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December 22, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»firefly

Since I Found Serenity

Shorter Firefly:

Remember Cowboy Bebop? That was pretty awesome.

I'm only three episodes in again, and I certainly do plan on watching the rest, but look: we've seen these characters and plots before. The dialog's clever, I'll give it that, when they're not dropping badly-accented Mandarin into the conversation and killing my suspension of disbelief. But between said Mandarin, the forced western setting, and the echoes of Confederate sympathy, I just don't get the appeal here.

I guess I'm spoiled by Galactica, I never watched Buffy, and there was a dearth of good sci-fi on TV at the time. Those three would explain a lot. If this were on TV now, I might watch it. I'm just confused by the enthusiasm people have shown.

October 23, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Belle Watches the Battlestar Mini-series

  • On the first thirty minutes: "Is he gonna get killed? Is that going to blow up? Are they going to kill all the children? When does stuff start exploding?"
  • On the Adamas: "They're father and son, right? So why is Lee White and the dad looks Hispanic? I want to see his mom."
  • On Starbuck: "I don't know what you see in her. She's kind of mannish."
  • On the last thirty minutes: "So there is an Earth on this show! Where do you think those people will live when they get here? Maybe Djibouti. Or Utah."
  • On the first episode: "This makes so much more sense now. I can't believe you thought people didn't need to see the miniseries."

October 13, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»project_runway

Television Week, Part 5: Runway Landing

To say that fashion is not my strong point would be the understatement of the decade, which is coincidentally about the last time that I probably gave any thought to my wardrobe. T-shirts, cargo pants, and Chuck Taylors do not a fashion statement make, and I'm pretty happy about that.

So why do I get as much enjoyment from Project Runway?

For those of you who have skipped past Runway, the show is a competition for clothing designers, who each construct a new garment every show. Every week one designer is eliminated, there are different requirements for each challenge, standard reality show blah blah blah. Of course, where most reality shows are concerned, the contestants aren't using any particular trade skills, and the competition is fairly silly. The winner of Survivor doesn't go out and live in the wilderness, and the contestant on the Amazing Race probably doesn't go traveling after the show ends. America's Next Top Model, of course, involves primarily the genetic lottery of being freakishly tall and skinny women.

Runway, on the other hand, does involve people who will leave the show and try to make clothing. In some cases, you wish they wouldn't. But either way, every week the designers are creating a new garment using a combination of talent and training. And here's the thing: even if (like me) you hate fashion, and you can't stand models, it's still impressive to watch the contestants put their clothes together--not the least if they've had to make them from recycled materials, or whatever ridiculous conditions apply that week.

And even though I personally have no knowledge or interest in fashion, that still doesn't stop me from watching each outfit walk down the runway at the end of the show and deciding whether or not it looks good on the model. Because deep down, I think everyone probably suspects that they have fantastic taste in clothing, all evidence to the contrary.

There are other aspect to the show that are fun to watch. Tim Gunn, the visiting advisor from Parson's School of Design, has a kind of warm geniality that Santa Claus would envy. The contestants themselves, being creative and hard-working people, are interesting to watch. But I never, ever thought that I would ever find myself watching a reality show for the clothes.

October 12, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

Television Week, Part 4: Generation Shift

I was a dyed-in-the-wool trekkie when I was a little kid. I had seen the original episodes a few times--I remember watching them with my father, but I guess when I was six or so, The Next Generation began airing, and I was hooked big time. So it's funny, when recorded episodes started showing up in my TiVo and I began rewatching the show after a 10 or 12 year gap, the things that I've noticed about it. Be warned, some of this is pretty geeky stuff.

