Friday, December 29, 2006

On the serial narrative

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I've recently gained an appreciation for comics that I didn't have before. They're not my favorite form of literature by any means (they all too often don't let the pictures do the work, choosing to underline a point with underdeveloped dialogue -- there's no subtext left unturned), but they're not bad, especially the very good ones, like my favorite, Fables, which avoids most of the pitfalls described above (though it often falls prey to the unwieldy exposition trap, but that's largely forgivable in a serial-driven narrative).

As I was reading the Christmas issue of Fables, though (pictured), I realized that one area the new serialized television sort of falls apart in is in its devotion to creating a richly textured universe and world of characters. Sure, shows like Lost and Heroes keep piling on character after character, weird item after weird item, but do they really devote themselves to creating a world worth visiting week after week?

Fables, of course, as you would know if you read my Oct. 24 post about adapting graphic novels for television, is about a bunch of fairy tale characters who are very much real and living in the East Village. It's a potentially silly set-up, but writer Bill Willingham treats it very, very seriously (while not forgetting the need for levity), showing how his characters move on from the apocalypse that forced them into our world and begin to live (and, in some cases, love) again. It's a pretty basic setup, admittedly, but Willingham's talent for creating nuanced characters who behave just enough like their fairy tale analogues to be instantly relatable while retaining their own dimensions keeps the series fresh and surprising. (It, of course, helps that the art is gorgeous, most often pencilled by Mark Buckingham -- the stunning covers are done by James Jean, and you can buy some of his work here.)

A lot of what makes Fables work is the huge cast of supporting characters that flit about the edges of his main story. He's got 10 or 11 major characters who appear in the majority of the issues, but the number of folktales and other stories he can draw from is well-nigh endless, and the characters who will appear for a handful of issues at a time and then recede into the background continues to grow.

And here's the thing. By taking his time to develop all of these characters (including Santa Claus in the most recent issue), Willingham has developed an arsenal of characters he can call on in new and surprising ways. If an issue were to end with a voice from off-panel saying, "It's me!" and the other characters in-panel all reacting in shock, there are literally dozens of different characters Willingham could have brought back that would have a marked impact on our main characters. It could be King Cole, and everyone would be thrilled for his diplomatic help. It could be Hansel, and everyone would be worried he was leading an army of invaders or something. It could be Reynard the Fox, and everyone would wonder how, exactly, he got there. And so on.

(A brief aside before I sound too geeky: I assume that everyone will be slightly familiar with the character names above from their childhood reading and such. Willingham has that in his favor. If King Cole shows up suddenly, a new reader needs only hear his name to have a rough idea of who he is as a character -- why, he's merry and old, and a merry old king is he. Longtime readers, of course, will know all of the vague complexities of the character, but you can get by with the very basic knowledge almost every adult in the West grew up knowing. That's a big help for Willingham in avoiding clunky exposition. He doesn't have to have a character say, "Why, it's Geppetto, Pinocchio's father!" We can fill that in already. In another comic, that wouldn't be the case.)

Indeed, this line of thinking was prompted by a panel in the Christmas issue. Santa was issuing a vaguely prophetic warning, and a small detail in the background (specifically, a pig's head on a stake, Lord of the Flies-style) indicated that Santa, indeed, was telling the truth, that dark days were ahead. To the uninitiated, this was a small detail worth skipping over. But to a regular reader, this simple sketch carried with it a lot of emotional weight -- that pig used to be one of the Three Little Pigs, until he was killed and made an example of, his head on a stake; as the years wore on, he often visited the series' main female protagonist, presumably in her dreams, to impart warnings and good tidings. Willingham has confidence that his readers are going to know what's going on, and he lets us do the busy work.

So what does this have to do with television? The modern television drama has roughly equal roots in film and in literature. But it's hard to evaluate television like you would a film. When you watch a film, presumably, the story is over during that film (even Lord of the Rings was split into three smaller stories that made up a larger one). The same with a novel. The story on television isn't over until the season (or, in some cases, the series) is over. Sure, the story has been broken into handy, episodic chunks (if it's a good series, at least), but we still can't evaulate, say, the characters' journeys over time without seeing the whole picture. We're grasping blindly, really.

