Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate THIS Week?

Well, I've enjoyed my nice (and need I mention that I feel it was well deserved) break from going after the PTC, but it's probably time that I got back on the topic and pointed out the usual hypocrisy and mistakes that these people have been making. I won't go too far back; I did leave quite a backlog, and strange as it may seem sometimes I do try to keep this column down to a reasonable size.

Oh, and by the way, only one person has voted in my new NBC shows poll yet. Did I make a mistake by not putting "These shows all represent a big steaming heap of dog crap" as a possible response?

Speaking of the NBC lineup and steaming piles, the PTC is fulsome in their praise of the network for their commitment to "The Family Hour." This is one of the biggest piles of steaming you-know-what you are ever likely to come across. Sayeth PTC President Tim Winter, "We thank NBC for committing to air family-friendly programming during the Family Hour. Our recent research showed that this programming block has been flooded with adult content – on every broadcast network. Families do not want to be barraged with graphic sexual content, violence or profanity and want a time during the evening that is considered safe for the whole family to watch television. Responsible television programming is good business. We are heartened that NBC appears to be listening to the calls of so many parents and families, and we hope that other broadcast networks follow NBC's lead."

Well here's where the "big steaming pile" comes in. NBC may say that they're committed to the Family Hour (which as we all know doesn't exist) but an examination of the NBC lineup shows very little for the group to be praising if their own "Worst of the Week" is considered as a guideline. Here are the NBC shows for the first hour of primetime in the fall and I'll also include the winter lineup – new shows are in capitals:

M Chuck
TThe Biggest Loser
TMy Name Is Earl and 30 Rock
F CRUSOE / Deal or No Deal (W)
SFootball/ Dateline NBC (or MERLIN, depending on what you count as "The Family Hour" on Sunday nights).

Now here's the thing; setting aside Crusoe and Merlin for the moment because we don't know what the content of those shows will be, we are left with two shows that the PTC has criticized in the not so distant past. Although I can't find the specific reference at the moment, I seem to recall that the PTC was less than pleased with the scene in the Knight Rider where Mike Traceur is in bed with two women. And of course My Name Is Earl has been a frequent presence in the Misrated and Worst of the Week section of the PTC's site because of "sexual content", and because Jaime Pressly was in Playboy once upon a time which means she can't possibly be on the show except to titillate, and mostly I suppose because it isn't the "life affirming show" that the PTC wants it to be.

The PTC is using the statement by NBC Entertainment co-Chairiman Ben Silverman to highlight their Family Hour Study which "proves" that the "Family Hour" is rife with evil. Here are the statistics that the organization offers up:

  • In 180 hours of original programming, there were 2,246 instances of objectionable violent, profane and sexual content, or 12.48 instances per television hour. Since the average hour of primetime broadcast television contains about 43 minutes of non-commercial programming, this indicates that content inappropriate for children occurs about once for every 3.5 minutes of non-commercial airtime.
  • Scripted television was by far the most offensive overall with 16.68 incidents of overall foul content per hour, compared to 0.31 per hour for game shows and 5.82 per hour for unscripted programs.
  • Foul language was found in 76.4% of episodes that aired during the study period. Whether scripted or uttered on a reality program, foul language is found on almost every series airing during the Family Hour.
  • Throughout the study period, 677 sexual scenes or spoken sexual references were recorded, or 3.76 per hour.
  • The PTC recorded 754 violent acts and images during the study period, or 4.19 per hour.

Of course all of this has to be taken with a grain of salt when you consider what the PTC considers to be violence, sex, and foul language – they have a far more rigid concept in each of those areas than most people (for example, the body of a murder victim who has been killed off screen and is being examined – as on CSI – is considered an act of violence).

Still, to have a high official at a network, particularly one of the Big Four, come out and say something that sounds like a commitment to family friendly programming must seem like manna from heaven. So much so that they seem to ignore the fact that when he was the head of his own production company, Ben Silverman was the man behind Ugly Betty, another show which features prominently on the PTC hit list as well as reality fare like Parental Control and Date My Mom which hardly seem likely to meet with PTC approval. Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel writes of Silverman, "NBC Entertainment President Ben Silverman isn't a snake-oil salesman. He's someone a snake-oil salesman would be wary of. Silverman, as is his job, is trying to get any positive publicity he can for his struggling network. All you need to know is NBC's 'Family Hour' will include My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock. These are terrific series. However, the storylines are often not very family friendly, especially according to the blue-nosed standards of the PTC and its also misleadingly titled runningmate, The American Family Association." Jicha finishes his column (which is devoted to this very press release by the PTC) by saying, "The PTC prefers to jump on Silverman's "Family Hour" categorization to make it look like they're actually getting things done. The pitch for donations will follow."

