Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Short Takes – June 26, 2007

Welcome back to your favourite NC-17 blog. Actually I think of that NC-17 in the same way that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert regarded it when it replaced the X Rating. They hoped that the rating would be applied to films with artistic merit which also included adult themes but not to movies that were pornographic or "dirty". Mostly they wanted a rating that allowed deserving films to get newspaper and TV advertising because most theatres wouldn't book films that they couldn't promote. It didn't work out that way of course – NC-17 replaced X entirely, newspapers still refused to take the ads and films like most of Pedro Almadovar's work either wasn't shown in most North American cities or, once they figured things out, simply weren't submitted to the ratings boards at all. Anyway, I probably won't be using any of the words that got me the NC-17 for a while. Well okay, I'll probably use "dead" and "death" a bit. And I may use "enema," if only because it's sort of a silly word.

We`ll always have Paris: Which I guess is what I`m vaguely afraid of. I mean sure, I liked Paris Hilton in the Carl`s Jr. Ad, but what red-blooded North American male who didn`t have a stick permanently wedged up their backside (by which I of course mean the males in the PTC) didn`t. But mostly I`m like Evil Willow on Buffy The Vampire Slayer – "bored now." But they keep giving her to us. And sadly by "they" I don't just mean the tabloid TV shows and the stupid reality show. No it's now the mainstream news shows. ABC bids $100,000 to get the first interview with Hilton after she got out of the "Big House" after her harrowing 23 days in "Stir," but they get outbid by NBC, the network that piously proclaimed that that the story wasn't newsworthy. Or at least it wasn't until they could spin it in such a way that it was. NBC offered $1 million, and then when it became public knowledge and there were protests from the news division they not only withdrew the bid but proclaimed that the thing was only a rumour. So now we'll see Paris Hilton interviewed by Larry King – and presumably Larry's research staff will read any necessary books for him and provide him with questions that aren't too tough for either of them. CNN claims not to have spent any money to get this interview, and maybe they're even being honest about it, but setting aside whether Hilton got a sentence that other people in a similar situation – except for not being rich or "famous" – would have received (and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that she was treated differently by the judge because of her celebrity) what has she got to say that could possibly be worth a million dollars, a hundred thousand dollars, or whatever "consideration" CNN might be giving her. There is probably a story – even an hour-long news magazine report – on how the justice system treats celebrities (good and ill treatment alike) but this hype around Paris Hilton hasn't done anything like that.

(By the way, once upon a time I used to like Larry King. That was when he was the King – so to speak – of late night radio and operated out of Washington. He worked well with callers – except for anyone calling in to criticise Psychiatrists, who were immediately labelled Scientologists and cut off – and had interesting guests. These days, operating out of Los Angeles, he has his lips so firmly attached to the backsides of anyone in Hollywood that there are still some parts of the United States where he could be arrested for unlawful sexual activities. And he still doesn't read the damned books.)

Couric-watch: Which network has seen its evening news audience drop more since Katie Couric debuted as the host of the CBS Evening News. If you said "Well duh, that would be CBS," You would be, well duh, wrong (come on, you didn't think I'd post something like this if the answer was the obvious one did you). According the Nielsen ratings, as reported by TVNewser, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has lost 287,000 viewers from the same time last year. That's a drop of about 4%. The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has lost 533,000 viewers over the same period, a drop of 5%. It is almost twice as many viewers as CBS lost (185.71% to be exact) but then CBS obviously had a smaller audience to begin with. And while it can be argued whose fault that is, the one thing that is abundantly clear is that you can't blame Couric for having a smaller audience before she even arrived.

FOX – the clone network: A funny thing seems to happen when some networks come up with a reality or game show idea; FOX comes up with an idea that's almost exactly the same. Sometimes they even get it on before the network that came up with it in the first place. ABC brought Supernanny to American audiences, but FOX had Nanny 911 on the air three or four months earlier. ABC had Wife Swap; FOX came up with Trading Spouses and put it on the air before the ABC series. The similarities between the two shows were so great that ABC sued FOX for copyright infringement. And now Fox is doing it to NBC. One of the "highlights" of NBC's new fall line-up was a show called The Singing Bee in which contestants have to sing a song and remember the lyrics accurately after the music stops. The "bee" part comes in because the format is supposed to be like a Spelling Bee with eight people from the audience competing against each other. The show was supposed to start airing in the Fall, sharing a Friday time slot with 1 vs. 100. Except, FOX announced a new series called Don't Forget The Lyrics. In Don't Forget The Lyrics contestants have to sing the correct lyrics to songs of various genres. Oh there are "differences" – the FOX show doesn't use the Spelling Bee format. Instead a single contestant sings at various levels with the difficulty of the song increasing as the prize amount increases. So you can see, they're totally different shows. As I said, NBC planned to debut The Singing Bee in the Fall but when they got wind of FOX's plan to start Don't Forget The Lyrics on July 11 from 9:30 to 10 p.m. Eastern, that plan went out the window. NBC will debut The Singing Bee on July 10, with a second half hour episode appearing on – wait for it – July 11 from 8:30 to 9 p.m. Eastern; in other words an hour before the debut of Don't Forget The Lyrics. I love this, if only because if both of these shows suck as much as I anticipate (and to be honest devoutly hope) they may kill each other off before the start of the Fall season which will give 1 vs. 100 (a show that I really do like) a straight run.

