Monday, March 31, 2008

An Apology Of Sorts

I have to apologize for the lack of posts over the last little while. Most of last week and part of the week before was spent dealing with a situation that was causing me and my mother a considerable amount of stress. That resolved itself last Thursday. Then, starting Friday night, I was spending time with my little nephew. Combined with the reversion to type by FOX with regards to The Return of Jezebel James – cancelled after three episodes – and Canterbury's Law – moved to the Friday Night death slot – I haven't got much to write about yet. I confess that taking a vacation from the PTC and their inanity has been a joy.

On the plus side, for a future piece of deathless prose I am now living with a 42" Samsung plasma TV and an up-converting DVD player (also a Samsung). What we don't have as yet is an HD cable box to get the full effect of the 720p/1080i capability of the new set. I've been trying to write about the new TV but without having the full HD effect to describe it's hard to make comparisons. Right now the new TV is just bigger and wider than my conventional 25". More to come on that I'm sure.

And don't forget what tomorrow is – I haven't.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sci-Fi Channel Upfronts Via Press Release

I'm not sure about most people who blog about TV, but from time to time I get press releases sent to me by various networks or publicists. Most of the time these are condemned to the trash section of my email client for what I regard as a couple of good reasons. One is immediacy. It really doesn't make much sense for me to mention that Larry King will be interviewing Senator Obama on Thursday on CNN, or to run excerpts from an interview of General Petraeus by Kyra Philips of CNN, just to give a couple of examples of material that dropped into my email box on Wednesday. Another consideration is my ability to give an informed review of what is actually on the screen. Because I'm a Canadian I don't always get to see shows at the same time that they debut in the United States either because a Canadian station or cable network doesn't have the show or because it has appeared on a Canadian service that I don't have access to (because I can't afford it or Shaw Cable doesn't offer it or – in the case of something on HDNet or other Hi Def only channels I don't have an HD TV). I would have loved to have written about John Adams but it was on Movie Central which I'm not prepared to pay an extra $11 for, and it probably won't make it onto the Canadian version of History Channel for a year or two. Then there are shows that just don't make it onto a Canadian station. Since I'm going to be talking about the Sci-Fi Channel's upfronts, I'll just mention that the Tin Man mini-series, which was just one of the highest rated shows that that network had last year, still hasn't aired in Canada. I don't get network preview DVDs or press packages (not that I'd say no by the way if anyone wants to contact me about it) so when it comes to writing about new shows I am dependent on what I see on TV. Worst of all is the occasional sense that I might not be doing the "right" or ethical thing.

Still, I increasingly feel like I'm missing a bet when it comes to at least some of these press releases, at least ones like this where there's a long lead time and an effort to promote, or at the very least to inform readers of something to look forward to, rather than to get me to review something that I haven't seen and maybe won't see. At the very least I can express an opinion on what the press releases say without making myself look like too big an ass right? And come to think of it since when has that ever stopped anyone in the media or the TV business.

For me the biggest announcement was undoubtedly the long anticipated Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica. Caprica will be presented as a "backdoor pilot" which may be turned into a series. Set fifty years before the Cylon attack on the Colonies, the series will followthe rivalry between two families, the Adamas and the Greystones during the time when developments were occurring in artificial intelligence were being made. These developments would eventually lead to the creation of the Cylons. According to Mark Stern, the Sci Fi Channel's Executive Vice President for Original Programming, "We couldn't be more excited to see this long-anticipated project get off the ground. It's an amazing script, and, though clearly inspired by the Battlestar mythology, it is not just a pale spin-off. This is a smart, thought-provoking, emotional, and compelling character drama in its own right." Battlestar Galactica's co-Executive Producer David Eick added, "While Caprica will have its own personality, it will carry on Battlestar's commitment to

pushing the boundaries of the genre, and we're thrilled that SCI FI has seen fit to giving us another opportunity to tell character-driven stories in challenging ways."

From a fan's perspective – or maybe I should say from this fan's perspective – Caprica offers an opportunity to see the society that spawned the characters who make up this series, and perhaps answer some of the questions that have been bothering me a bit – like the fact that they have advanced space travel but never seemed to have developed weapons more advanced than what we have. It is a society that is advanced in some ways and backward in others and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

In other "scripted" series news from Sci Fi, three pilots and a mini-series were announced by the network. True Believer is described by the network as "a quirky, contemporary dramedy about a 20-something comic book nerd who hires a washed-up real-life Superhero to be his crime-fighting sidekick and teach him the ropes. Together, this unlikely duo set out to save the World." Actress and comic book writer Rosario Dawson will be the Executive Producer while David Atchison (who is Dawson's co-creator on the Image Comics book Occult Crimes Task Force) will write the pilot along with Matthew Spradlin. The Stranded is a project which comes out of Sci Fi's partnership with Virgin Comics to create comic book titles that "integrate the unique spirit and vitality of both brands and create intellectual properties that can be developed across all mediums from publishing, film and television to digital and gaming." The Stranded is one of Virgin Comics' top sellers. The series deals with five seemingly ordinary people who discover that everything they remember about their past is a lie and that in fact they are actually from another world, called Standfire. Worse, the past that they are just discovering is coming back to try to kill them. The third pilot, called Deputized is about "an average Joe" who finds himself with special abilities after he is accidentally fitted with an alien exoskeleton that can't be removed. As a result he is enlisted as a member of "the inter-galactic police force that patrols the universe." The scripted miniseries that Sci Fi will be running is called Alice and is a modern retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story in much the same way that Tin Man, which was the network's most watched program ever, was a modern retelling of the story of The Wizard of Oz. It should probably come as a surprise to no one that Alice is being created by Writer/Director Nick Willing and Executive Producers Robert Halmi, Sr. and Robert Halmi, Jr. who were the people behind Tin Man.

I have to say that there seems to be a rather disturbing familiarity about a couple of these projects. The plot description for The Stranded sounds vaguely similar to Roswell and probably has a couple of references to other series as well. However the one that sounds really familiar is Deputized. Substitute "power ring" for "alien exoskeleton" and you have a plot description that is eerily like the concept that John Broome used for the revival of the Green Lantern in 1959, while the idea of an exo-skeleton or a costume that grants special powers or abilities but can't be removed is reminiscent of another DC Comics character, Blue Devil. Of course, much will depend on how this concept is executed.

