Tuesday, March 22, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part V - The Floodgates Open

Good Day, Prodigious Pursuers of Plasmatic Pleasures.

Well, with the discovery of The Shield, Dexter and Entourage, I suddenly became convinced that cable T.V. could provide quality entertainment of the same caliber as my beloved movies.  I became obsessed with seeking out new small-screen vistas.  I investigated any recommendation from trusted sources and sought out my own leads.

Here are some of my favorite discoveries:

South Park  (1997 to present)

Like everyone else on the planet, I watched the first two seasons of South Park merely for the giddy thrill of hearing a bunch of potty-mouthed kids swear like sailors.  When the South Park movie (featuring the deathless tune "Blame Canada") was released, I assumed that the concept had hit it's high water mark and it would only be downhill from there.  I stopped watching and I fear a slew of other people made the same horrible error that I did.

But when Mark Rose, my intrepid T.V. guru, insisted that the show "really didn't start to get good" until 'round season five, I actually listened to the dude.  He hadn't steered me wrong so far, so I started to watch every single episode starting with season three onward.

And man, am I ever glad I did.

In addition to the already-spicy stable of characters like Mr. Garrison and Cartman, we also got memorable additions like Tweak, Pip, Starvin' Marvin, Timmy, Jimmy, Towelie and, of course, the eternally hapless Butters.  The show also goes after the most timely and ripe targets for ridicule such as Boy Bands ("Something You Can Do With Your Finger"), World of Warcraft ("Make Love, Not Warcraft"), Lord of the Rings ("The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers") Tom Cruise and Scientology ("Trapped in the Closet" and "The Return of Chef"), censorship ("It Hits The Fan") and Jersey Shore ("It's A Jersey Thing").
Due to the way it's produced (episodes can now be turned around in as little as four days), South Park has it's middle finger on the zeitgeist pulse of the nation like no other show.  When something rife for parody rears it's head in the news, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone can have their characters taking the piss out of it by the end of the week.  For example, the season seven closer "It's Christmas In Canada" referenced the discovery of Saddam Hussain in his "spider hole" a mere three days after it actually happened.

This makes South Park one of the most timely, relevant and relentlessly satirical shows on the air right now.  It's no surprise to me that season friggin' 15 is imminent what with the previous series being just as controversial and edgy as ever.  All you need to do is check out the  explosive "200" and "201" episodes (which threatened to portray Muhammad just to bait a reaction from extremists) as ample supporting evidence.  After all, what other T.V. programs can you think of that incite death threats to the show runners just for being so daring?

I used to love watching an episode or two of this in the morning (http://www.thecomedynetwork.ca/shows/showdetails.aspx?sid=3284) before risking potential brain-death at work.  Unfortunately, it seems as if the show isn't available there anymore.  Is it truly because of "digital rights restrictions" or did The Comedy Network's collective testicles wither and drop off like so much holly berries in the fall?

As great as the aforementioned episodes are, my personal favorite can be found right here:


Freaks and Geeks     (1999-2000)

Keeping with the comedy theme, I'd always been curious about this show.  This tragically short-lived program from Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow follows the misadventures of wanna-be rebel Lindsay Weir (ER's Linda Cardellini) and her awkward younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley, all growed up now as psychologist Lance Sweets on Bones).  The cast now reads like a veritable "who's who" of young acting talent.

Linda's burnout ne'er-do-well friends make up the show's titular "freak" factor.  Included in this Rogues Gallery are obtuse Neal Peart obsessed drummer Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel), bad boy Daniel Desario (James Franco), wise-ass Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), and reform school bait Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps).  The "geeks" are well-represented by Sam's circle of socially inept buddies including super-nerd Martin Starr as Bill Haverchuck and Samm Levine as the anal-retentive Neal Schweiber.

In it's criminally short eighteen episode run, the writers manged to give these characters some pretty respectable growth.  As Lindsay learns more about herself she realizes that maybe she isn't a prim and proper "mathlete" after all.  It begins to dawn on her that these days only come once in a lifetime and when she falls in with a group of laconic losers, she starts to loosen up a bit.  This immediately puts her at odds with her cool- but-concerned parents who are expertly embodied by Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker.

All of this is set in the questionably tasteful (but still oddly innocent) climate of the 80's.  Unlike, say, That 70's Show which just seemed to use that decade to trot out comically antiquated fashions or provide lazy story hooks,  Freaks and Geeks really feels like a genuine product of the time.  Having grown up in that decade, I can say with tremendous satisfaction that the show's trappings are never just used to say "Hey!  Look how retro this is!"  Indeed, the background details are barely even referenced, which really adds to the authenticity.

I really identify with this stellar little show.  Although my genuine interest in heavy metal and dedicated slackage had me relating to the show's "freaks" I was much closer to Sam's age at the time and as a result I really felt for the dweeby Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed younger kids.  In fact, to this day, I'm convinced that they modeled the character of Neal after my buddy Stuart.  Indeed, Sam is certainly in a different social strata then his much older sister and subsequently he's struggling with issues far removed from hers.

It's difficult to find a clip of this that hasn't been neutered by music copyright laws.  Mercifully, unlike W.K.R.P.in Cincinnati which was horrendously butchered on DVD, the boxed set for Freaks and Geeks lovingly keeps most of  the evocative music of the show intact.  This includes, but isn't limited to, the inspired use of Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" for the title theme.

Here's a clip from the first episode of this awesome little show:


One word of warning: if you're anything like me, you'll get really attached to these characters and may attempt to strangle more episodes out of your television set when the credits start rolling on episode eighteen.  Although the story came to something resembling a natural stop, the character's ultimate fates are still up in the air, especially in Lindsay's case.  It's so good, I wish the original writers would be kind enough to produce a series of novels just to let us know how it all worked out. 

Firefly (2002-2003)

When Buffy The Vampire Slayer was put out to pasture, series creator Joss Whedon responded with Firefly, one of the most wildly original and witty sci-fi shows of all time.  The premise: a ragtag crew of nine misfits, led by a captain and first officer who were on the losing side of a nasty civil war, travel along the wild frontiers of deep space in a temperamental ship called the Serenity.  All the while they desperately try to avoid arrest by the authorities, extricate themselves from sour deals with intergalactic dirtbags and evade certain death at the hands of the cannibalistic Reavers.

