Friday, January 13, 2006

Schmas Schmegas

Las Vegas is exactly as cheesy and odd as you would think it would be.

But it's also something everyone should see at least once.

Anyway, here through Monday. If I'm not posting, that's why. But (obviously) I have Internet access, so I'll be checking comments, etc. If you know of something we NEED to see/do, please let me know!

Libby and I hope to hit Avenue Q and not lose too much money.

And if I get the chance, I'll type up some quick thoughts.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The 20 Best Network Television Shows of 2005

The Family Guy, adoption and personal struggle posts I am working on will have to wait (due respect, but you'll never read THAT in the Wall Street Journal).

But this cannot.

I have thought, and thought, and thought. And these are the best shows on the six networks (sorry, Pax) that you can still watch (sorry canceled shows). And I'll do a list of 20 cable shows when I get back.

I was actually surprised at how hard this was to do. Once I got past the top 10, everything kind of blended together. So I suppose I should have only done 10. Oh well! Lessons for next time.

20.) Alias (returns March 2 on ABC) -- Let me just say straight off that a lot of season four and the first half of season five was vastly uneven. Let me just say that this show SHOULD be ending. But also let me just say that there is no crazier time on television than when this show is firing on all cylinders. Having heard who's coming back for the latter half of season five (leading in to the series finale), I have high hopes for the last run of episodes.

Strongest episode: "Tuesday" (originally aired 3/30/05). In which the incomparable Kevin Weisman saved the incomparable Jennifer Garner from being buried alive and the show felt like its old self again.

19.) The Amazing Race (returns in March on CBS) -- This would have been up higher, but they had to run that crazy family edition I completely stopped paying attention to. Regardless, this remains the Cadillac of reality shows. It's part game show, part travelogue, part personality study and all fraught with tension. Here's hoping the next race is a return to form.

Strongest episode: "I've Been Wanting a Face Lift for a Long Time" (originally aired 3/29/05). Usually, the Race makes you THINK two teams are really close, when, in reality, they're hours apart (as you can tell when one team arrives with the sun high overhead and the other arrives with the moon in a corresponding position). But this episode featured a car crash AND an honest-to-God footrace that ended with heroes vindicated and villains vanquished.

18.) Supernatural (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on the WB) -- This really, really shouldn't work in our age of heavily serialized genre shows. This is like X-Files ULTRA lite. But the engaging cast and energetic guest stars make it come off breezily. It's a goofy little show, perfect for killing time. And such.

Strongest episode: "Phantom Traveler" (originally aired 10/4/05). Creator of the short-lived (and much-mourned) Miracles Richard Hatem gives us a good old-fashioned exorcism. ON A PLANE! And offers up hints to the show's ongoing mythology. ON A PLANE!

17.) Bones (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on Fox) -- Yes, I know. It seemed all I could do was complain about this show. And yet. . .I still like it. A lot. It needs work, but I'm willing to stick with it a little while longer, if only for Deschanel and Boreanaz's chemistry. Which is sizzling.

Strongest episode: "The Man in the Fallout Shelter" (originally aired 12/13/05). I alluded to this one in my review of this show, but it really is a fine episode, navigating the treacherous terrain of the Christmas episode with panache. It's got heart-tugging moments, big laughs and even a montage set to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." What more do you want?

16.) How I Met Your Mother (airs Mondays at 8:30 EST/PST on CBS) -- A sparkling cast and oft-witty writing make this the finest sitcom CBS has had in ages. There's a very particular angst to your 20s that the show gets ever-so-right, and the character of Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is deservedly a breakout. Double special bonus points for giving us back the national treasure that is Bob Saget and for introducing concepts of fate and free will to the overlying sitcom framework. Now if only they could do something about that dull leading man. . .

Strongest episode: "Okay Awesome" (originally aired 10/17/05). A friend of mine called this the best half-hour CBS has ever broadcast. While that's patently false (I mean. . .every sitcom they had on in the 70s begs to differ), it's something I actually thought about for a while. This episode is actually SO good that it sort of towers above the rest of the show like a colossus. The leading man is likable (we can see WHY a woman would fall for him), the jokes all hit their marks, it perfectly nails what's so miserable about clubbing, and it has a perfect end line ("That place has great salads!"). All this and Jayma Mays!

15.) Grey's Anatomy (airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EST/PST on ABC) -- I hate myself for doing this. I really, really do. I was above this show when it premiered. It had too much pop music. Too much rambling voiceover by an annoying protagonist. Too many manipulative plot twists. But, ever so gradually, I was sucked in. The main character still annoys me, but I sort of like that she does (even if she seems obsessed with finding a man to the detriment of career -- the Joss Whedon-ite in me says no). And the supporting cast is stellar. I can't help it. I, I who hate medical shows, am being sucked in.

Strongest episode: "Into You Like a Train" (originally aired 10/30/05). Normally, the patients-as-metaphors-for-problems-in-the-characters-lives schtick irks me. Not so here. Two trains collide and the passengers arrive at the hospital. The interns must decide who to save and who to let die. It's heartbreaking and emotional and nervewracking. All at once. And it's the episode that made me decide I liked this show.

14.) Without a Trace (airs Thursdays at 10 EST/PST on CBS) -- Procedurals are starting to wear on me. I just can't bring myself to care about them anymore. But this one still knocks out a good episode every few weeks. It's getting complacent and a bit long in the tooth, but I still watch it, unlike CSI, which used to be one of my favorites. That has to count for something.

Strongest episode: "A Day in the Life" (originally aired 11/17/05). The problem with all procedurals is that they end up creating an insular world, inviting the viewer in along with them. It's fun to be in that world, but it's too easy to forget the emotions of the families of the victims. This episode brilliantly turns that paradigm on its head, giving us a chance to see the detectives as brutes and grieve with a family.

