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2014-05-31 11:16 pm
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"Mad Men," Year Seven

Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.

Thanks to AMC's decision to split the final season, we only got seven episodes of "Mad Men" this year, in what's being called the first half of the seventh season. However, as brief as the run was, this felt like a full season, giving many of the familiar characters complete and interesting arcs, and delivering a couple of major developments worth devoting a full post to by themselves. So as far as I'm concerned, this was the seventh season of "Mad Men," and will be analyzed as such.

The end of the sixth season saw Don Draper hit a low point, disintegrating during the Hershey pitch and being forced to take a leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. Would he stage a comeback like he had so may times before? Would he wash his hands of the agency and of his failing second marriage and start over again? We got the answer fairly early that a Don unable to work was a Don disastrously disconnected and adrift, out of sync. However, getting him out of bicoastal limbo and back to work took up most of the season. In essence, to get any semblance of the old Don Draper back, he had to grow up and become someone else.

And to do that he had to keep failing and failing miserably for a while. He had to be torn down and brought low, made to realize that Megan didn't need him in California and that the firm was doing just fine without him in New York. Betty and the kids? So busy with their own lives that his absence barely registers. Moreover, being awful to Peggy and Joan last year had big consequences, and his bold move to bring in Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough backfired, with Cutler and the supremely hateable new creative director Lou Avery becoming the season's major villains. Don's most enthusiastic supporter this year was fellow exile Pete Campbell, of all people! And it made Don the kind of fascinating, relatable protagonist that I'd been missing for too many seasons.

Of course, Don wasn't the only one in crisis this year. In the show it's now 1969, with the world about to plunge into the '70s and nobody quite ready for it. Peggy, like Don, didn't deal well with personal or professional situations that weren't going her way. She was downright unlikeable for an episode or two before finally getting past her blocks, which was a development that was honestly a little overdue. Peggy has been so sympathetic for so long, it was good to see the status quo shaken up. Nobody else had nearly as much screen time or emphasis among the regulars, but just about everybody got some of the spotlight in at least one episode to remind us why we love and/or hate them.

More than ever, "Mad Men" felt like a collection of character snapshots - Betty and Roger screwing up parenting, Joan ascending to accounts, Shirley's awful Valentine's Day, Megan meeting Don's niece, Sally in New York, Pete in California, and the disintegration of Michael Ginsberg. Some vignettes were executed better than others, and some episodes were certainly better about connecting all the disparate stories than others, but everything felt consequential and nobody felt shortchanged this year. Thematically, it all fit the end-of-an-era, time of reckoning feel to the season where the unknown future was bearing down quickly on everyone.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the finale, one of the best episodes of "Mad Men" to date, where all the major storylines pay off, and characters take big steps forward. Roger leads, Peggy pitches, and Don helps along both of their victories while securing his own position. On the other hand, Don and the firm are right back where they started and surely only delaying the inevitable. The firm's big new clients are names we know become obsolete. Sterling Cooper was actively trying to avoid the buyout last season. And the signs of generational change are all around, Cooper's farewell the most obvious one.

Despite the more heavy-handed symbols of impending doom being toned way, way down this year, "Mad Men" is as full of ominous portents as ever. I loved the multiple references to "2001: A Space Odyssey" accompanying the threatened technological takeover that doomed poor Ginsberg. I loved Bert Cooper going out on a soft-shoe (soft-sock?) number that all but rebuked Don for his successes. And even as Sally chose the nerd over the Neanderthal, she struck a cigarette-smoking pose so positively Betty, it sent chills up the spine.

As "Mad Men" draws to a close, it feels like Matt Weiner and company are well along in the process of saying goodbye to these characters and this universe. I doubt we're going to see Megan or Ginsberg again. I doubt we'll get much more time with Ken or Stan or Bob Benson. There are several episodes in Year Seven that had scenes that could have closed out the series for good. The fact that we have seven episodes left feels indulgent, honestly.

I don't expect that "Mad Men" will go out with a bang - it's not and never has been that kind of show - but the lead-up to the end has been so strong that I'm certain the finale will be worth the wait. Here's to Year Eight.
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2014-05-30 09:16 pm
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"Hannibal" Year Two

Moderate spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far.

