Thursday, October 23, 2008

Short Lived ‘60s Shows

I saw the following video over on Mark Evanier's site the other day and it was extremely evocative for me. Mark mentions that he remembers watching all of the shows mentioned except for the one starring Bob Goulet. Well, I don't remember as many but I do remember Blue Light, the show which starred Robert Goulet.

I'll go into detail about a lot of the shows after the video, but first a general observation. All of the series mentioned here are from ABC and CBS – nothing from NBC. To me, it seems slightly surprising that a lot of the shows I remember from my childhood come from ABC. You have to understand that in the 1960s ABC was the weakest of the "Big Three" networks by a long shot. To be sure they weren't as weak as they had been in the 1950s, thanks at least in part to being the home of most of the Quinn Martin series like The Untouchables and 12 O'Clock High but they weren't the powerhouse that they would become in the 1970s under Fred Silverman. It's easy to understand why Mark Evanier, growing up in Santa Monica would remember shows from all three of the networks including ABC, but I was growing up in a one channel city that wouldn't get a second channel for about five years, and that channel was, by law, the CBC. So why was I seeing what seems now to be an inordinate number of ABC series?

I don't know, maybe it's because I was in a one channel market that I saw these shows. When CFQC (the local channel) was licensed in 1954 it was a CBC affiliate, meaning it carried CBC shows but was privately owned – in this case by A.A. Murphy who also owned what until 1951 had been the only local radio station. As I understand it, while there were requirements for affiliates to carry most of the shows that the CBC ran they had a considerable amount of leeway over some of their own line-up. This was particularly true in the afternoon, where local stations often programmed their own kids shows in preference to what the CBC was offering, but I expect that there were evening slots that the local stations also programmed. In Saskatoon, for example, the Friday 9-11 p.m. time slot was always available for movies programmed locally. Probably other time slots were treated in the same way.

Of course it couldn't have been easy for a local station owner or manager, particularly in a place like Saskatoon, to buy programming for the local market. Rights would after all be held nationally, and besides the CBC there were two big rights holders. One was the CTV network – the one that we didn't get in Saskatoon until 1971. The other was a station called CHCH out of Hamilton which had dropped its CBC affiliation in 1961 because the CBC's Toronto station (owned and operated by the network) covered the Hamilton market. They didn't join CTV for exactly the same reason – that network's Toronto station covered Hamilton. What this meant of course was that CHCH would buy rights to American shows and own those rights for all of Canada, even though those shows would only be seen on those parts of Southern Ontario covered by CHCH. I guess that the only thing more frustrating than being a local station manager trying to get fresh American programming and having to deal with CTV, CHCH and the Americans was being a kid in a one station town buying the fall preview issue of TV Guide which in the 1960s only showed the new US Network shows, and thinking of these marvellous shows we couldn't see, like this space show call Star Trek. The station manager may have had a lot of headaches but he also had a lot of power in those stations. These days, with Canadian station ownership laws the way they are, the local station manager is probably supremely lucky if he can choose what colour his office is painted, but that's a story for another day.

Good Morning World. CBS Never saw it. Ronnie Schell is probably better known for playing Gomer Pyle's best friend PFC (and later Corporal) Duke Slater on Gomer Pyle USMC. His time on Good Morning World and earlier on That Girl fit between his two stints on Gomer Pyle. The show ran for a single 26 episode season.

I do remember ABC's O.K. Crackerby! with far more fondness than its meagre run really deserves. The great Burl Ives played O.K. Crackerby, an Oklahoma oil millionaire (because Texans were overdone even before Dallas) who is trying to break his kids into high society. A running gag on the show was Crackerby and his family – with new tutor St. John (pronounce – inevitably – "Sinjin") Quincy in tow – arriving at a swanky hotel and being denied service because they're too plebeian. At that point O.K. would call his head office (represented by one guy sitting near a computer) and within a few minutes Crackerby would own the hotel. If the place had been "The Sands" it would become "The Sands Crackerby." I suspect he made far more out of hotels that slighted him and his kids than he did out of oil. Ives, who had already won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1958's The Big Country would go on to be one of the stars of the anthology series The Bold Ones (with Joseph Campanella and James Farentino) but is probably best known (on TV at least) for being the voice of Sam the Snowman in the perennial Christmas special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. The series was the first major role for actress Brooke Adams as Crackerby's daughter Cyntia.

CBS's version of Blondie is a show that I just barely remember. This was the second attempt to bring the comic strip to TV after it had had a significant run as a movie series. Although the show featured Will Hutchins from Sugarfoot and Patricia Harty from (the much than this) Occassional Wife, it is also the first series that Jim Backus did after Gilligan's Island and the only series that Backus did with his wife Henny Backus – she played Cora Dithers to his Julius Dithers.

I only have very vague memories of CBS's The Good Guys as well. If what I understand of the series is correct, this promo would seem to be from the second season – where Bob Denver's character stops working as a taxi driver and goes to work for Herb Edelman's character in the diner that he owns – but the intro (where the announcer says "Bob Denver looks like a winner") suggests that this is from the first season of the show. At least some of the episodes featured Alan Hale Jr. and Jim Backus although I'm unable to determine if they ever appeared on the show together (but it's probably a good bet that they did at least once).

I have no recollection of CBS's He & She so it probably didn't show up around here. The show sounds terrific. It not only featured Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss as newlyweds, but also featured Jack Cassidy, Kenneth Mars (best known for his roles in Mel Brooks films, notably as Franz Leibkind, the writer of "Springtime For Hitler" in The Producers) and actor-singer Hamilton Camp (one of two actors to play H.G. Wells on Lois & Clark, but who is probably best remembered as Del Murdoch from a single episode of WKRP In Cincinnati – "Speed kills Del."). The show earned five Emmy nominations including one each for Prentiss, Benjamin and Cassidy and won the award for Outstanding Writing in Comedy...but by that time it had already been cancelled.

I liked to watch Major League Baseball, but the games I saw were on NBC and featured Curt Gowdy and Pee Wee Reese not on ABC. I don't think I ever saw "The King Family" on anything except someone else's show.

Off To See The Wizard seems to have been an umbrella title for family theatrical movies from MGM with 30 second introductory bits from the Wizard of Oz characters introducing the movie. Except of course that the movies were either cut to fit a one hour time slot, or cut in half and serialized. No wonder the series only lasted 20 episodes. Oh, and none of them were the original Wizard Of Oz. Thank goodness.

The Travels Of Jamie McPheeters is another ABC show I never saw. It did have a surprisingly strong cast including Dan Oherlihy, Charles Bronson and a young Kurt Russell. Also present for some episodes were four brothers named Osmond (Alan, Jay, Wayne & Merrill – no Donny).

I didn't see The Time Tunnel in its first run but I did see it later in syndication on CBC (that's where I also saw Star Trek the first time). The show was pure Irwin Allen cheese that could probably be done much better today if anyone had the mind to (which apparently someone did, though the pilot for a revival never did air). The big star was singer/actor James Darren (I always liked him though singers seem to think he should stick to acting and actors think he's a better singer) but it also starred Robert Colbert as the older more cautious man lost in time. Finally the show featured Lee Merriweather (who played Catwoman in the theatrical movie for the 1966 Batman series) and stupidly only showed her in a shapeless lab coat.

I never saw ABC's Honey West – probably much to my regret given the sexy nature of this trailer. Hey even at 9 I liked Diana Rigg, and at this age Anne Francis was almost as hot.

The Patty Duke promo is pretty generic. Besides mentioning her own show, which of course was a staple around here, she also mentions the debut of Batman. I did watch Batman and indeed was swept up in "Batmania" but around here the movie came before the TV series rather than being made during the show's run to capitalize on the success. The series showed up here in the Fall not as a mid-season replacement. The person who put this together was probably more interested in the Robert Goulet series Blue Light though. The show featured Goulet as an American who had renounced his citizenship and was working for the German Propaganda Ministry as a sort of American Lord Haw-Haw. In truth he was using his broadcasts to send intellignece to the Allies as well doing sabotage when necessary. Unfortunately seventeen members of the Blue Light operation had been killed, leaving only Goulet's character David March and his partner Suzanne Duchard (Christine Carère) alive. And because only his handlers actually know that he's working for the allies he's in danger not just from the Germans but also from the Resistance and his own side. Like O.K. Crackeby, another show that I really liked – when I was 10.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Does The PTC Hate This Month – October 2008

It's been a while since I've done one of these pieces. Part of the problem – or my lack of motivation, I'm not sure which – was that there wasn't much that I considered new and exciting. The PTC files an Amicus Brief on a case even as they criticize others for filing an Amicus Brief that they disagree with? Yawn. The PTC takes credit for something that they had little – no I take that back, nothing – to do with. Same old same old. The PTC gives out one of its awards to a company that it likes and announces the selection of a new board member. Okay, whatever. The PTC tries to use its supposed one million members "who hold a variety of political positions" (and wasn't that written poorly; that suggests that all 1.3 million hold some sort of political office rather than holding political opinions – and I still think the vast majority are Republicans) calling for a focus on TV decency and cable choice. Ho-hum, BORING!