Like Buffy and Angel, Whedon assembled a fantastic cast here.  Nathan Fillion is perfect as Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a smuggler and veteran with a checkered past who's quick to shoot first and ask questions later.  He's brings the perfect mix of swagger, braggadocio, wry humor and a healthy sense of self-preservation to the role.  Gina Torres is stalwart as Zoe, Mal's first officer.  Accurately described as a "warrior woman" by her husband Wash, she's certainly someone you want to have on your side of a scrap.

Wash, played by Alan Tudyk, is my favorite character.  He's the Serenity's more-than-able pilot, and can always be relied upon to crack wise even when it looks as if all is lost.  His very first scene from the pilot episode gives you a sample of the inspired humor headed our way:

The superb ensemble is rounded out by Adam Baldwin as the morally ambiguous and slightly dim enforcer Jayne, the ludicrously gorgeous Morena Baccarin as the regal Companion Inara Serra, Ron Glass as Derrial Book a wise and tranquil Shepherd, sexy Summer Glau as the enigmatic and dangerous River Tam, Sean Maher as her physician brother Simon and super-cute Jewel Staite as "Kaylee" Frye, the ship's mechanic.

With Firefly, Whedon continues to deliver crackerjack dialogue, clever self-contained stories, and an intriguing over-reaching story arc.  He also manages to generate more three-dimensional characterization in one abbreviated season than Star Trek: The Next Generation did in it's first four years.

The pinhead executives at Fox must have the attention spans of a friggin' chipmunk.  Not given any time whatsoever to find it's audience, Firefly joined several other creative and daring "time slot shuffle" casualties as Millennium, Greg The Bunny, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and the live-action Tick series.  Boooo!!!!  

I do have a bit of a confession, though.  At first the show's western frontier trappings, vaguely corn pone theme song and the predilection of the characters to break into a hybrid Cantonese/English patois kinda put me off.  Also hobbling the initial experience for me (and presumably millions of other potential viewers) was the fact that Fox, in it's infinite wisdom, decided to air the second episode first.  Hmmmm, do you think that maybe, just maybe, it would have been wise to air the friggin' thing in chronological order!?  Like every other successful story ever told?    

I'm tellin' ya, it's not brain surgery but perhaps a few of the suits at Fox could benefit from a bit o' cranial tinkering.

When you watch from the pilot episode the odd stylistic choices make thematic sense (go figure).  For example, the characters occasionally speak with this odd dialect because Whedon wisely predicted China's emerging status as a future global superpower.  And although the franchise lives on in a theatrical feature (2005's Serenity) and a series of comic books, you can't help but wonders what heights this program would have soared to is someone at the network had just a little bit more vision.  Or any at all for that matter.          

Speaking of shows canceled before their time, here's another gem:

Veronica Mars   (2004-2007)            

Starring the delightful Kristen Bell as the titular sleuth, Veronica Mars is like a fusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My So-Called Life and a good Raymond Chandler novel.  Veronica has learned quite a bit through osmosis growing up as the daughter of a very adept private investigator.  She uses her prodigious investigative skills to solve mysteries in the town of Neptune, California, all the while trying to navigate the typical pitfalls that only incarceration in High School can provide.

Throughout three seasons, creator Rob Thomas expertly wove together one excellent "case of the week" story after another into consistently twisty season-spanning plot lines.  Each and every script is like an individual gem and will certainly have anyone spazzing out on two or three episodes in a row.  Any concerns you may have about this falling into Nancy Drew territory will be instantly shattered as soon as you get kicked in the teeth by the punchy, laconic dialogue.  The supporting characters (particularly Jason Dohring's Logan and Tina Majorino's Mac) are all incredibly three dimensional and in season one, we're also treated to a superb performance by Amanda Seyfried as Veronica's ill-fated, free spirit best friend Lilly Kane.

But at it's heart is Kristen Bell, who's so good in this role it's scary.  Her scenes with Enrico Colantoni (who plays her dad Keith) are among the most genuine and honest father/daughter moments I've ever witnessed in any medium.  In a world in which teenage girls have such dubious role models as Ke$ha, and Miley Cyrus it's a shame that there couldn't be more examples of smart and independent young women like Veronica in real life.  I still keep hoping that, one day, the rumored Veronica Mars feature film will re-unite this fantastic creative team and give us more mysteries to unravel.  

If the show has any failing at all, it's that the first season is just so fresh and flawless that the next two series seem marginally weaker in comparison.  I'm not saying that they were mediocre, far from it, but when you start with perfection, often there isn't anywhere else to go.  But pound for pound, even the third season of Veronica Mars is stronger than 98% of what passes for prime time network television.

Battlestar Galactica   (2004-2009)

Y'know, I was as much a fan of the original Battlestar Galactica as an eight-year old kid could have been,  so when I first heard about this "re-imagining" the first three things I thought were (in order):
  1. 'Um, as much as I liked the original it was cheesier then a mozzarella stick dipped in Gruyere fondue.  Can they actually make this cool for modern, more sophisticated audiences?'
  2. 'Are we all so creatively bankrupt that you have to remake a twenty-five year old sci-fi series which you could argue was just a thinly-veiled Star Wars rip-off?'
  3. 'Starbuck's a chick?!'
But when I started to hear the impossibly good word I didn't hesitate to take up a co-worker's offer to watch the first season.

Sweet jeezum crow, it was criminally awesome.  In fact, far better then a show called Battlestar Galactica ever had a right to be.  Frankly I dare anyone to watch the miniseries and then the first episode ("33") without becoming a die-hard fan.  This is solidified by a "what the eff?" season one finale, a truly stupendous episode in the middle of season two called "Pegasus" and a gutsy one-year jump in the shows chronology which will have you scrambling to start the third series.   

