Sunday, January 28, 2001
Of the two comedy TV series in the history of television, I would choose both Seinfeld and Monty Python as the cultural landmarks of the medium. In Seinfeld, there is not a trace of sentimentality and glib moralizing that plagues the American sitcom genre. Characters do not hug each other on Christmas, fall in love, wax on and on about family and friends, there is no faux-cathartic season ender so favored by the writers of, say, "Friends".
Instead, we have the narcissistic Jerry, constantly mining the minutiae of everyday detail for every bit of situational comedy; we have the hyper-aggressive Elaine, whose strings of breakups with boyfriends are as impressive as her petty neuroses leading up to the breakups themselves; the ultimate schlub-loser George, who lies to every single woman he dates, sells faulty equipment to the handicapped and muscles off women and children when fleeing an apartment fire; and the impossibly inventive physical comedy of the entrepreneur cum schmooze Kramer.
Over and over again, week in and week out, the quartet discuss trivialities with unbridled zeal, as the non-descript narrative pings from one mundane setting to another. Seldom has such wit been generated by such gargantually pointless human endeavors. That is where the brilliance of Seinfeld lies, in the ability to go to the most bizarre ends to fulfill the potential of a less than hopeful comedic premise; and the endless, pointlessly smug and nihilistic banter that almost invariably escalates into some of TV's classic lines, such as when George shouts triumphantly after winning an argument that "there is no bigger loser than me!".
Friday, January 26, 2001
They blew a massive hole in the conventions of not only television comedy, but television itself. They used (and abused) the medium to what was then the limit of its potential: no thirty-second "blackout" skits, no contrived punchlines (except in the name of self-mocking irony), performers falling out of character and addressing the audience, skits being intruded by characters from a previous sketch, or even an entirely different episode (so you had to pay attention!), stream-of-consciousness animated links, absurd props (the 16 ton weight)... and they claim they merely threw it all together when the BBC approached them to make a "satirical sketch show" in the vein of "The Frost Report" or "TW3".
Not only that, but they have influenced probably every comedy writer and performer of note ever since.
The Pythons are either authentic, top-drawer geniuses, or the six luckiest opportunists who ever lived - probably a bit of both! They caught the BBC with its knickers down and took advantage.
OK, so the shows look their age, and much of the material is rambling, patchy, hit-and-miss stuff. But we only remember the good bits, and it is those good bits which will ensure the place in television history of Messrs Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Palin and Jones for many years to come.
Lavishing praise on a thirty-two-year-old television series? It all seems a bit silly to me...
Monday, January 22, 2001
The casting was exceptional and the performances were more than convincing. The actors did excellent jobs in expressing the emotional struggles within and without. The dynamic and unpredictable story lines demanded feats of acting skills and they all performed to high standards. There were a lot of breath-halting cliffhangers, palm-sweating suspense, and eye-widening surprises.
At times, some of the narrations seemed to be a bit preachy. There were times when the decisions of the people on the ship were too predictable and childish. I had an impression that the ending was rather rushed.
BSG kept asking us the same question "What makes us human?" In this regards, this TV series reminded me of a book called 'Somewhere carnal over 40 winks'.
I hope for more of realistic sci-fi series like BSG in the future.
Sunday, January 21, 2001
Saturday, January 20, 2001
The show started as something of a fad - the new vulgar, don't-let-the-kids-watch show on the block. But as real world events changed, "Park" evolved along with them. Standing as the kings on top of a soap box they constructed out of swearing kids, talking poo, homosexual hand puppets and hermaphroditic parents; Parker and Stone where blessed with the freedom of a hit series, hip status and a network that gave them the freedom to do whatever they want. As the show aged, they matured in their storytelling abilities and the show went from shock value fad to a barbed satire of American culture.
"Park" is brought to life with oddly beautiful, vibrantly colored 2-dimensional cut-and-paste animation. The episodes are masterfully constructed. The writing a witty showcase of Parker and Stone's love for pop culture parody, graphic violence, pornography and a bold willingness to take on the hot button issues of the week. It is a free-for-all virtuoso where nothing and nobody is safe, every establishment media position gets flipped on it's head and every politically correct sacred cow gets eviscerated. Now that's comedy - if you can stomach a barrage of extreme scatological humor with your social satire. The vomit jokes and fat jokes on "Park" aren't there for the sake of it, but have substance behind them. And nobody does them better.
Eric Cartman, Mr. Garrison and more recently Randy Marsh (stepping up as a reliably hilarious scene-stealer) are classic characters, but Parker and Stone have gone further and developed an entire town of colorful caricatures. They aren't made to be as endearing as those in "The Simpsons", but aren't supposed to be. The characters aren't just vacuous idiots, and the laughs of the show come from a very socially conscious place.
