Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Doctor Who": The English-to-ADD-Kid Translation

The season 4 finale to “Doctor Who” airs this Friday, but through the magic of the internet, I – and pretty much everyone else who goes nuts with all the commercial edits SciFi makes – already saw it during its BBC airing a few weeks back.

I want to talk about it, but I can’t really recap it with the…well, let’s just call it “sense of urgency” required to really do it justice.

So I’m passing those duties off on the Global Stronghold’s intern, Randy. Randy is a 12-year-old boy whose brain is positively riddled with ADHD. And to prepare for his first-ever recap, he's just shotgunned three Red Bulls.

You can take it from here, Randy:

“Ohhh mygod it was awesome you guys first, right? First Earth gets stolen and then the Doctor and Donna go see those rhino guys from last season and Rose is back and Jack is back and Martha’s back and Harriet’s back and they all talk with webcams and then the DALEKS come and shoot at everyone and they’re all like EXTERMINATE! But sometimes in German!

“And then the Doctor gets shot and has to regenerate but he doesn’t really regenerate because he gets better and puts all the extra energy in his other hand before he regrew it and it’s in a jar under the TARDIS console and then they all get captured by the Daleks and their creator’s all mean and messed-up looking and one of the Daleks is crazy and giggles and it’s TOO FUNNY and but, right, Donna’s still in the TARDIS and she touches the hand and it grows into a another Doctor and Donna gets all Time Lord smart and they fight and win!

“And then all of them fly the TARDIS together and they lasso Earth back to where it should be and then Rose has to go back to her Earth and she gets to keep the other Doctor and they kiss whichisAWESOME and then to save Donna’s brain he takes out all her Time Lord memories and it’s sad and then he goes back to the TARDIS alone and he looks sad MAN I gotta pee bye!”

Thank you, Randy. Now head out to the drawbridge, I think you’re mom’s here to take you to piano practice.

Now then. I wish I could say that Randy’s explanation lacked the nuance or pacing of the actual finale, but he pretty much nailed it. Showrunner Russell Davies is stepping down, and apparently wanted to cram every freaking idea he didn’t get to use into two hours of show.

But he didn’t bother to edit any of his ideas, or fit them together with any particular care or concern, and so this is what we get: a plot so frantic we need the addled brain of RANDY to properly filter all these plot points.

Still, there is always a sense of joy and importance to a “Doctor Who” finale, and in that respect, I can’t say this disappointed.

There are some minor concerns that could be pointed out – that Rose is stuck with some kind of cut-rate Doctor-knockoff, or that Donna’s fate is unnecessarily cruel, or that God help me, I might have to subject myself to a third season of “Torchwood” in the near future – but I suppose I’ll just let Davies take his victory lap, hope he gets some rest, and look forward to incoming showrunner (and writer of some of the new series’ best episodes) Steve Moffat.

Who hopefully will realize that bringing the Daleks back for a FIFTH time might maybe weaken the characters. Something that might not have occurred to Davies.

Or the ADD-ravaged child ghostwriting for Davies. Whichever.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"24" Enters the Wonderful World of "Plotting"

“24” is going to be...interesting next year.

Which may be damning with faint praise. But if you saw last year, which started out with a torture-broken lead who kills a long-time partner AS VALENCIA IS NUKED!, but somehow ended as dull as humanly possible, "interesting" the best you can really pray for. Even if it involves the logic-backflip of bringing Tony Almeida back from the dead, when we watched him die (this wasn’t “we didn’t see a body” dead, either – this was “his heart stopped and Jack cradled the corpse” dead).

But the producers have promised pulse-pounding thrills AND sense-making plots this season. Apparently, the writer's strike helped the show by allowing for a) a prequel movie running in November (freeing the show, however briefly, from its one-day constraint, allowing the producers to show their oft-envisioned "Jack's building houses in Africa" idea), and b) a chance to, for a change, COMPLETELY PLOT OUT THEIR SEASON.