No, for me the big thing has been the absence of really new stuff. The shows that they have been taking a rip over the past couple of months, for the most part, have been reruns. Sometimes in fact they are shows that were previously ripped by the PTC for pretty much the same thing that they're being ripped for this time around. Probably the most blatant example is part of the PTC's vendetta against Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy. Last week the PTC did one of their Worst Shows on TV pieces on the Star Wars satire episode of Family Guy. The interesting thing here was that the PTC stated in their article, "When Fox originally aired the Family Guy's parody episode of Star Wars entitled, "Blue Harvest," it managed to avoid being named Worst TV Show of the Week only by topping our Misrated column. The September 21st rerun at 9:00 p.m. ET, however, did not escape the PTC's scrutiny and has been named Worst TV Show of the Week for being just as raunchy the second time around." They go further than this; from what I can recall of the original Misrated piece (and as usual with the PTC there are no links unless it's something they want to link to) a considerable amount the new review wsa cut and pasted from the original PTC piece. Summer is an off time everyone, including I presume, the PTC.

I've got a couple of good stories on the PTC's efforts to get the FCC to fine networks for perceived violations of decency regulations. I was going to start with the more recent incident first and deal with the event that I am going to talk about now only parenthetically but there are a couple of rather interesting developments on this front that I really want to delve into. According to an article from Ars Technica, "On September 11, host Matt Lauer asked daredevil Hans Lange what his reaction was to crash-parachuting into a mountain wall from thousands of feet in the air. 'I was pretty angry with myself,' Lange replied. 'I was like... wahhhh! Holy shit!'" The offending word was removed from tape delayed versions of the episode that aired outside the Eastern Time Zone. Despite this fact the PTC was predictably incensed. In a press release dated the same day as the incident, PTC president Tim Winter slammed NBC for "its arrogance in choosing not to bleep this profanity, and for its arrogance in choosing not to apologize to its viewers, many of whom included children. NBC continues to show a clear pattern of contempt for the broadcast decency law by airing yet another unbleeped profanity on its morning show. The PTC is filing an indecency complaint and is urging its members to speak out about NBC's utter disregard for decency over the public airwaves." They further said, "NBC could have prevented the 's-word' from being aired by using a 5-second delay, but it clearly didn't want to. NBC obviously thought that the 's-word' was inappropriate to air since it scrubbed the word from broadcasts to the Central, Mountain and Pacific Time zones. So why then does NBC believe they can sweep this under the rug for those families in the Eastern Time zone?" They concluded by saying, "The public is entitled to the expectation that television is not going to assault their families during certain times of day and NBC violated that expectation again. We hope viewers speak out about this and we hope the network is held accountable." There was then the usual link to an email form letter for people in the Eastern Time Zone to use to protest the obscenity – without actually requiring the people who were "offended" to have been watching the offensive incident. It was standard PTC stuff right down to rousing the masses to arms regardless of whether or not they had a right to feel offended because they didn't see the actual event, although it was enough for Ars Technica to email "a representative of the PTC asking whether it was appropriate to encourage people who may not have viewed the program to file complaints about it. We also asked how this Today Show episode harms TV watchers, especially those who did not see the interview." Needless to say they received no reply.

The Ars Technica article did include some interesting tidbits which to my mind casts a pall on the whole decision-making process at the FCC. And no, it was not the New York Times editorial board coming out in favour of the Second Circuit Court decision that is under review by the Supreme Court, saying that the FCC policy, "...seriously infringes on free speech." No, the most interesting aspect is a statement for Michael Powell who was one of the commission members who voted for the new policy! Powell, the son of General Colin Powell, and currently John McCain's top technology adviser was an and FCC Commissioner from November 1997 until January 2001 and Chairman of the FCC from January, 2001 until January, 2005. According to a second Ars Technica story, in a wide ranging criticism of the FCC at the National Press Club event that was part of George Mason University's Information Economy Project on September 16th, Powell stated that the decision on the event that provoked the current wave of indecency prosecutions – Bono's appearance at the Golden Globes – was "a terrible mistake and I voted for it." Going beyond that Powell, who generally holds libertarian views with regards to censorship, stated that the FCC's regulation of broadcast decency has "gone way too far—we are dancing with the limits of the Constitution." According to the Ars Technica article, "If Bono's exclamation was 'indecent,' Powell opined, then the agency had in effect adopted a strict-liability rule, leaving 'no rational principle' for distinguishing 'indecent' from innocent expletives, with the result that enforcement 'becomes terribly political.'" Part of the problem lies with the lack of court opinions on the matter of broadcast decency since the Pacifica Case, despite significant changes in technogy. For Powell however the major point was theso-called "pervasive" nature of broadcast TV. According to Powell, "My kids have no idea what a 'broadcast channel' is. The idea that the First Amendment changes as you go up the dial is silly." He further stated that "the outrage and pressure the FCC faced in the Bono case, and later in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl 'wardrobe malfunction,' proved that parents themselves were more than capable of penalizing broadcasters who aired inappropriate content during family programming."

Also present at the event was Powell's immediate predecessor as FCC Chairman William Kennard, who served from 1997 to 2001. Although he didn't speak directly to the question of the case before the Supreme Court, he did offer some sense as to at least some of the reasons behind it. According to Kennard a great deal of the problems the FCC faces today stem from the politicization of appointments to the agency dating from a deal that President Clinton made with Senator Trent Lott to allow Republicans to make appointments to boards. According to Kennard, the result is that the agency is becoming demoralized, with political appointees treating the agency's career staff as, "'cannon fodder'—servants to be worked to the bone at best, and at worst, potential troublemakers with their own agendas." It was the professional staff of the FCC who pushed to maintain the status quo (no action on isolated use of profanities – the so-called "fleeting expletive"), and the appointed board members who caved in to pressure who created the current situation, previously described by former FCC heads Newton Minnow and Mark Fowler as "a rallying cry for a revival of Nineteenth Century Comstockery." Ars Technica summed up Kennard's position on the current direction of the FCC by noting that, "Decision-making has become more the views of commissioners now tend to reflect those of their patrons on Capitol Hill. As a result, policy-making had also become more contentious and partisan."

I suppose we should turn now to the absurd. On September 30th, the PTC released a press release demanding that their 1.3 million members inundate the FCC with complaints about nudity on the CBS series Survivor. In typically hysterical PTC rhetoric the organization claimed that it was all part of a nefarious plot on the part of CBS: "Unsatisfied with the growing volume of indecent material on live broadcasts, CBS has once again decided to violate the public trust, this time by including an unedited shot of a penis on Survivor. Although this instance was brief, it was nonetheless shocking and purposeful. Unfortunately, with the number of people inside the network reviewing every frame of video, CBS knew full well of this nudity and elected to include it anyway." The event occurred on the show's second episode which was broadcast as part of the two hour Survivor premiere event on September 25th. The first reports of the reports of the appearance of the portion of the portion of the male anatomy in question surfaced a day or two after the episode, around September 27th. It wasn't much of an appearance in either sense of the word – we aren't talking Ron Jeremy or Milton Berle here kiddies – since the penis popped in and out of the boxer shorts of contestant Marcus Lehman for less time than Janet Jackson's nipple was exposed, and it wasn't as immediately obvious that it was the head of a penis as it was that we were seeing Janet Jackson's nipple.

Now here's the sort of interesting (but not very) part. I didn't see it. I watched the show and I didn't see it. Jackie Schnoop, who recaps Survivor for TVSquad as well as her own blog watched the show a lot closer than I did and didn't see it. Hal Boedeker, TV critic of the Orlando Sun watched the episode pretty closely and he didn't see it. More to the point, if we are to believe a CBS statement that is included in Boedeker's article, the editors at CBS and Mark Burnett's production company didn't see it either. Here's the CBS statement: "This was a completely unintentional, inadvertent and fleeting incident that was virtually undetectable when viewed in real time. In the first 24 hours after the broadcast, before freeze-frame images were widely posted online, we received one viewer comment from the 13 million who watched the telecast."

