Saturday, July 12, 2008

Television, the new Big Screen

Man has sought entertainment through spectator events: still seeking outside stimulus to forget the drudgeries of life. Entertainment has a very interesting evolution ;indigenous dances , bloody fights in coliseums, or elaborate "Morality Plays". Live theater seems to always flourish, despite all the options of more contemporary electronic media. However, movie cinemas haveDating back as far as history can recall, man has sought out new forms of experienced a big drop in attendance mainly due to the attention television has diverted, thus, fragmenting the entire industry. Action films and gratuitous teen films seem to have dominated the box offices in the past, but that trend is changing. Because of the explosion of internet media, the Information Generation is becoming a little more discerning in how they spend their time and money on entertainment. With inventions such as satellite networks, online streaming, and Tivo, one can view whatever whenever.

With the creation of online interfacing, many people can preview clips of films and reviews more readily, thus enabling the potential viewer to make personal and educated decisions. Fantasy has become less of an attraction and reality has stepped out into the limelight. This can be a good thing as more documentary styled movies have come about, not to mention mini-series on PBS. Unfortunately, the television executives have done a knee jerk reaction to the "reality craze", creating one crappy reality series after another. It all stated with "Cops", a Rupert Murdock abomination that depicts the public as shirtless, spouse abusing, drug induced degenerates. We all know the plot and the boys in blue are never the bad guys. (Talk about an oxy-moron!) I think we can move past this one.
You'll see the truer nature of police if you watch "Reno 911" (ironically enough, another program that now airs on Fox.)
With all the bad press about lawyers and cops , we had to create a legacy of television called "Law and Order" It wasn't enough to have cool dramas like Hill Street Blues, they had to put more reality in and less humor. Based on actual crime cases, they glamorize crimes and the people who solve them. If there is any humor, it is usually a snipe on a crime scene from some unlikely hero such as Ice Tea. Then the forensic craze took over, and slowly, but surely, the CSI series cloning began. (CSI Miami, New York, etc..) Our military has lost numerous points in the popularity polls with all this mucky muck in the Middle East, so what do the P.R. guys do? They create a hybrid of CSI and Law and Order, thus birthing NCIS. Sucking us in with the boyish charm of Marc Harmon and a collection of misfits, they are the new "cool" military. Hmmm.

But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, there are a few shows that have risen above the hard boiled reality craze. Animated comedies and situation comedies have taken a few twists in the wind , yet, a select group have stood apart from the flock. Even so. many still prefer to spend their time blogging, or chatting online. But, I digress.

Butthead was sophomoric, but a little more edgy. Another one that lays in the "Where are they Now" category is "Ren and Stimpy". Once again, sophomoric humor, but just gross and weird enough to entice my adult brain.” Family Guy" takes paying homage and collegiate humor to a new level. Nothing is sacred with such things as gay baby, a talking dog, a pedophile, a slutty stoner mom, angry handicapped cop, a black guy with a speech impediment, and more. Being as it shows on primetime, this makes even more dubious intent onOne of my favorites remains "The Simpsons", still poking fun at their own network and the rest of us as well. Matt Groening created another show "Futurama" which was short lived, unfortunately. The problem was he was competing with his other creation, "The Simpsons!" "King of the Hill" has it's moments, but is really just a watered down Mike Judge. Beavis and the part of it's creator Seth Mc Farland. It seems to me that a little show that’s been running on Comedy Central for the last decade had gone that route already. Yes, I am talking about "South Park", the epitome of bad jokes and even worse animation. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were the pioneers in pushing the envelope for what is appropriate and fair game. A good example was the whole Tom Cruise/Isaac Hayes incident where the sarcasm offended one of the talent to the point of resignation. Hayes played Chef, a lovable school cook that was a bit of a self proclaimed Romeo. When Tom cruise and his Scientology babble was parodied more than once, Hayes quit and said "Making fun of religion was wrong." The reaction to this was a farewell to Chef episode filled with out of context clips and sound bytes of Hayes’s character making embarrassing comments. This show was no more offensive than the multiple reruns of Family Guy we are given on other stations, some not even on cable. Why we don't see shows like South Park, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, or even Ren and Stimpy (which, ironically started on Nickleodeon, a TBS affiliate) on in rerun syndication, I still don't understand.

As far as situation comedies go, you get more bang for your bucks with Big Bang Theory. With a theme song by Barenaked Ladies” ,The History of Everything", you just can't go wrong. The premise is simply a group of nerdy high tech reseach workers who share a flat across from a normal intelligence blond waitress. Their worlds intertwine, like aliens and cowboys. The show distinguishes itself by being unafraid to toss scientific references and techno babble into an otherwise standard sitcom, even employing a physicist to keep things accurate. Created by writer/producers Chuck Lorre (of Two And A Half Men) and Bill Prady (of Gilmore Girls) roommates/physicists Sheldon (Johnny Galecki of "Rosanne") and Leonard (Jim Parsons of "Ed") meet Penny (Kaley Cuoco of "Charmed"), a beautiful woman moving in next door--and realize they know next to nothing about life outside of the lab. Rounding out the crew are the self-proclaimed womanizer Wolowitz (Simon Helburg), and Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), an East Indian who suffers from an inability to speak in the presence of a woman. Because the writing is quick and filled with Sci-Fi pop references, and the players work so well of each other, I have to tip my hat to this as being the most superior comedy on primetime. Most other situation comedies, I have to shut down my critic inside, and play dumb like the rest of American viewers.

