October 09, 2005
He's Going to Need a Fortress of Solitude
How the heck did I miss this little tidbit last week? Actor Nicolas Cage and his wife had a son last week and named him Kal-El-- Superman's name on his native planet of Krypton.
I'm going to repeat that.
Nicolas Cage has named his son Kal-El.
Nope, no less ridiculous the second time. Wouldn't it just be easier to name him Beatmeup? Sure, if he's a sports star in school, that name will rock. Cheerleaders will have a field day. But if he's not an athlete, the kid's entire childhood is going to be an unending nightmare. It's like Cage wants his son to grow up bitter and resentful. And those personalized kiddie bicycle license plates? Forget it.
Still, it could be worse. He could be Rob Morrow's daughter, Tu.
October 06, 2005
Down the Hatch
In pre-season interviews, producers of Lost said fans should watch for episode 3. That episode aired last night, and it certainly gave us some answers. In particular, we now know exactly what the island is-- or perhaps, what it was. We have an explanation for the polar bears that don't involve them being materialized by the power of Walt's mind. We have the groundwork for more research facilities being discovered in the future. We have hints that something may have gone wrong a long time ago, which opens up some interesting theories about the various disciplines on the island becoming isolated. Or nothing may have gone wrong at all, and the orientation film-- which never mentions the exact nature of the threat, why it's so vital for the code to be transmitted every 108 minutes, or what would happen were a transmission to be missed-- may just be part of an (abandoned?) psychology experiment. We found out why it's so important for Locke to believe in something-- that he did not come by his faith easily, and that faith is all that holds him together.
We're also starting to meet the survivors from the back end of the plane, and are learning that their response to the crash appears to have been much different from that of the front passengers. Looks like it's Lord of the Flies time, and things are about to get much less civilized. Jack's a peace-time leader, not a general-- that job better suits Sayid or Sawyer. If the two groups of survivors clash, I expect we'll see some power struggles on the familiar side of the island.
Episode 2 didn't do much more than tread water, literally and figuratively, but things just got much more interesting.
October 03, 2005
Awwwwww... Geek Out!
The Boston Globe released its list of the top 50 science fiction television series of all time. The only reason such lists exist is to pick them apart and cluck at how off-base the idiots who compile them are, so far be it from me to shirk my civic duty.
Here's the Globe list:
50. Earth: Final Conflict
49. The Wild Wild West
48. 3rd Rock From the Sun
47. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
46. That Was Then
45. The Greatest American Hero
44. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
43. Nowhere Man
42. Science Fiction Theater
40. The Thunderbirds
39. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
37. Space: 1999
36. The Bionic Woman
35. Battlestar Galactica (original)
34. The Avengers
33. Lost in Space
32. My Favorite Martian
31. Alien Nation
30. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
29. The Six Million Dollar Man
28. Adventures of Superman
27. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
26. Stargate Atlantis
25. The Jetsons
24. Wonder Woman
23. Tales from the Crypt
21. Quantum Leap
20. The Hitchhiker
19. Dark Angel
16. Flash Gordon
15. Logan's Run
14. Star Trek: Voyager
13. The Outer Limits
12. Xena: Warrior Princess
9. Mystery Science Theater 3000
8. Doctor Who
7. The Twilight Zone
6. Stargate SG-1
5. Babylon 5
4. The X-Files
3. Star Trek: The Next Generation
2. Battlestar Galactica (new)
1. Star Trek
Obviously, the Globe's concept of science fiction extends to anything with a hint of the impossible or the imaginary. One could argue about whether The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man were science fiction or spy action shows (I say the latter), but Xena was mythological fantasy with no hint of science fiction. In fact, I'd say 13 shows on the list (Nowhere Man, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Batman, The Avengers, The Greatest American Hero, Lois & Clark, The Adventures of Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, Tales From the Crypt, The Hitchhiker, Xena, and Lost) clearly don't fit the category, and 5 others (3rd Rock From the Sun, The Bionic Woman, My Favorite Martian, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The X-Files) are questionable. And if you're going to put Lost on the list at all, for God's sake rank it higher than a train wreck of a show like Sliders!