Who does the PTC hate this week: Boy the stuff you miss when you skip a week. Before I get to that though, I want to remind all of you of the single issue on which I agree with the PTC, which is unbundling cable services and allowing consumers to choose which channels will be seen in their homes. This came up because Representatives Dan Lipinski (D, Illinois) and Jeff Fortenberry (R, Nebraska) introduced a new bill called the "Family and Consumer Choice Act of 2007" which would allow consumers to pick and pay for the channels they want. Of course the PTC and I totally disagree on why this should be done. I just don't want to pay for TV channels that I only see when I'm clicking through the channels to get to the shows I want to see. I don't particularly care for most music channels so why should I pay for Muchmusic, CMT, or MTV Canada. And if I save money by not watching those channels maybe I'll spend the money on other channels I want to watch but can't afford at present. The PTC on the other hand sees "pick and pay" as a way to punish the evil entertainment industry. Almost as soon the PTC's press announcement finishes praising Lipinski and Fortenberry (praise that consisted of most of the first paragraph) it spends eight paragraphs talking about the evils bestowed on the poor, innocent American public by cable and network TV (despite the fact that Lipinski and Fortenberry's bill probably wouldn't negate the FCC's "must carry" rules that were further strengthened by the US Supreme Court in 1997). Here's a little bit of the overheated rhetoric of PTC Governmental Affairs Director Dan Issett:

Last year, Congress acted to increase the maximum possible fine for violation of broadcast decency law, but the reaction from the entertainment industry was to file suit, claiming that the 'F-word' and 'S-word' were appropriate to air during prime time television, and that – of all things – a striptease in the middle of the Super Bowl was somehow not indecent. Clearly, the entertainment industry has lost its way, and is failing to live up to its legal obligation to broadcast in the public interest.

Last week, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a decision inexplicable to Americans families: that the 'F-word' and 'S-word' should be ok to be broadcast on the public airwaves at hours when tens of millions of children are in the audience. While we're a long way from the end of the judicial process in that case, and Congress may weigh in yet again, one thing is clear – if the entertainment industry really want to give parents 'complete control' of their televisions, as it says it does, then it would endorse the concept of cable choice.

And then there's his conclusion:

We commend Congressman Lipinski and Congressman Fortenberry for their excellent leadership on this critical issue, and we thank Chairman Martin for his thoughtful and forthright determination that parents must be given more and better tools to control the graphic sexual and violent content that comes into their homes. It takes real political fortitude to side with families and stand up to the millions of dollars the entertainment industry spends to buy influence in Washington. But make no mistake - the American people are grateful that this legislation is being offered today.

My viewpoint? If the vast majority of the "American people are grateful that this legislation is being offered today" it isn't because it will keep them from seeing the shows cited in the PTC's press announcement – Rescue Me from FX, South Park on Comedy Central, and the cleaned up version of The Sopranos that airs on A&E. It will be because it will save them money and maybe allow them to rid their TVs of multiple shopping channels and religious networks that they never watch. It is also a fact that the "American people" will vote with their pocket books and if the cable industry is smart – and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they aren't – they package their product in such a way as to make picking and paying for individual channels the least attractive option, and packages with a mixture of channels based around an apparent theme the most attractive. Those packages are what most people will buy.

I confess that one of the reasons why I look forward to Hell's Kitchen is because of the fulminating (a particularly appropriate verb for any pronouncement from the PTC – one always gets the impression that an over-abundance of righteous indignation on their part will lead to a massive explosion) they engage in when his show airs. Last week's Worst of the Week was no disappointment. The PTC had this to say of Ramsay (who "clearly plays the role of the Devil in Hell's Kitchen) and the show "What makes this show so bad for family viewing is that it is presented as "reality," when in reality no one would endure the Nazi-like persecution Chef Ramsey dishes out. In that sense, this show is unlike all other reality shows, as it tells young viewers that this type of behavior is what one can expect to encounter in life, and that obscene language, backstabbing, and vile personal attacks are acceptable in the workplace." Well setting aside the assertion that Gordon Ramsay is somehow Hitler-like, the fact is that Ramsay's own early training made Hell's Kitchen look like a stroll in the park. Marco Pierre White was notorious for his rages and bullying – indeed White's recent biography has a picture of Ramsay in tears after being screamed at by White making a mistake. Ramsay's behaviour in his working kitchens as depicted in the documentaries Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point is exactly as seen in the show. But perhaps the most telling proof that people will "endure the Nazi-like persecution Chef Ramsey dishes out" is that his restaurants have an astounding 85% retention rate for staff since 1993. (I'd ask Orac for the loan of the brain eating Hitler-zombie, but of course this is the PTC and the poor critter would starve looking for brains among that bunch.)

This week the PTC's Worst of the Week is the FOX series The Loop. This is a series that the network is burning off – airing the episodes during the summer – and doing so in a way that is reminiscent of a high powered industrial incinerator. FOX ordered episodes of this series as a midseason replacement after a brief run in the 2005-06 season but then changed their minds, first cutting the order from 13 to 10 episodes, then not running it at all during the main season, and finally running two or three episodes in a single night instead of one a week like even the weakest series being run in the summer. In other words it's business as usual for FOX where the network weasels are particularly obtuse. And yet the PTC treats it with far more respect than the network does, viewing it as "one of the crudest shows on television" terrible threat to the (non-existent) "Family Hour." The episode in question is called "The Window" (except that it isn't – the actual title is "Windows" which shows the usual PTC level of accuracy). The PTC quotes five "vulgar examples of sexual innuendo and dialogue from this week's episode," including "Sam: 'Did my package come?' Sully: 'No, but mine did.'" I'm not even sure I understand what that means out of context – and all of the quotes in question are out of context – let alone why I should regard it as vulgar. They finish their hatchet job review by saying "The Loop is has a simple formula: place the main character in a random conundrum, litter the script with taboo sexual dialogue and situations, and put it on the air in the family hour. The writers of this program show no regard for younger viewers or families who may be watching their program." I'm not going to defend this show as not being full of sexual innuendo; even though I haven't seen it I have seen reviews by people who have and either hate the sexual content and think that the show is getting what it deserves, or enjoy it and think that the network is treating it shamefully. But you know as well as I do that this series could air in any hour of primetime and the PTC would be condemning it as filth, all in the name of protecting the children.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wow! I'm A Filth-Meister!

Who knew?

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

The rating is apparently based on the presence of the following words on the blog: Death (6 times), Dead (5 times), Suicide (4 times), Fuck (3 times), Fag (2 times), and Enema (1 time).