Turning now to the area of FCC fines, we find the PTC incensed about the refusal of the FOX network to pay an FCC levied fine of $91,000 related to a five year old reality show called Married By America. There's some interesting background on both the fine and one of the reasons why the network won't pay, but first let's see PTC president Tim Winter in full ire:

It is simply outrageous that Fox has chosen to fight its fine for clearly violating the indecency law. The $91,000 FCC fine is already paltry for a rich network that profits for free from the publicly-owned airwaves. Fox is intent on claiming the so-called 'right' to barrage families with sexually graphic content and appears willing to do everything it can to dodge its public responsibility by refraining from airing indecent material before 10:00 p.m.

Fox simply does not have the public's interest at heart. If it did, it would admit wrongdoing, pay the fine, and promise never again to air this kind of sexually graphic material before 10:00 p.m. The public airwaves are no place for the type of content that could be found on pay-per-view or premium cable channels. Fox must comply with the law if it is to continue using the public airwaves for free.

So what sort of content are we talking about here? Basically it was pixellated nudity. Ars Technica describes the scene in question: "The FCC first proposed a fine against the now-defunct Married in 2004 after it received complaints about a 2003 scene in which several engaged couples party at a strip club. According to the FCC's analysis, couples kiss, and lick whip cream off on-stage performers, whose naughty bits are pixelated." The problem is that, according to the FCC analysts, the pixelization wasn't enough. In denying FOX's appeal, the FCC wrote, "The fact that isolated body parts were 'pixelated' did not obscure the overall graphic character of the depiction. The mere pixelation of sexual organs is not necessarily determinative under our analysis because the material must be assessed in its full context. Here, despite the obscured nature of the nudity, it is unmistakable that the party goers are participating in sexual activities and that sexual organs are being exposed." FOX then submitted a response to the rejection of their appeal, which was rejected, unread, by the FCC. Why? Because it had too many pages and the network hadn't submitted a form ten days in advance telling the FCC that they would be submitting an appeal that was longer than 25 pages. FOX argued that since they were appealing on behalf of seven companies, each of which was permitted to send in a 25 page appeal, their 39 page appeal should have been acceptable. The whole thing smacks of Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart that his composition isn't any good because it had too many notes.

And then there's the size of the fines. Originally the fine was $1.18 million levied against 169 FOX stations, however, in going over the complaints filled with the Commission, it was discovered that there were only thirteen stations where the complaint had actually been filed from within that market. An examination of the companies involved points out an interesting thing. Among the stations fined were three FOX owned and operated stations, and stations from the Meredith Broadcasting Group, Journal Communications, Sunbeam Television, Sinclair Broadcasting and Mountain Licenses LLP. A check of those entities (except for Mountain Licenses) in Wikipedia indicates that most of their FOX stations are not located in small communities but in medium to large cities. Sunbeam for instance has only one FOX station and that's in Miami. Meredith's stations are in Portland Oregon, Las Vegas Nevada, and Greenville South Carolina. FOX's owned and operated stations are in the top 51 markets, with the single exception of a station in Ocala-Gainesville Florida. Does this mean that the show was considered obscene in New York but not in Louisville (just as an example) because there were no complaints from that market?

