Saturday, August 19, 2006

"It's the snakes!": Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane, improbably, works. It's a good bad movie, which overcomes many, many flaws to become exactly what every ironic Internet hipster wanted it to be: a movie about snakes invading a plane and being beaten back by Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a convincing case for the power of star charisma.

The movie, however, is probably only as good as the audience you see it with. In recent years, how easy has it become to forget the theatrical experience, to sequester oneself at home with loved ones and pop in something by Sturges or Bergman, rather than brave the crowds of mouthbreathing teenagers at the cineplex? Snakes on a Plane erases all of that. The movie IS the audience. The whole experience is less about watching snakes take over a plane and more about rediscovering just how much fun it can be to shout catcalls at the screen, or applaud a profane line of dialogue, delivered just so.

The story of Snakes on a Plane is all there in the title, and yet, I was impressed by how the screenwriters managed to come up with every possible snake-y scenario available to them and then invent a third act that creates several NEW menaces (because, really, once you've unleashed that giant boa constrictor on the plane, there's nowhere else to go with the snakes). The snakes latch on to every possible part of the human anatomy, including the sensitive ones, and the result is a great burst of catharsis from a giving audience, the feeling of a gathering collective saying, "Oh, they won't go. . .THEY DID!"

Really, this movie shouldn't work as well as it does. Director David Ellis seems to think the premise will do most of the work for him, as he lets several sequences sit lazily about, doing nothing (Peter Berg, who made one of the great good bad movies of recent years -- The Rundown -- would have been an inspired choice if he would actually direct this material). The tone of the piece varies from actor to actor, too. The movie that Jackson and a few of the other actors (Kenan Thompson and Rachel Blanchard in particular) seem to be in is the perfect version of Snakes, the one that was both completely awful and completely wonderful. For the most part, these actors are able to save the bits that lag, but there's an overall feeling of trying too hard in places.

Which brings me to the structural problem, which is that the latter half of act two sort of sags. The initial burst of snake frenzy, accompanied by the masks popping out of the overhead compartments and snakes coming with them, is pitch perfect, slamming scares, laughs and action beats into each other until the audience is wound up to a giddy high. It may have been impossible to follow that up, but everything from that point on sort of slowly sags, even if individual lines or scares work. Once Jackson utters the famous line that was inserted into the film to placate fans, however, the movie is mostly back on track and coming in for a landing, even with a completely bizarre ending that I have to assume was a joke (at least, I hope it was).

The movie, oddly, that it made me think of was Speed, which had a similarly basic premise, though much better direction, writing and editing (which gave the movie that forward momentum that didn't make you question a bus' ability to leap over an open pit). This, like Speed, eschews logic in favor of getting what the audience wants to see (in this case, snakes) out there, even if the first half hour is disappointingly snake-less (I respect trying to set up the characters and all, but since they're all just cliches anyway, it could have been done more elegantly). Still, Speed, right down to a few of the relationship beats at the very end.

It's a hard thing, making a good bad movie. Snakes on a Plane comes close enough to garner a wholehearted recommendation, especially if you see it with an audience full of people ready to giggle and squirm and scream. It's the sort of thing where you know what you're seeing isn't even remotely close to good art, but it's so enjoyable and it goes down so easily that you just don't care. (There's a beat toward the end where something awful happens, and a random extra yells, "It's the snakes!" that was just so much like something that would get riffed on on the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000, that I laughed for far longer than absolutely necessary.)

But don't wait for DVD. If you're going to see Snakes, see it this weekend, with the aforementioned audience because it's not a movie for a pristine viewing environment and careful contemplation. Snakes on a Plane is a movie for loud laughter and shouting with your friends at the screen and tossing popcorn at each other.

And God bless it for reminding us just how much fun that can be.


Friday, August 18, 2006

More Mary Worth AND a rediscovered song

See, I'm on a roll tonight.

First, you should know that Mary Worth has gotten REALLY hip. She's got a blog now. Sure, having a blog is SO 2003, but the woman's in her 60s. Being only three years behind is amazing for a woman of her age!

And, what's more, she's gotten as far as 2005, what with her new appearance on YouTube:

I used to play a mean version of Yakety Sax.

All Mary Worth excitement is courtesy of The Comics Curmudgeon.

Finally, I can't believe I forgot about this song until I heard it on the radio today. The first line was even the quote at my graduation! (And sort of depressing come to think of it.)

Let the moon make faces at you.

I was a bigger fan of the video for 1979 at the time, but now that I watch this video again, some of the shot compositions are fairly gorgeous. If you like these videos, check out the latest from the directors, Dayton and Faris, in theaters: Little Miss Sunshine. The script's a little sitcommy, but the performances and direction make it all work somehow.

Remember when it was 1996 and the Smashing Pumpkins ruled the world? I sure do. Now look at us. Old and forgotten, passed over in favor of the latest fad.



Best. Snakes on a Plane. Tie-in article. Ever.

