Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tropic Thunder Funny, But...

There is a cynical view of filmmaking (be it Hollywood or foreign fare) which suggests that as long as films adhere to a specific formula – "x" number of laughs, "y" number of big stars, "z" number of actions sequences, etc. – success is ensured.  It is a view of the motion picture world that is both in encapsulated in and blown away by Ben Stiller's summer hit and recent Blu-ray release, Tropic Thunder.

The film, helmed by and starring Stiller as well as Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson among others purports to follow the making of a blockbuster film, which is in turn based on a true story.  The making of the film, also titled Tropic Thunder, goes horribly awry as the massive personalities of the stars involved tank the project.  Stiller's Tugg Speedman, an over-the-hill, dumb as bricks, action star leads that charge, though drugged-out low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) comes in a close second, and hip-hop artist Alpa Chino (Jackson) is clearly far more interested in shilling his new drink and energy bar than working on his serious role in the film.  Even ultra-serious and committed multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) can't seem to focus on the film being shot for all the shenanigans taking place around him.

With the film within the film clearly in trouble, Thunder's director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), fearing for his job takes some bad advice and moves his film's stars away from the comforts of the set and into a war zone.  Things take one bad turn after another, and the actors find themselves re-enacting moments of the script in order to actually save the day. 

Tropic Thunder overtly plays on Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness:  A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which recounts the filmmaking the war epic to great effect.  Stiller has expanded the story beyond those two pieces to mock Hollywood filmmaking, executives, and stars, but the roots of Tropic Thunder are all to be found in the Coppolas' works.

In his career Stiller has managed to careen wildly between low-brow single-note comedy and far more wise, intelligent fare.  Very happily, Tropic Thunder is far more the latter than the former.  It does have its share of easy jokes and utter foolishness, and the majority of the characters are one dimensional, but more often than not, much like Kirk Lazarus, it manages to rise above it all.

It is in fact Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus – an actor who always fully becomes his characters because he truly is nothing but an empty vessel – who manages to steal the show.  Lazarus, a white Australian actor, portrays Lincoln Osiris an African-American, and, in order to add to the authenticity of his portray undergoes surgery to darken his skin.  Lazarus is both over-the-top funny and the only real heart the film itself has.

The biggest problem with Tropic Thunder is that it both mocks and reaffirms common Hollywood tropes at the same time; it acknowledges and makes fun of the need for  "x" number of laughs, "y" number of big stars and "z" number of actions sequences and then throws all of those things into the film just the same.  A recurring joke in Tropic Thunder has Speedman's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) fighting for his client to have a TiVo on location.  It is meant to show the audience the foolish things that stars want (or that agents convince stars that they want), and yet watching the film one is utterly convinced that at least one of the actual stars of Tropic Thunder demanded something equally foolish.

The film also contains good work by many of the secondary and tertiary actors involved, including, most notably, Nick Nolte and Tom Cruise.  Nolte plays the war vet who wrote the book Tropic Thunder which the film within the film is based on, and does a fantastic job as the gritty, hard-nosed Four Leaf Tayback.  Cruise, in a good deal of make-up, takes on the role of Les Grossman, the head of the studio making the film.  Cruise, every time he appears, is both hysterical and truly charismatic. 

The Blu-ray release of Tropic Thunder is an unrated director's cut (as all things seem to be these days) and contains the usual assortment of behind-the-scenes features, the vast majority of which are in high-definition.  It does however go one step beyond that however, with Rain of Madness, which is a fictional behind-the-scenes documentary with Justin Theroux (one of the co-writers of Tropic Thunder) starring as the documentarian and focusing on the making of the fictional Tropic Thunder.  It runs for approximately a half-hour, and while funny, pairing it with the actual making-of features and having the real film have the same name as the fictional film is enough to make someone slightly dizzy.  Additionally, there is an alternate ending to the film which falls completely flat and makes one very happy that it is only an "alternate" ending and not the real one and some deleted/expanded scenes.

Tropic Thunder also features an assortment of "BD-Live" features including video rehearsal footage, additional looks at some of the improvisation that went on during filming, and extra pieces of interviews that could have been worked into Rain of Madness.  While all the pieces are, to varying degrees amusing, the download times (even with a high-speed connection) are a little too long when compared to the brevity of the clips. 

Though it is occasionally a little too self-obsessed and a little too willing to play into the stereotypes it makes fun of, Tropic Thunder, still manages to hit its mark far more often than it misses and certainly makes for enjoyable viewing.  On Blu-ray the film both looks and sounds outstanding (which is exactly what one would expect of a big-budget new release).  Criticisms could be levied at the film for its potential to offend a vast array of different groups of people, but Tropic Thunder makes offensive jokes more often to mock the making of such jokes than out of ignorance.  It may not excuse the nature of the jokes entirely, but it certainly mitigates the offense. 

As for me, I only wish that there was an actual unofficial Rain of Madness/Hearts of Darkness-type documentary that allowed the viewer to actually see what took place during filming.  That would be truly fascinating.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor

When is a bottle of tequila not a bottle of tequila?  When it's a work of art.

1800 Tequila has recently begun an "Essential Artists" campaign.  1800's website lists 9 different artists who are taking part in the campaign, each of whom has a distinct style.  The normal writing that appears on the face of the pyramidal tequila bottle is off  on the sides and the outside back wall of the bottle contains the picture which is seen clearly when viewed from the front of the bottle.

The bottle I received had a wonderful picture on it by Glenn Barr, an artist from Detroit.  In this instance certainly Barr's work resembles, if you can picture it, sort of a pop art representation of a "B" movie.  It features a woman in the grasp of a man who was attempting to kiss her.  Placed over a yellow background with blue water droplets (I'm going to call them water droplets anyway, they were the right shape an color), the picture seems full of desire.

Actually, the whole thing was full of tequila, 100 percent agave 80 proof tequila.  As I stated when I reviewed a bottle of 1800 tequila a few months back, I am not a tequila aficionado, I do know however what I like.  The other bottle I reviewed was an 1800 Select Silver and 100 proof, I quite enjoyed it but remarked that no matter what the press material said it wasn't a James Bond kind of tequila (and, please note, despite his being all flawed and angry in Quantum of Solace he still didn't go for tequila).

With some of the 1800 Select Silver still present in my liquor cabinet, and this new bottle of 1800 Silver present, it seemed like the perfect time for a blind taste test.

