Category Archives: Television

More Shows Like Gotham That Fox Can Do!

Fox recently announced Gotham, a Batman show that does not have Batman in it. In that show, Batman and Penguin and Catwoman will be kids, and all of the cool crime-fighting and crime-doing will be done by other people. It’s all of your favorite things about Batman, kind of! I think it’s a great idea for a show. Here are some other shows that Fox can do:

Westchester

Scotty summers and his brother Alex like to hang out with their friends Jean, Bobby and Hank. They play pirates sometimes. Every so often they go over to their friend Warren’s house. Warren’s house is really big, and it has a lot of rooms where they can play pirates. Every so often the TV news says something about “mutants.” Scotty and his friends don’t know what mutants are because they are small children.

Krypton

Jor-El is a respected scientist who does science things at the University of Science on Krypton. Lots of other people don’t like his science. Jor-El thinks bad things will happen. “Nah,” say the bad guys, “bad things won’t happen.” This goes on for eight seasons, and in the last episode Jor-El’s planet explodes.

Rogers

Steve Rogers is a short, underweight guy during WWII. He really wants to be a soldier, but he can’t because he is small. This is the plot of every episode for all seven season of the show, which lasts longer than actual WWII.

Paradise Island

Princess Diana and her friends grow up together on Paradise Island, which is a nice place. Every so often the adults fight cyclops’ and minotaurs, but Princess Diana and her friends don’t. They are kids and they stay at home during the monster fighting. Sometimes Princess Diana thinks about leaving the island, but then she doesn’t.

Air Jordan

Hal Jordan is a guy who wants to be a pilot. (See? You thought the title was about basketball, but it wasn’t!) He goes to airplane school, and in later seasons he becomes a real, actual pilot. The entire show is about airplanes. In the last scene of the last episode of season nine Hal Jordan gets a weird ring. He says “In brightest day…” and then the credits roll and then the show is over forever.

Stark

Tony Stark is a wealthy guy who likes to drink wine and date ladies. He is also secretly unhappy. Every so often, for six seasons, he looks wistfully at a robot arm.

Speedster

Barry “Speedster” Allen is a high school cross country runner, except in the spring when he’s a high school track and field runner. Barry Allen likes running. He has a coach and teammates. They are teenagers and the show is about how much they enjoy running together.

Those are my ideas for shows! Superheroes!

Holidays With the Idiot Box: What I Learned From Watching Way Too Many 1980s Christmas Specials

This past Saturday a friend of mine hosted in a party with a simple conceit: We’d all gather ’round her television and watch Christmas specials from days of yore. Not the good ones. The terrible ones. The cheap ones. The ones specifically designed to fascinate credulous, stupid kids. For nearly eight hours a roomful of twenty- and thirtysomethings drank copious amounts of booze, stuffed ham into their faces, and consumed the stale remnants of TV past. This is what I gleaned from the experience.

The Jetsons’ Christmas Carol

I never felt one way or another about The Jetsons. I might have watched the show a bit when I was very, very young, but I discovered Star Trek and science fiction pretty early on, and TNG and Asimov were soon scratching my space itches. Cartoon space people didn’t seem all that interesting compared to Captain Picard. Based on their Christmas special it seems that Young Me made absolutely the right decision, because this show seemed extraordinarily dull. That made me a little sad, as the futuristic optimism that seems to pervade The Jetsons seems admirable. We’re awash in dystopias and apocalypses, and I’d love to see modern science fiction get back to flying cars and pet aliens, if only for a moment.

I liked the Jetsons in that one Kanye video, though.

Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

Yogi Bear is a bad character. I thought that as a kid, and I think that now. He’s an asshole who steals people’s lunches and always gets what he wants. He harasses a put-upon government employee who’s trying to keep our national parks system running, and jerks around his weary sidekick. He’s neither a character that the audience can root for, nor is he an interesting bad guy a la Walter White. He’s just a jerk we’re supposed to think is funny.

You know who’s way more cool than Yogi Bear? Winnie the Pooh. Pooh struggles, learns, and wrestles with the world around him. Despite being a Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh puts that brain to use and attempts to grapple with challenges in a way that’s identifiable and sympathetic. We have all been Pooh. We have all had to deal with blustery days, been afraid of huffalumps, and eaten too much honey. Pooh is Job. He’s an everyman. He’s us. Yogi would probably steal Pooh’s lunch and just think it was funny.

Yogi’s Christmas special is garbage. Snagglepuss and some other people show up. Yogi dresses up as Santa. Woo.

The Cabbage Patch Kids Christmas Vacation

The Cabbage Patch Kids are effing creepy and if you think they’re cute it’s probably because you’re a serial killer with several lengths of stretched human skin drying in your basement. My personal theory is that they are not children at all, but demonic cabbage golems closely related to the goblins from Troll 2. I did not like this special.

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land

There was a whole slew of media layered onto Pac-Man (including a theme park) and in retrospect it all seems massively forced. There’s no real depth to Pac-Man. He eats things. Ghosts chase him. Sometimes he chases ghosts. That’s it. Any pursuit of a larger mythology is going to run into a wall eventually, because writers tasked with making a Pac-Man cartoon are going to have to constantly dream up a new adventure for him that involves chomping. Every plot, problem, solution, everything: It will all have to involve power pellets. That does not make for a compelling, deep story or fictional world.

