Saturday, May 27, 2006

Please stop, spammers

I've turned off anonymous commenting, since I just got hit with over 50 anonymous comments (all of them spam) in the space of an hour.

It's not hard to register for a Blogger account so you can comment. I know it sucks, but it's the way it will be for a while.

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I'm With Stupid



Apparently, Tom DeLonge is no genius. It's hard to imagine, I know. Still, he THINKS that he is. This makes the media exposure and formidable hype leading up to the release of his new (post Blink) band, Angels & Airwaves' debut LP all the more morbidly comical. The whole sad irony of it for me is that, after years and years of hating Blink-182, I was actually starting to come around to being casually entertained by them. It's not so much that they got "deep" by the end of their career, but that they had matured to a point of losing most of their pretenses. When a band can do that it usually only gets better from there. But, ya know, RIP. Whatevah.

On to the future. Angels and Airwaves, We Don't Need To Whisper. This is a bad album. What makes it so bad is that it could have been good. I have no idea how in the hell you make actual notes of music sound pretentious, but producer/frontman Mr. DeLonge does so quite admirably. It's mostly in the way that each song has such a caustic undercurrent. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. However, the claustrophobic way in which he presents each track at such farcical levels of melodrama and pomposity really tends to grate on one's nerves. His nasal delivery backed by "important" and "emotional" pieces that you are, apparently, supposed to listen to alone, in your dark room"... with black light or a candle." (wtf) only seem to elicit nausea as opposed to catharsis.

His new band is good enough. Usually thoughtfully structured, and aurally pleasant. It's behind the boards that things become so disagreeable. So intent on making this matter, DeLonge transforms a perfectly acceptable indie-pop sound into a bludgeoning emo jackhammer that makes it seem like something the Postal Service excreted onto U2. It's NOT FUN.

That's all I got!

Sorry these first couple of posts have been so negative. I'm really not an elitist prick. I SWEAR.

Stay tuned for thoughts on the new The Walkmen LP. I might actually like it!

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Five movies

One of the benefits of knowing someone at the movie theater is the fact that you get to see movies for free, sometimes days before they open (it's all about checking the prints). And can I just say that this is one of the more lackluster summers on record so far? The only thing I've found completely engaging was Over the Hedge, and that had serious faults (though I liked quite a bit of Mission: Impossible III, as pointed out here some time ago).

But here are quick thoughts on five movies I've seen recently, in order of release date.

United 93 (dir: Paul Greengrass): This movie has been out for some time now (indeed, it has left many theaters), and I've been struggling with exactly how to articulate my feelings about it for almost as long. I think it's fantastic. A movie about a terrible event that doesn't feel the need to resort to manipulation or agitprop or anything like that. A movie that's not afraid to remove politics from something that has been completely politicized.

At the same time, though, I can understand people who can't figure out why this movie was made. And I've wanted to respond to those people in a way that made sense to everyone AND honored the spirit of the film.

To be completely fair, the world didn't strictly need this movie. It's based on an event that is as shrouded in mystery as anything, obscured by flight-recorder tapes that muddle up many accepted facts even as they make other things clear. Greengrass' desire to create a "plausible truth" could have gone very, very wrong, verging on jingoistic tripe (having seen the trailer for Oliver Stone's World Trade Center now, I see just how badly this film could have gone).

But.

There was a school of thought among the realists who populated American literature (and other forms of art) around the turn of the century that if you could capture an object, a person, an event as realistically as possible, you could understand it en totale. You wouldn't necessarily have all of the ANSWERS about it, but you could encompass it, make it a part of you. By painting an apple as realistically and perfectly as possible, you could capture that apple's essence and merge it with your own (and, by extension, your audience's). And that's what I think Greengrass and his actors do here. They invade an existing event, a piece of history. They make it their own. And in doing so, they find new ways for us to understand both it and ourselves.

One of the easiest assumptions made about the passengers of United 93 was that they struck back at the terrorists because they were doing their patriotic duty. I think one of the cleverest things Greengrass has done is made that not the case at all. It both completely removes the film from the ever-stagnating left/right dichotomy and offers a canny commentary on who we are as people.

When the passengers find out that three planes have already flown into U.S. landmarks, their first thought, naturally, is that their plane will fly into a landmark as well. But they don't jump from there to, "Let's save the country!" They jump from there to "I want to live!" What makes war (indeed, any act of violence) WORK is that when you get down to the one-on-one battle, both guys aren't thinking about how if they beat the other guy, they'll make their country proud. They're thinking about getting home to their moms or wives or lovers or children. Because, at our base, that's all we want. To live.

