Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I DEFY You to Be More Boring

Not a bold statement to say I like to be caught up on entertainment news. TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, the usual stuff. And so I can speak with some authority when I say I have found The Most Boring Entertainment News Headline of All Time:

I read that and thought, "Wow. It is not possible for me to care less about any aspect of this headline."

And then I thought, "There's someone out there reading this, and getting really excited."

This is why I Speak TV exists: To keep you from turning into them.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Doctor Has Lovely Comedic Timing

Okay, before I get into specifics, I offer a quick description of “Doctor Who,” because I feel like there’s always someone who has no idea what I’m talking about ("Wasn't he a curly-haired dude with a long scarf?") when I mention the very, veeeerrry long-running BBC series:

“Doctor Who” is about a bright, eccentric, long-lived alien traveling space and time looking for adventure, while holding a deep, if sometimes frustrated, admiration for humanity and its potential. He travels with companions, people he encounters who want to see the universe along with him. After a lengthy hiatus, The Doctor returned a few years back, first as the gruff Christopher Eccleston, and the in his current incarnation ( the 10th so far - with each mortal wound, The Doctor "regenerates" as a new actor, which started mostly as a means of recasting the part without a lot of complaints) as David Tennant, whose chatty enthusiasm belies a lonely heart.

Now then, everyone caught up? Good, because “Doctor Who” returns to the Sci-Fi Channel tonight at 9 PM. Yes, yes, last week it belatedly aired the 2007 Christmas special, but, y’know. That was Christmas. What has “Doctor Who” done for us lately?

It brought Catherine Tate back is what.

Tate was the titular character in the 2006 special “The Runaway Bride,” where she had two settings: loud/angry, and loud/sad. This is not a complaint, mind you, just an observation – Tate’s Donna Noble character was designed as something of a palate-cleanser to get audiences used to the loss of Rose Tyler, before introducing new companion Martha Jones.

Well now they’re both gone, so it’s time to introduce a new companion for The Doctor. Rather than go the previous route – young women attracted to The Doctor (and let’s face it, who could blame them, Tennant’s adorable!) – the producers decided to introduce a character who could not possibly be less interested in him In That Way. When he fumblingly admits that he doesn’t want any romantic awkwardness for a change, blurting, “I just…I just want a mate,” she mishears his genuinely vulnerable plea for, well, a buddy, and disgustedly assumes that this twiggy alien “wants to mate.”

This is after an opening half-hour that doles out a lot of just-missed-each-other physical comedy.
So this season looks to be a little heavier on the comedic aspects available to both the actors and the show, while giving the lead a good foil, a friend who's willing to occasionally kick him in the ass for a change. If what I’ve read is true, this might just be to soften us up before bringing back all the current run's ersatz companions (Rose, Martha, and Captain Jack Harkness).
With this many former cast members in place, fans can assume we’re heading into a seriously apocalyptic season-ender. Well, okay, another seriously apocalyptic season-ender.

“Doctor Who” does some heartbreakingly great finales. Because they all signify some kind of loss for the series (first Eccleston, then Rose, then Martha). If the rumors are true, this one might just culminate with the loss of David Tennant, as he regenerates into his 11th incarnation (possibly Robert Carlyle, an interesting choice).

Coping with change is a pet theme of "Doctor Who," but still, I’d really miss David Tennant. The old saw goes that everyone has “their” Doctor – the one they get attached to, because he’s the one they meet first. Eccleston was my Doctor, but Tennant by the beginning of season 3 had really made the role his own, and so now when I think of the character, his is the version that springs to mind. So if this season is going to be his swan song, I hope to hell they can avoid too many crap middle episodes (every season starts and ends spectacularly, but inbetween, hoo-boy, does quality vary).

But that's all for later. But not much later, which is nice. For once, Sci-Fi is airing the episodes only a month after their BBC premieres, so I won’t feel four months behind for a change.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nobody Watched It But Me: "Threshold"

The Show:
"Threshold" (CBS, 2005)

The Premise:
Alien colonization via mathematical patterning and sub-audio signals is opposed by a Red Team of misfit scientists.

