Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hey, Tootsie!

The notion of men wearing women's clothes has been a part of comedy for decades. Sometimes it works wonderfully (Some Like it Hot), other times it doesn't (White Chicks), but no matter the results it is a virtually certainty that the genre will continue. Tootsie, one of the best films to utilize this trope, is getting a DVD release in "25th Anniversary" format.

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr, and Jessica Lange (among others), the Sydney Pollack film doesn't only go for the cheap laugh, it attempts to garner a deeper understanding of gender relations. It is a comedy that is at turns serious and funny, and almost always successful at both.

In the film, Hoffman is Michael Dorsey, a down-and-out actor who can't seem to land a role. Anytime he does actually succeed in getting a part he ruins it by arguing about his character with the director. After his agent informs him that no one in either New York or Los Angeles wants to work with him, he comes up with a plan -- he'll pretend to be a woman and go after parts that way. His alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, quickly succeeds in landing a role on a soap. There he falls for a co-star, Julie Nichols (Lange), but not only does Lange think that Michael is actually Dorothy, Michael has recently entered into a romantic relationship with a long-time friend, Sandy Lester (Garr), who was actually up for the role on the soap he got.

Trying to balance two women and two very separate lives gets more complicated than Michael can handle, but that doesn't stop him from trying to hold it all together. Matters only get worse for Michael when Julie's father, Les (Charles Durning), becomes enamored with Dorothy, and the lead actor on the soap, John Van Horn (George Gaynes), insists on having a kiss scene with all his female costars.

The film builds each storyline wonderfully, finding humor and serious issues among them all. Watching Pollack weave the various threads together and apart, handling the somber with the silly, is truly fantastic. Pollack also appears in a cameo as Michael's agent, George Fields, and almost certainly has the best scenes in the entire film.

The point of the film is that Hoffman's character ends up being "a better man" (a line the film uses) for his having pretended to be a woman and experience sexism. It is the film's clear intent to paint the sexes as equals, and just how difficult life can be for a woman is certainly something Michael learns. However, the film finds many easy laughs in Michael's search for clothing, accessories, and primping. Tootsie certainly doesn't mean to suggest that these are the hardest aspects of being a woman, but there is an interpretation of the film that could lead one in that direction. Taking such a stance would be unfortunate however as it would overlook the film's intentions, which seem nothing but honorable. Good intentions don't completely forgive cheap laughs, but in this case they seem to mitigate them.

The new 25th anniversary edition of the film is available on DVD February 5 and features deleted scenes, a three-part documentary entitled "A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie," and some wonderful original screen test footage of Hoffman as Dorothy.

With a fantastic cast (which also includes Dabney Coleman, Bill Murrary, and Geena Davis), wonderful wit, and a big heart, Tootsie is every bit as funny now as it was 25 years ago.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

George W. Bush and Presidential Politics go Toe-to-Toe with American Gladiators

Listen, the President was on TV last night, ruining most of what the writers' strike left intact, and I don't really talk politics here, so I'm going to pretty much avoid any discussion of what he said. Let me just say, though, that I believe nothing any politician has to say, ever. The reason this entire electoral process is so depressing is that we, the television watching public, get told nothing but lies for months on end only to be told that the "other side" prevented what we wanted from getting done being done after the election. The egos involved are just too massive and no matter what any politician tells us, they're not going to work for bipartisanship, it would cost them too much face.

Okay, there, I said I wasn't going to talk about the President ruining my television watching, but I did. The one thing I could cling to last night was American Gladiators, that bastion of entertainment which looked like a game of touch football compared with what our presidential candidates are currently up to.

Don't get me wrong, Gladiators is fun, it's just not as hard-hitting as I might like it to be. Did you watch Hit and Run last night? What a ridiculous, ludicrous event that is -- here, let me swing a medicine ball at you from really far away while you run across a rickety bridge. It's like a bad version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with medicine balls instead of a bunch of bad guys with swords (or is that due out this summer?).

Then, there was no Crush. What's a night of American Gladiators without Crush? I can afford to lose Wolf or Stealth or even Hellga, but Crush? That's not right.

And, lastly, what is up with the smack talk on the show? Why must we suffer through so many contestants trying to talk about what they're going to do to the gladiators or the event, only to see them fail. Last night we had to deal with Kim (a former Knicks cheerleader) and Mike (a chiropractor) issuing big words only to fall completely flat. Kim couldn't even climb to the top of the eight-foot wall in Eliminator, something that most constants spend less than five seconds on. Mike, perhaps remembering all the backs that he fixes, refused to go anywhere near gladiators. He took a bunch of jump shots in Power Ball so that the gladiators wouldn't have the opportunity to tackle him.

Here I thought American Gladiators was a contact sport, but I guess that politics is still tougher. I'll admit it though, I wouldn't mind seeing Clinton and Obama go after each other on Hang Tough. I'd put them both in the Eliminator, but I don't think that either would be able to do the hand bike or get to the top of the Travelator.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nova Knows a Secret (of the Parthenon)

The Parthenon, which has existed for 2500 years, just may be the largest jigsaw puzzle ever created. Despite the fact that all its columns look perfectly straight, as does the floor, and just about ever other piece of marble in the building, none of it is. Thus, the massive restoration project currently underway at the top of the Acropolis in Greece is an incredibly slow and painstaking one.

Nova's latest episode, "Secrets of the Parthenon," uses the restoration project as a stepping stone to discuss the original construction of the building and the Athenian way of life 25 centuries ago. It is an at times fascinating look into an ancient culture that has greatly influenced our society to this day.

The Parthenon itself was built during Athens' "Golden Age," and despite its immense size and weight (many of the marble pieces weigh several tons) it took less than 10 years to construct (historians are unsure whether it was 8 or 9). From that time to this, the Parthenon has managed, at least in part, to stay standing despite being burned, pillaged, rocked by earthquakes, exploded, and suffering a restoration almost 100 years ago that may have done more damage than anything else.

The documentary spends a significant amount of time discussing how all marble pieces used in the Parthenon construction (and there are thousands) can only be put together in one way for it to be correct. Though many of the pieces appear interchangeable, they are not. The differences may be minute, but they are there and purposeful.

Due to the nature of the human eye and the way our minds work, the eye can be tricked (drawing a 3D image on a flat piece of paper is a good example of this). In order for the Parthenon to look as though all the lines were straight, the angles 90 degrees, and the columns perfectly formed, the Athenians had to make sure they were not. They had to bow out the columns, have the floor be raised slightly higher in the center, and perform a variety of other subtle tricks to make the eye believe that what it was seeing was perfect.

The reconstruction project currently underway must take all of this into account. Making the task harder is the fact that a reconstruction project in the last century did not recognize the fact that all the pieces were unique and consequently put them back in the wrong order. The new project has had to take apart much the building and attempt to recreate the original construction.

Though the documentary often goes into great and fascinating depth on many of the issues involved with rebuilding the Parthenon there are unquestionably moments where it glosses over some issues. During one part of the documentary, mathematical ratios used in the building are discussed, among them a constant ratio used, according to the scientists, to determine the distance between the columns (at the columns' edge) and the columns' radii. However, it seems as though if the column radius changes (and it does) then the distance between the columns would change as well, thus changing the ratio (at least as described by the documentary). No discussion of how the changing distances and radii affecting the ratio exists (and the show seems to insist the ratio is constant), leaving the viewer moderately confused.

Despite any quibbles behind the math involved, the show is still an interesting look at one of the most interesting structures man has made. An interest in history or architecture is probably a prerequisite for the episode, but it may prove interesting even to those who don't fall into either category.

Nova - "Secrets of the Parthenon" airs Tuesday, January 29 at 8pm ET/PT, but do check your local listings; that's the sort of thing you don't want to leave to chance.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

It's Good to be the King of California

There seems to be an emerging niche genre in Hollywood - quirky, off-beat dramas featuring eccentric characters. The movies try to be funny and smart, tearful and hopeful at the same time (Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine come to the fore immediately). Many of the films tend to succeed, but they all have a similar feel to them, one that allows you to know the ending before it happens and gives you the sense that you've seen the picture before.

King of California, written and directed by Mike Cahill, stars Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood in just such a movie. To be sure, it's good and it's sweet and fun, but it has a terrible feeling of repetitiveness to it.

Douglas's role in the movie is that of Charlie, a relatively harmless but less-than-sane individual who has just been released from a mental hospital. Evan Rachel Wood acts opposite Douglas as Miranda, his nearly 17-year-old daughter who has had to grow up too quickly because of her father's childishness. In order to pay the bills, something Charlie never concerned himself with, Miranda dropped out of school and began working at the local McDonald's while Charlie was in the hospital. Charlie is devastated by this news as he sees Miranda as conforming to the mass consumption society he has always eschewed. For her part, Miranda doesn't necessarily believe in what she's doing, but she does recognize its necessity. Charlie has another idea about how to get money however -- he believes there to be a long lost treasure near them, one left by Spanish explorers hundreds of years ago.

