Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Poll - Which Of The New FOX Shows Sounds Most Promising?

Same basic set up as the last poll just with significantly mor shows to choose from as well as our old favourite, the steaming pile of poo. I'll give you another two weeks for this one, and please leave comments particularly if you're going with the "poo" option. I've also decided to include the YouTube playlist for the FOX shows here. It includes the official trailer for Dollhouse. Now you'll excuse me but I still feel like something the dog wouldn't bother to drag in.

Poll Results - Which Of The New ABC Shows Sounds Most Promising?

Your humble scribe has decided that it is time to reveal the poll results for the new ABC shows today even though it's only been thirteen days since I put the poll up. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing I didn't go out to the Casino for lunch today, mainly because I feel like a big steaming pile of poo. Based on the results of the poll this gives me a great deal in common with the ABC line-up.

The other thing is that Younger Brother and Little Nephew depart tomorrow – very early in the morning – for a five day excursion to "The Happiest Place On Earth," which to my great surprise is not Hershey Pennsylvania (think of it – golf, a legendary amusement park, and the whole town smells like chocolate) but rather Disneyland. I've never been to Disneyland, thanks to a university prof who scheduled his final exam during the time when Mother and Younger Brother had booked a trip that was supposed to include all three of us (I missed a trip to Europe as a chaperone for a group of 17 year-olds for exactly the same reason; different prof). Am I bitter (as the late great Barbara Frum is supposed to have asked many people although it is more famous coming from the mouth of CODCO's Greg Malone in full Barbara Frum drag)? After all these years? You bet your sweet ass I am!

All of this Disney talk does tie into ABC of course since the network is owned by the Walt Disney Corporation (and the company regularly gets attacked by the PTC because of it). The network has released their 2008-09 schedule (and pulled the clips from the shows off of YouTube – bad network), and let's just say that those of you who bothered to vote found it singularly un-impressive. Five votes were cast (which is disappointing). Tied for last with no votes are Opportunity Knocks, The Goode Family, and The "Untitled Ashton Kutcher/Tyra Banks project." In second place with one vote (20%) is the American remake of the British series Life On Mars. But the overwhelming winner, with four votes (80%) is "They all sound like a big steaming pile of poo."

And I for one could not agree more. The only show that sound in the least little bit intriguing from this mess is Life On Mars. The big question though is whether they can make this concept last for the entire year. I'm not sure if they can. Then again I'm not sure that they're going to have the chance to. When you consider the fate of shows like Daybreak, and Journeyman – whether those fates were deserved or not – the concept might be too quirky or unusual for the American market to fully embrace. Yes, I know that the original was embraced by the viewers of BBC America, but (1) are those viewers going to be accepting of the American retread, and (2) will it attract an audience who has never seen BBC America?

New post up shortly; be sure to vote and almost as important comment.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fathers’ Day – The Single Dad

Not sure if I'll have two posts this Father's day. For one thing I'm a little stymied for ideas and for another, we're doing something with my brother (since he's a father) and I don't know how much time I'll have.

The single father might seem like a non sequitur, but it was a very popular genre in the 1950s and '60s, less so as time went by. The reason why the father was single changed over the years. Usually it was because the wife died, or in a couple of cases because both parents died and a "swinging" bachelor found himself tied down with one (or more) kids in their bachelor pad. More recently Dad is single because he and mom got divorced. In the one current example of the genre Two And A Half Men, Dad has weekends with his son.

The "single dad" genre has certain immutable aspects. "Dad" is usually in over his depth, exploring an unexplored country and trying to cope as well as possible. As a result he needs help, usually in the form of a permanent "caregiver." Sometimes that means a servant, sometimes it meant a family member. That lets dad go off to work (and on dates) leaving the kid or kids at home. It's just about evenly split between the caregiver being a man or a woman. Both have comedic possibilities. In Two And A Half Men things get even more complicated because the two adults are so unable to cope with the "half man" that they need a housekeeper to pitch in. So let's take a look at some examples of "The Single Dad."

Bentley Gregg – Bachelor Father: I'm not sure if Bentley Gregg was the first single father but he was one of the most memorable, even if I've never seen the series. Played by John Forsythe, who as we shall see made something of a career of playing single fathers, Bentley was a successful – and single – Hollywood attorney who became responsible for his 13 year-old niece Kelley when her parents were killed in a car accident. Bentley's was a previously all male household, consisting of himself, his houseboy Peter Tong, and his dog Jasper. The series focused on Bentley's efforts to come to grips with being a parent as well as the problems that Kelley faced as an adolescent – or at least an adolescent in a 1950s sitcom. Inevitably many of the episodes centered on Bentley's romantic life and Kelley's frequent efforts to find her uncle a wife. The show ran for two years on CBS (where it alternated with The Jack Benny Program) two years on NBC, and one year on ABC. By the time that the series was cancelled by ABC the central premise of the show had been largely run out. Kelly was in college and was engaged to marry Warren Dawson, a junior partner in Uncle Bentley's law firm. (I have to say sounds a little creepy – in the ABC season Kelly was a college freshman which is what 18 or 19 years old, and here she is engaged to a man who has completed law school and already made partner in a successful law firm. How old was that guy??) Interesting bit of trivia – in the episode "A Crush on Bentley," one of Kelley's friends develops a major crush on Uncle Bentley. She's played by Linda Evans who twenty years later would play John Forsythe's wife in Dynasty.