What Made It Special:
Aside from the nicely modern take on an invasion (echoing an issue of Warren Ellis's "Global Frequency"), the main draw was the top-to-bottom excellent cast. Carla Gugino plays intelligent and career-minded without ever going for the hard-ass-woman cliché; Brent Spiner's doctor seems to genuinely dislike his circumstances and the people around him; Peter Dinklage gives a blithe perviness to his self-destructive linguist.
But maybe the best surprise is Brian Van Holt (who, god bless him, went on to “John From Cincinnati,” potentially a future “Nobody Watched It But Me” entry) as the reserved black ops agent assigned to the group. Initially I thought he was too bland to deliver on the quiet menace I thought the character should have, but eventually it dawned on me that they were playing him like a lot of cops and criminals talk about the toughest guys they know: because he IS a badass, he has no need for grandstanding or bravado.
He gets the series’ best moment, too. After successfully defusing an armed standoff with a bunch of kids by using WORDS AND LOGIC, he puts down his rifle and, in lieu of any line of dialogue to cap off the tense scene, just sort of exhaustedly breathes out, “Pfffhhhh.”

Signs It Was Going Somewhere/Signs of Wear and Tear:
Usually this is easy to divide into two sections. But this show could be so frustratingly uneven that its good and bad blur together.
For instance, ignoring the amazing pilot (on which it appears they spent all of the budget meant for the rest of the series), week-to-week it would be a mediocre-to-just-above-average series. No visual style, dialogue mostly made up of these very smart people explaining things to each other that they already know, and great plot ideas that are pretty dully executed.
So yes, mediocre shows – that is, until the last five minutes of most every episode, which would usually end with either a pathetically minor victory, or a catastrophic revelation, both of which regularly implied that the Red Team was LOSING (example: one episode ends with Spiner realizing, "They've gotten into the food supply," which is NOT followed by, "To Be Continued").
(According to exec producer David Goyer, this wasn't accidental – their three-year plan would have seen Gugino's "Threshold" protocol escalate to "Foothold," and finally "Stranglehold," as the alien threat became overwhelming.)
This sense of losing ground on the battle escalated with every episode, but by the time it became apparent that that was part of the overall design, the show had been canned – before the last four episodes even aired.

Why No One Watched:
This was the year after "Lost" landed, and every network excitedly tried its hand at a sci-fi show. All of them crashed and burned, after which networks figured maybe people enjoyed the serialized aspect of "Lost" (a theory they watched fail the next pilot season). It didn't help that what was essentially a horror/sci-fi hybrid was sitting on CBS's normally soft-touch Friday night lineup (currently home to the reasonably successful "Ghost Whisperer," so there you are).

Where You Can Catch It:
The Sci-Fi Channel and the digital Universal Channel periodically offer reruns, but you can catch it most easily by Netflixing the DVD release.

Where You've Seen It Since:
If you check out Wikipedia, apparently it's been seen even earlier, as a reminiscent BBC series called "UFO." But since then, aliens haven't been too popular on TV or in film – the Nicole Kidman Body-Snatchers remake tanked horribly, if I recall.
Other than “Lost,” the only sci-fi TV shows with any presence – “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (which is likely picked up for a second season), and “Battlestar: Galactica” - are about robots who want to destroy us all.
I wonder if that's a sign of something. I'm no sociologist, but what does it say when we can hack apocalyptic robots, but don't really want aliens in our pop culture anymore?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

OMG You Guys Jim and Pam Squeeeeee!!!!

When the American version of the British series "The Office" was concocted, I wasn't terribly optimistic at the notion of NBC developing a show that was tone. When I say "British," I think I mean "soul-crushingly hopeless." Check your thesaurus.

The BBC "Office" was more tragedy than comedy. It mined its jokes from the exhausting futility of day-to-day existence. No good deed went unpunished, no character ever really won. For example, when Tim (Jim here in the states) professed his love to Dawn (Pam - but you probably figured that out) in the series finale, she shot him down. It was only in the concluding Christmas special that they threw fans a bone by getting them together.

