Monday, February 28, 2005

Housekeeping Matters

I've finally added a links section to some of my favourite blogs and blog-like entities. I'm sure the list will grow, and there's some links to blogs on my personal favourites list that haven't made it to the blog's list. I've also rearranged placement of some things on the sidebar to make them suit me. Now if only I can figure out how to get Google Ad-Sense to stop giving me PSAs.

Couple of notes on the stuff on my blogs list:
  • Colortini is the personal website of Tom Snyder, who I consider to be the last erudite person to host a non-political show on US network TV. The link is to the blog portion of the site.

  • I've never met Tim Gueguen even though we both live in the same city, but I've encountered him online since we were both posting through the old Saskatoon Freenet. He seems to be having as much trouble with Google Ad-Sense as I am - most of the time when I check his blog the Adsense bar isn't visible (honest Tim, I do click on the ads when I see them).

  • Mark Evanier is a comics and cartoon pro who has been around since at least the 1970s and probably before. He knew such people as Daws Butler and Tex Avery. He's not too proud to post on newsgroups and there at least seems like a pretty nice and knowledgable guy.

  • Jerry Beck's Cartoon Brew is a pretty good sumation of animation news and opinions. Check out Jerry's Cartoon Research website as well.

  • The Comics Curmudeon, originally "I Read The Comics So You Don't Have To" but he ran into a newspaper that had a column with a similar title and weren't pleased with the duplication - never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel - does satirical (usually) looks at comics that interest/annoy him.
As I say, I'm sure there'll be more links added to this list and existing entries editted and tweaked as time goes by.

It's A Wonderful Night For Oscar...NOT!!

Well, that was several degrees of pretty bad.

Everyone says that the Oscar telecast is too long. Usually it clocks in at about four hours and somewhere along the line someone makes a joke about how long things are. This year's telecast clocked in at three hours and ten minutes and Chris Rock made a joke about how next year they'll be handing out the awards for the "lesser" categories at a drive-thru in the parking lot to speed things up even further. That's the thing; some of those four hour plus Oscar shows didn't feel like they were running for four hours because the pacing was good, the presenters entertaining, and there were those unscripted moments that happen that either touch you or make you laugh. Tonight's show wasn't well paced, stifled spontaneity, and suppressed the unexpected. It may have only run three hours and ten minutes but it felt a lot longer.

They seemed to run into troubles almost immediately. Chris Rock's opening monologue seemed to have the potential for what they hired him for initially - to be edgy - and his jokes about George W. Bush (and the laughter they got, even from Clint Eastwood) are bound to have the Raving Right yelling about "Hollywood Liberals". There was a nice bit about the quality of actors involving that had Rock's movie Pootie Tang as a punchline. The trouble is that he quickly lost steam. Just how badly Rock was floundering was proven when they aired the tribute to former Oscar host Johnny Carson. The contrast between the show that Rock was MCing, and the way he was doing it, and the show that Carson did, and the way he did it was obvious to anyone. Chris Rock had a bit where he went to a Magic Johnson Theater and asked the mostly African American audience whether they'd seen the nominated pictures. Not only was the answer uniformly no (but I'm betting the responses were scripted) but the people named some of the worst movies to come out this year, including White Girls. It was mildly amusing even when Albert Brooks made an appearance in the bit. There was a terribly lame bit with Adam Sandler that had Rock reading lines (supposedly) written for Catherine Zeta Jones and Sandler acting like a sex obsessed pig. By the end of the show, Rock was reduced to doing a boob joke about Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayak.

Then there was the way that the awards were presented. Some of the awards were presented the usual way - the nominees sat in their seats waiting for their closeup, the presenter read out the list of names, sometimes with clips then announced the winner, who came out of the audience, getting congratulated by fiends relatives and people they worked with - but this was mainly for the "big" categories. In many of the so-called lesser categories, all of the nominees were brought out onto the stage and given a group shot - no closeup Mr. DeMille - and then the names were read out with clips - where used - projected onto the floor of the stage in such a way that viewers at home would be hard pressed to realize that they were watching a clip of an Oscar nominated film. They were the lucky ones - they got on stage. In some categories the presenter went to the back part of the theater and read out the names on a hand-held mike while the nominees sat in their aisle seats. When the winner was announced he, she or they had to go to microphones located in the aisles to make their 30 second speech. This meant that if people wanted to actually see the person being "honoured" rather than watch it on the big screen TVs in the Kodak Theater they had to twist in their seats. I doubt many bothered. These winners probably didn't get to go to the interview area either. If I were a nominee, I'd want my closeup, I'd want my film clip to be seen in a form that people could see and dammit I'd want my Oscar Walk. Maybe next year they really will hand out awards at a drive-thru.

There were some moments, although nothing even approaching the emotion of Adrien Brody's acceptance speech in 2002. I liked the bit with Pierce Brosnan and Edith Head lookalike Edna "E" Mode (an animated character), but of course that was scripted. Jamie Foxx had the best speech but then he had the time to deliver it. Maybe the most spontaneous and heartfelt speech came from Cinematography winner Robert Richardson who took the opportunity to thank the doctors and nurses who were caring for his mother who had recently taken ill. I also sort of liked that the winner for best song sang some of his song from Motorcycle Diaries as his speech. He sounded better a acapella than Antonio Banderas did with Carlos Santanna as backup. The Best Song category is a problem though; I think it's time has passed. It used to be that every picture would have a song and the songs were known and heard on the radio. This years nominees included songs from two animated movies, two foreign language films and a song shoehorned into an existing musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the express purpose of getting his Lordship another Oscar (he's two down on former writing partner Tim Rice). The "In Memoriam" piece was short (shorter than the tribute to a guy who made only one movie - Johnny Carson) and had subdued reactions, thanks in part to Yoyo Ma being on stage playing during the whole thing. No one seemed to want to applaud in recognition while he was playing. And did we really need Beyonce singing three of the five nominated songs? I suppose it was part of the Academy's effort to attract young people. I hope it didn't work - it might encourage them.

The 2005 Oscars didn't really work. There was too many bad ideas and bad moments that outweighed any good stuff that there was. I can't really fault Chris Rock - he wasn't Billy Crystal but I don't know if Billy would have worked well under the restrictions that Rock worked under. I can and do fault the producers for sort of missing the point. Or maybe they just became so obsessed with bringing the show in fast that they forgot that faster isn't always better.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Oscar Predictions

Haven't got time to write up a set of Oscar Predictions, and besides I haven't been to a movie in a theatre (which is where you can really tell whether a movie is really good) since I saw Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring about three years ago. What I am doing is posting a link to an article at that cover the major categories. I mostly agree, although I'd like to see someone give Alan Alda a little more credit for playing against type in The Aviator than just - as Roger Ebert puts it "his nomination is his reward" - but he won't.

I have opinions on a couple of categories that aren't covered in the Blogcritic article. Best Adapted Screenplay - Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby. Haggis created a script that was so polished that the final draft he handed to Clint Eastwood was shot exactly as written, no revisions during shooting. Best Animated Feature - The Incredibles. I will however have to claim a bias on that one; I went to Darwyn Peachey, who is Vice-President of Research and Development at Pixar, was a fairly close friend of mine in high school.

Good Oscar night!

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Oscar Travesties

This list of "Oscar Atrocities" appeared first in the blog Alternative Reel. I'm reprinting it here because even though I'm an Oscar Junkie, it doesn't take a genius to recognise that the Academy Awards are very much a "flavour of the month" kind of thing with a huge dollop of politics - real world and Hollywood - mixed in for fun, and the "flavour of the month" might not always be the all-time classic; the politics become dated too. That said, I tend to trust the Academy more than I trust something like The People's Choice Awards which once determined that Ghost was a better All Around Picture (their equivalent to Best Picture) than Unforgiven. And that was one of their good choices.

There are reasons for a lot of the things that are on this list, and I don't entirely agree that every thing Bill Chinasky labels as an "Oscar Atrocity" on this list is an atrocity. For one thing he tends to love the Lord of the Rings movies a bit too much to be objective, and describing Best Years of Our Lives beating It's A Wonderful Life as an atrocity is pretty harsh. There are things I'd add to the list as well. The Great Ziegfeld beats Mr. Deeds Goes To Town? Mrs. Miniver is better than Yankee Doodle Dandy? Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) loses in 1939 not to Clark Gable (The only actor nominated for Gone With The Wind not to win), but to Robert Donat in Good-bye Mr Chips. Alfred Hitchcock gets nominated for Lifeboat and Rebecca but not for Notorious Shadow Of A Doubt or North By Northwest? Jimmy Cagney never wins, and Cary Grant is never even nominated? Those are atrocities!