In Christmas Comes to Pac-Land Santa’s Sleigh crashes, but Pac-Man and his friends fix it. Santa’s worried that he doesn’t have enough time for Christmas, but Pac-Man gives St. Nick and the reindeer some power pellets. Fueled by the most unadorned of video game power-ups, Kringle & Co. zoom through the air and deliver presents to the children of the world. As far as Pac-Man Christmas stories go, that’s pretty much the best you could probably do. It’s got Santa, there’s a central conflict, and then the problem is solved with glorified gluttony.

G.I. Joe, Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town

G.I Joe was the one cartoon I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid. My parents said that it was jingoistic and glorified militarism and, to be fair, they were absolutely right. Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town prominently features a shrink ray that is also an embiggening ray, and at the end of it a giant parrot saves the day. This special wasn’t great, but given all the wackiness I kind of wish I had been allowed to watch G.I. Joe.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Chirstmas Special

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is one of the only pieces of kid media that I’ve enjoyed more as an adult than as a kid. I didn’t get it as a kid. There was usually only the bare bones of a plot, I found Paul Reubens’ voice grating, and I was probably profoundly bored by the sever lack of dinosaurs, swords, and spaceships.

Now, though, I appreciate the gleeful maximalist surrealism of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the Christmas special was utterly fabulous. The list of stars (Magic Johnson! Charo! Oprah!) is extensive to the point of ridiculous, and the show seems to know exactly what it’s doing. It knows that it’s a plotless, shiny mess, and it revels in its own weird nature. I don’t know if I really like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse now, but I certainly respect it.

Super Mario World, The Night Before Cave Christmas

Super Mario World does not (somewhat confusingly) take place in a world called “Super Mario World.” It take place in Dinosaur Land. There are no dinosaurs in Dinosaur Land. There are turtles, dragon turtles, piranha plants, and angry eye-having mushrooms, but there are no tyrannosaurs, triceratopses, or pachycephalosauruses. Sure, there’s Yoshi. Yoshi is, like, some kind of deinonychus thing (I guess) but she’s (I’m assuming the female pronoun is okay here, because egg-laying) is all cartoony and cute. Dinosaurs are not cute. Dinosaurs are prehistoric instruments of thunder and blood, and Yoshi is too scared to go into a ghost house. A real deinonychus would not be scared of ghosts, be they house-based or otherwise. A real deinonychus would find a way to hunt and eat an incorporeal being.

ANYWAY, Dinosaur Land is a place where there are no dinosaurs, but there is Yoshi, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and some cavemen. At least there are in the cartoon. There were no cavemen in the Super Mario World video game. As a kid, it made me really, really angry to see cavemen portrayed next to dinosaurs in popular culture. “CAVEMEN AND DINOSAURS DIDN’T LIVE TOGETHER” I would angrily shout at the Flintstones and other, similar things “THEY DIDN’T WHY ARE YOU WRONG I DON’T LIKE THIS CARTOON.” Maybe as a result of this I’ve never thought that cavemen are cool. Early humans are cool. I totally geeked out over Otzi the Iceman when they found him in 1991. That was amazing, and I learned all about how he might have lived from various TV specials and articles that came out at the time. I enjoyed anthropology classes. Early humans are alright.

As a cultural and genre concept, though, I’ve never liked cavemen. Cavemen are almost always portrayed with dinosaurs and as a trope they represent more than anything else pop culture being wrong about science. Bowser, for some reason, captures a caveman and then Mario and Luigi have to save him. Then something about Christmas. I don’t know. This show was awful.

Super Mario Super Show, Koopa Clause

No. No, no, no. NEXT!

The Smurfs Christmas Special

The Smurfs Chirstmas Special is all about Gargamel trying to sell children to Satan. Well, he’s not called “Satan” specifically, but he’s a bearded dude in a red cloak with magical powers who makes people sign contracts. So, Satan. Essentially. Gargamel sells kids to Satan in exchange for anti-Smurf magic, and then the Smurfs have to somehow save the kids from the Lord of Darkenss and the Father of Lies. Satan makes a big ring of flames that would look totally badass at a metal show, but the Smurfs defeat him with the power of love. This one wasn’t “good” or “watchable” but I admired it for being downright weird.

The Claymation Christmas Special

For a moment there in the eighties it seemed like claymation was an unstoppable juggernaut. The California Raisins were everywhere and movies like The Adventures of Mark Twain seemed to be the next big thing in artsy, trippy animation. And then it just went out. Gone. There’s a little bit here and there, but nothing like the juggernaut that used to exist.

The Claymation Christmas special is essentially plotless and it’s badly written. Two dinosaurs evocative of Siskel and Ebert introduce Christmas songs, and then a music video happens. The visuals are amazing, though, and the energy and enthusiasm of the animation almost makes up for the utter lack of story, character, or jokes that are not horrible.

It was all surface. It’s great surface, but still, that’s it. Maybe that’s why claymation fizzled out in favor of CGI. That’s a lot of surface, too, and probably a bit less messy to animate.

The Real Ghostbusters, Xmas Marks the Spot

The 1980s were awash in cartoons based on hit movies (like Rambo!) and I think it’s safe to say that most of them were cynical cash-grabs. The Real Ghostbusters (as opposed to the other Ghostbusters) probably started out as one of those, but it somehow rose above the rest and became actually good. I was legitimately surprised as to how good X-Mas Marks the Spot was. The Ghostbusters go back in time and end up busting the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and bad things ensue. The solution they come up with involve both dressing in drag and a 2001 style journey into a weird non-space populated by angry supernatural creatures. It’s amazing.