In making this connection, Greengrass rips open our established notions of Sept. 11 and puts them under a new set of lenses. He takes away the years of greasy, grimy buildup that have infected the discussion and gives us a new visceral connection to everyone who died that day (and everyone who has died since). No one wanted to be a hero. All they wanted was to get home. And that, sometimes, is how heroes are born. Homer understood this. I don't know why we can't seem to put it together.

Poseidon (Dir: Wolfgang Peterson): And then you get stuff like this. Poseidon isn't terrible, but it's not exactly good either. It falls into a giant zone of vaguely mediocre entertainment that would make you feel terribly disgruntled if you paid regular ticket prices for it.

The special effects aren't bad, and some of the set pieces work all right, but most of this film is just not interesting. Josh Lucas is a terribly dull lead. Kurt Russell's presence kept making me wonder if they were going to escape the ship, only to have to sit out in the middle of the cold, cold night, waiting for rescue that would never come. Emmy Rossum is pretty if you just take a photo of her, but in motion. . .not so much. Andre Braugher is completely wasted. Richard Dreyfus plays MAYBE the queeniest gay man in an action movie ever (it doesn't seem so, since he gets to save lives and stuff, but watch what he does in the background at all times and you'll see what I mean).

And the dialogue is just terrible. "They don't just give you the nickname Lucky Larry. You got to be lucky." And other bon mots. Plus, the structure is pretty bad, because we never have any idea of how far they need to go to escape, and the stakes never get raised all that much. If they had started with a WHOLE BUNCH of people, then picked them off rather ruthlessly, I might have cared.

Sidenote: Everyone I knew kept talking about how Fergie was in this movie. "What's a former princess of the United Kingdom doing in a disaster movie?" I wondered. Then they talked about how she had a song. "She can sing?!" I thought.

As it turns out, it was Stacy Ferguson of the Black-Eyed Peas, NOT Sarah Ferguson of the U.K. I guess that'll show me for growing up in the 90s.

Over the Hedge (Dir: Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick): Over the Hedge is a completely disposable good time. But the nice thing is that it knows it is. There's the occasional attempt to give the film some emotional resonance, but the movie mostly aims to make the kids laugh and not completely bore their parents by dishing out a few references aimed at adults (and by keeping the running time mercifully short).

I think I liked two things best about Over the Hedge. For one thing, all of its characters are cute and attractively designed. I especially like Verne the Turtle. But I also like that the film is the first from Dreamworks Animation in a good long while that isn't just pop culture reference after pop culture reference (as someone who suffered through Shark Tale, I can tell you that pop culture references aren't always a GOOD THING).

There's a trend in modern humor to see who can make the most references the audience will connect with. And when the audiences connects with that reference, they laugh not because the joke itself is funny. They laugh because they feel smart, because they feel connected to the movie. And that's insulting. It talks down to the audience (unless you're really going for the jugular with the references, juggling fine literature with obscure town names with bad movies, as MST3K did back in the day).

Over the Hedge mostly eschews this. The jokes come out of the characters. Sure, the characters are one-note stereotypes that mostly play off of our preconceived notions of the animals (or the actors playing them). The turtle is cautious. The squirrel is reckless. William Shatner is hammy. And so on.

But Over the Hedge is a fun time. It doesn't try to be too much. And it has Ben Folds nicely settling in to his role as a latter-day Randy Newman. I recommend this one if you're just looking to get to a matinee to get out of the heat.

The Da Vinci Code (Dir: Ron Howard): And then there's this.

The tomatometer over at Rotten Tomatoes is pretty bad on this film. But that doesn't truly reflect the critical reception, which has mostly been an indifferent shrug (the critics didn't HATE it; they just really didn't care about it).

I'd say that's a fair assessment. Aside from a few scenes (especially one where Ian McKellan is giving a long, expository monologue full of crackpot theories that have mostly been completely disproved that somehow, against all odds, manages to be completely riveting), this is a snooze of a movie.

And yet I was sort of happy that it didn't COMPLETELY suck.

And, to be perfectly honest, the filmmakers had some nice ideas. The scenes where Tom Hanks is breakin' codes like he was born to do so are kind of fun, as we watch the different letters light up to signify how he's rearranging them into anagrams and the like. And I actually thought the film did a nice job of livening up SOME of the book's exposition by flashing back to the massacre of the Knights Templar, the Council of Nicea and a variety of other things. With a nice trim of the fat and better story and character motivation, this could have been a fun little thriller.

But, instead, Ron Howard has filmed this book like he was handed The Great Gatsby to direct. Great books rarely translate to film because the directors treat them with such reverence. That's why a truly TRASHY read like The Godfather or Jaws can become such a rip-roaring good time (or even a great film): because the producers know that it's not high literature. By liberating themselves from the source material more, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman could have had just as much fun with this. Instead, they include EVERY plot twist, EVERY reveal, EVERY anagram, EVERY ending. And the film just sort of flops around lifeless on the floor. Even though Tom Hanks gives it the old college try and Audrey Tautou is, as always, gamely beautiful.