Though she is initially skeptical about Charlie's treasure theory, Miranda quickly finds herself heading down the rabbit hole with him. Some of her just wants to make her father happy, some of her just wants to spend time with him, and some of her actually believes that her father may have stumbled upon something huge. Miranda does decide to help him, even though Charlie's clues lead him to believe that the gold is buried beneath a Costco.

From the moment the movie begins the viewer knows precisely how it is all going to end up. At some point Miranda will be hurt by her father and yet will end up looking at the world differently for all time. Charlie, who will pursue the quest to his last, will grow to realize how he has affected his daughter's life, and not always for the better, but will not change his goals or ambitions.

Despite the film's clear ambition to tug at heartstrings it manages to draw the audience in. In no small part this is due to Evan Rachel Wood's wonderful performance and the ever-present sadness in Michael Douglas's eyes. As doubtful as their ever finding the treasure is, the audience still ends up pulling for the impossible to happen.

The DVD features the usual array of special features. Included are a "making of" documentary, outtakes, and a filmmakers' commentary track with the writer/director as well as the cinematographer, production designer, and first AD.

King of California is neither new nor different. The commentary it makes about our fast food, disposable, money-hungry society is equally old; however, it is quizzically offset by the fact that Charlie, a man who certainly doesn't believe that money makes the world go round, is on the hunt for a huge chunk of it. His goal is not the money for what it can buy him, but it is still money.

The film manages to find its way due to the sheer power of the performances given by its leads. Wood and Douglas prove that this particular genre of film can be successful, no matter how obvious the story, how clear the heartstrings are being plucked, with quality acting.

Friday, January 25, 2008

NBC Chucks out a Couple of Episodes on Thursday Night

We live in an odd world. Last night NBC aired what it referred to as a "Chuck sandwich." It was an episode of Chuck followed by The Celebrity Apprentice followed by another Chuck. In my world I'd call that a Celebrity Apprentice sandwich (you wouldn't call turkey on rye a "rye sandwich," would you?), but apparently NBC does things differently.

The exact goal was unclear; some have referred to NBC's tactic as simply "burning off" the last new episodes of Chuck that were produced before the WGA strike. Others have suggested that NBC's plan may, at one time, have been to leverage the good ratings the new Apprentice received to bring new fans to Chuck as the execs had faith in the scripted spy comedy.

The precise thoughts that would have gone into this second option are decidedly murky. It is true that Chuck may have garnered new fans had the Celebrity Apprentice's ratings maintained the level that the show premiered at, but to what end? Will people remember months from now (it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the next new Chuck will air in October, if a new episode is in fact ever made) that they enjoyed the show, or were they just bored on a Thursday night oh so long ago? People tuned out Heroes last spring after the show disappeared for months, why would people suddenly tune in to something else that they had seen even less of?

The cast of Chuck, which hosted last night's sandwich, promised that they'd be back "soon" with all-new episodes, but even in the best of circumstances (the writers' strike ending today), it would probably take no less than six weeks to rush an episode to air. Famously, Aaron Sorkin was able to write and have filmed an episode of The West Wing, "Isaac and Ishmael," that was a response to the 9/11 attacks which aired less than a month later (it premiered October 3). That was a rushed production, with minimal sets and, even for Sorkin, a lot of speechifying. Chuck can't possibly get away with such an episode, even if they had something as very grave to discuss.

As much fun as the show is, and as much as I want it to return with new episodes "soon," it won't. At least "soon" in the sense that I mean it. The best case scenario at this point is that if the strike ends quickly there will be a couple of episodes ready for the May Sweep, and that's it. As it's still January, I'm not going to call that "soon."

On the plus side, the DGA worked out a deal to avoid a second strike and informal talks between AMPTP and the WGA are starting up. The DGA model ought to help pave the way for a writers' one. I guess that if things aren't worked out soon we can count on Deal or No Deal airing on even more nights this fall.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Look at Some British Television on DVD

As we all know by now, the television and film writers are on strike. One of the things they're requesting is an increase in the residuals from DVD sales. This can put the consumer in something of an awkward bind - there's not much on TV right now and there's a whole lot you want to watch that's out on DVD, but you don't want to buy something now and cheat the writers of out the larger residual that they may end up getting if you bought the DVD in a couple of weeks or months. What are you to do?

I think I have an answer: go British. There is a ton of really good, really fun British television out there on DVD; it's stuff you probably haven't seen but is all well worth your time. I'm in no way advocating not buying American shows, I'm just providing an alternative to the consumption of a product at this moment that may benefit the workers if it is consumed at a later date. This is just a suggestion of some recent and not-so-recent releases of British shows that circumvent any guilt about the writers' strike.

First up, The Prisoner (all the episodes are currently available in a single boxed set). This show originally aired in 1967 and stars Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, a one-time super-spy who made the mistake of deciding to resign. As it turns out, super-spies don't get to resign -- they get shipped off to "The Village," from which escape is impossible. Number Six takes it upon himself to try and determine who his captors are, who the other people on the island are, and to try and escape. Meanwhile, his captors consider it their mission to determine what exactly Number Six discovered that caused him to quit in the first place.

The show is full of hidden meanings and clues, and it never shies away from critiquing our society. The whole Village is monitored on CCTV (remember, this is 40 years ago) and escape is prevented by "Rovers," which are huge white spheres. It is weird, psychedelic, and one of the best shows ever put on television. Plus, chances are that even if you have never seen an episode you're seen it referenced elsewhere (notably The Simpsons on more than one occasion, Babylon 5, and the British version of Coupling). The show's influence on later shows and movies is staggering.

That actually brings me to the next British series I want to discuss, Coupling (available either separately or together). Readers may remember the U.S. version that aired oh-so-briefly in the fall of 2003. That not so funny version was based on the utterly hysterical British one. The show revolves around three men and three women and their various relationships (imagine an adult comedy-oriented version of Friends). At the show's center are Steve (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Susan (Sarah Alexander, Stardust), a couple whose relationship progresses through the four seasons (or "series" as long as we're talking British TV) the show ran for. The two of them have their own set of idiosyncrasies, but are far, far more normal than the friends who surround them.

It's a sitcom and follows many sitcom rules, but it manages to still somehow be funny, smart, and unconventional. There are numerous he said/she said storylines, and while the stakes seem more heightened than reality would have them be, the observations are often funny because they are completely drawn from reality.

Slightly less drawn from reality even if the show appears far more gritty and realistic are the characters in Chancer (Series 1 available now and Series 2 as of January 29). Chancer stars Clive Owen, in own of his early roles, as Stephen Crane. In the first series, Crane finds himself fired from an investment bank for a little insider trading and he winds up working for a small, prestigious, and failing car company (whom he helped, by lying on a financial summary he wrote about them, get a huge influx of cash). Crane is a womanizer, a liar, a back-stabber, and a cheat. However, Owen is, and remains to this day, hugely charismatic. It really makes very little difference what Crane does, the audience stands by his side. The second series follows some unexpected twists and turns in his life, none of which I can really go into without spoiling some of the better moments of plot from the first series.

The show attempts to deal with both Crane's professional and personal life, not that they're entirely separate, and does occasionally find itself swinging too far to one side. When this does occur, the show tends to do better in the business world. The machinations Crane goes through to achieve his goals (personal or professional) are ridiculous and they simply should not succeed. Somehow, possibly sheerly through force of will, Crane often actually does succeed. When Owen is not on screen the episodes can and do tend to drag, but thankfully more often than not he is either on screen or the topic of conversation.

Lastly (for this article anyway -- if the strike continues I'll dig up some more British shows, something like Doctor Who probably), there's Robin of Sherwood (Sets 1 and 2 currently available separately). This version of Robin Hood was filmed in the mid-'80s and features Michael Praed (Dynasty) as the titular hero. With good costumes and woodsy-ness and medieval villages and castles to make it seem plausible, the show is a great exploration of the legendary hero. Robin of Sherwood features new takes on classic Robin Hood tales, like the famed archery contest wherein Robin split his opponent's arrow in order to win, while adding some new ones to the canon as well. The show features an element of mysticism and magic and while it doesn't make one forget about Errol Flynn's definitive take on the hero, it may push Flynn to the back of one's mind temporarily. It has romance, political schemes, and just enough fencing and bow and arrow action to get through.