The PTC is of course taking their standard "the FCC is always right (unless they disagree with us) so don't you dare try to exercise your right to appeal you immoral swine" line on this matter. The problem is that the FCC is continuing its policy of changing what it defines as indecency as it goes along. Having defined an exposed female nipple as being indecent, they then moved on to the bare female buttocks in the NYPD Blue case. With that fined at the last minute they have now moved on to defining obscured nudity as indecent. The rejected FOX appeal (reported in the Ars Technica post) pointed out that a considerable amount of what the FCC cited as reasons for levying the fine was primarily in the mind of the analysts that the FCC used to form their decision. Take this for example: "At one point the FCC's analysis of the show claims that one performer places himself close to a woman in a miniskirt, 'apparently to lick off the whipped cream' from her body. But nobody actually licked whip cream off anyone's body in the program, Fox protests." Or this one: "The agency's summary charges that at another moment two performers wear tops 'but their buttocks are pixelated, presumably to obscure portions of their buttocks as well as the g-strings that cover their genitals.' But, as Fox attorneys note, the episode 'never showed the women without clothes or without pixelation, so there is no way for the Commission to know what undergarments they were wearing.'" FOX also pointed out that the FCC analysts used the word apparently a lot, so much so that the title of the Ars Technica piece is "Fox to FCC: your analysts' sexual fantasies not our problem." To quote again from the article, "the word 'apparently' constantly appears in the agency's analysis, one participant 'apparently about to kiss' a stripper; two strippers 'apparently kissing one another...' But none of these actions actually take place. 'The Commission repeatedly relies upon these assumptions about what it presumes is occurring off-camera to justify its description of the program as "sexually oriented",' Fox argues. 'In no event does [indecency] regulation extend to an imaginative viewer's or regulator's assumptions about what may be occurring between characters off-screen.' And finally, Fox asks, how can it be 'unmistakable that the party goers are participating in sexual activities and that sexual organs are being exposed' if all the performers' 'sexual' body parts are obscured by pixelation?" How indeed? It is the sort of thing that the PTC does all the time of course but one would tend to expect more from a government agency with the power to levy fines, or in the extreme pull a TV station's license. (Just as a side note, when the online version of the Washington Post reported on the FOX network's refusal to pay the fine, many of the posters were eager to see FOX punished, in part because it was FOX and in part – a big part – because they mistook the FOX Network for FOX News. They tended to ignore the fine points of the issue of freedom of speech and the definition of indecency.)

Of course for the PTC there doesn't have to be a sexual context – real, implied, or imagined – for the PTC to complain to the FCC and to rally their one million members to "The Cause." All it takes is any hint of nudity. The PTC has urged its members to lodge a complaint against the CW network for airing a nude photo shoot on their show America's Next Top Model, even though the nudity was blurred or pixelated. According to the PTC press release, issued on April 8th, "The episode showed a model posing fully nude for photographs while lying on a bed. The nudity was partially blurred. The episode aired on March 26, 2008, during the so-called 'Family Hour' at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT." Said PTC president Tim Winter, "It is irresponsible for the CW Network to air full frontal nudity on the public airwaves at 8:00 pm, and based upon our analysis of the broadcast in question we believe this has crossed the legal threshold for broadcast indecency. This episode portrays a photo-shoot where the model is entirely naked; and the nudity includes the model's pubic region in full view, albeit slightly blurred. This is not simply a matter of artistic freedom, as some might claim. Rather, this is about a television network intentionally pushing the envelope to establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium. The entire photo shoot scene, which lasted for more than a minute, is wholly gratuitous and undoubtedly intended to titillate. Sadly, it appears that CW believed this was appropriate content for children given that the show aired during the Family Hour. Even more children were exposed to this graphic content because of the time it aired."

For reference purposes I've managed to find an example of the "offensive" material which you can see above. I found it in the TVSquad recap of the episode in question. In case you aren't aware, TVSquad is owned by AOL, so I doubt that they'd post anything that any sane person would regard as indecent. The image in this case does appear to be more than "slightly blurred" to the point where – in this photo at least – it seems difficult to me to tell if she's fully nude or wearing large panties or indeed a body stocking. Now I understand that since a screen cap from a TV show only captures an instant in series of moving images there may have been scenes where her nudity was more obvious, but one can scarcely imagine based on this image that the photo session was intended to titillate. As for being gratuitous, the nude session, shot by a top photographer was a reward for an event in the show, and as any model worth her salt will tell you, nude photos are an important part of a model's portfolio. So I would hardly call this part of the show gratuitous. Nor do I believe that it is an effort to "establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium," given that we've seen nudity of equal measure in a show like Survivor. Indeed if anyone in this case is trying to "establish a new acceptable nudity standard for the broadcast medium," I would argue that it is the PTC in their effort to push back the established norms in this area. They did it with actual nudity in the NYPD Blue case, they did it in the Married By America case detailed above as related to obscured nudity with a (supposed) sexual contest, and now they're trying this. And if they succeed in this matter, what comes – or rather goes – in terms of what is acceptable next?

Friday, April 04, 2008

New Poll Up

In case you haven't noticed, I've put up a new poll asking about the new shows that NBC has announced in what someone has called their "in fronts" a couple of days ago. And yes I do realise now that I should have included "None of the above – they all sound like crap so bring back Studio 60 and Las Vegas" but what can I say – it was 2:30 in the morning and my brain wasn't totally functional. Just vote for the one you think is most likely to succeed and feel free to comment here. I think I'll leave the poll up for a couple of weeks so there's time.

The NBC NOT Upfronts

I had a choice to make about whether or not to run this when it came in or to wait until after I did my Battlestar Galactica preview. This really isn't as time sensitive as that was, and the extra time gave me a couple of bits of extra information, so I think I've made the right choice.

