Friday, November 03, 2006

2004-05: The best television season ever?

What was in the water that year?

A quick list of the shows that debuted in that season that are still on the air:

Boston Legal
Desperate Housewives
Grey's Anatomy
Wife Swap


The CW:
Veronica Mars

Trading Spouses

The Office

Battlestar Galactica
Rescue Me

And I know I'm forgetting some.

Not to mention some pretty good canceled shows, Jack and Bobby being the favorite of mine. Plus, you had a lot of shows that were in their creative primes -- Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, etc.

Now, of course, not everything on that list is an all-time classic, but the class of 04-05 is pretty darn good. And, what's more, most of those shows are solid hits or have fanatical cult followings (or, if you're Lost, both). Plus, these were shows that bucked against the dominant thinking of the time -- more serials and more reality shows please. I don't know how it happened, but I'm not sure it had happened before or will happen again.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Links for now

The TiVos are filled to bursting and the writing is calling me away, but I couldn't forget about you, my chickens, so here are some links to tide you over while you wait.

--Okay, everyone and their monkey has linked to Ken Levine's devastatingly dead-on interpretation of how Aaron Sorkin would write a series about baseball, but if you haven't seen it yet, you need to click here, now.

--I wish I could tell you how deeply, deeply angry I'm becoming at For Better or For Worse. Yes. The one in the comics. Libby finds this both amusing and sort of frightening. The Comics Curmudgeon has the latest hose-a-phonic excitement for you.

--Horror movie fans, The Onion AV Club beckons! Check out this piece on the politics of horror films, this piece on the current state of the genre and this piece on seriously scary album covers.

--Home state fans, check out this. I lived in S.D. for 23 years and NEVER saw an amendment or initiative get the level of consensus that Amendment E (which would allow judges to be shot on sight or somesuch -- I kid) has. Weirdly, the people behind the amendment live here in California (where we accept kooks of all political stripes), which makes me feel like I have something to do with this. I should also remind all of you to vote next Tuesday, since it took every ounce of my being to remember to blog something Halloween-y yesterday.

--Considering brilliant-but-canceled producer Tim Minear just told a roomful of people a little more than a week ago that his latest series Drive wasn't going forward, I was pleasantly surprised to see this news.

See you soon.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for an American

BORAT IS A RORSCHACH TEST. Judging by the reactions of most urban/blue state critics, it'll be a one and a half hour masturbatory fest for certain demographics. They'll scratch one another's backs and exclaim how "progressive" they are.

To me, however, it's just indicative of how uncultured of an American I am.

But the truth is sadder than it may seem. To quote Aaron Gell of Radar Magazine, the comedy "only works because we know practically nothing about Kazakhstan ourselves."

An IMDb poster by the name of Russell Solomon expressed befuddlement over Sacha Boran Cohen's physical features. "Borat does not look Kazakh at all," he exclaims. "Kazakhs are Eurasian folk. Their features are similar to Mongolians and Chinese. They appear to possess more Asian features than Middle Eastern. I know this because my sister is married to a Kazakh!"

Solomon had the privilege of getting acquainted with the people and land of Kazkakhstan. Before Borat, I think I have only vaguely heard it once or twice. In fact, I experienced a priceless Joey Tribbiani moment before the screening. "Kazkahstan's a country, right?" I asked myself as I looked at the poster. I mean, it must be... it sounds like it.

To thoroughly engage and play along with the film, you have to be ignorant of the fact that Kazakhs do not look anything like Sacha Baron Cohen, a British Jew of Middle Eastern descent. But played along, I did, and I have to admit, even after seeing the film, I wasn't aware of my ignorance - aware of the fact that I was just another stupid-ass, geographically-challenged American lost in my own bubble.

