Star Wars Holiday Disaster

2009 December 26

After several tries on three separate occasions, I finally made it all the way through the Star Wars Holiday Special. I then spent at least the next hour curled up in a ball on the couch, whimpering in distress, and it took me a full hour more to recover any desire to live. That may seem like an excessive, over-the-top account of what happened, but trust me: I truly wish I were exaggerating. It is far and away the worst thing I have ever watched. I know we were harsh with Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas in the last post, but I think that was due in large part to a complaint with Mrs. Otter’s somewhat shrill singing voice. This is so far outside that, so horrendous and unspeakable that just writing this post is giving me post-traumatic stress.

Sure, I could give you details about why it’s so awful. The fact that the majority of it is in un-subtitled Wookie, that not a single joke lands, that any action scene is cut from footage from the first movie, that the climax involves a number of Wookies wandering around a cavern in enormous red Snuggies and howling softly to themselves…these items are all suggestive, but they do not approach an understanding of just how deeply it all goes wrong.

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A little history: when the Star Wars Holiday Special first aired I was not alive, but apparently it was so instantly and universally reviled that it was pulled from the airways immediately thereafter, never again to be released for public viewing. The only reason we have access to it now is that a few VHS copies recorded from the initial airing have surfaced around the Internet. The best version I could find came with recently added Spanish subtitles, which actually added a whiff of coherence to the whole thing that I’m certain the original lacks. The general premise is that Chewbacca and Han are trying to make it back to Chewie’s home planet for Life Day, the Wookie version of Christmas. The Empire intrudes and creates some vague, non-determinate and never-defined barricade, which delays the Millennium Falcon for a while. Meanwhile, we watch Chewie’s family, including his wife Malla, his father Itchy, and his son Lumpy, as they worry about him in their weirdly seventies ranch-style tree house (because that is a much more interesting plot than evading an Imperial fleet). Luke, Leia, and the band Jefferson Starship all make appearances. Part of it is animated. Part of it is Bea Arthur singing in the Mos Eisley Cantina. None of it is watchable.

Bea Arthur plays a singing bartender. I really wish I didn't have to remember her this way.

Bea Arthur plays a singing bartender. I really wish I didn't have to remember her this way.

What I find most remarkable about the Star Wars Holiday Special is that like many Christmas specials, it is built as a variety show, featuring a hard-to-make-it-home-for-Christmas plotline, a number of musical guests, a few surprise celebrity appearances, and an underlying cheesiness. It’s a format built on the idea that you can appeal to many different people through diversity, giving you a number of flavors and fictional experiences. And yet…it’s almost as if the variety in this instance makes each individual piece worse. Rather than relieving you by moving quickly from one thing to the next, it’s more of a frying pan/fire situation, where you are continually struck anew by how painful it all is. I haven’t even mentioned yet what actually happens in these little moments, which is almost always us looking at characters watching other things – for example, we watch Malla watch an entire Wookie cooking show while she follows along in her own kitchen. We watch Lumpy watch Harvey Korman show him how to put his new Life Day present together. We watch Chewie’s elderly father watch what appears to be Wookie soft-core porn, giving us both the uncomfortable sex fantasy and the accompanying Wookie groans of approval.

Harvey Korman proves that no instruction manual is funny, adult Wookie entertainment, and Lumpy watches some psychedelic tumblers

Harvey Korman proves that no instruction manual is funny, adult Wookie entertainment, and we watch Lumpy watching some psychedelic tumblers

It is nauseating. It is every bit as unbearable as I was led to expect. If you consider the addition of the cutesy young son and crotchety old father, the knockoff Christmas holiday, and the presence of Bea Arthur, it’s as though the Holiday Special jumps the shark several times in the course of two hours. On the plus side, I now have a new understanding of bad TV, a chasm of deep darkness I had never fully explored in the television landscape. On the downside…I can only hope I am able to recover.

Merry Christmas!

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

2009 December 23

While trolling around lists of Christmas specials, I happened across something called Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which I had never seen before but which apparently had Muppets in it. “Muppets,” I thought. “That’s gotta be at least a little interesting.” So I sat down with David and Laura and made them watch with me and comment while watching.