Two equal measures of 1800 were poured and I left the room so that an impartial observer could ensure that I wouldn't be able to determine which glass contained which tequila on sight.  I sat, cleared my palate, and took an ever-so-delicate sip from the first glass.  I noted that it burned slightly, but had a nice, semi-smoky taste.  After a drink of some water, I took up the second glass.  I instantly noticed that it burned the nostrils slightly more and, upon drinking it burned the throat slightly more as well.  The taste was quite similar, there was just more of it.

After going back and forth with a few more sips from each glass, I noted that while I enjoyed both, I would opt for the first glass's tequila over the second's.  The tequila selected, I learned was from the 1800 Essential Artists bottle, not the Select Silver.  I assume that the reason the Select Silver burned more is it's higher alcohol content.

Of course, the preceeding two paragraphs are a hugely unscientific, unrefined attempt attempt at choosing a bottle of tequila, but, then again, if you're looking for a nice looking bottle of tequila and it's in the correct price range, the 1800 Essential Artists bottle does look far better than the Select Silver.

The pieces of art on the bottles all have something to recommend them, from mythical looking figures to the pop-esque bottle I received to more abstract ones, and each bottle is individually numbered, with 1800 designs of each bottle being produced.

The 1800 website currently also allows one to design a bottle online, and, if one is so inclined they can even then download the appropriate templates, put a little more effort into designing a bottle, and actual order – for the bargain price of $225 – a bottle with their own artwork.  It may be an expensive holiday gift, but it could be a pretty cool one too.  It does however take 2-3 weeks to produce the bottle, so get those orders in soon.

An 1800 Essential Artists bottle of tequila costs far less than that price, and may actually be nicer to look at than anything I might design, so I'll probably just stick with that, but it's nice to know that the option is there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Own Worst Enemy its Own Worst Enemy

I have on more than one occasion defended My Own Worst Enemy. Despite its ratings slide and cancellation (the final episode airs December 15), I have argued that the show is actually quite fun. Now, in order to do that I have ignored small things like the incredible un-believability in the amount of traveling around the world these guys do in an incredibly short amount of time.

In one episode an agent was actually shot while out on assignment, flown back to Los Angeles in her critical condition state, and her significant other was called in and he believed that his girlfriend has simply been out with Henry when it happened. Okay… sure… maybe these guys are flying around the world at Mach 4. Maybe not.

Last night the show raised my level of incredulity that much more with a nonsensical plot. The basic problem of the story, as presented, is that clearly the producers got too wrapped up in their own efforts at being clever to think about what they were doing (see the first season of Damages as another prime example of that). Let's break it down, shall we?

Edward is in Morocco. He, unbeknownst to his partner, has stolen some sort of missile defense device, the Falcon (he and his partner were assigned to attempt an infiltration aimed at stealing it from an American base to as an exercise to test the base's security, not to actually take the device). Edward, needing to sell the device to a Russian who can tell Edward who murdered his parents, has gone off the reservation here. Edward goes directly from stealing the device to the location to make the drop of it. Henry wakes up just in time to have to perform the drop, and things quickly head downhill (not Henry's fault, but they do). The rest of the episode features Henry trying to work out what the device is and then Henry trying to prevent Edward from selling it and thereby making Henry/Edward a traitor to the U.S.

Okay, great, makes sense (mostly, anyway). What didn't makes sense was the ending. You see, the show opted to not have Edward be a traitor, I guess they didn't want to present that image. Instead, Edward explains to Henry at the end of the episode (via video message) that he just had to get the Falcon back from Henry in order to mock up a fake one which he wanted to sell.

Isn't that sweet? Isn't that just great? Edward, who we were worried this whole episode was a traitor, had no intention of actually selling the real Falcon to the Russians. Except, of course, that he totally did, I just don't think the producers realize it.

Remember the drop in Morocco. Edward went directly from stealing the Falcon to the drop point where he was going to give the Falcon to the Russians. There was no time for him to mock up a fake one, he only had the real one in his possession at the drop and he fully intended to give it to the Russians at that point. Had the drop gone done correctly, Edward would absolutely have been betraying his country.

Where does that leave us? Either the producers have been too clever for their own good or Henry is a complete moron and has utterly failed to fathom what Edward was really trying to do. This latter answer seems improbable and the former far more likely when one considers that at the end of the episode Edward did mock up a fake Falcon which he handed to the Russians while returning the real one.

It's disappointing, just really disappointing. Being clever is good. Being clever to the point where you out-smart your own story by having one too many twists is not.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Amazing Race Needs to Think About a Mercy Killing

At this point, The Amazing Race seems to have whittled its way down to three teams. I know that happens ever year, but what makes this year remarkable is that there are still four teams technically left in the race.

Apologies to all you Dan and Andrew fans out there, but I don't think they can possibly win. It was pretty clear that last night had to be a non-elimination leg, which is the only reason those two jokers are still around. I actually find myself feeling bad for them. I think it would have been a lot more humane if Phil and the show's producers had looked at them, told Dan and Andrew that it was supposed to be a non-elimination leg, but that because they have been so horrific at the race throughout the producers thought it best to just let them go home now.

Don't look at me that way, if you saw the show, you know what I'm talking about. The guys misread another clue, and wasted tons of time changing out of a military uniform that was required no matter which task they chose to try to accomplish. They chose to go for a task which required them to march with some army folks.

Now, that should have been relatively easy. You stand there, watch some folks march – and it was a pretty simple move-your-arms-with-your-legs march – and you move on. Dan couldn't handle it. Frankly, he didn't even look like he was trying. He looked like he was purposely making an ass out of himself. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he was. Maybe he was trying to torpedo his team. I could buy that. Seriously, all he had to do was move one leg with the same arm and then the next leg with the other arm, and do it reasonably close in time to the rest of the army troops. Not too difficult. Instead, he looked like Frankenstein's Monster trying to polka. And then he acted surprised when they didn't get a passing grade. Perhaps if this had been a Halloween-themed episode they would have been okay.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to have to watch these two guys next week. Episode after episode, Dan and Andrew repeatedly do things wrong, don't read clues, act like fools or worse, and somehow manage to stay in the game. They even pointed out last night that there could be a really long clip reel of all their goof-ups this season.

If, by some sort of miracle, these guys manage to stay in the race next week and down the line actually win the million dollars, the producers could have a real problem on their hands. I understand that this is a reality show, but rewarding stupidity to that degree sends the wrong message. If you can win The Amazing Race without following any directions or reading any clues, what does that say about the show? Perhaps next season some team not even in the game will swoop in during the final leg and claim the prize for themselves.