1927-28: Wings beats out Sunrise for Best Picture.1929-30: Norma Shearer (The Divorcee) wins Best Actress; Louise Brooks (Pandoras Box) isnt even nominated!
1930-31: Cimarron wins Best Picture; City Lights isnt nominated.Lionel Barrymore (A Free Soul) wins Best Actor; neither James Cagney (The Public Enemy) nor Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) is nominated.
1932-33: Cavalcade wins Best Picture over A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
1940: Rebecca wins Best Picture over The Grapes of Wrath. James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story) wins Best Actor over Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath).
1941: How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane. John Ford (How Green Was My Valley) wins Best Director over Orson Welles (Citizen Kane).
1943: Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine) wins Best Actor over Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca).
1946: The Best Years of Our Lives over Its a Wonderful Life. Frederic March (The Best Years of Our Lives) wins Best Actor over James Stewart (Its a Wonderful Life). Olivia de Havilland (To Each His Own) wins Best Actress; Ingrid Bergman (Notorious) and Donna Reed (Its a Wonderful Life) aren't even nominated.
1949: Broderick Crawford (All the Kings Men) wins Best Actor over Kirk Douglas (Champion); James Cagney (White Heat) and Gene Kelly (On the Town) aren't even nominated.
1950: Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) wins Best Actress over Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard).
1951: An American in Paris over A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire; The African Queen and A Christmas Carol aren't nominated.
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon; Singin' in the Rain isn't nominated.
1954: Grace Kelly (The Country Girl) wins Best Actress over Judy Garland (A Star is Born).
1955: Marty wins Best Picture; Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Kiss Me Deadly aren't even nominated. Ernest Borgnine (Marty) wins Best Actor over James Dean (East of Eden)
1956: Around in the World in 80 Days over Giant and The Ten Commandments.
1965: Julie Christie (Darling) wins Best Actress over Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music).
1969: John Wayne (True Grit) wins Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy) and Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy).
1972: Bob Fosse (Cabaret) wins Best Director over Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather).
1973: Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger) wins Best Actor over Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail) and Al Pacino (Serpico).
1980: Ordinary People over Raging Bull.
1990: Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas.
1994: Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction.
1996: Geoffrey Rush (Shine) over Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) for Best Actor.
1998: Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) for Best Actor over Nick Nolte (Affliction), Edward Norton (American History X), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) and Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters).
2001: A Beautiful Mind over The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) wins Best Director over Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). Jim Broadbent (Iris) for Best Supporting Actor over Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings).
2002: Chicago over The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Oscar Nominees On TV

I confess to being an Oscar junkie and will be posting several Oscar related items today and tomorrow. Accept it.

First of all, lets take a look at this year's Oscar nominees and their experience in Television. These are the nominees in the Acting and Director categories. A couple of things are apparent: Actors are more likely to have worked in series Television than Actresses, and British and Australian actors and actresses tend to have more (and more recent) television experience than North Americans. Only Alan Alda is currently working in a regular series, The West Wing. (Format is Person - Film nominated for - Television series - not mini-series - where credited as a regular). Apparently American Directors think TV is beneath them, except for the three biggest (Eastwood and Scorcese).


  • Don Cheadle - Hotel Rwanda - Golden Palace, Picket Fences
  • Johnny Depp - Finding Neverland - 21 Jump Street
  • Leonardo DiCaprio - The Aviator - Parenthood, Santa Barbara Growing Pains
  • Jamie Foxx - Ray - In Living Color, The Jamie Foxx Show
  • Clint Eastwood - Million Dollar Baby - Rawhide

Supporting Actors

  • Alan Alda - The Aviator - Story Theatre, M*A*S*H, The West Wing
  • Thomas Haden Church - Sideways - Wings, Ned and Stacey
  • Morgan Freeman - Million Dollar Baby - The Electric Company, Ryan's Hope, Another World
  • Clive Owen - Closer - Capital City, Chancer, Sharman (British)


  • Annette Benning - Being Julia - Nothing except a voice credit in Liberty's Kids
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno - Maria Full of Grace - Nothing (in fact Maria Full Of Grace seems to be her first acting credit of any kind)
  • Imelda Staunton - Vera Drake - Thompson, Up The Garden Path, If You See God Tell Him, Is It Legal? (British)
  • Hilary Swank - Million Dollar Baby - Evening Shade, Camp Wilder, Leaving LA, Beverly Hills 90210
  • Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind - Dark Season, Get Back (British)

Supporting Actress

  • Cate Blanchett - The Aviator - Heartland, Bordertown (Australia; although IMDB classes both of these as mini-series, there may be some argument, particularly about Bordertown)
  • Laura Linney - Kinsey - Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City
  • Virginia Madsen - Sideways - American Dreams
  • Sophie Okonedo - Hotel Rwanda - Staying Alive, The Governor, In Defence, Clocking Off (and a special shout out for voice work in Doctor Who: The Scream Of Shalka) (British)
  • Natalie Portman - Closer - Nothing

Directors (Directing TV - just about anything)

  • Clint Eastwood - Million Dollar Baby - an episode of Amazing Stories
  • Taylor Hackford - Ray - Nothing
  • Mike Leigh - Vera Drake - The Wednesday Player, Play for Today (British)
  • Alexander Payne - Sideways - Nothing
  • Martin Scorcese - The Aviator - an episode of Amazing Stories, an episode of the mini-series The Blues
And a special mention goes to Paul Haggis the screenwriter for Million Dollar Baby, who has a ton of TV credits starting with One Day At A Time. Around here he's best known as the creator of Due South, but he also has a creator credit on Walker: Texas Ranger, something that embarasses him so much that in interviews he says that his greatest fear was that when he died the first thing that would be mentioned in his obituary would be creator of Walker: Texas Ranger.

We Use Math Every Day

Years ago, when I first became interested in gambling that was more than picking winners at the races - which I was actually reasonably good at; why I quit is another story entirely - I started reading a lot of books about the subject. Percentages are a big thing in gambling. In simple terms you want to make bets that give the House the smallest advantage possible. Roulette, particularly with an American wheel (which has 38 numbers including 0 and 00 - the European wheel has 37 numbers) is not a good choice for the gambler. The House edge on an American rules table is 5.26% (on a European wheel it's 2.70%) which mean that if you were to place a bet on Black, or Even, which seem to be even money bets, you will actually win only 47.4 percent of the time. By comparison Craps has an House advantage of 1.41% on the Come Line and 1.364% on the Don't Come Line, and both percentages can be significantly reduced by laying or giving odds if the casino allows it. One of the books I read at the time was called The Eudaemonic Pie. It was the true story of a group of hippie types in the early 1970s who happened to be geniuses at physics. They wanted to set up a commune but to do that they needed money and they thought that the "easiest" way to get it was by gambling and roulette is the game that offers the largest pay outs. Betting a single number wins 36 times the original bet (that is 35-1 even thought he odds are 37-1 against - that's the advantage). Being physicists and mathematicians these guys felt that there had to be a way to use physics and mathematics to reduce the odds to a manageable level where you could place a chip on six numbers (for example) and know that the ball would land on one of those numbers. They didn't succeed but their failure had more to do with implementation rather than the actual areas of math and physics. In reading the book I learned a lot more about how something like this can be analyzed mathematically. I was also the first time that I had encountered the concept of Chaos Theory. The new TV series Numb3rs tries to convey some of the sort of wonder that mathematics provokes in some people.

The series focusses on Don and Charlie Eppes, played by Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz. Don is a senior agent in the Los Angeles office of the FBI, while his younger brother Charlie is a brilliant young professor of mathematics who occasionally consults with the FBI and other agencies. In his own world Charlie is a superstar, a concept which Don doesn't seem to fully grasp. In the pilot episode it was implied that Charlie's primarily participated in fraud and other types of cases involving money which on the face of it would seem to be the equivalent of asking Picasso to paint a mural for the baby's room. In the course of the pilot Charlie convinces Don that mathematical analysis can be used in cases that don't involve numbers in an obvious way. In essence he contends that it's possible to analyze information mathematically and from the known data deduce patterns that the criminals repeat. It's not unlike what the Eudaemons were trying to do with the Roulette wheel - given data about the rate at which the wheel spins and the speed of the orbit of the little white ball and its rate of decay and other data, it should be possible (using a computer) to determine which sector of the wheel (and therefore which numbers) the ball will end up in. As a concept for a television show it has the potential to go over a lot of peoples' heads, and I'm given to understand that the math has been "dumbed down" for the average viewer. On the other hand the public has embraced the idea of scientific investigations of crimes in a big way - witness the popularity of the CSI franchise, Crossing Jordan, and in Canada DaVinci's Inquest. The way the show is presented is both dramatic and quirky. That said, I sometimes find the writing to be a bit pedestrian, particularly when they're dealing with the personal aspects of the character relationships.

The show has a workmanlike cast. Rob Morrow is probably best known for playing Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, but here seems to be channelling his investigator from the movie Quiz Show. He's fine playing a man who knows his brother is brilliant but sometimes has trouble really understanding him. Judd Hirsch, who plays Don and Charlie's father, has wisely decided to make closer to John Lacey from his old series Dear John than Julius Levinson from Independence Day. Alan Eppes is a man who is immensely proud of both of his sons, although mostly he's worried that they aren't romantically involved. Of special note in the supporting cast are Sabrina Lloyd as Don's FBI partner, a role that is different from what we normally associate her with, and Peter McNichol, who plays Charlie's friend, coworker and sometimes advisor. McNichol's character, Larry, is a typical McNichol character, quirky and comedic but extremely able and likeable not unlike the character of Alan Burch that he played in Chicago Hope.

The most important piece of casting is David Krumholtz as Charlie. Although known for comedy (including Bernard the "Arch-Elf" in the Santa Clause movies) he's also played a variety of dramatic roles, and was the man who stabbed John Carter on ER. As Charlie, he brings a sense of nervous, almost maniacal energy to character, particularly when he's involved in a problem. Charlie owes a little to Russell Crowe's portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind in that Charlie occassionally can't fully cope with reality particularly when it affects his family. Charlie isn't socially inept but he does have a comfort zone that he retreats into. But it's the mathematics where his true passion is. In Friday's episode, Charlie gives an explanation of the everyday importance of mathematics to Sabrina Lloyd's character that is at once beautiful passionate, and almost romantic. In addition there's a chemistry between Krumholtz and Morrow that makes them believable as brothers even though the real difference in their ages is closer to 16 years rather than the five or six that the show implies (Charlie and Don graduated from high school on the same day).