In terms of reality programming, Sci Fi is promoting the return of Ghost Hunters International, a spin-off of their popular series Ghost Hunters in which a new team of "ordinary people" debunks stories of paranormal activity. In the first season Ghost Hunters International examined some of the "most haunted" locations in Europe. In the second season the show will extend its reach to include "notorious haunted hotspots" In South Africa and New Zealand as well as returning to Europe. Also returning will be a revival of the series Scare Tactics, to be hosted by comedian Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), in which unsuspecting victims are "are placed into elaborately staged scary situations involving movie-style special effects and makeup. The horror hoaxes are skillfully designed to tap into the wildest fears of the prank's prey." A more interesting show for me is Mind Control with Derren Brown, a British series in which the magician and "psychological illusionist" manipulates human behaviour while at the same time debunking the paranormal. I've seen some of what Brown does – it's been posted on YouTube – and I find him fascinating.

Estate of Panic is a new reality competition series in which seven people in each episode are challenged to find money in a massive estate. However there are challenges along the way. Two people are eliminated in each of three challenges, with the money that they've found being added to the pot that the eventual winner will take home. In all honesty it sounds like a redressed version of the NBC series Fear Factor. The other new reality series is called Brain Trust. In it a group of geniuses (a Mensa member with a perfect SAT score, an award-winning computer scientist/ neuroroboticist, the man with the highest recorded IQ in the United States, a behaviourist and gamer; a math whiz and author, and a successful software developer) are brought together to find new solutions to everyday problems. Once they've developed a new approach it is tried in a "real world" application.

Finally, in a tie-in with the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Sci Fi will be presenting Mystery of the Crystal Skulls hosted by Weekend Today host and NBC News reporter Lester Holt on May 18th. This is how the Sci Fi press release describes the special (because I can't summarize it and do it "justice" without wanting to burst in with my own sceptical nature): SCI FI feeds the Indy frenzy with the real story of and search for the legendary crystal Skulls. Glimmers of ancient civilizations and lost worlds have forever intrigued and tantalized but few ancient mysteries generate quite the fervor of the Crystal Skulls: 13 quartz crystal human skulls, now scattered to the four winds, discovered amid ruins of Mayan and Aztec societies. Legend tells us that should they ever be united, they may unleash untold energy, revealing secrets vital to the survival of humankind. In the new special Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, SCI FI and host Lester Holt (NBC News/Weekend Today) explore the history of the Crystal Skulls: the myths, the legends, the controversies and the scientific tests performed behind closed doors. It digs even deeper for the truth with new lab tests, as well an expedition into the jungles of Belize to track down the missing skulls, a quest worthy of Indiana Jones himself.

Finally, Sci Fi is pushing the fourth and final (*sniff*) season of Battle Star Galactica with website content including a one-time streaming presentation of the fourth season premiere episode on the Sci Fi website on April 4th at Noon Eastern Time (the press release says Noon EST which would be Noon CDT so you might just want to show up at the site early). This is nine hours before the episode is broadcast on the Sci Fi network. And no doubt this won't be available to anyone whose Internet Address doesn't say that it's American. There are also going to be "webisodes" and a "social gaming experience" called "Join The Fight! Cylon or Human," in which players pick a side and engage in battles for points through various games and challenges. Also available online is an original Web series called Starcrossed, written by David Hewlett of Stargate: Atlantis, about the behind the scenes "antics" at a long running science fiction soap opera.

Sci Fi has also posted a number of videos related to Battle Star Galactica at their YouTube Channel. They include the four part Battle Star Galactica Revealed program, and these two short videos previews:

Finally, just because it's fun, we have this clip from Wednesday night's Late Show With David Letterman.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guide Me Away

Once upon a time, a long time ago – back when television didn't have pictures and was called radio – there was a show called Our Miss Brooks. Our Miss Brooks – which in due time actually got pictures and became a television show – starred the fabulous and amazing Eve Arden as a high school teacher named Connie Brooks, Gale Gordon (who would later play Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show and would appear in just about everything else that Lucille Ball did until one or both of them died) as Principal Osgood Conlkin, and Jeff Chandler (on Radio) or Robert Rockwell (on TV) as Mr. Boynton as the Biology teacher that Connie swooned over. I mention this show, which I've never seen but have heard courtesy of the old When Radio Was show that I used to be able to hear on KIRO in Seattle (until the idiots there decided I'd rather hear some moron who thought it was cool to say things like "comely Jewess" to describe Sara Silverman), because the producers of the new series Miss Guided stole the idea behind the older show but neglected to bring any of the wit or intelligence that the show that debuted over 60 years ago had.

Judy Greer, who played Kitty Sanchez on Arrested Development, is Becky Freely. Becky was one of the nameless, faceless mob at her old high school, who has come back as an adult to be the guidance counsellor. There she is surrounded by a gang of total incompetents. These include the principal, Mr. Huffy (Earl Billings). Let's just say that he's laid back to the point of being nearly comatose and while he wouldn't rather be anywhere else it's pretty clear that he'd rather be almost anywhere else. Then there's Bruce, the Vice Principal. Bruce, played by Chris Parnell from Saturday Night Live is one of those freakish human teachers that you only find in sitcoms set in schools. He believes that every student is up to something, that unless dances are strictly controlled – by him – there'll be a race riot and that students who are even slightly outside of the norm are carrying weapons or drugs or both. Tim (Kristopher Polaha), who used to teach auto shop is the new Spanish teacher. As he puts it, he's about one session in the language lab ahead of the kids in his class in speaking Spanish (and has to practice before Parent Teacher meetings with "real Mexicans") but he's just happy to have been asked to be something other than a glorified mechanic (the former Spanish teacher was arrested for something on his computer hard drive – the janitor was offered the job but he didn't want anyone checking his hard drive). And then there's Lisa Germain (Brooke Burns), the newly hired English teacher. Back when they were both in school, Lisa was Becky's nemesis – Lisa barely knew that Becky existed. Becky was the Homecoming Queen – Becky got stood up by her date – a cheerleader – Becky was going through extensive orthodontia – and was dating the quarterback that Becky had a crush on (after their one scene together in the high school production of The Sound Of Music). Naturally, Becky has feelings for Tim. Her way of expressing them is to nearly run over someone in the school parking lot in order to get a parking spot near his. Just as naturally Lisa, who is in the midst of a divorce from the quarterback, is also attracted to Tim, but is far more aggressive in going out to get what she wants.

