On Watching TV in the Sky

2009 November 30
by kvanaren

Like so many others, I spent several hours over the past week sitting in an improbably aloft tin can while a stranger’s hairy elbows encroached on my personal space. Unlike most previous flights I’ve been on, however, this trip included the experience of individual television screens on the back of each seat, and the option to pay six dollars so that I could watch live television. From the sky. And yet, despite my intense TV addiction, my complete helplessness as a captive audience, and an oh-so-easy credit card swiper right in front of me, I resisted the urge to pay. On four separate occasions.

Of course, this did not deter me from watching the full ten-minute preview and frantically flipping through each channel to see if Chef Academy was airing, and because I have previously found Chef Academy completely un-interesting, I started to wonder why a show that is terrible when on the ground suddenly becomes fascinating mid-air. I can barely muster the enthusiasm to sit through an episode of Law and Order on my couch, but in a tiny, cramped airplane chair, I’m riveted. “Who could possibly have committed such a heinous crime?” I wonder. Obviously some of the answer is mere novelty – it’s not just Law and Order, it’s Law and Order in a plane! Look how many channels there are! (Twenty-five). I am old enough to remember what it’s like to sit on a plane before any accessible electronic device had the capability or battery life to play a full movie, so my residual sensation of awe probably still remains. Even so, I have long been able to pull out my laptop and watch whatever I have stored on my hard drive, and it seems like technology is not enough of an explanation for my pleasure in watching Sandra Lee (most despised of Food Network stars) whisk packaged white sauce mix into white wine.

My working theory on why airborne television is so freshly fascinating comes from this two-year-old slate piece on SkyMall. After considering why SkyMall has so many unnecessarily fancy watches, Ron Rosenbaum suggests that it has “something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container” and the many fancy watches allow us to capture and tame the time we suddenly feel is on the brink of slipping away. Rosenbaum also close reads an ad for a chicken-wing caddy with the title “Where the Wings Have No Shame,” and comes to the conclusion that we need a place to hide away our discarded chicken bones because “the more one thinks of wings, not chicken wings or airline wings, or even the wax wings of Icarus, or the waxwings of Nabokov, the more one thinks rather of Andrew Marvell’s phrase for the onrush of mortality, ‘time’s winged chariot.’” In other words, somewhere deep on our brains, being in an airplane reminds us that we’re actually quite close to death, and SkyMall both capitalizes on and assuages that fear.

I’m convinced that something like this, although not necessarily related to swiftly-arriving death, happens with airplane television. Despite its ubiquity, air travel still requires a suspension of disbelief – it forces us to turn off the deeply-held fear of falling and just accept that we can calmly sit eight miles up while sipping ginger ale. It is a fictional space, and once you buy into that fiction, all other fiction becomes similarly plausible. Chef Academy, which I object to largely because it seems far more scripted than other reality shows, suddenly contains a persuasive, compelling competition. Law and Order, the most codified formula television available, becomes unpredictable because you’re watching TV in the sky! Who knows what could happen!

I’m sure that some people, including one person in particular who was sitting next to me on the plane, might feel moved to remark that air travel is fully explicable and no more fictional than sitting on the couch. That may be true, but I’d like to point out that said person was watching Chef Academy just as closely as I was. There must have been some kind of magic happening.

Clips

2009 November 25
tags:
by kvanaren

I am traveling all day today, and I am so excited about cross-country day-before-Thanksgiving air travel! In lieu of a longer post, I’m leaving you with two amazing videos which were floating around the internets yesterday.

First, Jimmy Fallon has the best Neil Young impression I’ve ever seen:

And second, feast your eyes on this Muppet rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and rejoice:

Slapsgiving

2009 November 24
by kvanaren

It’s Thanksgiving week, which means another deluge of holiday-themed programming, and I want to use this opportunity to point to a show I frequently watch but have yet to write about. Despite its standard sitcom format and middle of the road humor, it’s difficult for me to deny a fondness for How I Met Your Mother. It’s playful and moves quickly, it’s self-referential without being obnoxious, and it’s silly to the point of absurdity.