Like many others, I remain incredulous that the "Hannibal" television series is airing on a national network. It's not just because of the violence and gore, which appears in copious amounts, but because the series so caters to a specific niche audience. "Hannibal" fans need to appreciate elliptical dialogue, artsy atmospherics, ambiguous plotting, and regular jolts of extreme horror movie imagery. It's so driven by aesthetics at times, you could mistake it for an European art film - except when it's also a sublimely macabre gorefest.

I wasn't all that enamored with the first season, though I appreciated what Bryan Fuller and his collaborators were trying to do with the property. I found the plotting too muddled for my tastes, and many of the characters weren't quite where I wanted them to be. Still, I saw a lot of potential so I came back for the second season, and promptly fell in love. Year Two of "Hannibal" is split up into two parts, the first with Will Graham in a mental institution, trying to clear his name after Dr. Lecter frames him for murder, and the second where Will and Jack Crawford are trying to bait Hannibal into revealing himself. The first half is where Will Graham grows a backbone, taps into the darker part of his psyche, and goes toe to toe with Hannibal in playing mind games. It is also much more tightly and explicitly plotted, with a couple of great twists.

And suddenly "Hannibal" was giving me everything I wanted from the show - lots of visceral thrills and chills without compromising the intellectual bent, and it started developing the major characters in the right directions too. Laurence Fishburne's Jack gets more interesting as he has to weigh Will and Hannibal's claims against each other. As Will becomes more self-aware and bolder in his maneuverings, Hannibal is put on the defensive. Their predator-victim relationship gets much richer and more complex with the two of them on equal psychological footing. Last year I watched the show largely for Mads Mikkelsen's take on Dr. Lecter, but now Hugh Dancy's performance is getting very close to the same level. I especially enjoy the recurring instances of role reversal, where Hannibal gets to play investigator or Will discovers his inner puppetmaster. The arc also makes great use of minor characters like Beverly Katz, Abel Gideon, and especially Dr. Frederick Chilton. Raul Esparza is a joy to watch.

Alas, Will Graham had to be let out of the straitjacket eventually, and the show had to move on to the second half of the season where we meet the Vergers, Margot and Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle and Michael Pitt respectively. There's too much story stuffed into this arc, and not enough time to adequately present it. I really got a kick out of the Vergers, but didn't feel we got nearly enough time with them to get the full impact of their twisted family feud. Will's attempts to entrap Hannibal also felt underserved, with too many pieces of key exposition missing. The final run of episodes wasn't bad in any sense, but it couldn't hope to match up to the intensity of the first half of the year, even with a wonderful finale. I'm hoping that next season fills in some of the gaps, and thank goodness there will be a next season.

"Hannibal" has distinguished itself by happily striking out on its own, borrowing characters, concepts, plot points, and imagery from the Lecter books and films, but being beholden to none of them. Characters have swapped genders, been killed off early, and positioned in different roles. Though the series is following the rough timeline of the books, specific events are ordered differently. Some of the dramatic license gets to be a bit much - there have been at least three fake-out deaths this year, possibly four - but the "Hannibal" creators have clearly become very comfortable with the material and are in a good position to start tackling some of the more famous stories coming up.

As always, I have a few reservations. Catherine Dhavernas still doesn't get nearly enough to do as Alana Bloom, and the most interesting female characters like Freddie Lounds, Dr. Du Maurier, and Bella Crawford have had fleeting appearances at best. Abigail Hobbs and Miriam Lass are really little more than plot devices, and Margot Verger's already gone. I'm hoping Clarice Starling is introduced sooner rather than later to help unskew things here. And while I'm all for letting the viewer figure things out on their own, there have been too many times where the writers simply aren't playing fair - nothing on the aftermath of the Chilton situation?

Then again, I'm getting worked up because "Hannibal" has really gotten its claws into me. I continue to adore the mad visuals, not just the death tableaux but the febrile sex scenes and the disturbing dream imagery. Directors like David Slade, Michael Rhymer, and newcomer Vincenzo Natali have been delivering excellent work week after week. The score and sound design have gotten weirder and and more evocative. The set design just keeps getting better. And the cast - even the one-off killers of the week have been landing actors like Amanda Plummer. It's fantastic.

