Thursday, August 28, 2008

ISTV Classic: "Heroes, Season 2"

Since "Heroes: Season 2" has been released on DVD this week, I thought I'd use the opportunity to offer again a post written a few months before this site went active. So this one is for all you new "Heroes" fans just getting into the show via DVD and may not know what you're in for; and all you old "Heroes" fans who, thanks to the blissful haze of passing time, may have forgotten what a fricking slog Season 2 became, and to go into season 3 with eyes wide open:

"I Have Some Questions, 'Heroes' Producers"

Now that I've finished re-watching the first season of "Heroes," and NBC will be airing the finale of "Volume II" tonight, I thought it might be a good idea to pose 10 questions to the producers that, 1.5 seasons in, haven't really been answered. Initially this list numbered in the high 20's, but I then realized asking "Where did Claude go?" is really just asking, "Why couldn't you and Christopher Eccleston's agent come to an agreement?" so I've decided to choose my battles.

1) Didn't Mrs. Bennet have some pretty scary-looking brain damage thanks to the Hatian? Because she looks fine now.

2) Why in the hell would a multinational organization like The Company have a big office in Odessa, TX? For that matter, why don't they have a proper name?

3) So does Kensei's sword have powers allowing Hiro to focus his, or was that just an annoying bullshit plot device to let Hiro waste half the first season? Because he just went to Japan, met Kensei, and came back, and that never really came up.

4) Why would Isaac Mendez do a series of paintings depicting events that directly contradict his own previously-painted prophecies?

5) Eden, Candice, and now Elle...exactly how many sociopathic pixie girls does The Company have in its employ? Are they particularly reliable? Because two of them are dead now.

6) So remember how you told us Linderman had manipulated every aspect of Nikki and DL's lives to get them to produce a kid with Micah's computer-communicating abilities? A question in two parts, part A) being, Is that like how a Frankenstein and a Vampire had a Werewolf on "The Munsters"? Or is it part B), because you noticed, like I did, that it turns out the characters had virtually no connection to the overarching plot otherwise?

7) Am I to take it that at the end of the season 1 finale, everyone was so transfixed by the pretty explosion in the night sky that NOBODY noticed a grievously-wounded Sylar slowly dragging himself towards a manhole?

8) So if Linderman was in charge of The Company, wouldn't he have a problem with his mentor being imprisoned in one of their facilities for like 30 years? Or did he just not notice? And if he just didn't notice, I have a follow-up: just how stupid is was Linderman, anyway?

9) Exactly who in the FUCK gave custody of Molly to Matt Parkman and Mohinder Suresh? Y'know, the Parkman that got shot point blank multiple times in the chest and would have been recouperating for months and in no condition to care for a child? This would be the same Parkman that had recently been fired from the LAPD for being a total flake, and oh yeah, just left his wife and unborn child. Did they think that these negatives would be offset by Mohinder, who is NOT A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES, frequently travels giving lectures as part of his "job," and has known both Molly and Parkman for a grand total of like two hours? Seriously. I would like to talk to agency that thought these would be suitable guardians. Is this agency the Department of JESUS FUCK, REALLY?! (The DoJFR?)

10) Okay, let me see if I've got the timeline down. For three months, Nathan Petrelli sat burnt to a crisp in a hospital bed. Once healed, he managed, in under a month, to 1. Get divorced and lose custody of his kids, 2. Become a full-on drunk, and 3. Grow a big fuck-off superbeard in which woodland creatures could nest? I guess my question here is, are we to take from this that Nathan is SO VIRILE, that he hits rock-bottom with more efficiency and accuracy than most men can succeed?

I suppose I have one more follow-up question: Since you guys are gonna have a little time between finishing volume 2 and starting up volume 3, do you think you could spend an extra couple days hashing out story points that make between a dash and a lick of sense? Or perhaps characters that do not routinely make the dumbest choice available to them?

