Friday, June 29, 2007

A Little to the Right

Those of you who follow the Swear Jar with the obsessive attention it deserves will note some new links off to the right.

'Swear Jar Buddies' are friends of mine, or else people who are generally friends to the Swear Jar. They have awesome blogs and websites that you should check out. If you'd like to be a Swear Jar Buddy, all you have to do is convince me that I like you.

'Swear Jar Hall of Fame' is for sites devoted to the Hall of Fame inductees. In general, I'll try to link to any official sites, but if you have a quality site devoted to any of the Hall of Famers, send me a link and I'll review it for inclusion. A bunch of photshopped naked pictures aren't going to cut it. Not to say I won't spend some time reviewing, but don't count on a link.

Links and Short Stacks

--For those of you who don’t read my comments section as obsessively I do, here’s a couple of links. First off, Mysterious Don points out that I should have liked to Bob and David’s website. And now, through the power of technology, I will. The Larry the Cable Guy letter is a particular highlight. A lot of his points actually made their way into an episode of Freak Show in the guise of Danny the Plumber Guy. Git to gittin’.

And also, it appears it was the folks at the Will Arnett Research Project who inspired me to institute the Hall of Fame. They’re compiling an excellent resource on GOB and other goodness. Just for them, Will’s been bumped up a couple of spots on the Hall of Fame list. Check back next week for his induction.

--I don’t have the time for a full-fledged review today, but USA’s Burn Notice is great. It’s about a spy, Michael Westin, who is abruptly fired. Now he’s under surveillance, he can’t leave Miami, and he has no idea why he was fired. It’s an action-comedy with what looks to be an elaborate underlying conspiracy. Not only can you learn Fun Facts about how to get past an armored door or how to punch somebody without breaking your hand, but it’s got a hefty dose of Bruce Campbell as Michael’s friend. He’s sort of playing the guy Ash would have grown up to be if he hadn’t opened that damn book.

Actually, it kind of reminds me of Bruce’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. You have a guy whose personality doesn’t really match the archetype of his profession, resorting to clever solutions rather than violence. (Unless absolutely necessary, of course.) If only there were an orb…

--The newly released Reno 911! Season Four box set confirms what I had postulated earlier. It includes what Comedy Central called Seasons 4 & 5, shot and intended for air as a single season. Presumably, making the movie would have slowed down production, and they wouldn’t have had a season ready for this summer, so they split it up. This could not possibly matter less, but I feel better for knowing it. Also, I’m pleased with my detective work.

--At the last minute, I got some stage time at the local comedy club. What with the one day’s notice and the whole thing where I don’t have a job, it was probably not a wise move on my part. Weirdly, there were a disproportionate number of hot girls there. That freaks me out, because deep down, I convince myself that if I’m funny enough, it’ll make them like me. The sad reality, of course, is that I’ll never be that funny.

My point though, is that there were two bachelorette parties there, and bachelorette parties are death to stand-up comedy. Especially when it’s the third stop along the way, and they’re drunk and every where they go, all the focus is on the group of girls with veils and fake penises. They don’t laugh at anything unless the performer specifically references them. It’s horrifying to see a table of women who are not going to laugh at anything you say. So if you’re attending a bachelorette party, don’t go to a comedy club. You’re not going to like it, you’ll make the performers uncomfortable, it won’t be fun for anybody. And that’s one to grow on.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Swear Jar Hall of Fame: Bob and David

Since it's six long days until the next episode of Shaq's Big Challenge, we're instituting a new feature: The Swear Jar Hall of Fame!

Now that I have a spiffy SiteMeter, I can tell how people found my site. (By the way, I feel sort of guilty that some poor bastard Googled Studio 60 and ended up in the middle of one of my screeds.) I've seen a fair amount of traffic coming from users searching people that I like, only I don't have any substantive content. Those people who Googled 'Will Arnett' and 'Tina Fey' last week, were probably disappointed that I only had passing references, even though I love Will and Tina with all my cold black heart. And so, to give the people what they want, the Swear Jar Hall of Fame will expound on some of my favorite performers and writers. And what better place to start than with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk?

The 30-episode run of Mr. Show with Bob and David is one of my personal Gnostic texts. It is, no disrespect to Monty Python or The Kids in the Hall, the greatest sketch comedy series of all time. You just know when the first segment of the first show features David Cross' performance of "Hitler: The Musical", well, you're watching history being made. By staying away from specific parodies, Mr. Show achieved timelessness. Somebody playing Paris Hilton won't be funny five years from now, but "Coupon: The Movie" will always be funny. In fact, other than Droopy, Senator Tankerbell, and the Technophobe, they didn't even have any recurring characters; none of that insular familiarity that SNL too often uses to save a weak sketch. It's genius, all the way through. You should watch it, and thus understand why the phrase 'Check this shit out' cracks me up.

If they'd never done anything after that, Bob and David would still be eligible for Hall of Fame status. But these guys have been working steadily at a generally high level of quality. You've seen them both on just about every sitcom ever. They both played multiple characters on NewsRadio, and David Cross' appearances as 'Slow Donny' are pretty much the only funny episodes of Just Shoot Me. Bob made it over to Seinfeld as an Elaine boyfriend – they did just about everything. In general, even though David Cross seems much edgier, he tends to have a lot of small parts in high-profile projects, while Bob is much more into directing and mentoring young comedians.

Perhaps most importantly, David Cross was a regular on Arrested Development. As Tobias Funke, the sexually deluded analrapist (Part analyst, part therapist) he brought an air of goofy likeability to a bizarre character. He had an inadvertent oral sex reference in nearly every episode, which has to be a prime-time first. David was the reason I watched the show in the first place, so I was lucky to get in on the beginning of the Greatest Sitcom Ever. And when Bob showed up as Tobias' marriage counselor, why, it was Comedy Heaven.

David Cross is doing a lot of voice-over work these days, showing up in animated movies and video games. (Check out his role in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas") He produced and starred in the short-lived Comedy Central cartoon Freak Show, and he's got two terrific stand-up comedy CD's. His comedy is very rambling and abrasive, but it cracks me up.

Bob isn't in front of the camera nearly as much, but he pops up for cameos on adult swim's Tim and Eric, which he also produces. He's directing movies left and right, with the excellent "Melvin Goes to Dinner" a particular highlight. He's at his best when he sticks to small, independent productions, I think. You'll still see him pop up in sitcoms from time to time, notably as 'Porno Gil' on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And I can't remember the name of the movie he's directing starring Will Arnett and Jenna Fischer, but I already predict it will be awesome.

For Mr. Show, Arrested Development, 'Melvin Goes to Dinner', NewsRadio's Chock Full O'Notes, and the rest of their oeuvre, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are the first inductees to The Swear Jar Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Shaq Hates Fat!

Please tell me that you watched Shaq’s Big Challenge. If you didn’t, then you are a fool. A fool I tell you. And you are to be pitied.

First off, let me just say that I’m not making fun of socially inept fat kids. I’m sure you’ll be jaw-droppingly astonished to learn that I myself, was neither popular nor athletic. “But EJ,” you’re probably exclaiming, “How is it that a man who blogs incessantly about superheroes and blurry background details on Lost was not a student-athlete with a veritable entourage of friends and cheerleaders?” I know, I can’t explain it myself.

So my heart really does go out to these kids. That said, this might be the greatest reality show ever. The whole premise is that Shaquille O’Neal is horrified by childhood obesity. (My friend Sam explained that every year, it takes longer and longer for Shaq to get in shape for the season, to the extent that now he’s just about ready for the start of the season by the time the Finals roll around.) Thus, Shaq goes out and finds six fat kids to fix. They don’t really make it clear where this is happening. Do these kids all live in the same neighborhood? They’re sure spending a lot of time together. No matter. The important thing is that each kid is identified onscreen by their name, weight, and a short reason for their weight problem. “Snacks constantly” or “Emotional eater”.

This is the least fake reality show that I’ve ever seen. Let’s face it, if Shaq were being coached or even manipulated in editing, we never would have seen his genius plan of writing up workouts for the kids, getting them gym time, and then leaving them for a week without supervision? You know who’s really good at sticking to an exercise regimen? Fat kids, that’s who! Personally, I have to admire Walter who came up with the idea of doing leg lifts while on the treadmill, killing two birds with one half-assed stone. Would a show with any network manipulation at all feature a scene where Shaq asks a childhood obesity specialist whether he recommends surgery or diet pills?