They hate me a little now.

First, a little plot summary, and then some images accompanied by our comments as we watched the special. Ma and Emmet Otter are living alone after the death of Pa Otter, and are struggling to make ends meet. They sing about how important it is to not have holes in their washtubs. They sing about how sad they are that Pa Otter died. Then, they discover that there’s a contest in town with a prize of $50 dollars, and both Ma and Emmet decide to enter so they can buy each other Christmas presents. In order to enter, though, Ma pawns their toolbox and Emmet has to put a hole in the washtub so he can play in the jug band. While both of their acts are good (Emmet, of course, plays in a Jug Band), they are ousted at the last moment by a seventies rock band called The Nightmare. Saddened, Ma and Emmet head home without either prize money or the tools of their trade. On the way, they realize their songs would work well together, and as they sing the newly combined song, the judge of the contest offers them a job singing at his restaurant. The End.

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Laura: Oh man. That singing is not nice to listen to.

Kathryn:  Aww, look at their cute little hats though. Okay, wow, this is a song about bathing suits. Giant bathing suits.

Laura: I don’t think I could probably describe what is happening now.

Kathryn: Here it goes: two otters in a rowboat are singing about bathing suits.

David: “From the one bathing suit that your grandma otter wore …

Laura:  …it’s about the bathing suit his grandmother used to wear??

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Laura: Oh god. This is way too depressing. I can’t handle this.

Kathryn: This is a recession-era Christmas special.

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David: Oedipus otter?

Laura: Definitely.

David: “Sometimes you even sound like your paw.”

Kathryn:  Hehehe, “paw.”

Laura: Her skirts are flying up.

David: I thought she was going to go down that slide and land on top of her son.

Laura: Gross.

David: Kind of like those scenes in rom-coms when the two leads accidentally make physical contact.

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Laura: Oh of course there’s a contest.

Kathryn: Of course it’s on Christmas Eve.

Laura: A JUG BAND CONTEST, perchance?

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David: “Well it’s going to be a long night.” – truer words have ne’er been spoken. Now they’re just tossing puppets around.

Laura: Interesting choreography with puppets is very difficult.

David:  Kill me.

Laura: Why did you make us watch this, Kathryn?!?

Kathryn: I love you guys

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Laura: The hoooligans!!

Kathryn: Oh man, they have fancy lights and seventies sparkle capes!

Laura: This is terrible.

Kathryn:  What?! WHAT?!

Laura: They shouldn’t be able to play, they’re from river bottom and not waterville.

Kathryn: And how could a snake possibly play a guitar?! I seriously do not understand how this band is in the same Christmas special as the jug band – they are two totally different paradigms.

Kathryn: The Nightmare Band won, and they have no tools and no washtub and they will starve to death. What will they do now?

David: Learn the true meaning of Christmas?

Laura: This is officially the most depressing thing i’ve ever seen.

David: I hope they fall through the ice and die.

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David: Sweet and final hour? God this would have been a sweet hour if I hadn’t started this christmas special. I’m not getting this time back.

Laura:  Not ever ever.

David: I feel like I want it to be my final hour.

Kathryn: Wacka wacka.

A Colbert Christmas: There are much worse things to believe in

2009 December 21
by kvanaren

Today we move on to an entirely different type of Christmas special – the celebrity-hosted, musical variety number. This is a type of television laden with nostalgia and history. Celebrities have done holiday specials for a very long time, but the variety show format has largely died out of our cultural consciousness due to its overwhelming uncoolness. Now, we only like our song and dance if it’s accompanied by a gossipy, dramatic competition or embedded in a snarky, self-aware dramedy.

