Friday, February 29, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week? – February 29, 2008

Every so often I get thoroughly frustrated when I write about the Parents Television Council. I really don't like these people, and as a Canadian I really don't get where they're coming from. Every time I see the PTC complain about some real or imagined bit of indecency I do so with the knowledge that virtually everything they complain about – since it's usually sex rather than true violence – could be seen at any time of the day on Canadian TV and wouldn't raise an eyebrow. There is no Canadian equivalent of the PTC, for which I will say "thank heaven for small mercies." In fact, during the infamous "Nipplegate" incident, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received more complaints about an commercial that was perceived to be sexist than it did about seeing Janet Jackson's breast.

So why do I care personally about the actions of the PTC? If Canada produced most or all of the shows seen on the Canadian airwaves I wouldn't care a whit. But we don't. Our private broadcasters mostly do a great job of self-regulation but really they're capable of doing this because they buy most of their shows from the United States. And most of the time they buy them from the US broadcast networks, a group which is so cowed by the fear of the FCC and that their advertisers will desert them at the very threat of a boycott that they leave edgy programming to those who don't face regulation, the cable networks.

Okay, now I had this all planned out to show how this past week the PTC had moved from the absurd through the foolish to the idiotic. And then they went and changed their pages. The stuff is still available in their archives. There's a bit of doggerel that is near Vogon-like in quality that shows that what the PTC really wants is for TV to return to the 1960s as if nothing were wrong; apparently TV was lost irretrievably with All In The Family. Then there was the claim that the game show 1 vs. 100 deserved a "D" descriptor because host Bob Saget made a condom joke, and regular mob member Sister Rose disapproved ("'Since 1988, what company's trademarked slogan is "Just Do It"?' Along with the correct answer of 'Nike,' one of the other possible answers listed was Trojan condoms. When the contestant answered correctly, host Bob Saget responded with a ribald riposte: 'You're positive it wasn't Trojan?... I'm just ribbing you.' This reference to (ribbed) condom was so out of place that one of the show's recurring 'mob members,' the nun Sister Rose, felt compelled to ask Saget, 'Family show?'") which wasn't precisely how things went down. Oh yeah, and they lumped the presence of the Dahnm Triplets (the first triplet Playboy Playmates) in there with the dialogue in some manner that I swear I don't get. But those have been archived now. Instead we get what is essentially a full-court press against two shows; the CBS airing of Dexter and the recently cancelled Las Vegas, with a slam at the way that Jericho was rated thrown in for good measure.

Let's get Jericho out of the way first. The PTC's complaint here is simple. They think the show deserved to be rated TV-PG LV rather than TV-PG L. According to the PTC, "Early in the episode, a fierce battle scene is shown. Several dead bodies are dragged away from the fray while guns fire around them. Later, the body of a man who was killed while attempting to sneak into Jericho is shown, to prove to the main characters that they are still at risk. And if these incidents were not enough to make a case for a V designator, there are numerous other situations involving gun threats scattered throughout the episode." Well they aren't. The V designator refers to "moderate violence" at the TV-PG level. The battle scene was shot in such a way that we saw was not people being shot but rather people firing guns, and the wounded (in virtually all cases) being dragged off the firing lines. The scenes with the wounded and, later the scene of the man who was killed – off-screen – are not to my mind depictions of violence but rather the aftermath of violence. Indeed in the case of the man who was shot trying to sneak into town, the only "proof" we have that he was shot was the statement by the character Major Beck. The other scenes involving "gun threats" may be considered violence but do they really reach the threshold for "moderate" violence that would be required for a V descriptor.

Moving on we come to Dexter. I should preface this by saying that while I've recorded the first two episodes of the CBS version of Dexter, I haven't watched them yet. Then again I suspect that the PTC hadn't seen the edited – some might say bowdlerized – version of Dexter when they started castigating CBS for repurposing the show for broadcast TV after it had aired on the premium Showtime network. (I should also mention that even when I do watch it I won't see the US ratings; in one of those things that can happen only in Canada thanks to our cable laws the CTV network – which has the rights to the broadcast version of Dexter – will simultaneously substitute their signal over top of the CBS signal so I won't see the Canadian rating not the US rating. It's particularly ironic since given the broadcast regulations in Canada CTV could show the uncensored version of the show in the same time slot as the CBS show, but what they couldn't do is substitute that signal - including the commercials of course – over top of the CBS signal. And that would affect their viewership ratings and ad revenue.)

The first of the two references to Dexter was a press release which essentially called on advertisers and local affiliates to boycott the broadcast of the series. Or perhaps their intent was to let viewers know they should write their "Dear Sir, you cur" letters to tell advertisers that they would never buy another of their products until they pull their advertising from this horrendous show. The press release has the very provocative title "CBS Deems Serial Killer Show to be Appropriate for 14-Year Old Children." The press release makes a major point of the fact that the edited series received a TV-14 rating from CBS, but fails to mention what – if any – descriptors the premier episode received. All they say is this: "Despite repeated public promises for responsible edits and accurate ratings guidelines for parents, CBS elected to assign this graphic program with an adult storyline a TV-14 rating, meaning that CBS decided that the show would be appropriate for children as young as 14 years of age." The PTC follows this with a complaint that, "depictions of violence were barely altered from the Showtime Network original format," and in fact, according to Wikipedia, the primary edits for the broadcast version were primarily for language "with scenes involving dismemberment of live victims somewhat shortened." The mythical 14-year old child whose mind is irrevocably corrupted by this show is the main focus of the PTC rant along with the callousness of the executives at CBS, as delivered by the organization's president Tim Winter: "What could possibly lead them to determine that a show about a pathological serial killer 'hero' could be appropriate for 14-year old children? The only reason is corporate greed. CBS knows full well that advertisers would flee in droves if the program's rating accurately reflected its content. The suits at CBS have wantonly turned their back on the fundamental public interest obligations incumbent upon those who use the public airwaves –
even spending $4.2 million in 2007 to lobby the federal government about indecent programming and other issues." Of course Winter offers absolutely no proof of the assertion that advertisers would flee "in droves" if the show were given the TV-MA rating that Winter and the PTC insists that it deserves. In fact, while my understanding of the advertising industry is limited it is my belief that programs are not put on the air in a vacuum and that advertisers, or at the very least ad agencies, get to see episodes of the programs before they air to decide whether or not they will buy ad time. In this case they would obviously be fully aware of much of the content even before the series was considered for airing since the show had been on the air – if not available for advertising sales – for two seasons on the premium cable network Showtime. In other words, advertisers were fully aware of what they were getting when they purchased ad time on this show.

The second Dexter related piece is a TV Trends article titled "Dexter's Depth of Depravity." Surprisingly though, it really isn't an article exposing the "depths of depravity" of Dexter. No, based on what I've read, it is just as much an article exposing the depths of depravity of the professional TV critics who have had nice things to say about Dexter coming to broadcast TV. They even say it, after going through a couple of paragraphs saying what they invariably say about Dexter and CBS: "a graphically violent and bloody drama with a serial killer for a hero" for the show, and "CBS hit a new low for television" for the network. Having got that out of the way the PTC turns to the critics as a group: "The implications of this move are dire, but even more so has been the wave of approval and adulation with which TV critics and entertainment industry insiders have greeted the series' arrival in every American home. For what could be better, these critics seem to ask, than that the publicly-owned airwaves be used to glamorize dismemberment and serial murder?" There's a little dig at '70s liberal critics: "Once, critics condemned the Dirty Harry movies as 'fascist' because they depicted a police officer shooting criminals. Today, they cheer Dexter because it depicts a serial killer torturing and dismembering criminals." Then later the writer comments, "This tendency on the part of TV writers and critics to dismiss the seriousness of Dexter's glamorization of evil is especially galling because it is so disingenuous. The show doesn't glorify or promote Dexter's actions, critics claim; it's just a character study of a conflicted individual, they say. But would CBS show – would Hollywood even make – a program with, say, a 'conflicted' Ku Klux Klan member as the hero? Or a "charming" killer who stalks and murders homosexuals? Of course not – and they shouldn't. (emphasis theirs) Such programs would be grossly offensive and downright harmful; and the fact that Hollywood doesn't make shows like this demonstrates that they know how harmful such programs could be. By showing such actions or ideas in a favorable light, TV would be making them seem unexceptional and even appealing; and the more often such a show was repeated, the more common and appealing such actions would seem." Of course the creators of the show are not immune from criticism, but it seems to be less muted than the criticism of either CBS or the critics: "Dexter's creators claim that by choosing to make the hero of their program a warped serial killer, they aren't glamorizing his actions. But this is incorrect. TV has portrayed negative character types before; but nearly always, programs show such characters being punished for their crimes. On Dexter this is not the case. In fact, Dexter is portrayed as a charming, likeable young man…who just happens to cut off people's arms and legs while they are still alive. By making Dexter an appealing personality and allowing him to escape the consequences of his actions, the program is making him a hero, and is reducing gruesome mass murder to a cute, harmless eccentricity."

