Thursday, September 29, 2005

Get Your Flume On

LISA: If you two don't mind, I'd like to watch that cool Fox show about teenagers in Orange County.

[Lisa turns on TV. Teenagers are at a pool party. A Girl walks up to a Guy.]

GIRL: Austin, I was looking for my belly ring in your recording studio, and I found this! [holds up bra] Does this or does this not belong to Feather?!

AUSTIN: Sorry, Jade. That's how we light it up in the O.C.

JADE: You cheated on me! Our mixed-race fling is so over!

[throws bra down and storms off]

AUSTIN: Whatever. Let's score some jam at Knott's Berry Farm.

SUNGLASSES GUY: Fer sure, dawg! We'll be kickin' it old school at Bigfoot Rapids.

TANK TOP GUY: Gonna get my flume on! ...Log style!

[Previously described montage follows.]

LISA: I bet that bra was planted by Sterling to break them up.

I Thought We Had An Understanding

TiVo, what's the deal? You were supposed to record Veronica Mars last night. I don't know what happened. Veronica Mars was at the top of the Season Pass priority list. The very top! And you didn't even record anything else from the 9:00 hour. There were no conflicts! Did you just forget? Didn't anybody tell you it was on? I thought you were supposed to know these things.

Well, you're just lucky there's an encore presentation on Sunday. Or else we'd have a problem here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New TV Season: The Simpsons

I was all set to write a post about how The Simpsons is a broken show. It’s been on too long; every episode is redundant; it’s no longer capable of surprising me or making me care about anything that happens.

There were the early, awkward years. There were the Conan O’Brien years, where the show found its voice and perfectly balanced absurdity and heart.

There were the Mike Scully years, in which the show got weirder and weirder and eventually abandoned coherence entirely. These brought us episodes like the one where Homer goes on a missionary trip, and just when he’s about to fall into an inescapable stream of hot lava, the story is interrupted by Betty White soliciting money for the Fox network, and Bart calling in with a bogus pledge. Or the one where Homer wins a Pulitzer and is banished to a Prisoner-style secret island, where the family eventually joins him. Fans hated a lot of these at the time, but Scully’s philosophy in running the show seemed to be that the characters had run their course, no one cared anymore, and they would just push shit as far as they could.

In retrospect, I really like those years.

But the problem is, once you go there, you can’t come back.

The current phase of the show is the second reign of Al Jean, one of the show’s producers in its early years. Since Jean returned to take the reins from Scully, he’s tried to steer the show back toward character-based stories with heart. Which is an admirable goal, but once you’ve crossed all the lines that the show crossed in the Scully years, it’s really impossible to take any of this crap seriously. What Al Jean II has amounted to is a bunch of episodes in which Homer makes Marge mad, and then makes it up to her. She loves him and he can’t believe he’s so lucky. It’s gotten to the point where, when it happened on the season premiere, Marge even mentioned how it happens all the time. But fuck am I sick of it. If The Simpsons never did a Homer and Marge Fight episode again it would please me greatly. We’ve seen it a million times and it no longer tugs the heartstrings like it did in season three. Now there’s nothing more tiresome.

But this week’s episode totally surprised me. It was good, really good, and I laughed a lot. Homer throws a chicken pox party when Maggie gets the pox, and at the party, Milhouse’s parents get drunk and reconcile. As they toy with getting back together and reignite their sex lives, Milhouse feels neglected, so he and Bart set about doing a “reverse Parent Trap” to split them up again. Milhouse is so pathetic, and underused recently, that he’s very funny, and even though the plot involves Homer and Marge fighting again, it’s related to the Parent Trap scheming and the emphasis is on Bart, so I can forgive it.

Highlights: Lisa watches The OC, in which the characters decide to “score some jam at Knott’s Berry Farm”—a slow motion montage follows to that “California here we come” song, in which the characters go skipping with a guy in a Snoopy suit for a shot that’s held for a ridiculously long time, then ride the log ride with Snoopy, then get held up at the ATM by Snoopy. When their “reverse Parent Trap” fails, Milhouse proposes trying the plot from a different movie: Oklahoma! And we cut to a fantasy of Bart and Milhouse singing “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends.”

It just goes to show, once or twice a season, The Simpsons can still surprise you.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

New TV Season: Everybody Hates Chris

…is pretty good. Watch it here. A little bit Wonder Years, a little bit Malcolm in the Middle. Another show that was Wonder Years meets Malcolm was Oliver Beene. Like Oliver Beene, Everybody Hates Chris is set in an urban environment. Unlike Beene, Chris keeps it real. It’s down to earth and grounded in real-world problems.

The only weakness I found was the lame musical score—for instance one scene where the Rock parents discuss the bills is played to a silly Mickey-Mouse score that tries too hard to remind you that you’re watching a comedy. Chris needs to take a page from Malcolm or Scrubs, which use music to punctuate jokes without coming across dated or cheesy. Other than that, strong potential. I didn’t laugh out loud or fall in love at first sight like I did with the Arrested Development pilot, but really most shows take a few episodes to truly win you over.

…but it’s on against Joey! What to do…?

New TV Season: Joey

Watching Joey is almost like a course in sitcom writing, because it’s trying so hard every minute that you can see the gears strenuously turning. They surely have the best writers they can find, the cast is talented, yet the show fails, and each episode is a mental exercise in which you can try to pinpoint why.

The Entire Concept of Building a Show Around Joey

This is the most obvious problem with the whole concept of Joey, and probably why the show carried an aura of doom before it ever aired. As Joey was the most shallow, one-note character in the cast of Friends, it was always doubtful whether you could do a whole show around a character conceived to carry a C-story. When you give him tortured emotions, you lose what makes him Joey, yet he is still an idiot, and now you have the least of both worlds. However, I think the show could have worked in spite of this.

The Supporting Cast

No one watches Joey except for me, so some background: The new characters include Drea De Matteo as Joey’s dumb, slutty sister, the guy from Road Trip and Josie and the Pussycats as Joey’s nerdy nephew Michael, and Andrea Anders from nothing as Alex, Joey’s cute but neurotic lawyer neighbor with a neglectful husband.

