Friday, January 29, 2010

Barney Stinson Teaches us how to be a Bro on the Go

As noted in this reviewer's piece on How I Met Your Mother's 100th episode, one of the best elements of the series is Neil Patrick Harris' Barney Stinson. Harris has made a potentially highly unlikable character into the breakout one on the series. Since the show's inception Barney has maintained a blog on the CBS website. The blog has been used as an extension of the series, with entries building off of plotlines and jokes within the show. The blog perfectly suits Barney and his personality, offering both kernels of wisdom and bits of true insanity.

Barney Stinson's writing does not however begin and end with his blog. No, with the help of Matt Kuhn, in 2008 Stinson published his first book (that we know of), The Bro Code. That title explained in great detail what it means to be a "Bro." Now, building off of that title, Stinson and Kuhn have released the nearly-pocket-sized book, Bro on the Go, which features "new wisdom and select classics from The Bro Code for today's active Bro."

This new title is divided into chapters such as "A Bro at the Ballet," "A Bro at the Mall," and "A Bro at the Bar," so as to provide the reader with easy access to advice for whatever predicament they may find themselves in. Within each chapter Stinson provides short (no more than three or four sentences) pearls of wisdom about a Bro's proper actions in the various situations. For instance, in the mall chapter, Stinson offers the advice that "Lingering around the children's play area to scope out the hot young moms is a good idea in theory only."

One should not think that Stinson's entire thoughts as they relate to the Code are purely sexual (though those are the majority). Stinson instead extends his thoughts to other general man areas such as in the "A Bro Behind the Wheel" chapter where he cribs from The Bro Code stating "A Bro never admits he can't drive stick. Even after an accident."

Okay, so the entire thing is a joke, something which most will not take in a remotely serious fashion even in Stinson believes in it wholeheartedly. As a joke though it is wholly amusing, offering the reader quick little snippets of funny and sometimes actually offer decent bits of advice, just like with the aforementioned statement that it is in fact a bad idea to try to pick up women by scoping out the children's play area at the mall. A man (even if they refuse to refer to themselves as a bro) could very easily get into trouble for that sort of thing. There are certainly more crude examples included in the book, but that one is undeniably true.

While the brief book can be read cover to cover, it seems more likely that it is meant to be picked up, flipped through until an appropriate bit of wisdom can be found, and then put down again. Stinson would, most likely, recommend actually carrying the book with one at all times just in case a situation arises where his advice is needed, but that seems like a somewhat foolish notion. Certainly, anyone who truly believes themselves to be a Bro ought to have the wisdom either memorized or in hand at all times, but for fans of the show, having it available on a coffee table or sitting on the shelf somewhere is probably plenty.

The book is full of the sort of crass humor Stinson regularly offers up on How I Met Your Mother, and the best moments in the title are the ones where the reader can actually see Stinson acting (or having acted) that way on the series. Bro on the Go may not feature a ton of witticisms – it clocks in at approximately 130 pages – but Stinson and Kuhn keep the jokes coming, and the book is a good compliment to the earlier title and the television series as a whole.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I am The Stig

I get many e-mails on a fairly regular basis.  Improbably, some are actually not spam (strange but true).  The following is not an e-mail I ever received.

Dear Mr. Lasser,

Some say that you're addicted to British car shows, love a good English fry up, and that your encyclopedic knowledge of motor vehicles is second only to your knowledge of Hummel figurines.  All we know is that you failed to write a piece discussing the season premiere of Top Gear and the alleged unmasking of The Stig.  What happened?


Your Own Imagination

Dear Your Own,

Thank you so much for writing.  As you accurately pointed out, I do in fact love a good English fry up – there's just something about it, perchance it's the beans, that hits the spot.  As for Hummels, I can't say that I have any idea what a Hummel figurine is – only that Mark Greene's mother collected them back in the day, so you're probably right on that score too.  As for the latest episode of Top Gear, the season premiere, I did in fact hope to get an article published more quickly, but much like Michael Schumacher in the Suzuki Liana, I often feel like I'm going backwards, not forwards. 

Speaking of Schumacher – which I gather, Your Own, is what you wanted me to do – on the season premiere of Top Gear, Michael Schumacher revealed himself to be The Stig.  Revealing the show's tame racing driver was something that the folks on Top Gear had promised the viewing audience, but speculation runs rampant about whether or not Schumacher – who certainly appeared in The Stig's garb and doffed the helmet – is the one and only… if there is in fact only one.

I would like to put forth the argument that there is in fact only one Stig, except for "Black Stig" (so named because of his suit color) who was originally thought dead following driving a Jaguar XJS off the HMS Invincible at 109mph, but reemerged from the sea several years later.  Yes, some would argue that many different individuals have worn The Stig's outfit, but I'd like to think that if that's true The Stig's suit has some sort of special, magical power, a power that allows The Stig persona to take over the body of whomever dons the suit – like Venom from Spider-Man.

Or, perhaps put more realistically, I think that the it's the legend of The Stig that is the important thing and that to know exactly who is wearing (or has worn) the suit is both disappointing and irrelevant.  It is the idea of The Stig that gives him power, not the name of the actual individual in the outfit.  The notion behind him is that he is the best driver around, that no one can handle a car like The Stig, that The Stig is the best at what he does.  If there are or have been 12 Stigs, all different people, they can't be equally good, can they?  Examining who The Stig is only hurts the very idea of him (and no one has yet given me a compelling enough reason to believe that we need to know).

In short, The Stig is a legend and it hurts the legend to try to dissect the tale and come up with the reality behind the story.  Consequently, I'm fine with Schumacher revealing himself as The Stig provided that Schumacher isn't The Stig.  And how could he be, after all…

I am The Stig.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Surrogates - Maybe You can Make Someone Else Watch it for You

Taking a film audience into a near future version of our world, a near future with one or two major differences just fine.  At least, it's fine provided that the differences are something the audience can understand.  If the difference doesn't resonate, if the audience can't figure out why we as a society would ever travel down that road, the filmmakers have just made their task for the rest of the piece that much more difficult.  Thus, the Jonathan Mostow directed and Bruce Willis starring Surrogates instantly gets off on the wrong foot, and the mistake is one that the film never recovers from.

The basic concept that the movie builds itself upon is that in the very near future we will be able to buy robots that not only look and feel human, but that we can control as well.  Humans, according to the film, will choose to live their lives via these robots which are known as surrogates, people will sit at home all day long and let these surrogates go to work for them, relax for them, buy clothes for them, do everything for them. 

Anyone who has ever seen any science fiction movie would tell you that surrogates are a bad idea.  The film's opening does its best to explain how we the technology evolved in a short period of time (it apparently took fewer than 14 years for our society to be completely altered), but never puts forward any sort of convincing explanation as to why we would travel down that road.  Might it be nice to be 25 and supermodel attractive for a little while?  Absolutely, but the idea that we would all choose to live in such a body forever while our real ones stink and sweat in a chair in a dark room somewhere simply doesn't ring true.

Surrogates puts forward the idea that in such a world a small but incredibly vocal and radical minority would choose to leave society, putting themselves Credit: Touchstone Pictureson semi-secluded reservations where they would not only not allow surrogates, but not allow any sort of machine in general – except, of course, guns.  Though such a group of radicals is essential for the story of the film, just as the suggestion of what our society as a whole might become, the idea of how the radicals would be organized is just as foolish.

The film takes this skewed and wholly unconvincing world view and adds a couple of FBI agents hot on the trail of someone who has a device that can kill both a surrogate and the human controlling it at the same time – an idea heretofore deemed impossible.  At the opening of the film the device is used to murder the son of the man who invented surrogates, as the son was borrowing one of the father's robots.