How to get romantic leads together without killing dramatic tension has plagued TV writers since "Moonlighting." This season, the American "Office" seems to have found the answer: shift the focus away from the romantic leads, onto the unspoken agony that is Michael Scott's life.

This is the first time since the opening six-episode season that the series has summoned up the bleak nature of the original. Now that Jim and Pam are together, we don't really have to worry about them - we can look at other things. Particularly, how fucking awful it is to be Michael Scott. Meaningless job, cruel lunatic girlfriend, and the inability to really make it better, because despite his best efforts, he has no idea how to effectively interact with other people.

Some of the most recent episodes have been the darkest in tone, but not just because they showed how bad Michael's corporate and work lives have gotten. They also showed that just because Jim Got The Girl, didn't mean his life was automatically great. His stint as substitute boss in "Survivorman" implied that without a certain level of self-awareness, he actually could become Michael. And in "Dinner Party," when he seriously pondered abandoning Pam at Michael and Jan's psychodrama of a get-together, 'shippers everywhere got a sign that Jim might not be the perfect boyfriend.

But it also made the couple that much more realistic.

If this were a shitty TV show, Jim would be in the doghouse with Pam and have to make a grand gesture to win back her trust. But it's not. At its best, "The Office" does its best to mirror reality, and so we saw that the two worked it out like they actually would - through playful ribbing, rather than a Big Important Fight.

And yet this past episode, "The Chairmodel," where Jim revealed that he bought an engagement ring "the week [they] started dating," all I could think was, "Oh fuck, they're going to break them up." This is Ross-and-Rachel disease - the (often network-generated) notion that to keep the high drama going, you need more ups and downs in the relationship.

But "The Office" isn't about high drama. It's about little victories, a series theme echoed in the last episode by Kevin - who had recently been dumped by his fiancee (off-screen, which should piss him off, considering all the time the documentary crew devotes to Jim and Pam) - successfully reclaimed the staff's parking spaces, and sheepishly admitted, "It's nice to win one."

So I'm really hoping that the writers think of Pam and Jim together as just a little victory. It won't change the world, or even their workplace, but it would be a rare case of something going right for a change. Like Kevin said. It'd be nice to win one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stop Laughing, Laff-Bot!

Okay, Lewis Black's "Root of All Evil" has been on enough weeks for me to make an absolute judgement.

This show kinda sucks. But not for the reasons I expected.

The first problem is that Lewis Black is very funny when his stand-up routines are filmed. There is no doubt. I have seen him taped, I've seen him live, and he's a funny guy. But the minute the scent of a script whiffs off him, all humor evaporates.

(For instance: the funniest parts of "Accepted," a generally enjoyable film in which Black plays the counterfeit dean of a fake college, actually occurs during the bloopers, where Black tries like hell to get through a scene without cursing - which was apparently quite difficult.)

But that's actually okay, when you compare it to the worst part: the LaffTrack2000.

It's depressing. Because these are professional comedians, and they know their business quite well. We're talking about Greg Giraldo, Andy Kindler, and Patton Oswalt (who fares the best, but I am biased because he's my favorite comedian). They know how to get laughs out of people. But at some point during the filming of this show, the producers apparently decided the audience laughs needed "punching up."
Except they didn't seem to have much money, because it seems like it's the same guy laughing raucously at any joke Oswalt delivers.

I love Patton Oswalt. And that's why it really pisses me off to hear a robot laughing randomly at his jokes.

So...go watch one of Patton Oswalt's comedy specials, available on Netflix. Otherwise, simply avoid watching robo-laff-bot-2000 patronize the comedians on "Lewis Black's 'Root of All Evil'."

Meanwhile, I'm not exactly one to talk shit on "The Daily Show." Love it. Get most of my daily news from there. I won't lie. The writer's strike hurt a lot of us, in a lot of different ways.