It doesn't help that the dialogue is saddled with the job of explaining EVERYthing. Exposition is fine when its delivered in a huge infodump (complete with one of those flashbacks). But when every other line is something like "It can't be. . .it's. . .the Fleur de Lis!" it becomes laughable after a while.

Until Ian McKellan gets there and launches into some of the giddiest scenery chewing of his career. The new rule in Hollywood is that if you have lots of exposition, you have to hire Ian McKellan to deliver it.

And now, a spoilery sidenote. If you don't know what the secret of the Da Vinci Code is, wait until you see a full line of bold text to jump back in.

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Dan Brown really hit on a smart idea by packaging the Holy Blood, Holy Grail theory (and I know that other people came up with the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child and it grew up in France, but that book made it the most popular first) into a thriller. He also had a good idea by making cryptography the mechanism that drives the thriller along. It doesn't matter that the theory is driven by insane leaps of logic that lead from the story of a country priest who saw a change in his fortune and lead to a giant conspiracy to keep the world in the dark about the true nature of Jesus' relationship with one of his female disciples. (For more on these leaps of logic, please watch the ad and read the article here.)

But here's why the idea was so smart: Even if conspiracies are completely at odds with logic (as all of them are -- look at how fast the participants in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and Watergate folded), they make for GREAT fiction. And the bigger the secret you're covering up, the better off you are narrative-wise. What secret could be bigger than Jesus fathering a child who was to kick off a royal AND holy bloodline that would emerge to lead us all into peace and prosperity? To get bigger than that, you pretty much have to wander out into the territory of that guy who's convinced that reality is an elaborate show being put on for us by lizard creatures who plan to come and slaughter us at some point (for no good reason).

But where does Dan Brown go from here? His next book, reportedly, is about the Masons. And I don't think that's going to reel 'em in. While most Americans had never HEARD of the Priory of Sion or the Merovingians, we've all heard of the Masons. And it would seem a great many of us harbor suspicions against them (we even had a political party dedicated to getting rid of them, for God's sake).

Now, obviously, the Masons are just a bunch of old guys who get together to get away from their wives. Based on the people who were Masons in my hometown, if these people hold the secrets of the universe, we're in deep, deep trouble.

In short: Tell Americans that Jesus fathered a child, and they'll buy your book and recommend it to all of their other friends who shop at WalMart. Tell Americans that the Masons are keeping deep secrets, and they'll just shrug, nod and tell you about the lizard people they heard about on Coast to Coast.

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No really. The spoilers are over. It's time for X-Men.

See? You've made Frasier Crane angry. Nice work.

X-Men: The Last Stand (Dir: Brett Ratner): I really, really, really liked X-Men 2. I thought it was one of the best superhero movies ever made (shallow pool, I know). I liked the way it blended political thought with big action sequences with richly developed characters. I liked the way it wasn't about a singular superhero, but a team of superheroes. And I liked the way it made its characters shift allegiances and such.

And I think they've got a good idea for a third movie here. The mutants of the world have to struggle when they find that there's a cure for their condition. Some want to take it. Some are militantly against it. So it appears that many mutants will go to war with a government that wants to administer this cure. Throw into the mix a character who died in the last film, now resurrected as a complete and total evil force of nature. Add in some deaths and put your good guys in the worst possible position, and you should have a hugely entertaining movie.

Instead, you get a movie that's deeply chaotic and all too confusing. Characters just do stuff for no apparent reason in this movie, other than to serve the plot. The deaths (and the cures) that are in the plot aren't given any emotional weight. They're glanced at, then quickly left in the dust. You've got a film that has two times the story of its immediate predecessor and tries to tell that story in a running time that's 40 minutes shorter.

Plus, if you don't know the comics, you're going to be baffled by a lot of stuff here. I've never read a comic in my life, and I couldn't figure out who all of the new characters were or what their superpowers were. Beast (Kelsey Grammer) seemed to have the superpower of. . .being furry and blue (the Internets, thankfully, steered me towards what I was SUPPOSED to be seeing). But if you ARE a fan of the comics, this may be even WORSE. They compromise several characters and make one of the defining arcs of the graphic novel as an artform (the Dark Phoenix storyline, ripped off for countless TV plotlines) into what seems like a compressed afterthought to the whole series.

Like Da Vinci Code, this isn't a reprehensible movie. It's a big shrug of the shoulders of a movie. It's what happens when you try to rush what should have been the superhero epic to end all superhero epics. Plus, the potentially interesting allegory of corporations "curing" undesirables is mostly swept under the rug. They set up a storyline where Rogue, a mutant who can kill anyone by touching them, is strongly tempted to be cured so she can touch her boyfriend. This is a potentially interesting situation. But then they just abandon the storyline at the moment of truth, cutting back to it at the very end for a quick scene in a coda that's rather underdeveloped (and ends with one of the most inexplicable shots I've seen in a while).

