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Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
Set an end date. Save the show.

For the last few seasons, Heroes has lost viewers at a steady rate. If it was on any network other than NBC, which seems to have less concern for ratings success since the Jay Leno experiment, its cancellation would be all but guaranteed after another drop this year. But the show still has fans. Despite being frustrated by the ill-defined characters and incomprehensible plot twists, I’m one of those who has watched the show from episode one and plans to stick with it to what is increasingly looking like a bitter end.


There is still hope to salvage the show for the diehard viewers. But it will require that NBC cancel it first. 


This is not unprecedented, of course. Lost is about to start its predetermined final season. A couple of years ago, the producers and ABC got together and decided how many more episodes were needed to wrap up the show. Such collaboration and scheduled cancellation should be the new industry standard for serialized mythology shows.


Tagged as: heroes, lost, nbc, tim kring
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Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
What's wrong with Glee? Inability to find a tone that works, confusing ridiculously stupid plotlines for compelling drama, and Auto-Tune. Wretched, wretched Auto-Tune.

I’ve sort of been watching Glee for the last few months. I say “sort of” because I watched the first four or five episodes relatively quickly back in September, but the rest of the season’s episodes had been languishing on my DVR for the past month or so. But it’s Thanksgiving Break this week, and it’s given me the opportunity to start to get caught up on the show.


I enjoyed the first couple of episodes. The pilot was highly entertaining, aside from a few niggling issues which I sincerely hoped the producers would iron out once the show began in earnest. Unfortunately, the show’s problems have only become more prominent as the season has gone on. The idea of a show about the misfits and outcasts of a high school glee club appealed to me. The fact that the show was relatively successful was also a nice change of pace from the days when Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were put on the air with a death sentence practically already hanging over them.


But I just watched episode six (“Vitamin D”, the one where Terri becomes the school nurse), and I give up. I can’t take it anymore. The show is just not entertaining enough to overcome its faults. Creator Ryan Murphy seems to want the show to be an over-the-top satire of high school life, which I get. The high school student aspect is actually the most enjoyable part of the show. The popular kids feel entitled, the outcasts feel like crap, and everybody is trying to outdo everybody else and move up (or at least over) on the social ladder. The problem is that Murphy isn’t satisfied with the show being a winking satire, he also wants the audience to take the dramatic plotlines seriously. But how can we, when it’s all so cartoonish? How can I care about whether Glee Club director Will Schuester stays with his wife, Terri, or ends up with Emma, the cute school counselor, when his wife has literally no redeeming qualities. She’s mean, spiteful, lazy, and jealous, and we don’t understand why he’s married to her in the first place. To top it off, the show began a storyline with her where she is lying to Will about being pregnant, and he can’t figure it out. Of course we want Will to end up with Emma, because everything about Terri is awful, awful, awful. That’s not a love triangle, it’s viewer torture.


Meanwhile, Emma is dating the aggravating, desperate football coach simply because he’s persistent. She has zero interest in him, but since she can’t have Will, she is settling. Despite the fact that she’s obsessive-compulsive and unwilling to touch anything with her bare hands and finds the football coach physically repulsive. These interpersonal storylines with the adults don’t work as satire, or straight comedy, or drama, and they drag the show down every time they show up.


The actors don’t seem to know how to play this material, either, which doesn’t help. Matthew Morrison plays Will as a naive sad-sack who is also a wildly enthusiastic teacher who nonetheless gets very easily discouraged. Will gets pushed around by everybody, from his wife to the principal to the cheerleading coach (more on her in a minute). It doesn’t make him an underdog you want to root for, it just makes him pathetic. Jessalyn Gilsig has done solid work in the past, but as Terri she vacillates between shrewish and crazy, and none of it is the slightest bit believable, even in the over-the-top universe of the show. The only actor on the show who does seem to get what Ryan Murphy is going for is Jane Lynch as hard-ass cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. Lynch is hilarious every time she’s on screen, playing Sue as an intensely driven, highly opinionated character who nonetheless manages to seem like a real person.