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From that perspective, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All is a bit of an oddball in the modern television landscape. Its basic structure, where a famous host moves through a hokey Christmas narrative while celebrity guests drop in to blather cheerily and sing a song, is a winking throwback to heart-warming television from days of yore. In this sense, however, A Colbert Christmas is a nice example of form meeting function. Stephen Colbert’s on-air persona is all about laughing at the disconnect between his words and his actual meaning, and his satire of stereotypical conservative television anchors frequently includes their obsessions with holiday tradition and the values and morals of an earlier era. Of course Stephen would chose a variety show for his Christmas special – it’s self-aggrandizing, moralizing, and uber-traditional to the point of being passé.

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In this vein of meta self-aware mockery, A Colbert Christmas follows Stephen as he gets snowed into his cabin and is unable to travel to New York to tape his show’s Christmas special. Dejected, he worries about how to celebrate Christmas, questions his faith, and is joined by several celebrity friends. Jon Stewart stops in to sing about Hanukkah, which Stephen quickly rejects as a viable holiday, the angel on Stephen’s crèche turns into Willie Nelson, who sings about Christmas spirit and marijuana, and John Legend drops by as a park ranger, where he and Stephen sing a song about nutmeg that will make you blush. Feist also makes an appearance as a disinterested angel customer service representative, and Elvis Costello comes in at the end to tie everything together.

The whole special is one giant post-modern joke on Christmas politics and the American consumerist holiday, replete with self-reference and sarcasm. The songs, while sung by talented, enthusiastic artists, are all about undercutting the sincerity of the season. After all, how many programs can you think of where Santa arrives with a DVD of the very Christmas special you are presently watching, proving it to be as its subtitle claims, “The Greatest Gift of All”? Right before you come away from the hour feeling like Christmas has been conquered by all the people you hate, though, Elvis Costello sits down at the piano and sings “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In” where the ending message is an attempt to locate some earnestness in the whole mess of cynicism. Like everything else in the special, the song has its laugh lines, but I have to believe that the opening is meant to be as much a rejoinder to its audience as a poke at some of the more heinous television blowhards:

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“There are cynics. There are skeptics.

There are legions of dispassionate dyspeptics

Who regard this time of year as a more than insincere

Cheesy crass commercial travesty of all that we hold dear.

When they think that, well I can hear it,

But I pity them their lack of Christmas spirit.

For in a world like ours, take it from Stephen:

there are much worse things to believe in.”

Santa: Non-Conformist

2009 December 18
by kvanaren

I’m turning today to another classic Christmas special, the 1970 Rankin-Bass production of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. It’s one I’ve perpetually seen on television since I don’t know when, and when I think of a “Christmas TV special,” the odd wooden figures and jerky movements of this production are what inevitably come to mind. Weirdly, though, until today I had never actually watched it all the way through. I can remember seeing it and constantly changing the channel without ever wondering what it was actually about, and now that I’ve sat down to watch, I can tell you: it’s pretty trippy. On the assumption that you’re also in the dark on this one, let’s get a recap.

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Special Delivery Kluger

First off, it’s narrated and sung by Fred Astaire, and Mickey Rooney is the voice of Kris Kringle/Santa Claus. Apparently Mickey Rooney wasn’t that into tunefulness at this point, so poor Kris Kringle has to sing-talk his way through the hour, but Fred Astaire as the postman narrator isn’t bad. The plot is essentially a Santa Claus origin story, which in my mind puts Santa Claus on the same mythic level as Batman or The Hulk, and that seems appropriate. After a great fake newsreel explaining that children across the world are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa, the wooden figurines take over and we’re introduced to our oddly named narrator, Special Delivery Kluger. He’s delivering letters to Santa, and explains that while most letters include lists, many letters also include questions like “Why do you wear a red coat?” and “Why do you have whiskers?” and “Why do you come down the chimney?” We then launch into the whole Santa back story, where each of these questions will be answered with varying degrees of strain to the plot. (And very little historical accuracy. Please see the impressive Wikipedia article or David Sedaris’ short story “Six to Eight Black Men” for more.)

