Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"24": The Deadly Bauer Genes

I think the producers of "24" knew pretty early on in the series that Kim Bauer may be the most dangerous female alive. Not only is she a heady mix of stupid and self-absorbed, she's got Jack Bauer as a father – who tries to make up for his shoddy parenting by basically letting her do whatever she wants.

As a result, she Mister Magoo's her way through life, somehow surviving through sheer luck while, oh, say, Valencia, CA gets nuked.

So it's a testament to the character that in last night's pretty solid season-7 primer "24: Redemption," she can somehow kill a man while being thousands of miles away.

Let's backtrack: Jack's friend Benton steps on a landmine while trying to keep a young African boy from doing the same. Which he was about to do, because he wandered away from the rest of the group to go get a scarf that was snagged on a bush. This is a scarf he was allowed to keep by Jack. A scarf that Jack had bought with the intention of giving to his daughter. So: Because Jack bought Kim a gift, a good man died.

Despite being a continent away (and entirely off-screen), Kim Bauer Blew A Guy Up. If you ask me, out of all the messed-up things Jack Bauer's done (cutting off a guy's head, chopping off his partner's hand, shooting another partner in the throat, torturing his girlfriend's innocent ex-husband)…by fathering Kim Bauer, Jack may have doomed us all.

Which just goes to show you: Every atom of Jack Bauer is dangerous. Even - no, especially - his sperm.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"'Pushing Daisies"' Beautiful Corpse

(Written at Noon on 11/20)

“Did you hear ‘Pushing Daisies’ isn’t doing so hot in the ratings?”

“Boy, I hear that ‘Pushing Daisies’ is close to cancellation.”

“Hot dang, that there colorful show ‘bout the pie guy ain’t long for this world, do it?”

Yes, I know, everyone. I know. STOP TELLING ME, I KNOW!

And yet, oddly, I’m not too horrified.

I love “Pushing Daisies” unreasonably. It makes me laugh at puns. The more absurd it gets, the more gushily sweet it gets, the more it makes me smile. But if it doesn’t get picked up after its 13th second-season episode is complete, I won’t be mad. I’ll be bummed, and upset, but not mad.

I was mad when “Firefly” got cancelled, because it seemed to get shafted from the start. It never had a chance to be anything other than a cult hit.

I was mad when “Arrested Development” was cancelled because…well, looking back, I feel like it was part of a broader “red state, blue state” argument: “Nobody will watch ‘Arrested Development,’ but ‘According to Jim’ is still on the air?! THIS is why the country’s in the shitter!”

But if “Pushing Daisies” goes this year, I’ll understand why. It wasn’t for a lot of tastes. It’s not ABC’s fault – they promoted it heavily, they actually kept it on the same night, the same time, for two seasons. They made sure the season 1 DVD set was available before premiering season 2. They did everything right.

Usually when a show gets cancelled prematurely, it bugs me because like most fans, I get attached to the actors. For instance, I feel bad for 90% of the casts of “Buffy” and “Angel.” It’s just a fact of the acting profession that in most cases, the cast goes on to crap guest-starring roles or featured roles on inferior shows.

But most of the “Pushing Daisies” cast come from well-regarded Broadway careers, and that’s where they’ll go back. They’ll be okay.

The other sticking point with early-death on shows like this is there will almost certainly be unresolved storythreads. I’m not sure if they can take care of both the Ned’s Father and Emerson’s Daughter stories in the next seven episodes.

But even there, I’m covered. Bryan Fuller has said he’ll finish the story as a comic series if he can’t wrap it up on the show. And with the right publisher and artist (I’m thinking Oni Press), it’ll be a delightful package.

Frankly, if it goes now, the only bummer is we won’t get a full musical episode, and given the talents of the cast, that will be a real shame.

So if “Pushing Daisies” is a goner after 26 episodes, I’ll mourn it. But it’ll join “Arrested Development,” “Wonderfalls,” and “SportsNight” on my DVD shelf as another Beautiful Corpse series – killed long before it could decline in quality.

Which is not a bad way for a TV show to be remembered. Particularly one about a guy who can bring dead things back to bold, technicolor life.

(UPDATE, 8:55 PM: Well, damn it. Good thing I spent time writing this at work, huh? Anyway, I stand by it. I'm bummed, but not mad. If they don't bother airing the last seven episodes...THEN I'll be mad.

