Friday, December 19, 2008

Some thoughts on Christmas music ...

(I do truly plan to get back to regular blogging, but I'm doing a couple of year-end recaps for other sites. Here's something I wrote for a forum boldly repurposed for a blog! I'll try to throw up some other Christmas-related posts over the next few days. -- ed.)

I have a reputation among many as someone who loves shitty Christmas music, but that's really not true. I mostly just KNOW what the shitty Christmas music IS because I listen to so much of the damn stuff in my attempts to create good Christmas Eve (contemplative) and Christmas morning (vaguely festive) mixes. Then I use this music to torture my friends (as any good friend does). So I don't sit down and make a mix entirely of Chrissy the Christmas Mouse and The Cat Carol or anything.

I totally get why people hate holiday music. In general, the stuff that's become popular (outside of some of the legendary tracks, like White Christmas by Bing Crosby) is so damn anodyne and syrupy that it grates on you after a while. Since the easiest way to set yourself up as a music star is to make a Christmas CD that will sell multiple copies every year, everybody makes one, and all of the mega-stars have a song or two that makes its way into mall mixes from year to year (hence Jessica Simpson's Re-joyce, the worst Christmas album I've ever heard, managing to spawn all of these songs you have to suffer through). Hence, the idea that holiday music sucks takes hold.

But, really, the best Christmas songs have come to be so popular because they're ridiculously solid songs (there are tons of Christmas songs that have fallen by the wayside over the centuries; I've probably listened to 'em all, and there's a good reason they did). And when you hear a good version of, say, Silent Night or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it strips away all of the bullshit and gets you down to brass tacks.

I'm guessing that some of my rules won't apply to all of you (I can't STAND that Celine Dion album my friend Andy's always going on about), but I wanted to get that "Holiday music sucks!" meme out of the way and discuss some of my favorite tracks and some of the best music I've heard.

So, forthwith, my ten rules for picking good holiday music/creating a good holiday mix. I'll be referring to Frightened Rabbit's It's Christmas So We'll Stop throughout this piece, as it's my favorite discovery so far this year. Feel free to go and download it so you know what the hell I'm talking about.

Ten Rules for Picking Holiday Music You'll Like

1.) The best holiday music has a tinge of melancholy to it. This isn't always the case (Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is one of my favorite Christmas songs, and it's pretty joyful), but for the most part, Christmas, Hannukah, New Year's, etc. are melancholy times of year, and they deserve melancholy music to go with it. Obviously, there's a lot of joy at Christmas, but most of that is generated by kids, I think you'll find. People started having Solstice celebrations because December is the darkest time of the year, when things seem the most hopeless. So if the best summer songs are a little wistful, the best WINTER songs are a little sad. But, really, even the religious roots of Christmas are kind of sad -- a doomed world, lost in its own sin, crying out for someone to save it and finding that someone only very briefly. Other than that, the best Christmas songs are about the season's ephemerality -- how you can never recapture the feeling of being 8 and tromping downstairs to see what you got for Christmas, how you can't get home to be with the ones you love for the season, how things are bound to end and decay and die, but we're going to have to press on for just a little while longer. If you remove the subset of Santa Claus songs from the list of Christmas songs (and there aren't that many that have survived), most great holiday songs are fundamentally sad ones. It's Christmas So We'll Stop fits this criteria because it's about a man facing the fact that the shit of the world has paused for two days towards the end of the year, but it's all just going to start up again on Dec. 26. The best Christmas songs are OBSESSED with this idea.

2.) In general, I skew away from most Christmas albums released by major labels in the '90s and '00s. As always, there are exceptions, and your mileage may vary (Andy's obviously does), but I've found that Christmas music is best when it feels heartfelt. Most albums released by major labels post-1990 (when the labels realized just how much cash they could make from NEW Christmas albums instead of collections of old hits) are pretty cynical cash grabs, only there to make labels lots of money. I tend to look for stuff released before 1990 and stuff released by indie labels and artists (like Frightened Rabbit!). This isn't a hard and fast rule: The Cat Carol, after all, is an indie recording, while Mariah Carey's infectious All I Want for Christmas Is You is a major label thing. But I've found that it TENDS to be true, and that's enough for me. I've also found that it tends to be true for major label Christian artists, so tread with caution in that arena.

3.) The Internet is your friend. Stay away from most all-Christmas radio stations and mall mixes. They tend to be filled with the same 100 or so terrible songs that you hear every year (one could probably go through these lists and remove only 10 tracks actually worth a damn). To find good stuff, turn to the Internet. As always, starting with iTunes and Amazon is not a bad idea (both tend to have lots and lots of rare things), but I'm rather fond of going to sites that are a part of something that calls itself the "Sharity community." These sites digitize old Christmas albums that are no longer available and share them. Some of the stuff is dreadful, but some of it is sublime, and none of it is the overproduced shit we think of as Christmas music nowadays. The BEST place to start your Christmas music search is Santas Working Overtime, which collects huge numbers of links to Christmas-related posts every day (it's how I found the Frightened Rabbit track). The best gateway to the "sharity" community is probably Falalalala and its forums (where I'm a member). I've also had very good luck with Hip Christmas, Ernie, Not Bert, and Christmas Yule Blog. If you just want someone else to prepare a mix for you, check out and its pretty awesome modern rock Christmas mix, some of the sites listed above (particularly Hip Christmas) or Pandora, which takes your favorites and turns them into very good mixes.

4.) If you like an artist, you'll probably like their Christmas music. Again, this doesn't ALWAYS apply, but most artists are going to apply their own sensibility to their Christmas recording. I love Sufjan Stevens, so, naturally, I loved his Christmas music. Same with, say, The Beach Boys. I find this is ESPECIALLY true with religious Christmas songs, and COMPLETELY true with Christmas originals (I probably wouldn't have downloaded It's Christmas So We'll Stop if it was by an artist I didn't like so much), which can be really awful, since they're usually even MORE of a cynical cash grab.

5.) Don't be afraid of songs that have fallen out of the mainstream. Two of the best tracks on Sufjan's Christmas album are The Friendly Beasts and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, two songs you rarely hear anymore. That freshness can often surprise and entertain you, especially since you've PROBABLY heard the songs at SOME point, but you're not constantly inundated with them. Some other good songs you might look for include In the Bleak Midwinter, The Coventry Carol, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, O Come, O Come Emanuel, Still, Still, Still and the Old Wessex Carol. There are tons more, and I know I'm forgetting some, but these are some great songs that have gotten choked out by other standards.

6.) There are a handful of songs that are hard to screw up. For my money, I've heard maybe one or two versions of Silent Night that weren't at least palatable. The same goes for Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (perhaps the most somber Christmas song). Many artists try to butcher Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but the underlying song is so strong that few succeed. The same applies to Christmastime Is Here (though the Guaraldi version cannot be improved upon, to my mind). Perhaps the weirdest song that manages to be palatable in almost every version, though, is Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, which SEEMS like it would have spawned tons of teeth-grindingly bad versions, but mostly seems to give even artists I hate a chance to show a twinkle in their eyes.

7.) Look for genres you might not always enjoy. One of the best Christmas albums of the last decade is Putamayo's "New Orleans Christmas," released as a fundraiser in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While I don't always like jazz (though I like Dixieland jazz quite a bit more than smooth jazz), every track on this album is a keeper (including a Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that may be the only song on Earth to consistently make me tear up). I've also had good luck with bluegrass versions of tunes, a capella stuff, sea chanties and even Celtic Christmas tunes. I tend to stick pretty close to alt rock when making my mixes, but getting in a few other genres never hurts. It's also a good way to slowly introduce yourself to artists you might never listen to if you didn't already know the songs they were covering so well.

8.) Don't be afraid of instrumental tracks. But stay away from Mannheim Steamroller. I actually can tolerate most Steamroller tracks, but their bombast tends to overwhelm everything it touches and the sheer over-the-topness of who they are makes for an irritating listening experience if you listen to a whole album by them. The same goes for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. However, you can find good, Christmas-y music on the scores for plenty of films that are set in the season (I'm not a huge fan of either movie, but The Family Stone and The Nightmare Before Christmas both have some excellent instrumental tracks that provide a holiday-like feel without blatantly quoting Christmas carols). Another favorite film score of mine for the holidays is The Royal Tenenbaums, particularly the track "End Credits" (if you can find it), which indirectly quotes Away in a Manger, uses sleigh bells very well and creates a holiday mood without ever turning into a Christmas song. Or you can just look for instrumental covers of Christmas tunes, preferably on a single instrument or two, though there are some worthwhile classical orchestra type things.