I suppose what stick out most about NBC's announcement, which is described in the NBC press release as a more innovative, client-centric approach to its traditional Upfront presentation, is when it occurred – April 2nd rather toward the end of May at or near the end of sweeps. According to Marc Graboff, Co-Chairman NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, that's because the process is all about innovation: Normally the broadcast networks unveil their fall lineups in mid-May, but we've got so many terrific plans already in place, there was no reason to wait. The business is changing rapidly and our clients expect us to stay a step ahead of that change, so we're giving them the chance now to partner with us, start integrating with our shows from the very beginning and map out their strategies a full year into the future. It's an innovative way to introduce an innovative schedule. The NBC presentation also emphasised the idea of the 52 week line-up in which shows aren't just introduced in September but are staggered year round. Of course this is hardly a new concept – FOX has been doing this for a number of years now and look at how successful it's been for them (that was sarcasm in case you don't recognise it). And just to throw a little edoubt into the mix, the other CoChariman of NBC Entertainment, Ben Silverman has stated that NBC reserves the right to change (i.e., discard) anything and everything in this 'new, early schedule' it has announced." Which doen't necessarily fill one with confidence.

So anyway, let's have a look at what's on and what's off at NBC.

Scrubs, Bionic Woman, Amnesia, 1 vs. 100, Journeyman, Las Vegas

(to Friday third hour), The Celebrity Apprentice (to Thursday third hour replacing ER in February)

Chuck, Heroes, The Biggest Loser, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Deal or No Deal, Lipstick Jungle, My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, ER, Football Night in America, NBC Sunday Night Football, Friday Night Lights, Medium

New (Shows debuting in Winter are marked with a 'W')
SNL Thursday Night Live, My Own Worst Enemy, Kath & Kim, Knight Rider, Crusoe, Knight Rider, The Philanthropist
(W), Untitled Office spinoff (W), Merlin (W), Kings (W).

Complete Schedule: (Changes in Winter as noted; new programs in upper case except ER; times are ET.)

8-9 p.m. Chuck
9-10 p.m. Heroes

8- 9:30 p.m. The Biggest Loser
9:30-10 p.m. KATH & KIM
10-11 p.m. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

9-10 p.m. Deal or No Deal
10-11 p.m. Lipstick Jungle/ Law & Order (W)

8- 8:30 p.m. My Name Is Earl
8:30-9 p.m. 30 Rock
9- 9:30 p.m. The Office
10-11 p.m. ER / Celebrity Apprentice (W)

8-9 p.m. CRUSOE / Deal or No Deal (W)
9-10 p.m. Deal or No Deal / Friday Night Lights (W)
10-11 p.m. Life

7- 8:20 p.m. Football Night in America
8:20-11 p.m. NBC Sunday Night Football

Sunday (Winter)
7-8 p.m. Specials/Dateline NBC
8-9 p.m. Specials/MERLIN
9-10 p.m. Specials/Medium
10-11 p.m. Specials/KINGS

New Shows:

MY OWN WORST ENEMY stars Christian Slater as Henry Spivey, a middle-class efficiency expert living in the suburbs with a wife, two kids, a dog, and a minivan. He is the polar opposite of Edward Albright, who is an operative who speaks 13 languages, runs a four-minute mile, and is trained to kill with his teeth. In fact the only thing they have in common is the same body. "When the carefully constructed wall between them breaks down, Henry and Edward are thrust into unfamiliar territory where each man is dangerously out of his element." If this guy isn't suffering from multiple personality disorder (an intriguing if unlikely concept for American TV) this sounds a lot like Arnold Schwartzenegger's character in True Lies.

KATH & KIM is based on the Australian comedy of the same name about a divorcee in her 40s who finally has time to look for love, and her self-absorbed daughter who has separated from her husband and has come home to mother only to discover that her mother isn't ready to go back to catering to her every whim.

KNIGHT RIDER is the continuation of the original 1980s series that was reborn in the 2008 TV movie, which you may recall I panned ... along with a lot of other people, most of whom I respect. Still it drew a huge audience (most of whom I hope tuned in for nostalgic reasons and were aware of how bad this was) so it's on the new schedule.

SNL THURSDAY NIGHT LIVE is really a series of three pre-election specials focused on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" feature. According to NBC, "With all of the excitement and attention around "Saturday Night Live" during the presidential primaries, the anticipation for the show's take on this Fall's election will be at a fever pitch, "SNL Thursday Night Live" will keep the momentum -- and the laughs -- going. One can but hope.

