Friday, April 07, 2006

Post 100!!!!

Honestly, I've started blogs before and had nothing come of them. So I didn't expect much from this. So much so that I didn't promote it at all at the start, telling only a few friends.

But now I'm on Google, so I HAVE to keep doing this I guess.

Thanks, all for reading. I like to hear your thoughts on this silly little Web space. When I started, I genuinely thought there weren't any dedicated TV blogs out there (In fact, that's why I chose to write about TV instead of film). Even though there are so, so many, I'm glad you choose to read this one as well.

Anyway, this won't be ALL self-congratulatory BS. I've got some big things happening.

Firstly, and most importantly, I want to make a list of what YOU guys (and by YOU guys, I mean the Internets) think are the best and worst TV shows on the air right now. All you have to do to participate is send me a top ten list and a bottom five list. If you can't think of enough to fill a bottom five, don't bother with one, as that will be entirely optional. If you want to put comments on the list as well as to why you like these shows so much, that would be dandy too.

Once you've got your list, e-mail it to me at ambiguousdog@hotmail.com. I'll tally the votes. 10 points for first place, nine points for second, etc.

What's eligible? Good question.

What's eligible are shows that have episodes coming up or COULD have episodes coming up in the future. Six Feet Under, for example, has ended its run. So it's not eligible. Arrested Development isn't either, thanks to its untimely cancellation. The Wire, which hasn't aired any episodes as recently as those two shows IS eligible. I hope that makes sense.

If you submit a show that's not eligible, no sweat. I'll get back to you and let you know what was up in case you want to submit something else instead.

The deadline is May 1.

I must admit that this idea was shamelessly and brazenly ripped off from Edward Copeland on Film, where they're holding a "Best Best Picture of All Time" vote after the genius excitement of their Worst Best Picture of All Time vote.

Other upcoming projects include the end-of-season roundtable and the Emmy roundtable. If you're up for either, send me an e-mail.

Finally, I hope to organize a Deadwood blog-a-thon for when the show comes back in July. Details will be forthcoming, but if you've got a GREAT IDEA, go ahead and e-mail.

While we're housekeeping, thanks to The House Next Door and Edward Copeland on Film for the links. To those of you stumbling in from there, we're not usually this in love with ourselves (okay, we are).

I'm leaving for vacation in the wee hours of Sunday morning, but over the week to come, I hope to dispense some writing advice, talk about something OTHER than TV (it's actually stemming from the first criticism I got paid for. . .guesses?) and just generally be annoying.

Thanks for the readership.

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Sons & Daughters, Season 1

I've written so much about Sons & Daughters (so it feels). In fact, I wasn't going to do a season review like I normally do until the show's last episode aired (it seems it may be burned off in the summer). But since creator/writer/actor/ director/producer Fred Goss (in the picture at right) says that episode has yet to be scheduled and may be saved for the DVD release (should such a thing ever materialize), I guess I'll do this anyway.

Since the show's odds of returning seem to be about 30/70 in the favor of the show NOT returning, I may as well write this, which may prove to be a slightly early obituary. If the show DOES make it back for a second season, so much the better. But it needs ABC more than ABC needs it. Especially if Scrubs gets canceled and ABC can just pick that up. Ah, network politics and machinations.

I haven't liked a young, flawed sitcom as much as I liked Sons & Daughters in quite some time. I'm not going to say that the show was ever perfect. It had too many variations on the idiot plot. Some of the character machinations were a bit calculated. And the improvisatory method could leave some dead, awkward spots.

But here's what I liked about Sons & Daughters: At its best, you could see the raw spirit of something like a Robert Altman film peaking through the facade. As Altman takes overdone film genres and situations and works them into something vital and new, Sons & Daughters takes worn-out sitcom plots and tries to find kernels of truth in them. On paper, the idea of a family secret getting out at a cookout has me yawning already, but on screen, it worked because the show never went for cheap or easy laughs. It wasn't afraid to play its dramatic moments for simple drama, but it never overplayed them either. It didn't TRY to tug at your heart, and because of that, it did more often than not.

Too often on television, improvisation as treated as a tool for more wackiness (see: Free Ride). We (and most network execs, I'd imagine) have this idea that improv is a tool for comedy only. And, to be fair, a really good improviser can get you every time. There's something about an improvised joke that can bend in a direction you wouldn't expect from years of setup-punchline training. But within a sitcom setting, improvisation can get truly overbearing. Even more than people don't talk in setup-punchline conversations, they don't go on weird flights of fancy in discussions in large groups of people. MAYBE with your spouse or significant other. But even that can be a stretch.