Bruce Willis, as one might expect, plays the main FBI agent on the case.  Tom Greer (Willis) quickly finds himself caught up in a world of secrets and lies, one where the military, the federal government, and the company which created the surrogates have all been keeping secrets.  He must figure out whether it was Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), the inventor of surrogates; the leader of the anti-surrogate group, The Prophet (Ving Rhames); the current corporate bosses at VSI, the company that makes surrogates; or someone else behind the device and the murder.

If the basic construct of a world with surrogates is one the audience can't quite grasp, the murder mystery itself, with its corporate, government, rebel faction, and military angles is one that everyone will instantly recognize.  The possible conspiracy theories that the murder investigation lead to may be as silly as the idea of surrogates, but there is certainly nothing new in them.  And that too is a disappointment.

For a significant portion of the film, Greer conducts the investigation in his surrogate body, which, while understandable in the world the film has built, doesn't work dramatically.  It may make for some Credit: Touchstone Picturespretty visually exciting action sequences – and does here – but it doesn't create any sort of dramatic tension. 

It is like sending Superman after a two-bit robber, Spider-Man after a mugger, or, perhaps more aptly, a Terminator after a wholly average man on the street.  If Terminator had made Schwarzenegger the good guy, and Michael Biehn the bad guy, it would have been a far less interesting film, once Schwarzenegger's Terminator character became good in the films, he had to be pitted against an even better Terminator on the evil side for there to be the necessary tension and drama.  Mostow, who directed Termiantor 3: Rise of the Machines, ought to understand that.  The film does get better when Greer ends up going out in public without his surrogate body, but the basic issues of the foolish world the film inhabits and the absolutely bland conspiracy theory investigation never improves.

The film is far better in its smaller moments, when it focuses on Greer's personal life and the disconnect he has with his wife, Maggie (Roasmund Pike).  The couple have lost their son in an accident and have done a relatively poor job of holding their marriage together.  Maggie has trouble living with her actual body in the real world following the incident, choosing to insulate herself from possible pain instead.

Were it focused on more, while the couple's difficulty wouldn't make society's decision to live as surrogates understandable, it would ask far more interesting moral and ethical questions.  Those questions, were they asked, would be fascinating to explore.  Mostow and company, however, choose to not travel down that road, opting for the far more mundane mystery and action sequences instead.

The extra features on the new Blu-ray release include deleted scenes and a featurette which looks at how close we are scientifically to being able to create surrogates (it too fails to make a compelling case for why society as a whole wouCredit: Touchstone Picturesld choose to live that way).  There is also a piece on how the graphic novel the film is based came about and eventually made it to the big screen; a music video, "I Will Not Bow," by Breaking Benjamin, and an audio commentary track by Mostow.

The Blu-ray release features an impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Some of the action sequences are overly loud, but those same scenes also feature great bass, and superb use of the surrounds.  Dialogue doesn't suffer even in the loud scenes – it feels as though the dialogue has been goosed equally with the effects.  With the amount of detail and clearness of the image, it is easy to pick the surrogate out of the crowd (the surrogates have a plastic-y sheen to them).  The level of detail extends beyond faces however, and the image features a great deal of depth and good black levels.

Mostow may have created a beautiful world with Surrogates, and he may do quite well in general at depicting robots covered with real and/or fake skin, but what he hasn't done here is to create a future that is in any way believable.  Only a fool would think that science and technology did not have the potential to become a burden, and because of that it seems highly unlikely that humanity would ever wish to follow down the road Mostow and company have laid out in the film.  And, without a compelling reason being given, the mundane mystery with which we are presented is that much more disappointing.

Monday, January 25, 2010

There is Pride & Prejudice (2005) Present, But no Colin Firth

In 1995, the BBC put out a miniseries version of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters, and her parents, as Mrs. Bennet attempts to find suitable husbands for her daughters. Though this was by no means the first on-screen adaptation of the novel, it has become the definitive one. With six episodes that each run for nearly an hour, the miniseries is able to provide far more depth than a traditional film. Additionally, it manages to convey much of the wit of Austen's novel while not losing the seriousness (for the characters) of what occurs.

With that 1995 version of the story – and Colin Firth's incredibly memorable turn as Mr. Darcy – fixed in the minds of so many, it may seem like folly to attempt another two-hour filmic version. So much occurs in the novel, and so much of the plot is present in the miniseries, that a two-hour version must leave out moments which are sure to be favorites of some in the audience. And yet, in 2005, during the 10-year anniversary of the miniseries, director Joe Wright (The Soloist) attempted to put forth a new adaptation of the novel, with Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) in the role of Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen (MI-5) filling Mr. Firth's shoes.

In the end, not only did Knightley's role in the film earn her a Golden Globe as well as an Academy Award nomination, but the film itself was nominated for numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The film is a crashing success, with Knightley giving an outstanding performance and excellent work by many of the supporting players, including Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth's sister, Jane; Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet; Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins; and Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourg. In fact, the greatest disappointment in the film is Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet. Sutherland's interpretation of Mr. Bennet makes the character incredibly serious and introspective, a man lost in his own world and entirely removed from his family. There is little given in the film to support this interpretation and consequently Sutherland's Bennet, who gives the feel of something like a retired soldier living with PTSD, appears wholly out of place in an otherwise enjoyable film.

Wright's film, with a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, manages to brilliantly condense the novel into the just over two hour running time. Though some moments from the novel are lost, the entirety of the story is conveyed, and infused with the same sort of humor that Austen included in her book.

Visually, the new Blu-ray release of the film is not all that one would hope. While much of it looks outstanding, particularly scenes in some of the more palatial homes and the outdoor scenes, the film is inconsistently grainy, at times looking very filmic and at times not. There is a great level of detail in the costumes (which are wonderful in this period drama), but some scenes within the film are hampered by digital noise. Additionally, definition within blacks is almost wholly lost within the film. There are certainly scenes which were intended to be almost exceedingly dark, but even in well lit scenes, details of darker items cannot be made out. The sound, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, does a better job than the video. Some of the more quiet dialogue is slightly muddled, but the score is completely immersive and helps sweep the viewer into the film.

The extras included on the Blu-ray disc include two brief featurettes where the cast discusses the experience of making the film. Although they spend a lot of time expressing the great deal of joy they had working on the movie, their words come off as far more genuine than the majority of DVD extras which feature such talk (this reviewer would bet that while the actors here are good, the emotion is in fact genuine). There are also discussions of Jane Austen and dating in the 18th century (particularly as it affects this story) included on the Blu-ray as well as the HBO First Look episode focused on the movie, a commentary with Wright, and a look at some of the more impressive homes used in the film. It is this last piece which is the most interesting; it features both people who worked on the film as well as those who work in the homes in question discussing not only the way in which the estates were utilized in the film, but their actual historical significance as well.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, though very much rooted in the culture of the 18th century, is a love story that transcends the time period in question. In this film, Macfadyen and Knightley convey the love Darcy and Elizabeth feel for one another to the audience perfectly, if not making the roles their own, then certainly not finding themselves stuck trying to overcome past representations of the characters. As a whole, this film does not find itself shackled to the past, and even if some of the choices made – like Sutherland's representation of Mr. Bennet – fail to impress, the majority of the film does, and is well worth seeing, even for those who will forever be in love with the image of Colin Firth emerging from his swim in the lake.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Laughing With (at) The Inbetweeners

Every so often, the funniest show you watch is the one you least expect to be funny. BBC America's newest series, The Inbetweeners, is just such a show. The comedy focuses on the new kid in school, and the friends he forces himself upon. Awkward teenage comedies being a dime a dozen, one might not expect too much from the show. They would be wrong. The Inbetweeners is, from start to finish, hysterical.

