Monday, March 31, 2008

No One Watched It But Me: "Brimstone"

How can you tell I really love television? Because I keep coming back to it, no matter how many times it breaks my heart. My brain is littered with the memories of TV shows that, for one reason or another, just didn't make it.

Here at the ISTV Global Stronghold, we're preparing for a drought period. The mid-season shows are mostly wrapped up or canceled, and post-strike shows are a few weeks away (but reminder: new "Office" this week). So now feels like a good time to introduce a new semi-regular feature, a trip into a storied past of shows that were well-loved by not very many people, but remembered fondly by all of them. A segment we're calling...

"TV Shows Watched By No One But Me"

The Show:
"Brimstone," Fox, 1998

The Premise:
Dead cop Ezekiel “Zeke” Stone, damned to Hell for murdering his wife's rapist, is recruited by the Devil to capture 113 escaped souls.

What Made It Special:
- First off, it was a good-looking show, employing the washed-out color palette style years before “CSI: NY” did it;
- It featured a lot of sharp, deadpan dialogue, which is easy to do when your second male lead is the Devil (John Glover, using his gleeful malevolence to full effect before “Smallville” made a cartoon out of him);
- It made clever use of the lead character’s natural limitations, such as his lack of funds beyond the daily $33 stipend that was in his pockets when he died; or, thanks to a 15-year culture gap, his burning desire for 1983’s favorite snack treat, a Reggie Bar;
- In one segment, Zeke bounces the show’s plot off hotel manager/aspiring writer Lori Petty; to his chagrin, she immediately reconceives it as “The God Squad,” believing Zeke’s premise to be too much of a downer nobody would be interested in (and I fully believe this was an actual producer's reaction to the show).

Sample Dialogue:
Father Horn: The Devil, he appears to you as a man?
Zeke: Yeah. He looks a lot like a kid I used to beat the crap out of in sixth grade…I’m sure that’s on purpose.

Signs It Was Going Somewhere Good:
With an open-minded priest and Lori Petty's hotel manager, the series kept adding interesting personalities to its supporting cast, smartly recognizing that Zeke would need to talk to someone other than the Devil to get things moving in new directions.

Signs It Might Not Have Been Going Anywhere At All:
About eight episodes in, it was pretty much the same episode every time: Ezekiel has to track down a soul; Ezekiel runs into problems killing it; Ezekiel figures out the trick and kills the soul, and has some wittily bitter banter with the Devil. Roll Credits.

Sign the Producers Knew They Didn’t Have Much Time Left:
Teri Polo's cop/love interest character is quickly and clumsily outed as one of the escaped souls. Really? Devil didn't notice that the detective helping Zeke out might be a little familiar?

Why No One Watched:
It aired on Fridays at 9. (SPOILER: This answer will show up a lot.)

Available on DVD?
Sure, if you search Torrentz and have a DVD burner. (Which I do. I love my "Brimstone" DVDs.)

Where You've Seen It Since:
The plot has been basically recycled – with no visual style, no sense of danger, and a languid sense of humor – as "Reaper," currently not being watched by a whole new generation on the CW.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I Was Watching "How I Met Your Mother" Before It Got All Trendy

Tonight, "How I Met Your Mother" pulled its first major bit of "Will and Grace"-style celebrity stunt-casting, plopping Britney Spears into an extended cameo as a receptionist smitten with Ted.

Holy crap. Two entries mentioning Britney Spears in less than a week.

Something is amiss.

(And no, this isn't an unintentional crossover with Queen of Dirt - though you should be reading that blog, because you'll feel better catching up on celebrity horror than you would "accidentally" perusing TMZ.)

Anyway, for the five minutes of screentime she was given, it was a pretty clever character, with some solid jokes to be delivered. So here it is: Britney Spears wasn't bad. Would've been better if an actual, y'know, actress, had done the part. Someone who was expected to do more than show up on time with her lines memorized, who was maybe counted on to have a sense of comedic timing or something.

But hey, lookit! Britney Spears! (And really, that's the only reaction you can have, anytime she shows up: There is Britney Spears there, on the TV.)