I want to actually watch more of this show now. It was funny, well-plotted, and legitimately entertaining. It was also written by a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Stracynski, which was kind of neat to see.

The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special

I freely acknowledge that The Masters of the Universe was badly animated crap designed to sell toys. Of all the badly animated crap designed to sell toys, though, it was the best. The creators probably just assumed that kids liked lasers and space and monsters and pegacorns rockets and swords and robots and everything so it just all goes in there. If it’s cool, if kids like it, it’s in there. Don’t worry about how it works. Don’t worry about how He-Man can breath in space. Don’t worry about how She-Ra’s pegacorn can travel between planets. Don’t worry about any of that. Just let it all coexist. That’s what kids do when they play pretend, after all.

I kind of admire that commitment to absurdity and awesomeness. It’s still dumb, but it’s dumb in a lovable, almost earnest way that’s impossible to deeply hate. The Christmas special (in which two kids from Earth teach Orco and Skeletor about Christmas) isn’t great  but it’s satisfying. The two main characters team up, share screen time, and defeat a slew of robot monsters, Hordak, and Skeletor. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with this bit of

She-Ra, by the way, is way cooler than He-Man. She has a better villain to contend with and (I cannot emphasize this enough) a pegacorn.

I hope that children’s television has improved, at least a little, since I was a kid. Most the junk that I and my friends beamed into our eyes this past Saturday was disposable tripe that had little to no respect for its audience, and I sort of hated the idea that any of this soulless crap ever worked on me. While some of the shows were definitely gems, they were hidden under the big pile of slag that comprises most of pop culture at any given time. For every bit of nostalgic wonder that we had, there were ten moments of hate and boredom, and I wondered what my parents must have thought when they saw me watching things that were so transparently bad decades ago.

Most of the media your remember from childhood was consumerist waste. Most of the stuff you liked as a kid and think fondly of is probably not anything that you’d want to affix your eyeballs to now. Most of it was made by people who probably didn’t have an iota of respect for the end-users, the kids who’d tune in every week. But, somehow, taking it in can be fun. It can be transporting. Against our better judgement we still spend time with things we know are not good, enriching, or valuable. That’s the devious power of nostalgia.

I Guess I Won’t Watch the Olympics, Then

I fenced in college. I enjoyed it a great deal, and still like to think that I would know my way around a foil if one were placed into my hand. When I got home from work this evening, I wanted to watch some Olympic fencing, and revel in the amazing, stabby athleticism of people who are probably embarrassingly superior to me. I went to the NBC website, thinking that that would be my go-to place for Olympic videos. I found a little tab that said “Select Sport” went to “Fencing” and then this abomination popped up:

NBC, I’m trying to watch this on my computer. You know about computers, right? The dominant information-sharing machine of our time? Those? I want to use mine to consume your product. Not a TV. I don’t have a cable provider. I have an ISP. Asking someone to say who their TV provider is before watching something on the Internet is kind of like requiring someone to show proof of horse and buggy ownership before getting into a car. It is utter idiocy. I’d be fine watching ads with my fencing. I would even pay five or ten bucks so I could watch Olympic videos from the NBC site. However, this? This is backward luddite nonsense.

Not that this is a new thing, mind you. I guess I won’t be watching any magnificent dancy/stabby people after all.

Why Avatar: The Last Airbender is One of the Greatest TV Shows Ever Made

Some time ago, I made a go of watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I was in Japan at the time, and watching more anime than was probably good for me. The only Avatar episodes I could find, though, were in English. I was displeased- I didn’t want a dubbed version of Avatar. I wanted it in the original Japanese, so I could maybe actually learn something from it. I looked and looked and couldn’t find any non-dubbed versions of Avatar. It was all in English. I watched Full Metal Alchemist instead.

Later on, much to my chagrin and humiliation, I found out that was because Avatar is, in fact, an American cartoon and was recorded in English.

Earlier this month I finally watched the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved it. I know that the show has been off the air since 2008 and I’m very late to the party about this, but whatever. I feel the need to enthusiastically yell at the Internet about why I enjoyed it so much. If I had to only briefly summarize why I enjoyed it so much, I’d say that Avatar does not traffic in cliches, and is utterly original. In more detail, though:

Avatar nicely demonstrates that “fantasy” truly is limitless.

There is a depressing sameness to fantasy novels/movies/shows/games/etc. If you go to bookstore a peruse the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, you’ll most of the fantastical novels are all about medieval psuedo-Europe. Oftentimes, there are magical swords, wizards, and elves or dwarves or whatever. You know. Tolkien stuff. That stuff is fine, but it’s been played out. The very word “fantasy” implies that a book or show could be about any given thing. It could be about talking ducks or sentient rocks. It could be about a very excitable trees or pan-dimensional toasters. Anything. It’s a fantasy. The writers could go anywhere. Instead, the genre just comes back to the same magic sword stuff, and tosses some elves in there. As much as I enjoyed, for example Dragon Age, I was highly disappointed that it just recycled fantasy conventions. It was great- but it all felt a little stale. Fantasy, lots of creators seem to think, means emulating Tolkien.