CBS has been promoting Numb3rs on the name value of Tony and Ridley Scott, whose production company makes the show. My suspicion is that the Scott Brothers' involvement has been limited to bringing money and the prestige of their names to the project. I don't think that it's necessarily the right approach. It is vaguely ironic that the fate of Numb3rs will be decided by numbers - Nielsen Rating numbers. Although Numb3rs has been the top rated show in its time slot since the show debuted, the ratings have also declined since it moved to its regular Friday night timeslot. Worse, beginning on March 4, it will be up against the newest entry in the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Trial By Jury. I'd like to see Numb3rs renewed for next season, possibly on a new night if the opposition from L&O: Trial by Jury is too great, but a great deal depends on how much confidence the network has in the show. That's a lot of pressure.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Proper Marriage of Acting and Writing

I'm not sure how much of Without A Trace is based in reality and how much is pure invention. I don't know, for example if the FBI maintains a missing persons unit. I don't know if law enforcement organizations at any level will investigate a missing persons case until 48 (or is it 72) hours has passed unless the missing person is a child. I am aware that in any criminal case the likelihood of successfully solving the case goes down as time passes, and goes down very precipitously in the early hours of the case. What I do know is that since it first debuted Without A Trace has been compelling enough to keep me from watching ER, which until that time had been on my "don't miss list" and while I'm pretty sure that a lot of it has to do with what I see as the decline in the quality of the stories in ER, I watch Without A Trace because it has managed to present good and frequently great television.

Without A Trace is a product of the Jerry Bruckheimer stable of shows. I am frequently driven to wonder just how much Bruckheimer is involved in this or the other programs he produces. They're a diverse lot, including the three CSI series, Cold Case, Without A Trace and The Amazing Race. He also has a comedy called The Evolution of Man listed as being in pre-production. This is all in addition to his movie work which in the past five years has ranged in quality from Veronica Guerin to Kangaroo Jack. Is Bruckheimer's role in his TV shows to put creative people together with money people and make the marriage work, or does he actually get his hands dirty on a day to day basis. It doesn't really matter because - for the most part - the TV series where he's listed as Executive Producer tend to be good quality productions. Which is more than can be said for most of his movie work.

The most noticeable thing about Without A Trace is the acting - it is rock solid. Led by Anthony LaPaglia as Jack Malone and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (nominated in for an Academy award in 1996 for Secrets And Lies) as Viv Johnson, the missing persons unit also includes Poppy Montgomery as Samantha "Sam" Spade, Enrique Murciano as Danny Taylor, and Eric Close as Martin Fitzgerald. (Trivia: of the five member of the cast of solid American characters, three are non-Americans - LaPaglia and Montgomery are Australians and Jean-Baptiste is British.) It is a show that is carried by the strength of the actors. While other series often attempt to submerge the characters in the work they are doing, the writers on Without A Trace have given their characters (mostly) believable personal lives which makes them more fully realized as people. Making the characters more complex in this way runs a risk - played badly the characters could be seen as artificial - but this cast makes the added dimension work. Thus it's believable that LaPaglia's character is too obsessed with his job to make his marriage work, but it's also believable that he doesn't fully know it until he's confronted with it. If it's only presented to us as a fait accompli early on in the run of the series then it's just an aspect of the character. In this case it has been revealed over time, but the revelation hasn't been incidental but has been the focus of episodes.

Writing for Without A Trace is a major strength but it's often not as noticeable as the acting, perhaps because of how good the acting is. The show has had its share of by the numbers plots and usually has it share of gimmicks, like revealing the clues and movements of the missing persons through flashbacks, there are episodes that stand out with their power. The finale of the first season is in essence a conversation between Agent Malone and a bereaved man who has taken a group of hostages and traded them for Malone. We learn a lot about the hostage taker but a lot more about Malone which gives us a solid grasp handle on part of his character. Another episode featured an amazing performance by Charles Dutton as a man whose life has been devastated by the unsolved abduction of his son several years before. Part of that episode's success was undoubtedly Dutton's acting ability (he won an Emmy as Outstanding Guest Star in a Drama for it), but part of it is that the writers gave him a strong script to work with.

I have a theory that in the end there are three essential features to any TV show or movie - the actors, the writers, and the director. If all three are outstanding then the product will be outstanding. If any two of the three are superior then what is seen on the screen will be good but often great. If only one of the three is first rate then you might get something worth watching, but probably not. If you have none of them you get Porky's or Kangaroo Jack or most Adam Sandler movies. At the very least Without A Trace has strong writers and excellent actors. It is invariably good and sometimes great.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Child Is The Father Of The Man

Jack & Bobby is the sort of show we've come to expect from The WB. That is, it's a show focussed on teen angst but with a gimmick. It's standard stuff for The WB. Roswell gave us teen angst where the teens were aliens sent to earth to keep them safe from a civil war on their own world. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was teen angst where there were vampires and monsters to fight. Smallville is teen angst in a small town where one of the teens happens to be the guy who will become Superman and already has some of the powers. So what's the gimmick with Jack & Bobby? Well, one of them grows up to be president of the United States about 40 years from now. It's not a spoiler to say that it's the younger brother, Bobby. Still, it's Jack who is the angsty teen. While Bobby is the one who is being shaped, a lot of the events that are shaping him seem to be happening to Jack, while Bobby is in the background. Watching Jack making mistakes, or just living life, seems to be the leading influence on Bobby's course.

The other major influence on Bobby's life is his mother, Grace McAllister, played by the always interesting Christine Lahti (who as it happens is married to the show's Executive Producer, Tommy Schlamme). To put it mildly, Grace is larger than life, and in some ways almost a caricature. She's a liberal feminist professor at a small but well regarded university in Missouri. She's also a single mom (never married and the boys' father is an extremely shadowy figure), who tends to be overly controlling of her children even though her personal life is anything but controlled. She is overly fond of pot, something that brings her into conflict with Jack, and she's also started an affair with a younger man. Tom is not only her teaching assistant but she's also his thesis advisor. The affair has recently become public and has had major consequences for just about everyone, even if Tom is too dense to see them. Rounding out the main characters are Jack's best friend Marcus Ride, and the University president, Peter Benedict and his daughter Courtney. Peter Benedict is on his way to becoming a major influence on Bobby's life, one that tends to balance out Grace. Peter is conservative, but tends to treat Bobby as more of an adult than Grace does. For his part Bobby seems to have a puppy-like devotion to Peter, initially because Peter saved Bobby from a severe asthma attack but mainly because Bobby desperately needs an adult male role model.

An interesting aspect of the show is that each episode but one has had vignettes from the presidency of Robert McAllister inserted into the narrative. These are told by various people in the life of the adult Bobby, including his wife Courtney (the same Courtney who is the daughter of Peter Benedict and will be in a relationship with Jack McAllister) and his chief advisor Marcus Ride. These are done as a series of interviews for a documentary about the (presumably dead) President McAllister. We learn that Bobby became a Republican (much to his mother's disgust) but broke with the party and that he won the presidency because a bus load of students from Chicago drove to their home state of Missouri to vote for him. Mostly what we learn is how the events of the present that are the focus of the show reflect or influence the attitudes and decisions that President McAllister will make forty years from now. Their importance to the show can't be ignored - the one episode that didn't feature a "flash-forward" was unusually flat.

I enjoy Jack & Bobby and the show seems to have attracted a loyal fan base - a small, loyal fan base. The show was initially seen on Sunday and earned anaemic ratings and was soon switched to Wednesday nights after Smallville. It hasn't fared much better there, although to be fair the show is up against a powerful lineup on all four of the major networks - American Idol (Fox), The West Wing (NBC), Alias (ABC), and the combination of King of Queens and (now) Yes Dear (CBS). The one thing that the show has going for it (beyond that small but loyal fan base) is the critical acclaim that the show has garnered from a variety of sources. It has even earned Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations for Christine Lahti (she didn't win either losing the SAG award to Jennifer Garner, and the Golden Globe to Mariska Hargitay) which is rare enough for a WB show to be noteworthy. It seems likely that Jack & Bobby will be cancelled at the end of this season - which would be a shame because it is a rather likable series if people would just give it a chance. The simple truth is that the show has never been in a good time slot in terms of fitting with its lead-in. A better time slot would be on Monday after Seventh Heaven but that slot has been given to Everwood and isn't likely to be taken away from it. As much as I hate to say it - because I've grown to like the show even if I'm not a fanatic about it as I am with some other shows - don't expect to see Jack & Bobby on The WB's lineup next fall.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

And Here I Thought I Was Being Original

As It turns out, entirely without my knowing about it, there is another blog with a name almost identical to this one. Child Of Television is written by Hollywood-based stand-up comedian Tony Figueroa, and I have to admit, he writes better than I do. To make matters even more scarily coincidental - and it is entirely a coincidence - the first sentence of his first post is "I am a child of television." Until he emailed me I was entirely unaware of his, or his blog's existance. I'm not entirely sure what to do about this as I am rather fond of the name and coming up with it has temporarily exhausted my supply of creativity. In this, at least, I am not unlike a lot of people who work in Television.

What Exactly Constitutes "Groundbreaking"?