9.) Try the offerings of other countries. I'm not a HUGE world music fan (most world music seems kind of watered down by the time it gets here), but Christmas music often transcends borders, and there's plenty of great stuff out there from other countries. The aforementioned Putamayo has a "World Christmas" album that's pretty good, and you'll find lots of rare tracks from other countries floating around the Internet. Though I once downloaded about five albums' worth of Scandanavian Christmas music and found it mostly irritating. (That said, the best Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I've ever heard was in German, and I haven't been able to find it since.)

10.) You can never go wrong with the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. I mean, duh?

So let me know your favorites in the comments. Or if you're looking for a specific song or a version of a song you might like, let me know, and I'll do my best to help out!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Notes on Gossip Girl, House, & Life

I'm a little overdue on my GG recap this week; apologies, but I won't bore you with the work-related reasons. I'll go ahead and share some thoughts now about the holiday episode of GG as well as developments on House and Life.

I'm going to make a statement based on nothing at all but a feeling. It may shock you, but roll with it. Ready? I think GG might be reaching the end of Chuck Bass's usefulness. This week saw the funeral of Chuck's father, and Chuck about to inherit millions and become one of New York's richest. A distraught Chuck lashes out at Dan and everyone else he even remotely blamed for his father's death; it's only thanks to Blair and Nate's vigilance that he doesn't go on a bender and do something really stupid. Finally though, we get the moment that has been coming all season. Blair tells Chuck she loves him with all the desperation of a housewife in a 1950's melodrama. Blair's journey from Ice Princess to Friend of the Emotionally Unavailable has carried me through this season of GG. How great was her scene with Wallace Shawn as her new stepfather? That hug the two exchanged was as close as I've felt to a moment of genuine emotion in my GG viewing history.

But seriously, can you imagine Chuck going through a similar change to the one Blair has undergone this season? Smiling and being supportive? It's hard to imagine isn't it? I think the fate of this character will be a major issue in the second half of the season.

House this week probably went the furthest the show has ever gone in opening up to stories other than Dr. H's. I don't care one way or the other about Kal Penn's apology to someone he bullied in high school, but the romance between Thirteen and Foreman has me scratching my head. just a few weeks ago Thirteen was picking up women in bars and doing drugs; sure, she's now in a drug trial for her Huntington's, but does she have to clean up her dating life too? The kiss between them didn't feel organic to the characters, but rather a behind-the-scenes move to create buzz.

I had intended to write a good deal more about Life this season, but just never got started with the proper level of attention. This season has been spent less time on the overarching mystery of who set Crews up for those murders and more on the detectives' casework. Slowly we've learned that the conspiracy extends upwards from Jack Reese to a shadowy figure played by William Atherton who is under the FBI's protection. Life is one of the few series I make time to watch this season, and it seems we're just getting started. (The presence of Sarah Shahi doesn't hurt either)

Don't know if I'll be back at SDD before Christmas, but here's wishing a very Happy Holiday to Todd and all his readers.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Come see some plays for charity!

If you're in the Southern California area, come see the play I'm helping out with, The 12 Plays of Christmas. All proceeds benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, and the 12 individual short plays are in a variety of styles and genres and all very entertaining. Well, except for the two written by that giant black hole of anti-talent, Todd VanDerWerff. But, still, it's for a good cause, and it'll get you in the holiday spirit without beating you over the head. And if you're there, stop in and say hi!

We're up tonight (Dec. 8) and tomorrow night (Dec. 9). Go here for more information.


Friday, December 05, 2008

The Top 100 Shows of All Time: The Comments, Part 1

(Thanks for your great ideas, everybody. I'll get up the Mad Men review, some Oscar predictions and a few posts on Christmas entertainment over the next couple of weeks, along with some of your other suggestions. -- ed.)

Back when I did the top 100 TV shows posts, I really thought I was going to come back after a week's hiatus and respond to all of the great comments I got. But I was working then as an actual TV critic at an actual newspaper, and I found less and less time to do the blog (particularly as I had to devote most of my first-run reviews to the paper). So the whole thing kind of languished there for a while, which meant the comments posts never got done. What better time to do them, I thought, than a whole year later! Yay! Follow me below the jump to travel back in time as we respond to comments from the first 12 posts in the series.

From Supplemental List #1: 10 Shows I Loved As a Kid That Don't Hold Up at All:

Occasional SDD blogger Carrie said:

I also watched all of these terrible sitcoms you listed here, and LOVED THEM. Now I have such a hard time with sitcoms, and I wonder how my parents sat through those shows with me without wanting to stab themselves in the eyeballs. Perfect Strangers was oh so awesome, though. Seriously, I loved that show with all my heart.

Um, I also loved Punky Brewster. Her clothes were so cool! She had a dog! She was an orphan! Cherry almost died in a tragic refrigerator accident! I'm sure if I saw it now I would just cringe at the terribleness.

I watched all of Party of Five but can't remember most of it. That's not a good sign for the quality of the show.

Great lists so far!

Carrie's referring to the TGIF sitcoms I talked about in the post. Strangely, I was never that into Perfect Strangers (Libby really was), though it might have been the BEST show in the classic TGIF lineup, all things considered. I also never really got into Punky Brewster, and all attempts to watch more than a handful of episodes as an adult have ended disastrously.

I disagree on Party of Five, though. A fair run of the show is up now at Hulu (which has inexplicably stopped alphabetizing its "browse" list), and I'm surprised by how much of it holds up. Yeah, most everything after season three gradually dragged down into the muck, but there was a lot of really good stuff in there, really incisive, small-scale family drama that you just don't see on TV anymore. The Intervention episode still packs a big punch, particularly if you know the characters. Po5 has largely been forgotten because it was so overshadowed by some of the shows that came immediately before and after it (everything from My So-Called Life to Dawson's Creek), but I now think it's underrated enough that I wish I had slipped it onto the lower rungs of the list somewhere.

From Swimming in Memory: Or, Bad TV, Young Kids, and How a Generation Fetishized Itself -- An Introductory Essay (how about that title?!):

Carrie (again) said:

Great analysis, Todd. I can't wait for the list.

As much TV as I watched growing up (and I watched a lot) I don't think I fully understood what good TV was until I saw the pilot for ER. That's when the light clicked on and I thought "this can be more than I thought." I've been hooked on quality dramas (and unfortunately still hooked on dreck like what I used to watch) ever since.

For me, the point where I "got it" was with Picket Fences, a show I can barely stand today, but one that I used to carve out an hour a week to watch. To a degree, my politics owe themselves to that show. From there, I moved on to the similar, but much weirder, The X-Files, and I was set. I was a quality TV junkie from there on out.

(This is not to ignore the many, many nights I spent parked in front of Nick at Nite, absorbing the whole of sitcom history, which I felt a pressing need to do for some reason. It's the reason I've seen so many sitcoms that are now sparsely seen, though I'm sure I've only seen the syndication cuts.)

From #100-91:

Filipe Furtado wrote:

I'm almost surprised that you made anthologies elegible, given how hard is to compare them to regular shows.

For all the praise it usually got there were one major flaw in Veronica Mars that always made me rate it a little bit lower than most people: with few execeptions the show was always awful with the stand alone mysteries. And as wonderful as the characters were, the fact that the show was driven by larger investigations made storytelling more central to it than something like Pushing Daisies. All this rambling is to justify my opinion that not only season 2 is stronger than the first one, it's far stronger. It's more confusing with too mny parallel arcs and it sort of loses itself when during the half dozen eps where the focus shift to what's going on with Duncan, but it has far fewer episodes were the main focus was not in one of the larger arcs that the show did so well. As often happens on great or near-great first seasons, a lot of the praise seems to exclude the minor flaws that were already there, so the great first season of Veronica Mars ignores how often the episodes had a weak main storyline with a lame plot but good character bits, a more amusing Keith plot whose subplot status help it to get away on characterization alone and a compelling C-plot that get something to do with Lily's murder.

I didn't really see a way around ignoring anthologies, which were such a substantial part of American TV history. If I had excluded them, I likely would have had to exclude The Twilight Zone, which ended up in the top ten. And as the list went on, I pulled in variety shows, reality shows and talk shows, which are all very hard to compare to, say, a serialized drama. Still, I've probably seen too few anthologies and could stand to see more.