Some of my favorite characters are killed in this film. Some of my favorite characters are cured in this film. But the film is too busy rushing to the next action set piece that I never really felt the weight of these moments. It wasn't until the film was over that I realized just how much STUFF had happened in it. And then I realized how little I was affected by all of that stuff.

Disappointing all around.

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So long, farewell: Charmed

This is the last "so long" post, and it will probably be the shortest (unless I get up the gumption to say so long to Everwood -- that rare beast, an on the bubble show that knows its time is up).

If you've read this blog at all, you know I like genre TV. I love to see storylines with a healthy dollop of fantasy and science fiction.

But, somehow, I never watched Charmed. I can count the number of times I've seen an episode on one hand, and on every occasion, I was focusing on something else and the show was the choice of someone else in the room. Those who liked to watch this show seemed to split into two camps: those who watched it as guilty pleasure and those who liked to look at breasts. Now, I've been known to fall into both camps, but Charmed never grabbed my interest.

I think it's because Charmed always felt (to me) like a watered-down version of other, better genre shows. I know I'm not exactly the best person to be commenting on this, since I haven't seen every episode or anything, but every episode just felt like a laborious reworking of something Buffy had done ten times better many seasons before.

I know the Charmed fans are legion. I know they're scarily devoted. But this was never appointment television for me, and, what's more, it never seemed to be appointment television for any other critical TV thinkers out there.

I'm glad you enjoyed the show. I'm glad you enjoyed the camp. I'm glad you enjoyed the breasts. To each his own.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

NEW NBC schedule

In the interest of completeness, here's the revised schedule (read: completely ripped up) NBC released today.

NBC REVISED PRIMETIME SCHEDULE FOR FALL 2006-07

*New programs in CAPS (with the exception of "ER"); all times are Eastern.

MONDAY
8-9 p.m. "Deal or No Deal"
9-10 p.m. "HEROES"
10-11 p.m. "STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP" (new day and time)

TUESDAY
8-9 p.m. "FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS"
9-10 p.m. "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (new day and time)
10-11 p.m. "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

WEDNESDAY
8-8:30 p.m. "20 GOOD YEARS" (new time)
8:30-9 p.m. "30 ROCK" (new time)
9-10 p.m. "The Biggest Loser" (new time);
10-11 p.m. "KIDNAPPED" (new day and time)

THURSDAY
8-8:30 p.m. "My Name Is Earl"
8:30-9 p.m. "The Office"
9-10 p.m. "Deal or No Deal" (new day and time)
10-11 p.m. "ER"/("THE BLACK DONNELLYS" in January 2007)

FRIDAY
8-9 p.m. "Crossing Jordan" (new day and time)
9-10 p.m. "Las Vegas"
10-11 p.m. "Law & Order" (new day)

SATURDAY
8-9 p.m. "Dateline Saturday"
9-11 p.m. Drama Series Encores

SUNDAY
7-8 p.m. "FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA"
8-11 p.m. "SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL"

Sometime this summer, we'll get some folks on analyzing how these shows will match up with each other.

Whee for press releases!

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So long, farewell: Will & Grace


Jamie Weinman, that Canadian cultural critic, has written about bad sitcoms with good writing. That is, a show that uses sharp, character-based humor for its writing but is pretty much a bad show. He cites Who's the Boss as an example. All of the characters were sharply defined, but the show was never more than a mediocrity for a number of reasons (not the least of which was Tony Danza).

Weinman goes on to talk (briefly) about the converse of this scenario: a good sitcom with bad writing. That is, a sitcom whose characters are pretty much interchangeable joke machines, even though the jokes are supremely well-written. And Weinman chooses as his example Will & Grace.

I think he's right.

W&G started so well. It had two seasons of sharp, satisfying one-liners. But somewhere in season three, it started to become obvious that the wheels were going to come off of the cart very soon. And they did in season four. And try as the show did, it could never put those wheels back on. The jokes were still there, still pretty well-constructed. But the characters had become empty shells and bitter, petty people who weren't terribly pleasant to spend time with. In the process of making all of the characters catty people who were constantly making innuendos, the writers killed all chances they had of making the dramatic storylines foisted on the actors (from season four on) resonate at all. The show was farce, and farce becomes deeper at its own peril (indeed, the only successful sitcom farce to have a long run was Frasier, and that got tired too).