And you know what? I don't think that anyone at the PTC saw it either! Yeah, that's right I think that they missed it too. Look at the time line. The episode aired on September 25th. If the image of Lehman's wee-wee was so offensive and blatant you would expected them to launch an immediate demand for CBS's license the way they did over the Hans Lange incident, but it was all quiet on the PTC front. After Googling "Survivor + penis" the first reference (NSFW) I was able to find was dated September 27th. That reference included both still photos and a slow motion (in other words not real time) video clip of the incident (and as I said, NSFW) in a continuous loop. So in other words it took the PTC five days to get outraged by this incident which was supposedly irreparably scarring to every young person who saw the show. Nevertheless the PTC feels empowered to demand an apology from CBS and "as outlined in the FCC consent decree, to take immediate steps to identify who edited the scene into the broadcast and hold that person or those people accountable." Ah well, at least this penis – uh – flap delivered a memorable quote: "CBS's decision to hide behind excuses that the incident was 'fleeting' and didn't generate an immediate flood of complaints is the epitome of irresponsibly [sic]. The number of 'fleeting' penises we expect to see on broadcast television is zero."

Turning from the ridiculous to the merely moronic, it's time to look at the PTC's Worst Show of The Week. The current one is the FOX series Bones. According to the PTC, the October 1st episode of the show is the worst of the week because of "excessive gore and implied violence." The scene (one scene!) that earned the show this accolade was described in detail more graphic than you'd actually see on the episode by the PTC as follows: "The October 1st episode began with office workers riding an elevator up a metropolitan high rise. As the elevator car rattles violently, a dismembered, decomposed leg wearing fashionable black pumps falls from overhead. Later, forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan, and her colleague, Dr. Camille Saroyan, inspect the elevator shaft. The camera lingers on hunks of tissue plastered on the wall. 'I'm gonna need a spatula to scrape off all the flesh and the organs,' Dr. Saroyan announces dryly. Dr. Brennan replies, 'The bones are in hundreds of pieces. I want them bagged.' Putrid blood and liquid fester around a severed hand resting on top of the car. The doctors turn their flashlights upward and illuminate the dead woman's remains smeared along the length of the elevator shaft." Having watched the episode (I confess that I'm a confirmed fan of Bones – and many of the other forensic series, but like NCIS, Bones has a personality and a sense of humour that the CSI franchise shows lack – at least intentionally), I have to tell you that that is written in a way that makes it sound a lot worse than it was. And even the PTC admits, "Admittedly, the rest of the show is relatively tame, but it should be noted that the series' goriest material consistently airs at the beginning of the (nonexistent – BM) Family Hour." In other words the PTC objects to the discovery of the bodies. And as the PTC points out, "Unfortunately, parents have little recourse if they wish their children to avoid such scenes while channel surfing." Well except for, you know, changing the channel, turning the TV off, knowing enough not to turn to FOX if the object to the program, setting up the V-Chip to block shows like that. Yeah, parents have virtually no recourse at all in this situation.

But of course the PTC uses this to promote the "bigger issue" – violence on TV. According to the PTC, "Over the years, crime procedurals have contributed to the nearly 100,000 acts of violence that children watch before the age of 18. The consensus within the scientific community affirms that there is a relationship between children who watch violent programming and their aggressive behavior in later life. There is also evidence that watching such programming leads to desensitization towards violence and fear of becoming a victim among child viewers. This past spring, the FCC urged lawmakers to consider regulations that would restrict violent programs to late-evening hours, when fewer children watch television." Of course they don't bother to tell us over how many years the phrase "over the years" means, or whether all of those "100,000 acts of violence that children watch before the age of 18" occurred during the times when children are most likely to be watching TV – the first two hours of prime time. Unsurprisingly (since it is the favoured bastion of the Social Conservative) they echo the current leadership of the FCC in demanding more restrict when violent acts can be seen and the power to levy fines – and of course what constitutes a finable "event" will be left up to the FCC to define. Because that has worked so well with language and nudity.

The PTC doesn't offer a way to check previous Worst Show on Cable in the same way that they do with the worst show on Broadcast TV. Currently the worst show on Cable is an episode of South Park although the current link on the PTC website says that the show is It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Neither of these is a surprise of course but a couple of weeks ago the show was the BBC America series Skins which originally appeared on the British network Channel 4. The description on the IMDB page for the shows says, "The story of a group of British teens who are trying to grow up and find love and happiness despite questionable parenting and teachers who more want to be friends (and lovers) rather than authority figures." And that of course is exactly what the PTC objected too. I'm not going to go into their points item by item – mainly because I can't find them. Rather I bring this up because it illustrates the "throw out the baby with the bathwater" problem that is central to the PTC's demands for "cable choice." The PTC would have their members demand that they "not be forced to subsidize" shows that they object to and be able to cancel their subscription to channels that show them. But here is a show that is on a channel which the PTC doesn't ordinarily object to and by most objective standards airs a lot more good material than objectionable. More to the point they air a great many shows that are of high quality by any measure. Are cable subscribers supposed to forego the good programming On BBC America and other networks because they object to the (PTC defined) "bad shows?" Or perhaps the PTC would like to extend cable choice to its ultimate end point where viewers can pick and choose which individual programs they will "subsidize." And here I thought that this is hwy we have advertisers and ratings.

Okay, a quick visit to PTC's Misrated column, even though it's been left unchanged for a few weeks. The show – predictably enough – is Gossip Girl and the PTC article contains a couple of absurd bits of supposition and one outright fabrication in its demand that the show, which was rated TV-14 DL, have an "S" descriptor attached. Here's what the PTC objects to (with my snarky comments in parentheses). "The show opened with Serena and Dan waking up on the beach, apparently having "hooked up" the previous night, with Serena clad only in a bra. (Prove it. Short of seeing Serena bottomless – which would provoke other demands from the PTC – they can't.) Later, on a bus back from the Hamptons to Manhattan, Serena pulls Dan into the bus bathroom, kissing him passionately and presumably proceeding to other sexual activities. (Again, prove it. Oh wait, they said "presumably" which means that they aren't dealing with fact – or even what passes for it among the PTC and their acolytes – but with innuendo and smutty minds.)" But here's the real clanger: "The end of the episode, however, brings the truly appalling scene: Blair looks for her new boyfriend's stepmother Catherine. Blair finds Catherine and teenager Nate on the floor, among discarded items of clothing. Catherine's legs are wrapped around Nate's body and they move against one anther [sic] as they kiss. As Catherine is about 40 years old and Nate is about to begin his senior year of high school, the (mostly teen) audience is exposed to a scene of statutory rape." Uh no. The last time I checked, most high school seniors have passed their 17th birthday. The show is set in New York City and – I checked this myself – the age of consent in New York states is 17. In Canada and much of the United States the age of consent is 16. So by any definition of statutory rape, Nate and Catherine are not guilty. As far as the scene itself, it's on the PTC's website. I watched it and if that's the worst the PTC can come up with all I can say is that they've obviously come up with a new way to define sex. We see a lot of Catherine's legs (at least I presume they're Catherine's) but everyone seems to have all the necessary clothing – Nate's pants are on and he's still wearing his T-shirt (though admittedly it's pulled up to his shoulders), and Catherine's breasts seem to be covered enough. In short they ain't doing it yet. Maybe this scene qualifies as "moderate sexual activity" which is the standard for the "S" descriptor in a TV-14 show but it seems pretty mild compared with some of the shows that are also rated TV-14 and also don't have the descriptor.

Finally, let's turn to a fellow traveller on this pseudo-crusade of mine against the PTC and their fellow travellers. I first found the link to this article by TVWeek's Joe Adalian thanks to the Creative Voices in Media blog and let's just say that it says all of the things that I've said and feel about the PTC. Adalian's basic point is that while the PTC claims that it does what it does as an organization "Because our children are watching," (the motto on the masthead of their website) the fact is, according to Adalian, "the PTC's actions and words too often have indicated that its real mission includes pushing for government-sanctioned censorship of the media and the elimination of any and all programming that conflicts with its far-right social and political philosophies. What's more, rather than working with networks to figure out ways to increase family-friendly programming and offer true protection to children, the PTC is obsessed with denouncing shows clearly aimed at adult audiences. The PTC doesn't want to make TV safe for kids. It wants to make it safe only for those shows that fit into its narrowly constructed worldview of what constitutes acceptable TV." Adalian cites a number of examples of the PTC condemning shows that may or may not be intended for audiences that include children. Most notable of these was the PTC demands that local CBS affiliates pre-empt the series Swingtown because it "undermines the institutions of marriage and family." Says Adalian: "It doesn't matter that "Swingtown" contained no obscene language or nudity. The fact that CBS aired the show at 10 p.m. in most of the country is irrelevant. Adult viewers simply shouldn't be able to watch this show, period, according to the cultural crusaders of the PTC." He notes that Fringe was named worst show of the week once for "because of an opening scene involving some flesh-melting" (deemed violent by the PTC, "icky" by Adalian, and derivative by those of us who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark during its theatrical first run). Another show named worst of the week was a tribute to American troops called America United, condemned because it "contained some randy humor, an appearance by a scantily clad Pamela Anderson and a performance by Snoop Dogg." (Just how "scantily clad" Pam Anderson was is a matter for debate; every frontal shot of her was covered by a superimposed phone number to call – we don't know if she was showing something she shouldn't, if someone at ABC decided not to take the chance that she might be showing something she shouldn't, or if ABC just didn't want to run the risk that someone at the PTC would protest because the thought she was showing something she shouldn't.)