Burgermeister Meisterburger and the kindly elves who just happen to wear Santa outfits

Burgermeister Meisterburger and the kindly elves who just happen to wear Santa outfits

In his infancy, Santa is abandoned as a baby on the doorsteps of the fabulously named Burgermeister Meisterburger, the cantankerous mayor of Sombertown. Unsurprisingly, baby Santa is kicked out and his sleigh is blown by the four winds past the Winter Warlock’s mountain and then carried by adorable woodland creatures to the home of a family of kindly toymaking elves. They adopt him and give him the name Kris Kringle, and clothe him in their traditional elf garb of a red coat trimmed with white fur (elves, toys, Santa outfit, check, check, check.) Kris Kringle grows to adulthood and discovers that his elfin family has been making toys for years and simply throwing them in a giant pile out back because the evil Winter Warlock prevents them from delivering the toys to Sombertown. This has got to be the oddest plot point ever – seriously, they just make toys and throw them out the window for years and years? Anyhow, Kris decides that’s silly and goes to deliver them himself. He melts the heart of the Winter Warlock by giving him a toy train and heads over the mountain (toy delivery, check.)

Just a big pile of toys outside! Why on earth would they keep making them?!

Just a big pile of toys outside! Why on earth would they keep making them?!

Jessica and her cartoon reflection

Jessica and her cartoon reflection

You will be shocked to discover that Burgermeister Meisterburger, mayor of Sombertown, is not a huge fan of toys. Kris starts to hand them out, but is distressed by the hilariously Dickensian children of Sombertown and admonishes them to be cheerful. Outraged by the increase in joy, Burgermeister immediately bans all toys from the village, which forces Kris to deliver them secretly during the night, and when Burgermister then requires all doors be locked at night, Kris figures out how to deliver the toys anyway by slipping down the chimney (better not pout, nighttime delivery, bizarre chimney entrance, check, check, check). Blah de blah, Kris falls in love with the local schoolteacher, who sings a creepy song and does some Sandy-from-Grease narcissistic fountain gazing.

I love the children of Sombertown. They have prematurely grey hair, and sad sad eyes, and they have to wash clothes all day long.

I love the children of Sombertown. They have prematurely grey hair, and sad sad eyes, and they have to wash clothes all day long.

Next thing you know, Burgermeister Meisterburger throws Kris in jail, and the schoolteacher (who has the incongruous name Jessica) seeks help from the Winter Warlock. He feeds some helpful reindeer with magical feed corn (seriously? Magical feed corn?), which allows them to fly, and somehow (not quite sure how), this gets Kris out of jail. He’s still wanted by the tenacious police force of Sombertown, though, so he grows a big beard to decrease his resemblance to widely-circulated Wanted posters (whiskers, check).

The beard actually does very little to disguise his face. Maybe it would fool Steven Seagal, but probably no one else.

The beard actually does very little to disguise his face. Maybe it would fool Steven Seagal, but probably no one else.

Let’s sum up. At this point, Santa is a felon, who grows his infamous beard as a way of hiding from law enforcement. And tellingly, when Burgermeister Meisterburger throws Santa in jail, he angrily describes Kris as a “non-conformist.” After his jailbreak, Santa and Jessica get married and flee with the elves to the far north. Think about it: it’s 1970. Is Santa a conscientious objector who runs to Canada to escape the Vietnam War? Am I taking this too far?

In any case, after the death of Burgermeister Meisterburger, Santa is eventually vindicated by history and becomes the beloved peacenik we all know today. Oddly political, strangely adult Christmas specials will continue next week with A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All.

Good Grief

2009 December 17
by kvanaren

It seems only right to start writing about Christmas specials with the most memorable and well-known special we have – A Charlie Brown Christmas. After it first aired in 1965, it became the most consistently aired Christmas special out there, first appearing annually on CBS and then at least twice during the holiday season on ABC. It won a Peabody and an Emmy, the 40th anniversary airing had the highest ratings in its timeslot, and somehow remains a Christmas classic despite its overt focus on Christianity. This year, President Obama chose to give a national primetime address on the first night ABC was going to play A Charlie Brown Christmas, and got almost as much coverage for bumping off Charlie Brown as for introducing major new Afghanistan policy.

charlie brown christmas 3

Charlie Brown follows the well-worn Christmas special formula we all know and love. We begin with a protagonist who has not bought into the standard Christmas spirit, and whose contrariness upsets his friends and family who are celebrating the holiday with the appropriate good cheer. Gradually, through the magic of Christmas, Charlie Brown attains the proper sense of joy and good will, and we end by discovering the real meaning of the holiday. I haven’t done a lot of research on this, but my guess would be that we have that other well-known Charlie to thank for this particular Christmas plotline. Christmas as we know it, with its prevailing message of charity and cheer, didn’t exist much before the nineteenth century, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol did a great deal to codify our perceptions of the holiday message.