File this under the "jobs I'm glad other people do" file:

Jesus Rivas loves the green anaconda. The object of his affection is the biggest snake on earth, which regularly dines on 7-foot caimans (Spanish alligators). Rivas loves them so much that he walks barefoot through the swamps of Venezuela, his native country, until his toes touch one of the serpents lounging in the mud, at which point he wrestles them into submission. Perhaps for obvious reasons, field studies of the anaconda were virtually nonexistent before Rivas began pursuing his herpetological passion in the late '80s. Since then, he has captured more than 900 anacondas in the wild and carefully studied their life cycle -- including the previously undocumented "breeding aggregations," the balls of small male snakes that struggle to impregnate a giant female. Rivas has made several TV documentaries about his charismatic study animal, including "The Land of the Anacondas" with National Geographic. He's now an assistant professor at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.


What does it feel like to be close to anacondas. Are they cuddly?

They're not cuddly. [Laughs.] But they're not slimy, either. They're very muscular. When you grab them, you feel you're grabbing something hugely muscular underneath. The skin is smooth. It's nice to the touch. When you squeeze it, you know you're touching an extremely strong animal. You feel the layers of muscle under your hand. She normally grabs you back and holds you around your arm or leg. When I catch them in the wild they are upset, of course, and we have to wrestle.

Snakes on a Plane is one thing. I want a movie about THIS guy.

To hear Rivas intone about how an anaconda bite doesn't really hurt, whether or not an anaconda could swallow Samuel L. Jackson and why the best cage for a snake is a pillowcase, go here and watch the ad.


What do YOU think about this ad?


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mary Worth, big bears and other ways to coast

In case you missed it, check out the SDdebut of Tram, our first real, live girl correspondant (I know?). Hopefully, she can break up the incorrigible boys club we've got going on here!

Since I am feeling largely bereft of critical thought this evening (and I'm saving up for the fall season, which begins Monday), here are some links for your edification and enjoyment.

Tomorrow: Snakes on a Plane? TV talk? Or something else entirely? Who can even tell?

--When I was a kid, the Sunday Argus Leader ran two serialized comic strips: Rex Morgan, M.D. and Mary Worth. My mother, who diligently read the comics to me, would always take a moment to read one of the two to herself. I would ask what was going on, but she would never say. The other, we skipped over. "That one's baaaad," she would say, indicating that it wasn't morally reprehensible, but rather, poorly plotted (I don't know how she distinguished one from the other in this regard, much less how she followed the ostensibly serialized story just by reading the Sunday strips, but I digress). Anyway, I don't remember which one she read and which one she skipped, but this is all a long way of saying that Mary Worth is apparently hipper than ever (in that so-bad-its-good way), even warranting a two-page spread (!) in Florida's Palm Beach Post. Revel in her meddle.

--Speaking of the comics, I really like this new web-only strip at, Little Dee. It's oddly paced, slightly absurdist and bleakly philosophical, as though the cartoonist took all of the things that tend to get glossed over when people talk about how much they LOVE Peanuts and based an entire strip around it. Plus, bonus, it has a bear. And the cute kid doesn't talk!

--I've been sort of tired of the Snakes on a Plane thing, but I've been turned around by this review, which says it's everything we pseudo-hipsters hoped it would be (and more).

--This blog is probably the best account of trying to break in to television that I've seen, and it's by a guy who's actually gotten there (he has a small credit on the ABC Family show Three Moons Over Milford). If you want to know all about the brutal combination of hard work, talent and sheer luck that drives breaking in to TV, Sal's the guy to tell you about it, not me.

--Finally, get a little taste of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip before YouTube yanks it down again. How Network-y!

See you all soon.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Will Dancing with the Stars become the American Idol of the fall? (And five other ratings questions)

By Jon

That's probably a question few have pondered, but it's something to consider.

Dancing with the Stars came out of nowhere last summer to become a big, cheesy hit, opening with over 13 million viewers in its first week (Great for a summer program), and it increased from there, building to a 22 million viewer finale.

Naturally, this prompted another edition of the show for midseason, placed on Thursdays and Fridays to take advantage of Survivor’s hiatus. Despite people thinking it was a summer-only phenomenon, it went on to open with over 17 million viewers, then built up again as the season progressed, even with competition from the new season of Survivor and the Winter Olympics, to a 27 million viewer finale up against the Olympics Closing Ceremonies, which hit a record low.

Now ABC has moved it to the American Idol pattern of Tuesday/Wednesday, and with no Idol to suck up potential publicity and not-as-strong competition (NCIS? Pfft.), the pieces are in place for it to reach its full potential.

I’m actually almost tempted to say it could be the #1 show of the fall. Desperate Housewives hasn’t recovered from its slump (More on that soon). CSI and Grey’s Anatomy will send each into the low 20s.

I’m not saying it’ll be getting 30 million viewers a week and making Harry Hamlin the most searched celebrity on Yahoo, but I do think top three for the fall is certainly within reach.

As for the other questions:

2. CSI vs. Grey’s Anatomy: Who will win?

Both. CSI is going into its seventh season and should be giving out any day now. All it has needed is a large enough foe. Grey’s is it.

However, CSI has that older-age CBS audience that rarely checks out the competition that should keep it ahead of Grey’s among total viewers (22-24 million sounds like a respectable goal). Grey’s, however, has those pesky Adults 18-49, and it should easily top CSI in that department, if not among total viewers (18-21 million is likely).