But for Adalian, as for me, it is the hypocrisy of the PTC's aims that are difficult to deal with: "What's most irksome -- and dangerous -- about the PTC is the way it uses children as human shields to hide its real agenda. There's nothing wrong with any person or group declaring their disgust with what's on the small screen. It's part of what I do for a living, after all. But the PTC is being morally and intellectually dishonest by pretending that it's simply trying to protect kids. How are children helped when the PTC spends so much of its time railing against shows that clearly aren't intended for their eyes? How are America's families strengthened by an organization that wastes its time ginning up bogus outrage over a half-second shot of a penis on "Survivor" that could only be seen by viewers watching in HD and using the freeze-frame function of their DVRs? If the PTC really cared about kids, they'd spend as much time coaching parents on how new technologies can help them monitor their kids' viewing as they do trying to censor networks. Instead, the PTC regularly twists the technicalities of decades-old obscenity regulations to force networks to spend millions defending programming that is very clearly not obscene." But of course coaching parents on how "new technologies can help them monitor their kids' viewing" is exactly the opposite of what the PTC wants to do. We seen in every one of those "Misrated" columns that I've sited over the years that the PTC is in the business of convincing parents advertisers and probably the FCC itself that those new technologies don't work – don't protect kids from smut and violence and "icky" things – because the networks habitually and deliberately underrate their shows for reasons which I confess I don't understand at all. Could it be ....Satan?!

For Joe Adalian, and for myself, it is far easier to see sinister intent in the action of the PTC than it is in the broadcasters. Adalian points this out when he examines the PTC current obsession with cable TV and their demands for 'cable choice:' "In recent years, the organization has even started challenging cable, doing all it can to defame shows with even an ounce of edge. PTC founder L. Brent Bozell last month launched a verbal broadside against FX and its president, John Landgraf, because Mr. Bozell thought the network's Sons of Anarchy represented the 'gruesome unfolding of a pervert's mind onto a national television screen.' He denounced FX for being more concerned about artistic vision than the 'prospect of a 10-year-old boy finding a terrifying castration scene as he's flipping channels in his home.' Personally, I'd be more troubled by the irresponsibility of the parents of any 10-year-old who would allow their son to be channel surfing, unattended, at 10 o'clock at night. There's a reason Mr. Bozell and the folks at the PTC have broadened their attacks beyond broadcasters. They want Congress to require cable operators to offer channels on an a la carte basis. Their argument: Consumers shouldn't have to subsidize "filth" on channels they don't like. The problem, of course, is that a la carte would mean the death of numerous cable channels, and a severe restriction in programming budgets for those that survived. There would be far less choice for consumers, and far fewer outlets producing cutting-edge fare such as Sons of Anarchy." Of course by describing Sons of Anarchy as being cutting edge or having any artistic merit at all, the PTC would accuse Joe Adalian of being a typical elitist TV critic (or rather non-critic) who are, as a PTC writer put it, "heaping praise on the most extreme examples of graphic and gratuitous gore, sex and profanity.... [who] rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV. And despite the fact that such critics work for outlets across the country, they share a nearly identical mind-set…one which rarely agrees with that of the viewers and readers in their local area."

In his summation Joe Adalian reiterates the point "It's not cable choice the PTC and its allies want. It's not even to shield kids from smut. It's control of what you get to watch." Or, as I've put it occasionally, if the PTC is indeed intent on "protecting the children" they must regard all Americans as children to be protecte, from what the PTC as parents considers "bad."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

True Recall Or Total Lies

(This review was delayed by that pesky Canadian election, which managed to irritate the crap out of me because of the way the candidate I supported lost. Someday maybe I'll tell you about it.)

When I first heard of the concept for My Own Worst Enemy my immediate thought was that it sounded like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies. In that movie Arnold plays a married computer consultant with a wife and kid and a best friend (played by Tom Arnold) who in reality is a super-spy who goes around romancing Tia Carrere. As publicity for the show increased and we found out more about the premise we learned that the lead character had two very distinct personalities that didn't know about each other. The concept at least started to seem more innovative. Having seen the first episode I am led to a slightly (but only slightly) less interesting conclusion, namely that My Own Worst Enemy is like a mash-up of True Lies with another Schwarzenegger movie, Total Recall, in which he plays a man who believes himself to be one thing only to discover that who he thought he was has been artificially imposed over his real personality (of course that could also be untrue and his adventures are part of a futuristic computer vacation program).

The first time we encounter Edward Albright is on a video recording in which he warns someone to call his wife and tell her that he can't make the kids' soccer game. It's the one way he can save his own life. Immediately we are taken forty-eight hours into the past. The location is Paris and Edward is talking to someone we can't see before he meets with a young woman. He very quickly seduces her and after they have sex the talk turns to someone named Uzi Kafelnikov who, as Edward puts it, has taken something that doesn't belong to him. As the woman goes to the bathroom, we see her loading a silenced pistol. As she goes into the bedroom she fires into a man shaped bump on the bed. She thinks it's Edward but that's the last thought she has as Edward puts a bullet through her brain. Back in Los Angeles Edward meets with a woman named Mavis. Mavis is Edward's boss and she's not happy that he killed the woman in Paris – he was supposed to interrogate her and get information about Uzi. As he leaves Edward comments on the nice suit that he's wearing and mentions that "he buys off the rack," speaking in the third person. After his meeting with Mavis Edward goes to meet with a "tech geek" who gives him detailed memories about a business trip to Akron and puts Edward "to sleep."

The next thing we see is Edward getting out of an elevator. He looks subtly different and answers to the name of Henry Spivey. Henry is a senior consultant for a company called A.J. Sun which consults in the financial and investment areas. Henry is happily married, has two kids, a dog and a minivan. He is also dreading a meeting with the company psychiatrist, something that he talks about with his friend Tom. Henry has had a strange dream, which in itself is unusual because Henry doesn't dream. In his dream he was in a hotel in Paris with a woman who called him Edward. Most puzzling of all is that he has a matchbook from the hotel that he was at in his dream, the Hotel Lyonnais in Paris...and Henry's never been to Paris.

After that things start coming apart. As Henry is reading a book, Edward suddenly emerges. Worse, Henry emerges as Edward is on a mission in Russia to do surveillance on, and possibly assassinate Uzi. Henry fires the sniper rifle that Edward is equipped with, giving away his position. Uzi's men shoot Henry, although fortunately Edward was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and Uzi proceeds to torture Henry to get information (though of course he thinks he's torturing Edward – to say this gets confusing is an understatement). Suddenly a rescue is staged by an agent in a mask who gets Henry out of the building and also manages to grab the briefcase that Uzi had taken. Safely away from Uzi and his men the hooded agent reveals himself to be Henry's friend from A.J. Sun, Tom. Except Tom insists that his name is Raymond!

Needless to say Henry is confused (more so than we are but then we're seeing a lot more than he is). Raymond takes Henry to meet with Mavis who explains things in great detail to him. Henry has only existed for 19 years while Edward is the real personality, someone who submitted to the technique to create an alternate personality of his own free will. The problem is that something is breaking down the barriers. Taking Henry to Edward's living quarters, Mavis tells him they'll get to the bottom of things. Exploring, Henry discovers not only Edward's large supply of champagne (a bottle of which he proceeds to drink) but also a hidden room containing Edward's personal effects including press clippings from when he was a high school football star, his parent's obituary, and his Medal of Honor. He also finds Edward's car keys and taking Edward's Camaro drives home, only to have Edward take over part way through the trip. Mavis contacts Edward and tells him that Henry is going to be "erased." Edward decides to take the opportunity to find out what Henry's life is like and arriving at home makes very passionate love to Henry's wife. During the night Henry takes over and finds a message written on his hand telling him not to drive Edward's car again. He also has a very appreciative wife. When Henry rides up to the office in the elevator he asks Tom some questions about tom's personal life and in return Tom asks about his life. Henry mentions that his parents died in a fire, but it was Edward's parents who died in the fire not Henry's, and it wasn't Tom in elevator, it was Raymond. Raymond, Mavis and the computer geek take Henry into a white room where, we're led to believe that either Henry's or Edward's memories were destroyed.