And yet, in spite of what appears to be a fairly strong correlation with the Christmas Carol plot of the past and the innumerable saccharine Christmas specials to come, A Charlie Brown Christmas is an unlikely hit. While Scrooges and their descendents are usually typified by a perverse delight in their emotional miserliness, Charlie Brown begins with a powerful awareness of his inability to feel Christmas spirit, and is seriously concerned about his own malaise. The first lines of the program are Charlie’s: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Charlie Brown sounds less like a guy in need of chastising visits from Christmas ghosts, and more like a candidate for anti-depressants. The accompanying music, one of the most defining qualities of the program, supports and reinforces his unease. Small children sing “Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer” to a descending, repetitive melody in a minor key that sounds like deep wistful sighs. For a significant majority of its half an hour running time, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a bummer.

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Eventually Charlie Brown overcomes his depression by reminding his friends and viewers that Christmas should not be a commercialized wasteland of empty feeling – a theme that must have felt deeply ironic during the program’s original run, when the opening and closing shots carried large sponsorship messages from Coca-Cola. Like all other Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas ends well, with Linus earnestly reciting the King James version of the Christmas story and Charlie Brown’s pitiful tree turning out rather well. I’m convinced, though, that A Charlie Brown Christmas is as popular as it is not because of its well-worn Christmas moral but because of everything that comes before. Charlie Brown’s feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction are so plainly and effectively expressed, they really stand out among the other jokes and Snoopy gags. “My trouble is Christmas…instead of feeling happy, I feel sorta let down.”

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He’s so human and believable, and so unlike the reprehensible Scrooge, that I think Charlie Brown gives us a classic Christmas message at the same time as he gives us permission to feel a little down. He’s not some horrible monster who hates crippled orphans or that other holiday favorite, the evil corporate CEO who views Christmas in terms of profits and ignores his adorable children. Charlie Brown is just a kid who feels sort of sad, and says all the things about Christmas we try to ignore. “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I’m not.” No wonder we love watching it every year. If Charlie Brown can get from there to a place where he’s reasonably happy about the holiday, it must be possible for any of us as well.

'Tis the Season

2009 December 16
by kvanaren

This is the time of year when we all reflect on what happened in our recent past, and as it’s the end of the decade as well, there’s a particularly strong inclination toward navel-gazing and list-making. Before I launch into some posts about holiday-themed television, I want to (participate!) highlight some of the interesting thoughts floating around about the 2000s.

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I’m particularly fond of this Emily Nussbaum piece from the NYMagazine, which discusses this decade as the moment when television became an art form and we collectively began to understand TV as an object for study and analysis rather than lowbrow pabulum. She highlights all the shows you’d expect, The Wire and The Sopranos especially, but also talks about the importance of shows like Slings and Arrows and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and gives one of my favorite characterizations of The West Wing ever – “a liberal holodeck”). The piece also has a thoughtful mention of the way technology like DVDs and DVRS have made all of this artful TV possible, which I agree has been crucial in our appreciation of television as a form.

The Nussbaum piece is polished to a high sheen – on the other end of the spectrum, there’s this great discussion between several television critics about some of their favorite shows. Only the first of its three parts has been released so far, but it deals with Lost and its many issues in a thoughtful and pleasantly casual way. Like the Nussbaum article, this conversation touches on fandom and its role in television appreciation.

