Monday, October 01, 2007

Short Takes – October 1, 2007

Yeah, I know, I didn't do my DVD piece this week. Well are you really surprised? With the volume of new shows that popped up this week (and the backlog of reviews for me to still write), it didn't make sense for me to do a DVD list, and I don't know that I'll get around to one next week either. But I am doing my Short Takes piece because I enjoy it, new news is starting to flow and the PTC continues to make a collective ass of itself. That last one is my bread and butter).

(Incidentally, in case you were wondering my DVD Pick of the Week is the The Complete Thunderbirds Megaset. I was a huge fan of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson "Supermarionation" series that I saw – particular favourites were Fireball XL5 and Stingray – but the king of them all for me was Thunderbirds The various ships were terrifically realised (my favourite was the submarine Thunderbird 4 for some reason – maybe it's the same reason why I felt sorry for John, always stuck in the space station) and the way that the characters got to their ships how the ships were launched was unique to an Anderson series. Having seen the show after my childhood enjoyment of it I've noticed details I never picked up on before or forgotten about (the smoking puppets besides Lady Penelope being one of them, as well as the times when human hands are used in close ups) but while my appreciation of it has changed, I still love it.)

Dead and alive: While Jorja Fox's character of Sara Sidle survived last season's CSI cliffhanger, the character won't be with the show much longer. Fox's contract with the show ran out at the end of last season and the parties were unable to come to terms on a new one, however she has apparently agreed to appear in six or seven episodes in the current season, I suppose to move the character's departure up to November sweeps. Fox's contract came up for renewal a year before most of the other actors on the show because she refused a raise that she considered to be "terrible, to be frank." A condition of accepting that wage increase was an extension of the contract for one year, Fox told TV Guide's Michael Ausiello. Part of the reason for her decision not to renew at that time was fallout from her brief firing from the show (along with George Eads) in 2004. At that time Fox was fired for not returning her contract for the fifth season of the show (which required that actors show up on the set on time); in fact she had sent her contract to CBS but unlike other cast members she sent hers by the mail and it was delayed. This time however, it appears that Jorja – and Sara – are really going.

Gomer Pyle makes Corporal – after 43 years: Well actually it was Jim Nabors who became an honorary Marine Corps Corporal. Nabors played Gomer Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show from 1962-1964 and then on his own spin-off Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. from 1964 to 1969. In the latter show Pyle was a good natured but sometimes slow witted member of the Marines whose constantly aggravated his platoon commander, Sergeant Carter. In the series Pyle never advanced beyond the rank of Private First Class. Nabors, on the other hand, was made an honorary Marine in 2001 by then Commandant General James L. Jones and was immediately promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. However, a Lance Corporal is an appointed rank and is not a Non-Commissioned Officer. On September 25, 2007 Nabors was promoted to the rank of Corporal by Lt. General John F Goodman "based on his outstanding contributions to the Marine Corps and the United States." Nabors was presented with an NCO's sword, the oldest weapon in the US Military today (it is based on the 1859 model Infantry Officer's Sword). The Marines are the only branch of the US military that authorizes NCOs to carry swords. Among other honorary Marines are/were Lon Chaney Sr. (made an honorary Marine following the 1926 movie Tell It To The Marines), Joe Rosenthal whose photo of the raising of the second flag on Iwo Jima was the model for the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, and Chuck Norris who was somewhat controversially given the title in April of this year. As a Corporal, Nabors is superior to Norris, however both men have to take orders from a rabbit. Bugs Bunny was made an honorary Marine Corps Master Sergeant in 1943.

Nashville not "cancelled": In other news about things that were too long delayed, FOX has pulled their new reality soap Nashville from the line up after two dismally rated episodes, which was at least one too many. But the show isn't cancelled – oh no. The show will be returning FOX says. It's being "rescheduled" for later in October, after the Baseball playoffs (you know, the albatross that traditionally breaks the FOX line-up into two halves and gives the other networks a freeroll against the network because they don't do Baseball as well as NBC did). Or least that's what FOX says. Trouble is, after Baseball vacates Friday nights the network has The Next Great American Band which I gather is sort of like American Idol for bands. So where does FOX stick Nashville (and don't give me the answer I know you're all thinking – the PTC wouldn't approve)? And should they stick a show that drew 2.1 million viewers and a 0.8 rating 3 share against reruns any place but in the trash bin? FOX's promises to bring this show hasn't been cancelled are the equivalent of saying that "it's pining for the fjords." Lovely plumage though.