See, "Lost"? This is why people don't believe you when you say you have a plan. Because here's a show that hinges on real-time continuity, finally coming out and admitting it usually just flies by the seat of its pants when it comes to the season’s story-arc. Sometimes, it leads to balls-out lunatic seasons like 3, where it was actually sort of fun watching writers clearly making it up on the spot (even if it resulted in Jack Bauer as the world’s first decathlete heroin addict). And sometimes...well, if you blow up a nuke too early, all you’ve got left by the end is “Hey, let’s blind Ricky Schroeder.”

So congratulations, “24.” I think you'll find this experiment in "plotting ahead" to be a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Extended Play: "Lost," Season 2

When I talk to people about “Lost,” the general response is, “Yeah, I tuned in every now and again, but every episode was about pressing a frickin’ button, so I lost interest.” Which made me all the more curious to watch Season 2 – I mean, how much frickin’ button-pushing was there?

What surprised me most about Season 2 is how quickly the show changed from being about one thing – surviving on an island – to being about another – discovering that the island is a totally different place than previously understood. While Season 1 had virtually no mentions of The Dharma Initiative and only a bare glimpse at the notion of The Others, Season 2 dove headlong into it from the first episode, and these two new additions dominated the stories for the rest of the year.

As a result of introducing the overarching Dharma mystery – a story that, unlike the character-based dramas, has to have a beginning, middle and end – Season 2 started to tug fitfully in a lot of directions. In particular, the Dharma story was introduced, but couldn’t progress too far since the writers didn’t know how long the series would run.

And because the new stuff was so interesting and offered viewers the hint that there was something more important going on here, the character drama started to feel needlessly manufactured (see: Charlie, who ended Season 1 triumphantly but became truly insufferable for no real reason shortly into Season 2 – but it did give me a theory, which I’ll get to in a second) or so slight as to be totally pointless (hello, “Sawyer hunts down a noisy tree-frog”).

If Season 2 saw a lot of false starts in terms of plotting (my favorite being Jack’s idea to “train an army” to combat The Others, an idea that sounded terribly important but disappeared within three episodes), it saw its greatest cock-up with the introduction of the tail section characters, in particular Ana-Lucia and Mister Eko. And here’s where "TV Series As Novel" meets its arch-enemy, “Everyday hassles of working on a weekly network show.”

It’s clear they intended to do more with both characters – Ana-Lucia as the island’s sheriff and Eko as its spiritual guide – but through a mix of uncertain planning, bungled introductions (Ana-Lucia was so insanely grating from the outset that it was simply impossible for viewers to get behind the character even after she started to rehabilitate), and casting actors who would prove too difficult to work with, that revisions had to be made (and man, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje must have been a major pain in the ass, for the producers to jettison the Eko character after setting him up as a major player in the series).

Add to this the often erratic airing schedule for new episodes, and it’s no wonder the audience started turning on “Lost” in Season 2. And while the season does view better in large chunks (once again lending credence to the “novelistic TV” theory), watching 40 minutes of “Hey, Sun’s pregnant” just to get three minutes of teases about The Others does make a viewer feel like he’s getting dicked around.

Even viewing it now, with the knowledge of how things start to pull together, being aware that some throwaway bits do have actual meaning, there were still some moments where even I was developing outlandish theories that didn’t even track with what I already knew, just to stave off frustration.

(My favorite made-up theory is that the “island sickness” that was heavily alluded to in the first two seasons but since then has been pretty much forgotten about was meant to explain why some characters – say, Charlie – started behaving erratically or, well, stupidly, for no reason and with no later follow-up. I’m still working on a theory that would explain why the hell the island would want Hurley to jump off a cliff, though. I’m open to any suggestion that doesn’t begin or end with the phrase “crappy writing.”)

So yes. Officially speaking, Season 2 was sort of iffy, in comparison with the nearly-perfect first season. But I think it was a necessary learning experience for the show’s writers. As we’ll see as we get to Season 3, once they got past some first-quarter hiccups (most glaringly, another stupid introduction to new characters Nikki and Paulo…oh, Nikki and Paulo, how I can’t wait to revisit you two), the show started firing on all cylinders, and hasn’t really stopped since.

Onwards to Season 3!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Addict TV? Really?