Most retrospectives about Will & Grace have talked about how groundbreaking the show was. And I agree that the show made gay characters on primetime palatable to the general public by not turning their very presence into a chance to sermonize. But, to a degree, the show also just re-entrenched previously held stereotypes (Will, the stuffy, uptight control freak; Jack, the raging bordering-on-queen). That's not to say that using old stereotypes to examine them and see what truth there is to them isn't something that can't work well (indeed, a lot of groundbreaking TV follows this format). It's just that all of the characters were collections of cliches. In other words, interchangeable joke machines.

Will & Grace also always got a good ride out of pop culture references. Pop culture references, when well done, can be hilarious. But they also carry the risk of dating a show. If Will & Grace had been a better program, these references wouldn't have fatally flawed it, but as it is, they only add to the problems.

I don't mean to ride on a show that was a touchstone hit for a lot of people. And, like I said, it was pretty great for those first two years. But there's a common theme to all of the shows ending this year (except, maybe, West Wing) and that's a theme of promise squandered. Will & Grace, I think, fell the farthest, and that's why it leaves me the coldest.

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Required reading, Volume 2

I was going to write my Lost review tonight, but I got into an interesting discussion with someone about the show, and then I read this, which pretty much says everything I was going to say, only way, way better.

So read that. And I'll figure out something new to say in a few days.

You may have to watch an ad to read that article for free, but that's the cost of living.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

So long, farewell: That 70s Show


The first thing I felt when I found out That 70s Show was ending was old.

There are so very few shows on now that I can remember debuting when I was still living at home, still feeding off the proverbial parental teat. But That 70s Show debuted my senior year of high school. Somehow, while it was still on, I could still feel young, still feel like being a teenager wasn't that far off.

God help me when The Simpsons, which started when I was in the THIRD GRADE, ends. I'm going to feel really old then.

I didn't really watch That 70s Show beyond its first season, when it was comfortably sandwiched between The Simpsons and The X-Files (two musts for me. . .so much so that I forced my family to get the Fox affiliate in Denver beamed to our satellite dish, though I told them it was ostensibly for the NFL). I wasn't usually one for the old "put one show on between two other popular ones" programming strategy (I successfully avoided The Single Guy for most of its run), but That 70s Show got me.

If nothing else, That 70s Show offered a realistic portrayal of teenage life in the rural/suburban Midwest. There wasn't a lot to do, so getting wasted or getting high became something people did just to do something, not necessarily to rebel. Plus, the kids (as you can see above) actually looked like teenagers, not adults trying to squeeze into the latest fashions (though as the run of the show went on, the kids grew up more and more grotesquely -- to watch the credits sequence on the series finale, which featured all of the kids singing along to a song in an outtake from the first season was to see time flash before one's eyes).

In its first season, That 70s Show was relatively critically acclaimed. It even made Entertainment Weekly's ten best shows list. To be sure, Will & Grace and Sports Night were the BIG critical hits of that fall season, but That 70s Show was met with generally favorable reviews. The characters were warm and well-drawn, and the joke construction was solid, if never spectacular. There were worse ways to spend a half hour of your Sunday night. Topher Grace, for one, was always a little underrated on the show. He carried it with an easy elan. And the show never quite got the credit it deserved for some of its stylistic innovations (like the scenes where the camera swirled around from one character to the next), which led to bigger innovations on other shows.

The show fell apart relatively quickly as the soap opera elements of its plotting became more and more important to its dynamics. As characters hooked up and broke up, it got a little boring rather quickly. Teenage relationships are pretty stupid and inconsequential, but this show could never get the right balance of those two elements down. I tuned out sometime early in season two and never really looked back. Besides. The X-Files was losing my interest as well. It was time for new pastures.

That's what's funny about television. It's the only art form we have that would seem to evolve right along with us, but it, by its nature, cannot. When I watched the finale of That 70s Show, I didn't see any of the characters I related to as a senior in high school. I saw a bunch of adults playing at being those characters but not quite pulling it off. But I was different. That 70s Show wasn't.

Watching a show you once loved (or even liked) but let slip away is like seeing an old girlfriend in the supermarket. There's an element of sadness to it, but you also wonder just who you were to ever connect with this person. But things slip away, things change, and we can't always all change together.

Something about the finale of That 70s Show inspired a certain philosophical musing in me. I don't know why. I guess it was the reflection on who I was when the show started. The show doesn't really MERIT it, but its so tied up to one particular time and place that it can't help but benefit from it.

Anyway, since you slogged this far, I thought I would share a fun story with you. In college, there was a girl who was always getting cast in various parts for our college theatre productions. Grumblings from the others in the program often said she wasn't worthy of the parts she got. I don't know if they were right or not, but, for some reason, this girl was an extra in the series finale of That 70s Show. My first thought was that she was a drag queen (no! really!) because they shot her from an unflattering angle. My second thought was that she looked a LOT taller on camera than she ever did in person. My third thought was that not even Meryl Streep could take the generic beat of looking around a sitcom set as though you are impressed with it and want to move in posthaste and make it look anything other than stupid.