As far as Veronica Mars goes, I do agree that season two has been rather underrated. The episodes are definitely stronger on an episode-by-episode basis, but the overarching story is just not as compelling. That's a real pitfall of serialized storytelling. I actually have always rather liked Lost, season two, as well, but that's another season where a bunch of strong episodes didn't necessarily add up to a comprehensive whole that felt like it was going anywhere. It was just an enjoyable string of episodes, which is not the end of the world, but sure felt like it to fans at the time. The writers clearly learned their lessons, as seasons three and four have more narrative momentum. I'm not sure the writers on Veronica did, as season three is a little too discombobulated to work, though much of the best stuff about the show was still there. Jamie Weinman has pointed out over and over that many of the characters on Veronica Mars were specifically conceived of to play a role in the "Who killed Lily Kane?" mystery, and when that mystery was over, there was really no reason to keep them in the storyline, so that led to a lot of moving chess pieces around in season two. You could see the show starting to try to build a cast that made sense in season three, but the rug was pulled out from under them.

Carrie (how I miss her) mostly responded to Felipe and talked about Adult Swim, but she also said:

It's interesting that Joss asked Staite to gain weight. If only he would have done the same when Sarah Michelle Gellar lost all of her weight in seasons two/three of Buffy. Although I doubt that would have gone over well with SMG.

I, in general, agree. Seasons one and two Sarah Michelle Gellar is much hotter than seasons three through seven SMG, who just got scrawnier and scrawnier. The huge preponderance of stick-thin women is one of those things I'll never get about TV. I think one of the things that's so great about Mad Men is just how differently proportioned its women are.

From Supplemental List #2: Ten Cable Networks That Changed Everything:

Dan wrote:

If you want to know why so many people don't like Americans, just watch FOX News. Awful, awful, awful. The fact it's popular is just... a sad indictment of the US culture.

Outside of the US, it's the BBC that most country's watch -- because, y'know, it's less inflammatory, better researched, as neutral as you can be within reason, etc, etc. Proper journalism.

Fucking sports-news style news???

I saw a clip of that O'Reilly guy totally berating a muslim guy whose dad had died in the WTC attacks. Psychologically kicked the shit out of him because he still didn't think the War On Terror was right.

TV bullying from so-called "authority figures" on a country's news service, I couldn't believe it.

CNN is deservedly #1, but even that pales compared to BBC.

Oddly enough, I got an e-mail from family after posting this list asking how I could put something so biased as CNN atop the list. The ranking wasn't intended to be anything other than my conception of what the most important cable networks were historically, and CNN, to a large degree, recreated the way we understand the world around us, something Fox didn't really do (it simply took the CNN template and remade it in a blatantly conservative image).

I've done a lot of thinking about media bias in this year of 24-hour political coverage seemingly everywhere (and, actually, I think media bias as a THREAT TO THE REPUBLIC is rather overrated). I plan on doing a post on this at some point, but I DO think that the U.S. is VERY different from other countries in that our state-funded media (which doesn't even qualify as state-sponsored) is relatively weak. NPR and PBS have their partisans, but, by and large, most of our populace gets its news from commercial entities. This seems terrifying to people from other countries, simply because commercial media mostly focuses on what Americans want to hear about, which tends to be a mix of jingoism and celebrity news and incorporates very few international stories. I'm not convinced this is an EVIL thing or anything, but it does give the impression that, say, Fox News is an official organ of the Republican party, when it's ALSO now attempting to skew a bit leftward in the wake of Obama's election. It will always be the most right wing of the news networks, but what it and the other networks are primarily chasing is ad dollars. Hence the endless specials about Obama, which generally draw very good ratings for things that are pretty cheap to produce.

From #90-81:

Carrie again:

Everwood. How I love that show. More distressing than the fact that they aren't planning on releasing any more DVD sets (due to weak sales) is the fact that ABC Family bought the syndication rights, ran the entire series only one time, and then replaced it with 7th Heaven. I keep my ABCF Tivo season pass for that fateful day they bring the reruns back, but I'm not holding my breath. It's been over a year. :(

And, hey, look it's a year later, and you can watch Everwood online at The WB and the second season DVD is coming! Good things come to those who wait! I'm more convinced than ever that an Everwood-ESQUE show needs to be on the airwaves, and yet none seem to be forthcoming. Oh well.

I actually responded to the large number of comments in the thread on the Supplemental List #3: Specials, Made-for-TV Movies and Miniseries. But I'll reiterate that I'd like to see a remake of V, and one is apparently happening.

I ALSO responded in-thread to most of the comments on #80-71, but I guess that I'll again say that I think M*A*S*H is probably the most overrated series of all time. I respect it, but only grudgingly. It DOES feel like something I should probably buy on DVD and plow through over a month or so, but I thought so much of the late stuff was SO AWFUL that I can't imagine deciding it was better all of a sudden. That said, I ALSO think the series finale is pretty awful, maudlin in a way even the worst episodes of the show rarely were.

I responded to a lot of the comments on Supplemental List #4: Series from other shores, including a spirited discussion about Spaced and Corner Gas (which I still kinda think Myles is underrating -- it's a lot better than NCIS, dude), but I never got around to responding to this one from Jason Mittell (whose excellent and too-infrequently-updated blog is a must-read):

I'm enjoying this list as well (although catching up a bit late). While it's true that Canada & the UK are the prime importers to the US, there are some other imports that bear mentioning - besides a number of anime titles that you could grapple with, I think Iron Chef deserves a spot on any list of greatest imports.

And I'd quibble with your characterizing Robert Thompson as one of the foremost TV historians (in another post) - he's foremost in his ability to give good soundbite, but not actually write & research TV history...

I can't believe I forgot Iron Chef! It's such a fun show, and one of the few where its pronounced "foreignness" was central to the show's success (the American remake mostly sucked). I could watch that show for hour after hour.

I was going to respond to you by asking if you'd submit to interviews for my various feature pieces the way Thompson would, but, clearly, I'm no longer doing that so much anymore, so I guess the request is moot.

There was a spirited conversation in #70-61, also, which I think I responded to most of, but I'll just say that the relative terribleness of 24: Redemption (or whatever that was called) makes me feel even smarter about what I said about the show in this list. I know everyone said season six was terrible, but most people thought it could be rebounded from. I never did.

There were no comments on Supplemental List #5 (the one about new-ish shows I liked), but I totally called Chuck there (OK, Sepinwall did too).

I was going to respond to the two posts on #60-51, but they're kind of self-explanatory, though I appreciate the shout-out from Bianca Reagan (who I hope hasn't left us forever) to KDOC, which has one of the goofiest and greatest lineups in the LA area, resurrecting all sorts of old sitcoms and stuff.

We'll wrap this up tomorrow!


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Blogger block

So, as it turns out, I just have no idea what to blog about (I've been hoping to do a follow-up to last year's Top 100 TV Shows list, but I simply haven't had the time to prepare sufficiently, so it may have to wait until next year sometime). I'm throwing it out to you: What would you like more of? TV show episode reviews? TV season reviews? Film or book reviews (please don't ask me to do album reviews; my taste in music is famously very non-diverse)? Posts on TV history? Something about cultural theory? I've got a long percolating post on the future of the media industry that will come out sometime soon, and I'm going to spend tomorrow and Friday responding to the comments from last year's Top 100 list for lack of anything else to do, but I want to know what you want to see from SDD, because I aim to please.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"It's A Wonderful Lie" - Gossip Girl, episode 2.12

Time constraints prevented me from posting a recap of GG last night, and with some time to think about it I don't know that there's really much to say about this winter-themed installment of GG.

Everyone is preparing for the Snowflake Ball, but who will Blair and Chuck be taking. This week turns the heat down quite a bit on the would-be couple (Would the tabloids call them Bluck or Chair?). Since they've all but acknowledged their mutual attraction and the difficulties it would present for their social lives, there's no way that Bass and Waldorf can attend the ball together. A wager is devised; Blair and Chuck must each come up with a date for the other and if Chuck actually likes his date then Blair will get use of the Bass limo for a month. Chuck's prize is the services of Blair's maid Dorota, and I think we're all glad that didn't happen. In a twist that reminds me of the episode of Friends where Rachel goes out with a look-alike after breaking up with Ross, the dates selected are clones of Blair and Chuck. The two fall for each other, leaving B. and C. ruefully admitting that the whole thing was bound to fail. It's pleasant to see these two be a little lighter with each other, but not much new ground was covered here.