13.) Prison Break (returning in March to Fox) -- Let me just get this out of the way. THIS SHOW IS COMPLETELY IMPLAUSIBLE. If you thought 24 was bad, this is going to trump that on every level it possibly can. It had a few curiously flat hours toward the top, but shortly into its run, it hit a stride that it's kept up ever since. It's not the best written show on television (nor the best acted), but I challenge you to find a guiltier pleasure.

Strongest episode: "Part 2" (originally aired 10/3/05). The show went away for its baseball break in style with an episode that featured a prison riot, a murder, inconvenient people learning about the plan and sweet, sweet unresolved sexual tension. It was an hour with so many plates spinning that the show has struggled to top it since (though the cliffhanger episode in November came close).

12.) Invasion (airs Wednesdays at 10 EST/PST on ABC) -- Okay. The pilot was a little slow. So was the next episode. Get over it. This story of aliens invading a tiny Florida town built and sustained a creepy, suspenseful mood like few television shows ever have. Then, when that mood was sufficiently built, it went ahead and added plot twist after plot twist to the scenario. I mean, how many OTHER shows would have someone take a chainsaw to their own arms? And the show's central metaphor is one of those wonderful ones that can stand for just about anything you want it to. Right wing hegemony? Sure thing! LEFT wing hegemony? Go right ahead. Terrorism? Naturally! Man's eternal struggle with nature? Uh. . .sure. . .

Strongest episode: "Unnatural Selection" (originally aired 10/19/05). Some of the later episodes were much better in the "advancing the plot" department so many worry about, but this one had the finest performance from the series' secret weapon, William Fichtner. It also concluded with that magnificently creepy scene in the church, lightning flashing all around, Fichtner matter-of-factly delivering a speech that talks of very awful things.

11.) Scrubs (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on NBC) -- Big whimsy. I have never liked Scrubs as much as I feel I should, even though I like it very much. It's absurdist and whimsical in the very best possible ways, and it manages to fight its way out of some very odd little holes. It's also one of the few sitcoms out there that's not afraid of the gravitas. It'll go for the jugular now and again. And it's got an expert cast. At the end of the day, though, it just doesn't make me laugh as much as some of the other comedies on my list. Sigh.

Strongest episode: "My Best-Laid Plans" (originally aired 3/1/05). Zach Braff directs and goes very stylized. Plus, the lovely and talented Miss Heather Graham lights up the screen (in a way she just can't in "Emily's Reasons Why Not"). It has a VERY contrived twist at the end, but getting there is pure bliss, full of laughs and ruminations on why we do the things we do.

10.) My Name Is Earl (airs Thursdays at 9 EST/PST on NBC) -- This one is odd because it gives me so much enjoyment, but I can already see where it's going to start falling apart one of these days (much like Desperate Housewives a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time ago). But for now, I'll gladly hop on the bandwagon for this big-hearted, warm hug of a show. It's taken all the lessons Arrested Development taught us and employed them in an interesting manner. While some of the endings get TOO schmaltzy, the show makes up for it with big laughs. And, honestly, if they just give Earl some more setbacks and keep from turning preachy, they could make it several seasons without falling apart.

Strongest episode: "Joy's Wedding" (11/15/05). The show rarely has huge belly laughs, but it had them by the barrelful in this episode, which also explored one of its strongest supporting characters, Earl's ex-wife Joy. As good as Jason Lee is, Ethan Suplee and Jamie Pressley lift this show above the usual dross and give it a comic point-of-view.

9.) 24 (returns Sunday on Fox) -- It stretches credulity. It's borderline fascist. It inspires drinking game after drinking game. And still, somehow, 24 stays on top. Season four's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach offered up kidnappings, nuclear missiles, the destruction of Air Force One and Shohreh Aghdashloo in one of the supporting performances of the year. Quibble all you want, but 24 remains TV's most energizing thrill ride. And the start of season five is nothing too drab either!

Strongest episode: "12 p.m. to 1 p.m." (originally aired 1/24/05). It's always difficult to pick "one" episode of 24, thanks to the nature of the show, but this one had a lot going on in it and never let up. Jack got in to a huge gun battle, Shohreh got to begin the long path to betrayal and Tony's return was set up. It's not going to make a lick of sense if you haven't seen the first few episodes, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

8.) The Office (airs Thursdays at 9:30 EST/PST on NBC). I was all set to hate this show. I love the British original. It's one of my top TV shows of all time. And while this isn't as good (and made the mistake of showing us by copying the British pilot for its pilot), it's still an amazingly funny show. The developers have taken the British idea and perfectly Americanized it. Those who claim that it is just an overdone gloss on the original don't get the uniquely American nature of these characters. And the Jim/Pam romance comes close to eclipsing Tim/Dawn. I NEVER thought I would say that.

Strongest episode: "The Fire" (originally aired 10/11/05). In season one, the show felt a little unsure of how far it could stray from its roots. In its second season, it abandoned the roots entirely, as shown in this amusing episode that takes place almost entirely in a parking lot. The writers turn the mundanity of workplace life into something revealing, offering up the little games we play to make the time go by as psychological insights.

7.) Gilmore Girls (airs Tuesdays at 8 EST/PST on the WB) -- It sounds like a terrible idea for a show. A mother and daughter who are more like friends than family. It sounds positively NAUSEATING. And add in the proto-feminist undercurrents that could threaten to overwhelm everything? But for five-and-a-half seasons now, the Girls have navigated those waters skillfully, offering what is maybe the most heartfelt show on TV. It's a deconstruction of the American class system, a celebration of the small town way of life and a subtle celebration of girl power. And it's got the best pop culture references you ever did see. It's a national treasure, even when it has no direction (see: much of season 6). Check it out.

Strongest episode: "Wedding Bell Blues" (originally aired 2/8/05). There were so many good episodes this year that it was a bit head-spinning, but this one, the show's 100th, managed to get all of the central relationships whirling while providing big fights, public meltdowns and lots and lots of goofy humor. This may be the best episode the show has ever produced.