The evolution of VH1 from "adult contemporary music channel" to "a network that finds it acceptable to air a program called 'I Love Money' " was slow and soul-crushingly inevitable enough that it wasn't exactly surprising.

But A&E? Didn't that, at some point, stand for "Arts and Entertainment"? Didn't they used to run a bunch of "Biography" episodes, and in the afternoons offer repeats of "Newsradio" and "Night Court"?

I used to make sure to get home from classes in college so I could catch some "Newsradio" at lunchtime. It was...comforting.

This past weekend, I watched A&E and saw a show called "Intervention," wherein a knock-off Dr. Phil coaches a family on confronting their addict to get help. It was depressing, to put it mildly (not least of which because the guy DIED - way to go, Dr. Faux-Phil).

During the commercial breaks, I got to see a preview for "The Two Coreys." The show that asks viewers to give a shit about two self-absorbed, borderline delusional recovering addicts who for a brief period were also teen actors.

Most heavily promoted was "The Cleaner," the network's new scripted drama, starring Benjamin Bratt as, from what I could understand, leader of an A-Team of addiction counselors.

At what point did A&E come to stand for, as Tad puts it, "Addicts and Ex-Addicts"? And more there really a huge market for this? VH1's freak-show mentality I get, but where is the real audience reward for watching a cancer-riddled fall-down drunk refuse treatment and die?

I hope it's not schaedenfraude (and no, I'm not spell-checking that, you know what I mean), but are we supposed to learn from them, or what?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Patriotic Monday: A Look Back at "The West Wing"

I’m watching the third season of “The West Wing,” and finding myself amazed this show ever existed. It’s such an anomaly. I mean, think about it. Aaron Sorkin – a playwright with a couple Rob Reiner movies and a failed ABC show under his belt – says to NBC, “I want to do a character-based office drama set in the White House, centered around a Nobel-winning intellectual president.” And NBC said, “Sounds like a sure-fire winner!”

(Probably not exactly how it went down, but still – the damn thing made it to air, right? Go with me.)

This wouldn’t have happened had the show been created after 2001. Our new-millennium politicians tend to sing praises for Jack Bauer of “24,” not President Josiah Bartlet, after all.

But squeaking by in 1999, at the tail-end of the Clinton administration, it made a bit more sense. An idealized, liberal White House drama. A show based around characters presenting ideas about how America could become a better place. Illustrated by spouting shitloads of dialogue while walking through long corridors. And somehow it worked.

Season 3 is most interesting because this is when it stopped working. Not so much because it tried to do anything different. Quite the opposite – it tried not to, in the face of the entire American political spectrum shifting post-9/11. Watching season 3, it seems almost quaint – these characters having long, impassioned discussions about RU-486 or affirmative action, when the real world was still trying to figure out how to cope with, well, you know.

The show’s way of coping with 9/11 was to kick off the season with a self-contained “parable” episode, “Isaac and Ishmael,” wherein the leads discussed the nature and origins of Islamic extremism with a bunch of high school students. The conceit was both absolutely brilliant and mind-bendingly condescending, since the high school students the uber-intellectual senior staff was teaching was really just a stand-in for the American public. It was the first sign that Aaron Sorkin maaaaybe thought he was around to show the viewers how much smarter than them he was.

And from there, things got a bit wonkier. I always recalled season 4 (which ended with a very “24”-esque First-Daughter-kidnapping arc) as the point when the train went off the rails, but season 3 is where things first got off-track (stopping locomotive-based metaphors….nnnnnow). Because it seemed like they were actively ignoring the reality outside their window, only occasionally tossing it into the discussion mix briefly with no real meaning.

One episode had Toby Ziegler, my favorite, vigorously defending bold language against Islamic extremism in a foreign policy document by bluntly declaring, “They’ll like us when we win.” It’s an unnervingly coherent argument for aggression, coming from the most morally confident character on the show.