And now for some lists – here are Maureen Ryan’s, James Poniewozik’s, and Alan Sepinwall’s absurdly comprehensive List of Lists. The best thing about list projects like these is the inevitable contentious decisions and subsequent fallout from blog commenters. As Alan Sepinwall described, list making is always a process of explaining that while you like Thing 1, you like Thing 2 better, and then watching the entire internet explode in outrage over your snub of Thing 1.

I think this post plus yesterday’s comments on the Golden Globes is plenty of meta-commentary for now, and tomorrow I’ll begin discussing holiday television. My plan is to meander through whatever occurs to me as well as hitting some of the greats – last year’s A Colbert Christmas, the perpetual A Charlie Brown Christmas, the awesome Angela Lansbury made-for-TV movie Mrs. Claus if I can find a copy – with the ultimate goal of landing on that holiest of holy grails, the Star Wars Holiday Special. I’ve never seen it, but have often heard of its awesome, gut-wrenching power and look forward to experiencing the horror. Let me know if you have a favorite and I’ll try to get to it.

Why do we care what the Hollywood Foreign Press thinks, anyway?

2009 December 15
by kvanaren

I’m really not sure. Still, the list of this year’s Golden Globe nominations was released this morning, and although the consensus seems to be that awards in general are flawed and the Golden Globes in particular are totally arbitrary, these things still matter a little. Not a whole lot, mind you, but the Oscars don’t recognize television programming, so we’re stuck with this.

There aren’t very many surprises on the list, and there are quite a few I’d be happy to see win. The best drama series nominees are Big Love, Dexter, House, Mad Men, and True Blood, and although my preference would obviously be for Mad Men in that category, as long as House doesn’t win I’d be all right. The same goes for the comedy/musical list – out of 30 Rock, Entourage, Glee, Modern Family, and The Office, I’d be happy with anything but Entourage (which I’ve never blogged about but is so sadly tired and overworked at this point, I’m amazed Jeremy Piven doesn’t just collapse into a quivering heap of sweat and twitchiness). The Office has had a good season, but I’d really love that award to go to either Modern Family or Glee. It’s been a good year for new comedies, and if no one praises and supports new, quality shows, we will all wake up one morning in a hell hole where The Real Housewives runs 24/7 on every channel except CNN and the Food Network.

Of the many excellent shows that didn’t get nominated in either of those categories, a few were represented in the acting lists, including Toni Collette for The United States of Tara, and my nerdy fav Neil Patrick Harris for How I Met Your Mother. I generally care less about the acting awards, but I am beyond thrilled that Jane Lynch was nominated for best supporting actress on Glee. She is by far my favorite non-musical part of that show, and as much as I’ve ragged on Glee in the past, I do it because I’m fond of it and want the show to live up to its potential. I do very much wish Friday Night Lights were on this list somewhere, if not for best drama then at least for Connie Britton or Kyle Chandler. Maybe no one in the Hollywood Foreign Press gets DirecTV.

Nominations for shows that break out of the crime-procedural or reality show molds are good, and although they may have very little to do with decisions about what shows to make and what shows to cancel, I still like to hope it’s a little tiny rebuke to NBC for killing off its 10pm primetime slot. NBC’s only nominations are for 30 Rock and The Office, where FOX, CBS and ABC all get at least one shout out for a drama (House, The Good Wife, Lost). I suppose they’re going with the old line that you can’t lose if you don’t play the game, but from where I’m sitting reading Golden Globes list, it still looks like losing.

Dollhouse – A Love Supreme

2009 December 14
by kvanaren

After the last four episodes in two weeks, I don’t quite know what to say other than that Dollhouse is now an entirely different show than it was at the beginning of its first season. In a good way. I’m so thrilled they’ve thrown out the disturbing-prostitution-scheme-of-the-week format, because the show’s questions and themes were always going to be far too complicated to be adequately expressed in yet another creepy romantic engagement. In these last two weeks, Dollhouse has begun to feel like a headlong rush toward the apocalypse, which I’ve been waiting for since the fabulous “Epitaph One” and which Joss Whedon should really always include in his work. The guy’s just an apocalypse-building machine, and I wish it had been apparent that Dollhouse was heading toward the end of the world much, much sooner.