BORAT HAS EVERYTHING to do with American culture and how it reflects privilege and power. It has to do with the cult of celebrity (i.e. the obsession Borat has for Pamela Anderson), twisted male heterosexuality (the popularity of homo-erotic, "Jackass"-like shenanigans, as referenced here in Borat's relationship with tubby pal, Azamat), persisting racial divides in socio-economic lifestyles (Borat dines with white Southern folks in their fancy, schmancy estate; the only black folks he meets along the way are either male youths in a housing project or a prostitute used as a running gag on the white Southern elite), masculine fear of emasculation (one of the South Carolina frat boys on the California bus tells Borat "Don't let them [women] OWN you!") and other minorities (another frat boy touchingly reveals how sometimes he wishes he could be a minority to get an upperhand in society) in a post-Affirmative Action age, and last but not least, the problematic nature of nationalism (in the rodeo scenes, Borat offends the American crowd by singing a paen to Kazakhstan, to the tune of an American anthem).

BY TURNING HIS LENS on American culture, Sacha Baron Cohen illuminates everything that is empty and ultimately, wrong, with the U.S. It's as if we're too in love and defensive with our own sub-cultures, to acknowledge the existence of other cultures. As a Vietnamese-American, it never fails to fascinate me whenever a person hears mention of Vietnam, and the only words he/she can utter is, "ohhh, the VIETNAM WAR!!!" Nothing else about the culture - just the war, which sprung from decades of arrogant American occupation. It's as if the Vietnamese civilization began in 1964 and ended in 1975. Sadly, I'm beginning to think of myself as becoming more and more like those people. I'm sure my parents would be proud of me.


The big five: Scary TV

With apologies to House Next Door.

By and large, horror is not a genre that TV does well. Horror depends on putting characters in dire jeopardy; episodic TV depends on keeping them from it. You can juice this up by periodically killing a character (the Buffy model) or by turning your program into an ersatz anthology show (the Twilight Zone/X-Files model), but, in general, horror may be the hardest genre to do on TV. Here are five examples that, I think, actually work pretty well.

1.) The Twilight Zone -- "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

The Twilight Zone is remembered, incorrectly, I think, as a horror show. It was really more of a science fiction show, and, indeed, the science fiction and allegorical elements are what works best now. Most of the stuff that probably seemed scary to those watching it in the 60s now just seems sort of laughable to contemporary audiences.

But not this episode. Written by science fiction/horror novelist Richard Matheson and directed by the esteemed Richard Donner, "Nightmare" is almost impossibly taut. As silly as the monster makeup looks now, the build-up to the close-ups on the monster is expertly done, as is that first shot of the shadowy figure making its way across the plane wing in the gloomy rain. All of this is anchored by William Shatner's just-this-side-of-hammy performance. The Shat has rarely been better, and The Twilight Zone was never scarier. I first encountered this episode during a New Year's Eve TZ marathon, and, even forty years after the episode's debut, it still cast an unsettling pall.

Also. . .The Simpsons made fun of it, so you know it's good.

2.) Garfield's Halloween Adventure

A personal choice, now.

I was not a horribly brave child. Overly sensitive to a fault, just the sound of scary music would send me into a fit of terrified paralysis (indeed, an earlier Garfield special also frightened me, largely because the characters confronted a panther -- something I had little to no experience with). So imagine how shocking I found THIS bit of Halloween goodness. Garfield and Odie go trick-or-treating and have the usual fun and hijinks and then, inexplicably, run into GHOST PIRATES.

Now, if you look above, you'll find that what frightened me was EXTRAORDINARILY mild, but this is still pretty intense for a kids' TV special, I would offer.

What made this all the worse is that all of my friends at school LOVED this special -- right down to the ghost pirates. So I pretended to have enjoyed it too, not letting on that I spent the entire last third of it with my face buried in a pillow.

Looking back now, I can see the design of the ghost pirates was pretty cool.

3.) Killer Bob from Twin Peaks

A lot of people found Killer Bob to be too concrete of a character to symbolize the rotten core of the town of Twin Peaks, but I find him to be marvelously unsettling (that almost unbroken shot above is maybe the most purely frightening moment I've seen on TV). While the character's purpose was sort of ludicrous, David Lynch's eye for scary-looking people (he apparently cast Killer Bob when he saw a crew member he thought looked frightening) lent every scene with Bob a chilling credulity. Lynch, like many great directors, lets happy accidents happen on set, and it's a shame his happy brand of paranoia hasn't meshed with television again.