Avatar gleefully says “fuck that.” It is a fantasy show, yes, but it’s a fantasy show that’s not about elf-y/dwarf-y stuff. Instead, it’s about Kung Fu. Except the Kung Fu is on fire and there are also people who can make tidal waves by using Tai Chi. One of the principal characters is a six-legged flying bison, because, well, why the hell not? Of course bison can fly. This is a fantasy world and bison can just do that. There are giant lion turtles the size of islands, multi-winged penguins, and immense badger moles who can teach you how to punch mountains. Avatar is a fantasy in that you get the impression that the creators actually, you know fantasized. It is like you are seeing someone’s immensely creative daydream on screen, rather than any kind of adherence to conventions.

What’s more, the show dispenses with both the middle ages and with pseudo-Europe. The technology level of the show seems to be around the late mid 1800s- an industrial revolution has certainly started, but it’s not so widespread that the world is completely mechanized. There are things like trains, ironclad ships, zepplins, and tanks, though they exist alongside with less developed setting elements as well.

The setting evokes Asia more than anything else, though two of the principal characters come from a culture that strongly resembles that of Native Americans. Avatar does for Asian and Native American society what fantasy has done for Europe over and over again- it stylizes it and showcases it as something adventurous and inspiring. What’s more, the Asiatic elements are not just window dressing or some kind of exotic other intruding upon a European setting- instead, the Asian and Native American elements are the setting.

(By the way- I think it’s immensely fantastic that the Avatar showcases nonwhite characters. I don’t ever want to see the live action adaptation of the show, but after watching it I can definitely understand the disappointment of fans who saw characters they loved get whitewashed. The fantasy genre has done a lot to make pseudo-Europe seem kind of badass. And, that’s fine. That’s good. Avatar, though, gave the same kind of wide-eyed fantastical treatment to other cultures, and the world’s a richer place for it. Speaking of which…)

Kung Fu!

Lots of movies and TV shows have terrible fights scenes. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with martial arts. I took fencing and Aikido in college, and learned how to handle a bokken (i.e., a wooden katana) passably well. I spent about a year, once, getting the crap beaten out of me via Pikiti-Tirisia Kali, a Filipino martial art. While I’m by no means a skilled fighter-guy, I know enough to be sort of snobbish about movie fights, and to know how actual humans would actually move if they had swords and stuff.

Anyhow, most fighting scenes in movies and TV are bollocks. Either because the parties concerned don’t know what they’re doing, or because the choreographers just want to make it look cool. I love The Princess Bride as much as any nostalgia-addled nerd, but nothing in that movie resembles actual fencing. Sure, it’s fun, it’s great, it’s a classic but… wow. You don’t actually use a rapier like that. Anyway…

Avatar‘s fighting scenes are not crap. In fact, they’re really, really good. The characters move in very natural ways, and even though the fights often involve boulders and fireballs, all of the action seems like it’s the result of actual humans moving around. It’s free of unrealistic action that pervades other media, and it certainly doesn’t have anything like this. My (limited) experience with martial arts made me enjoy the show’s fight scenes more, not less, and that’s a very, very rare thing in a TV show.

It’s funny

Weirdly, genre entertainments and comedy don’t really go together well. There are very few science fiction comedies (the Back to the Future series is the only one that springs to mind) and most fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones stick to the serious side of things. Avatar, however, actually allows for pratfalls, puns, jokes, etc. And not only that, but it’s pretty good at all of those things. The show is really, really good at comedy, and that only adds to its charms rather than diminishing the epic-ness of the proceedings. The recent season of Game of Thrones actually had a few laughs, but for the most part genre fiction (perhaps because it’s historically been starved of respect) tends to take itself pretty seriously. Avatar, however, proves that you can have a huge, sprawling (and yes, “epic” as well) fantasy and still have jokes. Humor does not detract from the emotional depth of a given piece of fiction. It enhances it. On a related note…

It very skillfully plays with genre

Lots of shows have one-off genre episodes- think Buffy‘s musical episode. Avatar is no exception. One episode of Avatar (“Zuko Alone”) is essentially a spaghetti western. There’s another that’s very similar to an 80s teen comedy. In yet another, the main characters encounter a bunch of Ken Kesey-esque hippies, and at one point there’s a haiku rap battle. The sampling of genre elements, though, does not compromise the integrity of the show. There’s not any blatant fourth wall breaking or cutesy winking at the camera. Instead, Avatar does episodes wherein it tackles given genres on it’s own terms. The aforementioned spaghetti western episode isn’t done as a joke or a parody. Instead, it’s a really, really good half hour about one of the characters feeling lost, alone, and uncertain of his place in the world. Doing up his experience as a drifting, Eastwood-esque vagabond doesn’t cheapen his character development. Instead, the show’s creators use the spaghetti western genre because it works for what the character is going through. The show samples different kinds of genres, and it often does so in a very funny way, but it does not do that to parody those genres. Instead, Avatar knows that those genres have something to offer the characters and the story, and the conventions of those modes of storytelling are appropriate for the moment.

Lastly-

Korra is how you do a sequel.

Yeah, I’ve started watching Korra. It’s fantastic, and I’m very, very pleased that it’s highly different from its predecessor. Avatar looked like it happened in the 1850s or 60s. Korra, seventy years later, really does look like it happens in the 1920s or 30s. Time has passed, the world is different, and the conflicts in Korra are different from those in Avatar. I kind of want a Fire Ferrets jersey.