In previous weeks I've expressed utter indifference to the character of Serena's new boyfriend Aaron, who is too obviously a place holder until things heat up with Dan again. Tonight finds Serena and Dan engaged in a discussion about the importance of "meaning" in sex, since Serena has planned to sleep with Aaron for the first time after the ball. Dan meanwhile has caught the eye of Aaron's ex Lexi, who is some kind of serial first-date fornicator. (Memo to Josh Schwartz: Serious, thoughtful discussions about teen sexual behavior are best saved for your next show) But the one point that seems to emerge from all of this is that both Serena and Dan agree that their time together had meaning. Foreshadowing anyone?

How is Vanessa supposed to crash Manhattan society if people keep playing tricks on her? Perhaps the second half of the season will find Vanessa and Jenny banded together to defeat Upper East Side snobs through the power of music and art, or at least maybe they'll find a guy more worth fighting over than Nate. Since something bad happened to Bart at the end, I'll save my thoughts on the adults for next week. There's nothing like Chuck Bass with a score to settle.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trailer Curmudgeons, Vol. 8: Meryl Streep, Rorschach and a MOUNTAIN-CRESTING TIDAL WAVE

We've been out of commission for Thanksgiving and my birthday, which came right on top of each other, so here's FAN FAVORITE Trailer Curmudgeons to kick us off again.

Doubt (Dec. 12)


Todd: So it was while watching the trailer for this, which takes the mostly excellent and mostly somber stage play and apparently turns it into Notes on a Scandal 2: The Nunnening, that I realized the play is actually an Iraq War allegory? However, I'm apparently the last person to figure this out, so you can all just ignore me. Since Meryl Streep is obviously George W. Bush, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Saddam Hussein, does that make Amy Adams Colin Powell? And Viola Davis the U.N.? I guess God kind of plays the same role in both (well, He IS pretty typecast). Somehow, Meryl Streep is both overplaying and underplaying the lead role, which results in a performance that, judging from the trailer (which, yes, one should never do), uncomfortably bounces between two poles like some sort of manic-depressive she devil. Which, incidentally, is one of the few films Streep DIDN'T get an Oscar nomination for.

Libby: Please. All she needs is a Snidely Whiplash mustache and a cape. This is ridiculous.

The Reader (Dec. 12)


Todd: Maybe this country keeps starting wars because it knows we're running out of good stories to tell about World War II? I mean, let's be honest here, most of our other wars are depressing or dreadfully uncinematic or too expensive to mount movies about (which is why The Patriot had all of that, like, CGI cannonball action). So we keep going back to World War II, in the hopes that something new and original will jar itself loose this time. Doesn't look like they succeeded with this one, which boils elements of Apt Pupil (only they totally have Teh Sex), Judgment at Nuremberg and Schindler's List (it's always Schindler's List) into a film about, like, some guy telling his story to some lady and then she's shocked and questions everything she believes. I believe that's also the plot of Bull Durham.

Libby: Say this phrase aloud: "Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Cuba Gooding Jr." OK. Now say this phrase aloud: "Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes." That's all I got.

Todd: I just want Winslet to win one so she can stop trying and make, like, a hi-larious comedy where she farts a lot or something.

Libby: Or ends up with Jack Black!

The Yes Man (Dec. 19)


Todd: I realize that Jim Carrey is always a, let's say, broad actor when he's doing crowd-pleasing comedy, but it looks like he was just so desperate for a hit (after things like The Number 23) that he just turned on the LAUGH MACHINE for this one, and it looks a little frightening. I keep expecting Bradley Cooper to start chortling throatily, hit a gong and yell, "Hey-o!" every time Carrey does anything. Still, the American public has spoken, and it wants to see wacky, over-the-top Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty) or mid-range, just looking for a paycheck Jim Carrey (Fun with Dick and Jane, which was a huge hit because I guess everyone just wanted to see something misanthropic that Christmas?) than quiet, "I'm a good actor!" Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine, Man on the Moon, etc.). But, ugh, Murray from Flight of the Conchords and hipster goddess Zooey Deschanel are in this, and it's directed by one of the more underrated mainstream directors out there, Peyton Reed, so I suppose I'll see it, which is probably what everyone in America is saying right now for vastly different reasons.

Libby: I, for one, am glad that Jim Carrey's dad is getting work. I'm sure he's been out there struggling as an actor for ... wait. What?

Frost/Nixon (Dec. 26)


Todd: I like that Ron Howard and company have taken a pivotal moment in '70s pseudo-journalism and apparently turned it into a feel-good, nostalgic sports movie about a team of scrappy underdogs that takes on the ultimate foe (and wins! *SPOILER ALERT*), complete with The Who on the soundtrack and, like, a full fleet of character actors. Maybe Ron Howard was really in hot pursuit of the Bad News Bears remake and when Richard Linklater got it, he had a good cry and poured all of those dreams into this?

Libby: Todd told me this was a romantic comedy. I don't think this is a romantic comedy.

Watchmen (March 6)


Todd: Like all good nerds, I love Watchmen (especially the final chapter and that chapter where we learn Dr. Manhattan's backstory in piecemeal fashion and -- Libby is insisting I say this -- the Ghost Pirates), but I can't imagine America sitting through this and not being completely baffled. "Didn't they already do most of this on Heroes?" your mom will say, and you'll be so surprised she watches Heroes (she only does because she thinks Adrian Pasdar is sexy) that you'll miss, like, I don't know, Nite Owl hitting a guy or something. I want to be optimistic about this, since the cast is pretty great (and Jackie Earle Haley appears to just be giving us the greatest version of Rorschach ever from some other movie), but the Zack Snyder (sorry ... VISIONARY DIRECTOR Zack Snyder) gives me pause. His Dawn of the Dead was a lot of fun, but his 300 indicated that he doesn't really think much about the material he's given beyond, "What would be cool?" Which is a problem for this particular project. Just sayin'. Oh, and there's a lot of Big Blue Weenis in this movie. Your mom's going to find that particularly baffling. Or arousing. Depends on your mom.

Libby: I used to spend a lot of time trying to picture a movie created specifically to NOT appeal to me. Who would score it. What it would feature. Subject matter. It's nice that I don't have to think about that anymore. This is just pretentious nerd porn.

Todd: Like our marriage!

*drum riff*

Duplicity (March 20)


(Since Libby is such a huge fan of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, we will reverse our usual repartee.)

Todd: I have seen the ads for this before! It is called Leverage, and it begins airing in a couple of weeks on TNT.

Libby: Once I thought that it would be such a good idea if they took Ocean's 11 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and a bunch of other movies and made it into one movie and cast all of my favorite people in it, and they're all so pretty, and I don't care what they're saying because they're all so pretty and we're gonna go see this like 60 times in the theaters. Also, HUGE Tony Gilroy fan. Huge.

Star Trek (May 8)


Todd: There was a brief time when Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was my favorite movie of all time because I was not allowed to consume science fiction until very recently before I saw it so just the very idea of ALIENS?! WHAT?! blew my mind, despite the fact that it was fairly derivative and was just an excuse to give William Shatner a ski weekend, I think. That said, I'm pretty interested to see this, if only because I want to see if my hypothesis about J.J. Abrams (namely, that he really doesn't create characters, just types) is correct. If it is, this movie could be pretty awesome, because Kirk, Spock and McCoy aren't CHARACTERS, per se, they're just awesome dudes in space. And there's nothing wrong with that. Still, Abrams never met a character building moment he couldn't turn into DRIVING A CAR OFF THE GRAND CANYON, so this could end very poorly indeed.

Libby: Y'know, I used to spend a lot of time trying to picture a SECOND movie created specifically to NOT appeal to me. Who would score it. What it would feature. Subject matter. It's nice that I don't have to think about that anymore.

Todd: But what about the BIG RED MONSTER?!

Libby: Does Bugs Bunny do his nails?

Todd: No.


Up (May 29)


Todd: I have no idea why Pixar always opens its trailers with "DO YOU REMEMBER ALL OF THESE MOVIES WE MADE THAT YOU LIKED? WELL, WE'VE MADE ANOTHER MOVIE, AND PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE IT AS MUCH AS THOSE, BUT MAYBE NOT. OH, LOOK, THERE'S FINDING NEMO. HURRAH!" but they seem to feel as though they need to remind us of their pedigree when they're one of the few reliable brand names LEFT anymore. This is like if McDonald's was constantly saying, "Remember how much you liked the Big Mac? And the Egg McMuffin? Well, here's a fried goat's ear on a bun." Or something. Maybe Pixar has a giant inferiority complex, since they've mostly ceded the box office crown to the pop culture quotin' wackadoos over at Dreamworks (though I hear Kung Fu Panda was fun). At any rate, I also like how they apparently choose some new object to render in an insane amount of detail with every movie. Monsters Inc.: Fur. Finding Nemo: Water. WALL-E: Grime. With this, it appears that John Lasseter just threw up his hands and said, "You know what they haven't seen? Balloons!" and everyone just shrugged and said OK, because who doesn't like balloons? That said, you ever notice how the insanely detailed special features on Pixar DVDs make everyone an expert on what it's difficult to do in computer animation? Like, I don't think I've seen a review of this trailer where someone didn't nod sagely and say, "It must have been MURDER to render those balloons," as though they've ever used their computer for rendering, much less figured out where the hell they hid Spider Solitaire. But, yes, I will see this. Opening night. Because, dammit, I love balloons.