3. Can CBS survive the probable downfall of the procedural this season?

Sure. Why not? CBS didn’t become the biggest network on TV and hold some control on every night simply on luck. They have shown themselves to be a smart network, and their choices of new programs show they fully realize they’re built on a foundation that is about to give out very soon.

The only new crime-centered show this fall is told from the point-of-view of a career criminal. Their other two shows are based off of winning formulas from other networks: Jericho (a group of people isolated from society) and Shark (a smart, lovable bastard with a high-paying job).

Granted, they still have a hit procedural on every night, but they have at least one other show to balance things out (I don’t want to waste space by listing them all, so see their schedule here). And if I had to guess what will be the first crime shows to go, I’d say Close to Home and Criminal Minds.

4. Will comedy ever be big again?

Ever? Sure. Soon? Probably not.

Last season critics heralded the return of the Sitcom with How I Met Your Mother, My Name is Earl and Everybody Hates Chris. All were heavily hyped, and had big ratings numbers for their premieres.

By season’s end, most had forgotten they even existed. Mother had lost 25% of its premiere audience (10.9M to 8.2M), Earl 44% (15.2M to 8.7M) and Chris 57% (7.8M to 3.3M). Sure, their premieres were inflated by hype (Chris especially), but those final numbers are hardly genre-reviving. And the biggest New Comedy overall? The New Adventures of Old Christine.

This season doesn’t seem too promising. 30 Rock has been getting the most buzz of the new sitcoms, but is placed on NBC Wednesdays at 8, up against the Dancing with the Stars results show. The only new sitcom on Comedy King CBS is The Class, which is expected to successfully lead off the night. I have a feeling it won’t live up to the hype.

The only other sitcoms with major potential are the Dancing lead-outs The Knights of Prosperity, a serialized sitcom about low-life crooks robbing Mick Jaggar’s apartment, and Help Me Help You, starring Ted Danson as a self-obsessed group therapist. ABC has a lot rolling on these two shows, as they are ABC’s first honest attempt at sitcom hits in years, which is probably why their current line-up sucks.

They have taken the interesting route of airing the shows by premiering Help Me first on September 26, then airing it for 3 weeks out of 90-minute editions of Dancing, before premiering Knights on October 17. Whether or not this will succeed in keeping a stable audience there depends entirely on whether or not audiences still find small time crooks and Ted Danson funny. I say odds are good enough.

However, if any comedy should be looked out for, it's three-seasons-old The Office. While lead-in My Name is Earl gradually lost its audience, The Office held steady, with its hold on Earl audience going up from 59% (15.2M/9M) to 86% (8.7M/7.5M). It has also become a hit on iPod. And now it’s a Best Comedy nominee at the Emmys and the favorite to win. If this show was ever meant to break out, now is the time.

5. Just what can we expect from The CW ratings-wise?

This is a tough question, and probably unanswerable until the network actually premieres on September 18. Its clearance is at 95%, on par with Fox but below the big three, so the potential audience is certainly higher. But will these new viewers care enough to watch? The only new shows aren’t too appealing (The Game and Runaway), and all the older ones might be too far into their runs to get new viewers to care.

In the end, my best guess is that we won’t see an immediate change. However, as new shows with actual appeal come around next season and onward, it could reach Fox-levels.

6. Will Fox not suck enough Wednesday through Monday this fall for us to care?


All ratings information was provided by


Real World: Key West blows

Hello SDD readers! :waves:

My screenname says "TBN", but please call me Tram (I have since gotten over how fug my name sounds... yay for moi!). I have lived to regret the bland initials I initially registered under.

Anyhoo, I'm the only girl in the SDD staff, and I hope to enlighten you with my uniquely feminine take on pop culture and celebrity gossip, er, commentary. You can my read thoughts on politics and film elsewhere (here and here).


Two nights ago, when the Real World: Key West season finale aired, and like the entire season, the one-hour special felt like an overextended letdown. The finale was uneventful, just as uneventful as the episodes that unraveled throughout the season.

Unlike the most entertaining Real Worlds, this season did not feature any juicy hook-ups, backstabbing, or catfights, which is the main purpose of this reality show (why else tie up seven or eight entirely different people and round them up in a big cage?). Can you believe that not even a single castmember hooked up with one another?! It's especially sad, considering that the first episode had so much promise, so much sexual tension (did YOU not see how John and Zach looked at Svetlana on their first meeting? *sigh*).

The hook-ups that did arise were forgettable, at best. Does anyone remember Jose's little peck on the cheek with a girl he met at a party? No? Yup, didn't think so. Or when the otherwise diplomatic Zach dumped a townie after she mentioned the "C" word (commitment)? Fratboyish John (who is actually a pretty nice guy, despite meathead demeanor) got lucky on their Spain trip (was she a hooker?). And social outcasts Paula and Svetlana spent most of their time arguing with respective boyfriends, Keith and Martin, on the phone.

As far as catfights went, none of the girls had anything on Tyler, in terms cattiness. So okay, maybe the creators edited the shit outta all his scenes and wanted to play him up as a villian (this is a "reality" show, afterall). But Tyler reeks of cattiness. Nevermind his claims that the producers liked Svetlana's sexy looks and wanted to paint her as his victim.