"Hannibal" has survived despite the odds, and I hope it's around for a long time to come. I still find parts of it a little slapdash and problematic, but it's one of the most unique shows airing anywhere right now, and so well executed that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any other prestige series you could find on cable or premium cable.
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2014-05-23 11:13 pm
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"Person of Interest," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

So much has happened this year on "Person of Interest," I had to review recaps of some of the early episodes to get my bearings. At the end of the second season, we were still in the thick of the H.R. plot, Decima Technologies was still being set up as the next Big Bad, and Root was about to have an extended stay in a mental hospital. The face of Control hadn't been revealed, and Samaritan and Vigilance hadn't even been namechecked. More importantly, Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA were just about to come to light.

And now a year later, we're looking at a very different "Person of Interest," one that has not just undergone cast changes and moved on to new storylines, but one that is now actively grappling with the big issues that have always been at the heart of its premise. Snowden hasn't been referenced directly, though there have been a few minor references to the NSA surveillance programs, but we've definitely seen the position of the heroes shift from an uneasy alliance with the tools of the surveillance state that have made their work possible, to active adversity. Finch, Reese, Shaw, and their allies are now targets of a new and improved government-funded information-gathering system that threatens to create a full-blown Big Brother dystopia.

First, let's go back a couple of months to one of the biggest events in the show's run so far, the death of Detective Carter. Taraji P. Henson left the show, and "Person of Interest" gave her quite the sendoff. Not only did they take the opportunity to tie up all the storylines involving the New York criminal organizations and the corruption in the NYPD, but gave Henson, Clarke Peters, and Kevin Chapman some of their best moments. There were some choices I didn't agree with - throwing in a romantic connection between Reese and Carter so late didn't make sense for either character - but the episode directly following her death was one of the show's finest, with an especially strong final bow for Enrico Colantoni's crime boss, Elias.

All terribly pat, but the resolutions were satisfying enough. And it cleared the board to start pursuing a new set of villains starting at the midseason. Peter Collier (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Vigilance gave us urban terrorists with a sympathetic cause, John Greer (John Nolan) and Decima Technologies embodied evil corporations run amok, and the shady government unit that originally commissioned the Machine got a figurehead in Control, played by a deliciously malevolent Camryn Manheim. It would have been easy enough to leave them as shallow comic-book villains, but what I really admire about this show is that every one of them is given shades of gray. Control is a sadist, but a patriot at heart. Collier is likewise a true believer in his cause. Greer, amusingly, shares a lot in common with earlier versions of Root.

Speaking of Root, she and Shaw got the lion's share of the character development this year since Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi have joined the cast as regulars. I'm a little sad that Root became saner and more reasonable with every appearance under the influence of the Machine, but she's still enough of a rogue and wild card that I enjoy her contributions immensely. It was a good move to make her a largely independent force, often taking care of business for the Machine on separate missions, and only intersecting with Finch's group when necessary. Shaw was a harder sell, since she came off as such a blank in the second season. However, a couple of good episodes played up her emotional detachment as a defining trait, which works reasonably well, and her snarky rapport with Reese and bouts of trigger-happiness can be a lot of fun. If the Nolans have had trouble with their female characters in the past, it's not apparent here.

Accommodating the larger ensemble has meant less emphasis on the personal stories of our do-gooders and more emphasis on the plotting, and "Person of Interest" has always done a great job of it. At this point we've only had about half a season with the Samaritan storyline, where a competing surveillance system without the Machine's safeguards has been pitted against our heroes by Decima, through the manipulation of Vigilance and the government. However, it feels fully developed, exciting, and momentous, despite unfurling over only a handful of episodes. While the treatment of the surveillance issues has been shallow so far, at least the show has successfully introduced a very different point of view to consider, and I expect that we'll see improvements as the Sentinel story goes on. The finale was one of the highlights of the year, completely fleshing out Collier and delivering a game-changing set of events that have set up a promising Year Four.

There were weaker spots, as usual. "Person of Interest" stuck to its procedural format for most of the year, and some of the cases of the week were bland filler. Finch and Fusco got good spotlight episodes, but the ones for Reese felt off. He had a few minor storylines, including a brief leave of absence early in the season, that felt inconsequential. It's clear that Jim Caviezel is getting tired of the role, and the show's creators are taking steps to reduce his screen time so he can take on other work. Though considering his most recent big screen role in that Schwarzenegger and Stallone team-up pic, Caviezel shouldn't give up his day job.