No, I prefer to believe that Dan and Andrew are already gone even if their bodies remain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Contemplating Christmas: A Look at ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" for 2008

I come here and I tell you a lot of bad things.  I talk about what's wrong on a ton of different TV shows. I tell you just a couple of days before it happens for real that Pushing Daisies cancellation is a virtual certainty.  I point out plot flaws, bad acting, ridiculous storylines, and dissect reality-TV contestants whom we never want to see again.

Now, that's all good.  I wouldn't change a thing about that.  I'm here to tell the truth, whether it's My Name is Earl managing to be funny after an entire season where it wasn't, or that The Amazing Race needs to add a literacy test to their contestant-selection process.  The unfortunate side of my truth-telling is that as much as I love television, the negative aspects tend to stand out and I tend to discuss them. 

Well, not today.  Today we are all sweetness and light (and completely ignoring Pushing Daisies actual, official, cancellation).

You see, I have in my grubby little hands the ABC Family "25 Days of Christmas" schedule.  For those of you out there who seem to think that it's simply too early to start thinking about Christmas, you're wrong… wrong, wrong, wrong.  Thanksgiving is a week away and the Christmas season starts the day after Thanksgiving, so it's totally time to prepare. 

My perusing of the ABC Family schedule seems to indicate that there are three new specials this year and a ton of other good stuff.  Specials-wise we're getting A Miser Brothers' Christmas, Snow 2 Brain Freeze, and Christmas in Wonderland.  The first two of these are sequels… sort of.  Well, the first sort of and the second definitely. 

Let me clarify here – Snow 2 Brain Freeze is a sequel, the sequel to the ABC Family original film Snow from a couple years back.  Ashley Williams (she grew up right near me and I've liked her ever since I saw her on How I Met Your Mother) and Tom Cavanagh are both returning

Then, A Miser Brothers' Christmas.  That features Snow Miser and Heat Miser from the truly classic Christmas special – The Year Without a Santa Claus, one of those great Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.  They did stuff like 'Twas the Night Before Christmas; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph; the Red-Nosed Reindeer (all of which, save Frosty seem to be airing on ABC Family this year).   They even have some of the original cast coming back for the new Miser Brothers' (Mickey Rooney and George S. Irving to be specific).

There's also a Patrick Swayze/Carmen Electra pic (that would be the non-sequel), Christmas in Wonderland.  That one features a down-on-their-luck family finding a big bag o' cash which turns out to belong to a couple of crooks who are less than amused by the loss of the bag.  Of course, the movie also features Chris Kattan and Tim Curry, so while the crooks may not be amused, the thing may be amusing (no promises though, I haven't seen it).

So, on ABC Family from December 1st to 25th there will be three new things, a bunch of new-to-ABC-Family things, lots of Dr. Seuss, and some classic Christmas specials.

It's okay, you can admit you're ready for Christmas.  I won't tell anyone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pushing for Pushing Daisies

Sigh.  There are some shows that I don't mind seeing go away – shows that have run their course, shows that never should have had a course, that sort of thing.  Unfortunately, all too often I see shows on the verge of going away that I would like to stick around for a while longer.

Today's case in point, Pushing Daisies.  Wackily off-beat, the show has finished filming 13 episodes in its second season.  ABC hasn't yet decided whether that will be it for the series which saw itself get nominated for several Golden Globes and Emmys (it even won an award here and there, including an Emmy for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series).

I was, as you may recall but probably don't, initially somewhat hesitant about the series.  I thought that it was funny and smart and well-written, I was just worried that its syrupy-sweetness might be something I would eventually find off-putting.  That never happened.  Every time a new episode airs I'm just as excited to watch it and see what sort of wackiness Ned the pie maker and the girl named Chuck are up to.  Usually it involves some sort of murder committed in a terribly odd way and they get the help of (or, perhaps, provide the help to) Emerson Cod.  There's also always some sort of long-term plot involving Chuck or Ned's history, their family, and some sort of familial deception that has been going on for decades. 

However, for me to analyze the show in such a way, to dissect it to its barest plot-based elements, is to eliminate everything about the series is which pure magic.  It doesn't address Ned's being able to bring the dead back to life by touching them – but only for a minute or something else will die.  It doesn't mention Chuck being one of those things that Ned has brought back to life.  It certainly doesn't address the wonderful love that Chuck and Ned feel for each other, a love which is palpable in every scene of the show, a love which can never be consummated, because if Ned touches Chuck again she'll once again be dead.

Pushing Daisies is one of those shows that has it all – love; mystery; great acting; compelling single- and multi-episode story arcs; an incredibly unique, hyper-stylized worldview; a devoted fan base; and virtually no one watching.  To take the pessimistic viewpoint – a viewpoint I don't often subscribe to in regards to television –  it seems that early cancellation was an inevitability for such a show.

I don't tell you all this in order to make you feel bad for destroying that which is good on television due to your willful neglect.  I don’t tell you this because I believe that somehow my statements will make you watch the show.  I am merely stating that which I know to be true about a subject, in general, and a show, in specific, which I understand critically and quite enjoy.

I don't expect you at this point in time to suddenly find Pushing Daisies on ABC's schedule and realize everything that you have been missing (which is a lot).  I just want you to understand that by skipping the show, by not watching it and thereby helping to end it, you just provide more ammunition to the folks that say that television is vast wasteland.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Berenstain Bears Celebrate Christmas... Or Not

When is a Christmas DVD not a Christmas DVD?  When it's The Berenstain Bears: Christmas Tree DVD.  Released at the end of October, The Berenstain Bears: Christmas Tree contains five Berenstain Bears episodes, only one of which actually deals directly with Christmas.  This represents a moderate disappointment for any young (or not so young) person who sits down to watch the disc hoping for Christmas cheer.

The episodes including on the disc are "The Berenstain Bears and the Christmas Tree," "The Berenstain Bears and the Ice Monster," "The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners," "The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright," and "The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers."  Outside of the "Christmas Tree," only the "Ice Monster" episode even definitively takes place at approximately the right time of year.   To be clear, all the episodes are perfectly fun, The Berenstain Bears routinely teach important lessons while still managing to be enjoyable,  it's just that the DVD is promoted as a Christmas one and only half the runtime (if you include the "Ice Monster") focuses on that time of year.

The "Christmas Tree" episode runs 25 minutes long, twice as long as any of the others, and features Papa Bear taking Brother and Sister out to find the perfect Christmas Tree.  He insists on chopping one down himself rather than simply buying one.  While on his quest, Papa forgets what Christmas is all about, he puts the tree before his family (and sometimes those who live in the trees he wants to chop down too).  Of course, he doesn't destroy anyone's home, learns his lesson, and the entire Bear family still manages to celebrate.