Well let's go into this for a bit. First of all, it should be obvious to anyone with two working brain cells to rub together (and I'm not going to say that this would eliminate virtually every member of the PTC; I'll think it but I won't say it) that the critics who wrote about Dirty Harry in the 1970s are not the same critics who are writing about Dexter today. Even if they were, there is a disconnect between Harry Callahan, operating under the cover of authority often with scant regard for the laws he was sworn to uphold, and Dexter, who admits to being exactly what he is, a killer in the mould of Hannibal Lecter. The difference between Lecter and Dexter is that the latter's tendencies are directed by a set of rules. Insane rules – given the insanity of using a serial killer to get the killers that the law can't (which by the way is similar to the plot of the second Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force except that in that movie it ws vigilante cops instead of serial killers) but rules nonetheless. Callahan broke the rules he was given to get the job done; Dexter obeys they rules he was given by his adoptive father.

But let's go further into this criticism of the critics. The PTC says (slightly edited from the quote above), "would Hollywood even make – a program with, say, a 'conflicted' Ku Klux Klan member as the hero?" The answer of course is yes, if you extend the definition of "program" to include feature movies. The one that I'm particularly thinking of is American History X which looked at a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path. There have been other examples as well. Not to mention stories about people (frequently abused women) who have acted outside of the law to ensure their own safety, for example the TV movie The Burning Bed. Indeed there is a whole sub-culture in American media and fiction that celebrates the notion of vigilante justice as a solution when conventional law enforcement was deemed inadequate – Charles Bronson's Death Wish films are an outstanding example. I'm not sure what sets Paul Kersey in those movies apart for Dexter except perhaps that Dexter is probably surer of his victims' crimes.

The thing that I find disingenuous is not the various TV critics tendency to "dismiss the seriousness of Dexter's glamorization of evil" but rather the PTC's continual and repeated mischaracterization of the title character. They consistently refer to the character of Dexter as the "hero" of the show. I'm sure that my more literary readers will cringe at this description (right Bill Crider?). Dexter is more properly described as the protagonist of the piece, defined by Wiktionary as "the main character in a literary work or drama." Dexter is the protagonist of the series in much the same way that Macbeth is the protagonist of what my theatrical friends call "The Scottish Play". No one would describe Macbeth as a hero. In fact a more accurate term for both Macbeth and Dexter – and indeed for Kersey and Callahan – would be anti-hero, defined as "a central character in a story, film or play who lacks the conventional heroic qualities seen in the archetypical hero." And I'm sure that there are at least some people at the PTC who understand the concept of the anti-hero as a protagonist. But of course it suits the PTC's purpose to use the term "hero," a term which has many evocative qualities. As an audience we empathize with heroes, we support their actions, we cheer their deeds and yes, we observe them as a role model. But a hero isn't necessarily the protagonist; in the play MacDuff probably embodies the qualities of a hero but MacDuff isn't the central figure of Macbeth, it is the regicide (killed Duncan), the man who orders the assassination of his best friend and his son (had Banquo killed though his son Fleance escaped death), and mass murderer (had everyone in MacDuff's castle including his wife and young children hacked to death with swords) Macbeth who is the protagonist because we see the world through his perspective. In watching the play we don't want to emulate Macbeth any more than any sane person would want to emulate an essentially soulless serial killer. But calling the lead character in Dexter the show's "hero" generates outrage and protests (and presumably donations) from people who see the PTC as a way of voicing their legitimate concern about what their children see on TV.

The attack on Las Vegas is also two-fold. In a major press release the PTC calls on its members in the Central and Mountain time zones only to send complaints to the FCC about the February 15th episode of Las Vegas – ironically the last episode to be aired – for "airing female nudity during prime time." As the PTC describes it: "three girls gather together in the center of the casino floor and begin to disrobe. They strip until they are naked and then begin running around the casino. In the security office, the girls can be seen on the television monitors running around the casino naked. Their buttocks are visible, and only shadows obscure their breasts and groins." Inevitably there is a mention of the $1.4 million fine against "52 ABC affiliates" (clearly the PTC refuses to acknowledge the drawdown to about 40 stations as a result of the FCC appeals process) stating that "that didn't deter NBC from airing barely obscured female nudity during a primetime airing of Las Vegas." In fact Time Winter's statement about the Las Vegas episode seems to suggest that this was deliberate policy on the part of NBC: "NBC seems eager to test the FCC's resolve to fine stations for violating broadcast decency laws. I remind NBC that the broadcast airwaves are public property. The TV networks do not own them. The TV stations do not own them. The industry must be held accountable for the content they air and the FCC must act in the public interest by slapping NBC with a significant indecency fine."

Setting aside my own opinion of the FCC's rightness or wrongness on the ruling in the NYPD Blue case, the claim that there is anything even approaching equivalency between the scene in Las Vegas and the scene in NYPD Blue is so absurd as to make a body weep with laughter. Even the PTC acknowledges that the scene is shot in such a way as to obscure the women's breasts and groins. In their appeals decision the FCC said in the NYPD Blue case that "the partial views of her [Charlotte Ross] naked breast from behind and from the side are not sufficiently graphic and explicit in and of themselves to support an indecency finding." In other words it was her bare buttocks which were seen fully nude from behind. By contrast in the scene from Las Vegas the most you can see is a long distance shot of one of the women. Most of the shots are seen through the casino's security system and are overhead shots. There may be shots of the side of the women's buttocks but there is nothing to indicate that that they are not wearing a G-string or a thong. Indeed the shot (which I saw on a real TV as opposed to what you can see in this little streaming box) didn't seem to this viewer to contain anything that would be actionable even under the current FCC regime. I think that what we are seeing here is an attempt by the PTC to force the FCC to further tighten up the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable, and my singular fear is that the FCC might ignore precedent even further and do just that.

The second part of the PTC's assault is aimed at the same episode in the organization's Broadcast Worst of the Week category. They also point out the "gratuitous nudity": "The first minutes of the program contained this gratuitous nudity. In an introductory scene, three women create a distraction by stripping their clothes off and streaking through the casino. As the security team watch on the monitors and leer at the women in delight, Las Vegas' viewers see the scene carry on for nearly an entire minute, as the women are depicted from every angle and from various distances, including mere feet from the camera. The women's breasts bounce as they run, further highlighting the blatant nudity and sexuality of the scene." Taking this point by point, the security team do not "leer at the women in delight." It is true that one character, Mitch (the guy in the wheel chair) does make some "sexist" comments and is distracted by the scene – which of course was exactly the point, to distract the people in the Casino Security room so that the two men would be able to assemble their guns – but he is the only one, and his actions fit with what we know about this character. The rest of the description is exaggeration and absurd. The very nature of running means that the viewer never gets a truly clear view of any of the women at any given time. Indeed, "mere feet from the camera" usually gives the viewer only a glimpse of part of the body. In fact though, the bulk of the scene is viewed through the casino's overhead camera system rather than on ground level. As for the women's breasts bouncing as they run, that tends to happen whether the women are nude or dressed if the women are "big" enough. The PTC also points to a subplot concerning Mike's bachelor party in which his uncle, a church deacon, brings two strippers to his nephew's bachelor party (Danny had cancelled the strippers because of the presence of Mike's father and uncle). In what I'm sure the PTC will see as yet another of TV's assaults on religion, Mike's uncle, "is shown dancing suggestively while sandwiched between the girls. Apparently aroused by one of the girls, the minister tells his wife he is leaving her for the stripper and staying in Las Vegas." Let us again note that these "strippers" are not at any time seen in any state of nudity – or even implied nudity – which is unheard of for a bachelor party. But then again, the PTC never really develops this point.