Let's see, Death and Dead I can discount - you can't write about TV these days without the words coming up, given the number of procedurals that are on the air. Suicide probably comes from defending Hidden Palms from the wrath of the PTC. I used the word fuck in the piece I did about the Second Circuit Court decision on "fleeting expletives" and at least one of those uses of the word came from a quote from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. Oddly enough I only type the word fuck, I never say it. The two uses of the other "F" word came from a quote from a Blogcritics piece on the first season DVD of the mercifully recently cancelled The War At Home and was in my "Idiot Dad" Fathers Day post. For the life of me though I can't remember when I used the word enema in this blog recently.

AOL Polls About The Year In TV

Or is that the year on TV? Doesn’t really matter, I’m writing this post largely because I’ve been remiss about posting for most of the past week. I know it’s summer and all (as of Thursday) but I can usually find something television related to post about even in the summer. Trouble is that the last few days I’ve been running around quite a bit, and I get really tired – playing games late into the night (or maybe that should be early into the morning) doesn’t help matters a lot. Just today I had to ride up to the Co-op Home Center to pick up a sprinkler head to replace one I broke the other day (there’s a park on the route that I use which floods easily when we have heavy rains like we did a few days ago; two ducks seem to have taken up residence in the pond that was formed – one’s a drake but I think it’s a little late for ducklings). So anyway I have to resort to filler, and for a guy, what makes better filler than a list.

This poll was posted a few days ago by AOL, and TVSquad which is actually a subsidiary of AOL (or part of a subsidiary or something, suffice it to say that the relationship is sort of incestuous) had it on June 19. Jackie from The (TV) Show Must Go On posted her opinion yesterday so I figures I’d better get on the bandwagon. AOL Also had “Editor’s Picks” which no one else has mentioned so I’ll put those in here too, as well as my own opinions.

1. Best DramaHouse (29%), Grey’s Anatomy (28%)

Editors’ Pick: The Sopranos (9%)

Me: Since I haven`t seen the final season of The Sopranos I don`t know that I can judge it fairly except to say that 9% seems way lower than it should be, but then Grey`s Anatomy`s percentage seems too high. Based on the shows I saw, I think House is the right choice.

2. Best ComedyUgly Betty (30%), The Office (28%), Two and a Half Men (26%)

Editors’ Pick: 30 Rock (7%)

Me: I almost never watch comedies anymore so no opinion. I`ve heard all kinds of good buzz about Ugly Betty though. The – to me – surprising support for Two and a Half Men is yet another reminder of how out of touch the PTC is with American taste. As for the Editors either they`re too hip for the room or as out of touch with America`s taste as the PTC. I say the former.

3. Best Reality ShowAmerican Idol (39%), Dancing With The Stars (28%)

Editors’ Pick: Project Runway (8%)

Me: Okay, you know how much I love The Amazing Race but even I have to admit that there were some things that they did in the past two seasons that annoyed the crap out of me – a lot of them had to do with the selection of All Stars for the All Star Edition and some – well a lot – of the challenges. My pick is the same as Jackie`s, the one ignored by Viewers and Editors alike – Survivor: Fiji.

4. Best New ShowHeroes (38%), Ugly Betty (32%)

Editors’ Pick: Heroes

Me: Heroes is one of the shows that I lose thanks to bowling on Mondays. If I didn`t, it would be exactly the sort of show I would love, so only having seen a few episodes, I`ll make it unanimous.

5. Worst New ShowPussycat Dolls Present: The Search For The Next Doll (56%)

Editors’ Pick: Happy Hour (9%)

Me: No and no. Absolutely no show could compare with Twenty Good Years in terms of maximum possible suckage. Horrendous is a generous assessment.

6. Best Season Ending CliffhangerLost (32%), CSI (29%), Heroes (23%)

Editors’ Pick: Lost

Me: And again, no and no. I gave up on Lost this year thanks to the whole short season/long hiatus business, while the conclusion of Heroes seemed to me to be more of a conclusion to a season. CSI on the other hand was a show that I watched and which had a real cliffhanger: will Sara die under that car. Then again, when it comes to edge of your seat suspense how can you beat the ending of Jericho?

7. Best Villain – Ben (Lost – 28%), Sylar (Heroes – 26%), Tony (The Sopranos – 23%)

Editors’ Pick: Sylar

Me: I think the Editors got it right. Sylar is a guy who cuts people’s heads open and if the future that Hiro saw was accurate wanted to commit genocide. I can’t help but wonder if the people who chose Tony Soprano felt the same way last year.

8. Heroes Power You Wish You Had – Time Travel (28%), Healing (24%), Regeneration (24%).

Editors’ Pick: Precognition (6%)

Me: My comic book geek side remembers a character called Duplicate Boy who was Shrinking Violet’s boyfriend in the Legion of Superheroes. He had a power similar to Peter Petrelli’s namely duplicating the power of any other super-person. That’s the power I’d want.

9. Hottest Single Mom – Lorelai (Gilmore Girls – 33%), Hannah (October Road – 27%)

Editors’ Pick: Lorelai

Me: I admit that Lorelai is hot, but as you all know from my Mothers Day articles my allegiance in this goes to Catherine Willows on CSI.

10. Best Sanjaya Hairstyle – Pony-hawk (37%), Shirley Temple (28%)

Editors’ Pick: Pony-hawk

Me: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

11. Favourite Investigative Team – Benson & Stabler (Law & Order: SVU – 34%), Grissom & Sara (CSI – 32%)

Editors’ Pick: Keith & Veronica (Veronica Mars – 10%)

Me: Trouble is that they define a team as a pair. By that criterion my answer is Grissom & Sara. However widening things up a bit (a lot) it would have to be Gibbs, DiNozzo, David, and McGee on NCIS.

12. Couple You Loved To Love – Luke & Lorelai (Gilmore Girls – 32%), Carla & Turk (Scrubs – 24%), Sun & Jin (Lost – 22%)

Editors’ Pick: Eric & Tami (Friday Night Lights – 12%)

Me: The Editors got this one right. There’s a realism to the relationship between these two that we really don’t see that much on TV.

13. Couple You Love To Hate – Edi & Carlos (Desperate Housewives – 33%), George & Izzy (Grey’s Anatomy – 25%), Kate & Sawyer (Lost – 23%)

Editors’ Pick: George & Izzy

Me: I don’t hate George & Izzy, and strictly speaking I don’t hate Edi & Carlos – I don’t get it but I don’t hate it. No one picked Grissom & Sara on CSI, which is about as close to “hating” a relationship as I get. Grissom & Catherine = hot; Grissom & Sara not so much.