If you didn’t watch the Big Challenge, you missed a lengthy scene of Shaq failing to navigate a voicemail system. (When he finally gets an operator she exclaims ‘Shaquille O’Neal? Like the football player?’) You also missed Shaq expounding on how “Black people don’t know the words to songs.” And then there was Shaq telling one kid that when he lost weight, he had to punch the people who made fun of him. Right in the face. Beyond that, Shaq actually bullied another kid on camera. And let’s not forget Shaq telling chubby Chris that he should offer to let girls rub his belly. It’s genius!

And I’m thinking Shaq’s rather intense workout expert, ‘Doc’, may be the breakout character of the summer season. We’re talking about a guy who spies on kids to make sure they’re working out. I’m serious here; you have to watch this show. Sure, you’ve already missed Walter farting on Shaq, but we’ve got so much more awesome in the weeks to come. First off, Shaq’s got some asses to kick. They lied about their workouts! He has no choice! And it looks like future episodes involve some sort of march on Washington. I’m not sure how Shaq wants the government to fight childhood obesity, but he’s got a megaphone.

Shaq Quote of the Week: “The only monitor you’ll be looking at is a heart monitor. With you under it.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Not Up to My Usual Standards of Funny...

You know what? When your company closes down, it is not nearly as hilarious in real life as it was on The Office. All things considered, I don’t really have it in me to come up with a side-splitting recap of Age of Love, but I will do my best to be on my game tomorrow to discuss Shaq’s Big Challenge. Shaq + Fat Kids = Pure Gold!

Monday, June 25, 2007

I'm Not a Nerd! Nerds Are Smart!

True to my geek-roots, I saw "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" this weekend, even though my enthusiasm was minimal. As I told Sam, "It's not good in the conventional sense." It was one of those movies I could watch without getting angry, but I will never think about it again.

See, the first FF movie was kind of crummy. It had its moments, particularly Michael Chiklis' sort-of-heartbreaking Ben Grimm. But for the most part, it just wasn't all that good. It wasn't offensively bad or anything. It didn't even crap all over the characters, at least not enough to send me into a nerd rage. I think if it had bombed, I probably would have been upset. I'm kind of protective of the FF, you see. If they had a crummy movie that bombed, it could only have hurt their reputations. I wouldn't want to see the Fantastic Four invoked as the go-to for bad movies. Instead, they had a crummy movie that was a hit, so I'm happy for them.

I have to say, the sequel was actually an improvement, despite its focus on the Silver Surfer, who just bores me silly. I sort of liked him here, because he was played as an emotionless force of nature. Sure, he gets a personality by the end, but since his having a personality coincided with him losing his powers, it sort of worked. If you're all-powerful and mopey, it's just irritating. I think Reed was handled better this time, although he really could have benefitted from being even more socially inept. Against my better judgment, I was amused by Johnny this time around, and Jessica Alba's Sue continued to make absolutely no impression whatsoever.

Andre Braugher's performance was good, and he's always fun to watch. Brian Posehn, as the priest at Reed and Sue's wedding, amused me. It was just such random casting. And I daresay this is the best Stan Lee cameo ever, with Stan Lee playing himself and being turned away at the wedding. Julian (Dr. Troy) McMahon was a much better villain this time around, though I had to convince myself he wasn't playing Dr. Doom. That wasn't Doom, bro. That was a smarmy megalomaniac. I liked the performance, it just didn't feel like he was playing Doom.

The big fight at the end was more fun than it should have been. And initially, I was irritated that Galactus was a cloud. Oooh, scary. A cloud. But the thing is, the comic book portrayal of Galactus looks great in print, but in live-action, a giant wearing a purple-pronged helmet just looks like another float in the Gay Pride Parade. And actually, by the end, that cloud looked almost Lovecraftian. It makes sense to have Galactus be something that could actually envelope the Earth. Personally, I would have gone with an intelligent insect swarm, but bees in space would look really damn stupid.

The dialogue was better this time, but still weak. A couple of times, it almost felt like a Futurama parody of the movie. "Like a fish, trapped in a net?" "Exactly!" And the domestic squabbles, which is really what sells the Fantastic Four as a concept, just fall flat.

All in all, it's pretty to look at, there's plenty of action, and not much else. Just like me, baby.

I Am Excited About Things!

My sister brought up an excellent point in a comment, so I think it’s time for a list of Exciting Things This Week!

Tuesday – It’s the premiere of Shaq’s Big Challenge! The “Kazaam” star has his own fitness show for fat kids. If you’ve seen the ad where Shaq (delicate flower that he is) demands that Walter stop farting on him, you’ve already got the recorder set. Tuesday at 9 on ABC.

Thursday – I am way excited about Burn Notice. It’s billed as an action-comedy about a spy who loses his job. The previews look decent, but the main reason for my ebullience is that Swear Jar Hall of Famer Bruce Campbell is 3rd billed! Woo! Thursday at 10 on USA.

Friday – My buddies at Pixar bring out “Ratatouille”. I’m obsessed with all things Pixar. Even better, “Incredibles” helmer Brad Bird is behind this one too. (Did you know he directed almost all of the early Krusty the Klown scenes on The Simpsons?) Add voice work by Patton Oswalt and Will (GOB!) Arnett, and I may have to see this one twice just to blot up all the awesome.

And remember, Big Brother starts on Thursday, July 5. If you think I’m joking about how excited I am, you don’t really know me at all. Seven summers of thrice-weekly episodes, and I haven’t missed a one. It’s an emotional roller coaster, is what it is.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Short Ends for a Weird Week

It’s been a weird and stressful week. And while next week promises to be more of the same, I’ll hopefully be adjusted to my new reality, to the extent that my blogging will not suffer. While I attempt to recoup, today we’ll just have some short bits.

--I’m in serious danger of losing my nerd cred here, but I haven’t seen “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” yet. I’ll get to it this weekend, and as I’ve mentioned before, I know that I’ll be disappointed. Yet, it’s inevitable that I see it. It’s not as if I have to see every superhero movie. I don’t even see all the successful ones, as I never made it to “Ghost Rider”. I have a lot of affection for the FF, though. What’s really weird is that I’ve somehow managed not to see or hear a single review. How is that even possible? Did I spend the weekend in a sensory deprivation tank?

--I really wanted to stop beating this dead horse, but I had Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on in the background last night. (Now that I have the magic DVR box, I can reserve shows I care about for when I can actually watch them. No longer will Mike Rowe be relegated to the background.) Anyway, part of the show was a flashback to late 2001, so that Sorkin could boldly satirize the post-9/11 wave of patriotism. Wow. Way to take a stand 5 ½ years later, dude. Seriously, why blow your second-to-last episode on how outraged you were five years ago? First off, it’s not as if it’s something nobody’s said in the intervening time. You don’t get to retroactively make yourself edgy, you know? Bill Maher might have appreciated your defense in 2001. It’s not really doing much for him now. If only Studio 60 had been renewed, we could have seen Sorkin taking on such hot-button issues as the OJ Simpson trial, Lenny Bruce, and the War of 1812.

By the way, I will guarantee you right now that Sorkin’s next show will feature an unflattering parody of Tina Fey. And also, criticism of people who use the Internet. Dude hates the Internet and its users.

--I’m convinced that Seasons Four and Five of Reno 911! were filmed concurrently. This absolutely obsesses me. First off, Season Four is the only season that doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger. Secondly, Wiegel is pregnant through both seasons, although Paul Rudd only makes one appearance as the Lamaze instructor in Season Five. Finally, most of the Season Five episodes don’t have a running storyline. The Hooters episode and the rigged election are the only ones that have a recurring story that affects more than two characters. Nobody else refers to the mounted police arc, for example. I think it was all supposed to be one long season that got split up, and entire episodes were made up of unused footage. I suspect that the movie was filmed after Season Four, and it would have put off creating any new material for Season Five for too long. I can’t imagine that anybody else in the world cares about this, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve lost actual sleep.