The show is centered on Will (Simon Bird), who has just entered a new – and public – school following his parents' divorce. The poor every-teen instantly starts off on the wrong foot. From having the wrong clothes to carrying a briefcase, to saying the wrong thing in front of the principal, to having to beg others to show him around, the humiliations Will suffers on the first day are the exact sort of thing we would all fear in a similar situation. In order to be truly funny, the series, written and created by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, takes Will's very average misfortunes and amplifies them.

Will does, very quickly, manage to meet people at the school willing to tolerate him – and initially they are not friends, but truly only those who tolerate him – Simon (Joe Thomas), Neil (Blake Harrison), and Jay (James Buckley). They, as with Will, perfectly represent the typical sort of teenage archetypes. That is not to say that all the characters are the same – they most certainly are not – just that they are the typical characters one would expect to find in a school. They are less stock characters than true to life ones.

In fact, the series presents – almost – what one imagines a typical high school to be. The jokes come from the slight twist away from the normal; one moment everything taking place seems absolutely real, and then the next things spiral insanely out of control. As an example, in the second episode, the boys decide to cut classes in order to get some alcohol and spend the day drinking. Not only is the comedy derived from the actual attempts to procure the alcohol, but also the results of the binge drinking, which go well beyond the usual excessive vomiting and headache.

The comedy in The Inbetweeners relies heavily on I-can't-believe-they-said-that humor, and indeed, after watching the U.K. cut of the show one wonders how many of the jokes will disappear into bleepdom before the series airs in the States. The jokes are crude and crass, and as the show centers on teens, those crude and crass jokes focus heavily on sex, alcohol, and the problems with parents. While that may make it sound as though the series is solely geared towards teenagers, Beesley and Morris have managed to craft a show that appeals to a far wider segment of the population.

That doesn't mean that parents and children will feel comfortable watching the show in the same room. In fact, it seems difficult to imagine sitting there with one's parent or child as a drunk Simon makes some pretty rude suggestions to the girl he's had a crush on for years. However, if both generations are watching in different rooms at the same time, both will laugh and laugh mightily.

It seems that the reason for the show's potentially broad appeal is that these characters the series follows are ones we can all relate to. Even if we have never told off a friend's parent in quite the way Will does, we have all been in situations where we have (most likely) wisely kept our mouths shut in front of someone when we desperately wanted to tell them exactly what we thought. Beyond that, even if we are passed our teenage years and the awkwardness that accompanies them, the memories from those bygone days linger, and not always for the best. Watching the four teens here make a complete hash of their lives can only serve to lessen the anguish we all still sometimes feel about our actions back in the day.

The Inbetweeners premieres with back-to-back episodes January 25 at 9:00pm on BBC America before moving to its regular timeslot of Wednesday at 9:30.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top Gear - Season 12

As people in California have found out this week, it never rains but it pours.  And, as with what is currently occurring in California, while there is such a thing as too much rain – sometimes it's actually needed.  It may be a little hard to suggest that the United States needed two full seasons of Top Gear released in the same week, but it does make up for the recent drought.

The biggest weakness this reviewer noted with Top Gear – The Complete Season 11 is that it contains a mere six episode and no special features.  Released on the same day was Top Gear – The Complete Season 12, which contains eight episodes as well as a smattering of special features.  While more is not necessarily always better, those looking for a car and humor fix within an exceedingly well-crafted television show will get a bigger fix from the latter, not the former.

Top Gear – The Complete Season 12 still features presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond as well as the one and only (except for the other one, but that may be a little too much inside baseball) The Stig.  The presenters still have the excellent chemistry that has helped make the show so watchable, managing to perfectly blend insight and intelligence with humor and just a tad of backbiting. 

One repeated segment this season features Clarkson powering various household items with car engines.  The exceedingly funny segments – which do feature items that seem an awful lot like the kind of thing Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor would create – include powering a food blender with a V8 engine.  Though these bits have less to do with cars than most of the things that happen on the show, they are laugh-out-loud funny.

The main trip Clarkson, Hammond, and May makes this season, following on the heels of season 10's trip to Botswana and 11's trip to Japan, is an excursion to Vietnam.  The episode doesn't quite hit the heights of the Botswana trip, but does make for a highly enjoyable episode.  The three men must travel through Vietnam on motorcycles, and not the highest quality ones at that.  Their distress (mainly Clarkson's) at the various predicaments they find themselves in and towards each other are what make the episode work as well as it does, even if Clarkson's anger does seem awfully forceful at times.  But then again, the series is always at the top of its game when the three men at its center are somewhat unhappy or at least feigning being unhappy.

By no means though is the Vietnam trip the only the only one the guys make this season, they also head to the United States, where, they have been informed, they are not allowed to be entertaining as their visas don't allow for it.  Seriously.  That bit of oddness is just the sort of thing that a lesser show would allow to deter it, but on Top Gear the hosts and producers are able to turn this impediment into a joke and it only serves to add to the episode rather than detract from it.  Perhaps though, the highlight for longtime fans of the series and gear-heads is The Stig's finally getting to take a Bugatti Veyron around the Top Gear track and set a power lap time.

The special features included on the four disc set, while not overly plentiful, are certainly worth the time it takes to watch them.  There is a commentary for the Vietnam Special with executive producer Andy Wilman and some of the crew; a director's version of the Botswana Special (which also has a commentary track); extended versions of the Top Gear Awards, a Cool Wall segment, and a Boris Johnson interview; as well as a few deleted scenes.

Watching Top Gear – The Complete Season 12 right on the heels of The Complete Season 11, one gets to watch 14 episodes of hugely entertaining television.  A member of the US audience will probably note that the 14 episodes of those two seasons combined constitute fewer episodes than a single traditional US television season.  However, if ever there were an argument for quality of over quantity, Top Gear is it.  The show's quality – both in terms of ideas and execution – is something one wouldn't want to see tampered with solely in order for them to pump out more episodes.  And, the episodes are incredibly rewatchable, so it is possible to fill those long, dark months between new episodes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Final Fantasy VIII - A Fantasy Revisited

Many a year ago, I sat down to play Final Fantasy VII.  I didn’t play the game the instant it was released, I was but a poor college student and had to wait for a price drop before plunking down the cash.  I thoroughly enjoyed every instant of the game, it wasn’t the first FF title I had played, but it may have been – outside of the original game – the best.  I liked it so much that I went out and bought Final Fantasy VIII upon completing VII.  Yes, I knew that it wasn’t a sequel that Final Fantasy games – at least at that point – didn’t do sequels, but I had so enjoyed my time with VII that I instantly wanted to immerse myself in a new Final Fantasy world.  That proved to be a mistake.

As, I think happened to so many others, playing VIII on the heels of VII didn’t go particularly well.  VII was such a great game that unless VIII surpassed it in every way, it was almost certain to be a letdown.  I slogged through the entire four discs, and while I ended up liking the game, I never had remotely the same good feelings for it that I did for VII.

Happily, we now all have that wonder of wonder known as downloadable content, or DLC.  Final Fantasy VIII, a game I always wanted to click with but never quite did – and have actually lamented through the years that I didn’t spend more time exploring its universe – is now available for download from the PlayStation Store.