Next, let's question whether some of the genuine science fiction shows belong on any list with the word "best" in it. Earth: Final Conflict was at least three different shows over the course of its run, each less interesting than the last. By its final season, the show was something not even Gene Roddenberry would have foisted on the public. Buck Rogers also suffered an extreme makeover when the action shifted from New Chicago to the spaceship Searcher. Nobody called it a masterpiece during its initial run, and it hasn't aged well. The original Battlestar Galactica may be fondly remembered by some, but it's practically unwatchable. They recycled the same Viper shots over and over, and feathered hair is apparently alive and well in the far reaches of the galaxy. And let's not even get started about Dagget, the robotic pet. And Flash Gordon? Really?!
Now let's quibble about placement. Nostalgia notwithstanding, there is no way to justify ranking Futurama below The Jetsons. Alien Nation, a series that had some real intelligence behind it, should be much higher-- certainly above Andromeda. The aforementioned Sliders should slide way, way down the list. It's a crime to rank both Logan's Run and Voyager higher than the vastly superior Firefly, and I'd prefer to see Quantum Leap in the top 15. I think they're spot on with the high ranking of the new Battlestar Galactica, but I'd put Babylon 5 in the number 3 spot. While I can understand the emotional allure of putting the original Star Trek at the top of the list, I can't think of any sane metric by which it outshines the rightful chart-topper, The Next Generation.
Finally, a brief list off the top of my head of series missing from the list that should have been considered: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (a vastly underrated series that put Voyager to shame), Star Trek: Enterprise, Farscape, Red Dwarf, The Tomorrow People, Max Headroom, The Prisoner, Mork and Mindy.
September 29, 2005
I think The Apprentice has just about run its course for me. The intense commercialization of the program, with each episode lavishing praise upon the corporate sponsor du jour while simultaneously elevating to godhood the Trump Organization or Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has gotten a little hard to stomach. The players are largely the same mix of ladder-climbing type-A personalities every season, without the benefit of exotic locales and bikinis to distract viewers. The challenges are capricious and success often has little relation to how well the players worked. Trump, in particular, places a disturbing emphasis on victory. When a team loses the challenge by a couple of bucks and Trump asks "What went wrong?" the correct answer is that nothing went wrong. The team did well and came up short by the slimmest possible margin. A mensch would tell the team that they did very well, but the nature of the competition is that there's a winner and a loser-- so let's talk about what could have been improved. Instead, when the team says it was a virtual tie, Trump just pounds them with "But you lost!" There's no praise for what went right, just griping about what went wrong. That may make for better television, but it cultivates an image of a guy I'd never want to work for.
I had hopes for Martha's version, but it appears to be heading down a similar path despite all the talk about a softer, gentler Martha. Yes, Chuck almost quit. But what wound up happening was that the entire team rallied around him, and he bounced back with renewed focus and leadership. He had a moment of weakness, and then rebounded. But Martha ignored the unity that brought to the team-- and the leadership he displayed by bringing Jim and Dawn to the boardroom in an effort to eliminate the central conflict within their team-- and focused instead on that one moment of weakness. Her reasoning was petty and superficial, ignoring the bigger and more pressing problem of Jim's collossal ego. One can't help but wonder if Martha's leaving Jim alone for the same reason Trump kept Omarosa around-- a good villain makes people tune in. If I was a boss and an employee acted with the disrespect and childishness Jim demonstrated in the conference room, there would be no question about who got fired.
A problem with judged shows in general, and especially ones in which the judges have such a vested financial stake in success, is there's a strong incentive to rig the outcome to create higher ratings. Perhaps Martha already knows that she'll fire Jim eventually, but wants to keep him around a while to spice things up. That might be exactly what some viewers want, but for viewers like me it undermines the integrity of the competition and makes us far less interested in tuning in.
September 27, 2005
If there's anything more annoying to a television fan than having a promising new series cut down in its infancy, it's when that series leaves unanswered plot points behind. We'll never get to the bottom of the mysteries behind Nowhere Man or John Doe, but for Firefly fans closure is finally here in the form of Serenity.
If you liked the show, you'll like the movie. All the same elements are there-- the snappy patter, the retro-western patois, the moral ambiguity of survival on the frontier, the gritty barely-holding-together ship. Many of the funniest bits are spoiled by the trailer (why, oh why do those Hollywood bozos not get it?), but there's plenty of Whedonesque humor throughout. Viewers unfamiliar with the series should be able to follow right along, but will certainly miss the deeper level of subtext and resonance that comes from having already spent 14 hours with these characters.