--How many times have I watched the premiere of Flight of the Conchords this week? Four times!

--According to Google, the Swear Jar is now the number two reference for ‘Nerd Boners’. Since I thought I came up with the phrase, I’m mildly saddened not to be number one. Still, it’s something. Also, I got a hit from somebody searching for ‘incest’. See, one of my search terms for a post where I link to another blog is ‘blogular incest’, so some poor sap who wants to do his sister ended up in the middle of a discussion about Gilmore Girls. I’m sorry, sir. You weird freak.

Have a good weekend! Keep your fingers crossed that no more applecarts get upset on my end.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

My New Site Meter

I've now added a site meter to the Swear Jar. Now I can tell if anybody actually visits! Further, I can tell how you got here, so if you happened to find your way here by Googling 'Jack Bauer Hymen', you should be ashamed of yourself. I remain jealous of my sister, who got a visitor searching for "Michael Jordan's shower curtain".

It's not like I'm going to publicly humiliate anybody, it's just for my own amusement. Plus, it would be nice to see if anybody's actually reading this damn thing. Honestly, I'm really hoping that somebody Googles 'Nerd Boners'. I'd like to think I'm the top of that Google search.

Another Blog-Free Day

I'm spending the day looking for a job, as my employment situation is currently a mite precarious. Thus, I've got no new content for you today. Sorry.

If somebody out there wants to hire me, I'll be writing new jokes and reviews any second now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

We Interrupt this Blog...

Real-life concerns are unfortunately cutting into my blogging time. Instead of something lengthy today, I'd like to proudly announce my new website.

Check out the Official EJ Feddes website!!!

It's not like I'm so important that I feel like I deserve a website, but it's a lovely birthday present from the rest of Notable Sawyer. For $5 you can download some of my stand-up, there are useful links, and one day, I'll have a schedule of upcoming performances. Plus, you can see actual video of me, and thus confirm that I look exactly like you pictured.

Don't worry, I'll be talking about TV or nerd stuff again tomorrow.

Monday Night Reality-Fest!

I’m sad to report that the Hell’s Kitchen AaronWatch has come to an end before it could properly begin. After a reward challenge breakfast service in which, when he was asked ‘What are you doing?’ he honestly answered ‘Nothing’, I thought we were in for some prime hijinx, but he went and passed out right before the potato peeling began. They rushed him to the hospital, and we were told he was ‘seriously ill’ and could not continue on the show. I would have liked more details, like, was there actually an illness or was his general health not up to snuff. I feel bad about laughing at him last week if he actually had a tumor or something.

So many disasters this week, it’s better to take each chef individually. (Although I should really note the guys’ strategy session where they tried to determine a leader and each one voted for himself. Beautiful.)

ROCK – He might actually the best candidate, if he weren’t saddled with a team of boneheads. I think somebody needs to remind him he’s not actually in the military. (“Medic!” “You never leave a man behind.” – And by ‘behind’, he meant ‘upstairs, where he is taking too long to get dressed.’) Dude’s a little intense. Still, he’s the only one of the men who doesn’t suck.
JULIA – I know the chefs and the voiceover give her crap for being a short order cook, but she’s hanging in there. She rocked the breakfast service, and she did her best to salvage the sinking ship of dinner. (By the way, guys, you don’t get to act smug when both teams fail and you’re judged the least bad.) I think at some point she’s going to get nailed for not knowing some of the higher-end stuff, but she’s going to outlast most of these boneheads.
VINNIE – I feel like he’s going to punch Gordon before the end of the season. He has made almost no impression on me, other than the fact that he sucks.
BRAD – And speaking of ‘no impression’… I feel like either he or Vinnie has to go next week, just so I can characterize the one who’s left as ‘that guy with no personality who sucks’.
JEN – I sort of didn’t know she was on the show until this week. And now she’ll forever be ‘The Woman who Tried to Serve Spaghetti from the Garbage Can’. My great regret is that Ramsey didn’t catch her at it. Can you imagine the flurry of bleeping?
MELISSA – She hasn’t really stood out in the challenges. I don’t know if that’s because she is good at it, or if she’s not actually getting anything done. At this point she’s really only notable for the amount of time she spends on cleavage presentation, especially for the rewards.
BONNIE – I kind of like her. For the most part, she doesn’t screw up. I love that she clearly has a crush on Gordon Ramsey. I think he broke her heart this week after she brought out the raw scallops.
JOSH – You know, it might just be that everybody named ‘Josh’ on a reality show is a douche. The only one I can think of is Big Brother 3 Josh, but he ruined it for everybody. This guy doesn’t know a damn thing, and he’s got this brain-dead arrogance.
JOANNA – She’s been irritating me all along, and I won’t miss her. It’s nice how her incompetence meant that she never got around to serving the rancid crab.

Ordinarily, this is where I’d call it a day. However, I ended up watching NBC’s Age of Love last night, and it was simultaneously awful and unmissable. The premise, in case you’ve somehow missed the one million promos, is that a group of women in their 40’s (the Cougars) and a group in their 20’s (the Kittens) are competing for the same man.

First off, none of the participants knew the premise of the show until it started. Also, most of them seem to think that they’re on The Bachelor, as they keep using that show’s terminology, right down to calling him Bachelor Mark. I’m just waiting for somebody to use the phrase ‘Rose Ceremony’. Chris Harrison is going to be pissed.

My sister says that Mark is genuinely hot, and not Bachelor hot. I’m not even going to take a stab at his last name, but he’s a 30-year-old tennis star. (Although my sister claims that his stardom was five years ago. Also, they show him on magazine covers which are obviously fakes. Anybody out there subscribe to “Sporting Life Monthly”?) He clearly was not geeked about the wave of older women coming at him, but he recovered. Weirdly, he only finds out about the 20-year-olds after the first elimination, though we see clips of them getting ready for the entire episode. When is he going to get to the fireworks factory?!?

There’s a certain incompetence in the production. The first date involves rappelling down a building – presumably because the show has no travel budget at all. In fact, and I’ve never seen this before, one of the end credits reads “Shot on Location at…” and it actually gives a specific New York address. Shouldn’t ‘Shot on Location’ be reserved for foreign locales? See, this was shot in an actual building, and we can prove it! And then there’s the contrasting scenes of the ‘Kittens’ and the ‘Cougars’ (I feel dirty using those titles) in their suites. The older women are doing needlepoint and washing dishes, and the younger women are, seriously, hula-hooping. Nothing screams ‘youth’ like a hula-hoop!

So far, only the older women have interacted with Mark, and for the most part, they’re more stable than The Bachelor’s, well, stable. Nobody’s gotten plastered, the tears have been at a minimum, and the infighting virtually nonexistent. I felt bad for these women that they all had to announce their age when they met him. Not cool, NBC. I don’t have a feel for most of them yet, but there are a couple of them who look like they spent their younger years as groupies for various Hair Metal bands. You can just tell that they have lived a life, you know?

The younger girls seem dumb as posts. I mean, we haven’t seen much of them but their interview segments were sort of hilarious. And there are a lot of fake breasts in that group. Not that I have anything against them, but they should at least look sort of real, you know? These girls might as well have had propellers installed instead.

I like that NBC is calling this ‘the ultimate social experiment’. First off, I know there’s another show that used that phrase. Second, it’s not like this will prove any grand point about youth vs. experience. It’ll just prove who this particular guy will choose from this particular group, and like every other dating show, they’ll be broken up before the finale airs. And third, that phrase makes me so uncomfortable, because it almost sounds like a defense of Nazism. “Genocide, nein, nein. It was the ultimate social experiment!”

In a way, Age of Love diminishes us all. In another way, I’ve already set the DVR for the rest of the season.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Summer Viewing: John from Cincinnati & Flight of the Conchords

Damn you, HBO! I really thought that with the end of The Sopranos and the premature cancellation of Deadwood, I’d be able to save some bucks and drop them until The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm come back. But alas, they’re rolling out the new shows, and it looks like I will remain HBO’s bitch.