If the writer's strike continues for much longer I'll be back with another round-up of foreign television on DVD, but hopefully it won't be necessary. That being said, even if the strike ends tomorrow, all of the above are worth taking a look at. Good television is not an oxymoron nor is it limited to Hollywood productions. Think of it as green eggs and ham for your TV appetite.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Boston Legal Tackles Abortion

Did you watch Boston Legal last night? No? You missed out. It was one of the best episodes the series has done in a long time, maybe ever. Last night, they tackled abortion, and managed to do it in a way so as to attempt to get in everyone's point of view and avoided getting preachy on the subject. The closest the show came to preaching was suggesting that rather than the legality of abortion being decided by the Justices of the Supreme Court, it ought to be determined by popular vote.

The case in question specifically dealt with a woman who engaged in oral sex with a man, placed his semen into a test tube, and brought it to a fertility clinic so that she could be impregnated with it. The man did not wish to have a child with this woman; he in fact specifically ensured that the two did not engage in the traditional baby-making sort of intercourse so as to avoid just such a problem (condoms not being 100% effective). He wasn't distressed with the notion of having to help pay for such a child; the problem wasn't monetary for him, the problem was that the resultant child would be a part of him and not a part he necessarily wanted to exist. He hired Alan Shore to attempt to get a court-ordered abortion (though he said later that even if he were to win he wasn't sure he could force the woman to go through with it).

On the opposite side was a women who, knowing that this gentleman did not want to have a child with her, devised this scheme in order to get herself impregnated anyway. She wanted a child and she wanted the child to be his. She hired Shirley Schmidt to make sure that the man wouldn't be able to get his injunction.

By having Boston Legal's Crane, Poole, and Schmidt work both sides of the case, the show was able to maintain equal levels of sympathy for both sides. And, for a series which tends to get on a soapbox on a weekly basis, this story remained as un-preachy as possible.

It was certainly an interesting, and different, tack for the show. It advocated an examining of Roe v. Wade without pushing one side over the other. It advocated having a frank and open and honest discussion of the issues involved without getting over-emotional.

It was a complete pie in the sky dream, but it was thoughtful and smart, too. It showed that television can be about more than cheap jokes and mocking untalented singers. It showed that with some effort and some great actors, a television series can raise important questions and ideas. It also avoided giving an easy answer, instead letting the audience sort out right from wrong for themselves.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Terminating the Idea of Sportmanship

Over the last few weeks somehow Mondays have become a night of terminating.  First there was American Gladiators, which is all about terminating the competition, and now there's Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles, too.  If there's ever been a show more about terminating I can't imagine it.

Except of course that last night Sarah Connor didn't terminate anyone.  She had this perfectly good guy, Andy, who ought to have been terminated, but she didn't do it.  Andy, you see, developed this awesome computer that was really swell at playing chess and had apparently developed "moods" and the ability to think for itself.  There Sarah was, trying to work out who was going to create Skynet now that Miles Dyson is dead, and she had a great candidate.  Andy had even worked as an intern for Dyson at Cyberdyne.  Sarah ought to have ended him then and there, but she didn't do it.

Listen, stop your foolishness, it's not like I'm advocating terminating people willy-nilly, just fictional characters in a fictional show that have a very good chance at developing a computer system that will eliminate the vast majority of humanity in a nuclear holocaust.  If you could prevent Judgment Day, wouldn't you?  Sarah chose not to.  She just destroyed the computer he was building.  How is that going to help?  Andy can just rebuild it, he can make it stronger, faster, better.  It wouldn't even take him the same 8 years that it took to make the first version.  I know that Andy didn't mean to start down the road towards building a computer that was going to almost end the world, but he had, and he ought to have paid the price. 

Over on Gladiators, one of the contestants, Jennifer, almost terminated my enjoyment of the show.  She was this incredibly whiny contestant, that just prior to her Eliminator run (for which she had a head start), complained about not feeling well.  Apparently her ending up in the water twice on events was enough to start, within the span of a couple of hours, some horrific cold that was going to prevent her from running the Eliminator to the best of her ability.  What an absolute cop-out.  Setting up an excuse for a loss that hasn't yet occurred is not what one likes to see out of a competitor in a sporting event. 

Jennifer did in fact come in ahead of her competition in the Eliminator, winning the night.  Happily though, her time was too slow to allow her to advance to the next round of the competition.  Good riddance.  If we don't see her again it'll be too soon. 

She may be a solid athlete and she may have honestly not felt great prior to the run, but setting up your excuse for a defeat in advance is not how good competitors act.  Can you imagine if Tom Brady went into a Super Bowl press conference next week and explained how his thumb was bothering him and how he didn't think his team would win because of some soreness?  There would be an uproar.  There ought to be an uproar, and Hulk, who was interviewing Jennifer when she started whining should have called her on it.

The Hulk ought to have terminated her before she ever ran the Eliminator.

Monday, January 21, 2008

George, George, George of the Jungle

Jay Ward is responsible for putting on television numerous beloved cartoon characters, characters that have found a life far longer than their initial television run. From Rocky and Bullwinkle to Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, to Dudley Do-Right, the characters he helped create have continued to please audiences in new and different incarnations.

The latest character up for rebirth is George of the Jungle, whose new cartoon series began this past weekend on Cartoon Network. Sticking with the title of the character and the original series, this new George of the Jungle is a fun little cartoon which, while it may not live up to the original, still provides ample amusement.

The series follows George, king of the jungle and general goofball, as he gets into and out of various scrapes. Ape is still around as George's right-hand simian, and the theme promises that Shep the Elephant will make an appearance (though he was absent from the premiere).

Each 30 minute episode is comprised of two 11 minute, unconnected stories. The ones in the premiere episode are entitled "Brother George" and "Rebel Without a Claw," and are enough fun to make one want to tune into future episodes. They may be nonsensical and foolish, but it is a good-natured sort of nonsense and foolishness.

In "Rebel Without a Claw" George, who is the champion of the smaller animals in the jungle, convinces all the larger animals to eat vegetables rather than creatures. Meanwhile, his two companions Maggie and Ursula (this marks a change from the original series which had Fella and Ursula) convince all the little creatures to stand up for themselves. This rapidly causes a drastic change in the jungle, with cute little bunnies donning biker jackets and riding hogs (warthogs), while the large predators turn into flower children. By the end of the 11 minute story everything is back to normal, with the predators going after the prey and George doing his best to fight for the little guy (nothing ever really changes from one episode to the next in George's world).

While the look of the series is relatively standard cartoon, it gets the job done and neither detracts from nor overshadows the plot. The classic George of the Jungle theme song has been remixed for the series, in what seems to be an attempt to modernize it. It is still amusing, but less so than it once was (though the younger set would probably find the old version horribly dated).

New episodes of George of the Jungle can be found on Cartoon Network at 7:30PM on Friday nights, and they are repeated throughout the week. People who remember the original series will not find this one as enjoyable, and purists will almost unquestionably decry the changes, though children will most likely find it very accessible and enjoy watching.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Gene Simmons's Kiss of Death

I fear that The Celebrity Apprentice just took a major turn for the worse. Last night -- and don't read this if you don't want to know what happened -- poor Gene Simmons got fired. Scratch that, stupid Gene Simmons got fired. Scratch that, the brilliant Gene Simmons got fired.

Last night during the boardroom sequence, Simmons practically begged to be fired. He wanted to be fired. He seemed to need to be fired. Trump told him that he was bringing the wrong person (Omarosa) back into the boardroom, but Simmons insisted on doing it. Trump told Simmons to bring Nely Galán into the boardroom, but Simmons wouldn't. Trump practically told Simmons that Nely would be fired and that Simmons could save his own skin, but Simmons didn't.

Gene Simmons is a smart man, so the question becomes why he acted in this way. Every week it was Simmons who did a better job than the other team and won the task for his team. This week, Simmons ran a better campaign, but the client, Kodak, was stuck with the idea that only the ink management system on their printer was relevant. Simmons disagreed and thought everything about Kodak was relevant. Last week Simmons was right and the client, Pedigree, acknowledged that they were wrong with what they wanted; this week Simmons was right and the client, Kodak, didn't acknowledge their mistake. Sure the ink management was important and Simmons should have hit that more, but everything else (from design to implementation) was better on his team than on his opponent's.

Simmons knew it, and didn't shift the blame for the loss to anyone else in the boardroom (despite being given the opportunity to do so). The man would probably argue that they didn't actually lose, they weren't chosen by Kodak, but that was Kodak's loss, not his team's.

What then can we make of Simmons's actions? I would have called his going down with the ship honorable, if I had any inkling that honor had been on his mind. Trump called Simmons a contrarian, and while Trump was right, that doesn't fully explain what happened either.