6.) House (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on Fox) -- Here it is. The one good thing American Idol has ever done for us. It made a hit of this show that shouldn't have been a hit, featuring a cranky doctor (remember: viewers don't like characters that are mean!) and his team of young go-getters. It's not perfect, and it threatens to slip into formula all too often, but most of the time, the incomparable Hugh Laurie and the most well-researched writing team on television keep everything functioning.

Strongest episode: "Three Stories" (originally aired 5/17/05). This just might have been the television episode of the year. The sound you heard once it was over was America's collective jaw dropping.

5.) Everybody Hates Chris (airs Thursdays at 8 EST/PST on UPN) -- How often does television talk about the poor? How often is a sitcom father something other than a bumbling oaf? How often does a family sitcom show the bleaker side of life, while still offering up a family that convincingly makes it seem like a kid could grow up dancing just above the poverty line and turn into an accomplished comedian like Chris Rock? If your answer was "All of the time!" you clearly don't pay any attention. This is a one-of-a-kind show and a joyous treat every week it's new. It's also gloriously funny.

Strongest episode: "Everybody Hates Christmas" (originally aired 12/15/2005). So what? I'm a sucker for Christmas episodes. Especially when they have as much heart as this one, which actually presents the idea of a kid not getting ANY presents as a heartwarming ideal. When's the last time you saw THAT on According to Jim?

4.) Everwood (returns in March on the WB) -- At one time, this was a treacly, often maudlin show that seemed destined to always be pretty good and never crack the top 10. Then the last two seasons hit. This is a family drama that doesn't shy away from hard-to-discuss topics. It's got richly developed character after richly developed character and perfectly executed scenes about the small wonders of life in every episode. And it never, ever takes the easy way out. It's always pushing its characters in new, interesting directions and making arguments for the necessity of small town life. I'm not one for shows like this, but this one works, maybe as well as any show of its type in the history of the medium. And it has Chris Pratt and Sarah Drew, two of the best young actors anywhere.

Strongest episode: "Fate Accomplis" (4/17/05). On paper, the storyline of Andy keeping the birth of a secret son from Ephram shouldn't work. But the show took a plotline that had been handed to it by a prior writing staff and handled it with grace and maturity. It had the strength to ask what would REALLY happen if this happened, and it followed through on that scenario with devastating results.

3. Arrested Development (please return sometime soon on Fox!) -- What? I'm not breaking my rules! This show hasn't BEEN officially canceled yet. It apparently will be soon, but there are still four episodes, which will air. . .sometime. Catch them while you can. Better yet, buy the DVDs. Because this is the kind of show that only rarely comes along. Whipsmart, ridiculously funny and full of the best acting on television, Arrested only takes a break long enough to make fun of itself. Or hail itself. Or do a shoutout to an obscure sitcom from the 90s. You're not going to find a funnier show on the air. And for all of the talk about how "smart" and "rewarding" the show is, that's the real selling point. It's funny, funny, funny.

Strongest episode: "Motherboy XXX" (originally aired 3/13/05). The demented Jessica Walter is one of the show's finest performers and the oblivious Tony Hale is one of its least-heralded. This episode gives the two of them a madcap plot of their own AND lets the other members of the talented ensemble swirl around them. More laughs than you get from most sitcoms in a whole season.

2. Veronica Mars (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on UPN) -- Yes. It's a show about a teen girl. Who solves mysteries. On UPN. Last year at this time, I was worried it would disappear down a rabbit hole of self-contained stories and never appear again. Never fear, gentle reader, for that clearly did not happen. Instead, Veronica Mars began to balance mystery solving, teen angst, soap opera plotting and an overriding mystery better than any show since Buffy in its prime (and that's high praise from me). And when other shows (including a certain hit on ABC on Sunday nights) came back after solving their season one mystery and spun their gears, Veronica Mars built a new mystery that rose out of the ashes of "Who killed Lilly Kane?" and actually surpassed it in many respects. Sure, the cast has a couple of weak links, but this is a strong, confident show and with Gilmore Girls and Everybody Hates Chris, it offers up smart commentary on the American economy week after week.

Strongest episode: "A Trip to the Dentist" (originally aired 5/3/05). Most regard "Leave It to Beaver," the first season's finale, as the series finest hour so far. I, however, prefer this penultimate episode, which tackled the question of who drugged Veronica and raped her at a party (see? not a typical teen show). Characters from all of the previous episodes resurface, and the answer is not what you might expect. About halfway through, Libby said, "I think I'm going to be sick." It's just that powerful. And that good.

1.) Lost (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on ABC) -- What? You didn't get any answers? Stop whining. Lost is network TV's bravest show, taking every possible form of stereotype, then inverting them and seeing what makes them tick. It's also a ridiculously addictive puzzlebox mystery that actually appears to have some idea where it's going. With a rich ensemble, a stable of strong characters, a great writing staff and some of the most distinctive direction on television, Lost is the kind of delight that only comes along once in a great while. In the end, television, better than any other medium, poses questions. And Lost poses those questions, but not in the ways you might think. Who are we? it asks or What is right and what is wrong and who decides for us? It may seem to be taking its own sweet time, but trust me, that's a good thing.

Strongest episode: All of them? Hmmm. . .no. . .I guess. . ."Man of Science, Man of Faith" (originally aired 9/21/05). All right. You've just won the Emmy. Fans are rampant for your return. Everyone was a bit angry at where the finale ended. So there's a lot riding on this premiere. Remarkably, Lost rose to the occasion and then some, offering a creepy hour that made Mama Cass into a harbinger of doom, took the show's mythology and flipped it on its head and answered so many questions while posing so many more. Good on you, Lost!

We'll name the top 20 cable shows next time around. After that, we'll hand out some special prizes.