  • TNG was pretty diverse for its time. Not just in the bridge crew, which was where all the diversity on the original series pooled, but in the extras. There are a lot of different faces in the background.
  • ...that said, it had a lot of room for improvement. The chain of command is mostly White men, and women are often relegated to stereotypical roles (the doctor, the psychiatrist, the wife) with the exception of Tasha Yar, who was quickly killed off. The Klingons are a barely-disguised parody of African-American savage stereotypes. I've noticed very few Indian, non-Japanese East Asian, or African characters. Also: no gay people.
  • What's with the regionalism? Okay, I understand that Earth still apparently plays a role in the Federation, but this series supposedly takes place 300 years from present day. Why does Colm Meaney still have a recognizable Irish accent? There are supposedly lots of human colonies and starbases scattered around--why haven't they gotten their own accents and dialects? It's just kind of weird.
  • Man, this show was cheesy. Given the chance between a dark but thought provoking ending that exposes more of the characters, or a feel-good platitude, TNG went for the platitudes just about every time. There are some of these that I can't even watch, they're so over-the-top.
  • The military heirarchy sometimes seems like an odd choice. TNG operates on a lot of Culture-lite conceits: no money, lots of automation, people do whatever it is that they want to do. In the middle of this is Starfleet's rank system. I understand that they need a way of resolving situations and giving orders, but the connotations kind of work against the Enterprise's supposedly peaceful mission.
  • While we're at it, what does the crew actually do? You know, for such a smart and advanced set of people, they have problems delegating. Every time there's an away team, out goes Will Riker and Data, or a set of other high-ranking, hard-to-replace characters to investigate the possibly hostile situation. The regular crew doesn't seem to do anything particularly useful, apart from taking phazer blasts for the bridge crew. Starfleet officers are the absolute managers from hell.
  • That's a nice computer. Shame if anything happened to it. So the computer going horribly awry is a common theme on the show. Apparently it's very fast, but not actually very intelligent, although it spawns AI at least three or four times. For all the good the Enterprise computer does, you still have to wonder sometimes if the crew wouldn't be better off with a cheap webserver and a TI-82. And what's with the crazy multi-colored interface? I guess you can't touch-type in the future. I wouldn't want to be a writer there.

October 11, 2006

Filed under: movies»television

Television Week, Part 3: Pitiless

It would be a poor discussion of TV without mentioning Television Without Pity, which is (as far as I can tell) the definite recap site on the Internet. What an oddity: before cheap online publishing, who would think that someone would take the trouble to write detailed summaries of television shows, episode-by-episode?

I visit Television Without Pity on a semi-regular basis, once or twice a week. I started when Belle and I first started dating, and she was looking forward to the season of Alias. In that case, I wanted to catch up on the show so I could watch her with it--I was using TWoP (as it refers to itself) for its supposedly intended purpose. But with a little more perspective, I tend to disagree that strict recapping actually is the purpose behind the site anymore, if it ever was. It's not why I keep reading, and I can't imagine that it's why other people do.

I read it nowadays for a couple of shows, Galactica of course but also Project Runway and occasionally Veronica Mars. One reason is that the recappers, who have clearly watched the shows over and over again in order to write about them, often catch things that I didn't see on the first viewing, and they don't hesitate to hold opinions on the plot and the characters. Considering that media have become so plentiful and audiences so fragmented (with the exception of the big hits like Lost or Grey's Anatomy), I wonder if TWoP isn't a sublimated way of "discussing" the last episode with a friend.

There's also a whole set of recaps on the site that cannot possibly exist for any purpose other than satire and "ironic commentary." 7th Heaven? Is there really anyone who was worried about the huge creepy Christian family and their constant counter-cultural plotlines? Writing about this is a kind of hipster thing to do: pick something that everyone loathes, and then use it to highlight your own relative coolness, all under the cover of irony. It's not about the show at all, it's about the writer and the readers admiring the writer, united by their mutual distaste for the subject.

I'm split between admiration and revulsion on that one. But in that urge, Television Without Pity exposes something of the relationship with media nowadays. Entertainment is created, and then fed into a huge grist mill of analysis, which in turn has become entertainment in and of itself. We are, just as with a comedian who must be shown on huge screens and sound systems for his "live" show, farther removed and mediated from the stories that surround us.

October 10, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»x_files

Television Week, Part 2: Strange Chemistry*

Night Stalker is one of those shows I wouldn't have ever watched if it weren't for TiVo. Its run on broadcast TV was vindictively short, its rebroadcast on SciFi is at a timeslot that I'll never be capable of viewing, and its DVDs pale in priority compared to other series I still want to watch (Six Feet Under, for example). Ah, but TiVo'd Night Stalker fills a lag between Netflix disks regardless of my schedule--and with only about nine episodes ever made, it's not going to tie up my life, either.