Maybe Simmons was finished with the show. Maybe he felt as though he'd done enough work and gotten his face out there enough; he'd done his explosive shake everyone up thing and didn't have anything else to contribute so better to make a splashy exit then go quietly into that good night. Maybe Simmons is bucking for more viewers to come to his cable reality show and this was the biggest way to promote himself he come up with. Maybe Simmons is in talks to host his own version of The Apprentice. The man is a born marketer and self-promoter -- there had to be a reason for his actions, and hopefully we'll learn quickly what it is.

Whatever the reason, the show is weaker for his having left and I, for one, will miss him.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cashmere Mafia Doesn't Upset Me (and There May be Something Wrong With That)

Heaven help me, I didn't hate Cashmere Mafia yesterday. 

I know, that should be a good thing, but for some reason it isn't.  I went into the episode fully expecting to be just as displeased with it this week as I was last week (you may recall I was quite displeased).  Sure there were still moments that irked me, irked me mightily, but there were actually some vaguely interesting things in there too.

Bonnie Sommerville's character, Caitlin, the make-up PR person, is so far one of the most interesting on the show.  She has apparently, relationship-wise, been a mess her whole life and is now contemplating whether or not she might be homosexual.  She says, I think truthfully, that she is more interested in finding a good relationship with someone that she cares for than concerning herself with whether she is gay or straight.  I like that attitude.  She wants to be happy and be with someone who makes her happy.  If it's a woman, it's a woman; if it's a man, it's a man.  I say whatever floats her boat.  There's a refreshing sort of honesty about her that I enjoy.

But then there's Miranda Otto's Juliet.  I like Miranda Otto, I think she's a good actress, but I hate Juliet.  She was going to have an affair, then she wasn't, then she was, then she couldn't, then she wished she had.  All in the same episode and it all stems from her husband being a lying, cheating, SOB.  I don't get it.  Why is she pondering whether or not to have an affair?  She doesn't love the man, she doesn't even like him after last night, she ought to just leave him and be done with it.  Why are we pussyfooting around? 

The less I say about Lucy Liu's Mia, the better.  She's a high-powered publisher who insisted on putting into a men's magazine a letter from the publisher berating men.  She disliked the cover of the magazine (which pictured a faceless corporate woman devouring a little man who was lying on a plate) to the point where she wrote a letter to the readers saying they should "be a man" about corporate women.  Wow.  I see circulation plummeting.  It's not that she's wrong, she just went about airing her grievances in the wrong way.  Surely there is an article inside the magazine that deals with the issue on the cover and surely that article could have been tweaked to reflect the fact that men need to accept women bosses in the workplace. 

Okay, so those were a lot of complaints, and yet I say that I didn't hate last night's episode.  Some of it was because of Caitlin, some of it was because I like Miranda Otto, and a lot of it was because of Zoe's (Frances O'Connor) storyline.  Zoe was trying to put out the fire of a married male colleague sleeping with the pretty young blonde researcher.  She knew what the right thing to do was, she knew her colleague shouldn't be having the affair.  So she tried to make him end it and he did.  But, he also moved the girl to another area in the company and got threatened with a lawsuit.  It was great.  Plus, you just know that the guy is going to sleep with the girl again.  It's like watching a train wreck, Zoe is standing right there, she's going to get hit with shrapnel, and yet there's nothing she can do about it.

Now that's good TV and just the sort of thing I want to see out of this show.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Boston Legal and I get Connected

I think the scripted shows that networks have in the can are nearly eliminated. Sure, there are a couple of extra episode here and there that are going to be aired in the coming weeks (NBC is throwing up the last two filmed episodes of Chuck next Thursday).

Last night there was a new Boston Legal (and I think there's another new one next week), but "new" for Boston Legal seems to be a relative term. The episode last night centered around Denny being crazy and insisting on doing a trial by himself. Assuming that there have been about 85 or 90 episodes of Boston Legal on the air, I think it's safe to say that no fewer than 40 of them have dealt with Denny's being crazy and no fewer than ten of those have featured Denny insisting that he could handle a trial all by himself.

This is to say that while the episode was technically "new" it was really just the same story with some of the specifics change around. It was still fun, it was still amusing, and Denny's antics haven't yet gotten old, but it's not really new either.

The series is nearly at that 100 episode mark that means it can enter syndication, but I wonder how it will fare there. The show has featured a revolving door cast and numerous episodes feature people on the opening credits that simply are not in the episode at all. Last night Candice Bergen's character appeared for no more than 30 seconds, while John Larroquette's had a single line. The two actors are perhaps the best ones on the show and their characters intriguing, yet somehow they all get the short end of the stick when it comes to story arcs and screen time. I miss the two characters now and Boston Legal is still airing new episodes; I wonder how I'll feel when it goes into repeats.

So, what am I doing with this strike hampering my primetime viewing habits? Well, I'm looking for new things to watch.

The other day, I was sent a link (by a publicist) to T-Mobile's web series Connected. Honestly, I haven't quite decided that I like the notion of web series and webisodes at all yet, and Connected didn't do much to change my mind.

The series revolves around a C-list Hollywood talent agent and his cadre of insane wanna-be stars. He's got one legit actress in the group, and by "legit" I mean that she is well known, a Lindsay Lohan-type more than an actress. There's also the usual assortment of individuals - the independent film director, the bad comedian, the singer. Imagine, if you will, Entourage, but less funny and with a very low-rent feel. It's full of stereotypes and easy jokes. Some are funny, but they're all easy.

The real problem, however, is the format. Webisodes are generally (and Connected is no exception) short. It's a hard format to tell a story in and one that doesn't really substitute for television. Stringing together a bunch of them could make for more of a long format thing if done correctly (NBC will be trying this with Quarterlife, goodness knows if it'll work), but I don't think Connected would translate (and as a commercial more than a stand-alone series a harder sell).

The best thing about the series is that it's not too much of an obvious advertisement for T-Mobile. The agent hands out Sidekicks like candy, and people are often seen using them (probably in real life one would see Blackberrys in their stead), but that's about it.

Okay, here's the link. And, here's my question: am I wrong and/or just too plain old? Is this really the wave of the future? Do the production values/ acting/story really in any way compare with what you see on TV?

Please, WGA and AMPTP, sit down and chat with one another, because if there's nothing decent on this fall I'm going to be hugely distressed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Terminators and Gladiators Kill - One with Bullets, the Other with Kindness

Do you know what I like?  I like good television.  It's just who I am.  I think that Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles represents good television.  I'm not convinced of it, I may yet be proven wrong, but after two episodes it seems like a pretty solid show to me. 

Frankly, the main quibbles I have with the series are all continuity ones that go back to the films on which the show is based.  Once one accepts, if one can, that the producers of the show are making the myth their own rather than simply building on what came before, most of those worries go away. 

Look at the good in last night's episode.  There were some decent action sequences including one featuring Summer Glau as Cameron, our good guy Terminator, attacking some random new bad guy Terminator.  Cameron also shot a man on the presumption that he may have been lying and she was also a hair's breadth away from taking out a cop.  Sure, she's good but she's not that wise yet, and it'll be interesting to see how she grows and changes. 

The show actually seemed concerned with Cameron's murder and near murder.  It did not condone the deaths, rather, it made it look as though Sarah took the deaths quite seriously and knew that she had to explain to Cameron that even though Cameron's a Terminator she can't go around killing people willy-nilly.  It's a lesson Arnold learned in Terminator 2 (okay, so they are borrowing plot points which may be a long-term problem) to great effect. 

Now, the show I watched last night that wasn't as good was American Gladiators.  Oh sure, the actual events are great fun, but unless a contestant (or producer) wipes the smile off of Titan's face pretty soon I'm not quite sure that I can continue watching. He's like a muscle bound version of Dudley Do-Right, a character I never much cared for. 

Last night, during the first event one, of the contestants got injured.  Rather than backing off and letting the medics do their work, the big lummox went over to the downed man, grinned with all his overly-white teeth showing, and announced what a great competitor the injured contestant was.  It wasn't just that he complemented the contestant that bother me, it was that he went on and on about it.  Later, after Titan lost in Joust to the other contestant, he came up to the contestant and Hulk Hogan as Hogan was conducting an interview.  Titan interjected and congratulated the contestant on a match hard won.

This may sound shocking, but I don't actually watch American Gladiators for the insightful commentaries or the post-round interviews. I watch it to see the contestants get pummeled by the gladiators (and yes, that's the direction I like to see pummeling go in).  It sort of take something away from the entire endeavor if the pummeling is nothing more than an onslaught of compliments, don't you think?