Here's a network by network tally:

ABC: 4 (Alias, Grey's Anatomy, Invasion, Lost)
CBS: 3 (The Amazing Race, How I Met Your Mother, Without a Trace)
Fox: 5 (24, Arrested Development, Bones, House, Prison Break)
NBC: 3 (My Name Is Earl, The Office, Scrubs)
UPN: 2 (Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars)
The WB: 3 (Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Supernatural)



Funnily enough, just as I was thinking about doing an article about how I used to game, but now I mostly don't, Electronic Gaming Monthly publishes a list of the 200 best video games of their time. This means that the game is evaluated by how it was regarded when it came out. So you can legitimately have Pong at 10th place and call it a day.

And I promise if you keep reading this, more dorky revelations about me will occur.

Anyway, the top 200 is here, but beware! Underneath lies lots of annoying fanboy discussion!

Don't want to go to sites that might scare you? I feel your pain, Sparky.

Here's the top ten, complete with my commentary.

10.) Pong -- Some little gas station in the middle of nowhere South Dakota that I stopped at in middle school had a WORKING PONG MACHINE. It was not very fun. But it gets the "Great Train Robbery" vote for starting it all.

9.) Grand Theft Auto III -- The first game in the series was not well-reviewed by COMPUTER GAMING WORLD (which I used to subscribe to), so I wrote the whole franchise off. Imagine my surprise when I walked in the door of my college apartment and saw my roommate beat up an old woman with a baseball bat, then steal a fire truck and go off to battle fires. The game was thrillingly freeform, full of laughs and unabashedly adult. It's still one of my favorites, and it points to a future where games will be a legitimate way to try out other lives (mostly of crime).

8.) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time -- I have never played this. I watched another of my college roommates play it until the very end. He got very frustrated. We bought him a hint book. I still have that hint book. Is it any wonder I accrued so much credit card debt in college? Anyway, watching him play this was dull, but also soothing.

7.) Space Invaders -- There's something still addictive about this. But that addiction is quickly tempered by the fact that the game is awfully repetitive.

6.) Super Mario 64 -- Here we go. This is a fun game, full of secrets, and it was legitimately revolutionary. Once the Nintendo team figured out how to make 3D fun, there was no looking back. Bonus points: This game may have killed WHOLE GENRES!

5.) The Legend of Zelda -- Somehow, I have never played this either. Libby has completed The Wind Waker, and I played a lot of Link to the Past while in Puerto Rico, but this one has eluded me. Maybe because when I was a kid, the class miscreant invited me over with promises of alligator pits in his basement. Then all we did was sit around and watch him play this.

4.) Tetris -- I am the only person in the world who gets quickly bored with Tetris. It could have something to do with the fact that I'm really, really bad at it. Anyway, my family had a 286 back in the day, and we discovered Tetris BEFORE it hit the Nintendo and Game Boy. They all gobbled it up. I turned to the substantive pleasures of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

3.) Street Fighter II -- Now here's something that's right up my alley! Except not really. For a time, this was in every locally-owned pizza parlor in America and the SAME shifty, overweight teen was standing off to the side, just ready to thrash you as Ryu. I, at the time, was running towards an especially awkward puberty like an out-of-control truck. So, naturally, I always played with that green guy who could electrocute himself. TO THIS DAY, I don't think I have beaten the overweight teen. I should go out to Papa Joe's and see if he's still there.

2.) Pac-Man -- When I was in high school, a close relative spent a lot of time in the hospital. It was a sad, desperate part of my life (except I finally worked up the courage to hold a girl's hand during the same period -- I told you this would be full of dorky treasures!). For some reason, in the hospital, there was a free Pac-Man machine. I got very, very proficient at Pac-Man, to the point where I can still make the game weep when I touch it. But being good at Pac-Man is not much of a skill to brag about nowadays. (Footnote: The hospital stay was ALSO when I completely memorized the Flukeman episode of The X-Files.)

1.) Super Mario Bros. -- This list is a little safe, but if you're going for the game that had the most impact in its time, you can't really go with anything but this. When they write the histories of gaming, this will be the Birth of a Nation. Except, the racism will be swapped out for unfortunate Italian stereotyping. But when this was popular, it was like a seismic shift. The kids on the playground went from talking about, oh, I don't know, whatever we talked about before Mario and instantly started talking about Mario. In the space of a DAY. My friend Andy never even HAD a Nintendo. And he could tell you where all of the warp zones were. Crazy kid.

Final embarrassing admission: When I say I "used to game," what I mean is "I have played the entire Sierra On-line catalog."


Quick thoughts

First, let's hear from my oldest friend, Andy Farke, on his problems with Bones, which are more, er, technical than mine. . .

I remember the episode of Bones (the one with the mummy found in the wall of the club) where they rehydrated the hand of the mummy and peeled off the skin. Bones then wore the hand skin like a glove to take fingerprints. I want to know how she was able to do this--the skin on the hand is about as attached as anything I've ever seen. It's tough enough to skin a fresh hand, let alone one that's been dried out and rehydrated. . .ah well, I guess no show is perfect.

See? You learn things reading this blog!

Obviously, none of you have ever had to ride on a long bus trip with him while he points out the inaccuracies in Anaconda.

Now. . .some brief thoughts on random episodes of television. . .

The Simpsons -- Paternity Coot (originally aired 1/8/06): I have never been one to say that The Simpsons has completely lost it. It's still amusing and it makes me grin, even if it is a shadow of its former self all too often.

But I can see where the problems arise from. When you've got this many episodes, ESPECIALLY when you burn off three or four plots per episode as these writers tend to do, you can't help but twist some of your central relationships beyond repair.

Honestly, having Mother Simpson have an affair with another man cheapens (to some degree) the sentiments expressed in the episode of the same name from season seven.

Or maybe I'm just getting old and set in my ways.

