Saturday, September 10, 2005

Television: What I Watch

Admitting that in my description of this blog, I leave some wiggle room regarding what I write about, I still haven't written about popular culture lately.  The other day, the Fishmonger asked for guidance regarding the new television season, so I'm going to use that as my excuse to get back to the things I want to write about and, right now, need to write about (mainly to avoid doing things that would help my professional life get out of its stagnant condition).  

Returning to the Monger's request, I will admit to having some talent in predicting what my wife will like, even if she is hesitant to listen to my suggestions.  Last season, my suggestions to her were Desperate Housewives and Lost and she liked them a lot, though I think she enjoys Lost more.  What was different compared to other years is that in the past the shows I suggest don’t last past the first year.  That those two became the hits of last season was as much as surprise to me as it was to ABC.  (With Housewives, for instance, the initial order was only for thirteen episodes.  Apparently, ABC intended to return Alias to its Sunday night timeslot in January, assuming that Housewives would have sunk by its final episode.  However, it exploded in its slot and by October, ABC was putting in an order for the full season.)

Here's how I want to work this.  To get a better understanding of my tastes, I'm going to list the television shows that I make a special effort to watch.  Along the way, I’ll also have some comments about each.  After seeing what I enjoy is on common ground with the programs you like, then proceed to the next post where I'll be talking about the new television season and the shows I’m willing to take a chance on.

G4 ProgrammingEntourage
24The American Experience
Gilmore GirlsLost
Veronica MarsMaverick
Celebrity PokerFirefly
Stargate SG-1Battlestar Galactica
Justice Leage UnlimitedThe Simpsons
Family GuyAmerican Dad
South ParkRobot Chicken

I.     Daily Programs.

Where I live it is possible to watch reruns of The Simpsons seven days a week.  And I do.  I don’t watch them slavishly; considering I don’t go to work, I miss them more times than not; but if the show and I are in the same place at the same time, I’ll watch it.

If I just want “background television,” that is, something that I find generally non-offensive that I don’t need to give my full attention to or that won’t be forced to have change the channel in a few minutes, by default choice is G4.  I know that I am out of its key demographic, which I gather to be males between the ages of 12 and 25, but I find the video-game related shows like X-Play, Filter, and Electric Playground to be the video equivalent of comfort food.  The channel that is G4 grew from a merger between it and what used to be TechTV which focused on computers and technology in general.  Within a year, almost all the TechTV shows were cancelled or transformed, except for X-Play.  Within the last few weeks, however, one of the TechTV shows has returned, albeit via Canada, Call for Help.  The purpose of the show is to help people with computer problems, provide quick lessons on topics from creating web pages or choosing a HDTV, and to present the semi-latest cutting edge technology news or innovation.  G4 even has a show that presents the history or biography of certain video games, game developers, game consoles, etc. titled Icons.

We recently took the plunge and got the premium package for our cable; through some magic that only cable providers can work, our cable bill decreased by over thirty dollars (as part of a limited time promotion) while we gained forty-four channels (none of them IFC).  Since then, I’ve tried to catch up on two HBO series that have been praised since they went on the air, Entourage and Deadwood.  Entourage has been called a male Sex and the City, which isn’t a bad description, though where New York was the fifth member of Sex’s clique, Hollywood and its unique lifestyle is the fifth member here.  One of the four is in his first major motion and he has brought his two closest friends and his brother with him from the east coast, creating the title grouping.

Deadwood is not the kind of Western I would choose to watch just because it is a Western.  I don’t want realism in my Westerns, I want Maverick, The Wild, Wild West (the good television version), or The Magnificent Seven.  Watching the dead be fed to the hogs; looking and listening to a Calamity Jane who the inverse of Doris Day’s interpretation of the character; seeing mud so thick that it covers the tops of boots are not what I want.  Despite all that and more (the language of the show is probably as coarse as any in The Aristocrats), I like this show.  It is neither overbearing in its attempt toward realism nor overbearing depressing about the situations the characters find themselves in.  Credit goes to the creator, David Milch, who learned his craft with shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue; even though he now a venue to pushes the boundaries, he never forgets he is producing television.  Deadwood is always accessible.

II.     Monday.

I’ll admit that I enjoy 24.  If you pay too much attention to it, 24 can break down logically, but as a contained unit, most any individual episode presents some of the tensest television I’ve ever seen.  You just never know what the hell Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is going to do in service of his country.  Off the top of my head, he has decapitated a captive enemy agent, broken into the Chinese embassy to kidnap a Chinese national who had given U.S. secrets to terrorists, and chopped off the hand of his partner to save the man’s life.  In the real world, there are things Bauer has done that are over the edge and deserving of punishment, but in the context of the show and its universe, I’ll give him pass, if only because he is being cosmically punished; I don’t think he’ll ever know real happiness.  Still, a damn fine popcorn show.