Rather than rehashing the entire story and gameplay of a 10-year-old title, let me say that the game plays out exactly as it did before, same group of SeeD candidates, same evil sorceress, same odd Guardian Force junctioning system (which I could still do without), and same graphics.  Perhaps this last aspect is the most impressive.  When played on a high definition screen, Final Fantasy VIII’s main gameplay graphics do appear somewhat pixilated and fuzzy, but the cinematic cutscenes, while not up to today’s high-end, are absolutely more than passable.  That certainly is a testament to the amount of effort and energy that went into creating the game for its original release and just how far ahead the graphics were at the time. 

In short, the game currently available for download is the old title, not a gussied up version thereof.  Beyond that, playing the game now – just over 10 years after its initial release – it is still a compelling, exciting, fun adventure.  Though gaming may have changed significantly in the past 10 years (that is a debate for another time and place), if this title had somewhat better graphics and you hadn’t seen it before, you could easily be convinced that this is a wholly new game.  The experience, though not immersive visually, is immersive in terms of its story and the world it and the player inhabit.  Rather than this simply being a function of RPGs being unchanged through the years, it seems more likely that Square and the team behind FFVIII (and all the other FF games) are just great at what they do.

The one issue I did encounter with this downloadable version of the game was a random shutting off of the analog control sticks. Despite their seeming to be active according to the menus, one more than occasion playing the game, they simply stopped functioning.  It is annoying glitch, but certainly not a game-killer.

As I gear up for the March release of Final Fantasy XIII, it actually feels that  much more enjoyable to be going back and revisiting an earlier entry into the franchise.  Final Fantasy VIII is still not my favorite member of the series, but it is certainly better than I remember it. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Top Gear - Season 11

Sometimes the biggest problem with the release of the single season of a television series to DVD is that there simply isn't enough there.  The show, as is the case with Top Gear, is both great fun and well put together, but with a mere six episodes on two DVDs and no special features, the fun runs out all too soon.

The 11th season of the show that is purportedly about cars but in actuality so much more still features presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond, and The Stig is still present to set power lap times and show up the presenters whenever he possibly can.  It is a solid formula, and one that needs no alteration.  As this reviewer has repeatedly noted, Top Gear's combination of wit and wisdom, laughs and lug nuts, mechanics and mayhem makes what otherwise could be a niche show into something that truly everyone can enjoy.

For those unfamiliar with the series, episodes feature reviews of super (and less than super) cars, challenges laid out by the producers for the presenters, news segments, and celebrities trying their luck in a reasonably priced car on the test track.  The biggest change for this 11th season is that for five of the six episodes, there is not one but two stars who get timed going around the track.  It's a small change – and on that wasn't carried through to the show's 12th season – but as the stars who come on together both appear in support of the same show it is one that works.

One of the best moments in the season comes in the final episode, when Clarkson, Hammond, and May take on the hosts of the German car show, D Motor, in a battle to decide which is the best motoring country.  The segment features some incredibly creative challenges which the hosts of both shows deal with in fine fashion.

The highlight of the 11th season however is not the dual (and sometimes dueling) stars in reasonably priced cars, but rather Top Gear's trip to Japan.  Clarkson in a Nissan GT-R races against Hammond and May who take a combination of various forms of public transit to go from Hakui to the top of Mount Nokogiri.  The episode is filled with the humor that is so pervasive on the show, and once more the sense that these are incredibly smart men who could do manage to do sensible things if only they wanted to be sensible.  It is, of course, far better for the audience that they opt not to focus on sensible pursuits. 

Top Gear, though not technically a travel show, excels in the episodes where the presenters do venture away from England.  Season 10 of the series featured the famed "Botswana Special," "The Polar Special" might mark an all-time high for the series, and season 12 sends the guys off to Vietnam (more on that later in the week).  Though only a small amount of information about the country they are visiting is generally provided, the cameramen and editors are able to provide wonderful, picturesque views, and a good feel for the place.

Perhaps that is what is most impressive about the series – not the brilliance of the presenters in terms of their knowledge, humor, and love of the subject they cover, but the way the entire series is shot and edited together.  The love for cars and television goes beyond the presenters and producers on the series, and clearly extends to the camera operators and editors as well.  Though Top Gear has a very free-wheeling, almost manic, feel at times, seeing how the taped pieces are put together, how the cars are depicted, and how the entire series comes together.  Top Gear repeatedly focuses on small elements on the vehicles, the little things that really help make a good car feel truly special.  Though the viewer may never get the chance to actually sit inside a Nissan GT-R, Top Gear truly makes one feel as though they have.

Unfortunately, as stated above, the fun in season 11 ends all too soon.  Three hundred sixty-four minutes representing six episodes and no extras of the best show on television is great, but not as great as 500 minutes with extras would be (Top Gear – The Complete Season 12 though is also now available).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Life Unexpected - Promise Unfulfilled

Babies having babies is never a good idea, and it's worse when the babies having the babies are actually 32 and the babies being had are 16.  As a society, it seems, we have extended adolescence until some point in people's mid-30s, and while people are – of course – free to lead their own lives in a way that they see fit (provided that they don't hurt others), it does seem wrong for people who act like adolescents to try and raise one.  And it may be even worse for us to have to watch the entire thing take place.

The CW's latest drama, Life Unexpected, features just such a scenario.  The show opens with Lux (Brittany Robertson) doing her best to become an emancipated minor.  Lux has lived in foster care (either with families or in a group setting) for her entire life, and at age 16 has decided that she has had enough.  The only snag is that in order to get the judge to consider thePhoto Credit: Michael Courtney / The CW petition, Lux needs the signatures of her biological parents.  A little bit of sly investigative work has led Lux to her father, Nate "Baze" Bazile (Kristoffer Polaha).  Nate lives in the building his father has given him, the bottom floor of which he's turned into a bar.  Though he didn't know she even existed, Nate is aware of who the mother has to be, Cate Cassidy (Shiri Appleby).  Over the course of the pilot, things don't go quite as Lux expects, and the judge ends up putting Lux into the care of Cate and Nate.

It is easy enough to separate some of the reality of what would happen in Lux's situation from what the show has happen.  One's suspension of disbelief – and the potential the show seems to exhibit early on – more than allow for the seemingly impossible premise of the rest of the series to exist.

The problems in the series really begin to crop up in the second episode.  Neither Cate – who is a morning drive-time radio show host – nor Baze, even in though they're in their early 30s, seem to exhibit any of the sort of life skills one would hope they would show.  Cate certainly gives the responsibility thing a better shot than Baze, but is so overly wrapped up in her own emotional and personal issues that she rarely is capable of putting Lux and her needs first.

The show does acknowledge that the adults act like children, but that doesn't make it better.  It is wholly understandable that people who just get thrown into the middle of parenting a teenager would be unready for the experience, but that isn't the problem with Cate and Baze.  Baze goes as far as letting Lux, who though she is 16 doesn't even have a learner's permit, drive.  Cate can't be bothered to realize that if her daughter goes to school across town, Cate has to help figure out how the girl is going to get to school until Lux points it out… right before she has to go to school and Cate is Photo Credit: Michael Courtney / The CWalready halfway out the door.

Life Unexpected is certainly not without good points, or the potential to become a far better show.  Kerr Smith, who plays Cate's on-air co-host and real-life boyfriend, Ryan, is one of the show's bright spots.  Smith's Ryan is stuck in an incredibly difficult situation, having to watch Cate flail about with Lux and her high school hookup.  It is the sort of thing that would be enough to make anyone run for the hills, but Ryan not only sticks around, he does his best to actually help without stepping over any lines.  In fact, he acts as we would hope 30-something year-old people would act.

