Friday, December 29, 2006

On the serial narrative

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I've recently gained an appreciation for comics that I didn't have before. They're not my favorite form of literature by any means (they all too often don't let the pictures do the work, choosing to underline a point with underdeveloped dialogue -- there's no subtext left unturned), but they're not bad, especially the very good ones, like my favorite, Fables, which avoids most of the pitfalls described above (though it often falls prey to the unwieldy exposition trap, but that's largely forgivable in a serial-driven narrative).

As I was reading the Christmas issue of Fables, though (pictured), I realized that one area the new serialized television sort of falls apart in is in its devotion to creating a richly textured universe and world of characters. Sure, shows like Lost and Heroes keep piling on character after character, weird item after weird item, but do they really devote themselves to creating a world worth visiting week after week?

Fables, of course, as you would know if you read my Oct. 24 post about adapting graphic novels for television, is about a bunch of fairy tale characters who are very much real and living in the East Village. It's a potentially silly set-up, but writer Bill Willingham treats it very, very seriously (while not forgetting the need for levity), showing how his characters move on from the apocalypse that forced them into our world and begin to live (and, in some cases, love) again. It's a pretty basic setup, admittedly, but Willingham's talent for creating nuanced characters who behave just enough like their fairy tale analogues to be instantly relatable while retaining their own dimensions keeps the series fresh and surprising. (It, of course, helps that the art is gorgeous, most often pencilled by Mark Buckingham -- the stunning covers are done by James Jean, and you can buy some of his work here.)

A lot of what makes Fables work is the huge cast of supporting characters that flit about the edges of his main story. He's got 10 or 11 major characters who appear in the majority of the issues, but the number of folktales and other stories he can draw from is well-nigh endless, and the characters who will appear for a handful of issues at a time and then recede into the background continues to grow.

And here's the thing. By taking his time to develop all of these characters (including Santa Claus in the most recent issue), Willingham has developed an arsenal of characters he can call on in new and surprising ways. If an issue were to end with a voice from off-panel saying, "It's me!" and the other characters in-panel all reacting in shock, there are literally dozens of different characters Willingham could have brought back that would have a marked impact on our main characters. It could be King Cole, and everyone would be thrilled for his diplomatic help. It could be Hansel, and everyone would be worried he was leading an army of invaders or something. It could be Reynard the Fox, and everyone would wonder how, exactly, he got there. And so on.

(A brief aside before I sound too geeky: I assume that everyone will be slightly familiar with the character names above from their childhood reading and such. Willingham has that in his favor. If King Cole shows up suddenly, a new reader needs only hear his name to have a rough idea of who he is as a character -- why, he's merry and old, and a merry old king is he. Longtime readers, of course, will know all of the vague complexities of the character, but you can get by with the very basic knowledge almost every adult in the West grew up knowing. That's a big help for Willingham in avoiding clunky exposition. He doesn't have to have a character say, "Why, it's Geppetto, Pinocchio's father!" We can fill that in already. In another comic, that wouldn't be the case.)

Indeed, this line of thinking was prompted by a panel in the Christmas issue. Santa was issuing a vaguely prophetic warning, and a small detail in the background (specifically, a pig's head on a stake, Lord of the Flies-style) indicated that Santa, indeed, was telling the truth, that dark days were ahead. To the uninitiated, this was a small detail worth skipping over. But to a regular reader, this simple sketch carried with it a lot of emotional weight -- that pig used to be one of the Three Little Pigs, until he was killed and made an example of, his head on a stake; as the years wore on, he often visited the series' main female protagonist, presumably in her dreams, to impart warnings and good tidings. Willingham has confidence that his readers are going to know what's going on, and he lets us do the busy work.

So what does this have to do with television? The modern television drama has roughly equal roots in film and in literature. But it's hard to evaluate television like you would a film. When you watch a film, presumably, the story is over during that film (even Lord of the Rings was split into three smaller stories that made up a larger one). The same with a novel. The story on television isn't over until the season (or, in some cases, the series) is over. Sure, the story has been broken into handy, episodic chunks (if it's a good series, at least), but we still can't evaulate, say, the characters' journeys over time without seeing the whole picture. We're grasping blindly, really.

Now, obviously, many of the classic novels of the 19th century were published in serial form. One of my favorite novels of all-time, Middlemarch by George Eliot, is marked by how obviously it is derived from being born from serial publication -- Eliot goes through some complicated hoops to make certain characters happy in the end, and there's some suspicion that was at the bidding of readers and letters-to-the-editor writers, the original bloggers and message board posters. But while I could talk about what 24 has to learn from Dickens, I don't know that that would be interesting to you.

Also, I couldn't post pictures.

Ooh! Genie!

Anyway.

Comics are also one big story told over incremental chunks. And there are plenty of shows that have been duly influenced by comics over the years. Buffy's Joss Whedon, for example, was so influenced by the X-Men in the plots he developed for Buffy (and how he deployed those plots) that he's writing the comic now. The staffs of Lost and Heroes have been filled with various comics writers. And numerous TV and screenwriters are turning to writing comics as well, including John Rogers.

But how many shows are using this seriality to create a whole UNIVERSE? Buffy certainly did -- one could see an episode in the show's seventh season concluding much like the Fables conclusion described above. And the character who had arrived could have been Giles or Angel or Faith or any one of a number of characters who would have changed everything. 24, in its own way, accomplishes this as well, largely because it has a deeply faithful audience and because it essentially recreates its cast every season. Both shows went in for the clunky exposition ("That's Kim, Jack's daughter! They've had a rocky relationship since her mother died.") to catch newbies up, but Kim Bauer isn't a name that registers as instantly as Little Miss Muffet.

Heroes and Lost, as much as I like both of them in their own ways, aren't accomplishing this as handily. Lost is limited by its setting, of course, so it overcompensates by piling on the oddness. But even if an episode calls back to a bit of oddness (oh, THAT's what the skeletons in the cave were all about!), it will never have the same resonance as calling back to a well-developed CHARACTER, something Lost doesn't have enough of, even with an ensemble that hovers around 15 regulars. Heroes, however, is introducing characters as fast as it can kill them. The characters never live long enough to be interesting and/or recurring. As fine an actress as Jayma Mays is, why didn't the show keep her Google Girl around a little longer?

By and large, the cable dramas do a fine job of building sustained universes -- heading into its fifth season, The Wire has developed a whole city's worth of characters who can alter everything, and it seemed as if Deadwood eventually created a vital character out of EVERY person who lived in the camp. Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos, while not as wide-ranging, also have huge catalogs of characters to pull from. Indeed, one of the biggest things that lets you know if you're watching an FX or Showtime show instead of an HBO show is when you realize that the latest recurring guest star is just going to be shunted off to the side and never mentioned again. For all their many virtues, Rescue Me, Dexter and Brotherhood don't bother with developing many characters beyond their central casts (and, in some cases, within their central casts -- see every non-Dexter character on Dexter).

The networks don't do as well because they don't trust that they'll be drawing the same audience from week to week. Lost will sometimes slip a mythology answer into the background of a scene (apparently, someone found a glass eye last season, and this season, we found out there's a guy out there with. . .an eye patch) without calling tons of attention to it, but that's usually done more as a wink to the fans. A character point that could be made more subtly will almost always be beaten over the head as often as possible. And forget about shows like Prison Break or Grey's Anatomy, where someone will be sure to pop in and remind us of everything we might have forgotten.