All of these actors are talented, likable, and fun. All of the characters, especially Alex and Michael, could be kind of interesting. But Joey’s writers, perhaps fearful of taking the focus away from Joey, the show’s flimsy reason to exist, refuse to allow these characters any reason to breathe. Never have they been allowed to carry a subplot; Joey must be in every scene. They are never even allowed to exist as equals with Joey, which is a huge mistake. What the show needs is to develop rich characters around Joey, like on Friends.

Instead, perhaps hoping it will make Joey look more complex, all of these characters are treated as one-joke caricatures. Michael is hopelessly, cluelessly nerdy, and we are never for a second not invited to look down at him. He could be the new Ross, but the writers won’t let him. By the same token, Alex is exclusively the butt of jokes about being insecure and neurotic. In other words, everyone is treated the way Joey was on Friends. It’s a whole cast of Joeys. And that can never work.

In fact, Michael and Alex are perfect for each other, and their friendship could have developed into some fun romantic tension. But no, Joey has to hog the spotlight, so we get Joey and Alex falling into bed together by the end of season one, which makes no sense and squanders any story potential they might have had. A whole story in the hourlong (!) season premiere is devoted to extricating the show from this awkward situation that was never worth bothering with.

The Fixes

Realizing the show is in trouble, the producers made a grand effort to save it this season. They have refreshed the staff with new writers and done all kinds of “retooling” work.

They’ve brought in Jennifer Coolidge as Joey’s weirdo agent as a regular cast member, and given the sister a job working for her. They’ve given Joey a nutty actor buddy named Zach, prone to dumbass schemes like kidnapping Kevin Smith’s dog to finagle an audition. And they’ve given Joey a big break starring in a big Bruckheimer action movie.

But the problem with Joey was not that there weren’t enough characters, it was that they refused to trust the characters and actors they have already. There’s no reason that Michael couldn’t get caught up in harebrained escapades with Joey—it would be a lot of fun, actually. But the writers have such a narrow, patronizing view of his character (nerd!) that they had to create Zach just so Joey could get up to harebrained escapades. It’s ridiculous.

Joey’s acting career has always been unconvincing. It’s been that way since the pilot, in which he acted in a show and it was on the air and canceled by the next day. It’s so hard to believe that Joey can get acting gigs at all that the less we follow Joey at work, the better.

Yet now we’re set to see Joey making a big movie, which will look ridiculous. This show doesn’t have the resources to show us Joey making a big movie. I didn’t believe it when he was shooting a WB-esque pretty-people show show called Deep Powder on a mountaintop set that looked like it was built for a school play. In the latest episode, Joey’s Deep Powder character is killed off in what is apparently a gruesome bloodbath with severed limbs everywhere. What kind of show was he on?!

Yes, it’s for laughs, but if you continually go for easy laughs at the expense of the show’s reality, eventually the whole thing falls apart. Indeed, this lazy logic does infect the rest of the show, from the plot mechanics to the characters’ motivations and behavior. Everything is strained and nothing makes sense. Stephanie and I have kind of stuck with it by default, wondering when the writers will see that the elements are there and might someday gel if they could just get it together. But it's gotten to the point where it's not just disappointing, but painful. The latest round of retooling just makes it clear that the writers can’t even diagnose the problem. They are doctors treating kidney failure with an appendectomy.

Monday, September 26, 2005

...And Loving It

Don Adams died. Get Smart was awesome. It had comedy and intrigue, and when I was a kid I couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. Smart was obviously a buffoon, but his spy adventures were as exciting as any, without all the long boring parts you found in Bond movies. I can't believe Get Smart won so many Emmys. Don Adams won three and the show won two.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

New TV Season: How I Met Your Mother

The sitcom is in an awkward place. Everyone hates traditional four-camera laugh track sitcoms, including writers. Everyone wants to write a clever single-camera show. But no one watches them. Arrested Development, Scrubs, The Office, Bernie Mac, Malcolm in the Middle—all quality shows, all virtually ignored. A lot more people must like laugh tracks than are willing to admit it. Maybe the public actually wants traditional sitcoms, except there aren’t any good ones. (My Name is Earl started strong and may change this. Let's hope so.)

So here comes How I Met Your Mother, which is shot in traditional four-camera format, complete with audience, except that it’s desperately embarrassed about it. So it tries to disguise itself as an innovative single-camera-esque show with short scenes, split screens, freeze-frames, a voice-over, and a gimmicky Jack-and-Bobby flash-back-from-the-future setup. But it has simple sets and a laughing audience, so maybe it can avoid the single-camera curse.

See, off-camera Bob Saget narrates to his teenage kids in 2030, which lazily looks exactly like right now, since the show makers realize nothing dates faster than things that look “futuristic.” The kids don’t care, but for no particular reason, he insists on boring them with a story about meeting their mother, which takes place now. I hope future episodes have subplots with the kids that take place in the future, because that would be weird but at least in an interesting way, and it will make these two young actors feel like they were hired for a reason. This is probably the first show ever told in voice-over flashback that tells us who the narrator is talking to.

The cast is excellent. Freaks and Geeks alum Jason Segel is earnest and funny (although it looks like he’s getting kind of a big ass—don’t actors have people to keep them from turning prematurely pear-shaped?). Alyson Hannigan acts like her American Pie character and says “bitch” a lot, which everyone loves. Neil Patrick Harris is the broadest and funniest character, a loser who thinks he’s cool and always wears a suit. One running gag in the pilot is that he’s always calling the main character and telling him, “Meet you at the bar in fifteen minutes. Suit up!” and then he’s disappointed when the main guy shows up not wearing a suit. This should get tiresome, but Harris sells it and somehow I never got tired of it. Another good line comes when the main character calls Harris after passing up a laser tag invitation. Harris answers while trading laser blasts: “How’s not playing laser tag? Because playing laser tag is awesome!” And as the gang races with the main character to rendevous with the love interest, he enthuses: "This is totally going in my blog!"