Steve Douglas – My Three Sons: If Bentley Gregg was one of the earliest single fathers, Steve Douglas was one of the iconic figures (along with Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show). Steve was raising three sons after the death of his wife with the help of a male relative. While most people think of the sons as being Robbie, Chip and Ernie, with the male relative being Uncle Charlie, the original characters were Mike, Robbie and Chip and their maternal grandfather Bub. The show debuted on ABC in 1960 with William Frawley as Bub and Tim Considine as eldest son Mike. However Frawley's age became a factor and eventually the production was unable to get insurance for him. He was eventually written off of the show (he moved to Ireland) and was replaced by his brother Charley O'Casey. At roughly the same time Tim Considine left the show after a dispute with producer Don Fedderson – Considine wanted to direct rather than act and he was also an auto racing enthusiast who was contractually forbidden from racing while he was on the show. His character got married in the first CBS episode of the show (the program changed network when CBS refused to pay to shoot the show in colour – because the Considine episodes weren't in colour they weren't offered in syndication) and Mike moved to "the Chuck Zone" – he was never seen again and only mentioned once or twice in the last seven years of the show's run. To keep the name of the show relevant a new third son was added – Ernie. Ernie was an orphan who was adopted by widower Steve (with Uncle Charlie being legally designated as the "house mother") after his foster parents were sent to Asia by the State Department. Over time the show evolved. They left Bryant Park New York and moved to California. Robbie got married, finished college and became a father himself (of triplet sons). Eventually Robbie left the show while his wife and son remained. Chip went to college and eloped. The biggest change of all was when Steve himself got married, adding both a wife and a young step-daughter to the previously all-male household.

Michael Endicott – To Rome with Love: I'm not really sure why this show has stuck with me. This was the third of producer Don Fedderson's three "single father" series (the other two were My Three Sons and Family Affair) and probably the least successful since it only ran for two years. I suppose it was most likely the location, although I gather that most of the show was shot in Los Angeles. John Forsythe (again) played Michael Endicott, an Iowa professor who took a job at Rome's American Overseas School after his wife died, and took along his three daughters, Allison, Penny and "Pokey". The element of culture shock was added to the difficulties that Michael, as a single parent, faces in raising three daughters on his own. The role of "caregiver" is filled by two different characters. In the first season you have Michael's unmarried sister, the girl's Aunt Harriet, who wants her brother to give up this silly idea of living in Rome and move back to Iowa where it's safe (meaning that there aren't so many foreigners around and they have all the American modern conveniences). Aunt Harriet seems to have dropped out part way through the first season. In the second season she was replaced by three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan, playing Michael's father-in-law Andy Pruitt, who had sold his farm and was planning to move into a retirement community but came to Rome instead, and never left. The second season of the show also featured a couple of crossover episodes with Fedderson's other two "single father" series, My Three Sons and Family Affair, although neither Steve Douglas nor Bill Davis (the fathers in the other two series) made an appearance.

Edward Stratton III – Silver Spoons: Silver Spoons mixes a couple of ideas together. Edward Stratton (played by Joel Higgins) is a man who is totally unaware that he has a son until young Ricky Stratton (Ricky Schroeder) shows up on his door. Edward was married – for just one week – and his ex-wife never told him that she had a child. So when Ricky's mother sends him off to military school after getting remarried (she thinks the boy will be "in the way") he decides to get to know his father instead. Edward is an irresponsible man, who is more interested in playing with his toys (including a miniature train that runs through the middle of his house) than he is in being an adult or in running his toy company. This means that there is a bit of a role reversal thing going on in the series with Ricky being more mature in most ways than his father. Edward thinks that his son should lighten up and be more of a kid. The caregiver role in this series is less pronounced than in others but it is present in the form of Edward's business advisor (and increasingly romantic interest) Kate Summers (played by Erin Gray). Edward and Kate get married in the third season of the show which basically ends the "single father" aspect of the show but it's still the part of the show that is most remembered. Of course, being an '80s sitcom there are a number of "very special episodes" although not as many as some of the show's contemporaries (at times it seemed like every episode of Blossom – also a "single father" series – was labelled a "very special episode").

Michael Taylor and Joey Harris – My Two Dads: The situation in My Two Dads is probably the most unusual ever in a sitcom ever. Teenager Nicole Bradford's mother dies in an accident and she is sent to live with her father. There's just one minor problem – Nicole's mother wasn't exactly sure of who the father was. It apparently came down to one of two guys (although there was at least enough of hint before the show was cancelled to get some fans to speculate that it was neither). One was Joey (Greg Evigan) who was a wild artistic type. The other was his former best friend Michael Taylor (Paul Reiser), an uptight financial advisor. The implication of course is that Nicole was the child of a single mother who (not to mince around with terminology) slept around enough that she wasn't sure of who her kid's father was. Imagine what the PTC would think of that premise. Needless to say the completely different personalities of the two potential fathers were the comedic meat of the show, making it the equivalent of The Odd Couple with a kid. The guys were pretty much their own support system, but they were frequently looked in on by their landlady – who was also the judge who had assigned custody of Nicole to both of them – Judge Margaret W. Wilbur (played by Florence Stanley). As for the actual paternity, Nicole had a DNA test done but supposedly destroyed the results, although Margaret apparently found them and knew the actual answer but threw it away. Look for Giovanni Ribisi as one of the two boys who want to be Nicole's boyfriend (the other is Chad Allen).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The PTC And The “Disappearing” TV Critic

A couple of weeks ago the PTC's TV Trends column began looking at the "disappearing" TV critic. I don't agree with much of what they say in these articles and not because I regard myself as true TV critic. I am not. What I am is a consumer both of television and television criticism.