When I was 18 I watched One Day At A Time religiously and I'll tell you the biggest reason: Bonnie Franklin. I didn't think much about her acting but for the 18 year-old me, who had little success with girls my own age, she was a fantasy - she was pretty enough, energetic, older and therefore more experienced, and she didn't wear a bra (they weren't big but the moved and that was good enough for me). I wanted her or her doppelganger to "teach me" if you get my meaning. 18 year-old boys are horny pigs, but I'm sure that comes as a revelation to no one, either former 18 year-old males or females of just about any age. She wasn't my first TV sex object - that would probably have been Margot Kidder from the short lived Nichols (thanks to those bar maid outfits) - but Bonnie lasted.

I watched "bouncing Bonnie" bounce for the full eight years that the show was on the air. I enjoyed the show even as, in an odd way it grew increasingly mainstream. Valerie Bertinelli went from a cute kid to an extremely attractive woman and lost her virginity long before her character did, and we watched Mackenzie Phillips go from skinny bitchy teen to drug addicted near-cadaver. Anne Romano went from struggling divorced mom to successful business woman and all three women married. And as the show pushed more towards the centre other shows were doing stuff that was even out there in terms of breaking ground. About the most outrageous thing One Day At A Time was able to do towards the end was have Anne marry her son-in-law's father (which meant that Anne became Barbara's mother-in-law as well as her mother).

So I wasn't going to write anything about the One Day At A Time reunion show - beyond my desire to "sleep" with Bonnie Franklin (or Anne Romano) until I read a comment on the show's IMDB entry. The person writing the show was venomous in his attack on Bonnie Franklin to the point of calling her "one of the worst actresses in television history" and that "her act would get gonged on The Gong Show but it was one line in particular that started me thinking. The line in question was "Why did they think that D-I-V-O-R-C-E was edgy? The show was five years behind the times." What makes a show edgy and groundbreaking?

I can only assume that the writer of this diatribe never saw the shows of the period except in reruns which is not seeing it in the context of the time. Back in the day - and the day was thirty years ago - divorce was a big taboo on television. Actresses might get divorced, but you didn't see divorced or separated women on TV. Women living alone were single or widowed. If an unattached woman had kids then she was a widow. (And of course there was Doris Day: on her sitcom she went from a widow with kids living on a ranch with her father, to a widow with kids living in San Fancisco to a single woman with no kids. In fact she was probably a virgin again!) About the only divorced women on TV at the time were also Norman Lear creation, Maude Findlay (a three time loser) and her daughter Carole, but on Maude, Maude was married and Carole was just a subsidiary character, not the lead.

Another thing about Anne Romano was that she was an independent woman. She'd gotten out of one marriage and unlike so many characters on sitcom even at that point her objective in life wasn't to get married as soon as possible. She didn't want to be controlled the way she had been in her first marriage, which caused her first post-marriage relationship to end - he wanted kids with her, she didn't want any more. She struggled with being a single parent and trying to balance finding work and then working with a family. And like a good feminist, when she felt that she was being held back at work because she was a woman she started her own business and made a success of it.

And then there was sex. Anne Romano got laid. It was less than five years before that people were scandalized that Mary Richards stayed out all night with men on very rare occasions (and to protect herself took the pill). Mary Tyler Moore was supposed to be an even more groundbreaking show - Mary was supposed to be a divorced woman, but the network objected to the idea because they said that people would think that Laura Petrie had divorced Rob. Anne didn't just discreetly come home the morning after like Mary, you saw her heading to the bedroom, from the bedroom, and on occasion in the bedroom. Not all of her affairs were long term relationships either - she had at least a few one nighters sprinkled in among her list of bed buddies.

So was One Day At A Time groundbreaking? To a degree I think it was. It wasn't All In The Family or Maude or even The Jeffersons in terms of innovation, it broke a few taboos in a gentler fashion. It even makes me wonder if a show like this could be made today by a major network. I don't watch sitcoms today, but it seems to me that the typical sitcom can be boiled down to this sort of recipe. Take one guy (usually overweight - think Kevin James or Jim Belushi), add one wife who usually looks to good to be with him (Courtney Thorne Smith or Leah Remini), mix in one or more kid or funny adult relative who needs to be cared for (have to say that to include Jerry Stiller) and some goofy friends. Blend well and pour into molds. As nearly as I can recall the only show with a female lead character in a sitcom who is a divorced woman with kids is Reba, and that's not even in the same league as One Day At A Time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

What is Las Vegas?

No, not the city in Nevada, I'm talking about the TV series on NBC on Monday nights. It's an hour long, has people punching each other and stars James Caan, so it must be an action-drama, right? Actually, after careful consideration, I've come to the conclusion that Las Vegas is the latest hour-long situation comedy and more accurately an action-comedy. I do know that anyone who actually thinks this show is even remotely realistic in its depiction of operations at a major casino resort - something I saw in a user commentary on IMDB while I was researching this little piece - should have their heads examined.

There have been hour-long comedies practically since the inception of network television but virtually all were variety shows with a large component of comedy or sketch shows like Laugh-In or Love American Style. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did some one hour shows Desi-Lucy Comedy Hour - in fact one episode ran 75 minutes - with them in character as Lucy and Ricky throughout not just the episodes but the series. The first really modern hour long sitcom was probably Moonlighting, although both the Directors Guild of America and the Television Academy followed the "traditional" definition of a drama being any hour-long show (although I mentioned in an earlier post that this definition only really became accepted by the mid-1960s) when giving out awards. Only the Golden Globes put Moonlighting in their comedy-musical category. Northern Exposure won Emmys as a dramatic series as well when, given the quirky nature of the characters and the situations that faced the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleischman, it could only be described as a comedy. At least the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild recognised that the show was a comedy in their awards, although the DGA only switched the designation for their 1994 awards. The first hour-long show to be fully recognised by the Emmys, the Directors Guild and most other award giving organizations was Ally McBeal.

So why do I think that Las Vegas is a comedy? For me the big thing is that although there have been episodes that are primarily dramatic, most of the episodes are largely comedic. Take Monday's episode. From the title, "To Protect And Serve Manicotti" it was played broadly and with a definite comedic pacing. In the "A" plot, casino boss and former CIA agent "Big" Ed Deline (James Caan) and his friend Frank (played by Sylvester Stallone) try to stop a protection racket directed against the mother of a showgirl. The interaction between Caan and Stallone is not unlike that in a Hope and Crosby "Road" picture. In the "B" plot, Security Chief Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel) tries to track down a customer who cheated the casino out of a hundred thousand dollars before Big Ed finds out that they gave the guy a marker without checking with him. In the "C" plot Nessa, Sam and Delinda (Marsha Thomason, Vanessa Marcil and Molly Sims; Nikki Cox as Mary Connell - Danny's best friend and occasional love interest - didn't have much to do in this episode) each go to extremes to get Joe Rogan to pick her over the other two to represent the hotel on an episode of Fear Factor. The "B" plot is perhaps the only one that could possibly be considered as dramatic, and the way Duhammel carries himself and his character make that a rather absurd assertion.

The best reason for watching Las Vegas is to see James Caan play his tough guy image for a laugh. It's abundantly clear that Big Ed is not someone to be trifled with but his bluster is just a little too showy to be taken seriously by the audience, and he does tend to range between chewing the scenery a bit, and playing a low key "dese, dem and dose" kind of guy. I'm also willing to bet that Caan is the reason what the show has been able to attract actors like Stallone and Alec Baldwin to do a TV show. Duhamel is frequently quite watchable as the titular lead player, and has some meaty dramatic scenes to sink his teeth into (notably Danny's return from military service in Iraq) but is charming enough to pull off the comedy scenes. James Lesure as Danny's pal Mike (an MIT engineer who worked as a hotel valet because he earned more money that way and then was forced to take a pay cut when Big Ed needed him to work in security) is a techno-wizard but in a cool way. He doesn’t have a lot of funny moments, but plays off of Danny and Ed well. Although the women as individuals may have serious storylines, a lot of the stuff that they do individually and together has a comedic aspect to it.

Las Vegas will probably never win any major awards, but on the whole it is an attractive, well-made, and funny series that uses the frequent absurdity of the title city most effectively. It certainly doesn't belong on any list of guilty pleasures. Best of all, the producers, having decided that the show needed an Elvis Presley song as the title music, resisted the temptation to use "Viva Las Vegas" and went instead for "A Little Less Conversation". What's not to love about that?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Lost In The Translation

A couple of years after Food TV first showed up in Canada I stumbled upon the debut of a new series (at least new to them) called Iron Chef. If you remember Food TV at the time it was pretty dire. There was - I kid you not - a show about making dog biscuits, called Three Dog Bakery after the hosts who owned an establishment by that name. About the best show on the network was Two Fat Ladies, and yeah I am including Emeril on that list. Iron Chef was a revelation. It presented cooking like a competitive sport complete with announcer Fukui Kenji (I'm giving the names in the Japanese manner with the surname first), colour commentator Hattori Yukio, and on field reporter Ota Shinichiro. The fact that sometimes the show seemed like pro wrestling - like when various factions formed to confront various Iron Chefs of which the most notable was the Ohta Faction that was headhunting for the third Iron Chef Japanese Morimoto Masaharu - made it more fun. Even the music fits - I can't watch the movie Backdraft without expecting to see a flamboyantly dressed Japanese man show up and chomp on a bell pepper. It rapidly went on my list of guilty pleasures until I discovered that it was on so many people's list of guilty pleasures that it had actually become something of a mainstream show. Just to show you how popular the show was, I remember going to dinner at my brother's house with my mother and some of my brother's friends. While Greg and his then wife Jana were upstairs cooking the rest of us were in the basement watching TV and talking. At the appropriate time I switched the TV over to Food TV to watch Iron Chef. A few minutes later my brother - who is not a fan - came down and tried to change the channel. There was a general rebellion amongst the guests. The same thing happened when my sister-in-law came down and tried to get the channel changed - the only one on her side was my brother.