How I Met Your Mother -- The Wedding (originally aired 1/9/06): I never quite know what to make of this show. It has some deft writing, and the supporting characters can be a lot of fun, but the central couple is often horribly mis-written, even if they have remarkable chemistry. But it also misses the mark a lot. I watch it every week with a tight little smile on my face, ready to laugh at all times, but rarely getting to.

That said, it DOES seem to be the first show targeted at people of my generation. Hence the references to the Ickey Shuffle, etc. in previous episodes.

I don't know if telling us from episode one that Robin wasn't "the one" was a smart move or not, but it really gives the whole thing a sense of fatalism that's odd for a sitcom.

Also, bonus points for showing us how every other CBS sitcom came to be: the ugly guy marrying the hot girl.

Gilmore Girls -- The Perfect Dress (originally aired 1/10/06): I also watch this show with a smile on my face, but that's a gracious one. The Girls can be a little too self-indulgent at times (this is maybe the only show on TV to do episodes where LITERALLY nothing happens), but when they're on, they fire on all cylinders in a way few shows ever have.

If it took that aimless first third of the season to bring us to a point where every character on the show has multiple storylines spinning around in the air, so be it.

Long live the Palladinos!

Clearly, I watch too much television.

Tomorrow, before I go to Vegas, thoughts on my writing "career" and (if you're lucky) the top ten shows of 2005.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Some thoughts on television criticism. . .

I promise I won't be long-winded. I really, really promise.

But I'm getting tired of the state of television criticism. There are very few people out there worth reading (if, indeed, there ever were). There's, what?, Dana Stevens over at Slate, Tim Goodman at the San Francisco Chronicle. . .Melanie McFarland up in Seattle is always a nice read. . .

But we just don't have any good TV writers for the most part. And that's because we don't have a real critical apparatus with which to approach the modern, American TV show.

As Americans, we tend to like art forms that emphasize the individual. That's why even in a collective art form like a film or a big building, we look for a person to single out as the one who made it all happen. That's why we so eagerly embrace the auteur theory, even though so few of us actually understand it. (I like the theory but find large bits of it mostly misleading, but that's a topic for another time.)

But we can't find that individual in a TV show. So we unthinkingly condemn it as a "lower" art form, when, in reality, it's just a different art form. Yeah, a ton of TV is crap, but so are a ton of films. And, to be honest, the bad stuff outweighs the good stuff at the bookstore too (though maybe not at the library).

We blindly assign the creator of a TV series with the most responsibility in what makes it good. But what if it's not the creator at all? What if it's another writer or a journeyman director or a cast member who really locks in to what will make the show work?

As an example, J.J. Abrams was a co-creator of Lost. But he hasn't really done as much on the show since the first season. And yet. . .MANY PEOPLE ASSIGN THE REASON FOR THE SHOW'S SUCCESS TO HIM. Because they try hamhandedly to apply the auteur theory to television where it really cannot work. A good TV show is an alchemy of a bunch of things. In many ways, it's an accident.

So, because we can't find that auteur, we decide that the art form is less worthy of our devotion. This leads to things like Television Without Pity (which at least has snappy, funny writing), where shows are deconstructed mainly based on whether they're hip or not. Or the huge glut of people who treat television as mostly a vehicle to show us pretty people night after night.

But it doesn't have to be this way. If we all take the time to learn how television WORKS, we can be better television critics. We can stop judging based solely on plot and learn about how the episodic template can help some shows and hinder others. We can learn how television uses character and theme, even while seeming to be an art form that subverts both.

We can do a lot more.

Because we're not right now. Television is an art form that has so much potential, but it lets itself (and its critics let it) be mostly banal. It hasn't found its Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris (or even its Siskel & Ebert) to make us all start to think about it more critically.

Because everything is changing. And we need to change with it.

I'll write more on this in the future, but this should provide a nice overview for an introductory piece.


Odds 'n' Ends

Even as I left work at 12:30 this evening, they were trying to decide whether they should say a candidate accepted around $50,000 or $51,000.

See? Dedication!

Anyway, I'm going to VEGAS this weekend to be with family. I'll see if I can wrest my parents' laptop from them to do a few items, but I'm not sure it will happen.

In the meantime, I suggest you select one of the links off to the side. They're delicious!


Monday, January 09, 2006

Postage ideas

Please use the comments sections of any of these posts to tell me what you REALLY want to read more of.

I have a blogger I love to read who often will spend several days talking about the opera. I hate it when he does that.

So if you find me talking about something you just don't care about, let me know.


Your Newspaper and You

I am, by trade, a copy editor for a newspaper (well, I do a lot of other stuff too, but that's my official title).

When I tell people this, however, their eyes usually glaze over. Granted, it's not all sexy women and fast cars (it's just about 74% that), but it's not as boring as it might sound initially. It's not JUST making sure the grammar is right (though that's a lot of it, sadly enough). There's plenty more to it.

The problem, however, is that people don't really have any idea what goes into the newspaper on their doorstep every morning (decreasing numbers of people have those newspapers on their doorstep every morning, but that's a topic for another post). I am largely convinced this is because there has never been a wildly successful television show set in the world of journalism. Lou Grant was about as good as you got, and that show was never very popular. Meanwhile, lawyers had L.A. Law, Law and Order and The Practice, doctors had ER, and police officers had every other show on TV. Even firefighters have Rescue Me while teachers had Boston Public. Of all of the white collar jobs out there, people know the least about being a journalist. But EVERYbody thinks they know ALL about being a cop. Forensic science is delivered to you nightly through your coaxial cable. Step right up!

Most people have vague ideas that the local newspaper is biased and filled with no-good liberals (or conservatives, if you swing the DailyKos way). They also sort of know that a reporter writes stories, which he or she has researched to some degree. They also know that some of us have made things up.

But here's where it gets tricky. Newspapers have a huge share of problems, to be sure, but they're the same problems the rest of the media has (namely, the idea of access journalism, which is tearing us to bits as we try not to step on important toes so we can keep getting little bits of information dribbled to us).