The main guy, Young Bob Saget, well, he’s kind of bland. But he’s okay, and the rest of the cast makes up for it. The episode ends with the reveal that the woman he’s spent the episode meeting is… not the mother! Ha! The teenage future kids are stunned to realize their dad is the most long-winded blowhard ever. I think every episode dancing around meeting the mother will get tiresome, awfully fast, and they need to come up with a way to make this gimmick not annoying.

But again. The cast has great chemistry and the jokes, especially Doogie’s, are surprisingly decent. This show just needs a chance to grow into something that feels more organic, rather than this gimmicky hybrid that seems so forced.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Then Again...

This got me thinking: Is Arrested Development really any more complicated or hard to catch up with than Lost or Desperate Housewives? Or are people just not willing to put in that effort for a comedy? Maybe they should have started the season with a recap show, like Lost.

Or maybe there is something else about it that just doesn't appeal to people.

On The Future Of Arrested Development

It’s a shame that Arrested Development is still tanking in the ratings on Monday nights. I don’t know for sure, but I would find it hard to believe that it is much lower than it was on Sundays, so I don’t have a problem with the time slot change.

There must be something about the show that actively turns people off. And that’s aside from the fact that, to be perfectly honest, Arrested Development is possibly the least accessible show in the history of television. It’s fast-paced, complex, the status quo is seemingly always changing, a large percentage of jokes rely on often-obscure callbacks to previous episodes, even from previous seasons, there is a huge cast of characters, and despite the narration, it’s impossible to adequately fill in the gaps.

While these are all obvious impediments to new viewers, they also contribute to the show being as great as it is. Amazingly, the writers have refused to make any concessions, and each season, the show remains as stubbornly confusing and inaccessible as ever. They're too cool to change, even though they're destroying themselves.

All this is obviously very intimidating, and I know I’ve been averse to plenty of shows because their mythology seemed like too much work. I can say now that Arrested Development is worth the learning curve. But if I were on the outside I don’t know that I would believe it. And the fervent hardcore fanbase, at least on the Fox message boards, has an arrogant, offputting, “America’s too stupid to love this show” kind of attitude.

At this point I don’t think the pleading helps. All the magazine articles and stuff that were all about “the best show you’re not watching,” in retrospect, shouldn’t have done that. I think very few shows have been turned around by such coverage. Basically, they’re trying to convince you that the unpopular kid is cool. Who cares?

The strategy that might have worked better would be to ignore the ratings as much as possible and just emphasize how great the show is. Make readers feel like they’re missing out. If you hear everyone’s watching Desperate Housewives, you don’t want to be left behind. You want to see what the fuss is about. But if you know that no one else is watching the show—if indeed, a great deal of emphasis is placed on how few watch the show—you won’t feel like you’re missing out. You won’t fall behind on water-cooler conversation. And if no one else is watching, how good could it be, really?

Another problem are the promos. I know Fox is trying, but I think it would really help if someone could cut together an ad for AD that actually communicated how funny the show is. Family Guy works great in ads because the jokes are short, punchy, and easily self-contained. The AD ads tend to focus on the big slapstick pratfalls, but without context it’s impossible to tell how brilliant the show around those moments really is. So far the best ad I’ve seen for AD is the one where the cast discusses the move to Monday nights, in which everyone reacts to Buster’s suggestion that they try to make “Monday” a dirty word (“Everyone loves a good dirty word.” “You can’t say dirty words on television.” “You’re Monday right you can’t.” “You guys are such Mondays.” “Ha! Little Miss Monday, 8/6 Central!” “Why don’t you stick it up your Monday-hole?” "Okay, let's just leave Monday the way it is." "Monday!"). It maybe sounds lame here, but it's kind of supposed to, especially George Michael's hilarious delivery of his "Monday hole" line. It showcased the whole cast, in character, had amazingly sharp timing, and was so funny I replayed it three times. No other AD ad has ever done that much. They need an ad that takes a chunk of the show and includes Ron Howard’s narration, something that actually gets across the feel of what the show is like.

I hope they get through season three. A season four seems very unlikely, too much to hope for, really. I think the ratings are pretty much hopeless, since the reasons it can't get new viewers is clear, and the show is too stubborn to change. Actually, I did read another blogger who felt the season premiere timing was off somehow, and I think it was too, inasmuch as they were either hitting jokes a little harder or leaving a little more time for them to land--that may be a concession to new viewers, but it's not really enough. Honestly, I can't imagine a version that does solve all those problems--it would probably ruin the show. So AD is pretty much doomed by its own hand--all we can do is be glad that unlike, say, Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, or even the entertaining but overrated-in-retrospect Andy Richter Controls the Universe, it's gotten enough attention to last to a third season.

On one hand, Fox has been exceedingly generous to the show considering its ratings. On the other, they technically didn’t even finish season two, so it’s not out of the question that Fox would cut them short despite their affection and patience. I think it will at least run until midseason. They wouldn’t keep it around this long unless they were willing to do that much. Beyond that, who knows? I seem to remember this year's upfronts not even leaving a space for AD in the spring schedule, so the second half of the season may be contingent on ratings improving. Maybe if the second season DVD set sells well, they’ll keep it on—as Family Guy proved, that could be the make-or-break factor. Although even if every AD viewer bought the DVD, I don't know if there are enough to make a difference. I would think that might at least convince them to get it to midseason. Whenever it ends, I hope we have enough episodes to make a decent third-season set, and I hope the writers have enough notice to create a final episode with some closure.

Internet Famousness (Not Mine)

I don't know if y'all have tried the new blog search function up at the top of the page, but it's pretty cool. You (Zack and Lydia especially) probably realize this, but the Feel the Magic: XX/XY / I Would Die For You cosplay has been blogged at a bunch of lesser sites as well, including one whose author thinks it's Photoshop-enhanced.