"Oh your words, Titan, your words," says the imaginary contestant. "They hurt so much, your words.  Titan those compliments, you're… you're… killing me with kindness."  Much more of that and I'm going to have to change the channel.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, and Scott Baio Make for a Golden (Globes Free) Night

Well, it's Monday and there you are thinking to yourself, "Golly, I wonder if Josh watched TV last night." Come on now, what kind of a silly question is that? Obviously I watched TV. It's what I do. I sat there and I watched Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles last night. I sat there and watched the new season of Scott Baio is 46… and Single, too.

What I didn't do was watch the Golden Globes press conference. What sort of foolishness was that anyway? I completely understand the need of the Hollywood Foreign Press to put out their awards, but I don't understand why NBC tried to make a three-hour special out of it. Two hours of Dateline is almost always too much, and then an hour of awards being announced that took about half the time if you chose to watch it on CNN, or E!, or TV Guide, or wherever else it was shown. Yeah, I can't imagine it.

Okay, Sarah Connor and my thoughts (you're reading this so it's kind of implied that you asked for my thoughts). I enjoyed it. I really liked it. I felt like it was big budget Hollywood action come to the small screen. I imagine that they blew a large chunk of their production budget on last night's episode and that future ones won't be quite so special effects heavy though. The question will be how the show deals with the story of the people involved and not just the whiz-bang nifty bits of action. Managing those two elements (whiz-bang nifty bits of action and character stories) may be a tall order, particularly for a show that didn't get to shoot 22 episodes before the strike reared its ugly head. We'll have to see.

I think Summer Glau was great last night, and Lena Headey could totally be Sarah Connor. Thomas Dekker I'm still a little unsure of as John; he seemed awfully tentative and fearful, but I guess that's how John's supposed to be right now. That certainly wasn't the same John though that we saw in T2 and I have something of a hard time imagining that John morphing into this one. Is it possible that his mother's love made him weak?

Eventually, and I wonder how long it'll take, John is going to be hacking into some huge computer system to get the top secret information they're going to be after. I don't really know what computer system, but I imagine the information will be about Skynet. After all, last night his mother looked at him and admonished him for hacking as soon as he mentioned the word "computer." That there is what people in the know call "foreshadowing."

Enough of that adolescent though... let's take a quick turn to the other adolescent I watched last night, Scott Baio. Sure, the man is 46 years old, but he acts like he's 17. Yes, he's taken a step or two forward from the start of last season - he proposed to his girlfriend and learned he was going to be a father - but he acted incredibly immature last night. I couldn't tell whether it was a ploy for the purpose of the TV show, a joke, or who the man truly is, however. I hope that he's far more adult than how it seems. I wouldn't want him to be the father of my child (not that such a thing is yet possible) if he always acts as young as he did yesterday. There comes a time when an adult, fully grown man has to step up and act like one. If he's not going to do it when his child is on her way there's a problem. But I tend to think it's an act for the benefit of the cameras. It's not cute or funny and he doesn't seem to understand that, but maybe he'll figure it out.

Isn't it pretty to think so?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Funny, I Would Have Called it International Treasure

The incredible success of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code spawned innumerable copycats.  One of the most successful of these, released before The Da Vinci Code film, is the Nicolas Cage adventure caper, National Treasure.  Directed by John Turteltaub (Phenomenon), the film went on to gross over 170 million dollars at the box office and has spawned a very successful sequel that is currently still in theatres.  The original National Treasure has also recently been released to DVD in a 2-disc "collector's edition."

The film follows the story of Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) as he quests to find a massive treasure hidden by a group of Masons who were among the  founders of this country (and descendants of the Knights Templar).  As the story goes, the last of the founding fathers to hold one of the clues to the location of the treasure, Charles Carroll, passed the clue onto Gates's great great great great grandfather. From that generation to this, members of Gates's family, Benjamin included, have spent (or wasted, depending on how you look at it) years of their lives attempting to find the treasure. 

When Gates's turn to find the treasure arrives, he is severely hampered by the fact that his family is seen as a less than sane by the historical community.  Additionally, the man backing Gates's quest, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), quickly turns into a villain, striking out on his own.  Howe makes it clear that he will stop at nothing to get the treasure for himself and hampers Gates every step of the way for the rest of the movie.

Gates ventures from Washington, D.C., where he must steal the Declaration of Independence; to Philadelphia; to New York; solving riddles at every step along the way.  Following his trip to D.C., it's not just Howe on his tail anymore, but a sizable contingent of federal agents as well (stealing the Declaration of Independence quite understandably distresses the authorities).

The film is a cross between Mission:  Impossible and Peabody's Improbable History.  This history is at best inaccurate, the moments of science that appear ludicrous, and the big heist sequence like a low-tech version of something Ethan Hunt would have come up with 10 years ago.  However, the film never takes itself seriously enough for this to be much a bother. 

Any attempt to dissect the clues, their meanings, and the solutions that Gates comes up with will leave the viewer flustered.  It's not just that the clues make little sense, the solutions and their implementations are often far too convenient.  Sitting back, turning off one's brain, and letting the mystery unfold however can lead to an enjoyable experience. 

While Bean is good in his role, he has clearly been typecast.  He has now appeared in numerous Hollywood features that cast him as an apparent good guy who turns out to be evil at just the wrong moment.  It has become so obvious to use Bean in this manner that the switch is no longer exciting.  From the moment he appears on screen in this movie one immediately wonders why the good guy, Gates, would be spending time with such an obvious villain.  It takes a moment or two for the viewer to realize that Howe as not yet revealed his true intentions.

Working with Gates is the over-eager comic relief, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and at times Gates's father, Patrick (Jon Voight) and Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger).  Gates and his band solve riddles, find improbable clues, and perform ill-advised feats (such as stealing the Declaration of Independence).  Harvey Keitel appears as the hard-nosed lead investigator tasked with retrieving the Declaration of Independence, and adds some levity to what could have been an overly serious role.

The new two-disc set features all the usual supplementals that have become standard within a DVD release.  There are deleted scenes, an alternate ending, an opening scene animatic, documentaries on the historical realities that the movie uses, and a code-breaking challenge.  Some of the features are initially hidden and are only "unlocked" by watching others and decoding a riddle.  While some of the supplemental material is vaguely interesting, only the truly dedicated viewer will spend the time to watch them all. 

National Treasure is a big, loud, pseudo-intellectual Hollywood blockbuster.  Much like the clues and riddles Benjamin Franklin Gates finds on his hunt, looked at from the right angle it can provide amusement, excitement, and a fun two hours in front of a screen.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Earl Celebrates Christmas in January While The Apprentice Lies

Do you know what bothers me?  I mean, what really, really bothers me.  Ridiculously over-the-top promos for decidedly dull moments bother me.  No show on television is better at putting together a ridiculously over-the-top moment than The Apprentice

All week long The Apprentice teased us with the upcoming fight between Ivanka Trump and Gene Simmons.  "What did the dirty old rock star say to boss's daughter?  Tune in and find out."  Well, I tuned in, and what did I find out?  I found out that Simmons gave the daughter a little bit of a hard time, that Simmons was more interested in winning the competition than taking time out of his schedule to explain to Ivanka what his team was doing.  Then, he teased her about whether or not she would inform the women's team about what the men were doing.

Ivanka was pissed at being treated that way, after all, don't you know who she is?  She apparently ran crying to daddy for support, and did daddy care?  No, no he didn't.  He thought it was funny and joked around with Simmons in the boardroom about it.  I think it all made Ivanka even more angry.  Seems as though Ivanka is used to getting her way (shocking, right?). 

The real problem with the over-the-top promo is that the episode itself felt as though it was edited in order to support the promo, not the other way round.  The vast majority of the episode focused on the men's team and their discord, leaving a scant few minutes to focus on the women and the way they approached the task. 

The women did, it seemed, everything right, from meeting with the client to find out what they wanted to actually delivering exactly what was asked of them.  However, the women lost the task.  What went wrong?  Where was the process flawed?  Goodness knows, the viewer never saw the process unfold.  The entire show was cut around making it appear as though Gene Simmons was a loose cannon and that the men were going to be brought into the boardroom because of it. 

That's not actually what happened though and it was terrible storytelling.  It's fine to throw the audience a red herring about what's going to happen, but when the red herring takes up the vast majority of the episode and doesn't allow the true issues to unfold there's a problem.

Think about it, if I spent this entire piece telling you what a disaster The Apprentice was last night, about how the editing was terrible, about how Ivanka needs thicker skin, about how Gene Simmons was probably a little out of line but not hugely, and then closed with "and that's why Nadia Comaneci had to be fired" you'd be perturbed.  You know you would.  It's bad writing, it's bad storytelling, it's grossly unsatisfying.