The only other person who, perhaps, acts her age is Lux.  At one moment she is virtually an adult, able to take care of herself and make her way in the world, and the next she is hanging out with a boyfriend and two other kids her age who, from what the audience is shown, are clearly a whole lot of trouble waiting to happen.  Lux may be terribly frustrating to much of the audience because the trouble she gets into is so incredibly easy to steer clear of, but when were teenagers the brightest creatures on the face of the planet?

The writing, much like everything else, is a mixed bag.  Individual moments of banter between characters are clever and funny, but the plot points tend to make little sense.  In one episode, Cate reads something on the air about her relationship with Lux, knowing that Lux listens to her show and has for years, but then can't figure out why Lux might be unhappy with her later in the day.  Rather than that moment simply being Cate being too Photo Credit: Michael Courtney / The CWwrapped up in her own life to think about those around her, this feels more like someone wasn't paying attention to the already established facts of the series when they wrote the story.

For all its faults, there is something enjoyable about the series, and it is certainly not one where the faults are unfixable.  If the two main adult characters start acting their age, that by itself will go a long way towards fixing the show's issues.

Life Unexpected premieres January 18th at 9pm on The CW.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Winnie the Pooh: A Valentine for You and a Technical Glitch, Too!

On a fairly regular basis, Disney releases (or re-releases) to DVD classic episodes, or specials, of various animated television series.  Whether the quality of the content is good or not is, of course, variable and depends, to some extent, on one’s tastes.  With their latest release, Winnie the Pooh: A Valentine for You (Special Edition), while the story is certainly enjoyable enough, there is an issue in the DVD transfer itself, making the entire experience a rather disheartening affair for adults in the audience.

As for the content of the DVD, A Valentine for You contains the television special of that name that originally aired in 1999 as well as a two episodes of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, “Un-Valentine’s Day” and “My Hero.”  The first of these is considered part of the main feature (as it continues the Valentine’s theme), and runs approximately a half-hour (minus commercials), and the second is considered a bonus feature and one-half of what would have been a half-hour episode.  The one other special feature included on the release is a brief game where one can try and catch bugs in a jar – as the bugs seem to fly in the same pattern every time it is only momentarily enjoyable.

The main story, “A Valentine for You,” is finds the Hundred Acre Wood creatures worried about Christopher Robin, whom they fear has been infected by the dreaded “smitten,” one of the many varieties of love bug.  In true Pooh-logic, the only thing that can fix Christopher Robin is the bite of another smitten, whom they set out to catch. 

It is a not overly memorable episode within the lives of Pooh and his friend, but not without some interesting potential issues.  For instance, the creatures are all a little surprised that Christopher could possibly be in love with a girl, and are, in fact, not terribly sure about the differences between girls and boys.  While that may be a perfectly understandable issue for them to face, their reasons for not heading down to Kanga’s house and asking the female kangaroo are never made clear (neither Kanga nor Roo appear in the episode).  Applying logic, however, to the goings-on in the Hundred Acre Wood often leaves one scratching their head, so this issue, perhaps can be forgiven – it is entirely possible that none of the animals ever stopped to consider if perhaps Kanga could provide an answer to their questions.  The episode is lively enough, funny enough, and features enough singing and foolishness so as to make the visit with Pooh an enjoyable one.

The second main episode, ‘Un-Valentine’s Day,” is also fun.  The story revolves around the animals boycotting valentines due to some excess in previous years only to hand them out anyway.  In true Pooh fashion, the valentines start getting passed around to one and all due to an ever-expanding series of accidents, but it all works out well enough in the end as everyone seems to realize that they truly do like getting valentines. 

The look of the episode is drastically from the previous one.  It is an older episode and certainly looks it, while it doesn’t appear quite as clean as one might like, there is nothing there to detract from one’s viewing of it, as there is in the first story.  During “A Valentine for You,” on a regular basis when a character turns, walks, or shifts in any way, the Pooh pixelationmovement causes the character to devolve around the edges into what appears to be some very bad pixelation.  The picture on the right is an example of the issue (click for larger image).  While the double-image around his mouth is a by-product of freeze-framing a moving image, the jagged lines/pixelation on his arm are not, they are the problem in question.  As it has occurred for this reviewer on more than one copy of the DVD using more than one television and DVD player, the incident is not due to a single faulty disc or player.  The issue is not one that crops up all the time, but it happens regularly and is disturbing enough that it makes it difficult to recommend the release.  Young members of the audience — for whom the title is mainly geared — probably will not mind, but adults will and may not consider the purchase money well spent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Does FX's Archer Hit its Mark?

Film and television spy spoofs are a dime a dozen. From Get Smart to Get Smart, Again! to the film version of Get Smart to Austin Powers to I Spy and oh-so-many others, it is a well-trodden road. Now, FX is entering that territory with their own spoof, Archer. How is Archer different? It’s animated.

If that doesn’t sound like a big difference, truth be told, it isn’t. It isn’t wholly bad though, either.

Archer revolves around the exploits of suave alleged superspy, Agent Sterling Archer (code name: Duchess), voiced by H. Jon Benjamin. Sterling works at ISIS, the International Secret Intelligence Service, where he answers to his mother, Malory Archer, voiced by Jessica Walter. Archer is your typical spoof spy, in the job for the free booze, trips around the world, and the ability to use his job description to pick up women – both the lonely and desperate kinds. He doesn’t get along with mommy, who certainly also doesn't get along with him. Malory, may in fact be too busy with her hidden and clearly against the rules relationship with a Russian counterpart. As for the incompetent Sterling, exactly why he continues to be employed at ISIS despite his gross incompetence and the fact that no one likes him is unclear.

Photo Credit: FXSterling’s fellow employees include Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who dated Archer for an extended period of time and has since moved on to ISIS comptroller Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell). Lana is competent at her job, and consequently the humor with her character revolves around her more than ample cleavage, man hands (which was funnier on Seinfeld), and domineering attitude towards Cyril. As for Cyril, he’s the comptroller, which seems to be enough to make him a funny character.

The rest of the characters on Archer include Malory Archer’s secretary who constantly changes her name and has a thing for Sterling (Judy Greer); the office gossip and HR head, Pam (Amber Nash); and Sterling’s devoted-no-matter-how-he’s-treated butler, Woodhouse (George Coe). Though they are all characters we’ve seen before, perhaps more problematically, save perhaps Malory, they’re all characters we’ve seen in this exact sort of setting before.

Densely populated with sexual innuendo and incompetent employees, the series may sound like the exact sort of thing that airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. In point of fact, executive producers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson (Reed also created the series) created Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo for Adult Swim.

While all of the above certainly means that the show isn’t terribly new or original or different, one has to remember that there’s a reason why the shows/movies are repeatedly made – they can be very funny and have a good deal of appeal. Archer is no different. While a lot of the jokes – more than should – fall flat, enough of them make one laugh so that the audience won’t feel as though their entire half-hour was wasted. Additionally, there’s always the feeling that maybe, in the next episode, Reed and Thompson will really hit the nail on the head and put forward a really funny episode with material that feels fresh.

That’s something that doesn’t occur during Archer’s first five episodes – they all very much feel as though they’re following a well-worn path. However, with the talents of the voice cast, proven ability of the producers, and source material that has worked so well in the past, it still feels like they might just get there. For fans of spy spoofs and adult-oriented animated fare, there is absolutely enough to enjoy in the first five episodes to keep them tuning in and to make the series worth recommending.