What's more, improvisation in television comedy is often something where the tone shifts wildly all over the place. Individual scenes may be funny, but their styles of humor may not add up to create a cohesive whole (I thought Significant Others, Goss' previous series, occasionally suffered from this problem).

Sons & Daughters, a few scenes aside, was different. In the show, the sprawling ensemble cast (another callback to Altman) used its improvisation to get at truth. The credit for that probably should go to the show's editors, who trimmed hours and hours of footage into a cohesive whole that never strayed too far off the path (or too far from the characters). The show, I believe, would sacrifice a good joke for emotional truth.

And that may be what ultimately killed it. The jokes were funny, but so many of them were spoiled in the promos that audiences expected a hugely funny type of show. What they got was a much smaller show than the one they were sold. And they tuned out.

But I'll buy the DVD. I'll remember the show. It wasn't afraid to take TRUE chances. In an age where sitcoms offer up pat resolutions, Sons & Daughters was often fond of tiny resolutions or even no resolutions at all. And it understood that love is complicated, that love takes time.

It was a great, rambling jam of a sitcom. The fact that the Dead started every episode couldn't have been more appropriate.

I hope the independent, improvisatory spirit of Sons & Daughters lives on. I hope I see more work from everyone involved with this show. And I hope the networks can find a place for tiny gems like this one still in the future.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The rise of MISERY PORN

A conversation with a friend today about Six Feet Under and thinking about how the third season of Rescue Me is about to begin in a matter of weeks led me to some thoughts about what made Six Feet Under such a slog and what threatens to undermine Rescue Me: misery porn.

Don't get me wrong. A little misery porn is a GOOD THING. It keeps things interesting. And bad things happening to people is almost always more fun to watch than good things happening to people (within reason. . .I can't imagine I would derive much pleasure from watching Mr. Burns crush the head of Santa's Little Helper underneath his boot while Bart weeps behind him. . .though I suppose he would have to have Smithers do it for him). And, as with any work of narrative, if you put your hero through some real travails before he emerges at the end, perhaps not HAPPIER, but WISER or BETTER ABLE TO COPE or something, it makes the ending feel that much more earned. If our hero just gets everything he wants handed to him on a silver platter, a happy ending feels like a cheat.

But television, especially American, open-ended television, is such a fluid thing that at some point you're going to reach a tipping point. What, exactly, will be the thing that seems like it's TOO MUCH, that makes it seem like the hero should have killed himself long ago?

But bad things happening to your hero isn't NECESSARILY misery porn. If bad things happen for a REASON, that's good drama. If bad things just. . .happen. . .to show that the world can be a real cesspool, THAT's misery porn. Tony Soprano being shot in the gut by his demented uncle is ironic, good drama. David Fisher being randomly abducted by a man and forced through a hellish night. . .THAT's misery porn.

Do you see what I'm driving at? Misery porn is like real porn. It's supposed to seem like a come-on (oftentimes, it will seem like a soap opera plotting tactic), but it usually feels sort of seedy and desperate, as though the writers were backed into a corner. Misery porn is also always, ALWAYS gratuitous.

The worst thing is that misery porn is often mistaken (especially by its creators) for profundity. "This is the way the world works," they'll often seem to say. "Life is just one damn thing after another."

Well. Yes. It is. But some of those damn things are good. And some of them are bad, but we find glimmers of hope in them. I realize people are more depressed and alienated than ever, but if we didn't find SOME hope in our conditions, we'd all have SHOT each other long ago.

But like any trick in a writer's arsenal, misery porn CAN be effective. It depends on how you build it into the story. The question is. . .can you EARN it?

Let's look at one of my favorite shows ever, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy could be a pretty grim show, but for the sake of this argument, I've picked out two instances that were flirting with misery porn. One, I think, worked. The other, I think, did not.

In season five, Buffy's mother died. Now, on the show, recurring characters had been killed before. Regular characters had left. But these sorts of things always grew out of a need to show the villain as a real threat or a need for character development or a need to push a relationship to places it hadn't been before. The death of Buffy's mother, on the other hand, was COMPLETELY gratuitous. She didn't HAVE to die. But the writers of the show made that the WHOLE point of the episode. Her sudden, unexpected death at the hands of a natural anomaly became a chance for them to examine just how tenuous life really is. Not exactly a new theme, but they did it well. And they played it out over several episodes AND used the death to reinforce Buffy's standing as the head of a motley family. In other words, what COULD have been misery porn became earned and felt vital to the show's success.