Is BEN SILVERMAN the reincarnation of Brandon Tartikoff?: Probably not but he is making a couple of moves on shows that Brandon would have found very familiar. First Ben Silverman announced that NBC would be looking at reviving American Gladiators as a prime time series. I'll let that concept sink in for a moment or two. American Gladiators. As a prime time series?! This past week it was announced that NBC was looking to revive Knight Rider as a two hour movie that could serve as a possible pilot. Knight Rider! Most of you know that Knight Rider was created and produced by Glenn Larson (the guy who gave us Battlestar Galactica and The Bionic Woman both of which have been re-imagined by NBC-Universal) but what you may not know is that the original concept came from the musings of Brandon Tartikoff. According to the The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present (of which I desperately need a new copy) Tartikoff and one of his assistants were talking about the problems of leading men who looked good but couldn't act. The solution they came up with was called "The Man With Six Words." Each episode would begin with the handsome (but talentless) leading man getting out of a woman's bed and saying "Thank you," after which he'd chase down the bad guys and at the end of the chase would shout "Freeze!" Finally, after the grateful people he'd saved thanked him, he'd quietly say "You're welcome." (Yes I know that's only five words; I suppose the guy would get a different wild card word each week.) The car – which could be portrayed by an actor with real ability since he wouldn't actually be seen – would do the rest of the talking. And while David Hasselhoff might not have been as bad an actor as in the original concept, it is still worth noting that William Daniels (who voiced the car) could act circles around him without ever being seen.

Who does the PTC hate this week?: Well not themselves of course. They were promoting a new website – – with a calculator which purports to inform us of the relative costs of various cable channels and how much the American consumer could save if only they were allowed the freedom to pay for only those stations they want to receive. One of the problems is the price they assert for the various networks. In a footnote at the bottom of the page the organization notes, "Cable companies and programmers do not reveal their contracted programming rates. Each of the 1,000+ cable operators in the US negotiates their network agreements separately, which will result in a range of programming fees. While every effort has been made to offer an accurate and representative picture of average programming prices, these rates should never been presented or published as fact." In other words, though the PTC says that ESPN costs the consumer $3.80 a month they're also saying that they don't know the actual prices because those prices vary between service providers, presumably with the bigger providers like Time-Warner having more clout with the networks than the small local companies (if any of them still exist). Another interesting point is the price that is charged on their lists. With the exception of seven networks (ESPN, Nickelodeon, ESPN2, TNT, CNN, The Sci-Fi Channel and what they label Regional Sports Network – by which they probably mean something like NESN or the various Fox Sportnets) none of the networks are priced at over $1 per month. Choosing to eliminate frequent PTC cable worst targets E!, MTV, FX, Comedy Central, and Spike would save the consumer $3.25 per month or $39 a year off a current cable bill of $375.60 per year. Among the stations absent from the PTC's list are religious stations – mostly of the conservative fundamentalist variety – and home shopping networks. Do Americans get those for "free"?

The PTC also seems to be branching out from "impure" TV content. They've always been adamant in attacks on video games but their new crusade is in support of a law that would restrict the sort of video content that the airlines can show on monitors in their cabins. In a press release in relation to a bill (which the PTC inaccurately refers to as legislation; legislation refers to a bill that has been passed and enacted as law) introduced in the House of Representatives related to airlines' in-flight entertainment programming. (The PTC also doesn't mention any details about the bill they're talking about, like the number or the member of Congress who introduced it.) In the press release, PTC President Tim Winter writes "We are asking the airline industry to take responsibility for the new barrage of adult-oriented entertainment they are forcing on captive audiences in the form of in-flight entertainment. It is ridiculous that this issue has become so commonplace, so outrageous, that our elected officials feel they have been left with no choice but to intervene." The "adult content" that Winter refers to includes the TV series Las Vegas and Desperate Housewives, the HBO series Rome ("that has been described as sadistic") and the Anthony Hopkins film Fracture which "features a graphic depiction of Anthony Hopkins shooting his wife in the face." The PTC uses some typically fallacious logic by saying, "Air travelers don't purchase tickets based on the airline's sexual or violent content on the in-flight entertainment system; therefore, there is no market demand for this type of material on airplanes with mixed audiences that regularly include children." Extending that logic, air travelers don't normally purchase tickets based on there being in-flight entertainment (or the food, or anything beyond the fact that the plane goes where they want to go at a price that they are willing to pay) therefore there no market demand for this type of service at all. Now it's been some time since I've flown and when I did there was no movies or video provided on flights to or from Saskatoon, but I was under the impression that airlines are increasingly moving to personal in flight entertainment systems of this sort which allows individual travellers a greater selection of what they want to watch rather than having to watch what everyone else watches no matter what. If these services are widely offered then surely it is the responsibility of the individual traveller to choose what they want to watch and what they want their children to see on their screens. And given that shows like Desperate Housewives and Las Vegas are broadcast on network TV without complaint except from organizations like the PTC it would seem to be an area that government shouldn't involve itself with.