It never surprises me when the PTC observes a trend and not only puts its own spin on it but does so in such a way that is not just totally illogical but is based on no actual facts beyond what the writer of the piece decides is "the truth." Take for instance this week's TV Trends Column (which is actually the first part of a two parter). I won't give you the title just yet, because it needs some set-up from the original source material. That was a cover article in Broadcast & Cable called The Disappearing TV Critic. Specifically it looks into the recent drop in the number of TV critics including critics from major newspapers. As the article points out, "In the past two years, more than one-dozen longtime critics at major-market dailies -- including the Dallas Morning News, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, New York Newsday, New York Daily News and Houston Chronicle -- have been either let go, shunted to different beats or been forced to take the ubiquitous buyout proffered by bean-counting corporate bosses." The article then goes on to look at the reasons for this trend. They specifically focus on money, and the profitability of media companies and newspapers. As the article points out, arts staffs in major media companies like Tribune, McClatchy, and Gannett arts staffs are deemed expendable if by getting rid of them the corporate bottom line gets fatter. Critics and arts staff can be replaced by wire service copy and features. People around here are well aware of this sort of thing. Few can forget what happened a few days after the dailies in Saskatoon and Regina were sold to Conrad Black; something like 200 employees of the newspapers including some highly respected names in the local arts reporting were told that their services were no longer required. The bottom line – and the amount of debt that Black, and later CanWest went into to buy newspapers – mandated cost cutting measures and the easiest costs to cut are often people. The Broadcast & Cable article discusses the symbiotic relationship between the expanding television industry and critics who are used to build awareness of programs. Critics of course have used the "bully pulpit" of newspapers to promote projects and producers that they regard as being "worthy." With the decline in the number of newspaper critics, bloggers (like me, but in most cases better if only because they have at least a veneer of professionalism) have risen. But, as an unnamed network executive told Broadcast & Cable "There's no accountability. That's the difference between some, not all, bloggers and a seasoned journalist. The blogging community has no rules." The Broadcast & Cable article points out that, "Criticism by community – or the 'triumph of the amateurs,' as one TV critic describes the proliferation of online user reviews – is a function of both the technology that allows anyone to get in on the critic act and a medium where quick bites of information are favored. The popularity of criticism in the form of the episode recap, where brevity and attitude are highly prized, only underscores the trend away from criticism as intellectual deconstruction. And why give an expert assessment when a simple 'A' grade will do?" While I don't think that I'm guilty of "criticism in the form of the episode recap" I readily admit to the rest. The technology makes this blog possible, and it allows this amateur – for I have never claimed to be anything but an enthusiastic amateur (it even says so in the masthead of this blog) – to write about the medium which I enjoy and which alternately fascinates me and infuriates me.

Okay, that's the long preamble to the PTC's TV Trends article, the title of which is Public Tuning Out TV Critics which ran in two parts. They acknowledge the entire point of the Broadcast & Cable in one sentence and then proceeds to throw it out. According to the PTC, "For while it was not mentioned in Broadcasting & Cable's article, one other factor suggests itself as a reason for the rapid erosion of TV critics' prominence: the critics' failure to reflect the sensibility of most Americans who watch TV. When, time after time, viewers and parents follow a critic's advice and turn on a program, only to find it offensive and repugnant, in very short order such viewers will stop listening…and the critics' influence, importance, and value to their employers will correspondingly diminish." In other words, according to the TV Trends writer, TV critics are being let go because by recommending shows that the public finds "repugnant" their influence is reduced. Now before I go further into this, let me just say that I've never heard of anyone who has stopped subscribing to a newspaper because they didn't like the TV critic, and that is the only way that what a TV critic writes might have "value to their employers."

The writer of the article then actually cites one of his own columns which claimed that there is an "overwhelming demand for family-friendly TV programming safe for children." Of course this is an overwhelming demand that was not sufficient to support a family friendly show – Life Is Wild on The CW – which didn't even draw as many viewers in the recently completed season as the PTC claims to have members. Yet according to the TV Trends writer, "Yet those who dare to suggest that television ought to feature more family fare are subjected to endless calumny by TV's supposed critics – 'supposed' because, while the word 'critic' implies critical faculties, these individuals rarely exhibit such, instead heaping praise on the most extreme examples of graphic and gratuitous gore, sex and profanity. Yet these critics, rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV. And despite the fact that such critics work for outlets across the country, they share a nearly identical mind-set…one which rarely agrees with that of the viewers and readers in their local area." Of course he offers no proof of his assertion that this supposed "identical mind-set" doesn't agree with people in the local area.

The TV Trends writer artfully pulls quotes made by critics for the Broadcast & Cable article – often out of context – and then turns them back on the writer. Dave Walker, critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who told the Broadcast & Cable writer, "There is nothing more local than television. I suppose three or four reviewers could handle the critiquing duties for the whole country. But what that surrenders is localizing all of that national [content]." The TV Trends writer responds that, "Yet the same critics who make this argument are generally the first ones to rail against the notion of 'community standards,' which broadcast stations are supposed to take into account when considering whether network programs are appropriate for audiences in their local area. Enraptured by the very programs they are supposed to be analyzing, most TV critics apparently believe that if a program is all the rage in Manhattan, that it therefore must (or should) be one in Toledo, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Mobile. They angrily condemn local stations which opt not to air such shows, and condemn all who object to offensive programming as 'Puritans' out to trample 'First Amendment rights' by 'censoring' programming which the critics (and often, only the critics) enjoy." Again, there's no proof of the statement in parentheses. Taking part of a quote from Dianne Werts of Newsday, and (the part that the PTC cut out is in square parentheses): "[Just as the television medium mushrooms, newspapers are dispensing with a trained-eye filter to] alert readers to what's fresh, smart, ground-breaking or just plain strange enough to be engaging. And each critic brings a different sensibility, lending the TV Zeitgeist a diversity of cultural perspectives and social values, along with aesthetic appreciation." He then states, "This statement is so ludicrous as to be laughable. Far from representing 'different sensibilities,' or demonstrating a 'diversity of cultural perspectives and social values,' the overwhelming majority of TV critics consistently march in mental lockstep with the very entertainment industry they are supposedly paid to critique. The values of the entertainment industry are those of most TV critics, who rather than informing the public about the threat posed to their children by today's entertainment, and advocating on behalf of their readers' preferences, instead willingly act as shills for Hollywood." In other words critics who don't agree with the PTC's position – which the PTC seems to be claiming is all of them – don't offer a local perspective but are part of some sinister hive mind determined to undermine America's families in service of their Hollywood masters.