According to NBC CRUSOE "is the tale of Robinson Crusoe. A young man leaves his true love to embark on an adventure -- only to end up shipwrecked on a remote tropical island for 28 years, completely detached from the life he once knew.... Equal parts MacGyver, Castaway and Pirates of the Caribbean, this series is an inspirational tale of survival rife with action and comedy." What they fail to mention is whether the show will be sufficiently true to Daniel Defoe's original novel to the degree of maintaining the early 18th Century setting. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that it won't, with the reference to MacGyver being something of a giveaway.

THE PHILANTHROPIST is a drama about the world's first vigilante philanthropist. No, I'm not making that up, that's the description that NBC has for the show's lead character. He's a billionaire playboy until the death of his only child brings him a revelation and leads him to use his wealth and connections to help people in need. So instead of paying $25,000 a plate at fundraisers, now he's off dodging bullets to deliver vaccines. According to NBC, "He'll do anything to achieve his goals – bargain with the self-righteous, trade with the nefarious and even tell the truth." Of interest here is that the show is being created by Tom Fonatana and Barry Levinson, the creative team behind Homicide: Life On The Street.

There aren't many details yet about the spinoff to THE OFFICE. Reportedly (reported by Kristin from E!Online's Watch With Kristin they don't even have a premise for the new series yet. So it is not entirely sure that this will actually happen, even though the new show is supposed to debut following the post-Super Bowl episode of The Office in 2009. Reportedly they "are not even sure if they will really want to borrow characters from the original to transplant to the new."

MERLIN is the story of Merlin and Arthur (yes that Merlin and that Arthur) as young men trying to live up to their families' expectations for them, discovering love, making mistakes, and finding their own destiny along the way. According to NBC, "The innovative, action-packed drama has cross-generational appeal and paints a picture of Merlin and Arthur's early life that audiences have never witnessed before."

KINGS is a modernised version of the story of King David, taking place in a city under siege where the fighting has gone on far too long. When a young soldier, David Shepherd rescues the King's son the events are set in motion that eventually lead to peace, while David is lionized by all, including the King's daughter. As he rises in prominence though, he finds the lines between allies and enemies becoming increasingly blurred.


NBC also announced a line-up for the summer of 2009 which I won't detail at this time. The 2008-09 season will be the final one for ER, which will end in February after 19 episodes of its fifteenth season. Scrubs is expected to be picked up by ABC.

Frankly this lineup inspires very little optimism in me. While most of the new shows have interesting casts, the premises of most of the shows hold little appeal for me. In particular I'm thinking that Crusoe, Merlin and Kings are seriously off the mark in terms of what the public are willing to accept. The Philanthropist has a vaguely intriguing premise but I have more than a few doubts about how well NBC will be able to pull this show off. The comedy Kath & Kim may have some potential depending on how close they choose to make it to the Australian original and how well they manage to pull it off. I'm less than hopeful given past performances. Knight Rider to represents something of a question. The TV movie did well in terms of ratings if not in terms of critical reaction. The question is whether the audience will keep tuning in once the show becomes a regular series. After all, the reborn Bionic Woman did well in its first episode but rapidly lost its audience when people discovered that they preferred their memories of the original to what was put on the screen in the remake. Still the biggest gamble in terms of giving the go ahead for a show seems to be the spinoff of The Office without even knowing wha thte premise of the series is going to be. Of the new shows, about the only one I'm really interested in may be the True Lies clone My Own Worst Enemy. It seems to be a nice fit with the two shows that precede it on Monday nights – Chuck and Heroes – and has a name actor in Christian Slater to star. The big problem though is that since the departure of Monday Night Football, the third hour on Mondays has belonged to CBS with neither ABC or NBC being able to dent the dominance of CBS and CSI: Miami.
Journeyman wasn't able to dent that popularity this season despite a rabid (if small) fan base. I'm not sure anything from another network will survive in this time slot until CSI: Miami goes.

In terms of cancelled shows I find it more than a little irritating (gall, agonizing, maddening) that a couple of shows that I really liked were cancelled – Las Vegas and 1 vs. 100 (though I have a suspicion that the latter can be revived fairly quickly if needed at short notice, and I think it will be; the show had solid ratings and I don't really understand the decision) and I feel the pain of the Journeyman fans even though I never saw the show – while some of the shows that have been ordered are in the lineup. Setting aside Knight Rider (which is the example some people are citing as being an unfair trade for Las Vegas) because at least with that show the network has what they think is real world data as to the ability of the show to attract an audience. I really can't see Crusoe, Merlin or Kings drawing and holding much of an audience, while I have the sense that the decline in the ratings of Las Vegas had more to do with the Friday night time slot than anything else.