A Bad Week For Political Cartoons

Time magazine included this in their weekly selection of three political cartoons:




Now, there are a lot of political cartoonists out there, so it's hard to believe that in any given week, the top three would ever consist of this guy.

Now, we're all aware that political cartooning is not an art form noted for its subtlety. But correct me if I'm wrong, but this one seems to be doing nothing more than stating a point of view outright. Isn't there supposed to be some kind of vaguely humorous visual metaphor, or some kind of joke to validate the expression of this opinion in cartoon form? The problem with this cartoon is that either there is no joke, or the joke is so hard to see that it's basically invisible. Is the point that it's bad that kids are being taught to certain tests, or-this is a stretch, so bear with me-or is the cartoonist trying to employ irony?

Could that be? Maybe this is ironic, and the girl doesn't realize that by learning how to take science, math and reading tests, she is in effect learning science, math and reading. The discrepancy between her complaint and what she is actually learning might then form some kind of ironic humor that makes a certain point-that complaints about testing are stupid.

Even if the school cartoon is actually attempting something as sophisticated as irony, it would still be bad, since as it is, it's not clear whether the irony is intended or not. However, judging by Bob Englehart's other work, it looks like Englehart prefers getting points across with comically oversized sledgehammers rather than through humorous implication:




If this is political cartooning, sign me up. We can all just draw stick figures with a word balloon clearly stating our opinions and change the text for each cartoon.

By the way, sorry to the Hartford Courant and Bob Englehart for violating your copyright by posting these cartoons. It was a lot of work. I would have far preferred to link to them, but that MSNBC page doesn't let me direct-link to specific cartoons. If they fix that, I'll be happy to take these down. Oh, okay, I'd take it down at the first threat of legal action. But seriously, make that website stop being a jerk.

I am also sorry for the Hartford Courant, since they have to run Bob Englehart's cartoons.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

New TV Season: Arrested Development

You all know how I feel. Arrested Development is awesome. This season is no exception.

However, since I'm also more carefully attuned to it, maybe too much, I did feel like something in the rhythms was a little off. But when I rewatched the episode, I couldn’t sense it anymore. Maybe I was over-scrutinizing it the first time through. I do feel there were a couple of jokes that missed the mark a bit, strained too hard, or fell on the overly heavy-handed side of things. Overall, though, still very solid, and still the favorite.

ADDENDUM: Two of the great pleasures of Arrested Development are that it is fast and unpredictable. I think what was happening was that I was starting to anticipate the show's rhythms. Or, when a joke did come, my feeling was more of an "Ah, there's one of the show's trademark repetitions," or "There's one of the show's trademark visual rhymes." And while the fast pace of the show would normally keep you from guessing and over-analyzing while it's running, I've gotten in the habit of savoring joke moments by replaying them over on TiVo. It's great, because there are so many little nuances that are hard to see unless you do this, or at least unless you watch each episode twice. But I think doing it on first viewing does throw off the flow.

New TV Season: My Name is Earl

Yeah, the ads are everywhere, and there was even that talking ad in Entertainment Weekly. That was startling, but it didn’t bother me too much. Anyone dumb enough to try to keep reading the magazine without simply tearing the talking ad out the first time it went off deserves the frustration he gets.

For those who haven’t seen the constant ads, Jason Lee plays Earl, a ne’er do well petty thief who wins $100,000 on a lottery ticket, gets hit by a car, decides it must be karma, and (once recovered) sets out to right every wrong he’s ever done in order to set his life in balance. As soon as he starts (by picking up litter to make up for being a litterbug), he finds his lottery ticket and plans to use the money to support himself while doing all the good deeds and such. Ethan Suplee is his brother, Jaime Pressley is his trailer-trash ex-wife, and there’s a hot Latina motel maid who ought to be out of the league of Earl or his brother.

The show is actually pretty good. It’s not hilarious, but it’s a really pleasant way to spend a half-hour. Jason Lee is a great presence as always, and even though I’ve soured on Kevin Smith these days, that disdain hasn’t stuck to Lee in my mind. In fact, I think Kevin Smith movies were successful largely because Smith managed to find actors with distinctive, unconventional voices to deliver his lines—Jeff “Randal” Anderson, Jason Mewes, and Jason Lee deserve a great deal of credit for making Smith’s wordy dialogue sound smart and witty (okay, the opposite for Mewes, but the point is he does the job). I’m totally off track now, but the point is, Jason Lee is all right in my book.

Lee is, of course, best when he’s not forced to play a bland leading-man type, as in the talent-waster A Guy Thing. This role is even more of a departure for him—there’s an accent.

You can see some Arrested Development / Family Guy influence in the use of flashbacks and voice over in the storytelling. But mostly, the show is surprisingly heartwarming. The message of earning good karma, and watching Earl redeem himself, just gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. He's making people's lives better, and you can't help but aww. At the same time, Earl’s crooked past and sleazy lifestyle keeps things from getting too saccharine. It’s just the right balance of edginess and heartwarmingness to appeal to an audience, I would think, and apparently that’s borne out in its high focus group scores. The advertising seems to have brought the ratings, too, so we’ll see if that holds up.

New TV Season: The Office

NBC is promoting The Office with footage from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and good for them. It must be pretty exciting to discover you already have a show starring the main guy from one of the biggest hits of the summer. Hopefully Carell’s popularity will translate into ratings.

It looks like they’ve taken a page from Virgin and parted Michael Scott’s hair on the side this season. Last season, he wore it slicked straight back, a no doubt intentionally ugly choice that accentuated a thinning hairline and gave him an unpleasant appearance to go with his unpleasant personality. I think the side part is a big improvement. This sounds like a small issue, but the bad hair was maybe a bit too much. This softens his look and makes him much easier to watch, without really spoiling the comedy at all. It allows us to love hating him, rather than simply hate him.

