Saturday, February 25, 2006

More S.D. abortion stuff

Get yer links while they're hot.

The Washington Post did this excellent article back in December that puts the whole issue in perspective. Abortion was practically illegal in S.D. already, since there was only one clinic, which was open one day a week (when I told my friend the ex-feminist magazine copy editor this, she swore I was joking). Read it in the next few days. Otherwise, you'll have to pay for it, as it will enter their archives.

I enjoyed this post (from a left-wing point of view) about what the author sees as logical inconsistencies in the pro-life point of view. Plus, he manages to avoid the "sky is falling" rhetoric that is clogging up so much of the blogosphere following this ruling.

And Slate's William Saletan is probably the best-informed commentator on abortion politics in the U.S. currently working. You can listen to a radio interview with him where he lays out the issues in a clear manner here.

And here's a really, really, really bad poem about the whole thing.

And, if you don't give a crap and wish I would talk about TeeVee or something, go here to read amusing essays about the cultural detritus of the 80s.

More fun stuff tomorrow.

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I mean, I KNOW it's in the name and all. . .

I thought South Dakota Dark would be a great name. I thought it would stand out on web searches, etc.

And then my home state had to go and ban abortion. And now every yahoo with a blog thinks that some variation on "South Dakota enters the dark ages" is clever. (Caveat: The governor has to sign the bill. He didn't in 2004, sending it back on a technical veto that then failed in the state Senate. So when people say S.D. has banned abortion, they mean "almost." See up there a few sentences ago? I went and did it too!)

(Further caveat: I get that this is a big deal. I know I promised to stay away from politics. But it's IN THE NAME. Also, whoever wrote the blog headline, "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and family planning?" That was really funny! Comedy gold!)

One thing I found out was that there are a lot of blogs written by South Dakotans and ex-South Dakotans. Go us! Another thing I found out is that they all seem to be liberals, which seems strange to me (well, except for South Dakota Politics, but that kid always spells yesterday "yesturday," so I don't know that he's a shining example of all conservatism has to offer).

At first, I figured this was a political ploy in my home state. Even though, the opinion on abortion is essentially 50/50 in S.D., the people who do most of the voting are pretty staunchly against it. By opposing it with a law that seems destined to fail, the legislators get to have their cake and eat it too (i.e. they don't actually have to get abortion repealed, but they reap all of the temporary benefits a REAL repeal would bring them).

But as I read the articles out of S.D., I realize that people really, really, really care about this issue. It's easy to forget the farther you get away from that part of the country just how many one-issue voters there are, crammed into some wide-open spaces. The legislators of South Dakota believe they are doing the Lord's work. Whether they are or not is almost wholly beside the point by now.

Of course, now I live in California. One of my best friends at work is someone who previously worked at a feminist publication in San Francisco. So, of course, she thinks I come from the land of redneck hicks. To a very real degree, it's hard to explain to her the fervor that animates those on the pro-life side in my home state. It's hard to explain to her that I still love the place, even if the people there often chase rabbits down long, meandering trails.

But she's never seen a thunderstorm there. . .

My own feelings on abortion, I think, are beside the point. Suffice it to say, I'm adopted, so I have a long relationship with the issue. But the primary emotion I feel in regard to the issue is frustration. It dominates the political stage in a way that's almost unfair. My grandkids will laugh when they hear that gay marriage was a big deal when I was a young man, but they'll probably still be debating abortion. Why? Probably because the debate about abortion has real ethical nuance. It's possible to be a pro-life atheist, whereas an atheist who believed firmly in creationism would. . .not be a very good atheist.

So what it is that my home state has undertaken is a huge gamble (in essence, they're betting that Justice Stevens retires or dies AND the GOP doesn't lose the Senate in the midterms, which is actually kind of a big bet to be making). And they've done it because they really, truly think they're doing the right thing.

And the only people who will be able to judge that with any accuracy are the historians.

I should write more about this issue at some point, but I've been veering between a gamut of emotions on the issue, so I'll wait a while before doing so.

(I mean REALLY. "Peace, Love and Family Planning?" That's PERFECT!)

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Single-camera sitcoms, CG-animated movies and the coming global superstorm

The essential animation blog Cartoon Brew points out how many crazy animal computer animated movies are coming out this year. In many ways, it's similar to the late 90s, when Disney's competitors flooded the market with hand-drawn animation, and nothing was ever the same. Indeed, that problem killed the 2-D animation market for the time being (Curious George is doing pretty well, and Disney reportedly has a great project in development that will revive the flagging artform). (If you're interested in 'toons at all, the Brew is a GREAT place to read. Tons of cool info on animation from all over the world.)