So what makes the show so great?  First off, the insightful writing is positively rife with subtext.  The show features religious zealotry, suicide bombings, sleeper agents, prisoner torture, and debates about suspending civil liberties in a time of crisis.  If there is any show out there that has half as much to say about our post 9-11 world, I'd challenge you to find it.    

Also, the program's modest budget (especially in the first season) actually adds a tremendous sense of gritty realism to the proceedings.  Although the "hand held" cinematography is a tad overwrought sometimes, it does effectively convey a real cinéma vérité style that's normally anathema in so many cheddery sci-fi shows (including it's late-Seventies parent).  In fact, all of the stereotypical trappings of sci-fi that non-genre fans can point to as a failing (stupid props, lame sets, goofy gold lamé outfits, gratuitous references the "space/time continuum" and/or "dilithium assballs") are completely absent from this show.  In fact, you could even argue in some ways, that it barely qualifies as sci-fi.

The great cast really shines armed with such "A"-list material.  Edward James Olmos makes for a world-weary and charismatic Commander Adama.  He's capable of making the tough decisions and inspiring people to follow him, but it's fascinating to watch the crisis conveyor belt eventually take it's toll on him.  Micheal Hogan is tremendous as Galactica's flinty, alcoholic executive officer Saul Tigh.  Just compare his expanded role to what poor Terry Carter had to work with in the original series.  Mary McDonnell's charm makes Laura Roslin one of my favorite characters.  When the cylons wipe out the governing body of the humans, this unlikely education minister becomes president.  Of everything.  Overnight.  She's understandably shell-shocked at first, but rises to the occasion admirably.  And frankly, I'm glad Starbuck's a chick, especially when that chick is the quirky, unconventional and gleefully self-destructive Katee Sackhoff.

British actor Jamie Bamber boasts a flawless Pan-Galactic American accent as the new Apollo.  His character experiences some of the most ambitious changes amongst the cast and he's more than capable of seeing this through.  James Callis as the twitchy, constantly perspiring traitor Gaius Baltar is perhaps the greatest foil in television history.  Also, although much can be said about super-slinky sexy cylon (try saying that five times really quick) Tricia Helfer as Six, Grace Part as Boomer and cute-as-a-button Nicki Clyne as Cally really stole my heart.

There are also scads of fun guest starring appearances.  "Fans" of mediocre mid-80's Canadian television will instantly recognize former Danger Bay alumni Donnelly Rhodes, who plays Galactica's resident chain-smoking sawbones Major Sherman "Doc" Cottle.  A certain "Warrior Princess" of some regard has a recurring role as a fleet reported with dubious motivations.  Always great Dean Stockwell is also a welcome addition of the cast when he shows up as Brother Cavil, the worlds crankiest and most enigmatic priest.

Sci-fi fan or otherwise, you owe it to yourself to give this show a spin.  I loved it so much I bought the company.  Er, the DVD's I mean.            

Although the mythology of the show does get a bit existential in the end, frankly I think that just adds to the show's repeat viewing appeal.  It's one of the best folks, trust me on this one.

I've got one more part for this series comin' down the pike, so stay tuned and thanks fer readin'! 


 South Park - The Complete First SeasonFreaks and Geeks: The Complete SeriesVeronica Mars: The Complete First SeasonFirefly: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

FAIL:  Wow...just...wow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part IV - My First Step Into A Larger World

Greetings and Felicitations, T.V. Mavens!

For those of you who've been following along at home, you may have gotten the impression that my last job really sucked.  It did at the end, but it wasn't always that way.  Over the course of four years my assignment as an account manager for a major American office supply retailer took me from individual salesman to a glorified, pre-programmed auto-dialer.

We had ridiculous targets to hit.  We had to call one business after another in the hopes of successfully regurgitating as much of our intrusive, virtually-scripted sales pitch at our customers before they rushed us off the phone.  Since our message was about as welcome as a pair of impeccably dressed kids at your door asking if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, it was almost impossible to keep them on the phone for longer then three minutes.

Despite how off-putting these transparently mercenary calls were to our trusted contacts, we still had to touch base with 28 people every day and complete this stilted, color-by-numbers dialogue with them.  If we failed in this goal we didn't get a dime of commission and might also begin to see progressive discipline leveled against us, including (but not limited to) verbal warnings, written reprimands for our permanent record, and random beatings presumably instituted to improve morale. 

Naturally, between the stress of this and the fact that we were all crammed into a space that would make lemmings feel claustrophobic, escapist conversations were de rigueur.  In fact, we took every possible opportunity to talk about anything but our lousy, mind-numbing, repetitive jobs, arguably even more then we should have.  I think we did it for the same reason that a person without money wants to buy stuff all the time just to prove that they aren't poor.

One of our more popular topics was television.  Now, by the mid-to-late 2000's (in which this long-winded preamble is set), T.V. had fallen into a real quagmire of demeaning reality shows and toothless sitcoms.  After all, we were now seeing such IQ-plummeting offal as Flavor of LoveCavemen, and Fat Dude, Hot Wife...er, I mean According to Jim/King of Queens/Still Standing...etc, etc.

I remember openly declaring to everyone in my aisle (picture a series of adjoined kennel pens in a dog pound)  that "the reality-show-glutted, prime-time network television vista was nothing but a vast wasteland".

And that's when Mark Rose made me eat my words.

A brash, opinionated, entertainment connoisseur, Mark would often engage me in heated debates about the minutia of pop-culture.  The verbal donnybrooks that often resulted were often very cathartic.  Only now do I realize how important these dialogues were to staving off brain death resulting from interchangeable banal conversations with our customers or having to listen to the incessant bleating of soccer moms about the merits of American Idol or The Bachelor.

People sitting within earshot would witness our little U.N. style debates and marvel:

"My God, you guys know way too much about this stuff.  You're always blurting out the most obscure and twisted stuff about music, movies, television..."

"Yeah," I said in reply to Mark.  "It's like we've got 'entertainment tourette's syndrome'..."

Anyway, on that particular day, Mark wasn't about to let me off the hook with my broad proclamation that all television was crap.

"I'm gonna bring in a few episodes of a show that I want you to watch.  I'll bet you any money that you'll like it so much, it'll single-handedly change your perception about what a television show is capable of."