By the same token, the season premiere suggests that maybe they’ve softened Michael Scott a bit, too. That is also good—he’s the same character Carell played last season, but subtly toned down. It was over-the-top before anyway—and too one-note loathsome, without the pathetic subtext that made Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent so hilarious. Without imitating Gervais, Carell is now bringing a hint of that pathos to Michael Scott, and the US Office is that much better.

The writers still struggle to find the right note of political incorrectness, and too many jokes still hinge on Michael being overtly racist or sexist for no reason. Racism was an element of the UK Office, but the funny part was that David Brent was always trying really hard to be PC but just didn’t get it, and somehow came out sounding more racist the more he tried to sound sensitive.

The US version just has Michael cluelessly trotting out racial stereotypes for a laugh as if he’s never heard of political correctness or racial sensitivity, and it strains credibility that he doesn’t get sued. His employees would certainly have a better case than plenty of real-world discrimination suits. Many critics liked last season’s “Diversity Day” episode, which based its whole plot on Michael’s unintentional (?) racism, but I didn’t buy it at all.

The supporting cast is also doing well, and continues to make the roles their own. The US Jim (the counterpart of UK “Tim” played by Martin Freeman) is actually very low-key likeable and funny, and brings a lot of Martin Freeman’s qualities to the role without imitating him (aside from the bed-head). Both are easygoing and dry, but Jim seems much more confident and secure than Tim did. In last season’s basketball episode, Jim proved himself a capable athlete, and in “Hot Girl,” he effortlessly picked up the hot saleswoman from under Michael’s nose. So while he may have that ongoing romantic tension with receptionist Pam, we’re really not too worried about his prospects.

One other interesting note on last night’s premiere. One of the most amazing things about the UK Office was its boldness in being so relentlessly bleak and downbeat, for episode after episode, while perfectly maintaining its tone. As credits rolled, you felt your body relax, at last able to take a break from laughing, but also able to break from the excruciating tension of the show's trademark uncomfortable silences.

Last season, the US version’s efforts at bleakness often felt strained and simply mean rather than oddly bittersweet as in the UK version. Now the season premiere finds that bittersweet note. It’s much more upbeat than any of the regular British episodes, actually, and hinges on revealing Michael's vulnerable side (though again, earlier and more overtly than they did David's in the UK version). But it works surprisingly well. It works for this version, which is at its best when it’s preserving the original spirit without being a carbon copy. It’s worth considering that the UK version only had to maintain its bleakness for twelve episodes and change, whereas the US version (though only on episode 7, I think) is expected to be ongoing and maybe can’t afford to clobber us emotionally week after week.

The season premiere was good and it looks like the show is on its way to correcting many of last season’s flaws. Still, they’ve got to get a handle on the racism jokes. Right now they’re way too on-the-nose and not funny.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Why?

Seriously, I don't understand. Why are people clamoring to pay full price to buy movies that are exclusively viewable on a tiny (albeit portable) screen? Isn't anybody playing games on this device?

Play It Again, Sony
Sony is discovering surprisingly strong demand for movies being released in the UMD format, which can only be played on its PlayStation Portable device. Two releases have sold more than 100,000 copies each within two months. (Newsweek observes that it took nine months for the first movie on DVD to reach that mark.) Sony is also finding new outlets for the UMD movies that it doesn't have with DVDs as game retailers add the movies to their offerings. The premium price for the DVDs is also reportedly offsetting lower sales for DVDs.


Do people like these movies so much that they'll buy them twice? Or are their lives so fast-paced that they know they'll never sit down and watch it on a TV set? I'm really struggling to understand the appeal.

How to Have an Awesome Time

What you do is, you do some Coriciden, AKA DXM, AKA Triple C. You do as many as possible. And if you really want to have fun you mix in some weed. And once you're high and have finished off a whole box of pills...

You play some motherfucking Monopoly.

All we know is that it's time for sum more C's. Finnaly we're at the end of our boxes, 2 each for tonite, number 31 and 32 go down nicely. Jason decides to break out Monopoly and this is where the real fun begins.

Monopoly

Hmmm..... I would say that it took us about 30 minutes to get the games started. I know I was the Cannon peice, that's about it on the peices. The game has started and we all have made it around the board once and we have started buying land. At this point the game is going great until Chris landed on my property. I do believe he owed me $14. He looked at me with a sad look and said here you go. I felt so horrible for takin' my friends money, eventhough it was only a game it was like this was real life, though I took it. He wasn't havin very much luck with this game so far. The it happened to me. I landed on Goto Jail. Now the freaky part about this is that after I got out I landed on it again. This happened to me three time in a row. We were all freaked out. We now knew the game was EVIL and we all snaped out of this harsh reality and scramble to put up the game and threw it into the closet.

Revolutionary

Below is a link.

But first, here is a bunch of boring junk I wrote originally to comment on Simon and/or Steve's posts on the Revolution controller. It's all self-evident stuff you'll read a million other places. The trouble is that after I wrote it I went around and realized how many other people have already said all this and then was embarrassed to post it. Anyway, this is what I said:

Kenny's Uninspired Thoughts on the Nintendo Revolution Controller

At this point it would be more surprising if a Nintendo controller design didn't break the mold.

Consider: The last two, arguably three generations of Nintendo controllers were bizarre at first glance. No one knew what the fuck to make of the Nintendo 64 controller, but without it we wouldn't have the now-universal analog stick. Same wiht the rumble pak, which I never cared for, but nevertheless, it's caught on. With the GameCube controller, it happened all over again. It looked like something not made for human hands, yet once you held it it made more sense intuitively than any other system (except for fighting games). Even the Super Nintendo brought us shoulder buttons for the first time, and had more buttons on its controller than anything we'd seen up to that point. Yet it was still way better than the dumbassed three-in-a-row Genesis configuration. The SNES controller remains the model for the Playstation and the XBox.