The "Ice Monster" episode takes place during the Winter Carnival, which runs into some trouble when a giant Ice Monster appears and starts wreaking havoc.  Only Brother and Sister are able to piece together what's going on and solve the mystery of who (or what) is the monster.

The three non-Winter specific episodes all delve into teaching young ones valuable lessons.  As a typical example, in "Strangers," Sister goes from talking to everyone she sees on the street to distrusting everyone, but in the end learns about a happy middle ground.

The episodes included on this disc are all relatively old, and consequently tend to look somewhat drab.  The animation isn't particularly spectacular either.  That being said, the lessons that they teach children are certainly valuable ones.   I tend to believe that it's adults more than children who care about spiffy colors and computer animation, at least for the age of children these episodes are geared towards, which is definitely on the younger said (my two-and-a-half year-old was completely entranced even if she didn't fully grasp everything that was taking place).

The Berenstain Bears: Christmas Tree contains no special features, just some good, old-fashioned storytelling.  Lessons are learned, morals are taught, and children find themselves amused.  The only real disappointment in the disc is that it is being packaged as a Christmas-based disc when it simply isn't.  There is enough entertainment here that such packaging wasn't necessary and only serves to disappointment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Contemplating Quantum of Solace

James Bond.

If you've been a consistent reader of these pages you'll know that I lie somewhere between "big fan of" and "massively obsessed with" the suave secret agent. With that in mind, let's talk Quantum of Solace.

Now, this isn't, strictly speaking, a review. It's very much more my thoughts on the new film presented in a not quite coherent, but more or less cogent, manner.

Let's get this out of the way instantly -- it was a good movie. It was a solid action flick that, despite some people's complaints, didn't skimp on the plot. It just required the viewer to actually pay attention to what was taking place. If you sat there and watched it you weren't beaten over the head repeatedly with the super-villain's scheme to dominate the world. The scheme was explained in bits and pieces over time and the viewer had to put it all together.

Good for the Bond franchise! They actually decided that people can take some time and figure it all out for themselves rather than smacking the viewer in the face. I appreciated that, it puts the audience very much more into the role of Bond trying to work out what's happening. It draws the viewer in.

As for the action itself… I'm not going to lie to you, I’m a huge fan of the series and I understand exactly why they filmed the action sequences the way they did. I just wished that they hadn't. It's become very en vogue to do action scenes with a handheld camera very close in on what's taking place and with incredibly rapid jump cuts. That's what Marc Forster opted to do with the film and I think it was a bad decision.

It's true that like the plot itself, the quick jump cuts and close-in, handheld shots serve to draw the viewer in and leave them just as breathless as the combatants, but it does a disservice as well. It's a style that, sadly, translates much better to the small screen than the big one (the eye is faster taking in information on a TV-sized screen than a theater-sized one). Directors and editors seem to have forgotten that even though they're editing these things digitally and can put in as many cuts as they want, sometimes more cuts doesn't mean a better film. If you sit in the editing room and watch something 50 or 100 times you're going to have a much better idea of what's happening than the poor viewer seeing it unfold once on the screen (it also helps if you were there when the thing was being filmed so you know what actually took place).

I don't want you to think of me as some sort of Bond purist; I think that in order for the franchise to continue running it does need to continually update and reinvent itself. If the style of the films remained the same from the original Connery ones through today, the producers wouldn't have been looking at the biggest opening box office weekend in the franchise's history with Quantum, which is exactly what they ended up with.

I just don't think that the handheld, close-up, jump cut style of action is a good one and it certainly represented a gross departure from the franchise which I don't think the producers did the right thing to accept. For the style of filming the action they used I think Forster and his crew did a good job; I just think it was the wrong choice.

But, back to the overarching plot. I'm intrigued. I like the idea of putting out there a brand new bad organization; the franchise stopped the SPECTRE stories years decades for a number of reasons (not wanting to get stale and possible lawsuits among them), but I think the big bad organization is a good enemy, and Quantum seems plenty scary. I wonder if, as quite possibly this film takes place before any of the others in the franchise save Casino Royale, Quantum evolves into SPECTRE. I think that would be truly fascinating.

Quite clearly we're in for another Bond film dealing with Quantum for the next go-round (potentially due out in 2011), and I can't wait to see what they do with it. Quantum definitely needs a truly evil man in charge, a Blofeld type. Perhaps it's Mr. White. I think that he'd actually make a great choice, that way Bond would end up kicking himself for letting White slip through his fingers at the beginning of this film. White definitely seems evil enough, and smart enough (notice that he didn't stand up at the opera).

Speaking of White, one of the moments I quite enjoyed in this film was the scene following the opening credits, where Bond drags the chair across the dank floor. It was, of course, shot to look just like Le Chiffre's dragging of the chair in the torture scene with Bond in Casino Royale. Well done! Great look into how Bond becomes who Bond is.

The one thing, save the action, I was a little unsure of was the placement of the famed gun barrel opening in this film. Casino Royale represented the first of the Bond films that didn't start with the gun barrel opening (they used it at the end of the pre-title sequence), and this time out they opted not to do it (or play the Bond theme) until just before the end credits roll. I'm not upset with this change, I honestly don't know how I feel about it.

It's one thing to constantly reinvent your franchise in light of other films and changes in society and world, it's something completely different to abandon what the franchise has always been. A 70 million dollar U.S. box office take and huge numbers around the world indicate that people like Bond. Certainly updates have to be made to the franchise on a regular basis in order to ensure that 007 remains as popular as he is, but those updates need to be weighed against the idea of what the franchise is.

I don't believe that Quantum of Solace has radically altered the formula either in its action sequences or in its changes to the gun barrel opening and theme song. I just think that those areas represent aspects of the franchise that both the producers and the audience need to look at in the next installment.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Still Puzzling Over The Amazing Race

Seriously, I don't know what to do.  I simply don't.  Should I stop watching The Amazing Race?  I like the show, usually, but I don't quite know how much more stupidity I can put up with this season.  I don't.  Maybe I should step back, let this season go, and start up again next season.  Because, I'm about at my wit's end here.  Let's examine just a wee bit about what happened last night, yes?