As a topping for this mass of opinions is the claim that critics are elitist: "Most likely, this happens because critics enjoy considering themselves superior to the supposedly ignorant masses. Look again at Diane Werts' assessment: according to Werts, TV critics know 'what's fresh, smart, [and] ground-breaking.' Implicit in this is the assumption that the average member of the public does not. That such an assumption is ill-founded – and that professional critics, in their negativity and desire for Hollywood's approval, poorly serve the average Americans who make up their audience – will be demonstrated in the next TV Trends." And I'm sure that he'll support this with material from the same source that back up his claim that TV critics are being let go not because of an economic quest for savings (and profits) but because they are detached from the sense and sensibilities of their readers. Start with the assertion that the public is abandoning TV critics because critics fail to reflect the sensibilities of the public. There's no proof offered. Then there's the statement that critics subject advocates of family fare to "endless calumny" while claiming that the same critics "rather than responding to the obvious wishes and desires of their readers, persist in celebrating only the most disturbing programs on TV."

The second part of the article tries to prove the elitist nature of the professional newspaper critic while at the same time dealing with Broadcast & Cable's assertion that "Many old-school journalists seem to lack the snark gene that has propelled Gawker-level bloggers to high-gloss infamy," which is part of the reason for the disappearance of the newspaper critic. Absurd says the PTC: "Hilariously, the entertainment industry trade publication Broadcasting & Cable claims that TV critics are at a disadvantage when faced with the attitude-laden writing of the Internet's amateur bloggers.... [The above quote from the B&C article is inserted here.] One can only conclude that the author of the B&C article is unfamiliar with the constant sneering arrogance with which family-friendly programs have invariably been described by the nation's TV critics."

They then set out to "prove" this by offering quotes from reviews of Three Wishes. Three Wishes, which was hosted by Christian singer Amy Grant (and which the PTC mistakenly claims ran from "September 2005 to January 2007"; in fact it ran for ten episodes between September 2005 and December 2005), visited a town and granted three wishes. It might be a new baseball field for a town, or it might be a reward (in the form of a new truck) for the adoptive father of a young boy. According to the PTC, "Most Americans applauded so well-meaning a show [this is questionable but typical of the PTC; the show had 8.7 million viewers in its first episode, and usually won its time slot before NBC cancelled it as being "too expensive" – still 8.7 million is scarcely "most Americans"], and enjoyed its heartwarming premise. But America's critics unleashed an unparalleled tidal wave of vitriol against the sweet program; and notably, most condemned not the program's production methods or even the star, but attacked the very premise of the show itself." They then proceed to offer a number of quotes – out of context of course – from various critics. Just as an example of pulling quotes without context, here's what the PTC says that Boston Globe critic Matthew Gilbert said about the show: "Condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation…every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats." And here is the full sentence that Gilbert wrote (courtesy of Metacritic): "It's hard to quibble with such a philanthropic series, even while its motives are, of course, Nielsen-based. But it's easy to quibble with the condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation of ''Three Wishes," as every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats." To my mind at least that isn't the sneering arrogance that one sees from Internet based reviewers. But an even worse example is the quote the pull from Gillian Flynn of Entertainment Weekly. Flynn's example of "constant sneering arrogance" is this: "Will leave your heartstrings over-fondled." Except that this was classified by Metacritic as a generally positive review. So I decided to see what Ms. Flynn actually said. The Entertainment Weekly review is available online for free (which is more than can be said for two other reviews they cite, from the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald). Here's the full closing paragraph of Gillian Flynn's review, with the words that the PTC pulled in bold: So, yeah, Three Wishes will leave your heartstrings feeling over-fondled. But if you can get past that (and there are worse crimes), it's also one of the most interactive TV shows around. Maybe I'm going soft, but when's the last time you found yourself bawling and beaming about the basic goodness of humankind? And now I must go help an old lady cross the street." Quite a difference huh.

Then, to prove how out of touch the mainstream professional critics are, they cited Dexter and Nip/Tuck. The writer suggests that his readers might think that the reaction to Three Wishes was simply a dislike of all new programs. If he really thought that of course it would be an example of him treating his readership as children, but I have to say that is not always out of character for a writer from the PTC. This is when he brings up Dexter: "For contrast, consider the critical response to Dexter, a program with a ruthless, psychotic serial killer as its hero. This program featured graphic dismemberment, blood, and torture and showed a brutal murderer evading the law, yet painted that killer as charming and even likeable. Originally shown on premium cable, Dexter was shown in prime time by CBS. Given the vicious verbal flogging they granted the wholesome Three Wishes, one would think that surely the critics – with their allegedly superior sensibilities – would condemn a program which graphically glorified serial murder!" But of course the evil elitist critics liked – even loved – this evil program. As the writer puts it, "Instead, the nation's so-called 'critics' sang unquestioning hosannas to the deranged drama. Apparently thinking identical thoughts, sometimes even using nearly identical wording, the critics united in praising Dexter. I won't go into the details of the quotes that the PTC pulls from the critics they cite. I will however point out that they're not as right as they think. The critics were not as "united in praising Dexter" as the PTC would like. Admittedly, of twenty-seven critics mentioned by Metacritic on their page for the show, twenty-four were rated as positive reviews, there were also quotes from critics who disliked the show or even hated it: "Dexter is too chilly to be chilling, too affected to be affecting." (Robert Abele; LA Weekly); "If brilliant, psychotic lunatics are your bag, by all means, climb aboard." (Brian Lowry; Variety); "The grotesqueries of Dexter are not something that can easily be dismissed with the old 'you don't have to watch' line. We don't have to watch. We do have to live among the viewers who will be desensitized, or aroused, by this show." (Nancy DeWolf Smith; Wall Street Journal).

