Thursday, July 31, 2008

Looking for a Takeaway Message from Baby Borrowers

Listen, if you read this column you know that we discuss (I like to think of this as a discussion and not a diatribe) what happens in TV shows.  You might refer to some of the things we talk about as "spoilers."  Consequently, don't read any more if you don't want to know what happened last night on Baby Borrowers, because we're talking about the ending of that show today. 

At very end of last night's episode a little postscript informed us that all the couples had broken up following the last episode.   Oh sure, they didn't say it like that, they gave each individual couple's update and it was worked into that update that the couple had broken up.

What are we to take from that?  What is the message, if any, that the viewer is left with at the end of the season?  Did the experience of living with their boyfriend/girlfriend cause the break-up?  Was it the attempting to parent?  Was it just the fact that none of these couples were really never the strongest anyway? 

I'm not afraid to tell you that I absolutely lean towards the couples not being the strongest ones in existence prior to the "experiment" beginning.  We instantly know that to be the case with Morgan and Daton.  We were told in the couple's introduction that they'd been having problems, that they were ready to break-up until they realized that they could go on TV if they were a couple.  What was the point of having a couple ready to end their relationship on the show anyway?  What sort of last gasp ridiculousness is that? 

Further, I have to assume that if the show is going to tell us that one couple is incredibly weak, it's not so wrong to assume that the rest of the couples aren't terribly strong.  I think the show was trying to pull a fast one, telling us that one couple was weak and saying nothing about the others, thereby implying that they were strong. 

I think it was a little bit of a mind game on the producers' part and that opinion is only strengthened when we look at Kelly and Austin.  From the first moment she was on the show Kelly acted like she was about seven years old.  She cried at having to put on the pregnancy belly and having an infant and oh so many other times.  And poor Austin, he just stood there and took it.  Kelly had that poor boy wrapped around her little finger.

It didn't matter what she did or how ridiculous she acted, Austin was always ready to lap up the grief and come running back for more.Oh sure, at some point during the season he changed and he stood up to Kelly, and maybe the show did help him do that.  Maybe that's the good that came out of the show, Austin realized that he couldn't handle two babies at the same time. 

So, there you go, two of the five couples had serious issues prior to starting the show.  I could go through and pull apart the reasons for the other couples being weak, but they're pretty obvious and that would just waste my time and yours.  Which means that we're just left with my original question of the message we are to take from the show?

I'm not sure there is one, except the one we already knew - babies (read: "teens") shouldn't have babies.  They just shouldn't, but did you need a TV show to tell you that?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My War, Your War, Foyle's War - Set Five

When the fourth series of Foyle's War finished, our hero, DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) was headed off into the sunset. He had, following a political brouhaha, retired from his position. But, a successful TV series never does let a little thing like the main character's retirement stand in the way of the new season.

Consequently, when series five begins, the Hastings police are in low spirits. The precinct is going to be closed permanently in the near future and people are looking for their next job. Despite the fact that World War II is virtually over and that an Allied victory is all but assured, the folks in the Hastings police are none too pleased. When the position of DCS reopens, Foyle is coaxed out of retirement to put everything right once more.

It may all sound a little too convenient, a little too easy a way of continuing the series, by Foyle's War is so compelling that however weak the excuse for continuing the series, one can only be pleased that it does continue. And continue the series does, with three final (allegedly) 90 minute episodes that will be arriving on DVD on August 5.

Centered on the little town of Hastings, England during the Second World War, Foyle's War follows the titular character as he investigates crimes both related and unrelated to the war. Hastings is located on the coast and in relatively close proximity to mainland Europe, making it a good staging area for personnel from various military branches and countries and a complicated town. There are enough different groups, factions, and divisions within the community and those surrounding it that it's actually a wonder that they don't have more murders and intrigue than they do.

Working with Foyle to help solve these various crimes are his driver, Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and Sgt. Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). Stewart is young, talkative, and never quite sure when enough is enough. Milner, on the other hand, is a far more methodical individual, and unlike Stewart, sees the police force as his career and a place for advancement rather than merely a job.

While the two characters are in fact fully developed, during the course of these three episodes they are far more intriguing in terms of their relations to Foyle, and what they reveal about Foyle's personality. The DCS is a kind, generous man, but takes great pains to not be seen as such. He feels deeply for all of those who work for him, but would rather do virtually anything except express his feelings. Instead, Foyle repeatedly puts Weeks in her place and while he encourages Milner's investigations, he never heaps praise.

The mysteries Foyle solves in this last series are interesting, particularly the one in the first episode, but far more interesting is the way the characters approach the coming end of the war. While everyone is happy at its arrival, there is certainly also the sense that great change is coming not just for the characters, but for the world as well. There is something of a sense of longing for the England that existed prior to the war.

Much time is spent during these episodes on where the characters will end up, and how and why they will end up there. By the third and final episode, the sense of closure is actually too powerful. This episode, "All Clear," works entirely too hard for closure, practically forcing happy endings down the characters' throats. From magically returning and changed love interests to new jobs, it almost feels as though the entire purpose for the final series was to be able to put a pretty little bow on the characters' lives. And yet, if there were to be new Foyle's War episodes in the future, one imagines that creator Anthony Horowitz would need no more than 10 minutes to bring the gang back together.

The DVD release of Foyle's War - Set Five includes some behind-the-scenes featurettes which include thoughts from cast members as well as a documentary, and cast filmographies. Though at times a bit over-the-top with its need to satisfy viewers, it does provide a fitting end to a well-made, truly compelling television show.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sometimes TV Shows Fail to "Fix it in Post"

Last night on Top Gear (that's right, it's another Top Gear article, you know you love Top Gear, I talk about it on a regular basis and I'm sure you've caught the fever by now) Jeremy Clarkson drove a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool. Sure, it was an old Rolls Royce, kind of a beater really, but it was still a Rolls Royce, and the man drove it into a swimming pool. He destroyed a Rolls Royce, and all in the name of humor. See, isn't the show great?

Okay, I'll admit it, the show has some problems, it's not perfect. I talked a couple of weeks ago about how they liked the Honda Element, which still rankles. But, and last night it was really evident, there's a problem with the way the show is edited for the States. At least, that's what I'm assuming the problem is. You see, they have awkward, abrupt, transitions from one segment to the next on a fairly regular basis (on the order of one or two an episode). I assume that the reason these weird transitions occur is that there's more commercial time here in the States than in England, and so they're struggling a little getting the show down to time.

The choice is either that or that it's just not terribly well edited to begin with, and I'm betting that's not the case. I'm giving the show the benefit of the doubt; it can be hard getting a show to time (especially when it's already been cut perfectly for elsewhere). I used to spend a significant amount of time cutting a talk show down to time. It's not easy. I won't brag about my skills at doing it, there was that one time I left a four-letter word in the show, and I have complete respect for anyone who sits there and tries to wedge all that footage into a short period of time.

Another show that had some editing issues last night was American Gladiators (yes, I'm still watching that too and last night's men's Eliminator was pretty spectacular). During the very first women's event last night, Pyramid, Crush took down the contestant, Lillian and, just before the camera cut to a different shot, Lillian's helmet came off. After the cut to the new shot, Lillian came back up the pyramid, with her helmet strapped on and I just don't think that there was enough time for her to strap it back on. I think that they must have stopped the event, allowed Lillian to strap back on her helmet, and then restarted it. This assumption is further built on the fact that the announcer didn't say anything about Lillian's losing her helmet and that's something he certainly would normally have commented on.

There's no problem with the show stopping the event and restarting it - there's a safety issue involved after all - but they ought to be honest about it. If they paused everything so that Lillian could strap on her helmet once more, say that. What's the advantage the show gains by not doing so? They stopped another event last night when there was a little extracurricular brawling and restarted it, why not tell us about this, too?

Either that, or they should just lie better. I'd be okay with that, too.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Coming of the Olympics and the End of Summer TV

In a little less than two weeks, the Olympics start… and I'm already depressed. No, really, the Olympics depress me.

I admire what these people do; they are, without a doubt, some of the best athletes in the whole world. They've worked hard to do what they do and have reached the pinnacle of their sport. It's admirable. It's incredible.

But, why does it have to ruin my television viewing?

The Olympics come, NBC and all of the NBCU cable channels air hours on end of the games and, the other networks don't counter-program it. I have to suffer through two weeks of repeats and nonsense in the already weak summer season. It's virtually unbearable. Plus, the events that I actually enjoy during the games aren't what's shown during primetime. Am I not a consumer? Am I not a desirable demographic?

Here I am, all excited and happy about Monk being back on and Psych being back on. Then, my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that Doctor Who is ending its season and that we'll only have five two-hour movies to look forward to next year (or maybe a little later depending on when they actually get done). And now? The Olympics. It's almost enough to make me cry.

Don't think I'm joking. I'm not.

Why, I beg of you, why? Why does this have to happen now? Didn't I already suffer through a writers' strike which pretty much destroyed last season and (if we're going to be honest with ourselves) could put a damper on this season as well? Couldn't they have delayed the Olympics by a year, you know, let me recover from the writers' strike before ending my viewing prospects for another two weeks?