Now, obviously, many of the classic novels of the 19th century were published in serial form. One of my favorite novels of all-time, Middlemarch by George Eliot, is marked by how obviously it is derived from being born from serial publication -- Eliot goes through some complicated hoops to make certain characters happy in the end, and there's some suspicion that was at the bidding of readers and letters-to-the-editor writers, the original bloggers and message board posters. But while I could talk about what 24 has to learn from Dickens, I don't know that that would be interesting to you.

Also, I couldn't post pictures.

Ooh! Genie!

Anyway.

Comics are also one big story told over incremental chunks. And there are plenty of shows that have been duly influenced by comics over the years. Buffy's Joss Whedon, for example, was so influenced by the X-Men in the plots he developed for Buffy (and how he deployed those plots) that he's writing the comic now. The staffs of Lost and Heroes have been filled with various comics writers. And numerous TV and screenwriters are turning to writing comics as well, including John Rogers.

But how many shows are using this seriality to create a whole UNIVERSE? Buffy certainly did -- one could see an episode in the show's seventh season concluding much like the Fables conclusion described above. And the character who had arrived could have been Giles or Angel or Faith or any one of a number of characters who would have changed everything. 24, in its own way, accomplishes this as well, largely because it has a deeply faithful audience and because it essentially recreates its cast every season. Both shows went in for the clunky exposition ("That's Kim, Jack's daughter! They've had a rocky relationship since her mother died.") to catch newbies up, but Kim Bauer isn't a name that registers as instantly as Little Miss Muffet.

Heroes and Lost, as much as I like both of them in their own ways, aren't accomplishing this as handily. Lost is limited by its setting, of course, so it overcompensates by piling on the oddness. But even if an episode calls back to a bit of oddness (oh, THAT's what the skeletons in the cave were all about!), it will never have the same resonance as calling back to a well-developed CHARACTER, something Lost doesn't have enough of, even with an ensemble that hovers around 15 regulars. Heroes, however, is introducing characters as fast as it can kill them. The characters never live long enough to be interesting and/or recurring. As fine an actress as Jayma Mays is, why didn't the show keep her Google Girl around a little longer?

By and large, the cable dramas do a fine job of building sustained universes -- heading into its fifth season, The Wire has developed a whole city's worth of characters who can alter everything, and it seemed as if Deadwood eventually created a vital character out of EVERY person who lived in the camp. Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos, while not as wide-ranging, also have huge catalogs of characters to pull from. Indeed, one of the biggest things that lets you know if you're watching an FX or Showtime show instead of an HBO show is when you realize that the latest recurring guest star is just going to be shunted off to the side and never mentioned again. For all their many virtues, Rescue Me, Dexter and Brotherhood don't bother with developing many characters beyond their central casts (and, in some cases, within their central casts -- see every non-Dexter character on Dexter).

The networks don't do as well because they don't trust that they'll be drawing the same audience from week to week. Lost will sometimes slip a mythology answer into the background of a scene (apparently, someone found a glass eye last season, and this season, we found out there's a guy out there with. . .an eye patch) without calling tons of attention to it, but that's usually done more as a wink to the fans. A character point that could be made more subtly will almost always be beaten over the head as often as possible. And forget about shows like Prison Break or Grey's Anatomy, where someone will be sure to pop in and remind us of everything we might have forgotten.

But I think we're turning a corner. Networks are realizing that serial dramas aren't for EVERYone, but they are for a rather large audience of someones that likes to figure this stuff out on its own. The further we get into this, the more willing networks will be to let producers not underline absolutely every plot point and character beat. And then, when the door opens at the end of the episode, we can be TOTALLY surprised.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Night Only: Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls, anointed the Oscar frontrunner for the year the second it was greenlit, has become the favorite booster project of Oscar prognosticators like Tom O'Neil, who bolsters his reputation more the further ahead he makes the right call, and the favorite whipping boy of folks like the people at the Onion AV Club, who believe (rightly so, in many cases) that the desire to predict the Oscars is poisoning serious film criticism, just as the box office obsession did years ago.

Truth be told, it's neither as good nor as bad as either side would have you believe. If it wins Best Picture, it almost certainly won't be because it was the best film of the year (though, honestly, how often does THAT happen) but because it's the sort of well-executed middlebrow entertainment Hollywood likes to think of itself as supporting, even as it increasingly doesn't make films like this.

