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.


John M said...

Hi David,

Took me two sessions to get through your long post. Guess you've been busy and skipped a week which is fine, gives me a chance to catch up ;-)

Don't watch much TV/movies, but after being dubbed "Mr. Universe" at our blog (e.g. in "Chicago Fed Fails to 'Prove' Subprime Containment" (June '07) ) discovered and bought a copy of Serenity; watched it a dozen times before lending it to a Long Island-based penny stock analyst who, mercifully, never returned the thing.

Have heard good things about some of the other shows from friends and relations, though. It's new to me that the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica were the humans' own creation coming back to destroy them (a bit like Whedon's "Reavers"?) but it's curious that just since 3/11 it's become obvious that greed and capitalism has seeded the world with a sufficient number of Zircon Bombs to destroy civilization and, perhaps, the human race itself. In fact, I learned just after returning from the OHF launch that Ottawa was nearly dowsed with radiation from a Chalk River plutonium plant in late 1952, and was saved largely through the efforts of a young Jimmie Carter!

The above might help clear up some of the obscurities in the long poem you heard me read yesterday.

David Pretty said...

Hi, John.

Thanks for sending a link to your blog. I'll be sure to check it out!

Take care...