The episode centred around the Homecoming Dance (and was cleverly titled Homecoming – a double meaning there since it was the homecoming as well for Lisa and all of Becky's not very well buried insecurities) which Becky was organizing and was supposed to chaperone along with Tim. Becky expected Tim to ask her to the dance and was shocked to discover courtesy of one of her guidance counselling sessions, that Lisa had asked Tim out. Now I'm not entirely sure how it happened (I was trying to do something else at the time) but somehow Becky ended up outside the gym where the dance was being held, hiding in the bushes with one of the "outcast" students, and watching things go well for the students who have come to her. And, of course, watching Tim and Lisa out of fear that Lisa will steal "her" man. In fact, after the dance Becky follows Tim and Lisa out to the parking lot and hides behind a car to overhear them talking. It all seems pretty stalker-ish.

It says something about the quality of a show when I find the person who is supposedly the antagonist – Lisa – to be a far more rounded, interesting, and dare I say it sane than any of the other characters on the show. That includes the lead character too. Lisa is more active than Mr. Huffy, more competent than Tim (she actually speaks Spanish since she lived on a cattle ranch in Spain, writing a novel) saner than Bruce (not that this is hard to accomplish) and way more confident in herself than Becky. Meanwhile Becky, who we're supposed to identify with, like, support and cheer for come across as unerringly happy and smiley to the point of near idiocy. As to her "relationship" with Tim, at times it comes desperately close to stalking behaviour anywhere except within the script of a TV series. It's kind of creepy really. That's not to say there weren't some nice touches. The two scenes with the janitor are fun as are some of the flashbacks to Becky's numerous high school humiliations. I particularly liked the one where her parents are videotaping the play and you can hear one of them say after she delivers her one line that they should go now since she's said her line.

Earlier I mentioned Our Miss Brooks. There are a lot of similarities in the plot; an unmarried teacher, a potential relationship with a fellow teacher who seems to be so desperately thick about figuring out that the woman is interested in him, a rival for his affections, and a principal who is at best aloof or perhaps obtuse (although I can't imagine Mr. Huffy exploding in the way that Mr. Conklin did in virtually every episode). The similarities are superficial though. Connie Brooks was aggressive, smart, sassy, sometimes sarcastic, and always ready with a comeback for whoever she was talking too. Mr. Boynton was so far from being the incompetent that Tim is that it bears mentioning only for completeness. Boynton wasn't stupid, he was just a painfully shy man who was far more comfortable with his bullfrog Mac than with any woman. As for her rival for Boynton's attention, Daisy Enright (played by Mary Jane Croft) is very much her equal, with the addition of a scheming nature. The latter sets her up as the antagonist as we are not meant to admire this quality. While Daisy's character might be considered "old fashioned – the conniving woman trying to get a man by whatever technique available – the rest of Our Miss Brooks seems far more modern than the characters on Miss Guided. Connie Brooks in particular is probably far closer to what a modern teacher is like than Judy Greer's Becky Freely.

The thing about Miss Guided that is so galling for me is that it's not hard to recognise that the producers are leaning much too far in the direction of farce than they should. They seem to be relying on the old trick of exaggerating situations way out of proportions to the material. This can work in some situations, but even shows like The Office and 30 Rock don't take farce anywhere near this far. It says something when the most human character of the lot is supposed to be the arch-rival of the protagonist. I think this is another colossal flop on the comedy front for ABC even if it should earn strong ratings when it is inserted into the Thursday line-up (against the first night of the NCAA Basketball championship by the way so this smells like a burn-off rather than a show the network hopes will come back), and frankly I don't think that it could happen to a more deserving show...even According To Jim. Or maybe I'm just an old fart with memories of the "good old days." Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bubble Bubble, Shows In Trouble

I just came upon an interesting listing of shows that are "on the bubble" according to The Hollywood Reporter. They have a separate blog based on the pilot season complete with charts – lists actually – of the shows in development for each of the broadcast networks as well as a listing of the shows that are, as they put it, "renewed, pending or bubble." My big question I suppose is what the difference is between pending and bubble? Is a pending show more likely to have renewal or cancellation being announced sooner rather than later? Or are bubble just shows that no one knows the status of – or at least no one who is willing to talk. And of course as is usual with these things there are mistakes, or what seem to be mistakes but which may not be mistakes. Anyway, without much further ado (because I'll be commenting on so of the stuff as we go along) I present the listing of pending and bubble shows for each network.

Pending: Oprah's Big Give, Here Come the Newlyweds, Scrubs
Bubble: Men in Trees, Women's Murder Club, Boston Legal, Carpoolers, October Road, Just For Laughs, According to Jim

Comment: The interesting item here is Scrubs which is currently an NBC show. However it is produced by ABC Studios (which used to be Touchstone Studios) for NBC, and NBC doesn't seem that interested in keeping the show on the air, to the point where they decided not to give the show any post-strike episodes in what was supposed to be its final season. Then you have series star John C. McGinley saying that they had started shooting 18 new episodes for ABC next season. Meanwhile ABC Studios claimed that this was just routine reshoots...for a series that NBC hasn't ordered new episode for.

Three other items of some interest. The first is the presence of Carpoolers on the list – I thought it had been cancelled already. Next, just for the record, even if Just For Laughs is cancelled that doesn't mean it will stop being produced. The show is actually made for CBC in Canada (as Just For Laughs Gags) and repackaged for the American audience. Finally – and to me this was extremely surprising – most of the comments on the blog post were from people demanding that ABC renew October Road. And let me just say this about the prospect of According to Jim coming back yet again – AAARRRGH!!!!