Instead, I say, we judge Tyler on how he acts on a day-to-day basis, Svet or no Svet. The dude puts himself on a pedestal and feels inclined to assert his superiority to us mere. Was anyone as I tired as I was about his "omg, I attended Tufts, supposedly one of the most prestigous colleges out there, and thus, earned my pretensions" crap? Or his whole "I like a challenge" speech (ugh, like I wish he didn't have that car accident, so he wouldn't go telling people about his missed Olympic chances), as if it was important that the world know that he wasn't a couch potato who scratched his butt in his spare time. Tyler went over the line. He went over the line when he kept on calling Svetlana a "bitch" and "slut" (you would think that as a gay guy, he would be more sensitive to such matters). He went over the line when he gave Svetlana a nice peek-a-boo during her call to her mom. He went over the line when he ditched Jose at the gym. Ugh.

I usually enjoy cat fights. But it was excruciating to see Tyler (and sometime sidekick Janelle) tackle on anyone. If Tyler was half as witty as he thought he is, then yeah, maybe it would have been entertaining. Unfortunately, Tyler's snarky remarks entered the realm of the sadistic - as opposed to blissful irrelevance.

Between Tyler's cattiness, Paula's eating (and mental?) disorder, Svetlana's little Princess syndrome, and the summer season hurricanes, there wasn't much guity pleasure content left, I'm afraid to say. Ironically, the most exciting thing that happened in the context of Real World: Key West, happened after the cameras had stopped rolling:



Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Live (plausibly) blogging the Miss Teen USA pageant



Lest you think we're creepy, a little backstory.

In 1998, a girl who lived in Libby's town whom I was casually acquainted with was randomly named Miss Teen South Dakota. Of COURSE we and everyone who knew us had to watch (even if she was eliminated in the first cut). And from there, a bizarre, ironic amusement was born. Every year, Libby and I watch the pageant and snark on it. Why Miss Teen? Who knows? We certainly don't watch the other pageants. I like to think we're doing it for our friend.

But really, we mostly just enjoy the sound of our own voices way, way too much.

We had hoped to get new blog contributer TBN involved in this, but couldn't work out the timing issues (friggin' Hawaii). If you enjoy this, let us know, and we'll live blog some other stuff, like the Emmys and Oscars. If you hate it, let us know that too.

My apologies for the big block o' text. Blogger is not liking my attempts to add images to things. Stupid Blogger. But click on the links. They're fun! Promise!

Let us begin. Want to play along at home? Go here.

8:00: This has the worst production values of any show I've ever seen.

8:01: The hosts are introduced. They are people we've never heard of. I think the Miss Teen USA hosting gig is pretty much at the bottom of the hosting pyramid. At least when you host Miss America, you get to sing.

It looks like they're holding this in a conference room in a hotel.

8:02: They begin introducing the contestants. Based on a possibly apocryphal family legend that my grandfather could pick the winner of a pageant based on seeing the parade of states, Libby and I attempt to pick the winner from the parade. We, however, allow ourselves five choices.

As always, South Dakota is a freakishly tall girl who is not all that attractive to begin with. Better luck next time, home state! At least one girl appears to actually be a man.

Todd's picks:
North Carolina

Libby's picks:

8:09: The show opens with a horrible dance number that has something to do with High School Musical. Having never seen High School Musical, Libby and I are left speechless. At least they put the girls who can't dance in the back. Like at camp!

"It looks like the people who choreographed the dance number were the people who choreographed the dance number in the Frankenstein episode of The X-Files. And I really don't feel I've missed anything by not seeing teen sensation High School Musical"

8:14: We're learning all about what Miss Teen USA does, and it looks really boring. You have to work and stuff. Miss Teen USA 2005's name is Allie LaForce. Lots and lots and lots of puns on LaForce, none of them good.


8:16: "I really like how she's gone super glam for the final night of her reign with the ponytail and tiara combo."

8:17: Allie brings up, for the first time, Donald Trump who owns the Miss Universe organization. I like to think he owns Allie.

8:19: We get to meet the judges. Melissa Rivers! Nicole Richie's new boyfriend! Some girl from Deal or No Deal! A Disney Channel kid! A soap star! A former Miss Universe! Some enrepreneur! Carl Lewis ("I hate him." Libby admits)! Hayden Panetierre! A magazine editor! Just the right mix of obscure and has-beens.

8:20: Having introduced the states, we get to introduce the states AGAIN. Having seen The Apprentice, I know that Donald Trump is fond of filler, but THIS fond?

8:23: Libby notices that this is rated TV-PG. Why?

8:24: Male host: "Things are about to get complicated." Libby: "What's difficult about this?!"

8:26: The list is whittled to 15.

They are:

North Carolina
South Carolina
North Dakota
New Jersey
Rhode Island

Libby and I each get three a piece. We're getting too good at this.

"Don't look at any of them close up, though. Avert your eyes." -- Libby

8:30: Libby is distressed that the Midwest is the new South. I'm distressed that South Dakota is the ONLY Great Plains state left out. Stop picking freaky tall girls, home state! Honestly, NORTH Dakota? What's up with that?

8:31: The hosts show off what's so great about living in Palm Springs, the host city. We live an hour from Palm Springs and have never been for tourist-y business. Male host's monotonous reading does NOT make us want to start.

8:32: The clowns of Aga-Boom appear to frighten Libby.