Which might have had more impact, if more of that episode hadn’t been devoted to Sam trying to explain he wasn’t being sexist when he told a female friend she looked hot in an evening gown (one of many points where you started to wonder exactly when Sam became a voice through which Sorkin could grind an axe or three – the entire subplot reads as Sorkin shouting to some woman he once offended, “This is why I’m not sexist, and if you’d have just listened to my long explanation at the time, I wouldn’t have to shove it down the mouths of my characters!”)

(Another issue where the series writer started to more liberally inject his own ego into the show: having leads correcting their opponents’ grammar and improper phrasing. One example: When a congressman says a bill is “dead as a Greek poet,” Sam chides him by saying he’s sure there are still some living poets in Greece. Well fuck you, Sorkin, you’re the one who wrote the damn line.)

By the end of this season, the show’s attempts to fight off reality reached its head by introducing Robert Ritchie (read: G.W. Bush) as a plain-spoken (read: moronic) Republican (read: moronic) presidential nominee folks really seem to like. But Bartlet trounces him in one debate. How? By Being Smarter.

And that is about the point where the show left Idealism Station for a long layover in Magical Fantasy-Land Junction (okay, now I’m done with the train metaphors, promise).

All this said, I really do miss “The West Wing.” Like I said, it’s a show that couldn't exist today. But if there’s one thing this show inspires, almost bull-headedly, it’s hope for tomorrow.

Who knows? Network TV is nothing if not a recycling of ideas (see: CW’s fall-season “90210” redux). If Obama wins in November, and his first couple years aren’t a total mess, maybe we’ll see “West Wing: The Next Generation.”

(I mean that as a cheap punchline to wrap up this post. But I can guarantee you some producer in Hollywood is already putting a pitch together, just in case.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

No One Watched It But Me: "Kitchen Confidential"

The Show:
Kitchen Confidential,” Fox, 2005

The Premise:
Based fairly loosely on the book by Anthony Bordain, disgraced star chef Jack Bordain is given one last chance to head up a slick New York restaurant while keeping his ne’er-do-well kitchen staff in check.

What Made It Special:
This one was all about setting. For every five shows set in a precinct, hospital, or law firm, there’s one that tries to do something different. “Kitchen Confidential” had the added bonus of stranger-than-fiction source material in Bourdain’s book, a memoir of life on the fringes, because let’s face it – no one in their right mind would want to work in a restaurant.
It was also blessed with an outstandingly talented comedic cast, starting with Bradley Cooper, who’s really gifted at playing assholes you still kinda like. Also on hand were Nicholas Brendan (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), John Francis Daley (“Freaks and Geeks”), and John Cho (Harold and Kumar…).

Signs It Was Going Somewhere Good:
When the show adapted the warts-and-all parts of Bourdain’s book, it was really sharp, and had an air of authenticity to it. There were also hints that we were actually watching Jack, initially at an emotional high after a year of sobriety and newfound sense of responsibility, reaching the beginning stages of egomania that led him into the sordid booze-drugs-women combo that finished him off the first time around.

Signs of Wear and Tear:
It was a fucking Darren Starr production, so it frequently abandoned the enjoyable heightened realism of the “day in the life in the kitchen” angle for “Sex and the City but with Chefs” sex-comedy nonsense that felt nothing but contrived and worse, conventional. “The chef’s dating a vegan!” probably sounded great in the writing room, but honestly – the book had a story about a guy stitching up his own wound and returning to work. How did that not strike them as the more interesting source of humor?

Sign the Producers Knew They Didn’t Have Much Time Left:
They didn't hear the train until it was right on top of them – the show got pulled four episodes in.

Why No One Watched:
Its lead-in was, god bless ‘em, “Arrested Development.” In its third season. When any hope of getting new viewers in was totally lost. (I believe around the third episode, they might have switched the timeslots. Which is hilarious in its own way.)

Available on DVD?:
Yup, a two-disc set you can grab through Netflix.

Where You've Seen It Since:
Pretty much every single cable network now has its own reality-chef show, but ironically, none of them are going to give you the terrifying (and frequently hilarious) reality of working in a restaurant that Anthony Bordain does. (Though weirdly, neither does “No Reservations,” Bordain’s otherwise-enjoyable travelogue show on Discovery.)