Moonlight, Rules of Engagement, Price Is Right Million Dollar Spectacular, Big Brother, Power of 10, How I Met Your Mother
Bubble:Dexter (season 2 for CBS summer?), Jericho, Cane, Shark, The New Adventures of Old Christine, The Unit, Welcome to the Captain

Comment: The Hollywood Reporter article suggested that How I Met Your Mother is likely to come back, even if it is the weak ratings link on the CBS Monday comedy line-up. The suggestion is that if it were cancelled other networks might consider grabbing it, on the grounds that a weak ABC comedyis better than most of the comedies that they have. The article also suggested that renewal is likely for Moonlight although that will likely depend on how strong the show's audience is when it returns. The show's fans are a passionate lot (and I admit that the show has grown on me) and it's a nice fit with Ghost Whisperer and Numb3rs. On the other hand prospects aren't as bright for Jericho. While the show gets a strong gain in viewership thanks to DVRs, the ratings for the past couple of week have been weak. Then again when was the last time that CBS had a show last longer than one season in the third hour slot on Tuesday? Think back to Judging Amy for the answer. That would also seem to answer the Cane question.

A couple of other thoughts from me. I am assuming that the listing for Big Brother relates to it as a winter series, since they're apparently already casting for the next summer version. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the fate of Power of 10 is directly linked to the possibility of doing a once a week night time Price Is Right. They've done it as specials while Bob Barker was with the show but would they be willing to try it on a regular basis?

The CW
The Game, Beauty and the Geek
Bubble: Reaper, Aliens in America, Pussycat Dolls

Comments: Hollywood Reporter suggests that Reaper needed a strong (for The CW) performance against Lost to earn renewal. According to them the show "lost its way." They also claim that Aliens In America will be likely be cancelled. The show has been acclaimed critically but never really done well in the ratings despite being partnered with Everybody Hates Chris. I wonder how much of this assessment has to do with the decision by the network to close its Comedy Department. Finally (from me) I doubt that there's any real danger that Beauty and the Geek, which is just starting its fifth cycle, will be cancelled.

American Idol, America's Most Wanted, House, Don't Forget the Lyrics, Bones, Back to You, COPS, 5th Grader, Moment of Truth, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Til Death
Bubble: Unhitched, Prison Break, New Amsterdam, Canterbury's Law

Comments: Let's be absolutely clear about this – virtually none of the shows on the Pending list is in any danger of cancellation. The exceptions are Back to You, Til Death, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and I think it is realistic to suggest that they're safe too. In the case of the two comedies, they don't do that well, but they seem to work and do you really consider dropping them if you don't have anything to replace them with? The case around Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a bit different. According to the Hollywood Reporter article, "Fox executives like the creative product and thought the finale's performance last week was solid. The network also spent a considerable amount marketing the show, giving Season 2 some cost benefit. Also: The fourth Terminator movie comes out in 2009, and as The Simpsons Movie proved, there are promotional advantages to film-TV synergy." Prison Break is also likely to come back if a pitch for the fourth season is accepted. The big question is the new shows – Unhitched, New Amsterdam, and Canterbury's Law not to mention The Return of Jezebel James. Certainly the network didn't show much enthusiasm for New Amsterdam originally, first pulling it from the fall line-up just before they were about to debut and then cutting the episode order. Still, the show seems to be doing adequately in the ratings though obviously not as strong as 24 was in the same time slot last year. Then again, can you really compare a rookie series with little promotion to a major hit that was in its sixth season.

Deal or No Deal, The Office, My Name Is Earl, Knight Rider(?!), Friday Night Lights (w/ DirecTV), ER, 30 Rock

Bubble: Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent (via USA), Medium, 1 vs. 100, Amnesia, Lipstick Jungle

Comments: Another case were virtually all of the shows in the Pending list are going to be back. NBC is working out a deal with DirecTV to share the costs of doing Friday Night Lights in return for the satellite company being able to air the show first. The bubble shows seem fairly safe as well, with the possible exceptions of Amnesia (which I hate) and Lipstick Jungle which I like more than I'm probably meant to. Law & Order has already cast Anthony Anderson from this year's FOX series K-Ville to replace Jesse L. Martin, and Criminal Intent (which is still my favourite of the franchise – I'd love it even more if they'd keep Alicia Witt) has the neat side deal with the USA network that makes it a perfect replacement series.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The TV Detective Returns

Got an email a short while ago that revived the TV Detective side of me, and not a moment too soon. I confess I am getting increasingly tired/bored with constantly writing about the PTC and I pretty much assume you are getting bored with me writing about it. Anyway, Christine Cowan writes:

I have been searching online for a while now for a show that none of my friends/family seem to remember. What I do recall: the opening of the tv show had a (small) covered waggon and actors dressed as peasants or gypsies following behind walking through the countryside. The show itself took place indoors on a modern-day studio/stage. They were still dressed in old garb and acted out fables or cautionary tales (no props or backgrounds). 2 stories I do remember are the Fisherman and his Wife (has a wish granting fish in it); and a Grimm Fairytale about a (beautiful) girl drowned by her jealous sister – her bones & hair found by a miller who makes them into a singing harp which later reveals her murderer to her family. The show closed with the troupe silhouetted outside a dusk. PLEASE say it sounds familiar! If it helps, I suspect it was either a late 70's or early 80's show (given I was born in '74) and I lived in rural Ontario and only got a handful of stations on the aerial – Global and TVOntario came in the clearest.

This rang a bell for me because I had a similar question just at the end of last year which unfortunately I blew off, or at least didn't answer at the time. It came from Meleita Dart, who wrote,

I have been thinking about a Saturday morning TV show that I used to watch in the early 70's. I believe it was call "Sunshine Theatre" but I can't seem to find any information on it.