The Glee universe is one where good singers at a rival school are held back until they’re age 24 so they can keep performing. It’s one where spotlights appear out of nowhere so characters can break into song. And it’s one where rehearsals always feature fully-formed versions of the songs the students are supposedly practicing. All of that is acceptable within the heightened setting of the show. But we’ve also seen the Glee Club get into major trouble with school officials and parents over performing Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” at a pep rally. And then a couple of episodes later, Schuester’s all-male singing group gets invited to perform at a PTA meeting, and nobody bats an eye when the group (which includes students) sings Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”. The inconsistency is aggravating, and shows incredible laziness on the part of the producers when it comes to even the most basic details.


And then there’s the Auto-Tune. I know that pop music has been inundated with Auto-Tune over the past five years or so, but the kids of the glee club are supposed to all be good singers! The actors were hired because they could all sing as well as act. And the producers think we won’t notice—or worse, won’t care—when we hear those touches of robot voice every time Finn, the lead male vocalist, sings something? And it’s not just Finn, it shows up at least a little bit with all of the kids in the show. Clearly, the runaway success of the songs on iTunes shows that a lot of people really don’t care about this. But as a music geek, it absolutely takes me out of the show every time I hear the Auto-Tune.


Maybe the show has picked up as it went through October and resumed here in November, but I don’t care enough anymore to find out. The basic story about the underdog glee kids trying to beat out the rival school powerhouse is fine. The storylines about the high school kids are generally solid. And Jane Lynch is awesome. But those good points are not enough to overcome the frustration I feel over the rest of the show. Good riddance, Glee. I leave you to the gleeks out there.


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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
Project Runway's lackluster season ends. Can the show get back to making it work?

Project Runway’s widely derided Season 6 is finally over and—as expected—it ended with a whimper instead of a bang. “Mean-a” Irina Shabayeva and her be-hatted, dominatrix inspired collection won the day to a resounding meh. Michael Kors was unusually restrained during judging. Nina Garcia looked downright pissed off for being forced to sit through the runway show. Even Tim Gunn’s highly promoted epic freak out turned out to be little more than a few moments of intense brow-furrowing over the backstage chaos.


All along I’d been rooting for cute Carol Hannah Whitfield, whose lovely, wearable dresses and buoyant personality provided a bright spot in an undeniably draggy season. But, c’est la vie. The real question now is how much of the show’s creative plunge can be blamed on Lifetime Network tinkering, and can PR get its mojo back for Season 7?


At the beginning of the season, long suffering fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Project Runway we knew and loved seemed to have survived both a location shift from New York to Los Angeles, and the move from hip Bravo TV to mom-favored Lifetime, relatively intact. There was Heidi Klum, impossibly chic and perennially pregnant. There was dapper Tim Gunn, dispensing advice and proclamations (Don’t Bore Nina!) with typical aplomb. The new crop of aspiring designers settled into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Downtown L.A. and even continued to buy their fabric at a West Coast outpost of Mood.


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Wednesday, Nov 11, 2009
Legend of the Seeker had a rough start in its first season, but it improved greatly by the season finale. Season two picks up where the first ended, both in terms of plot and quality level.

The first season of Legend of the Seeker faced a decidedly uphill battle. Not only was it one of the first pure swords-and-sorcery fantasy shows in many years, it was also the first major show to try its hand in syndication since Xena: Warrior Princess went off the air. The link between the two shows was executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. Conventional wisdom said that the syndication market was basically dead in the 00’s, left behind by the proliferation of cable channels willing to fund original programming. Raimi and Tapert believed otherwise; with a tailor-made timeslot on Saturday nights on stations usually devoted to the CW Network (which doesn’t broadcast on Saturdays), they believed they could find success again in syndication. And they turned out to be right. Action-oriented shows are always easier to market worldwide, and with strong ratings in dozens of countries, Legend of the Seeker was renewed before the first season was even halfway over.