But does it seem like lately, the show is at its least effective when they do their little pre-taped skits (which always feels like a "Here's why we employ writers!" kind of forced bit)?

But they're at their best when don't do anything more ambitious than compiling a montage of horrendous CNN footage that shows cable news networks to be, at best, retarded and irresponsible, and at worst, the real Root of All Evil that Lewis Black can't even get to because he's too busy trying Paris Hilton against Dick Cheney?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cartoon Week: Some Crazy Damn Stuff

Wrapping up this week of animated chicanery is the whole reason I wanted to talk about cartoons in the first place (other than the need to get content up every week).

During the mid-90's, Fox must have been really proud of "The Tick." Here it had an absurdist take on superheroes that was hilarious and well-received. So why wouldn't they try to adapt another indie humor comic? Why NOT try to make "Sam and Max: Freelance Police" into a cartoon?

It would be so easy! McGruff the Crime Dog and his rabbit sidekick solving wacky crimes - fun for all ages!

And fun it was. It was also absolutely batshit insane.

"Sam and Max" was a Tex Avery cartoon jacked up on cocaine and acid. Sam (the dog) and Max (the "rabbity thing") are at once unflappable and over-enthusiastic about everything that comes their way - mole men, moon men, sea monsters, their stalker - but they might also be borderline sociopaths. I could try to explain further, but I think I'll just let this line of dialogue sum it up:

(Sam and Max are on the moon, without any kind of space suits.)
Sam: So let me get this straight - we can breath here, then?
Max: I guess those prissy, paranoid astronauts never had enough spine to try it.

There you go. These are characters perfectly okay with calling astronauts pussies. Also, they made many mentions of not wearing underwear.

The show's recently been released on DVD, and the 11-minute episodes vary from okay to "Holy crap, how much violence can they gleefully advocate on a kids show, anyway?" awesome.

A taste is free:

Sam: Gee, I don't know anyone who would harm helpless kittens.
Max: Here, let me.

Max: Cooperate, and you will be slapped around without incident.

Sam: It's sort of fitting that Lorne would make his home down in the bowels of that funhouse.
Max: Huh. That's the first time I've ever heard the word "bowels" and "funhouse" in the same sentence.
Sam: Get used to it!

Sam: The path of violence can never lead to harmony.
Max: Now you're just being ridiculous.

And if that didn't sell you, well here. Have some episode.


Next week: We've got NEW TV! "The Office!" "Doctor Who!" "Hell's Kitchen!" Not at all likely to be in that order.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cartoon Week: Is He Strong? Listen, Bud...He's Got Radioactive Blood

Like Batman, Spider-Man's been adapted into cartoon form multiple times, starting with his first series 1967, which, in its infinite glory, gave us this:

(I can actually play this on the ukulele, and weirdly enough, at a slower tempo, it sounds a lot like the M. Ward cover of "Let's Dance.")

In the early 80's, Peter Parker was a swingin' college cat hanging with his buddies Iceman and Firestar in "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends." Even as a small child, I always thought of them as "Spidey's bickering hangers-on," but hey, I was a cynical four-year-old.

The 90's gave us a "Spider-Man" that heavily referenced 80's-era comics stories and featured a ton of really awkward CGI backgrounds and recycled stock animation. Which is to say, it wasn't very good. The less said of its sequel, "Spider-Man goes to a parallel earth run by manimals," the better.

After the first movie came out, MTV released "Spider-Man: The New Animated Series." It was basically in the movie's continuity, but as a result, couldn't really use any of his villains, before they were introduced in the films. Which meant apart from The Lizard (voiced by Rob Zombie, if you can believe it), there were a lot of made-for-MTV villains. Which is about as good as it sounds. On the plus side, the animation (much, much more advanced CGI) was really interesting when moving, and Neil Patrick Harris did a fantastic job voicing Peter Parker, despite not being outwardly awesome.

