Category Archives: Television

Five Reasons Why I Don’t Do the Grammys

“And lo, all across the land there was a great ourcry,
with wailing and gnashing of teeth and shaking of fist,
for in the west it was the time of the gramophone,
and the people, while they were vexed at what they saw,
could not help but watch.

Once again we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Grammy Awards. I didn’t even know they were on until this morning, when I opened up Facebook and found several friends posting about the results in dismay. As if they couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen. Can the leopard change its spots, after all? What else do you expect from an event that, each year, gives Lady Gaga the chance to dress like an animal rights activist’s nightmare?

As a recovering Oscar addict, I know what it’s like to succumb to the allure of the cult of personality (to coin a phrase). But the Grammies have never held much allure for me, even though I’m big on music. Maybe it’s because they’ve never been big on the same kind of stuff I was.

But just for the sake of reference, here are five reasons why I don’t bother with this annual pat-yourself-on-the-back fest. Reading and acknowledging them is the first of twelve steps to freedom:

1) Any time any industry gives an award to itself, it is immediately suspect. They tend to be petty and incestuous. Trust me on this. I work in advertising, an industry that has nothing on Hollywood when it comes to giving one’s self awards. Also, I used to be able to vote for such an award in a different part of the entertainment field, and there wasn’t a year that went by that wasn’t filled with bile, backstabbing and brutality.

2011 Best New Artist Winner Esperenza Spalding. One of the rare years the Grammys got it right. Still, if I were her I'd be worried about my career.

2) 1979 – The band Taste of Honey – those perennial favorites – win the Grammy for Best New Artist. The losers that year? A bunch of folks you’ve probably never heard of: Toto, The Cars, Chris Rea and Elvis Costello.

3) 1989 – For the first time, the Grammys give an award for best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. The winner? Not Jane’s Addiction. Not Metallica. The award went to… Jethro Tull. Now don’t get me wrong, I likes me some Tull, but Metal they ain’t. (When Metallica did win a couple of years later, they thanked Jethro Tull for not having an album out that year.)

4) 1990 – Best New Artist: Milli Vanilli. Enough said.

5) The Grammies are named after a useless and out of date piece of technology. Maybe they should be named after the Phonograph… the Phonies? Ooops. How about the Compact Disc? The Seedies! Oops again. Well, then they have to be renamed after their big bone of contention, the mp3. The “Mpties.” Well, maybe they should stick with Grammy.

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The Green Acres Effect

After much delay at the hands of family matters, I’m back on the case of finishing The Amazing Secret of the Castle Omi La for this year’s VBS.

A little bit of history here. The first VBS play I did was The Terrible Misfortune. It was a pirate-themed show. It was influenced by every cliche in every pirate movie I’ve ever seen.

Next came An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch – you guessed it – a wild west themed show inspired by every cliche in every western I’ve ever seen.

In line after that was The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man, a pastiche of cliches from the original series of Star Trek.

And for this year? The pre-knights of the roundtable tale named above. And it’s major influence is…

Robin Hood? Nope.

Camelot? Nope.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Nope – and I’m working really hard to keep it that way.

No, the major influence for this year’s show is the redoubtable Green Acres.

(Wait a minute – did he just say Green Acres as if it was something worthy of respect?)

Yes, I did. And here’s why.

While a lot of people saw Green Acres as a “hick show” that went along with a lot of the CBS lineup at the time (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw), it was quietly subversive by building one of the most surreal universes on television, at least until Twin Peaks came along (and David Lynch may owe some gratitude to GA for making TP possible).

It did this by taking the fish-out-of-water plot (city couple moves to the country) – and after the first few episodes to get everything established, it began to turn things inside out. Lawyer turned farmer Oliver Douglas suddenly found himself (ironically, since he was the one who wanted to make the move) operating in a world whose rules he could never quite comprehend. His ditzy wife, Lisa (who didn’t want to make the move) takes to this new world like a duck to water and understands it perfectly. But Oliver becomes the one voice of sanity in a place where sanity is optional.

After Green Acres, the fish-out-of-water plot was never the same. It was no longer enough to put someone in a strange place. The strange place had to have its own set of rules, to a point where reality became stretched rather thin. Hence the groundwork is set for Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and… well, I’m sure there might have been a couple of others, but I’m not that big a TV watcher.

Granted, this idea of the misplaced fish is not a new one. Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley used the fish-out-of-water to great effect in their respective satires to point out the foibles of society as they saw them. The difference between them and Green Acres is that they used Gulliver and John Savage as why characters, a character that exists so the new world can be explained without resorting to clumsy dialogue and exposition. What made Green Acres so subversive is that the good folks of that universe never offered any explanation as to why it was the way it was. It simply existed that way and it was good enough for them. If Oliver Wendall Douglas couldn’t quite fit in or figure things out, that was his problem.