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The other fabulous thing about these recent episodes is that finally (finally!) Echo is a character I’m actually interested in understanding. It took way too long to get here, but now that Echo is a sentient being capable of dollhouse 208 2controlling all her alternate personalities and making decisions for herself, there are so many issues that become fascinating. Where did Echo come from? How does an identity leap into existence? What if, as Bennett remembers, Caroline’s not actually a great person? Does this body belong to Caroline or to Echo? It’s also lovely to watch her stride around the Dollhouse and actually wonder what her plans could be – Echo as a blank slate never provided enough resistance against the Rossum Corporation, and for a long time, Paul Ballard was too dopey and out of the loop to make it seem as though anyone was actually coming close to the problem. Now, though, we at last get to see that Echo is as special as everyone has been trying to tell us for a season and a half. This show actually gets a protagonist, one who can remember who she is from one day to the next.

The recent episodes have also been a great showcase for Adele, whose self-preservation instincts overpower her shaky, ambiguous morality in a way that managed to be both believable and evil. I’m still having a rough time with exactly what motivates Alpha, whose unpredictability and dangerousness are undercut by what appears to be a simple and non-scary love/jealousy issue. On the whole, though, Echo’s growing personhood has been nicely buoyed by an equally interesting supporting cast of characters, and Topher has to be the favorite. He’s managed to go from a complete jerk to a sympathetic and funny human being, and his trust in Adele, shown by handing over his freaky “Epitaph One” technology, was even more effective when she turns around and betrays him. It’s a relief to feel comfortable laughing at his joke lines and not wonder if I should actually be condemning him for his sociopathic actions. (Best line of this week was certainly: “I am obsolete. This must be what old people feel like. And Blockbuster.”)

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The most recent episode, “A Love Supreme,” was also pleasantly self-aware, and managed to pull of a winking joke on itself while still being tense and suspenseful. The dolls have always been boring and empty, which has added to the difficulty of empathizing with them. When Alpha signals them all to become mindless killing machines, the subsequent zombie lines were both accurate descriptions of the dolls and also a pretty hilarious way of laughing about how dead they’ve always been. (Another Topher classic: “Did they eat my brains?!”) Dollhouse is now the thoughtful, funny, disturbing show it always deserved to be. Of course it is – it was cancelled a few weeks ago.

Glee – Sectionals

2009 December 11
by kvanaren

glee 113 2This week was the last episode of Glee for a very long time, and it did all those things you want a pseudo-finale to do. The first official show choir competition gave the glee club an opportunity to experience betrayals, shocking revelations, and disappointment while also overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles through song and dance. I enjoyed the episode – there was a lot of song and dance, which, when it comes down to it, is really why I watch the show. I liked cutting to Mr. Shuester listening to the kids over the phone and making adorable proud scrunchy faces. It was a relief to finally break down the Finn/Puck fatherhood secret, and I was pleased that Finn managed to reconcile himself with the glee club without also accepting Puck’s betrayal. It’s pretty silly but kind of fun that this whole episode was basically a reverse Bring It On, where the ghetto black school steals the numbers from the nerdy white kids. And my favorite bit of “Sectionals” was the judging, where Rod Remington, Marla Daniels, and the creepy evangelist wife from True Blood appeared as hysterically incompetent adjudicators.

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Because we now have months and months to think about what will happen next, though, I’m still stumbling over some of the problems I’ve had with Glee from the beginning. There are some bothersome plot inconsistencies. It’s not a realistic world, and so I’m all right with stories that require the glee club to come up with two brand competition-winning new numbers in an hour, even though it’s patently absurd. The problem is when plot inconsistencies are the result of sloppy character development. For instance, Rachel ruins Puck’s paternity secret by telling Quinn about the possibility of inheriting Tay-Sachs from a Jewish parent, and while this hearkens back nicely to Puck’s hilarious homage to his Jewish heritage, Quinn freaks out because she worries Terry Shuester won’t take a baby with health issues. Although I suppose it’s possible, it’s just so odd that Terry’s pregnancy could be revealed as fake and Mr. Shuester could sleep in the music room (inciting the whole absurd mattress fiasco) without Quinn realizing that perhaps Terry would no longer be in need of a cover baby. Even worse, what about that whole “Papa Don’t Preach” musical number where Quinn announced (repeatedly, and in song) that she was going to keep her baby? Quinn has been conflicted over whether to keep her baby for a while, but her decisions seem to swing wherever the plot needs them to, and that’s exactly the wrong way to build a story on a show like this. Character development should drive plot, not vice versa.