Okay, maybe I'm a little mad now. Just a little. I mean, really, ABC. You're cutting this one, but keeping "According to Jim," "Private Practice," and actually RENEWING "Scrubs"? What the HELL does Jim Belushi have on your executives, that he's proved so invincible?!)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tuesday Throwdown: "Fringe" Vs. "The Mentalist"

Last week’s “Fringe” featured an “Audrey II”-esque plant thing squeezing a man’s heart. What did last week’s “The Mentalist” have? Its lead character explaining the concept of a memory-tower to his co-workers.

You might be surprised which I found more interesting.

It’s all about the successful execution of a procedural. “The Mentalist” aspires to be nothing more than an engaging detective show, and as a result, everything it does above-and-beyond – things like character development, personality, and understated visual and tonal style – make it that much more impressive.

By contrast, “Fringe” seems to think it’s a lot better than it is. It’s so sure people get that it’s “not just” a mere procedural – by dropping increasingly annoying “Larger Forces At Work” hints and allusions to upcoming Stories To Be Told (including a rather smarmily-titled episode called “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones”) – that it seems to have ignored the fact that it has so far told basically the same story five or six times in a row now.

In fact, it seems a bit arrogant about that fact, having Lance Reddick irritably inform his subordinate that she’s always going to have more questions and basically, she should consider that just a part of the job, because she’ll know more when he’s ready to tell her.

This is the producers momentarily hijacking a character to tell viewers to stop whining about repetitive stories, and stop complaining that being deliberately obtuse isn’t the same as telling an engaging story. Because it’s all Part of The Bigger Plan, you see. And the producers erroneously assume we care about The Plan.

By now, viewers are extremely savvy to the precarious scaffolding that is “Big Picture Storytelling.” We’ve seen when it goes right: “The Wire,” and perhaps “Lost.” And we’ve seen when it goes wrong: “Heroes,” and off-seasons of “24.”

My advice to “Fringe” is to take up a page from “The Mentalist”: don’t worry about the Big Picture. It’s less important to viewers than you think. What viewers like is engaging weekly stories. If they actually build to something more, great. But it’s never the reason to watch a show.

Meanwhile, instilling a rigid “freak-of-the-week” format – to get viewers used to seeing weird crap by redoing the same story with minor variations each week, while also draping a larger picture – is actually a bit insulting to the viewer.

Unfortunately “Fringe’s” problems are wider-spread. While “The Mentalist” has a cast that starts with the beatific charismata of Simon West and is uniformly enjoyable overall, “Fringe” is kneecapped with the presence of Anna Torv and Jasika Nicole, two frankly terrible actresses in underwritten roles.

The worst part? Neither character is actually necessary for the main plots. And Anna Torv is the ostensible lead character!

(And for now we’re ignoring the patent silliness of the “science” involved in the stories. I don’t need it to actually be plausible. It’s helpful when it sounds plausible, but even that isn’t really necessary when you’ve got the amusingly loopy mad scientist explaining it. I only need it to sound interesting. Which is iffy from case to case.)

Anyway. Both “Fringe and “The Mentalist” have scored full-season orders, so I’ll follow each through until May, hoping from the best from each. But while “The Mentalist” has actually delivered more than expected each week, “Fringe” currently has quite an uphill climb.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How To Make Fun of Our First Black President

Sure, there's been a lot of pansy-ass, lilly-livered-liberal outpouring of emotion over the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land (I just love that phrase - it's so "Dungeons and Dragons," and yet normal media folk use it all the time!). People all over the globe seem so beside themselves with enthusiasm over something as pedestrian as America's first black president.

Being that I'm an embittered political cynic, I wouldn't know anything about that enthusiasm. Ahem.

But now the real question remains: How Can American Comedians Make Fun of President Obama?

The question seems built on Fred Armisen's portrayal of the president-elect on "Saturday Night Live." Ignoring the whole "half-blackface-issue," the big problem seemed to be that Armisen's Obam isn't all that funny on its own.
These complaints seemed to ignore the fact that the featured Obama sketches were really just ways of making fun of John McCain (played by Darrell Hammond as a borderline psychotic). The joke only works if there's a straight-man - Obama - to respond to McCain's increasingly nonsensical deviations.

Now that SNL will have to develop skits exclusively featuring the Obama caricature, I offer this - and frankly, I'm disappointed I even have to say it, since it seems so frickin' obvious I can't believe any media concern has been spent on it.

In essence, it's "Barack Obama: Our First Superspy President."