But finding an audience wasn’t the show’s only uphill battle. Based on author Terry Goodkind’s sprawling epic fantasy series The Sword of Truth, Legend of the Seeker had to find a way to make a dense, highly serial story into one-hour stand-alone episodes. Unlike a cable network, the reality of the syndication market demanded that the show not be excessively serialized. Syndicators believe strongly that their shows need to be accessible to a casual audience that might not see every episode. Creatively, this was a huge issue for the show. Go too episodic and you turn off your core audience, go too serial and you alienate the casual viewers that are theoretically the lifeblood of syndication. And they struggled with this quite a bit for the first half of the season or so. But eventually, the show managed to find that balance, turning into a very satisfying hour of TV from week to week. The action scenes were always strong, and filming in New Zealand is always a huge advantage to a fantasy story. But the acting got better, the writing improved, and by season’s end, Legend of the Seeker actually resembled an engaging, serious fantasy show instead of the unintentional parody it started as.


This past weekend’s season two premiere found the show picking up right where it left off. The episode established the premise of the season, taken directly from Goodkind’s second novel, The Stone of Tears. Series hero Richard Cypher (Craig Horner) has destroyed the evil Darken Rahl, but in doing so, has inadvertently opened a fissure in the earth which leads directly to the Underworld. And the Keeper, the lord of the Underworld, is scheming to get out and destroy the surface world. So Richard and his companions must find the Stone of Tears, a near-mythical object which will allow them to seal the Keeper back in the Underworld. Aside from the overarching plot, though, the episode managed to work in a storyline involving rescuing kidnapped village girls which was resolved by the end of the hour. Not to mention another thread popping up regarding Richard’s surprise family lineage, which is already tearing apart the D’Haran nation, the people formerly loyal to Darken Rahl. Oh, and there’s another prophecy to worry about. In the first season, a prophecy said that The Seeker (Richard) would defeat Rahl, but now a different prophecy is saying that Richard will fail in his quest to seal up the Keeper. All in all, it was a strong opening for a show that is starting to live up to its considerable potential. Now the challenge is maintaining that level of quality as the show returns to its more episodic structure next week.


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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership.

Do the right thing. Here’s one for your healthcare debate: “Our government can’t do sh*t!” This episode of Good Times (’74-’79), “The Evans Get Involved”, made the same statement, but didn’t stop there. Government should be able to stand up—must stand up—on behalf of the people, who will stand up regardless (because that’s who we are). But if we’re so capable as individuals, what makes us think that we hold no collective responsibility.


“The Evans Get Involved” is groundbreaking. This is just a nine-and-a-half-minute excerpt. The whole show runs over three, maybe four episodes. The infamous intro/outro of Good Times  is clipped, uploaded like a series of other Sit-Com intros from the late 70’s, early 80’s when we were settling into terms like urban decay and renewal.


Temporary lay offs. - Good Times!
Easy credit rip offs. - Good Times!
Scratchin’ and surviving. - Good Times!

Hangin’ in a chow line - Good Times!

Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em - Good Times!*


I can imagine that for the ‘70s crowd, the show was chock-full of ghetto fabulous stereotypes and archetypical characters. The comedic tension between Sis-Bro duo Thelma and J.J. closely mirrors that of Fred Sanford and his sanctified sister-in-law on the show Sanford and Son (’72-’77). Dear Ms. Rolle eventually quit the show in shock and resistance to those same clichés about poor people and Black people: single, domineering mother, sex-sillified P.I.M.P. sons, welfare hot mamas like that of Penny, and so on. I mean, it’s a family show where they killed off the father. Even Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and J.R. Ewing’s (Larry Hagman) dad made ethereal guest appearances after the actor had died in the evening soap opera drama Dallas (‘78-‘91).