Archer premieres on FX, Thursday January 14 at 10pm.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Finding Some Added Leverage

When we last left our friends from Leverage, the group led by mastermind Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) was smarting over the loss of one of their number, Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman). Sophie wasn't dead, she was just despondent about her would-be relationship with Ford, and had consequently headed off on something of an extended vacation. True fans of the series will remember that Sophie had brought in a friend of hers, Tara Cole (Jeri Ryan), to fill in for her. Even if you don't remember that from the summer finale, it'll all be made readily apparent when the second half of the second season kicks off on January 13.

The two episodes available for review – the first two of this second half of the season – illustrate exactly why Leverage works as a series. Featuring an Academy Award-winning actor in Hutton, the Dean Devlin executive produced show is a mostly clever, fast-paced crowd pleaser. It is the sort of show where if anyone stops to think too much they'll understand exactly why the plots shouldn't work, but the pace of it all and the great performances turned in by the cast stop any possibility of that happening.

Photo Credit: Darren MichaelsThe basic concept of the series is that this group of people, former criminals mostly, have decided to come together in order to con the truly evil out of their money. On a weekly basis, the team goes after someone rich and/or powerful who has done wrong unto others.

While the various cons that the team employs are clever and enjoyable to watch unfold, the true selling point of the series isn't the cons and various weekly plots, but rather the characters themselves. The entire cast, which includes Beth Riesgraf, Aldis Hodge, and Christian Kane in addition to Hutton and Bellman, play the series broadly, mixing laughs with action and heart. The result is a bunch of incredibly likable individuals doing good work in clever ways – a great mix for a television show if ever there was one.

The two episodes from this half of the second season available for review highlight another great aspect of the series – the show's ability to tell both little and big stories. In the first episode back from hiatus, the series ends up doing battle with the Triad in an attempt to make life better for some grossly underpaid garment factory workers. Though the team ends up working under more of a time crunch than they may like in the episode, it is nothing compared to the second episode which features the team doing an entirely spur of the moment con when they realize that the owner of a bar Ford used to frequent is in trouble.

The former story has the sense of something larger at work – not a moral about the Triads being evil, but rather the aspect of poor immigrant garment workers (or any type of factory worker) being forced to work long hours for low wages and not having anyone to whom they can turn. The latter story is, instead, just a good tale, one in which we learn a little bit more about Ford and where he came from. Photo Credit: Darren MichaelsIt may have greater implications for the characters as a whole down the line, but by itself is just a single con the team performs because they see a need. Though in the past this reviewer has been concerned about the show's potential preachiness, the producers have managed to mix the reasons for the various cons quite well.

The biggest question fans of Leverage will have going in – and perhaps the biggest potential pitfall the show faces – is the question of bringing Deveraux back to the team. It is foolish to believe that the show will keep her separate from the team in the long term, but managing her return is touchy. The show did a good job crafting the reason for her leaving, but needs to manage the return equally well. Hopefully, before too long we'll see exactly what they have cooked up – and, again hopefully, there will be a good deal more Leverage in the future.

The new half-season of Leverage begins January 13 at 10pm on TNT.

Monday, January 11, 2010

How I Met Your Mother Hits the Legendary Episode 100

Five seasons ago, when How I Met Your Mother began its run, there was speculation about whether or not the show could possibly exist for an extended period of time. The basic notion behind the show – a man is telling the story of how he met his wife to his children – is a good one, and has the potential to make for a great story. Of course, the basic question one must ask about such a story is "How long can it possibly last?" This week How I Met Your Mother puts forth one answer to that question – at least a hundred episodes, and now potentially forever in syndication. With this week's episode, entitled "Girls Vs. Suits," HIMYM hits a magic number for television shows, and it does so in typical laugh-out-loud funny style.

Photo Credit:  Cliff Lipson/CBSThis week finds Ted (Josh Radnor) still searching for the love of his life, and his future self (voiced by Bob Saget) still recounting to his poor children decades down the line what may be the longest shaggy dog story ever. Ted does get a prominent storyline this week – he goes on a date with someone who will lead him closer to the mother. While the series has repeatedly promoted advancements in Ted's quest, this time it actually feels like a real one; no simple passing by someone with a yellow umbrella – or taking that umbrella when it was left at a party – this time out.

Without going into too much depth about that plotline – something that would most definitely spoil it for those invested in the series – we can tell you that Rachel Bilson appears. Bilson is in fact just one of the guest stars this week, with Stacy Keibler and Tim Gunn also appearing. Both of those celebrities, however, have parts in Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) storyline, not Ted.

It is impossible to suggest that Neil Patrick Harris is the series' "break out" star as Harris has had a career for decades, but Harris may have gotten the most notice out of any of HIMYM's stars. Though certainly the least realistic of the characters on the series, Harris's Barney Stinson may certainly be the funniest. Barney is a crude, over the top, womanizing, hugely intelligent and completely ridiculous character. Also, as is crucially important this week, Barney loves to wear suits. It's a love that hearkens all the way back to the series' first episode, when Barney insisted to Ted before they go out for the evening that his friend "suit up!"

This week, as the title of the episode indicates, Barney may have to give up suits as they are pitted against one of his other great loves – beautiful women. In this case, beautiful women are represented by Karina (Stacy Keibler), the hot new bartender at MacLaren's, the bar the HIMYM gang frequents. Karina has issues with men in suits and thus, Barney learns, in order to successfully get her into bed he will have to give up suits. It is a notion Barney struggles with mightily in the episode, and which culminates in a massive musical number.

Photo Credit:  Cliff Lipson/CBSThough the series' other stars – Alyson Hannigan, Jason Segel, and Cobie Smulders – do appear in the episode, they are without larger storylines; Radnor and Harris remain front and center for much the night. The other stars are all great parts of the series in general and all deliver laughs tonight, but the show certainly succeeds with the two main stories it presents.

After 100 episodes, it is readily apparent that How I Met Your Mother still has a lot of story (or stories) it can tell. The basic notion around which the series revolves – Ted's search – continues, and the show has done well to move away from the "potential mother of the week" episodes that it found itself repeatedly delving into in the past. Though that plot is interesting, and one wouldn't want to see it disappear from the show, when creators and executive producers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas show that they're not afraid to expand the scope of the story they have been successful. To balance both the future Ted tale and stories of what happens to everyone else is a difficult task, and the producers have done an outstanding job at it.

"Girls Vs. Suits" generates more than one laugh this week, advances the main plot, and features Harris at his best. While Neil Patrick Harris has been nominated for more than one major award for the series (and is up for a Golden Globe on the forthcoming award show), he has failed to win any. Perhaps this week's episode will be enough to garner him the trophy he so richly deserves.

How I Met Your Mother – "Girls Vs. Suits" airs Monday January 11 at 8pm on CBS, and if you haven't met Ted, this would be the perfect time to do it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Last Restaurant Standing Begins Round Three

Did I suffer through two episodes of Scrubs last night? Yes. Did I enjoy myself through two episodes of Better Off Ted? Of course. Did I watch Rena Sofer on NCIS? How could I not? What thrilled me most, though, was the return of Last Restaurant Standing. Season three of the BBC America show premiered last night, and it featured at least one curious change.

For those unfamiliar with the show, each season follows a bunch of two-person teams who want to open a restaurant. One person in the team has to run the front of house, and the other the kitchen. It's a pretty simple concept for a reality show, and while I've certainly had some issues here and there in past seasons, the idea is interesting enough and execution good enough to hold my interest.

