Friday, October 27, 2006

Politics Schmolitics


Obviously, from an artistic standpoint, the Michael J. Fox ad is MUCH better. It's better filmed, equipped with better production values and doesn't appear as though it was thrown together with $500, a six-pack of beer and a high school AV club's brand new DV camera.

But maybe, as Moses tells me, that's the POINT? To appeal to those who instinctually hate all "Hollywood liberals," even those with diseases that are sad-making.

At any rate, the Michael J. Fox ad is better at nationalizing what's ultimately a local election. The stem cell issue is one that benefits the Democrats overwhelmingly, and by speaking about it in vague terms, the spot makes a regional thing into one of import to all citizens. The other one just leaves me saying, "Initiative 2? The hell?"

But let me know what you think. I'm still amused by that Jim Caviezel cold open.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

On the role of the author

A ponderable for the comments section on a busy Thursday morning: Is literature considered so much more powerful than other art forms by its aficionados (and I count myself among their number) simply because it returns so much of the work of the artist to the audience?

Let me explain.

(And not to make this blog some weird "philosophy of art" site for the last few days, but you know how it goes.)

Art has two components, of course, the artist and the audience. Even in the case of collaborative art (like film or television), there's usually the vision of one person at work, being filtered through the collaborators. The artist tends to determine a lot of things for an audience, but the artist determines more things for the audience in some artforms than in others.

(And, before I get too full of myself, the visual arts, which I know little to nothing about, ask the audience to bear more weight in the carrying of interpretation than any other art form. Visual arts are simply a single image that the audience can take or leave or interpret as they will. You're invited to experience them at your own pace and perceive them -- at least in the case of modern art -- as you will.)

Literature, though, relies on the audience to a greater degree than, say, film does. An audience can interpret a film as it will, but it still needs to sit still to watch it for a pre-set amount of time and the director controls EXACTLY what the audience perceives on screen (whether or not that is perceived correctly is another matter). Someone who writes literature, however, has the freedom to let the audience conjure up the world in their own mind and read at their own pace. In essence, when you read a book, the book becomes a screenplay you're directing for your own movie version of the story. Yes, of course, pacing plays a role -- I don't think that anyone is going to zip through Proust like they might the climax of a Stephen King book -- but, by and large, the audience directs a book as they read it.

Music doesn't allow this freedom -- we're tied in to the composer's idea of pacing (or at least the conductor's). Neither does the theatre or television (though the advent of TV on DVD gives the viewer the ILLUSION of control -- I can watch as much or as little of this story as I want -- if not ultimately providing it).

That's why video games excite me. I don't play games a lot, but once they find a true visionary to make them sing, they can completely eliminate the line between artist and audience. Imagine playing a game where you, yourself, completely invented the storyline -- a game, perhaps, that understood Western narrative structure and warped itself into shape to respond to your actions. I know that advances have been made in these regards in many games, but the whole package hasn't arrived yet.

When it does, is there any doubt it will be a hit?


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ethics 'n' stuff

I don't know what it says about my view of the human race, but I'm always more surprised when people on a reality show act like decent human beings than when characters in a scripted show do so. In a scripted show, I'm always aware that the characters can't be THAT bad. Even the cons on Prison Break, as self-interested as they are, will stop to do the RIGHT THING nine times out of ten.

I think part of the visceral thrill people felt when reality shows first came on the scene (and I'm largely speaking of post-Survivor reality shows, of course) came from seeing people be huge jerks to each other and actually get rewarded for that behavior. Sure, there was the rare curmudgeon on TV, but the very act of watching a show week in and week out makes that curmudgeon easier to take, easier to understand -- more LOVABLE. Complete social malcontents are hard to buy in a fictionalized context for many, many viewers. That's why someone like Carla on Cheers was practically a widdle bitty puppy by the end of the show's run.

Not so with a reality show. When Richard Hatch schemed his way to $1 million, screwing over his fellow players in the process (and, essentially, INVENTING the way the American game of Survivor is played), it was bracing. He didn't care about anything but getting that $1 million. Now that he's a known tax evader, we can say he cared a little bit too much, but here was a curmudgeon that was never going to be made likable, no matter how hard the editing staff tried.

And that made it a shock when, in season two, Colby Donaldson passed over a player he would likely trounce (and the fact that I can't be bothered to go look up that player's name) to keep Tina, his ally and friend, by his side made for such fascinating ethical talk. What good is loyalty in an environment that actually encourages the removal of ethics? Colby, of course, lost (and there was a good argument to be made that his creepy mother love played into his decision), and Tina won, but the show sparked discussions in the media and my college religion class.

