more dark underbelly; Thomas uses Neptune as a canvas on which to paint a stark commentary on class and race in America, with the rich and white on one side and the poor on the other.

So what happened? Well, low ratings, first of all. Read that description up there, then remember it's the WB we're talking about, and you understand why no one was watching. But then it got worse -- the WB and UPN merged into the CW, and while Veronica Mars came along for the ride, it was with reservations. The new masters demanded changes -- thin out the stories, simplify the plots, shorten the arcs, and pump up the soap opera romance angles. Pump them way up. Despite the lobotomy, the show remained brilliant, but the ratings dropped again, and the CW dropped the ax. For good.

They tried to save it, of course -- fans started the obligatory "save our show!" campaign, sending the CW executives marshmallows (you'd have to watch the show to understand why), and Thomas pitched a radical overhaul, offering to jump the show forward to Veronica's adventures as an FBI agent. But no dice. The deal was done. So, after a frustrating cliffhanger, Veronica Mars was done. There was talk of a movie, but Kristen Bell has moved on to profitable (and shitty) romantic comedies, and the DVD sets haven't made much money, so no one is holding their breath.

The cancellation of Veronica Mars is sad because this show should have succeeded. On another network, in another time slot, with more publicity and less meddling, this My So-Called Life meets The Rockford Files meets The Maltese Falcon masterpiece could have thrived. Instead, it's another television casualty, forgotten and discarded. And that's why it should have never been canceled. Hell, at least Firefly fans got their damn movie.

*Not that Rob Thomas, of course.
**Fans may bristle at me calling Logan Veronica's nemesis. But I'm using "nemesis" here in the Chuck Klosterman sense. Clearly, Logan is her nemesis. Her archenemy, meanwhile, is Madison Sinclair.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Living Years (or, Surely I Can't Fail at This Assignment, Too)

Happiness writes white.
 - Harvey Danger

There's much more to life than what you see, my friend of misery.
 - Metallica

This blog has been a strange animal.

When I was depressed, there seemed no limit to the topics I'd find for discussion, and no limit to the lengths at which I'd discuss them. In 2007, I posted 237 times, devoting thousands of words to barely-informed political diatribes and ill-temepered, bitter rants against the world at large. One would think this all-consuming depression was the fuel for the fire -- and one would have evidence to support this assumption. After all, the last two years (easily the two best years of my life) have seen little to no blog output whatsoever.

But the six months prior to me suddenly becoming the Happy Evil Genius were an unending parade of awfulness, and that saw even less output. I posted rarely, and when I did post, it would often consist of little more than a YouTube video and a few pithy sentences. So: too depressed means no writing. But no depressed also means no writing.

To be fair, though, I was writing again, and pretty consistently, last year, right up until October. That's when we moved, and we had no internet for a week or so. And my habit of posting -- because that's what it had become, a habit -- was interrupted.

I never got the knack again.

But in the next couple of months, things are changing quite a bit. Our son, Jacob, will be born. (He's due in October, but we get the feeling he's likely to show up whenever he damn well pleases.) This afternoon, I was installing the baby seat in my car, feeling a collision of feelings and memories and emotions, and I thought, I want to write about this.

Trouble is: I'm out of practice.

The parts of my brain that let get the words out is very much like a muscle, and it's out of shape. You can't run a mile without doing some stretches, and you can't run the Boston Marathon without running a whole lot of miles.

So here's the plan: look at this here 30 Day television meme. Each day for thirty days, you answer a prompt. 30 days, 30 posts.

Consider that my training regiment. A month from now, I'll be back in shape and ready to write about important things.

Like this new Arcade Fire record. It's great!

Or, you know, our new son. Whatevs.

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part Seven (77-74)

Consider this my invisible post. We'll see if anyone sees it. (I'm posting this because it almost completely written anyway.)

77. Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf
Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the DeafThis album's loose concept is that it's the songs picked up on the radio of a car headed from Los Angeles to Mexico in the middle of the night. Fitting, then, that most of the tracks barrel forward with single-minded drive and focus. Josh Fromme lives and dies by his robotic, pounding riffs, and he's wise enough to hire drum master Dave Grohl to handle percussion duties. The songs hum and drone with an incessant urgency: "No One Knows," "Go with the Flow" and "First It Giveth" are must-haves for any soundtrack for an endless late-night drive. But they save their best gag for last -- the gorgeous and terrifying "Mosquito Song," parked at the end of the album, the only moment of delicate beauty.

76. The New Pornographers, Electric Version
The New Pornographers - Electric VersionThere are other members of this band -- it's a "supergroup," apparently made of Canadian stars -- but it's really all about Niko Case. Feeling down? Listen to "All for Swinging You Around," and let her voice blast that sadness from every dark corner of your soul. "The Laws Have Changed" is a great song, until Niko comes in and makes it amazing. That's short-changing the rest of the group, obviously, and the fact is that everyone brings their A-game to this, creating a power-pop masterpiece on basically every track. But -- just between you and me -- it's all about Niko.

75. The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
The Mars Volta - Frances the MuteI guess in addition to being an obsessive completist, I also have an unwavering respect for artists that do exactly what they want to do, no matter what anyone else thinks. Take the Mars Volta -- a group of rational people might try to make their lyrics less obtuse than "She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels." Or at least pick just one language to sing those lyrics in. But clearly the Mars Volta are anything other than rational. Their song cycle not only begins in the middle of a song, its title track -- and "key" song -- isn't even on the damn album at all. But the music that is here, songs with impenetrable titles like "Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus" and "Miranda, That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore," is flat-out jaw-dropping. They call this "progressive rock," but Pink Floyd was progressive rock, and there's no way the Floyd could have kept up with this schizophrenic lunacy. Frances the Mute is gargantuan -- the final piece, "Cassandra Gemini," clocks in at over 32 minutes, and features more melodies and themes than most other albums get through in twelve songs. If every band was as fearless as the Mars Volta, the world might be a lot better for it.

74. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Fleetwood Mac - RumoursThere's a time in one's life when your only cultural knowledge comes from your parents. And then there comes the time when you reject it and find your own way. And then there comes the time when you look back and realize that maybe your parents got it right once in a while. Rumours is an album I loved as a kid, hated as a teenager, and have now fallen back in love with again as an adult. Because, really, there's no denying these songs. "Gold Dust Woman" sounds as fresh and amazing as it did when I was nine, and as it must have sounded when it was released over twenty years ago. "The Chain" is one of the perfect rock songs, starting so sparse and quiet and building to an amazing finish. I don't care who you are or what genre of music you prefer -- everyone can love Rumours. It's okay. Trust me: your mom was right on this one.