I had never seen someone I personally knew on camera. The whole experience, frankly, was a little jarring. Still, for her sake, I hope I have to repeat it.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Ima" "Ima what?": Alias season five (and career retrospective)

"Do you watch 'Alias'?"

"No. I had all of these friends who kept saying, 'You have to watch "Alias!" You have to watch "Alias!"' so I tuned in for the Super Bowl episode, and the first thing you saw was the main girl in lingerie, and I said to myself, 'Oh, it's THAT kind of show.' And I turned it off."

"Oh. It's THAT kind of show."

Well. . .yes. And no.

What my two co-workers (at my old job) failed to realize is that brazen flirtation with exploitation was one of those things Alias just DID (and often did well). It was female empowerment that went down easy (easier than Buffy), since the woman at the show's center took her orders from a bunch of guys (though she often had to improvise on the job). It was every spy movie plot device you've ever seen crammed into one frenetic hour. It was one of the oddest, most moving family dramas on the dial. And, while it lasted, it was really, really great.

And I'll miss it.

But I'm not sure why. Sticking with Alias these last few seasons has been more of a chore than it should have been. The show was still fun, the action beats were still strong, and the acting was still stellar across the board. But there was something missing. It wasn't the wild, twisty ride it had been back in the day. And there are a lot of people to blame for that. But let's start with J.J. Abrams.

If there's one thing J.J. Abrams knows how to do, it's mash up genres. Alias managed to combine spy movies, thrillers, horror films, science fiction, exploitation dramas, soap opera and family dynamics into one dynamite little package (again, when it was good). Lost throws even MORE stuff into the pot. If there's another thing the man knows how to do, it's turn a show on a dime when it just isn't working. Felicity was famously getting too mopey in its first season when, roughly halfway through, Abrams and his writers (and famously forgotten co-creator) turned the show on a dime into a romantic comedy. The show worked much better as such after that. When Alias backed itself into a corner (which happened five or six times), Abrams would pull the rug out from under the show, reinventing it for another season or two.

But this whole process got exhausting. Keeping up with all of the genre tropes on display AND all of the plot twists got to be too much. The popular complaint is that the writers had NO IDEA what they were doing with the Rambaldi storyline. I happen to think they may have known where they were going with that story of the 15th century prophet who foresaw most of the events of the series, but the continuing addition of more and more gadgets and doodads of his made things get too convoluted to the average viewer, who probably bailed.

This is not to say that Alias COULDN'T do straight spy drama. The episode in season three where Ricky Gervais stars as a man who can build very advanced bombs (who's wanted by terrorist groups) stands out as a series highlight for me, what with its twists and turns and breakneck action. But the fans of Alias didn't WANT spy intrigue. When the characters went after terrorists, it always felt sort of goofy and low stakes. The folks in Alias clearly didn't live in our world, so why should they be so concerned with our problems? In this respect, when Jack Bristow brought up Osama bin Laden in season two, it probably was the series' death knell. The series was at its best when it was playing the Rambaldi game, but it was also digging itself a hole so deep and convoluted that only the most ardent fan could find his or her way out. Because the show burned through plot so fast, it was impossible to keep twists coming in a logical way (those who complain about how slowly Lost moves probably have this series to blame).

Another problem with the series ended up being Sydney herself. She was such a good person. TOO good of a person to be the center of a TV show like this. What was most interesting about her in those first two seasons was her attempts to blend work and a regular life. She would go from zipping around the world on mission after mission to talking about silly stuff with her friends. But because of how quickly the show moved, the plot line of "Will Sydney's friends find out she's a spy?!" quickly got tiresome. So the friends were brought into Sydney's world or killed off or written out by other means. And the show lost the element that made Sydney so interesting: her longing for a normal life (so brutally shattered in the pilot when her fiancee was killed). After that, we came to see that Sydney was pretty much. . .perfect. She was beautiful, she had a great boyfriend, she patched up things with her fractured family remarkably well, and she even forgave the man who killed her fiancee when her father asked her to. She was pretty much the best person ever! And that got boring, no matter how well Jennifer Garner could sell it.

Sidenote: Jennifer Garner seems to be one of those actresses who deeply divides women. The many women in my life (past and present) just can't seem to agree on her. But they all either LOOOOOVE her or HAAAAATE her. There's no middle ground. I'm not sure why this is. I think it's her impossibly high cheekbones.