All of this extends its influence into my current VBS play to the point where characters veer off into an argument over subatomic particles “which haven’t even been discovered yet”, but most folks just seem to know about. There’s a goofy inventor who was consciously based on Hank Kimble, the scatterbrained county agent. And there are not one but two waterless fish – the young man who has come to claim his inheritance, and the nasty King who is blocking his way. Although while the newcomer is only moderately bewildered by some of the goings on in his would-be kingdom, it is the king who suffers the most by trying to get his subjects to conform to what his idea of medieval squalor should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much for a bunch of grade school kids. But there’s enough slapstick and other goofy gags to make them happy, just like in all my other productions.

In the meantime, if you’re called on to discuss a novel or movie where one person is just unable to fit in with a universe that is becoming increasingly bizarre, you can throw a spanner into the works by insisting that the influence is not Swift or Huxley – but rather Green Acres.

And judging from the limited and under-educated viewpoint of many, many writers out there, you’d probably be right.

Mad Men

There’s a moment in Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks is giving a tour of NASA to some visiting dignitaries. He takes them past a room that is filled with the components of a computer. “Look,” he says, “this computer now only takes up an entire room!”1

It’s a cloying line. It’s not the type of thing that would have been said back then. Rather, it was something that the screenwriter put in the mouth of Hanks because he knew it would amuse a modern audience, most of whom probably had more powerful computers sitting atop the engines of their cars, let alone their office desktops. It’s a look into the eyes of the audience, winking, and saying, “Look how backwards things were then!”

Which brings me to Mad Men, the new series on AMC that I was eagerly awaiting. It had a lot of things going for it, I thought. Naturally, as an ad man myself, I thought the show worth checking out. Involved in the project was an executive producer from The Sopranos, a show I have recently come to admire during its rerun on A & E. Most of all, the decision was made to set the show in 1960 – the golden age of advertising, when Madison Avenue could do no wrong, and the men who wrote copy were gods.

And how annoying, then, that the first episode of the show was littered with those winks to the audience to show how backwards and unenlightened we were back in 1960. Start with all of the lines about cigarettes, which were just coming out of a period when four out of five doctors recommended one brand over another. It’s a shame, too, because there was one great moment that said everything that needed to be said about cigarettes in 1960. In the scene, the members of the ad agency meet with tobacco company honchos to discuss what to do now that they can no longer say that cigarettes are good for you. The tobacco baron lights up a cigarette, which is immediately followed by a flare of lighters and puffs of smoke that fill the room, making the rounds like a burning fuse, until the air is thick with haze. That was probably the best moment in the program.

Similarly, the attitudes toward women were so overdone that the liquid boiled off and the remaining gooey mess stuck to the inside of the pot. We’re not so much reminded of the fact that men were all chauvinist pigs as we are bludgeoned.

Then there’s the moment when the Creative Director is asked if he’s decided to take the account of a young presidential candidate who served in the Navy and it turns out to be, ho, ho, Richard Nixon! This would have been a great bit if it had been written a little differently, but I was so tired of the winks at the audience by then that I just rolled my eyes.

I guess my big problem is that I had high expectations for the show. I saw a documentary about how it was created and staged, and painstaking attention was spent on getting details right, from hairstyles to the kinds of toys and appliances that appeared in homes. Why, then, wasn’t the same attention paid to the writing, which to me was filled with tin-eared references for us denizens of the twenty-first century to point and laugh at.

Better to stick with more natural sounding dialogue and let the audience judge the irony of the “complicated machine” that turns out to be an IBM Selectric typewriter. Nyuk, nyuk. I could almost feel the writer jabbing in the ribs on that one.

So Mad Men didn’t make a real good first impression on me. There were a couple of things they did do right, like the drinking, that wasn’t as over the top, and the use of a stripper who was a Marilyn Monroe size 8 as opposed to an anorexic Kate Moss size 0 was a nice detail. I didn’t like it that much, but I might be willing to give it another episode or two before writing it off. After all, there’s only so many other things from that time period that they can point out for us to laugh at… right?

He got a home improvement loan to build a…. FALLOUT SHELTER! Hilarious!

Hmmm. Well, maybe not.

Listening: “Karn Evil 9” – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Return of the Manticore)

  1. There’s a similar clunker in one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous: “It’s called a Mojo. It sends pages by telephone and it ONLY TAKES SEVEN MINUTES A PAGE!” Chortle!