But when you look at questions of bias and prejudice, it's MUCH harder to float them in a newspaper than in virtually any other medium. Does bad journalism happen in newspapers? Of course! But newspapers are also a medium that has a built-in self-correction method. Many people see the retractions and corrections newspapers run almost daily to be signs of shame, but they do the opposite. They actually INCREASE credibility. When's the last time a talking head on Fox News or CNN sat down and admitted to everything they've gotten wrong?

Of course, the process of getting a story in a newspaper is such a convoluted one that if you know how to work the system, there are cracks you can flit through. This is how we get the Jayson Blairs of the world (by the way, if you follow that link, you get Slate's Jack Shafer, who might be the best press critic working. . .and he really knows his way around a newsroom).

But most of you don't even understand how all of this happens in the first place (this includes my mother). So. . .here's how a story gets from "hot news tip" to the front page.

Every story, of course, has to start with an idea. Most of the time, the reporter will get that idea himself or from a source (here's one of the biggest cracks in the system. . .I'll let you figure out how to exploit it yourself). Occasionally, an editor or someone in upper management will take a shine to an idea and make sure it gets promoted. Often, something will come in over the police scanner. Or maybe someone will call in a news tip (or to tell you about the afternoon tea the Girl Scouts are hosting Friday). For purposes of this simulation, we'll assume someone's got a hot news tip. Aliens have landed in Armour, S.D., and our newspaper, the South Dakota Town Crier, is JUST the newspaper to cover the story.

We get the news from Jared R. Clark, who's visiting Armour for the weekend and happened to see the ship land. He's got photos. He even puts the alien on the phone to speak with us. Most likely, the phone was answered by an editorial assistant (sometimes known as a news assistant). Our pal the EA (who is happy to answer the phone, as he's been writing wedding notices and obituaries all afternoon) decides that the science editor would probably be just the person to handle this story and transfers the phone call over to her.

It might seem like editorial assistants are the secretaries or receptionists of the newsroom, and they are, kind of. Except they're not really at all. They DO answer the phones, usually, but they also do all of the piddly stuff that most reporters don't want to do. As jobs get pruned in an increasingly unstable climate (the position of obituary writer is fast becoming an obsolete one), they just keep getting added to the job description of the editorial assistant. For the most part, this makes good business sense for the newspaper: The EA is usually a college kid who needs the extra dough (and experience) and is willing to work part-time.

So our story about the aliens has passed on to the science editor, who will be the assigning editor for purposes of this simulation. Only the very largest newspapers have science editors anymore, but most of them have city editors, nation/world editors, sports editors, etc. In general, if there's a section for it in the newspaper, there's an editor for it in the newsroom. Our assigning editor decides who writes what based on who's got things going on and who would be best suited to cover this particular story. The assigning editor decides that the science writer would be just the person to interview the aliens.

Here's where we get to the reporter. The reporter's job is just what you think it is. She gets the assignment from the assigning editor (if it's an idea she came up with on her own, she pitches it to the assigning editor to get approval). Then she goes out and gathers the facts (a talk with the alien, a talk with Jared, etc.). Then she comes back and assembles the facts into some sort of story that makes sense (we hope).

Meanwhile, the assigning editor is just so thrilled to have the story of first contact that she takes it in to the news meeting where ALL of the assigning editors tell upper management what their big stories are. The editor-in-chief or managing editor then decide (often in tandem) what's going to play where. The aliens story is a pretty big deal, so it's most likely going to land on page one. (Note: Whether the editor-in-chief or managing editor decides depends on the size of the newspaper and what sort of working relationship these two have. Maybe our E-i-C likes to delegate. Maybe not.)

So we know what's going where. From there, we can assign photographers, graphic designers and page designers to begin working on graphical elements for the biggest stories of the day. We're going to run four photographs and two maps with our aliens story, so we're going to need a lot of space. The page designer (or layout editor in some newspapers' parlance) starts deciding how it's all going to fit together graphically.

Meanwhile, our friend the reporter is back from Armour, and she's just about done with her story. The assigning editor takes a look at it and helps the reporter work out any bugs or unanswered questions. For this job, they're known as a source editor. Occasionally (especially if the story was started during the day but finished at night), a different editor will look at the story to help work out the kinks (there's usually at least one editor at a paper devoted to this job, and they're the night editor; many newspapers have several -- a night city editor, a night nation editor, etc.). From here, the story goes to the copy desk, and I have to do actual work.

Copy editors are finicky creatures. Their official job description is to check all of the facts (within reason), get all of the spelling and grammar correct, write the headlines and other display type (subheads, captions, etc.) and just generally be the last line of defense. Technically, the source editor is supposed to work out all of the problems in the story, but maybe they missed the huge, mathematical error in paragraph five. The copy editor is supposed to notice this, call someone with an answer and get it all fixed. This is why so many of us are cranky.

Meanwhile, the page designers continue to lay everything out.

Once the copy editor is done, everything goes to a slot editor. Copy editors like to say they are the last line of defense, but they're lying. Slot editors are. They're like super, mega copy editors who make sure everything looks okay and choose which headlines are good and which need another go. Once they sign off on something, it's going in the paper. However, they often have so much stuff crowding in on them (they do have to slot their entire section) that they find themselves with too much to do and must zip through things. This is why copy editors are important (or so we tell ourselves when we can't sleep at night).

But the process isn't over yet. From here, the page has to be sent to the printers, and before that happens, proofs are made, which the copy editors look over one last time (or often two last times) before the printers get hold of them.

Once the printers have it, you'd better hope there's nothing libelous in it.

And, honestly, I don't understand the four color printing process. Okay, I DO, but it's really boring and you probably didn't come here to read about that.

The next morning, you see the headline on the front page: ARMOUR MEETS ALIENS! Our work is finished.