"Person of Interest" remains one of the better action shows on network television, and is as strong as its ever been. In the beginning I wasn't sure it could sustain itself for so long, but a little reinvention and fresh blood has gone a long way toward keeping it feeling fresh and vital. And the timeliness of the subject matter doesn't hurt either.

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2014-05-22 10:34 pm
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"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Year One

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far, and the recent "Captain America" movie.

I still don't like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as much as I want to like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," but there's no denying that it has improved drastically over its first season, to the point where I am happy to keep giving it more chances to prove itself. The most problematic characters, Ward and Skye, have both been upgraded considerably. We finally got a compelling - or at least credibly threatening - villain in Bill Paxton's John Garrett. After weeks of awkward references and name-dropping, the show's storylines were properly integrated into the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Oh, and Patton Oswalt and Samuel L. Jackson dropped by too.

When you look back over the whole season, everything that the creators spent all those early, tedious weeks setting up paid off wonderfully in the end. The Clairvoyant, the Centipede project, Deathlok, Quinn, Raina and the mystery of Coulson's resurrection all came into play. The trouble was that "Agents" had a lot of trouble getting the ensemble to mesh right, and its biggest weakness is still the main characters. There was the episode that was supposed to be devoted to Agent May's backstory that mostly consisted of other characters discussing her backstory. There was Agent Ward's traumatic past, conveyed through some of the most unclear, poorly shot flashback sequences I've ever seen. And while it's fine to have romantic pairings in the mix, they need to be well-delineated, or you end up with a mess. Did Fitz have a crush on Simmons or Skye or both in the early part of the season? A lot of the plotting here was downright clumsy.

As a result, there was way too much story to churn through and not enough of the fun, interpersonal team interactions that were necessary to support it. Though there were some stronger early episodes like "The Hub," which paired up Fitz and Ward, I don't think "Agents" really started improving until well into the midseason, with "T.R.A.C.K.S.," and only hit its stride when the big reveals started coming in the wake of the "Captain America" sequel. The show remains plot driven instead of character driven, which I don't think is going to be sustainable in the long run, but they've bought some time to work on their team dynamics. As much as I like Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson hasn't made the transition from secondary character to main character as well as I'd like. Chloe Bennett's Skye is at her best in snarky badass mode (as opposed to wide-eyed newbie mode), and finally getting more chances to prove it. Fitz and Simmons could be better, but have been the most consistently entertaining out of the whole bunch. Agent May and Agent Triplett have potential, but have been stuck in fairly limited, functional roles so far.

And then there's Agent Ward, who was the kind of bland, generic, utterly typical action hero type who we see in way too many of these shows. And thank all the Whedons under the sun that it turned out that he was a double-agent for Hydra all along. Sure, he's got an angsty past and a bleeding heart that means he's going to be redeemed and returned to the fold at some point down the line, but that doesn't take away from the fact that for the final run of episodes he was an evil, murderous nogoodnik, and far, far more entertaining for it. I think that the MVP of the season remains Bill Paxton, though, for pulling off a slimeball who was even more fun to hate. Pity he had to go splat.

The big budget, snazzy special effects, Marvel Universe tie-ins, and a slew of notable guest stars were all meant to help the show distinguish itself from the crowd. I think that all of these elements helped to some degree, but only to a certain extent. The effects work and expensive fight scenes couldn't impress if the writing wasn't there to give them proper context. Tie-ins were only effective once the show really started to commit to them. The guest spots ranged from middling to exceptional. The show got a real boost from the appearance of Jamie Alexander as Sif, for instance, but others like Adrian Pasdar were little more than fun Easter Eggs for Marvel fanboys.

"Agents" does successfully stand alone as a separate entity apart from the rest of the Marvel Universe, but I think it has only just found its footing and there's still a significant danger of backsliding into bad habits next season. And it's important to remember that we're getting a big influx of comics-based shows in the fall with "Gotham" and "Constantine," not to mention Marvel's "Agent Carter," which will be sharing the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." time slot during their hiatus. The novelty factor isn't going to work twice, and "Agents" is going to have to step up to the challenge.
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2014-05-02 10:07 pm

My Top Ten "Batman: The Animated Series" Episodes

The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.

"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.

"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.

"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.

"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.

"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.

"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.

"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.

"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.

"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.

"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.

Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."
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2014-04-29 11:29 pm
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"Attack on Titan" is a Scream

It's been a long time since I ventured into the anime sphere. After going cold turkey since 2008, I thought it was time I took a look at some of the shows that have been getting attention recently. One of the most buzzed about, which will premiere on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim over the weekend, is last year's action series "Attack on Titan." It's been available on Netflix and Hulu and all the usual anime outlets for a while now. I've worked through ten episodes so far, enough to get a fairly good bead on the show. I intend to finish it, but frankly, my impressions are mixed.

"Attack on Titan" is not about the largest moon of Saturn, and not a science-fiction series at all. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic steampunk show, that takes place in a future with a very medieval European aesthetic. The Titans are giant naked humanoids that have exterminated much of humanity. Their origins are a mystery, but their sole purpose seems to be to hunt down and eat human beings. The survivors now live in a vast walled settlement under a feudal system of governance with very limited technology. One day, after a hundred years of relative peace, the Titans attack the outer wall and destroy a major city, Shiganshina. Three children among the survivors vow to grow up and join the fight against the Titans.

I found the first two episodes depicting the return of the Titans underwhelming. The production values were gorgeous, the design work was fine, and I liked the basic premise of humanity being under the heel of these creepy, brutal fairy-tale giants. But at heart this is a very typical fantasy anime, with all the usual tropes you'd expect - and some particularly grating ones. The chief one was the main character, a hotheaded brat named Eren Yeager whose personality is driven almost entirely by self-righteousness, and is prone to bouts of angry ranting. I've noticed this type of protagonist has become pretty popular lately. Lelouche from "Code Geass" and Light Yagami from "Death Note" are other examples of similarly frustrated young egomaniacs. I find them terribly off-putting.

However, they're common in shows like this that want to establish that they take place in particularly brutal universes. The Titan attacks involve lots of explicit violence and gore. The Titans have no private parts, but they still make for wonderfully disturbing visuals, especially when they're eating hapless humans by the handfuls. Of course, the humans aren't particularly nice either, and the series shows that they're at their worst in a crisis. While the nihilism is refreshing to a point, I wish it were accompanied by so much oveheated melodrama. When people get upset in certain action anime, they have a tendency to start screaming all their dialogue, and "Attack on Titan" is especially prone to this. The first two episodes eventually devolve into so much screaming and crying and carrying on, I hit the mute button a few times to spare my ears.

Fortunately subsequent episodes tone down the most egregious problems. Eren is aged up quickly to become a cadet in training, and his brattiness is turned way, way down. The show transitions to a character-driven military story, following Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin as they become cadets and then join up with the army. Their primary means of combat is the Gear system, which combines steam-powered grappling hooks, parkour, and big honking swords to let the soldiers become these crazy samurai Spider-men. The action scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and eventually the series builds them up to some great crescendos. There are still intermittent screaming matches, but far fewer of them.

But as entertaining as "Attack on Titan" is, it's not really doing anything new or better than similar series have done before. Its worldbuilding is good so far, but it's starting to lean pretty heavily on the old tournament fighting show formula. The characters, the scenarios, the discovery of game-changing new powers - it's all awfully familiar. There's the female second-in-command with the glasses and the uptight demeanor. There's the sweet ditz with the food fixation. There's the absent father with too many secrets. There's the convenient amnesia. The nice production values, climbing death count, and high intensity count for a lot, but whenever things slow down, the weaknesses of the show's construction are plain to see.

I'm not surprised that anime fans who enjoy shows like this are eating up "Attack on Titan." It's a shiny new variation on a lot of old favorites. However, it doesn't strike me as a classic or a game-changer, not the way that "Evangelion" or the first "Full Metal Alchemist" series were - unless the bar for quality has seriously come down since I took my long break from anime.
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2014-04-28 10:11 pm
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Hello "Archer Vice"

Catching up on some TV here, I recently polished off the most recent season of "Archer," the one where the secret spy agency of ISIS is shuttered and its staff left in limbo with a terrifying amount of cocaine on their hands. So, logically, they decide to form a drug cartel. And the creators renamed the show "Archer Vice," created some nifty new key art, and modified the opening sequence just a bit. According to interviews with "Archer" creator Adam Reed, the only reason the reason they did this is because they were bored. Moderate spoilers for the season ahead, but none of the big reveals from the last few episodes.