First, you have the insanity that is Terence and Sarah.  There was a "Fast Forward" (it allows you to complete a separate single task before going to the pit stop instead of doing the regularly assigned ones) given this week.  Both Nick and Starr and Terence and Sarah decided that they would attempt the Fast Forward rather than trying to complete the regularly assigned tasks.  Well, first off, obviously only one team should be doing a Fast Forward, not two.  To be the second team to attempt the Fast Forward you have to be absolutely, positively sure that you can finish it more quickly than the group that's already on their way to it.

Terence and Sarah were the second team to go for it, which involved heading to a restaurant to eat food.  Everyone that has ever even heard of a reality show knows that when there is a task that involves food  it means that the contestants are going to have to eat something horrifically disgusting (cow gonads, rat guts, whatever).  Well, Terence is a vegetarian.  That's right, he's a vegetarian.  Prior to that little trip to the restaurant, the man hadn't eaten meat in 15 years.  15 years!  And then he acted surprised when he found out that he was going to have to eat meat to complete the Fast Forward.  What?!?  He balked.  He tried to swallow as much as he could of the sheep's rear end, so he wasted a ton of time, and then he balked.  Sarah, who didn't want to do the Fast Forward anyway as soon as she saw that Nick and Starr were going to get there first went along with him, but if I was his partner, I might have killed him right then and there.  Either that, or I would have force fed the dish to him.

Now, those two clowns were well behind, but because Andrew and Dan are almost equally incompetent, they almost got eliminated anyway.  They, like so many people this season (Ken and Tina were guilty of it twice last night), didn't bother to read the instructions for a task.  That's right, people have been eliminated for it repeatedly this season, and yet none of the remaining teams have learned.  Andrew and Dan opted to take a taxi to the pit stop rather than walking.

Seriously, are these people crazy this season?  I'm sorry, I don't like to be quite so harsh (sometimes anyway), but this is the most incompetent group of people I've seen on a reality show since… well, ever.  Once a team gets eliminated for not reading a clue, every other team on the race should be double- and triple-checking a task's requirement, not duplicating the incompetence. 

I'm sorry, am I missing something here?  Are there points being given for foolishness?  Are the people this season betting against themselves in Vegas?  What, exactly, is going on?  Please, if you have any idea, let me know.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Mark Greene's Return to ER

Yesterday I questioned whether or not I should bother with Mark Greene's return to ER. I bothered, but still don't know if I should have.

The episode both caused fond reminisces and broke my heart. It didn't break my heart in the way I think the producers would have had it; I didn't care that much for either of the sick kid storylines. It broke my heart because it reminded me what a great show ER used to be. There was a time, perhaps if ER had ended after seven or eight seasons, that I would have argued that the series should go down as one of the best dramas ever; now it's just one of the longest-running.

You see, in bringing back Doctor Greene they showed us both how great the series was and how long its slide has been. Notice that they didn't bring back Mark Greene from the early days of the series; they didn't bring back the Mark Greene that fought with Benton and Weaver, they brought back the Mark Greene that was already sick with cancer and temporarily estranged from Corday. At that point the show was already many a season into its run, and already had told some of its best stories. That was after Benton had left, after Hathaway and Ross had left, it was after Lucy died and Carter had been stabbed. It was a LONG way into the series and the best plotlines the show ever had were already finished.

It was heartbreaking to me to realize just how long ago those flashbacks were set. They did a very good job of placing the episode at a definitive spot in the timeline, and the momentary appearances by Paul McCrane, Abraham Benrubi, and Laura Innes helped situate the flashbacks (though they were perhaps a little silly knowing that the scenes were newly filmed). The mention of, and later the phone call to, Corday were a little troubling however. Clearly the series couldn't get Alex Kingston to come back and reprise her role for 30 seconds, which only served to make me wonder why they bothered placing the flashback during the period when Mark was married to her. They could have easily set the flashbacks two or three years earlier and still used McCrane, Benrubi, and Innes.

I guess that they wanted Mark's story to have some meat to it rather than him having no emotional arc in the episode and the brain cancer story was the easiest way to do that. That's fine, but to do that story they needed a scene with Corday. They just did, and to not have one showed me how willing the current series is to do something on a subpar level. Mark had other storylines and issues which could have been explored more fully -- perhaps the attack he experienced in the ER bathroom, perhaps his distress the first time Susan Lewis left -- the man was on the show for a bunch of seasons, there was other stuff that could have been explored. Stuff that didn't require Elizabeth Corday to make an appearance.

I'm still on the fence though about watching the finale. Perhaps it'll provide this one-time devotee of the show with a quantum of solace, but I'm just not sure.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Should Mark Greene's Return to the ER Cause Mine as Well?

I'm on the fence, well and truly on the fence.  Anthony Edwards returns to ER this evening.  Yes, Mark Green died years ago, but why should that stop the once venerable drama from bringing back one of its original stars?  I was once the most devoted fan ER ever had.  I watched every episode for years on end, even once I was convinced that the show was horrific, I continued to watch.  I watched ER for at least three seasons past when I really should have.  Once Noah Wyle was no longer fulltime I should have given the show no time.

Now however, Anthony Edwards is back… for one last episode.  Apparently he's only there in flashback mode, which helps make the whole thing palatable, but I just don't know whether or not I should dive in again.

Some would say something like "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," and that might apply here.  I don't want it to though because it would mean that I was fooled for a few too many seasons.  Consequently, I'm going to not go with that adage, and even have come up with a spiffy argument to convince myself that I'm right.

See, I am refusing to be suckered back in to watching on a weekly basis.  I was already debating watching the upcoming Noah Wyle episodes (I love that John Truman Carter III), so I might tune into those too, but that's it… unless of course Eriq La Salle opts to appear on camera instead of just behind it, or George Clooney comes back, or Julianna Margulies, or maybe even Erik Palladino.  If those people come back I'm totally going to have to watch again (Sherry Stringfield already came back once, so I need not witness another return of hers).

But seriously, there will be no return to weekly watching for me, my only question is if it'll be worth tuning in to a few of the final episodes (including the return of Doc Greene).  On the pro side is that I'm hugely interested in what happens. I'm curious to find out if they get cutesy with trying to wedge the story into a portion of the show's timeline that I'm already well familiar with or if it's some heretofore unknown bit.  Enquiring minds want to know.  Plus, Greene was a great character and Edwards was great as him.  It might be nice to see the man reprise the role.

There is, however, also a huge negative side.  It's entirely possible – nay, likely – that if I watch the episode I'll be massively disappointed.  Massively.  Disappointed.  I don't want that to happen.  I like remembering Mark Greene the way he was (prior to the inoperable brain tumor, of course), I don't want to watch if he, like the show, will only be an empty shell of its former self.