"Sure, whatever, pal," I loudly dismissed with a wave of my hand.  "But get ready to eat your words; I haven't seen a decent show on television since Buffy and Angel went off the air."

Mark practically laughed in my face.

"Yeah, well, what you watch tomorrow night will make those shows look like crap."

For the sake full disclosure, this was the show he was boasting about:

And deservedly so.  I dare you to watch the ending of the first episode of The Shield and then not burn through a slew of episodes every night like it's the entertainment version of a tube of Pringles.

Former Angel producer Shawn Ryan created in The Shield one of the most gritty, multi-faceted, morally complicated television programs I'd ever had the pleasure of watching before or since.

The show is set in the very troubled fictional Farmington district in Los Angeles.  Gang activity is rife, drugs flow like water and nut bars of every single persuasion walk the streets.  Into this is thrust a four-man Strike Team charged with cleaning up the streets.  It's led by Detective Vic Mackey: law enforcement's answer to a charging bull moose.  Although Vic's arrest record is impressive and he really is single-handedly lowering the area's crime rates, no-one really wants to know how much of a train wreck he is just below the surface.

But as an omnipotent audience member, we're privy to all things Vic, including his Lemmy-sized personality warts.  He's a womanizer, his family is falling apart, he's hot-tempered, hard-headed, abusive, violent and prone to routine tortuous brutality.  And, then, of course, there's the most difficult thing to reconcile about Vic: he gets results.  

Anyone who still sees Michael Chiklis as The Commish or The Thing from that excremental Fantastic Four movie needs to watch this show, stat to wash the taste of those bland characterizations out of their mouths.  It's high testimony to the actor's ability that, despite being possessed of some really repugnant qualities, he still manages to engender considerably sympathy amongst viewers.  When I was plowing through the show I'd often times catch myself actually rooting for Vic to extricate himself from the binds he put himself into. 

In addition to Chiklis serving as a solid anchor, the show benefits from a truly charismatic supporting cast.  Catherine Dent as Officer Danielle Sofer doesn't always make the best choices, but that's what makes her realistic and relatable.  Paula Garcés as Officer Tina Hanlon does a masterful job trying to convey the unique challenges of a female cop in a predominantly testosterone-fueled realm.  Speaking of challenges, Officer Julien Lowe, who's portrayed expertly by Michael Jace, is a character with a strong Catholic faith who struggles to excise his latent homosexual desires.

Shawn Ryan's real-life squeeze, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, is completely convincing as Vic's long-suffering ex-wife Corrine.  Slack, lazy and opportunistic Detective Billings as played by David Marciano is such an infuriating bastard that you just count the seconds for his comeuppance.  Benito Martinez brings an alternately aggressive and twitchy approach to the role of ambitious councilman David Aceveda.  Something happens to his character half way through the run of the show that's so joltingly awful that it's difficult to process.

The Strike Team that serves as Vic's most guarded and insular allies (at least in theory) are also a colorful and ethically shaky lot. Walton Goggins is superb as good ole' boy Shane Vendrell.  Shane is occasionally capable of loose-cannon bravery but he's also a sucker for easy women and readily available narcotics.  The more he tries to emulate Vic's ability to extricate himself from tight spots, the more he tends to bury himself.

Kenny Johnson's Curtis Lemansky is Beavis to Vic's Butt-Head.  He a sweet, sensitive character that's swept up in the Strike Team's more unsavory pursuits mainly due to his history with and loyalty to the others.  As per the thematic drive of the show, "Lem's" desire to do the right thing ultimately leads to disastrous results.

Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) is the most utilitarian member of the Strike Team.  He's an interesting cat, kinda like that quiet person at work that you're around for eight hours every day but you still barely know anything about them.  He's competent, fearless, level-headed and intensely committed to the other members of the team.  His only hubris: believing that Vic will be as stalwart as he would be when his own ass is on the line.

But my favorite characters certainly have to be Claudette Wyms and  Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach, played by CCH Pounder and Jay Karnes respectively.  The two make for an unlikely but highly effective investigative partnership.  Claudette is the conscience and soul of the department.  Although sometimes she's ruled by her passions, she's a brilliant interrogator, a three-dimensional thinker and a highly competent administrator.  Revelations about her health mid-way though the run of the show is appropriately heartbreaking and there are no tidy resolutions.  The Shield, just like real life, certainly doesn't play favorites with the traditionally "good" characters.

Dutch is a learned and tireless investigative savant, but he's often frustrated when his theories don't translate to the unpredictable real world.  He's a bit socially retarded and his recurring soft spot for bad 80's pop music makes for some rare moments of levity in the show.  Towards the end of the program's seven season run, Dutch begins to realize that everything isn't quite as black and white as he first thought it was.  This comes to a head when he matches wits with a teenager whom he believes is a burgeoning serial killer.

Rounded out by a veritable rogues gallery of amazing guest stars (Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Anderson spring to mind for starters), frighteningly authentic production design and excellent hand-held camerawork which effectively conveys a constant sense of unease and documentary-like realism, The Shield still stands as my all-time favorite dramatic television show.

As if to underscore just how right he was, Mark's next revelation came in the form of this HBO gem:

Entourage has a giddy amount of fun breaking through television's "fourth wall".  Allegedly based on "Marky" Mark Walberg's inexplicably meteoric rise to fame, it centers around Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), a charismatic pretty-boy from Queens, New York who, through some lucky bounces, becomes an A-list movie star.  He moves out to Hollywood, California and brings along a parcel of childhood hanger-on's with him.  The titular Entourage consists of his terminally frustrated manager Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly), his gofer/driver of dubious worth Salvatore "Turtle" Assante (Jerry Ferrara) and Vinnie's older brother Johnny (Kevin Dillon).

The chemistry and banter between our four intrepid heroes is completely seamless.  The actors inhabit their roles so expertly that at no time does it ever feel like your watching someone "act".  I think I relate to this show so much because it reminds me of the questionable chicanery and fraternal bonds of brotherhood that living in university residence provides.  I know for a fact that if I suddenly became as rich and influential as Vinnie here, I'd certainly have my own ersatz support system around me.