In season six, Xander and Anya were going to get married. The writers had TRIED to drop hints that the two were having doubts, but they were scattered so sparsely throughout the season that the doubts felt like normal, pre-wedding jitters. In addition, the two actors had good, "old married couple" chemistry. But in the wedding episode, the show resorted to splitting them up over suddenly expressed REAL doubts about the future of the marriage from Xander (there was a demon involved. . .ah, let's not get into it). An attempt was made to say that this tied in to the larger theme of being in your 20s and doing stupid things, but isn't it MORE likely that two crazy 20somethings would GET married and then find their marriage sucked? I think so.

The worst part about the whole thing was that it felt like an attempt to get back to the status quo. Buffy was NEVER about sticking to a status quo. Characters grew and changed. But, for some reason, a marriage was off-limits.

Plus, it came in the middle of a season that was CONSTANTLY flirting with misery porn. When this twist didn't seem as well-executed as many, it pushed the show over the edge for quite a few. In general, I'm a season six defender (I think it has a lot to say about trying to find your place in your early 20s), but I think the Xander/Anya wedding subplot could have been tied into the theme of the show much better.

Did the writers set out to say, "Oh life sucks. Happiness is completely elusive." I doubt it. But that became the message of the show. And it's a message few would want to embrace.

To return to the start of this post, Rescue Me has, I think, found a pretty good way to avoid falling TOO deeply into misery porn. Its dark, dark humor provides a sort of valve that the writers can open to let off some of the pressure. But if this season closes with a set of episodes as unrelentingly grim as the ones that closed last season (in which something huge and horribly bad happened to EVERY character), I just might bail.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sometimes, I think I'm bigger than the sound

A few random thoughts on an oddly rainy (for SoCal, at least) Tuesday evening.

--I know the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Show Your Bones, has gotten some mixed reviews, but I really like it. I'm not a big music critic (I mostly pick out songs I can write or work to), but track six, "Cheated Hearts," has got to be one of the all-time great do-something-at-work-you'd-really-rather-not-do songs. I listened to it six or seven times in a row today!

--What is it about rainy days that makes the tumblers click into place in my mind? I changed up a few things in the publication I work on at work, and it seemed to work better. PLUS, I got a lot done on my current writing project mentally. Go, precipitation!

--Remember when we were talking about Christians on TV back in January? Me too. Honestly, who would have expected HBO to become Big Faith Central with its dramas? Now, admittedly, every drama HBO has done has had a religious streak in it (Deadwood, for instance, uses the famous passage from the Bible on how all church members are parts of a larger human body to exemplify the show's larger themes of community), but the new season of The Sopranos and the first season of Big Love have both pushed this to new places.

The Sopranos is looking at issues of redemption, salvation and the afterlife (Tony, a lip-service Catholic, ended up in something that closely resembled Purgatory while in a coma). And Big Love is all about a guy who's so devout that he doesn't swear and has visions. Admittedly, he's a polygamist, but his faith is a big part of his life and is played unironically. As with most things on television, HBO is at the forefront of a new movement that should bring faith back to primetime. I'm anxious to see how David Milch and David Simon work faith into Deadwood and The Wire, respectively.

"Salvation and evolution are mutually exclusive," says a fundamentalist pastor to Tony in last week's episode. That's obviously hinting at something to come, and I'm anxious to find out what that is too.

--In keeping with faith-based issues, has any television show ever examined abortion better than Everwood has? I'm sure you're all going to point out multiple shows that did now, but I've been thinking about it for a week or so now, and I think Everwood has handled it remarkably well. Abortions on TV are rare, but they tend to fall into three camps: 1.) Abortion as necessary evil; 2.) Abortion as trial that woman had to endure in her past and overcome; 3.) Abortion as progressive liberal triumph (this is often paired with number 1, though the two don't fit together as well as producers would like to think they do). To give you a brief rundown of which is which, Six Feet Under used #1, The O.C. used #2, and Maude used #3 (7th Heaven took a pro-life stance, as I recall, but pro-life episodes are pretty rare). An abortion episode is usually accompanied with an earnest debate between the character who's going to have an abortion and a character who is pro-life. Every effort is made not to demonize the pro-lifer, but the person who's going to have an abortion usually goes ahead and has it anyway. They either suffer no ill effects (#3) or spiral into depression (#2).

All in all, a pretty simplistic view of the issue.

Everwood, as it does with every issue, remains fairly nonjudgmental. It understands, as few shows (or activists do) that the issue is one where both sides have an element of ethical nuance to their argument. It's also not afraid to have people discuss the issue civilly. A girl (played by the wonderful Kate Mara, who really needs her own series) had an abortion in season one, but the ramifications from that event are being felt in THIS fourth season. And Mara hasn't even had to come back and guest star.