But I think we're turning a corner. Networks are realizing that serial dramas aren't for EVERYone, but they are for a rather large audience of someones that likes to figure this stuff out on its own. The further we get into this, the more willing networks will be to let producers not underline absolutely every plot point and character beat. And then, when the door opens at the end of the episode, we can be TOTALLY surprised.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Night Only: Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls, anointed the Oscar frontrunner for the year the second it was greenlit, has become the favorite booster project of Oscar prognosticators like Tom O'Neil, who bolsters his reputation more the further ahead he makes the right call, and the favorite whipping boy of folks like the people at the Onion AV Club, who believe (rightly so, in many cases) that the desire to predict the Oscars is poisoning serious film criticism, just as the box office obsession did years ago.

Truth be told, it's neither as good nor as bad as either side would have you believe. If it wins Best Picture, it almost certainly won't be because it was the best film of the year (though, honestly, how often does THAT happen) but because it's the sort of well-executed middlebrow entertainment Hollywood likes to think of itself as supporting, even as it increasingly doesn't make films like this.

The biggest problems with Dreamgirls are problems with the stage show. Anyone who's read the play (or seen it staged) knows that it has huge second act problems. This isn't uncommon in the world of musicals, where Act One often ends on a high note that Act Two struggles to top in vain (the structure of a musical often necessarily puts the climax at the end of the first act, making the second act, which often drags on for an hour or so, structurally unnecessary). The film musicals that manage to subvert this problem rethink their act structure for the screen, where we generally expect a very different sort of rise and fall in the story. Even something like Sound of Music punches up what should be the second act with a cat-and-mouse game with Nazis (largely an invention of the great, unheralded-in-his-time screenwriter Ernest Lehman).

Dreamgirls has a bigger problem, though. As a barely disguised biography of The Supremes, it needs to shunt aside Effie (Jennifer Hudson) for Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a sort of symbolic stand-in for the way the "black sound" was sanitized to tackle the pop music charts where the real money was (and, of course, a more direct stand-in for the way The Supremes replaced original lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross). By shifting its focus from one protagonist to another, the story asks a lot of the audience, which has grown attached to Effie and sees Deena as an interloper. Theoretically, the protagonist of the story is the group itself, but that, in itself, is an unwieldy conceit to ask an audience to latch on to.

Aside from that structural issue, there's a lot to like in Dreamgirls. It feels, at times, as if it's directed within an inch of its life by Bill Condon (who speeds up the first hour to a point where it seems like it's going to melt down, then slows the second hour, which is basically one long deflation from the first hour, a little too much). Condon does some of the quick cutting that was so common in Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but he doesn't inflict this sort of editing on all of the musical sequences. He's unafraid of holding long takes of his actors singing, especially in "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" (a standout number for Hudson) and "Listen" (a pivotal number -- if not quite a standout one -- for Knowles). Other musicals this decade have seemed tentative about letting their actors emote while singing, but Dreamgirls isn't, and most of that is to Condon's credit. He relies on montages a little too much, but he drags strong performances out of all of his actors (although Knowles and Jamie Foxx's characters are horribly underwritten and the actors suffer as a result), especially Hudson and Eddie Murphy, as Jimmy "Thunder" Early, something of a James Brown analogue.

The technical work in the movie is superior. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the sound mix is well-night perfect. Even that editing, when it's not zagging all over the place, is exemplary when it finds a good rhythm for a musical sequence and sticks with it.

By far the reason to see Dreamgirls, though, is for Hudson. It's unclear whether she can do anything after this, but she's got an amazing voice and knows how to sell the underlying emotions of a song, even the silly ones (and there are quite a few in this musical). Her work when she's not singing is solid, but her singing is reason enough to see the movie -- if just the "And I Am Telling You ..." sequence was on the Oscar ballot rather than the whole movie, I just might vote for it.

Of course there's a lot of dumb stuff in Dreamgirls (the girls leave a recording session and walk right out into a race riot, for one), and the music isn't really Motown -- it's more Motown as reimagined by white people (and the Pat Boone takeoff in the first few reels that seems to acknowledge this is a riot). But there's plenty there to enjoy as well. If you're just looking for solid, mainstream Hollywood entertainment, Dreamgirls isn't your worst option.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gone and Forgotten: South Dakota Dark's 10 Favorite Albums of All Time! (Part IV)




OOPS! Don't you hate it when "life" gets in the way of blogging? I do. Anyway, enough of the theatrics! Here it is, once and for all!

Ten Favorite Albums of ALL TIME:



10. Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)

Crossing over into the most main of main streams, Purple Rain saw The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince taking an earnest and collective look at his place in the industry and leaping forward in a most ambitious turn. Fusing his already eclectic stylings of Funk and R&B with an even more palatable mentality geared towards pop as well as straightforward rock, Purple Rain is an undeniable catalyst for most phases in mainstream music.

The nine tracks contained therein; while "dated" in some circles (I won't argue that point here) remain some of the more auspiciously perfect pop tracks one might have the pleasure of hearing. I won't say that Purple Rain simply came along at the right time. That is true, yes...but it was more than that. Any album can come along at the right time, give the masses that hint of change they seem to crave and vanish just as soon as they've served a purpose. In the case of Purple Rain, however, it seems to have a pulse and a spirit that tends to linger, going past even its most obvious attempts at individuality. It's within the grasp that Prince holds so delicately (never with too much control or too little) that provides the LP with its personality, singularity, and its larger than life heart.


09. PJ Harvey, Rid Of Me (1993)
...
This is back when PJ Harvey wasn't simply the name of an amazing female artist, but the handle of an amazingly raw, enticing, honest-to-goodness band. The trio's second LP produced by Steve Albini is as viciously erotic and aggressively brilliant as anything Polly Jean has done in her career since. A perfect choice for producer, Albini captures the distinct aura the group presented at the time of a damaged deviance that remains unashamed and unhinged. Both loud and blisteringly quiet, Rid of Me is a darkly told masterpiece of the underbelly.
It's not that Polly Jean got softer when she went solo; hell, she's been to darker places than this. It has more to do with this raw, bloody quality that an album like Rid of Me possesses that can't really ever be recreated, so why bother trying? Artist that she is, PJ has simply reinvented herself over and over again; each album being an honest account of her mental stability (or lack thereof) but none more simultaneously frightening and exciting than Rid of Me.

08. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966)

Pet Sounds is something of an animal that just up and ran away with itself. Brian Wilson's brainchild, it is a painstakingly twee pop exercise, while still existing as a progressive and innovative walk through the park. Its harmonies are unparalleled in the pop world, save for dozens of imitations; the arrangements employed throughout the album still serve as small marvels of composition, if not feats of structural brilliance.

The great thing about Pet Sounds is the way you can derive the sort of mindless joy from it you'd expect from a surfer boy album, but you can also examine it on a level raised solely on its musicianship and creativity. That's not something all that impressive these days, but it was a more than satisfying surprise at the time of the album's release. Sure, for lack of a better term, Wilson was tripping BALLS through out the recording process, but the sort of brazen genuineness he always seems to convey is conspicuously lacking chemical assistance.






07. Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)

When Christopher Wallace appeared on the scene it was clear that he couldn't be ignored. Whether it was his portly stature, his sedated demeanor, his oddly and easily delivered flow, or the purity of his anger, he wasn't easy to forget. Ready To Die was obviously a landmark album for "East Coast" rap, but, even more than that, it served as a mission statement for what would
be a career far too short and tragic.

With Ready To Die, Wallace brought originality to the hip-hop world that is still surprising today. His personality shines through on every track, curiously blending a sense of confidence with that of self-consciousness and a quiet sadness. A master storyteller, Wallace creates layered tales mixing his own life and times with that of fictional characters creating a jilted mosaic of city life that lingers in the best way possible.


06. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
...
After OK Computer, fans of Radiohead were left wondering just where these young Brits were planning on taking rock music next. Pushing the idea of the genre to the very limit, after all, is an exhaustive process. Expecting them to top it or even equal it seemed like wishful thinking at best--if not ludicrous.