4.) The X-Files -- seasons 1 through 5

The X-Files was the first successful pure horror series since The Twilight Zone. Heavily influenced by Twin Peaks (especially in its first season), the show crafted a mini-horror movie each week. Until it was undone by an increasingly lugubrious mythology, it was pitch-perfect entertainment -- the crime procedural as creature feature.

The best thing about an X-Files episode was often its teaser -- an artfully constructed horror piece that would tell the complete story of some extra's demise in a quick and easy fashion. The X-Files monsters were so cleverly conceived that the teaser always left you wanting to see just what the show's producers had dreamed up this week.

The show kind of fell apart in its last few seasons, but for those first few years, there was nothing scarier out there.

5.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- "Hush"

Buffy is another show that gets kind of an inflated reputation when it comes to scares. The show's true strengths were in its witty dialogue, its portrayal of community and its intricate plotting. But the fourth season episode Hush, with its creepy, floating fairy tale monsters, The Gentlemen, was genuinely terrifying. The clip above starts with the aftermath of The Gentlemen stealing the voices of everyone in town (so they can't scream when The Gentlemen remove their hearts), but quickly segues into a silent night when The Gentlemen float through town, their lumbering sidekicks loping along. The scene where Giles' girlfriend, Olivia, gets up and sees one at the window is masterfully timed.

I could have, of course, listed many other series, but I wanted to hear what TV has scared all of you (and I feel horribly remiss in not mentioning Unsolved Mysteries at all, as that was a standard scarer for my classmates and me back in the day).

And here's a bonus cartoon for you (who knows why Garfield scared me and this didn't?). Have a happy Halloween.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Three pretty good movies and an interminable one

(If you didn't see, the latest BSG recap is here.)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest, Babel, is the newest salvo in the director's attempts to convince his audience that the whole of the human condition consists of one miserable thing happening after another. While Inarritu has talent to spare, his world view is so cracked that his films become tests of will (he recently said in Entertainment Weekly that he believes we are less united by what makes us happy than by what makes us miserable). There's certainly a place for tragedy in the cinema, but Inarittu is also so wedded to his idea of showing how people are connected in more ways than they think that all of his films become the stories of different people who are connected by their misery. When this takes place based around a central car crash (as in his film Amores Perros), it can work. But when it takes place across three different continents, it feels humorously false.

There are four films at play in Babel -- the story of two young Moroccan boys who get a gun, the story of a horny, deaf teenager in Japan, the story of an American couple on vacation who has tragedy befall them, and the story of a Mexican woman in the U.S. who decides to bring the children she's in charge of with her to a wedding in Mexico. Of the four in play, the Moroccans, the Japanese girl and the Mexican woman's films all work fairly well -- particularly the Japanese segments, which become an opportunity for Inarritu to show off his technical skills and also are unflinching in their portrayal of the way sex gets bound up in all sorts of other emotions for teenagers (in this case, grief). The story of the Mexican woman becomes overbearing by the film's end, but it rattles along nicely enough for most of its run time. And the story of the Moroccan boys is also well-done, even if it, to, is undone by a melodramatic climax.

It's the story of the two American tourists (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) that is the movie's undoing. Inarritu views this as central, somehow, and he's certainly using it to critique American foreign policy and ugly American attitudes (though a lot of this is sort of unbelievable). Brad Pitt's character seems to believe that the Moroccans he meets will understand him better if he just yells louder. The centrality of this story means that all of the other stories relate to it -- subtextually, the adventures of the minoirities are only interesting in their relation to the white people. I don't know if this was the intent of Inarritu, but it certainly unbalances the film.

Babel is probably worth seeing for the performances, some technical aspects of the direction and the Japan section, but all in all, it seems like a movie in search of a larger point.