Burned, or, Why I Watch TV Now Instead of Writing

A couple of years ago, I started writing a comic mystery novel. It would have been the first novel in a series, and I was planning for each book to have a central mystery, with a long-term story arc that would stretch across ten books or so in the series.

My protagonist was an American secret agent who had just been laid off. Stranded in New York with no marketable skills, he takes to solving crimes for under-the-table payments in order to get by.

A couple of chapters into it, I told my agent what I was up to. He was unenthusiastic. He didn’t like the plot, and didn’t like the idea that the proposal was for a series character. There were probably some other gripes, but those were the main two.

So last night after The Starter Wife finished up (and I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that I watched it with my wife and rather enjoyed it), a new program starts up. It’s called Burn Notice. Guess what it’s about?

Secret Agent? Check.
Unemployed? Check.
Turns Private Dick? Check.
Cash Payments? Check.
Loopy Ex-Girlfriend? Check.

It even started the way I started my novel, with the agent out on one final job that turns into hash. Only in the TV series, the agent’s life was derailed in the middle of things, and the why seems to be the ongoing mystery. In mine, the way he handled the job was enough to prove that he was no longer relevant, and his life went into the toilet during his debriefing.

Ah, well. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

So, more pages for kindling. I wish some folks would just shut up and let me write. Or at least take some of my ideas seriously.

Or maybe I should just ignore people and write anyway. There’s no terrible sin in having a closet full of unsold manuscripts, I suppose.

Listening: “Right Through You” – Stan Ridgway (Partyball)

Over- and Underwhelmed

Well, I’ve got all 900+ posts on the blog all categorized… now I’ve discovered that I can’t pick up a new blog template from the old account without starting a completely new blog – at least not yet. There’s word in the Blogger literature that a conversion period is coming up, so maybe that will take care of the problem.

As it is right now, the links to the blog archives are all broken because the new system put it into a new directory, and I’m not able to pick up any code to fix it, nor to add category label links to the menu over there on the right.

As I said, maybe that will all come out in the wash. But I thought I’d already “converted” it over… well, only time will tell. If I end up having to go back to a manual workaround for both, I’m going to be unhappy.

Meantime, I watched bits and pieces of House last night between late farm chores. I haven’t been a real fan of this season – I don’t watch the show to see an out-of-control character, and some of the medical cases have been dark and unsatisfying. And while I haven’t seen every episode in the House Runs Afoul of the Law story arc, what I have seen is unimpressive – I guess there’s been a lot of grumbling about it among fans.

So last night House hit bottom and decided to take a career-saving deal offered by the obnoxious cop. Unfortunately, the obnoxious cop went back on his word, and now we get to see House on trial when the show returns in January.

I’m going to be plain spoken about it. This was a stupid turn of events. Once of my long-held complaints about the way TV handles itself is that they tease episodes like “The case that could end House’s career! What will he do!” Or, “The case that could kill off the A-Team! What will they do?”

Of course you know everything is going to turn out okay. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a show left. Yes, I know that half the fun is supposed to be watching how the main character(s) get out of this latest jam, but to me such hyperbole is a stale cliche.

Let’s look at it. The teaser for The Return of House in January showed a scene with him at a trial. Do we seriously expect House to lose his license, go to prison, and open a successful jailhouse practice? Of course not. Something is going to happen to prove the cop is a jerk who had it in for House and entrapped him, and the good doctor will get a smack on the wrist. The season will close with him going in and out of rehab. Then, perhaps, in the fourth season, we can put this whole annoying business behind us.

There’s two writing applications I want to draw out of this. First., don’t be stupid. Don’t put your characters in such a tight jam that you can’t write them out again in a satisfying way. This might sound contradictory to advice I have given earlier – that is, don’t be afraid to beat your characters up and put them into deep trouble – but if you get them in so deep that your solution is:

  • “And it was all a dream”
  • “The hand of God comes down and fixes everything”
  • “Suddenly I am run over by a truck”

then you’re going to have an audience that feels cheated. This might work for TV, but that’s because it’s television. Viewers are used to being cheated week after week after week. And if I grumble about House and you remind me that it’s television, too, I would agree – but House set the bar high and now it can’t seem to get over it.

The other application is related. Make sure you have a climax that matches the situation you’ve set up in the rest of your plot.