Turns out it's difficult to get a clear screenshot of someone getting slapped

Turns out it's difficult to get a clear screenshot of someone getting slapped

“Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap” demonstrated many of those quintessential characteristics, particularly HIMYM’s fondness for reference. As the title suggests, last night’s episode is a continuation of one of the show’s many long-running premises, in this case, that Marshall has been granted the right to slap Barney in the face five times. Marshall has been slowly doling out his share of slaps over several seasons, and in this episode, decides to grant his penultimate slap to Ted and Robin as a Thanksgiving present. Of course, this entails a brief flashback through the previous slaps, a recounting of the Slapsgiving rules, an ensuing battle over who will actually get to slap Barney, and a subsequent heart-warming Thanksgiving Day discovery of what friends and family really mean. This classic “and now everyone hugs each other moment,” of course, is both a parody of the essential sitcom sentimental resolution, as well as undermined within the episode by being entirely based around slapping someone right in his face.

HIMYM is not afraid to reference its cast members previous work, as seen here by Lily reenacting the Evil Willow plot from Buffy

HIMYM is not afraid to reference its cast members' previous work, as seen here with Lily reenacting the Evil Willow plot from Buffy

It’s fluff, and I know it, but there’s just so much to love about this show. Neil Patrick Harris as Barney is always at the top of my list, and he was great in this episode, nervously anticipating each delayed slap. I’m a fan of escalating throwaway gag, represented here by Lily’s father’s increasingly unpleasant board game concepts (“Tijuana Slumlord,” “Car Battery,” “There’s a Clown Demon Under the Bed,” “Dog Fight Promoter,” and “Diseases”). At its best, what this show does better than any sitcom I know is nail the rhythm. Jokes rarely disappear without being sewn back into the season at an opportune moment, and scenes like the end of “Slapsgiving 2,” where each character steps up to try to slap Barney are always well-timed and well-written so that the premise that may have only been mildly funny at the beginning becomes hysterical by the end. By the time Marshall announces that the slap has done exactly what he wanted, which was to allow everyone to recognize “both the frailty and the greatness in ourselves and each other,” the long-delayed slap has melded so completely with the saccharine pronouncement of Thanksgiving spirit that the actual slap feels as meaningful as finally carving the Turkey.

How I Met Your Mother doesn’t always work, but even on its off days, it’s been so consistently strong that I’d really like to credit it with helping revive the sitcom as a viable, funny, intelligent form. The half-hour comedy doesn’t have to live and die with I Love Raymond or Two-and-a-Half Men, and that is just one of the things I am thankful for this year. (Cue sappy sitcom audience making AWWWW! sounds).

Have You Hugged A Biker Lately?

2009 November 23
by kvanaren

I’m beyond thrilled by how good Sons of Anarchy has been for the last several weeks, and although it’s been almost a week since the last episode aired and there’ll be a new one tomorrow night, I wanted to take a moment and mention why the show’s been working so well lately. (I’m also posting about Sons of Anarchy on a Monday because it’s pretty much the best thing on television at the moment, and I am still in deep post-Mad Men coping mode.)

SAMCRO

SAMCRO

As I began to describe in my previous post about this show, Sons of Anarchy deals with a world I find completely foreign, which is both a good and bad thing for new viewers. On the one hand, you’re going to immediately alienate people who feel absolutely no interest in a crazy gun-dealing biker gang, and who will overlook an otherwise intelligent, well-made drama because it’s about dudes with skulls and crossbones on their leather vests. If you can overcome that barrier, though, the premise’s unfamiliarity becomes an asset. I am fascinated by the rules and rituals of the club, and everything from the vocabulary to the honor code becomes a way of establishing a fully realized, richly detailed environment. For instance, the leather vest I just mentioned is actually a “cut.” The club is an “MC,” and you always collect all the cell phones before “going to church,” (attending a formal club meeting).