The show is a remake of the 1970's movie and series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darrin McGavin, who might be a little better known as the Old Man from A Christmas Story. He was a middle-aged, washed-up newspaper hack who didn't let the supernatural interrupt his snappy delivery: "I promised I'd show up with a haircut, a new hat, and pressed suit... but I lie a lot." For the new show, they kept the journalist, the mustang he drives, a few of the character names, and that's about it. The new Kolchak is young, played by Stuart Townsend, smug, and hunting down a string of supernatural murders as a crime reporter in Los Angeles. The deaths are interrelated, with some kind of internal mythology involving Kolchak's murdered wife and post-mortem markings on their wrists.

If it sounds a little X-Filesish for your tastes, that's because it is. According to IMDB, the head writer and producer of the show, Frank Spotnitz, was closely involved with Mulder and Scully's exploits and scripted a lot of their conspiracy episodes. The writers on the X-Files were reportedly big fans of the original Kolchak, hence the remake, but Night Stalker fails to live up to either of its precursors.

In all honesty, it's not a bad show. The portrayal of journalism, even crime journalism, is bizarre but acceptable for dramatic purposes. The mythology is a little weak, but it could have developed, and some of the monsters-of-the-week are well-done. Mythology is overrated anyway: Lost exists in large part for its bizarre conspiracy theories, which are rapidly spiraling out of control. Although The X-Files also had its increasingly nebulous and unbelievable backstory (to list a few: alien abductions, Mulder's sister, alien/human hybrids that are killed with an icepick to the neck, the black alien oil, Tunguska experiments, genetically engineered bees, clones of Mulder's sister, the Smoking Man, Scully's baby, plans to evacuate NWO executives before the aliens attack, smallpox scars, Mulder's father, and so on...), those threads were tied more closely together, instead of overwhelming it with surrealism. Besides, I would argue that this is not the legacy that later shows have fallen short. Where Night Stalker fails is its lack of chemistry.

The original show, by all accounts, was enjoyable in large part because of the interplay between Kolchak and his editor, each of which loathed the other. Kolchak himself was part earnest reporter, but also part unrepentant sleazebag, and the police treated him as such. Likewise, the X-Files may have had its share of mysteries, but the chemistry between Mulder and Scully--that will-they-won't-they question at the heart of every show--was what really drove it forward. The show began to droop once the romance was made explicit, and quietly died when Duchovny left and was replaced by the decidedly less romantic Robert Patrick.

The new Night Stalker has elements in place for its own mutual attraction--Townsend is not completely charming, but he makes a passable leading man, and his fellow crime reporter Perri Reed (played by Gabrielle Union) is very cute despite her tendency to play second fiddle. Frankly, she'd make a better main character. Within the episodes produced, however, the interaction between the two is generally limited to Kolchak producing a wild story supported by an anonymous source, and Reed lecturing him on journalistic ethics. It's possible that there were plans for more personal character exploration later, or that they were worried about being seen as too much Newspaper X-Files, but without that core the show just isn't very compelling.

* Yes, I am going to use one of my song titles for this post. Ego 1, Taste 0!

October 9, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Television Week, Part 1: The Precipice

Perhaps the most surprising change of the third season premiere of Battlestar Galactica has been the madness of Col. Tigh. Previously the alcoholic, easily-manipulated Executive Officer on Galactica, Tigh was captured and tortured between the end of last season and the beginning of this. Now he stalks around as head of the insurgency against the Cylons, one eye gone, muttering dark words in support of suicide bombings and other brutal resistance. "Which side are we on?" he asks. "We're on the side of the demons, Chief. We're evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I'm suprised you didn't know that."

Tigh was never a stable or laudable character. Like much of the cast of Galactica he had significant weaknesses. It's a show about putting pressure on its protagonists, and where other shows would use that pressure to make diamonds of their heroes, on Galactica its purpose is expose those flaws and sometimes (particularly in the case of all-too-human Baltar) to crack them open entirely.