So what happens when you take Archer and Lana and the rest of the gang out of their usual roles as ISIS agents and enablers, and introduce them to a life of crime? Well, you get a show that's much more plotty and structured, but that retains its usual level of violent, high octane hijinks and casual obscenity. "Archer Vice" is a more serialized show, with several big storylines driving each episode, and nearly every character dealing with ongoing subplots throughout the season. Most of the year sees them living out of one of the Tunt mansions, coming up with various schemes to sell the cocaine and get rich, ultimately wrapping up with a four-part finale in San Marcos that ties back into the espionage world. Otherwise, they're being the same collection of loons that they always were - just broke, short on resources, and under a lot of new pressures. It's an awful lot of fun.

Without the constraints of the office hierarchy, characters get shifted into new roles and we get to see different sides of them that we haven't before. And surprisingly, it becomes clear as the time goes on that the gang actually does have some attachment to each other beyond the fact that Malory is paying them, or at least promising to pay them eventually. This is not to suggest that the show is getting all mushy on us, but more than any other season we find the ISIS crew banding together in tough times, and that their shared personal history does have an impact on their interactions. Archer has also become less of an irresponsible ass - though he's as thick-headed about some things as ever. It takes a while to notice, though, because "Archer Vice" sees the entire premise of the show rebooted, Carol/Cheryl starts a country music career and renames herself Cherlene, Pam becomes a coke addict, Lana's pregnant, Malory's separated from Ron, and Cyril eventually goes mad with power in circumstances that are far too funny to spoil. Heck, even Krieger gets some pretty compelling new issues to deal with.

I found I didn't miss the spy missions at all, as Archer's cocaine dealing adventures are mostly in the same vein as his work for ISIS, and the new dynamics allow the supporting characters much more of an opportunity to participate in the action. Also, keeping them in close quarters always leads to a lot of good friction. Initially I had my doubts about where the show was going, especially the Cherlene business, which seemed so out of left field that I didn't know how they could integrate it with everything else going on. But integrate it they did, leading to some of the season's funniest scenes with special guest stars Kenny Loggins and Fred Armisen. Now I hope Cherlene sticks around next season in some capacity, because her new schtick is at least as much fun as her old schtick, and there's a lot of mileage left in the concept. In general, it was nice to get a break from the regular "Archer" formula, and I'm a little sorry that the show is going to un-reboot itself for season six and send everybody back to the office.

Of course, there are things that happened this year that can't be un-rebooted, involving Lana and Archer and their relationship. Adam Reed and crew have really set up some promising possibilities for next year. Will Sterling Archer's gradual maturation continue, or will he backslide into his old ways once ISIS is up and running again? What kind of mother will Lana be, and what part is the father going to play in her life? I never thought of "Archer" as having much depth to it, but the hints of growth and change that have popped up in the last few seasons coalesced nicely this year, and I expect we may be moving into ever-so-slightly more serious territory next year.

Well, as serious as you can get on an animated action sitcom where they just devoted a whole season to running a drug cartel, staging coups against foreign governments, and a former HR lady finding ever-more-creative ways to ingest cocaine. Seriously, those cocaine cupcakes looked yummy.
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2014-04-21 10:18 pm
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Year Five of "Community"

I never get tired of writing about this show, and as we say goodbye to the fifth season, the big question is, did Dan Harmon and the other creators get away with it? Did they manage to course-correct after that disastrous fourth season and bring back the show that its fans wanted? I'm willing to say yes. Clearly year five was better than year four, and I'd even go as far as saying that it was better than a lot of the third season, when Dan Harmon started getting a little too carried away with the metatextual madness. And yet, despite gaining some vital ground, there are some big problems with Season Five.

The season started out well enough, with Jeff becoming the newest Greendale educator and the whole gang reuniting as the Save Greendale Committee. I thought Troy and Pierce's departures were handled about as well as they possibly could have been, and that the amped up part for John Oliver's Professor Ian Duncan and the introduction of Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks, were pretty good at helping to fill the void. However, neither are quite fleshed out well enough yet to really be replacements. But then, sadly, nothing was really done with Jeff's new position. We never saw him in a classroom again after the first time and his status as a teacher was never explored at all. More time was devoted to Abed getting a girlfriend and even Hickey's cartooning efforts.