The biggest problems with Dreamgirls are problems with the stage show. Anyone who's read the play (or seen it staged) knows that it has huge second act problems. This isn't uncommon in the world of musicals, where Act One often ends on a high note that Act Two struggles to top in vain (the structure of a musical often necessarily puts the climax at the end of the first act, making the second act, which often drags on for an hour or so, structurally unnecessary). The film musicals that manage to subvert this problem rethink their act structure for the screen, where we generally expect a very different sort of rise and fall in the story. Even something like Sound of Music punches up what should be the second act with a cat-and-mouse game with Nazis (largely an invention of the great, unheralded-in-his-time screenwriter Ernest Lehman).

Dreamgirls has a bigger problem, though. As a barely disguised biography of The Supremes, it needs to shunt aside Effie (Jennifer Hudson) for Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a sort of symbolic stand-in for the way the "black sound" was sanitized to tackle the pop music charts where the real money was (and, of course, a more direct stand-in for the way The Supremes replaced original lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross). By shifting its focus from one protagonist to another, the story asks a lot of the audience, which has grown attached to Effie and sees Deena as an interloper. Theoretically, the protagonist of the story is the group itself, but that, in itself, is an unwieldy conceit to ask an audience to latch on to.

Aside from that structural issue, there's a lot to like in Dreamgirls. It feels, at times, as if it's directed within an inch of its life by Bill Condon (who speeds up the first hour to a point where it seems like it's going to melt down, then slows the second hour, which is basically one long deflation from the first hour, a little too much). Condon does some of the quick cutting that was so common in Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but he doesn't inflict this sort of editing on all of the musical sequences. He's unafraid of holding long takes of his actors singing, especially in "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" (a standout number for Hudson) and "Listen" (a pivotal number -- if not quite a standout one -- for Knowles). Other musicals this decade have seemed tentative about letting their actors emote while singing, but Dreamgirls isn't, and most of that is to Condon's credit. He relies on montages a little too much, but he drags strong performances out of all of his actors (although Knowles and Jamie Foxx's characters are horribly underwritten and the actors suffer as a result), especially Hudson and Eddie Murphy, as Jimmy "Thunder" Early, something of a James Brown analogue.

The technical work in the movie is superior. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the sound mix is well-night perfect. Even that editing, when it's not zagging all over the place, is exemplary when it finds a good rhythm for a musical sequence and sticks with it.

By far the reason to see Dreamgirls, though, is for Hudson. It's unclear whether she can do anything after this, but she's got an amazing voice and knows how to sell the underlying emotions of a song, even the silly ones (and there are quite a few in this musical). Her work when she's not singing is solid, but her singing is reason enough to see the movie -- if just the "And I Am Telling You ..." sequence was on the Oscar ballot rather than the whole movie, I just might vote for it.

Of course there's a lot of dumb stuff in Dreamgirls (the girls leave a recording session and walk right out into a race riot, for one), and the music isn't really Motown -- it's more Motown as reimagined by white people (and the Pat Boone takeoff in the first few reels that seems to acknowledge this is a riot). But there's plenty there to enjoy as well. If you're just looking for solid, mainstream Hollywood entertainment, Dreamgirls isn't your worst option.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gone and Forgotten: South Dakota Dark's 10 Favorite Albums of All Time! (Part IV)




OOPS! Don't you hate it when "life" gets in the way of blogging? I do. Anyway, enough of the theatrics! Here it is, once and for all!

Ten Favorite Albums of ALL TIME:



10. Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)

Crossing over into the most main of main streams, Purple Rain saw The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince taking an earnest and collective look at his place in the industry and leaping forward in a most ambitious turn. Fusing his already eclectic stylings of Funk and R&B with an even more palatable mentality geared towards pop as well as straightforward rock, Purple Rain is an undeniable catalyst for most phases in mainstream music.

The nine tracks contained therein; while "dated" in some circles (I won't argue that point here) remain some of the more auspiciously perfect pop tracks one might have the pleasure of hearing. I won't say that Purple Rain simply came along at the right time. That is true, yes...but it was more than that. Any album can come along at the right time, give the masses that hint of change they seem to crave and vanish just as soon as they've served a purpose. In the case of Purple Rain, however, it seems to have a pulse and a spirit that tends to linger, going past even its most obvious attempts at individuality. It's within the grasp that Prince holds so delicately (never with too much control or too little) that provides the LP with its personality, singularity, and its larger than life heart.