Reality shows, I think, surprise us more with ethics because we're set up to believe that people deal with each other essentially unfairly. We watch television or movies to see a world where good CAN prevail simply because we don't really have a good sense that it WILL prevail in our own world. Even though they're heavily edited, reality shows take place in our world. People are playing the parts they went in playing (or had assigned to them in the editing room), of course, but, by and large, these are real people reacting to heightened situations as they (somewhat) realistically would. Granted, not all of us are stranded on islands or trapped in small houses or racing around the world, but the contestants on the shows are reasonable facsimiles of people we know and care about.

All of this brings me to Sunday's installment of The Amazing Race, which featured an act of genuine altruism. Erwin and Godwin Cho, the brothers who've formed an inseparable friendship/alliance with two single moms from Alabama and a coal miner and his wife from Kentucky while racing cleanly and consistently, knew that their Kentucky friends needed to finish in first or incur a time penalty that would likely cost them the leg (that said, the fact that the eventual last place finishers came in hours after everyone else seemed to argue against this, but we'll leave that aside). On this same leg was a Fast Forward, something that allows the one team to complete it to skip the other tasks and go directly to the end of the leg. The Chos successfully diverted other, less needful teams from the task, letting the Kentucky team decide to do it, then accompanied the Kentuckians just long enough to make it look as though both teams were going to race it out to see who could land in first. This, of course, landed the Chos in last place, though they were able to battle back remarkably quickly (they finished fifth, while a team that had one member who constantly made fun of the other teams was finally eliminated in a rare display of television karma at work).

One can argue that the Chos are simply trying to keep weaker teams in the race so they can easily win the final legs of the race, but their friendship with the teams they are allied with seems genuine (again, editing could be playing a trick). One could also argue that the Chos decided to be the "good guys" every race has (or were edited into such), but that also feels false, as the act is utterly without guile if so.

The simple fact, I think, is that the Chos did something GOOD, and that made this latest installment of the show that much more joyful to watch. There's a lot that could be written about how reality TV can expose the worst side of human beings, but when it exposes our better natures, it's all the more interesting and surprising.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Adapt This #1: Graphic novels

I'm not a huge graphic novel fan. I've only recently started really delving into them, and I certainly don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. I know the huge trend is to turn graphic novels (and/or regular old comic books) into movies, and that's turned out a lot of fun films (though, personally, I'm waiting for Christopher Nolan's dark reimagining of the Archie mythos). But, honestly, comics and graphic novels, which often are published in several issues that comprise longer arcs then collected into trade paperbacks, are naturals for the TV world. And as the budgetary and artistic lines between film and TV continue to blur, there are four properties I think TV producers would be well-served by considering for televised adaptation. For those network flunkies who keep checking this site every day, I've helpfully provided just the right network for the project.

Without further ado. . .

100 Bullets (Vertigo Comics, perfect for CBS): CBS, supposedly, is looking to hip up its image. But a huge problem with this is that its huge, huge audience likes being unhip. Hip shows tend to have strong serial elements and complicated character relationships. The CBS formula is deeply, deeply antithetical to this (even Jericho is like a Serial Lite). But here's a project that would simultaneously boost the network's image, play into its greatest strength (its loyal, unflappable audience) and revive an old television standby -- the anthology show. Plus, the goal for syndication is right there in the title.

100 Bullets is a mysterious story of a man who finds people who would give anything to get ultimate vengeance. The man (Agent Graves) gives people a briefcase that contains a gun, the ammunition and the proof to eliminate the one person who has given them the burning need for revenge. Some of the clients take the opportunity. Some don't.

Naturally, there's an elaborate story being played out as to where Graves has come from, but this is the sort of thing that could be squeezed into the background or even eliminated altogether. Stories of revenge are universal, and I think there's a chance here to do some really stylish and cinematic stuff, perhaps even tell some deeply moral and ethical stories (which are certainly lacking on CBS' crime procedurals). It's a non-serial drama that feels like one (what with its one regular cast member), and it might give CBS a chance to lure in that disenfranchised X-Files fanbase.

Ex Machina (Wildstorm Comics, perfect for HBO): Ex Machina, at first, feels like the perfect sort of comic for television adaptation. But after you think about it for a while, Ex Machina doesn't feel so perfect anymore. Sure, it's got key elements of wish fulfillment, a great opportunity for action sequences and a milieu that would easily give rise to weekly stories for episodes. But it's also going to be a tricky, tricky thing to make work. The comic pulls it off, but a series could skew too far toward the maudlin or the cheesy.

That's why HBO would have to do this show. Preferably with one of their older writers, the ones who keep turning out the excellent shows on the network, the sort of person who grew up with Superman and has a deep interest in politics. Because, really, that's the only way you do this without having it feel ridiculous.