It's a hilarious show because you can just see how much these guys relish their new lives.  You can only imagine how much insanity can occur when you take a bunch of arrested development a-holes, put them in decadent L.A. and then give them as much money and vice as their constitutions will allow.

The writers also have a blast playing with show business conventions.  Vincent has to contend with flighty indie directors, a slush-pile of crap scripts, a big-budget superhero flick (helmed by James Cameron, natch!), adoring female fans with questionable motivations and the constant debate of art versus commerce.

My favorite character has to be Kevin Dillon's Johnny "Drama".  Johnny actually found fame years before his little brother thanks to a little seen, cheezy sci-fi/fantasy series called Viking Quest.   In addition to kicking off his career, playing Thorvald in Viking Quest also apparently killed it.   When the first season of Entourage begins, Johnny hasn't worked a proper acting gig in years so he's currently riding on his little brother's lengthy coat-tails and acting as his "personal chef and trainer".

It's with a giddy sense of fun that we watch Johnny's career slowly experience something of a resurgence and even threaten to overtake that of his fraternal meal ticket.  Alas, Thorvald's oft-heard battle cry of "VICTORY!" is something Johnny doesn't get to a chance to say very frequently as the seasons ream by.

And, of course, who can talk about Entourage without mentioning Jeremy Piven's brilliant turn as the excitable, avaricious, scheming uber-agent Ari Gold?  Here's just a sample of some of his finer moments:

As if the first two recommendations weren't enough to prove Mark's case beyond a shadow of a doubt, he promptly took my tunnel-visioned anti-T.V. stance into a isolated room, tied it to a table with Saranwrap, nicked it on the cheek with a scalpel, eviscerated it, put the bits into garbage bags and then threw it off the side of his boat in the Florida keys.  If case you haven't puzzled out my lame, hyper-extended metaphor by now, please know that I'm referring, of course, to this stellar little program:

The premise for Dexter just makes you wonder why someone didn't come up with it earlier.  Dexter was horribly traumatized as a child when he witnessed his beloved mother's gruesome murder.  Orphaned by the tragedy, he was adopted by Harry Morgan, the cop that found him.  As he begins to grow up, Dexter's odd behavioral tells are noticed by his foster father, who decides to try and channel the boy's dark side towards something constructive.  From there on in, the hallowed "Code of Harry" dictates that Dexter can only ever prey upon the most undesirable elements of society like a serial killer vigilante.

Now, no-one can really claim that there's never been an example of sympathetic serial killers (witness Hannibal Lecter and Johnny The Homicidal Maniac for starters) but the titular focus of this show is constantly struggling to retain a facade of normalcy.  He has an ironic, yet logical, career as a forensic blood-spatter specialist.  He's a reliable and straight-laced foundation for his sister Deb.  He's a dutiful boyfriend to the damaged-goods Rita and her winsome, adoring kids.

But he also murders scores of people in the most horrific manner imaginable.  Which brings us back to The Shield's climate of moral ambiguity.  Do the ends truly justify the means here?  And, if so, how does that reflect on us, the audience?

The cast is phenomenal.  Michael C. Hall strikes a pitch perfect balance between perfidious murderer and charming everyman as the eponymous anti-hero.  Jennifer Carpenter, who's proved her acting chops before in such challenging roles as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, excels as Dexter's potty-mouthed, dogged sister who seems to keep falling for the wrong guy.  Once can't help but wonder if life imitated art somewhat when the two leads defied fictional taboos and married in 2007 and then promptly divorced three years later.

Two more supporting actors deserve special mention.  I make no secret about my love for Julie Benz and no one can slight Dexter for wanting to take care of her.  Also Erik King is fascinating as Sgt. Doakes, who seems to be the only one on the police force who has the ability to see through Dexter's machinations.  His humorously dogged attempts to bully Dexter into betraying his true nature is just one of the many reasons why  the second season of this show might represent the best television I've ever seen.        

These three revelatory shows sent me on a quest to find my own small screen gems.  Up until Mark's intervention, I'd been perfectly content to write off television as a vast wasteland, but after my own cursory investigations, the floodgates opened up and I suddenly found myself inundated with an unexpected wellspring of entertainment value.

Thank you, sir.

   The Shield: Season One   Entourage: First Season [DVD]-Disc 1&2 episodes 1-8Dexter: The First Season

FAIL:  Roll Call for a Dark Time...


Sunday, March 6, 2011

David Pretty, Author

Good day to you, Kind Sirrahs!

Okay, so I've written this book.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Big, fat, hairy deal.  Who hasn't written a book?  I'VE written a book, fer Chrissakes!" 

Yeah, but when I say I wrote a book, I mean I really wrote that sucker.  With a capitol "W"...like, with  "THE END" and everything.

So, what inspired me to start writing this epic project back in the Pleistocene Era (I.E. High School)?  What carried me through to the very end when so many people start to write novels only to give up part way through in frustration?  Pull up a chair and I'll tell ya...

In between all the pulpy disposable stuff that kids in middle school are forced to digest (like Flight into Danger, for example), I clearly remember the impactful short stories of William Sydney Porter, better know as O.Henry.  First off, as a kid I thought it was kinda cool that a famous author had named himself after a chocolate bar (Okay, so I wasn't the brightest bulb in the socket, alright?).  Secondly, Henry's twist endings were often unpredictable, organic and often blindsided the reader as effectively as a pedestrian being smoked in the crosswalk by an RV without brakes.

It's also pretty obvious to me that M.Night Shyamalan must have read his works as a kid too, what with the initialed moniker and penchant for popping up and blurting "WHATTA TWIST!"  Ten points to any reader that recognized that little Robot Chicken shout-out, by the by.
In Grade Seven or Eight we covered Romeo & Juliet, which completely fascinated me.  The wellspring of quotable sayings, the magical language, uncompromisingly tragic resolution and universal commentaries on human nature were all mind-blowing  to me.  It was like nothing I'd encountered before in my life (up to that impossibly short span of time).  The fact that Shakespeare wrote this hundreds of years ago and it was still just as relevant today as was when it was first scribed certainly taught me about the immortality of artists. 