On the other hand (again) maybe it'll be great.  Maybe it'll help resurrect the once great drama.  Maybe the show is going to go out on a high note, maybe it'll be the next "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen."  That would be something.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

House and Cuddy - Right or Wrong?

Having watched tons of House episodes over the past few months (I think I'm nearly caught up with all the episodes prior to the current season), last night's episode had a sort of inevitability about it. The question of whether there will be a romantic relationship between House and Cuddy is one of those questions it seems every long-running show deals with eventually. Think Sam and Diane, Sam and Rebecca, Monica and Chandler, everyone and everyone else on ER, and the various iterations of coupling on Buffy just to name a few.

The common wisdom suggests that such a coupling inevitably is the immediate antecedent to a severe drop in program quality. It's no so much that the coupling creates the drop in quality, but rather represents the moment when the folks in the writers' room have run out of ideas.

Though not always inaccurate, such a view is certainly awfully simplistic. Single individuals, on the whole, tend to get involved in long-term romantic relationships as they get older. Television shows, which to some degree reflect reality (often in a fun house mirror), need to account for these relationships and don't always wish to bring on new characters as a significant other.

Think about it, a show already has characters that the audience is familiar with and enjoys -- why go mucking about with a great cast dynamic by bringing on someone new who solely represents a "love interest?" That is all the more true when the goal of the love interest is to establish a long-term relationship (marriage?) for a series regular. The character is going to appear over and over and over again; it shifts a workplace drama/comedy into something completely different. It's not always a good choice.

So, what better way to establish a long-term relationship for two characters than by having them fall in love with one another? You're able to keep the show centered as it always has been, don't risk messing with good cast chemistry, and don't take the risk of bringing on a new character which the audience may dislike.

House has, as you know, brought on several new cast members, cast members that they've had to sell to the audience. They have, in my opinion, done a fantastic job of getting us to like and understand House's newbie team. So, it makes perfect sense that after taking such a risk they wouldn't want to do so quite as quickly again, and consequently have to look elsewhere for a love interest for the show's lead curmudgeon.

Plus, even though House has always referred to Cuddy in a derogatory manner, there always has seemed to be something more underlying House's remarks to, and about, her. So, why not explore that in depth for a few episodes.

Make no mistake, I'm not taking a stance on the relationship. I'm neither stating that the relationship should, or will, becoming a long-term one. I do however think that's it's something worth exploring and considering, that it does not represent the inevitable downfall of a great drama.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monday Night and a Look at the Changing Televisual Landscape

As I sit here rooting around in my desk, desperately searching for my license to kill (one must be prepared for this Friday), I find myself again amazed at the sheer quantity of television I consume on Monday nights.

Last night I sat down and watched Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, How I Met Your Mother, Heroes, My Own Worst Enemy, and Boston Legal. Sadly, though it was sitting there waiting for me, I didn't quite make it to Chuck or Top Gear (I'll get there tonight, I promise). I know that I've said it before, but it bears repeating -- that's a lot of television.

Of course, scarily, we're about a third of the way into the television season. I don't mean that in terms of time, but rather in the quantity of episodes that will be produced. Sarah Connor aired its eighth episode of the season last night, Boston Legal did the same. Other series haven't done quite as many, but those two, if they were doing 22 episodes this season (a full season order) are already passed the one third mark. And, while Sarah Connor may do 22 episodes, Boston Legal is going to end with its 13th, making that show well past its halfway point.

What does that mean? It means that it's going to be a long December. Though, in terms of television, it is every year. Once we get through the November Sweeps (and we're almost halfway there), we'll probably only get one or two new episodes until some point in January. Of course, then we'll get new episodes through the end of February before we are forced to endure more repeats. Then, May will come, and we'll get new episodes, but only before everything goes back to repeating all summer long.

Wait, I take it back, we're not going to have very many repeats, are we? Networks are moving away from that model (or so it seems to me). Networks seem to be airing more new series/specials in order to avoid week after week after week of repeat. For instance, once Sarah Connor finishes its run of new episodes this fall, it might do one or two repeats, but probably not more than that. Instead, it'll disappear until FOX relaunches the show on Friday nights in mid-February. That's a long time to go without even repeats on the network. I'm not saying that FOX's strategy is wrong, I'm just saying that the networks seem to be adapting (maybe not successfully) to audience fragmentation due to cable, DVDs, video games, etc.

Good for them, and while writing the obituary of network television is a well-worn, popular pastime, I don't buy it. Things are certainly different in the televisual world than they were 10 years ago, and I think that the networks are going to continue to evolve, they will not stand idly by while their market share evaporates. Their changes may not always be successful, but they're going to try.

If only I could convince them that they need to transfer some of the good shows off of Monday night.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Literacy and The Amazing Race

Every year on The Amazing Race you find one team to hate.  You have to, it's kind of a rule of watching the show.  By the second or third episode there is always one team that stands out as the single most obnoxious, the single most vile, the single most despicable group racing around the world for a prize of a million bucks.  Week in and week out you watch that team somehow, someway, avoid elimination.  It stinks.  In the end, you don't want the team eliminated, you want them painfully eliminated (not physically, but embarrassingly). It's always good when that happens and, for me, it happened last night.

For me, the most obnoxious, insidious, annoying team this season was Kelly and Christy, the divorcees.  Their now gone and I won't miss them.  Frankly, I don't even want them standing at the finish line.  And, the way they went down last night was embarrassing, simply embarrassing.

I've lost count of the number of times this season that teams haven't bothered to read clues, but I know that Kelly and Christy have been guilty of this season on more than one occasion.  I would have thought that after the first couple of times were they didn't bother to read the clues they would have figured out that old line – "reading is fundamental."  Yeah, they didn't.  They fell way behind last night on a task where they failed to read the clue.  I can't imagine that the task was worded poorly as no other team had any trouble with it, just Kelly and Christy. 

If they had bothered to actually read what was required in the Holi task (running past the people throwing colored powder at them, climbing a ladder to a platform and finding the correct envelope) they would not have been eliminated.  Yes, truth be told, they either misread or misinterpreted the clue for a task that required them to read numbers on power lines later, but by that point I already felt as though their ship was sinking fast.

I don't get it.  You go on a reality show.  The reality show gives you, every day, a bunch of different clues and assignments.  One would think, one would assume, that anyone who wants to actually win the competition would read what they were supposed to do relatively carefully instead of just skimming it. 

Not these contestants, not this season.  I guess that I forgive the first team that didn't read a clue, maybe even the second, but certainly not the third (the teams have to talk between legs of the race) and certainly not the same team twice (or three times, or four). 