It is perhaps the opening and closing paragraphs of this article that show the opinion that the PTC holds towards network television. In their opening paragraph they say: "Last week, NBC wrote a new chapter in ongoing story of ever-increasing indecency on broadcast television. On February 15th the writers of Las Vegas showed that their lust for ratings overshadows any concept of common decency, not to mention obedience to federal law concerning broadcast decency, when they depicted three fully nude women in prime time at 10:00 p.m. ET – which is 9:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones. This episode was a significant step in advancing the entertainment industry's agenda: the elimination of the line between decency and indecency." It is yet another example of over-exaggeration and overblown, inflammatory rhetoric on the PTC's part, meant to paint the networks as big, bad, evil and out to pervert the American public. And all in the quest for ratings, which of course means money. They don't mention – presumably because at this point they didn't know but the ratings for this episode, which wasn't promoted as being anything beyond a two hour season finale and certainly not promoted with an emphasis on the supposed draw of female nudity, wasn't enough to save the show from cancellation (dammit). But for overblown rhetoric, not to mention the refusal to acknowledge that they've won (for the moment) this particular battle thanks to the NYPD Blue situation, you can't beat this final statement: "This level of nudity, shown on broadcast TV, in prime time, is of major concern to family viewers. But offensive as it was, the nudity in this episode is not even the worst part. The real concern is that such programming will normalize nudity on prime-time broadcast television. Unless viewers act now, it is only a matter of time until nudity is a regular occurrence on television." This is hogwash. In the period when nudity – real nudity – was a prevalent feature on network television, the NYPD Blue years, there were only two regular prime time series that showed bare buttocks or other forms of nudity on even a semi-regular basis. They were NYPD Blue, produced by Steven Bochco, and Brooklyn South, which ran for a single year on CBS and was produced by Steven Bochco. And yet the PTC would have us believe that the mostly implied nudity in this scene from Las Vegas is enough to "normalize nudity on prime-time broadcast television" and mean that it won't be long, "until nudity is a regular occurrence on television." Again I say hogwash.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Writers Guild Strike Poll

Well I suppose that it's high time that I took down the Writers Strike poll since the strike was settled a couple of weeks ago.

If nothing else the poll illustrated the degree to which viewers stood by the writers. Not that that was unexpected of course. There was, I suppose a sense that the writers as a group were being screwed, if only because we know what we pay for DVDs and for the Writers (and the Actors, and >ugh< the Directors) to only get four cents for each Guild contract per unit just doesn't seem right. And the fact that the DVD demand was pulled almost immediately didn't really make a difference because it made the new media issue the big one. And if, as some people suggest, we will get all of our home video through one online technology or other within the next ten years this is going to be huge. The Writers didn't get everything they wanted on this, but they got a foot in the door and will likely be able to push the door open a little further in future contracts. All that's needed is the will.

So to the results. There were 58 voters (but then this ran far longer than most of my polls). I'm going to do this a bit differently, giving the responses in the order that I put them on the poll which also is a gauge of support for the Guild. "With the writers 110%" earned a massive 35 votes for 60% of the total votes cast. "Mostly with the writers but AMPTP has some points on their side" picked up three votes or 5%. There were no votes for "Can't really decide, both sides have good points". "AMPTP is right, although the writers may deserve a little something" picked up three votes or 5%. "Unions suck, crush the union and make the writers negotiate individually or starve" earned six votes or 10% of the voters, from people who are entitled to their opinion but who would get serious arguments from me. Two voters or 3% said "I sincerely have no opinion." Finally nine voters or 16% opted for "I don't give a good God damn. With global warming, war, poverty, and corruption why are you wasting your time writing about TV and striking writers." Maybe they have a point. There are a lot of more serious issues and realistically this strike wasn't going to change the world, no matter what Michael Moore said about it being a great victory for American workers against the bosses. I don't buy it but Moore's got a right to his own opinion. (I included this option because of a very early comment who wrote about one of my Emmy posts, "I have a better question - one that is perhaps more relevant: Who will help poor children in Third World countries eat tomorrow? I suppose the Emmys are more important..." It was just a way of letting people know that I do realise there are more important things than TV. Even though this is what I do and I enjoy writing about, I do realise that it is hardly the most important thing in the world.)

I'm including a little graph showing the voting pattern – mainly because I can ;-) New Poll will come eventually (the strike really screwed up my normal polling schedule).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I Wish I Could Forget This Show

A couple of weeks ago, when NBC Entertainment President Ben Silverman was discussing whether or not the network would renew Friday Night Lights he uttered a phrase which I hope to hell will come back to haunt him: "We're NBC. We've got a reputation to protect." Friday NBC cancelled one of my favourite shows on the network, Las Vegas and seems to be desperately shopping for another network partner to help pay for Friday Night Lights... or something. Meanwhile on Friday night, occupying the time slot previously occupied by Friday Night Lights (which won't be doing any more episodes this season at least, and maybe ever) is one of the shows that Ben Silverman is "protecting" the reputation of NBC with. It is called Amne$ia and after watching it I wish I had it. Amnesia that is; that way I could forget this steaming pile of ... something awful.

Amne$ia is a game show... allegedly. In essence you have a contestant who is asked questions about what I guess I'd call the trivia of his life. The show ran in three phases. The first is a lightning round in which the contestant has to answer up to seven questions in a minute and receives a thousand dollars for each correct answer. Next – in the first episode at least – someone from the contestant's past is brought on. The contestant is sent to a "sound proof booth" while host Dennis Miller interviews the person about particular events in the contestant's life, but not in too much detail of course. Once the interview is finished the guest is seated and the contestant asked a couple of trivia questions related to the person who has been brought out. It might be a question like the room number of the classroom where the contestant's father taught the contestant science. On the other hand the contestant might be asked to pick out the doormat of the family home where he left the house key for his brother from a selection of about a dozen mats. (The contestant in this case left the house key under the mat for his brother and then left a note on the door telling his brother that the key was under the mat.) A total of three guests are brought on for the contestant, each generating two or three questions. The amount of money for each question tied to a guest goes up with each guest. The first guest's questions are worth $2,500, the second guest's $5,000, and the third's $10,000. Once the questions tied to the third guest are asked, the three guests are each handed an envelope. In each of these is a question. This time around if the player gets the question wrong the value of the question is subtracted from the amount of money that the contestant has won. The contestant chooses one of the guests and Miller asks the question. The first question is worth $25,000, the second $50,000 and the third $100,000. The player can stop before any of these questions including the first. If the player loses all of his previous winnings, the game ends and he leaves with nothing.

This show is awful. In my book the game shows that work are the ones that are well paced, build drama effectively, and have a certain consistency about them. Having a good host helps a lot too but I'll get into that one shortly. Amne$ia fails on the first three counts. The pace was horrible, in that the entire episode was given over to a single contestant and the only point at which he could lose any money was in the last five to ten minutes. That pretty much cut out the idea of building dramatic tension too. There was no sense of jeopardy for the player which in turn meant that there was very little reason to ether identify with him or feel sympathy for him. Finally this show was all over the map stylistically. I mean I could see some of what they were intending. The lightning round was meant to build up the player's bankroll while the subsequent rounds seemed to be meant to make him work for the money. Part of the trouble was that while the stories that this contestant's three guests (his father who was also his former science teacher, his brother, and his wife) were asked about were amusing they stopped the action of the game dead and did so for little real purpose.

The single bright spot of this show was the host, Dennis Miller, and even then I am so ambiguous about him that I have a certain amount of difficulty putting it into words. As a host he's good at talking to both the contestant and the guests, and has moments of wittiness when it comes to the normal game show conventions like the use of lights and dramatic musical stings. That said, there's a certain "smug jackass" quality about Miller that makes me feel at least like he thinks he's smarter than everyone else and is just dying to let us know the fact. At times it seems as if he's only doing this for the money and the opportunity to show us all his innate superiority. Of course I've always felt this way about Dennis Miller so I can't really say I'm that surprised.

Perhaps the worst thing that could possibly have happened to Amne$ia was to debut it on the particular Friday night they chose. The show followed 1 vs. 100, which itself was on opposite a night time edition of The Price Is Right. These two shows illustrated the weaknesses of Amne$ia with an almost cruel clarity. The Price Is Right has always been fast paced and consistent. It may fall a little short in terms of dramatic tension but the turn-over in contestants compensates for that; each commercial break brings a new contestant in what amounts to a self contained story. There's always the risk of losing everything in the show until you come to the showcase. Drew Carey never comes across as superior to the contestants in either this or his other game show, The Power Of Ten. Carey always makes it appear that he is on the contestant's side. 1 vs. 100, which aired the last show of its current season tonight (more's the pity) doesn't have the contestant turn over that The Price Is Right does, but even with the modifications that were made to the show for this season (a number of permanent mob members rather than replacing everyone who gives wrong answer; setting plateaus in terms of prizes – contestants aren't paid an amount per mob member eliminated as last year but must eliminate 10 mob members to reach a new prize level) the show delivers a lot of dramatic potential. The format is consistent and the risk of failure for the contestant is quite real, particularly as the questions become more difficult. Host Bob Saget has contestant banter down to an art form which I suppose can come across as somewhat "plastic" but works for the show. There's no real sense that he feels superior to contestants although, he sometimes seems a bit more aloof from them than Carey does. By comparison with either of these to shows Amne$ia is an utter and complete failure.

