Saturday, June 02, 2007

Channel surfing: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?

(Sorry for the conspicuous lack of posts over the last few days. Your SDD bloggers have been very busy doing things that aren't blogging, and there hasn't been a lot else on. We have a number of exciting articles planned, though, and we'll hope to start getting those up as summer TV starts up in earnest over the next few days. Look for a few movie and concert reviews as well, because, let's face it, man does not live in TV alone. Not even a blogger. -- ed.)

Someday, when the good folks of SDD have taken over the broadcast networks (and don't try to stop us), we will make sure to institute a policy I'm calling the "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader Clause." By far the best thing about Fifth-Grader, the unspeakably dumb game show that has inexplicably gained a toehold for Fox on Thursday nights, is its theme song, which actually begins with a chorus of schoolchildren SINGING THE NAME OF THE SHOW. Now, I love me a good theme song, but even better is a theme song that just states the name of the show point blank for you (there are other lyrics as well, but I honestly think the Fifth-Grader producers should just chant the name of the show over and over, the better to mock those of us who find it distasteful). So, henceforth, all shows are required to have theme songs that just state the name of the show ad nauseum until you know what, exactly, it is you're watching. Even The Sopranos, airing its next-to-last episode tomorrow night, will be required to follow this rule.

So I liked the theme song. What else did I like? Well, I liked Jeff Foxworthy, which is a bit surprising, as I haven't found the guy that entertaining before. Here, though, he's a highly capable host, shuttling around the various kids and contestants and just generally seeming to have a good time. He's not the world's greatest ad libber, but he manages to come up with a punchy line here and there to zip the proceedings along. The tone of the show is one of genial, down home mockery, and nothing says that better than the guy who came up with the "You Might Be a Redneck" routine.

So why check this out when I had been assured by most everyone I knew that it wasn't all that great? Well, I have a great weakness for game shows, even the dumb ones. I spent the last Thanksgiving and Christmas watching the extra-special editions of Deal or No Deal and 1 Vs. 100. While I wouldn't be caught dead watching Deal on a day other than a major holiday, I kind of enjoy 1 Vs. 100, which has questions which are too easy, sure, but also has the possibility for a wide variety of guest stars, the capable hosting of Bob Saget and an element of strategy that makes the show more interesting to watch than Deal, which is mostly just pretty lights and loud noises distracting us from probability problems that could be aced by, well, by a fifth-grader.

So I had sort of high hopes for Fifth-Grader. I didn't think I'd be sliding it onto the old top ten list, but I thought it might be something fun to watch in the summer months (since Pirate Master appears to be DOA). I'm not a big fan of TV where the point is to make fun of the dumb yokels, but Fifth-Grader kept reminding me that NEXT WEEK, there would be a ROCKET SCIENTIST on the show. What's more, I could see a way to do this show without mockery, since everyone forgets a lot of useless crap they learned in grade school. I mean, I used to be able to recite all of the presidents in order in under 30 seconds (I had a friend who had it down to seven), but even in a line of work where useless trivia knowledge is rewarded, I haven't had a tremendous need to know whether Van Buren or Polk came first. I mean, I've got the Internet. It's right there on my computer!

So, I could see a version of this show where the mockery would be rather gentle, all things considered. The middle-aged contestants would sigh in exasperation as they realized they had no idea how to find a lowest-common denominator anymore, and America would smile wistfully and realize it didn't know how to do that either. But here's the thing -- the WHOLE TONE OF THE SHOW is one of the audience being invited to laugh at the dumb people on the TV when the whole environment the show is filmed in is invented to promote brain freeze. I mean, when's the last time YOU found a lowest-common denominator* (rocket scientists need not apply)?