When the scale of smartest to dumbest ranges from Peter Petrelli (who despite having mind-reading powers, does not bother reading the mind of the man everyone keeps telling him wants to destroy the world) to Maya (who speaks fluent English, but yet is completely unable to interpret Sylar's vocal inflections or body language, which say nothing but "Eeeviiiilllllmwahahahahaah!"), you've got some issues to iron out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

R.I.P., Henchman #24

The "Venture Bros." season finale aired last night, and by the end of it, I actually shouted, "Holy Crap! They killed Henchman 24!"

My girlfriend looked up at me and said, "Wow, you're really upset, aren't you?"

"No! No," I answered. "It's just...I didn't expect them to do that. It was a funny gag."

This was a lie. I was, in fact, a little upset.

"Venture Bros." is the last of Cartoon Network's old-school "Adult Swim" shows. It came in at the tail end of the first batch that mocked old Hanna-Barbara shows - "Sealab 2021," "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law," etc. - and just before the newer batch like "Tim and Eric Awesome Show" and "Squidbillies," - shows you'd have to be really, really stoned to find funny.

"Venture Bros." is the apex of the old-school because as it's gone on, its nerd jokes have become more obvious and esoteric all at once. By which I mean, they'll throw a "G.I. Joe" parody out there, and that might be funny for what it is. A newbie might laugh at it.

But by this third season, the joke itself is really more of a capper to a series of other jokes from earlier seasons. And so the newbies might be wondering why the big fans are laughing so much harder.

It's a bizarre turn of events, when a show that started off as a riff on the quick-punchline idea, "What would Johnny Quest be like if we followed him into his middle-aged-failure years?" has actually developed a huge supporting cast, a plethora of important thematic devices, an assload of running gags, and an alarming detailed sense of continuity. "Venture Bros." has officially become the "Lost" of Adult Swim.

As a result of the audience's investment in the characters and mythology, "Venture Bros." can do something a show like "Metalocolypse" can't - it can pull the rug from under the audience and provoke a genuine emotional reaction.

Case in point, the Henchmen. Half-assed supervillain The Monarch has had a giant band of nameless henchmen throughout the series, but two of them - portly, squeaky-voiced #21 and skinny, Ray-Ramano-sounding #24, both audience-surrogates - have managed to survive onslaught after onslaught of absurd violence, though what The Monarch refers to as "that rare blend of expendable and invulnerable."

Until last night, when #24 was accidentally blown up. REALLY blown up - #21 actually caught his flaming head.

That the season ended with Brock quitting his bodyguard job didn't really matter. FUCKING #24 died!

That this is both hilarious and upsetting is why "Venture Bros." is the best Adult Swim series. And maybe the only Adult Swim show where you'd hear someone say, "...Actually, you should just start with the first season. Everything will make more sense after that."

Rest in Peace, Henchman #24.

(Oh, also? Last season, they revealed that the head of the shadowy villainous organization was, well, David Bowie. really should put "Venture Bros." in your Netflix queue, just for that, right?)
"Some Velvet Morning" starts up today:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympic Fever, Catch It! (Part 4: Robot Smile)

Things Shawn Johnson Is Probably Thinking, As She Keeps Grinning No Matter What Happens:

"Oh, boy! China!"
"My life's just gonna get better and better after this!"
"I hope NBC thinks of me when they start casting 'Small Wonder 2.o'!"
"This'll be a great way of making friends!"
"If I keep smiling, maybe Mommy and Daddy won't fight so much!"
"I bet I'll live forever!" (Okay, that one stolen from McSweeney's - don't care.)
"Gee, d'ya think they like me back home?"
"It's awfully hard to breathe in this leotard!"
"Puberty? What's that? Sounds fun!"
"I'm cute, but puppies are cuter!"
"Why does that Liukin girl look so mad? We're Olympians!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic Fever, Catch It! (Part 3: Ladies Night)

Awesome, sometimes-weird night for American Olympian women. They all did great – particularly our terrifying giantesses on the softball team – but at the same time, a strange sense of defeat at the uneven bars and the pole vault.