Yorke and co. responded in kind, however, with an album as blisteringly full of ideas and life as anything they had released up until that point. Kid A served as a new identity for Radiohead while, some how, staying true to what the group had always set out to accomplish. Its arrangements were odd and filtered, its aura quirky and shimmering. A modern comment on this our technical age of awakening, Kid A was pitch perfect as an apt social commentary as well as a jubilantly imperfect journey into the depths of the rock music graveyard. Carelessly blending those pesky electronic elements most commercial rock acts were so terrified of at the time with a more traditional Radiohead style, the album was and is something of a beautiful mess; a rich and sordid testament to the fumbling of ideas and ideals that won’t soon be forgotten.


05. Joy Division, Closer (1980)
...
Despite the albums built in hipster status, before New Order was New Order, Joy Division raised the dubious bar for the fledgling idea of post-punk and certified themselves in the art of misanthropic angst and suicidal prose. The late Ian Curtis played no small part in the groups darkly tinted identity, shading everything they did with the urgency of life and the theatricality of death. In the wake of his suicide, like many artists of this type, his work is elevated to a point of controversial debate dealing with hidden messages that were never really hidden to begin with. This particular element was crystallized with Closer.

Closer has a face, and a life, and wears its frown proudly. It paints its surface with atmosphere like no album I had heard before or since. Closer uses its atmospheric malaise to create a world of uncertainty and sad wonder that is both exciting and heartbreaking; like a short walk along the journey of life that proved to be all too spot on.

04. Otis Redding, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (1966)
...
You wanna talk about emo? This is about as emotional as shit GETS. Otis Redding dealt in pain and misery like no other artist in his genre. Not only did you feel his pain, but also you felt his hope. When he subtly pours out his blood in two-minute pop confections, you travel with him through his sorrow and come out on the other side damaged but clean.

Perhaps the greatest collection of pop/soul these old ears have ever heard, Otis Blue is a collection of originals and covers Redding was given the chance to lend his talents to. The placement of each track is meticulous and perfect, making for a joyously heartbreaking romp into the world of Soul with one of its greatest contributors. Redding’s spirit was unflinching and unavoidable. He felt pain with his whole being, and used that pain to try to make things better. Otis Blue is some proof that it may have worked.



03. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

Perhaps not as seemingly important as its predecessor, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s third LP Fear of a Black Planet remains every bit as potent and thought driven as the fore mentioned classic. Utilizing the palpable anger present through out the former album, Fear of a Black Planet plays as a much more even handed delve into the psyche of the ever present cultures and subcultures with a vicious honesty and insight that marked a high point in Hip-Hop.

As a lyricist Chuck D presents blunt wisdom and young rage in a way that is seldom off-putting and always curious. Layered sounds, inspired drops, and a bombastic sonic quality that has rarely been equaled help make Fear of a Black Planet memorable; however, it’s Chuck with that hint of revolution in his voice, that promise of change in his eyes that make it unforgettable.



02. Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988)

You can call them eccentric or ridiculous. Maybe you're missing the point, maybe not. The brilliant thing about a band like the Pixies is the way that their open-to-interpretation like ambiguous nature leaves them void of pretense. Claims that the Pixies somehow reinvented or saved rock in the 80's are entertaining, even though it's hard to gage their validity. While listening to their debut LP, Surfer Rosa and its brash originality (as seamless as it is compulsive) it's hard to imagine that the band had anything larger than themselves in mind at the time.

Brave and markedly different, Surfer Rosa is an honest testament to the Pixies genuine need to travel off of the beaten path for the simple fact that they wanted to. It's schizo punk styling and overbearing oddness help to make it one the easiest "strange" albums to listen to, and one of the most continuously enjoyable and interesting rock albums to ever be released.
........
HA! Fooled you. The suspense is killing you isn't it? Stay tuned for Number 1, as well as South Dakota Dark's Top Ten Albums of '06!

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On Stakes

A conversation with Maggie of Bootstrap Productions today got me to thinking about stakes -- how television is uniquely dependent on them, how they're raised, how they matter more in some genres than others.

Maggie likes stakes. She likes to know that what's going on on an episode of television matters (and forgive me if I am misrepresenting you, Maggie). Two of her favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grey's Anatomy, mix personal stakes (the soap opera plotlines) with the more typical stakes (the monster of the week in Buffy, the medical case of the week in Grey's). In the best episodes of those shows, the episodic stakes inform and comment on the soap operatic stakes -- in Buffy's "Hush," the monsters steal your voice, but Buffy and her friends are struggling to communicate their loneliness (and assorted other things) at being college freshmen -- and so on.

The stakes in a dramatic series aren't hard to find most of the time, even if the show doesn't have continuing storylines like Grey's or Buffy -- if the CSI detectives can't catch the killer, he may kill again; if House can't catch the disease in time, it may kill the patient of the week. Even the dramatic shows that don't take place in a police station or hospital have fairly high stakes. In Friday Night Lights, the guiding question is whether any of these kids can get out of the hellhole town they're stuck in. The way they're going to get out of town is (usually) through football. So if they can win the game of the week, they increase their chance of getting out of town. Similarly, Everwood was about a family on the verge of falling apart that tried to fix itself by moving to a tiny town. While the stakes were smaller here (and the show, to be fair, had a weekly medical plot too), they were high stakes for the characters they were affected by -- good drama waiting to happen.

By contrast, though, the stakes in a comedic series are often very, very small. In an episode of The Office, it's essentially how our characters will get through another work day without killing each other or themselves. On How I Met Your Mother, it's how our groups of friends in New York will be able to have a good time and keep their fractious romantic relationships together. On Seinfeld, the stakes were practically non-existent -- which selfish impulse will our central foursome get to indulge this week? To a large degree, this is because a lot of humor comes out of exaggeration. If Norm and Cliff on Cheers mess up their scheme to videotape a family reunion by running out of tape, it's not going to alter the course of human history, but it's going to be a HUGE deal to them, and they're going to blow it out of proportion so that we (who know their characters) are amused by just how big their exaggerations become. Comedy lives in theatrics; drama lives in realism. There are exceptions to every rule, but these general ideas apply.

Can you do a drama with low stakes? Of course you can, but you have to have perfect touch. Studio 60, for example, has tremendously low stakes -- will our characters manage to produce the show in time and without a hitch this week? While it's important to our characters, it never reaches beyond them. Those who love the show tend to identify with the characters and care FOR them whether it will get done or not. Those who don't can't buy the characters OR get past the lowered stakes.

And what of a comedic series with high stakes? M*A*S*H, of course, had the highest stakes of all -- life and death -- as does Scrubs most weeks. But other series that try to marry comedy with high stakes fail often -- think of the short-lived Whoops!, which tried to set a sitcom in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Now, obviously, a little dark humor would be appropriate for the end of the world, but a sitcom? It didn't work, and audiences figured that out quickly.

Now, Maggie doesn't like sitcoms (the only one on the air right now that she's a fan of is 30 Rock). She's gone on record as saying that she dislikes most of the ones I hold dear. And it's not just a recent thing either; she doesn't like a lot of the classics. Part of this is because she likes the high stakes -- when Buffy's facing down the end of the world and she cracks a joke, it makes her that much more of a badass; when Barney on HIMYM is facing down yet another woman he wants to sleep with and he gets shot down then cracks a joke, the joke just makes him more of cad. If you like the character, this works. If you don't, it's insufferable.