There is something inherently unfair about the fact that Amne$ia will most likely run to the end of this season while neither Las Vegas nor Friday Night Lights will get a proper ending to their seasons – or in the case of Las Vegas (but hopefully
not Friday Night Lights) a proper series wind up. At their worst, either of these shows is far more entertaining than Amne$ia. The single point in which Amne$ia beats them is that it doesn't cost as much to produce, which I suppose is an important point for a network like NBC in terms of programming on what we are consistently told is the worst night for viewership on TV now that Saturday has basically been reduced to a dumping ground for movies and repeats (although programming scripted shows on Friday doesn't seem to effect CBS all that much). My great fear is that this drek will draw good ratings and become a regular series for next season. This show deserves to be not to be lauded but to be cancelled after one episode. Even if it doesn't find a place on next year's schedule, its presence on the NBC line up as anything more than a "strike baby" tells us something about Ben Silverman and his vision for network TV that I don't really like. If this is what Silverman considers "protecting" the reputation of NBC, I have to wonder what exactly he thinks that reputation is.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Short Takes – February 21, 2008

I really do mean to get these out on the weekend but they seem to pile up until I get something that I really want to talk about and then I sort of spew them out like opinions from a FOX News employee. So here goes.

Prosecutor, judge, jury, appellate court: That's a perfect definition of the FCC. They decide which complaints will be considered and which rejected (prosecutor), determine the guilt of the parties on those cases (jury), determine the penalty (judge), and then hear the appeals of those found guilty (appellate court). And worst of all, it seems like they're making it up as the go along.

Broadcast & Cable reports on the latest incident of this, the results of the "appeal" over the NYPD Blue Indecency Fine. The FCC issued their finding which upheld the fines for 40 of the 52 ABC stations on February 19th, with the requirement that the fine be paid by February 21st. This has apparently been done in such a rapid manner as to avoid the five year statute of limitations on findings in cases like this. This explains why the stations had a mere seventeen days to prepare their appeal instead of the customary thirty days, and also why the stations were given a mere 52 hours to pay the fine once the order was upheld.

As I mentioned, the FCC upheld the fines on 40 of the 52 stations cited in the original case, which means that twelve stations were exempted. In two of those cases, according to Broadcast & Cable the fact that the stations had received license renewals in the years between the original incident and the original decision on the fines meant that the statute of limitations for those stations had expired. In the case of most of the other stations, the fine was rescinded because "because the complaints had not come from the market in which the station was located." I'm not sure exactly what that's supposed to mean. Is it that "community standards" weren't offended in those markets because there were no complaints from them but were in markets where there was one PTC form letter was sent?

In defending the episode the ABC affiliates went into great detail to explain why the buttocks are neither a sexual nor an excretory organ. They also pointed out the flaws in the FCC's procedures: "the stations pointed out that the FCC proposed levying the maximum fine then allowable -- $27,500 per station -- for 'broadcasting a depiction of buttocks, for fewer than seven seconds, during the 10th season of one of the most lauded shows in television history.' They also argued that the FCC action is 'rife with procedural infirmities; is predicated on form complaints that do not satisfy the commission's own policies; proscribes material outside the scope of the commission's indecency-enforcement authority; misapplies the commission's own multifactor test for patent offensiveness; is inconsistent with the commission's governing precedent at the time of broadcast; and reaches a result that is plainly unconstitutional.'"

In response to the stations' arguments about the nature of the buttocks, the FCC made the following statement:

the depiction of an adult woman's naked buttocks was sufficiently graphic and explicit to support an indecency finding.

She is not wearing a g-string or other clothing, nor are the shots of her buttocks pixillated or obscured. Thus, the material is sufficiently graphic and explicit to support an indecency finding. Although the partial views of her naked breast from behind and from the side are not sufficiently graphic and explicit in and of themselves to support an indecency finding, they also add somewhat to the first factor's weight here.

In context and on balance, the graphic, repeated, pandering, titillating and shocking nature of the scene's visual depiction of a woman's naked buttocks warrant a finding that it is patently offensive under contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, notwithstanding any artistic or social merit and the presence of a parental advisory and rating. Therefore, it is actionably indecent.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called the original FCC fine "paternalism at its worst." Their statement, issued at the time of the original fines stated that:

This is just another government attempt to trump our own good judgment and determine what we're mature enough to see. NYPD Blue aired well past the bedtime of most children -- at 10 p.m. in most markets. Only those affiliates that aired the program between the hours of 6 p.m.-10 p.m. would be subject to the fine, which just goes to show the fickle nature of the FCC's rules. By their logic, airing a shot of a bare behind at 10:30 p.m. is fine, but the same shot at 9:30 p.m. is worth millions in fines and penalties.

It's also worth noting that ABC included a warning before NYPD Blue indicating that the program was intended for mature audiences only. Such warnings allow audiences to decide for themselves whether they want to see the content or permit their children to see the content. Instead, the government is stepping in to chill free speech and the free expression of ideas by 'parenting the parents.'

I personally find a lot of things wrong with the FCC's ruling in the original case starting with the original definition of the buttocks as a "sexual" organ, but for me the big one has always been that the decision flew in the face of precedent, specifically the fact that the show had shown similar examples of nudity – male as well as female – in previous season without being the subject of an FCC fine. This doesn't even mention other incidents of nudity in previous years, including Meredith Baxter's bare breast in the CBS TV movie My Breast (1994). The determination to void precedent continued into the appeals process when the FCC arbitrarily chose to hold the appeals process to a total of slightly more than half the normal time (17 days as opposed to 30) – which they justified by claiming (according to Broadcast & Cable) that, "the stations had ample opportunity to respond, demonstrated by the fact, the agency added, that they did respond with their appeal, noting, '20 law firms and/or companies coordinated and responded to the NAL in one consolidated, 70-page brief, with exhibits, on behalf of the majority of ABC-affiliated stations.'" And surely the requirement that the 40 stations pay the fines within 52 hours surely has to be without precedent.

What I, as an outside observer find particularly galling though is that it is the FCC itself that is hearing the appeal of its own decision rather than some outside body that is not a party to the case. Because make no mistake about it, the FCC is a party to this case. The Commission was the organization that served as prosecutor and adjudicator in this matter. It seems the height of insanity that the FCC gets to determine that an offense occurred and then decide whether they themselves were mistaken in determining that a mistake had been made. And remember that organizations such as the PTC maintain that the television networks should not be allowed to take the appeals process beyond the FCC to the courts. There is something inherently wrong about this. Apparently someone at ABC agrees, because according to MediaWeek the network and its affiliates have launched an appeal of the FCC decision before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. No doubt the PTC will rail against ABC for appealing and the Second Circuit Court for the "fleeting obscenities" decision.

More touchiness: On a far less serious, but no less moronic note, the American Family Association – on of the PTC's running buddies on trying to sanitize the airwaves ("sanitized" being the equivalent of "do what we tell you to do or face a boycott") initiated a protest against the US TVLand network after the network began a promotion for a weekend of 1980s movies which the network was calling the "'Ohmigod That's So '80s' movie weekend." The AFA, which is notoriously anti-Gay (they are urging members to boycott Ford for "supporting homosexual groups which are pushing homosexual marriage," and call Proctor and Gamble "the top pro-homosexual sponsor on television") and pro-God, objected to the repeated use of the phrase "Ohnigod." Their press release at the time even stated that "I can't tell you how offensive it is to listen to the advertisement for this new show as they must say 'OHMIGOD' five times in thirty seconds." The press release even contained a warning that the ad aired automatically when you visited the website. The press release concluded "Disrespect for Christians and God have gone on for some time with this phrase, but now we have a network that feels it appropriate to name an entire program series with this phrase." In response TVLand changed the phrase on their website to "Ohmygosh" and deleted the offensive audio clip... from their website. As reported by website Good As You (a Gay and Lesbian site obviously opposed to the AFA and its head Donald Wildmon) what the network didn't do was to actually change the promo for the weekend on their TV commercials for it although they did pull it of the air. For all of one day (February 15th).