09. PJ Harvey, Rid Of Me (1993)
...
This is back when PJ Harvey wasn't simply the name of an amazing female artist, but the handle of an amazingly raw, enticing, honest-to-goodness band. The trio's second LP produced by Steve Albini is as viciously erotic and aggressively brilliant as anything Polly Jean has done in her career since. A perfect choice for producer, Albini captures the distinct aura the group presented at the time of a damaged deviance that remains unashamed and unhinged. Both loud and blisteringly quiet, Rid of Me is a darkly told masterpiece of the underbelly.
It's not that Polly Jean got softer when she went solo; hell, she's been to darker places than this. It has more to do with this raw, bloody quality that an album like Rid of Me possesses that can't really ever be recreated, so why bother trying? Artist that she is, PJ has simply reinvented herself over and over again; each album being an honest account of her mental stability (or lack thereof) but none more simultaneously frightening and exciting than Rid of Me.

08. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966)

Pet Sounds is something of an animal that just up and ran away with itself. Brian Wilson's brainchild, it is a painstakingly twee pop exercise, while still existing as a progressive and innovative walk through the park. Its harmonies are unparalleled in the pop world, save for dozens of imitations; the arrangements employed throughout the album still serve as small marvels of composition, if not feats of structural brilliance.

The great thing about Pet Sounds is the way you can derive the sort of mindless joy from it you'd expect from a surfer boy album, but you can also examine it on a level raised solely on its musicianship and creativity. That's not something all that impressive these days, but it was a more than satisfying surprise at the time of the album's release. Sure, for lack of a better term, Wilson was tripping BALLS through out the recording process, but the sort of brazen genuineness he always seems to convey is conspicuously lacking chemical assistance.






07. Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)

When Christopher Wallace appeared on the scene it was clear that he couldn't be ignored. Whether it was his portly stature, his sedated demeanor, his oddly and easily delivered flow, or the purity of his anger, he wasn't easy to forget. Ready To Die was obviously a landmark album for "East Coast" rap, but, even more than that, it served as a mission statement for what would
be a career far too short and tragic.

With Ready To Die, Wallace brought originality to the hip-hop world that is still surprising today. His personality shines through on every track, curiously blending a sense of confidence with that of self-consciousness and a quiet sadness. A master storyteller, Wallace creates layered tales mixing his own life and times with that of fictional characters creating a jilted mosaic of city life that lingers in the best way possible.


06. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
...
After OK Computer, fans of Radiohead were left wondering just where these young Brits were planning on taking rock music next. Pushing the idea of the genre to the very limit, after all, is an exhaustive process. Expecting them to top it or even equal it seemed like wishful thinking at best--if not ludicrous.

Yorke and co. responded in kind, however, with an album as blisteringly full of ideas and life as anything they had released up until that point. Kid A served as a new identity for Radiohead while, some how, staying true to what the group had always set out to accomplish. Its arrangements were odd and filtered, its aura quirky and shimmering. A modern comment on this our technical age of awakening, Kid A was pitch perfect as an apt social commentary as well as a jubilantly imperfect journey into the depths of the rock music graveyard. Carelessly blending those pesky electronic elements most commercial rock acts were so terrified of at the time with a more traditional Radiohead style, the album was and is something of a beautiful mess; a rich and sordid testament to the fumbling of ideas and ideals that won’t soon be forgotten.


05. Joy Division, Closer (1980)
...
Despite the albums built in hipster status, before New Order was New Order, Joy Division raised the dubious bar for the fledgling idea of post-punk and certified themselves in the art of misanthropic angst and suicidal prose. The late Ian Curtis played no small part in the groups darkly tinted identity, shading everything they did with the urgency of life and the theatricality of death. In the wake of his suicide, like many artists of this type, his work is elevated to a point of controversial debate dealing with hidden messages that were never really hidden to begin with. This particular element was crystallized with Closer.

Closer has a face, and a life, and wears its frown proudly. It paints its surface with atmosphere like no album I had heard before or since. Closer uses its atmospheric malaise to create a world of uncertainty and sad wonder that is both exciting and heartbreaking; like a short walk along the journey of life that proved to be all too spot on.