I hope the team who does these shows keeps with it. I hope they make a sequel to Korra set in the equivalent to the modern day, and a sequel to that set in a cyberpunk-ish future. I hope Nickelodeon gives them gigantic piles of money with which to make television, and that they stay consistently brilliant. I feel really silly, now, about waiting so long to watch this thing. I have been utterly, totally, and completely won over. And I’m not kidding about that Fire Ferrets jersey. Someone please make that happen.

A Post Sort of About Mad Men, In Which I Probably Sound More Bitter Than I Should

Mad Men returns today, and it’s ostensibly a show all about how the lifestyle of white, middle-class America of the mid 20th century was a crumbling facade built upon an unsustainable groundwork of deception, consumerism, patriarchy, and racism. It’s about the sixties not from the perspective of the revolutionaries, but from the perspective of those inside the balsa-wood fortress that is slowly and inevitably collapsing in upon itself due to its own contradictions. It’s supposed to be about that.

But let’s not kid ourselves, Mad Men is also a fantasy show. As much as it’s about the moral corruption and hollowness of the part of America that voted for Nixon, it’s also about wearing great suits, drinking a lot, and having all of the sex with everyone, all of the time. The show gets to have it both ways- it’s an utter condemnation of the ruling order of the 1960s, but it also thinks that its subjects look sort of cool.

This is not a new observation by any means, but when I watch Mad Men the biggest fantasy aspect of the show doesn’t come from the cool clothes, booze, revelry, or sex. The most appealing and fantastical aspect of the show, for me, is that Don Draper and company are creative professionals who can actually pay for shit.

Don Draper is paid quite a good deal of money to think things up and be clever. For his services he is given enough of a salary to have a house, a car, several suits, go out all of the time, fly to L.A. with regularity, and generally not feel any real kind of financial pressure. Sure, Sterling Cooper have to hustle get and keep clients, but it doesn’t seem like any of them every have to crack out the Top Ramen or worry about student loans.

I do fine- I have a day job and freelance, but my lifestyle is by no means middle class. Even though Mad Men is all about how the characters live in an unsustainable system, the lifestyles of the creative professionals it portrays greatly appeals to me. I pay my bills by entertaining tourists and writing blog posts and articles- not a bad deal, certainly, but not enough to, say, buy a car or a house.  As someone who fancies himself a mildly talented creative person, I would love to do what Don Draper does. I’m sure there’s far more to advertising that what’s portrayed in the show, but the idea of being able to have a pretty okay life at a creative job is, for me, the show’s biggest and most frustrating fantasy. If I do attempt to actually live as a professional journalist or writer (which I suppose I am doing right now) I know that in all probability I’ll never do well. I’ll never be able to own a new car or buy an iPad the day it’s released. I’ll probably never own my own home or be able to fly about the country at will. I’ll most likely never be able to party in an expensive city in New York or own lots of nice suits. Actual, real creative professionals are not rich, or even middle class. They enjoy themselves, they live nice, fulfilled lives, but they are certainly not Don Draper.

Is it worth it? Maybe. Probably. American opulence is nothing to celebrate. Watching Mad Men, though, really makes me wish that decently-paying writing and creative jobs like the one Don Draper has were actually real.

In Which I Finally Watch Grimm

It was pretty much inevitable that I was going to start watching NBC’s Grimm, but I put it off for a healthy period of time. It was inevitable because they’ve filmed right outside my home, my work, and during my commute. I’ve seen the trailers, sets, cranes, cameras, boom mics, and port-a-potties strew throughout the city. and all of it has done a lot to pique my curiosity. So, last night during an attack of Crippling Introversion I snuggled up with a mug of green tea and Hulu, and decided to finally watch this thing that has been filming in my live/work/commute space. I also kind of expected to hate it.

Many people (at least the nerds that I tend to hang out with) were comparing it to Bill Willingham’s Vertigo series Fables, a comic that has never really grabbed me. As much as I like Sandman, Transmetropolitan, and Swamp Thing, Fables has always struck me as the contrived and sillier younger sibling of the big kid comics. None of the Fables characters were nearly as well done as Spider Jerusalem, John Constantine or the Swamp Thing. While it’s clever at times, it always seemed like it was skipping the character development step by saying “Hey, look guys! It’s the Big Bad Wolf! You remember him, right? Well, he’s a detective now! Check it out!” It’s fun, but not something as mind-blowing as Sandman or as joyfully profane as Preacher.

So, when I heard that there was a series that was basically Fables (except not) filming in Portland, I kind of went “meh” and thought that I’d never watch it. Last night, though, I was surprised by my reaction: Grimm is certainly not good, but it is also surprisingly not unwatchable. At least from my vantage point as a Portland resident.

Sure, there area lot of things wrong with it. The main character detective guy is a bland cipher, the writing is stilted (at one point someone says “this is no fairy tale” and I wanted to kidney punch whoever put that in there) and the plot of the first episode is stupid and direct in the way that I imagine James Patterson novels are. (I don’t know- I’ve never read a James Patterson novel, but I assume that his books have all the subtlety and plotting of chunk of boiled mutton.)