One of my favorite shows is The American Experience.  It is a rare episode that I won’t watch and even if I choose not to watch one when it is first run, I’ll eventually give in and watch it when it is re-run.  A series of documentaries, the range of topics covered has been incredible.  Sample topics include the Trial of the Scotsboro Boys; a seven-part, fourteen-hour history of New York City; the birth, life, and decline of Coney Island; the carving of the Mt. Rushmore Memorial; the building of the Golden Gate Bridge; the Scopes monkey trial; and an examination of game show scandal of the 1950s.  The biographies the show has presented include Houdini, John Nash, Seabiscuit, Hawaii’s last queen, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, and every president from F.D.R. to Reagan.  PBS will also present documentaries under “The American Experience” umbrella that were created independently like the works of Ken Burns.

The American Experience returns this week with a special Wednesday episode, “Fatal Flood.”  At first thought, it would appear that it episode deals with the events of Katrina, however, it will tell the story of an earlier flood yet still speaks to issues we are now confronting today.  As described: <blockquote> In the spring of 1927, after weeks of incessant rains, the Mississippi River went on a rampage from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, inundating hundreds of towns, killing as many as a thousand people and leaving a million homeless.  In Greenville, Mississippi, efforts to contain the river pitted the majority black population against an aristocratic plantation family, the Percys—and the Percys against themselves.  A dramatic story of greed, power and race during one of America's greatest natural disasters.</blockquote>  And it is for exactly that reason that I love history in general and the stories that The American Experience tells in general.

III.     Tuesday.

Gilmore Girls.  Do I have to say more?

III.     Wednesday.

I didn’t know what to expect when I watched Lost for the first time and after we saw that one guy get sucked into the still spinning turbine, I didn’t myself have any.  To be honest, I’m not too hooked into the individual characters as individuals, I’m not necessarily championing for the death of any.  My hook into the show has been the mystery of the island.  However, I have enjoyed the flashback sequences wherein the back stories of the primary characters are fleshed out.  The flashbacks were a smart move on J.J. Abrams part because it allows the audience a break from the exteriors of the island, it slowly adds subtext to the actions and motivations of the characters, and, maybe most importantly, throws off the audience’s time sense.  Each episode takes place in one day, so we’ve only seen twenty-four days in their lives since the crash, so things like Hurley not appearing to lose weight aren’t that big a deal yet.

I watched most of the episodes of Veronica Mars last year.  I liked it, but I didn’t like it as if it were the resurrected Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which is how UPN wanted me to like it.  Despite the horrible things Buffy has to go through as the Slayer, she still found time to experience high school and I could sympathize with what she and the Scoobies were going through.  To me, Veronica always came off less a teen-age girl and more of an adult.  The season-long mystery was relatively tight and the episodes dealing primarily with it were the more enjoyable ones for me.  Maybe this year either Veronica will occasionally act like a teenager or the show will have magically jumped three years so that the character will be at the right level of maturity for her actions.

IV.     Thursday.

Maverick was one of those legendary shows that I never thought I’d see.  It was on a local channel in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, but between work and school I never had a chance to watch it.  In the move that lost me access to the Independent Film Channel, our cable company gave us Goodlife TV, which soon transformed itself into American Life Television.  The channel is really like Nick at Nite for senior citizens as its evening schedule is stocked completely with once popular television shows from the Time Warner library that I don’t think have been in broad syndication for maybe fifteen years.  Among Girl from U.N.C.L.E, F Troop, Surfside Six, and My Favorite Martian reruns, every Thursday, Maverick is rerun.  I have to admit that the show deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon over the years and well deserved to win the only Emmy Award presented in the category of "Best Western",

Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown.  I don’t like to gamble, I am not to keen on playing cards, occasionally a celebrity is too needy for attention for my taste, yet, I like this show.  Go figure.

V.     Friday.

Basically, a full genre night with SciFi Channel.  In preparation for Serenity, I start the night off by watching Firefly, the show I still wish Enterprise had been.  Next, Stargate SG-1, a show I passed by when it was in syndication, but last year I started watching and wished I’d started years ago.  Finally, Battlestar Galactica, which, damn it, is really, really good.  The first episode of the first full season just won a Hugo Award; did anyone ever think the sentence “Battlestar Galactica was nominated for and won a Hugo Award” would be a honest statement?  In fact, I think it may have done itself a disservice by using the “Battlestar” name; while the basic premise of the series is the same as the original 1978-79 series, in execution the show is so different from the original, that I didn’t watch the mini-series when it aired.  However, the buzz was so positive for the mini that when the show went to full series, I started watching.