But this year the reboot button got hit again, and Saturday mornings are the home of the recently-premiered "Spectacular Spider-Man." From what I've seen, it's really entertaining. It might be because the 16-year-old Peter Parker in this series:

resembles another energetic young go-getter:

In fact, all the designs resemble Bryan Lee O'Malley's "Scott Pilgrim" series, and that's fine by me. The show is light and fun, frequently humorous, and the hassles Peter has to deal with are...actually very much in the vein of the "teenager struggling with responsibility" story engine Stan Lee started and Brian Michael Bendis perfected.

Example: in one episode, to help Aunt May pay some bills, Peter enters and wins a Spider-Man photo contest, and is offered more work by the Bugle - if he gets a camera that might actually be capable of taking a professional picture. The dilemma: does he use the prize money to buy a new camera with the idea of using later income to help Aunt May, or does he stick with the original plan, which doesn't help him out at all?

This is the "real" story. On the surface, yes, The Shocker (hee-hee) is zapping the hell out of him (hee-hee-hee!), but what's really important? Peter having to make a hard choice any kid could understand.

This is why Spider-Man works in animation in ways Batman never could. Batman is a cold perfectionist. Spider-Man's just tryin' to help out, man. Bruce Wayne is a resourceful billionaire. Peter Parker's a kid trying like hell not to disappoint anyone.

It's the relatability-factor that, when you stick to the basics, makes Spider-Man a timeless, all-ages character.

(Unless he's stuck on an alternate earth with manimals. Oh, and a nanotech-costume, did I mention the nanotech-costume? God, the 90's were awful.)

Next Up: An absolutely balls-out crazy mid-90's FOX cartoon based on an underground comic. And it's NOT "The Tick."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Cartoon Week: My Batman

Welcome to Cartoon Week here at the Global Stronghold.

I love Saturday morning cartoons. Always have. It's such a pleasant idea, and one I never entirely let go of, I'll confess. It didn't help any that at age 12, the exact time when I should have been growing out of it, Warner Bros. released "Batman: The Animated Series."

It was gorgeous. Stylized deco designs, setting the Dark Knight Detective in a world permanently covered in expressionistic 40's noir. Led by the designs of Bruce Timm and the writing of Paul Dini, the best of the shows told stories that were damn near Twilight Zone in their exploration of irony and moral ambiguity. The bad guys were all nuts, yes, but we understood why, and even to a certain extent sympathized with them. And of course, the lead himself. This version of Batman - dark and aloof like you expect but with a certain nobility and heart - carried through into multiple incarnations, including an 80-year-old version of himself in the much-better-than-it-should've-been spinoff "Batman Beyond" and as the smartest man in the room featured in Cartoon Network's often-epic "Justice League."

(How cool was Batman in "Justice League," you ask? Wonder Woman was totally into him.)

So it took some getting used to when the WB started a totally new, unrelated series titled, "The Batman." Scrapping any sense of noir, it instead borrowed heavily from anime. This Batman was young, state-of-the-art, and all his fighting moves sent him jumping 20 feet in the air and lingering for a while.

It was...annoying. But while I personally was a bit disappointed at the lack of depth involved in this series, I had to admit: if I was 10 years old? This snazzy, action-packed Batman would've been pretty cool. Not my Batman, no. was something.

So when Cartoon Network announced a new series, "Batman: The Brave and the Bold," which would pair the man himself with other stars of the DC universe, I thought, well, why not? Every young generation gets its own Bat.

And then I saw this.


I have a four-year-old niece, Julia. For Christmas, because my sister mentioned that Julia was getting into superheroes, I bought a three-pack of "Justice League" action figures. Know who her favorite is? You got it. But in particular, she likes it when I do the Batman Voice. Gruff, low, and irritable. Look at this Batman again.

He is too light and cute for a four-year-old.

But it's okay. I'm sure my one-year-old nephew will adore him. And in a couple of years, Julia will be old enough for My Batman. I've got some DVDs I can play her some Saturday morning.

Next up? I'll give you a hint: he does whatever a spider can.

That's right.


No, just screwing with you.