The uneven bars was an actual sense of robbery – esoteric scoring procedures meant that in spite of a tie, bullshit-she’s-16-year-old He Kexin got the gold, while the U.S.’s Nastia Liukin (arguably with the more even performance) took silver. A clear sense of China kinda screwing around with things in multiple ways.

On the pole vault front (a phrase you are unlikely to ever see on this site again), jetsetting Russian Yelena Isinbayeva got the gold, which meant it was totally worthwhile to watch a little profile about how she somehow is an athlete while also being very attractive and living what appears to be a model’s life in Monte Carlo (and would also not mind a small part in American movies someday).

And it would’ve been totally fine that American Jennifer Stuczynski took silver, on account of she’s only been doing this for about four years, if not for the dismissive chewing-out her coach gave her from the stands – totally mic’d on a global telecast, which is obviously the best time to have that kind of conversation. His passive-aggressive, “Yeah, silver. That’s not bad. It’s no gold, but it’s not like you’re Isinbayeva” scolding really took the (silvery) shine off the whole thing.

So thank god for Women’s Beach Volleyball, is what I’m saying. Our gals pounded the hell out of the Brazilians, a victory made all the sweeter after the commentators mentioned that the Brazilians pulled rank and kicked them off the practice court earlier that day. It’s rare I say this (actually, this may be the first time I’ve ever said this), but: Suck it, Brazil! Go enjoy your losers’ party – which is probably going to be really awesome and sexy, with beads and feathers and such.

In conclusion: USA! USA! USA!

The Summer Olympics: Because Americans Need To Feel Good About Something For a Little While.

(And yes, this may have just been an excuse to post pictures of female Olympians. Sue me.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Olympic Fever, Catch It! (Part 2: A Word From Canada)

TO: ISTV Global Stronghold
FROM: Canada
SUBJECT: RE: Canada’s Capabilities in Summer Olympic Sports

Dear Global Stronghold folks,

Shut up, eh?

Look, we know we’re not the strongest swimmers out there, right? And yeah, it sure does look like we’re last out of the pool every time. But cut us some slack, will ya? Our water’s only swimmable – like three weeks out of every year. So we don’t get a lot of practice, eh?

And that official regulation-sized pool…it just goes on forever, and everyone’s zippin’ past us. An’ it’s sooo deep! We’re just happy not ta drown!

Point we’re tryin’ to make is, we’re self-conscious enough without you hosers makin’ fun of us, eh?

And we’re not stupid, in spite of some comments you’ve made at our expense, both in swimming and in other summer sports.

F’r example: We know those badminton rackets are used to bat around the little feathery thing. You don’t put them on your feet to trudge through snow. We KNOW that. (Now.)

So, just easy does it with the jokes there, eh? In a couple a’ years, we’ll see you at the Winter Olympics. And I think we’ll know who’ll be laughing then, eh?

(We will – Canada. Just so, y'know, there’s no confusion.)


Your friendly, frozen neighbors to the north

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nearly Worth Watching: "Fringe"

Caught the "Fringe" pilot early, so I can officially tell you that this is 80% a Show Worth Watching.
First, the bad: There’s a good deal of “Let’s Set Up The Series” stuff – characters speaking in exposition, vague subplots initiated, and a nice tour of the set you’ll get to see each and every exciting week, if the show gets picked up. It’s annoying, but on a pilot, everyone’s gotta just soldier through it, and assume this won’t be so prominent in later episodes.

The more painful bit of the bad is the fact that the lead actress looks like Kate Blanchett and performs like Elizabeth Rohm. She is startlingly bland, exhibiting almost no personality in the face of some truly weird concepts she’s supposed to be at the front of. It’s disappointing, firstly because how many decent, attractive character actresses are there who could deliver lines with a spark of excitement and curiosity – let alone decent AMERICAN actresses who could do the job?