We should have known, really. When the second season ended by skipping ahead a year and completely changing the military dynamic of the series, it was a clue that the third season wasn't going to be a rehash of the first two. The cylon Sharon aboard Galactica has become the admiral's confidante, and a member of his crew. Baltar as president achieved power only to become even more a figurehead under the occupation. And Starbuck is now locked into an apartment with Loeben, the Cylon she waterboarded in the first season and who now insists that they were meant by God to be lovers. All of these are basically logical, but they're engineered to shine light on the same people from different angles, so that where we might once have seen something admirable it is now less flattering, or vice versa. Col. Tigh simply best illustrates this to me: formerly almost a running joke for viewers, he now radiates malice. Although he wouldn't have wanted to admit it, terrorist is a role that suits him, just as other Galactica characters have flirted with authoritarianism and genocide.

Waterboarding was a clue that Galactica has always been tinged with politics, but it's undeniable now. The use of "insurgency" and suicide bombers must bring certain conclusions to mind, as the writers must know, and turning them on their head to put the humans in the terrorist position will have conservatives screaming about moral relativism. I am less convinced that this was done out of liberal bias. It's more likely to be provocation, and nowadays that doesn't take much.

For example, one of the cliches of modern action movies is the scene where a hero is given an opportunity to solve his or her problem in a particularly brutal way. Tension is raised--will he really apply the electrodes?--before the protagonist casts aside the grisly instruments of torture and says the immortal words: "No, that would make us just as bad as them." I wonder sometimes if George W. Bush simply never watched any movies after, say, 1962. Perhaps that explains why he is capable of leading a movement to favor torture, rendition, and destruction of civil liberties--actions that imply we are "just as bad as them," and destroy our moral high ground. Only in this political atmosphere could Galactica's muddled moral compass be called liberal.

And it takes a simple mind to view this as "objectively pro-terrorist," or whatever phrases will be bandied about. The show clearly doesn't condone Tigh's suicide bomb tactics, any more than it condoned President Roslin's attempts to steal the election--another politically-charged plotline, especially since Baltar's victory proved so disastrous for the colonists. Galactica's stock in trade, both for plots and for its characters, has always been shades of grey. To reduce it to black and white is to miss the point, and to miss the finest moments that it has to offer. On most shows, when Caprica Sharon becomes Adama's advisor and puts on a fleet uniform, the moment would be treated with more reverence--a convert to the side of Good! But on this show, even those of us who have rooted for Sharon over all of last season find ourselves uneasy about her new loyalties. We know that these characters are more complicated than that, even if we don't know exactly which way their complications will lead.

September 6, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

The Resistance

Two of the Battlestar Galactica webisodes are up on scifi.com now. They're not badly done, but seem to suffer from the two-minute format. The long-format show crams a lot into forty minutes. Splitting it up so sharply might be making it hard to build the tension (some might say melodrama) that has been a trademark of the series.

From a futurist standpoint, the webisodes (a neologism I find less annoying than I thought I would) are a good mid-point between a typical Web non-presence and the in-depth obsessiveness of Lost's alternate reality games. Galactica has been good about rewarding fans online for a while, with the commentary podcasts and video blogs. Clearly it takes a lot of work to put these together, and I hope it pays off for them.

From a storyline standpoint, there seem to be a few callouts to civil war in Iraq coming up next season. Specifically, I'm thinking about the resistance infiltrating the Cylon police and hiding weapons caches behind religious icons. How much is coincidence and how much is intentional? That's never an easy answer with Galactica, which featured a torture scene with waterboarding in its first season. I'm looking forward to seeing if Ron Moore has anything to say about it on his blog.

August 22, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»the_office

Office Training

The UK office for Microsoft has commissioned training videos starring David Brent. Unlike the AV Club Hater, who writes "I don't really know what these videos are supposed to train you for, other than comedy," I think these are brilliant training tools because Brent is such a blatantly horrible person. The method is simply to point out a "Microsoft Value," let him riff off on some hilariously wrong direction, and let the contrast illustrate the point for you. It's perfect for a software company, because it's a little dorky and quoteable, but it doesn't beat the viewer over the head with the obvious point.

August 8, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Capricious

Frack yeah.

Update:

Future - Present - Past