Yeah, I'll admit it, I wasn't all that jazzed at hearing that our girl would be featured on this relatively obscure show. For a moment, I was actually beset upon by Indy Rock Syndrome. You're familiar with it. It's that uneasy feeling you get when new people start listening to a band you've been digging for years because they were featured on some commercial or something. (It is also known as "Pain in the Ass Snob Disorder.")

So yeah, for a little while, I got that irritable feeling that people might not be watching "How I Met Your Mother" for the right reasons. Then I realized that the possibility of introducing audiences to a show I like means it might not get canceled was a GOOD thing, so I unclenched a little.

So for all you out there who tuned in tonight because of a certain pop singer with a recent history of complete mental what-the-fuckness, welcome to "How I Met Your Mother." It's a good show, sometimes a little uneven, but it's got some great characters, strong running gags, and an honest-to-god, character-based premise, which is sort of rare for a sitcom.

Please enjoy it, and don't stop watching just because Britney won't be on every week. It's still good. Also, there's every possibility, based on past episodes, that someone from "Buffy" or "Freaks and Geeks" will show up in a bit part.

What do you MEAN you didn't watch "Buffy" or "Freaks and Geeks"?! Good god, I'm not sure we need your type of "viewer."

Shit! Shit, sorry. There goes the Syndrome again. Sorry. You're welcome here anytime.


(Sorry! Really!)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Lost": Half-Time Analysis

If life here at the ISTV Global Stronghold has taught me anything about sports, it is that real team loyalty is an emotional rollercoaster. The highs are in the stratosphere, and the lows send your heart down to the molten core of the earth (where the Lava Men reside, I assume). Also, there is a LOT of violent cursing at the TV.

So I guess “Lost” is my local sports team. Fortunately for me, they’ve been doing very well this year.

We’re a little past the halfway point of season 4, taking a strike-necessitated break before the next half picks up in late April. So it’s time for an examination.

Last year, frustration had set in when it appeared that the show was seriously lacking in forward momentum. We got an episode showcasing Matthew Fox’s tattoo, and another solely devoted to killing off two unpopular late-entry characters. Rough stuff.

But the show was rejuvenated after that, helped by the announcement of a planned end-date, along with newfound frankness from the producers about the mysteries. Even better, by the start of this season, the overarching plot began to take shape. The audience finally had just enough details to make informed guesses on the real nature of the story.

Turns out, audiences couldn’t have possibly figured out the story, because characters absolutely crucial to the narrative had only barely been introduced 40-odd episodes in.

The Big Picture seems to revolve around a secret war being waged between bastard industrialist Charles Widmore (giant asshole) and island-native-wannabe Ben Linus (skeevy weirdo with possibly noble intentions). And caught in the middle is Desmond Hume, whose desperation to get back to his lost love has begun to form the emotional core of the series.

Desmond’s spotlight episode a few weeks back, “The Constant,” was easily the best of the year so far, and on the short list for best of the series. I won’t lie: Desmond and Penny’s phone conversation at the end was the most heart-wrenching moment of the series for me (the eyes, yes, they got a bit watery). For all the time-jumping and island weirdness and vague answers to straight-forward questions, we got to see what the stakes really are: “Lost” is a star-crossed love story. Romeo and Juliet stuck in “The Tempest.” (Thanks, English degree!)

Thus far, the only real misstep this year was Harold Perrineau’s loudly-announced return, six episodes before his “shocking” actual appearance (which kinda killed a dramatic reveal). But I think that’s offset by the show’s newfound ability to introduce new characters without them feeling tacked on or irrelevant (COUGHAnna-Lucia-Paulo and Nikki-Mr. EkoCOUGH). The squirrelly Jeremy Davies and gruffly languid Jeff Fahey characters have become two of my favorite reasons to watch the show.

So good for you, “Lost.” May you continue on this path to greatness, and not give us any more retarded flashback episodes that don’t mean a good goddamn. I’m rooting for you.


Damn, "South Park." I mean...damn.

Well. That was pretty fucked up.

