Thursday, April 13, 2006

When did South Dakota become the center of the universe?

For 23 years, I lived here.

Nothing happened.

Things ALWAYS get interesting when I leave.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Celebrity watching

Why is it that to see TRUE pseudo-celebrities, I have to go home to South Dakota?

Tonight, standing outside of a truck stop outside of Sioux Falls, wearing a jean jacket and a long skirt, there she was: Kari from America's Next Top Model. Like most people on TV, she looked better in real life.

But she's still South Dakota Pretty. Now, South Dakota Dark is darker than dark, but South Dakota Pretty isn't MODEL pretty. It's ACTRESS pretty or POP STAR pretty. But not model pretty. We just can't do exotic here in the S.D. Too much Scandanavian in us.

But there she was. The first celebrity we've talked to since moving to California. And we saw her in South Dakota.

(Please note that most -- okay ALL -- of this is based on Libby's eyewitness report.)


A pro-choice gambit

We'll veer back into South Dakota politics in a second here, but first, if you're surfing in here from Dead Things on Sticks (thanks for the link!), check out the South Dakota Index to find something good to read.

And participate in the best shows on TV poll by e-mailing me while you're at it!

Anyway, since South Dakota is in the name, and since I'm here for the week, I thought I would return to the South Dakota abortion bill.

From a purely analytical standpoint, I think the pro-choice backers in S.D. did a smart thing when they opted to push for a referendum on the bill, rather than try to sue to get it overturned or suspended.

From the LA Times:

Even in the most conservative corners of this conservative state, both Republicans and Democrats — including a few who say they oppose abortion — are eagerly signing the petition. In two weeks, volunteers have collected a third of the signatures they need to get a November referendum on the ban.

Some voters dismiss the abortion-rights activists as out of touch with South Dakotan values. "People here have a sense of morals and ethics," said Darcy Patterson, 40. "I don't want to change the law."

But others say their legislators went too far when they voted last month to prohibit all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, unless the mother's life is at stake.

Read more about it here.

Now, this is a HUGE risk for the pro-choice people, but it gets them back to playing offense. They've been playing defense since Roe v. Wade was passed, and that's why the pro-life movement has made such tremendous gains. Those who play offense in abortion politics tend to make the biggest gains because in the world of heightened rhetoric that IS abortion politics, defense is nearly impossible. It's easy to call someone who supports abortion a baby killer and someone who supports an abortion ban someone who supports rapists. Because both sides in this argument have ethically nuanced positions to argue from, defense tends to become hard in a soundbite-driven era. Offense tends to win the day.

If the abortion bill is defeated by the voters by a margin of 55 percent or more, legislators will probably be much more hesitant to approach the issue in the future, and other states will also hesitate. Gov. Mike Rounds, who may have ambitions at a Senate seat, would also be less likely to touch the bill. In short, it would be dead, and S.D. would go back to the virtual abortion ban it has at the moment.

The pro-choice people aren't pressing a referendum on this particular bill; they're pushing a referendum on abortion itself in one of the most conservative states out there. If they win, they could well set back the whole pro-life movement.

The pro-life movement's problem here is that they pushed TOO FAR. People who might be more sympathetic to their cause are going to have real problems with the lack of exceptions in cases of rape and incest. Heck, even the PRESIDENT does. However, the pro-life movement also knows that any exceptions made to any abortion law would be untenable. Once you start to negotiate on principles, those principles can be worn away (as the pro-choice movement has found by making compromises on things like parental notification and late-term abortions, compromises that put the movement in this very position).

The LA Times article linked to above says that South Dakotans are polling at about 57% against the referendum. Now, S.D. is a state where the church gets out the vote, and in many cases, that would be good enough to win this one, but this promises to be a highly emotional battle with lots of ads, which should boost turnout. Make no mistake: The higher the turnout is, the less likely the referendum is to pass, as that means a higher turnout on the liberal Indian reservations and in the moderate I-29 corridor (which runs through the liberal University of South Dakota, the state's largest city of Sioux Falls and the moderate South Dakota State University) and Black Hills area (which tends toward fiscal conservatism and social progressivism). But you're not going to ensure a higher turnout in conservative rural areas, where voting takes so little time (and farmers have so much time to do it in) that turnout tends to always be high. Those in the more populated areas (and on the reservations) tend to turn out for highly emotional races, and with this should be one.

Barring a ridiculously effective pro-life ad campaign and a terrible pro-choice campaign, I would be rather surprised if the final result of the November vote fell too many percentage points away from that 57% number.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Armaggedon: For Children

What's that? A best-of-TV survey? And you should participate? Go here for the rules, here to enter.

Anyway, just as this seems to be becoming known as a TV blog, I think I'll write about some other things (South Dakota has made me not watch as much TV as I normally would). The three things I feel qualified to write about are TV, literature and film (in roughly that order). I really like the stage, but there's a lot I have to catch up on there. So expect some books and movies posts over the next few days.

Anyway, Ice Age: The Meltdown is a deeply frustrating (and oddly apocalyptic) film. It zig-zags all over the place, never really picking up any narrative momentum, piling on scenes that just sort of seem to be there to pad out the film's length. But every other scene is filled with such visual energy and imagination that you just wish the storyline had been better.