Yet more touchiness: The advocacy group Autism United has demanded that CBS cancel the current run of Big Brother because of a statement by contestant Adam Jasinski. At the very least they want Jasinski removed from the show. In the show's second episode Adam stated that if he won he intended to use some of the money to fund a hair salon for autistic kids saying that it would be a place where, "retards can get it together and get their hair done." When one of the other houseguests, Sheila, told him not to call them that, Adam responded by saying, "Disabled kids. I can call them whatever I want. I work with them all day, okay?" In a letter to CBS quoted by TMZ, Autism United executive director John Gilmore wrote, "Just as we are confident that CBS would not tolerate the use derogatory epithets regarding race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation we hope that the use of derogatory Terms for people with disabilities in [sic] also unacceptable in your programming.... While Jasinski's displayed gross ignorance, the producers of the show chose to use his comments to forward the show's storyline. This displays a conscious choice on their part to demean and hurt a large group of people to further their own commercial goals." Gilmore added in a rather bizarre paragraph that "It is appropriate I believe to note that the Holocaust began with the extermination of developmental disabled children in a secret program called Aktion T-4. The techniques, organization and personnel for Aktion T-4 went directly to run the extermination camps at Treblinka, Sobibor and others. All extermination campaigns begin with the dehumanization of the target group. And referring to developmental disabled people and people with autism as "retards" indeed fails to recognize the humanity of people with these disorders." I'm not entirely sure why it was "appropriate" to mention the Holocaust in this context. It is worth noting that this is not the first time such comments have caused controversy on the show. Last season contestant Amber Siyavus made anti-Semitic remarks directed in part against one of her fellow houseguests. She was not removed from the house. Indeed there have only been two occasions when houseguests have been removed from the show; both cases were related to violent behaviour by contestants.

Zucker out of step: Remember how Jeff Zucker was all over the entertainment blogs (including this one) and the media saying that the "upfronts" – those extravaganzas where the networks reveal their new season line-ups and shows to the world, and more importantly to the advertising agencies – were passé. That they were "vestiges of an era that's gone by and won't return," and that he expected that the other networks would follow in NBC's lead. Well turns out that none of the other networks agreed with him. By February 14th the other four networks – CBS, ABC, FOX and The CW – had all announced that they would be doing upfront presentations for the ad agencies. One has to wonder how some of Zucker's other ideas are playing out with the competition. You remember, the stuff he announced at the NATPE meetings, like doing away with pilots, and trying to develop a year-round programming schedule strategy. These were all moves that Zucker said the other networks would follow once NBC was successful with them. There's a line from The West Wing that covers this situation: "A leader without any followers is just a guy taking a walk."

Speaking of NBC dropping upfronts: They aren't. Well they are and they aren't. Maybe. Sort of. In a way. Confused? Well so am I.

See here's what happened. On February 18th TVSquad had a headline quoting AdWeek which said that NBC would be holding an upfront event after all. The trouble is that, in order to see the Adweek article you have to be a subscriber. In order to confirm the TVSquad report, I Googled "NBC + Upfronts" in the News search. Here's what I got. MediaPost states that NBC will "still hold a gathering of advertisers and others in a large hall with top Hollywood talent on display. But what's being referred to as 'a multimedia, interactive' event will not be held at its long-standing venue, Radio City Music Hall, May 12--and it will focus less on NBC and more on NBCU." However, NBC will "lay out its prime-time schedule for the full 52 weeks ahead in April," after which NBCU's sales teams will meet with advertisers in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for further meetings about the schedule and opportunities for advertising on the NBC-Universal family of channels. The upfront – which will occur on May 12th – won't actually be an upfront but a "spotlight event."

On the other hand the LA Times stated that "NBC Universal said Tuesday that it was abandoning its spring ritual of unveiling the network's fall schedule in an expensive, star-studded presentation at Radio City Music Hall in favor of smaller meetings with advertisers in three cities, including Los Angeles. 'We are taking what has been a one-way conversation and turning it into a two-way dialogue with advertisers,' said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. The company also plans a trade show-like 'expo' in New York on May 12, the day that had been reserved for NBC's presentation. Last month, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker announced the company would probably scrap its annual presentation, which he dismissed as little more than a 'dog-and-pony show.'

So is this "Spotlight Event" really an Upfront or what? I'm inclined to think of it as an "or what." After all, the advertisers at the very least will know the actual primetime schedule for 52 weeks in advance sometime in April and I can't honestly see this not leaking out to the general public before the "spotlight event." But in that case, why hold the "spotlight event?" I can't help but wonder if what the NBCU sales teams will be presenting to the advertisers might be set in something less durable than stone so that if some aspects of the schedule are received less than favourably by the ad agencies shows can be moved, or dropped entirely – remember they're selling the new shows without pilots. What is clear is that so far at least Jeff Zucker and NBC are again "just a guy taking a walk." The other networks aren't cancelling their upfront presentations because, as the LA Times pointed out, "the presentations, although expensive, help generate interest in their programs and drive sales. The annual events had been marked by advanced peeks at the new fall shows, glitzy parties and opportunities for advertisers to get their photos snapped with stars." As well, presumably, they are an opportunity to present the details of the year's schedule to all of the agencies at the same time rather than in small groups. One thing that is apparent – if nothing else is – is that no matter how you present the shows to advertisers, nothing in either process is going to save crap shows from the ultimate "critic" in such things, the viewing audience.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

TV Shows On DVD – February 19, 2008

I made a rather conscious decision at the start of the Writers Strike not to promote new DVDs of TV shows on what seemed at the time to be the very sound grounds that if people held off on buying new DVDs until after the strike ended the writers would be paid at an improved residual rate, and besides it would hurt the movie studios. Of course the first part of that idea came a cropper when the WGA dropped the demand for improved DVD residuals just to get AMPTP to the bargaining table, but the principle remains valid and I stuck to it. But now of course the strike is over so...

As always, the source material for the list of DVDs comes from but the comments are all mine.

6teen: Snow Job
6Teen is a Canadian-made animated series about six 16 year-olds working – or slacking off on – part time jobs in the Galleria Mall somewhere in North America. The episode Snow Job was a one hour special to wrap up the show's second season in the same way that the one hour special Dude of the Living Dead wrapped up the first season. The DVD appears to only have a one hour running time – the length of the special – rather than the three half hour episodes that are contained on regular season DVDs from the series. Also, this DVD only appears to be available in Canada at present.

Peanuts: It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
I've seen the "Easter Beagle" special described as a bit of a let down on the part of the producers in as much as it borrows ideas from the Halloween Special (the Easter Beagle is equivalent to the Great Pumpkin) and the Thanksgiving one (Peppermint Patty and Marcie's kitchen mishaps), but really, who cares? The DVD also contains the Arbor Day special (wait, there was an Arbor Day special) and a featurette called In Full Bloom: Peanuts at Easter. Best of all this is the second in a series of remastered rereleases.

Class of the Titans Chaos
This is another show that I've never seen, which goes to show just how little I watch Canada's Teletoon Network which produces the show. As nearly as I can tell this DVD is only available in Canada. The disk apparently contains the first three episodes of this series about the descendants of various heroes of Greek mythology brought together by the ancient Greek gods to combat the menace of the escaped Titan Chronos.

Coach: The Third Season
I was never a huge fan of Coach. It just never held my interest, although there were members of my family who loved it. Basically, all I can tell you about this season is that by the end Hayden (Craig T. Nelson) and Christine (Shelley Fabares) are engaged even thought the broke up earlier in the year.

Cops: 20th Anniversary Edition
I've seen it argued – quite convincingly – that this is the first real reality show. Another series that has never really done it for me, I suppose because it has a sort of "trailer trash" quality that doesn't really work for me. As the title says though, it's been on the air for twenty years so they must be doing something right for somebody.

Father Ted: The Holy Trilogy
The whole thing. All three seasons of this series which has an almost legendary status among people who've seen it (guess what; I'm not one of the people wh has seen it). There are commentaries for each season (or series as the Brits call them), interviews with the writers/creators, and some other extras.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Vol. 1
This will likely come as near sacrilege to a lot of you but I have in fact seen episodes of this series... I just never liked it. When it comes down to it, the series was really one giant animated commercial for the Mattel toys and I don't recall them really selling all that well. Another thing is that the series was produced by Filmation, a studio which frankly produced disappointingly limited animation. The fact is though that for reasons that I readily admit that I don't understand this series resonates with a lot of people, most of whom saw it when they were kids and retain the memories. And after all, childhood memories are the real driving influences behind nostalgia.