What I hadn’t previously considered about the benefits of this particular world is that the nature of an MC allows the show to balance some intriguing emotional extremes. Like Deadwood or The Shield, violence is mandatory. The codes of an MC require retaliation, and SAMCRO’s mission to protect Charming, CA from drugs and crime does not mean ending drugs and guns everywhere, it just means shifting the crime and drug trafficking somewhere else. This is what I expect from a show about bikers – there will be anger and gunfire, and probably a lot of sex. The more I learn about the foundation of this show and what the MC is really about, however, the more I understand that this show is also about sentiment. When the club talks about brotherhood, loyalty, and love, they mean it with the same sincerity as a national anthem or a Hallmark card. Unlike The Sopranos, where families look like cohesive units but perpetually tear each other apart, most members of SAMCRO have every reason to abandon or destroy the club, and instead, time and again they choose to stay and fight for the club’s survival. At its best moment, Jax and Opie realize that SAMCRO president Clay Morrow has become a liability to the club, but instead of deciding to stage a coup, Jax acknowledges, “The burden lands on the club. Clay is Clay because of us. We made him.” Instead of violence, they decide to change the club from within.

For a bunch of badass bikers, they sure do spend a lot of time hugging each other and crying.

For a bunch of badass bikers, they sure do spend a lot of time hugging each other and crying.

The resulting show is a potent and satisfying mixture of violence and unabashed familial love, and the most recent episodes have pushed that all-too-dangerous combination to its extreme. There’s a lot of black humor here, as well as cynicism and depression, but to my surprise, it turns out the bikers are at heart one of the sappiest groups of guys you will ever meet. Near the end of last week’s episode, “Service,” Clay struggles to comfort his traumatized wife, and his second-in-command finally reminds Clay that the best thing he can do is remind Gemma that he still loves her. Then Clay and Tig give each other big bear hugs, and Tig says, “I love you, brother,” and it would be the most cloying, obnoxious moment ever if it weren’t so tender. And obviously true.


This week and next will be the final two episodes of this season, and as much as I’m looking forward to them, I’m dreading the absence of this show. The good news is that ABC and NBC have both announced the upcoming premiere dates for their popular mid-season releases. LOST will be returning February 2nd at 9pm, and Chuck is coming back January 10th, with regular airdates on Mondays at 8. I’m looking forward to fully analyzing my love-hate relationship with LOST in weekly “The chemists say, I say” blog posts, and I would love nothing more than for Chuck to be so awesome as to also justify a weekly post. We’re heading into the winter television slump, but I’m trying to keep my eye on the highlights.

Uncharacteristic departure from our regularly scheduled programming

2009 November 20
tags: ,
by kvanaren

First off, I’d like to say: this is not a post about television. I KNOW. But I figure, it’s not a bad thing to shake it up once in a while. Perhaps more importantly, I have had this particular post brewing for a very long time, and today seems like an appropriate day to just write it and be done. I’m going to put it after the jump for a few reasons. For one, it’s gonna get a little rant-y in here. Second, if for some reason you don’t know what happens in Twilight and are protecting yourself from spoilers, you can maintain your blissful ignorance. Yeah, that’s right. This is a post about Twilight. read more…

Alien invasion! More news at 10!

2009 November 19
tags:
by kvanaren

I’m sad to report that despite my initial optimism, V hasn’t turned out to be all that great. What I wanted to be at least a little campy has taken a turn toward the super-serious topical commentary, and that has both good and bad ramifications for the show.

V 103 1

On the plus side, the show is reaching for something that I always love in science fiction. It’s playing with fiction to throw issues about modern life into stark relief, transforming our fears about immigration and foreignness into a terror of literal aliens. I love that the show has zeroed in on news media, trying to play with the distinction between actual reporting and the impact one anchor’s agenda can have on public perception. 9/11 continues to loom large over everything, both in the V’s ship physically looming over Manhattan skyscrapers, as well as the vocal protests against the Vs by a widow whose husband died during their arrival. Protestors hoist signs outside the V headquarters. While the V leader Anna describes the importance of managing popular opinion, she proudly holds aloft her own newly-issued US passport. The issues and anxieties look exactly like our own world, but we have the pleasure of shifting our fears about ambiguous, possibly unfixable human concerns onto evil space reptiles. It’s super zeitgeisty, and I think that’s usually a good thing. (It’s so zeitgeisty, in fact, that someone asked Robert Gibbs at a press conference if he was aware that this new show V was being considered a possible criticism of the Obama administration).