When the series ended, there were a few dangling questions: What did the Alliance do to River? Why do they want her back so badly? Where do the Reavers come from? Will Simon ever stop worrying about River long enough to return Kaylee's advances? Will Mal and Inara just drop the game and confess their feelings for each other? All of these questions get answered. In fact, the movie begins with a terrific double-flashback device that deftly handles not only the required exposition to set up the film for those who missed the television series, but answers one of those burning questions right out of the gate.
Whedon made some interesting choices with some of the characters-- in particular (highlight the space between the brackets to reveal minor spoilers) [not all of the main characters survive the film]-- which have me wondering if he planned things that way from the beginning or changed course to better serve the needs of a motion picture. Would things have wound up differently had the series been allowed to run its course?
The ultimate answer to the question of why the Alliance wants River turns out to be a bit of a letdown, if only because it was invented from whole cloth. Babylon 5 creator and former Murder, She Wrote producer J. Michael Straczynski once said that before you fire a gun, you need to have a shot of it sitting on the mantle. That's why every Bond movie includes a scene with Q demonstrating 007's gadgetry-- so when it actually gets used in the plot, it won't seem like it was pulled out of thin air. And that's actually a very ham-fisted solution to the problem. Far better is to show us the gun without having us realize it's a gun. Whedon set up the Reavers quite effectively in the television series, for example, with the result that their role in the film works. But the bug up the Alliance's butt-- the particular thing they're afraid people will discover-- came more or less out of nowhere. Perhaps the series just ended before Whedon could work in the setup, or perhaps this wasn't quite the payoff he'd planned when the show began.
The characters, however, remain faithful to their established selves-- particularly Mal, whose journey rings especially true. I have other quibbles-- the editing in the climactic space battle made things difficult to follow, some of the series regulars were given short shrift in the screenplay, and the groovy theme song was noticable in its absence-- but I left the theater remarkably satisfied.
September 21, 2005
I don't care how much I loved my wrongly-imprisoned, soon-to-be-executed brother, or how determined I was to free him by any means necessary. If I went from a white-collar world to a high-security prison, got caught in a race riot, and had two of my toes brutally snipped by a hedge clipper, my resolve would be shaken. Not so with Michael Scofield, protagonist of Fox's high-concept Prison Break. Save for a moment when someone literally died in his arms, in five weeks we haven't seen him crack or waver. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. It'd certainly be more realistic to see him freak out a little, but it would also undermine the bedrock upon which the show is based. It's vital for us to believe that Michael has the intelligence, resourcefulness, courage and fortitude to conceive of and execute his plan, or else the entire series goes down the crapper. Despite the ex-girlfriend lawyer, the doomed brother's ex-wife and son, and the cell mate's fiancee, at its core this is a caper story. We're tuning in to see the details of Scofield's plan unfold and watch him succeed. Sure, we might pick apart the details-- there was no real reason for him to tattoo "Schweitzer" on himself, the Secret Service guys have thusfar been too prescient and omnipotent-- but a caper is all about the cleverness and intricacy of the plan, of seeing the bits and pieces of the Rube Goldberg machine drop into place and make magic. And at that level, Prison Break does not disappoint.
Unlike most high-concept shows, this one actually seems to have a plan. Plot points are introduced multiple episodes before they pay off, increasing the viewer's satisfaction when they do. The real question is how the producers plan to parlay this into a second season. A show like this wants to have a beginning, middle, and most of all an end. I'll have no problem if, after breaking out, our heroes then discover a need to break back in. But once the underlying conspiracy to frame Michael's brother Lincoln is thwarted, it would stretch credulity beyond repair for the same characters to get involved in a second escape. And when your show's called Prison Break, you don't have much flexibility in your subject matter. So I'm hoping the producers are wise enough to make this season a self-contained story, and focus on a new set of characters should a second season come about. Because I'm willing to do my time for 26 episodes, but if this story hasn't wrapped up by then I'm busting out.
September 19, 2005
AOL users have long been ridiculed on the Internet for being generally clueless about how things really work, but this takes the cake. Since last season, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's Ask the Audience lifeline has generated two results-- one from the studio audience, and another from an AOL Instant Messenger poll. Tonight, when asked which of ABC, CBS, NBC, or PBS can be typed using only the bottom row of letters on a standard keyboard, only 85% of the AOL audience-- each of whom was sitting in front of such a keyboard-- got the question correct. The remaining 15% must have been preoccupied trying to fax something by holding it up to their monitor screen.