Can you recall this show? It was namely upcoming actors who would act out fairtale such as "Jack and the Bean Stalk" etc.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit – okay, I haven't been losing sleep over it but I have been thinking of it since Meleita first wrote me, and I'm pretty sure that the series you are both thinking of is Story Theatre. Christine's description of the opening titles is exactly what I remember about the series; a group of wandering players sort of skipping, dancing along behind a sort of gypsy style wagon; I think tambourines were played, although the opening credits were shot silent and a soundtrack put on over them.

The show was based off of Paul Sill's Broadway hit Story Theatre – in fact one of the stories told in the play was The Fisherman and his Wifebut the TV show was shot at the BCTV studios in Vancouver and aired during the 1971-72 season (which was the first season that we had CTV in Saskatoon). The show had an amazing cast, many of them drawn from Second City in Chicago. Hamilton Camp, Paul Sand, Richard Schaal and his then wife Valerie Harper, Richard Libertini and his then wife Melinda Dillon, and Peter Bonerz had all appeared in the original Broadway cast of the show. Most had ties with Chicago's Second City troupe (and many would end up working for Mary Tyler Moore). They were supplemented by a number of actors including Avery Schreiber, Severn Darden, and Alan Alda. The series first ran on CTV on Sunday evenings during the 1971-72 season. There was only one season made and it didn't generate big ratings or international sales (and as was usual in this period CTV needed sales into the United States to keep shows on the air...or so they claimed). According to the listing of CTV shows done by The Canadian Communications Foundation, the series apparently was repeated by the network in 1972-73 and again in 1974-75 in a Saturday morning time slot.

This leaves me with a bit of a problem as Christine mentions that she was born in 1974 and the only available rerun dates I have for the show are for the CTV reruns, which are just a little too early for her dates. But she does mention that TVOntario was one of the small number of stations that were available to her growing up, which makes me wonder if maybe CTV sold reruns of Story Theatre to them during the late '70s and early '80s. I think it is possible; indeed I think I may have seen episodes of the show during the early years of the Saskatchewan Communications Network, the educational channel here in Saskatchewan. It's no longer available here

I have been looking online for either a video of the opening credits (preferable) or even a photo from the show to go with this article. Maddeningly nothing is available online. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week – March 7, 2008

I had planned on doing a review of the new FOX series New Amsterdam, but I managed to miss part of it while trying to set up a wifi network (and failing miserably) so that will have to wait until I see a later episode. Still it begs the question of how all these immortal people (Duncan McLeod, Angel, Nick Knight, this John Amsterdam guy) can remember the complete details of 400 years of life and I can't remember where I left my verdammt watch! Anyway, let's get on to that scary place, the home page of the Parents Television Council and find out who they have a hate on for this week.

Well they don't hate the Trinity Broadcasting Network. The PTC has presented its "Seal of Approval" to the Trinity Broadcasting Network for "upholding the positive values that families hold dear. Our culture seems to grow ever more resistant to what is best for the family and this includes many broadcast and cable networks. The TBN networks stand out for their excellent programming that the entire family can watch and enjoy together." According to the presentation made by PTC president Tim Winter, "TBN offers programming that does not put broadcasters in jeopardy of receiving stiff fines from the FCC, and the PTC's approval is a beacon for viewers – while tuned in to TBN, they can be assured they'll be watching programs that are devoid of inappropriate and offensive messages." And that's where I'm going to stop quoting from this puff piece because frankly I find it to be one of the most absurd things that I have seen from the PTC, and that includes the demand that 1 vs. 100 get a D descriptor because Bob Saget cracked one condom joke (and because the Dahm Triplets were on the show and they appeared nude in Playboy). I mean really, let's look at who they're giving the award to. The Trinity Broadcasting Network is a Christian broadcasting network – in fact Wikipedia describes it as "the largest Christian television network in the world." Dare I say that it would be an immense surprise to me if it didn't offer "programs that are devoid of inappropriate and offensive messages." Well not potentially offensive unless you're a Jew, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and probably some Catholics. It's no surprise that TBN has been rewarded by the PTC with this honour; what I find absolutely shocking is that it has taken them this long to determine that it was safe to give it to them.

Now as far as who the PTC hates, that would be CBS. The big thing of course is that CBS is airing Dexter, but there's also an announcement that CBS will be airing Mixed Martial Arts (which the PTC informs us is known as "cage fighting") next year without toning down the violence. Like Dexter, MMA is also on the Showtime cable network. Tim Winter finds the decision to air MMA on CBS to be curious: "It appears that CBS is making decisions based not on audience demand or what is best for America's families, but on what is best for its sister network Showtime's coffers."

But of course it is Dexter that is the source of the PTC's ire. Noting a ratings increase in the audience for the show of 50,000 in the under 12 demographic, the PTC trots out statements by two experts on the influence of media violence on children. Professor L. Rowell Huesmann "Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology and Director, Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan" is quoted as saying that, "I think the program Dexter contains all the elements of violence that would make it particularly detrimental for children to watch. The violence is perpetrated by someone who is portrayed as a hero doing good for society. The violence is graphic, explicit, and brutal. The hero shows no remorse or concern about his violence. The hero is rewarded for his violent behavior. All of these factors are likely to maximize the influence it would have in stimulating violent behavior in the children and adolescents who watch the program regularly. Parents should not allow children or adolescents to watch it. CBS should not present it at a time when children are likely to see it, and CBS should not promote it for children and adolescents." Now, setting aside my previously stated position that Dexter is the protagonist of the show (and of the novels that preceded it) I am willing to grant everything that the professor is saying, but that's because it proves my point rather than the PTC's. "CBS should not present it at a time when children are likely to see it." They're not; they're presenting the episode in the third hour of primetime when it is assumed that children won't be watching. "CBS should not promote it for children and adolescents." I would like to see evidence that indicates that CBS is promoting this show to children and adolescents. "Parents should not allow children or adolescents to watch it." And that is the key; parents should not allow children or adolescents to watch it. It is the responsibility of parents and not government or some socially conservative third party organization to find something other than this show for their children to watch. The tools are in place for them to do so.