And that may be one of the (myriad) reasons sitcoms aren't doing as well. We live in high stakes times, after all. Shows that engage our fears of terrorism and war head-on have become hits, but they're all dramas (it's hard to imagine a full-length sitcom about the war on terror, though I'm sure someone out there is pitching one right now). When you've got Jack Bauer saving the world on one channel, do we really care if Earl finishes another entry on his list on another? Now, obviously, people have enjoyed sitcoms in times when the world was going insane (just look at the dumb shows that were popular in the 60s), but in those days, dramas hadn't yet figured out how to satisfactorily channel the free-floating national nightmare. Now that we've got Jack to save us from the terrorists (every season, like clockwork), a silly sitcom might feel just a little bit sillier.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume the last

I always forget just how NUTS everything gets around the holidays, even for a gentle soul (such as myself) in the vast media conglomerate (such as myself). To that end, here's the conclusion of the advent calendar, which, due to my desire to not make it a daily thing, has become more of an albatross around my neck than I ever thought possible.

No! Of course I'm joyful!

Dec. 15: Everybody Loves Raymond, season one, episode 12, "The Ball"


It's pretty common now for young hipsters to despise Everybody Loves Raymond (maybe they always did, but I suspect when it was a little-watched critical darling stuck on Friday nights, they had no idea it existed). And, really, if you like cutting-edge stuff, there's almost nothing to like in Raymond -- the pacing is deliberately slower, the performances are deliberately theatrical, the storylines are much more focused, and it kept winning Emmys it didn't really deserve.

But when he died Dec. 12, it seemed that EVERYbody really did love Peter Boyle. He was the only member of the Raymond cast to not win an Emmy, and that's sort of unfortunate. His best work came in the first two seasons of the show, when it couldn't get noticed by the Emmys at all, and after that, it became obvious (in some seasons) that his ailing body confined him to very limited movement, mostly reducing him to a one-liner machine, even though he was capable of much more.

Raymond's first Christmas episode is a good showcase for Boyle -- Ray finds out a Mickey Mantle autographed baseball his father got for him is a fake, but when he hears everything that his dad went through to get that ball, it strengthens their relationship anyway. It's the basic Christmas sap, but Boyle overplays his curmudgeonly side and underplays the true emotions, so when they come out toward the end of the episode, it's that much more affecting. Boyle was the real deal -- an actor who could do anything from broad to tiny -- and he will be missed.

Dec. 16: The Simpsons, season seven, episode 12, "Marge Be Not Proud"



(That above clip, obviously, isn't from this episode, but, rather, from a special Christmas message the Simpsons folks did for British TV in 2004.)

The Simpsons premiere episode, of course, was a Christmas special, but I must have seen that one over 20 times over the years, so I went with this, which I think is actually a slightly better episode, even if it allows it self a bit too much sentimentality (as said before, though, that goes with the territory). This is from when the show was still doing stories based around the characters and their personalities (there's been an attempt to do this in recent seasons, as well, but not quite to the level reached in these early seasons).

Perhaps remarkably, this was only the second Christmas episode The Simpsons had ever done. They seem to do one every year now, but this was the first since the series premiere. In it, Bart shoplifts a video game and is caught. When his parents find out, it threatens to rupture his relationship with his mother, but, of course, this being Christmas, everything is all right in the end.

It's a conceit for a Christmas episode that hasn't been done 1,000 times, and for that, this episode gets bonus points, as well as for being the only episode of The Simpsons my mother has ever enjoyed and for containing the line, "Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!"

Dec. 17: Seinfeld, season four, episode 13, "The Pick"


Seinfeld never did episodes that were strictly Christmas episodes. This was because the characters were fairly obviously Jewish (even if no one ever came out and said it), but it was also because the show's worldview rarely was large enough to embrace something as all-encompassing as the holiday season.

In the best Seinfeld tradition, though, "The Pick" selected a smaller element of the holiday season (getting your photo taken for a Christmas card) and blew that up into the main thrust of one of the show's four dueling plots (to wit, Elaine's picture accidentally shows her nipple, leading her to gain the nickname "Nip"). Of course, Elaine's is only one plot (the main one deals with Jerry attempting to date a new girlfriend who catches him scratching his nose and thinks he's picking it), so the episode isn't really a "Christmas" one, but it's funny and has become something of a classic in the show's run (it helps that it comes in the show's strongest season), so it goes on the calendar.

Dec. 18: Friends, season three, episode 10, "The One Where Rachel Quits"



Friends is another show that wasn't known for its Christmas episodes, maybe because its Thanksgiving episodes were so memorable. So, once again, Christmas is only really a background plot device, used simply because the episode would be airing in December.

It's not a bad plot device either (Phoebe helps out at a Christmas tree lot and grows so attached to the trees that she can't bear to see any go unsold), but the A-plot (Rachel quitting her job to enter the fashion industry as was her dream) is more compelling and has some better jokes anyway.

Dec. 19: Scrubs, season one, episode 11, "My Own Personal Jesus"



Time to confess -- I've seen basically nothing of Scrubs' first season. I liked what I saw that first year, but I wasn't watching much TV in 2001 or 2002 (hard to believe, I know). I was surprised to see just how different the show was early in its run. It was self-consciously wackier (so, for that matter, was Zach Braff), and the transitions between pathos and oddity were a lot more jarring. Also, in this episode, Turk is a deeply observant Christian, something which hasn't come up much since (it sort of makes sense for the character, who's always been a "lead with his heart" kind of guy). Watching this immediately followed by something in the show's current sixth season leads one to believe that NBC sanded off the show's rough edges.

Still, as the last sitcom episode of the advent calendar, it's not a bad way to go out. You can watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 20: Frosty the Snowman



Of the four Christmas specials that air every year (this, Rudolph, Grinch and Charlie Brown), this is probably my least favorite. The Rankin-Bass style just looks frightening in traditional hand-drawn animation (what with the bucked teeth and all), and the quality of the animation isn't very good either. What's more, the story of Frosty the Snowman doesn't lend itself to the special treatment, as Rudolph does (what with the underdog-overcoming-the-odds narrative structure), so there's a lot more tap-dancing done to fill out the run-time, including an obligatory visit from Santa Claus in a special based on one of the few Christmas songs that doesn't mention Christmas-y stuff at all (unless you count snowmen as being somehow Christmas-specific).

Maybe you have a softer spot for it. I haven't liked it since childhood. But you can watch it here. Here's a version of the story from the 1940s:



Dec. 21: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966, of course)




The Grinch, on the other hand, actually IS worth watching every year. Part of it is Dr. Seuss' irresistible reworking of the Scrooge motif, but another part of it is Chuck Jones' slick animation (his work on Max is some of the best TV animation ever). And, of course, the tuneful songs, which nicely complement the action.

The transition from hateful Grinch to helpful Grinch is a little abrupt, but it's certainly better than Ron Howard's 2000 film version, which tries to shoehorn a backstory onto the Grinch and just generally becomes tiresome after a short while, overblown production design aside.

Furthermore, what, exactly, is Roast Beast?

If you like this sort of thing, you can check out the whole thing here, here and here.

Dec. 22: A Claymation Christmas Celebration



This looked like it had the makings of a Christmas standard, airing from 1987 to 1992, but it must have dipped in popularity after that, as it has mostly disappeared since. Maybe now that members of my generation are popping out kids it will come back.

While it was praised when first released, though, I'm not sure the show really deserves to come back. Essentially plotless, it's like a claymated Perry Como Christmas special with jokes. The dinosaur hosts crack wise for a while, some carolers come by singing a wrong variation on "Here We Come a-Wassailing" and then there's a Christmas carol to sing. Of these carols, only the one with the bells (seen above) and the version of Angels We Have Heard on High with ice skating walruses work completely. The others work well as concepts (seeing the stories of ornaments on a Christmas tree) but never quite expand beyond that.