But that’s something we have to cope with, since the rest of the cast makes up for it. In particular, John Noble, playing the scientific lead who will anchor the plot of the series itself. He isn’t charming or rakish. He’s not Dr. House. The Walter Bishop character is quite truly a Mad Scientist, delivering his lines like an autistic Vincent Price. At one point, he casually mentions that he’s pissed himself – “Just a squirt,” he clarifies – and that tells the audience quite a bit about the show that’s hopefully lined up.

I imagine a lot of actors chomp at the bit to play The Good-Guy Mad Scientist, quietly excited to inject an FBI agent with an LSD-Ketamine mix and toss her into a sensory deprivation tank. That enthusiasm is clear here.

Most surprising, I must admit, is Joshua Jackson as the scientist’s estranged son – also a genius, though a stubbornly directionless one. Though at first I thought he was trying a bit too hard to come off as “adult” despite looking like a youngish 25, as soon as he’s got Noble to play off of, Jackson comes alive, alternating between snarkily berating his father’s work and bemusedly translating for him, since he seems to be the only other one that “speaks Walter.”

That the show’s got J.J. Abrams’s “Bad Robot” company attached can be read one of two ways – “Lost,” or “Alias.” The vague references to “The Pattern” hint at the problems the latter series faced when it became clear that it had no real gameplan and just kept inventing new, obtusely-named threats. But I’m hoping for the quality of the former to keep it in check.

Helping that is the clever bits of gruesomeness displayed in the pilot. Not only the airborne toxin that turns people’s skin translucent – which the show manages to keep looking disgusting no matter how close up it gets - but more throwaway gags like the woman who casually strips off the skin of her arm to reveal a bionic prosthesis. If they can keep this attitude going, I’ll be impressed.

There’s a way of looking at this like a 21st-century redo of “The X-Files,” and hopefully that’ll be the case. The alternate is it devolves into a painful hybrid the last couple of years’ failed genre shows, “Night Stalker” and “Bionic Woman.” But it’s my hope Abrams and company have learned their lessons by now.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Fever, Catch It! (Part 1: Handballin')

“Sure are a lot of handballers carrying flags,” my roommate quite rightly observed as we watched the Parade of Nations Friday night. Then, after we were done giggling at the term “handballer,” we realized we had no idea what handball is.

I was under the impression that handball was that one with two guys on a court who hit a rubber ball back and forth while wearing goggles. Only when Tad recognized the game I was describing as Squash did it occur to me that I also had no idea what Squash was.

Fortunately, a match between the French and Angola women’s teams cleared it all up. At first glance, it looks a bit like Calvinball – lots of running and ball-throwing and chasing each other around. But we quickly realized it was basically soccer, but you use your hands. And every three steps you have to bounce the ball.

When one of the players goes to score, the goalie (defending a goal bigger than hockey but smaller than soccer), largely unable to do anything because she lacks both room to dive and protective padding, just kinda jumps out towards the ball, flailing her arms and legs.

It is a fairly high-scoring game.

It’s also sort of brutal, since the only way a player’s going to gain control of the ball (other than that namby-pamby interception crap) is to ram her shoulder into the other player. Which was especially counterintuitive, since the court itself is a placid, calming powder-blue.

At this point, I started to wonder: How is this game not popular in the US?

- It answers Americans’ Soccer Dilemma by being faster-moving and higher-scoring, and on a smaller court which makes it easier to follow the action.
- It looks and sounds a bit like basketball. We like basketball.
- There’s none of the partial nudity that’s likely kept men’s water polo – arguably a more difficult game, since when you’re not playing, you’re still swimming! – from being comfortably embraced by many male fans.
Then it occurred to me that maybe it’s too simple for American sports fans. I mean, baseball and football have so many rules that slow the action down to a crawl, and apparently we love those two.

We had to retitle blindingly simple descriptive name “football” into “soccer” – a word that never, ever described anything.

It is possible Americans are really overcomplicating their own enjoyment of sports.
More Olympic coverage to come, probably.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Extended Play: Lost, Season 3

Well that’s more like it.