So let's step back for a moment and look at that. Look at the sheer number of people who had their hands in that pot.

We have:

-the initial source
-the editorial assistant
-the assigning editor
-the reporter
-the managing editor and editor-in-chief
-the page designer
-the photographer
-the graphic designer
-the source editor
-the copy editor
-the slot editor
-the proofer

And what I just outlined is a situation where everything worked PERFECTLY. For a story with serious problems, even MORE people are going to get involved. And for a big story on the front page, you'd better believe that a whole host of people I haven't even TALKED about here (from assistant managing editors to copy desk chiefs to photo editors) are going to get involved.

So that's where claims of bias don't hold water with me. I can see claims of SLOPPY journalism arising from this (too many cooks and all of that), but when you have this many people with such different points of view, bias is going to get weeded out.

Those of you who know me know that I'm moderate, leaning towards liberal. Many of my journalist friends are even more liberal. Some are what my father would label "pinkos." And even some are extremely conservative. Every single one of the people I have known as a journalist has gotten a story changed because it was too biased toward one side or another, often toward a side they don't believe in. I've seen misogynists stand up for women's rights. I've seen Al Franken fans insist that an adjective that's not even necessarily derogatory be removed from in front of Rush Limbaugh's name because it makes Limbaugh look bad.

There are a lot of people working in a newsroom. And they're all interested in making sure whatever is printed is accurate and fair. Sure the Jayson Blairs and Judith Millers of the world take the BIG falls, but behind the scenes, other people have to take falls for not questioning them, for not catching on to their games (and, reportedly, copy editors had questions about Blair for some time).

Now, obviously, what I've described doesn't pertain to every newsroom. In fact, it doesn't pertain to the newsrooms of the two newspapers I've worked at in every way. This is an attempt to streamline the process to make it understandable.

Those who would claim newspapers as a haven for bias will probably point out the editorial department. This is another thing that sets newspapers apart. They're the only medium with a dedicated section JUST for the airing of opinions.

The reason I didn't mention the editorial department is BECAUSE it has nothing to do with the newsroom. It usually has an entirely different staff, with only the editor-in-chief having any sort of crossover. This is how the Wall Street Journal can have such a corporate-friendly editorial page while having its reporters break story after story about corporate malfeasance. This is how the New York Times can have a deeply liberal editorial page and still find itself misled on several crucial points in the buildup to Iraq.

The other major part of newspapers I have not mentioned is advertising. There's a good reason for that too. The ads and the news are kept separate. The only people who have to deal with both at all are the printers and the publisher, who is the ultimate authority at the paper, but usually deals with business matters.

So why are newspapers castigated by bloggers on both the right and left for not being objective? I think it's because true objectivity isn't what we want anymore. We wanted it in the days of Vietnam and Watergate, but now, we'd rather be told what we believe than what we probably need to hear. This is why Fox News and Air America have found audiences: People like to have their own beliefs reinforced.

Most of my journalistic colleagues bemoan these facts, but the truth is, journalism has been an objective source for a very short time. The idea of reporter as objective observer was really born as we understand it today in the 1950s. Before that, there was a multitude of newspapers in every major city from a variety of viewpoints. If you were a socialist, there was a newspaper for you. If you were an economic conservative, there was a newspaper for you. If you were an immigrant, there was a newspaper for you. And so on and so on.

But after World War II, as radio and television closed in on newspapers, consolidation began to take hold, and newspapers had to become all things to all people.

The problem is that we in America increasingly don't WANT all things for all people. We want some things that speak directly to us. And that's why we find left- or right-leaning blogs we agree with or just listen to certain talk radio shows or. . .

This leaves the newspaper in a precarious position. It's one of the few true MASS media left. But, I'm sure, it will adapt and shift with the times. It always has.

So there you have it. A brief, concise description of how newspapers work. I'm sure it's more than you ever wanted to know.

Please put your questions in the comments section.

At some point, I will write more on this topic, but not in the immediate future. But be on the lookout for more random media ramblings.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

TV Review: Bones

So initially, the idea was to have something up every day, but my sleep schedule has been veering from bad to worse and I'm having enough trouble just getting the work I get paid to do done.

But things are settling down (says the man posting at 3:46 a.m.). My parents are somewhere in New Mexico. A gay Spaniard is telling me about the documentary he is directing. Truly, just another night in VanDerTown.

But let's get to one of the things I promised I would do here. A little TV criticism.

We're at the midseason point of the new season, and things are being shuffled. Even in a year when networks are being more patient, lots of stuff is getting canceled.

I, however, have been very lucky. The shows I loved at the start of the season (and I had an opportunity to see most of them before they aired over the broadcast wave) have mostly stuck around (a notable exception is Threshold, but that show was turning into CSI: Alien way too quickly for my liking).

One of the programs I enjoyed the most from its pilot was Bones on Fox. It was nothing terribly new or different, and the case work was pretty routine (especially if you've seen every other procedural on the air, which is a given if you ever spend a spring break with my mother), but the show had a nice zest to it, and the idea of adding Buffy-esque banter to the case-solving intrigued.

Bones follows the adventures of Dr. Temprence Brennan (Emily Deschanel), who uses her advanced knowledge of the human skeleton to solve difficult cases on the behalf of her FBI agent pal Booth (David Boreanaz). She works at the Jeffersonian Institution (guess what it's based on -- I'll give you three tries!) with a team of "squints" -- the lab techs so fetishized by all of the CSI shows -- and a cantankerous boss. That's really all you need to know.

Several months since it debuted, these advance assessments still hold true, but the show hasn't grown in any real or exciting ways. If you're creating a TV crime drama where a crime is going to be solved every week, you'd best figure out ways to make that interesting and different (well, if you want to hang on to TV aficionadoes such as myself -- if you want to hang on to the vast majority of the American public, all you have to do is feature crime in some way).