The look of the show, though, is pretty good. Not the CGI and makeup- that’s totally average. I mean the trees and the dark clouds and craftsman style houses that are all over Portland. The show really looks like Portland, and given that my various jobs tend to all add up to “professional Portland nerd,” I got no end of joy in seeing real, live things that I recognized in the show.

(That said, I was annoyed that the addresses in the show were all fictitious, and, worse than that, did not adhere to Portland’s pretty intuitive numbering conventions. But, apparently all of Law & Order’s NYC locales are made up, so I’ll just have to deal with that.)

The one thing other than seeing my fair city on screen, was Eddie the werewolf. While the protagonist, Nick, is fairly bland, the guy who plays his werewolf sidekick actually seems to be enjoying the part and brings a certain amount of levity the performance. That, and seeing people fight with swords in a modern setting kind of reminded me of Buffy and Angel, and triggered some of my Whedon-based nostalgia buttons.

Grimm certainly isn’t good, but it could become something good. There is potential for it to be much more than just a police procedural with werewolves. It might not be the next Buffy, but it’s by no means a failure. I’d be happy to see it renewed, and continue to plaster my city all over the teevee.

Why Portlandia Doesn’t Work

One of my favorite comedies right now is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The central characters in it are all utterly horrid examples of humanity- each episode is about their various petty squabbles, arguments, idiotic schemes, jealousies, weaknesses, and manifestations of stupidity. The main cast fights, bickers, make horrible decisions, hurt each other, hurt innocent bystanders, and generally act in a contemptible fashion.

But, because the show is made by some very talented people, I still like them.

Even as the creators of It’s Always Sunny send up their characters as objects of ridicule and mockery, you can tell that they still quite like their characters. As nasty as Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Charlie can be- they still manage to grab a certain amount of my affection. I know that in each episode they will do awful things, but it’s a testament to the skills of the actors, directors, and writers that even as they are objects of farce they are also full, real characters whom I am capable of feeling something for.

Likewise, Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock is oftentimes toweringly evil and self-centered. Jack Donaghy is something like a better-coiffed Dick Cheney in his demeanor and outlook. However, as much as he’s portrayed as a villainous caricature of a certain type of conservative exec, Baldwin & Co. don’t forget that for us to keep coming back to 30 Rock, there has to be some humanity there. As much as I’d loathe Jack Donaghy in real life, he remains a real person worthy of empathy in addition to being a figure of fun.

The deft injection of affection and empathy into farce and satire- the streak of love that runs through ridiculous and mean humor- that is what’s missing from Portlandia. That absence of underlying reality- that the people on screen should be people in addition to jokes- is why the show will probably fail.

I’ve only seen the first episode and a few of the promo shorts, but what I’ve encountered so far is not inspiring, and so far I have a certain loathing for the show. This is not because Portlandia is insulting my hometown- quite the contrary, I would love it if we had our own version of Northern Exposure. The problem is that Portlandia doesn’t lampoon this place especially well.

The first episode starts with a clip that’s been going around quite a bit, a song about how “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” You’ve probably seen it already, but here it is:

As far as a big opening number, this doesn’t work at all. Fred Armisen was born in the sixties, and Carrie Brownstein in the seventies. Both of them were in the twenties and thirties in the nineties, and, presumably, enjoying what the youth culture of the time provided. They seem flabbergasted, in the opening song, that some amount of youth culture is still extant, like an old hippie amazed that young people still listen to Led Zepplin.

Yes, current hipster/alternative culture grew out of nineties grunge. Which reacted to, and grew out of eighties new wave and hair metal. Which sprang from seventies punk-rock. Which owed a lot to hippie music from the sixties. Who were preceded by greasers in the fifties. Who in turn were preceded by beatniks in the forties.

Arguing that any kind of youth/pop/alternative/creative culture is similar to what preceded it is facile, annoying, and utterly non-funny. The best humor is smart, and hits upon unthought-of truths. When one says of a comedian “he’s saying what we’re all thinking!” we’re talking of comedy’s ability to express what was known, but never voiced. Portlandia‘s introductory song expresses the obvious and holds it up as if it’s some kind of profundity.

That was only the opener, though. Sitting down to watch the first episode, I hoped that there would be something more inspiring, something that would actually, you know, make me laugh, something that would make me go “yeah, that is true,” and nod in amused recognition.

This did not happen. The sketches seem clunky and joyless, and the whole show occupies a kind of forced, airless space. Not even a Steve Buscemi cameo was able to inject some life into the proceedings.

The central problem was that throughout the episode none of the characters portrayed by Armisen or Brownstein seemed to be real people. I had no sense of connection whatsoever with any of the people whom they portrayed. This is not because they were playing idiots- the crew from It’s Always Sunny have roundly proved that one can play an idiot and still connect with the audience- it was because they seemed uninterested in injecting humanity into their characters. (While on the subject of sketch comedy- there’s more drama, feeling and reality in a single College Humor sketch than any single section of Portlandia. The CH crew also prove that you can mercilessly mock your characters and still get the audience to like them.)

I do want this show to do well. I want it to dramatically improve, take on some new talent, and become a kick-ass sketch comedy show that makes me laugh. I want to hear jokes about how everyone has food allergies, wears stupid hats, has weird facial hair, and eats doughnuts that have bacon on them. My hometown is, I admit, filled with things that can be hilariously mocked.

But I want them mocked well, and with a little bit of love, and joy, and fun. I want to smile while I see my tattooed neighbors insulted. So far, prospects don’t look good.