14. Most Shocking Development – Edie’s suicide (Desperate Housewives – 33%), Sanjaya’s survival (American Idol – 28%)

Editors’ Pick: Christopher’s death (The Sopranos – 15%).

Me: Close for me but I think I might side with the Editors on this one not just because of the death of such a pivotal character but because of who killed him and the way it was done. Besides, I’m laying odds that Edie’s suicide will have been caught in time for her to survive.

15. Most Disappointing SeriesAmerican Idol (30%), Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (26%), Dirt (20%)

Editors’ Pick: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

Me: Tough one for me, but probably The Amazing Race. Even though I never reviewed Studio 60 I did like the show and if it disappointed me it was only because given that Aaron Sorkin created it I was expecting to love it the way I loved The West Wing, Sports Night, The American President and A Few Good Men and I didn’t. On the other hand I love The Amazing Race but found that the changes they made in this year’s two seasons took away from it, particularly the Intersection and the ability for one teams to take both Fast Forwards. Part of the problem can be traced to the hiring of the challenge creator for Survivor – I just don’t think he gets the sort of thing they do on The Amazing Race.

16. Coolest Guest Star – Jennifer Anniston (Dirt – 30%), George Takei (Heroes – 27%), Forrest Whittaker (ER – 24%)

Editors’ Pick: George Takei

Me: Definitely George Takei. Casting Anniston as Courtney Cox’s lesbian competitor (with whom Cox had a brief sexual fling years ago) was a stunt, complete with a kiss. Takei actually had a major presence in the series and the role shows that he has range. If Heroes actually manages to get any Emmy nominations, one of them should go to George.

17. Meanest Reality Judge – Simon Cowell (American Idol – 51%); Gordon Ramsay (Hell’s Kitchen – 36%)

Editors’ Pick: Len Goodman (Dancing With The Stars – 7%)

Me: Oh come on! Ramsay reduces grown men to tears and came close to inciting violence from some of his contestants. Admittedly the grown man was Aaron but still when was the last time Cowell or Goodman did either of those things.

18. Top Primetime Game ShowDeal Or No Deal (56%), Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader (33%)

Editors’ Pick: Deal Or No Deal

Me: Call me a game show snob, but I like game shows where the contestants are challenged with questions that range in difficulty but still don’t deliberately try to prove how stupid they are. There’s no skill to Deal Or No Deal. I prefer 1 vs. 100 because even though the questions aren’t all Jeopardy hard there is a challenge there, and not just for one person but for a group. And besides, Annie Duke was not only on the show but was the mob member who answered the most questions correctly, showing how smart the best poker players can be.

19. Strongest Network – ABC (36%), Fox (25%), NBC (18%), CBS (16%), The CW (5%)

Editors’ Pick: NBC

Me: How do you define strength? CBS tops the ratings and has a higher percentage of shows coming back than any of the other networks. ABC nearly killed Lost and went through a huge number of unsuccessful series – mostly sitcoms. NBC, which the Editors praised for adding 30 Rock, saving The Office, giving us Heroes and renewing Friday Night Lights also managed to ditch Kidnapped after a handful of episode, made a total mess of last summer’s upfronts (totally redoing the schedule within two weeks of announcing it), and firing the guy who renewed Friday Night Lights days after this season’s upfronts and only a couple of months after renewing his contract. This is a strong network?

20. Cancelled Show You’ll Miss the MostGilmore Girls (48%), Jericho (30%)

Editors’ Pick: Veronica Mars (13%)

Me: I rarely watched Gilmore Girls and only caught Veronica Mars when it briefly ran on one of the major networks a couple of years ago. The volume of response to the Nuts! campaign suggests that a lot of people were going to miss Jericho, and I would have been one of them.

So tell me (in comments), what do you think?

Monday, June 18, 2007

TV Dads III – The Dramatic Dad

For some reason fathers seem more prominent in TV dramas than mothers. I'm not entirely sure why that is but fathers – and usually the father-son dynamic – seem to figure in dramas more than mothers and the mother-daughter dynamic. Here are some famous TV fathers although as you'll see not arranged in chronological order.

1. Ben Cartwright – Bonanza: Westerns abounded with powerful father figures – frequently widowers so there were no inconvenient women hanging around. But even amongst them Ben Cartwright was extraordinary. The man (obviously serving as a model for his sons) had three sons each with a different woman, and all legitimate. He married three very different women, only one of whom lived more than a few months after her child was born. This of course was in keeping with the "curse of the Cartwrights" where any woman who even kissed a Cartwright was well-advised to make sure her will was up to date before she did so, because her heirs were going to need it. Lorne Greene was 44 when the series started but had been a highly respected actor and announcer in Canada who was known as "the Voice of Doom' when he read the news on radio during World War II. He not only looked like an empire builder but he sounded like one too.

2. Commander Adama – Battlestar Galactica: I'm talking about the original here not the current version. Don't get me wrong, Edward James Olmos is a fine actor and Admiral Adama's relationship with his only surviving child (Lee) is far more complex than the original character's relationship with his son Apollo and daughter Athena (by the way Maren Jensen was badly treated with the way that Athena was essentially written off the show). And let's not even mention the fairly weak reaction to the death of his youngest son Zac in the Cylon attack. As was quite common in the Glenn Larson series – and indeed in much of the Universal TV product of the 1970s and '80s – the interpersonal relationships in this show are incredibly one dimensional. And yet Lorne Greene made the role. Not only was this Adama a father to his biological children but he had the qualities of a biblical patriarch – the image that comes to mind is Moses (given that Kobol in the series pilot was Egypt; I seem to recall that the show even shot a few scenes in Giza), although the common belief is that there are aspects of Mormon theology in the show – primarily the lost tribe that disappeared to a previously unheard of part of the world (on in Galactica an unknown part of the galaxy).