So, I for one am happy to see Kelly and Christy depart.  Not only did they have some not-so-nice things to say about India and Indian festivals and traditions (as did some other teams), but they made the unforgivable sin of not paying attention to the card in front of them that tells them what to do on more than one occasion (twice tonight) and it finally cost them. 

I'd wish them farewell here, but even if they read this column I kind of doubt they'd have bothered to pay attention this long.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Some Thoughts on Why the Owners on Kitchen Nightmares Don't Get It

Let me ask you, pseudo-seriously, what makes people think they can just buy and run a restaurant?  Do people honestly just kind of look around, realize that there's a restaurant to be bought, and decide "sure, that'll be a good business."  Last night we got back-to-back episodes of Kitchen Nightmares that featured owners who seemed to have done just that, and it wasn't the first time we'd witnessed such things this season.

One of the best news articles I ever read (and it kills me that I don't currently have a copy of it framed on my wall) was in, I believe, The New York Times, and it focused on why people failed at certain tasks and yet seemed oblivious to their failures.  The article explained that oftentimes when people fail at doing something it is because they don't really understand what's required in the task, that sometimes people are simply incapable of understanding what's required.  Consequently when they failed they didn't even recognize the failure because they didn't "get" the task to begin with. 

I feel like that's what occurred in last night's Kitchen Nightmares, and, if we're being honest, oh-so-many of the episodes.  Chefs, owners, and managers at the various restaurants on the show constantly look at the camera and say something like, "Well, I don't really think it was as bad as Chef Ramsay made it seem."  Or, they yell at Ramsay when he explains to them that as their restaurant is failing they're going to have to change something.  For these owners, the restaurant is failing not because the owner has failed at some part of the business (food, service, or even simply attracting customers via publicity), but because people simply aren't showing up.  These people Gordon Ramsay goes to try to help often seem to want him to just stand their on a street corner holding a big sign that says "Come eat at Joe's!" 

You and I watch flabbergasted because being on the outside looking in, it's easy to say that when all your customers tell you that your food stinks you should look into changing the ingredients, the menu, the chef, or all three.  However, the owners almost never seem to see the problem, or, if they do, they can't fathom how to fix it.  One of last night's episode featured a restaurant manager who got liquored up on a regular basis while working.  The man needed to be fired, and all three owners knew he needed to be fired, but no one wanted to step up to the plate and fire him because he was the father of one of the three men.  So, instead, they were paying him $100,000 a year to get free drinks and run their restaurant into the ground.  I love my family as much as anyone, but I'm not willing to declare bankruptcy in order to provide them with a six-figure income.  Yes, part of the problem there was one owner not wanting to upset his father, but couldn't he have sat his dad down, showed him the books, and explained that it's not a good thing when you're spending way more money than you're making?  Wouldn't dad have gotten that, after all, the man had been in the restaurant business (allegedly) for decades? 

Of course, maybe he wouldn't have gotten it, maybe he was one of those people that the article was talking about, maybe he just didn't understand what was required to run a successful business.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Law & Order a Little Too Close to the Headlines?

Law & Order began its 8 millionth season last night, and remains a great crime procedural.  I wasn't entirely sure that I liked the final second of the episode, the cutesy moment at the end of a Jack McCoy press conference.  Did you catch it? Sure you did, you just may not have instantly recognized it.

As McCoy started to walk away following the conclusion of his little press conference, a female voice shouted out a question at him about whether the rumor was true that he was going to be offered a position in the Obama administration.  McCoy was already walking away and didn't answer the question, which was no surprise.  His character isn't the type to treat such questions seriously.  What would have been truly shocking is if he had turned around, looked the press corps in the eye and given a response.  This episode aired one day after Obama's election, less than 24 hours had passed since McCain threw in the towel and Obama was declared President-elect.  The voiceover was, necessarily, a last-minute addition to the episode, something put not as much to better ground the story in our reality (which was certainly part of the reasoning behind it) as to show us how clever the show is.

Of course, it wasn't really a matter of being clever, was it?  It was far more a matter of having whomever spoke the line ask the question both in reference to an Obama administration and a McCain one weeks (or months) in advance.  Then all they had to do was simply add the right line to the wide shot (where you can't see who delivers it and check to make sure that the lips were moving with the words) and feed out the episode as they normally would.  It's not so much clever as a good 45 seconds worth of work, and that, in my mind, makes it just a little too cutesy. 

I like the fact that Law & Order is grounded in reality, that many of its cases are "ripped from the headlines."  The New York City that the show inhabits is one, being someone who lived and worked in the area for years, is very familiar to me.  There is, it seems to me, a certain amount of truth in their representation of the city (save the fact that the detectives work cases from the southernmost point of Manhattan to the northernmost), and watching an episode almost feels like taking a trip home -- but without the familial guilt portion of the vacation.

The show recognizes changes in Mayors and city realities as well as any show, but this one line, this question about McCoy's joining the Obama administration was just a hair too much, or perhaps a hair too soon.  It served not as much to ground the show in the reality of New York and the country as it did to highlight the mechanisms of television production.  There's something to be said for the show getting there before some other scripted program, but perhaps not quite enough to lay bare the artificial nature of television production in quite the way it was displayed yesterday.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

TV Technology on Election Night

Last night was one of those interesting nights of television.  Oh, I'm not talking in the political sense, I mean far more in the actual viewing.  Fine, it was certainly interesting in a political sense, no matter which side of the election you came down on, but that's a kettle of fish I dare not delve into.

It's been talked about before, but the sheer quantity of technology on display on the various networks last night was staggering.  A lot of money… a lot of money… was clearly sunk into making the election results, commentary, and analysis as visually stimulating as it could possibly be.

Looking at CNN, they've been doing that nonsense with their massive TV screen for months now.  You know what I'm talking about, the silly TV screen that John King stands in front of and then zooms in to various districts and races, and then he zooms out of it without ever really telling you anything interesting about the race.  The man then talks about other sections of the country always zooming in and out and in and out until you realize that he could just as easily give you all this information in about a third the time without the TV screen.  The "Magic Wall's" foolishness is so obvious and over the top that the manner in which it was lampooned on Saturday Night Live could easily have left the casual channel-flipping viewer wondering whether they were watching a comedy sketch or a news broadcast.