Still, it's one of the few Christmas specials to include blatantly religious content, which is surprising more than anything (we'll get to the other, of course, in a bit). As something that was probably green-lit just because CBS wanted to see the California Raisins (then popular) in a Christmas special, it's probably better than it should have been. Judge for yourself here.

Dec. 23: A Christmas Carol (1971 and 1984)




A Christmas Carol is only as good as its Scrooge, and these two films have some of the best Scrooges (the first has Alistair Sim repeating his role from the 1951 Christmas Carol -- unquestionably the best version; the second has George C. Scott). The 1971 version has become one of my favorites with its Victorian illustration-style animation and its connection to the story's ghostly roots (it can be genuinely scary). While the pacing is off all over the place (the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is rather glossed over in favor of beefing up some of the little-dramatized bits of the Ghost of Christmas Present section -- as seen above) and the hammy acting tends to clash with the naturalistic animation, the gorgeous quality of the images and Sim's strong voice work lets me forgive a lot. The rest of it is here.

The George C. Scott version (and isn't it odd how we refer to versions of A Christmas Carol based on who plays Scrooge rather than the director?) has considerably more in the way of problems. While the Yet-to-Come section is well done (and oddly chilling in places), the rest of it can be a bit mawkish, especially the portrayal of Tiny Tim, who's a problem in any adaptation of this work, as he embraces the very worst tendencies of Dickens to sentimentalize. Here, the screenwriters choose to emphasize Tim's most saintly tendencies (to be fair, they ARE there in the book), and that makes the Cratchet sections borderline laughable. Fortunately, Scott grounds all of this with a strong, naturalistic performance. It's tempting to turn Scrooge into a cliche, a big, broad portrayal. But Scott makes Scrooge's miserliness make sense, and that makes the whole movie work.

Dec. 24: A Charlie Brown Christmas




A Charlie Brown Christmas is probably my favorite thing of anything ever. Really. Its sparse animation and minimalist script and blatant religiosity and strange story and jazz soundtrack shouldn't work together, but, somehow, they do. The last ten minutes or so (from the Christmas tree lot on) never fail to enthrall me, and the soundtrack (readily available on CD, though you should look for the old version, not the 40th anniversary edition, which has a weird sound mix) is the sort of thing I can listen to year-round.

I could say more, but who wants to hear gushing? If the video above isn't working, watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 25: It's a Wonderful Life




But could it end any other way?

It's become cliche now to say that you like It's a Wonderful Life because it's a truly, truly dark movie that earns its catharsis. But I'm going to go ahead and say that anyway. Frank Capra is known for embracing the corny promise of the American Dream, but he also knew that the flipside of that dream was full of crushed hopes and black hearts (not to mention that the pursuit of that dream can lead to unchecked greed, as in the case of Mr. Potter). Capra's modern-day clones forget that, and that means that "Capra-esque" has become a bad thing.

It doesn't hurt that Jimmy Stewart is probably better here than he was in any other movie not named Vertigo and that Donna Reed is maybe the most beautiful woman in the history of history. Even after years and years of copies and parodies, the film stands up.

I'm watching it right now, in fact. Why not join me? I can't wait to see how it ends.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Some Christmas links for now


Blogger ate an entire post, so I'm going to sulk about that.

In the meantime, here are sites that will let you digest that holiday spirit.

--Like Christmas specials? Here are 101 Christmas movies, TV specials, TV episodes, commercials and other things for you to peruse to your heart's content. In particular, check out this little-seen, underrated version of A Christmas Carol by Richard Williams, master animator. And if you're a child of the 80s who wonders how, exactly, Claymation spent that weird period from 1985-1987 as the best thing ever, here's the Christmas special to prove to you that you weren't hallucinating.

--Like Christmas music? Almost to distraction? There are plenty of places you can go, of course, but I'm fond of starting the day at Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anyplace Else, where Lee offers you a wide collection of really odd oddities. Move along to Fa La La La La, where the King of Jingaling is trying to recreate the Christmases of yore, one LP at a time. Then, spend some time with A Christmas Yuleblog and marvel at that title. Ernie (Not Bert) should be your next stop, as he's always got a huge variety of interesting (and totally random) stuff. Then, finally, you have Senses Working Overtime and Blog of 999 Dances, where the entire Great Songs of Christmas series from the 60s is being posted. Here's an easy-to-follow collection of things that have been posted, lest ye get confused. (And don't tell anyone you're downloading all of this stuff, because people tend to raise their eyebrows when you tell them you have over a week's worth of Christmas music. Not that I, y'know, do or anything.)

--Can't be bothered with figuring out these fancy new MP3s? Neither can my family! Go to Pandora.com, in that case and enter some of your favorite holiday songs. Pick the artists you like best go to town. If you want to, you can even create a QuickMix that blends a variety of holiday sounds. Ginchy! Plus, unlike most of the other sites, this one is actually handy during the rest of the year. (Two other radio stations worth checking out: Boston Pete, featuring a wide variety of old-time radio programs and carols, and the Christmas Radio Network, which has a deep library and unintentionally hilarious interstitials.)

--Like A Christmas Carol? So does Jim Hill, and he's watching 40-some versions of the story between Thanksgiving and New Year's from the good to the bad to the deeply, deeply misguided. If you're a member of my family, you'll like his story about The Stingiest Man in Town, a briefly popular made-for-TV musical that somehow became a holiday standard for my mother's family. It covers both the original version and the misbegotten Rankin-Bass version from the 70s. And, if you're in a Christmas Carol-y mood, check out this needlessly elaborate comparison chart.

--Like to read? Here are some Christmas-y type stories for your perusal. Wikipedia's entry on the holiday is actually pretty good for that site. A Christmas Carol is still the most popular Christmas novella. The Little Match Girl is sure to depress, just as surely as The Gift of the Magi is sure not to surprise. Then there's that editorial Sam Elliott reads from in Prancer. And, of course, the poem everyone likes. If you've got money to spend, here's a good book about the history of American Christmas. Plus, there's always, y'know, the Bible. And, barring all of that, there's the strangely moving Dulce Domum from Wind in the Willows.

Now keep busy!

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Adapt This #2: Other countries' shows

Remaking shows from other countries is in vogue right now in the U.S., thanks to the success of Ugly Betty and The Office. This pilot season will see a number of remakes of foreign properties, most notably ABC's The Thick of It (a remake of a British political comedy) and Footballers' Wives (a remake of a British soap).

But there are two other shows that I think could go over well with American audiences that won't immediately be thought of as such (indeed, both are being imported to the U.S. wholesale). So here you go.

Torchwood (United Kingdom), perfect for ABC: Torchwood is the Doctor Who spinoff that has taken the Brits by storm. Unfortunately, it's a deeply uneven show, not quite sure of what it's tone should be (wondering how I saw it? well, the Internet contains many wonders). It veers from horror to comedy to soap and back and rarely gracefully (though, to be fair, it does get better as the season goes along).

Supposedly, SciFi has a deal to air the show, as it does Doctor Who, but there's stuff that will need to be cut for it to air (though, admittedly, SciFi could bury it at 11 p.m. or so and air it uncut, but that doesn't seem to be the best ratings decision). The language, for one thing, is saltier than American non-pay TV can handle, and the rather frank discussion of sexuality is admirable, if a bit outside of the bounds of American cinematic SF.

But that doesn't worry me nearly as much as the show's tone. Really, this should be my dream show -- a task force of operatives explores the realms of weird alien technology (and the vaguely paranormal) while coping with intra-squad squabbling and romances. Furthermore, their office is in Cardiff, Wales, which isn't exactly the epicenter of modern UK society (though I'm told it's seen a hipster resurgence -- the Pittsburgh of the UK!). There's also a strongly suggested mythology that lurks at the edge of the series, always being interesting without ruining itself. It could be a tart little piece of entertainment, but the lugubrious tone shifts often foul it up.