So now we turn to the PTC's Broadcast Worst of the Week. Not surprisingly it's Prison Break on Fox, primarily for the violent content in the first hour of prime time. But they start with a scene that they object to for an entirely different reason: "The show opens with Michael trapped in a Panamanian prison run by a dictatorial warden. One of the warden's mistresses is shown getting dressed after an implied sexual encounter with the warden. As she stands exposed in her bra and panties, she picks up a crucifix and holds it close to her partially covered breast. There is no apparent meaning to this shot other than to show a disregard for the sanctity of such a symbol." Far be it for me to contradict the PTC...oh hell, I love to contradict the PTC. The PTC is so busy being outraged that they don't bother to offer context to a scene that they're ripping to pieces. From this description we have no knowledge of the status of the woman involved. Rather than the warden's willing mistress she might very well be the wife/lover/girlfriend/sister/mother of a prisoner forced to surrender her sexual favours in return for better treatment for her husband/lover/boyfriend/brother/father. Her action in holding the crucifix to her breast could – and indeed would – be seen as a part of a prayer, an act of contrition of a devout woman for her sin. And the warden? He isn't the warden, he's the meanest toughest inmate in the Sona Prison who has engineered the takeover of the place. There is no warden; there are no guards. That's important for the next two scenes that the PTC cites. In one "the warden threatens an inmate, to the point that the inmate wets his pants in terror." But of course he's not "the warden", he's one of the inmates which takes away all of the protections that even the warden of the worst South American prison would be bound by. In other words if this guy threatens to cut off your testicles and make you eat them to you there is absolutely no reason to believe that he won't do it. And then there's what the PTC calls the most violent scene of the episode, "when Michael is forced to fight to the death with another, much larger, inmate. Michael and the man engage in a fierce battle that ends when Michael breaks the man's neck, killing him." But as the preview in TVSquad says, "Internally run by inmate Lechero (Robert Wisdom), Sona is like one big Thunderdome where people settle their differences by killing each other. Lechero calls all the shots within the prison, including who fights, who eats, who gets water and, as we see early on of Bellick, who gets clothing."

Now here is where I'm going to shock you. The PTC's conclusion is that "After two seasons of Prison Break, it is still shocking that Fox has such a lack of concern for family viewers at 8 o'clock in the evening. Violent content such as this is suited for extended cable and R-rated movies, not the Family Hour." Set aside the comment about the non-existent "Family Hour" and the claim that the scene is suited only to R-rated movies or extended cable. I honestly don't think that Prison Break should be on in the first hour of prime time. It is violent. It should be on at a later time. But since Fox only programs two hours a night (for legal reasons that are too complicated for my poor wee brain, and also because their affiliates make a lot of money from early local news and an extra hour of old sitcoms) they can't put their most violent shows at a later hour. That said, if you don't know after two seasons that this show is totally unsuitable for kids under a certain age then I feel sorry for you.

Next up is the Cable Worst of the Week and this week it is the TNT series Saving Grace about a female cop played by Holly Hunter, whose lifestyle is on a self-destructive downward spiral of sex and booze. For whatever reason (I don't watch the show) she has a "last chance angel" beside her, named Earl. In the season finale, Grace has gone off on one of her typical assignations. I'll let the PTC pick up the description here: "To differentiate this instance of gratuitous sex from the many others, a naked Grace is tied down on her bed. But this unconventional foreplay comes at a cost: Grace is abandoned by her lover, and is left confined to her bed. Grace seeks Earl's help, but his own hands are tied. This angelic creature can transport Grace instantly to the Grand Canyon, but apparently untying Grace would violate a divine prohibition—or TNT's salacious ideas about programming. But worry not: Grace is eventually freed by her partner Ham." Now I'm not entirely sure what the PTC is objecting to here so I clicked on their handy video file. As it turns out Hunter is in fact naked but she is lying on her stomach and for most of the scene she is shot in such a way that we most we see is the side of her buttocks. The final shot in the clip is an overhead shot where we actually see her whole ass but frankly it is no more than we used to see on NYPD Blue in the days before Janet Jackson's nipple. Now I don't get why the PTC objects to the angel Earl not being allowed to untie Grace, except as being an instance of TNT's "salacious ideas about programming" it allows us more time to look at Holly Hunter's (not unattractive for a woman of 49) bare butt. I'm sure that in the context of the show it makes perfect sense – probably something about being found in this humiliating situation being a necessary step on the road to redemption or something. But then the PTC offers what to my puny brain is a non sequitur: "And what do viewers see after this sexually-charged instance of supposed character development? The dead body of Ella Duncan, with a knife lodged in her chest. Fellow investigators Butch and Henry offer graphic detail to Ella's death:
Butch: "She was tortured."
Henry: "Yeah. These slash marks, none of them are fatal. The killer spent some time hurting her."