This is a rerelease of the thirteen episode 1978 ITV miniseries about the life of Lillie Langtry. Langtry, an actress and singer who was the mistress of Edward VII (among others), captivated society in the late 19th Century with her beauty and wit, and numbered among her admirers Oscar Wilde, James Whistler and Judge Roy Bean. Francesca Annis (who portrayed Lady Macbeth in the Roman Polanski film of Macbeth) is perfectly cast as Lillie Langtry and it is a much commented upon aspect of her performance that she ages from a teenager to near her death at age 76. A truly great performance.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 2, Part 1
There have been several different versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles both produced and released on DVD that it is hard to know which is which. This set is from the first version of the show, which ran from 1987 to 1996. This version of characters is lighter and more fun-loving than the version created for the original black and white comic books but it is probably true that that quality is what made the characters as popular as they became. The presentation in this DVD is different from most in that the episodes are presented in the correct order and on a season by season basis. This is something that I wish was true of far more releases of animated series.

Walker, Texas Ranger: Season 4
Another admission – I was a regular watcher of Walker, Texas Ranger. Now admittedly, when I watched the show it was frequently a case of ridiculing Chuck Norris for his repeated use of his spin kick, a move which by this time seemed to be the one martial arts move that he could still do (which may be the reason why it was used so often). It was a revelation later to see Sammo Hung's speed and inventiveness on the Martial Law series – Sammo would have kicked Walker's ass in a fair fight. I also commented on the fact that Walker's truck was repeatedly shot by hundreds of rounds of automatic weapons fire and not only didn't have anything vital (like the radiator) hit but never even had a bullet hole. I did all that, but I have to confess that I frequently got caught up in the action. Of course I can't tell you the details of season 4 because quite frankly seasons of Walker are pretty much indistinguishable from each other with the only differentiating features usually being the arrival and departure of supporting characters, and quite frankly that didn't happen all that often.

Monday, February 18, 2008


There was a period in the late 1970s and the 1980s when you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing a Glen Larson Production. The list of shows that he created or was executive producer of is like a hall of fame of the sort of TV that the '70s were, well infamous for (the sort of shows though that the Parents Television Council pines for if their most recent TV Trends is to be believed). They were escapist fantasies with various gimmicks and if they "borrowed" from some hot trend, well so much the better. Larson's shows included Alias Smith and Jones (borrowed from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Sword of Justice, B.J. and the Bear, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Fall Guy, and Battlestar Galactica. Larson would do everything for these shows: he produced them, directed them, wrote them and even composed the themes (he actually started as a musician, a member of the group "The Four Preps").

Perhaps the most memorable of Larson's creations is Knight Rider, the story of a man and his talking car (the car of course was smarter than the man most of the time). Supposedly the concept for the original version of Knight Rider came from Brandon Tartikoff, who were discussing the problem of handsome leading men who couldn't act with an assistant. Tartikoff jokingly came up with an idea he called "The Man of Six Words." According to the Knight Rider entry in The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, the man would wake up in a woman's bed and say "Thank you," would chase down the bad guys and say "Freeze," and after the almost victims thanked him would say "You're welcome." In between the car would do all the talking, presumably voiced by a better, if less photogenic, actor. Larson apparently took this basic concept and refined it to become the original Knight Rider. The handsome leading man, in this case David Hasselhoff, had more than six words of course (although there are some who think that keeping him to six words would have been just fine) but the car – the Knight Industries Two Thousand a.k.a. KITT – was still voiced by the better actor in William Daniels. The series ran for four seasons, and spawned a couple of made for TV movies as well as the series Team Knight Rider.

Of late NBC seems to have started on a retro programming kick for both itself and at least one of its cable networks. It began with a revised version of Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica. This version of the series which had originally run for a single season in 1978-79 took the original concept of a refugee fleet running from an alien menace and not only updated it but took a far more serious tack with the show. The Sci-Fi Channel version emphasised the sense that things were not normal within the fleet, that these people were fleeing from a genocide, something one never really had a sense of in the original version. The success of Battlestar Galactica led to NBC trying Bionic Woman, a remake of the Lindsay Wagner series of the mid-1970s. This series was unsuccessful in part I suspect because while the original was hardly great drama, unlike Galactica there were relatively few ways in which it could be improved. The net result was that there were some surface changes – Jamie Summers wasn't a tennis player turned teacher, she was a bartender – but most of the plots centered on the character as a novice secret agent and that ground had already been covered better by the original. Still, while preparations were going ahead for Bionic Woman NBC announced that they would be reviving yet another series from the old Universal library (since NBC and Universal are now part of the same company), Glen Larson's Knight Rider.

The new version of Knight Rider – which I'm sure NBC-Universal hopes will become a series – is amazingly uncomplicated by any efforts to modernize it or make it "more relevant" or realistic. And when you think about it, that's probably a good thing. I mean we are talking about a talking car here. Also wisely, they have decided not to ignore what had gone before. There's a brief guest appearance by David Haselhoff at the end of the TV movie, and in the early scenes we see disassembled parts from the original KITT, so there's a tip of the hat to the past, but the producers don't dwell in it. They also don't dwell too much in such irrelevancies as plot. The producers basically spent two hours creating a chase picture with the secondary purpose of introducing characters for a relaunch of the Knight Rider franchise.

The story – such as it is – focuses on a group of mercenaries working for a shadowy Black Water style group that is trying to capture Charles Graiman (Bruce Davidson – slumming) because he holds the key to something called "Prometheus." As nearly as I can tell "Prometheus" is some sort of device that can take over control of computers the world over or something equally nasty. In the "wrong hands" – that is to say the hands of anyone except the United States of America – this has a potential to start wars and other bad stuff. All of which leads one to ask why in the hell anyone would build the damned thing in the first place. But let's face it "Prometheus" is just a MacGuffin; something to motivate the characters but with no other real purpose, as Hitchcock described it. To get the data on Prometheus the mercenaries burst into Graiman's home and threaten his life and that of his daughter, who is at Stanford. Unfortunately for them, Graiman drops dead of an apparent heart attack. Equally unfortunately for them, Graiman has completed work on the new KITT, the Knight Industries Three Thousand (Val Kilmer – career in the toilet). The new KITT has been pre-programmed to do three things. First it has to pick up Graiman`s daughter Sarah (Deanna Russo) at Stanford and protect her from the four mercenaries. Naturally, despite the fact that KITT is the fasted thing on the roads and can turn on a dime and give you nine cents change and the bad guys are driving a van, they still get there ahead of the car which means that the car gets to pull off a daring rescue and the chase is on. KITT decides to lose the mercenaries – who by the way are types that used to be described as "straight out of Central Casting"; a nerdy white guy (you can tell he's a nerd because he says the word "algorithms"; Kevin Christie), a beefy Black guy who is the muscle of the group and doesn't talk much (Kevin Dunigan), a young Asian guy with long hair and a definite fondness for guns (but in this one he exhibits no ability for the martial arts; Jack Yang), and the older white guy who is the brains of the operation and the only reason why these guys have any hope for success (Greg Ellis – this role is a big step down from playing Amador in the third season of 24). Naturally enough KITT evades them.

KITT's next task is to find Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening from All My Children). Mike is an ex-Army Ranger, who is also a failed race car driver. Currently Mike is living in Las Vegas with his mechanic and best buddy Dylan. The first time we see Mike he's in bed with a beautiful woman... and joined by a second beautiful woman. Obviously he'll have to be the man with eight words ("thank you" being said twice). Mike has a big problem – he owe $90,000 to some guys whose idea of debt collection consists of taking the debtor's best friend out into the Nevada desert and leaving him there, presumably not in a condition to make it back to the highway. Then twenty-four hours later they'll do the same thing to the debtor. Naturally Mike's solution to paying off his debt is to take every last dime he can raise and go play poker against a guy who looks a lot like Phil "The Unabomber" Laak. It is at the casino – the Montecito of course (note to Toby, this puts Knight Rider in the same universe as Crossing Jordan as well as Las Vegas). It is at the Montecito that Sarah catches up with Mike. The two of them grew up together and had a relationship in the past but for reasons we'll eventually discover he left her (the idiot). Naturally enough the bad guys catch up with Sarah at the casino, and naturally enough the combination of KITT and Mike are sufficient to stop them. But mostly it's KITT who does it; he sets off the fire alarms, opens locked security doors and so on – Mike just fights older mercenary guy and finds that his Army Ranger skills are meagre compared to the bad guy, who fortunately for Mike doesn't wear a cup thereby making him vulnerable to a knee to the family jewels.