First off, John from Cincinnati. Obviously, I’m following anything from Deadwood creator David Milch, but the prospect of a series about surfing was not immediately attractive to me. Basically, I don’t know anything about surfing, so I can’t distinguish between good and bad. If somebody is standing on a board in the water, they seem like an excellent surfer to me, because I sure as hell can’t do that. All I really know is that Swear Jar Buddy Rob nearly lost half his face in a surfing accident, which means he’s this close to being a Batman villain.

Anyway, I don’t know anything about cooking, plastic surgery, mother-daughter relationships, or an active social life, but I watch shows about those things, so it’s not like lack of knowledge on a theme will scare me off. It was off to a good start, and then John took a sharp turn into weirdness with a floating man and a miracle-working parakeet, and cemented my devotion for life.

At its core, John is about a family of surfers, the Yosts. Patriarch Mitch blew out his knee some years back, and now he’s a bitter man. His son, Butchie, has some dark history that’s only been hinted at, but now he’s a drug addict trading in on his celebrity to get free boarding at a motel. And Butchie’s son, Shaun, is a teenage phenom, courted by agents. I didn’t know surfers had agents. I don’t doubt that they do, but this is just another example of me not knowing anything about the sport.

And then John shows up. He’s a blank-faced young man who looks sort of like a fetal Chris Isaak. He speaks either in vague statements (“The end is near” or “Some things I know and some things I don’t know.”) or repeating words and phrases he’s heard recently, even imitating their cadence. And if somebody asks him for something, it’s always in his pockets. Ask him if he’s seen your cell phone – it’s in his pocket. Ask for $2300 – he’s got it. He doesn’t know how a toilet works or even how to move his bowels. Something ain’t right about that boy. Also, he seems to cause an earthquake in the second episode.

Shortly after meeting John, Mitch Yost starts to spontaneously levitate. There’s a retired cop named Bill (played by the great Ed O’Neill) who has two distinct personalities and a parakeet that performs miracles. And there’s a lottery winner who’s moved back to town to deal with the haunted motel. This is one weird show.

It’s sort of a modern Twin Peaks, without the self-indulgence that ultimately crippled that show. There’s a narrative and characters are grounded in reality, there’s just some weird stuff happening around them. And of course, they speak in Milch’s trademark roundabout dialogue, with flowery speeches interrupted by incredible profanity. It’s no Deadwood – I’ll be honest with you. But it is mesmerizing. And some of our Deadwood favorites show up – in two episodes I’ve seen Ellsworth, Charlie Utter, Leon, and Francis Woolcott, who’s creepy no matter what century he’s in. HBO’s got me for another season. Bastards.

Just to rub it in, they premiered Flight of the Conchords last night, and I am instantly obsessed. Starring the guy from “Eagle vs. Shark” (my Internet is slow, so I have no time to research names.), it’s the story of a New Zealand folk duo trying to make it big in New York. The humor is of the dry absurdist variety, and I love it to an unhealthy degree. The band has one fan, their latest video was shot on a cell-phone camera, and one of them is devoting his time to building a helmet that looks like his hair. It’s highly bizarre.

They incorporate songs into the action, sort of like The Sarah Silverman Program, and they are great songs. Jermaine courts a woman with “You’re as beautiful as a dream / or a high-class prostitute.” And there’s the “Robots from theYear 2000” song, complete with a ‘binary solo’. It’s excellent, and you should watch it. No, I mean it. I’m going to judge you if you don’t.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Satire? I Hardly Know 'Er!

OK, so you turn a popular cell-phone download into a TV series. How can that not be great? I like playing Snood a whole lot, maybe that would make a great half-hour comedy!

Now, the idea of portraying the President and his inner circle as children is not an inherently bad idea. I mean, other than Rob Walton’s “Ragmop Babies” I can’t think of a single time when it’s been done well, but I can’t pretend I’ve watched or read everything ever. But when it’s poorly done and completely witless, then you have a problem. And so it begins for Lil’ Bush.

This is the kind of thing I was talking about yesterday. There are no real jokes, just an implicit idea that it’s inherently hilarious to portray Bush as mean and dumb. It turns out, it really isn’t all that funny in and of itself. In fact, it’s not even a little bit funny. You can redeem a stupid premise with good jokes, but that ain’t happening here.

First off, Bush Sr. is President in the series, only Dubya is a child. It’s clearly set in the present, with Bush Sr. dealing with the same foreign and domestic issues as his son deals with in real life. And also the caricatures and voice performances are so week that you can’t really tell who anyone is supposed to be. The alleged jokes are as follows: Lil’ Bush is mean and dumb. Lil’ Jeb is retarded. Lil’ Condi is a girl. Lil’ Rummy is a victim of domestic violence. And Lil’ Cheney is violent and incomprehensible. In fact, with Cheney, it seems as if they decided “Jon Stewart’s impression of Cheney is funny. Boomhauer from King of the Hill is funny. Let’s rip them both off!” They probably didn’t add ‘That’s sure to suck all the humor from those jokes’, but it was implied.

One would think that the station producing TV’s best political satire (Stewart and Colbert, take your bows!) would actually have the ability to distinguish between good and bad. Apparently, Comedy Central is just sort of feeling around in the dark and hoping. Lil’ Bush is not as smart or shocking as South Park, although it may be more tasteless. Which, without wit, is just boring. This is a show that even manages to destroy comedy’s Rule of Three. (If you repeat a joke, even if it wasn’t funny at first, by the third time, it will be.) The first time Lil’ Cheney bites the head off a live bird, it’s not funny. In fact, it was immediately clear that would be his ‘thing’. The second time, still not funny. The third time was just a sad inevitability, followed by some relief that they were probably done with it.

I don’t know how it’s possible that this came from Donick Cary, the Simpsons writer who came up with Mr. Sparkle. I honestly think it’s an attempt to build his profile by courting controversy, so he can develop whatever passion project he might have. Unfortunately, it’s not even clever enough to be controversial. If you want to see the President satirized, there are certainly places to see it done well. If you don’t like the President and you have absolutely no sense of humor or ability to distinguish good animation from bad, this is probably the show for you.

Almost forgot: Two of the major humor themes running through the first episode: ‘Read my lips’ and horny old people. I’m still clutching my sides.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pretend You Care what I Think for a Minute

You know, the last thing I want to do is discuss politics here. I want to talk about The Shield and South Park, and my views on abortion or gun control shouldn’t factor into it. The problem is, I’ve started two TV reviews that run into political territory, and in order to make the point I need, I have to venture too far from my starting place. So I’m just going to put some things down here so that you can better understand my upcoming review of Lil’ Bush. (And politics aside, Calculon put it better than I ever could. “That was so bad, I think it gave me cancer.”)

In the last three Presidential elections, I’ve voted Republican, Democrat, and Independent, in no particular order. I think it’s a mistake to belong to a major political party, because they build their platforms by taking contrary stances on major issues, and I think there’s a certain intellectual laziness at work when you claim to match up with one party straight across the board.

The main thing is that intolerance pretty much always sucks. And while there is a certain amount of intolerance on the Right, it’s just as prevalent on the Left. I see a lot of it in the media, an assumption that you agree with everything they’re saying, because if not, you’re probably too dumb to read. And this is not a criticism of all media. I’m thinking of very specific outlets. “Rolling Stone”, for example, has become unreadable in its assumption that the entire readership is in lockstep with Jann Wenner on every issue. (And by the way, you don’t get to publish smug articles about the environment every month when you also lionize decadent lifestyles. I officially don’t have to give a shit what you think about the plight of diamond miners in Africa when you run an article on who has the biggest bling in the same issue. Hypocrisy is not just for Congressmen, you know.) I agree with some of what they have to say, and I disagree with some. What I object to is the ‘Only idiots disagree with us’ mentality.

The bottom line is that most people, Republican and Democrats, want the same things. They may not agree on how to get there, but they could work together towards a common goal. The problem is that there’s a fringe on either side, and the opposing side does its best to paint that fringe as the mainstream of that party. The thing is, if you paint all Christians or NASCAR fans into the same box, you are exactly as big of an asshole as somebody who does the same with homosexuals. You don’t get to decide whose opinion doesn’t matter.