Season 3 of “Lost” starts off floundering and directionless, much like its writers apparently felt, not knowing how long they’d have to string out mysteries and answers before they knew when the damn thing would END, so they could work out how to start finishing the story.

So while the first half of the season is devoted to answering questions all but the most dim-witted of viewers had already kinda guessed, the second half – after the creative crew got a schedule for when the show would end – starts tossing out answers and barreling into the next phase of the story.

By the middle of Season 3 (and once again, taking it in as a “TV-novel” beats the shit out of the frustrating experience of watching it as a weekly series with a big gap between new installments), there’d been a lot of throat-clearing episodes (“How Jack Got His Tattoos” the most annoying example), and a half-answers to tide weary viewers over.

But after the last deck-clearing outing – one entirely devoted to doing away with poorly-conceived new characters Paulo and Nikki – a sharper, more coherent display of the show’s Big Story began to emerge. This culminated in the first Ben flashback – which explained a bit while offering specific questions about the character and his place in that Big Story. The questions stopped being “What’s going on?” – that vagueness that got folks annoyed last season - in favor of “Who knows what?” – which holds the promise of concrete answers.

Let me back up for a second and talk more about the added characters. Introducing new folks onto a show set on a supposedly uninhabited island is a tricky proposition, but while most people bitterly recall Nikki and Paulo – two previously-unseen castaways viewers were unfairly asked to readily accept as part of the ensemble, even though they brought nothing of merit with them – it’s important to note that this season also brought Ben, Juliet, and Desmond to the fore.

I have a soft spot for Juliet because of her unflappably dry sense of humor (which ironically contrasts her off-island basket-case status). And she is important to the Big Story, in that she’s a catalyst for explaining the mysterious malady that’s killing pregnant women on the island (which affects original characters Sun and Claire). But Ben and Desmond are the ones to pay attention to, as they turn out to be insanely important additions necessary to drive the Big Story and its emotional themes forward.

Pushing Ben – leader of the mysterious Others and keeper of the magic island’s secrets – to the forefront of the story gave the viewers fair warning that the serious questions about the overarching plot were, in fact, going to be answered.

And with the arrival of Desmond, viewers learned that there was a deeply romantic element of the story we didn’t even know was there.

(If there was a drawback to our quick investment into the starcrossed Desmond-Penny love story, it was the “duh” realization the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle seemed that much more pointlessly juvenile in comparison. “Kate wishes Jack paid more attention to her? Fuck her. Desmond’s devotion to Penny was the only thing that kept him alive for THREE YEARS.”)

It’s amusing to note that all three of these characters, so important to the Big Story, also brought with them a sense of humor that had been lacking previously. The tone of the show mirrored this in a way by tossing in a bit of self-effacing meta-commentary. Characters started pointing out how over-the-top Sawyer’s nicknaming had gotten, or how ludicrous Locke’s island-worship actually sounded. It felt like a clear message from the writers: “We know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry. In the end, we’re all here to have fun.”

All this culminated in the game-changing season finale, throwing viewers off by flash-forwarding to the post-island torment of its leads. If the meta-jokes were the writers’ way of saying they understood viewer frustrations, the finale was their way of saying, “And just to shut you up: yes, we know where all this is going, too.”


So that’s three seasons viewed pretty closely together, with full knowledge of season 4 (which kept all season 3’s lessons to heart by introducing more useful new characters and giving answers to big questions without leaving viewers feeling like they’re being maliciously dicked around with). When the season 4 DVD shows up, I’ll plow through them, too – particularly with an eye on how the writers strike affected the story’s pacing and reveals).

What’s my final prognosis? Very simply, I’ve learned to trust the creators again. It’s been a tough road, and there have been some hiccups along the way (which reminds me, I forgot to mention how off-handedly they killed off Mister Eko, or how they had to foretell Charlie's death just to make the audience like him again), but I remain incredibly impressed by the body of work they’ve managed to produce so far. And I fully believe they know what they’re doing.

At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn they had a bigger plan for Bai Ling’s “Jack’s Tattoos” character all along.