8:33: Wisconsin loves shoes. Actually, she sounds like a zombie craving for brains. "I LOOOOOVE SHOOOOOES," she says, drool dripping from the corner of her mouth.

"Wow! That looks like a lot of fun!" female host says. She doesn't sound convinced.

8:35: MTV's Ashley Parker Angel appears to rock us. He's sporting a Kid Rock/Kurt Cobain combo that doesn't really work for him. "He should file all of his teeth down to points," Libby says.

8:36: "'Stupid fight. Wrong or right. Goodbye.' He must write all of his own lyrics." -- Libby

8:37: Ashley Parker Angel is halfheartedly rocking on what appears to be the set from the revival of Cabaret. "I've heard about this guy. I've heard he wants more street cred. I have to say. . .appearing on the Miss Teen pageant? Not gonna do it," Libby says. An eight-year-old girl in the audience is excited. So you've reached one person, Ashley Parker Angel. One person.

8:40: NBC shows off The Office. Hooray for The Office! It's an ad designed to drag in teen girls with lots of romantic music and shots of the DREAMY John Krasinski. But, hey, whatever gets 'em watching.

8:41: The Biggest Loser, inexplicably, gets the same teen girl-baiting treatment.

8:42: "Oh. The bikinis. PG." -- Libby

8:43: The losers have to dance in front of something that looks like "something printed from a graphics program from 1988," according to Libby. New Mexico screws it all up by turning the wrong way LIVE ON CAMERA. Good luck living that one down!

8:44: High School Musical music plays as the top 15 wander about in bikinis. Michigan reveals herself to be clumsy.

8:45: America's tweenagers reveal themselves to have awful taste, if the songs from High School Musical are to be believed. Libby is approaching murderous rage.

8:46: I'm convinced North Carolina will win. She's got the big teeth to pull it out! Libby thinks Michigan can win. "Beauty can still win a beauty pageant," she says.

"Midwestern girls are actually pretty. The Southern girls are more pageant. So that's the problem." -- Libby

8:47: We have nothing but bad thoughts for Miss North Dakota. Didn't the judges realize she was from NORTH Dakota? The blog ain't called NORTH Dakota Dark.

8:48: That's it. High School Musical and Kidz Bop are enough for me to want Western civilization to end. Right. Now.

Virginia struts. "Ew. She looks like Ann Coulter. You are automatically disqualified for creeping me out," Libby says.

8:49: High School Musical also features random Spanish words, shouted at irregular intervals. Caliente!

The number ends, and the girls have NO IDEA WHAT TO DO. Somehow, they start dancing, like in a musical or The Deer Hunter.

8:54: Libby mistakes a statue of a cat for a warthog statue. Obviously, the delirium is setting in.

Libby speculates that male host is rooting more for the 18 year olds than the others.

8:57: The top ten is announced. Their collective hobbies include "The Beach," "Old Movies," "Laughing," and what I misread as "Joggling."

Rhode Island
New Jersey
North Carolina
North Dakota

All three of my picks move on. None of Libby's do. She accuses me of cheating and takes solace in the fact that my picks include "a fattie" and her picks are "much prettier than mine." I AM my grandfather's grandson!

8:58: "People who say the problem with teen girls is how they view themselves and then further their goals by entering a beauty pageant should be drug out into the street and shot." -- Libby, channeling Garfield.

8:59: The giant eye has returned. JoJo has come to serenade it with her new single. I guess the failures of Aquamarine and R.V. sent her scurrying back to the world of music.

Look out world! Libby demands back-up singers!

"Do you think the guy in the back, jammin' out on his guitar, said, 'You know, I'm gonna practice real hard and get really good so I can be in JoJo's band, man.'" -- Libby

9:02: Libby has had enough and fast forwards through the JoJo. Thanks, TiVo!

9:08: NBC shows footage of the windmills outside of Palm Springs to cruelly remind us all how when the oil crash comes, the desert city will still have power.

9:09: MORE MUSIC FROM HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL!!!!!?!? Okay. Those of you with kids. What's the appeal?

9:10: "How many Muppets had to die for Miss Montana's dress?" -- Libby

9:11: Tyra Banks would whip these girls into shape right quick. As it is, they all kind of wander about awkwardly and shift from foot to foot uneasily, like extras in that 80s Christian kids TV show, Gospel Bill.

9:12: Most of these dresses are trying to make the girls look better than they actually are. Granted: Whole point of wearing a dress. But the camera close-ups are not helping in that regard.

So. . .what? The kids decide to clean out the gym and put on a musical? Or what? Could these songs be any more pedestrian?

9:13: Arizona attempts to enhance her already copious bosom (seriously -- you can't look away from it) with ruffles and fringe and stuff. Libby is NOT pleased. "She IS the surrey with the fringe on top."

Arizona also ruins the stage picture by standing in the middle of the staircase, obviously in the wrong spot. Thanks, Arizona. I hate that I picked you.

9:17: Nicole Richie's new boyfriend starts using pronouns with no antecedents as male host tries to STREEEEETCH things out by talking to the judges. "Things are about to get beautifully wild," he says.

9:21: The girls are asked what actor they find hottest. The first one says Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks?

9:23: The girls all say they would never be without their cell phones. Teenage girls and phones? Wow! That's a new one.