04. Otis Redding, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (1966)
...
You wanna talk about emo? This is about as emotional as shit GETS. Otis Redding dealt in pain and misery like no other artist in his genre. Not only did you feel his pain, but also you felt his hope. When he subtly pours out his blood in two-minute pop confections, you travel with him through his sorrow and come out on the other side damaged but clean.

Perhaps the greatest collection of pop/soul these old ears have ever heard, Otis Blue is a collection of originals and covers Redding was given the chance to lend his talents to. The placement of each track is meticulous and perfect, making for a joyously heartbreaking romp into the world of Soul with one of its greatest contributors. Redding’s spirit was unflinching and unavoidable. He felt pain with his whole being, and used that pain to try to make things better. Otis Blue is some proof that it may have worked.



03. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

Perhaps not as seemingly important as its predecessor, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s third LP Fear of a Black Planet remains every bit as potent and thought driven as the fore mentioned classic. Utilizing the palpable anger present through out the former album, Fear of a Black Planet plays as a much more even handed delve into the psyche of the ever present cultures and subcultures with a vicious honesty and insight that marked a high point in Hip-Hop.

As a lyricist Chuck D presents blunt wisdom and young rage in a way that is seldom off-putting and always curious. Layered sounds, inspired drops, and a bombastic sonic quality that has rarely been equaled help make Fear of a Black Planet memorable; however, it’s Chuck with that hint of revolution in his voice, that promise of change in his eyes that make it unforgettable.



02. Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988)

You can call them eccentric or ridiculous. Maybe you're missing the point, maybe not. The brilliant thing about a band like the Pixies is the way that their open-to-interpretation like ambiguous nature leaves them void of pretense. Claims that the Pixies somehow reinvented or saved rock in the 80's are entertaining, even though it's hard to gage their validity. While listening to their debut LP, Surfer Rosa and its brash originality (as seamless as it is compulsive) it's hard to imagine that the band had anything larger than themselves in mind at the time.

Brave and markedly different, Surfer Rosa is an honest testament to the Pixies genuine need to travel off of the beaten path for the simple fact that they wanted to. It's schizo punk styling and overbearing oddness help to make it one the easiest "strange" albums to listen to, and one of the most continuously enjoyable and interesting rock albums to ever be released.
........
HA! Fooled you. The suspense is killing you isn't it? Stay tuned for Number 1, as well as South Dakota Dark's Top Ten Albums of '06!

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On Stakes

A conversation with Maggie of Bootstrap Productions today got me to thinking about stakes -- how television is uniquely dependent on them, how they're raised, how they matter more in some genres than others.

Maggie likes stakes. She likes to know that what's going on on an episode of television matters (and forgive me if I am misrepresenting you, Maggie). Two of her favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grey's Anatomy, mix personal stakes (the soap opera plotlines) with the more typical stakes (the monster of the week in Buffy, the medical case of the week in Grey's). In the best episodes of those shows, the episodic stakes inform and comment on the soap operatic stakes -- in Buffy's "Hush," the monsters steal your voice, but Buffy and her friends are struggling to communicate their loneliness (and assorted other things) at being college freshmen -- and so on.

The stakes in a dramatic series aren't hard to find most of the time, even if the show doesn't have continuing storylines like Grey's or Buffy -- if the CSI detectives can't catch the killer, he may kill again; if House can't catch the disease in time, it may kill the patient of the week. Even the dramatic shows that don't take place in a police station or hospital have fairly high stakes. In Friday Night Lights, the guiding question is whether any of these kids can get out of the hellhole town they're stuck in. The way they're going to get out of town is (usually) through football. So if they can win the game of the week, they increase their chance of getting out of town. Similarly, Everwood was about a family on the verge of falling apart that tried to fix itself by moving to a tiny town. While the stakes were smaller here (and the show, to be fair, had a weekly medical plot too), they were high stakes for the characters they were affected by -- good drama waiting to happen.