Of the returning shows, have to confess that I'm a bit of a fan of Lipstick Jungle which I found far more riveting than the ABC "clone" Cashmere Mafia, so I'm glad to see that the show has been renewed and put in a timeslot where it has a chance to prosper. Actually, I have to confess that I'm not as happy as I could be about this news. See the timeslot that Lipstick Jungle has been given in the third hour of Wednesday night was previously occupied by Life. This was a show that I championed from the very beginning – indeed from the moment that NBC put previews for their 2007-08 series on YouTube. Instead Life has been moved to the third hour of Friday night, following another of my favourite NBC shows which has been given a bad break, Friday Night Lights, which will be given a 13 episode season and will air initially on DirectTV before appearing on the main network. The problem of course is that Friday nights have, on the whole, been a waste land for the networks (with the exception of CBS).

Frankly – and without actually seeing any of the shows, merely being exposed to the description that NBC has chosen to provide us with – my assessment of NBC's 2008-09 season is bleak. The final departure of ER from the lineup leaves the network in the same sort of precarious position in drama that it was when its great string of comedies, including Seinfeld, Fraser, and Friends left the air one by one and there were no plans for replacements beyond sticking Matt LeBlanc in a spinoff as his Joey Trebiani character. This lineup will have viewers and critics fondly remembering the days of Kevin Reilly and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and quite frankly I feel absolutely no sympathy for Ben Silverman, Jeff Zucker or anyone at NBC. They've made their bed and it is an absolute mess.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Battlestar Galactica – An Early Tease

I think that over time I've mentioned the fact that as someone who blogs about Television as an amateur critic I am at a disadvantage because the networks don't send me "screeners" – episodes of shows sent out in advance by production companies so that critics can have copy to review before the show airs. It is part of my lot in life as an amateur critic, and while I accept it, I have to say that it would be very convenient around season premiere time to have copies of the new shows to review without having to either watch the show as it goes to air or find the time to watch a taped copy. And now I have the opportunity to do just that.

The Sci-Fi Channel in the US has been making a major push to promote the season premiere which will air on both the Sci-Fi Channel in the US and on Space here in Canada on Friday April 4th. As part of the promotion for the start of the final season of the series, the network (through a company specializing in online promotion) has been sending out material to bloggers and others with an interest in television in general or Battlestar Galactica in particular, or both (that would be me). This included a review screener. Getting the screener included some restrictions, the biggest of which was this one: "After the 3/31/08 hold, I will provide only spoiler-free coverage, which means that ANYTHING that happens in the last 15 minutes of the episode is completely off-limits." I confess that this may put a crimp in my style, but it was a condition I was aware of so let's see how it goes.

The first thing that viewers will note when they see the episode on Friday night is a new introductory sequence instead of the sequence that tells us that human beings created the Cylons, the focus now is on the twelve humanoid Cylon models – seven have been revealed (Sharon, D'Anna, Cavil, Leoben, Doral, Simon and Six), four are living in hiding (Tigh, Anders, Tyrol, and Tory Foster), and one will be revealed. Once this opening sequence is completed and the requisite recap of the important events of the past couple of episodes – notably the apparent death of Starbuck – is finished the action immediately picks up from where we left off at the end of the last season, with the Colonial Fleet unable to jump following a massive power outage, and a huge Cylon fleet closing in on them. Oh yes, and Lee finding a live Starbuck. The battle starts off badly, and the fleet suffers a huge loss in its population when one of the big passenger ships is destroyed and another is badly damaged. And with the Cylons seemingly on the verge of finally eliminating humanity, something happens that causes the Cylons to break off their attack. And that's all before the first commercial.

There are three main plotlines in this episode. The first deals with the four hidden Cylons. There are some tantalizing hints that they aren't entirely the same as the humanoid Cylons that we've come to know. They are wracked with doubt as to what their role in things is. This seems particularly true of Anders while Tigh is the one most determined to retain his humanity. It also fits the notion, stated by series creator and Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that these Cylons are fundamentally different from the others that we know. For them, as well as for us, the questions of where they came from, why they've been activated and where their loyalties actually lie, is something to be discovered.