Nintendo has a point, though--controlling video games has gotten complicated. I used to be able to play NES with my dad. A jumps, B throws fireballs. Now when I play something like True Crime, I have to check the manual myself every few minutes. Does triangle mean pull my gun, or search a guy, or throw a punch, or do a grab, or shoot at the guy, or fire a warning shot, or kick? Right now I couldn't tell you, but the most likely answer is yes, all of the above, it just depends when you press it. My dad gave up at the SNES level (with the exception of Mario Kart). Making games more intuitive is a worthwhile goal.

The big difference here is that now there are two major competitors with an essentially standard number of required buttons. Cross-platform games will play more or less the same on the PS3 and XBox 360 (what a retarded name). Apparently they are going to offer an alternate controller for old games and cross-platform titles. Although it would be cool if some developers made the effort to create Revolution ports that were really good. Something like SSX would be awesome with a control scheme like this.

Okay, that's over.

I wouldn't have bothered putting this up, but I figured I might as well since I also wanted to link to this rather lengthy piece theorizing about Nintendo's strategy and place in the video game industry. I found it an interesting read.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Corpse Bride

Corpse Bride is a fun, cute little movie. Oddly enough, it is a musical, but it feels like it’s just a musical out of obligation. The songs are sporadic and infrequent, and except for the big number the skeletons do, most of the songs kind of just lie there. They pop up like the movie’s going, um, I guess I’m supposed to sing now? Only the skeleton song is notable, and even then I can barely remember how it goes.

Visually, it’s lovely, and there are some clever character designs. Outrageous caricatures brought to animated three-dimensional life. The story is thin and the movie is brief, but it seems about right for the storybook feel. And I did feel for the characters and wonder how the love triangle would be solved. It’s an impressive trick to make an audience think, maybe he should stay with the corpse… I don’t want him to break her heart… and she is pretty hot. The fact that her skeletal limbs fall off sometimes, that’s actually kind of cool. You could totally deal with that.

The rules of the story don’t make much sense. Why can the Corpse Bride rise up out of the ground one minute, and needs a spell to go to the living world the next? Is the land of the dead full of souls or corpses? If corpses, does that one dead character show up in the land of the dead before his body could plausibly have been buried? If souls, why all the decomposition? Where does Victor’s body go when he’s down there? And more, which I won’t say because it might spoil the plot. As far as this stuff goes, you just have to go with the flow and don’t sweat the details.

Transporter 2

Don’t read any reviews. Mine is okay. But others will spoil it for you. To explain the movie's heights of ludicrousness, they will cite specific examples and then when the ridiculous moments come you will know them already. This is way less fun than discovering them for yourself.

The important thing is that the crazy stunts and quality fight choreography are there, and they are relentlessly entertaining. And Jason Statham is a badass who looks good in a suit. Downsides: The fights are edited a bit choppier than in the first Transporter, and there is some CGI stunt enhancement with the car. Mostly it’s good enough, and the stunts are imaginative and brilliantly stupid enough to make up for being fake. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that there is a sequence involving a plane, and the CGI of the exteriors is so bad it’s the fakest-looking plane since the days of holding up a model on a stick. Even this, I think, may be intentional. It is kind of hilarious.

If all that isn’t enough, consider: There is an evil hot chick who shoots guns in her underwear. If that doesn’t make you want to see a movie, then there is probably something wrong with you. The downside: Her last fight is rushed and underwhelming, and she deserves better. I know, she doesn’t look that hot in the trailer and photos, but somehow it comes across better in context. The beauty part is there is no messing about with whatever happened to her clothes—she just likes going around in her underwear. So there. Then the sprinklers come on and she is wet and shooting guns in her underwear and you’re like where has this movie been my whole life?

About Time

Shaolin monks are going to make their own movies.

...now the monks are striking back with a series of big-budget fight films that will, in true kung fu style, pit their rivals' strength against them by recruiting top international actors and directors.

Abbot Shi Yongxin will serve as executive producer for the first of three features, entitled The Legend of the Monk Warriors of Shaolin Temple, based on a true story of 30 warrior monks who fought 16th-century pirates. Filming will start next year.

Having seen so many TV and film companies misrepresent its martial arts, the temple now has full control over the script and its portrayal of both Buddhism and the spiritual element that underlies kung fu. It will also cash in after the 2008 release as the film will be made by Shaolin Culture Broadcast Company, a subsidiary of the commercialised temple business.

...Monks will also play a role, particularly in the fight scenes.

Despite its 1500-year-old customs, Shaolin has been at the forefront of China's commercial revolution. In 1997, it was one of the first institutions in China to set up a website. Its monks tour the globe to demonstrate martial arts, and the temple has commissioned a cartoon series and video games.

These are pretty much the coolest monks in the world. Those monks who wrote down all kinds of stuff? Nerds! Monks who kick ass and make movies rule.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Go, Link

This is pretty great. The original Zelda commercial. And by great I mean equal parts embarrassing and insulting. The acting is especially painful. The way the "cool kid" raves about the game, it doesn't sound like he wants to play it so much as it sounds like he wants to rape it. And if the nerd already has the game, why bring it up by showing the newsletter? What I'm trying to say is, plot holes abound. Via Game Girl Advance.

Also, Gillette's five-bladed razor becomes a reality. That BoingBoing post has all the relevant links, but basically it's realizing parodies of gimmicky razors dating back to 1975. Most recently and specifically, it pays off the predictions of "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades," which was one of the last Onion pieces I found really especially funny. I love that they use the real Gillette CEO's name. That's attention to detail. Where are all the parodies of toothbrush gimmicks? I guess those would have to be more complicated than just adding increasing numbers of redundant blades.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Swamp Things

Seriously, there's a problem. And that problem is that our bathroom sink is a fucking tar pit. Here's the story: The drain has somewhat sucked since we moved in. It's always been slow. From time to time it would grow so slow as to be "clogged." Not wanting to bother the landlord, we would buy a bottle of Drano or Liquid Plumr or whatever variation Costco happened to be offering.