Larry Hagman, of course, played a supreme patriarch in the hit show I Dream of Jeannie, where a scantily clad, Arab-wannabe, female slave bid his every wish, falling over herself to please her “master.” What kind of patriarchal wet dream is that? The same as shows like Dallas and the rest, where money reigns supreme—just like in the world of Bling!


Mmmmmm

Just lookin’ out of the window.
Watchin’ the asphalt grow.

Thinkin’ how it all looks hand-me-down.
Good Times, yeah, yeah
Good Times


In this one episode, the number of social messages transmitted is incredible. The episode centers around Janet Jackson’s character, Penny. Penny, barely reaching tall-actor Jimmie Walker’s chest, is a heavily abused and neglected child raised by a young ghetto mamma. Penny inappropriately transfers her need for love to J.J., even interrupting the man’s dates, hanging onto him like a—dare I say—moth to a flame. Actually, Penny was more attracted to her mother like a moth to a flame; her mother heavily bruises her and burns the child with an electric iron. It’s pitiful and difficult to watch, but whom else to speak on behalf of children if not popular culture. Indeed, this was prime time TV.


How good are these times? And to what end to we owe any responsibility to act collectively? The nosey neighbors stood up for the neglected child; they witnessed her beating up her doll after J.J. rejected her affections, claiming that if the dumb kid (the doll) were better, then the man would have stayed. The episode dug deep. Indeed, the entire series was as thoroughly dope.


Penny made up all sorts of lies, creating a fantasy life for herself far away from the living hell of the Chicago projects. No matter how good-spirited the folks remained, and no matter how many times the neighbor Willona calls the building handy-man, Bugger, the reality of the ghetto is never absent. The irony of the show, of course, is that they lead lives much happier than the wealthy soap opera characters. The Evans family, their neighbors, their friends, the love amongst them, was truly a picture of the ability to choose happiness in one’s life.


Unlike Alice in any wonderland, this was the ghetto—the asphalt grows. Poet Gwendowlyn Brooks, a Chi-town native, imagined an entire universe on that asphalt, and places like the Golden Shovel. Why sho’: We REAL cool. We…


Unlike any wonderland, it’s the people who have to pull ourselves out of fantasy, and create a reality well above ground. Higher than the sky! Indeed, who shot J.R.? One of his own damn relatives (not to be named—go Google it and learn about the season cliffhanger that made television history). That’s some shit, when family is killing one another. We’re supposed to stick up for one another. But the show, for all it’s glory, reflected the greed of the era—the Reaganomics that convinced many Americans that the best we should do is run off like cattle ranchers and make a buck (and screw the girl—any girl), by any means necessary. It’s a man’s world. And that’s something else that made Good Times different.


As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership. The mother Florida, the neighbor Willona, the sister Thelma, and even the little brother Michael, all resisted a typical sort of patriarchal power and leadership. Shows like The Honeymooners (’55-’56), All in the Family (’71-’79), or even The Flinstones (’60-’66) made direct puns at archetypical patriarchs like Archie Bunker—a decrepit, grouchy patriarch. Yet somehow he always got the last word. The only real critique was that the patriarch in those shows was crude.


The world of Good Times was something different altogether. The clip here, for example, makes great mockery of the facts of the faults of government:


  • The doctor who failed to lobby on behalf of the abused child, in spite of the loud pleas of another citizens simply standing up.
  • The policeman, who, like the Dr.’s nurse who wanted to make Penny take her turn in line, just followed procedure.
  • The thirsty social worker who had to fill out the forms while Penny was probably being punched and ironed. “On the rocks,” she insisted for her beverage.
  • The unseen and unmentioned teachers and school staff who failed to notice Penny’s bruises, scars and loveless behavior.

The social worker was so caught up in her paper-work that she drank from a fishbowl, and suddenly she took an interest in Black vernacular. They missed Penny, her mother took her and scrammed.