I sat around last night trying to figure out what I'm going to do during primetime during the Olympics. I'm thinking that I might sit down and re-watch The Prisoner. Also, I just rejoined Netflix and they now do this "download and watch your movie right now" thing, and they have tons of old Doctor Who there to be downloaded.

But, there's something to be said for watching actual television, current television, and no amount of old Doctor Who and original The Prisoner is going to assuage that need. It just isn't, it can't. They're both great series and all, but there's no need to hold the remote, there's no need to fast forward through the commercials and those are integral parts of the television watching process.

Man, I'm so upset about this whole thing that I can't even begin talking about the return of Mad Men last night, and I truly enjoyed that. What a great show that is. I disliked the use of Chubby Checker at the start of the episode because I thought that it was a little too wink-wink (what with the first season being on last summer and the song being "Let's Twist Again" which talks about how we should "twist again like we did last summer" and that we should "twist again like we did last year"). I like the song, and it's the right time period, etc., but it just felt too wink-wink.

See? The Olympics are ruining Mad Men for me, and that's not okay.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Burn Notice Lights my Fire

Last week, as you may recall, I promised to discuss Burn Notice this week. Well, I didn't so much promise that I'd discuss it so much as I stated that it was a definite possibility, that it was something that I was, without a doubt, considering. Well, I've considered it, and… let's discuss.

For those of you who don't know, and I can't imagine who you are, Burn Notice is USA's take on the spy story. It focuses on Michael Westen, a one-time spy who was "burned." That means that someone told on him, getting him booted from the business, having his assets frozen, and pretty much just wreaking all sorts of havoc in his life. His goal? Figure out who got him kicked out of the spy business and why.

The best part of the whole thing? As I said last week, it's the voiceover. It's not always brilliant, but it's more wry and witty than what that dead lady over on ABC on Sunday nights tends to spew. Yes, I like that lady on ABC on Sunday nights, but she's no Michael Westen. He spends so much time telling us the right and wrong way to go about things, how the spies do it, how to improvise, and it's all done very tongue in cheek. Burn Notice is a spy drama, but it's also a parody of a spy drama. It's as smart as it is because it recognizes what came before it and plays off of it.

I feel as though, more and more, television series aren't doing straight stories anymore. It may be more true on cable than broadcast, and it's almost certainly true about all of USA's original series. I'm not complaining about it, I love both Psych and Monk which are spins on detective stories, I just wonder what the next incarnation is. Eventually will things move to fitting more into classical genre categories or will there be a spin on the spin? I don't quite know how that would work, what the show would look like; if I did I'd probably be rich, but I tend to think that the spin on the spin is far more likely.

Back to the show at hand, though. What I don't understand about Burn Notice is the yogurt. In every episode, there's yogurt. Michael eats yogurt, his not-a-girlfriend Fiona eats yogurt, his buddy Sam talks about eating yogurt. Maybe I just missed the moment where they explained it all, but I don't think so. All I know is that there's always yogurt. I hear that Psych always has a pineapple in it, maybe all the USA original series do a similar thing.

There is one huge fear I have for the series, it's a fear that crops up all too often for me with shows that I enjoy. I worry that the producers don't know the endgame. What if the producers don't have an answer for why Michael was burned? What if they're making it up as they go along? It's absolutely possible to create a series like this and have it be wonderful and not have the ending figured out… it's just more difficult. It's too easy to lose your credibility by coming up with some ridiculous machinations and thereby lose the audience if you don't know where you're going.

Too many shows have gone down that route, and I'd rather not see it happen to Burn Notice too. Some might argue that for Burn Notice to go down that route would be the perfect way for this type of spin on the spy tale to end, or not end as it were. That actually makes some sense, but I'd still rather not see it happen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is it True? Can the Baby Borrowers be Taught?

I sit here today in stunned silence (thank goodness I'm typing this column instead of dictating). Did some of the teens on Baby Borrowers last night actually show some sort of growth? Has the entire experience actually taught them something? I know that may be too much to hope for, but there were signs of it yesterday. Really, there were.

First off, Daton dumped Morgan. That was absolutely the right move on his part. Yes, he may have done it in a classless way at a bad time, but it was, overall, the right thing for him to do. He felt dead inside being with her, he didn't like who he was with her, that's not the right way to go about living your life.

Daton did do one bad thing, and that was leaving the show in the middle of everything, forcing Morgan to do it all by herself. But, to her credit, Morgan stepped up and actually performed admirably. Now, it should be noted that she had one of the well-behaved teens and that unlike toddlers and infants, teens do not need constant supervision. They need to be monitored and talked to, but Morgan could go to work for the day and leave her teen at home without too much worrying.

The same was certainly not true of Cory and Alicea's teen, Sam. Sam was trouble. From the moment Sam entered the house he acted like the worst sort of teen. It's possible that the producers encouraged that sort of behavior ahead of time, but it's just as likely (maybe more) that Sam genuinely believed that acting like a moron - throwing clothes on the floor, claiming he was going to go hotwire a car and drive around, climbing out onto the roof - made him look cool. You know, in fact, I'm going to say that Sam probably is that kid, that he needed no encouragement from the producers. Cory and Alicea, though, did their level best to straighten the kid out. They didn't succeed, but they tried.

Cory and Alicea even had the good sense to bring up to Sam's mom the fact that Sam was in dire need of some sort of change in the way he was disciplined or parented. Mom didn't want to hear it, claiming that the problem was that Cory and Alicea simply didn't exude enough authority, but mom was being delusional. It can be hard for a parent to face the fact that despite their best efforts they've gone out and raised a little monster, but that is in fact what mom did in this case.

Mom did seem a little shocked when Sam gave her some attitude when she showed up to pick him up, but I think she was just doing that for the cameras. Good kids don't go bad for three days straight just because mom and dad aren't there. Sure, they may cause a few problems here and there, but it wouldn't be constant.

I really do believe that it's probably one of those "best laid plans" things. There's no way mom set out to raise a kid who acts like Sam acted. Maybe mom doesn't even realize who her kids is. Maybe after hearing what Alicea and Cory had to say about Sam and watching the show last night mom will experience a wake-up call. We can only hope that she does. The truly sad part about it all though is that watching himself on TV last night, Sam probably thinks that what he did was fantastic and funny and just outstandingly cool. It makes me want to yell at the boy, but I just don't believe it would do any good.

In the end, I just have to take a quantum of solace from the fact that Cory and Alicea handled the situation as well as anyone could have and far better than Sam's mother did.

See, maybe our Baby Borrowers are learning something.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It Looks as Though it is a Bleak Doomsday

What is it about the post-apocalyptic world that filmmakers like so much? Is it the fact that the side of law and order is allowed to inflict far more punishment on the villains without fear of crossing the line? Is it the sheer quantities of viscera that the post-apocalyptic world apparently just begs to be shed?

As is only natural, some post-apocalyptic movies are standouts; the world they create is deep and intriguing, everything about the films suck in the viewer. There are also, of course, post-apocalyptic movies that are not terribly good. Doomsday, written and directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent) and heading to DVD on July 29, sadly falls into this latter category.

Taking place in the near, but very different, future, Doomsday follows the attempt of a team of specialists, led by Maj. Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) to find a cure for a virus that is poised to sweep across London, a virus that kills everyone in its path. Luckily for the folks in London, several years earlier the virus swept across Scotland, killing everyone there (a young Eden Sinclair made the last helicopter ride out). It is to Scotland that Sinclair and her team are sent.

Just before they head off to the vast wasteland of post-apocalyptic Scotland, Sinclair is let in on a secret that only the highest echelons of the British government have been privy to - not everyone in Scotland is dead. People starting reappearing a few years earlier and the government has been keeping it hush-hush.

Armed with this new information and some weapons, Sinclair and her team set off to find the missing Dr. Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who was working on a cure before going radio silent many years previously. Kane is, we find out, still alive, as are gangs of marauders, many of whom have extensive tattoos all over their body (it seems as though in the post-apocalyptic world body art is really where it's at).

It's not really giving anything away to say that Sinclair loses much of her team along the way, saves the day at the last minute, but has her world view forever changed by what she witnesses in Scotland. From the moment the opening credits roll, the end is apparent. Nor is the ending's obviousness a real problem; many films' resolution is clear prior to the resolution actually occurring. No, what is really wrong with Doomsday is not the utter foolishness of it all. The problem is not that there is no electricity in post-apocalyptic Scotland, except when there is, or supplies, except when there are. Forget the fact that Sinclair, her boss, and her coworkers are positively shocked that people are still alive in Scotland (when has a virus in a movie killed absolutely everyone?), forget the foolish evil gang members, forget the bad voiceover provided by McDowell. The problem is that the action sequences are not special.