It was probably inevitable that once it became apparent how popular the show was, there was be an attempt to create an American version. The first tentative move was made by Food TV in cooperation with the show's Japanese producers, Fuji TV. They brought most of the Japanese cast including Hattori, Fukui, Iron Chefs Sakai Hiroyuki and Kobe Masahiko (Morimoto lived in New York at the time), retired Iron Chef Michiba Rokusaburo, and the show's host "Chairman" Kaga Takeshi, to New York City to do an episode for the Japanese series but also set it up as a Food TV special. In it, Morimoto went up against American chef - and Food TV star - Bobby Flay. Despite an all-American judging panel including restaurant guide writers Tim and Nina Zagat and Donna Hanover (then going through an extremely messy divorce from New York Mayor Rudy Gulianni) and an audience member, Flay lost and in doing so cemented his reputation as a bit of a brat.

The first real attempt to do an all-American version of Iron Chef was made by UPN in two specials that seemed to be intended as pilots for a series. They took all of the elements of the Japanese version and did them completely wrong. They took a large showroom space in Las Vegas for their Kitchen Stadium and filled it with cheering "fans" complete with signs that I'm sure were made by the producers and handed to audience members as they came in. The announcers came across as converted wrestling announcers with absolutely no knowledge of food (while Fukui Kenji from the Japanese version is a baseball announcer, his partner Hattori Yukio is an expert on food whose business - Hattori Nutrition College - was involved in the creation of the show) and the less said about floor reporter Sissy Biggers and "Chairman" William Shatner the better. I said at the time that the only man who could possibly be an American version of Kaga was Liberace and he was, unfortunately, dead. The quality of the judges can be summed up by the fact that one said that the only way to eat tuna is on bread with mayonnaise, and another judge was Bruce Villanch. About the only thing they got right was their selection of Iron Chefs. The show tanked in the ratings - even by UPN standards - and no more was heard of it.

Which brings us to the new incarnation of Iron Chef. This version is being done by Food TV and is light years beyond the UPN version. As "Chairman" they have martial artist and actor Marc Dacascos as "Chairman" Kaga's nephew. Instead of an announcer and a colour commentator, the producers have decided to use Food TV host Alton Brown as the announcer with another network personality Kevin Brauch as floor reporter. It's a nice choice since both men seem to know what they're talking about with reference to food, and if they don't know what's going on the chefs are miked and close enough to make comments and answer questions. After an initial four episode series of specials featuring Japanese Iron Chefs Morimoto and Sakai (a third Japanese Iron Chef, Chen Kenichi was supposed to appear but had to cancel due to a death in the family) against American Iron Chefs (and Food TV hosts) Bobby Flay, Mario Battali and Wolfgang Puck, the series was picked up although Puck was replaced (mercifully) with Morimoto (who now runs his own restaurant in Philadelphia). The result was Iron Chef America.

I enjoy Iron Chef America, but there are enough differences between this and the Japanese version (which is no longer in production) to make the whole thing feel somewhat "off". While Alton Brown is extremely knowledgeable, my feeling is that he may need someone who has less knowledge than him to work off of in the way that Hattori-san worked off of Fukui and one or two of the guest judges. The judges are another minor problem. In the Japanese version the usual format was to have at least one and possibly two celebrities as judges, in addition to one of a group of regular judges who weren't in the food business and (usually) a judge who was a culinary writer or other professional - the most frequent choice was Kishi Asako. In the episodes of the Iron Chef America that I've seen almost all of the judges have been professional food critics. They may know food, but they aren't prone to make silly comments like the notorious "bimbos du jour" from the original series. Another minor quibble is the decision to dress the Iron Chefs in a sort of uniform of blue jackets with an American flag on the right shoulder and the only distinguishing mark being a different coloured patch for each man on the left arm. The Japanese Iron Chefs each had their own distinctive outfit right down to their hats. The uniform look of the American Iron Chefs gives an impression not unlike the kitchen staff at your local East Side Marios or some other chain where the kitchen personnel are on view. A big change is that they've abandoned the fiction that the Challengers chose which Iron Chef they'd face. (It was a fiction. In the Japanese show the producers would suggest a couple of opponents to a challenger some time before taping and the selection would be made at that time. Thus it was rare that all of the Iron Chefs were in the studio at the same time. They also gave both the Iron Chef and the challenger a list of five potential featured ingredients, one of which would be used.) In the American version of the show, the Chairman chooses which Iron Chef will be featured.

As I say, I enjoy Iron Chef America and I hope that it will be enough of a success that Food TV and Food Network Canada (which was created by Alliance-Atlantis in partnership with the American channel a couple of years ago - it helps with Canadian television regulations and provides the Canadian channel with different content than the American parent) will continue to produce and broadcast it. It's a good show, but that said, the fact remains that there is something ever so slightly off that keeps it from being the great show that the Japanese Iron Chef was. If someone can figure out what that missing ingredient is, they might have something.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

More Loonatics

Posted by Hello

Because I'm not sure the cast picture really did a good job of showing what this is going to be like, I found a copy of the Loonatics promotional poster, though the only one that seems to "pop" is Bugs...sorry, BUZZ.... Bunny. Remember, it's all about the toys.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

This Is Just Wrong!

Posted by Hello

Okay I know that this has been posted elsewhere a number of times, and I'm a bit of a Johnny Come-lately on this so sue me. The fact is that as Baby Herman said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this whole thing stinks like yesterday's diaper. Loonatics is a reimaging of Bugs Bunny and several other Looney Tunes characters as hip, fighting superheroes in a far distant future. Ministers of grace protect us the network weasels at Kids'WB and the Cartoon Network have flipped their lids!

The characters (and the identity that they were developed from) are, from left to right:
  • Slick (Wile E. Coyote)
  • Spaz (The Tasmanian Devil)
  • Buzz Bunny (Bugs Bunny)
  • Duck (Daffy Duck)
  • Lexi (Lola Bunny from the Michael Jordan vanity piece Space Jam)
  • Roadster (The Roadrunner)

According to a Warner Animation executive who should have remained anonymous but is in fact division president Sander Schwartz, "The new series will have the same classic wit and wisdom, but we have to do it more in line with what kids are talking about today." Dan Jallonari, president of Kids'WB, said that the network flipped over it: "We just said, `Wow, what a great way to take the classic Looney Tunes franchise that has been huge with audiences for decades and bring it into the new millennium.'" Of course Jallonari also mentioned what I take to be the real reason for developing the new show. According to him both boys and girls enjoyed the new action figures in the test runs of the show. In short, it's all about the toys.

The Looney Tunes characters belong to Warner Brothers and they can do what they want with them, and the idea of anthropomorphic animals with superpowers is not an entirely unheard of concept in animated movies and comic books. There have been "Mighty Mouse", "Marvel Bunny" (an animal counterpart of the original "Captain Marvel") and "Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew" from DC Comics. It's not that part of the idea that I don't like. The big problem, beyond the assumption that the original characters were intended just for kids - everyone who worked in the animation industry when it was at its high point between 1930 and the mid-1950s was making cartoons for adults and kids together - is that they showed so little originality. Why base the new characters off of the original Looney Tunes characters? Why not create original characters? There are a lot of explanations, the most charitable of which is that the producers wanted a tie-in with known commodities, and the least charitable is that these people (the network weasels responsible) are simply incapable of being original. Regardless, I feel like Daffy Duck in the cartoon where everything keeps changing around him thanks to a malignant animator; confused and angry.

The Ol' Bait And Switch

Okay, I admit it, I fell for it ... again. In my personal television lexicon the "Bait and Switch" is when a show or a network promises something and then delivers in such a way that you feel cheated and used when the show is over. Cross-overs between shows are frequently examples of the Bait and Switch, and the Third Watch part of last night's Third Watch/Medical Investigation crossover is a prime example. And like a big all-day sucker I bought into it. I watched them both.

My personal history with Third Watch is a bit muddied. I watched the pilot while I had a severe headache. It might even have been a migraine but I'm not sure. A personal rule now is "don't decide on a show when you've got a migraine" (on the other hand, if the show or movie gives you a migraine, that's usually a bad sign - Highlander II always gives me a migraine). At the time though I decided to pass on Third Watch. I thought the concept about New York cops and firefighters might have had potential but I disliked just about all of the characters. Besides the show was on Monday nights at the time and I'd have to tape it because I bowl Monday nights, and why tape something you hate. I caught a few episodes around the end of the first season and the show seemed a bit better (no migraines) but not enough to give it tape time.

Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center. Third Watch did some of the best episodes of any TV show surrounding that tragedy including the two hour "In Their Own Words" which was a two hour non-fiction episode consisting of New York Police and Fire personnel who had survived the attacks and heir families describing the events. The only regular cast member in that episode was Molly Price and she was there legitimately - she is married to a New York firefighter in real life. This episode won a Peabody Award. The episode "September Tenth" was excellent as well. I didn't stick with the show though. By the time I watched my next episode - the Bait and Switch crossover with ER - the show was becoming increasingly about the cops and not particularly the cop on the street. Symbolic of this was the episode in which one of the major firefighter characters was literally blown to pieces in an explosion (as I recall the scene, all they found was her feet, still in her boots). By 2004 almost all of the fire department personnel were gone and the show had become one of those grim and gritty police dramas with occasional appearances from the paramedics.