And now, we're looking at the same thing happening with the single-camera sitcom. To be completely fair, the single-camera sitcom has been around since the start of TV (would you believe the Andy Griffith Show was essentially a single-camera show?). But it's modern iteration really got started with Scrubs then took off with Arrested Development (Curb Your Enthusiasm factors in here too). In the last year, it has flowered, with The Office, My Name Is Earl and Everybody Hates Chris taking off. Even How I Met Your Mother is technically a single-camera sitcom. Sons and Daughters, coming up, is also a fine, funny show.

(A note: The difference between single-camera sitcoms and three-camera sitcoms is that three-cameras are typically filmed on a soundstage with, surprise, three (or four) cameras turned on to minimize the number of takes necessary. There's a great deal more freedom when you have just one camera -- you can go on location and such -- but you also can't have a studio audience, etc.)

But now, we're at the point where the single-camera sitcom is going to find its own glut of excess. EVERYbody is developing MULTIPLE single-camera sitcoms for next year, and Fox has The Loop and Free Ride coming up, which are remarkably similar and are going to have a hard time breaking out.

And yet, executives say of computer-animated films and single-camera sitcoms, "This is what the people want!" NO THEY DON'T. They want well-told stories with strong characters. Pixar and My Name Is Earl are successful because they put the STORY first.

ESPECIALLY in the case of single-camera sitcoms, the critics don't help. Every one that comes along is hailed as a "fresh show" when very many of them are just ripoffs of other shows. Traditionally filmed sitcoms get a lot of guff nowadays, but that's because they were destroyed by the Friends clones, followed by the Everybody Loves Raymond clones. Get some fresh, funny writing in there and they'll seem completely new. Jamie Weinmann has written about how critics have no idea how to classify sitcoms because they don't really understand the form on a number of occasions. (Go read that post. I'll wait. I swear.)

The clone mentality is what kills Hollywood every time. And yet, they don't get the idea.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Perfect episodes: "Three Men and Adena" from "Homicide: Life on the Street"


(I realize the photo above is not actually from the episode in question, but I was too lazy to get a screencap, and my mom likes the photos. They make her happy.)

(Also, I was going to do an episode of The Sopranos, but I've been writing about that a lot lately, so I decided to do this instead.)

Homicide: Life on the Street is one of the grimmest, most realistic portrayals of the life of a police officer ever put on the air. I've read a lot of complaints recently about Without a Trace getting too grim, but that show features good people trying to do their jobs as well as they possibly can. It also has a fair share of happy endings. To be sure, it's a hard slog on occasion, but it's nothing compared to what Homicide was in its day. Only The Wire (which, incidentally, was created by the guy who wrote the book Homicide was based on) matches Homicide in the grim realities department.

Homicide, though it was never highly rated, occupies an important place in the evolution of the TV drama. It was not afraid to do episodes that were very true to life in just how little happened. It was not afraid to drop all pretext of faux-reality and go for a docudrama-esque feel. It wasn't afraid to shoot in a crumbling metropolis like Baltimore (which lends the show some of its grimness) for verisimilitude. The attempt to make the show seem like a documentary extended to the detective work, which was much more technically precise than anything that had come before. In that regard, the show has been a huge influence. The precise details of crime solving are more popular than ever, and Homicide had a hand in bringing them to television first.

One other thing Homicide wasn't afraid of doing was making shows that were deliberately stagey, that worked AGAINST the docudrama style. The best of these shows were ones that set up self-contained situations, moments that were essentially little one-act plays done with a small number of actors and sets. Often, these moves were to save money, but the scripts for these episodes were justly rewarded (indeed, the episode we're talking about won the Emmy for its writer, the legendary Tom Fontana).

Something to look at is how these episodes took built in limitations and turned them into strengths. "Three Men and Adena" centers around a true story from the book Homicide was based on. In the book, the murder of a young girl drove the detective at the center of the story (this is all drawn from true stories written down by a reporter). He had a main suspect, but he could never get the suspect to crack. He got one last shot at the suspect and brought in another interviewer to help him. The two could not crack the suspect, and the murder of the young girl remains unsolved to this day.

"Three Men and Adena" is based on that story in a very particular way. The death of a little girl also informs Homicide (though the case in the show is, of course, fictional). In this episode, the detective in charge of the investigation (Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor) joins his partner, the volcanic Pembleton (played memorably by Andre Braugher) to interview the main suspect in the case, an "Araber," which is a particular kind of street vendor.

Already, you can see where this is going. The show gets a time constraint (12 hours to crack the suspect). And we've got a tiny cast. Three men, in essence, doing battle in a tiny, tiny room. Three men, one set, one story. It's gloriously simple. And the cast and writer make the most of it. What could have been constraining becomes resonant, full of possibilities.

As writers, as critics, as anything, we can resent the constraints placed upon us, but as this episode shows us, constraints can breed better work. If we place a yoke upon ourselves, we will find ways to make that work. Narrowly focused art can be just as rewarding as wide-open art.