Maybe I was a little pre-conditioned to be upset with The Apprentice because NBC had already distressed me last night.  They aired a brand new My Name is Earl, possibly the last one they had in the can before the strike started.  Oh how excited was I?  A fresh Earl to start my Thursday night viewing in these strike ridden times.  Now, the episode was funny, I'll give it that, but the fact that it was the Christmas episode really got to me.  You and I both know that NBC didn't air new Earls through the entire month of December, which means that they purposely held the Christmas episode until January. 

Just as a refresher, Christmas tends to be in December.  Usually anyway.  I know that the Christmas season is starting earlier and earlier, I actually saw Christmas stuff in stores before Halloween this year, but it does seem to me that to start the Christmas season in January is beyond the pale.  No?  Am I wrong?  I know that the networks keeps touting the fact that the TV season is now year-round, but I didn't think that meant that they would make the holidays last all year too.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sarah Connor Chronicles Her Running Into More Terminators

In 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as the title character in a movie that would turn into a massive Hollywood franchise, Terminator. Schwarzenegger's character is a cyborg covered in human skin, a killing machine. The film went on to have two sequels over the next 20 years, and now is about to start a new chapter on television as a series titled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

As the name indicates, the series will not focus on Arnold's model of cyborg, who in the first movie is sent back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor, but rather on Sarah herself. In the original film, Sarah was informed that she was destined to give birth to the savior of mankind, John Connor (something Arnold was sent back to stop from happening). Sarah, understandably, struggled greatly with that knowledge and with learning that machines were going to wipe all but a small percentage of humanity off the face of the Earth.

By the second film Sarah had changed significantly. She had given birth to John but had also been committed to a mental institution. Her attempt to tell authorities about Judgment Day, the day on which the machines would take over, led them to believe she was less than stable. Sure, it sounds crazy, but in the Terminator universe it was accurate. This new series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, takes place after the events of Terminator 2, but before those of Terminator 3 (actually, the producers stated at the press tour that they are operating in a world in which Terminator 3 does not exist).

The series stars Lena Headey in the title role, which was played by Linda Hamilton in the films. Chronicles finds Sarah on the run with John (Thomas Dekker), attempting to live off the grid, teaching John everything that he will need to know in order to save humanity, and keeping a watchful eye out for Terminators. Terminators do of course arrive, and just like in Terminator 2 and Terminator 3, they come as a set, one good, one evil. Sarah and John's protector is Cameron (Summer Glau) and their would be assassin is Cromartie (David Kilde). Thus, the relative calm that Sarah and John had known for years is broken, and their fight for survival ramps up.

The new series boasts some good looking effects and a fun cast, most notably Summer Glau from the sci-fi cult hit Firefly. Glau's resume also includes a recurring role on the recently canceled USA show The 4400. Headey starred in The Cave and more recently in 300, while Dekker is most known for his recurring role on the first season of Heroes.

The plotting of the pilot is fast-paced, leaving the viewer little time to think. Sadly though, the few lulls it does have allow the gaps in logic to seep through. Despite supposedly being an expert at hiding herself, after running away from her new fiancé Sarah moves with John to a new town and yet fails to change identities. Cameron calls her on this in the show, but Sarah never provides a suitable explanation. The mistake may have been necessary for the producers to allow Sarah and John to be tracked by Cromartie, but that still doesn't explain Sarah's action, or lack thereof.

Additionally, without giving away too much about what happens at the end of the episode, the manner in which the good guys momentarily escape Cromartie is wholly unsatisfying. Even in a universe that follows its own sort of logic, their escape route is hugely unbelievable.

All time travel stories have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies; they all seem to have plot holes and issues with circular logic. The Terminator mythology is no different. Yet, between changing model numbers, flaws in its own rules for time travel, and a drastically changing message through the years, the franchise has still been hugely successful. In no small part this is due to Arnold Schwarzenegger's star power.

It will be possible for The Sarah Connor Chronicles to succeed, but first the audience must accept a Terminator universe without the most famous Terminator of them all. The pilot makes a good case for the construction of such a universe. The two main questions now are whether the audience will give it a chance and whether the storyline will be compelling.

Some of the plot in the pilot makes it feel very much like Sarah is determined to keep reliving moments from Terminator 2 over and over again. Doing so will inevitably only lead to frustration on the part of the audience and unfavorable comparisons to the big screen version. However, if the series moves on and stays compelling, I not only think it has a chance, I hope it succeeds.

Cashmere Mafia vs. Law & Order

I love television.  Have I made that abundantly clear yet?  Because, I do.  I really, really do.  I do not however love Cashmere Mafia.  Sure, I watched it last night, not in place of the also airing at 10pm Law & Order, but in addition (thank God for dual-tuner TiVos).

I know that the show isn't trying to do anything new, it seems, very consciously, to just once again be telling the plight of rich middle-aged and how its oh-so-hard for people making somewhere in the mid-six figures to possibly be happy. 

People make choices in life, lots and lots of choices.  It seems to me the major plotlines with these women involve all of them not having thought through the choices, not having considered the consequences.  It's hard to be sympathetic towards them.

Take Miranda Otto's character, Juliet, for example.  In the first episode Juliet found out  her husband was having an affair, not just an affair, but an affair with someone she knew.  She had long countenanced her husband's having affairs with women out of town, but this time he had slept with someone in NY.  You see, she's okay with his sleeping around, it just shouldn't happen in the city she lives in (actually, she'd probably be okay with it happening in the Bronx or on Staten Island).  What exactly did she think she was doing, "sure, sleep with anyone you want, go ahead, just do it in Philadelphia."  Yeah, that wasn't going to come back to haunt her one day.  Good call.  Way to think clearly about your life.

So, what did Juliet do now that her husband had cheated on her in NY?  She decided to cheat herself.  She couldn't quite bring herself to start down the road though, so her friend, Caitlin (Bonnie Somerville), got her a free makeover so she would feel better about herself and be more able to cheat on her husband.  Okay, not only is such enabling behavior abysmal, but Miranda Otto is an attractive woman who after the makeover looked like a streetwalker (and not the good Julia Roberts kind), it was as though she borrowed Homer Simpson's make-up shotgun (Marge:  "Homer, you have it set to whore").  She was absolutely thrilled with how it turned out.  I guess her notion was that she could start down the road to the affair by having people solicit her.

There are other storylines on the show I could get into from last night, but it's all so whiny that I simply can't face it.  Let's just leave it at the fact that we all make choices in life, and every choice has a consequence.  It probably helps to think about the consequences to your actions ahead of time, that way you know what your in for.  Also, it's tough to feel bad for the super-rich.    

Thankfully for me, I watched Cashmere Mafia first, and was able to soothe myself with another good episode of Law & Order.  I fell off the Law & Order bandwagon with the appearance of Dennis Farina, but with his departure and Jeremy Sisto's arrival, I'm back.  This season features Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) having been promoted to District Attorney and a new Executive A.D.A., Michael Cutter (Linus Roache), having appeared.  The dynamic between Cutter and McCoy is fantastic, obviously Cutter has huge shoes to fill, and McCoy is a very hands-on D.A..  He has no desire to back off from trying cases and wants to be involved in every step of the process.  It was a logical move to take McCoy from Executive A.D.A. to D.A., but they don't want to drastically reduce Waterston's screen time as he's a huge part of what Law & Order has become.  How they go about fitting him in is tricky, but so far the producers have managed quite well.  Long may it continue.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Those Desperate Housewives go up Against American Gladiators (in my mind anyway)

Mea culpa. I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry. In yesterday's piece I didn't mention Sunday night's Desperate Housewives. I've slammed the show so much over the last year and a half that I should really talk about the bits and pieces I like when there are bits and pieces I like, and this week I liked the bits and pieces.

First off, kudos to the show for not making us wait the whole hour to find out that Lynette's kids were alive. You don't kill kids in a show like Desperate Housewives, so there was no real tension associated with Lynette's standing outside the rubble that used to be McCluskey's home. So, kudos to them for not pretending like maybe, just maybe, Parker had kicked the bucket. They could have kept us in suspense the entire hour and it would have made Lynette's life bad and possibly gotten Felicity Huffman another Best Actress Emmy nomination, but it wouldn't have been hugely compelling for the audience.