My other concern at this point of the show, as I mentioned from the very beginning, is that it’s difficult to see where this could possibly be going that wasn’t completely predetermined from the very first episode. Far from introducing new twists or unexpected storylines “Sectionals” simply put the plot even closer to where we’ve wanted it to go – Mr. Shuester left his wife, and Miss Pillsbury broke up with poor Ken Tanaka, so it’s easier for them to be together now. Finn discovered that the baby is Puck’s, which will drive him farther from Quinn and closer to Rachel. The glee club has overcome their initial shortcomings and won their first competition, putting them on the road to the state finals. Color me shocked. I know they’re supposed to be conquering adversity, but it’s hard to listen to them sing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” when it’s so clear they eventually will.

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It’s easy to say that surprise and character development just aren’t what this show is about, and I should just abandon my unfair requirements. Glee is a show about satisfaction and snark, and it does those things very well. Despite all my picky, whiny blogging, I like watching it. Maybe what I’m waiting for is a second season, which I have no doubt this show will get. After the inevitable state finals finale, Glee will be forced to work outside its initial conceit, and maybe then it will be forced to shake up its all-too-predictable story. I really hope so. In the mean time, au revoir until April, Glee. Whatever else I might have said here, please don’t get me wrong. I’ll miss you.

The Glad Family (of Products)

2009 December 10
by kvanaren

Warning: In the paragraphs that follow, I reveal the winner of this season of Top Chef. If that bothers you, avert thine eyes and close this tab as quickly as possible.

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Of course it had to be one of the Voltaggio brothers. The rivalry was too tempting and too entertaining, and to be fair to the producers of the show, they were both talented enough to justify whittling the competition down to a Cain and Abel situation (Romulus and Remus? Bert and Ernie?). I do feel bad for Kevin, though, who would have had an entirely different experience on that show if he weren’t up against a family dynamic that was built for reality television. As soon as they hit the finale, he must have known it would be one of the brothers, and the added bonus of being stuck with Preeti as his sous chef must have felt like the last nails in his coffin.

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Watching this season of Top Chef, I began to realize just how much reality television relies on the family unit as a source of drama and narrative development. Even after you throw out explicitly family-based shows (Keeping up with the Kardashians, 18 Kids and Counting, either of the Hulk Hogan shows, Little Family, Big World, The Now-Deceased Show that Must Not Be Named), the useful and always-reliable family drama pervades almost every form of reality show. It’s the backbone of the whole Real Housewives series, but it also pops up consistently on competition shows like The Amazing Race and The Biggest Loser. Even America’s Next Top Model had a season where two of the top contestants were twins. So I guess the bigger surprise is that Top Chef hadn’t found a pair of sibling contestants several seasons ago.

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top chef finale 4They lucked out with the Voltaggios, though. Michael and Bryan were both driven, consistently high-performing chefs with completely different styles, and they managed to convey pleasure in each other’s success while also fighting hard to be the winner themselves. If I were producing a reality show, I can imagine two extremely talented brothers bickering over a piece of saran wrap feeling like a gift from the television gods. Even better, the final math of three contestants but only two moms would be impossible to refuse. I do have to admit, I backed the wrong brother and was totally rooting for Bryan. His restraint and maturity were far more appealing to me. But in the end…it was Michael, and that’s all right. In what is hopefully a sign of good, brotherly appreciation, they launched a Voltaggio Brothers website yesterday. We can only hope they’ve decided they’re more entertaining and effective as a family than they would be on their own.