Photo Credit:  BBCAs for the changes, the biggest thing we saw last night deals with exactly what the contestants will have the chance of winning. In past seasons the winner would only be entering into business with Raymond Blanc. He had helpers with him to judge the contestants, but it was he who had the last word. That is no longer true. This year, Sarah Willingham and David Moore will also be investors in the restaurant. This doesn't seem to put them on the same footing as Blanc, but it certainly gives them more of a say.

It will be interesting down the line to see exactly how that will affect things when it comes time to boot couples off the show. The other judges now having a stake in the outcome has to change the dynamic, but who knows at this point exactly how much.

What we did see last night with great certainty is that so many of the couples this season just have no idea what they're doing. The main task was for every team to cook a "signature" dish – it was a very basic, very standard sort of opening task on a cooking show. The specific requirements of such a task may very from show to Photo Credit:  BBCshow, but you would think that contestants going on to a show in which cooking plays a part would have a couple of recipes they were great at, and, failing that, at least know their way in a very basic fashion around a kitchen. That was not the case.

Last night we got the team who liked to cook fresh, seasonal food. They were using fresh peas but didn't know how to cook them or how to judge their readiness. There was one team that couldn't open a can – one of that team's members actually took a rather large knife and started trying to jam the knife into the top of the can in order to make a large enough hole to get the contents out. Another team's dish for the most part consisted of Scottish smoked salmon that had simply been removed from the package it was purchased in at the supermarket.

These sorts of things worry me. They feel like a setup. It's a little hard to accept that there were so few qualified people who applied to be on the show, so I wonder if the producers decided to toss a few ringers in. I'm not sure which is better – shallow applicant pool or us purposefully being given a few bad teams.

On the plus side, there are several teams this year that both seem to have a good concept of what they want their restaurant to be and how to actually cook. It seems as though season three of Last Restaurant Standing is going to take a lot of time to separate the wheat from the chaff, but once the show gets to the point where the teams involved all deserve to be there, I think it could prove just as good as past years.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

You Know What? I Get That A Lot

An incredibly longtime staple of the medium, Candid Camera-type shows never seem to completely disappear from television. They may hibernate for a while, fooling everyone into thinking that they're gone, but before you know it, a new one is on the air. The show almost certainly won't be called Candid Camera, but the essential idea behind the show — put everyday people into odd situations and film them without their knowing — will remain unchanged. CBS is about to bring us round two of their latest variation on the theme, I Get That A Lot.

This show, which first aired on April Fool's Day 2009, features celebrities doing some sort of customer service job, and denying to anyone who sees them that they are in fact famous. Rather than copping to their identity, they just utter the phrase "I get that a lot" over and over and over again.

The celebrities who appear this time out are Rachael Ray, Gene Simmons, Julie Chen, Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton, and Tony Hawk. The scenarios the celebritPhoto Credit: Monty Brinton/CBSies are put in are all rather plain, and each of the various situations only work as well as the celebrity involved.

It is Julie Chen who is the standout amongst the group. Although she is not recognized by everyone she helps get yogurt for, she has an incredible amount of fun with the scenario, constantly annoying, frustrating, and perplexing customers. She is, perhaps, the most traditional Candid Camera-like person here, just generally bothering people whether or not they have any idea she is famous. Then, when people do recognize her – or at least that she looks kind of like Julie Chen – she turns it up a notch and is truly outstanding. Chen is even good-natured enough to make fun of herself by doing a Chen-bot impersonation.

Unfortunately, with too many of the celebrities depicted here, they are either spotted instantly and no one will believe that they are not the famous person in question or not spotted at all and simply unfunny with their shtick. The episode contains too few laughs, and also, as these sorts of shows are, appears to be highly edited. The rapid switching from unsuspecting person to unsuspecting person to unsuspecting person (or would-be unsuspecting person to would-be unsuspecting person, etc.) followed by the reveal ends up leaving one greatly questioning what, precisely, we didn't see — especially as this is with celebrities.

For instance, Snoop Dogg is recognized by an incredible number of people right off the bat and he then tries to convince them he's not Snoop Dogg, and everyone seems rather unsure – if the number of people who recognized him was as high as it appears, how many were completely unfooled by his protestations, how many lookPhoto Credit: Monty Brinton/CBSed around and uttered that famous line "am I on Candid Camera," or a reasonable facsimile thereof. We don't see anyone say that, but it is hard to believe that in this day and age no one did.

Additionally, not everyone who gets duped (or doesn't) ends up giving a post-scenario interview, a fact which only further exacerbates the feeling that we really aren't getting the full picture of what took place. No one would think that a show like this would remain unedited, but perhaps it should feel less edited.

In the end, if one has any interest in Candid Camera shows or the celebrities involved in this one, they'll probably enjoy I Get That A Lot in fits and spurts. It will, however, certainly do nothing to win any converts to the genre.

I Get That A Lot airs Wednesday January 6, at 8pm.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The New Year Brings New TV Choices and Old Mistakes on Desperate Housewives

I am, on this, the first Monday of January 2010, filled with hope for the future. I am filled with fondness for the past as well, but more so with hope for the future. After suffering through weeks of repeat after repeat (and unlike the summer with very few reality shows to break up the monotony), television is returning. And, if I am right, it will be good. Next week, the third season of Chuck begins, American Idol (which I don't watch) is about to start, and Jack Bauer is about to live the longest day in his life… again. I'm not so much in love with 24 anymore, but I imagine that I'll stick with it long enough this season to feel foolish for having done so.

Last night, we actually started to get some new episodes again as Desperate Housewives did a weird, different, sometimes fun, "what if" episode. Prompted by the plane crash that took place during the holiday episode, some of our housewives last night contemplated how their lives could have turned out differently if they'd only changed one event from it along the way. It's actually an interesting question and one that I think we all ask from time to time (and that we asked even before we saw Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors).

While on the whole I found the episode enjoyable enough, I did have a problem with the way Housewives tackled Susan's what-if. With Karl in the hospital, Susan wondered what would have happened if she had stayed with him through his cheating over and over and over again. The show's basic answer to the question is that she would have eaten herself fat, gotten in shape, and then he would have left her anyway because he knew he was a bad guy.

Some of the moments in the episode veered into the humorous, but the Karl stuff didn't particularly — or, if it did, it didn't work very successfully. Susan in a barely fat suit making eyes at Mike didn't work as funny because she wasn't Monica Geller fat. I found it a little tough to figure out where the show was coming from with that. We got the picture that Susan was eating way too many home-baked sweets (odd because Susan can't cook, but perhaps she learned to try and keep Karl), but that was all we got as her coping mechanism, and with the quantity of cheating Karl was doing, one has to imagine that Susan's caloric intake would be mighty high.

In her ruminations about her possible life Susan came to the conclusion that Karl was a bad guy, was always going to be a bad guy, and that her sticking with him would have been a mistake. Didn't we already know that? Was that actually any kind of shocker? Couldn't we all have told her that before?

As for Bree's contemplating Karl in her what-if, she came to same conclusion as Susan. While that's great – Karl was a bad guy – shouldn't she too have known that? Didn't she watch what it did to Susan when Karl repeatedly cheated? I never bought the Bree-Karl relationship storyline, and consequently am quite happy to see it disappear.

And that sort of brings us back to where we entered this idea – a time for new beginnings. Many of the folks on Desperate Housewives last night realized that they now have a second chance, a new opening in their life and an opportunity to take a different direction. With the coming of a whole bunch of new and returning mid-season shows, we too have that sort of opportunity. It's a powerful thing, and not to be taken lightly. Choose what shows you're going to watch this winter well, because you don't want to end up having to shed those extra pounds like Susan did.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The (Tenth) Doctor is Dead, Long Live the (Eleventh) Doctor

The Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor!