Then, they blinded Carlos. Awesome. I doubt it's one of those "he's going to stay blind forever" things, but they blinded him temporarily and that's just the sort of thing that makes for good TV. I think that Gaby would leave Carlos just because he lost all his money (well, she lost it for him, but that doesn't matter in her world), but now with the blindness, I think it's a virtual certainty. Okay, they can't quite do that either, because that would make Gaby catty in a way that I don't think the show would be comfortable with. She would leave the individual if they weren't a star of the series, but Carlos is, so I don't think Gaby can ditch him like that. That would be something the show couldn't easily turn back from in a year. What'll happen there then? I'm going to say that Gaby gets offended by the notion that Carlos thought she would leave him and gets over it a couple of episodes later.

And, what about the whole Mayfair thing? I thought it was awfully easy to have the Chicago crazy lady die, but I did think it odd for Katherine to kick Adam out because the affair had finally been proven. Surely Katherine had a pretty good idea that Adam had done it ahead of time. Of course, that was mainly a ploy in order for Adam to be able to turn the tables by finding out the truth of Katherine's reasons for leaving Wisteria Lane oh so many years ago.

Okay, enough of my faint praise, what about last night's American Gladiators? That was fun, wasn't it? I mean, they should really see to it that Hulk Hogan does a better job as host (which is a shame because he was totally my favorite wrestler for years and always great fun to watch), and they need to stop destroying the flow by going to commercials just as an event is about to get under way, but outside of that, it's fun. It's not great fun, possibly it's not even good fun, but it's fun enough. It absolutely fills in the 8pm hour on Monday nights. Next week I'll go from that bone-crunching directly to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and won't that just be awesome.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Nova Gets Cold... Damn Cold

Most people have the good sense to stay away from the extreme cold. The temperature drops below a certain point, and people do their best to warm up. Maybe they drink some hot chocolate, maybe they throw on a sweater, maybe they huddle together to preserve bodily warmth. Whatever it is they do, you can bet that trying to make the temperature even lower is not involved.

Then, there are scientists. Specifically, there is a select group that takes a look at a cold temperature and thinks to themselves "-270 degrees Celsius? We can make the temperature drop by at least another three degrees." Literally.

Absolute zero is the hypothetically lowest temperature possible, approximately -273.15 degrees Celsius, or 0 K (Kelvin). To this point in our history, scientists have been unable achieve this temperature, but they have come within a hair's breadth of doing so (one has to go out to more than nine decimal places to see how far from 0 K scientists are).

Over the next two episodes, PBS's long-running science series, Nova, will take a look at just how low we can go, and how we got there. Their latest special, "Absolute Zero" is divided into two hour-long looks at some people's obsession with the cold.

First up, "Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold." Despite what its title may imply, this episode has very little to do with actual zero itself. Instead, it looks at the history of lowering temperature, from the first air conditioner-type device (made in 17th century England), to the commercial harvesting of ice, to the centuries-long debate as to what actually makes something hot or cold anyway.

The episode works through history methodically and relies heavily on the recreation of events for illustrative purposes. It does touch on the first scientist to theorize about an absolute zero, but it is not until the second episode "Absolute Zero: The Race for Absolute Zero" that absolute zero takes center stage.

In this second hour, which begins at the end of the 19th century and continues through the present day, scientists go from liquefying hydrogen (which happens at around 20 K) to less than a degree away from 0 K.

The episode details how as scientists approached this number they created a once hypothetical substance known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. It takes a significant portion of the hour to explain exactly what this is and how it was achieved, but, in thirty words or less, the condensate is a substance in which all of the atoms are absolutely identical. There is no way to tell one atom from another in a Bose-Einstein condensate. This change in the behavior of atoms causes the condensate to behave in odd ways that scientists are still grappling with.

In the end, this Nova two-parter is really two distinct shows that need not be tied together. The first is a basic history of cold and how people began to understand, think about, and harness it. It looks at numerous missteps along the way as well as what was done right. It also talks about the practical applications of the cold (the refrigerator, shipping foods across the country, and air conditioning). The second hour takes the story into the modern day and focuses on the achievement of creating a Bose-Einstein condensate.

The first hour is far more interesting and, not surprisingly, accessible than the second hour. While great achievements and many practical applications have become possible due to the race for Absolute Zero, the second hour chooses to not focus on them. Instead it spends its time trying to explain the notion of a Bose-Einstein condensate and how exactly different teams of scientists went about trying to create one. It is unquestionably a huge scientific triumph, it just does not make for terribly compelling television.

Nova's "Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold" airs Tuesday, January 8 at 8pm, and "Absolute Zero: The Race for Absolute Zero" airs Tuesday, January 15 at 8pm. You should always check your local listings though just to be sure. After all, you wouldn't want to be left out in the cold.

American Gladiators take on the Cashmere Mafia

Oh, I'll admit it, I'll admit it happily: yes, I sat there for two hours last night and watched American Gladiators. What's more, I liked it. Well, mostly liked it anyway.

Sure, I was a fan of the original Gladiators back in the day, and yes I was once a Hulkamaniac, but those days are behind me. Now I'm just a TV-aholic, not that I'm seeking help (or believe I even have a problem, take that. First Step).

Seriously though, I sat there last night as contestants and gladiators pummeled one another, thinking to myself, "man, if only they didn't go to commercial every other second this could be really fun." The male gladiators were ridiculous, repeatedly taking part in over-the-top antics before giving up tons of ground to the contestants. The women gladiators were far more businesslike, they went in, pounded the contestants, and walked away. It may not have made for as good entertainment, but as far as the sport aspects go it was a big improvement.

My main disappointment though wasn't the ridiculous male gladiators, nor the seemingly never-ending commercial breaks, it was the lack of hard hits and the inability to tell what was really going on. During Powerball the quick-cuts and camera close-ups were so prevalent that one couldn’t really get a sense of what they were seeing. I know it's terribly en vogue to have quick close-ups for action, whether it's a movie, TV show, or sporting event, but does nobody care that too many of these shots make it nearly impossible to decipher what's actually taking place? I'm sure that there were some great hits and slams during Powerball, but frankly I didn't see any of them because the camera was so busy cutting from one shot to the next.

I'm not even going to touch on the announcer's lack of sensitivity for the contestant that got injured during Powerball. Suffice to say that showing a couple of replays of the injury is fine, but showing the replay with commentary about taking "a look at that bomb Stealth [the gladiator] dropped on Jessie [the contestant]" and following up the replay with "that's gonna leave a mark," shows a complete lack of appropriateness I thought for a moment I was watching the XFL.

Speaking of low blows, I also watched Cashmere Mafia last night. Don't ask me why, I know I'm not the target audience, I just couldn't help myself. I had the feeling, throughout the episode, that I'd seen this before, many, many times (it's like Sex and the City, from the producer of Sex and the City, with powerful successful women having sex in the city, just like Sex and the City). It wasn't new, it wasn't different, and it wasn't even reformulated in a vaguely interesting way. The women were practically all interchangeable with one another to the point where I thought one of the wives had snuck out with her husband for a quickie at a hotel, rather than understanding that the husband was cheating on the wife.

Okay, so the woman that the husband was cheating with had a slightly different shade of brown hair, I figured that maybe she'd gone to the salon and gussied herself up a bit. I actually had to open IMDb's page for the show to help myself figure it all out.

I hope that maybe, just maybe, it'll get better in future weeks, and, if it doesn't, it's still one of a limited number of options for scripted series, so I'll probably keep TiVoing it anyway.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Celebrity Apprentice and Omarosa

I have long held my tongue on my views about The Apprentice. I sat back and said nothing during the inanity that was the Los Angeles season. I watch in silence as candidate after candidate after candidate embarrassed themselves and pretty much anyone that ever even considered looking in the general direction of a television that was showing The Apprentice. Frankly, there were moments that I felt dirty for even having The Apprentice on my TiVo Season Pass list.

And then, last night happened. The Celebrity Apprentice began. I've already commented on the broad definition that allows many of the people on the show to be termed a celebrity, but I don't think that's the point. The point is the clash of egos, and boy is the show loaded with them.

Not surprisingly, but sickeningly, the biggest ego belongs to the smallest celeb, Omarosa. Omarosa, the evil queen of The Apprentice's first season. Omarosa, the Dragon Lady to which all other reality show Dragon Ladies are compared. Omarosa, the holier, and far more incompetent, than thou reality "star."

Sadly, she makes for great television. If she didn't, she would have been fired last night. Trump even gave ex-Playmate Tiffany Fallon an opening that would have allowed Trump to can Omarosa. Tiffany was either too kind or naïve to take it and was shown the door herself.