But for those first two seasons, Alias was gold. Out of all of the shows ending this year, my relationship with Alias was probably the most committed (at one time). I even had my sister tape it for me once when I couldn't get home in time to set my own VCR (I've always been kind of embarrassed by how much I enjoy TV, so this was a big step for me). For a while, I thought it was the better of the two big spy shows that premiered in 2001 (the other being 24). In those first two years, Alias unleashed plot twist after plot twist and decimated its entire structure more than once (decimating Sydney's fractured family more than once in the process). It was thrilling, the sort of breakneck TV we hadn't really seen up until that point (though it's become a template for a lot of other, more successful series). But since it wasn't something that people had seen before, it never became a very big hit, though it did pave the way.

In its fifth and final season (which concluded Monday), Alias sort of pointed the way to how it could have blended Sydney's home and work lives again. The show gave Sydney a baby (Jennifer Garner was pregnant in real life), and it raised the stakes for her by seemingly killing off the father of her baby (though, to be honest, no one ever dies on Alias might as well be Newton's Fourth Law). The spy plots were still as convoluted as ever, but the show found its emotional heart again (though the season was far from perfect). It's easy to imagine a sixth season where Sydney, reunited with her lover (now husband), fought back against evil to make a better world for her child, even if she would really rather be at home with the kid. This sort of storyline wouldn't have risen to the heights of those first two years, but it would have given the show the throughline it had been missing.

In most other regards, though, the final season of Alias was one of its weakest (though it was better than the fourth season, which tried to pretend the show's serial elements didn't exist for the most part). The attempts to add new characters to the show felt ham-fisted (and I'm one of the few people who enjoys Rachel Nichols as an actress). The Prophet Five conspiracy was a bit of a groaner. And the attempts to wring drama out of the family dynamics of the show just didn't work anymore (Sydney had made peace with her father long ago, while Lena Olin was never on enough to make a convincing foil for Sydney).

But we'll always have those first two years on DVD. Before Sydney and Jack patched things up. Before Sydney and Vaughn's relationship got boring. Before Lena Olin decided to leave the show. Before Sydney's home life was completely eliminated. Before, before, before. . .

I'm not as ultimately disappointed in Alias as many critics were (I don't put a ton of stock in every little element of these sorts of stories making sense). But I do wonder what could have been.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

David knows what you want

Please welcome our latest addition, David, who will be writing about the wonderful world of British television. David is FROM the land we know as the "United Kingdom" and will share stories of what shows we insufferable Yanks can look forward to seeing (provided we have digital cable and a carrier that provides BBC America).

I plan to add a couple of film writers in the next week or so, and then I should be pretty much done with the expansions and remodeling. (Though I may be adding the oft-mentioned Libby, so she can fill you in on her exploits of derring do.)

If YOU would like to write for South Dakota Dark, we're always looking. I'd really like the following:

--A book critic. I don't have enough time to read as much as I would like. Maybe you do. Maybe you would like to talk about it.

--Assorted other critics. Gaming, comics, fast food, the stage, you name it. If you're passionate about it, I want to hear about it.

--Original fiction and poetry. I'm not going to say we'll publish it. But it would be fun to have some cool new voices in this realm.

Anyway, I'm beat, so I'll be back tomorrow with a farewell to Alias.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Dani the Girl II: Electric Boogaloo

Red Hot Chili Peppers get reflective on their first double LP. Sadly, so do we...



Red Hot Chili Peppers served as a large reason for why I became enamored with the world of music to begin with. In my formative years, songs like "Soul To Squeeze" and the lauded "Under The Bridge" quite predictably provided a much needed solace for an angst-ridden preteen of the completely clueless variety. I can still listen to those tracks (among others) with a considerable amount of enjoyment. Unfortunately, this funk-rock outfit now turned surf-soaked rocking icons mostly touch on a nerve of nostalgia in me as opposed to genuine enjoyment. Their hard-to-generalize early works have been long past dead, but there are parts in me that still wish this hook-heavy safe sound would be more of a background echo, rather than a touchstone style. Oddly, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, arguably the Chili Peppers greatest work, is probably the most responsible for the lazily strung together, rockist, would-be opuses they tend to feel the need to release the last decade or so (give or take a year.)

Stadium Arcadium is a double album (the group's first) that wants to serve as a sweeping trek through the mindsets and genre fusing tendencies that have made the band one of the most popular of its kind. As a continuous work it is surprisingly NON masturbatory, but still aches in the "you should give a shit" department because it is, perhaps, one of the least engaging albums of the Chili Peppers' career. A disassociated bundle of far too many tracks that should have been left off of the album to begin with, Stadium... plays well enough for most of the first disc but only tends to regurgitate itself as the journey steadies on a path that mixes pseudo funk jams and emoting California caution tales. The aging Chili Peppers, along with long-time producer Rick Rubin, despite the grand nature of a double LP, still seem remarkably set in their ways. There is actually a stubborn quality carrying throughout Stadium... which instills a distinct sense of fogeyism that, surprisingly, makes one long for those risk taking days of cocksocks and stage-diving. Things are so safe and run of the mill here. It's only annoying because any long term fan knows just how talented the band can be when they organically create music without bowing to the aforementioned success of their garden variety funk hybrids or tumbling, bass-pumping ballads.