In eschewing using an original narrative, interesting plot devices, and deep characters with compelling story arcs, Doomsday only has a selling point in the action sequences. That may be fine, not everything has to be Shakespeare, but the one selling point of the movie is a huge disappointment. The action isn't particularly special, there are innumerable close-ups and quick cuts throughout the combat that only convince the viewer that the actors either aren't performing the stunts or don't know how to do them. Rather than the quick cuts increasing the tension and the viewers' adrenalines levels, they only serve to convince those watching that no action is actually taking place on the set. It's a gross disappointment in a movie that has nothing else to offer. Yes, things blow up pretty well, and there are brains and all manner of viscera that go flying, but it's nothing to write home about.

Rhona Mitra does an adequate job as a hard-as-nails type, and she does look fantastic, but that's not enough to carry the film. It feels as though the entire endeavor was built solely on the idea that things could be blown up and blood shed if the film were made. While that certainly happens, the way in which it happens does nothing to impress the viewer.

Doomsday's DVD release contains both an unrated and R-rated version and some behind the scenes featurettes, none of which will convince one of the need for making the film.

Sadly, Doomsday gives the post-apocalyptic world a bad name.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lies and the Lying Reality Show Contestants who Tell Them

I don't quite know why, but I'm constantly amazed at the insanity of reality show contestants. I particularly enjoy moments on reality shows where a contestant speaks one-on-one to the camera about something that happened previously, and the show instantly cuts to the person doing the exact opposite of what they claim to have done or the contestant being shown to be completely and totally wrong. It's amazing. It's as though people on reality shows don't realize that they're being filmed. They think that they can just lie and misdirect and get huffy when they're clearly and obviously wrong and there's videotape to prove it.

Look at Nicole last night on The Mole. There she was, telling the camera how she was upset that the men ignored her during one of the missions. She had been tasked with going and counting up a variety of things to come up with a number to be keyed into a computer. She returned to the group and insisted that the number she had, 227, was right. She was hugely displeased that the rest of the group (all men) ignored her number. She was insistent that she was right. It made absolutely no difference that the group had been informed that the first digit in the number was "2" but that the second most definitely was not. Nicole knew that prior to heading out to do her counting, but was perturbed that the group didn't accept her answer anyway.

Okay, so this is The Mole and there's a chance that she is the mole and was therefore purposely giving the wrong answer. In that case, she might be the worst mole ever because she gave a wrong answer that had to be the wrong answer, it couldn't possibly have been the right answer. I'm betting she's not the mole anyway, so the point is a little moot.

But, even if you don't want to give me that, how about Nicole stating later in the episode that she was tired of being left out of the group? She implied that she was left out because she was the last woman standing. It apparently never entered her mind that her original strategy in the game (as professed to the camera early on) was to be obnoxious. If that was her goal, she succeeded and now that she was reaping the benefits of that goal, she was all upset.

Is the basic problem here that reality show contestants have no idea about how their actions have consequences, or have we, as a society, lost that knowledge ourselves? Did Nicole not realize that threatening, even in jest, to kill another contestant may make the rest of the contestants more wary of her? Did she think that despite clearly delivering a wrong answer last night the group ought to accept what she said? Why would they do that? Out of a sense of loyalty to someone who want to take what would otherwise be their money? Out of a desire to have the group remain harmonious at the expense of the group winning money?

I'm not going to accept a "well, it's just edited to make it look that way" argument here as the instances have been all too frequent with Nicole. So, what could it be? I hope it's just a problem with reality show contestants and not society as a whole, because if it's all of us, we could be in real trouble down the line.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Show Certainly Has at Least One Saving Grace

Crime procedurals on television seem to have reached a point where nothing can be done routinely anymore. One cannot just have a show where someone solves crimes; the detective has to be obsessive-compulsive, pretend to be a psychic, be a modern day Sherlock Holmes, or be a savant at solving crimes and incapable of relating to others. Enter into that crowded field Saving Grace, a TV series featuring a detective who is a hard drinker, sexually promiscuous, tough as nails, and just happens to be visited by one of God's angels on a fairly regular basis. The angel's task? Save Grace from herself, of course.

Saving Grace features Holly Hunter in the title role of Grace Hanadarko and Leon Rippy as Earl, her "last chance Angel." The premise of it all is rather easy to understand - Grace is slowly but surely destroying her life and Earl has been tasked by the Big Guy to put her back on the right track. As with so many "tough as nails" folks though, Grace is entirely unsure that she wants, or even needs, to be saved. After all, she has yet to cause irreparable damage and is still really good at her job.

The series also features the members of her police unit: Ham Dewey (Kenny Johnson), who is having an on again, off again affair with Grace; Butch Ada (Bailey Chase), who Grace has had a relationship with; Bobby Stillwater (Gregory Cruz), who is a little too strait-laced to have a relationship with Grace; Kate Perry (Lorraine Toussant), the boss; and Rhetta Rodriguez (Laura San Giacomo), who seems to be in charge of all lab tests, crime scene photos, and various miscellanea in the office. It is certainly a diverse bunch of supporting players, made that much more diverse by the inclusion of Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine) as a death row inmate who also has Earl as an angel.

While, on the whole, the supporting cast is up to the task, Laura San Giacomo's performance is uneven. She is fantastic as Grace's best friend from childhood, the one person Grace can truly confide in. In this role, she is capable and sympathetic and wholly believable. In her lab coat, ministering over DNA test results and photographing crime scenes, she is less than credible. One never truly gets the sense at that times that she is who she claims. It's really unfortunate, as some of the best scenes in the first season of the show are with her and Grace in friendship mode. Her desire through the season to find out about Earl and his greater purpose is one of the things driving the storyline and, as she's in friendship mode at the time, San Giacomo seems perfectly suited to the role.

Season one of Saving Grace is currently available on DVD in a single set which features all 13 episodes as well as some behind the scenes featurettes. While some of the cases that Grace Hanadarko solves over the course of the 13 episodes are nominally interesting, it is really the Grace/Earl/Leon storyline that is the only truly compelling thing about the series. The question of why Earl is there and what exactly his larger purpose may be in bringing Grace and Leon together is really what holds the series together.

Neither the battle for redemption nor the question of the existence of God are anything new, but they are both still intriguing. Grace's internal battle (whether she acknowledges that there is one or not) is something that the audience can relate to. Few of us have quite as much to deal with as Grace, but there are bits of her struggle in all of us.

As an addition to the ever-expanding detective-who-solves-crimes-but-is-also… genre, Saving Grace may not be the best of breed, but it asks interesting questions and usually eschews easy answers. Though Grace is a lapsed Catholic, and the series may focus more on that religion than any other, it most definitely does not push one religion over another. Religion must, necessarily, enter such a story, but not having a single doctrine espoused as true was a wise move on the producers' part. Saving Grace doesn't always view organized religion as a positive force, but nor does it always find it negative. Much like Grace Hanadarko herself, the series is walking a tightrope, one misstep away from having the whole world standing at its door, pitchforks raised.

In addition to the first season of Saving Grace being on DVD, season two can currently be seen on TNT.

Finding Out Exactly What it Means to be an American Zombie

Zombies are people too.  Such is the message, sort of, given by director Grace Lee's American Zombie.  Though it is wholly fictional, the movie is made in documentary style and purports to explore the lives of some average living dead-types in Los Angeles.  At times funny and momentarily thoughtful, the film attempts to draw parallels between some of its zombie figures, their lives of loneliness, and the lives of people in present-day Los Angeles.

It is an unfortunate fact that the parallel is a little too easy and the characters painted in an overly broad fashion.  The "documentary" follows the slacker zombie convenience store clerk, Ivan (Austin Basis); the fakely happy bee worker in denial about her zombie situation, Judy (Suzy Nakamura); the quiet, about one second from losing her mind completely, Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson); and the zombie rights activist, Joel (Al Vincente).  Even the most fresh-faced viewer will be able to guess where they are going to end up by the film's end.

The same is also true of the documentary filmmakers within the film – Grace Lee (as a version of herself) and John Solomon (as a version of himself).  As with the zombies they follow, both characters are very one-dimensional.  This makes it far easier to understand where they, and the zombies they are following come from.  It allows for a lot of easy jokes, but it also undercuts the piece as a whole – it's hard to show via a film the truth about people in this world if you don't create fully realized ones in the film itself. 

That being said, if one doesn't look for any sort of deeper meaning to the film, it is quite a fascinating notion for a mockumentary.  What if zombies were real?  What if they were living in normal society with us?  What would they look like?  What would they do?  How would they choose to integrate, or separate, themselves from the average person. 
Sure, none of those are earth-shattering questions, but they make for a very interesting film.  Or, more accurately, they do right up until the Lee (the real one) and her co-writer (Rebecca Sonnenshine) opt to go down the well-worn zombie horror path. 

The change from mockumentary to mocku-horror film is one that the viewer will see coming from virtually the start of the film, but it is one that Zombie should have done its best to avoid.  As a horror film, Zombie has little to offer that viewers haven't seen before.  While it is all still filmed in a realistic manner, the tension never gets sufficiently ratcheted up to make the viewer feel any sort of peril. 

Additionally, the turn comes at a point in the film when the audience knows that the story has just about run its course; the switch is the film's last gasp and nothing more.  Perhaps the problem is that the viewer has been waiting for the move to horror since the film began and it is only once it occurs that the viewer can finally sit back and relax, thereby destroying the goal of the horror (to scare people).