Libby: I guess I just spend most of my time rendering meat.

(Obligatory Gran Torino joke. Two jokes for the price of one!)

Libby: If I knew how to render my computer graphics, I would totally put Clint Eastwood from Gran Torino into the Up trailer. "GET OFF MY LAWN!"

2012 (July 10)


Todd: Do you suppose Roland Emmerich is really irritating to go on vacation with? Like, as his wife and kids are enjoying the sights of downtown New York or an ancient monastery or, I don't know, John Cusack's villa, is he just sitting there and saying, "I wonder what this would look like if you flooded it with a giant wave of water?" Whatever works, I guess. Anyway, he's finally made a movie geared almost entirely to the listening audience of Coast to Coast AM (which is apropos, since The Day After Tomorrow was actually BASED ON A BOOK BY ART BELL), which is constantly freaking out about how the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. My theory on this: They were going to keep making their calendar, but they were exterminated. Probably by Roland Emmerich. Also, more trailers should end with a plaintive cry that their titles should, nay, MUST be Googled for us to get the full import of what's going on. And it appears that the studio Google-bombed the term 2012 so that the first three results you get are the Wikipedia page (which screams in the summary, "a great year of spiritual transformation (or alternatively an apocalypse)," which describes so, so much of my life) and the studio Web site for 2012 and a site about how to SURVIVE 2012. This reminds me of when I used to haunt peak oil survivalist Web sites and there was a kid who liked to bow hunt and talked with some fervor about how when the end came, he would kill and eat the neighbor's dog. I wonder what he's up to nowadays?

Libby: Really? REALLY? No.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 17)


Todd: I actually really liked Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was the only non-Prisoner of Azkaban Potter that was worth anything (Chris Columbus' first two movies tried too hard to shove everything into one picture, and Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire never was able to find a consistent throughline for one of the best books in the series). David Yates jumped up straight from TV to do some nicely moody work, which appears to have continued on this. He's going to need all the luck he can get though because the first three-quarters of this book are an awkward blend of romcom and the world's longest infodump ever (as Harry goes back into the past to see literally every formative event in the life of Voldemort). Of course, no one remembers that because J.K. Rowling killed off a major character at the end (can I spoil now? I'll play it safe), and that made Libby stay up all night to read and then cry the rest of the night, even though my sister was IN THE NEXT ROOM, and we had to go to the beach that day. They also haven't apparently fixed the whole thing where Emma Watson has more chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe than the constantly mugging, clean-shaven red tree sloth they've gussied up to play Ron.

Libby: I think I'm getting old. I just watched that trailer, and I thought, "Oh, look at how grown up those kids are. I remember when they were just yea-high!" I'm gonna go drink.

(Hey, did you guys know Clint Eastwood is SINGING in his new movie, Gran Torino?! No, really! It's the best thing since he sang in Paint Your Wagon (gonna paint it good). Go here and scroll down to Gran Torino and click Play. Enjoy!)


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Shield finale open thread

(Too busy to blog tonight, but I want to keep this site up and running as much as possible, so jump below for some quick, spoiler-y thoughts and contribute yours in comments.)

The Shield, I think, was a show that actually GOT BETTER as it went along because it was able to use the weight of events that had come before to inform events in whatever its current season was to great effect. To that end, the more action-oriented season one (which really kind of feels like 24 and is of-a-piece with the immediately post-Sept. 11 milieu it sprung forth from) now seems to me to be one of the series' weakest seasons.

The finale did a good job of managing to avoid expectations while still coming up with a fitting ending for its despicable central character (he's not in jail or dead, but he's stuck in an office job that seems ill-suited to him, and he's lost everyone he ever cared about). The conclusion of the Shane storyline was as gut-wrenching as anything I've seen on TV (particularly Vic avoiding looking at the photos of the aftermath), and I loved that final scene between Chiklis and Pounder, two actors really giving it their all.

I also liked how the finale perfectly laid out where these people are going to be for the rest of their lives without feeling the need to tell you. There was no ambiguity, but there was also no real narrative hand-holding.

The Shield has always been a series I've been a little skeptical about (I find some of its brutishness in its storytelling a turn-off), but the way the series ended has sort of elevated all of it for me post-airing. I may just have to go back and revisit all of it.

What did you think?



I think the term "Very Special Episode" went out of vogue sometime around when Family Ties went off the air. Tonight's House had all the trappings though: an extended running time (eight extra minutes), a shot of melodrama added to the usual formula, and a possible exit for a major character. How did it all play out?

I've been a fan of Zeljko Ivanek since Homicide and loved his work on Emmy-winning work on Damages, not to mention his scene-stealing in John Adams. Don't get me wrong, Ivanek is good in his role as a patient who takes House, Thirteen, and others hostage to secure a diagnosis. But the role as written is so functional, the character so single-minded, that we never get to see Ivanek really strut his stuff until the very end. As usual, the point of this episode was to comment on House: his cynicism, his estrangement from others, and what he's doing about it.

House is actually pretty noble for most of this episode, trying to treat the patient and get hostages released with no one getting hurt. (I liked the use of Cuddy's wall as a board for the differential) I won't spoil the ending for those with TiVo, but late in the episode there is a moment when House could end the crisis but doesn't take the chance because the patient hasn't been diagnosed. While it seems absurd this behavior is actually entirely consistent with House's character, and anything less would be a disappointment.

But the real star tonight is Olivia Wilde's Thirteen, who as we've already learned this season seems to be running out the clock after that Huntington's diagnosis. Thirteen is forced by the hostage taker to take all of the meds that he takes as an insurance against poisoning, and the drugs combined with her disease leave her near death. Again no spoilers, but by the end of the episode Thirteen has in effect become the anti-House - choosing life and human connection over self-involved misery. I wasn't really surprised by the way anything resolved itself in this episode, but there's real potential in the House-Thirteen relationship. How will one doctor's attitude towards sickness and her own life (as she undergoes a Huntington's clinical trial) influence the other? Maybe something special came out of this week's House after all.


Monday, November 24, 2008

What's the matter with Fringe?

Everything that's wrong with Fringe, Fox's newest drama hit (though I use that term pretty loosely) is eminently fixable if the producers will just look back to the show's most obvious influence -- The X-Files. However, I don't really expect anyone to actually go and fix Fringe, because it's just good enough that it can probably skate by for years and years and years without anyone ever turning it off. It's solid B television, which we can definitely use more of in a world of Knight Rider and Deal or No Deal and 'Til Death. But the sad thing about Fringe is that it doesn't even seem to be bothered with attempting greatness, instead settling for being a solid, middle-of-the-road programmer. I enjoy the show from week to week, but it evaporates as soon as it's over. This is a disappointment, mainly because of the people behind the show (it's J.J. Abrams' first official creation since Lost -- before that, he created Felicity and Alias, two highly addicting shows in their own ways). If Fringe came from the producers of October Road (as the surprisingly compelling Life on Mars does), we might all be hailing it as a solid step up. But that's the price you pay when you're a TV supergenius producer. David Sims and I will be dealing more directly with Abrams in a future chat here, but for now, let's take a look at the five biggest things wrong with Fringe and see if we can't fix them to turn this B show into an A show that keeps us riveted from week to week.

Anna Torv is too bland to be the lead of this show. This is kind of a hard thing to just fix because Torv's character -- Olivia -- is pretty central to the premise of the show (there's just no good way to have all of these characters come together without her as the focal point. On another show, you MIGHT be able to kill her off and have some other character fill the same role, but since this is a hit, presumably we're going to just tweak the formula, not upend it. I don't know if Torv is struggling with the accent, or if the character is just really underwritten. I suspect it's both (Abrams tends to write types in the early going of his shows and then let the actors play the hell out of them -- he just didn't manage to find the actor to breathe life into this one).

How do we fix this? This is the one I just don't know about. We've got Darin Morgan on the show, and he was good at finding the odder angles of the glum Fox Mulder on The X-Files. Maybe we turn him loose on her. Either that or we elevate another character to work alongside her more consistently. Maybe Joshua Jackson?