Everwood is so astute about the issue that it manages to have a pro-life doctor who performed abortions out of what he felt was an obligation to his father. It manages to turn a political conflict into an inwardly emotional one, THEN layer an extra level of family angst on top. From one issue, Everwood manages to spur FOUR different plotlines for ONE character. And that's not to mention all of the OTHER characters who have their own opinions and ideas on the issue.

In short, Everwood should not be canceled.

--No high school show has ever gotten BETTER when the characters moved on to college. I love Buffy season 4 a lot a lot, but the show never really got its groove back until Buffy left college and it stopped being a permanent setting. High school is a pretty universal experience, and it's safe to say that most everyone thought it was pretty hellish. College, however, unfortunately, is NOT a universal experience, and most everyone who attends has a pretty good time (those that don't usually leave). High school is about trying to HIDE your true self. College is about rediscovering that true self. For purposes of a television series, high school is much, MUCH more dramatically interesting.

That said, Veronica Mars could honestly be the first television show to become BETTER when it moves to college. Rob Thomas and his writers have just about exhausted the sorts of high school mysteries that Veronica could credibly solve, and it's clear her talent would be better suited to the bigger issues that college would provide.

Now, I've loved the byzantine, interconnected mysteries in season two, but they haven't really tied in to the high school setting like the Lilly Kane mystery did in season one. But I think it's safe to say that Thomas' taste for secret societies, cliques and such could be sated even MORE in a college setting. Plus, since college is about discovery, Veronica's college career could be about discovering the secrets people are trying to keep buried, which would tie in on a metaphorical level (something the bus crash mystery has failed to do).

In short, Veronica Mars should not be canceled.

--I assume you've all seen this article about how TV shows keep couples apart longer and longer. I've always thought an interesting show could be made about two people trying to turn into one couple and the struggles and challenges inherent in that. But everyone probably disagrees with me. Anyway, I think the article's author is on to something when she points out that the will they/won't they relationship has a lot in common with Victorian romances. After all, the heroes and heroines got together in the last few pages of those novels all of the time too.

--Is there a better book for describing the Midwest than Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? MAYBE the moving, closing passages of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. But it's a credit to Robinson that it's damn close.

--Speaking of those two books, the final sentences of both have been justly praised (read the books; I'm not going to tell you), but to my money, the sentences BEFORE the final sentences are much more resonant.

--24 is maybe the politically canniest show on television right now. Last season, it showed the ultimate conservative nightmare (give the terrorists an inch and they'll take a mile! puny liberals are going to keep us from fighting terror!). This season, as the political tides have shifted, it's showing us the ultimate LIBERAL nightmare (the president's ties are too close to the terrorists'. . .literally! a militaristic vice president who's too quick to fall back on martial law!). Granted, in both scenarios, the nightmare is taken to an absurd extreme (only the very fringes of the right and left believe that torture is necessary and the president is in bed with the terrorists, respectively), but absurd extremes make for good drama.

The latest twist (the president is behind the latest terrorist threat) doesn't make a lot of sense with Gregory Itzin's prior portrayal of the president as a doddering buffoon (again, liberal real-world parallels) unless the president is a better actor than Itzin (and Itzin's a pretty fine actor). But I'm not sure that making sense is the point at all. The twist gets at a deeper fear many Americans have that their own government would turn against them (a fear we have in general, not a specific one like the loonies described above), so it works on an emotional level, even if it doesn't quite work on a logical one.

And what ties it all together is the character of Jack Bauer, who is the ultra-American we all think we are. In reality, we're probably closer to one of the show's other characters, but Jack just wants to do the right thing. He wants to fight evil, corrupt White Houses, snivelling liberal lawyers and nuclear weapons be damned.

As long as Jack is trying to do the right thing, I think people of ALL political persuasions are happy to watch his adventures.

--I'm not one for celebrity gossip. I don't like One Tree Hill at all. And I have very little love for Chad Michael Murray either (though he was fun on Gilmore Girls). That said, does this guy just get married FOR FUN?

--Speaking as someone who's always been fascinated by linguistics, I'm impressed with the way in which "Internets" has become acceptable online shorthand for the Internet itself. A mostly amusing malapropism by the president during the 2004 debates has spread all over the blogosphere (and onto message boards, into chat rooms, etc.). And it's not a political statement anymore (most of the time, when you quote one of Bush's malapropisms, it's standing in a shorthand for your opinion of his intelligence level). People on the right and left use it, mostly, I think, because it filled a need we didn't know we had (most new terms do that). We needed a way to snarkily refer to the Internet community itself, to indicate that it tends to take itself too seriously, even though the power it actually wields is somewhat minimal. Hence, Internets.