Spam and Poi
I couldn't believe my eyes. Spam, right there on the menu, as a peer with chicken, beef, and shrimp. Grilled over rice, or-- and this blew my mind-- as a form of cooked sushi called musubi. I asked the proprietor about this, and was informed that musubi-- and in fact Spam in general-- is a culinary staple in Hawaii. Everyone eats it. Over 5.5 cans of Spam are sold per year, per Hawaiian. I gather that Hawaii's fondness for Spam is well-known, but until now it wasn't to me. Talk about cognitive dissonance. When I think of Hawaii, I think of roast pig, pineapple, and poi. I think of fresh, colorful tropical foods with simple, traditional preparations. Discovering that the island's culinary tradition now includes Spam is a bit like learning Italians lead the world in Spaghetti-Os consumption (don't panic-- I made that up).
To be fair, I've never eaten Spam. I don't much care for ham to begin with, so I don't imagine that ripping the SP off of Letterman's varsity sweater to transform it into a canned meat would do much to improve it for me. But it will take some time to get used to the notion that the tropical nirvana I envision in my mind's eye goes gaga over an oft-ridiculed canned luncheon meat.
September 18, 2005
An Australian man built up a 40,000 volt charge of static electricity in his clothing as he walked, enough to ignite a carpet and just shy of spontaneous combustion. This is the first time I've seen one of these bizarre stories happen in a first world country and not some backwater village in Mongolia, where news sources might be more suspect. Of course, The Weekly World News is headquartered in Florida so there goes that theory.
September 17, 2005
Big Brother 6 Winds Down
The final Head of Household competition was, I think, the closest in BB history. Janelle just kind of fell apart, making some really bad guesses and losing her chance at $50,000. Yes, fifty. Regardless of who she chose, there was no way she could win the grand prize-- the jury is just too stacked in the other players' favor. Much of the blame for that can be laid squarely at Howie's feet for making the colossal mistake of wasting his first term as HoH and getting manipulated into nominating the very two players the competing faction wanted to get nominated, fracturing his power base in the process.
I don't care for Maggie's supercilious demeanor-- in a game like Big Brother, there's no such thing as playing dirty-- but I have to hand it to her. If the other players had had ANY brains whatsoever, Maggie would have been evicted weeks ago. She was not only the brains behind the "Friendship" alliance, but their backbone and anchor. Had the others realized that and ousted her at the first opportunity, the rest of that alliance might have crumbled. Instead, the doomed other faction let emotions rule their nominations. Janelle may have been the tougher competitor, but Maggie was the better player. Yvette cries a good story (at every opportunity), but I expect the jury to recognize Maggie's solid play and give her the money.
Nobody goes on a show like Big Brother or Survivor to make friends. Once, just once, I'd love to see someone reach that final three moment and make the intelligent choice instead of the emotional one. "Jane, you've been my best friend these past weeks, and I don't know how I'd have gotten through this without you. But everyone loves you, and if I take you with me to the finals, there's no way I can beat you. I hate Bob, but so does the jury-- if I take him with me, I'll win the money. And the money is why I came here. We all came here for the same thing, and we all knew the rules. We knew we'd be getting close to people and then voting them out of the game. It's hard, and it stinks, but that's the game we signed up for. The game came first, and our friendship developed second. I have to finish what I started and make the best play I can to win the money-- and that means voting you out." Just once.
September 16, 2005
It looks like Stephanie and Bobby Jon will get a reasonable shot on their new tribes, both of which have lower-hanging chaff to boot before their numbers come up. I'm one of the millions who was utterly enchanted by Stephanie's determination and spirit, and agree with one of Bobby Jon's tribemates who said Bobby Jon is not the sharpest tool in the shed. So I'm rooting for Stephanie's tribe all the way, and I'll admit to cheering when Stephanie won her first tribal immunity challenge. That had to feel good.
September 14, 2005
When a genre show gets buzz, I pay attention. So despite the pretty-boy casting typical of the WB, which exists in a universe populated by catalogue models and pin-ups, I tuned in for the premiere of Supernatural. And the jury's still out. The characters are a little too pat, for one thing. There's the dutiful older son (Dean) faithful to his father's demon-hunting obsession, and the reluctant younger son (Sam) trying to live a normal life only to get sucked back into the hunt against his will. The irony is that the family's descent into the supernatural is all about Sam, although he doesn't know it yet-- and I don't think the viewers are supposed to have sussed it out either. Sam's mother, y'see, was killed when Sam was just a baby. She stumbled across something-- from the back, seemingly just a guy in a trenchcoat-- standing over Sam's crib, and next thing you know she's plastered to the ceiling, then immolated. Twenty years later, Sam's girlfriend is killed in precisely the same way. Something out there seems a touch jealous. In the pilot we also learn from a spirit that Sam will someday be unfaithful, perhaps (and I'm just guessing here) triggering the creation of a vengeful spirit who travels back through Sam's life, murdering all the women who ever loved him.