The episode I saw last night isn't the sort of thing that would get me watching on a regular basis. The "A" plot centred on the murder of a major drug dealer in the police precinct house by a 12 year-old boy and the rise of a new drug lord that was clearly part of an ongoing line and not for the viewers who just wanted to be completists on the upcoming Medical Investigation episode. The "B" plot focused on the investigation of the murder of a jeweler who was a friend of one of the street cops. There was also the usual soap opera style relationship conflicts, although not at ER This is what brought in the team from Medical Investigation, but only the two main actors, Neal McDonough and Kelli Williams. I didn't put a strop watch on it of course but if they ten minutes of screen time in the episode I'd only be surprised that they were on for that long. Their storyline never developed much beyond the "Hi, I'm Dr Connor and this is my partner Dr. Durant" stage. Some crossover particularly when you saw what the producers of Medical Investigation did with the cast members from Third Watch. The character of Carlos, played by Anthony Ruivivar, was one of the patients and although you could be almost certain that he wasn't going to die, given some of the stunts that have been pulled off on Third Watch in the past, it wasn't quite a dead lock cinch. The character who was given The biggest role was Molly Price from Third Watch. The character of Detective Faith Yokas fit so effortlessly into the Medical Investigation cast that I almost expected Connor to give her an open job offer for whenever she got tired of being on the NYPD.

Direct crossovers between shows usually occur in one of three circumstances. The first is when shows share a producer, as happened when Third Watch and ER crossed over. Both shows are produced by John Wells, so I suppose it might be possible that we'll be seeing a Third Watch/West Wing crossover. Another example is when shows are on the same night, but this usually constitutes an "event". One of the most memorable was when all of the NBC comedies on one Saturday night crossed over with each other. This included Empty Nest, Nurses, and Golden Girls. The third type of crossover is when one show crosses over with another so that viewers from a popular show will watch one that is less popular show despite not having a night or a producer in common. The most famous examples of that were the occasions when the highly popular Law & Order crossed over with the less well rated, but critically popular Homicide: Life On The Street. Many time the cross-over is motivated by two, or even all three of these reason. While I think that the cross-over between Third Watch and Medical Investigation was originally motivated by being on the same night, it is also true that Medical Investigation started the season strong but declined against CSI: Miami ratings and the new show Numb3rs to the point that NBC will be moving Law & Order: Trial by Jury into that time slot. There's no word as to what will happen to Medical Investigation which is unfortunate because I rather liked it. I certainly like it better than what I saw of Third Watch last night.

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Not Too Daring Idea from ER

I haven't watched ER regularly in quite a while. In fact I haven't watched ER at all since the season when they killed Mark Greene off. Let's see, that would be around the 2001-02 season. Oh wait I take that back; the last episode I watched was the one that crossed over with Third Watch but only because I was watching Third Watch a lot that year and wanted to see the complete story. Suffice it to say then that I haven't watched the show in a while. It used to be must see TV for me (yeah I know that's a commercial tag line but it doesn't make it any less valid) but increasingly it became less about medicine with the private lives of the doctors taking a back seat. That's what made some episodes that focussed on the doctors - like the one where Doug Ross and Mark Greene drive to San Diego to visit Mark's parents - special. By the time I decided that I didn't care about the show enough to even watch the tapes that I'd made the show had become about the doctors rather than the doctoring.

Still, I decided to tape last night's show (or as it turned out tape most of it - the tape ran out before the end of the episode) for a couple of reasons. First, Cynthia Nixon was in the episode and I have been in lust with her since the first time she took her clothes of in Sex and the City. Secondly the description of the episode made it sound as if the show was actually going to try something edgy by having the episode seen through the eyes of a patient with a massive stroke. ER used to do edgy really well. There was the "live" episode, and there was the episode that showed us the last days of Mark Greene. This episode wasn't what I expected, or wanted. The parts with Cynthia Nixon were excellent. They brilliantly captured the confusion, the panic and the various stages of grief that a patient who has suffered a sudden unexpected medical trauma through the use of voice-overs by Nixon's character "Ellie". (I particularly liked Ellie immediately falling into a state of lust over Goran Visnjic's "Luka"). The problem was that Ellie's story wasn't the whole episode, and her perspective wasn't even used for the whole episode. Instead you had the apparently continuing storyline of the resident who is also a major jerk and proves it by assuming that a patient innocently caught up in a protest that turned violent is in fact a drugged out looter, and another storyline about three kids - one of whom has been injured - and the secret they're keeping. And there were relationships! By the gods there were relationships: Abby's, Luka's, Carter's. In fact the only reason that Carter seemed to be in the episode was apparently to have his current relationship turn to crap.

The thing is that a lot of this stuff didn't have to be sacrificed to tell the whole episode from Ellie's point of view. If they had to have these other plots they could have been presented from Ellie's perspective, with or without here comments on the situation. It's not as if it hasn't been done before. In the seventh season of M*A*S*H there was an episode called "Point of View" in which everything, from the time the soldier was wounded through his being brought to the 4077th to his eventual departure to an Evac hospital was literally seen through the soldier's eyes. In that half hour they didn't restrict other actions. There was the same byplay between regular characters, and the same sort of medical emergencies that typified the series normally. The difference was that it was all seen through the eyes of the wounded soldier. It was good television and the memory of that episode and that sort of risk taking is what makes last night's episode of ER so disappointing. Not only did they steal the idea but the execution wasn't as daring as the original. Too bad.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Thoughts For An Afternoon Before Survivor

Do you remember the first person that you had sex with? You probably do, and not just the person but all the sticky, sweaty, frequently inept details. How about the second? You probably remember this one too, although a more of the details may escape you. Now how about the third. The fifth? The ninth? Unless they were spectacularly memorable or recent the details are probably increasingly foggy. That's how I've come to feel about Survivor.

The first time really was the best and most memorable. Back then no one knew how to play the game except Richard Hatch. He was the guy who took a look at the show logo and figured that to "outlast" you didn't necessarily need to "outplay" but you did need to "outwit" and the best way to outwit people was to put together an alliance when none of the other people had one. None of the others worked that one out and it gave him an advantage. Most of them thought the show really was about surviving in the wilderness and were picked off by Richard's group one by one and didn't even know what was happening. The people and events were memorable too. Who can forget pretty but doomed Colleen Haskell, Sue Hawk's "snakes and rats" speech at the final Tribal Council, and of course the opinionated but lovable old Navy Chief Rudy Boesch whose homophobia was overcome by the fact that he got along well with the gay guy. Newspapers ran weekly columns about the show - although that happened more in the second season - and it was water cooler conversation after every episode. There were Survivor themed parties on finale night, which apparently was enough for the network to include a reunion show that meant that Survivorwas featured for an entire night. That's what made the first series of Survivor the big hit that it wasn't supposed to be (if you can believe it Big Brother was supposed to be the big show that summer; instead it ended up dropping the viewer phone-in aspect for picking who got eliminated and adopting the players voting each other out method that survivor had). It got all of the players guest shots on prime time TV shows, and turned Survivor from a summer replacement into a weekly September through May series.

The second Survivor had it's moments. I can't forget Kel Gleason - at the time an Army intelligence officer and the closest thing to a Canadian ever to appear on a major network reality show - being accused of having a non-existent secret stash of beef jerky and being booted because of it. (Just as a follow-up Gleason left the US Army soon after the end of the show and moved back to Canada where his parents live. In 2002 Gleason was stabbed repeatedly with a broken bottle in a Toronto bar for being "that Indian on Survivor." He was badly injured but lived.) There the guy who fell into the fire, Keith Famie, the chef who couldn't cook rice,and Elizabeth Filarski, who parlayed her time on Survivor into a full-time TV career as one of the hosts of The View. The winner was Tina Wesson who won because Colby Donaldson - who dominated the individual competitions, picked the well-liked Wesson for the final Tribal Council over the poorly liked Famie.

The biggest thing that I remember about the second Survivor and the ones that followed it is that now everyone understood how the game was played - or thought they did - and proceeded with varying degrees of ability to lie, backstab and talk behind each others backs. There have been memorable incidents and people, like Rupert Boneham and "Johnny Fairplay" in the Pearl Islands season, or the girls who went topless for chocolate and peanut butter in the Amazon. In the Amazon series we learned that not only didn't you have to be a rocket scientist to be on the show, but being a rocket scientist was actually a detriment. To tell you the truth though, I have a hard time remembering who won the show last season (his name was Chris and he worked on a road crew and I swear that most of the people on the jury would have voted "none of the above" if they had an option). I'll still watch every episode of this season's Survivor and enjoy it but I think that for me and for most people it's going to be entertainment rather than a must see event.

The West Wing - February 16

I mentioned in an earlier post that this season of The West Wing has split its focus between the last days of the Bartlet presidency and the campaign to replace Bartlet. Last week's episode was a "White House" episode while tonight's episode was a "Campaign" episode. While I don't intend to describe one type of episode as better than the other, I do think that the campaign episodes tend to illustrate what viewers liked about the show initially.