Apparently it was Edward who was erased because we see Henry arriving at home and checking his mail. His wife called to remind him about the soccer game but suddenly he's attacked by Uzi and one of his goons Henry is taped up with duct tape and tortured by Uzi's goon. Henry manages to persuade Uzi that he has a split personality but that he knows how to get where Edward hid the case with the items that Uzi had stolen thanks to a GPS that Edward left in Henry's car. This took them out into the desert. Henry digs a big hole – nearly grave sized in fact – and at the bottom finds a crate with a brief case in it. It's pretty clear that the hole would be Henry's grave but when Uzi makes it clear that his wife and children will also be killed, Henry activates something on the GPS and ducks into the whole. The case explodes killing Uzi and his henchman but leaving Henry alive. The DVD from Edward explained that he had hidden a fake case in the desert and that the GPS has "an interesting" feature. The last scene features Edward, waiting for a meeting with Mavis watching a DVD made by Henry.

In spite of the fact that My Own Worst Enemy boasts a strong cast that includes Alfre Woodard as Mavis, Mike O'Malley as Tom/Raymond, and Madchen Amick as Henry's sexy wife Angie, the truth is that the series rises or falls on Christian Slater's ability to play Henry and Edward. It is crucial for us as an audience to get the sense that while the man is the same there is a distinct difference in the two personalities. Henry and Edward are not multiple personalities in the true sense of the word. Rather they are closer to two sides of the same person both allowed to have equal control. Henry is responsible, monogamous, peaceful and in the end not adventurous. Edward is a rule breaker, promiscuous, violent, and a thoroughgoing risk taker. Most people have both aspects within them but with one or the other having control, usually the responsible one, although those other aspects come out on occasion. Henry and Edward are split artificially, the perfect cover for a spy and assassin but also the perfect way to have the violent rule breaker under control and only available as needed. In a way Edward is a prisoner to be let out only when needed, with Henry as his prison. It's apparently not an accident that Slater's two characters are named Henry and Edward, the same names as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde. What I think is interesting is that it is the "Hyde" side of Henry and Edward that is the original man – the athlete, linguist, and war hero as well as the violent risk taker and rule breaker – while it is the "Jekyll" side – the responsible family man – who is the construct.

There were some nits to pick with the writing of the first episode mostly related to the timeline that has been imposed on Edward and Henry. We're told at the start of the episode that forty-eight hours have past between the events in Paris and Henry watching Edward's DVD. And yet we're also supposed to believe that in those two days Edward/Henry flew from Paris to Los Angeles spent one night at home (as Henry), flew (as Edward) from Los Angeles to Moscow, set up a position where he could observe and possibly assassinate Uzi, been captured (as Henry) and tortured, then rescued by Raymond, flew from Moscow back to Los Angeles, met with Mavis, had sex with Angie (as Edward pretending to be Henry) then (as Henry) been caught by Raymond and Mavis and apparently treated. Oh yes, and set up the equipment to save Henry from Uzi and made the DVD. That time scale is rather difficult to accept as you can imagine. Indeed the whole premise, if looked at from a point of view that demands realism in TV shows is rather difficult to accept. However there is such a thing as willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, while the physics of Edward/Henry's transportation situation (as described) are at Santa Claus or Superman levels – and Edward wears neither a red suit nor a red cape – the idea that a shadowy portion of the intelligence "alphabet soup" might concoct a plan where they deliberately split personalities and store dangerous agents inside ordinary people is a believable enough premise to serve as a jumping off point for a series. If nothing else it feeds into our present fear, distrust, and dislike of intelligence agencies.

Reaction to My Own Worst Enemy has been mixed. Some people have been drawn into it and others have at the very least been disappointed by the show. I fall into the former group. Even though, as the title of this post suggests, I remain unconvinced about the originality of the concept I have to say that I found the execution of the concept to be intriguing enough to get me back on a regular basis for as long as the show hangs around. One thing I will say, as usual, is that the true measure of the show won't be found in the first episode – where the concept is set up – but in how well the writers make use of the dual nature of Edward and Henry in future episodes. You have to hope that every episode doesn't involve Henry popping up to screw up one of Edward's missions, or Edward pulling off some superspy trick to save Henry's life and protect his family from a bad guy who has discovered their secret. If they can avoid that, if they can keep the ideas relatively fresh and relatively innovative this could be an interesting show to follow. One thing's for sure, of the three new series released by NBC so far this fall, it's the best of the lot ... not that that's saying much.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Series Premieres And Season Debuts – Week of October 13-19, 2008

I think this is the last of these that I'll do, as the networks have really rolled out the last of their shows and only a few stragglers remain. In fact I nearly forgot to do this one! So without any further ado, let's get going.


ABC brings back Samantha Who? Their one successful sitcom from last year, featuring the beautiful Christina Applegate and the beautiful Jean Smart.

NBC has the series debut of My Own Worst Enemy starring Christian Slater as a man who lives part of his life as a married consultant for companies and part of his time as an international spy and assassin. Sounds like the Schwarzenegger move True Lies but the hook here is that rather than playing a role, Slater's character actually has two personalities neither of which knows about the other. If nothing else the concept is intriguing.


ABC has the season premiere of their other legal series Eli Stone. Johnny Lee Miller stars in this series about a lawyer who has – or had – visions, which was enough of a hit last year to bring back in a new time slot.

Canadians (like me) have an election to watch.


Americans have a Presidential debate.


NBC has the two hour debut of Crusoe, a straight retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe, starring Philip Winchester as Crusoe and Tongayi Chirisa as Friday. I am really dubious about how well this will work as a weekly series on a long term basis.

And with a couple of exceptions that's it for the Fall season.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Kath & Kim – Better Than Advertising For Aspirin Sales

I may not have mentioned this before, but I have three basic rules – so far at least – about reviewing TV shows: (1) Never review a show where you haven't seen an episode from start to finish – it's unfair to not see just how bad it really is before you talk about it; (2) Never review anything when you have a headache – it's hard to focus when every heart beat seems to bring a new pulse of pain; (3) Never give anything resembling a good review to a show that gives you a headache – the thing never turns out well in the end. That particular rule never fails to be accurate by the way. I have never gone into a show without a headache and gained a headache during it and found the show to be worthwhile. Ever.

On Friday night I watched a tape of two NBC comedies. The first was the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live's Thursday Weekend Update. It did not give me a headache. It wasn't very good, and I was hard pressed to find a laugh without Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, but it didn't give me a headache. Then I watched the other NBC comedy Kath & Kim and my head started to ache. As the half hour progressed, the pounding got worse. When that show ended it was time watch the latest episode of Life. It took a little bit but as if by magic the headache started to go away. The headache test doesn't fail.

I am not going to give an episode recap of the first episode of Kath & Kim. I have no desire to relive that memory, and it was a basic pilot episode designed to set up the characters. It was something about Kath Day, who is described by her daughter Kim as being a loser magnet, being exultant about her new romance with Phil who owns a mall sandwich shop. At the same time Kim has broken up with her husband of a few weeks (days? – with Kim it could be either), Craig because he wants her to "do things" like microwaving supper and asking him how his day was. Kim has decided to move home only to discover that Kath has turned her old room into a home gym. There are some problems about Kim's romance with Phil because he sees her eating a sandwich from another shop in the mall, but by this point my head was really throbbing and I didn't write down much more about the show.

Instead, let's try to find out what went wrong with this show. It's not the actors. Both Selma Blair, who plays Kim and Molly Shannon are talented actresses, although Blair seems to be known more for non-comedic roles while Shannon appeared on Saturday Night Live for a number of years and has made appearances in a number of sitcoms. Of the two supporting players the actor who plays Phil – John Michael Higgins – is by far the more experienced. He has appeared on a number of TV series including several episodes of Arrested Development as well as working on the Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind where he also arranged some of the music. Mikey Day, who plays Craig is primarily known for his work in improve comedy.

So if you can't legitimately blame the actors, where does the problem lie? Well the scripts aren't really that funny and the situations that the characters are placed in are, well they're pretty dumb, but the real fault goes deeper than that. There is nothing at all about any of the two main characters that is likable, and very little about the two males in the cast works either. Kim is so awful that the term "spoiled brat" doesn't really cover it. Her great ambition is to be a trophy wife and when Craig, who works for a Circuit City type store in the mall, doesn't cater to her every whim – presumably like her mother did – she left him. Kath is almost as self-centred, although her major problem is that she keeps falling in love and most of her romantic choices are wrong. She's not particularly bright and is easily distracted by whatever comes into her flighty little head. Neither woman is particularly happy about not getting her own way – the both have a tendency to sulk at the drop of a disappointment.