So that's why I think an American adaptation, rather than a straight transplant, might work better. Similar to The X-Files, sure, but that show has been off the air for over five years now, and Supernatural's more of a direct ripoff anyway. What would set it apart, of course, would be the team aspect, as well as the setting (go, Pittsburgh!).

ABC could find a home for this sort of project. It's the kind of freewheeling genre show they could pin before Lost and gain some traction with. If they didn't want it, NBC could throw it after Heroes, or Fox could just stick it somewhere and watch it die. Heck, the procedural format could work on CBS.


Corner Gas (Canada), perfect for NBC: This is trickier. As it is, Corner Gas is a pretty great little show. It's a quiet ensemble comedy set in the middle-of-nowhere Canada, a wackier, yet gentler Northern Exposure (if you can believe either). And it's entirely dependent on the tone set for it by its creator and star, Brent Butt. What's more, the casting is decidedly atypical -- there are attractive people, to be sure, but most of the cast consists of the sort of well-worn faces you don't see on U.S. television all that often.

Now, Corner Gas is coming to WGN mostly intact (the show's a HUGE hit in Canada, and the people behind the deal are hoping it pulls in good numbers on the Midwest's biggest station, I imagine). And I can't say I blame anyone for bringing it to the U.S. as is. It's going to translate and gain a cult following, I imagine, and the references are going to be familiar to those in farm country.

But I think there's an American spin to be done on this. It'll have to have EXACTLY the right sort of talent involved, as Butt was. But the middle portions of America have been largely neglected since the MTM folks and their deliberate attempts to set sitcoms in every major Midwestern city went away. There's great television to be mined from the empty spaces in America's breadbasket, and while Corner Gas is going to ring true for a lot of those folks, there's also stuff that's U.S.-centric that could be plumbed (the uneasy intersection of religion and commerce, etc.).

Now, having grown up in that portion of the country, I'm not suggesting I'm the one for the job (okay, I am), but I do think that something Corner Gas-esque could work. It might need too much tweaking to keep the name, but there's something in there that would translate, I should think.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume 3

Our latest chapter begins. I'll post five today, five later this week and five on Christmas Day. How's that sound?

All right.

Dec. 10: The Boondocks, season one, episode seven, "A Huey Freeman Christmas"



I saw this last year when it first aired, and I remember really liking it. Watching it again, I was struck by just how genuine it is in both its melancholy and its humor. It's the true ancestor to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," both in spirit and in the many, many homages it makes to that Christmas classic. The episode is miles more cynical than the Peanuts special (as is to be expected -- the comic strip was a dark riff on the Peanuts set-up), but there's a real heart that gets bruised here, and most of the jokes land (Jasmine's fantasy of a Santa-worshipping holiday, which you can see above, in particular, seems like the worst nightmare of my Sunday school teacher from back in the day). I also like how the episode is basically the story of Aaron MacGruder trying to turn his comic strip into an animated television show. By turns moving and hilarious, "A Huey Freeman Christmas" is the best Christmas episode I've seen in several years.

Dec. 11: Prancer


(Can you believe YouTube has no Prancer videos?)

I've never seen this movie. Is it SUPPOSED to be overwrought and sort of stupid? And has Sam Elliott ALWAYS looked so much like Powers Boothe? And what of the reindeer?

Basically, Santa Claus movies are always doomed to fail (NBC's poorly thought out remake of The Year Without a Santa Claus is sort of exhibit A in this argument). Now, obviously, some don't, but Santa Claus is such a saintly figure that you can't really base a narrative around him, and his hangers-on are all pretty slight (I mean, Prancer is just a NAME from that Night Before Christmas poem). So you either have to beat out a story that divulges from the well-trod path (Rudolph did this, as did Elf) or you have to come up with some new spin on Santa (Miracle on 34th Street). Since almost nobody can do this, we end up with movie after movie that are just silly.

Hence, Prancer.

Dec. 12: How I Met Your Mother, season two, episode 10, "How Lily Stole Christmas"



Not the best HIMYM ever, but, then, how can you hope to top "Slap Bet" anyway? I'll give the episode points for daring to include Harry Groener, who's a fine, fine actor and will make a fine, fine Clint for the show. Also, writing around the one-word-you-really-can't-say-in-polite-conversation-anymore was pretty well-done, even if "Grinch" wasn't the best word to choose (though it WAS seasonally appropriate). Mostly, the episode was worth it to see Barney and Marshall duet on Silent Night, speaking of which. . .

Dec. 13: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer



Also speaking of which.

Rudolph was never my favorite as a kid (if you'll let me be blindingly personal again), but it's really grown on me as an adult. There's something so DIY about the animation that it can't help but be charming, and the Abominable Snowmonster (which terrified me as a child) always looks sort of ratty, which amuses me. Plus, as Libby says, Christmas just ain't Christmas without Burl Ives, who makes this into a soundtrack worth owning.

Dec. 14: The Office, season three, episode 10 "A Benihana Christmas"



I don't think I've laughed harder all year than I did at Jim tricking Dwight into telling the waitress the best way to drain a goose of blood. Just sayin'.

That's it for now. I'll try to get another one of these up soon AND I promise it will be filled with old-timey special goodness!

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Monday, December 18, 2006

We are not amused: The Queen

The Queen, the second in director Stephen Frears' proposed trilogy of films about British prime minister Tony Blair (the first was about Blair's rise to power, the third would be about he and George W. Bush deciding to go to war in Iraq), has an inherently stuffy and stagey feel to it, rather befitting a film about one of the more set-in-her-ways people on Earth. Unfortunately, this quality occasionally robs the film of a more cinematic quality, making it play like a filmed version of a stage production (indeed, it's easy to conceive of a Broadway adaptation of this making the rounds at the Tonys a few years from now). What the film loses in cinematic urgency, though, it makes up for with wonderful performances.

In The Queen, Blair (Michael Sheen, dryly witty) has just ascended to the position of Prime Minister and encountered Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, who's actually worthy of the awards talk for once), a queen who's as suspicious of him and his Labour Party ways (it's briefly referenced that the Queen has more in common with the Tories) as he (with his anti-royalist wife) is of her. Shortly after Blair is ensconced, Princess Diana dies, and the public outcry of grief threatens to do the Queen in. The rest of the movie has to do with Blair convincing her to step outside of her shell to give the people what they need -- a queen who mourns for someone she was never particularly fond of and, indeed, has no real reason to mourn.

It must be said that a lot of this seems very odd. In our age, when terrorism and war dominate headlines, the fact that the death of a rather insignificant figure on the world scale caused this much grief feels a bit quaint (and the film takes pains to show that the mourning crossed over from the United Kingdom to other countries as well). Diana, of course, was a good person, and the causes she worked for were uniformly fine ones, but, even now, the grieving seems over-the-top. It's far easier for an American such as myself (who's naturally suspicious of royalty and the national soap opera that springs up around it anyway) to side with the slightly bemused Queen than Blair, who sees that the people need a mourner-in-chief.

What's nice about this is that there's never any attempt to play this situation as a deep drama. It quickly becomes more of a comedy of manners set among the monarchy, the sort of wry entertainment you might immediately think of when you hear the phrase "British film." It's less about the attempts by Blair and the Queen to have their way, and more about the generation gap that separates them -- he intrinsically understands how the 24-hour media has changed everything, and she has no idea. This isn't presented as the story of what really happened after Diana's death; the script is far too witty to suggest that. It's a dry comedy, drawn in bits and pieces.

Frears' camera is rarely dynamic here -- there are few shots where it actually moves or gives the actors much room to breathe (indeed, it's easy to remember the many, many stifling close-ups Frears traps his actors in). But his ability to subtly make both sides of the argument seem to make sense to the audience as well as his hand with the actors are the movie's true strengths.