Whatever the reason for the shift in tone, it does the film a great disservice.  The original idea – learning about the zombies that make up a part of our culture and what they choose to hide from us – is fascinating a one.  With the switch to horror mode, Zombie never answers the questions it lays forth.  Thus, at the end of the film, the viewer sits there and can't help but wonder just a little bit why exactly they bothered.

The DVD release of American Zombie features behind the scenes documentaries which, while the shed little light, may be more interesting than the ones one usually finds on a DVD.  As an independent film, it feels as though there are fewer intermediaries between the viewer and the filmmakers, and the production size much more manageable for the viewer to understand.

In the end, American Zombie presents an interesting concept and yet leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied.  The ending chosen was the easy way out and wholly undercuts that which precedes it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Lot About Dragons' Den and a Touch of Burn Notice

Last week, as you may or may not recall, I wrote that I was all excited about the BBC America show Dragons' Den. Last night, I was less excited. I'm not going to say "far less excited," just less excited.


Good question, let's talk.

There were two main problems with last night's show. The first was that the voiceover led the story far too often. That was the small problem. The big one was that the ideas that the various entrepreneurs had were horrific.

So, this voiceover problem… I appreciate the fact that the producers are trying to piece together a really, really long meeting into a short little snippet. They have to condense what took place and yet keep it all clear. Hence, the use of an announcer. Sure, it totally makes sense, it's the standard thing to do. Heck, it's not even a bad idea. The problem is that all too often last night, the announcer informed us what was going to happen immediately before it did. Things like (and this is not a direct quote) "our foolish entrepreneur with his horrific idea just lost one dragon, and now another is going to drop out."

The next thing that happens? A dragon looks at the foolish entrepreneur and says something like "I'm out." Well, okay, I'd be out too if someone showed me a couple of bits of plastic on a key ring that steady wobbly tables and asked me to give him 87,000 pounds. The problem is that as a viewer, I don't need and I don't want the announcer to tell me what is going to happen and then to have to watch what's going to happen. It makes the show a wee bit repetitive and a wee bit boring. I'd ask them to stop doing it, but I'm sure that all the episodes already exist in their final form.

We just touched on it a little, but let's delve into problem number two, yes? That bit in the pretend quote above wasn't fake – a guy came to the dragons with a little ring of plastic tabs (kind of like mini-paint chips) and explained that he wanted to manufacture them and sell them to people to put under the legs of wobbly tables at a restaurant, or bar, or hotel. Yeah, he wanted 87,000 pounds for that because he was convinced with that money he could actually convince people that this was a worthwhile thing to purchase. Thank goodness one of the dragons was quite clear that cardboard coasters exist for exactly that reason.

Some of the other ideas were equally poor and some of the other entrepreneurs even more odd. One guy had this idea for this personal aircraft thing. He said that they could be sold, one assumes at a profit, for 75,000 pounds. They were this weird looking helicopter-airplane combo thing. He said that he'd applied for the patents, but he still refused to talk about the way the engines were built (if he'd applied for the patents he could discuss it without fear of it being stolen). He then refused to talk about why he refused to talk about it. There was something more than a little fishy about it and he scared all the investors away.

While that guy was weird, he was no match for the two guys who wanted to sell their web software idea when they didn't own the program code and didn't have anyone on their team that could write code. Sure, they had permission to use the software they needed, but surely they had to have someone on their team that could handle the software.

There were good bits of the show, too; some of the entrepreneurs weren't crazy and it's fun to watch the dragons try and get deals done, but they were overshadowed this week. Sigh. Maybe next week will go better.

And, yes, to answer your next question, I watched Burn Notice too, and that show I really enjoy. It's just good fun to watch. It seems to both honor and subvert the great spy movies. It's well-acted and Michael's voiceover just can't be beat (see, Dragons' Den, that's how you do good voiceover). Plus, it does a solid job of handling the single episode stories and the season long arc.

Maybe we'll discuss it more next week, because I feel your attention wavering. But you should definitely be watching, you won't regret it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Baby Borrowers Fails to Excite

Did you watch Baby Borrowers last night?  Well, I did.  I have to say, I'm completely underwhelmed.  I wish I wasn't, but I am.  I expected more.  I expected… I don't know what, but certainly more than what we're getting.

The teenage couples just finished with their pre-teens, so next week they're on teenagers, and then the week after, the elderly.  Sure, we've seen some fights and we've seen some upset, and we've seen some children not being cared for as well as one would want them to be cared for, but that's the extent of it.  I know that it's a "reality" show and that as such the producers couldn't script drama, but couldn't they have plotted out more ways to shake things up?  Would that have been too much to ask for?

Last night, the big thing was a sleepover party at one of the couple's houses.  I guess the producers figured that the pre-teens would be too much for the couple to handle and that fireworks would ensue.  Yeah, that didn't happen.  The sleepover party went off without a hitch. 

Maybe the problem with the sleepover party setup was that kids are, on the whole, good.  Nothing truly horrible happened at the sleepover party because the kids know right from wrong – they like to play at doing wrong, but they know when enough is enough.  Accidents happen, but over the course of three days and with a moderate amount of adult supervision, things weren't going to get that out of hand.

That's not to say that parents are unnecessary, they're hugely important, they teach right from wrong and guide the child into adult, it's just that over the course of three days the kids probably weren't going to end up on the wrong path in life.  It's like leaving your child at his/her grandparents' house – they're going to be loaded up on sweets, sleep deprived, and somewhat spoiled when you get them back, but there's not going to be any long-term damage done. 

Next week, with the teen couples taking care of teens there certainly is the potential for bigger problems than occurred this week, and I hope those problems occur, but that'll only be because the teens are purposely messing with the couples.  It will probably make for better television than what we saw this week, but it will have little validity in terms of the "experiment" taking place. 

Maybe I'm just down on this week, it was interesting to see them take care of babies and they were even able to make that into two episodes.  Maybe that's why it was more interesting.  The last couple of episodes have ended before they even began.  The couples get the kids, they play for a few minutes, put the kids to sleep, play for a few minutes, put them to sleep, and then the parents come.  There's simply not enough time to go into anything that happens.

But, that brings me back to my earlier thought, doesn't it?  Maybe they go through everything so quickly, maybe they didn't spend two episodes on the toddlers and pre-teens because nothing happened, because there was nothing to spend the time on.

I'm just disappointed.  I don't want blood, I just want drama and thus far Baby Borrowers hasn't delivered.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are Top Gear and I Having Our First Tiff?

I don’t know how to tell you this.  It actually physically pains me to write what I have to now write.  Seriously, my fingers are cramping, my stomach is in knots, and my vision is going a little blurry.  There I was watching Top Gear last night, and I totally and completely disagreed with what they had to say about the Honda Element. 

Now, I know that the episode that aired as "new" on Monday night (the episode I watched last night) was only new to this country, it actually aired several years ago in England, but I would have disagreed with James May then just as I disagreed with him last night.  He, and Clarkson, and Hammond actually thought that the Honda Element looked good.  They stated that Hondas always looking boring, that they're reliable, economical, and generally well-built, but boring.  That may be true, but the Honda Element is not a "funky" or "cool" looking car.  No way.  It simply isn't.  It's ugly as sin.  The first moment I saw an Element I deemed it ugly as sin and my opinion has never wavered.  It looks as though, as it's an inexpensive car, the corner that was cut was bringing in a designer who could actually design something staid.  It looks like they grabbed some guy off the street, Homer Simpson-style, and had him design it.

How could the guys at Top Gear, my heroes, be so horrifically wrong?  I love them, they're geniuses and the show is brilliant, how did they go so far awry here?  I don't know and it upsets me. 

Okay… deep breath.  The rest of the show was fantastic.  It featured the first instance of car football (that would be soccer to us in the States) and Jeremy Clarkson battling a tank (literally) while in a Land Rover Sport.  There was so much good to be had. 

My wife actually laughed during the Toyota Aygo football match.  That's right, she thought it was fun and fantastic, so they had to be doing something right.  Think about it for yourself for a minute – they had professional drivers sitting in Toyota Aygos (they don't have them in the States) and a huge soccer ball that they had to hit, using the cars, into unmanned nets.  It was like a giant game of bumper cars, and, as I said above, my wife even loved it (she's a notorious Top Gear doubter).  Forget "loved it," she actually wanted to get into an Aygo and play in the match.  She doesn't even like driving.

Clarkson and the tank was typical Clarkson, silly and over-the-top, but definitely trying to test something almost worthwhile.  He was trying to figure out if the Land Rover Sport could drive off-road.  He thought it wouldn't do a terribly good job, and even though he got blown away (or would have if the tank had been using live ammo), it turned out that the Sport did perfectly well off-road.  It didn't perform as well as a tank, but I think that the treads gave the tank an unfair advantage.