KITT's final instruction is to turn himself over to the FBI represented by brilliant loner agent Carrie Revai. We know that she's a loner because she's partnered with the most ineffective FBI agent ever, who she soon ditches. Carrie has headed up to Graiman's isolated compound to identify the body (because remember they can't get in touch with Sarah) and besides she suspects murder. At the compound she meets up with the local sherrif. She quickly identifies the body as not being that of Charles Graiman but a body double. Charles, we discover has taken off through the woods to an even more isolated house, which happens to belong to an old friend named Jennifer, who just happens to be Mike's estranged mother. Now here I was half expecting it to be revealed that the reason that Mike had dumped Sarah was because he had learned that Jennifer and Charles had been involved and that Mike and Sarah were half-siblings. But no, we discover that the reason that Charles sent KITT to Las Vegas pick up Mike before going back to San Francisco to turn himself (yeah, I'm thinking of the car as a him, get over it) in was because Mike is actually the son of Michael Knight (I feel like there should be a trumpet call or something at this revelation).

Charles and Jennifer have to flee from her cozy cabin of course because she's totally off the grid – no phone, no computer (how can she live like that!!!!!). They eventually go to a motel where they call KITT to come pick them up. They also call the agent Revai which is a bad move because the local sheriff is in league with the bad guys. So naturally everyone ends up at the motel, where Jennifer nearly shoots Mike and the whole lot of them get captured by the bad guys. But are our heroes stopped. Of course not there's still one more chase left. Jennifer foolishly tries to come out shooting and ends up shot but before she dies, she manages to pass some sort of weapon over to her son. Then, after three of the mercenaries (and the sheriff) leave with Charles, and the one who remains prepares to execute Carrie and Mike they overpower him with whatever it was that Jennifer passed to Mike. KITT, Mike and Sarah take off after the mercenaries and Charles. Now this would normally be a mismatch but somehow nerdy mercenary has managed to hack into KITT's computer systems (because he's had all of ten minutes to do it in and no help from Charles, and really no reason to do it because he believes that the mercenary left behind will be bringing KITT and Sarah – but not Carrie and Mike – to meet them). He intends to take control of KITT so Mike is forced to turn the car's systems off which eliminates all the superpowers the car has, like auto-repair. KITT gets shot up and bashed up pretty good before mike finally figures out that if they can get ahead of the van and block the road and then turn KITT's systems back on the van will crash into the car and, in total violation of the laws of motion and a few other laws of Newtonian Physics, will stop the van without so much as pushing the car that it hits a millimetre down the highway. The end... well except for a coda at Jennifer's funeral where Mike meets Michael and talks him into "making a difference" by taking up the responsibility of driving KITT. If I were Mike what I'd want to know is why the old man deserted the mother and child before the kid was five, but hey, that's just me.

What to say about this? The acting was adequate although I had the definite feeling that there were people in this that were doing it for the money. I mean let's face it if you're Val Kilmer (who was brought into the project when Will Arnett pulled out because he did voice ads for General Motors and the new KITT is a Ford Mustang) this has to be a pretty nice payday for very little real work. As the voice of KITT, Kilmer is a worthy successor to William Daniels (and if you've heard the 80 year-old Daniels's voice of late you will understand at least in part why the change was made). No one else really stood out. It's only fitting because the real star of the show was the car. This time it's a 2008 Ford Mustang GT500KR. For the purposes of the show (only!) the car has self regeneration and damage repair, is solar powered (though it does need gas, primarily when driving at night – well duh) with gas mileage of 167 miles per gallon, has artificial intelligence, GPS and military satellite access and guidance, has a top cruising speed of 191 miles per hour, and can disguise itself as any other car... as long as that car is a Ford Mustang.

The writing can best be described as workmanlike for what it was. It certainly wasn't cutting edge, and I'd go so far as to say that it old fashioned. There were a couple of nice nostalgic touches, such as when Jennifer asks Charles if the new KITT is another Trans Am, or when the smart older mercenary mentions "an urban legend" about a car and driver that fought crime. Still, despite touches like having Mike in bed with two women when we first meet him, or having FBI agent Revai being a lesbian (she comes home after a bit of early morning surfing to a naked woman who she has obviously picked up the night before), the writing comes across as old fashioned. I think that may be the biggest problem with this revival, it's old fashioned and there's no real need for it. Like it or not (and the PTC most assuredly does not like it) TV has progressed beyond talking cars. Battlestar Galactica is successful for the simple reason that it took only the most basic premise of the original series and made it darker and more realistic. I'm not sure there's a way to make Knight Rider darker and more realistic nor do I think there's a real need to. If the powers that be at NBC are smart (I know, oxymoron) they won't turn this new Knight Rider into a series regardless of the ratings for this TV movie. While I think the ratings for this will be good I can't see the public watching an ongoing revival for more than a few episodes out of a sense of nostalgia. Leave us with our memories of the original series instead and renew Friday Night Lights, or even Las Vegas instead.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week – February 14, 2008

Light week from the PTC but as you can see below there's something they're going to be upset with next week. On the personal front, my mom got out of the hospital today. She's looking forward to having something good to eat. She forgets that I'm doing the cooking.

This doesn't happen often but I now have a chance to scoop the PTC! On the Thursday February 14th episode of the Today Show Jane Fonda was discussing her role in The Vagina Monologues and how she had initially resisted taking the role when she said "the c-word" according to TVNewser, which has the NSFW clip on this page. For the sake of clarity I will use the word restricted from old comic books for resembling the word in question – squint at your own risk. Speaking with Meredith Viera Fonda said, "I hadn't seen the play — I live in Georgia. Then I was asked to do a monologue called 'CLINT', and I said, 'I don't think so. I've got enough problems.'" Viera later apologised saying, "Before we go to break, in our last half hour we were talking about The Vagina Monologues and Jane Fonda inadvertently said a word from the play that you don't say on television. It was a slip, and obviously, she apologizes and so do we. We would do nothing to offend the audience, so please accept that apology." The Midwest and Pacific feeds of the show had the word replaced with silence and a photograph placed on screen when Fonda says the word so that lip readers won't be offended. The apology is retained.

What is it with these relatively hot post-menopausal actresses on morning shows?! First we had 62 year-old Dianne Keaton dropping the F-Bomb on Good Morning America and then we have 70 year-old Jane Fonda saying "CLINT." What's next, Sally Field going on The Early Show on CBS and mentioning the product of bowel movements? Anyway, you know that the PTC is going to be over this one like white on rice – they wanted NBC fined when Helen Mirren said she nearly fell "tits over ass" trying to make it up the stairs at the 2006 Emmys – but it's another case of those pesky fleeting obscenities on live broadcasts. So naturally they'll complain about the Second Circuit Court and how the FCC needs to press the appeal to the Supreme Court and Congress need to pass a no hope bill that will give the FCC the power to fine anything it wants to just so long as they can justify it by calling it obscene. But that's just my guess.

The PTC has determined that the January 29th episode of House M.D. is the Broadcast Worst Show of the Week. According to the PTC (adding TV critic to the group's resume): "House, M.D. has always contained graphic imagery and sexual dialogue, but the program also featured suspenseful storylines and witty banter, which gave the show its appeal. Now in its fourth season, the series has become stale and formulaic, and thus increasingly more dependent on sexual themes and gore." Funny that no one else has mentioned that the show has become "stale and formulaic." I mean most episodes tend to follow a pretty basic formula – thereby making it "formulaic" I suppose – but stale? Never! The problem that the PTC complains about in this episode is there are two storylines in this episode, "both involving promiscuous women." Ah, but it's more than that really, it's that the two women are fairly open about it...or are they. The first storyline involves a single woman who has had a double mastectomy, despite not having breast cancer, because of a genetic predisposition to the disease. She is also completely open and truthful with her daughter, about everything (well not quite everything which is a major plot point in the episode but doesn't affect what the PTC has to say about the episode), including sex. Here's what the PTC has to say about this part of the episode: "The mother openly sleeps with several partners and shares that aspect of her life with her daughter. As Dr. House attempts to diagnosis the woman's illness, he sits down with the young girl and asks her to describe her mother's sex practices. He asks the eleven-year-old, 'Saddle, bronc, or doggy… that's sex talk.' As if the question wasn't horrible enough, the writers have the girl respond, 'She used to like to be on top. Now she likes to be on her stomach. That way she doesn't have to see them looking at her scars.'" As I mentioned, the woman (played by the beloved by this blog Janel Maloney) is totally open and truthful to her daughter about all aspects of her life (well as I said, almost all aspects). The PTC is almost as scandalized by the young actress played the daughter and being "forced" to be exposed to such "offensive" material: "Leaving TV fantasyland one has to acknowledge that in filming this episode, an actual little girl was exchanging graphic dialogue with an adult man about sexual positions. Is this really acceptable?" I suppose that for the PTC this is graphic. This plot concludes when House discovers that while the woman has had a double mastectomy she still has breast cancer. There's a complicated explanation but the short reason is that she has breast tissue on the back of one knee. In what is a frankly gross scene, House syringes some milk from that tissue and shoots it into the mouth of the daughter. As I said it is a pretty gross moment, but that is also the reaction of everyone in the roof including the House's three new fellows.