9:24: Golf stymies our young beauty queens, who all take slices at golf balls and don't manage to hit anything.

9:25: America picks Miss Photogenic. And it's North Carolina! Probably because she has a MySpace page.

The contestants pick Colorado as Miss Congeniality. Libby speculates that our friend (Miss Teen South Dakota 1999) voted for herself.

9:30: The top five are announced.

North Dakota
North Carolina

Libby is despondant. The Midwest holds strong, but the South still outnumbers them.

9:31: The interview begins. Now, Libby is excited.

North Dakota -- She saved a life. It's a potentially exciting story that she sucks. all. the. life. out. of. I've forgotten what is was like to date teen girls. Thanks to this, I remember.

Georgia -- Apparently, she's the girl who lived at the end of The Descent. Or so she says while talking about her harrowing cave adventures.

North Carolina -- She was Cinderella at a little girl's birthday party but, wait, hold on! The wig was a Sleeping Beauty wig! The horror! "How is that interesting at all?" Libby says.

Montana -- She likes Vincent Van Gogh. But can't say anything about Van Gogh himself. Instead, she talks about everything BUT Van Gogh. I smell application padding!

Virginia -- Finally, a girl who can talk. Now, she's talking about nothing I'm particularly interested in, but she's obviously had forensics coaching.

9:40: Male host says there are many stressful situations for teens. Like what? Unless you're an illegal immigrant, I don't want to hear it.

North Dakota picks actress Hayden Panetierre. Hayden wants to know if girls are obsessed with their image. Welcome to the health section of Time magazine in 1995, folks! She's pretty awful, all around, trying to tell everyone that they should just "be themselves."

Georgia picks Chelsea Smith. And talksreallyfastaboutcommunityserviceandhowitismandatoryandshetriestomakeitfun.

North Carolina picks Brody Jenner. He wants to know about drunk driving. North Carolina talks mostly about how long it took her to get her own license. Why? Was she drunk? Or what?

Montana picks Carl Lewis, coasting off his Olympic glory, asks about integrity. Libby and I want to know if integrity is winning a gold medal through a technicality when the winner is disqualified (not that that was a BAD thing, of course).

Virginia picks Darren Brooks, who wants to know what song is the soundtrack to HER life. She talks about some song I've never heard of. But the crowd eats it up! I think we have a winner. Let's give it up for coaching!

9:45: Allie shows off all the crap Miss Teen wins. Most of it is highly impractical. And we wonder why the terrorists hate us! We fast forward.

9:48: We get long, lingering looks at all of the contestants before the winner is announced. These are the moments dirty old men live for. Libby can hardly function. She's just glad that High School Musical isn't involved any more.

"This is really depressing to me. I don't like judging teenage girls, but that's what this is," she says. Get with the program, sport! This is a time-honored tradition!

9:49: A button in the upper left-hand corner keeps saying "LIVE." No, NBC, no. We live on the West Coast. This is PLAUSIBLY live.

The announcer says Miss Teen will become a star before our eyes. Somehow, I doubt that. The best they can hope for is dating Nick Lachey.

9:53: Utah is dressed like a Mormon. Natch.

9:54: The hosts thank everyone. Allie takes her final walk, relishing the sweet, sweet freedom she will soon have as she escapes the cruel grasp of Trump. She thanks everyone in her family, including some dead relative. Her speech is suspiciously good. I suspect speechwriters.

9:55: Here are the final results. An accounting firm even signed off on them. Fortunately, the accountants don't talk like at the Oscars.

5th: Georgia
4th: Virginia -- I guess we DON'T know anything.
3rd: North Dakota

Represent Midwest/Rocky Mountains states!

2nd: North Carolina -- So much for MySpace.
1st: Montana

Really? Montana? Okay.

Much weeping. We will see you next year, if we can somehow overcome the self-loathing in the meantime.

"Why do we watch this every year?" Libby says.

Why indeed?


Spotlight: Dirty On Purpose

Yeah, it's Sonic Youth lite. So what? This sort of dreamy space rock can only be derivative most of the time. Of course, hailing from NYC doesn't help much with claims of originality either. However, DoP made a staggering case for themselves with their debut EP, Sleep Late For a Better Tomorrow. Noise tinged guitar sections, mixed with atmospheric and melodic vocals laid an almost wonderous track before the group as they burst onto the scene, making up in conviction what they mildly lacked in freshness. Hallelujah Sirens, their first full length on North Street Records, is an unfortunate step down--but only a minor one. The album, comes off as more of a plodding excercise in atmosphere as opposed to a solid LP. The problem being that there are simply too many ideas, and attempts at longevity swimming around in every direction. They are good ideas, but there's no real voice there which tends to get a bit frustrating. Largely, though, the good outweighs the band in a damn fine testament to DoP's technical prowess as well as their suprisingly strong staying power. It's an album you like, but feel you should love. I see a very talented group here, though. One that may be off to a slightly rocky start, but seems to have the wisdom and creativity to stay the course and, perhaps, live up to their potential in the near future. Keep an eye on these kids.


It begins...