But naturally there is more why critics like a show like Dexter than what a bunch of quotes culled and edited by a PTC writer wants his readers to know. The professional critics are willing to offer reasons why they like a show, reasons that are more complex than the "it's about a serial killer therefore it is evil and should not be seen" rote that the PTC trots out. Take for instance the reasons why Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote "What makes the series work so well is twofold. Hall is magnificent; it's another sterling performance from him. But instead of being pent up yet emotionally explosive, like his David Fisher on "Six Feet Under," he's cool and calculated and entirely without compassion as Dexter. That makes him alluring, in a strange way.... The second element is humor. As Dexter's voice narrates the series, his inner world is revealed. He's dryly funny. He has a spot-on representation of himself – he knows he's "a monster." But he clings to Dad's teachings – his retribution killings are the only good way to handle his need for blood." Or this from Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune: "What is a human being? Is it someone who feels a deep need to right wrongs? Dexter does that, often more effectively than the police officers around him or the overwhelmed court system, the failings of which he sees every day. There's plenty of irony in the idea that a serial killer feels more visceral anger in the face of brutal crime than most of the cops around him, who range from competent to infuriatingly self-serving." And maybe this, from Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Hall's performance is remarkable for its controlled nature. As Dexter, he erases memories of his last role – "Six Feet Under's" uptight, gay mortician, David Fisher – playing a character who believes he's so emotionally detached that he must fake all pleasant human interaction. It's a challenging, almost double role, requiring Hall to play to viewers who know Dexter's secret and those around him on screen who do not. Hall handles it with the necessarily subtle aplomb." In short the critics have reasons for liking the show – the irony, the performance of Michael C Hall in the lead role, and so on – that go beyond the simplistic "it makes a hero of a serial killer therefore it is an outrage that it is even on the air let alone on broadcast TV" position that the PTC takes.

And maybe that's the source of the PTC's problems with TV critics – they don't always like the stuff that the PTC likes and don't always hate the stuff the PTC hates. Certainly the PTC is not above quoting a TV critic...when that TV critic says something that they agree with. They quoted Tom Shales of the Washington Post when they were castigating My Name Is Earl. Shales didn't review Dexter, but his colleague at the post who did review the show (John Maynard) liked it. About Three Wishes, Shales wrote, "Each week a trio of do-gooders (a bit too braggy about the good they do) storms an American town and grants three wishes to folk in need.... It's shamelessly crammed with hugs and tears, even in the opening credits, but at least there aren't any monsters in it – unless you count Amy Grant, the sanctimonious singing host." (Yeah, I did some PTC style editing; here's what I left out: "On the premiere, that includes surgery for a little girl injured in a car accident, a new Ford (generously plugged) for a deputy sheriff and a new football field for the local high school.") Needless to say he probably wouldn't have made the PTC's cut for this.

Bizarrely, the second part of the PTC's indictment of newspaper TV critics ends with a quote from the late Jack Valenti on his retirement from the leadership of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti wrote: "This small band of Constant Whiners talk to each other, write for each other, opine with each other, and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, west of Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault…Shouldn't everyone in the country glory in four-letter words ending in "k"? And why not? Since the C[onstant] W[hiner]s know what is right and real, then it is from them that the simpletons in Middle America should take their cues and their culture. In their zeal to brandish the notion that they are the custodians of creative rightness, they commit intellectual nihilism, the smashing of truth and reason, exalting a smallish and relentlessly ill-humored prism through which they all see the same lunacies." I find this to be bizarre because Valenti's statement has nothing at all to do with critics either of TV or the movies. Valenti was speaking about opponents of censorship, particularly those object to the MPAA's ratings system which forces cuts in movies like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut lest they be branded with the NC-17 rating which can have a deadly effect in terms of theatrical bookings. There is very little similarity between what Valenti railed against (wrongly in my view but that's another argument) and what the PTC claims that TV critics are supporting. In the latter case I am convinced that the PTC overestimates its support in the United States as a whole.

Even if I am wrong about what the public wants in terms of TV shows, that doesn't make the views articulated by professional TV critics invalid. I am reminded of Edmund Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." A critic owes his reader his or her judgement and opinion, to attempt to widen the reader-viewer's tastes not to march in lock step to reflect them. Of course the PTC in its own way, by condemning shows which it does not approve of, is trying to do exactly the same thing. And in my opinion their position is probably just as elitist as the PTC claims that critics are; the PTC knows what's good for you even if you don't appreciate it. The difference between the TV critics and the PTC is that the critics are consistently able to articulate the reasons why they like or don't like a show in terms that go beyond "it has a serial killer as a hero so it's a bad show." Criticism needs to be more than "this is good" or "this is bad." There has to be a reason and that reason has to be more than "because we say so" or "because of the subject matter it depicts and the language the characters use." That's why I trust TV critics far more than I do anyone at the PTC.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Soup, I’m Nuts

I'm hoisting the Campbell's Soup Can flag, probably for the weekend. I've got a ton of stuff I want to post about (Swingtown and Fear Itself are on the PVR and I've got a post about the PTC half done) and there may be a couple of other things to write about on the weekend, but I've also got a living room to help paint and that's taking precedent. I might get something posted before Sunday, but don't bet the mortgage payment on it.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

New Poll - Which Of The New ABC Shows Sounds Most Promising?