Instead, we're supposed to laugh at the people who've forgotten the stuff they learned as kids (and, indeed, the questions are almost insultingly easy; I didn't even have to strain to get a one). But why should this be a surprise? As pointed out above, people don't use this stuff every day, and once you pass 18 or so, it's all downhill for remembering more stuff. There's a difference between letting a person laugh at how dumb they feel and laughing AT them for being dumb, and Fifth-Grader tiptoes over it a little too often for comfort. It's humiliation TV, like the American Idol audition episodes or, apparently, the whole of So You Think You Can Dance? (And yes. Yes I do.)

This might be OK if there was something strategically interesting about the game or if the questions were hard or something. But the game just isn't that exciting, and the rules of it are pretty dumb. The "lifelines," as they were (and weird how this has become an expected element of a trivia-based game show since Millionaire hit it big), didn't seem to affect play all that much, and I can't wrap my head around one particular rule. When a contestant gets a question wrong, he or she is given a second chance only if the fifth-grader they are facing off with at the moment gets the question RIGHT instead of WRONG. This seems backward to me -- if both players got the question wrong, they would both be expected to get another chance (i.e., the question was too hard). But, instead, a wrong answer on the part of the kid gets the contestant dismissed while a right answer on the part of the kid but a wrong answer on the part of the contestant leads to the contestant staying. The situation when the contestant is right and the kid is wrong leads to the kid being dismissed, which seems right, but the other two situations seem puzzling.

Furthermore, the kids here are kind of a smug, unbearable lot. Not that they should be bopping around like irritating professional actor children (which you just know they are), but they could, at the very least, be allowed to show a little personality instead of being a mass of young faces. They're not even used properly as a Greek chorus of shame. I mean, if you're going to mock people, go all the way, right?

There's so much else about Fifth-Grader that just doesn't work that I can't write about it any more for fear of making this longer than whatever I write about The Sopranos tomorrow night. Suffice it to say that every segment of the show ends with a promo of what we can expect after the commercial break (I mean, can't we just stick around?) and that there's an irritating tone of "down home values" that gave the episode I watched a disquieting air of sexism (sure, it was of the "woman beats the man" variety, but it still had that undercurrent of surprise at a woman being smarter than her husband). Anyway, I won't be watching Fifth-Grader again, and I don't recommend you start.

*--I'll bet you forgot, so I'm here to help. Take the two or more denominators (the bottom numbers on the fractions) and figure out all of their multiples, then find the smallest one that both have in common. Some people think you just take the two denominators times each other, but while this gets you a common denominator, it's not the lowest one. Here's an example. The lowest-common denominator between 1/4 and 1/6 is 12. Why? Because the multiples of 4 (4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, 36, 40) and 6 (6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60) match up in a number of places, but do so first at 12. This is mostly useful if you're going to be adding and subtracting fractions, and isn't that why you have that shiny scientific calculator anyway?


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Channel surfing: Boston Legal

by Libby

My dad is simple folk. He likes sports a lot. He likes movies about sports. A lot. But then there's TV ...

Now, part of the problem my dad has with television is remembering to watch it every week. We'd suggest a DVR, but, just, no. However, if he puts his mind to it, my dad can manage to be pretty regular about his television viewing.

Growing up, I remember a specific incident of him being really invested in Twin Peaks, but I imagine it was a lot like this:

Where were we? Oh right, my dad. So it was a long time before my dad found another television show to enthrall him enough to watch regularly, and when it happened, it was Boston Legal. This development confused me because honestly, what could Boston Legal and Twin Peaks possibly have in common?

More than one would think, believe it or not.

In tonight's episode, the third seasonthere was a big trial involving the fates of two innocent, abused teenage boys charged with the murder of their big, bad dad. James Spader, whose body has now bloated to match the size of his head and his ego, and William Shatner were left to act as the boys' defense attorneys, and while the trial was rocky and epic, they remained victorious.

Fine. Typical law show material, right?

Well, let's see ... I guess I neglected to to mention the perpetual zooming and swooping of the camera that the director found completely necessary. Oh, and the inexplicable B-plot which included an incompetent duo of underling lawyers, one of whom appeared to have a split personality/Tourette's thing going on and the other, who wasn't really a lawyer. I think. It was all very difficult to follow. Additionally, this is where the show decided to waste all of Candace Bergen's considerable talents in this particular episode.