I could never have publicly confessed my love for Shakespeare at the time for fear of being blacklisted.  Er, even more blacklisted I should say.  Some of the knuckle-draggers in the class had taken to calling it Fag-eo and Fag-iet and made it clear that anyone who liked this was clearly a freak.  It's memories like this that make me wish I could go back with just a fragment of the confidence and conviction I posses now.  I'd soon tell these organ donors to shove their small-minded, homophobic opinions right where Paddy stuck the doughball.

Before I go on, I'd just like to make it clear that I have no idea what that last phrase means.  I just remember sometimes as a kid hearing my Mom say "Jesus Christ, I felt like telling that friggin' annoying telemarketer to stick it where Paddy stuck the doughball".  If it's dirty or something, it's not my fault.  I'm just the product of my environment.  Send the angry emails to my mom, she'll tell you what to do with them...

Anyhoo, a year later we covered two ancient Greek tragedies by Sophocles: Antigone and Oedipus Rex.  Both were immaculately plotted, labyrinthine little morality plays that spoke volumes about fate, free will, familial loyalty, civil disobedience, tragic irony, hubris, and the dangers of blind ambition (pun not intended).  I considered these to be mind-blowing works of art and although I think they were given short shift by our teachers (not to mention a small minority of attention deficit disorder morons in our class), it still made a major impact on me.

Around the same time Shakespeare made a re-appearance in the form of MacBeth.  Part of me wishes this had been the first exposure to Shakespeare for my class since it's so gory and violent I still refer to it as McDeath.  Frankly, I maintain that a creative instructor could teach any of these works to kids because, at it's core, these plays are still based upon universal, immutable and relevant observations of human behavior.  Well, of course kids are gonna tune out if you try and force them to read it aloud in class or watch some crusty-looking filmed stage play without any discussion, illustration, context or modern-day parallels.

I maintain that the things that Shakespeare and Sophocles were writing about are certainly just as compelling as the average episode of Gray's Anatomy.  Wow, if anything might cause these great writers to do backflips in their respective graves, that was it...

Around the same time I began to read fantasy novels.  I started at the top with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and promptly graduated to his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Despite Tolkien's propensity to document the walking tours of his characters in excruciating detail, I still loved the scope of his imagination, his attention to detail and the thematic subtext running just underneath the surface.  I loved how Tolkien was clearly lamenting about how industrialization was eroding his beloved pastoral way of life and how the horrors of global war instantly turned aggressors into something less than human.

As I tackled a few more imaginative works, however, I began to realize that not every fantasy novel was created equal.  In fact, after a while it started to feel like the literary equivalent of the law of diminishing returns.  Each new book seemed like a plate of warmed-up Tolkien leftovers.  

Worse still, I thought many of these works were of the “quick flip and dispose” variety.  Although many writers are gifted in creating worlds of imagination, they often fail to invest in solid stories, compelling characters and thematic relevance.

So I started my book as a response to this deficit.  I made a conscious effort to avoid the trappings of most fantasy fiction, which is the writer’s tendency to wallow in the minutia of their own world to the detriment of all else.  By combining my love of Greek and Shakespearian tragedy, historic detail and mythic archetypes, I tried to craft a novel populated with contemporary characters and driven by a pretty intricate plot.  Although readers can be perfectly content just following the story to it's conclusion, they're also free to prospect for a vein of universal themes that address the human experience.

The story itself centers around two young brothers, Valarius and Tyrian. When their tutor makes the mistake of lecturing about a distant and mysterious land called Heldmark, the two young men experience an awakening that neither of them can account for.  Spurned on by years of rumor, lies and concealment, the brothers venture north on disparate paths to glean the truth about their origins.  Their journey leads them across the realm to where secrets are revealed, loyalties are strained, and their convictions are tested.  Soon the two are forced to decide if their quest for knowledge is worth courting betrayal and death.

The setting for the story is evocative of a fantasy equivalent of our own world.  This was done to keep a sharp focus on the story, the interaction of the characters and also give readers something to relate to on a unconscious level.   

So, basically, I wrote a book that I would want to read myself.

At first, I tried going the traditional publishing route by getting a copy of the Writer's Market and doing some submissions.  I promptly began to run into a classic "chicken and the egg" scenario: you can't get published without an agent and you'd be hard-pressed to get an agent without first being published.
Plus, I'm a sensitive soul and could only cope with two or three rejection letters.  It's hard to believe it now, but J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected about a dozen times before the CEO of a small publishing house in London decided to take a chance on it at the insistence of his eight-year-old daughter.

The wonderful thing about technology today is that creative and talented people don't have to get beaten up and discouraged by traditional routes anymore.  Right now, we live in a day and age where the Arctic Monkeys can get a record deal by giving away their music at concerts and film-makers like Fede Alvarez can parlay his brilliant youTube sensation Panic Attack! into a full-blown career in Hollywood.  

So, today, Sunday the 6'th of March in the year 2011, my first novel became available to the world as an e-book.  Basically, if you've got a a Kindle, PC, Mac, BlackBerry, iPad/iPhone/iTouch or Android, you can read my book! How trippy is that?!

Now, I've done some research, and to attract a traditional publisher I just need to get a mere ten-thousand people to buy it.  And, hey, let's face it, ten-thousand people is just a drop in the bucket when you consider that close to seven billion people share this rock with me as it hurdles through space.  Surely I can get .000001% of the population of the planet interested in what I legitimately believe to be a decent little yarn?         
Live to dream, folks.

PRETTY FRIGGIN' EPIC:  Well, here's a link to my baby...



Here's the brilliant short film from Fede Alvarez that snagged him a six-figure development deal with Sam Raimi's production house... 

FAIL:  For shame, publishers, for shame...


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Decision By Attrition

Greetings, True Believers!

Two more information sessions punctuated the end of my epic career exploration saga. I swear, the whole process has been the equivalent of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of New Glasgow.  