Right, it's the same basic set up as the last poll just with fewer shows to choose from as well as our old favourite, the steaming pile of poo. I had clips of the two shows that ABC will be debuting this fall in my video clip preview posting but it seems that ABC or someone had them pulled off YouTube. Yet again, ABC has been the least cooperative of the networks that have actual pilots in providing video clips of their new product. Make of that what you will. I'll give you another week for this one, and please leave comments particularly if you're going with the "poo" option.

Poll Results – Which Of The New CBS Shows Sounds Most Promising?

Because I want to try to get the polls back onto some sort of schedule, and also, because I want to get these polls about how the new shows "sound" to people out of the way before I have to deal with the Emmy nominations are announced (the "For Your Consideration" screeners are available online but not for such poor wretches as we; the nominating ballots will be posted online on this week with the nomination process closing on June 20, and the nominations announced on July 17, and the big disappointment big show on ABC on September 21). So I figure that two weeks should be enough time for you to digest the CBS shows.

Here are the poll results. Twelve votes were cast. In a tie for fourth place, with no votes are The Worst Week, Project Gary, The Ex-List, and Harper's Island. In third place, with two votes (17 %) was The Mentalist. In second place with three votes (25%) was Eleventh Hour. But the big winner, with seven votes (58%) – and no big surprise to me – was "They all sound like a big steaming pile of poo."

Sorry, but I think that's just a touch on the harsh side. I agree that the two comedies – I mean The Worst Week and Project Gary, just to be absolutely clear – are weak entries from a network that usually does situation comedy rather well. As for The Ex-List (the show that I thought you might mistake for a situation comedy) the concept seems dire and the clip they posted seems even worse. As someone who became a Moonlight fan after initially panning it, I am shocked that they replaced that show with... with...this.

So that's three out of the five shows, but that leaves us with The Mentalist, Eleventh Hour and Harper's Island. And I have to say that, to me at least, all three look like they have potential to be good. The Mentalist takes the concept that started as The Medium (a person claiming "psychic abilities" helps the police), was morphed into the comedy Psych (a person with extraordinary powers of observation claims to be a psychic and helps the police), and takes it full circle by making the lead characters a man who formerly claimed to be a psychic, but came clean by admitting that his "abilities" were "merely" his extraordinary powers of observation. It may be a basic CBS procedural that breaks little in the way of new ground but I'm not sure there's that much wrong with that. As for Eleventh Hour I suppose you could say that it loses points for being an American adaptation of a British original that starred Patrick Stewart, but it makes up points by not adapting a British series that has a sort of finite quality that would be eaten up by American TV very quickly, along the lines of Life On Mars or (dare I mention it?) Blackpool (which became Viva Laughlin). The premise of Eleventh Hour could very easily continue for years if the ratings are strong.

That leaves us with Harper's Island, which is intended as a mid-season replacement, although I have a suspicion that mid-season will come very quickly if (when) The Ex-List tanks. I wasn't able to put a clip up for the show, but I have one now. It's got a spooky, claustrophobic feel to it that is helped by being shot in what looks to be coastal BC. The commenters on YouTube have been hostile to it, mainly because they think it is a direct replacement for Moonlight. I don't think it's meant as that (but when The Ex-List dies...). Personally I'm not sure it can draw an audience but it certainly looks good.

New poll up shortly, meanwhile have a look at the Harper's Island clip.

Return Of A Friend – The Mole Is Back

I believe that I am more than a little discriminating when it comes to reality shows. Survivor, Big Brother, Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice are all fine with me, The Bachelor(ette), Nanny 911, Wife Swap, American Idol, and So You Think You Can Dance and just about all of the others can go pound salt. For me the Rolls Royce of reality shows has always been The Amazing Race. I regularly have to restrain myself from recapping every episode of the race in a long and complicated manner in this blog. And if The Amazing Race is the Rolls Royce of reality shows for me then the Bentley is The Mole. (To understand that metaphor you have to understand that for many years Bentley was owned by Rolls Royce as what amounted to their economy line – cheaper and not built to quite the exacting standards as Rolls Royce, but still better than what just about anyone else was building.)

The Amazing Race and The Mole share a similar history with the big difference being that one was at a network that wasn't prepared to stick by the show. The Amazing Race debuted on September 5, 2001 – in other words a week before the attacks on the World Trade Center – and took a major drop in the ratings. The Mole debuted in January 2001, and from what I can tell seems to have had good if not spectacular ratings – enough so that ABC ordered a second season of the show in its original format. That season debuted on September 28, 2001 and after three weeks in the "Friday Night Death Slot" ABC pulled the show and burned it off starting in June 2002 as a summer replacement. The show was then retooled as The Celebrity Mole with former football player and sports commentator Ahmad Rashad as host (replacing news reporter Anderson Cooper). The first version of this ran in January and February 2003, with a second season running in 2004. After that ABC abandoned the concept and even sold their rights to the program to GSN (the former Game Show Network). Meanwhile The Amazing Race chugged right along, being relegated to the summer for two series (once when it was originally scheduled to go up against American Idol and CBS decided that a revival of Star Search would do better in the time slot) before returning to the regular line up. And now, The Mole is back. Admittedly it's back as a summer show but as the man said, that better than nothing.