Other things of note: This show has a remarkable and overwhelmingly talented supporting cast, most of whom were either not in this episode at all or in it sparingly. Great.

Beyond that, considering that this ass-backwards law office exists in the same universe as Ally McBeal (and it's the Tommy Westphall multiverse, no less! -- ed.) one is left wondering if there is any possible way to get competent legal representation in Boston? I thought not.

So, I don't get it. David E. Kelley is batshit insane, and the more bizarre he makes his shows, the more the middle- to upper-class, aging WASPs eat it up.

I guess the suburbs are just as boring as we all thought. Sad. That said, I won't be investing any more time into this mind-boggling show. Unless I'm hanging out with my dad for some reason.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Thank you. You are indispensable.'re still fired.": House

Uhh...right? OK? It's really a shame. Cause, I dig House, more than Todd and others do. I find its formula comforting, compared to most procedurals which simply make me tire. I really like the supporting characters that nobody likes, namely Chase and Cameron. So it's too bad this third season of House has been really lackluster, and that this season finale was a step-down in quality from last year's in a level that bordered on the criminal.

Sepinwall points out that one of the main problems with having a cliffhanger in this show is that last year (and really, any other plot development that has ever occurred on the show) showed that nothing is ever really gonna change on House. Like, at the start of this season, when House's limp was gone, I assumed he'd get it back soon enough, but I thought maybe they'd wait six or seven episodes, rather than, like, one and a half, which is how it worked out. Then, we got the Tritter arc. Every season so far has had a multi-episode arc concerning House, in the first year with Chi McBride and Sela Ward in the second season, but this one was a disappointment on ALL LEVELS. It didn't make much sense, the antagonist was poorly developed, it was resolved confusingly and basically without incident. I'm not totally down on the season--I sort of half-enjoyed the Chase/Cameron romance, and there have been some standout episodes ("Airborne" especially, although the one with Dave Matthews and "Insensitivity" also come to mind), but it really seems like the show is resting on its laurels.

Anyway, all this contributed to the lazy four-episode mini-arc that led to the major climax in Tuesday's season finale "Human Error", that being EVERYONE ON HOUSE'S TEAM EITHER QUITTING OR GETTING FIRED. First, Foreman submitted his resignation after killing a patient, for fear of becoming as disassociated from patient care/morality as House. I never went for this plot twist because it seemed unusually passive for Foreman: that he'd consider House that strong an influence on him. I mean, I get that he'd respect House's diagnostic skill, but does he really think House is gonna fundamentally polarize his moral compass? Isn't the whole formula that House is amoral and the others wait around looking shocked at his SHOCKING ACTS OF AMORALITY? Foreman literally wanting to run away from House cause of this didn't seem plausible to me. Stretching the whole thing out over four weeks, was just cruel. I mean, we all know nobody's going anywhere. Honestly. They might be out of the picture for a bit, but I betcha a few eps into season four, the whole team will be happily together again (BTW-if they aren't, I won't be impressed, more disappointed at how lamely they were broken up). Anyway, making the whole situation into a CLIFFHANGER situation just did not work for me.

In season one, Cameron quit during the whole Chi McBride thing, and even THAT wasn't a season finale. Yet now, House is basically one of the biggest shows on TV, and this is what they sate their hungry audience with? Well, pardon me if I am not OMGing all over the place. I suppose I should touch on the content of the episode itself. I actually preferred the previous ep, about the sociopathic teenager who they all thought had a personality disorder, but turned out just to be a gigantic tool. This week, it was some incredibly noble Cuban dude who brought his wife (whose illness symptoms, including death, seemed out there even for THIS show) across stormy waters on a raft to House so that he would save her. The guy's fascination with House was barely touched on, which just had me wondering why on earth he knew about him at all, but...whatever. I barely remember any of it.