I think a major part of the problem is that this is yet another imported series – this time from Australia – and this time around the American "creators" don't have any real understanding of the series that they're trying to recreate for the North American audience. The original Australian series was created by series stars Jane Turner and Gina Riley and was based on skits that the two had done for almost eight years on a number of comedy shows. These in turn were based on a number of Australian "fly on the wall" reality shows and were essentially a satire of aspects of those shows. As a result the characters were not only well understood by creators/actors, but they had a basis that viewers could identify with. On the American series the writers have no connection with the characters. All they have to base their version of the characters on is the Australian version of the series and they seem to have taken all the most prominent characteristics without any understanding of where those characteristics came from and don't have any concept of the redemptive qualities that these characters have (well maybe not Kim if I read the Wikipedia entry on her character correctly). That's certainly evident in the transition of the Kath character from the Australian series, who is described as, "a strong, successful mother who embodies the stereotypical housewife/mother personality. At times Kath is naive, and gullible to her daughter's antics, but is usually determined and strong in handling difficult situations." The character has none of those qualities in the American show.

Earlier this year I described Do Not Disturb by saying that it "doesn't suck as badly as I thought it would." Kath & Kim "doesn't suck as badly as I thought it would" either. It literally sucks worse than I thought it would. There were at least a few redeeming features to Do Not Disturb if only for a couple of the character who went slightly beyond the stereotype and because there were situations in the one episode I saw were sort of funny, even with the oppressive laugh-track that the network inserted. Not only am I unable to find anything really redeeming in the main characters, but I didn't find anything really funny in the situations that the characters were involved in. I don't even think a laugh track would work for this show.

Under normal circumstances I would say that I couldn't understand how this show managed to get as far as actually showing up on a TV network. Someone should have caught just how bad this show was during the pilot process and either revamped the show, or not picked up the pilot. But of course under the supervision of Ben Silverman, NBC decided that the pilot process was outmoded and too expensive, so the network decided to go with a system where only scripts were submitted. This is the first example of this new system in action, since Knight Rider had a backdoor pilot in the form of a TV movie. If Kath & Kim is an example of the fruits of Silverman's new regime the stockholders of NBC-Universal are going to yearn for the happier times of Kevin Reilly's tenure as head of NBC Entertainment. Reilly's shows may not have drawn any better ratings but even the worst was measurably better in quality than Kath & Kim.

Friday, October 10, 2008

We Aren’t In Kansas Anymore

Every so often you get surprised by a show. Usually it's a bad surprise. Maybe it's a show that you expected (hoped) would be great turned out to be a steaming pile of poo. Sometime a creator whose previous work you loved and respected disappoints you. Yeah I'm talking about you Aaron Sorkin – I like Studio 60 more and more the more I see of the shows that have come after it on NBC but it was no West Wing...or Sports Night...or The American President...or A Few Good Men. Occasionally though you get a show that you don't really expect much from and it hits a home run with you. That's how I feel about the new ABC version of Life On Mars.

There were a lot of indicators that Life On Mars was going to be a ticking time bomb. It was an adaptation of a British series, and how many of those make the transition well. For every The Office there's a couple of Couplings hiding in the weeds. The British series was definitely a quirky one that had a cult following in North America. Does Blackpool which became Viva Las Vegas ring some bells with you fine people? The Internet buzz on the show wasn't great. A lot of people posting in response to the original YouTube clips that ABC released were screaming at how awful the American version was when compared with the British series, and some of the professional critics that I respect had low feelings about the new series. Worst of all, the show went through a thorough recasting, with only the original lead actor being retained from the original pilot of the show – the one that the clips came from. Even the city changed, with production and location moving from Los Angeles to New York, "to allow producers to take advantage of recently enacted local and state tax credits for shows filmed in that state." Under most circumstances these factors would spell DOA even while the blood was still pumping through the victim.

You know what though? I think it works. Maybe it's because I've never seen the BBC version – it was on BBC Canada but I never managed to be free while it was on – but there was a moment when the show hooked me and I was drawn in. I'm pretty much convinced though that a big part of what makes it work for me is the recasting and moving the show from Los Angeles to New York. For once I think that a network decision actually did what these decisions are meant to do – make the show better. Of course I've only seen the pilot episode. Subsequent episodes might totally destroy the feeling that I have for the show, but after this episode they've got me.

We're first introduced to detective Sam Tyler and his partner Maya Daniels as they are racing to the home of a suspected serial killer. We quickly learn that Sam and Maya are involved with each other against departmental regulations, and that Sam is afraid of people finding out that they're together. They managed to capture the killer, Collin Raimes, who has been holding his victims for 30 hours before killing them. However, although they have considerable evidence against him, including a diary, the Raimes's lawyer is able to supply a security camera DVD from a casino in Atlantic City that seems to prove that the man was there shooting craps all night at the time the latest victim was taken. Maya continued to track Raimes on her own (against orders) after his release, until she disappears. All they find is a blood stained sweater she was wearing. It is only then that the detectives discover that Raimes had an identical twin brother and that he was the one that the security cameras recorded. It's as he is frantically trying to get to Raimes's apartment that Sam is hit by a speeding car, seemingly coming out of nowhere as David Bowie's song "Life on Mars" plays on his iPod.

It's at that point that the real story begins. Sam comes to, apparently to the sound of "Life on Mars" but we know before he does that something is radically different. Sam is now wearing a leather jacket and a different shirt and pair of pants than he was before. He very quickly is made aware of his surroundings by a beat cop who tells him that he can't park here. What's he's parked is an orange muscle car (to my untutored eyes a Plymouth Roadrunner). "Life on Mars" is playing off an eight track tape. The apartment building where the suspect lived hasn't been built yet. But most of all, standing tall proud and seemingly indestructible are the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Not knowing what else to do, Sam makes his way to the precinct where he worked in 2008. The outside's the same, but the inside confuses Sam a lot. Still the people there seem to be expecting Sam, their new transfer. Still things are very disorienting for Sam, particularly the lack of a desk and computer for him (the other cops get a great kick out of him expecting a computer – like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey?) but his actions rouse the precinct's Lieutenant, Gene Hunt. Hunt is not happy at being roused out of his sleep by the new guy and proceeds to give him a bit of a beating before turning him over to the lone woman in the squad, Policewoman Annie Norris, known as "No Nuts" to the men in the squad. Annie listens to his story about being from 2008 with more than a little incredulity, although without the ridicule that the others heap on him. There isn't much time for Sam to settle in. He's almost immediately thrust into a murder case that has similarities to the case he was working on in 2008. Still the slowness of the 1973 system works against him. Fingerprints take two weeks to process, and the cops in the precinct think that it's amazing what they can do these days. When Sam tries to get Annie to help in psychologically profiling the killer – she has a degree in psychology – the other cops regard it as gobbled-gook while Annie is mad at him for drawing attention to her because it subjects her to ridicule. When Sam hears The Who's "Baba O'Riley" from a record store (he gets to explain to Annie about CDs and MP3 players and how the sound is ... not as good as this, this being vinyl) he finds a key piece of evidence, artificial fibre used as sound-proofing for a listening booth in the record store. Another bit of evidence comes into focus when an investigation that Sam instigated when he mentions Collin Raimes's name leads to a complaint filed by a woman named Raimes against one of her neighbours. They bring the woman into the precinct but initially she seems more interested in the coffee and cookies than in helping the cops. Finally Gene persuades her to help by bringing in some pricey Italian pastries. It seems that Mrs. Raimes – who has twin grandsons – has a neighbour who played his stereo too loud. The cops hadn't done much about the complaint but what they had done seems to have helped because she doesn't hear his music anymore. With that bit of information Sam and Gene head for the apartment building. Gene kicks the door open – without a warrant, another change from 2008 – and they find the soundproof room where the man, Willie Kramer, is holding his most recent victim still alive. Chasing Willie to a cluttered storeroom Sam is ambushed by him and loses his gun. Willie holds the gun on Sam and says something about it being the "only way to get back." Sam is certain that Willie means that the only way for Sam to get out of whatever state he's in and back to his 21st century life (and Maya) is for Willie to shoot him. Sam comes closer and closer to Willie until the muzzle of the gun is firmly in his chest, but Willie doesn't pull the trigger. Just then Gene and Ray Carling break into the store room and arrest Willie – and then after the cuffs are on him punch him at least once. They don't need to, they just want to.