Ex Machina is the story of the world's one superhero, a man who was given the ability to control any machine near him after an encounter with alien technology. It's a conventional and believable enough set-up, which is important, because it soon becomes clear that this comic takes place in our world with one key difference -- the hero, Mitchell Hundred, saved one of the two towers on Sept. 11 by using his powers to divert one of the planes. Immediately, as you can see, you're treading in dangerous terrain.

Then, of course, our hero mostly sets aside his powers (though they are still used occasionally) to run for the office of mayor of New York City. The series is equal parts poignant flashback, backroom political drama and collection of action setpieces. It's easy to see how the mayor-who's-also-a-superhero setup could make a perfect series, as you can see, but it's also easy to see how that storyline could be twisted and abused into a place where it would lose all poignancy and become mawkish. That's why this would need to go to HBO -- they'd take the time to do it right.

DMZ (Vertigo Comics, perfect for FX): Sorry for all of the DC-related comics. I'm still new to this field, and the Vertigo titles are what is leaping out at me at the moment.

DMZ is the war series waiting to happen that television is crying out for right now. It's an incredibly imaginative attempt to transpose the long-standing conflicts in the Middle East that so baffle Americans and recast them in a setting we understand. And, what's more, for a war comic, it's held surprisingly close -- this is a series that could be done without breaking the bank after the sets were built, so little does it rely on huge battles or daring missions.

In DMZ, Manhattan has become a demilitarized zone in some sort of second U.S. Civil War between (so it seems) the middle of the country and the coasts. The rebels control everything west of Manhattan; the U.S. controls the little bit of land east of Manhattan (please correct me if I'm getting this wrong -- still new to this one). Into Manhattan is dropped a young wannabe journalist at his first job who finds himself stranded there. Using his press credentials as protection, he sets out to chronicle life on the embattled island, meeting everyone from hyper-survivalists to environmentalists who are holed up in Central Park, protecting the animals in the zoo there (by any means necessary).

DMZ engages the morality and ethics of war and violence in some fascinating ways. It's easy to imagine this series filmed with some real grit and the (almost obligatory) shaky camera. It's the kind of thing FX could do in its sleep, and its general milieu ties in well with that network's masculine-skewing dramas. Of all of these properties, it's the one I could most readily imagine making a fascinating television series.

Fables (Vertigo Comics, perfect for ABC): I really toyed with trying to choose between ABC and NBC, but I ultimately thought that Fables, with its slightly soapy plotlines and complicated mythology that's somehow intuitively comprehensible, would work better on ABC, where it could be paired with Lost or Traveler (assuming that show takes off like I think it will).

Fables is, for lack of a better descriptor, a fairy tale noir. In its storyline, the fairy tale characters and legends that we have treasured as tales to tell our children are very real. They've been pushed out of their lands (alternate universes next to ours) and into ours, where they live right beside us on a neglected block in the East Village (that makes, what, three of these series set in New York?). There, they try to make their way in our world and also plot to protect themselves from the foe who pushed them out of their lands (and I'm not going to spoil who that foe is -- the reveal is too well done).

In its own way, Fables feels the most like a television series of any of these -- its cliffhanger-driven plotting feels the most like the classic Marvel serials of the 60s and 70s that inspired the TV writers who have taken over the airwaves today. While it certainly tackles issues, the series doesn't feel as politically or thematically relevant as some of the other's I've described. It makes up for that weakness with pure storytelling gusto and a willingness to pursue the storytelling style most suited to the story being told. The first trade paperback collection of Fables is a sort of hard-boiled detective story. The next is a battlefield tragedy. The next is a deeply warped romance. And so on. If this made it on the air intact, it would feel like nothing else out there, and that's a good thing.

The characterizations here are well-drawn, as well. The ensemble, of course, would have to be huge, but the series is well-grounded enough in a few central characters that the storytelling wouldn't feel untenable. Plus, with the general interest raised by the setting, it would be easy to do one-shots and single-episode stories to keep the mythology from becoming too unwieldy for casual fans.

Fables, I think, is the one comic described here that's most waiting to be television-ized. Here's hoping a lucky network picks it up.


Monday, October 23, 2006

The lost weekend

The latest Battlestar review is here. Funny how what you think is taking your eye teeth to write ends up looking so short on the page!

I spent much of this weekend in Los Angeles, conferencing, Decemberistsing, Doubt with Cherry Jones-ing and hotel sleeping (hotel sleeping, as long as you don't keep at it too long, is pretty much the best sleeping in the world). But it's good to be back, and I'm ready to update this blog a BIT more regularly.

Anyway, no time for a lengthy entry tonight. I trust you're all watching Friday Night Lights, though, yes? I'm becoming more and more convinced this is the best thing on basic network TV, which, of course, means no one is watching it.

Tomorrow, that long-promised new feature.