3. John Walton Sr. – The Waltons: Based on series creator Earl Hamner Jr.'s own father, John Walton and his wife Olivia were the core of the strong family unit that the series depicted so well. The couple were complete contrasts with each other – Olivia was a pious churchgoer and never drank, while John almost never entered a church, liked an occasional drop of the Baldwin sisters' "recipe" and seems to have been a bit of a hell-raiser before he married Olivia, and he and his brother went in the Army in World War I. While John wasn't perfect he was a strong role model for his four sons and three daughters as well as being a respected member of his community. Things weren't easy for the Walton family, but he was hard working and did everything in his power to keep the family together. Well at least until Michael Learned, who played Olivia, and Ralph Waite, who played John, decided to leave the series, following in the path of Richard Thomas, who played eldest son John Jr. (John-boy).

4. Lawrence Preston – The Defenders: "Who?" I hear you ask. Lawrence Preston was the senior partner of the father and son law firm that was featured in The Defenders. The series began as a two part episode of the anthology series Studio One in which Preston (called Walter Preston in the episode) was played by Ralph Bellamy while his son Kenneth was played by William Shatner. The show became a series and ran for four years with E.G. Marshall playing the renamed Lawrence and a young, pre-Brady Bunch Robert Reed as Kenneth (interestingly William Shatner apparently did five episodes of the show playing various parts). For reasons which I don't even pretend to understand the series is apparently unavailable for reruns in syndication or on home video. I have quite vivid memories of the show, which I saw as a kid, particularly the dynamic between Marshall and Reed. The show was socially conscious and it dealt with The Law rather than the sort of approach that a show like Perry Mason (which of course was a far bigger hit) took.

5. Jock Ewing – Dallas: When an actor leaves a series or dies it is rare that he or she is remembered for more than one episode after the show in which his departure was noticed. However when Jim Davis, who played Jock Ewing on Dallas died from complications from multiple myeloma, the artist Ro Kim painted a portrait of the actor as Jock Ewing and it featured in many episodes of the series. Moreover, JR Ewing was constantly asserting the fact that he was trying to run the company "the way Daddy would have wanted it." The fact is that Jock Ewing was a tremendous influence both of the sons who stayed at home and even on Gary Ewing, the one who couldn't stand the pressure of being Jock's son and fell back into the bottle. But for JR in particular the psychological need to please his father in life, and to live up to his legacy after death was the major motivator for his actions, even (maybe especially) when he deluded himself into believing that a particularly evil action was "something Daddy would have appreciated."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

TV Dads II – The Idiot Dad

It has always been a complaint about sitcoms that they've frequently portrayed Dad as an idiot. Looking over the years, and admittedly this was a very superficial look at the schedule I can't say that I really buy into the concept as being as all-pervasive as critics have claimed. To be sure there have been TV Dads who have been the weaker link in the relationship but would you really consider them idiots? Still there are some TV Dads who could probably be called idiots – without having to resort to animated characters (audio-animatronic Muppets are not animated characters).

1. George Jefferson – The Jeffersons: I have sympathy for George, really I do, but with all of his swagger and ego-mania, the man really was an idiot when it came to dealing with his family. While he loved his son Michael, he was totally against Michael's marriage because his daughter-in-law was mixed race. He became reconciled – grudgingly – to both his daughter-in law Jenny Willis, and her parents, Tom and Helen. While he was a shark in the world of business he was usually beaten down and proven wrong by the women in his life – his wife Louise, Helen Willis, his own mother Olivia, and even (maybe especially) his maid Florence. Although he isn't as bad as most of the examples that follow, I'd have to say that he qualifies as an idiot dad.

2. Al Bundy – Married With Children: If ever there was a portrait of Father as idiot it was Al Bundy. The man is a total loser, but only became one after he slept with the class slut who became his wife, Peg. He blames his family for every bad thing that happens to him – and he's usually right! He works at a dead end job to support a wife who doesn't know the meaning of the word "work" and a daughter who doesn't know the meaning a lot of words including "no" when it relates to sex. In a lot of ways his son Bud is a nerd without the skills, whose obsession with sex is the only thing that Al admires about him although not his failures in getting it. It is to his credit that Ed O'Neill, who is an intelligent and versatile actor, not only portrayed a character as stupid as Al but made it the only role that most people think of him playing.

3. Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor – Home Improvement: Tim Allen got the show Home Improvement on the strength of his stand-up act which depicted the male of the species as slightly (but only very slightly) better than baboons, obsessed with tools and "more power." He took that characterization of men and ran with it in his series Home Improvement. Tim is basically an adult sized kid with really cool toys, at least most of the time. He always wants the most powerful piece of equipment even when something less powerful – more subtle – is the better choice. The same goes for almost everything – when he builds a dance floor for a party for his son he doesn't use the number of coats of wax that the instructions say but uses a lot more. Somehow he manages to stumble and blunder his way through raising his kids thanks to adult figures like his wife Jill, and his neighbour Wilson.

4. Earl Sinclair – Dinosaurs: This is where the audio-animatronic Muppets come in. Obviously characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and Stan Smith (The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad in order) would qualify as Idiot Dads those shows are still on – and besides I like to do these things with actual people. Still I think we have to acknowledge the contributions of non-human creations in this area – they can get away with a lot more in terms of abuse than actual human beings. So why Earl Sinclair? Well, the initial reaction of the "mighty Megalosaurus" to the hatching of his third child was the desire to eat him, while Baby Sinclair's constant reaction to his father is to say "Not the Mama" and to hit him with whatever object is close at hand. His son is rebellious by nature while Earl adheres to the old ways. Frequently, in fact almost inevitably, Earl is wrong and any member of his family who disagrees with him is right. Nevertheless Earl – presumably because he's at the top of the food chain – maintains the "Superdad" attitude even though he's a father who never knows best.