South Park manages to venture into some dark territory on occasion – here I'm thinking of Cartman feeding a boy his own parents and then tasting the kid's tears – but it's usually tempered with a goofy surrealist bent. Last night was a little different.

Last night was an honest-to-god horror story.

Granted, it wasn't an entirely new one, just one that took aspects of "The Lottery," "Wicker Man," and Chuck Pahlniuk's "Diary," but it was one of those rare times where the satire was so bleak and accusing that it was hard to laugh when the jokes occasionally rolled in.

The episode started with an unstable, despondent Britney Spears blowing her head off, and surviving…with three quarters of the head missing. Which stops absolutely no one from remarking how chubby and crazed she looks. When the boys realize that for god's sakes, think we need to leave this one alone, the citizens of South Park calmly reveal the truth: the need Britney to die, as part of a vague, indirect sacrifice. When she finally does die, the epilogue shows the townsfolk happily remarking on what a good corn crop this season has produced. Then they look up at a news story about Miley Cyrus, and sinisterly remark that the next harvest looks like it'll do just fine, too.


Rarely does "South Park" go so far into "A Modest Proposal" territory that it loses its humor, but holy crap. That was one grim damn episode.

Maybe I'm just a little touchy because I made that exact observation to someone a few months ago – "She's ours now, and apparently we need her to die," I believe was my remark – and now I feel both prescient and horrible.

So either "South Park," after 11 years, has finally succeeded in offending me...or it's just annoyed me by taking an off-hand sick joke I made and devoting 22 minutes to it.

Either way, as Stan and Kyle often do, I think I learned something today: apparently I just don't find the idea of a nearly-headless Britney Spears attempting to record an album all that funny.

Just to be clear, here:


...does not offend me.

But the nearly-headless Britney sacrifice thing was maybe pushing it.

The First Annual ISTV Gentlemen's Wager

Read this article: "Doc Diagnoses Brain Tumor Based on Handshake"

If this doesn't happen in the first ten minutes of the next "House" season premiere, I owe you all a Coke.

(If it does, you owe me the right to race your first-born for fun and profit. This is the way a gentlemen's wager works at the ISTV Global Stronghold.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Joss Whedon Explains It All

Feminism is a tricky thing for guys to really understand. It sucks, but it's true. We're raised a certain way. Or, more accurately, a lot of certain ways. A lot of guys are raised to be flat-out morons. Some are raised to be enlightened and understanding. Then there are guys like me, who are still trying to work out when it's okay to hold a door for a lady, so we're just kind of screwed from the get-go.

So thank god for Joss Whedon.

In addition to being an absolutely awesome writer and show-runner, he is also probably the most visible male feminist I know of (keep in mind, my focus is usually on TV, so I don't look terribly far). Every time I hear him speak, I Get It, just a little bit more.

It is in this spirit that I offer his 2006 Equality Now acceptance speech. Where he was introduced by Meryl Streep. So...damn. Good for you, man.

Anyway, it is in this speech that he offers so many answers on Why He Writes These Strong Women Types that it's like a crash-course in feminist theory for lunk-headed men like me.

Goddamn it, I hope "Dollhouse" doesn't get cancelled quickly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why Be a Detective, Again? (The Thrilling Conclusion to the "New Amsterdam" Diatribe)

Ah. So there’s the interesting part.

The second episode of “New Amsterdam” is in many ways an improvement over the first. The standard reasoning is that a creative team has months to put together a solid pilot, but just a couple of weeks to get an entire series into production once they’re picked up. But between “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and this, I’m getting the sense that lately, creators are taking the second episode as a way of saying, “Okay, now that we’ve dealt with the set-up, here’s what the show is actually going to look like.”
And it don't look all that bad. Because in this episode, it was quickly revealed that the 65-year-old bar-owner, a bluesy old sass-talker who seemed destined to be “lead guy’s witty black friend,” was something more: the immortal detective’s son. Suddenly, things got a lot more interesting.

And then they got a lot less interesting, because we had to deal with another rote murder plot. Which once again begs the question: Why is this character a NYPD detective? What is the point here? We’ve seen that he can make money quickly and easily – and that he can easily forge identity papers. Why bother being a civil servant? Why not some eccentric immortal man-about-town who solves murders as a hobby?
(Answer: because that would make this a BBC series. We Americans like our heroes employed, dammit.)