The Protagonist Syndrome

I recently started watching Carnivale with my girlfriend, and rather like it. I know that it’s one of those shows that ends without complete resolution, but I enjoy the aesthetics of it and the inclusion of supernatural elements that are at once flashy and subtle. I have one problem with it, though: I can’t stand the protagonist. He’s boring, stupid, and lacks a sense of curiosity about the obviously interesting setting he’s in. Worst of all, I can tell that the writers and directors of the show want me to identify with him. I identify far more with the carny hucksters and weirdo psychics, though. I want the show to be about them. The protagonist is dead weight.

This is a common problem.

Protagonists are supposed to be people we identify with, and all too often writers and directors interpret that as “let’s put some boring guy at the center of the action.” And it is usually a guy. And he’s almost always boring. Think about it: Who’s the most interesting character- Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Frodo Baggins or Aragorn? Charlie Bucket or Willie Wonka? Johnathan Harker or Van Helsing? Jack or everyone else on Lost? The list goes on. All too often, perfectly interesting pieces of fiction have their weakest link front and center. Protagonists tend to be watered down, terminally decent, utterly good and rather boring schlubs who somehow get laid despite not having any edge to them at all. Frequently, they are outshone by the supporting cast, who are actually allowed to have a certain dimension of weirdness and even a personal demon or two. Protagonists, though, tend to be empty balls of uncompelling boredom.

What should a protagonist be like, though? How about Willie Lowman, someone who evokes our sympathy and pity even though his plight is different than ours. How about Dr. Frankenstein, whose ambition and lack of responsibility to his work is applicable to pretty much anyone who’s wanted to create something? How about Holden Caufield, who continually struggles for authenticity and who goes crazy while he does it? How about Orlando who retains his/her mercurial identity even though so many other things change? How about Satan in Paradise Lost, who bravely defies stated authority? These characters are all awesome protagonists. They are weird, yes, and oftentimes kind of nasty, but their authors made them real, above all else.

Protagonists don’t have to be decent, “normal” ciphers of characters. They shouldn’t be the one character in the given medium without dimension or depth. I can tell what the creators of various shows and movies are trying to do- they want to provide an empty slate that the audience can project their identifications onto. That’s hugely aggravating, though, because instead of having a person at the center of the action we have a void. The protagonist should carry a story, but all too often they seem to drag it down.

Hooray For Context!

First: “Why can’t you just enjoy it for what it is?” this has been a common complaint levied at me and other people who get overly analytical about popular entertainment. My father said precisely this when he complained about my comparisons of Avatar to Dances With Wolves. He contended that movies need to be viewed as separate, independent entities. (This was also something I heard a lot from an ex who liked fluffy romantic comedies.)

Second: “All it has going for it is character recognition.” This was a gripe by a member of a book group I go to. He said it in reference to two things. The first was Fables, a comic book series about fairy tale characters in the modern world, and then about the new Star Trek movie. “If you were to present these stories without their popular characters,” he said, “they wouldn’t work.”

In both of the above examples, it seems that people want to experience art or entertainment as singular and unrelated to the cultural context around it. Each thing must be taken on its own merits without prejudice or stereotype, seen on its own terms. This attitude is oddly noble but ultimately impossible to realize.

This attitude of experiencing art and entertainment as singular and context-less is noble because it is open-minded, and wishes to find the potential good of a given work. To attempt to see something without context or connections is often an attempt to see it as something intrinsically good. Or, in the case of my book group companion, it is to demand intrinsic goodness only in a work. In either case, there is a deeply held belief that cultural objects should carry some spark of inherent awesomeness, and that spark must be searched for without prejudice.

To some extent I think that is a good thing, and abandoning prejudices about art and entertainment is often a good idea. However, one cannot really abandon context and really see cultural objects as singular. Ask yourself: Could you have gone into the new Star Trek movie and pushed aside all of your visions and notions regarding Kirk, Spock, the Enterprise, etc.? Could you have seriously said “For the next two hours I will forget all of the reruns I saw as a kid, all of the movies, everything I know about Star Trek“? Unless you have a pathologically selective memory, the answer is probably no.

Good artists and entertainers know this. When they know that an audience will see everything in context of everything else, they will play with that and use that. Star Trek was great because it used audience expectations effectively, exploiting the feeling of recognition and connection to wonderful effect.

Two entirely different examples of artists exploiting context for effect are Psycho and Scream. Both of these movies placed prominent actresses, Vivian Leigh and Drew Barrymore, front and center on their movie posters, precisely where you would expect the main character to be, flanked by supporting casts. In both of these movies, though, the top-billed actresses are killed off before the major action takes place, confounding audience expectations. Would the shock in either of these movies have worked if the audience hadn’t seen the movie posters or didn’t know who the actresses were? No, but they didn’t really have to. Hitchcock and Craven knew what people would be expecting because of ad campaigns and movie conventions, and exploited those expectations for effect.

(Tangentially related: My enjoyment of Inglorious Basterds was greatly hampered by the difference between the movie’s trailer and the film itself. I was expecting lots of fun violence a la Kill Bill, but got a spaghetti western. A pretty good spaghetti western, yes, but I kept waiting for the grand guignol promised by the trailer.)