How does Obama respond to every problem put in his path? Just like James Bond: by being cooler than cool about it. Even if the logical response is something closer to "Complete Freakout," Obama approaches problems like he's going to seduce it into submission.

This routine will easily cover the next few months, until Obama has actually shown what kind of president he'll get to be.

Something tells me no 007-president can smoove the economy into behaving...though it'd be nice to see Armisen-Obama try.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The CNN/Star Wars Connection: More Than Just James Earl Jones

Ahh, election day news coverage. The one time of year when The Daily Show/Colbert Report’s potent blend of absurdity and silly pomposity is somehow less funny than actual cable networks.

CNN and MSNBC seemed to be having a Star-Wars-Off.

There’s Wolf Blitzer, talking to a hologram of a correspondent. Why? Because CNN likes to imagine the future of news the only way they know how: through the lens of a child's imagination in the 1970's.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and less goofily bizarre to simply do a satellite interview like they do every other day of the year? Of course. But on Election Day, audiences expect something new. Something with "zazz."

Or something that’ll at least make audiences instinctively answer, “Obi-wan? D’ya think she means ‘Old Ben’ Kenobi?” to their TVs.

Not to be outdone, MSNBC stuck their people on a set that was made almost entirely out of CGI effects.

You know how the Star Wars prequels were kind of hard to watch, like, on a conceptual level? It was because your eyes were constantly telling your brain to pretend that something that simply wasn’t there was real and interacting with the actual humans standing in front of it?

You shouldn’t have that happening while trying to hear some election results.

And if you’re asking, “Well, what did Fox News have?”, the answer is: an existential crisis.

Monday, November 3, 2008

ISTV Special Report: Romance No Longer In The Air

Why is TV so against hurried coupling?

“How I Met Your Mother” and “The Office” have both plowed through their Big Relationship stories in record time, and it’s…well, it’s damn weird, and yet totally expected.

“How I Met Your Mother” walks an odd tight-rope balancing the audience’s expectations. There’s a frame of mind that thinks once lead character Ted meets the titular woman in question, the show’s over. That the series should end with the line, “…And that’s how I met your mother.”

Another line of thought is that the audience should actually get to know the mother, which would mean she could be introduced well before the show is over.

(This is the line of thought that, despite the best efforts of the creators to dissuade it, leads some conspiracy theorists – like, say, me – to conclude the mother is Wendy the Waitress, who’s been around since the start of the series.)

Still, the dismissal of Sarah Chalke’s character after a hurried wedding attempt felt like the writers realized they’d written themselves into a corner, and their breakup (by bringing in old flame Jason Jones) felt arbitrary and rushed. Ideally the breakup is a gateway to a larger story, just as Ted and Robin’s breakup at the end of season 2 informed Ted’s behavior during the strike-abbreviated season 3.

But the difference between the Robin break-up and this one is, we knew from the first episode how Ted and Robin’s relationship would go down. Teasing a wife for Ted and then backing off smacks of writers trying to stretch a story-arc past its expiration date. Not a big deal on this show, since the rest of the cast easily carries the weight – and Barney’s interest in Robin creates a slow-burning secondary romantic spirit – but it’s a weird thing for a sitcom to promote “Lost”-levels of continuity irritation.

Meanwhile, “The Office” had to figure out how to get rid of Holly, Michael Scott’s perfect girl (read: totally adorable dork). Now, I don’t believe this was a half-assed decision – they knew when they got Academy-Award nominee Amy Ryan that she probably had some other stuff coming up, job-wise (like, say, a Clint Eastwood movie).

But after a few episodes teasing the relationship and one of them actually getting together, Holly and Michael (due to her corporate-mandated transfer seven hours away) split quite suddenly (though narratively, it made total sense – Dunder-Mifflin clearly recalled the last time Michael dated within the company, so…probably a smart move on their part).

Nevertheless, it's the mark of a great show that they could not only create a character as absurd-yet-realistic as Michael Scott, but create a believable love-interest for him. So here's hoping that Holly will return at some point.

In the case of both shows, by removing the love interest, they've reset the clock on a part of their larger narratives. Dramas that do this are (often rightly) lambasted for this kind of reboot. But comedies have a little more leeway, and as said, both shows are pretty clever with their larger viewpoints.

So if you hear anyone complaining about "jumping the shark," I would advise an authoritative, ISTV Global Stronghold-sanctioned slap.