January 18'th (6 PM)

Still queasy from my Health Information Management test drive earlier that same day, I bus across the pond to an evening info session for Environmental Engineering Technician (Water). Here's the program's description from the college's guide:

"Water resources throughout Canada and the world are being impacted by stresses from population and technological growth, contamination and mismanagement, along with global climate change. The Environmental Engineering Technology - Water Resources program will provide you with the necessary skills, education, and training to be able to assume responsibilities as an engineering technologist in the management, protection, development, and use of this essential resource."

I wanted to check out this possible career path for two very important reasons:
  1. I truly believe that one day pure water will be as scarce as gasoline was in the world of Mad Max.  Or, in our own world, for that matter.  Assuming you're aware of the concept of peak oil.  You are aware that we're eventually gonna run out of oil, right?  Hey, you wasteful twat in the Navigator, I'm talkin' to you!  AhemSorry
  2. I'm a water sign.
Hey, these reasons are no less valid then the ones I eventually used to settle on my choice.  Stay tuned, kiddies, and don't skip ahead for spoilers!

After another threadbare 15-minute propaganda session we're led away by one of the program's instructors to a very official-looking lab.  En route I'm delighted to recognize a fellow survivor from my last place of employ.  She's already registered for the program but wants to check out the information session just to make sure "it's still for her".  She thinks I'll be "really good with this course" but almost in the same breath mentions   that she's already doing math upgrade classes to get the necessary accreditation to get into the program.  This isn't boding well.

In the lab are sinks, beakers, bunsen burners, mini ovens, and aquariums bearing bored-looking trout.  Extra bored.  As if I can tell.  Anyhoo, after a few cursory questions the gruff-looking instructor leads us all into an empty classroom for a proper Q&A.  Here's what I find out:
  • There are numerous prospective employers in the Halifax area for those who complete the two-year program.  They include (but aren't limited to) SLR Consulting, SNC-Lavalin, the ESANS (the Environmental Services Association of Nova Scotia), CBCL Limited, the CRA (Canadian Revenue Agency) and, of course, the FGEFSRTEET(W)ARBAGA or the Fraudulent Generic Employer for Something Related To Environmental Engineering Technician (Water) As Represented By A Gratuitous Acronym.
  • The instructor himself is awesome: he's loud, clear, boisterous and gregarious.  There wouldn't be any nappin' in this dude's class, lemme tell ya!     
  • Typical careers that may result from your study include doing water testing for the Halifax Water Commission, Environmental Technologist, Project Manager, Lab Operator, Lab Technician, Treatment Plant Operator, and Prehensile Titanium-Niobium Tentacle-Equipped Mad Scientist.  
  • "Who gives a s#!%?  How much does it pay already!"  Starting wage is typically $35,000 to $45,000 a year.  Cha-ching!  Halifax Water Commission water testers earn about $25.00/hour.  Mad scientists earn about a billion dollars per extortion/ransom.  
  • Current job prospects...wicked awesome.
  • Required math skills.  To quote the instructor:  "Relatively high.  Higher then construction, imagery work or architecture.  In fact, I'd say that this is the most rigorous program at the college."  To which my internal Lost In Space robot starts screaming "Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger!"  Entrance requirements demand High School Advanced Math, which I actually do (technically) have.  Now, I have to confess that's kinda like saying: "Yeah, I managed to jump over Snake River Canyon but I kinda wrapped my Sky-Cycle around a mesa and now they gotta feed me through a tube."  As if what the instructor has already said isn't daunting enough he then has to go ahead and use the "C"-word.   Yes, that's right, folks...calculus.   Frankly this was as much of a game breaker for me as that friggin' slide of the dog with ectoplasm coming out of his snout.  You're welcome, by the way.   Please stop sending me angry emails. 
  • In addition to full-time class hours, Student sin the program can expect to do about ten to fifteen extra hours of homework. Jesus, how can I be expected to go Back To School  Rodney Dangerfield-style (with all the requisite "partying down" this entails) with so much homework?  "No respect, I tells ya..."
  • The academic year started with thirty-two students.  Only twenty-one remain in the second year and out of those twenty-one students, only six are still clinically sane.
On the way out, my fellow work parolee says:

"Wow, wasn't that fantastic?"

"Sure was.  It certainly made up my mind," I replied. 

"Awesome!  When I was talking to admissions last week they said this program fills up pretty quick.  You may want to get your application in as soon as..."           

"Oh, I'm not applying to this, are you nuts?"  I laughed.  "If I drag my sorry, academically flabby, prehistoric ass back to college, there's no way I'm gonna be totally miserable and possibly borderline suicidal the whole time.  F#@$ that, noise!"

Hmmm, in retrospect, that may have sounded a tad discouraging to her...

January 19 

I'm back in my usual seat same Bat-time, same Bat-channel the following night for my final information session: Screen Arts.  Yes, that's right, the same Screen Arts program that every one of my career transition councilors has been trying to systemically beat out of my head as an option for the past four months.

I decide to give the presenter a break tonight and get up and do the fifteen minute introduction for him since I've committed the f#@$%^ thing to memory by now.

After Screen Arts is called, I go over to the instructor, who acts alarmed that I'm the only one who showed up for this particular information session.  Well, we're off to a promising start!

Despite the fact that there's only two of us, I have plenty of questions so there's never any dead air.  I continue to surprise myself lately.  I guess I've gotten to that point in my life where I feel less socially awkward then about 90% of humanity (including people who are older then me) in 90% of most social situations.  I used to be so shy, but now I'm a freakin' social butterfly.

He takes me on a tour of the film department.  I don't get to see the editing bays but he raves about how "state of the art" everything is, and frankly, based on what I'm privy to, I have no reason to doubt him.  He takes me onto a mock sound stage and I get to check out some props and scenery cobbled together by the students.  We drag a couple of chairs into the middle of the room and get down to brass tacks.  