Embracing context and expectations, though, is wonderful. Instead of seeing a pile of things not judged on their own merit, one sees a grand interrelated network of things. Every action movie is related to every other action movie. Comedies are connected to other comedies, horror flicks to other horror flicks. Cognates, similarities, and variations abound. One can see the same convention tweaked over and over again, sometimes badly, sometimes well. Embracing context means that you like synthesis and variation, you accept that things combine and mutate. One can never really see something “on its own terms,” and I, for one, have no problem with that.

A Seriously Geeky Post About Star Trek

I saw the new Star Trek movie this week, and I thought that it was quite good. I’m not really going to write much about it, though. I’d rather talk a bit about Trek in general.

I have no idea when I started watching Star Trek. Sometime in middle school, maybe. Perhaps earlier. I don’t know if I saw the original series or The Next Generation first, but regardless, it had a big influence on me when I was young. I don’t just mean in terms of aesthetics or taste- I’m talking about my actual worldview with regards to politics and philosophy and such. Star Trek, in part, made helped make me the liberal humanist that I style myself as today. Yes, I really mean that.

Back before the horrible prequels, I remember constant debates among young nerds about which was better- Star Trek or Star Wars. I occasionally went back and forth in these debates, but I most consistently said that Star Trek was better. I didn’t think it was necessarily better because of the acting or writing, but because of its ideas. At the end of Star Wars, Luke turns off his computer and just “uses the Force.” He lets himself go and only uses his instincts. I can’t really see a Star Trek character doing the same thing.

As intuitive and gut-trusting as characters like Kirk and Riker were, they didn’t rely on pure emotions or suppositions. They thought about things, and characters like Spock and Data were often chimed in as the voice of reason. As good as Kirk’s instincts were, he was still reasonable and unimpulsive. He wouldn’t have turned off his computer while fighting the Death Star, and that’s why I always sort of preferred Star Trek- it was, as Spock would say, logical. The things that saved the day were always things like expertise, clever applications of technology, or diplomacy. There was no room for Star Wars‘ woo-woo mysticism. The very presence of Spock sums it up nicely- the character that served as the sage and voice or morality was also the most logical.

It’s easy to accuse Gene Roddenberry of being optimistic about all of this. His future is bright, shiny, and almost utopian. However, I have to give Roddenberry credit for this in a way. Not only did he believe that technology would advance, but that ideas and social norms would as well. So much SF simply maps on the values of the present to an imagined future. In Roddenberry’s view of the future, though, humans have gotten over racism given up smoking, to name two examples.

Yes, smoking. Back in the sixties, NBC thought it was odd that no one on the Enterprise smoked, like normal sixties people. There was a bit of pressure on Roddenberry to include weird space cigarettes in the show, but he refused, maintaining that by the 23rd century, us humans would know better. Not only would people of different ethnicities work side-by-side, they would do so in a healthy environment. Looking around now, we have a black president and smoke-free bars, only forty years later. Roddenberry’s optimism wasn’t entirely baseless, it seems.

Many of Star Trek’s episodes (both in the original series and the Next Generation) were basically geeky problem-solving sessions. The Enterprise would encounter something like an alien being, a machine, a new society, etc., that was hitherto unknown. The crew would scratch their heads about it and theorize about how it worked, usually while sitting around a table. After a bit of action and a few dead redshirts, there would be some kind of deunoument usually brought about by the ingenuity of one of the crew members. Kirk would would use his wits, Picard would flourish out some clever diplomacy, Geordie or Scottie would spout technobabble and make the ship do something impressive, McCoy or Crusher would make a startling biological discover. In any case, the crew would use their newly found revelation to get out of the jam, and then there would be a nice little meditation on the interesting scientific, social, or philosophical consequences of what just happened.

I loved this stuff. I still do, in fact. (Thinking about it right now, I’m struck by how much Trek resembles Isaac Asimov’s short stories. It all has this “Hey, guys! Isn’t this interesting!” quality to it.) It makes for fun episodic television and appeals to a certain kind of person who thinks way, way too much. It is not, however, “rollicking” or “fun.” The sort of speculation and head-scratching that happened on Star Trek certainly invited parody, and if it wasn’t done well it just came off as heavy-handed. More than heavy-handed. Leaden. William Shatner expounding on the significance of things in general can be just as easily tedious as it can be charming.

As the franchise regressed, I eventually get really, really bored of Trek. I didn’t really like Deep Space 9 or Voyager, and I actively loathed Enterprise. Insurrection and Nemesis were both sort of tepid movies, and I didn’t come to expect anything new or fresh from the franchise. When the new movie was announced, I just sort of said “meh.” I was very surprised to see that not only did it not suck, it was actually good.

The new movie succeeds because it seems to have the same kind of ideological underpinnings of the original Trek– Enlightenment values in space- but keeps them as just the underpinnings. The characters who save the day are still a diverse scientists, geniuses, and all-out supernerds, and the bad guys are a bunch of militaristic, tribe-like nationalists. The movie, though, doesn’t get preachy about it. The original principals are there, but it has none of the heavy feeling that seems to descend when William Shatner puts his hand on his chin and broods behind his eyebrows. Instead, it was really zippy. Zippy! It was a movie that went “Zoom!” in the best way possible. Watching a fun, zippy Star Trek movie is kind of like seeing a really geeky guy getting over his own awkwardness and start dancing. I like Star Trek again. This feels sort of weird, being all suffused with nostalgia. Zoom!