At one point Aaron Sorkin apparently said that the Bartlet administration was meant to represent an idealised version of the Presidency. I even recall that he - or someone associated with the show - was more specific and said that The West Wing was meant to depict what the Clinton presidency should have been. The campaign episodes seem to be an effort to get back to this sort of view. It seems clear that in the depiction of the Santos campaigns what we're seeing is the sort of political campaign that people want (or at least say they want until they don't vote for politicians who try to run that sort of campaign).

In Wednesday's episode, Josh Lyman is desperately trying to get his candidate noticed. His problem is that he doesn't have the money to compete against the advertising dollars that the two leading candidates, former Vice President John Hoynes (who resigned his office in disgrace) and current Vice President "Bingo" Bob Russell, have. The crisis point is that the New Hampshire newspaper that is sponsoring the final debate before the primary day only wants the two leading candidates not all "seven dwarfs" (a phrase coined by Amy Gardner, Josh's ex-girlfriend, which refers to all of the Democratic candidates including Hoynes and Russell although neither of them thinks the phrase refers to them). Josh wants to do everything he can to get his man into the debates including court challenges and sending two guys in chicken suits to campaign stops of the two major candidates asking why they won't debate; in short he wants to play politics as usual. Santos doesn't want a court case, doesn't want guys in chicken suits, doesn't want debates that are merely beauty contests and opportunities for the big candidates to spout their selected sound bites, and if he loses then at least he did it his way. Meanwhile we are treated to some of the campaign ads that Russell and Hoynes are throwing at each other. Instead talking about policy they are attacking each others supposed record, trying to show who is less suitable to be president. Following the Russell campaign, which is after all being run by regular cast members Will Bailey and Donna Moss we see politics as usual, the candidate doing all of the expected things and telling - and retelling to the next audience - all the same jokes that other candidates have used over the years.

Things come to a head when Josh unveils the ad that he wants to use to resurrect the campaign; an attack ad using the chicken motif and asking why the leading candidates didn't want to debate the five candidates who are described as having no chance, including Santos. Santos refuses to approve it. After some discussion with one of his aides about the meaning of the "Presidential voice" Santos decides to go to he one TV station that they were able to buy time on and do a one minute live ad explaining exactly why he's running and promising that as long as he's in the campaign he'll never use a negative ad and will always be honest about his positions. By the time they get back to their campaign headquarters the phones are ringing off the hook with campaign contributors, the media is asking Santos all of the pertinent questions, and an alternate debate that Josh had set up as a ploy to get Hoynes and Russell to let the minor candidates into the big show (and which no one, even the minor candidates wanted to be part of) suddenly has all six of the other candidates falling over themselves to get in, even if it does use Santos's rules.

The episode has some references to a couple of real incidents. The fight over who would be invited to the debates refers to the 1980 incident where the Nashua Telegraph set up a debate between George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Bob Dole complained to the Federal Elections Commission, claiming that this constituted an illegal campaign contribution (just as Josh wanted to do in this episode) and the Commission agreed. Reagan then offered to pay for the debates himself and invited the other candidates to attend. When they arrived at the hall they found Bush, a table and two chairs, and Bush's campaign chief, James Baker, said that unless the other candidates left Bush would not debate. When the crowd started reacting to the attempts to remove the other candidates, Reagan tried to explain only to have an editor from the Telegraph tell the sound man to turn off Reagan's microphone, which led to Reagan's outburst: "I'm paying for this microphone."

The other incident relates to the title of the episode, "Freedonia". In the episode Josh tells Santos of an incident in a New Jersey Senate campaign in which a candidate was asked to comment about some incident in Freedonia and the candidate did. The next day there was nothing in the press about what the candidate had said. This probably refers to an incident in the 2000 when Canadian satirist Rick Mercer asked candidate George W. Bush to comment on an endorsement given to him by Canada's Prime Minister Poutine. Bush said that he was happy to hear about the endorsement. Of course the Prime Minister of Canada was not Mr. Poutine - "Poutine" is a popular food item popular in Quebec consisting of French Fries topped with cheese curds and gravy - but while Bush's not knowing who the Prime Minister of Canada was got lots of play in the Canadian media, it was barely acknowledged in the United States.

The whole thing is an idealised vision of reality of course. People say they want candidates who talk about the issues. They say they want candidates who don't use negative campaigning. They say that they want smart, well informed candidates. They say that they want campaigns that aren't won by the guys with the most money in their war chest. They say they want real debates not shows designed to generate sound bites that can be spun to make a candidate look good. But, look at who they vote for. The West Wing is providing an idealised vision of a campaign where people will vote for candidates who are straight shooters, who speak their minds and are partners with their handlers not products packaged by them who at the end of the election ask, as Robert Redford's character in The Candidate asked "What do we do now?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Remarkably Unremarkable

Most new TV shows get cancelled within their first year. A few TV shows get critical acclaim, awards, and run as long as the producers and actors feel like sticking around. Then there are shows that go about their business in a quiet unassuming manner and just last. NCIS is one of those. In its second season the show has been first or second in it's time 7 p.m. CST time slot and it has usually taken something big - like baseball playoffs or American Idol - to move it out of first place. The show normally has a rating of between 10 and 11 and an average share of 15. It does less well in the key 18-49 year old demographic but usually finishes second and occassionally first.

What makes NCIS enough of a favourite to draw such numbers? The biggest factor is that it's produced by Donald Bellisario. While Bellisario has had some missteps (does anyone remember Tequilla and Bonetti because I sure don't) he has a good track-record for produces solid interesting shows. He was the man behind Magnum P.I., Airwolf, Quantum Leap and of coure JAG. Even his failures, like Tales of the Gold Monkey and First Monday are usually interesting and watchable. The next element is a recognisable lead player in Mark Harmon, playing Agent Gibbs. He's been around as a leading man since the early 1980s and is a reasonably good actor. The subject matter is at once familiar and slightly exotic. It's basically a cop show, but in this case the cops work for the Navy and get involved in story lines that go beyond ordinary cop stuff. The real NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service has responsibilities that include but aren't limited to investigating crimes, providing security for naval instalations and personel and both counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism. With this as base material, there are a lot of directions that the show can go in.

The supporting cast of any show is important. As is frequently the case in a show produced by Bellisario, the supporting cast of NCIS is full of quirky characters. The main supporting characters are the investigators who work with Gibbs: Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander), and Tim McGee (Sean Murray). While each is a solid investigator they byplay between them injects a cetain amount of humour into the episodes. Rounding out the main cast are Coroner Donald "Ducky" Mallard and forensic scientist Abby Sciuto. If anything these characters are walking quirks. Ducky, played by David McCallum, is the only person to use Gibbs' middle name, Jethro. (Bellisario seems to have a thing about the name Jethro; on JAG Admiral A.J. Chegwidden was Albert Jethro, while Gibbs is Leroy Jethro.) Everyone else calls him "Boss" or "Gibbs". As for Abby, played by Pauly Perrette, what can one say about a forensic investigator who is also a Goth Chick with a caffiene addiction who sleeps in a coffin and has a spider web tatto on her neck. The show is worth watching just to see her. (I admit it, she's my favourite character in the show.)

Finally there's the writing. It's probably never going to win an Emmy, but the storylines have their own sort of richness and the writers know the regular characters they're writing about. Inevitably the plots have subte twists that are difficult to aniticpate. Just occassionally they hit a home run. The episode "Call of Silence" starring Charles Durning is a touching portrait of an elderly man mixed with an old and perplexing mystery. Charles Durning turns in a great performance as the elderly Medal of Honour winner which should receive an Emmy nomination but probably won't.

NCIS is one of those shows is one of those shows that is just going to tick along in it's own quiet way, charming the people who watch it, while it's popularity will continue to mystify those who don't. If you give it the time - and it doesn't necessarily take a long time - you can get hooked by it's charm.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Whatever Happened To? (#1 of a series)

Whatever happened to the half hour drama? The last producer to really use the half-hour drama as a form was probably Jack Webb and even he abandoned it eventually. Webb produced the half hour Adam-12 with Kent McCord and Martin Milner which ran until 1975 (and outlasted Lassie by a year), but when Web came to create his next series Emergency in 1972 it was in the hour long form. Since then there hasn't been a half hour long drama network series made for American television.

The half hour drama has a long and storied history. Most drama's in "old-time radio" were half-hour programs. For a radio program to last an hour it had to be special, usually a play created specifically for radio or an adaptation of a theatrical movie on a show like the Lux Radio Theater but even that wasn't always the case. Some daily serials in the "Golden Age of Radio" like The Adventures of Superman and the last incarnations of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar were as short as fifteen minutes long - with commercials. Just about every other show - comedy, drama, anthology or variety program - was a half hour long.

Most of these conventions survived into the first decade of television. Variety shows got longer, but they were providing a wide range of entertainment, and the stars usually welcomed the additional time. But most of the shows were a half hour in length. The prime time schedule (at the time 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern) for the three US networks 1956 - the year I was born - shows 28 hour or longer programs, and 81 half hour shows (plus an assortment of shows at odd lengths). Of the long form (one hour and longer) series, 12 were variety shows, 12 were anthologies 2 were sports shows, 1 was a movie. One, Wire Service was a drama with a continuing cast of characters. Among the half hour dramas were Dragnet, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon and The Adventures of Jim Bowie. Ten years later, in 1966 (when prime time most nights ran from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern), there were 47 shows of one hour or longer, and 44 half hour shows of which only 8 could be classified as dramas (10 if you countBatman as a drama; I don't). What happened in those ten years?