But man, they like the Honda Element.  I just keep coming back to that.  It might be a great car on the inside, it might be comfortable and fantastic and well-built, but it looks horrible.  I own an Accord, which I really like, and my first car was a Civic, and while neither car looks fantastic, I was and am very happy with them.  I'm a Honda fan, but the Element… wow… no way.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Mole Burrows, American Gladiators Eliminates

As I sit here and ruminate on last night's television offerings, one thing becomes abundantly clear -- The Mole is just plain old fun. It requires a modicum of thought and encourages the viewer to engage with the game. Even though there is backstabbing, deceit, and trickery going on, it still is one of the nicer reality competition shows around.

I wonder why that is. I wonder why The Mole ends up with people who may be obnoxious, annoying, and out to beat one another, but still somehow manages to retain an air of superiority. Nicole and Paul are, assuredly, just as ridiculous and spiteful as any reality show contestants, but the show still doesn't seem quite as evil and negative.

My only guess is that the show seems more positive because the editing chooses not to focus on the evil. They depict what's happening and follow up on it, but they don't wallow in it. A show like The Celebrity Apprentice revels in the evil; it appears as though The Donald often fires people based upon his assumptions of the ratings they'll deliver due to their vindictiveness and backstabbing nature, not based upon their performance in the task at hand. The Mole's eliminations are based upon the contestants' scores on a quiz; it is a wholly objective basis on which to eliminate the contestants, not the silly whims of one man. To me, that's a good thing.

I also watched American Gladiators last night and was sorely hurt that they only recapped and didn't show outright the women during Joust. The event featured the ever-fantastic Crush bashing both women, and frankly, it needed to be seen. It's true that Crush bashes opponents week after week in Joust, but that's no reason not to show her doing it this time.

Okay, that last paragraph is mostly true, but it wasn't my real problem with the episode last night. My real problem was that one of the women contestants scored absolutely no points prior to the final event, the Eliminator, and yet won the night. She ought to have been disqualified. There ought to be a rule somewhere in the American Gladiators rule book that states that if a contestant can't manage to put up a single point prior to the Eliminator, they are automatically removed from the competition, given a 30-second penalty, or something. The zero-pointer's opponent didn't score a lot, she put up 8 points prior to the Eliminator, but at least it was something.

What fun is the competition, what fun is every event leading up to the Eliminator if they're wholly irrelevant? The half-second lead per point ahead one contestant gets over the other simply isn't big enough. If they bother doing a third season of the series they ought to make it two seconds per point, maybe three. I really think that's the only way to get people to try their best on the earlier events.

Am I wrong? I dare you to stand up and say that I'm wrong, because I'm not wrong. Here are the facts: any and all events featuring Crush should be shown in their entirety, you ought not be allowed to win the competition if you didn't put up any points before heading into the Eliminator, and the lead given to whomever scores more points before the Eliminator ought to give a bigger advantage than it does. It's just the way it is.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Screening The Ex List Pilot

Have you ever seen those pictures of an apple that say "this is not an apple" underneath or those pictures of a pipe that say "this is not a pipe?" Well, this is not a review.

What this is is an opinion piece based upon the screener of The Ex List that CBS was kind enough to send me. As this show is not on the air it, it may still go through umpteen different format variations, tweaks, changes, etc., etc. Hence, my opinions of the series only hold true for the screener of the pilot I've watched. The moments that I like from the episode could be completely removed never to show up again, or, problems that I had with the pilot could wholly and completely be fixed, making this the single greatest TV show the world has ever known. The basic premise of the series will probably remain unchanged, however.

Okay, enough preamble. The Ex List, slated to air on CBS Fridays at 9pm this fall stars Elizabeth Reaser as smart, sexy, successful 30-something Bella Bloom who is, apparently, starting to feel her biological clock ticking away. Bella wants to get married, she just does. At her sister Daphne's (Rachel Boston) bachelorette party she sits down with a psychic (Anne Nahabedian) who informs Bella that if she doesn't marry in the next year she'll never get married. And, that the person she's going to marry is someone who she's already dated.

From that point, the hunt is on for this ex-boyfriend whom Bella is destined to marry. Along the way, she gets advice from the psychic, her sister, and her cadre of friends, all of whom have their own helpful little smart-alecky quips and quirks. One of the B-storylines in the pilot deals with one of her friends, Vivian (Alex Breckenridge), getting a full Brazilian wax and her boyfriend (another of Bella's good friends naturally, this one played by Adam Rothenberg) being less than amused with the change. As for Bella and the A-storyline, in the pilot it involves her meeting with a past boyfriend (hysterically portrayed by Eric Balfour in what, hopefully, will be a recurring role) and trying to determine if he is the one.

The basic assumption I'm running with is that every episode, at least in the first season, will feature Bella re-meeting one of her old boyfriends on a weekly basis until she discovers who the right one is (my money is on her most recent ex). The rest of her friends meanwhile will have their own ups and downs but mainly be there to help Bella with her list.

That's all well and good, and the pilot is certainly funny enough, but I'm certainly not the intended audience (what with me being a guy and all). The pilot did do enough to keep me interested and watching, but that was mainly due to her ex of the week. The episode also featured the women repeatedly wearing bikinis and other revealing outfits on a regular basis, which may be another way of enticing men to watch, but I don't see it getting added to my TiVo list. The real question, in my mind, is whether there will be any backlash against the series for it depicting a wonderful woman who simply doesn't feel complete without a man. Such a topic in no way bothers me, but, again, I'm a guy (and a happily married one).

The Ex List certainly has enough going for it that it could be successful, the writing was amusing enough and the actors all young and good-looking. The show that airs before it, Ghost Whisperer, is female-skewing, and that's the intended audience for this show, so it's not a bid fit. I'm certainly curious enough about how they sustain the premise when Bella is told that she only has a year to find the guy.

In short, The Ex List, based solely upon my viewing of the pilot episode which may be altered in ways no one can dream of prior to the series' starting, is a definite maybe. 

The Ex List will air Friday nights at 9pm ET/PT on CBS.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

One Triple Shot Espresso Vodka Martini, Please

Last time I stepped out of my usual areas of expertise and reviewed a drink, it was a tequila. I informed you at that time that scotch was my drink of choice, but that I had been sent the tequila in question to review and was more than happy to pass along my thoughts. Well, it's happened again, but not with tequila -- this time, I was sent three bottles of vodka (perhaps my discussion of James Bond in the tequila piece hit a nerve).

Whatever the cause, Three Olives Vodka (or, more accurately, a publicist working on a promotion for them) sent me three of their newest flavors to sample and discuss with you. The flavors in question are Tomato, Root Beer, and Triple Shot Espresso. That's right, Tomato, Root Beer, and Triple Shot Espresso.

Now, I'll tell you right off, the Triple Shot Espresso is utterly fantastic. It's a dark, rich color, and terribly drinkable both by itself and put into the most delicious mudslide you could ever imagine. Some may say it's overkill to put triple shot espresso vodka into a drink that already contains Kahlua coffee liqueur. They're wrong. It's delicious. One could drink a pitcher full of those and, while there would be regrets in the morning, it would be a truly swell night.

Three Olives Triple Shot Espresso has a definite coffee flavor to it, without ever being overpowering. It seems slightly more viscous than a normal vodka (perhaps that is an illusion due to its dark, rich color). Drunk as a shot, it goes down very easily and very smoothly. There is no hint of burn and one drink can quickly lead to another.

The Root Beer vodka issues moderately more of burn when drinking it, but contains a fantastic root beer smell and a decent amount of actual root beer flavoring. It is clear and seems to be more of a standard viscosity than the Triple Shot Espresso. It is also not as truly wonderful as the Triple Shot Espresso, but it is certainly satisfying in its own way.

One of the recipes recommended with the Root Beer vodka is a "British Car Bomb," which contains a shot and a half pint of ale. It's a good way to go. I don't particularly approve of having a drink entitled a "car bomb," but Three Olives didn't come up with that, so I can't really blame them.

The last of the varieties, the Tomato, is the least enjoyable of the three. This is perhaps the case because it is far less tomato flavored than Bloody Mary flavored. It is spicy and strong and has a different oomph to it; it's a clear Bloody Mary in a shot glass. It's not something I recommend doing straight up, it's a definite mixer alcohol. Frankly, I think that it would work quite well in a Bloody Mary.

As for James Bond, and whether he would drink any of these… I think the odds are definitely against it. One of the recipes that came with the vodka was for a "Bloody Martini," but that doesn't feel like 007's style. Yes, he mixes blood and alcohol, but not in the same glass. But, as much as I love him, his not drinking it is no reason for you not to go out and buy some, particularly the Triple Shot Espresso. I can't say enough about its goodness.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dragon's Den Intrigues Me Mightily

So, there I am, watching BBC America last night (okay, I really need to move to England so that I can watch the Beeb all the time, but that, perhaps, is another tale) because I heard that a new series, Dragons' Den, would be coming on. I say "new," but as with so many things BBC America airs, I think the show is not so much "new" in terms of just filmed in England in the last few months, but rather "new" in terms of it never having aired in this country or on BBC America previously (like the "new" season of Top Gear that starts come Monday). I think they took to heart the NBC slogan from a few years ago when they aired repeats -- "if you haven't seen it, it's new to you" -- but that's neither here nor there. New or old, we're talking Dragons' Den today.