Sometimes I agree with a stance on The Simpsons, for example, and sometimes my beliefs are the target of satire. But I never get the indication that they would consider me a bad person for our disagreement. It’s the assumption that only an idiot can disagree that’s bad for our country. “Rolling Stone” and Bill O’Reilly are equally guilty here.

I’m really not going to debate politics here. This has just been a running theme in some things I was going to look at, and laying it out will make it easier for me to explain why I didn’t like Weeds, for example.

In conclusion, we can be friends if you’re a Republican, and we can be friends if you’re a Democrat. We can even be friends if you don’t watch The Office, but it will be difficult.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Summer Viewing: Hell's Kitchen & Creature Comforts

So, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a social life, and decided that route just wasn’t for me. Thus, it’s the first installment of Summer Viewing! Two shows I like, both on network TV on Monday nights.

First off, Hell’s Kitchen. This, like many other shows introduced to me by my sister, is one of those shows that I’m not entirely sure I should like. Still, I’m a sucker for reality shows that require people to actually be good at something. Not only because I like to see achievement rewarded, but also because creative types have the best meltdown. (Of course, I also love Big Brother with a manic obsession, and that doesn’t require the contestants to be good at anything.)

In a post-Trump world, Gordon Ramsay is the new host I support despite every attempt to make me do otherwise. Seriously, the dude is MEAN. Oh, and foul-mouthed. That’s a lot of bleeps, you know? And he varies between being almost Simon Cowell-ish in the complexity of his insults to a simple ‘Fuck off. You make me sick’. Weirdly, if you’ve ever seen his BBC show, Kitchen Nightmares, he comes off as a nice guy who genuinely wants to help these failing restaurants get back on track. (I believe there’s a FOX version on schedule for the fall.) The former contestants (for the most part) hold him in pretty high esteem, so I’m guessing there’s a method to his screechy madness.

Obviously, you can’t fully experience a cooking show since you can’t taste the product. That’s why Hell’s Kitchen is so smart about having the main competition focus on dinner service. Obviously, the taste of the finished dish is an important factor, but even more important is getting those 50 tables served in a timely manner. I have to believe Gordon when he says the spaghetti is overcooked, but I can see for myself that Josh is setting his Beef Wellington on raw pastry. It’s a clever format that manages to get around the major drawback of a food competition.

And this year, we’ve got some messed up contestants. Brad and Josh are arrogant assholes, and that one woman who’s always giving Julia crap about being a short order cook is just awful. But let’s not overlook Aaron. Pushing 50, Aaron is the oldest in the competition. He’s also a chubby Asian man who dresses like a cowboy. And he’s a complete headcase. His first panic attack came before the opening service challenge even began. And then he burst into tears during dinner service.

This week, he kicked it off by cursing and then whimpering as soon as Gordon started to announce the challenge. He hadn’t even gotten into the specifics, just that there would in fact be a challenge. So Gordon sent him off to his room to take a nap, where he spent four hours. Deciding he shouldn’t be around flame and knives, Gordon made him the fish deboner (Is that the term? Probably not.), keeping him out of the kitchen entirely. The first awesome part of that is that as Gordon was explaining it, Aaron went catatonic. Seriously, his eyes glazed over and Jean-Philippe poked him and announced ‘He’s not here’. It was insane. And then, when his spirit re-entered his body, he introduced himself to all the patrons, even those who didn’t order fish. Finally, he took upwards of fifteen minutes at each table to de-bone the fish, and he left huge bone shards behind. There’s so much wrong with him, so for as long as he remains on the show, I’ll keep the Aaron Watch ’07 going.

Speaking of that, how did he not end up in the bottom two? Simple, really. Let’s say you are Rock, and you’ve been called the least bad on a crappy team. When you have to nominate two people for elimination, doesn’t it make sense to keep Aaron in your pocket, so if you have a week when you screw up, you’ve got that safety net? Sure, you might drop a tray of chicken, but Aaron spent the service naked and weeping in the corner.

It looks like this season, we have injuries, possible food poisoning, what appears to be an attempt on Gordon’s life, and Aaron actually passing out while cooking. I love my train wrecks! It’s on FOX at 9 Eastern, and you should watch the parade.

Also, there’s the excellent Creature Comforts. From Aardman Animation, the gods among men who brought us the “Wallace & Gromit”, it’s based on a long-running BBC hit of the same name, as well as Aardman’s Oscar Winning short film, also of the same name. The high concept? Ordinary people talk about something, and their words are put in the mouth of Claymation animals. (Technically, it’s not Claymation, they’re actually made of Plasticine, but let’s just move forward on this one.)

I know it’s not an instantly appealing idea, but the execution is fantastic. You already know how good Aardman is at creating detailed characters with gorgeous animation. (If you don’t already know this, we probably can’t be friends anymore. To get back on my good side, get any “Wallace & Gromit” stuff you can find. Start with “The Wrong Trousers” and then hit the feature-length “Curse of the Were-Rabbit”.) The animals are well-chosen, as a couple of guys talking about wine become butt-sniffing dogs, and the man who’s afraid of flying is a penguin.

Some of it is made funny by the animation (monkeys discussing art), and some of it made funny by the dialogue (a debate on whether having wings meant giving up one’s hands), and some of it is kind of sad (The mother and daughter discussing the daughter’s weight problem. Her voice will break your heart.) It’s excellent and quirky, and I demand that you watch it, Mondays at 8 on CBS.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to review John from Cincinnati. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Report from the Waterfront

I spent the weekend at the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck. Over two days, I managed to get in eight films and seven shorts. Theoretically, you can get in six films a day, but that's just not even healthy. Here's a quick look at the films and some notable shorts.

THE GO-GETTER – It's a 'young man finds himself' story. Probably the least impressive of the weekend, but it still wasn't bad. A little meandering, but it was still likeable, with some excellent performances, especially Zooey Deschanel, who spends most of the film as a disembodied voice. I liked it well enough, but it just felt like it was going somewhere that I'd already been. By the way, this film established a precedent in that it was the first of four this weekend that I saw with Sharon Lawrence. (Not 'with' her. We weren't sitting together or anything.) She was in the audience, and after every film she always asked a question at the Q&A, presumably so that the moderator would announce that it was Sharon Lawrence asking the question. That seems like something I would do if I were ever recognizable.

CHAPTER 27 – The story of Mark David Chapman. Well, it's a span of about three days in his life, but since one of those days is the day he shot John Lennon, those are probably the most noteworthy. I actually can't tell if it was good or bad, but it was interesting. Jared Leto gained a mess of weight and went all crazy to play Chapman. His crazy guy voice works well for the character, but in the first person narration, it grated. Same voice, it just irritated me as a narrator. For some reason, that seemed too much like all-caps ACTING. And you, Jared Leto, are no Calculon. Bizarrely, Lindsay Lohan is in the movie, and it seems weird that she'd be in anything at a festival. There's not much to her character, as she's just a flat surface that Chapman can bounce crazy off of. Basically, Leto is in just about every shot, so he's driving that bus. Actually, Judah Friedlander (Fred on 30 Rock) plays a photographer who gets that something's not right about that boy. He's surprisingly good, and almost unrecognizable.

I find it interesting that the movie uses no Beatles or Lennon music at all. I assume that's because of licensing issues, but it effectively downplays their significance so that John Lennon is almost entirely defined by Chapman. Also, the guy who plays Lennon is Mark Lynsey Chapman, which is probably just a disturbing coincidence.

WRATH OF GODS – An Icelandic documentary (stay with me now) about the disastrous attempt to make a motion picture based on the legend of Beowulf. With a budget that hit $65 million, they were beset by just about every natural disaster you can imagine. It's this great look at the complete meltdown of a production team. Sure, some of them stayed optimistic throughout, but they look and sound like crazy people by the end of shooting. I liked this a lot, as I'm always an easy touch for behind-the-scenes stuff. A few famous names show up here – Sarah Polley, Stellan Skarsgard, and Gerard Butler ("300") were all cast in the movie, so they show up in interview footage. Butler, by the way, comes off as a bit of a dick. And this is back when he was a no-name. I kind of want to see the final product of "Beowulf", even though the finished clips certainly made it look like it sucked.