It took a little bit of work to get into the universe the producers had created, as it was much deeper than the one of the original.  For instance, the humans are polytheistic, while the Cylons are monotheistic.  Ron Moore, the producer behind the series, has equated the his Galactica to the film, Das Boot and it has the same claustrophobic intensity.  Unlike the original, where you knew the humans were going to survive, the feeling I have is that their complete extermination is a foregone conclusion and that the survivors are going through the motions of trying survive even as death approaches because that is what humans do.  In that respect, the series reminds me of Nevil Shute’s excellent novel, On the Beach, in which the last surviving humans in Australia live out their days as normally as possible even as the radioactive fallout from a decimated atomic war in the northern hemisphere slowly moves into the southern where it will kill them.  

If you are considering getting into the show, don’t worry about joining late.  If you feel a need to catch up before you join in watching, SciFi has very complete synopses for aired episodes on its Website and makes episodes available for streaming.  There are also podcasts for each episode recorded by Ron Moore available that are DVD commentary tracks without the DVD or studio production.  However, a recent episode, “Final Cut,” might be an easier way to go.  In the episode, a reporter is given unlimited access to the Galactica’s crew for a story on what is going on in the wake of the fleet’s problems.  As we follow the reporter filming the story, we are re/introduced the Galactica’s crew and their dynamics.  However, best of all, when the final product is shown, the freaking incredible theme from the original series plays in the background.  Choked me up.

VI.     Saturday.

Justice League Unlimited (Cartoon Network).  For my money, possibly the single-best translation of a comic book property to another medium that doesn’t feature Tobey Maguire.  The show is probably the last one we’ll see that connects to the DC animated universe begun in 1992 with Batman:  The Animated Series.  In fact, in the final episode of season recently concluded this past spring, the producers thought it was the end and created a Batman-centric episode that tied up lose ends from JLU, Batman, and the Batman spin-off, Batman Beyond.  To complete truly the circle, the final shot showed the protagonist flying off duplicated the first shot of Batman.  But I digress.

Apart from the generally excellent writing and character design, the latter based on Bruce Timm’s work (an example of the style art these shows can be seen in the picture of the JL), the key element that makes JLU great is that it can, and often has, use every available super-hero character in the DC Universe.  Oh, and the heroes are actually heroic, a rare occurrence in many of DC’s super-hero comic books.  Oh, and this season, which starts on September 17, three words describe the Big Bad:  “Legion.”  “Of.”  “Doom.”

VI.     Sunday.

Simple enough night:  The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad.  The first is still among the funniest shows around and I’ll never understand the hatred and disdain people have for the second.  I can’t think of any funnier sentence I heard all summer than, “And now we play the waiting game.”  I can explain if asked, but if might lose something in context.  The episode, “A Fish Out of Water,” will be rerun soon enough either on FOX or Cartoon Network.  When it does, watch it, and see if you don’t agree.  As for American Dad, it is improving, but I think that no matter how good it may become, it will never be given its proper credit, as it will always be perceived as nothing more than a reworking of Family Guy.

Rome airs on HBO  I like it, but I am not wild about it and that is more my fault than the show’s.  Since the early nineties, I’ve been a fan author Lindsay Davis’s creation, “finder” Marcus Didio Falco, who has appeared in a number of mystery novels set in Rome during the first century A.D.  Because Davis has done her research so well, the life of the common Roman is less of an eye-opener to me.  Still, I always enjoy the melodrama of politicians scheming for power (too Lucas just never understood that, but I digress) and even though you know the eventual fate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Cato, et al., going along for this ride is less strenuous than reading Suetonius.  Rome has already been renewed for a second season and I’ll be back for it.

After all these years, South Park, too, is still funny and still doing well.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone just signed a contract to produce shows through 2008.  South Park is was another show that I avoided at first, but I started watching it after South Park:  Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released.  I think it was the simple message, “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”, that made me reconsider my opinion of the television show.

A show that I think has snuck past the radar of the general public is Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] Sunday block.  Created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, the fifteen-minute show is nothing more than two or three satirical skits interspersed with black-out gags.  What separates this show from others is that it uses stop-motion animated action figures as actors, so there are many riffs on popular culture and its icons.  For instance, “Two Kirks, a Khan, and a Pizza Place”; Optimus Prime develops prostate cancer; “Behind the Music:  Electric Mayhem”; In “You Got Robo-Served,” Voltron finds himself having to save his cred in an old-school dance off; and the gang from Scooby-Doo stops at a “haunted camp” and meets Don Knotts, and find the “ghost” to really be one Jason Voorhies.

Also, as Seth Green is the new Kevin Bacon, each episode has voice work done by his friends, famous and semi-famous.  In the Scooby-Doo parody, for instance, the cast of the live action movies did the voices for the gang; Sarah Michelle Gellar has done the show five times, once reprising her role of Buffy.  Others who have provided voices include Phyllis Diller, Mark Hamill (once as Luke Skywalker), Burt Reynolds, and Scarlett Johansson.  If you aren’t in the age demographic of 12-24 to whom this show appeals, you are missing out a real buried treasure and should give it a chance.

Next up, the new season.