This is business as usual in America, ‘cause our government can’t do nothin’. Least, that’s what people think, and seem to be saying about health care and well-fare (not to mention welfare) today. Our independence and individualism has been warped into some maddening excuse NOT to take any responsibility for ourselves, collectively.


N.I.M.B.Y. (not in my back-yard) was our motto by the end of the Reagan era, the period that Good Times predicted, mocked, and made fun of. Yet, one wonders if it indeed takes Swine Flu or some other virulent agent to convince us that the well-fare knows no borders. Gender, race, and class can divide us, but our selfishness will conquer us. Good Times’ message was things must change—lest things fall apart. And even in those times, there are Good Times.


Good Times.

Any time you meet a payment. – Good Times.
Any time you need a friend. - Good Times.
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hassled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.


People die in basic American procedures, even the policeman in this clip of Good Times showed that. The officer entered, demeaned the Black man, moaned about doing his duty, and virtually spat on the black man again. The officer administered justice, with the threat of an extended baton, over all the Black women wrestling around him. The child was just incidental. And all this was Black-on-Black crime. It was also groundbreaking to show that we can even hate ourselves, act as pariahs, even outside the purview of “Massa”. The oppressed, epitomized by this community in the midst of urban poverty, turned in on itself.


Of course, later on we get outright gang-banging flics like Colors (’88), starring Sean Penn, Robert Duval, and Don Cheadle. Shortly thereafter there’s John Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood (’91), with Cuba Gooding, Jr. Lawrence Fishburn, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Regina King, Chris Tucker and Tyra Ferrell (of School Daze, Poetic Justice, and Jungle Fever). Gang-banging images and films, including gangsta rap, all depict and reiterate the even lower standards of how the decedents of slaves will treat one another—brother killing brother over a pair of shoes. Sisters knocking off sisters because she looked at her wrong.


The background of Good Times was this pension to destroy one another. But, inside the Evans’ home, the hate was only in the form of Thelma and J.J. constantly playing the dozens. But this was a slapstick, prime-time sit-Com, so everyone had mad jokes. Indeed, Good Times = ROFLMAO.


“Honey, you don’t own the rights or patent on scufflin’,” pins Willona when Penny’s mother barges into the Evans’ stiff brick walls trying to find her little, abused, run-away child. Chip Fields gave a stellar performance in this scene, lamenting over how hard it was to be a poor, teenage, single parent. And it’s hard, agrees Willona, who was raised by a young single mother, too. “All my life, I had to fight,” Miss Sophia says in The Color Purple—Penny’s mother mimicking the same rhetoric. But, different from Miss Sophia: “I can’t keep a man on ‘count o’ Penny,” Penny’s mother says as she breaks down from her rage to sob and cry, feeling sorry for herself. We had lost something over these generations.


Like the Bamabara versus the Fulani in Mali, two ethnic groups that are paired to play the dozens, or regional family names like Kone vs. Traore, which are paired similarly. When members of these disparate ethnic groups or families meet, they crack jokes. There are standard jokes like Sho dunna (bean-eater, which implies that the person farts a lot and stinks). Thelma and J.J. fill seasons of scenes with their arguing and insults. Yet, ultimately the wisecracking takes away all the tension, and they are therefore able to be civil to one another when it counts.


Civil, distinct from cordial, which is what we certainly still have in the South, implies much more than any loose definition of friendliness. If anything, ‘friendliness’ in the Evans’ sense could be better explained by the song “One”. Then, Mary and Bono sing: “We’re one but we’re not the same. We’ve get to carry each other. Carry each other”.


Willona eventually adopts Penny. The handy-man gets involved, and so does the Evans family—who now lives alone as three siblings while their mom and new step-father stay out west. The community will raise Penny, and we get to enjoy the major dramatics of this talented young actress ever more in re-runs.


*Good Times’ theme song lyrics, thanks to http://www.cfhf.net/lyrics/good-time.htm.


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