5. Dave Gold – The War At Home: When it comes to sitcom dads, Dave Gold is an Idiot but in the worst possible way – that is to say not in a funny way. Wikipedia describes the character as a "pigheaded, paranoid, overprotective, hypocritical bigot." A reviewer at Blogcritics, in reviewing the Season 1 DVD release said that the character of Dave's son Larry "is in the show so the father can make "fag" jokes about his own son. And, folks, I don't mean "gay" jokes; these are definitely "fag" jokes." Of course the "big" joke is on Dave – his son is straight which he doesn't discover until the second season. Even though he has a beautiful wife (who is sometimes as bad as Dave) that he loves and a family that he cares for, the character of Dave is a real idiot because of his attitudes and because unlike Archie Bunker there's neither the redeeming qualities nor the growth out of his attitudes that we saw with Archie.

Not an Idiot Dad:

Dan Connor – Roseanne: It could have been so easy to make Dan an idiot. Instead in the few episodes of the series that I've seen Dan comes across as an average guy. Unlike the Superdad he doesn't have all the answers but unlike the Idiot Dad his attitudes or actions don't descend into the absurd for the sake of comedy. John Goodman, an actor who I don't think gets the credit he really deserves, and the series took what could have been a generic sitcom dad and made him into something special; an average guy trying to make it through the day and keep it together for his family.

TV Fathers Part I – Super-Dad

On Mother's Day I did a tribute/retrospective of TV mothers and so, this being Father's Day, I've come up with a tribute/retrospective of notable TV dads. This process was not without some problems. To begin with I couldn't use the same categories. I don't know how to define a "hot dad" the way I was able to with "hot moms" (that was easy) and I get the feeling – though of course I can't prove it – that there are far fewer examples of the "hot dad" than there are of the "hot mom." And of course, without the "hot dad," there can't be the "hybrid dad" – especially when you see how I've split them up instead. But I have managed to come up with three categories by segregating sitcom dads and dads from dramas. To begin, I give you the "Super-Dad."

The Super-Dad is perfect – the all seeing, all knowing, all wise. If the kids come to him with a problem he most likely sits there for a minute, hands held together in some manner, and, week after week, dispenses some bit of banal wisdom that somehow fits the situation exactly. Before TV the perfect example of Super-Dad was Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movie series.

1. Jim Anderson – Father Knows Best: The prototype of TV's Super-Dad, it is hard to remember that Robert Young's character had actually started out as a father who didn't know best – the title was intended as irony and the radio version ended the title with a question mark – and he only evolved into becoming the perfect '50s dad. Oh he lost his temper – but I can never remember him doing it – and he had a superior partner in his wife Margaret, who would make things right when he got it wrong. I still feel though that as the show went on Jim Anderson became increasingly perfect, and while his kids – Betty aka "Princess" (Elinor Donahue), James Jr. Aka "Bud" (Billy Gray), and Kathy aka "Kitten" (Laurin Chapin) – had their problems they also tended to be a lot closer to perfect than the actual actors (Gray was an alcoholic and Chapin battled heroin addiction). Robert Young, who was part owner of the show with producer Eugene Rodney, wasn't perfect either; he battled depression and alcoholism and attempted suicide in 1991.

2. Ward Cleaver – Leave It To Beaver: Hugh Beaumont played the '50s other Super-Dad and again he was backed up with a support system in the form of his wife June Cleaver. They were firm but gentle parents. Inevitably Ward was the disciplinarian who usually delivered punishments that were measured but on occasion possibly a little more than was deserved (the classic double entendre joke about June saying that Ward may have been a little hard on the Beaver last night stems from this). In real life Hugh Beaumont wrote and directed several episodes of the series. He was an ordained Methodist minister with a Masters in Theology from USC, who became a Christmas tree farmer after he left show business. According to Wally Dowd and Jerry Mathers, Beaumont was even more patient and understanding in real life than the character he played on screen.

3. Steve Douglas – My Three Sons: Strictly speaking of course it was "My Four Sons" although those of us who only saw the show in its later years – after 1965 – or in syndication only saw the last three. Originally Fred MacMurray's sons were Tim Considine as Mike Douglas, Don O'Grady as Robbie Douglas, and Stanley Livingston as Chip Douglas. However Considine left the show in 1965 (he enjoyed racing cars which was forbidden in his contract – he later became a noted automobile historian focussed on racing and has done a number of books on the subject) and Mike was never mentioned again. To keep the number of sons at three, the character of Ernie Thompson, an orphaned friend of Chip's whose foster parents were moving out of the country, was adopted by Steve in a storyline that also introduced William Demarest as Uncle Charlie (replacing William Frawley as Steve's father-in-law Bub). The episodes with Considine were never widely seen after they originally aired (they were in black & white) although they apparently had a run on Nickelodeon in the 1980s. When presented with a problem or some misbehaviour by one of his children Steve would sit in his chair, sometimes give a quizzical look, puff on his pipe, and dispense words of wisdom or admonishment. As time went on the sons aged with three of the four getting married (Mike, when he left the series; Robbie, who added triplets to the household but didn't move out of the house until O'Grady left the show; and Chip who eloped and lived on campus). Widower Steve also got married to Barbara (played by Beverly Garland) adding a stepdaughter to the mix which was an obvious shake-up to the all male household. The series ran until 1972 by which time the dynamic that it portrayed was thoroughly outmoded, although it probably reflected Fred MacMurray's personal conservative politics. MacMurray had enough clout as a major motion picture star that he was able to do his scenes for all the episodes together – he worked about 65 non-consecutive days a year on the show with cast members coming in to work with him as needed. For example all of the scenes for the entire season that had Steve in the hallway of the house would be shot on the same day.

4. Andy Taylor – The Andy Griffith Show: One of the great dads, Sheriff Andy Taylor was a great influence on his only child Opie, played by Ron Howard, with the support of Aunt Bee, and the sometimes dubious help of his cousin and deputy Barney Fife. Unlike some of the other relationships between Super-Dads and their sons, this one felt a lot more genuine. You always got the sense that when Opie had to be punished it really was hurting Andy as much as it did Opie, and that Andy was guiding his son along the right path as well as he could. The show had one of the truly iconic opening sequences which not only told us what the show was called but conveyed the small town atmosphere and the fact that the core relationship was between father and son. Barney and the rest of the town were in the show of course, and the father son relationship wasn't always the featured element but it was the key fixture of the show.