The other storyline involves a young woman who is a patient at the Clinic who is being treated by House for a rash. If you watched the episode, you'll know that House assumes that the young woman is a prostitute because she is wearing a St. Nicholas Medal, and St. Nicholas is the patron saint of prostitutes (he is also the patron saint of "Children, sailors, fishermen, the falsely accused, pawnbrokers, and repentant thieves"). Actually he "logically" deduces this by eliminating the categories she doesn't fit. As I recall the scene the woman doesn't confirm or deny his assumption but undeniably does flirt with him. From this, the PTC also assumes that she's a prostitute; she is the other promiscuous woman of the PTC's introductory paragraph. Well here's what the PTC says about that plot: In the second plot, another woman is an implied prostitute who comes to see Dr. House for a rash on her neck and chest. As House probes her symptoms, he asks her if she has had contact with a donkey, engaging in a line of questioning that would lead one to believe she performs in a sex show involving animals.

House: 'Do you do a donkey show? I'm not curious. It matters.'
Woman: 'It's a donkey or a mule. I can never remember.'

House: 'Wow that's a creepy smile. I bet the donkey's is even creepier... Antibiotic cream for you and a love glove for Francis. You'll both be fine.'

Woman: 'You should come see the show. I think you'd like it.'

House: 'Sorry, I hate Westerns.'"

So here we have a young woman who House assumes is a prostitute and who the PTC states at the beginning of the article is one of two "promiscuous women." To be fair, the PTC does mention that "She does nothing during the conversation to dispel Dr. House's assumption that she performs a sex act on the donkey," (emphasis mine), and it is revealed at the end of the episode (when House goes to see her show – she gave him a handbill which presumably revealed to him if not to us what she was really doing) that she is in fact playing the Virgin Mary in a Christmas pageant. The woman is flirtatious rather than promiscuous, although one suspects that the PTC finds the two states to be close enough not to matter. Maybe this helps explain why their conclusion for this episode is uncharacteristically weak for the PTC: "The graphic sexual dialogue and themes make this episode inappropriate for prime-time television, and earns House the distinction of being Worst of the Week."

The Cable Worst of the "Week" is the same episode of Nip/Tuck that has topped the PTC's charts for three or four weeks now, and the Misrated show is the same episode of Cashmere Mafia as last week. That leads us to the PTC's TV Trends column titled "TV Writers On Strike But Sex Continues" and I personally find it to be a rather weak effort as well. The basic premise of the article is summed up in the introduction: "As the TV writers' strike drags on, prime-time broadcast TV becomes ever more mired in an endless cycle of reruns and "reality" shows. When the strike began the networks held back a few episodes of their programs, and some are showing them now. Others had programs that were always intended to premiere at midseason, and some such shows are now being aired. Unfortunately, the programming appearing in the last week is not substantially different from that which has gone before." Pretty wimpy right? The article then gets down to examples, of which they can come up with two. The PTC's obsession with NBC's supposed obsession with strippers and "the nearly full-frontal nudity of a later Las Vegas episode"
(the scene in the strip club where the entirely overdressed stripper lifts her top so two patrons who are betting on the colour of her nipples – but not the audience at home – can settle the bet; this is hardly "nearly full-frontal nudity") continues. This time they picked on Friday Night Lights which had a scene in which Riggins takes Matt Saracen to the town strip club on a Wednesday afternoon. The PTC has considerable praise for the show saying, "Friday Night Lights has been lauded for its positive portrayal of a small-town high school football team. Unlike programs like the CW's Gossip Girl, which features ultra-wealthy teens hopping from bed to bed and using drugs, Friday Night Lights portrays its teenagers and their families in a genuine fashion, with its characters confronting realistic problems – and facing realistic consequences for bad decisions." In the episode Riggins takes an emotionally fragile Saracen to the local strip club (because it's Wednesday and Riggins always skips on Wednesdays). Believe it or not, this is an important scene and not just a reason to show strippers – who by the way are wearing even more than the strippers that the PTC was complaining about on Las Vegas. Matt is in emotionally bad shape, feeling that everyone who means something to him abandons him, but it's something that Riggins isn't aware of. The PTC doesn't even get that. Here's what they write: "While some teens certainly drink, and some may visit strip clubs, it is a sign of the coarsening of TV (and the increasing acceptability among entertainment industry insiders) that the program felt it necessary to include such material. Given the obsession with strip clubs seen across the NBC network, the inclusion of this scene could very well have been intended to 'spice up' a heretofore down-to-earth program. One can only hope that the program retains its more realistic focus and does not succumb to NBC's apparent desire to feature strippers on as many shows as possible." See what I mean about "not getting it?" Everything to them is gratuitous, and represents a "coarsening of TV."

The other show that they discuss in this article is the same episode of House that was mentioned earlier in this piece. There are a couple of additional comments that the writer of this article adds in. First about the daughter knowing about her mother's preference in sexual positions: "The idea of an eleven-year-old girl being privy to the intimate details of her mother's sex life is more than a little disturbing, but is typical of House." Yeah, I know, it's the same old ground and who cares about characterization? But what gets me is that this writer considers the secondary plot, with the woman at the clinic, "far worse." After describing the setup to the scene they say, "House responds with his typically brusque and graphic manner, deducing that the woman is a prostitute, and furthermore that she has sex with animals." They make sure to repeat the dialogue of the scene, presumably to show how "shocking" it is and then adds, "Most people wouldn't find bestiality a subject for humorous banter with their physician. But then, most people don't have lives that resemble the programming on Fox." But here's the amazing part; somehow it isn't the fairly mild discussion of possible involvement between the woman and the Donkey that offends the PTC, it's this: "As a final fillip, House later sees the woman at a church play, where she is portraying the Virgin Mary…riding a donkey. Even more offensive, if possible, is the fact that this episode was clearly intended to air at Christmas, but was delayed by Fox because of the writer's strike." Excuse me, but even more offensive? I'm afraid I don't know where "offensive" registers on this one. Does the "fact" that it was supposedly meant to air at Christmas make it offensive? Is it the fact that a supposed prostitute is playing Mary? I saw the scenes in question and I saw them not as offensive – certainly not on the young woman's part – but more as playful banter and maybe just a bit of role-playing on her part that ends just as soon as House is given the flier for the show that she's doing.

Here's the PTC's conclusion (with one bit of correction by me). "The strike continues [not anymore it doesn't]…but the effects of Hollywood's writers and their love of extreme sex, violence, profanity and irreverence continue to be seen on all our television screens. Lucky us." Yes indeed, lucky you PTC, because if they didn't engage in what few people outside of your organization consider "extreme sex, violence, profanity and irreverence" you'd have to find something real to do, either as jobs or an avocation.

Update: Did I call it or what. While I was writing this...well actually while I was napping during writing this the PTC put up a press release on the Jane Fonda incident on the Today Show. I said that "naturally they'll complain about the Second Circuit Court and how the FCC needs to press the appeal to the Supreme Court and Congress need to pass a no hope bill that will give the FCC the power to fine anything it wants to just so long as they can justify it by calling it obscene," and sure enough, here it is:

We also ask the two federal court judges in New York whether they are proud of the legacy they have ensured for themselves by paving the way for material like this to come into our homes. Hopefully American families will not let them have the final word, and that the Congress will move quickly to vote on the bill pending before the Senate which would clarify the FCC’s authority to deal with this growing problem.