Straight men Stan and Kyle are the show's most underdeveloped. They serve mostly as a mouthpiece for Parker and Stone's conservative libertarian philosophy, often literally giving a speech to a crowd in the show's finale. There is not a single other place on TV where you can see environmentalists, the anti-smoking lobby, illegal immigrants, trial lawyers, news media hysteria, elitist Hollywood liberals, abortion, sex ed in schools and every celebrity from Mel Gibson to Paris Hilton all get ripped to shreds. The show pulls it off because it has a unique ability to deconstruct and reconstruct current events better than anyone else (notably Comedy Central's overrated "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"), giving them a hilarious or supernatural explanation without moralizing getting in the way of the laughs. They take their own messages to such loony extremes it's impossible to take seriously.The cherry on top is the seemingly endless quality of the original songs provided by the creator's cover band, DVDA.
With a skeleton crew that writes, directs, animates, voices and scores the show, this is independent television in it's purest form. This means it often labors on Parker and Stone's geeky indulgences - episodes center around a full-length "Star Wars" parody, the class gerbil making it's way up a human bowel or Timmy, a handicapped student who can only say his name. Occasionally, their shock value execution creates a gagging reaction that obscures an otherwise brilliant point ("Fat Camp"). But I'd rather have a show that challenges me than one shackled to clichés and network mandates. When "South Park" goes for the shocking ending, you better believe it actually will shock.
Still, "South Park" is almost impossible to recommend in a casual sense. The show is truly an acquired taste, but one I have to come to support whole-heartedly through the years despite (and because) I have absolutely no idea what to expect when sitting down for a new episode. How rare is that? Where so many other shows cower in the corner, begging for our approval "South Park" is constantly taking risks and re-inventing itself. We've got terrific stunt episodes, episodes built around one joke or building to a single knock-out punch line. They use the smash-cut ending better than anyone ("There Goes the Neighborhood"). Sometimes the experiments are to it's own detriment and the episode is a 22 minute bore, but even then it's almost unheard of to find a show in it's 10th season that is still water cooler television.
"South Park" grabs us by the collar, shakes us around and dares even it's biggest fans to come back next week for more. The show is a monument of creative freedom with a wicked imagination, a true (and hilariously funny) sense of comic timing, and an insightful, socially conscious ear that smartly reflects a point of view starving for attention in mainstream television. It is a hugely entertaining, fiercely visceral, fire-breathing, red-blooded American satire made by, for (and most appreciated by) the most jaded and discriminating TV viewers. We just don't have shows like this on TV today. Anywhere.
Friday, January 19, 2001
This brilliant series is not intended to reflect the "reality" of trailer park life in Nova Scotia, but is instead a wonderful artistic compilation of many extreme, bizarre, and mundane experiences that are interesting on an entertaining and (feigned) voyeuristic basis. There are operas, soap operas, space operas, and now "park operas".
Consider how difficult it must be to act improv style not only on the set, but to act "in character" during all media interviews and public engagements, as is the expectation. Not many actors would have the commitment or stamina to carry this through for the benefit of the production image. Mike Smith, who plays the character Bubbles, apparently can only wear the thick glasses for 15 minutes at a time without extreme fatigue.
Let's consider the acting quality and skill. Would Deniro or Pacino make this a better series? No! The charm is in the rough edges, the improv, the humility, and the belief that these are low rung thugs. It is totally believable and a credit to the acting and direction.
How is Canada or Nova Scotia being insulted if we recognize that this series is a parody and that we should not take it so seriously. According to the on-line polls I have viewed for TPB of the episodes to date, the average rating has been 9 out of 10. Most of those voting were from Canada followed by participants from the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. We should be proud that we have had an impact on others, especially on those outside of our country.
Tuesday, January 9, 2001
The main Mad Man is the confident womanizer Don Draper, who is head of the Creative department at a mid-sized ad agency in 1960s Madison Avenue. I admit, at first I kind of hated him, but as the viewer learns more about him and his past, I learned to - not love him exactly - but like him and want to watch him endlessly. He is a complicated character who can be a very good man, but also a very bad man.
Don Draper is joined by a rich cast of supporting characters, many of whom deserve a show of their own: The ambitious young Campbell who is utterly sleazy most of the time, but has occasional moments of growth and even cuteness.Peggy Olson starts out as Draper's secretary, but her growth into a strong, confident woman mirrors what is happening for Woman in the 60's. Silver fox Stirling - he may be morally bankrupt but gets some of the best lines. I could go on . . .
The 60's clothes, hairstyles, decor, and current events provide an interesting backdrop for what is essentially a character piece. The setting provides both the occasional laugh (cigarettes being advertised as "healthy") and the more than occasional cringe (how could dumping trash from a picnic in the park right on the grass ever seem okay?!).
If you need fast-paced action or a laugh track, this definitely isn't the show for you. But, if you like character development and subtlety in your television shows, rent the first seasons on DVD and settle in. You won't regret it.