It's quite an interesting concept for a show, really -- inventors and entrepreneurs come in to talk to five rich investors (the "dragons") and pitch the investors on their business concept. Before meeting with the dragons, the entrepreneurs have to state exactly how much capital they're looking to raise, and for them to get any money, the dragons have to be willing to go at least that high. As an example, last night one team asked for 150,000 pounds, and one of the dragons was willing to throw in 50,000 pounds, but no other dragon wanted a piece, so the deal died.

Even more interesting, the dragons are using their own money, or so we were told. When the dragons invest in a project they get, as one would expect, a percentage of the company in return (hence my believing that it is their own cash). While the previews for the upcoming episodes did make it look like tensions would be increased in the coming weeks, I quite enjoyed the fact that even though sizable chunks of change were being discussed it was all relatively calm. Yes, some of the entrepreneurs lost their cool, but the dragons all seemed heavily focused on the deal and whether the investment was a good one or not.

It's a show that actually made me think quite a lot about the behind the scenes machinations, because I can't believe that these guys, no matter how rich they are, are willing to just thrown down 50,000 or 75,000 pounds or some such amount. They get a little pitch from the entrepreneurs, but it didn't really seem like enough to base investing such huge quantities of cash on.

The dragons are, it seems, in no way required to invest in anyone's ventures over the course of a given episode, nor, it seems, is there a limit to the number of ventures they can participate in. It's not a zero sum game; someone doesn't have to lose for someone else to win, and that's fantastic. That's something we don't really get to see here in this country. Here, there would be a maximum amount of cash the dragons could invest over the course of the season and they'd have to put it all in one company and the entrepreneurs would have to jump through a ring of fire while riding a unicycle with a monkey climbing over their back in order to get the cash. In short, it would be far more similar to American Inventor, which is why that show only lasted two seasons and Dragons' Den is currently on its sixth in England.

Fine, call me an Anglophile or a BBC-phile if you want, you're probably right; but try and tell me I'm wrong about this. We'd do something bigger, but it just wouldn't be any better. You know it and I know it.

Snuggling Up with So You Think You Can Dance

Okay, this is not usually my sort of thing, but it was weird enough that I figured I'd throw it out there.

I got an e-mail from a publicist about Snuggle doing a thing with So You Think You Can Dance to promote Snuggle's new "fresh release" iteration. Apparently, they're of the opinion that it's swell enough that it makes people want to do their "happy dance."

Now, I'm a big fan of the happy dance, whether it's Balki-style (where it was the Dance of Joy), or Snoopy-style (where it was just plain awesome). As for Snuggle, whenever I think of them I think of Bruce Willis. That's right, Bruce Willis. I have my reasons and I know what they are, and you could probably figure it out too, but I don't want to belabor the point.

Anyways, Snuggle is getting people to submit happy dances, showing a happy dance every week during So You Think You Can Dance, and are even giving away a trip to the finale to a lucky winner. I wouldn't tell you any of this, except that I'm about to embed video of crazy people who submitted their Happy Dances. To be clear, when I say "crazy" I not only mean that in a joyous, frivolous, not actually on medication nor necessarily really ill at all in any way, and, as I've been encouraged to do I must tell you that my opinions on these people sanity, or quality of their dance skills are not endorsed by FOX, 19, Dick Clark Productions, or Snuggle. That should be pretty obvious, but I'm telling you anyway.

So, here are two videos, in the first, the camera is actually held sideways. Don't turn your monitor, don't turn your head (I used to do the former when playing the original Prince of Persia game after drinking the upside-down potion just for kicks), just watch and wonder why I wonder why.

As for the second video, well, I tend to think it was a setup. I don't believe that this girl was really dumpster diving, I think she was probably standing on something inside the dumpster. And, even if she weren't, I'm still assuming that it was a brand-spanking new dumpster. It is entirely possible that she's come somewhere near a dirty dumpster at some point in her life, but it wasn't here and it wasn't for this video.

Yeah, so, that happened. And, if you want it to happen for you, go here, because that's where you can submit your very own happy dance video for me to stare at incredulously.

Even More About TV Teens and Babies

Last week I wrote to separate pieces (this one and that one) on television shows focusing on teens with kids.  This week I'm condensing it all down into one piece.  Really, I'm condensing it all down into one question - why?  Why do the teens on Baby Borrowers want to have kids?  Why does the main character on The Secret Life of The American Teenager not want to tell her parents.  I have trouble fathoming both of these things.

Doing things counter-intuitively, let's look at the latter before the former.  I actually sort of, almost grasp the girl's position - Amy's scared of telling her parents that she's pregnant, that's why she's not mentioning it.  But, and maybe it's just that I'm older than she is, but isn't it obvious she's going to have to say something at some point?  I never understood that whole "delaying the inevitable" thing.  Her parents are going to find out, she's going to have to mention it at some point (I say that because I assume she's not going to go out and have an abortion instantly which is pretty much the only way her parents could remain in the dark).  Amy didn't seem last night to indicate that she wasn't going to say something right then because she was looking for the right way to bring up her "with child" status, she said she was just going to not tell them.  What sense does that make?

Now, I'm not saying that the show is wrong, or being inaccurate or unfaithful to portray our heroines actions in such a way, I totally believe teens act like that, but that doesn't answer my why question.  Yes, her parents are going to be absolutely livid, I know I would be, but they'll get over it and they'll help their eldest daughter out.  Their her parents, that's what parents do.  After spouting words unfit for television, or virtually anywhere else, that's what I'd do if when my daughter becomes a teenager she informs me of such a life altering event.  I also might go out and permanently disfigure the boy in question, but Amy wouldn't mind that so much.  So, no problems there - she tells her parents, her dad hurts the boy, and then the family comes together and heals.  It won't be simple and it won't always be happy, but it's the only way to go about it.

Hypothetically speaking, Amy could always find a TV show like Baby Borrowers and dump her kid off with a bunch of other teenagers if and when she needed a break from caring for her little one, but I see that as unlikely.  Again, I'm not a teen, but I certainly wouldn't hand my child off to some teen who is probably far more interested in being on television than caring for a child.  Plus, even if the teen wanted to care for a child more than be on TV, they're still a teen and they still need help.

Just look at Sasha last night.  Throughout the whole episode she talked about how she'd helped raise foster kids who lived in her house with her mom and taking care of this one toddler wouldn't be so bad.  Then, she completely lost it and was ready to quit the whole show when things with the kid didn't work out as planned.  The toddler's mom dared to suggest to Sasha that maybe she hadn't done the greatest job and maybe she still had some parenting skills to learn, and Sasha turned around and blamed the kid.  It is true that the kid in question was acting like a three year-old, but, he was a three year-old (okay, I don't know that, I know that he was between the age of 2 and 5, which is just how he was acting).  Sasha ended up yelling expletives at the mom and her own boyfriend and the world in general. 

It kind of proved that teens tend to require help raising kids (lots of folks do, it's nothing to be ashamed of), and that's something Amy needs to remember.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Wipeout & Hell's Kitchen - I'm Just Not Sold

I'm more than happy to admit that this season's edition of Hell's Kitchen (which ended last night) was moderately disappointing.  Everything about it felt as though it were a poor imitation of previous years.  But, the most disappointing thing about the whole season were the contestants.  They simply didn't, even in the final episode, make the audience feel confident in their abilities. 

Usually, the season story arc runs from the chefs being mostly incompetent to their eventually being hugely impressive (at least the one's who don't get fired).  That didn't happen this season, instead Ramsay just eliminated week after week the people who clearly ought not be running a restaurant (save, maybe, Ben, whom Ramsay just didn't like).  By the end of the season, Ramsay was left with two people who probably ought not be running a restaurant, and he chose the one who probably ought not run a restaurant the least.  It was not really terribly inspiring.

What it was, however, was head and shoulders better than the other show I watched last night – Wipeout.  What is up with that show?  It performed well in its timeslot, so clearly someone is interested, but I don't get it.  It consists, solely, of people running around obstacle courses and performing tasks designed to make them look stupid. 

Erin Medley and I talked about Wipeout on our show last week, and she insisted that it was well and truly funny – hence my watching it.  But, I'll be honest, I don't get it.  I like to see people do dumb things and get hurt as much as the next guy, but the obstacle courses, particularly the first one, seem set up so as to be impossible to do without falling.  The goal, it seems to me, is not to avoid falling into the mud and water, but to avoid falling as much as the other people.  Shouldn't obstacle courses actually be do-able? 

Worse than that, it seemed like the obstacle courses were not only not do-able without falling, but that trying to do them without falling would actually cause the contestant to get a slower time than if they just jumped into the mud and went to the next section.  What sense does that make?  Plus, and I hate saying this, the commentary on the show was absolutely horrific.  It was, I guess, meant to be funny, but it wasn't.  The two hosts, John Anderson and John Henson, pretty much just repeated the same thing over and over and over again about the contestants.  I'm not sure whether that was because the contestants had absolutely nothing interesting about them, the production folks working up bios didn't do their jobs, the hosts didn't care what the bios said, or the general assumption was that the audience was too dumb to remember that the hosts were repeating themselves, but it was really disappointing. 