Following Big Bang Theory on the same network is How I Met Your Mother, a comedy about Ted (Josh Radnor) and how he fell in love How I Met Your Mother is a comedy narrated through flashbacks from the future about Ted (Josh Radnor) and how he fell in love. Ted's best friend, Marshall (Jason Segel), drops the bombshell that he's going to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), a kindergarten teacher. Ted realizes that he had better move quick if he wants to find that special one. Helping him in his quest is Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), a sideman who has a love for suits and knows all the lines to pick up women. When Ted meets Robin (Cobie Smulders), he's sure it's love at first sight, but destiny may have something else in store. At first I really liked this show, mostly because I like seeing goody goody Doogie Houser misbehaving in adulthood. The ironic part is Harris is gay in real life. But, I digress. The plots remind me of a combination of Seinfeld and Friends, but the characters are likable enough. A bit anticlimactic, however, especially after watching the brilliance of Big Bang.

Scrubs, a half-hour comedy, is filmed in the North Hollywood Medical Center, which has gone under severe reconstruction to fit all the equipment and represent Sacred Heart Hospital. This show, (also narrated) focuses on the bizarre experiences of fresh-faced medical intern John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff) as he plods along on his career in a overworked and wacky hospital crammed full of unpredictable staffers and patients.

Joining the rumpled J.D. in his own private Idaho are his college buddy, Chris Turk (Donald Faison, "Clueless"), an intern with a more elite surgical group, and J.D.'s fellow medical intern, the beautiful and driven Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke, "Roseanne"). Keeping the new interns on their toes are: The fatherly chief of medicine, Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins); the sarcastic, yet, paternal Dr. Perry Cox (John McGinley), and the caring but slightly jaded nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes). The hospital janitor (Neil Flynn) also never seems to miss an opportunity to harass his target. The use of music with the "lesson" in each episode is done nicely, often tying together the subplots at the end. .

A more recent addition is one you can only view on The CW, "Reaper". The series is produced by ABC Television Studio in association with The Mark Gordon Company. It has been given a 13 episode (coincidence?) initial order by The CW. Throughout Sam's life, he always wondered why his mom and dad were so lenient. Whether it was sports, school, career choices, or picking on his little brother Kyle, Sam always got away with everything. Because of it, he decided to drop out of college and take a dead beat job, wasting most of his time playing video games and wishing he could ask his co-worker Andi out. However, everything changes in Sam's life once he turns 21 and finds out the reason his parents let him get over was because they sold his soul to the devil before he was born.

Satan (Ray Wise of Twin Peaks) explains to Sam that he must serve as his bounty hunter, tracking down souls that have escaped from Hell. Initially, Sam refuses to accept his fate but he realizes the results of breaking a deal with the devil. He is armed with various vessels to collect the escapees. Sam finds that the work is dangerous and frightening even with the slapstick help of his friends Sock and Ben, and Sock's former girlfriend, Josie. As weird as it seems, Sam feels somewhat positive about his newfound "jobs", removing errant souls from our world and sending them back to the smelly special effects ridden hell. Along with his misfit friends and his vessel of the week, Sam goes working for the hoofed one as the "reaper". Its a funny show that I wish was on another network without so many commercials between scenes. That’s the rub. To do a really good production, one needs backers. To get backers you either have a rich benefactor or sell a lot of advertising. And what’s up with the volume levels of the promotional limbo we call commercial breaks? That’s when VCRs and TIVO come into play. If you record the show, you can bypass the obnoxious barrage of ads.

Another recent addition is “Fear Itself”, a one hour weekly series Produced by Andrew Deane and Adam Goldworm (Masters of Science Fiction/Horror) which features short films of suspense by different directors for each episode. The first suspense (as opposed to typical horror) episode of Fear Itself proves to be a disappointment, and I suspect most of the blame this time lies with the direction, rather than with the script. Not that the very guessable "twisted" ending writer Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers) offers helps matters, but the uneven tone, utter lack of subtlety, and clumsy pacing of the episode, directed by John Landis, killed it more efficiently than any insidious serial killer could do to a real victim. It reminded me more of a Lifetime cable made-for-TV movie...and, except for the weak twist ending, it did resemble far too many of the video Romance Novels that station runs more than any successful thriller. Even with a few nicely-composed shots; the series continues to be admirably well-produced on what's surely a modest to medium budget.

There are many other choices to peruse, these are just a few of which I have observed. Television is rarely criticized with any accuracy and perspective, so, I hope I have made a small dent in the fabric of this mind boggling enigma. It is so easy to ”just give in” and watch whatever is in front of your face. It’s the easy way out, but, not always the most beneficial approach. I really have tried to sit still while some of these inane shows continue to insult my intelligence and integrity , while the rest of society bleats on about television personalities I care little for. Too bad Johnny Rotten isn’t on the air any more. I’m sure he’d have a thing or two to say.