The thing is, we'll probably never know. It's exactly the kind of mystery shows like this dole out in tiny scraps over the course of the series, stringing the viewer along with a promise that is never fulfilled. If the show succeeds the mystery gets stretched on to infinity (c.f.: The X-Files). If it fails, no resolution is ever forthcoming (John Doe). It's a Kobayashi Maru test for the viewer, and like global thermonuclear war the only winning move is not to play. So you have to tune in just for the episodic goodness and treat the overarching story as a bonus, an after-dinner liqueur compliments of the house. Supernatural did manage to pack some decent chills into its first hour, so I'll give it a few more tries before I decide if it makes the cut.
It's got some tough competition for the 2 Tuesday at 9 TiVo slots. The Amazing Race has one of them locked. That leaves a three-way battle between Supernatural, House (which I didn't watch last season but have heard raves about), and Commander-in-Chief starring Geena Davis as the first female president which premieres later this month. We'll see what makes the cut, and what makes BitTorrent.
Survivor Starts Tomorrow
Early reports are that this season is brutal. Palau was a gorgeous island locale with beautiful beaches and scenery, while Guatemala is rainy, brown, and muddy. Contestants are plagued by clouds of mosquitos and packs of howler monkeys. Reportedly there's nowhere to fish, making one player's fishmongering expertise useless.
Minor spoilers follow: The show begins with a gruelling 11-mile trek through the jungle, with the winning tribe getting flint and first pick of the two base camps. Reports indicate the trek kicked players' butts, turning out to be far more difficult than producers expected. Which should, at least, make for some interesting television. But the bigger twist to the season is that two familiar faces get a second chance at the game. Stephanie and Bobby Jon from Palau's doomed Ulong tribe return to captain each of the Guatemalan tribes. It'll be interesting to hear their reasons for returning. For Stephanie, I can't imagine it being anything but an anticlimax. She was a tragic heroine last season and went out as one of the darlings of the show. I can't imagine players letting her get near the prize money this time-- I expect we'll hear a lot of players conspiring to vote them off quickly, although smart ones will choose to keep them around for a while to leverage their experience-- which means the second chapter of her tale will have a less glorious finish. But then, I never would have thought Amber would win All-Stars, so what do I know? Far stranger things have happened on Survivor.
I was talking with someone recently and mentioned that I have a hard time thinking of myself as an adult-- that my self-image is more of a college student, despite being fifteen years out of college. I hadn't really thought about it any more deeply until then, but the reasons make sense to me. A lot of things in life have changed-- location, job, hairline-- but one thing that hasn't is that, as a single guy, I'm still only responsible for myself. My decisions are based on what's best for me, or what I want. Any mistakes I make affect only me. I see that as a key hallmark of one's college years.
I think the true passage into adulthood comes when you start making decisions based on how they affect others. For most people, that comes first with a committed relationship (which may or may not include marriage), then again with children. I have none of those things and therefore enjoy the luxury of living selfishly, in a non-pejorative sense.
It was suggested to me that I'm not unusual-- that few of us really think of ourselves as adults. I have no doubt that's true physically-- that many of us imagine ourselves to be as attractive, slim, athletic, and fit as we were in our primes-- I'm less convinced that the pool of Peter-Pan-complexed adults isn't kiddie-sized.
And so, in the interest of science, I turn to you. How do you view yourself-- as an adult, a college student, a teenager, a child? Do you feel older than your years, or younger? What reflection does your psychic mirror show you?
September 11, 2005
The latest issue of Cook's Illustrated included a recipe for raspberry bars. I've made it twice now-- I'm working my way up to my true goal, raspberry linzer cookies, which are a lot more work what with the rolling and the cutting of the dough, but have all that almondy goodness-- and the bars have come out perfect both times. It's a great, super-easy recipe, and it's available at the Cook's Illustrated web site for free. I used frozen raspberries both times and have no complaints, so don't let a lack of fresh berries stop you. Do your family a favor and give it a try.