The central point of The Mole is that amongst the twelve contestants there is one person who is working with the producers to reduce the amount of money that the other people can win. That person is The Mole. The players win money for a pool by successfully completing missions, either individually, in teams, or as a group. They can also lose money by being penalized for not obeying the instructions they've been given. The Mole has the task of preventing them from winning

The episode starts with new host Jon Kelley standing at the edge of a Chilean waterfall. The contestant are being driven to this site in vans. They've just met each other and are getting a sense of the other people in the group. This is going to be important because the very first question for the group is who they think The Mole is, based on just what they've found out on the van ride to the waterfall. They decide on stay at home mom Marcie. Kelley then tells them that this gives her control of the first mission of the game. This involves the players going over the waterfall on a raft. The players are attached with a harness to a safety line so that when the raft goes over the waterfall they won't go with it. Above the edge of the waterfall is a pole with a burlap bag attached, a different bag for each contestant, that they will have to grab and hold onto as they go over the edge. Five of those bags will have money, five will have paper. Marcie's task is to decide who will get which. Apparently who she picked to have a shot at the money was suspicious. Of the bags that were actually grabbed only two have money in them for a total of $20,000. Suspicious? Apparently, since some of the other contestants suggested that she only selected the shortest people to grab for the money, which means they were less likely to get it.

Once the waterfall challenge was over it was time to bed down for the night. There was a cabin for the contestants by as Kelley explained, there were only eight beds so three people would have to sleep outside that night. Marcie got to pick which three would sleep outside, including Craig (the fat guy) and Nicole the Doctor. Two of the three are fine with that, the third being Nicole. She doesn't want to sleep outside, so she decides to stay inside. She decides to pull off the old resident's trick of staying awake all night so that she isn't actually "sleeping" inside. It seems to work because in the morning Kelley doesn't announce any penalties, but it is still enough for the other people in the group to start to be irritated by her. That sense grows even more powerful in the morning when she complains about not having a blow dryer for her hair or any make-up. So it really doesn't come as a huge surprise when the group names her as the biggest whiner when asked by Kelley at the site of the next challenge. This means that she got to sit out while the other eleven split themselves into groups. Six people search the beach for objects that could have been used by Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. I seems that Selkirk was a whiner (hence the need for a whiner from the group) who so exasperated the captain of the ship he was sailing in that Selkirk was castaway on a section of beach with only five items. Three people had to evaluate what the searchers found to determine which items were ones that Selkirk could have had with them. They had three tries to get the right combination of items. Meanwhile two people were trying to keep their time from running out; there was a large inverted pyramid full of sand and the two people who were trying to keep the time from running out had to keep filling the pyramid with sand because the game ended when the pyramid was empty. The trick was that most of the items on the beach were things that weren't invented in 1700 when Selkirk was marooned – things like Victrolas, and hair dryers, but also jeans which the players included on the grounds that they were pants and he must have had pants. After the final evaluation they were able to get three items right for total winnings of $15,000, and a total pot size of $25,000. Oh and Nicole – Dr. Whiner as she designated herself – had to spend the night on the beach.

After the eleven players who left the beach finished a fine dinner in a private dining room (no one on this show has ever starved or had to rely on airline food) it is time for the first execution. On The Mole players are eliminated based on how well they do on a quiz concerning the identity of The Mole. There are ten questions on the quiz, which is available at the show's website. The person with the fewest correct answers is eliminated. There is also one person who is exempt from the quiz. That would be Nicole who got the exemption in return for staying on the beach. Eventually Marcie, who the group initially pegged as The Mole was executed as a result of the quiz.

The Mole is a good show on a network that isn't treating it very well. I'll get to that point in the next paragraph but let's get on to what makes it a good show. The locale is gorgeous. The cast is an excellent blend of young and old, professional and working class, and they don't all look like models. The structure of the game is such that there are both coalitions (The Mole version of an alliance) real and fake. There's suspicion bordering on paranoia, as well as the whole question of solving the mystery of the identity of The Mole that is central to the game. Early on it's guesswork, but as the group diminishes and the clues mount it becomes detective work – basic and amateur detective work, but still representing more skill than a lot of shows. As for the host, Jon Kelley is no Anderson Cooper (which is bad) but he's also no Ahmad Rashad (who often seemed to approach the whole thing as a joke) and in my book that's a good thing.

As I mentioned, ABC isn't treating this show very well. The debut episode aired on Monday night in the third hour of prime time following a two hour episode of The Bachelorette, opposite a rerun of CBS's CSI: Miami and a surprisingly good fifth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs that went into triple overtime. Finishing third in the time slot and with a weak 1.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic, it also lost a considerable portion of The Bachelorette's audience which itself was in third place in both total audience and the 18-49 year old demographic. The immediate question for me is whether this is the best time slot for this show. It seems eminently "family friendly" – more so in my opinion than The Bachelorette, so why not put it in the first hour of prime time which, after all is where Survivor, The Amazing Race and even Big Brother thrive. I suspect that ABC's logic may have been that since The Bachelorette had good – or at least adequate – ratings the previous two weeks it would be a good lead-in for the show. What they seemed to forget is that those episodes of The Bachelorette had Dancing With The Stars as their lead-in. I don't think that The Bachelorette on its own has the ratings power to help a show like this, so why not try The Mole at an earlier hour?

I have been a fan of The Mole since it began as an intelligent reality competition show that foregoes a lot of the hardship that other such shows subject their participants to. I just wish that more people would watch an make it the success it deserves to be.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Good...Not; Bad...Not

I'm not sure what I can say about Million Dollar Password. I didn't care for it but I'm not sure why. Or maybe I'm just not sure if I can articulate why I didn't care for it.