--I'm going on vacation at the end of the week to see some REAL South Dakota Dark. Shockingly, through modern feats of engineering, they have the Internets (see? there I go) in the Middle-West now, so I should be able to post some things while I'm there.

And post 100 is coming up. Keep your eyes and ears peeled!

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Rise of YouTube

One month ago, I had never heard of YouTube. I had heard of earlier video sharing sites like ebaumsworld and Google Video, but I had never fallen into the trap of sitting there, watching video after video after video. That all changed with YouTube. There's just something. . .perfect about it. It lets anyone upload anything. The videos load quickly, and the video quality is good. If you want pornography, you can find it. If you want obscure TV show clips, you can find them. If you want whole episodes of TV shows, you can find them. If you want Russian animated shorts, you can find them. If you want cheesy short films made by stoned college students, you can find them.

When I first heard of YouTube, it was at a message board I frequent. But after I heard about it once, it was seemingly everywhere. Newspapers, TV stations and other forms of media had stories about the site and how it let people share their amateur creations. It also helped that NBC got the site to pull down the famous "Lazy Sunday" SNL skit, which only added to the site's ubiquity in the pop culture sphere.

I've never seen a site explode like this. I think it's safe to say that YouTube will become THE Internet video sharing site, much like eBay became THE auction site or Google became THE search engine. Google Video offers more historical and newsy content (for example, the National Archives section is full of interesting historical videos), but it doesn't seem to have the same hold on the Internet imagination that the sillier YouTube does (I don't know if that's a good thing or not).

Another thing YouTube has in its favor is the relative ease with which users who like a video can e-mail it to their friends or post it on their web site. It helps get the brand name out there in a very real way.

As I was watching video after video this afternoon, it struck me that YouTube could very well be the FUTURE of television. What we have now will assuredly seem crude to our future selves, but as the Internet enters more and more devices (especially handheld ones), on-demand video is going to be everywhere. And the equipment used to make quality films and TV shows is getting easier and easier to use and less and less expensive. At what point will independently produced TV shows thrown together by kids in dorms look just as snappy as the real thing? Who knows? But there's going to be a very real battle in the next 20 years or so. If you can get something just as good as what you might see on primetime for free on a YouTube anytime you want, why sit through ads? What purpose would something like HBO have in this world (I would imagine it would evolve even more into an "arthouse" type channel)?

I'm hardly the first one to put these thoughts together, and this is not even the first time I've talked about this particular subject, but I can see why YouTube has become so very popular, so very fast. People are getting a taste of the possibilities inherent in letting anyone post anything at any time. And it excites them.

And since they're so easy to share, here are some YouTube videos.

First, an award-winning animated short from the USSR. Some gorgeous animation here.



Next, two Star Wars fans duel in a light saber battle that actually apes Lucas' work rather well. It's even overlong like his stuff!



Now, Walt Disney explains the birds and the bees in "The Story of Menstruation."



Mortal Peep Fight seems to be the ultimate expression of stoner humor migrating on to the Internet.



And, finally, just because I like it, the opening sequence from Quantum Leap.



But head over to YouTube and do your own searching. You'll have fun. I promise.

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Blogging for fun and profit

My readership has been skyrocketing lately. I don't know where you're all coming from, but hi!

I've added a bunch of new links off to the side, so you can read some new fun and exciting things. If you're a friend or you know of something I SHOULD be linking to, please let me know the address, and I'll add it. I've also added an e-mail address, so we all can commiserate.

I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the Google searches that bring people here. Lots of folks worried about their favorite shows making The CW. Lots of people really in to "Homicide: Life on the Street." Then, we've got things like. . .

psychic Anna South Dakota

(No, I don't know who she is either.)

South Dakota mushroom club

(Fun! Be sure to clean up on your way out.)

kant yung

(Here's a hint. It's spelled wrong.)

What is confirmed is that OTH is one of the shows up for a slot on the CW Network!

(Well, so is everything else. And I don't know why you needed the exclamation point.)

Anyway. . .

I'm planning on doing a couple of big, special projects as the end of the TV season approaches. If you want to be a part of a SPECIAL END-OF-SEASON discussion, please e-mail me. If you want to be a part of a SPECIAL EMMY discussion, please e-mail me.

Also, I'm going to be taking a big poll of what the best shows currently on TV are, according to YOU (similar to the Worst Best Picture poll over at Edward Copeland on Film). So keep an eye out for that. All you have to do to participate in that is know what you like.

Lots of stuff coming up. I'm going to offer some real writing advice. I'll review the first season of Deadwood. And I might even write about something other than TV. And Trailer Curmudgeons, Vol. 3 is also on its way.

So keep your eyes peeled!

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