In general, the ensemble is too overpopulated. This show has way too many characters. You've got Olivia. Then you have the Bishop boys. All three of these characters are probably necessary (unless you can figure out how to make the show work without Olivia -- I can't). Then you've got Lt. Cedric Daniels, who is pretty good as an authority figure but probably doesn't need to be in EVERY episode (he'd make a good recurring, Skinner figure, if we're looking at X-Files again). THEN you have assistant girl, who is fun (and David's favorite character, I think) but also incredibly unnecessary. THEN you have Massive Dynamics lady and Olivia's dead boyfriend, both of whom are effectively recurring but could be in a LOT fewer episodes. And finally, you have Kirk Acevedo who turns up every so often to do one or two random things. Trying to service all of these characters takes away from the cases, which, in general, are the best thing on the show (I've quite liked the crazy stuff in the last couple of episodes).

How do we fix this? Bump Daniels down to 13 episodes or so and take him out of the main credits. Take Massive Dynamics lady and dead boyfriend down to 4-6 episodes each. Dump Kirk Acevedo entirely (I like the actor, but the character is a non-starter). Keep assistant girl around to make David happy. I know that the writers probably have massive plans for all of these characters, but they're kinda sapping the show's energy right now. And, in general, the stuff they're attached too (The Pattern) is too thin to be strung out piecemeal week to week. It's certainly no Lost metaphysical hooey.

The show has too few commercials. I actually do really like this idea of Fox's to have some of its more anticipated shows have fewer commercials (the running-time bumps up against 50 minutes, which is closer to how long shows ran in the early '80s). But this tends to slow the show's pace down a little bit too much, and that means the series is constantly inserting these scenes where everyone talks about what's happened or what's about to happen or the things that the series science is based in. This means lots of exposition that would probably be cut in a 44 minute cut (which would run about the length of every other show on TV) gets left in, and it tends to slow the show down. I suspect that Joss Whedon will know exactly what to do with this extra real estate on Dollhouse (a show I remain optimistic for, despite the bad signs), but the writers on Fringe are still writing to the 44-minute template and then vamping to fill the extra room.

How do we fix this? I suspect this will take care of itself in season two. The limited commercials experiment has been a success for Fox, but not enough of one that they probably won't go back to standard-length episodes come next year. While 22 minutes is too short to do an episode of comedy in, generally, 44 minutes is often close to just about right for an episode of drama on broadcast network.

People buy into the fringe science too easily. One of the things that made The X-Files work was its delicate interplay between skeptic and believer. Obviously, the series fell on the side of the believers (as most television inevitably will), but the dialectic between Scully and Mulder was elastic enough to sustain a whole show and play to a variety of tones. EVERYONE on Fringe has little-to-no reason to not believe in the fringe science Walter Bishop uses, so that limits the series into which kinds of tones it can use. The series is essentially backed into a gloomy corner by the fact that everyone is pretty sure fringe science is real and that The Pattern is really happening.

How do we fix this? This is another thing where the premise of the show is probably too set in stone to really fix this. I guess the thing to do would be to have Bishop's methods fail once in a while and have good, old-fashioned policework prevail. But I'm pretty stymied by this one.

In general, the tone of the show is too unvariable. As mentioned above, the show is pretty unrelentingly dark. There's some humor, but it's of the "Isn't our mad scientist wacky!?" variety, rather than the sort of character-based interplay that made The X-Files work more often than not. The X-Files was able to get away with being a different KIND of show from week to week too -- it was a monster movie one week, a serial killer thriller the next and a goofy comedy the next. Hell, they worked in love stories, comic book type things and psychological mind games along the way as well. Because Fringe seems deadset on tying itself so closely to "reality," the series CAN'T really break out of its box because it can't tell, say, a ghost story or a Bigfoot story without offering some sort of explanation at the end (The X-Files could be pretty ambiguous when it wanted to).

How do we fix this? I think you just try as you might to tell as many different kinds of stories as you can with this series. This is something the writers can probably fix on their own just by varying the TYPES of stories they're telling. Honestly, I think they could go even goofier.

Tomorrow: I dunno yet. Probably something pretty scattered, as I'm going to be out late.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Trailer Curmudgeons, Vol. 7: No one cares what a wiener cat thinks

(Tonight, we will be featuring special thoughts from our cat, Wiener Cat, who is short and enormous. Also, she is a cinephile.)

This time on Trailer Curmudgeons, we're looking at the big, Oscar films. And the films you'll probably actually SEE instead of the big, Oscar films. Don't lie.

Australia (Wednesday)

Quicktime. Check out the Web site here. You can explore the eight themes of Australia, which include land, fire, water, Aborigines and Nicole Kidman.

Todd: Seven years after his Moulin Rouge! was a sensation and kicked off the musical boom of the early Aughts, Baz Luhrmann has returned with a movie that looks like every other movie ever made. It's as though the sheer act of not making a movie created a huge pressure that built and built and built within him until he was sitting at his screenwriting table and just frantically tossing nouns onto sheets of paper. "COWBOY! FIRE! ABORIGINE! BOMBS! LADY! HOEDOWN! TUXEDO! BOAT! UMBRELLA! Good God, Baz, the magic just never left!" In short, this will either be completely ludicrous or COMPLETELY LUDICROUS.

Libby: This looks like Nicole Kidman trying to one-up the entire filmography of Meryl Streep in a single film.


Milk (Wednesday)


Todd: Recent events being what they are and that whole, "Let's give the Oscar to Crash for no reason!" thing of a few years ago being what IT was ALONG with the Academy's recent trend of giving Oscars to long overdue directors like Scorsese and the Coen brothers, this seems like it could be a sleeper winner for Best Picture, since it takes all of the gay themes that frighten Academy members and couches them in a familiar setting (ah, the sweet, blessed biopic, nectar to an Academy member's soul). This is pretty obviously Gus Van Sant, mainstream director, instead of Gus Van Sant, indie wunderkind, but that's a helluva cast, and Victor Garber should pretty much just get it written into his contract with Hollywood that he gets to play all mayors from now on. INCLUDING Marion Berry.

Libby: I like that big rainbow flag.

Wiener Cat: You realize making me comment on every entry is a really stupid idea, right? I'm just gonna fall asleep anyway!

Cadillac Records (Dec. 5)


Todd: Here's ANOTHER biopic, but this one apparently stumbles into a lot of potholes the genre holds for people: famous people introducing themselves to other famous people ("We named our band after one of your songs!"), having a white guy be our window into the world of a minority group that he is exploiting and having slightly talented singers with terrible acting skills play much more talented singers of the past. Also, having Beyonce sing Etta James' "At Last," instead of just lip-synching it, like a GOOD actress would have the common sense to realize was the right course of action is, I'm sorry, Andy, blasphemy.

Libby: Listen. We're going to have to give Beyonce an Oscar. Otherwise, she's going to keep making movies. This is a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Todd: You're not scared she'll be encouraged and make more movies?

Libby: Who, then, would run the Dereon jean empire, Todd? WHO?

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat has discovered a fun bit of carpet fluff and is on strike.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dec. 12)


Todd: Fox has, apparently, taken one of the great, cerebral SF films of all time and turned it into a movie where football stadiums are destroyed. Because that's totally what they were going for in the original. This might be OK if the destruction looked at all cool, but it looks kind of half-assed, and the storyline is apparently something cooked up by Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio while they were on a retreat to help Hollywood figure out how to stop climate change (by, apparently, making multi-million dollar movies that use lots of fossil fuels, I guess). But, hey, Jon Hamm! Whoo!

Libby: But, c'mon! Casting Keanu Reeves as a robot/alien/whatever is definitely a step in the right direction!

Wiener Cat: nb b nnnn.vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvyu7bhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh5

(That's how the neighborhood reacts when they see Wiener Cat a'comin'.)

Gran Torino (Dec. 17)


Todd: That sound you just heard? That's the sound of everyone drawing Social Security stirring excitedly (well, as "excitedly" as they do anything) in their La-Z-Boys and saying, "What's this? A movie that speaks to my everyday concerns and interests like kicking Koreans?" For real, though, I loved Million Dollar Baby. I completely bought into its weird blend of '40s Warner Bros. boxing programmer and '70s-era social message picture. But this movie looks like something Clint Eastwood dreamed up after a long night of watching Fox News. Shame he'll probably win Best Actor in one of those, "Hail the old guy!" wins instead of any number of other folks. And if Jasper Beardley doesn't win Best Supporting Actor for this, why, I'll shake my cane feebly.