Here’s a couple of examples. In Calling Dr. Patchwork, Ron Goulart has a futuristic detective tracking down a vile villain. When he finally comes face to face with him, the hero says, “You’re under arrest,” and the bad guy goes along peaceably. Didn’t work for me, having grown up watching James Bond movies with big, climactic fights at the end. Maybe that’s what Goulart wanted in a sardonic sort of way, but I felt cheated.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s Stephen King, who often writes himself into such a corner that he ends up going off the deep end in his use of surprise. The Hand of God business in The Stand. The friendly sheriff in Needful Things whose magic tricks inexplicably turn into lightning bolts with which to fry the bad guy. In both cases, the method of extrication was way too big for the story. The overall result is not unlike taking a shot at the mouse in your kitchen with a .44 magnum.

So please, think things out. Don’t be stupid. Treat your readers like intelligent folk. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded.

I promise.

Listening:
Sometimes I feel that we’ve been herded like sheep
We’ve been led out like lambs to the slaughter
And empty souls have kept the downtrodden down
And took the best and left us the fodder

(via iTunes shuffle play)

The Sci-Fi Blues

Here’s the second part of Scoob’s missive wherein he asks a very good question: What is it about Sci-Fi that is so difficult for TV to get?

His point is that, in an era that is ready to embrace the genre as its own – there’s even a channel dedicated to it now – why is it that program after program appears, only to screw things up, or, on showing promise, disappear?

He theorizes that it may be the marketing of the program, citing examples like Firefly, and Invasion, which ended on what may be a never-resolved cliffhanger. Also, he speculates that the overall vision, and the control over same as exercised by the creators, may have something to do with it, citing Roddenberry’s influence over the return of the Trek franchise. That could explain the endurance of shows like Babylon 5, which was almost the single-handed work of J. Michael GuywhoselastnameIcan’tspell.

One factor I think he missed is that, more and more often, programs are not given a chance to find their audience. I seem to recall an odd little sitcom that got off to a rocky start, being bounced from one time slot to another. But the core audience stayed loyal, and word spread, and soon it was a hit. It was about some bar where everybody knows your name.

Nowadays, airtime is money, and if a show is not the hit, it gets the axe. Note: this is also true of music acts and authors now.

But there’s one other thing that I think is at work. This should be the Golden Age of SF Cinema (lumping TV in with that for convenience). After all, the years of bad 50’s Sci-Fi are behind us, special effects are incredible, and there’s never been a bigger market for the stuff.

Yet so much of it is terrible. And so much more is just plain gone wrong.

What’s the deal?

I think the main issue comes down to a second question: Why can’t Hollywood seem to get Science Fiction right?

Personally, I think it’s because Hollywood has little if any concept of how ingrained Science should be in SF. They think that if you put a scientific concept, e.g., space ships, in something, it makes it Science Fiction. Not.

(Case in point, Gene Roddenberry’s pitch to NBC about what Star Trek was all about: “It’s Wagon Train in space.”)

There are a lot of definitions of SF out there. Probably the best one is “Science Fiction is what we’re pointing at when we say it.” I’m more of a purist and prefer my own less-forgiving criterion: Take a Science Fiction story. Remove all of the Science. Do you still have a story? Then it’s not Science Fiction.

This is because I feel that science should be integral to the plot. Note that this instantly dismisses stuff like Star Wars*, the Alien films, two thirds of classic Star Trek episodes,** and in the interest of being fair, most of my own SF novels.

When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of what makes SF, meaning you put out bad product, which gives you something like… okay, I’ll pick that scab one more time: Jericho. Yes, I know that the show is supposed to be CBS’s answer to Lost, therefore making it Not Sci-Fi, but bear with me for a moment because it’s flaws illustrate my point well.

And the point is the unwillingness of Hollywood to go the extra mile to make something worthwhile. When Stanley Kubrick sat down with Arthur C. Clarke, their goal was to make “the proverbial good Science Fiction movie.” I don’t know what the creators of Jericho were thinking, but they did prove one thing: a little research is a dangerous thing.

In the case of Jericho, the creator knew that one nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. But then, he tells an interviewer, he did some research and found out some amazing things about nuclear explosions, things that nobody thought much about. Apparently this had to do with fallout, and how rain could wash it out of the sky. So he strove to reflect this in the series.

Unfortunately, his research stopped there. The episode I saw showed a guy poking around a barn looking for some stolen horses (honest). He saw hoofprints in the dust. He kicks at the dirt and stirs up some dust. Cut to a medium shot and he’s surrounded by a nice sunlight that shows he is surrounded by… you guessed it.

If our Hollywood writer had bothered to keep reading the chapter on fallout, he would have learned some other things. Like about “half-life” and “residual radioactivity” and “this stuff can be dangerous for weeks” and “even years later can still make you linger with painful cancer that there are no longer any drugs to treat.”