Though it may seem hard to believe, CNN actually topped that lunacy last night with their incredible hologram interviews.  The only of them I actually really saw in my own channel hopping was with of The Black Eyed Peas.  So there was - in the virtual sense - in CNN's studio looking like a badly animated version of himself and being interviewed about his politics and the work he's done on behalf of Obama.  The was no earthly reason to conduct the interview they way they did -- except to show off their new toy. 

It would have been just as good to have on the phone with a little picture of him in the corner as the music video, with sound down, plays as the only real visual.  Instead, the opted to spend untold amounts of money to make the hologram thing happen and it only ended up looking like a poor man's version of the hologram conversations in Star Wars.

Don't worry, CNN wasn't the only one with the foolish technology on display yesterday, NBC had two green screen studios setup with terrible looking fake backgrounds (BBC America had at least one of those too it appeared).  NBC even went so far as to take the background away a couple of times so that everyone could see that Ann Curry was just standing in a green room and so they need not fear that the flying graphics might hurt her (Brian Williams was joking when he said that bit).

The one piece of old-school technology really on display last night that I noticed was NBC's coloring the U.S. map on ice at Rockefeller Center by hand (or by spray) rather than just CGI'ing the map onto the rink.  Good for them, if only they could have made the edges of the map blend better into the ice rather than having the ice look kind of dirty where the map ended it would have been perfect.

I wonder where the technology will be for the 2012 election, perhaps CNN will have perfected some sort of ESP technology so they can get un-sanitized answers from their interviewees.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How I Met Your Mother Balances Humor and Drama

The main storyline on How I Met Your Mother thus far this season has revolved around Ted getting married to Stella and the question of whether Stella is in fact the titular mother.  It was revealed two weeks ago (and thus I'm not calling it a spoiler here) that Stella is not the mother of Ted's children, that she broke off the relationship immediately prior to the wedding to go be with her ex.  Last night left the show, and Ted, trying to move on from that emotional (for him anyway) event.

For me, it brought up an interesting question about how shows make such transitions.  A lot of people, not the least of whom was the jilted groom, were emotionally invested in the relationship and the end of it necessarily produced feelings of upset and distress.  However, How I Met Your Mother is, first and foremost, a comedy, and must figure out a way to still be funny while not marginalizing a serious topic. 

Consequently, while last night's episode did have many a joke, it was, perhaps, slightly more serious than usual.  Ted spent his evening trying to get over Stella, which he actually claimed at the outset to have already done (a clearly false statement).  By the end of the half-hour, Ted had realized that Stella was in the best place for her that she could possibly be, even if that meant that it wasn't with Ted.  Upon recognizing that and truly wanting the best for his ex, Ted finally was able to move on.  How sweet.

Actually, Ted's acknowledgment of Stella's happiness bolstered how we, as an audience, see the main character on the show.  Ted is, as was pointed out to him by Robin in the wedding episode, the ultimate romantic.  Last night really reinforced that notion.  Ted wanted Stella's romance to be the right one, even if that meant it wasn't with him.  Good for Ted.

And, good for the show, because they were still able to find the funny in the episode.  There was a good portion of the show where Ted was unable or unwilling to confront Stella and that led him and his friends to wind up under a table in a restaurant so as to not be spotted by her.  There, hidden from view, Ted pushed his friends to recognize that they too might have people from their past whom they would rather not confront given the chance. 

The telling of the stories from Robin, Barney, and Lily's past allowed the show to do one of the things that it does best - flashbacks.  Some of the most humorous moments in the series have come upon recalling stories from the past, and by going to the past last night, the show was able to put some distance between potentially serious things and the present, and it's the distance that allows for jokes to be made.  Smart move on the writers' part, not only did they use a common format for the episode, they were able to tell semi-serious stories in a funny manner (okay, the stories weren't hugely serious, except for Robin and her father's wanting a boy). 

It's just nice to see a show play to its strengths and figure out a good way to move towards the future all at the same time, isn't it?

Searching Out Network TV on the Web

In preparing for a recent trip, I checked my TiVos very carefully, wanting to make sure that they both setup to tag team record shows.  There was a complicated algorithm involved to guarantee that I maximized the number of shows recorded on the HD TiVo while never over-filling it which would lead to it deleting things before I was back and ready to watch them.  Choices had to be made -- did I need Heroes in HD, could Sarah Connor be recorded in SD, what about The Office and Pushing Daisies?  The dance was an intricate one, but it all worked out in the end, nothing was lost and now, two weeks later, everything has been watched, I am once again up to date with my viewing.

Of course, as I am regularly informed by e-mails, I had another choice than TiVoing -- the vast majority of shows I watch are available for viewing legally from at least one website.  Much of what is available for legal viewing online (and, as someone who used to work in production, legal viewing is the only type I condone) now looks great, is available with a minimal number of commercials, and is just plain convenient when one isn't at home. 

There is, I've noted, one main drawback of online viewing however - figuring out exactly where (and if) the show I want to watch is available online.  Sure, iTunes has a bunch of shows that are watchable, but not for free, and for me, I'd just as soon wait and watch something later than pay to watch a free show.

So, here's what I've learned, ABC and CBS each offer some of their shows for free directly from their own websites.  NBC and FOX do similar things, but they also have teamed up on the utterly fantastic Hulu, which has a ton of shows and movies from both networks available.  And then, there's Fancast (while a publicist sent me the link to them, I've since noticed an incredible number of banner ads all over the net promoting the site).

Fancast I like, but I don't quite understand.  Fancast offers a ton of the same shows that Hulu does (I'm told that they're "friendly competitors").  In fact, a quick, unscientific check of shows that I was interested in on Hulu indicated that they were all available at Fancast.  And, conversely, there was little, if anything, available at Fancast that I was interested in that wasn't also available at Hulu (Fancast does seem to have more full episodes of shows, but none that intrigued me).  Then, very interestingly, all of the Hulu available shows I tried to watch on Fancast came up with a cute little Hulu logo.

To me, and maybe it's just me, but that's odd.  That's kind of similar to CBS saying "and here's what's on NBC tonight" and then airing NBC programming rather than their own.  But, the digital world is a different one, and if I had to guess I'd say that money was somehow changing hands (at least via ads or another mechanism if not straight dollars). 

Even so, watching Hulu logo on Fancast would be enough to make me just go directly to Hulu, if not for one little thing -- the pages for specific shows on Fancast are far better organized than on Hulu.  On Fancast it's easier to tell which full episode is the most recent, and what new episodes of the series are going to air when. 

Looking at all the different options and trying to decipher which show is available where, for how long, and for how much is enough to make one's head spin.  In my utopian vision of the future, all episodes are available for free from one convenient site.

I'm not holding my breath.