Sam does not adjust well to his new world. At one point he says he wants to "follow the Yellow Brick Road" until it ends; to just keep going until the point where his mind can no longer produce the "reality" of the 1970s, which he believes might be a way for him to return to his real life. At various points during the episode Sam seems to be in contact with that real life. In the police squad room he hears the sounds of paramedics trying to revive him. In the apartment has been rented for him, and where "his" stuff has been unpacked by Annie, as he sits watching a late night science show, the professor on the TV suddenly stops talking about the sides of a triangle and starts talking about the status of the patient's mind, including how his mind may in fact be in some sort of alternate reality. Finally, as he is talking to the child version of Colin Raimes – a boy who idolized Willie Kramer because Willie wasn't afraid of anything – Sam hears the voice of Maya over the car radio, reassuring him that she is safe and asking him to come back to her. Sam had considered turning the gun on himself as his way to get back to Maya, but in talking to Colin about Willie and how fear is something that should be embraced because it protects us and keeps us alive he seems to decide that maybe he should stay in 1973 for a while. Perhaps it is knowing that Maya is safe presumably removes some of the urgency, particularly since he can't be entirely sure that his interpretation of what Willie said is correct. In this at least his own fear – fear that dying in this reality might just mean that he dies in his "real" reality – keeps him from trying to find out once his greater fear, that not taking the chance will mean that Maya is going to die, is removed from the equation.

The casting for this series seems absolutely spot on, with one or two possible exceptions. Even though some people have said that Harvey Keitel is too old to play Gene Hunt – presumably based on the age of the actor who played the character in the original British series – he's a perfect fit for the role of the boss who is both brutish and doesn't give a rat's ass for the rules. And yet he has moments where he's almost charming. He knows how to handle innocent people as seen by the way he treats Mrs. Raimes. We don't see too much of the other two main detectives in this episode – clean-cut and somewhat green Chris Skelton (Jonathon Murphy), and shaggy and dishevelled Ray Carling (Michael Imerioli) – except as they ridicule the ideas of their somewhat strange new squad member. The major female role of Annie "No Nuts" Norris is played by Gretchen Mol who manages to catch the look of an early 1970s conformist quite well. While Annie's clearly unwilling to accept what Sam is telling her about the future she at least seems more sympathetic to him than the men in the squad. Moreover Annie is trying very hard to make Sam accept that he is where he is and the reality of it. Annie is the portrait of the early 1970s woman; not an equal with men in her job but still accomplished and ready to be taken into that world, even if she isn't totally accepted by it. I have some worries about Jason O'Mara as Sam Tyler if only because so much of the structure of the show rests on him playing a man struggling to cope with a situation not of his own creation.

For me the big thing though was the setting. The moment that I mentioned that hooked me on this series was the scene where Sam looks up and sees the World Trade Center intact. It was the perfect way to not only set us in the time frame of the show but also to make Sam realise the absolute foreignness of his experience. I don't think it's something you could do with another location. What place in Los Angeles could serve as that sort of reference point for the character and for the viewer? I can't think of one. And it seems to me that New York in the early 1970s is the perfect place for this. The city was both cosmopolitan and somewhat faded in its glories. It was just a few years after the Stonewall Riots and faced ongoing racial tensions. It would only be a few years later that the headline in the New York Daily News would say "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Most of all the New York Police in this period were notorious for their methods, and were recovering from the after-effects of the Knapp Commission, which had not fully weeded out the department's bad apples. While the British version of Life On Mars used Manchester – Britain's third largest city – as its setting rather than London, it is difficult to imagine any other city where this series being set and certainly not Los Angeles.

My feelings about Life On Mars are somewhat conditional. As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, I'm not always happy reviewing a series based on the pilot episode if only because the pilot is frequently a standout episode that doesn't show you what the series will really be like. Character development and really solid writing are going to be key to the show's ongoing success. This is true of all TV shows of course but in this one it is particularly important. The series got off to a sound start but among the concerns has to be how long this concept can be sustained. The original British series only ran for 16 episodes after all, just slightly less than a basic order for most American dramas that don't get a "back nine." That's how far the British though the concept could be stretched. The worst thing that could happen to this show is for it to degenerate into a bog standard police procedural where the "gimmick" is that the show is set in 1973 rather than 2008. I think that's a real fear as the show goes on. At the same time it can't constantly emphasis Sam as a fish out of water. For me the essential aspect of this show is Sam's journey as he integrates himself into his "new world," probably to a point where he's unsure about going back to his reality when the opportunity presents itself. Still if the writers, producers and actors can maintain the standards of the pilot episode I think they've got something truly intriguing with this series. A strong, if somewhat provisional, recommendation from me.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Delays In Writing

I've been feeling particularly unmotivataed of late in terms of writing for the blog. Okay, okay, I've started playing Atlanica Online and I've been finding it addictive. I was planning on at least getting a review of Worst Weekdone before the show gets cancelled, but if Marc Berman is any judge that might turn into a race that I'll be pressed to win. Fortunately I'm home next Monday; unfortunately it's also the debut of My Own Worst Enemy. I want to get a PTC piece done inthe next day or two but I'm not sure when.

Meanwhile, to tide you over until I actually write something, here are a couple of TV stars talking politics.

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die

Monday, October 06, 2008

Series Premieres And Season Debuts – Week of October 6-12, 2008

We're pretty much through with the bulk of the series premieres and virtually all of the season debuts. In fact, we're getting ratings results for a lot of the shows that don't necessarily look good for some shows. It's early yet, but apparently shows that didn't come back after the strike are looking at lower ratings than shows that did offer a few new episodes. Shows like Chuck, Heroes, Life, Dirty Sexy Money and Pushing Daisies seem to be having problems. Hopefully some of these shows – particularly the ones on NBC – will be given a chance to rebuild their audience. Chuck and Life in particular are light years ahead of most of the shows that NBC is offering under the Ben Silverman regime (please people, watch Life this Monday and Friday – I love that show).


The only new shows are on Thursday night. CBS has the season premiere of the original (accept no substitutes – at least from Florida) CSI. The big focus will be on solving Warwick's murder, which will in turn lead to the eventual departure of Grissom. The premiere has a special appearance from Jorja Fox as Sarah Sidle.

CBS also has the series debut of Eleventh Hour based on the British series of the same name. The series stars Rufus Sewell as Dr. Jacob Hood, the FBI's leading scientific advisor who is called in to deal with events where science is being misused. Ashley Jenson plays his FBI bodyguard/assistant Rachel Young. The first episode deals with human cloning.

NBC has the series debut of Kath & Kim, the American adaptation of the Australian hit series, starring Molly Shannon as Kath Day, Selma Blair as her spoiled princess daughter Kim, who has recently split from her new husband Craig, played by Mikey Day. Kath's brand new fiancé Phil Knight is played by John Michael Higgins. In the first episode, Kath's romance with Phil is hampered by the arrival of Kim who has just walked out on Craig.

NBC also has the series debut of Saturday Night Live Thursday Weekend Update which is pretty much self-explanatory. Hopefully they can come up with a half hour that's as good as the Tina Fey as Sarah Palin cold opens on the Saturday Night Live mother ship... but I doubt it.

Finally ABC brings on the totally recast American version of the BBC series Life On Mars. The show has been totally recast and even relocated from the original pilot. The show being moved from Los Angeles to New York, while the only cast hold-over from the pilot is Jason O'Mara as Sam Tyler who has gone from 2008 to 1973 after a severe auto accident. Is he in a coma or really travelling through time? The rest of the cast includes Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Lisa Bonet, Jonathon Murphy and Harvey Keitel.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Non-Political Political Post

There are two debates on Canadian TV tonight. One is the U.S. Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. The other is the Canadian Leaders debate between Stephen Harper, Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe (but not Green Party leader Elizabeth May even though her party has as many candidates as the three national parties and more than Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois). I know which debate will be the better debate in terms of cut and thrust and intellectual discussion and I know which I'm going to watch. They aren't the same.

I'll be watching Biden and Palin. I know it probably comes as a shock but there are reasons. I know who I'm going to vote for in the Canadian election. It's mostly a case of holding my nose and voting for the candidate who isn't a Conservative (Harper's party) that is most likely to have a shot at beating the local Conservative candidate, although I am fairly sure that the Conservative in my constituency will win. My vote will be cancelled out by the vast sea of rural voters who move in lock-step for the Tory candidate. On the other hand I don't have a dog in the American political hunt – though as I've said, I like most Canadians would probably vote for the Democrats because they come closest to advocating policies that most Canadians hold dear (although in some ways they're a bit too far to the right). The thing is though that while the nature of the Canadian system means that Harper, Dion, Layton, and Duceppe are undoubtedly more skilled as debaters, the American Vice Presidential candidates are likely to offer greater entertainment value.

Part of this is simple. Harper are experienced at the art of debate. Every day in the House of Commons the Prime Minister faces questions from his political adversaries on any number of subjects. And then all of the leaders face a press "scrum" which in its own way is just as difficult because the press in Canada regards itself as an unelected opposition party woe be unto any Canadian politician who tries to replace the daily scrum with press conferences – it's been tried before with unhappy consequences...for the politician. An American politician wouldn't know what to do if faced with the combination of Question Period and the media scrum. If this process does nothing else it means that Canadian politicians are used to a more lively and open debating style during the televised leaders debates, in which they confront and question each other with little restraint on the part of the moderator. That's not something you're likely to see from the Vice Presidential debate.