They are watching you...they are watching you while you watch them...

They are watching you...they are watching you while you watch them...

The focus on serious commentary as opposed to camp, however, means that I expect more from the show than the current level of writing and acting seems able to meet. Many of the lines are clunky – “If you’re anything like me, this whole…this whole thing has made you feel…alone. Lost.” There’s little value placed on subtlety. In addition, allow me to take this opportunity to complain vociferously about the main character’s dopey-eyed teenage son Tyler. Truly, in the middle of global invasion, we’re focusing on the fact that this super stereotyped sack of hormones thinks one of the Vs is especially hot? It’s like diving into The Vampire Diaries every time he comes on screen. The problem isn’t just that the writing isn’t great, the problem also is that by aspiring to serious, socially relevant science fiction, V has set itself up against shows like Battlestar Galactica. Vs walk around the earth like Cylons, so that you can’t tell who’s human any more, and like Battlestar, the show has placed specific emphasis on the religious implications of the invasion. And at least at this point of its development, V pales in comparison. Battlestar was just so…thoughtful. V is like watching someone try to thread a needle with a fire hose.

Soon, V will go on a months-long hiatus, and return with a new showrunner. I’m interested enough to give it a chance, but dubious about its ability to improve.

Man, I miss Battlestar Galactica.

Or, the problem with this show might be lupus

2009 November 18
tags:
by kvanaren

Do you watch House and care enough not to get spoiled about the various machinations of its damaged doctors but don’t care enough to watch every episode right away? If so, this post is not for you. I’m not necessarily sure it’s for me, either, because this week’s (possibly permanent) departure of one of the original cast members has reminded me why I just can’t feel any emotional attachment to these characters.

House is an odd case among prime time TV, because for the most part it does what it does very well. The writing is decent, the acting can be very good, and it’s crafted its particular form into a well-honed rhythm of alternating mysteries and clues. The show has also settled into a distinctive visual and verbal tone, so it feels consistent and very much like itself (as opposed to cribbing from other shows’ styles). There are worse things, right?

house 1

Except that I find the characters on House to be incredibly frustrating. The supporting characters, all of the doctors on House’s team, are mechanically created mixtures of brilliance and emotional damage, and everyone has built-in triggers that are too easy to consciously manipulate. At the same time, House himself is both all-powerful and vaguely evil, and his purpose in life is to play cynical puppet-master. To make matters worse, House operates on a zero sum system – every change, no matter how enormous and seemingly life-changing, inevitably finds some way to snap everything back into place. The first several years, House had a stable team of employees. When they left, a whole new cast came in and it felt like a huge shift, but of the five or so promising new supporting figures, only two now remain. House left as the head of his team, but now he’s back. It looked like Cuddy might change because she now has a daughter, but her baby apparently requires remarkably little care.

House's bevy of perpetually unhappy team members

House's bevy of perpetually unhappy team members

To be fair, there have been a few major changes throughout the show, and this season in particular has looked promising. After years of addiction and misery, House sought treatment and was starting to look like a better, more fulfilled person. Were that change to become permanent, the entire premise and tone of the show might change, and it would be a good move – everyone would become more human, more rounded characters rather than caricatures of cruelty. Except this most recent episode, which looks on the surface like continuing rumbles of change, actually just forces House to revert to his emotionally stunted puppet-master role. Cameron, one of his original team members, ends the episode by leaving for good, but that minor departure is completely drowned out by the return of House as Evil God Doctor. What began as an intriguingly cruel House became a predictably, obnoxiously cruel House, then showed signs of becoming less cruel, only to revert back to the obnoxious stage. Hardly a character arc to write home about.

This is why House has always been good background viewing – you always know approximately what’s going on, there are some good gross out medical scenes, and the show is great at ratcheting up the surprise with increasingly disturbing diseases and odd patients. Unless they really commit to change who House is, though, it’ll stay in the background for me.