Needless to say, I gave up on the show just after that. I can only hope that the half-life of Jericho is only a couple of weeks.

So what does work in the world of SF? What has Hollywood done right? In my opinion, films that are true SF are few and far between: 2001: A Space Odyssey and yes, its sequel 2010 (just because it stayed so true to the book); Blade Runner; The Andromeda Strain; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

This brings us back to Scoob’s original question. I just listed five films that should be seen as the Gold Standard for great SF . How many of these were hits? How many are considered “difficult?” How many are even argued over vis a vis their worthiness as entertainment?

I hate to say it, but the answer to Scoob’s question might be as close as a look in the mirror (okay, not for Scoob, and definitely not for me – but you get the idea). The audience just might be as responsible as lazy Hollywood. Do they want something that will provoke thought about man’s insignificance when compared to the cosmos? Do they want something that makes them think about what it means to be human? Do they want to believe that science can save us at best or enslave us at worst?

(Time or Newsweek did a story not too long ago about the fantasy boom saying that SF was in decline because, in real life, the science that was supposed to save and enlighten us has let us down.)

Or does the audience want spectacle, even if there is a casual disregard for the laws of physics? Hey, Star Wars got away with that – and bad writing, too.+

So what’s the answer? Smarter writers? Smarter producers? A smarter audience? Unfortunately, judging from what I’ve seen written about this nation’s composite SAT scores in the Math and Science fields, those won’t arrive any time soon.

Our recourse? We vote. We vote with the only thing that Hollywood understands: our dollars. So the next time you see something challenging, brilliant, moving, and soundly grounded in whatever makes SF proper SF, see the movie, get the T-shirt, buy the soundtrack, see the movie again, then buy the DVD.

But don’t hold your breath. Because the next great SF film or series probably won’t come around for another blue moon.++

Listening:
Now you and I make up perfect things
Watch me trade my wheels for wings
But don’t ever use the wings to fly
Just the essence of a lullaby

(via iTunes)

* Star Wars could have been a great pirate movie, with the two robots being a stuffy English butler and a bulldog. To make this point, at one time I proposed rewriting (and trying to sell) my novel Desperate Measures as not only a pirate novel, but a biker novel, a trucker novel, and a western.

** Note that I like the first two Alien films and I adore classic Star Trek – in fact, it’s hard for me to pull myself away from G4’s uncut airings of Classic Trek on Saturday mornings (as opposed to Star Trek 2.0, which is just plain goofy). I never warmed to The Next Generation – it got too bogged down in political correctness and Gene Roddenberry’s sense of self-importance. I guess this means that TOS is for Republicans and TNG is for Democrats, huh?

+ Kind of like how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera was a hit despite a lack of singable songs because of the falling chandelier.

++ The metaphorical blue moon, not the scientific one.

“Jericho”

While momsitting last night, I happened on Jericho, the post-apocalyptic TV series responsible for this post. I decided to give it a watch, but was only able to stand about twenty minutes before giving up. However, that’s not going to stop me from writing this review:

CREATIVE:
So what do you think, JB?

SUIT:
I’m sorry, but this is routine.

CREATIVE:
Routine? I put my heart into this.

SUIT:
You got a small Kansas town where the Sheriff can’t decide if he wants to leave his wife for a barmaid. You got a prodigal son with a history coming back to town. A mayor with health problems and a sharp tongued wife. A gang of dangerous hoods, and someone with a mysterious, shadowy past. It’s routine potboiler stuff, comes across my desk all the time. Sorry, but the network is taking a pass on this.

CREATIVE:
I see.
(gets up to leave)
Wait. What if I made some changes?

SUIT:
What kind of changes?

CREATIVE:
What if I…
(reaching for an answer)
What if there was something different about the town?

SUIT:
What can possibly be different about a small Kansas town?

CREATIVE:
What if… what if it was…
(the light goes on)
I know! What if it was caught up in the middle of a nuclear war?

SUIT:
Hmmm. Take a bit of rewriting.

CREATIVE:
Not much. A couple of special effect explosions would take care of that.

SUIT:
What about stuff like fallout? Radioactivity?

CREATIVE:
Fallout, schmallout. This isn’t Shakespeare.

SUIT:
(thinks about it)

CREATIVE:
And I’ll introduce you to that blonde we saw at the restaurant.

SUIT:
(pulling a contract from a desk drawer)
Sign here.

It’s a shame, too… Pamela Reed is a criminally underrated actress.