My wife and I have had a running joke for almost a year now – I mention that there's some sort of special Doctor Who episode on, and she looks at me, rolls her eyes, and asks if it's the last David Tennant one.  That's because it was announced a while back that Tennant would be leaving the role.  Following that announcement there was the last David Tennant regular episode, and then an extended series of specials, the first of which was called "The Next Doctor," despite the fact that the man who called himself the Doctor in the episode wasn't so much a Time Lord as mistaken.  Last night that joke came to an end as David Tennant's Doctor – the Tenth Doctor – lost his life.

Oh come on, it's not like that's a spoiler, as even my wife knew – the day Tennant would end his moment as a Time Lord has been ever approaching.  The discussion that follows may reveal some spoilers, but it won't delve too deeply into many of the facts of the episode, as, even though it was astounding and wonderful, it is the transfer of power that is the impetus for this article.

This moment – this transfer from the Tenth Doctor to the Eleventh – is something I find supremely fascinating.  In point of act, I've always been exceedingly interested in the handing off the reigns from one actor or actress to another within a film or television series.  Whether the question is one of moving from Sean Connery to George Lazenby (a switch that was overtly referenced) or the swapping out of one detective or ADA for another on Law & Order, the way the franchise deals with the switch is captivating.

I think that Doctor Who dealt with the switch exceedingly well within the narrative – even if it was incredibly drawn out temporally within the real world.  Tennant's Doctor was told that his end was coming – he's known that for a while, and every action he's taken since he found out is something he's had to weigh against the knowledge.  Tennant repeatedly proved that he was a great Doctor (as was Eccleston before him, and so many of the others in the original series), he has managed to be smart, funny, and an action hero.

The way Tennant went out tonight – the actual moment in which he committed himself to death – followed the mold of his Doctor perfectly.  The Doctor had saved the world, saved all of humanity, watched the Master die (for now), and sadly been forced to ensure that all the Time Lords would remain dead and gone and had somehow survived.  He had heard the knocking that he thought would presage his death, but had managed to not only save everyone but to live as well.  Six billion lives saved, and that was when he heard the actual knocking that would commit him to the grave.  It came from a single man, Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), who was locked inside a box he had entered so another may leave.  Looking for a way out, Wilfred knocked four times, reminding the Doctor that he was still there a needed help.  The Doctor took a look at the situation and realized that Wilfred's box was going to be flooded with radiation and that the only way to save the man was to take his place.  He saved six billion lives without losing his, but in order to save that last one, that final life, it would cost him his own.  And he did it, committing himself to the grave to save one man after he'd saved six billion.

While he knew that he would regenerate, as was explained to us in the previous episode, and has been part of Who-lore, losing one of his lives is still like dying even if he has another around the corner.  But, because he's the Doctor, he did it, he made a sacrifice that saved one man greater than what he thought was a sacrifice to save six billion. 

Tennant carried off that scene in beautiful fashion.  He was angry and upset one moment and then perfectly accepting and happy to lose his life for Wilfred's the next.  Those 20 seconds perfectly encapsulating Tennant's Doctor – giving us incredible rage and upset and compassion and love.

We then got an extended goodbye, with the Doctor revisiting each companion that he's had in this new series.  He saved a few more lives, said a few more goodbyes, and made it completely clear with Matt Smith's arrival as the Eleventh Doctor, and Steven Moffat's taking over the reins of the show from Russell T. Davies. 

As the Tenth Doctor disappeared and the Eleventh emerged, the TARDIS itself began to break apart.  Building on the original series, this new Doctor Who led by Davies built a grand mold for the new show and one couldn't help but watch the finale tonight thinking that the mold established by Davies was, to some extent, coming apart. 

The TARDIS still stands, but some its supports came down tonight.  How will Matt Smith and Steven Moffat rebuild those supports?  How will they grow the legend of this Time Lord that so much of the world has come to know and love?  What will season five look like?

It is a grand adventure, one which it thrills me to no end to be on, and one which I can't wait to see returning, returning, always returning.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Demons - "What if Buffy were a Guy"

If one were to talk Buffy the Vampire Slayer and overlay Bram Stoker's Dracula on top of it, the result would be BBC America's new show, Demons.  The new series follows the last member of the Van Helsing line, Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke), as he learns about his past and the evil forces he must vanquish in order to save the world over and over and over again.

Luke is the reluctant teenager who has to be schooled in the ways of evil and good, learn about doing research, and generally be trained in smiting.  Consequently, he needs a Watcher from across the pond… er..., no, that would be just too close to Buffy, wouldn't it?  What Luke needs is his godfather, Rupert – yes, just likes Giles – Galvin (Philip Glenister) from across the poPhoto Credit: Sonynd to teach him everything he knows.  No, Rupert isn't referred to as a Watcher, but his role – at least initially – is the same.  Luke also has a good friend along for the ride, Ruby (Holliday Grainger), even though no one is supposed the know the truth about who he is.

In fact, it is very hard to discuss or watch Demons without thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are, it seems, only three main differences from the setup of that series to this one – the chosen one here is a guy not a girl, Demons takes place in England, and this one has the overlay of the Dracula tale.  The story as far as the list bit goes is that the Van Helsings are, and have been for generations on end, killers of "half-lives," or, demons, if you will.  As Rupert explains it, in reality the various half-lives aren't named as vampires or werewolves or boogey men, they are simply given a number and thus become "Type 1," "Type 2," "Type 3," and so on.

The Dracula overlay continues with the appearance of the apparently blind and semi-vampiric even if they're not called that, Mina Harker (Zoe Tapper).  Mina acts as an aide to Rupert and Luke and is aware of where, precisely, many of the files in Van Helsing's library is located.  Just as with early seasons of Buffy, plenty of time in this series seems devoted to the Slayer/Van Helsing sitting in a library researching the opponent and the opponent's history.

If all this talk of Demons borrowing material extensively from Buffy and Dracula makes it seem as though this reviewer is down on Demons, he may have been misstating his opinion.  It must, after all, be remembered that Buffy, The Vampire Slayer was an excellent television series (HitFix recently referred to it as the 19th best series of the decade, noting it would have been better had "Hush" but aired two weeks after it did), and Dracula, quite clearly, has stood the test of time. 

Demons is drawing on great material, and doesn't do a bad job of it.  The plots over the course of the first two episodes are certainly enough to excite any fan of the supernatural genre, and one can certainly see the potential for innumerable other great plots in the future (BuffPhoto Credit: Sonyy did, after all, air almost 150 episodes).  There definitely seems to be a story that the producers want to tell, and they do a good job of establishing the basis for that story in the early episodes.

Of course, on the negative side, Demons does resort to some foolishness in order to get plots going.  In the second episode, "The Whole Enchilada," the evil demon is only able to start his attack because a couple of adults decide to snog near a graveyard while the two kids with them run around and play by the crypts.  In a series like Demons one does have to suspend disbelief to some extent, but not giving the people a decent reason to be at the graveyard does feel a little sloppy.

The one other main complaint with the series is that Glenister, who otherwise is a good actor, does have something of a wavering and awkward American accent in this series.  At least early on the show does not establish any particular need for him to be from America, instead it seems to only be another Buffy reference, and with the unconvincing accent an unnecessary one.

Demons premieres January 2 at 10pm on BBC America and will move to its regular 9pm time slot the following week.