The other "children's media expert" – and for reasons you will see I am using this term loosely – is Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, who runs the "Killology Research Group." He says, "The kids who gave us Jonesboro in the middle school and Columbine in the high school are now giving us Virginia Tech in the college. These killers shared one common trait: an obsession with media violence…And now we have come to a new low, with a serial killer as the 'hero' on the public airwaves. It is time to take back the airwaves, and to throw out the wretched people and corporations who have turned our airwaves into a moral sewer." Nowhere however, except for writing his book, which controversially called "first person shooter" video games "murder simulators" does Grossman claim to be an expert on child psychological behaviour and his statements about the influence of media violence are contrary to Professor Huesmann's, who wrote, "Nowhere have we ever indicated that media violence is the only or even a major cause of violence among youth. All indications from the meta-analyses mentioned above are that television can account for 10% of youth violence. This means that 90% is caused by other factors."

Finally Tim Winter resorts to quoting ratings as proof of...something. Noting that the ratings for Dexter fell 23% from episode one to episode two (which it should be stated aired opposite the Academy Awards) Winter writes, "Despite national outrage over CBS' decision to air Dexter, the network has yet to pull the series, even though it clearly isn't drawing much of an audience. In the past, CBS has been swift to cancel family-friendly shows like the popular Joan of Arcadia, which had a 30% higher rating and audience share than Dexter has to date. When Joan was pulled from the schedule, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves was even quoted as saying, 'I think talking to ghosts [The Ghost Whisperer – which took Joan's place on the CBS schedule] may skew younger than talking to God.' How young do serial killers skew, Mr. Moonves?" What Winter refuses to remember though is that the "popularity" of Joan Of Arcadia declined significantly during the show's second season with the series finally having a lower rating than Dexter.

Dexter is also the subject of this week's TV Trends. Apparently those evil bastards at CBS are actively marketing this show to kids! How? Well first they've ordered a Dexter "bobble head doll" (that's how the PTC wrote it) and action figures featuring the character Dexter. And of course we know that the only people who buy bobblehead dolls and action figures are little children: "One can just imagine CBS executives enthralled at the prospect of children clamoring for their very own Dexter action figures." But it gets worse; Marc Ecko Games is planning to develop a video game based on "Dexter's morally complex world." According to Ecko's press release the company will "work closely with Showtime to be certain that the Dexter video game is as faithful to the television program as possible," which we all know is like waving a red flag at a bull where the PTC is concerned. The TV Trends writer states, "If the game actually is faithful to the TV program Dexter, it will be rated AO (for Adults Only), inasmuch as the original rating of the Showtime television program was TV-MA DLSV. However, given the video game industry's track record of misrating their games (both Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Manhunt 2 contained hidden explicit sexual content, but were initially rated M instead of Adults-Only), whether the Dexter game will be rated accurately remains to be seen."

But amazingly the PTC takes things that extra yard by actually reviving part of the charges made by Frederic Wertham into the argument in a backhanded sort of way: "Popular culture does have an influence – especially on children. The youngsters who read graphically violent horror comics like The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear in the 1950s grew up to make TV shows and movies like Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt. The children who grew up watching the Friday the 13th movie series in the 1980s are now making "torture porn" films like Saw, Hostel and Captivity, replete with sadism, mutilation and misogyny. Is it merely a coincidence that as popular culture has glorified ever-more explicit violence to our children – on TV, in movies, in music and in video games – the epidemic of violence in society (particularly in youth-centered areas like schools and colleges) has increased?" Well to a degree it is just a coincidence, in much the same way that the "crime" and "horror" comics that Frederic Wertham – a man whose ideas I disagree with but whose sincerity I do not argue with, unlike the PTC – claimed "caused" juvenile delinquency. Contributory perhaps, but hardly the sole influence or even the principal influence if we are to believe Professor Huesmann. And it is worth noting that the "children" of the 1980s who are making the films the PTC mentioned today are respectively a Malaysian-born Australian who was born in 1977 (James Wan – Saw), a Harvard educated son of a psychiatrist (Eli Roth – Hostel), and a 63 year-old Frenchman (Roland JoffĂ© – Captivity). The PTC's rhetoric sounds good but with a little investigation one hopefully comes to realise it is just that, rhetoric.

The original Law & Order is included as this week's Misrated show. The episode was rated TV-14 DL and the PTC insists that it should have a "V" descriptor for "several graphic depictions of a murder victim and detailed discussions of her horrifying death." To which my answer is, as always that depictions of the aftermath of a violent act are not the same as the depiction of the actual act, particularly at the TV-14 level where the "V" descriptor refers to "intense violence." As for the discussion of the circumstances of "her horrifying death," the example that the PTC cites is the coroner's description of the victim's rape: "There is evidence of both anal and vaginal penetration." This is the sort of thing which would seem to be covered under the Dialogue descriptor (which the episode has) although in all honesty the actual line mentioned seems far too mild for that descriptor at the TV-14 level.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent was labelled the Broadcast Worst show of the week (yet again there is no Cable Worst of the week). The episode in question revolves around the murder of a woman who is working as part of a sexual blackmail ring. Here's what the PTC has to say about the episode: "If there is a parent who wishes that they could take their family to an R-rated movie on a school night but cannot afford today's steep theater prices, that parent would find that on February 27th NBC did them a service – by bringing adult content to their children for free. That evening's episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent featured a disturbing sex-driven murder plot that included depictions of fetishes and hardcore sex. The episode scored a trifecta of sorts, as it assaulted the 9:00 p.m. ET hour (only 8 o'clock in the Central and Mountain time zones) with offensive sex, violence, and language." Pointedly, the PTC doesn`t mention what the rating for this series was. They seldom do when dealing with their "worst of the week." What they do present is the details of selected scenes, although their descriptions are, as always, slanted in such a way as to bring out the most prurient details. For example, they mention a sex tape which is used to blackmail the man who is the initial suspect in the crime: "The tape is graphic and features rear-entry sex, the latest lewd act NBC is increasingly depicting in many of its programs. While watching the clip Detective Logan crudely says: 'He'll flip her over any second. If he's cheating on his wife he's not going missionary the whole way.'" This of course does a very nice job of creating a disturbing image in the mind of the reader, but pointedly the PTC does not include that scene in the clip that is included with this complaint. And given that they've shown Holly Hunter naked when they condemned Amazing Grace, and a sex scene from Nip/Tuck when attacking that show's supposed "pedophile" story, I doubt that it is because they are being sensitive to the people who might click on the link. Maybe it's because the reality of the thing wouldn't match up with the image of it that they have put in our minds.