Sunday, January 7, 2001
It begs comparison with "Arrested Development," "The Office," "Seinfeld" and "South Park" in its broad humor and wit, but it is completely original in its own right. The pilot was filmed on a low budget by a few friends and was picked up by FX after wards, so the show retains its low-budget feel - giving it a gritty, down-to-earth edge.
"Sunny" does border on the edge of bad taste sometimes (hell, what am I saying - it crosses the line every time) but it contains enough satire and wit to get away with it. For example: in one episode Mac and Dennis decide to pick up girls at an abortion rally. Mac pretends to be pro-life just so he can be around an attractive woman, whom he ends up sleeping with. Later, she tells him she's pregnant. "You need to get an abortion," he says. This type of irony runs throughout every episode.
The banter between the characters in the show is what tends to be particularly funny. The actors - although novices - are all great. Charlie Day in particular has me laughing like crazy every episode. And his interaction with Danny DeVito (who's been brought in for season two) is hilarious. Season two is more polished so far in terms of the mechanics of the show - the characters have all been setup now and they know what they're doing - and in that regard it is seeming to get better and better with every episode.
You do have to have a very sick sense of humor to like some of this - DeVito's character, Frank, is the father of Dennis and Dee, and his reason for being in the show is that he is getting a divorce and wants to relive his glory days as a youth. He tries to re-ignite a relationship with an old girlfriend of his from high school - but when he finds out she's a grandmother and not interested in doing anything wild, his attention instantly turns to the waitress and he tunes her out. It's cruel, sick and hilarious. DeVito is playing another ruthless character (same as in "Taxi" all those years ago) and it works splendidly.
Overall this was a delightful blast of fresh air - after seeing so many stale sitcoms, this proved to me that FX really is becoming the new lead in character-driven comedy-dramas (such as the equally superb "Rescue Me" which isn't quite as funny, however).
My only hope is that "Sunny" doesn't become so popular that it attracts controversy and sells out and dumbs down its humor. Right now it's on par with the early episodes of "South Park" and "SNL" in terms of how irreverent its humor is - and personally, in my opinion, its plots are better than most comedy films I've seen within the last few years.
With even greater influence than "The Twilight Zone" or "The Outer Limits," "The X-Files really charted unknown waters. Making such a long-lasting series out of a couple of renegade FBI agents investigating the paranormal was an accomplishment that no one could have predicted -- and, naturally, this lack of preparation and planning created numerous inconsistencies -- especially with the eventually tiresome track of an alien invasion. The best episodes were those that stood on their own and didn't seek any stake in the soap-operaish alien theme. But, with any series that extends long after its expiration date, the writers continued to churn out stories that were (for the most part) engaging and highly entertaining. Gillian Anderson provided ALL of the backbone and genuine drama. Duchovny was at his best when delivering witty quips and displaying a deprecating sarcasm toward his superiors. Toward the end of his tenure, I got the sense that he was just walking through the scripts. It was high time for him to go or for the series to end, but the show went on. With Duchovny out, Anderson stepped up her performance to an even higher notch to make up for any slack. Robert Patrick was a breath of fresh air from the suffocating Duchovny-Anderson relationship (that should never have happened). Patrick, coming at The X-Files as a complete skeptic, was a smart way of revitalizing the initial dynamic of the program (where, originally, Scully was the skeptic, and Duchovny was the "believer" or at least would-be believer). Without the awards and accolades garnered by "The X-Files," we wouldn't be seeing the avalanche of sci fi/paranormal programs now shown on television. The full body of work is impressive and will survive as a kind of historical photo album of the TV broadcasting limits existing in its time.
Friday, January 5, 2001
I won't say much about "Deep Space Nine" other than that it is the most well written, off-beat, and truly suspenseful of the Star Trek series. It is the series for everyone else... those who don't enjoy happy Star Trek (ie- "Next Generation), weird Star Trek (ie- "The Original"), or dumb Star Trek (ie- "Voyager").
It has a much darker tone, with a story-line that, if anyone watched from the beginning of the story arc to what is on currently, could understand and enjoy. It doesn't have the traditional "We are the Champions and can solve any problem in an hour". It features low-life, people making mistakes in judgement, conflicts over spirituality, and a much more human and less superficial look at one of pop culture's little universes. It features war-torn individuals and petty conflicts over land. Problems with culture-clash, government conspiracy and corruption, etc... This list could go on and on.
The main thing that makes "Deep Space Nine" different is that it is a Star Trek series for folks who don't want a lot of technobabble (not that there isn't any) Star Trek, where problems just go away or perfect people on a perfect ship that always win. It makes it more interesting for the watcher, almost like reading a novel. Most people, especially non-Trek fans, who had watched the series from its conception or jo