The second storyline concerns the return of Starbuck. From the moment that we first see her and her ship there is something noticeably different about her and the ship. In fact the difference is so noticeable was that my first thought was that the appearance of her ship was a bit of bad CGI work. But of course the look of things is entirely deliberate, and adds one more aspect to the mystery of what happened to Starbuck. Her claims that she's been to earth and knows how to take them there are greeted with suspicion to say the least. There's a time discrepancy – for Kara only hours have passed but for the fleet several weeks have gone by. And then, while she has pictures of the planet she calls Earth, her ship's flight recorders are blank. When combined with the condition of her Viper and the general human paranoia about the remaining five Cylons Indeed, there's one scene with Lt. Gaeta where this come bubbling to the surface. People are not in a mood to listen to what Kara says.

Finally there is Baltar's story. In Herman Wouk's The Winds Of War there is a line where Captain Henry, speaking about his son Byron who is trapped in Warsaw, tells his wife that their son will come out of the wreckage of the city, probably holding someone else's pocket watch. This pretty much describe's Baltar's situation. Set adrift after his acquittal on a ship where most people would sooner kill him as look at him. He manages to find people who will not only accept him but embrace him. And virtually all of them seem to be women – attractive women. For the moment our Gaius is doesn't understand his situation – even with the guidance of his personal Number Six – but still as happy as a pig in warm...mud.

Inevitably most of the episode takes place within the claustrophobic world of the ship. That's hardly surprising; unlike the 1979 version of the series this version of Battlestar Galactica has never been about the big space battles. Rather it has been about the ship and the people who serve as its crew, and the fleet and the survivors of the attack on the Colonies. I suspect that this episode's opening sequence may be the biggest battle sequence that we've ever really seen in this version since at least the first episode. The fact is that the quality that makes Battlestar Galactica one of the best shows on television is that the aspect of the story they focus on isn't combat but characterization and relationships between people. The original Battlestar Galactica was very much the opposite. Characterization was virtually nil, being replaced with "action" and frequent use of stock footage. The current Galactica is about people forced to deal on a daily basis with life and death situations where they can't afford to make mistakes. This episode, like so many others on this show, is anchored by conversations. To be sure there's action but even when there is violence it is used to reveal something of the people we are watching.

There's a lot more to each of the stories that I've mentioned, but I'm trying to avoid the whole matter of spoilers and I don't think I can go much further than I have without revealing too much, or without revealing elements from the final fifteen minutes. I don't think it's revealing anything shocking to acknowledge that the episode as a whole offers a lot in the way of questions without providing much in the way of answers. That's the way of the show. There's a whole season left to provide us with answers (not to mention additional questions). The episode is definitely satisfying, and I think I have to disagree with Alan Sepinwall, who wrote that "it doesn't majorly advance the plot" if only because I at least don't know where the plot is going right yet. And really, should we expect major advances in the plot in the first episode of a new (and sadly final) season? Or should we expect what this episode in fact manages to deliver, the foundation on which this season will play out; what sets Tigh and the other three "hidden" Cylons apart, what Baltar's part in things is going to be, and of course, the quest for Earth. While I doubt that this episode with excite viewers with a massive WOW factor I have a definite sense that people will come away with plenty of questions but still eminently satisfied. In short, I think you're really going to like this one.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Campaign For Real Cheese – The Truth

Okay, as you've probably guessed after a day of seeing it, the shift by this blog to becoming the official organ of The Campaign For Real Cheese was in fact a hyper elaborate April Fools' Day joke. HAHA!

It's a little more than that of course. Everything I wrote in the article is actually how I feel about processed cheese. It is an anathema that is barely edible whether wrapped or unwrapped. Using real cheese as opposed to processed cheese slices when topping a burger or making a grilled cheese sandwich is something that I've take to doing, and you can really taste the difference. Real cheese is pretty much better for everything.

However at its heart, The Campaign For Real Cheese is a bit of an allegory for what has become of broadcast TV with the seeming power of groups like the Parents Television Council and the fear that these groups instill in advertisers and networks. The PTC would like to see a homogenization of television so that everything is suitable for the least discerning tastes – children. Now I'm not knocking family programming. In fact I want to see more shows on the major networks that families can sit down and watch together. But let's be realistic and understand that these programs can't be the only choice that we get. A perpetual diet of Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader or Extreme Makeover Home Edition (two PTC favourites) is no more in the best interest of the viewer than a perpetual diet of Desperate Housewives or Criminal Minds. The big difference is that groups like the PTC want a perpetual diet of shows like Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader and Extreme Makeover Home Edition, while none of the broadcast networks is advocating that every show be Desperate Housewives or Criminal Minds. They realise that their viewing audience has different tastes, and the networks are in the business of appealing to those tastes by developing a blend of shows on any given night that appeals to desirable audiences.