In their summation, here is what the PTC says about the producers of Law & Order and NBC: "The producers of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and the executives at NBC are leaders in the charge that parents should be solely responsible for what their families watch. The network exhibits no sense of responsibility for the content it produces, which continually walks the line of indecency stopping just short of federal fines. This episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent is a perfect example of NBC's emphasis on sex, making it the clear choice for Worst of the Week." It strikes me as being obvious that parents, who one would hope know their children and what they are mature enough to see, know better what is acceptable for their families than some amorphous organization that is accountable to no one (the PTC) or some government censor that seems to set the rules as they go along, like the FCC. As I've mentioned before the PTC's rhetoric sounds good, but when it is examined in the light of day, it is just that: rhetoric.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Competitive Philanthropy

Oprah's Big Give is the latest reality-competition show to arrive on our TV screens as a result of the Writers Strike. I'm not sure if it qualifies as the most interesting of these series, but it does come across as unusual in its premise – the competitors in this show aren't aiming to make money but to give it away. If nothing else the show is probably an ideal companion to ABC's other "give something back to deserving people" show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Oprah in Oprah's Big Give is of course Oprah Winfrey, she who turns books into best sellers and invigorates presidential campaigns ber presence. Oh yeah, and she's one of the richest women in show business. Oprah is the public face of The Big Give, a position which I suppose makes her the "anti-Trump." The show is produced by Winfrey and the team of Bert van Munster and Elise Doganieri whose other show is the best reality competition series on TV (for as long as that category has been given out at the Emmys), The Amazing Race. All of this represents a pretty good pedigree for the show. The thing is that I'm not sure that the final product lives up to the promise. It sort of comes across as another Apprentice clone except that this time it's better o give than receive.

The show started off on Sunday with ten participants (I don't like the word "contestants" for this, and I refuse to use the term "givers"). These are people with some "street cred" in terms of giving back to the community. They included a young Nigerian born biochemist who set up a foundation to held deformed children in Nigeria, a parapalegic media executive who set up an online community for wounded Iraq war veterans, a 22-year old dot com millionaire who is on the board of a Virginia organization that works at keeping at-risk students in school, a singer who has set up an organization to serve as a safe haven in Brooklyn's inner city, and a former army officer who helped to mentor other soldiers and now serves as minority recruiter for West Point. The participants are given a sum of money and an assignment to help a specific person. Giving away money to a specific person, sounds easy right?

Well of course it isn't easy. The money that the contestants get is meant to serve as seed money for the participants to raise a real bankroll for the people they were supposed to help and to get them what they needed. It went beyond cold calling people and organizations for donations and meant setting up fund raising events. First of course the participants had to get to know the people they were raising money for. They were a fairly diverse group, each with compelling individual stories. There was the woman whose husband was shot to death at a robbery and who worried about getting her kids into good schools and keeping her home. There was a woman living in a homeless shelter after dealing with spousal abuse, and the mother of a Down Syndrome child who set up an organization to provide care and musical education for kids like her son. There was a young med student who needed to pay off his school loans so that he could afford to practice in his inner city neighbourhood.

Naturally the show was judged. After all, a show like this can't just be based on how much money the participants are able to raise for the people they're working to help. A bigger factor is the impact of what they've been able to do will have on the life of the person receiving the help. And of course, Oprah couldn't do the judging herself, so she picked three celebrity judges with a background of charity or other good works. These were British chef Jamie Oliver, who established a restaurant for training disadvantaged youth, and worked with the British government on a pilot program to improve the quality of the food served in Britain's state schools; Malaak Compton-Rock (the wife of Chris Rock) who works with a variety of organizations including Safe Horizon, the largest victims assistance organization in the US; and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose foundation supports groups for kids including Shadow Buddies and the Boys and Girls Clubs. The judges had a variety of qualities that they were judging on, including the impact that the things the participants were able to accomplish for the people they were working with (which isn't necessarily based on the money raised), to organization to imponderables like "heart."

Once we got beyond the initial meeting with Oprah (who only appeared for about five minutes total on the show) things are handed off to host Nate Berkus. He has even less air time than Oprah if you can believe that, but he was heard a lot. He explains how the teams are set up for this first task. Each person is given an envelope with their money and the picture of the person they are supposed to help and some of their pertinent details. The person who has the photo matching theirs is their partner for the task. Once they find the person they have to help – if they do, since there was one team who spent the entire first day of the five days they have to help lost in Southern California – it was time for the heart warming personal stories of why they need help. After that we saw the partners working the phones and setting up meetings and events. Some of the ideas were really strong, like an appeal at a church, others were incredibly weak, like a fashion show where the attendees were asked to put money into the purses of the models to contribute to the medical student, which I suspect was the first time that any of them had heard of this aspect of the event. And since this isn't ordinary philanthropy but a reality competition show that is focused around philanthropy, there were "confessionals" where participants talk about how well or how badly their partner was doing, and scenes of them working together well or arguing about details. There were also visits from the judges who had their own confessionals sessions with the cameras, evaluating the progress of the teams. Eventually, after the charity events were completed the judges evaluated the teams, although there seemed to be little back and forth between them and the participants. Finally, after the evaluations were completed each of the participants was handed an envelope. If their envelope contained a plane ticket they'd be continuing on. The one person whose envelope was empty, an AMTRAK service agent who didn't seem to contribute much even to a very poor effort – to help a Marine home from Iraq to get a new home for his family – would not be going on.