By contrast, though, the stakes in a comedic series are often very, very small. In an episode of The Office, it's essentially how our characters will get through another work day without killing each other or themselves. On How I Met Your Mother, it's how our groups of friends in New York will be able to have a good time and keep their fractious romantic relationships together. On Seinfeld, the stakes were practically non-existent -- which selfish impulse will our central foursome get to indulge this week? To a large degree, this is because a lot of humor comes out of exaggeration. If Norm and Cliff on Cheers mess up their scheme to videotape a family reunion by running out of tape, it's not going to alter the course of human history, but it's going to be a HUGE deal to them, and they're going to blow it out of proportion so that we (who know their characters) are amused by just how big their exaggerations become. Comedy lives in theatrics; drama lives in realism. There are exceptions to every rule, but these general ideas apply.

Can you do a drama with low stakes? Of course you can, but you have to have perfect touch. Studio 60, for example, has tremendously low stakes -- will our characters manage to produce the show in time and without a hitch this week? While it's important to our characters, it never reaches beyond them. Those who love the show tend to identify with the characters and care FOR them whether it will get done or not. Those who don't can't buy the characters OR get past the lowered stakes.

And what of a comedic series with high stakes? M*A*S*H, of course, had the highest stakes of all -- life and death -- as does Scrubs most weeks. But other series that try to marry comedy with high stakes fail often -- think of the short-lived Whoops!, which tried to set a sitcom in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Now, obviously, a little dark humor would be appropriate for the end of the world, but a sitcom? It didn't work, and audiences figured that out quickly.

Now, Maggie doesn't like sitcoms (the only one on the air right now that she's a fan of is 30 Rock). She's gone on record as saying that she dislikes most of the ones I hold dear. And it's not just a recent thing either; she doesn't like a lot of the classics. Part of this is because she likes the high stakes -- when Buffy's facing down the end of the world and she cracks a joke, it makes her that much more of a badass; when Barney on HIMYM is facing down yet another woman he wants to sleep with and he gets shot down then cracks a joke, the joke just makes him more of cad. If you like the character, this works. If you don't, it's insufferable.

And that may be one of the (myriad) reasons sitcoms aren't doing as well. We live in high stakes times, after all. Shows that engage our fears of terrorism and war head-on have become hits, but they're all dramas (it's hard to imagine a full-length sitcom about the war on terror, though I'm sure someone out there is pitching one right now). When you've got Jack Bauer saving the world on one channel, do we really care if Earl finishes another entry on his list on another? Now, obviously, people have enjoyed sitcoms in times when the world was going insane (just look at the dumb shows that were popular in the 60s), but in those days, dramas hadn't yet figured out how to satisfactorily channel the free-floating national nightmare. Now that we've got Jack to save us from the terrorists (every season, like clockwork), a silly sitcom might feel just a little bit sillier.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume the last

I always forget just how NUTS everything gets around the holidays, even for a gentle soul (such as myself) in the vast media conglomerate (such as myself). To that end, here's the conclusion of the advent calendar, which, due to my desire to not make it a daily thing, has become more of an albatross around my neck than I ever thought possible.

No! Of course I'm joyful!

Dec. 15: Everybody Loves Raymond, season one, episode 12, "The Ball"


It's pretty common now for young hipsters to despise Everybody Loves Raymond (maybe they always did, but I suspect when it was a little-watched critical darling stuck on Friday nights, they had no idea it existed). And, really, if you like cutting-edge stuff, there's almost nothing to like in Raymond -- the pacing is deliberately slower, the performances are deliberately theatrical, the storylines are much more focused, and it kept winning Emmys it didn't really deserve.

But when he died Dec. 12, it seemed that EVERYbody really did love Peter Boyle. He was the only member of the Raymond cast to not win an Emmy, and that's sort of unfortunate. His best work came in the first two seasons of the show, when it couldn't get noticed by the Emmys at all, and after that, it became obvious (in some seasons) that his ailing body confined him to very limited movement, mostly reducing him to a one-liner machine, even though he was capable of much more.

Raymond's first Christmas episode is a good showcase for Boyle -- Ray finds out a Mickey Mantle autographed baseball his father got for him is a fake, but when he hears everything that his dad went through to get that ball, it strengthens their relationship anyway. It's the basic Christmas sap, but Boyle overplays his curmudgeonly side and underplays the true emotions, so when they come out toward the end of the episode, it's that much more affecting. Boyle was the real deal -- an actor who could do anything from broad to tiny -- and he will be missed.

Dec. 16: The Simpsons, season seven, episode 12, "Marge Be Not Proud"



(That above clip, obviously, isn't from this episode, but, rather, from a special Christmas message the Simpsons folks did for British TV in 2004.)