A flashback shows that during the early ‘40’s, he tried his hand at being a lawyer, so at least we get the impression that at some point in his long, long life, John Amsterdam just started trying on careers for the hell of it. But the flashback – detailing, of all things, the birth of the 65-year-old bartender sidekick – is weird enough in its implications that, honestly: who gives a fuck about the murder investigation? (Not helping is the “tough-but-vulnerable lady-cop partner,” who, as far as I can tell is simply a bad actress, immediately sucking any potential personality from the procedural scenes.)

So there’s the question again: when you’ve got so many interesting ideas to play with, why sandwich it into a shitty police procedural? And yet this is not the biggest question. The biggest question, your honest-to-god “wha-huh?!” relates to how the character became immortal in the first place.

Just listen, because I am not exaggerating this at all. Centuries back, when the Dutch were slaughtering Indians on what would become Manhattan, our guy stepped in front of a sword to protect an innocent Indian woman. To save him, an old lady shaman patched him up and tossed some shaman-hoodoo his way, with the caveat that he will not grow old until he meets his true love.

This is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever typed in my life.

I can’t even begin to dissect what’s stupid about it because it defies all logic. It defies real-world logic (“Why would she bother to do that if she was apparently trying to save him?”) and story-telling logic (“Is this for any other reason than to sell a contrived romance plot?”).

So here I sit with a show about an immortal who works as a detective while trying to find his destined true love. Only one of these items deserves its own show, and only barely, without a lot of work.

As it stands, based on ratings, the viewing public – this would be the post-“American Idol” viewing public, please note, who will generally just keep the channel on for whatever the hell comes afterwards, because despite their phone-voting prowess, they are somehow not what we would call "taste-makers" – could not have given less of a shit about this show, so I doubt it will last longer than the time it takes me to finish typing this sentence. (What’s that? Still on? Hm. Just wait a few more days.) So this will probably be the last I talk about it (oh, don’t look so relieved).

But because I see a show that clearly wants to shrug off the shackles of its own self-imposed formula (at least, I want to see that), and because it will very likely be cancelled before it gets to where it wants to go, I’ve been reminded of a lot of other shows with similar goals, and similar fates.

So don’t be surprised if you see some “ISTV Classic” articles coming to a website near you. This website, as a matter of fact.

"I Speak TV." Remembering cancelled shows so you don't have to.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

No Match For the Foam Dominoes (OR: How I Spent My Saturday)

As hype for a new batch of episodes, G4 ran a day-long marathon of "Women of Ninja Warrior." Obviously, it was enough to quell yet another uprising from the drones here at the ISTV Global Stronghold.

Here in the control center, we realized that the biggest reason it's possible to enjoy "Women of Ninja Warrior" even more than its sibling competition is that there is the possibility that we could actually do the first-stage crap (ignoring our obvious lack of athletic ability, and our crushing laziness). For instance, on standard "Ninja Warrior," realistically, what are the odds of any of us running up a 15-foot wall and clutching the ledge at the top? Not so hot. But "Women of Ninja Warrior" is more concerned with balance and agility. And so we think we might actually have a shot of stepping from one post to another.

(That log-roll might be a whole 'nother hassle, but don't ruin our illusions, okay?)

At least "WoNW" looks like it would be fun to run through. except for the bits where the women mis-time their leaps and plow face-first into a pillar. That one might take a bit of planning.

Of course the best part - other than watching spectacular feats of agility right alongside all the face-smashing that shows up in the commercials - is the first-stage commentary offered by the announcer. He is, as always, absolutely supportive, though with the women, he sometimes seems alternately fascinated by and condescending towards their womanliness.

(Regarding a woman in a business suit) "Boy, does she look sharp!...Don't let her appearance fool you, this woman is capable!"

"She always held a fancy for watching female ninjas on TV."

"Can she seduce the competition into submission with her sex appeal? .... Go, Yoko! We believe in the power of your sex appeal!"