Jealousy

2009 November 17
by kvanaren

Last night I stayed up way past my (lame, freakishly habitual) bedtime to drive out to where it was pitch black and watch the Leonid meteor shower. It was gorgeous – completely clear and not so cold that it was uncomfortable to wait around for a little bit, and there were several very bright, impressive meteors. I sat outside in a nature preserve at two in the morning watching shooting stars, and I thought to myself, “I am really jealous of Doctor Who.”

doctor who 1

Or, to be more clear, I am jealous that the Brits have a protagonist who zips around the universe in a spaceship that looks like a police call box, and that this protagonist has become part of the national culture. Americans have plenty of mythic space-travelling television, most significantly Star Trek, but for the most part we carefully segregate it into a big, locked box of genre fiction and put a giant “FOR NERDS ONLY” sign on the outside. From what I understand about Doctor Who, though, the Doctor’s relationship with British national identity is a crucial aspect of the entire series, whereas Star Trek goes out of its way to abolish nationality by the time the 23rd century rolls around. The difference is reflected in the plotlines. While Captain Picard’s out there in the future representing humanity as a whole, the Doctor is capable of traveling through all of time and space and yet somehow keeps ending up in London. Even at his most distant and inhuman, the Doctor’s deep love for humanity seems to be perpetually deflected into a fondness for fish and chips or a nice cup of tea.

Slitheen spacecraft crashing into the Thames (after knocking a chuck out of Big Ben)

Slitheen spacecraft crashing into the Thames (after knocking a chuck out of Big Ben)

Maybe I’m grasping, but I think the differences have important ramifications for how we view these shows and, in turn, how we feel about space and the future. Star Trek is idealistic and distant, and gives us an aspirational vision of the future, but its persistent remoteness from our world makes it very easy to shove off into the scifi corner. Doctor Who’s world is all about shoving the known and unknown into the same place and watching them try to work it out. I don’t think it imparts the same feeling of manifest destiny that Star Trek conveys. Still, for Doctor Who, space can’t really be the final frontier because it’s already here, even if we’re not paying attention. I love American scifi, but Doctor Who is all about connecting the aliens and sonic screwdrivers and the majesty of space with the world we already have. So yes, I’m envious that the British have Doctor Who. Nothing much to do about it, I suppose, except drape myself in a Union Jack and join the Doctor for fish and chips.

Be seeing you

2009 November 16
by kvanaren

AMC is in the middle of airing its miniseries remake of the classic 1960s British absurdism fable The Prisoner. And hey…it’s weird. I know, I know, it’s The Prisoner – it’s supposed to be downright odd, but the new version goes out of its way to telegraph its surrealism in a way that undercuts the creepiness.

Number Six wakes up in the desert; The Village

Number Six wakes up in the desert; The Village

If you’re not familiar with the original version of The Prisoner, the basic idea is that a man wakes up in a place he’s never been before, an eerily picturesque town with no roads leading out, where everyone refers to themselves by numbers. People see him and greet him as Number 6, and despite his insistence that he has a name, that he lives in England, that there’s a world outside The Village, they claim complete ignorance. Number Six constantly tries to escape and is captured by giant floating white spheres that make funny wuwuwu sounds, he’s repeatedly brought before the guy who seems to be in charge, Number Two, and the whole thing is a big bizarre Orwellian nightmare.

Ian McKellen as an admittedly creepy Number Two

Ian McKellen as an admittedly creepy Number Two

The remake, or at least the first installment, which aired last night, generally follows the original premise. A guy wakes up in the desert, wakes up again in The Village, discovers that no one seems to believe there’s any world outside The Village, and then spends the rest of the episode freaking out. He hijacks cars and drives them as far as he can before the big wuwuwu bubbles come for him, he stares moonily into the eyes of various sympathetic-seeming women until they get killed or captured, things are generally odd. In AMC’s new version, however, apparently it’s not enough to watch this guy struggle to reconcile his memory of reality with this new, disturbing utopian village. Just in case the Levittown-like housing developments and the loudspeakers announcing that every day is sunny didn’t sufficiently disturb you, you’re also constantly drowning in a deluge of disorienting wackiness. Cameras tilt sidewise while Number Six gropes through barren desert, flashbacks to Number Six’s previous life interrupt his present experiences, and the whole episode is like watching a malfunctioning movie projector, where images flicker and fade into each other and the sound doesn’t always match the picture. Just because Number Six is drugged and confused doesn’t mean the viewer needs to feel the same way.