The Simpsons premiere episode, of course, was a Christmas special, but I must have seen that one over 20 times over the years, so I went with this, which I think is actually a slightly better episode, even if it allows it self a bit too much sentimentality (as said before, though, that goes with the territory). This is from when the show was still doing stories based around the characters and their personalities (there's been an attempt to do this in recent seasons, as well, but not quite to the level reached in these early seasons).

Perhaps remarkably, this was only the second Christmas episode The Simpsons had ever done. They seem to do one every year now, but this was the first since the series premiere. In it, Bart shoplifts a video game and is caught. When his parents find out, it threatens to rupture his relationship with his mother, but, of course, this being Christmas, everything is all right in the end.

It's a conceit for a Christmas episode that hasn't been done 1,000 times, and for that, this episode gets bonus points, as well as for being the only episode of The Simpsons my mother has ever enjoyed and for containing the line, "Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!"

Dec. 17: Seinfeld, season four, episode 13, "The Pick"


Seinfeld never did episodes that were strictly Christmas episodes. This was because the characters were fairly obviously Jewish (even if no one ever came out and said it), but it was also because the show's worldview rarely was large enough to embrace something as all-encompassing as the holiday season.

In the best Seinfeld tradition, though, "The Pick" selected a smaller element of the holiday season (getting your photo taken for a Christmas card) and blew that up into the main thrust of one of the show's four dueling plots (to wit, Elaine's picture accidentally shows her nipple, leading her to gain the nickname "Nip"). Of course, Elaine's is only one plot (the main one deals with Jerry attempting to date a new girlfriend who catches him scratching his nose and thinks he's picking it), so the episode isn't really a "Christmas" one, but it's funny and has become something of a classic in the show's run (it helps that it comes in the show's strongest season), so it goes on the calendar.

Dec. 18: Friends, season three, episode 10, "The One Where Rachel Quits"



Friends is another show that wasn't known for its Christmas episodes, maybe because its Thanksgiving episodes were so memorable. So, once again, Christmas is only really a background plot device, used simply because the episode would be airing in December.

It's not a bad plot device either (Phoebe helps out at a Christmas tree lot and grows so attached to the trees that she can't bear to see any go unsold), but the A-plot (Rachel quitting her job to enter the fashion industry as was her dream) is more compelling and has some better jokes anyway.

Dec. 19: Scrubs, season one, episode 11, "My Own Personal Jesus"



Time to confess -- I've seen basically nothing of Scrubs' first season. I liked what I saw that first year, but I wasn't watching much TV in 2001 or 2002 (hard to believe, I know). I was surprised to see just how different the show was early in its run. It was self-consciously wackier (so, for that matter, was Zach Braff), and the transitions between pathos and oddity were a lot more jarring. Also, in this episode, Turk is a deeply observant Christian, something which hasn't come up much since (it sort of makes sense for the character, who's always been a "lead with his heart" kind of guy). Watching this immediately followed by something in the show's current sixth season leads one to believe that NBC sanded off the show's rough edges.

Still, as the last sitcom episode of the advent calendar, it's not a bad way to go out. You can watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 20: Frosty the Snowman



Of the four Christmas specials that air every year (this, Rudolph, Grinch and Charlie Brown), this is probably my least favorite. The Rankin-Bass style just looks frightening in traditional hand-drawn animation (what with the bucked teeth and all), and the quality of the animation isn't very good either. What's more, the story of Frosty the Snowman doesn't lend itself to the special treatment, as Rudolph does (what with the underdog-overcoming-the-odds narrative structure), so there's a lot more tap-dancing done to fill out the run-time, including an obligatory visit from Santa Claus in a special based on one of the few Christmas songs that doesn't mention Christmas-y stuff at all (unless you count snowmen as being somehow Christmas-specific).

Maybe you have a softer spot for it. I haven't liked it since childhood. But you can watch it here. Here's a version of the story from the 1940s:



Dec. 21: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966, of course)




The Grinch, on the other hand, actually IS worth watching every year. Part of it is Dr. Seuss' irresistible reworking of the Scrooge motif, but another part of it is Chuck Jones' slick animation (his work on Max is some of the best TV animation ever). And, of course, the tuneful songs, which nicely complement the action.