"Dance, tiny dancer, dance!" (This is actually far-more in-depth than his usual reaction to samba dancer Yuko Kawamoto: "Samba! Samba, samba, samba!!!" - which sounds just the same in Japanese as it does in Engish, by the way.)

"We want to see her go all the way, so she can report on her own success."

"Go for it, dear queen!"

"Your looks won't save you now! Only your raw strength will!"

"Oh! Danger!"

"She was no match for the foam dominoes!" (Okay, sometimes we just like taking the quotes out of context. Except this is exactly what it sounds like. She was, really, no match for the foam dominoes.)

To cap it off, we offer video of Ayako Miyami, three-time "Women of Ninja Warrior" champion. 5'2" and 92 lbs. of warrior spirit.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Everyone Loves An Immortal

“…See, we tried explaining that to the writers, but they just don’t get it. Just like they don’t get talking to girls. Or making eye contact.” - Parody of a producer, from a writers’ strike video

This quote serves as proof that fiction writers, by and large, seem to be more or less what you’d expect them to be: basically me, or nerdier.

(“Nerdier than him?” I hear you scoff. “Surely not – he is clearly their king!” Quiet, you. I’ll bet you didn’t know that we here at the ISTV Global Stronghold have special brainwave satellites devoted to trolling for such impertinent thoughts. “Nerdy.” Please.)

If you are like me (or nerdier), you start to notice pet ideas developing independently among such writers. One of those perennial ideas is the TV Show About An Immortal.
(See also: "Forever Knight," "Angel," "Highlander: The Series," "Dark Shadows," or a buttload of others I'm too young to remember.)

Indulge your creative side for a second. Try to seriously imagine a man who’s been alive for centuries, with no end in sight. Think about what he’s seen, what talents he would have developed over the years. How different his concept of time and place would be from a person with a finite lifespan.

He would be a fascinating character to write about. And what better format for it than TV? You can set up long-ranging story-arcs, lay out themes about life and death, and spend a good amount of time putting those ideas to work, creating a vast tapestry on which to display your statement of what the world might be like for a man who can't die.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? If you’re a creative type - say, a fiction writer, or even better, a sci-fi or fantasy geek - the possibilites would be pretty mouthwatering.

Now imagine you’re a producer. Your job is to pay for the damn thing, and ensure that someone watches the show your weirdo production crew put together. But you know how to get people watching. So you come to your writers and say, “Listen, we’ve got a shot at airing after ‘American Idol.’ We need to sex this thing up, and people like what they already know. So, uh…what if this guy solved crimes or something? How’s that sound, nerdo?”

That "hypothetical" conversation echoed in my brain during the pilot to Fox's “New Amsterdam” the other night.

It hits a lot of the right beats with its lead character, John Amsterdam. He has a wide range of obscure talents, from lip-reading to wood-working. He has first-hand knowledge of New York City’s history and geography. He's experienced familial loss. And maybe most interestingly, he doesn’t really bother hiding (or explaining) to people the fact that he’s older than Manhattan (frequently citing past experiences, claiming decades of sobriety at an AA meeting, etc.).

So with all that in place...why is the lead plot about a fairly dull murder investigation?

This is, in all seriousness, a plot that could be found on most any episode of “Law and Order.” Your lead character saw Times Square built. He builds furniture that scores big money on the auction circuit because it’s identical to one built by a "dead" master. What about his solving a by-the-numbers murder seems at all more interesting than the rest of his life?

There are even more important questions to ask about "New Amsterdam." But because I have read that the second episode is an improvement over the pilot, we nerds at the ISTV Global Stronghold will power down our atomic video-feeds, hit mute on our super-speakers, and leave further deliberations until we've had a chance to watch episode 2.
("Nerds." Feh!)

Can you believe it? Is it true? Is this column going…


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Rock, Flaaaag, and Eeeaaagle!

When FX announces that "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" will be around for a fourth season, it's a win. A win for you. For me. For America.

And here to sing you everything you need to know about America is Charlie (during the aptly named episode, "Charlie Goes America On Everyone's Ass"). A man who seems to have permantently confused third grade social studies class with a Ford truck commercial.