Here's a summary of what I learn:
  •  Upon completion of the two year program, the goal is to get hired by a local film production company in the hopes that when the next major Hollywood production comes down the pike (Read: the next Jesse Stone movie), your company will be hired and, subsequently, so will you.  At least, I think that's the theory.
  • Pay as a starting union crew member is about $150.00 to $200.00 a day.  Not too shabby, but if you factor in the low end of that scale and the fact that it only takes a coupla months to shoot even a major film production, we're only looking at about $12,000.00 earned for one project. 
  • Maximum class size is twenty seven students, currently the program has 16.  No surprise to me, 60% of the students are only one or two years out of High School.  Wow, I can just imagine what realistic, slice of life, laconic films these grizzled veterans must be producing every year.  
  • Although there are certainly only a finite number of positions available on any given production, the Screen Arts program cross-trains students in a variety of different roles, whether it be editing, sound, set design, construction, and craft services complainer.  Sorry, I know I've only been on three film sets but on every one, some d-bag was just standing around bitching about the food even though it was awesome.  Assholes.
  • The instructor claimed that even when large productions aren't in town to give employment opportunities, you do so much networking over the course of the two year program that you often end up working on your friend's projects and vice versa.  Of course, this could mean working for peanuts.  And that would really suck 'cuz I'm allergic to peanuts.
 Now perhaps the most eye-opening bit of info: the instructor maintains that out of the last graduating class, only three felt compelled to leave for Toronto or Vancouver to get a job.  It goes back to the previous comment about networking for freelance opportunities.

"Frankly it makes a lot of sense for them to stay here.  After all, if they leave for another city they have to start the process of networking and making connections all over again."

This makes sense, but I'm left wondering about what sort of jobs the "all but three graduates" are working at.  Is this my own skeptical voice at work or the voice of my councilors who know I won't get sponsorship for something so blatantly "artsy-fartsy"?

I thank my host and although we wrap up early I still feel a tad guilty keeping him as long as I did.  But, hey, I needed to get all my questions answered and I wasn't about to leave until I grilled this dude like a cheese sandwich.

January 25

I meet with my career transitions councilor and she prods me for a decision on what I want to go back to school for.  I tell her I've certainly ruled out Health Information Management and Environmental Engineering Technology and stall for more time by telling her that I'm going to consult with three industry professionals for more information about careers in IT.  Unbeknownst to her, this merely consists of me sending an email to three of my friends about how much they think their respective jobs suck.

In what I'm sure is a completely unrelated announcement my councilor tell me she's retiring in a few weeks and I need to make up my mind by then.  I feel like screaming in her face: "Cripes, what's with all the friggin' pressure, lady?!  I've only had five months to work on this.  Sheeeesh!"   

For the record, these councilors also don't like it when you tell them that you plan to make a final decision by assigning the numbers one to six to your options and then rolling an over-sized novelty foam die down the hall in order to "determine the winner."   Yeah, they don't think that's very funny.    

January 27

I start to get responses back from my three insiders RE: the following informal survey:
  1. What are your main duties?  Besides playing boardgames at work that is...(name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent).
  2. Generally what skills/qualifications/experience is needed?  Are math skills important for coding?  By the way, if your answer to the first question is "hard knees and suction power" I'm taking something else...        
  3. Without getting two specific can you give me a general idea about entry-level pay in your industry?  Feel free to scan and email over one of your pay stubs... 
  4. Does your employer prefer certain specific schools/accredation?  Or am I okay going with Beothuk Data Processing?  They do still exist, right?    
  5. What are the job prospects like for what you do?  What about the next few years?  Are there any particularly "hot" specializations right now?  Are you sick of these questions already? 
  6. How do you feel about your current employer?  Try to avoid gratuitous use of the word "f#@%tards" if possible... 
  7. What do you like most about the work?  What sucks big hairy knutz about it? 
  8. How do you think the job will change over the next 10 years?  Use those psychic powers! 
  9. What personal qualities are required to succeed in this line of work?  Knowing me like you all do, do you think I can do it and what do you think my own personal challenges would be?  What sage advice would you give to someone who wants to persure your line of work?  Hopefully you all won't reply "RUN!" 
Oh, by the way, I've set this Monday as my deadline to decide so please send back as much info as you can muster before then.  And remember, your replies will have direct impact on my future, so...no pressure!  Kidding!

Some eye-opening replies include:
  • "Positive energy is key, I spend a lot of time in front of customers and they need to see me as their personal technical guru.  Inspiring confidence and trust (along with other soft skills) are just as important as any of the technical stuff"
  • "A hot career path right now is in social media.  Awesome people doing an awesome job.  Social Media analysts answer questions on Twitter, Facebook, Forums and blogs.  Awesome.  I've never seen them do it, but they're generally happy people."
  • "Don't you have anything better to do?  Why aren't you watching crappy daytime T.V., eating corn chips and masturbating like every other unemployed slob?"
In light of such responses, I'm now ready to publicly declare my decision.  

February 1'st           

Without any specific instruction, I show up for my final meeting with my career transitions councilor with my "Career Assessment Report" not filled out to completion.

 "Well, I just filled out the part of the report that I decided on.  What's the sense of filling out the other two options if I'm not going to pursue them?"

My persistently patient councilor casts a world-weary sigh skyward.  I'm sure she's counting the seconds before she runs screaming out of the office, drives to airport and climbs onboard a plane to Florida like one of the Ramones.  I notice she hasn't even turned her computer on.

"You need to fill in the details for the other two occupations to show that you've done some comparative research." 

She leaves me alone for ten minutes and I scramble to fill out the balance of the document from memory.  When she bursts back into the office earlier then promised she catches me cheating using her encyclopedic Canadian Guide to Job Prospects tome to fill out the last few "What skills or qualifications are needed?" blocks.  Awkward!

I'm sure she was of two minds when signing off on the report.  On one hand she was probably pretty depressed that this moment would serve as the exclamation point on an otherwise stellar career.  On the other hand, by signing her name on that report, the thought of never having to deal with my indecisive ass ever again likely promised a rush of endorphins that would make sky diving look like making toast.

I walked out of her office with the precious document in hand.  I had made my decision.

Come September 1'st, I would be perusing the Information Technology program at my local community college.

May God have mercy on my soul.     

EPIC:  Oh, Orion pictures, how I miss thee...

This trailer embodies similar expectations RE: my return to college...

FAIL:  How we take our water resources for granted is well documented in this tremendous documentary...