Wiener Cat: hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

The Wrestler (Dec. 17)


Todd: I have this friend named Moses (who sometimes blogs here, actually), and this looks like a movie that he dreamed while sick with cholera or something, because it combines one of his favorite things -- PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING -- with something completely out-of-left-field -- Mickey Rourke? -- with a storyline that looks like every Oscar contender ever (seriously, take out the wrestling and wasn't this sort of the storyline of Jack the Bear or About Schmidt?). Darren Aronofsky, tired of having his phantasmagorical images of life and death dismissed by critics unwilling to just GO WITH IT in The Fountain, has turned, I guess, to Dogme 95-style affectations attached to what looks like a fine, if overdone, story, and, predictably, the critics are lapping it up. Still, I'll see this. Curse you, Bruce Springsteen.

Libby: Mickey Rourke's face looks funny!

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat actually bolted at the sight of Mickey Rourke.

The Tale of Despereaux (Dec. 19)


Todd: The book for this was cute, but the movie is apparently one part Ratatouille, one part Dumbo, one part Shrek and one part mystical-properties-of-soup late-night infomercial, so I'm not so sure I'll be seeing this one, especially with a voice cast made up of the Most Annoying Voices in Hollywood (TM). Still, props (grudgingly) for making a non-Pixar, CG-animated film that ISN'T full of pop culture references.

Libby: I just want to punch Matthew Broderick's voice in the face.

Wiener Cat: TTTTdddddddddddddddddddd

Todd: That's cute! She's trying to spell my name!

Libby: Ugh. This is how annoying people are with their babies.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dec. 25)


Todd: This movie looks like it could be really sad. It also looks like it could be really boring. It also looks like David Fincher apparently said to the production designer, "Let's make every scene look like it was shot inside of a Dickensian village snowglobe you might find in an old gay man's curio cabinet." Still, Zodiac was one of the great, unheralded films of last year, and this is a great IDEA for a movie, even if I'm not sure they actually made a great movie. Probably the movie I most want to see of the big Oscar contenders, even if about 75% of me is sure it will be awful.

Libby: Sorry. I'm distracted by the thought of Brad Pitt Dickensian snow globes. Sounds like a mid-morning QVC show if ever I've heard one.

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat is asleep on the Sour Patch Kids, but hopefully she can be roused for ...

Marley and Me (Dec. 25)


Todd: Every Christmas, there's one movie the studios throw out there because they know your grandma won't see any of the Oscar movies or action-heavy franchise movies. This year, they're betting this movie will be that one your Grandma loudly demands to see when you're holding up the line and you have to buy 16 tickets anyway and everyone's sick and tired of being around each other and, "TODD, CAN WE SEE THE MOVIE ABOUT THE DOGS ALREADY? I HEAR THERE ARE SOME LAUGHS IN THAT ONE!" Fine. All right, Grandma. You win, Owen Wilson.

Libby: Also starring Jessica Rabbit as the dog trainer. Great.

Wiener Cat: ` asssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssas

(I ... didn't know she felt so strongly about dogs.)

Revolutionary Road (Dec. 26)


Todd: As recently as five years ago, Revolutionary Road was one of those great American novels no one but English majors had ever heard about, so depressing was it. And now it's been turned into one of those movies your grandma is going to refuse to see in favor of "THAT MOVIE WHERE THE DOG DOES THE THINGS AND I THINK THEY RUN AROUND SOME?" It appears like this has been turned into a movie pretty faithfully, and I'm one of the few who thinks Sam Mendes has, generally, gotten STRONGER as a director since American Beauty (Conrad Hall totally held his hand through that one), so this, of course, means that Leo-maniacs everywhere are going to be disappointed to find out in VERY GRAPHIC DETAIL why, exactly, it was a GOOD THING that Jack froze to death in the North Atlantic instead of settling down with Rose and crankin' out a coupla kids.

Libby: I can feel our marriage dissolving as we watch.

Wiener Cat: 4fvgr/................,


Thursday, November 20, 2008

A modest proposal in re: '80s workplace dramas

(Sorry, Jennifer! Saw your request for a Fringe review after I had already started this post. I'll get up the Fringe piece tomorrow. --ed.)

I don't think it's an overstatement to say the networks are in turmoil. The writers' strike accelerated the erosion of ratings that were already under siege. The seeming promise that serialized dramas held in 2004 ended up being a false one, as viewers were willing to follow only so many serialized dramas at any given time and eventually just gave up on most of them. The only network that doesn't seem to be in imminent danger of failure is CBS, and that's largely because virtually every show they have could be swapped with just about any other show they have. And as much as the other networks try to copy the CBS brand, they just can't make it work because if I want to see rigid, procedural cop dramas, I'll tune into CBS, where at least they know how to make them, thank you very much. (Weirdly, TNT and USA have managed to capture some of the CBS audience with their dramas, but neither network goes in for series as obsessed with procedure as the CBS shows -- something like The Closer is far more about the people solving crimes than the crimes being solved.) ABC's funtime brand of big ensemble dramas full of goofy laughs and heartwarming moments was the most hurt by the strike (faretheewell, Pushing Daisies), The CW discovered that basing its entire future on a poorly conceived 90210 remake was a bad idea, Fox blatantly fails (running Prison Break into the ground) as often as it succeeds (Bones!), and NBC just really has no idea what it's doing anymore.

One of the things I like best about TV is that it almost never really completely reinvents itself. It runs in big cycles. This is why I've been saying for several years that sitcoms would break out in a big way in an upcoming season, and, indeed, sitcoms are on their way up this season, especially on (sigh) CBS. Comedies really seem like they're one Cosby Show or Roseanne away from being the next big thing again. But if that's true, what of the drama? Might I suggest it's time, high time, in fact, for the resurrection of the '80s workplace drama?

Now, the '80s workplace drama never really went away. ER is still chugging along, and it was one of the last successful examples of the form (along with NYPD Blue and The West Wing). Now, ER ceased to be relevent some time ago, but it's still a fun show to dip in on from time to time, particularly in this final season, when they're trying to tie up years and years of storytelling (when the show started, I wasn't even in high school yet, fer goodness sake). You can sort of see in it how a proper spiritual follow-up might come along sooner, rather than later.

What is an '80s workplace drama? It's kind of a blend of the serialized soap operatic storytelling you might see on a Dallas or a Desperate Housewives (only more low-key, like on, say, Brothers & Sisters or Family) and the social-issues based dramas of the '60s and '70s (we really don't have a contemporary example of this, but if you ever watched The Defenders or Marcus Welby or Lou Grant, there you go -- Judging Amy, of all things, was vaguely similar as well). The height of the form probably came in three series that aired on NBC in the '80s, starting with Hill Street Blues (which pioneered the form), leading into St. Elsewhere, and concluding with LA Law, which segued into a particular SUBSET of the '80s workplace drama, the David E. Kelley Whackazoid Workplace Jamboree (currently exemplified by Boston Legal and reaching its peak in Picket Fences -- ALSO a quirky small town show -- and The Practice). Broadly, the '80s workplace drama is about a group of dedicated professionals who may not like their jobs, per se, but work hard at them. These professionals have deeply interconnected personal lives (in most modern examples of the form, this means they sleep around a lot), and their home lives often interfere with their work lives. Finally, they're always confronting the prominent Issues of the Day, which have a tendency to walk straight through the door of their workplace.

I can see you saying that Grey's Anatomy does a lot of this stuff, and it's sort of fallen apart in the ratings (I would say it was back together creatively, but then they brought in zombie Denny, which, while awesome in an unintentional comedy sense, really doesn't make a lot of sense), but Grey's has always put its thumb a little too heavily on the soap side of the scale to be a true workplace drama (it also rather steadfastly avoids serious issues in favor of cool medical stories). Plus, most of the characters only sleep with each other, thus keeping their family lives out of the storyline proper (when they've tried to mine drama from the Chief or Bailey's marriages, it got pretty boring pretty quickly).

You can see bits and pieces of a show LIKE this all over the dial (again, those TNT shows come pretty close from time to time), but you never QUITE see a show put it all together. Since TV tends to move in cycles and since we've been riding this never-ending wave of '70s-style cop dramas and soaps, it really feels like it might be time for another workplace drama or two to raise its head. Just taking a look at what's coming up, I wonder if The Unusuals, a cop drama on ABC from some of the producers of Rescue Me, won't live up to some of these specifications. But we needn't ONLY see shows set in law firms, police precincts and hospitals! Let's see something set in the halls of government (even local government) or a newspaper office or, heck, a nursing home (though that sounds pretty depressing).