I remember the first one I got was the kind with the bottle divided into two sections, McDLT-style, and they would mix and form a magic foam when you poured it. We also tried out Drano Gel, which had a big advertising push a few months ago. Slogan: Gel makes sense. Because for heavy clogs, you need a thicker liquid, obviously. It's not like Drano works based on, I don't know, its chemical properties as a solvent. Apparently all previous incarnations of Drano did not make sense. By the way, Drano Gel is actually pretty watery, with a few clumps here and there.

Anyway, for a while we were dumping Drano down our sink every couple weeks or so. Put it this way: We bought two-packs of Drano from Costco regularly. Eventually I mentioned it to our landlord, and she was like "No, don't use Drano, it's bad for the pipes." Everybody pretty much knows that, but it was hard enough bugging her about the janky garbage disposal in the kitchen (before finally getting it replaced). So Drano is the lazy option. But even after I told her, she didn't call a plumber.

Recently, we've stopped using Drano (we ran out) and, trying to be good, have settled for plunging the sink. This sort of worked once. But it dredged up all kinds of gunk, and the sink still ran slowly enough that as quickly as we'd cleaned the gunk, the sink would get dirty from whatever was in the slow-draining water. Anyway, earlier this week, the sink pretty much ceased to drain again. We plunged it some more, dredged up more gunk, and failed to affect the clog at all. Instead, we had a sink full of black water. This is what it looks like now that we've let it alone for two days of excruciatingly slow draining:




A plumber is supposed to be here on Saturday to work on the building's pipes, and he's supposed to come in here to finally check on our sink. He'd better. We've been washing our hands in the bathtub all week, not wanting to call about the sink again since the plumbing arrangements are supposedly already made.

I wonder if having a natural wetlands in our bathroom has something to do with the 15 or so flies we've killed here today? Unlike the gnats from before, they don't seem to be originating from the bathroom, but it's hard to believe it's a coincidence. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Worst Thing Ever


You may remember my review of Herbie: Fully Loaded harping on one particular effects shot that I found over the top. All the interviews with effects people talk about how they had rules where they would only animate the car at pre-existing pivot points as opposed to "bending metal" effects. Of course, they couldn't resist breaking the rule for "one golden moment." That's the one that comes close to ruining the whole movie for me if I don't willfully ignore it.

I finally found a screenshot of it online, so everyone but Cynthia can now see for yourself. What a stupid effect. Plus, the graphics on the door are the graphics for NASCAR Herbie, which Herbie doesn't have yet in this scene. So there's a continuity error, too. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Initial Impressions

So, Initial D. Again. The live-action one this time.

I liked it.

If you go on imdb.com and such you'll find that a lot of purists totally hated it. I actually thought it was pretty faithful to the comic. Certainly the cars are spot-on.

It's weird having the Chinese actors speaking Cantonese in Japan, but you get used to that pretty quick. Some characters have been cut out or condensed into other characters, but it all makes sense for the sake of story economy.

People seem to get angriest over the changes to Tak's father. In the manga he's just a really quiet, mysterious guy. In the movie he's an abusive alcoholic. But he's played by Anthony Wong, who was in Infernal Affairs along with probably a bunch of other stuff, and Wong is excellent. You've never seen such a cool, likeable abusive alcoholic. With Wong in the role, I didn't mind the changes at all. The changes may not have been necessary but they do add a little depth, making Tak's life that much more miserable and that much more in need of the solace of racing.

People also get pissed that there's no Eurobeat like in the anime. I didn't really watch enough of the anime to get attached to that, so the Chinese hip-hop works fine for me. Also, the racing scenes lack the detailed thoughts and strategizing that appear in the manga and the anime. But all these details are the reason it takes several episodes/issues to take a simple race down the mountain. They're a pleasure to read, but in a movie, they obviously have to go.

The trade-off, which all these fanatics seem to ignore, is that at last we have races staged by actual cars on an actual mountain driven by actual stunt drivers. The authenticity this provides, in contrast with static drawings or cheesy computer animation, more than makes up for us not hearing Tak's opponents think, "He's passing me in an Eight-Six? Impossible!"

Yes, it's a lot of drifting down the same mountain road, but it's all expertly done and almost all real. There is some CGI, but only for brief Fast-&-the-Furious-style flythroughs, crashes and one move that I'm guessing would have been too dangerous to do for real. It's rare enough that it's not too distracting, but it is obvious when it shows up. In a way, though, that's a good thing, because you can tell they're not shitting you with all the other stunts--they're not CGI, and if they were, you'd know it.

Everyone's clearly not a teenager, but you're already imagining they're Japanese, so the extra leap is not such a big deal. The performances, besides Wong's, are nothing special, but they get the job done. If you are more familiar with Cantonese you might notice that Tak (played by some Taiwanese pop star) is a Mandarin speaker who can't actually speak Cantonese.

They don't skimp on the race scenes, either--there's plenty to enjoy. Overall, definitely a worthy entry in the car movie genre.

Friday, September 09, 2005

I Am A Jerk

Turns out that one Daily Trojan writer did find my cruel lambasting of her column.

Her response:

fuck you, man.
you shouldnt bash someone for being pretentious in print and then write an equally pretentious article against them. that's hypocracy.
your article made me cry. it's entirely rude to hate someone you don't even know. i wasnt trying to dictate my musical taste, which is why i never mentioned specific artists. i was merely trying to address an issue that i see in society today. calm down and get over yourself, please.


The trouble with mean-spiritedness is that even when you set out to write something that will make someone cry, it still makes you feel bad when it actually works.

I'll refrain from piling it on by nitpicking the comment. Except to say that it's spelled "hypocrisy." And to say that if you're writing an opinion column about music, you might as well mention your own musical taste, or at least some real-world example of music, or you're writing in a meaningless theoretical vacuum.

I do, however, want to say that I don't think the blog post was pretentious. Cruel, insensitive, heartless, mean, gratuitous, yes. But it had no pretense of being anything greater than that. I would argue that it was merely arrogant, and that there's a difference. But I will allow that others may disagree.

There is a lesson here. If you insult people by name on a blog, even one that no one ever reads, every one of them will eventually find out and have their feelings hurt, and probably hate you forever. Use this knowledge wisely.