If there's one thing this film proves, it's that computers can now do just about everything hand-drawn animation can. Computer animation could never QUITE do the sort of slapstick lunacy that was the calling card of the old Warner Bros. cartoons (and some of the other classic shorts from other studios). In Meltdown, computers have finally caught up. There are some dazzlingly executed moments of funny, slapstick-y action here that remain constantly involving (Scrat, in particular, steps up his game here in one of those classic, Sisyphean cartoon struggles). The film has its share of pop-culture references (which have become the bane of computer-animated films since Shrek hit it big), but they are never as prominent as the Looney-Tunes-esque lunacy that takes centerstage.

But maybe that means the Ice Age characters (especially Scrat) should just spin off into a series of shorts. Because this doesn't really work as a movie. The first film was pretty cliched, but it was sweet enough, and the characters were well-done children's film types. Here, the characters don't have a lot to DO, especially Denis Leary's Diego, who was a vital presence in the first film.

But, as I said, this all may be worth it for some of the crazy wackiness on display. A long section that takes place on a series of rocks that shift and nearly tumble endlessly feels to have stepped out of a lost Road Runner cartoon, and the film ends on its strongest joke, the ultimate disappointment for Scrat (I will say no more), which even leads to a close straight out of the WB legacy.

There's some inspired work here, but it gets buried under its need for an overarching story to tie it all together. The weird grimness and end-of-the-world tone also don't quite work, as they never take the turn into darkly comic (as I think they were intended to).

But, hey, finally a kids movie for your 10-year-old who won't stop babbling about Peak Oil. (And if he's doing that, he's both very smart and well-prepared. But he also probably doesn't have a lot of friends.)

And who doesn't love a mammoth?


Monday, April 10, 2006

Big Tent TV

Hey? Whaddaya know? A best-of-TV survey! Check out the rules here and vote here. OR DIE.

Anyway, I was out under the REAL South Dakota Dark tonight, and it was (mostly) magnificent. It feels remote here after a year in SoCal (even the state's biggest city of Sioux Falls), but I was surprised at how quickly and easily I shifted into rural mode. It's also nice to not have to deal with traffic. For a little while at least.

Anyway, I'm here to talk about big tent TV. And what is that? I'll tell you (in a hopefully abbreviated fashion, simply because I'm in vacation mode).

Big tent TV is TV that works as both entertainment and intellectual fodder. A lot of times, it can simplify or dumb down things (or bury its truly interesting stuff in the background). It often has little to no subtext. In short, it's trying to appeal to the masses, sanding down most (if not all) of its rough edges.

I come to these thoughts because I've been wondering lately just why I love Lost and The Sopranos so very, very much. Both shows seek a large audience actively. Both shows are the kinds you can just turn your brain off to at the end of a long day. But, and here's the key, both aspire to be something more. And both occasionally pull it off (actually, in both cases, I would argue they do so often enough as to actually work on some intellectual level).

One can see this typified when one looks at fan response to the shows' character-development episodes. On The Sopranos, especially, some fans are IMMENSELY put off by this. "Time to get back to the killing!" they seem to say. But the killing isn't always what interests the writers. They also want to examine, to probe, to consider. (This is seen to a lesser extent on Lost on the episodes where the show's "mysteries" are not uncovered in some way.)

Like I've said, this can be embarrassing. The Sopranos handles some of its characters in a fashion that just seems stupid (the Paulie Walnuts subplot involving his true parentage was needed for the storyline, but it didn't really work). And Lost turns out episodes that are just cringe-inducingly bad (usually anything involving Charlie, though most of the characters have never met a cliche they didn't like).

Both shows, though, are saved by some graceful writing. Sure, the plotting on Sopranos can be stupid and the dialogue on Lost often borders on ludicrous (though, to be fair, both sins come with the territories the shows operate in). But the writers on both shows can still pull off more good scenes than bad in almost all of their episodes. And that's enough to keep most coming back from week to week.

To be fair, there are a lot of ambitious shows that desire to do more that just don't work. The Prison Break flashback episode was a piece of ludicrous hokum (I spent most of the episode mocking the TV. . .and comparing the whole enterprise to Lost, which at least tries to find a dramatic reason for most of its flashbacks). And Desperate Housewives COMPLETELY lost it when it stopped being a mildly amusing soap satire and turned into a story about The Way Things Really Are in the Suburbs.

But often, it's so fun to see true ambition in TV that I'm willing to forgive some things. Especially in a show that is both entertaining AND intellectually stimulating.

To put it another way: I think Deadwood is, hands-down, a GREATER show than anything on TV right now. It's loaded with poetic writing, vivid characters and a real spirit of generosity that's lacking on other shows. But it's also intellectually rigorous. You can't just sit back and turn off your brain or do other things while it's on.

And that's why, if I have a new Lost or a new Sopranos and a new Deadwood on the TiVo, I'm often more excited to watch one of the two former than the latter.

I don't LIKE or RESPECT Deadwood any less. But sometimes I need that buffer.