It's a shame, because Wipeout seems like a great concept, but it needs to either have the first course ratcheted up a notch, so that it's even more ludicrous and far longer, or taken down a notch so that it's manageable.   Right now it's on a middle ground that doesn't work. 

Maybe I'll tune in for season two to see if they fixed the problems, right now I have to go prepare for my interview this evening with Kevin Michael Richardson of The Cleaner.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Flipping the Dial This Summer...

As we do our best to endure this incredibly long summer of our discontent, televisually speaking, I think that it's really important to remember that it won't last forever.  It's also important to note that you can go out and pick and choose old shows that you were interested in but never got the chance to see, and watch them in repeats (because, as we both know, there are plenty of repeats out there).

I've actually just started to do this, I'm now watching House.  It's a show I've always been curious about, a show that I've always wanted to see, but something I could never quite wedge into my viewing schedule.  After a couple of seasons I gave up on the idea of ever getting to watch it, and resigned myself to that fate.  Now, as long as FOX and USA are showing repeats all summer, it seems like a pretty good time to try and get involved.  Plus, FOX is going to be moving new episodes to Tuesday nights at 8 this fall, and I'm not planning on viewing anything else at that moment (save perhaps some of the plethora of shows from Monday that I'll be forced to save till Tuesday because I only have five or so hours to devote to TV watching a night).  So, this fall House fits right into my viewing schedule, I've loved Hugh Laurie since his Jeeves & Wooster days, and who doesn't like that funny kid from those pot movies.

Another thing to remember, is that there is actually new scripted stuff airing, you just have to go slightly out of your way to find it.  In the coming weeks we'll see the returns of The Closer, Saving Grace, Psych, Monk, Eureka, Mad Men, and Burn Notice.  Additionally, the new season of Doctor Who is currently on, as is In Plain Sight, and A&E's The Cleaner starts up next week.  Oh sure, it's hard to fill five hours a night with that stuff, but it's a beginning, and a pretty good one.

You're probably not watching Psych, it's much more likely that you're watching Monk (though the odds may be against that too).  You're missing out.  I think that Monk, over the years has reached greater heights than Psych has in its first couple of seasons, but if you put the last year of each show head-to-head, I think you'll find Psych a better program.  But, even if you only have time for one or the other, you're not really making a mistake, whichever one you choose, there's a reason Tony Shaloub has won awards for Monk, and James Roday and Dulé Hill certainly ought to be considered for their work on Psych.

Both those shows, while at times serious, tend to be light and frothy, if you want your summers dark and serious, check out The Cleaner.  It focuses on a guy (played by Benjamin Bratt) who, after fighting his own drug addictions now goes out and helps others fight theirs.  And, it also features Kevin Michael Richardson, who Erin Medley and I will be talking to tomorrow night, Wednesday, at 9:00pm (eastern) on our radio show.  Check it out here.

So, this is what I'm suggesting - go out and find some TV to watch.  It's not going to just come to you like it does during the regular season, but it's out there if you know where to look.

Monday, July 07, 2008

At Least This Drillbit Hurts Less Than the Dentist's

School-age wimps fighting for revenge is not a new filmic concept.  School-age nerds hiring someone to help them remodel their image in not a new concept.  Mashing the two together into a film where school-age wimps hire someone to help them with their revenge is also not a new concept.  Just because something is not a new concept however doesn't mean that it won't be funny.  Recycled material and ideas can, absolutely, be funny.  Drillbit Taylor, starring Owen Wilson and newly released to DVD, simply isn't.  It could have been, there are numerous examples of similar films that work brilliantly, Drillbit Taylor just doesn't. 

Directed by Steven Brill (who directed the less-than-funny Adam Sandler flicks Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky), the film focuses on three stereotypical high school freshman outcasts - the fat kid who likes to rap and talk like a "gangsta," Ryan (Troy Gentile); the super-thin nerd-looking kid, Wade (Troy Gentile), and the basic complete dweeb, Emmit (David Dorfman).  These three stereotypes, at the very beginning of their high school career find themselves set upon by two more - the bully, Filkins (Alex Frost), and the bully's friend, Ronnie (Josh Peck).  Unable to stand up for themselves, the wimps decide to head out to the internet to find themselves a bodyguard.  They sort of succeed, finding "Drillbit" Taylor (Wilson), a homeless man who lies his way into the position in an attempt to swindle the kids.

As the film plods along, Wilson teaches the wimps various foolish, but never funny, methods of trying to defend themselves, none of which pan out, prompting Taylor to pretend to be a substitute at the school in order to watch over the children.  Predictably, Taylor meets a love interest at the school and truly falls for the kids, stepping back from his master swindling plan (which, to be fair, he was forced to expand in order to help his homeless brethren). 

Wilson, charismatic actor that he is, makes the movie watchable, even if he is unable to generate laughs.  As a slacker surfer-type, Wilson isn't extending his range in the movie, nor does he ever seem to be exerting himself in any way.  It says much about the film that despite that, he is the best part of the picture.  The rest of the characters are so poorly sketched out that they never evoke any sort of emotional response from the audience. They are only ever flat, fuzzy, paper cutouts, their lack of depth and clarity make them wholly impossible to root for or against.

Perhaps the biggest letdown in the movie are not the characters, but rather the abrupt disavowal of one of the films main themes by the closing credits.  During much of the movie the kids learn the lesson that violence doesn't work, that they will never solve their problems by being physical.  By the all-too-obvious end of the film, it becomes clear that the reason violence doesn't work for the "heroes" is that they're simply not built for it, and that if they were bigger and stronger violence would be the way to solve their problems.

The incredibly hot (and hugely funny and clever) writer/producer/director Judd Apatow is credited as a producer of the piece, and two of his collaborators, Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen are credited with the story and writing the screenplay (John Hughes also receives as story credit).  It is, however, unquestionably one of their lesser works.  Perhaps either their pixie dust is wearing off, or far more likely, the piece simply wasn't given the attention it so desperately needed. 

It is hard to imagine many people being enthused enough with the film to want to sit through the DVD extras as well, but they do exist.  There is a commentary track with Brill, Brown, Gentile, Hartley, and Dorfman, a chat with the writers, deleted/extended scenes, a gag reel, outtakes, some behind-the-scenes looks at how a few of scenes were worked on and filmed, a discussion of directing kids, and a talk with one of the films supporting characters (these last three only appear on the "Extended Survival Edition" DVD release).  It goes on and on and on, and does prove that talented people can work hard on a film and still end up with a poor result.

Despite the fact that Drillbit Taylor's main characters have problems to which we can all understand and relate, the film fails to explore them in either a meaningful or funny way.  My disappointment doesn't temper my enthusiasm to see future works from the Apatow group (most notably this summer's upcoming Pineapple Express), but it does prove them wholly fallible. 

Friday, July 04, 2008

From My Vantage Point, I'm Not Quite Sure About This

What can one say about a film that has an interesting premise, carries it out poorly, and finally completely abandons it?  It is disappointing to be sure, but how much credit should be given for having the good idea?  Is director Pete Travis's Vantage Point worth watching for the kernel of the idea or should it be abandoned due to its poor execution?

On the positive side, the film features an outstanding cast, including:  Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt.  However, even the cast, and a truly swell car cash in the final minutes of the film, cannot save this mess of a thriller.

The basic plot follows an assassination attempt on the President of the United States (Hurt) during a counter-terrorism conference in Salamanca, Spain.  The viewer is shown the events leading up to and following the assassination from multiple individuals' (both involved and not) points of view.  Or, at least, that's what it's supposed to be.  After showing the events from several, points of view ranging from interesting, to outlandish, to boring, the film completely abandons that narrative structure to reveal the even more silly "reality" of the situation. 

At the center of everything in the film is Secret Service Agent Thomas Barnes (Quaid), who is back on the Presidential detail after taking a bullet while preventing an assassination attempt six months previously.  It is Barnes who ends up tracking down the culprits and, as much as anyone, cracking the case.  In actuality though, much of what Barnes accomplishes he does through sheer luck. 

Along the way, Barnes is aided by Howard Lewis (Whitaker), an American who happens to be at the event with his HD video camera and news producer Rex Brooks (Weaver) and her team.  It is through watching the various videos these people have that Barnes is able to spot problems and culprits (not that the viewer gets shown the salient points until well later in the film).  The various video angles that Barnes has access to so rapidly that just happen to have filmed the right thing at the right moment seem a tad too fortuitous, but the fact that Barnes can't spot one the main culprits without them, ridiculous (and the other bad guys just kind of fall into his lap).

The idea of the film, different people having different perspectives on the same event, while in no way original, is still a good one.  In the first 10 or 15 minutes, Vantage Point sucks the viewer in and creates a great deal of tension.  The first quarter of the 90 minute film is well executed, the varying perspectives, while making it clear who Barnes should be targeting even if he doesn't know it, still lead the viewer to want to know what happened.  However, as the film progresses watching the events at the conference unfold becomes terribly, excruciatingly boring.  At some point, the story enters the ridiculous, with motives being dismissed almost entirely, and foolish plot "twists" taking place.  While that is disappointing, it is nothing compared to the disappointment the viewer will feel when the narrative completely abandons, without reason, the multiple perspective take, opting for a straight action movie attitude instead.