Smack Talk

The thing about the Internet is that you can't use it to insult people behind their back. Although I guess using a public forum to insult people behind their backs is kind of stupid anyway. Instant messaging is better, although still too easy for someone to cut, paste, save, and use against you.

Now, sometimes I'm eager for someone to read the insulting things I've written, but those writers from the Daily Trojan never seemed to find their posts. Then there was Amir Blumenfeld, whom I wanted to see my criticisms, but I felt bad that he wouldn't return my email after that.

Naturally, a reality TV contestant is more likely to be sitting around googling himself than even the average person (and more likely to be searching for himself on the Internet, too. Zing!). It's an oddly generic comment, almost like blog spam, but not quite. I can't really tell if he read the post, which, while not explicitly insulting, was at least implicitly insulting. For instance, the part about "unfunny hacks." I could see someone maybe taking offense to that, although in this case Mark seems to have taken it in stride, or maybe convinced himself I was talking about the Stephen's Life team.

Anyway, it's weird when that happens. Mark, I'm just jealous. Even though the reality show made you and everyone else look worthless. And your show, while well-cast, is kind of mediocre. But neither one of these things is entirely your fault, and besides, that's mostly my jealousy talking. Pat yourself on the back, guy. You deserve it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Dire Situation

I've been sort of watching Bravo's Situation: Comedy.

This is the TV answer to Project Greenlight. A big script contest and the winners get to make their sitcom pilots and maybe get picked up by NBC (yeah, right). Except they actually make 15-minute sitcom pilots, which is plenty considering these shows, and these days, not all that much shorter than a real show minus commercials.

It's actually a pretty awful, boring show. Basically, the writers are either unfunny hacks or else don't know the difference between fighting for your vision and being an overly stubborn prick. Meanwhile, the producers guiding them are capricious and unfair and the show is full of arbitrary limitations. No one on the show comes off as likable.

Also, the episodes are pretty boring. The show got shifted to a dead-meat Friday timeslot, pre-prime time, which meant that TiVo started bumping it for syndicated Seinfeld and Malcolm reruns. I corrected that for this week's final episodes (actually last week's, but I missed it then), but it might not be worth bothering. I missed one episode and barely noticed--it looked like nothing had happened at all in the missing week, except for me saving an hour of time.

The other reason it might not be worth watching is that the money shots are already online. You can watch the 15-minute pilot presentations of the shows here.

Stephen's Life: These guys appeared to be the stronger writers throughout the show, but they also made sure they were hard to work with. They had the guts to fight for things (and it is a shame the show couldn't have gone single-camera as they intended) but they made it obnoxious and seemed more naive than principled. Also, they made the mistake of hiring the sister of one of the writers based on her "hilarious" Napoleon Dynamite impression, which no one seemed to notice until the network people at the table read pointed out she was terrible. This led to much awkwardness and finally, a passable performance on the actual show. The show: I don't like the parents, but the kids are funny. However, kids are oddly sexualized (see Cheri O'Teri's lustful principal) in a not-very-funny way, and this Stephen kid, while funny, is going to look freakish very soon, if not already. Look at that huge head and tiny hands.

The Sperm Donor: These guys thought it was funny to title their script The Sperm Donor. What else do you need to know? The cast has good chemistry, though.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Fresh Tragedy

T-Shirt Hell doesn't waste any time. Here we have a couple of hilarious-in-theory takes on the obvious topic, along with one that is a bit older but actually probably more deserving of ridicule, and a more subtle shirt.

Another new shirt has a familiar ring.

Same idea, basically. Their version may have a point, though, since shirts are arguably funniest in stores. Once you're wearing a shirt, it's already substantially less funny, and you go around self-consciously waiting for someone to laugh and compliment you, and that is so lame.

Looking at T-shirts inspires my own T-shirt ideas, since they all grow out of my own love-hate relationship with funny shirts and the self-loathing that comes from being attracted to them. I strive to stay one layer of irony ahead of the current generation of T-shirts. Trouble is, shirts by now are so far gone into the never-never land of self-devouring irony that the observer can't tell the difference between one meaningless ironic shirt and the meaningless parody that comes out of my head.

The alternative is to shift back into literalism and take direct potshots. The inverse of irony is utter sincerity.

New shirt idea: "My T-shirt is clever so I don't have to be."

Another shirt that mocks other shirts! Still, maybe the point of reference is too direct. This hits wiseass shirts, but not fake-kitsch shirts, which are the more despicable target. A T-shirt that fails to be funny is less loathsome than a shirt that is too cool to be funny.

When T-shirt Hell's shirts are funny, it's because they are so tasteless they go beyond the shallow, phoney shock value of other shirts. The problem is you can't wear something so tasteless without actually becoming an individual with no taste. Just like it would be funny to buy one of the vulgar shirts they sell along Venice Beach to wear ironically, except that they are so crass they negate irony. Once you're wearing a shirt comparing women to having a beer to taking a shit or whatever those shirts say, you are no longer above anything. You are just a guy in an awful shirt. Also, Venice Beach shirts are ugly shirts, as opposed to the flattering sizing and bright colors of phoney vintage.

T-shirt Hell's shirts are based on meanness, which to me holds up much better than simple vulgarity. Obviously they have the vulgar shirts, too, but to me those are the less-funny ones.

I'm totally rambling now. I meant to just post the links to the shirts.

Maybe I Am An Idiot

Is there something up with the Squelch website or is it just my computer? I can't access the site at all from my laptop, not even the pdf link that was sent out. But it seems to work everywhere else.

Declaring Things Dead

The Onion is still declaring things dead. So there, Handley. Or not.

ATHENS, GA—After a prolonged period of declining health and failing morale, the indie-rock scene was officially pronounced dead today in the sleepy college town where it was born. Indie rock was 25.


ADDENDUM: By the way, this is in the new sidebar where you have to hover your cursor over the US map for "local" stories.