The transition from hateful Grinch to helpful Grinch is a little abrupt, but it's certainly better than Ron Howard's 2000 film version, which tries to shoehorn a backstory onto the Grinch and just generally becomes tiresome after a short while, overblown production design aside.

Furthermore, what, exactly, is Roast Beast?

If you like this sort of thing, you can check out the whole thing here, here and here.

Dec. 22: A Claymation Christmas Celebration



This looked like it had the makings of a Christmas standard, airing from 1987 to 1992, but it must have dipped in popularity after that, as it has mostly disappeared since. Maybe now that members of my generation are popping out kids it will come back.

While it was praised when first released, though, I'm not sure the show really deserves to come back. Essentially plotless, it's like a claymated Perry Como Christmas special with jokes. The dinosaur hosts crack wise for a while, some carolers come by singing a wrong variation on "Here We Come a-Wassailing" and then there's a Christmas carol to sing. Of these carols, only the one with the bells (seen above) and the version of Angels We Have Heard on High with ice skating walruses work completely. The others work well as concepts (seeing the stories of ornaments on a Christmas tree) but never quite expand beyond that.

Still, it's one of the few Christmas specials to include blatantly religious content, which is surprising more than anything (we'll get to the other, of course, in a bit). As something that was probably green-lit just because CBS wanted to see the California Raisins (then popular) in a Christmas special, it's probably better than it should have been. Judge for yourself here.

Dec. 23: A Christmas Carol (1971 and 1984)




A Christmas Carol is only as good as its Scrooge, and these two films have some of the best Scrooges (the first has Alistair Sim repeating his role from the 1951 Christmas Carol -- unquestionably the best version; the second has George C. Scott). The 1971 version has become one of my favorites with its Victorian illustration-style animation and its connection to the story's ghostly roots (it can be genuinely scary). While the pacing is off all over the place (the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is rather glossed over in favor of beefing up some of the little-dramatized bits of the Ghost of Christmas Present section -- as seen above) and the hammy acting tends to clash with the naturalistic animation, the gorgeous quality of the images and Sim's strong voice work lets me forgive a lot. The rest of it is here.

The George C. Scott version (and isn't it odd how we refer to versions of A Christmas Carol based on who plays Scrooge rather than the director?) has considerably more in the way of problems. While the Yet-to-Come section is well done (and oddly chilling in places), the rest of it can be a bit mawkish, especially the portrayal of Tiny Tim, who's a problem in any adaptation of this work, as he embraces the very worst tendencies of Dickens to sentimentalize. Here, the screenwriters choose to emphasize Tim's most saintly tendencies (to be fair, they ARE there in the book), and that makes the Cratchet sections borderline laughable. Fortunately, Scott grounds all of this with a strong, naturalistic performance. It's tempting to turn Scrooge into a cliche, a big, broad portrayal. But Scott makes Scrooge's miserliness make sense, and that makes the whole movie work.

Dec. 24: A Charlie Brown Christmas




A Charlie Brown Christmas is probably my favorite thing of anything ever. Really. Its sparse animation and minimalist script and blatant religiosity and strange story and jazz soundtrack shouldn't work together, but, somehow, they do. The last ten minutes or so (from the Christmas tree lot on) never fail to enthrall me, and the soundtrack (readily available on CD, though you should look for the old version, not the 40th anniversary edition, which has a weird sound mix) is the sort of thing I can listen to year-round.

I could say more, but who wants to hear gushing? If the video above isn't working, watch the whole thing here.

Dec. 25: It's a Wonderful Life




But could it end any other way?

It's become cliche now to say that you like It's a Wonderful Life because it's a truly, truly dark movie that earns its catharsis. But I'm going to go ahead and say that anyway. Frank Capra is known for embracing the corny promise of the American Dream, but he also knew that the flipside of that dream was full of crushed hopes and black hearts (not to mention that the pursuit of that dream can lead to unchecked greed, as in the case of Mr. Potter). Capra's modern-day clones forget that, and that means that "Capra-esque" has become a bad thing.

It doesn't hurt that Jimmy Stewart is probably better here than he was in any other movie not named Vertigo and that Donna Reed is maybe the most beautiful woman in the history of history. Even after years and years of copies and parodies, the film stands up.

I'm watching it right now, in fact. Why not join me? I can't wait to see how it ends.

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