Let me clear one thing up first. My feelings about this show have nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't in Hi Def. Oh, to be sure it was an annoyance and it's something that I would have expected. After all, this is a studio based show not Survivor (which will be in HD; give me my Amazing Race in HD and I'll be a happy puppy) so you'd think that it would be easier for them to do the show in HD than it would be to do Survivor. But I am not an HD snob. I am not one of those people, like the guys on the forums of who say they never watch anything if it isn't in HD (one of these guys also said that he didn't watch black & white movies because he doesn't like the way that the actors in black & white movies acted). It's an annoyance, and if I record it on the PVR from an HD station it takes up a lot more space than a similar recording from a non-HD digital or (shudder) an analog source, but that's all it is, an annoyance.

So what was it about the show that turned me off? I guess it's a number of things, some of which are things that bother me about a lot of the primetime game shows that are on the air or have been in the past couple of years. In this version of Password the players and the celebrities participate in a four round "front game." This is a major departure from previous versions of the show. Each set of players and celebrities is given a minute and a half to put together clues and answers for five words. In other words it's not a case of teams alternating with the same word and the winner getting points based on how many clues were used, as was the case in the original show. After each celebrity and each player has done two minute and a half sessions (one with the celebrity giving clues and one with the player giving clues), the players switch celebrities. The player with the highest number of correct words wins the front game and goes on to the part of the show that actually gives money, working with the celebrity with whom that player completed the most "correct word" combinations.

In the original Password this part would be called the "bonus session," but in truth this is where the "real" game (as I'm going to call it for the rest of this review) lies. Inevitably it is a "ladder system" where players complete steps along the way. There are six levels: $10,000, $25,000, $50,000, $100,000, $250,000, and $1,000,000. At each level the person giving clues has to get five correct answers from the person getting them within a minute and a half. Only three clues can be given per word, and at each level the number of words you can miss (by passing on the word, not getting a correct answer with three clues, or giving an invalid clue) is reduced. At the $10,000 level the player can miss up to five times – there are ten words available – while at the million dollar level the player has to be perfect. They can of course quit at any time and take the money, and there is a safety point at $25,000. If you make it to that level you cannot leave with less than $25,000.

In the episode that was seen on Sunday night, the two celebrity players were food expert and talk show host Rachel Ray, who claimed that she did a lot of talking with her hands which she knew was against the show's rules, and actor Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother. It became apparent relatively quickly that Harris was the better celebrity player as both of the contestants who went past the qualifying "front game" earned the most points with Harris as their partner who got the clues and he failed both of them at the $100,000 level, and as I recall he got four out of the five right in each case. I suspect that this is key to being a good player – celebrity or "civilian – at this level of the contest, the ability to make connections quickly. I can't imagine either player who made it to the "real" game doing as well as they did with Rachel Ray as their partner.

Still I think this aspect is part of what left me dissatisfied by the show. While I have to confess that this may be the only episode of any version of Password that I have watched in its entirety (I did have a copy of the home game though) my sense is that the head to head confrontation was the meat and potatoes of the original series, and the bonus round – which varied depending on the version of the show – was just that, a bonus. In this version the head to head competition is less apparent because they aren't sharing words. The show has actually turned into a race, with players trying to give as many correct words as quickly as they can. The "real" game takes up about the same amount of time as the competitive game in this version.

Aspects of this show remind me of a number of other game shows that are either currently on or are fairly recent cancellations. The biggest of these is the "other" Drew Carey game show The Power Of Ten, where the entire point of the competitive game was to decide a participant for the "real" game. The ladder set-up for this side of things is similar to a lot of game shows, from The Power Of Ten to the second (or was it the third) revision to the rules of 1 vs 100 to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And the truth is that I'd like something a little different. The beauty of the original, limited run, incarnation of Duel was that the head to head competition between the players actually meant something other than you qualified to go against the game. In that show there was strategy that had to be used to beat the other player – and even selecting your next opponent – and victory in duels built the pot. In Million Dollar Password I always had the sense that the part of the game that we all remember from the days of Allen Ludden, the part where players competed directly to get the secret word from the clues provided, seemed more like prologue than the important part.

In terms of production values, the show seemed typically overproduced. The set is huge, bigger by far than anything that Alan Ludden ever worked on. The players stand at Lucite lecterns and see the words they have to convey to their partner on small screens, rather than sitting at a desk and getting the clues in that little viewing box. Then, during the "real" game the celebrity and the civilian stand without any props on a circular platform that mysteriously rises up above the rest of the stage with what looks to be a "chase light" of the show name that runs along the side of the platform. That of course could just be a visual effect made to mimic a chase light. As for that host, it's Regis Philbin so what can you really say. To paraphrase one of the Peanuts specials, "of all the Regis Philbins in the world, he's the Regis Philbin-est." You know what you're getting with Reeg; you may not like it but you know what you're getting.

I suppose at the heart of my antipathy towards Million Dollar Password is the show's assumption of the storied name Password. On its own it is a perfectly serviceable little game show that's not going to set the world on fire but at the same time isn't the worst of its kind on the show (like for example Moment Of Truth. But it has that name, Password, attached to it and I suppose the memories of the show – even for someone who only know it by reputation – lead me at least to hope for more than what I got. Apparently – according to Media Week's Marc Berman (my source for ratings) – the show did well in the ratings with a 7.4 rating and a 13 share, easily winning the time slot on a weak, post-sweeps Sunday night, although Berman points out that the show seems to skew toward the older demographic. And I expect that it will continue to do well in the ratings. I just can't help wishing that it was better in some way that I can't really articulate.