AMERICAN FORK – Thanks to "Napoleon Dynamite", all the comedies are set in Utah these days. This is the story of an obese grocery store clerk chasing a dream. It's actually really funny, with Mary Lynn Rajskub as his stuffed animal-obsessed sister, and William Baldwin as an acting teacher. ("Actually, it was a three-episode arc on JAG. It's what they call a 'returning guest' role.") Sad and sweet, I really liked it. Sometimes it played a bit broad, but those lapses were rare. And it headed into some dark, dark territory. I feel like I should have more to say, but it was eclipsed by another tale of misfits, "Eagle vs. Shark", but we'll get to that shortly. Anyway, I liked it. Also, it made it possible for me to buy orange juice next to Mary Lynn Rajskub. And then, because she's awesome, I completely went blank and said something like "I like the things you're in." I should not be allowed in public.

TWISTED: A BALLONAMENTARY – Woo! A documentary about people who are very passionate about something odd! In this case, it's balloon twisting. They have conventions! And some of the stuff they make is just amazing. Dioramas, clothing, self-portraits, all by twisting balloons. It follows eight 'twisters' from various parts of the world. There's the trailer-park girl who put herself through college working parties. There's the 'gospel balloonist' who preaches salvation through balloons. There's the long-distance couple, united in their love of balloons. I didn't even know this subculture existed, but I was completely fascinated. I mean, you can watch it just for the balloon art and be mesmerized, but the stories are really interesting. And I choked up when one of the balloonists died. There tribute was simple, moving, and entirely balloon-centric. You should find this and watch it.

And in my weekend's second Judah Friedlander sighting, he's seen in the ending credits, making a balloon animal. And it wasn't even a celebrity montage. I think he might be a twister.

STRICTLY BACKGROUND – Another documentary, this one about background actors. I'm sort of fascinated by this topic, largely because my friend Sean spent some time doing work as an extra. (Check out the peevish bald man in the first scene of "Old School"!) It follows a variety of extras and documents their experiences. Some of them are a little nutty, which of course is vastly entertaining. A lot of what they had to say echoed what I've heard from Sean, so it probably wasn't as informative for me as it was for others in the audience. But it was entertaining and well done. Particularly fun were the film and TV clips where they'd highlight the extra so we could see them. I'm so jealous of one of the profiled extras, as he had a fair amount of screen time on the first episode of Lost. Lucky bastard.

EAGLE VS. SHARK – I loved this one! This one's from New Zealand, and it does owe a fair amount to "Napoleon Dynamite" but it's still very much its own weird beast. It's a misfit love story between a fast-food worker and a man who's obsessed with video games and makes his own candles. ("Flame within a flame. Conceptual.") He heads back to his home town to avenge his honor against a Samoan who tortured him in high school. It's sweet and quirky and way funnier than I'm making it sound. I think what really sells it is that Lily is so likeable and genuine that she seems real even with her quirks. Once you ground the story like that, you can get away with a whole lot of weird. I really hope this one gets wide distribution, because I loved it.

And, in my third Judah Friedlander connection, he's thanked specifically in the credits. There's a whole mess of people listed in a paragraph, and then his name appears apart from all the others.

ON BROADWAY – I loved this one, too! Movies about Irish families always get to me. A carpenter decides to write a play about his uncle's funeral, and then he gives up almost everything to produce it. And that carpenter is former New Kid on the Block, Joey McIntyre, who is much better than you'd expect. It's really funny and touching, with excellent performances all around. I was particularly happy to see Will Arnett (GOB!) and Amy Poehler in small but hilarious roles. It's sentimental in the good way, and they can get away with discussing the importance of art and with getting a laugh from a guy getting water dumped on his head. I'd be surprised if this doesn't get at least a limited release.

And some shorts that I really liked:

THE ANGEL – As a Japanese woman is dying in the hospital, the forces of light and dark wage a kung-fu battle in her room. Featuring the best stunts you'll ever see from a one-legged Big Brother champion, and the most awesome crutch ever made.

DEATH TO THE TINMAN – It's the origin of The Tin Woodsman, only modernized and well, weird. I loved this so much. Any film that uses the rapture as a plot element has my attention.

FOOL ME ONCE – Hey, this is what Sharon Lawrence was promoting! It's a nicely produced, straightforward piece about a necklace and a cheating wife. It's not revolutionary, but it's very satisfying.

Every year, I'm impressed at how well the Waterfront Film Festival is run. Technical and logistic mistakes are at a bare minimum, and for as big as it's gotten, you as a festivalgoer will encounter few, if any, hassles. I always think about signing up as a volunteer, but then I remember that I'm lazy.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Getting Some Spoiler on You

Hey, I just had another thought about last night's Sopranos finale.

There was that creepy cat that kept staring at Christopher's picture last night. I don't remember ever seeing a cat on the show before. I could be wrong, but if somebody has a pet, it's always a dog.

At the end, we don't know whether Tony is alive or dead. We have way of knowing in which state he exists.

So does that mean it's Schroedinger's Cat?

Last night I was mildly disappointed, but every time I think about it, it's only getting more awesome. It's just blowing my mind. Note how the diner is populated by representatives of various groups that have figured prominently into the show. Plus, there's a "Godfather" reference, with the man in the Members Only jacket (my pick for the shooter) entering the bathroom before shooting Tony (in my version of events). Also, why is this the only episode where the title ("Made in America") isn't a line of dialogue? I think what I need to do is compare the final episode to the lengthy dream sequence in Season Five's "The Test Dream" and see if anything matches up.

You have to love the fact that we'll be able to fight about this finale for years and years.

Celebrity Sightings and the Big Finale

Short on time so here are two quick things. I’ll review the Festival films later, but here are the famous people I saw this weekend.

-- Hubbel Palmer (Who is not really famous, but I saw him on Halfway Home recently, and he was in the bathroom at the same time as me), Sharon Lawrence, Eddie from Big Brother 1, Joey McIntyre, and most awesomely, Mary-Lynn Raskjub of 24 fame. Also, she was on Mr. Show, so my brain completely shut down when I saw her buying juice. There was a possible Tate Donovan sighting, and while William Baldwin was there, I never saw him.

-- The Sopranos finale. I can’t decide how I felt about it ending on a note of ambiguity. I’m not as mad as some people seem to be, though. I thought the episode itself was excellent. The whole episode was about calling the various characters out on their bullshit. AJ can be as depressed as he wants, he can act like he’s concerned with the world’s problems, but at the end, he’s just a self-centered asshole who wants to be handed everything. For all the growth Tony claims that he’s gone through, he really just wants somebody to listen while he complains about his mother. Janice is going to absolutely sacrifice Bobby’s kids so as to not inconvenience her daughter. Despite all of Paulie’s power plays, he knows he can’t run a crew. And Meadow’s career aspirations keep dropping to the point where now she’s parroting Tony’s repeated statements that he’s persecuted for being Italian. Personally, I loved that aspect of it.

I’m not sure about the ending, though. There’s a lot of debate about the ambiguity, but I’m certain that Tony died in the end. Last week, he flashed back to his conversation with Bobby, about how you don’t hear the bullet when it gets you. Everything just goes black. In my mind, Meadow entered the diner just in time to see her father die. We don’t see it because this is Tony’s story. When Tony dies, the story ends. That’s my read on it. To me, that’s the only reason to go to black and kill the music. If the ending is just there to indicate that Tony’s going to spend the rest of his life running and hiding and jumping at every sound, then why kill the ambient music? There’s no music over the credits because there’s no more story. I can see why people would want a clear ending, but if that’s actually Tony’s death, it absolutely fits.

I’m going to call it self-indulgent but totally fitting. Plus, you know, Phil Leotardo’s head got crushed by an SUV. That was gratifying.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Closing Up Early This Week

Sorry I don't have any new chatter for you today. I'm gone for the weekend at the Saugatuck Film Festival. I'll have reviews of a bunch of movies you probably won't be able to find when I get back. Hopefully I'll have some celebrity sightings for you. Last year, I saw Donald Sutherland in a gift shop, which was pretty exciting. I've heard rumors that Zooey Deschanel will be there this year, in which case I can not be held responsible for anything I might blurt out.

Have a good weekend, wherever you may be!

Farewell, Sweet T.