If we're looking for places to go with workplace dramas, here are some episodes to check out (these are all Hulu links, so they won't work for you non-U.S.icans):

It's not a bad idea to pick up with the '80s workplace drama where it all began, so here's the pilot for Hill Street Blues, Hill Street Station. The first two seasons are available on Hulu, and the second season, in particular, is worth a watch. Hill Street was famous for how it created a whole NEIGHBORHOOD that its precinct was at the center of, and you start to get a sense of that neighborhood in this pilot, as well as for the terrific characters the show boasted.

I go back and forth on whether or not Hill Street or St. Elsewhere is my favorite of the '80s workplace dramas. While Hill Street was obviously more influential, St. Elsewhere has always been a show I've cottoned to more PERSONALLY (though, obviously, I think the world of both shows). This episode shows how St. Elsewhere integrated serious issues of the day (homelessness in this one) rather organically. The whole first season is available on Hulu.

Finally, because Hulu has no examples of LA Law, here's a pretty good episode of The Practice -- its first season finale, in fact, wherein David E. Kelley set aside most of his showy tendencies to just sink his teeth into a meaty story. Granted, as the show went on, it got more and more ridiculous, to the point where it spun off Boston Legal, but in its first two or three seasons, The Practice was solid television.

So which workplaces would you like to see dramas set in? And are there any series on TV today that seem to borrow this template more thoroughly? Or am I the only one longing for the return of the '80s workplace drama?

Tomorrow: Why Fringe needs more commercials.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Who says the Easter Bunny's not real?": NCIS and The Mentalist

NCIS is a cool TV show for people who've never seen cool TV shows. In the manner of all CBS shows, it's endlessly, endlessly competent, and when you watch an hour of it, that hour passes as quickly and painlessly as possible, but none of this explains why the show has randomly become one of the biggest on television, bested only by Dancing With the Stars, CSI or 60 Minutes in any given week. What's more, the show is basically not watched by anyone in the 18-49 demographic (it finished FOURTH IN ITS TIMESLOT in that demo this week, while it looks likely to be the second or third most watched show overall!), which means that you almost never hear about it unless you go home for Thanksgiving. Still, the show continues to grow from year to year in a time when every other show is dropping, due to the general slump in network TV ratings. But WHY is the show so huge? I think you can only answer that by analyzing how the show appropriates a lot of hip elements from OTHER shows and sands them down until they're basically palatable to a more mass audience.

The first thing you need to know about NCIS is that it was created by Donald P. Bellisario, who's created five huge, hit dramas (which is nothing to sneeze at) but had only one attain success in mass pop culture. Magnum P.I., his first big series, made Tom Selleck a household name and was all over the culture in the mid-80s. He followed that up with Airwolf, a series I really only know of because it was the favorite of most of the guys in my kindergarten class. Quantum Leap was his next hit, and it was actually kind of a critical smash and garnered a number of Emmy nominations, though it was never a huge hit in the ratings (its cult, however, starved for science fiction, was sizable). Bellisario's next big series was JAG, which was canceled by NBC but picked up by CBS and then ran for millions of years in what seemed to be a parallel universe where everyone was really obsessed with JAG and wanted to know if the two lead characters would get together. NCIS, similarly, seems to run in a parallel universe where everyone is obsessed with NCIS, but it actually has the monster ratings to support this theory (the show has been huge IN RERUNS on Fridays, and its replays on USA also do very well). Despite that, media attention for the show is practically non-existent, and every article written about the show is mostly about how the media never writes articles about the show.

I've only seen a handful of NCISes over the years, but I do think the show has improved substantially since its first season, when it was known as Navy: NCIS and when the crime-solving was clumsily integrated with action sequences. The series has developed a nicely quirky sense of humor, and it has a variety of characters whose interplay is more enjoyable than something you might see from, say, the supporting stiffs on Cold Case. While the plotting is standard-issue CBS "guess the killer from the variety of guest stars" stuff, it at least offers some level of complexity beyond that of some of the other CBS shows. Indeed, the episode I watched this week mostly ditched the mystery of the week (some guy who was found dead in a box) to focus on an elaborate plot to out a mole within the NCIS unit (plus, it was a to-be-continued, which is something you rarely see on the serial-terrified CBS). I suspect that a large part of NCIS' popularity is that it has a kind of conviction in its characters, so it knows the audience will follow an off-template hour that's less about crime-solving and more about how the characters come together to solve a mutual problem (and, in fact, the mole was ONE OF THEIR OWN). It really strikes you as you watch NCIS that for all of CBS' blathering about creating its own hit serial and its attempts to make shows like Without a Trace or CSI into serialized entertainments, NCIS has actually pulled off the difficult transition from procedural show to limited serial.

And that's a part of its appeal -- people really dig the characters, and they're interested in seeing how they work together and banter among themselves. Nothing here is as complex as what you might see on, say, Lost or even House, but it's just complex enough to feel satisfying while not being so inscrutable as to lock out those who haven't ever seen an episode before. Plus, it takes a lot of elements of other, better and cooler shows and tosses them into its template. There's a cool, nerd girl. There's a guy who seems to ONLY make pop culture quips (rather insufferably, I might add -- he's easily my least favorite character). The camera occasionally swoops around. Something like a cool, techno throb beats on the soundtrack. And the Bones-y sense of humor is ever-present (NCIS predates Bones, of course, but the sense of humor came along over time, so I feel comparing the two makes sense). Every so often, the show combines all of this into one scene, and it becomes well-nigh impossible to watch, but most of the time, it's very carefully making itself SEEM cool without ever actually BEING cool. I don't think I'll ever quite bring myself to LIKE NCIS, but I can definitely see why it's become the favorite show of everyone in America who's over 50.

I'm less sure on The Mentalist, which is the biggest new show of the year by far (Fringe, which is second behind it, draws just over half the audience). The series seems to be justification for CBS' seeming obsession with turning Simon Baker into a TV star over the last ten years, and Baker's pretty good in the lead role. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the series is just USA's Psych played straight, and the premise -- super smart guy with one particular gift (in this case, the ability to pay really close attention and figure out when people are lying) helps the government solve crimes -- is straight out of the CBS playbook. The Mentalist could be the greatest show this side of Mad Men, and it would still seem tired.

Unfortunately, The Mentalist is NOT the greatest show this side of Mad Men. The writing is all right, but it feels the need to hammer home every plot point (like most CBS shows). There was a seance in the episode I screened that played like basically no seance ever would (I'm not saying that the show has to respect mediums or spiritualists, since the whole premise is that they're charlatans, but making them THIS BIG of charlatans lets everyone off the hook too easily). In addition, the show has some of the same affliction that House does in that it always feels the need to soften its main character's harsh stance against the unknowable in an attempt to keep itself from isolating the millions who DO believe in that which you can believe in only through faith. CBS has succeeded through making lots and lots of shows like The Mentalist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that yet another has succeeded, but it's still just a little disappointing that the network has such a stranglehold on what people are willing to watch.

One of the other things that's interesting about NCIS and The Mentalist is that The Mentalist, like most CBS shows, makes its main character a crime-solving machine. While he has the obligatory sadness about his dead wife and daughter, when it comes to solving a case, he's all business. NCIS, meanwhile, at least tries to give its characters points where they're sort of weak. The woman who's the mole is working because the bad guys have her daughter, and the main character worries this is all a trap for him since he would uniquely be affected by a story like that, having faced similar trauma with his kid. The whole CBS formula is based around the crime solvers being impossibly perfect machines. It's part of what makes the shows so comforting to so many (the bad guys are always going to get theirs), but it's also what makes the network so hard to take in so many ways. The only show OTHER than NCIS where the characters find themselves personally torn up by cases on a week-to-week basis is the generally solid Without a Trace (CSI also dips its toes into these waters), but the other shows fall too easily into a staid formula. I'd rather spend time with imperfect crime solvers like Charlie Crews on Life or the gang on House. The CBS supermen just hold so little interest to me anymore.

(Here's a random thing I noticed watching this much CBS that wasn't How I Met Your Mother -- have you ever seen how DIFFERENT the commercials on CBS are from the commercials everywhere else? They all seem pitched at a small town in Nebraska -- ads for K-Mart and for Glade air fresheners and not a cell phone or iPod ad to be seen anywhere.)

Tomorrow: Taking a look at Fringe, a review of Mad Men season two or a request for the return of the workplace drama. Speak up as to what you'd like to see in comments.