But there's so much more to learn from "Three Men and Adena." Fontana's script is dense, almost heartbreaking. The camerawork is claustrophobic. The episode makes you want to take a long shower (that's a good thing, trust me).

But my favorite thing is the Araber. I'm guessing that Fontana had been carrying around that particular idea or bit of knowledge for years before he found a place to employ it. As writers, it's tempting to just let go and say, "This fits here! Let's do it!" But if you wait for the perfect moment, those bits of information can add up to something more.

Here, that idea of the Araber and his chant/song creates one of the episode's most arresting moments. The Araber cries out what he would call when he had goods to sell. The whole episode stops for a moment, and his cry becomes, in a way, the cry of the audience, wanting this to end, but not knowing if it should.

So hold on to your darlings.

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It's a beautiful night for Oscar, Oscar, Oscar (with Olympics thoughts thrown in)

I had planned on doing a lot more with the Oscars as they drew closer, but Kris Tapley is doing all of the things I thought I might do (revisiting many of the films, predicting the categories, etc.) and then some. Plus, if you've always wondered just what the difference was between sound design and sound editing, the good mssr. has the answer for you. Check it out!

Meanwhile, Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience has gathered some of the Web's foremost filmheads to talk Oscar, and the results are funny and fascinating. I recommend you check out the Oscar symposium post-haste!

Finally, now that Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya are facing off for the gold in women's figure skating Thursday night, it's like old times. We finally can cheer against the Russians again. Feels good, doesn't it?

I'm certainly not the first to suggest it, but the end of the Cold War also probably meant the temporary boringness of the Olympics. Until al Qaeda fields a team or China catches up to the U.S. economically or militarily, we're not going to have the sort of good vs. evil battle that so highlighted the Olympic Games of my childhood.

*sigh*

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Perfect characters: Chloe O'Brian from "24"



It's hard to create an audience surrogate in a genre show. It's pretty easy to create one set in a world we're sort of familiar with. A cop or a doctor that the audience identifies with isn't much of a stretch because most of us know cops and doctors in the real world (or actually ARE cops or doctors).

But how many of us know brilliant counter-terrorist computer technicians?

Exactly.

So let's talk a bit about audience surrogates and what they're meant to do before we get into how 24 made Chloe into one almost accidentally.

In any work of dramatic narrative (from a play to a novel to a film to a TV show to an epic poem), the writer may insert a character whom the audience is supposed to identify with. The character may express some of the doubts the audience has (and allow the writer to gloss over plot holes through quick exposition from the other characters). This character may express the emotions that we as the audience feel about the world the show is set in. This character just might be there to let us know it's okay to laugh or cry or feel ambivalent.

An audience surrogate is a hard thing to pull off in a genre entertainment because so few of us KNOW people like this in our real lives. If they're written well, we may be able to identify, but to be honest, very few of us know super spies, vampire slayers or spaceship captains (I should hope). Buffy got around this by making Xander the only normal guy in the whole cast. We identified with him because his most outstanding personality traits were his normal ones. To a very real degree, we believed in the world (in the first few seasons at least) because Xander believed in the world.

That's SORT of the function Chloe fulfills in 24, though she also has to be a super genius with a computer, which very few of us are (I have trouble just figuring out how many hits this blog gets). However, because of her status as a computer super genius, she also lets the show get away with a lot of truth-stretching in the name of fiction. Can we really do all of that with computers in the real world? Probably not. But CHLOE certainly can. She's perfect!

One of the most crucial things 24 did when the writers created Chloe (who was the breakout star of the series' third season, which remains their weakest to date) was grounding her in a reality we're all aware of: specifically, that of the insufferable employee who's a stickler for the rules. Chloe whines and complains. She's generally unpleasant to everyone around her. But she's good at what she does, so she stays. EVERY workplace has one of these people. Perhaps you ARE that person. At any rate, the insufferable person was not someone you saw a lot in workplace shows. To see that person turn up on an action drama perversely increased the gravitas and verisimilitude of the series. "Hey! That girl's just like Jim from work!" you could hear America saying. "This must be real!"

As time has gone on, Chloe has remained unpleasant, but she's also become a character we can relate to. She's someone who asks the questions we have, but she's also someone who trusts implicitly in Jack Bauer (another perfect character). She reacts as we might react if we were tasked with saving the world from a terrorist threat (if we had mad computer skillz).

All of this is highlighted by the performance of Mary Lynn Rajskub. Rajskub is someone who doesn't look like someone who would be on TV. She's attractive (I mean, she dated David Cross and Jon Brion!), no doubt, but not conventionally so. She's got an oddly angular face that can contort at some weird angles. And she's a trained improv comedian. EVERYthing about her plays against type and clashes with the rest of the 24 cast. Because of that, you've either got to identify with and love her or hate her.

Thankfully, the character of Chloe, as written and performed, is almost impossible NOT to love. She stands as possibly the finest audience surrogate character on TV.

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