One episode left of The Sopranos. And don’t worry about spoilers, because I’m not going to do that here, out of consideration for my readers who are waiting to come over and watch this season on my DVR. (Deep down, I am quite certain my readership consists entirely of people who know me personally.)

The Sopranos Season One was the first box set I ever bought. And this was before I had a DVD player. There was a VHS release, 6 tapes for $100. And that was in Year 2000 dollars. That’s probably like a million dollars now. I don’t know if any other shows did VHS box sets. Considering their unwieldy nature, it seems unlikely. And since I didn’t have HBO, I was buying it based solely on word of mouth. I had never seen a single second of an episode. And by the time I’d finished the 13 episodes, I’d moved from being a film nerd to a TV nerd.

I don’t think I can even explain how much The Sopranos got into my head. By the end of the first episode, I’d gone from thinking “Hey, this is good” to “I have to reassess how I spend my leisure time.” If it weren’t for The Sopranos, this blog wouldn’t exist. If it weren’t for that stack of VHS tapes, I wouldn’t have spent the last seven years pointing my friends and loved ones toward good TV.

And if it weren’t for The Sopranos, there simply wouldn’t be as much good TV. They raised the bar and put the networks on notice. (As fellow Sopranos junkie and great American Stephen Colbert would say.) Do you remember TV in the 90’s? It wasn’t pretty. Sure, not everything was bad. We had Seinfeld, we had NewsRadio, but the bright spots were few and far between. This was a world where NYPD Blue was the height of dramatic achievement. And granted, I like Blue, and I have a lot of respect for it. But a world where TV executives looked at the series and decided it was impossible to do anything better? That’s a scary world.

The Sopranos
showed us that you could root for the bad guys. It showed us that viewers could remember a large number of characters and continuing arcs. It proved that it was possible to make a drama about people who weren’t doctors, lawyers, or cops. The broadcast networks saw what pay cable could do and they stepped up their game.

And by providing HBO with a hit, The Sopranos turned the business model of television on its ear. The networks actually started to take cable programming into account when scheduling. And it finally proved that a successful show didn’t have to come from the networks, without The Sopranos, we wouldn’t have The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, or even Project Runway. A cable channel would never have given the necessary budget to original prime-time programming if Tony and the crew hadn’t come along to show it could pay off.

Whatever happens on Sunday, it’s the end of an era. Thankfully, The Sopranos will be leaving the TV television landscape in much better shape than it was before. Which is really very un-moblike behavior, when you think about it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Nothing Personal, I Just Hate You

I planned to continue reminiscing about last season, but I just watched the awesome season finale of The Shield. And there are no spoilers here, because I'm going to talk about a minor point. Namely, that Billings guy. I hate him. He's not poorly acted or poorly written. I just hate him. I don't love to hate him. Just hate. I mean, Dutch is kind of an asshole, but at least you can like him. Billings is just a weasel. I hate Shane, but at least he's a tragic figure. Billings, just pathetic and hateful.

So many shows I like feature characters I hate. (Shows I don't like are probably packed with characters I hate. That's why I don't like those shows.) I don't blame the actors, and generally I don't blame the writers. In fact, in many cases these characters are so well-established that I understand them well enough to hate them. Some of these characters bore me. Some of them I would like to punch. And some of them just piss me off. Let's take a look at some of my most hated characters from the shows I love.

STARBUCK (Battlestar Galactica) – Here's the prime example. She's supposed to be everybody's favorite character. The actress does a great job, and the writers give her interesting things to do. Unfortunately, Starbuck is an asshole. And it's not because she's cocky and insubordinate. It's because in her head, it's always "The Starbuck Show". (Yes, I'm talking about her like a real person. This doesn't work otherwise.) She won't allow any situation where she's not the center of attention, and she's always making sure her every public act contributes to her legend. I don't wish her harm, but she gets on my nerves. I think it would help if all the other characters weren't so sold on her. It's just me and Tigh who realize that she's a pain in the ass.

It's the Paul Falsone Syndrome – named for a late addition to the Homicide cast, the writers worked so hard to make us like him that it had exactly the opposite effect. As soon as other characters have to tell you how great somebody is, you know you're getting Falsoned. (There's also a corollary, the Marissa Cooper Syndrome. That's when you have characters talking about how wonderful and pretty another character is. Generally this is done to cover up the aforementioned wonderful character's acting limitations, and also to assuage the actress' ego, since she's actually bony and weird-looking.)

CHRISTOPHER (Gilmore Girls) – Now, I think David Sutcliffe is a terrific actor. He has to sell Christopher as somebody that Lorelai could fall in love with, but still make sure the audience knows it won't work. Unfortunately, because of his skill at this balancing act, I hate him. Like, if I saw him at the grocery store, I think I'd throw a handful of grapes at him. And he may well be a very nice man, but that Christopher is just a douche. And every time he appears, I always think "Wow, Christopher sucks these days. He used to be kind of cool…", but he was never cool. He's sucked from day one. Luke punching him in the face? Greatest opening sequence ever!

KIM BAUER (24) – I'm sure I've mentioned this before. She just completely fails to engage me as a character. It's like, Jack is busy saving the world, and then we have to watch Kim get caught in a bear trap. She was even irritating back in Season One when she had some bearing on the plot. Not a bad actress, but there's just this unshakeable Black Hole of Suck around the character. The fact that they've actually written a hot girl out of the series should tell you how unsalvageable she is. And let's not even start on her Season Three employment at CTU. It turns out, coolness doesn't work through osmosis.

MATT McNAMARA (Nip/Tuck) – Wow. This kid needs to be smacked. First off, he is kind of creepy to look at. Plus, he seems to be a 40-year-old high school student. And then, well, he's just a dick. He ran over a girl while driving stoned. He beat up a transvestite, essentially for not rejecting him. He reported his dad to Family Services, and he inflicts emotional cruelty on everybody around him. This kid is a flat-out dick; that's all there is to it. Go on, try not to hate him. Bet you can't do it…

And a special award goes to:
PAUL SCHULTZE for his portrayal of Ryan Chapelle on 24 and Father Phil on The Sopranos. On 24, he's officious and soulless. I know that on a show like that, you have to have a by-the-book authority figure. Still, George Mason was a stickler and still strangely likeable. Chapelle might actually be in league with the villains for all he does to slow down CTU. And as Father Phil, well, I actually used to like him. Back in Season One, when there was an almost-flirtatious relationship between the priest and Carmela. It was a little creepy, and sort of sweet, but also totally wrong. Then Carmela called him out on it, and it was so satisfying. It was this great moment for her. And then he hung around. He never really played a major role again, but it sort of felt like that should have been it for the character. And maybe it just bothers me because every time Carmela went to confession after that, it felt like a step backward for her; seeking solace from a man she knows to be full of it. Which was maybe the point, because it sort of sums up all her relationships with men. Regardless, I never wanted to see him again after that. Congratulations, Paul Schultze. You are a fine actor and you will probably aggravate me in every part you play from here on out. So emblazoned in my consciousness are these roles that you could play Jonas Salk, and I would call you an asshole for curing polio.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Look Back Some More!

And it’s another look back at the season! Hopefully, I’ll wrap up the networks today, tomorrow is HBO and Comedy Central, and then we’re on to new business. What that will be, I don’t yet know. Still, new business!

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER – Does anybody else feel ripped off that they spent all season on the ups and downs of a relationship that they told us would fail, way back in the series premiere? I know they did that whole meta-episode about TIVO-ing the Super Bowl, and even though they knew how it would end, the experience of watching it was the real reward. First off, that analogy doesn’t work on somebody who doesn’t watch sports. Secondly, I’m not saying that certainty is inherently uninteresting – I’m saying that it simply doesn’t work to try to engage us emotionally in a relationship where failure is preordained. It’s why time travelers don’t fall in love.

That aside, most of the season was pretty enjoyable. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney is always great, and although some people thought the season was too Barney-centric, I’m not sure that’s even possible. True, Allyson Hannigan as Lily is not my favorite, but if you pair her up with Barney she’s quite good. I think I’m just resentful of Hannigan because all of her “American Pie” line instantly became catchphrases that substituted for actual wit. “One time at band camp…” was funny ONCE. And even that one time was sort of funny at best. Hey, my opinions don’t have to be logical.