Television, freed from the constraints that would be imposed by groups like the PTC that want all TV to be "child safe" has the potential to provide a variety of "flavours" in programming terms. We're seeing that in the realm of cable TV where stations exist to service niches in the market. The point being of course that few, if any, viewers restrict their choices to a single one of these channels. They select an item here and another there to watch not unlike choosing food at a buffet. Broadcast TV – to carry this restaurant analogy further than it probably deserves to be carried – has to try to provide a menu that satisfies all tastes. They broadcast; they have the ability and the desire/need to reach everyone, or at least to service a far wider spectrum of people than a cable network needs to in order to be successful.

Anyway, that's this year's attempt at an April Fools' joke out of the way. Though I kind of did like that orange page colour....

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Campaign For REAL Cheese

After considerable thought and soul searching, I have come to the decision to devote this blog to my current obsession, the Campaign for Real Cheese.

I have long been aware of the need for an effort to be made to defend the use of real cheese in cooking against the eternal enemy – Processed Cheese Slices – however it was brought forcibly to my attention during my mother's recent recuperation from surgery. On Superbowl Sunday, after visiting my mother in the hospital we went to the lounge of a neighbourhood restaurant to catch a few minutes of the game and get a bite to eat. I wasn't overly hungry so I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. It came topped with cheese – or so the menu said. In fact it came with a processed cheese slice, and one that hadn't melted either. The sandwich was damned near inedible and although the processed cheese slice – or as I like to refer to it, the cheese flavoured piece of plastic (CFP) – wasn't entirely to blame, it was a contributing factor. All of which galvanised my resolve that something must be done.

Real Cheese (right) and a "processed Cheese slice."
Which would you rather eat?

CFP has become ubiquitous. Order a cheeseburger and it invariably comes with a piece of CFP. A grilled cheese sandwich? CFB. A sub? CFP. And I wouldn't be surprised if those stuffed chicken breasts and veal cutlets that are allegedly Chicken Dianna or Veal Cordon Bleu aren't made with CFP. And it's not just good old reliable Cheddar anymore. They now make CFP in Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, and Swiss. Can Havarti and (my personal favourite) Avril Poisson be safe for long? I wouldn't bet on it. The only thing protecting Brie and Camembert is that they're runny cheeses, but just you wait, the CFP people are working on that too; I'm certain of it.

Cheese Flavoured Plastic, wrapped and unwrapped.
Can you tell the difference?

But does it make a difference you ask? The answer of course is an emphatic YES! There are notes and highlights in a piece of real cheese that cannot be captured in an over homogenized bit of CFP. Cut a slice of real Cheddar and unwrap some CFP and try them side by side. No comparison, right? That's because the manufacturing process that is responsible for CFP aims at stamping out a product that is consistent and uniform in taste. The first slice of CFP of the year will have the same taste as the last, and that taste must be "inoffensive" with inoffensive presumably being determined by survey groups and people who write letters to manufacturers.

But it is heating the cheese that really shows off the difference. Try it out. Make a grilled cheese sandwich with a piece of CFP. It tastes the same as unheated CFP except that if you're lucky the CFP has melted (if you're not you get my Super Sunday chicken sandwich). Now grate some Cheddar and make a grilled cheese sandwich with Real Cheese. A totally different aroma and flavour emerges. The heating releases the Lirpa and Sloof within the cheese. There's a tang to Real Cheese that doesn't exist with CFP. And it enhances the flavour of meat as well. One of my favourite pubs serves (or served since my brother informs me that they seem to have a new cook who isn't as good as the one whose work I enjoyed in the past) a cheeseburger made with Cheddar sliced from a block. The juices of the beef combined with the cheese in an way that enhances the flavour of both. And don't even get me started on chicken with real Mozzarella.

The Campaign for Real Cheese realises that CFP is more convenient and consistent than Real Cheese, that it reduces costs for restaurants, and avoids complaints from a handful of people who don't like the complexity tastes that real cheese brings to the table. These people are the real danger. They want a product that is so bland and nondescript that it is palatable for the least educated tastes. What they fail to recognise is that by reducing flavour to the level that is acceptable to a portion of the population they are treating everyone as if they have the same uneducated palate. Uniformity and homogeneity aren't desirable, rather they are the enemy of quality. The Campaign for Real Cheese wants a world in which the consumer can order a cheeseburger with real cheese on it or, if someone absolutely insists on having one, a cheeseburger topped with CFP.