I'm really not sure what the PTC is getting at with this juxtaposition except, I suppose, to say that the show is evil not just because of sex but also because of violence as well. Anyway, here's the PTC's conclusion with my own editorial content in parentheses: "Not long ago programming like Saving Grace was relegated to premium cable, permitting consumers to choose what kind of cable fare they paid for. (Untrue. As I pointed out the scene described and viewable on the PTC's website is not unlike scenes that were seen on broadcast TV until three and a half years ago on NYPD Blue.) But basic cable programming has dramatically changed. A&E re-runs HBO's Sopranos (without the nudity and with the obscenities removed) and TNT now emulates the FX network's successful expansion into TV-MA programming. While some basic cable subscribers may revel in this expansion of original basic programming, others are stuck with the bill. Households merely wanting CNN or ESPN must now subsidize programming they would find repulsive and would never watch." And here we run into the usual PTC nonsense about "subsidization of programming." Apparently we are supposed to believe that the $12 a year that the PTC claims that cable subscribers pay to get TNT underwrites this show without considering that profits from the network might also go to pay for other shows that the network presents that the PTC doesn't object to. Surely if you object to a show on TNT the proper course of action isn't to throw out the baby with the bathwater – not subscribe to the network even though it has more shows that you like than you object to – but to just not watch the show in question in the hopes that the decline in ratings will make it unattractive to advertisers.

Finally (and this has turned out to be a long piece hasn't it) we come to the PTC's Misrated section, which never fails to give me something totally ridiculous to, well ridicule. This time around the show was the series debut of Private Practice. The rating was TV-14 but the PTC felt it deserved a "D" (suggestive dialog) descriptor. The reason seems to be the use of the word "sperm." The episode's plot revolved around a couple, Ken and Leslie, who were trying to get pregnant. Because Leslie is having difficulty conceiving, the couple turns to Oceanside Wellness Group for help. Ken is required to produce a sperm sample, leading to crass dialogue like:
Ken: "Put my boys in a cup! We're gonna get Leslie pregnant."
Leslie: "I'm ovulating, finally."
Sam: "Uh, congratulations. That's great."
Ken: "I've never done it in a cup before."

Setting aside the fact that it was only one of about four plots in the episode (the others were Addison being forced to perform and emergency C-Section on a teenage girl; Violet and Cooper dealing with a woman having a psychological episode in a department store; tension over Naomi hiring Addison without consulting the partners in the clinic) and not even the dominant one (that would probably be Addison's case) the question is one of what, even in the context of the plot, deserved the "D" descriptor. Well the PTC tells us: "Over the course of the episode, the word "sperm" or a reference to sperm was used 22 times. But according to ABC, discussion about ejaculating into a cup, and then hearing the act being performed, and then a woman asking for a dead man's sperm, is not "intense" enough to warrant the "D" descriptor, indicating sexual dialogue, in the episode's rating.The Private Practice premiere's TV-14 rating gave parents no warning of the constant and consistently intense sexual dialogue that this episode contained." In my opinion the answer is that the TV-14 rating, which means that such programs are "unsuitable for children under the age of 14 without the guidance of a parent." The "D" descriptor is used "for highly suggestive dialogue" and I don't think that the material in the episode reaches that standard. (By the way, what the PTC interpreted as the sound of "the act being performed" sounded to me more like the sound of a man having a stroke. It was interpreted by the doctors standing outside as the sound of "the act being performed" because that's what "Ken" went into the room to do.) As usual the PTC not only takes material out of context and interprets it in the most salacious form, but they tend to impose a standard with an extremely low threshold for what it takes to trigger either a change in rating or the use of a descriptor. Of course that's not surprising given the PTC's central contention that the ratings system is irretrievably broken and the only way to make television safe for all viewers (since they attack shows at all hours not just when children are likely to be watching) is through legislative intervention, presumably with the PTC as the sole advisor to the government or the FCC as to what should be allowed.

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