I am seriously conflicted by this show. I like the notion of a show about people doing good works for others and if the best way to set this up is to make it a reality competition show, well so be it. I'm sure that this is exactly the sort of show that will rack up a number of the PTC's "Best show of the week" accolades. However there are aspects of the show that I find troubling on an altruistic level. There's no indication of how or why these specific people and their causes were chosen to be helped. Now I'm not one of those people who are going to criticise the show because I don't think that the people who were helped on Sunday's show were somehow unworthy of the help they got – to find those you need go no further than the ABC message boards for the show. I'm just wondering how they in particular were picked. Something that I find much more troubling is that in making philanthropy into a competition you create winners and losers. Now for the participants who signed up for the show that's fine – the losers get to go home to their normal lives – but they aren't the only winners and losers. Among the people who were being given to there were also winners and losers. The woman whose husband was killed in a robbery clearly "won." She had her house paid off and an education fund assured for her kids. But about the Iraq war veteran whose assigned participants couldn't even find him for a day, and when they did they did so badly at trying to help him that one of them was eliminated from the show. Should he – or we – be content that it was just the luck of the draw that left him in the situation he's in?

As for the show itself, it seemed as though an hour wasn't enough to gain all of the details of the plans that the various participants were working for the people they were there to help. Presumably this will change as there are fewer participants, but during the first episode you always had the sense of being rushed and wondering where did this come from and how did they find a money coach for this person. The other factor, which is probably not so great a concern is Oprah's degree of involvement. Her limited participation in the first episode at least created a sense that her direct involvement may be limited to having her name on the title of the show. Now of course her production company is a full participant in the show, but I can't help but wonder if the "feel good factor" is enough to compensate for the absence of the person with her name on the show for Oprah Winfrey fans.

I have no doubt that Oprah Winfrey's Big Give will be a considerable success for ABC even though it is a not very well disguised reimagining of The Apprentice. I'm just not that comfortable with the whole idea of compassion and philanthropy as a competitive sport, particularly when the degree to which a person the participants are trying to help gets left behind because of it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Compare and Contrast

I came upon this a few days ago on Bryce Zabel's blog and have been thinking of doing something with it ever since. And I decided to do something with it after a very frustrating Saturday. So first, let's run the clip from Slate Magazine and then I'll give you my thoughts.

The title of the piece, Haven't I Seen This One Before? How The West Wing predicted the 2008 presidential campaign would seem more all encompassing than you might find with just the similarities between Senator Barack Obama and Congressman/President Matt Santos. I confess that the comparisons between Santos and Obama never really stood out for me until this clip. It makes sense I guess if only as a germ of an idea that the creative people could take to logical conclusions. My own assumption was that Matt Santos was at least partially based on Henry Cisneros. I mean think of the comparisons: Cisneros was the charismatic mayor of San Antonio; Santos was the charismatic (fictional) mayor of Houston. And one of the story lines in the latter part of the presidential campaign – where Vinnick finds out about payments made to a woman in the mayor's office in Houston – has a definite similarity (though not the same outcome) as the "Linda Jones affair" which eventually led to Cisneros's resignation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Of course the comparisons aren't perfect for either Obama or Cisneros served in the military, which Santos did. The problem is that the reporter takes things a bit far.

I suppose it is the nature of such things that the Slate reporter, Torrie Bosch, takes this beyond the obvious links that were explained by the writers of the show. I mean it is one thing to say that the producers wanted a "different sort of Democrat" to oppose a "different sort of Republican" in the show's last season and a half, and it may even be that Arnie Vinnick was subconsciously modelled on John McCain in that Vinnick is a maverick in his own party not unlike McCain (of course while McCain is a decorated naval officer who underwent horrors as a prisoner of war, it's clearly spelled out that Vinnick never served in the military). The writiers claim that they were looking for the "most attractive Republican candidate that they could create, presumably in contrast to Jame`s Brolin's character Robert Richie who had to be as unsympathetic as possible because he was going up against President Bartlett and thus we couldn't be allowed to think that he'd be someone viewers might want as president.

It is another thing to draw the number of comparisons that this reporter is. The comparison between Hillary Clinton and Bob Russell is particularly short sighted. The reporter describes Hillary Clinton as a "battle-tested insider with a huge base" just like Russell. The problem is that, as Josh Lyman points out when he explains his strategy to Helen Santos, Russell's support isn't as hard core as that. The real opponent – the real battle tested insider – is former Vice President Hoynes. Russell has been positioned through most of the fifth and sixth seasons as a light-weight who on a good day isn't half as good as Matt Santos and as Josh tells Leo "Russell doesn't have that many good days." And his handlers, Will Bailey and to a lesser extent Donna Moss – are aware of his deficiencies. When he was trying to recruit Josh to the Russell campaign he says that if Josh comes to work on the Vice President's campaign, "You get in now, you can make him the candidate you want him to be. After that we make him the President we need him to be." Say whatever you want about Hillary Clinton, she's no Bingo Bob Russell – even on one of his good days – she's better.

Another problem is the reporter's suggestion that the current situation could lead to what the show suggested – a brokered convention – is completely absurd simply because the elements that the writers put in place on The West Wing – a third, active candidate with a significant block of votes (John Hoynes) combined with a "great white hope" who is available to be drafted for the second round of voting (Governor Baker of Pennsylvania) don't exist in the current situation. (Too bad – it would have made the convention worth watching and might even hold the interest of viewers more than any convention since 1968.) I'm surprised that it wasn't mentioned that Vinnick's final opponent, the man who held out longest in the primaries, was a southern evangelical minister (Reverend Don Butler), albeit one who was not also a state Governor like Mike Huckabee. What's next; does Obama select an aging party strategist with a bad heart as his Vice President? Oh wait, someone's already done that.

And perhaps Torrie Bosch is being slightly flippant when she reminds people watching the clip that in the series that the "Obama character, Matt Santos" wins the election. After all, all it took for Santos to win was a nuclear accident in California at a power plant that Vinnick had pushed, the Democrats winning South Carolina (!), and the Hispanic vote in Nevada moving en masse to Santos. Maybe we shouldn't mention that at least one of the West Wing writers, Laurence O'Donnell, claims that had John Spencer not died it would have been Vinnick rather than Santos who won the presidency (though that is disputed by other writers on the series). Instead, let's just admit that the writers of The West Wing were writing fiction rather than prophecy.