Of the new crime shows this season, Bones had the best strategy, I thought. It looked to distinguish itself with humor, and I thought that would work. In some cases, it does, because the characters are all instantly recognizable stereotypes that play off of each other in goofy and still amusing ways. Indeed, the Christmas episode (originally aired Dec. 13, 2005) where the whole staff was locked down in the lab for Christmas Day was one of the best the series has done so far for that very reason -- all of the characters were forced to interact, and it made for amusing enough television.

But the problems come when the show does an episode like the one where a young boy is found in a bush (it originally aired Nov. 8, 2005). You can't exactly joke about the death of a kidnapped young boy (who appears to have been sexually assaulted), so the show flounders for a while, trying to throw in pop culture references that will mostly distract from the story at hand. It also tries to broaden the characters in various ways (it gives one of its "squints" a rich family that practically owns the institution where everyone works; it gives the hot best friend lab tech doubt about how she's used her training as an artist; it gives us a chance to explore the main character's life as an orphan), but these ideas mostly misfire (the rich lab tech doesn't like being rich, which is an old stereotype that ISN'T interesting; the hot best friend just needs to be validated; we've already surmised much of what the main character tells us).

So the show then piles on the sentimentality, telling us that dead children are bad. Well, of course they are. But dead children are also a dramatic device that is rapidly running out of usefulness. In a film, a dead child can touch off any number of plots. In House, a dying child became a rough way to juxtapose House's devil-may-care attitude the audience finds so roguish with the reality of living as a devil-may-care person. In Deadwood, a dead child became a moving lesson about community and sacrifice.

But in a detective show, a dead child is just grist for the mill, all too often. It's just another case to be solved with hot science and improbable computer programs. A child who has been murdered after being sexually assaulted pushes (or should push at any rate) ALL of our buttons as humans, and the work of art that chooses to use this particular device should make an effort to give us something beyond using that plot device for shock value. Bones failed at this particular task.

And it's not just the dead child episode. Every episode strikes an uneasy balance between the grim plots and goofy humor. Don't get me wrong. The humor is pretty well-done. For the most part, it's rooted deep in its characters. A punchline that comes from Booth (David Boreanaz) would not come from Brennan (Emily Deschanel). This, of course, is the golden rule of comedy writing, though few shows realize it. In addition, the sense of humor here is not like the sly gallows humor of early CSI. It goes to a goofier place, with wisecracks and quips that wouldn't be out of place in a show like Sports Night. But it also makes the dead bodies everyone huddles over occasionally seem superfluous. And in a crime show, the dead bodies are the raison d'etre.

Finally, the characters display little-to-no growth. The crime shows of the moment may not let their characters grow much from episode to episode, but if you want to be something beyond just something to turn on to let the audience's brain rot to, you've got to have a little something. The relationship between Brennan and Booth is clearly based on the Mulder/Scully dynamic from The X-Files (the pilot even went so far as to reference it), despite the fact that the creator has stated that Brennan and Booth WILL eventually get together (sort of a refreshing admission) instead of Mulder and Scully getting together after too many years on the air and too much fan clamoring because of too much chemistry. But Mulder and Scully GREW a little bit from episode to episode. When Scully became the Mulder in the show's misbegotten final seasons, it sort of made sense. If Brennan is EVER going to become someone who relates to other people (as Booth ALWAYS points out she is bad at doing), the show has some serious legwork to do. Right now, everything just resets after every episode. The show falls into the Law & Order school of thought, where giving someone a kid we didn't know about is seen as character development. No, Bones, that's not character development. That's something for the fanfic crowd to speculate on.

I don't mean to make it sound like I hate the show or anything. It's a pleasant enough way to pass an evening, and I expect it to do pretty well after American Idol on Wednesdays (if the bizarrely popular Criminal Minds hasn't sucked away all of the crime show fanatics in that timeslot). Deschanel and Boreanaz have an easy, unforced chemistry of the sort that is hard to come by nowadays, while the other actors are all giving their characters a nice, loopy vibe. The shows written by series creator Hart Hanson have all been pretty good. And I may have been the only person on the Internets who enjoyed the episode where Brennan had to leave her lab to go out in the field in remote Washington state. In addition, the show does a good job of glossing over my concerns that it's patently unrealistic (lab techs having guns? Please!).

But when I think about the show's future (which seems long, assuming the Idol thing sticks), I just don't see where it can go. Are any of the lab techs going to become interesting enough in a non-stereotypical way to sustain an episode built around them like Marshall on Alias? Is the show going to find a way to break open its storytelling format like the brilliant experiments on House and Without a Trace? Can it navigate the treacherous will-they/won't-they rapids so many shows have sunk in?

The answer, I'm afraid, is that I'm not sure I'm going to be around to watch and find out (well, honestly, the show is being moved to a timeslot opposite the two best shows on network TV -- I mean, REALLY). Libby said to me while watching an episode of House that on that show it's ALWAYS a secret tumor. And, indeed, it is. But what makes that show interesting is the people who have the secret tumors and how they interact with Dr. House (and how he then interacts with his underlings).

But when Dr. Brennan discovers her umpteenth secret stress fracture, whom will she interact with? Another dead skeleton?

Bones isn't a bad show. It's just a show that needs to find a purpose and fast. Its best weapon is its humor, but it has problems deploying it skillfully and tactfully. In the end, maybe the show would be best off finding ways to completely abandon its central premise and skirt off into weird, unexplored territory. Because we'll all stop caring if it doesn't.

That's all for this evening. I've got a number of ideas cooking, so let me know what you're most interested in seeing in the comments section (all four of you).

--An overview of how exactly a newspaper gets to your door every morning.
--Some top ten lists for the year 2005 (TV, movies, etc.).
--Some top ten lists of things I'm excited to see in 2006.
--A long piece on the hidden depths of "Munich."
--The obligatory "Brokeback Mountain" piece.
--Thoughts on "The Simpsons."

You know what to do.