Frears has always been something of an actors' director (he's wrangled great work out of a long list of performers from Jack Black to Chiwetel Ejeiofor to Anjelica Huston), and his cast here comes ready to play. The film is, in essence, about two protagonists learning to capitulate to each other politically. While that doesn't sound horribly interesting on paper, Mirren and Sheen make it the stuff of riveting drama (especially Mirren, who manages to sell even the film's more bizarre moments, which involve the Queen mourning a dead stag), slowly circling each other and coming to respect an individual they wouldn't be naturally inclined to respect in the first place.

But Frears manages to strike just the right notes with his other performers. James Cromwell is hilarious as the doddering Prince Phillip, while Sylvia Syms manages to put a new spin on the overly-controlling old biddy as the Queen Mother. Helen McCrory, as Blair's wife, Cherie, is probably the strongest impediment to Blair and the Queen seeing eye-to-eye, but it's to the credit of Frears and scripter Peter Morgan that her concerns are treated just as fairly as everyone else's.

From both a political and a strictly American standpoint, The Queen is a bit hard to wrap one's mind around. It ends up being something of a love note to the royals, and while the royals are entertaining as soap opera, it's hard to take monarchy seriously in the 21st century, when it has essentially been superceded by democracy in the West (again, especially for an American, what with our complete lack of a royal system and our general cynicism toward our leaders since Watergate). There's an argument to be made (I won't make it, but I have friends I can point you in the direction of who will) that the monarchy prevents true social change from sweeping across the countries where it has a toehold.

But Frears, Morgan and this cast never force questions of politics down your throat. Their greatest achievement here is in never condescending to any of their characters. All of these people have very reasonable goals and motivations, and it's hard to come away from the film without feeling sympathy for all of them. The Queen isn't a perfect film or even a stunning example of cutting-edge filmmaking (as the amount of praise lavished upon it might lead you to suspect). What it is is a closely observed portrait of a moment in time that already feels so long ago, a film that has the decency to treat its larger-than-life subjects as both human beings and adults.

(Note: There will be TV stuff over the next few weeks, but the holiday hiatus most of the networks are laboring under will mean that more film reviews will go up as I catch up with the stuff I've missed.)

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The parents were not pleased

I mean, YES, Deerhoof is the best avant garde rock ever, but I can't say that this seems like the sort of thing that makes for a super-fun-good-time at a children's play.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume 2

Open up the little doors scattered about the candy box and eat the stale chocolate you find inside. What shape is it in? Why, it's in a decidedly Aaron Sorkin-y shape!

Dec. 5: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, season one, episode 12, "The Christmas Show"



Now, as most of you know, I'm no fan of Studio 60. It's good stuff (and, yes, there's a lot of good) is usually outweighed by its awkward stuff. The Christmas episode was interesting because it managed to overcome a lot of what doesn't work about the show through seasonal chutzpah. Example: The FCC subplot that was sprinkled throughout the episode was completely ludicrous -- there was no way this would ever happen in our world, where the show ostensibly takes place (if the FCC has this much power in Studio 60 land, it's a wonder the characters don't live in a dictatorship). But it led up to such a well-delivered monologue by Ed Asner that I almost didn't care. And the runners with the writing staff debunking Christmas and Matt's Christmas spirit were both amusing enough. It was all tied together with a sterling version of "O Holy Night," performed by New Orleans jazz musicians. This all sounds too schmaltzy to work, but it was a good kind of holiday schmaltz, fuzzy like too much egg nog. That scene where Danny tells Jordan he's coming for her is still all kinds of creepy though.

Dec. 6: Mickey's Christmas Carol



Hey, look. The first movie I ever saw in theaters has been uploaded to YouTube. That's somehow apropos.

Truth be told, this isn't the world's best adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but it's still pretty good, especially if you're the kind of person who likes to point out the cameos from the all of the Disney characters who pop up here and there. What's more, that song that opens the special ("Oh What a Merry Christmastime") is the very worst kind of earworm. It's been stuck somewhere in my head since 1983, and one viewing of this special loosed it again to wreak its havoc.

I recall that this special used to be aired with several seasonal Mickey Mouse shorts (to pad out an hour for TV time), and I wouldn't be surprised if those entertained me more now, but this was a nice reminder of a time when I was obsessed with A Christmas Carol and its trappings.

(Side note: What is it about ghosts that goes so well with Christmas? I suspect it's the melancholy underlying the holiday, but who knows?)

Dec. 7: King of the Hill, season four, episode 10, "Hillennium"



I had never seen this episode (which revolves around the citizens of Arlen getting Y2K jitters and letting it infect their Christmas -- to the point where giant packages of toilet paper are considered great gifts), but it was a treat, a mostly amusing episode that encapsulated that weird end-of-the-world paranoia we all suffered through in 1999. Some of the stuff doesn't make a lot of sense (Hank not knowing that he would need air when he was varnishing, for example), but there's a lot here that's perfectly charming, and it's a great reminder of just consistent this show was in its first few seasons -- it can still hit a home run from time to time, but it's not consistent, as with all older shows.

Dec. 8: Roseanne, season four, episode 12, "Santa Claus"



(Yes, that's from the Sarah Chalke years. No, this episode isn't from then. I'm sorry I've mislead you.)

I'm not a Roseanne expert, but I do know that its holiday-themed episodes were considered some of its best, and this one, from one of the show's best seasons (which conventional wisdom dictates run from roughly season two to season six), wasn't too bad, even if it was just an excuse to let Roseanne wisecrack while dressed as Santa Claus (no, really). Airing a week before Christmas Eve, the episode clumsily welded some Christmas-y type stuff to another plot that appeared halfway through the episode. Fortunately, the show's ratings didn't seem to suffer for this weird structure, and the Chuck Lorre era of the show continued apace.

Dec. 9: Miracle on 34th Street



Look! A movie everyone loves!

My mother managed to get me to this movie before the 1994 remake, which is all right, but not a patch on this one (with its great Edmund Gwynn performance). It's a little cheesy, and the ending with the bags and bags of letters lends itself too easily, perhaps, to parody, but the sheer earnest over-the-topness of it is what makes it work, and the cast is genuinely excellent. There's a reason this is one of the two or three best Christmas movies out there (everyone agrees), and it lies in just how committed this movie is to its slightly nuts premise.

And, of course, Gwynn.

All right. That's all for tonight. I'll catch up over the weekend.

For now, though, here's some more exciting Christmas action with the cast of Scrubs.

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Not dead yet

Though Blogger, apparently, wants me to be. The free-wheeling hatred that it has for the computers of the kin I went visiting this weekend has spread, somehow, to my computer -- yes, the very one that I compile this here weblog on.

Fortunately, things seem to be in rough working order -- and the excellent timing of our winter holiday meant that I missed very little television of significance and was able to catch up rather quickly (in addition to my other duties).

I'll resume the advent calendar just as soon as I can slam a few more treacly Christmas specials. But my quest to find anything Christmas-related while at home led me back to The Boondocks Christmas episode, which is one of my favorites of recent years.

So there was that.

To tide you over, here are some links for now.

--Here's the latest T.V. on TV column, which is all about How I Met Your Mother.

--Peter Casey, guest blogging for Ken Levine, tells the engrossing story of how the series Frasier came to be here, here and here.

--If you love Christmas music and you're not checking out the seasonal excitement at Lee's place, you're missing a real treat. Some of the best (and weirdest) holiday sounds you'll find are lurking just a mouse click away. (Look for "The Stingiest Man in Town," a Christmas staple of my childhood.)