Two of the stranger moments from the first episode - Number Six with a grenadei in his mouth, and... wait, is that a sparkly Twin Towers looming over The Village? What the what?

Two of the weirder moments from the first episode - Number Six with a grenade in his mouth, and... wait, is that a sparkly Twin Towers looming over The Village? What the what?

Sadly, the result is a seriously diminished shadow of the original. Some of the problem is definitely the production, which values speedily unraveling bewilderment over a painstaking, piecemeal realization of just how weird everything actually is. The problem may also lie with us. Movies like The Matrix and even unsuccessful shows like Fringe work by asking us think of reality as malleable, and so the impact of waking up in a world that has little resemblance to our own may no longer have the same punch it did in the sixties. Whatever the underlying problem, ultimately I’d prefer to stick with the original Number Six until something better comes along.

The Spirit of Pawnee

2009 November 13
by kvanaren

I have been ignoring Parks and Recreation in favor of writing about The Office, 30 Rock, or Community, but no longer. The show was uneven and awkward last season, but this season has been absolutely hysterical, and I can’t go another week without mentioning it. Last night’s episode, “The Camel,” had both a stellar main plot as well as one of the silliest, funniest throwaway subplots I have ever seen on the show.

Donna's Last Supper, Gerry's mosaic, April's postmodernist multimedia piece, and the final Frankenstein mural

Donna's Last Supper, Gerry's mosaic, April's postmodernist multimedia piece, and the final Frankenstein mural

After decades of controversy and defacement, the city of Pawnee, Indiana finally decides to replaces its city hall mural for something that doesn’t feature Native Americans being run over by a train. Each department of government gets an opportunity to submit a mural design for consideration, and in typically enthusiastic fashion, Leslie Knope decides that the Parks Department needs to win. April submits a multimedia performance art mural featuring dead rats from a Pawnee dumpster and a man in a life-sized hamster wheel running ceaselessly. Donna offers a mural of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, with the apostles heads swapped out for famous people from Indiana. Gerry submits a mural that would be perfect, would win hands down, a mosaic of Pawnee citizens’ faces that forms the shape of the Pawnee City Hall. Leslie immediately rejects him because he accidentally says “murinal.”

Comedic representations of art criticism can go a few different ways. Either it can be self-deprecating, awkward, and have a tiny grain of compassion, like the strongest Christopher Guest films, or it can come off as pretentious and self-loathing (think Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). No question, Parks and Recreation is the former. Particularly once the department starts to create the eponymous “Camel” by randomly combining all of their murals into one, it’s obvious you can read this as a gentle joke on the process of writing television. It cannot be easy to create a coherent, quality piece of television with multiple writers, each with different agendas and senses of humor. As Leslie explains, “It’s like if you got Michelangelo, and Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock, and Jim Davis from Garfield to do one painting. Imagine how good that painting would be!” But this allegory, which could have been bitter or too obvious, comes off as a little love-note to the process, especially given that Parks Department love the camel they produce.

The entire episode was great, but two subplots really pushed it into excellence. The first one was really just a part of the mural

"I've stared at it for five hours now."

"I've stared at it for five hours now."

plotline, but deserves its own mention. After paying a poor art student to make him a mural, Tom Haverford initially scoffs at the abstract expressionist Kandinsky/Miro knockoff, but slowly becomes overwhelmed by it. (“A piece of art caused me to have an emotional reaction. Is that…normal?”) It was a pretty obvious little story to follow, but watching him weep over the painting by the end of the episode made it worth it. And then of course, the entire Andy and Ron Swanson shoe shine story: silly, very slightly homophobic, and so funny I got hiccups. I really recommend you watch it. Which is what I am doing right now, for the second time.