I don't know. If you were to ask people why the half hour drama vanished, some would probably say that drama needs longer to develop suspense. Others would say that the extra time is need to develop complexity. Still others would say that dramas need larger casts and need more time to develop the relationships between people than situation comedies, where the relationships are usually clearly defined. Some of those arguments have validity, particularly the one about complexity. Still that suggests that the people who made television dramas to fill a half hour time slot were either doing something inferior or something simplistic. If you get a chance to see some of these shows - just as an example, there are several DVD collections of the original Dragnet (of varying quality) on the market - you would discover that producers who understood the form could do a lot with a half hour.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Law & Order: Criminal Intent

I have another confession to make: I'm not that hot on the Law & Order franchise shows. I don't think I've watched the original Law & Order on a regular basis since before Jill Hennessy left the show. If I see one or two episodes in a year I'm exceeding my usual contact with it. As for the spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I can honestly tell you that I saw the pilot and that's it. And that's more episodes than I've seen of the summer reality series sometimes known as Law & Order: Crime & Punishment (which based on what I've read on IMDB probably shouldn't be included). Why then am I writing about Law & Order: Criminal Intent? Simple; I watch that one, and I watch it for one reason, Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as Detective Bobby Goren.

For me he is the show. Don't get me wrong the other regular performers on this show are excellent, particularly Kathryn Erbe as Goren's long suffering partner Detective Eames, but they all play supporting roles feeding into D'Onofrio. His detective Goren is by turns annoying, disturbing, and brilliant. There are little touches that he adds which make you realise that his sanity and his genius are held in a delicately balance. From time to time he stutters - not in a blatant "Porky Pig" style, but just as though he has a little difficulty getting his word out - that makes you think that his brain is racing too fast for his mouth to keep up. His mind is always poking into different areas. He's rarely physical but always active even when he's sitting down. As an interrogator he bores relentlessly at his target, as if it would be a personal affront if he didn't break him. When D'Onofrio is in a scene, and he's in a great many scenes, he dominates it.

Earlier I mentioned Kathryn Erbe's Detective Eames. She's essential to his functioning as a detective. She is friend, foil, doubter, and defender. She is Watson to his Holmes, and the anchor for his mania. Her practicality matches and meshes with his impracticality. In an odd way she even be considered Mindy to his Mork. She completes him.

Sunday night's episode introduced a new component into the mix in the form of Chris Noth's Detective Mike Logan. In November 2004 D'Onofrio fainted several times on the set of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. This led the gossip column of that bastion of the Raving Right (the Right Wing equivalent of the Loony Left, and yes I think both exist) the New York Post to claim that D'Onofrio's "illness" (their quotes) was a direct result of John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 election, that everyone on the set hated him, and that D'Onofrio was on the verge of being fired. (The Post article is available from their website if you are willing to pay for it. This site has the text of the article for free.) Subsequently it was found that D'Onofrio was suffering from exhaustion. It was reported by The Post in late November that Chris Noth would be replacing him permanently. In fact (as opposed to what The Post reported) it was announced that Noth's Mike Logan and D'Onofrio's Goren would alternate as leads in the show beginning with the show's fifth season. This would mark Noth's return to the franchise that he left ten years ago (in 1995). Each actor will do eleven episodes, not unlike the way that James Garner and Jack Kelly initially split the lead position on the original version of Maverick.

Based on his performance Sunday night, I suspect that episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent featuring Mike Logan won't perform as well in the ratings as the episodes with Bobby Goren. Chris Noth is an excellent actor but the Logan character is nowhere near as compelling as Goren. Even worse in my opinion would be any attempt to pair Logan with Eames. They don't complement each other in the way that Goren and Eames do - Logan doesn't "need" her to be an effective detective and won't be a better detective working with her. Hopefully they won't just write "Goren" scripts and stick Logan into them. They are two very different, established, characters and if they try doing something like that the series will suffer and this season's declining ratings (courtesy of Desperate Housewives) will worsen further.

As for me, I'll probably give the new entry in the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Trial by Jury a try when it debuts on March 3, but I offer no guarantees that I'll watch it beyond the time I need to review it.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Galactica, Then And Now

I remember the original Battlestar Galactica and not without a certain fondness. It was on the whole awful but on the whole it was a good sort of awful. The whole show was full of stock characters and they were one dimensional characters at that (to be honest that is an insult to one dimensional characters everywhere). It was formulaic. Take one handsome heroic type (the Richard Hatch who didn't get naked on Survivor), mix in a lovable rogue with a heart of gold as a sidekick (Dirk Benedict who took much the same character over to The A-Team) and a great mass of patriarch (Lorne Greene of course, playing the sort of character that he had been typecast as and had come to despise). Kick in some women who act solely as love interests for the younger males (one for the steadfast hero, two for the rogue with a heart of gold) and some generic supporting characters who only exist so that the hero and the sidekick can look good. As a villain bring on a scenery chewing traitor (Lord Baltar played by John Colicos who in real life was one of Lorne Greene's closest friends) backed by a bunch of faceless minions. Mix well and top with a cute kid and dog (or in this case a robot dog). As for the writing, the less said about that the better. It was usually a set of stock plots guaranteed to get a lot of action and not draw too much attention to the one dimensional nature of the characters. You want examples? Try these: hero separated from the group forced to combat one or more of the enemy in strange circumstances and emerge victorious; rogue with heart of gold searches for his "real" father and finds someone who says he is but then reveals he isn't except of course he is but doesn't feel worthy of his son; hero or rogue gets accused of murder he didn't commit and has to rely on his best friend to help him escape custody and find the real killer; etcetera etcetera. As for special effects, well let's just say that they blew most of the effects budget in the three hour pilot movie and reused every bit of spaceship footage and explosion footage (and even footage of the Cylons in their spaceships) that they could. When needed they even cut in footage from other Universal productions. In one episode I recall them using firefighting scenes from The Towering Inferno. It was a typical product of Universal Television in the 1970s, memorable but mostly for the wrong reasons.

The less said about Galactica 1980 the better. Let's just say "invisible flying motorcycles" and "super-scouts" and leave it at that. Oh yeah, it starred Kent McCord. That should tell you everything you need to know.

You can understand from that diatribe that I was looking toward the revival of Battlestar Galactica but not necessarily because I was overly fond of the original. My theory was that they couldn't possibly make anything worse and I wanted to see how much better it could be. The answer is a lot better starting with the theme music. The original Battlestar Galactica theme by Stuart Phillips and Glenn Larson was symphonic and heroic, as fitted the times but not necessarily the subject matter, while the melancholic new theme music reinforces the notion that this is the story of a people defeated and on the run. The casting is far tighter since one of the problems the original series suffered from was cast bloat - too many characters with very little to do - and the result has been to develop other characters and give them more depth. Making Starbuck into a woman while retaining the rogue with a heart of gold aspect, has eliminated the need for romantic entanglement for the two lead characters, even if that aspect is never developed. Adama as interpreted by Edward James Olmos is far less patriarch and much more a military leader, while his chief aide, Colonel Tigh, actually has a character (a troubled one), which couldn't be said for the corresponding character in the original series. The heroic characters are given a more "warts and all" characterization; they aren't perfect, they have flaws and more importantly they have conflicts. Indeed the show is is far more oriented to the characters rather than the action.

As for the villains, the basic run of Cylons are character-free automatons, as they should be. They aren't being commanded (badly) by a human traitor like the original Lord Baltar and indeed we know nothing of why they do what they do. Instead of being the robotic creations of a lizard-like species (a fiction dictated by the network or the studio during one of the periods when TV violence was under attack - shooting a robot is not as "violent" as shooting a living creature) the Cylons were originally created as a robotic workforce for humanity which rebelled, warred against their creators then disappeared to their own worlds until evolution allowed them to return to destroy humanity. The villains are more than adequately represented by the various "Cylon moles" - Cylons who look like humans and may not even know what they are - who have motives most of which we can't fathom. There is a interesting exchange between two of the Cylons in human form: "We are Humanity's children. They are our parents in a sense." "True, but parents have to die eventually. It's the only way children come into their own." For the most part, so far at least, the Cylons are like Winston Churchill's description of the Soviet Union: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".

Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting creation in the new series: Dr. Gaius Baltar. Instead of being a conventional traitor willingly selling out humanity for personal gain as in the original series, the Baltar on the current show is an inadvertent traitor, seduced - literally - by the Cylons. Baltar has survived the Cylon attack through a combination of circumstances, but he's been left emotionally unstable. He's torn between guilt over what he's done and fear of being discovered leaving self-preservation as his one overriding priority. His instability is exacerbated by a presence that only he can see, his Cylon lover, known as Number 6. We, and Baltar, don't know what she is. Is she merely an expression of Baltar's psyche, or is she a Cylon projection into his mind which is guiding him. For that matter is Baltar a human or is he a Cylon who doesn't know that he's a Cylon - something that's not entirely impossible given that Baltar survived the shockwave from a nuclear blast that destroyed his home and killed one of the bodies of his Cylon lover - and the vision of Number 6 is merely his way of interpretation of the instructions that are being sent to him. Whatever the reality, it causes Baltar to seem to the viewer to be almost schizophrenic with major swings in mood and attitude. In a solid cast, James Callis's performance as Baltar stands out.

Battlestar Galactica is one of those rarities, a old show that has not only been successfully revived but has been significantly improved in the revival. Well worth the effort to find and see.