--The great pro of film and TV (forever immortalized as Frankenstein's monster, Frank Barone and Clyde Bruckman -- among many, many others) Peter Boyle has died. Edward Copeland has the write-up and the place to leave your thoughts.

--Call me crazy, but I find this discussion by urban explorers of how to dig through a brick wall in a sewer tunnel to get to an unspecified treasure behind it fascinating (take a dig through the rest of the forums too to find cool stories of people exploring their cities and suburbs and local Manson family compounds).

--And finally, because it's in the name, South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson is ailing from what was and now isn't a stroke. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Finally, every night at 3 a.m., jets fly directly above my apartment building. You can't hear jets overhead at any other time of the day. Now, I live relatively close to an air reserve base, but, honestly, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?! Government, I'm not above taking a stick to your jets.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

South Dakota Break

So this is the first time I've had enough time alone with a computer (when I wasn't writing for other publications) to get on here and do a little updating. I'll be back in California on Tuesday (in the wilds of the Midwest right now and being productive otherwise, thank you) and back to updating then (though, honestly, the end of the year does not hold out great prospects for me), and I'll try to get part two of the advent calendar up tomorrow.

In the meantime, get your recommended dose of me with these two BSG recaps. Marvel, friends, at just how good so many of my commentors are! Thrill that they don't steal my job somehow!

While I'm away, also, start sending me links to top ten lists for TV as you see them. No one is compiling these in the way that film and music lists are compiled, and I'm interested to see just what the print critics and Blog-o-sphere deem the best of TV in 2006. Those can be e-mailed to me.

And just because I love you so much, check out this dude and wonder why, exactly, he's not dead.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar

It's December. That, of course, means it's the holiday season. Now, if there's one thing we here at SDD love (and, of course, by "we," I mean, specifically, "me"), it's a good Christmas special (though, in the interest of fair time, we'll try to find a few non-Christmas shows, which, I guess, means the Rugrats?). So, every day of this month, we're going to watch a different Christmas special, Christmas movie or holiday-themed episode. We'll keep up with the other stuff too, mostly doing these items in aggregate posts, so you can skip 'em more easily if you're not down with a Christmas Kind of Blog.

Dec. 1: A Garfield Christmas Special



So, anyway, Garfield.

I had rather fond memories of the Garfield special from my childhood. It put a lump in my throat as a wee child, and I thought that was from superior construction or deliberately deployed minimalism (like Charlie Brown) or something. As it turns out (and, really, my never-ending childhood love for the episode of Family Matters where Carl feels guilty over the death of the guy who went out for ice cream should have tipped me off), this is really kind of treacly and cringe-worthy. It's not awful by any means, but it never goes above the level of stereotype (there's, for example, a rockin' Granny, a childlike younger brother, etc.), and the relationship of Jon Arbuckle and brother Doc Boy with their father is really kind of. . .scary and weird (I mean. . .I get that they have an unhealthy attachment to their parents, but the level of infantilization on display here. . .). There's a nice enough heartfelt denouement, but the special just tries to do too much while never capturing the feeling of a big-ass Midwestern Christmas (and I've been to a few) like it could.

Dec. 2: Newsradio, season 3, episode 10, "Christmas"



I've made no bones about my love for Newsradio, but I think this is the least of its three Christmas episodes (I think my favorite is season two's "Xmas Story," which features the Fibber McGee and Molly runner). The jokes just quite aren't on the level the show was capable of, especially in its madcap third season (which I consider its best, closely followed by the fourth and second seasons). The episode doesn't go for sentiment, which is nice, and the attempts to leave the office early on Christmas Eve ring true (as do Dave's desperate hopes of jumping a plane to be home for the holidays), but the B-story, featuring Bill and Beth recording a commercial, feels oddly disjointed from the rest of the episode (considering it doesn't tie in to the Christmas Eve setting at all). Still, the runner where Matthew is the only one who can pick Jimmy's Christmas gifts for billionaires is pretty clever, especially Matthew's suggestion for Bruce Springsteen ("Mittens").

Dec. 3: The Smurfs Christmas Special



Now THIS, which I had never had the pleasure of seeing before, is just insane (check out the link above for an extended recount of just how odd it is). The Smurfs have never really seemed to be a part of our world, so their celebration of an essentially modern Christmas (complete with decorations and Santa Claus) is off-putting. Gargamel hating Christmas makes sense, of course, but his random co-conspirator comes out of nowhere. Also, there are kids lost in a forest, wolves and magical singing. Plus, Gargamel destroys the Smurf village. This is all a little grim for a Christmas special, and there's not really a good payoff, unless you consider an incredibly annoying attempt at a new Christmas standard ("Goodness Makes the Badness Go Away") to be the sort of thing you'll take to heart.

Dec. 4: The Scooby Doo Christmas Special



Also nuts. Scooby Doo and Christmas just don't work together. I mean, it's not like the schemes of the people disguising themselves as ghosts ever made a lot of sense in the original series, but this special (originally broadcast in 2002) makes even less sense, what with its monstrous snowman who destroys the houses of those who enjoy Christmas. Turns out the snowman is looking for gold hidden in a chimney (spoilers?!), which doesn't have a connection to Christmas at all. Why the Christmas connection then? Who knows? I do like the idea that Scoob and Shag are the world's biggest Christmas-heads. It seems somehow oddly apropos.

If you want to watch the full versions of any of these, most can be found on the Internet, if you know how to look. Go on. I dares ya.

I'm going away for my OWN Christmas celebration. Hopefully, I'll have consistent Internet access, but I offer no promises. David and some of the others should hook you up, though, while I'm away.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The adventures of birthday TV

Everyone, meet Big TV.

Big TV, meet everyone.

My birthday was Thursday, and in addition to turning 26, I bit the bullet (with Libby's help of course) and bought Big TV. Ostensibly, this is to make the viewing experience of various things more pleasurable (as Libby put it to the guy who sold us Big TV, "If we're going to watch all that crap, it might as well look nice").

Big TV doesn't quite look like that. It's a slightly different shade of grey and not QUITE that big (it's 52", not 62"). What's more, we bought it used, so it has its quirks and peculiarities (I also assure you that we bought it used so you not think us rich, because, believe me, we're not). But it is very big. When watching it, I'm tempted to call even Jericho the finest show in the history of history.

That's the thing. We haven't even hooked up HD yet (it's actually doubtful that we can even do this in our apartment complex, which contracted with some bizarre subset of DirecTV that offers everything DirecTV offers expect DVR and HD -- no real explanation offered), but the whole thing is rather mindblowing. If your production has good production values, it's easy to just write the whole thing off as being fantastic, simply because TV has never looked quite THIS good. I've become three times the fan of Heroes that I ever was just because it's so fun to watch on the wide screen.

You can see where this is dangerous for those with a critical eye.

We're not used to seeing TV look this nice. Even the big hits had a kind of chintzy look back in the day. Sure, dramas of the '90s took a big leap forward in having a sort of cinematic value (as well as the occasional sitcom with a big budget -- Cheers, for instance), but because of those of us with big TVs, the networks are investing in making their shows look more and more handsome -- you should see the vistas on Lost.

The networks are sort of chasing a false dream here, I fear. After all, even 1 Vs. 100 looks pretty good on Big TV, and that costs far less than Lost. Eventually, the rising price of looking good on big TVs is going to make truly big dramas prohibitively expensive for anyone but the big boys, I'm afraid (especially as more and more networks chase that audience -- the quality drama glut of '06 is nothing compared to what's going to happen when literally every cable channel unleashes a new drama pilot next year or in 2008). Meanwhile I, the Big TV enabled viewer, am going to demand more and more bang for my buck.

I don't know what all of this is going to mean. But I do know that every night before I go to bed, I give Big TV a hug and a kiss.

Just to make sure it knows it's loved.

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