I can hardly begin to imagine the difficulty The Donald had in making a decision about whom to fire last night. On the chopping block were: Omarosa, Carol Alt, and Tiffany Fallon. Or, put in other terms (and I think the terms Trump uses) -- ratings gold, attractive former supermodel, attractive former Playmate of the Year. The man must have been having palpitations; how could he possibly make that choice? I think that in the end he decided that he could eliminate one of the two beautiful women, because he would still be left with the other and the ratings gold. If he got rid of ratings gold he would have the two beautiful women, but maybe not an audience, and he certainly wants an audience (but, don't we all).

And what about that Piers Morgan? The man is fantastically obnoxious. With any luck he and Omarosa will stick around long enough that they'll end up on the same team for a task. I'd guess that if that happens the show is going to be full of beeps as the number of four-letter words thrown out would be tremendous. Even so, it's something I'd like to see.

Okay, so in reality I'd like to see Omarosa get fired far more than I'd like to see her on the same team with Piers, but I just don't see that happening anytime soon. I don't imagine that she can possibly win, but I think she's going to stick around. She's going to be wretchedly bad at the tasks week in and week out, but she'll still be there.

I can't tell you how much I hope I'm wrong. I'm not wrong, I just hope I am. Let's all tune in next week, though, to make sure.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Conan, Letterman, & Co. Return!

For years I've been able to give Jay Leno the benefit of the doubt, that all ended last night.

You see, I've always been a Letterman person.  I never really liked Leno's brand of humor.  But, I thought to myself, maybe it's not him, maybe it's his writers that I don't like. 

Last night, Jay did a show without his writers (they are, of course, on strike).  Naturally, I gave him another chance.  I had to see if maybe it was in fact the writers, maybe Jay I really did in fact like.  Nope.  Not the case.  It's not that I think Jay isn't a smart guy; it's just that his brand of humor is not mine.  Now Conan on the other hand, who was also without writers, was great.

Both Conan and Leno did give nods to the writers, stating their support for the WGA and the strike.  They also both did monologues (Leno explained, possibly incorrectly, that they were allowed to if they wrote the monologues themselves).  Conan's was a short monologue, but there were jokes and the man was funny.

Conan's really got funny though once he sat at his desk.  He spent time spinning his wedding ring on his desk, something he claims the staff times during rehearsals when they get bored.  Sadly, Conan's ring only spun for 36 seconds (his record is 41 seconds).  Okay, so it sounds weird, but it was funny, imagine it, the camera was focused on a spinning wedding ring last night for 36 seconds, purportedly because the show had no idea how to fill the time.  The real genius during Conan's comedy bits though was a video of what Conan has been doing during the strike, mainly it consisted of his annoying his staff, which it seems he excels at.

Conan and David Letterman (who, of course, does have writers) both sported beards last night.  Leno and Ferguson (who also has writers) did not.  Conan referred to his beard as a "strike beard" and even his executive producer was growing one.  Letterman made an oblique reference to the beard existing due to the strike as well. All of the shows mentioned the strike and issued statements of support for the WGA and their cause, and some shots were even taken at the members of AMPTP by Conan. 

Without writers both Conan and Leno were up to their tasks last night.  Of course, they've had weeks to prepare for last night's show.  It remains to be seen however what will happen in the weeks to come.  Leno did a full monologue last night, but can he possibly, single-handedly write a new one every single day for the days, weeks, and maybe months to come?  Is he even allowed to?

Only time will tell.  Well, time will tell me, and then I'll be more than happy to tell you.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Television Mid-Season Replacements and a Shameless Plug

The new year is upon us, the WGA is still out on strike, and yet a lot of new scripted programming is going to start airing in the next few weeks. 

Watching some college football yesterday on ABC made it seem as though they 're going to have no difficulty filling time slots.  I think it's just posturing, but it doesn't really matter, that Lost ad was great (but not as great as the one that aired just before the ball dropped on Dick Clark the night before) and Cashmere Mafia is coming too.  Let's not forget Fox, which has Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles starting the middle of this month.

Then, there's NBC.  Sure, they've got Law & Order coming back tonight, and who doesn't love Jeremy Sisto (why you people did not watch Kidnapped I'll never understand).  But, they also have The Celebrity Apprentice starting tomorrow night, and let's face it, their definition of "celebrity" is a broad one.  I think I'm about 100 readers short of qualifying.  NBC is also putting forth American Gladiators, which, I'll admit I'm moderately curious about.  After all, have you seen this YouTube thing:

 

 

 

By the way, if I wasn't clear on any of this, I'm absolutely watching all of the aforementioned programming. No doubt about it, I'm there, even for The Celebrity Apprentice.  I just hope the Donald boots Omarosa the first time her team loses.  Actually, does she even get a team?  Goodness knows that if this is anything like her last foray on the show she doesn't care about what anyone else says or does.

There are other new/returning scripted series that I'm not going to be watching (Medium and According to Jim come to mind instantly), but it all makes me wonder about how long, exactly, the networks can continue to make it look as though everything is okay.  To this point the networks were able to get through the majority of the November Sweeps period before losing a lot of their scripted stuff, and some shows even aired an episode or two in December. 

The episodes of scripted fare that were already in the can when the strike began, along with the fact that December is usually loaded with repeats, have helped hide the strike.  Now, mid-season replacements will be able to do that for at least a little while.  Eventually though, a time will come when it'll be apparent to everyone that they've hit the wall, and I wonder what happens at that point.

I'm sure I'll be ruminating more on it in the future, and not just in print, after all Erin Medley and
Listen to Screen Time on internet talk radio

Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 or, I Wish I was Little bit Taller, I Wish I was a Baller...

Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is a stellar example of what a fighting game on the Nintendo Wii can be. The graphics are clean and crisp, and look cartoon-like. There are over 150 playable characters, 10 game modes, and an online component. Best of all though, it is incredibly fun to play.

Due to the vast number of characters and modes of gameplay, users may be intimidated at first, but the game's wonderful use of the Wii remote and nunchuk, make everything easy to get the hang of. Not very long after picking up the game one becomes skillful enough to play decently, yet there are always more move combinations for a long-term player to master.

By selecting any one of the available game play modes and a character, a user can quickly jump into a battle and learn on the fly exactly what is required to win. Those that prefer a tutorial before jumping however will not be disappointed, as the game sports such a section in order to teach the various move combinations. The majority of these require pressing a few buttons and performing movements with the Wii remote. Some of these combinations are too intricate to be performed successfully by an average player, but enough are possible so as to not overly frustrate the user.

The game's "story mode" is entitled "Dragon History" and goes through various sagas within the annals of Dragon Ball Z. While this mode provides an interesting look into the history of the series and the characters, too often rather than simply fighting a battle, the stages are only winnable by performing certain moves, and pressing a button to swap out characters at the right time (the game even informs you of when that time is). Too little of the time does this mode allow for one to engage in a straight-up battle against your enemy.

Of course, other modes excel at one-on-one battles. There is a tournament mode, "Dragon World Tour," which actually features several different tournaments, with differing rules, all playable at three different levels of difficulty. Additionally, there is an "Ultimate Battle" mode that features a series of battles that become more and more difficult the further into them you get. The section is actually divided into three different subsections including a battle simulator, a tournament, and a surprise mode that is locked to the initial user. It is "Ultimate Battle" that is the most fun, with the battle simulator requiring a player to train, rest, explore the world, and, of course, battle a myriad of opponents.

The game also sports the ability to earn "Z points" in order to customize the characters. Points can be used to purchase accessories for characters and to level-up characters so that they can carry more accessories. Not all battle modes allow for the use of customizable characters, but in the those that do maxing out on accessories is necessary to truly advance.

Battles themselves are face-paced affairs that still take an ample amount of time. It is possible to land incredibly powerful move combinations early on, but doing so will not immediately eliminate one's opponent. Rather, each player has a large enough reserve of energy that, unlike some other fighting games, a single powerful move only provides a leg-up, not a KO. The game favors, as fighting games tend to, offense over defense, but due to the size of many of the battlefields (some are incredibly large), defensive tactics and maneuvering are crucial to playing successfully.

One of the biggest disappoints in the game is the "Dragon Net Battle" mode, which allows Wii users to play online against other opponents. Though this mode features several different types battles, it consistently takes too long for the computer to find an opponent. Once an opponent is found, things only get worse as the battle starts, stops, and repeatedly sputters due, presumably, to it requiring too much bandwidth to play fluidly. The sputtering and slow play makes it nearly impossible to complete moves and use all of one's skill against an opponent. The level of frustration that accompanies Dragon Net Battle make it more trouble than it is worth.

Despite this failing, with loads of unlockables, tons of play modes, good looking animated graphics, and more characters than you can shake a stick at, Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is the best fighting game I've laid my hands on in some time. It is by no means perfect, but it does the vast majority of things right.

Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence and Mild Language.

Four stars out of five