Also, why is Bob Saget the voice of Future Ted? It worked on Wonder Years because Kevin hadn’t hit puberty yet, so there was always some room there. But Ted and Future Ted sound nothing alike.

I’m griping too much. This really is an entertaining and solid show, which only suffers from a few notable lapses. All in all, I’m glad it’s back next year.

MY NAME IS EARL – This is one of my favorites, and I never really write about it. The first season impressed me with the variety of ways they could work Earl’s list into the plot. Sometimes it was the point of the episode, sometimes it was a framing sequence, sometimes it was a minor plot point. This season, they went even further with flashback episodes, episodes of COPS, and multi-narrator episodes.

I love Earl. It’s consistently clever, and always well-done. I love how they’ve built Camden into a pseudo-Springfield, with its own bizarre quirks and cast of local nuts. (And like Springfield, Camden doesn’t have a state.) They could have gone for years with the basic premise, throwing in occasional flashbacks to Earl’s bad old days, but this season, they went and upset the applecart. Randy got married (sort of), they both got jobs and moved out of the motel, and Earl turned into a grown-up, and I didn’t see any of it coming.

And as silly as the show is, the emotions are always dead-on. The finale, with Earl going to jail was simultaneously hilarious and tear-jerking. The supporting characters all became substantially more real this season. I, for one, love it whenever we see Joy being a good mother in her own way. She’s this ball of anger, but she’ll sneak pudding out of the prison cafeteria for her boys. Any joy would be lucky to have a character like Randy or Darnell who can come out and nail the joke every time, so the two of them together is like a gift from Heaven.

And is it just me, or is it weird when you see Jason Lee in a movie without his mustache? I can’t even recognize him.

THE OFFICE – Perhaps I’ve mentioned my love of The Office before. It’s the only comedy on TV that can make me laugh, cringe, and sob within the same scene. And amazingly, it just keeps getting better.

The Jim and Pam storyline has been consistently surprising, with sympathies constantly shifting. It would be easy for them to maintain a status quo, but they threw everything up in the air with Season Two’s finale. This whole season has been unpredictable and frustrating, but in a good way. I like that I can’t tell where they’re going at any given moment, and it’s a neat trick to have characters I like make bad decisions without affecting their likeability. Even more impressive, instead of making Karen the bad guy, she’s a perfectly sympathetic and viable character. You can make a case for Team Pam or Team Karen.

But it’s not all about the Jim/Pam/Karen triangle. The whole cast is developing, with new facets emerging all the time. It would be easy to have a cast of one-joke characters – Meredith is a drunk, Toby is sad, Kelly talks a lot – but they’ve all developed so much by now. And Creed is pretty much television’s greatest scene-stealer. You have no idea how close I came to renaming this blog “”. And then there’s Dwight.

Dwight is just so perfectly captured – his reactions are usually surprising but they always make sense. (If that makes sense. It’s been a long day.) You didn’t expect him to mace Roy, but after it happened, you had to know it was the only possible outcome. His relationship with Angela is creepy, but also sort of cute. And there’s just something heartwarming about Dwight’s devotion to Michael, even when it is disturbing.

Who ever thought that Michael would be sympathetic? As horrible as he can be, he genuinely wants people to be happy. Except for Toby. Cringe-inducing as he can be, you still want the best for him. He’s a very tragic figure, really. David Brent on the BBC series was actually kind of hateful, but Michael Scott is really trying to be liked. Sure, he goes about in the wrong way, but his heart is usually in the right place. He’s clueless, but unlike Brent, he doesn’t want anybody to be hurt. Except for Toby.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when I had my doubts about American-izing The Office. Those doubts dissipated before the pilot ended, and now it is my favorite thing in the world. That’s right, I like The Office more than cheese AND breasts. Amazing!

Huh. I didn’t get through the networks after all. Tomorrow we’ll look at 30 Rock, Scrubs, Lost, and Heroes. (You may be surprised to find out that I like them all.)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Insert Witty "Knocked Up" Pun Here

So, I loved “Knocked Up”. Fantastic. If there were a way to impregnate this movie, I would do it. One of these days I’ll explain why Judd Apatow is the single most important figure in 21st Century comedy, but today is not that day. Instead of doing a review, I’m instead going to list and explain the people who are awesome in the movie. This will not be a comprehensive list, since just about everybody in the movie is awesome to one extent or another. I mean, I don’t have a lot to say about Bill Hader or Jonah Hill, but they’re very funny in all their scenes.

STEVE CARELL and B.J. NOVAK – Two of the three Office regulars who show up in the movie. Carell plays himself in a funny cameo, and Novak (Ryan the temp) has a brief appearance as a gynecologist. Both of them are funny in their scenes, and if you’re like me, you’re spending the summer stalking the Office cast. (You think I’m not going to see your movie just because Robin Williams is top-billed, Krasinski? Think again!)

ALAN TUDYK – He plays a weasely E! producer. “Tighten.” Hee. Many of you probably know him from Firefly, but I still haven’t drank the Whedon Kool-Aid, so I know him as Rev. Veal from Arrested Development.

KEN JEONG – I’m only mentioning him because I just now realized that he played Michael’s improv partner on The Office. “He says he can’t show it to me, but he has a gun.”

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III – Technically, it’s just a small role as a gynecologist, but I really like the songs he wrote for the movie.

JASON SEGEL and JAY BARUCHEL – Both Undeclared alumni, they’re great as porn-obsessed stoners. It’s worth noting that despite what we all thought back in the day, Jay Baruchel did not grow into his looks.

CRAIG ROBINSON – It’s Darryl, from The Office! In his role as a bouncer, he just might have the single best monologue in the entire movie. I don’t want to spoil it, so that’s all I’m going to say.

LESLIE MANN – You may remember her as the drunk girl from “40-Year-Old Virgin”. You know, “I want some fucking French Toast!” I’ve never really seen her in anything else, but she’s excellent here. As Katherine Heigl’s sister, she’s this great aging party girl/responsible mother. It’s a tricky role, and she’s awesome. She’s also Judd Apatow’s real life wife, and their real children play her daughters. That whole family rocks!

KATHERINE HEIGL – Here’s the thing. Unlike everybody else in America, I don’t really watch Grey’s Anatomy. In fact, it’s entirely possible that my only exposure to Heigl is “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory”, which I don’t remember at all. And she’s the only one in the cast without a comedy background, so I really just sort of hoped she’d stay out of everybody’s way. And then, she turns out to be really good. Maybe this doesn’t surprise other people, but I couldn’t believe how well she did in the role. Her reactions are very honest and her comedic timing is dead-on. I went into the movie knowing most of these people were awesome, but she’s the one who really surprised me with her awesomeness. Oh, she also has the same pajama pants I do. The black pair with robots on them. I don't know what to make of that.

SETH ROGEN – Man, I love Seth Rogen. He’s got this great, natural style, and he deftly straddles the line between ‘lovable loser’ and ‘loser’. It never occurred to me that he’d make it as a leading man. Hell, I was happy when he got one line in “Anchorman”. So you can only imagine my sheer joy at the way America is embracing the Rogen. I love the way that his character is actually amused by funny things within the movie. Not many actors laugh at jokes while in character, and it’s sort of endearing when it happens. And he’s got a great way of selling jokes that aren’t actually jokes. And we can see him again this summer in “Superbad”. He is Seth Rogen, America. Love him!

And finally,
PAUL RUDD – We’re all friends here, right? Here’s the thing. I think I might have a man crush on Paul Rudd. He’s awesome all the time. I dare you to name one thing that would not be improved by the presence of Paul Rudd. You can’t do it. He even managed to salvage the dopiest Phoebe plots ever in the final season of Friends! Even his wardrobe is cool – note the Tom Waits shirt he sports in “Knocked Up” and the t-shirt bearing his own picture from “40-Year-Old Virgin”. Yeah, I’m paying attention to Paul Rudd’s wardrobe. I have a problem.

And that is a partial list of people who are awesome in “Knocked Up”. You should go see it so that it’s easier for me to talk to you.