So, very slowly, there are some new The Hold Steady tracks starting to surface all around the internets. It's not a flood yet, but it is definitely a small leak. I found this while soulseeking and I am oh so satisfied. The track is called "Stuck Between Stations" and it will open the new album Boys and Girls in America due out October 3. It's taken from a live performance at what I believe is a radio station. It is unplugged but, given the atmosphere of the song, I can't imagine the studio version being much "heavier" than this. It's a great track. Very Springsteen--which is nothing new, but it's tender elements are amplified when Finn's routinely off-color delivery spills like water over a slanted canvas. Very lucid, very touching.


When did The Simpsons start to lose it?

The eighth season of The Simpsons is out on DVD today, and it's the one that will force a lot of casual Simpsons fans out there to question when, exactly, it will be time to stop buying the sets because the mediocrity to greatness ratio starts to tilt more towards mediocrity.

It's a popular topic of discussion among TVheads, though. When, exactly, did this show, one of the longest running in television history (heading in to its 18th season) and one of the most critically acclaimed, begin to lose it?

The popular consensus among many netheads is that The Simpsons never had it (this position was most popular when Family Guy was still off the air, before it came back and most people realized that there wasn't that much there to begin with). While I'm sure there are people out there who have always hated The Simpsons (my parents, for two), this attitude smacks of "Well, what have you done for me lately?"

Honestly, The Simpsons is still a pretty good show. There are few episodes that don't have a few chuckles in them, and the last season, guided by Al Jean, one of the show's earliest showrunners, was actually pretty solid all around, especially since Jean and the writers have been turning their focus back on the central family and trying to tell less fantastic stories featuring that family (in this, they can't win -- many Simpsons fans complain just as much that the show is no longer telling fantastic stories as they complained that the show was telling fantastic, non-family-oriented stories). It's no longer the best comedy on television (not by a long shot), nor is it even the best animated series (trumped by South Park, The Boondocks and King of the Hill), but it's still an entertaining show filled with fascinating characters who have entered the cultural lexicon. Indeed, Jack Shafer of Slate has argued that we'll know my generation has taken over the media when Simpsons quotes start turning up in headlines, since the cartoon was a cultural touchstone for we Gen-Yers like rock and roll was for our parents.

In short, if it's a Sunday night, I'm probably still watching The Simpsons. So know that when I say the show "lost it," I simply mean that it descended from the heavens to sit among mere mortal television series.

But the show is a shadow of its former self. The stories often don't make coherent sense, the jokes have the sense of a writing staff throwing everything it can at the wall to see what sticks, and the show often has the sense of one that is trying too hard to stay cool (the series actually parodied Evita a couple of seasons ago -- a cultural reference that was surely lost on much of its 20something fans). At times, you can see the strain on the show, which has ceased to be a landmark in the culture wars and has become something parents watch with their kids. In nearly everything -- offending the sensibilities of parents, sheer breakneck pacing, outlandish stories -- it has been passed up by shows like South Park, Arrested Development and Family Guy, and it shows that the series would like to regain that cachet (indeed, the show has engaged recently in a silly "war" with Family Guy that reflects well on neither series).

So when did the show start to lose it?

The conventional wisdom is that the first season of the show was hit and miss, but well worth watching for just how revolutionary it was (it played in to the blue-collar revolution of the late 80s and early 90s that probably started with Roseanne and reached its ratings apex with Home Improvement). The second season is thought to play more heavily to the "hit" side of the ledger, offering up classics like The Way We Was (the flashback to Marge and Homer's prom) and Lisa's Substitute (one of the show's most emotional hours, featuring a last-minute ghost-write by James L. Brooks himself that resulted in one of the most touching scenes in TV history).

And then you hit the golden years, the really good ones. Seasons 3-7 are the show's argument for being the best series of all time, a stretch of five years when the show didn't produce a single dud episode. The series was the foremost satirizer of American culture, and it didn't forget to tell small, personal stories that could create genuine emotion. The core cast expanded, adding all of the chracters who would become good characters to base stories around. Finally, this was when the show worked on all three of its levels -- it worked as a character-based sitcom, as a "spot the pop-culture reference" game and as a satire.

Seasons 8-10 are when the show started to have a couple of duds every now and again, if the CW is to be believed. The show started to get a little too loopy, and it slowly lost the sense of a strong emotional center that kept it afloat earlier in its run.

Everything after season 10, in the CW, is to be avoided. The show had a few chuckles per episode but mostly felt tired and strained. It wasn't helped by Matt Groening defecting to do Futurama, certainly.

I have a few problems with the conventional wisdom, obviously, but if you're looking for an excuse to buy season eight, look no farther. Season eight, despite the few episodes that don't really work, is well worth your cash, if only for The Simpsons Spinoff Showcase, The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show and Homer's Phobia. As with any Simpsons set, it's going to offer more laughs than just about any series you can buy.

On to the problems.

The central problem with the conventional wisdom is that it presupposes that the show's forays into wackiness are what killed it. In reality, the show was skewing toward the wacky very early, inserting cutaway gags and bizarre storylines that couldn't quite be called realistic. Indeed, the start of the show's golden years corresponds directly with when the show started to do more outlandish stories. Unfettered by a need to write scripts that could be cheaply filmed (since it was, after all, a cartoon), The Simpsons discovered it could tell stories in literally any genre and used those genres to its advantage.