It may be that switching to straight action mode was the only way the film could wrap up the wisps of a plot it contained.  The straight action switch is almost salvaged by a fun car chase, but everything is once again dashed to pieces with the absolutely silly reason that the terrorists fail. 

Vantage Point is one of those films that one watches and just can't help but feel that it could have been better, that is should have been better.  One gets the feeling that Barry Levy, in writing the script, spent far more time figuring out what different perspectives he could use than working out the whys and wherefores of the assassination attempt itself. 

Vantage Point has been released to DVD in multiple versions - a single-disc standard format DVD, a two-disc special edition, and a blu-ray version.  The single-disc version contains a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes; a director's commentary track; and a silly little, pretend outtake from the film.

There are good moments and aspects to Vantage Point, unfortunately, they end up buried a format that doesn't work and that is used in lieu of a well thought out and developed plot.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Teen with Babies (Even if They're Borrowed) Just Keeping Appearing on TV

I have a two-year-old daughter.  Perhaps you've heard me mention her from time to time.  Even if you haven't, the fact remains that she exists and that under no circumstances, ever (save tons of money, of course), would I give her to a couple of teenagers to watch for three days.  Apparently though, other people have no such qualms, though watching Baby Borrowers, they certainly should have.

I absolutely believe that teens that could watch my daughter for a number of hours, babysitter-style.  I think that there's absolutely no problem with that.  Frankly, though I was skittish at first, I think that most of the teens on Baby Borrowers could watch my daughter.  Some, however, I would cross the street to avoid. 

I simply can't fathom why Alicea might believe herself to be ready to take care of a kid.  I simply can't fathom how, after doing her best to avoid the child that she was supposed to be treating as her own she told her mom that she still wanted a child. 

She explained that if it were her child it would be different, and she's right, it certainly would.  If it were her child, it's entirely possible that the department of children and family services would have to step in.  Yes, the love that she would feel for the child might be stronger, but I have no reason to believe that said love would trump her desire to sleep through the night rather than take care of her little one.  I have no reason to believe that said love would trump her desire to find someone to hand the child off to, as she wanted to do with the baby she was supposed to be caring for. 

There certainly may be teens in this world that could handle the responsibility of a child, but they are, without a doubt, few and far between.  Alicea, certainly, is not included in their number.

But, enough bashing the incompetence of teens, let me ask you this, what is up with the teens with babies shows launching this summer?  Yesterday, I wrote, ad nauseum, about The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and today I'm harping on Baby Borrowers.  The two shows are very different, they're handled in completely different fashions, but at their core they're both exploring the same areas.  Was there some huge upsurge in teen pregnancy last year of which I am unaware?  Are the producers of television shows all struggling with discussing teen sex and pregnancy in their own home?  Did they figure that this was an easier way of tackling the issue than having a heart-to-heart with their own children?

Okay, it's probably not that, it's probably just random happenstance.  And, I think that there's absolutely no reason for these shows not to be out there.  Neither glorifies teen pregnancy, neither glorifies teens having babies.  They do however both open up a line of communication between parents and kids, they allow for a way to enter into a conversation about sex and pregnancy.

That's absolutely a good thing, I'm just happy that I don't have to have that talk with my two-year-old for another 25 years.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The American Teenager Divulges a Not-So-Secret Life on ABC Family

For reasons I do not fully understand, I sat down and watched The Secret Life of the American Teenager last night. Maybe it has something to do with the amazing draw of HDTV that I simply have to watch everything available; maybe I have a sickness, maybe my wife decided that she just had to see it. Almost needless to say, I have formulated an opinion or two about the show, and they're none too good.

First off, I'm convinced that the word "American" is used in the title to denote the fact that ABC Family hasn't simply bought old episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation or even the original Degrassi Junior High (which are, of course, Canadian). Watching the show it certainly felt like I stepped right into the world of Degrassi, which we used to watch in school during recess if it was raining outside. It seems as though school, or the television industry's view of it, has changed very little from then to now. And, I tend to think that's the case. Teen pregnancy, while upsetting, is not new. And, for all the hoopla surrounding ABC Family airing a show about it, everything that occurred last night was rather mundane.

Though there was speculation that ABC Family was eschewing its family-based roots with the show, they most certainly did not. Not only did a little advisory precede the show, at the end of it parents and teens were encouraged to talk and learn more about the issues involved.

Some quarters of our society almost certainly feel that such a show should never air on a network denoted as a "family" one. That's a ridiculous notion. Not discussing teen pregnancy does not make the problem go away. If you stick your head in the sand, not only will your problems still be there, but you may have messed up a pretty good hairdo as well.

The ultimate question to ask is if the show glorified teen pregnancy. It did not. Amy, the main character, certainly did not wish to become pregnant and is absolutely worried about the ramifications. She is left with a terribly hard set of choices to make and floundering for help. It seems like a pretty accurate portrayal to me.

Of course, some misinformation was given about the way doctors and insurance deal with pregnancy, but it came from the mouths of Amy's friends, who are also teens. Whether the information was meant to be inaccurate as the teens were simply unaware of the facts or was simply mis-researched was unclear. Amy and her friends were worried about her parents finding out about her pregnancy from her insurance or via her pediatrician, but both her insurance and doctor are legally bound to not report the reason for her visit. The effects of such misinformation, whether intended or not, could be used as ammunition against the show as teens may take what they hear on American Teenager as gospel.

Either way though, frankly, I found the show a little silly. All the teens were so over-the-top and stereotypical that it really dumbed down the show. Maybe that will get better in the coming weeks -- good characters take time to develop -- but from what we saw last night I'm not sure that anyone except perhaps Amy will truly be drawn in three dimensions.

If you want to know whether you should watch it with your children and have a frank discussion… that's one you're going to have to sort out for yourself.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Robbie Coltrane: Incredible Britain - Like Cars but not so Animated

While major highways make traveling across the country, any country, a lot faster, than it otherwise would be.  Of course, things are lost along the way.  Small towns that used to attract numerous tourists on their way from one place to another start to disappear.  Superhighways make travel so much faster that the small towns people used to stay in overnight to break up a trip aren't needed as a rest stop anymore.  There's something a little sad and distressing about this, it's a sign that there is good and bad that goes with every change.

Okay, so the above is a lesson we learned watching Pixar's Cars, which lamented the loss in popularity of Route 66 here in the United States.  It's also something Robbie Coltrane tries to show us about Britain in the about to be released on DVD television series, Robbie Coltrane:  Incredible Britain

In this country Coltrane is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, however he has taken his share of leading parts as well.  He played the lead in the British series Cracker and starred opposite Eric Idle in Nuns on the Run.

Over the course of three, almost hour-long, episodes of this series, Coltrane takes an incredibly circuitous route from London to his hometown of Glasgow, taking the "B roads" instead of the major highways.  Along his way, Coltrane watches (and often participates in) local oddities.  He does everything from cheat on a cooking contest, watch a rugby match played with a beer keg, and pop a wheelie in a fire truck.

Coltrane drives from town to town in a classic, convertible Jaguar roadster, amused, bemused, and bewildered at what his fellow countrymen are up to.  He never seems to spend too long with anyone, he just sort of hops from one thing to the next, staying in towns long enough for people to explain themselves and what it is that they do.

While the people he meets are, usually, funny and interesting, it is Coltrane who is quite clearly the star of the show.  By participating in many of the various events he sees (including to help blast rocks) and narrating everything along the way, the story remains, squarely, his.  As Coltrane is such a terribly funny individual, with a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor, each of the three episodes are a pleasure to watch.  Even though the story is his, Coltrane never overshadows nor overpowers those he meets.  He is simply there, informing, and being funny. 

What truly makes the DVD succeed is not just Coltane's humor, but the clear sense of wonder and awe that he has for the various thigns he witnesses, the clear love that he has for Britain and days gone by.  He finds some of the things truly silly (like the aforementioned cooking contest), and while he may mock them, he never seems to do so out of malice.

Whether he is watching the destruction of a defunct nuclear power plant, burning his hands trying to make Indian food, or watching grown men roll a piece of wood that they're pretending is Stilton cheese, Coltrane manages to convey a sense of wonder about it all.  The three episodes of Incredible Britain pass in a flash, and despite the fact that this was clearly the slowest trip by car from London to Glasgow ever, one wishes that Coltrane had made more stops along the way.  It does see a little too fortuitous that so many events are happening at just the right time for Coltrane to see them, and one isn't quite sure that many of the things he sees are going to disappear in the near future, but such quibbles are quickly forgotten when watching the goings-on. 

The DVD release of Robbie Coltrane:  Incredible Britain includes a brief biography of Coltrane and a "fun facts" map.  While neither of these bonuses are terribly spectacular or exciting, Coltrane is and is reason enough to buy the DVD.