It's for these reasons why I find One Hot Minute to be the group's most underrated album. Sonically it was all over the place, but it displayed an assured strip-down of the band's basic elements that was both brave and stumblingly effective. Dave Navarro's addition was an odd fit, to be sure, but was an obvious challenge to the Chili Peppers fundamental trappings that made for a jarring end result that was a wee bit more interesting than you would have expected. A pretty clear cut case of them following that old cliche': SUBSTANCE over STYLE. Since then, Frusciante's barefoot, post-rehab (seriously, good for him) stabs at minimalism as graceful grandiosity usually fall flat because, while he seems to be the ruling class in regards to writing the music by proxy, his intentions usually end up in direct conflict with how the band is meant to be portrayed. On Stadium... you DO get a "group effort", as decidedly forced as it ends up seeming, but it really only serves as a footnote to the unabashed way they've let their own style run away with their creative consciences. It's all just so boring in that cake without frosting sort of way. I'm not even a really that much of a frosting lover, but I appreciate the effort to make something taste all the more rich. As suspected for years (only so much more clear now) the Chili Peppers found their recipe. It can fill you up, sure; unfortunately you tend to remember nothing but its blandness.

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The Turk Show starring Turk as Turk: Scrubs, season 5


Look! You can watch Scrubs on your computer! The grimly smiling men have assured this fact!

Anyway. . .a weekend outing and a writing project have assured that I haven't been as blog-heavy this weekend, but next weekend is a THREE-DAY WEEKEND! So you can expect lots of stuff to happen then.

Anyway, sue me, but I liked Scrubs' fifth season better than almost any other season of the show (except for maybe the debut year). This was the year when the show seemed to finally just give up on being a mega-hit and began delivering sweetly weird stories of hospital life. In the past, the often jarring tonal shifts of the show (going from weird hallucinations to the lives of beloved patients ending often within one or two cuts) put me off of the show, but these shifts seemed tighter, more assured in season five.

I can only assume the network decided to stop interfering.

If you get the DVD for Scrubs, season three, you hear about how NBC tried to push the show in directions that didn't really mesh with the loosey-goosey tone of the piece. NBC wanted Scrubs to have more soap-opera-style storylines like Friends. And Scrubs has never been a will-they/won't-they kind of show (the J.D./Elliot flirtation, though the actors have good chemistry, always felt kind of forced). Will-they/won't-they is an inherently adolescent mentality, and Scrubs, at its best, is about growing out of that adolescent mentality, becoming an adult, getting married, having a baby, all of those things.

Season five drove that point home more than any other season. For some reason, it almost seemed as if Turk (played marvelously by Donald Faison) became the main character as we focused on him and his wife Carla's attempts to have a baby (which were long and frustrating). At the same time, J.D. and Elliot were taking on massive new responsibilities at work and becoming peers to the men who once supervised them (Dr. Cox in particular). The shake-up of these dynamics closely paralleled the gradual move-up in any workplace.

As long as Scrubs grounds itself in these realities, the jarring tonal shifts don't feel as jarring, precisely because we become aware that the show exists in a universe that's roughly similar to our own. When the show plays to sitcom pretensions (as NBC tried to force it to do), it just doesn't work, because it harms the reality of death that plagues every hospital. But when it works at its own, more realistic rhythms, it can go on any flights of fancy it wants.

That said, the show really needs to work on finding J.D. a steady relationship. Giving Elliot one this season was a masterstroke, especially as it played out mainly in the background (it also gave Sarah Chalke, one of the most gamely comic actresses on television, lots of fun stuff to do). But the attempts to give J.D. serious relationships have disintegrated after a handful of episodes (usually because the actress playing the girlfriend -- see, Mandy Moore -- is a special guest star known better for film acting).

Hopefully, the show has worked out some sort of deal with the effervescent Elizabeth Banks (who played J.D.'s latest girlfriend Kim, whose now pregnant with his child -- oops). She meshed well with the cast, and she would be a strong addition to the show's bench.

That's another thing that makes this show work. Every season, they add more and more characters who work well as recurring players. This show's bench is DEEP, comparable to the huge, sprawling cast on The Office. And, every season, everyone in the cast gets something to do, be it dramatic or comic.

Scrubs is a show that I've always sort of half-enjoyed, not liking it as much as I felt I should. But now, in season five, it has found its legs again, and I want to see what happens next.

See what a little lack of network pressure will do?

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