But one can't exactly say that Mr. Burns bringing in a team full of MLB superstars to win a softball tournament is a realistic plotline (and that's from an episode that would make almost any Simpsons fan's top 20), even if it's coupled with a really strong story about how Homer longs to be the team's superstar.

Plus, the show was already showing signs of strain in season SEVEN. In short, The Simpsons got to a point where it used roughly three plots per episode (one per act), and it zoomed through those plots so quickly that one could feel the writers getting whiplash (one could more properly call this the John Swartzwelder method, as the writer, who has been with The Simpsons since season one, first wrote scripts full of bizarre throwaway gags and rapidly unfolding plots -- in his own way, Swartzwelder is one of the most influential people in television history). There are a few episodes in season seven (Bart the Fink leaps most readily to mind) when it feels as if the writers abandoned internal logic and just threw plot points to the wind. The episode is still fun, but it doesn't feel like a well-told story.

I really think that when people complain about The Simpsons getting bad, they're not talking about it getting too outlandish or it getting too unfunny. They're talking about the individual episodes abandoning internal logic in an attempt to cram in more, more, more jokes and plot points.

This trend, to my mind, reached its worst point around season 13 and 14, when the show often commented on how little sense it made cheerfully, as though it were happy to do so.

As I said, though, the show has been getting better, and that's largely due to a show-runner that believes in telling simple stories. While the show can never be what it was, it can take a shot at it through focusing on what made it great -- emotion, satire and well-told stories.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Northern Exposure and the idea of the non-judgmental community

Did you miss me?

To date, the most substantive things I've written are a number of pilots, conceived for two TV show ideas I had, both set in small towns. One was sort of a mythological place, where battles of good and evil were fought on a small scale. The other was sort of a quirky place. The first was something that sustained me through high school and college, written when I knew I wanted to be a TV writer but had no real idea how to go about doing that. The second was written when I began to get serious, began to think about having spec pilots (pilots written as examples of writing ability), began to think about filming something independently.

The second, of course, is much better (if any of you want to look at a recent draft, let me know). It's got a real nice feel to it, the sort of thing you haven't seen before.

Except, people kept saying, "Hey! It's like Northern Exposure meets ..." Then they would say the name of another show that was completely different from Northern Exposure. I got everything from The Sopranos to Queer as Folk to Buffy. None of these examples really make sense, but what I think they were trying to say was that it was a slightly more serious Northern Exposure.

All of which was interesting, because when I commenced to writing this script, I had never seen an episode of Northern Exposure.

But now I have. And I'm surprised both by how influential the show was, even on someone who had never seen it, and by how very different the show is from anything else on (or anything I've written).

Northern Exposure, briefly, is about an uptight Jewish doctor who ends up in the Alaskan wilderness, in a small town that's both a backwater and a weird paradise, a place where anyone can be what they want to be without fear of reprisal. In other words, it was a small town unlike any other small town on Earth.

All in all, this isn't such a big deal. There's never been a realistic small town show, probably because a realistic small town show would be utterly boring. No town is as blissful as Mayberry, as caring as Everwood, as soapy as Peyton Place or as quirky as Stars Hollow. Any town like that would be self-destructive. Small towns rely on a series of polite lies to remain functional, but drama relies on blowing those polite lies up. However, without the polite lie, you don't have much of a small town.

And so on.

I think it's safe to say that of all the small towns in the history of television, however, there's never been a less realistic town than Cicely, Alaska. Cicely is a shared dream, an idea of how we would like our Earth to exist, if we had our druthers. But it can't possibly be reality because it erases too much of human history, too much of who we are and what we hold dear. To build a completely "non-judgmental universe" (which the creators were fond of calling the show) would require eliminating prejudice, nations, maybe even religion (though NoEx is a deeply religious show). In short, Cicely is John Lennon's Imagine writ large, a fairy tale.

No wonder the show was anathema to conservative Christians when it was on!

But Cicely is a dream I want to believe in. So did a lot of people, I guess, considering how big of a hit it became. As discussed in these pages before, the writer is god of his or her own universe, and these writers chose to create this perfect, non-judgmental place.

That idea has reverberated through television -- Buffy was about ditching your own family and finding one that suited you better and loved you more (in many cases); Everwood and Gilmore Girls feature the small town as a paradise; Lost features a situation where passing judgment on your fellow man becomes almost impossible because you don't know if what your fellow man is saying about himself is true or not (a true tabula rasa).

Cicely, so far as I can tell, is the first example of this idea of a non-judgmental paradise in the history of television (or, at least, the first successful one). And it doesn't get the credit for that that it deserves. And the DEGREE to which it embraced that philosophy has never been replicated.

There's a lot more I like about the show that I don't see on TV today. The writing is incredibly delicate, slowly unraveling until you see just how perfectly constructed it is. The acting is wonderfully naive and open, the actors willing to play in this new, unfettered world. The use of music is eclectic to a fault, more so than any series I can think of (it's no small wonder that the music supervisor on this show went on to The Sopranos, another show that uses music well). And I love how the crew and cast let scenes be quiet, only a backdrop of nature noises serving as a soundtrack.

But mostly, I love how open and loving the show is. It's been like crawling under a warm blanket with a lover while a storm rages outside, like waking up in the morning to discover, suddenly, that you're not alone.