What you are likely to see is some fascinating political theatre. There are some fascinating questions to be answered formed largely because of Palin's performance in her interviews with Katie Couric. Is she really as uninformed as she comes across in those interviews or, to use an example from the final season of The West Wing (which is increasingly relevant in this election season, as if the writers had a time machine and used it to create the script by referencing the future) was it all a ruse to create a depressed expectation from the public so that when she actually does face Biden she exceeds them.

As for Biden, how does he approach Palin? Does his knowledge and experience come across as a negative when debating the self described "Joe Six-Pack candidate?" (Palin to conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt: "It's time that normal Joe Six Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency.") Biden can't be arrogant or condescending to her for fear of being seen as bullying her. That's most assuredly a negative and a trap that male politicians reportedly face all too often when debating women candidates. And yet do "ordinary Americans" really see Palin as "Jo Six Pack" and better yet do they prefer that to someone with decades of experience in the fields that a Vice President, or more crucially a President, would face. Palin gives a good speech (written by others) but based on her performance in the Couric interviews and other extemporaneous public statements she seems to underperform, meaning that there might be circumstances where Biden, unleashing his considerable knowledge (and perhaps his own history of making embarrassing gaffes) could turn the audience against him.

And the audience is key. Earlier this week, when I was discussing the season and series debuts for this week I wrote about the Vice Presidential Debate, "All of the networks – well except The CW have that new reality show The Vice Presidential Debate. I hear it might be cancelled after the first episode though." I was being humourous – or at least trying to be – but at least one commenter (Andrew) thought perhaps that I was being ignorant. In truth though, the debates in the United States do mimic aspects of reality shows like American Idol, Dancing With The Stars or America's Got Talent. Victory in the debates is measured not by objective standards of who scored the most points either in accuracy or in flashes of rhetorical ability. Instead of ability is a question of who comes across as most popular as measured by tracking polls released within an hour or two of the event, and following the minute by minute variation in opinion from focus groups armed with little dials to tell us who is popular at a particular moment in time. In that, it's not unlike the way that TV shows are "fine tuned" by networks. In this way it is reduced to a reality show where popularity rather than ability is rewarded. There's a line in The West Wing episode "Mr. Willis of Ohio" in which Toby says that what he has gotten the representative from Ohio to agree to – sampling as a process to determine the population in the census could lead to dangers like polling rather than elections, to which Mr. Willis replies "It's okay by me. As long as it's not the same people who decide what's on television." We haven't reached that stage yet. Where we are however is that the techniques that are used to decide what's on television, not to mention who wins the big prize on reality TV shows, are being used to determine who wins political debates and in so far as those determinations by the media sway the political polls, the ones that tell us who is ahead and behind nation-wide and by state, then we are at least partially turning elections into reality – or perceptions or reality – shows. Whatever the case truly is, the Vice Presidential debate tonight promises to be good theatre.

Gary Unmarried – This Viewer Wants A Divorce

I've got some good news and some bad news for the people who are associated with Gary Unmarried. The good news is that it's not as bad as Do Not Disturb (and boy if you could have seen the typo I made on that title you'd laugh). The bad news is that it's not as good as Two And A Half Men. Say what you want about that show, at least it's funny, something that I can't describe Gary Unmarried as being.

I missed the pilot episode last week, preferring to watch House and trying to do my duty with the revival of Knight Rider so I don't know all of the details of the relationships. Maybe that's for the best since it means that I was dropped into a more typical episode than most pilots tend to be. Gary Brooks, played by Jay Mohr, is a recently divorced house who is starting a new relationship with divorcee Vanessa Flood (Jaime King) even as he deals with his ex-wife Allison (Paula Marshall) and her new fiancé Dr. Walter Krandall (Ed Begley Jr.) who used to be their couples councillor. And then there's Gary's relationship with his teenage son Tom (Ryan Malgarini), and his nearly teenage daughter Louise (Kathryn Newton). I shall now pause for people like Sutpen and Shreve to make remarks about Louise Brooks.

In Wednesday's episode, Gary and Vanessa have been having some very energetic sex, the net result of which is that Gary (who used to play football and surfs and as I mentioned is a housepainter) has thrown out his back. He doesn't want to tell Vanessa about this since he figures that she'll drop him for someone younger and "fitter" (if you get my drift). He wants help from Allison, who knows how to fix his back but isn't inclined to help him because of the way he threw his back out. Eventually he decides to go over to his old house (which Allison got in the divorce) and use the hot tub, believing that Allison won't be home. He's talking to Allison on his cell phone, lying about being caught in traffic as he goes to get a beer from her refrigerator. Trouble is that Allison's at home and catches him in the kitchen. For reasons which defy any sort of explanation, Gary drops his swim trunks and stands in front of Allison naked. And of course he's unable to put them on again – remember he can't bend down. Rather than touching either the swim trunks or her husband, Allison uses kitchen tongs to handle the shorts and then throws the tongs into the garbage. She also bans Gary from the house, though of course she feels free to go into his house whenever the fancy strikes her. And the fancy strikes her when for some reason she has to take their daughter's cello over to Gary's. I think it had to do with Allison being sure that Gary hadn't returned the thing and when Walter found it in the laundry room she "naturally" tried to sneak it into his house. Of course Gary's there and after a bit of sparring, Allison agrees to work on Gary's back...which consists of walking on it and taking out some of her own frustrations on him. It seems that she's worried about getting old and unsexy. Gary reassures her that if he were to see her in a bar and didn't know who she was, he'd pick her up. And, as it turns out, Gary's own worries about approaching forty and needing to have energetic sex with Vanessa isn't something he has to worry about – Vanessa's worried about being able to keep up with him in that department.

There's a rather pointless B-plot about Gary's son Tom and his new – hottie – girlfriend who wants to hold hands everywhere, which is starting to annoy Tom. Gary advises him to tell her about his annoyance about this and how he doesn't want to hold hands as much anymore. This leads her to start kissing instead.

I don't know that much about Jay Mohr as an actor. I know that he was on Saturday Night Live and that he starred in the FOX comedy Action, so I know that he can do comedy (I also know that the lucky S.O.B. is married to Nikki Cox in real life), and I recall some of his more serious acting, particularly from The West Wing where he played a right-wing talk show host who annoyed CJ on a regular basis. So perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt her and put the blame for this debacle on the writing. Despite what I regard as an overaggressive use of the laugh track, there really wasn't that much funny about this show. Paula Marshall had a couple of funny lines when she talks about how she suddenly feels old and unsexy: for the first time she hasn't been able to flirt her way out of a traffic ticket, and when the cop found out her age he asked her she knew his mother...and she did. A couple of good lines and the situation with the shorts and the kitchen tongs aren't enough to make a show though.

Worst of all is Ed Begley's character. First of all we are meant to believe that Begley (real age 59) is involved with Paula Marshall (real age 44). We are also meant to believe that Walter is still working as a shrink and councillor despite the fact that he entered into a relationship with one part of the couple he was working with, not to mention the fact that he name drops the famous people that he works with – like Sir Ben Kingsley. Either thing is enough in real life to cause a lot of problems for a person in his profession. Ah, but the character gets even worse. He is at times an unthinking self-centred jerk. He doesn't drive but rides a bike instead, so when Allison – who should know better – asks him to drop her kids off with Gary, Walter is able to ride Louise over on his bike...and forces Tom to run along behind. Beyond that, the guy is insufferable because he does everything perfectly, whether it's cooking or playing the cello. And we are supposed to believe that Allison can't see through this guy's line of B.S.

As I've said more than once, I have drifted away from sitcoms over the years. Shows like Gary Unmarried are part of the reason why. The writing is subpar and the laugh track is used to try to convince us that something funny is going on. And yet, as I said, it isn't as bad as Do Not Disturb because they at least try to do some funny material and occasionally they actually hit with it...just not as often as they hope to and certainly not as often as top comedies like Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother or – yes it's sad but true – Two And A Half Men. And I don't even want to mention edgy shows (by broadcast standards) like 30 Rock or The Office because this show is nowhere near the quality of those series. I'm not even sure that I could recommend a way to make this show work if I wanted to. I'm given to understand that this show isn't doing well in the ratings, thanks I suppose to Bones and (ugh) Knight Rider, so maybe we'll see something different, and probably better, in this time slot. On aesthetic grounds, this show isn't so bad that it has to be dumped as soon as possible. I can just barely see it limping along for the thirteen episodes the network has signed for – something that becomes more likely with the possibility of a SAG strike, but even with a SAG strike it won't go much beyond that. More importantly, unless the writers do something significantly different (and I can almost guarantee they won't) this show doesn't deserve to go further.