No, the real meat of the plot here was House bizarrely firing Chase for no discernible reason as Foreman's resignation day loomed. Literally. NO. REASON. Hey, that's the name of last year's finale! Wasn't that a good finale? Sigh. I think the writers are trying to sell Chase's firing as part of House's crazy unpredictable nature, mixed with maybe some sexual resentment for Cameron, but the whole thing was just confusing and out of nowhere. It almost seemed designed as a catalyst for Cameron to quit as well (to really leave House adrift), as well as for Cameron to actually develop feelings for her screw-bunny Chase. Per point A: meh. I might have been able to buy one of the actors leaving, but having all three quit doesn't make the whole thing seem cataclysmic, it just makes it totally unbelievable. Per point B: who didn't see THIS coming. I liked Chase and Cameron (Spencer brings a fun feistiness out of his off-screen paramour Morrison), but who didn't see them actually falling for each other eventually. Surprised it took this long. At least that was well-handled: a nice little low-key smile between them.

Look, I'll watch next year, and I'll always enjoy the show, but I really hope that season 4 brings some more intriguing arcs (seriously! get Cuddy and Wilson involved on more than an episode-to-episode basis!) and maybe a little more clarity to the characters' journeys. The haphazard structure of this season, with major-seeming plot points happening one week and then being completely forgotten after that, has been tiresome. There's a great show here, and a fantastic performance to tie it to. So here's hoping House is back on track when we see it next.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

"It's gonna be my screensaver!": Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

See, this version of Studio 60 I probably would have been more enthusiastic about. There was some bad plotting in Thursday night's episode (Simon having two dates was the sort of thing you might have seen on Facts of Life), but the central plot of everything going wrong and driving Cal completely nuts was engaging and even sporadically funny. Timothy Busfield, of course, is a fine, fine actor, and the show might have done well to feature him more often.

I think that by putting Cal at the center of the episode, the show was able to breathe a little. When Matt and Danny are at the center of the show (or Jordan), the whole show is predicated on the idea that these geniuses will have to top their own prior genius to deliver something even more genius. Cal has no illusions about his grandeur -- he's a television director, and he just wants to get something up on the air. Whatever it takes, he's willing to do it, so long as the show goes on. While he clearly likes the show he works on, we don't get the sense that he considers it the height of the televised art form.

Similarly, the episode paired Cal with network exec Jack Rudolph, easily the most entertaining network exec not named Jack Donaghy on television this season. A drunk Jack Rudolph is a very funny thing, from his hitting on Allison Janney to his mock concern over the bomb scare, and the way that Cal kept trying to get his job done with Jack getting in the way was actually quite amusing.

In particular, the snowballing disaster show was well-developed, growing from the props guys going on strike to the cue card guys going on strike to the bomb threat to squibs going off in a non-bloody scene to a bomb-sniffing dog coming up on stage and sniffing Allison Janney as she delivered her closing speech. It was all nicely set up and Aaron Sorkin stuck the landing, putting some of the funnier stuff toward the back.

That said, the bomb threat subplot was all kinds of D'oh!-inducing, what with Cal learning that it isn't always a Muslim calling in a bomb threat (in this case, it was a slacker kid who did it for, apparently, no reason). I'm glad we all got to learn a lesson, Studio 60, but it was mostly an annoying one.

Also, the Matt and Harriet subplot just won't go away. And Matt wasn't even in this episode! The scenes where everyone told Harriet that she and Matt should just get back together were enervating, largely because the Matt and Harriet relationship is so very, very boring. I don't care what the rest of the cast thinks. I think that Matt should run off with Kari Matchett and make lots of little whalien babies.

But, y'know what? This episode was fun to watch. You can't always say that about this show, but you could say it about this episode. Probably the best one since The Christmas Show. Let's see if they can continue this roll in the weeks to come (if they get a chance to air -- the ratings were pretty bad).