5. Cliff Huxtable – The Cosby Show: I don't think that it is hard to argue that Cliff Huxtable is the last of the Super-Dads. He really was a throwback to characters like Ward Cleaver and Steve Douglas, transported to the 1980s. He was very much an authority figure in his family although his methods and approaches to his children were different than the '50s dads. There was more than a little intimidation in Cliff – "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." He readily pointed out when his kids were wrong and was never one to admit that he was wrong when he was dealing with them (how he dealt with his wife Claire was an entirely different story – he was rarely right). As he showed when it was discovered that Theo was dyslexic, he was not one to accept excuses for poor performance, even when the excuse was largely legitimate. He did encourage his children to strive for excellence.

And one good dad who wasn't exactly a Super-Dad:

Archie Bunker – All In The Family: I expect some argument on this. It is true that Archie wasn't perfect or right all the time. The fact is though that Archie, as portrayed by Carroll O'Connor, was thoroughly devoted to his "little goil" even when he thought she was wrong and her choices were wrong. Chief among these wrong choices was marrying Michael "Meathead" Stivic who in his own way was as disrespectful to her as Archie was to just about anyone. And in the end the fact that Gloria had an affair, and later divorced Mike showed that Archie was right about him being wrong for her. But it wasn't a victory that he took any joy in.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ending It – 10 Great (But Mostly Not So Great) Dramatic Series Endings

I haven't seen the series finale of The Sopranos that everyone and their half-sister is going on about. I don't subscribe to the premium cable service that it was on here in Canada (because I don't have to in order to get what I want – thank you Shaw Cable). However I've seen it recapped, with varying degrees of analysis to the point where I feel like I've seen it – only better because I didn't have to watch the unimportant bits because the recappers left out the stuff that they didn't think was important. And since they all seemed to ignore the same stuff I don't have to worry about some seemingly insignificant detail in the first fifteen minutes that would have a huge impact in the last fifteen.

And of course there was the analysis. That was a lot more divided. The last minutes of the episode were either brilliant...or lame. It's all because we didn't get closure...or don't believe that we got closure. The sudden going to black had people calling their cable companies complaining that their cable went out just before the crucial moment of the series where we find out the final fate of Tony Soprano. Except of course that this was exactly what David Chase planned – probably right down to the phone calls to the cable company. We don't know what's going to happen to Tony, whether he's at the end of his life or somewhere in the irredeemable middle, or maybe even starting a new life with the burdens of his past life lifted from him (yeah right). If you want an explanation of the final sudden going to black say that the mysterious character or characters weren't there to whack Tony Soprano in front of his family, he/they were there to whack us. We (the audience) are dead and can no longer view or influence the lives of Tony Carmella, AJ, Meadow, or Janice. That's about as good an explanation as any.

Drama series have difficulty coming up with endings. With comedies it's easy – the people move away (or the ones we care about move away) and we don't move with them. Think of all the sitcoms that have been brought to a close in just that way. M*A*S*H, Home Improvement, The Nanny, and Friends are only a few of them. Even Seinfeld ended that way when you think about it for a few seconds – the difference being that they move away to the Paris Hilton Housing development (aka jail), and thankfully we don't go with them.

Ah but dramas don't have it so easy. At least they don't now that they've become more continuity intense. Dramas – and comedies for that matter – didn't used to need a series finale if they survived long enough to go out on their own terms. Sometimes we got some degree of closure from a reunion movie – one particularly bad one I remember was for Emergency. It was really a "clip" show but we saw Captains (!) Gage and De Soto getting together to talk about the good times they had a paramedic at old Station 52. Of course this was undercut when they decided to do a couple of movies after that with Gage and De Soto back as paramedics. Still for the most part we don't get closure. For all we really know, officers Reed and Malloy are still driving Adam-12 around the streets of LA – or more likely took their retirements at the appropriate time and get together to go fishing from time to time (that by the way is a salute to Martin Milner who for many years did a syndicated radio show on fishing). Still as time has gone by we have increasingly seen shows that needed to give us closure. So here are some memorable series finales, mostly in chronological order. The only condition on this list is that I had to see it (which lets out Melrose Place and however they managed to end Dynasty among a lot of others).

Hawaii Five-0: I'm sure that wiser people of my acquaintance (Toby or Ivan) will be able to correct me but this is the first series that I can remember with a series finale that was designed as such (Davey Crockett doesn't count – it was in effect a mini-series). By 1980 Hawaii Five-0 was wheezing
towards cancellation and everybody knew it. The show had one bit of extended continuity related to it – Steve McGarrett's archnemesis Wo Fat (played by Kigh Diegh) who had made his debut in the show's pilot. While McGarrett inevitably thwarted Wo's devious plots he never brought him to justice. The character had essentially been retired following Nixon's visit to China – he hadn't been seen since 1976 which was only the third story he'd appeared in since 1972 – but he was brought back in 1980 so that McGarrett could catch him and throw him in jail for espionage. The last scene however had Wo Fat smiling as he tried to pick the lock of the jail cell.

2. St. Elsewhere: You think that The Sopranos was frustrating? Remember the ending of St. Elsewherethat was frustrating. The producers gave us closure. Boomer, Fiscus and most of the interns have left the hospital (Elliot Axelrod had died the episode before), Mark Craig is moving to Cleveland having reconciled with his wife, Donald Westphal has returned to the hospital which has now been sold back to the city of Boston, and Auschlander dies, not of the cancer that had been a part of his life for as long as we knew him but of a stroke. And then, then the revealed that the whole thing had been the imaginings of the autistic Tommy Westphal whose father wasn't a doctor but a construction worker and whose grandfather was an alive Auschlander. Talk about an FU ending.

3. Hill Street Blues: By contrast with its sister series, Hill Street Blues series finale was a pretty conventional one. There has to be a reason for Norman Buntz to leave The Hill for Dennis Franz's previously announced spin-off series with Peter Jurasik as Sid. There has to be some doubt about what's going to happen to Furillo and Davenport, and there has to be some doubt about the future of the station and therefore the characters that we've come to know. They set this up with a fire at the station (threat to the future of the characters as a group together), while the future of Furillo is pretty clear when he rejects an opportunity to run for Mayor (he probably remembered what being Mayor did to Ozzie Cleveland) leaving the path open for Chief Daniels. As for Buntz, well there is something satisfying about him socking Daniels in the jaw in front of everyone (all of whom wanted to do the same thing) and none of them "seeing" it.

4. Dallas: Let's admit the fact that by the end of the series Dallas was thoroughly over the top and had been for a long time. The ending therefore was totally insane – JR does It's A Wonderful Life in a peculiarly JR manner. Without JR, Ewing Oil is bankrupt, Southfork is tract housing, Sue Ellen is a successful soap opera star, while Bobby is a cheap hustler with back alimony and debts casino owner Carter MacKay. And Cliff Barnes is President of the United States. JR, who is already on a major downer after everything has fallen to pieces and these images of an alternate time line aren't exactly comforting. The "visions" are courtesy of "Adam" (beautifully played by Joel Grey) but unlike "Clarence" in It's A Wonderful Life, Adam's boss likes the evil JR: Adam's boss is Satan. The episode ends with Bobby returning to Southfork and hearing a gunshot from JR's room. Of course from the eventual reunion movie we know that JR shot the mirror that "Adam" appeared to him in (a side effect of a lot of bourbon) but did get him to change his way...a bit.

5. Magnum P.I.: It's fairly well known that Magnum P.I. actually had two different finales. The Season 7 episode "Limbo" in which Magnum is shot by mobsters and put into a coma where he spends time with all of the members of the cast was supposed to the finale – Magnum was supposed to die at the end – but fan support was such that the show was brought back for an abbreviated twelve episode season eight. The actual finale is more satisfying for fans. Paying a visit to his family in Virginia Magnum is offered a chance to re-enter the Navy, this time in a cleaner branch than his Special Forces work. He solves one last case and is reunited with the daughter that he had long thought dead. T.C. is reunited with his ex-wife, Rick gets married and Higgins finally confirms Magnum's theory that he is Robin Masters – which Magnum immediately decides is a lie. The series ends with Magnum – in his dress uniform – turning of the TV; our TV.

6. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: My favourite Star Trek of all, but oh that finale was jam packed with resolution and done in a way that seemed rushed and padded at the same time. The Cardassian military rebels against the Dominion, the war ends, Sisko has a final confrontation with Gul Dukat who by now has become a servant of the Pah Wraiths, Sisko becomes one with the Bajoran Prophets (his mother was one of course), most of the crew leave the station except for Bashir and Ezri (who are seen in bed), Kira and Jake, and (deep breath) there's still time for a song from Vic Fontaine (James Darrin).

7. NYPD Blue: The biggest problem that I had with this episode was the same problem that I had with most of the show's final season – the elimination of Andy's personal life as a focus for the series. Apparently this was a result of disputes that the producers had with Charlotte Ross who played Andy's third wife Connie McDowell but I have to say that it hurt the episode that there was not even an acknowledgement that Andy had a home to go to and three kids, the completion of the character's journey from a divorced alcoholic racist when the program began. Being the boss and having a family was the culmination of his success story, and in my not so humble opinion it all needed to be put together. Don't get me wrong the finale worked, with the squad running a high profile case and Sipowicz finally getting a taste of what the other squad commanders had to deal with from above (his immediate predecessor Lieutenant Bale tells him that the three things he has to worry about are those above him, those below him and having to live with himself). The final scene had a bit of a "Good night John-boy" feel as the members of the squad came in to let them know they were going but if you are going to go that route there should at least be an acknowledgement that Andy has some place to go too.

8. JAG: The problem with the JAG finale is that for the most part it wasn't intended as a finale. The original plan seems to have been to write David James Elliott's character, Harmon Rabb, off the show – his contract had not been renewed – and shift most of the action to a posting in San Diego where Catherine Bell's character Sarah MacKenzie would be in charge (at least for a year, until her contract ran out). So Harm was promoted to Captain and put in charge of a JAG office in London while Mac was assigned to San Diego. However CBS cancelled the show twenty-five days before the season finale. Changes, that seem fairly evident viewed today, were made in the script. Harm proposed marriage to Mac with one or the other resigning their commission while the other stayed in the military. Who would resign would be decided by flipping Bud Roberts's JAG "challenge coin". We'll never know exactly who resigned (each actor says their character won) because the final scene freezes with the coin at the apex of the toss, positioned so we can read the face of the coin, which says "JAG 1995–2005", which of course are the dates of the show.

9. The West Wing: In my opinion one of the truly great series finales. Based on the way that NBC scheduled the show it was apparent to just about everyone that the seventh season would be the last even before the announcement of the show's cancellation and the death of John Spencer soon afterwards. And, given that most of the seventh season was given over to the election, the end of the Bartlett presidency and the beginning of the Santos administration the appropriate ending point for the series is Inauguration Day where the changing of the guard is finalized. The transition is symbolized perfectly when, as the actual inauguration ceremony is taking place the Oval Office of Josiah Bartlett is packed into storage boxes and the possession of Matt Santos replace them, so that by the time that Josh, Donna, Anna Beth and Sam arrive in the lobby there is no indication – even a photo – remaining of President Bartlett. The transition is complete and when CJ encounters a man and his daughter on the street after exiting the White House she can truthfully say that she doesn't work at the White House. And yet the characters have a future as we're reminded when, on the plane back to New Hampshire, Abby asks what Jed is thinking about. He responds by saying "Tomorrow" the last word of the series.

10. Angel: I know this one is out of order but it does have a certain style to it. In fact it is almost like the last scenes of the original Godfather where Michael Corleone launches a surgical strike to take out all of the Family's enemies in one sudden stroke. The characters prepare, each in their own personal way for the final battle and then each member of the Circle of The Black Thorn in a battle that is successful but not without casualties – Wesley dead, Gunn apparently dying, and a demon army – with a dragon – coming to overwhelm Angel, Spike, Iyllyria and Gunn. Perhaps the most chilling scene is Lorne, the gentle singing demon putting a bullet through Lindsay's head in true hit man fashion. All of which ties us back to The Sopranos.