I suspect the limited number of episodes was probably responsible for this. The truncated thirteen episode season meant that there wasn't a lot of space to devote to character development in general. What bits and pieces that we did get just didn't cohere as well as they have in the past. The two-parter ending that explored the possibility of Greendale ceasing to exist felt wholly unconnected to anything that had been set up earlier in the season. Character arcs were set up that didn't really go anywhere, and others have been quietly dropped. At least all the characters feel like themselves again, with the exception of the reformed Jeff, who I'm still not sure about. Annie and Abed benefited the most from this, and Chang has been thankfully de-emphasized. Alas, Britta was sorely underused.

Individual episodes hit some impressive bullseyes. I've already talked about the farewell to Troy in "Geothermal Escapism," that turned the whole school into a post-apocalypse spoof thanks to a game of "The Floor is Lava." However, my favorite of the crazy theme episodes this year was definitely "App Development and Condiments," where a new social netwoking app known as MeowMeowBeenz is tested on the campus, leading to Greendale becoming a '70s sci-fi dystopia spoof with lots of references to "Logan's Run," and Starburns in Sean Connery's outfit from "Zardoz." There was also the entirely animated "G.I. Jeff," that took on Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials, plus another round of Dungeons and Dragons.

And while they're a little nuttier than they used to be, the regular school life episodes like "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" and "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" also did a good job of establishing new group dynamics and making use of the campus setting. I could easily see "Community" continuing in this vein for another season or two, improving on the groundwork that was laid this year. However, like many other reviewers have pointed out, I'm also starting to feel like "Community" has run its course. This year spent so much time getting us back to the old "Community," and then trying to maintain the status quo that it didn't do enough to push forward into new territory. There's a clear sense of the writers trying to patch too many gaps at once, reacting to format changes by doubling down on the old formulas instead of trying to find new ones.

The goal of six seasons and a movie is in sight, and considering NBC's fortunes, there's a good chance we'll get another thirteen episodes next year. However, all the drama and the cast changes and the shuffled creatives have taken their toll on the show, and will probably continue to. Season Five had some similar problems with Season Four, ironically, which is that it was trying too hard to backpedal to the point where the show was at its best. I'll continue to watch it weekly as long as they keep running it, but my enthusiasm for "Community" is starting to go south. I'm having a hard time seeing where the creators can take things from here, with most of the big arcs from prior seasons wrapped up and the new ones sputtering as they try to get off the ground.

There have been more than a few episodes in the last batch that I loved, but I'm starting to think that it might have been better for everyone involved if the show had just wrapped up after three strong seasons and didn't try to push its luck.
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2014-04-15 11:03 pm
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What I Want From the Last Season of "Mad Men"

It feels a little disingenuous to be writing up this post now, because "Mad Men" isn't going to be premiering its last batch of episodes until next spring, thanks to this business of splitting Season 7 into two chunks of seven episodes apiece. But if AMC can cheat, so can I. The season premiere aired last Sunday, and the exiled Don Draper is facing 1969 and the end of the '60s. What do I want to see happen to him and the rest of the ad execs in this final year? I did a "what if" post looking at possibilities and predictions last year, but this time around I want to get more concrete.

"Mad Men" has been all about examining and poking holes in the iconic '60s image of masculinity personified by Don Draper in the early seasons. From the start he's always been a facade, and over the course of the last six seasons that facade has been slowly chipped away bit by bit until we find it in a state of total disrepair at the start of the seventh. Don is left feeding ideas to Freddy Rumsen and resisting the lure of Neve Campbell, having been burned too many times by previous affairs. The episode's final, haunting image finds him alone, unable to sleep. At the same time the show also tackles other familiar figures like the ascendant working woman, in this case Peggy Olsen. For all of Peggy's talents and all her drive, we find her in a place not much better off than Don, her work compromised and her personal life all but nonexistent.

This isn't where I want these two to end up. Oh, I'm not rooting for some kind of fairy tale ending where they pair up romantically and go off to found their own advertising firm of Whitman and Olsen, but I do want them to both survive the decade and make it to a place where they're prepared to tackle the next one. The internet has been full of speculation that Don is going to die in the final episode, but I'd be much happier with a metamorphosis, from Draper back to Whitman, perhaps, or from Draper into someone new. Peggy, I suspect will either claw her way to the top or simply walk away from Sterling Cooper and the world of the mad men in the end. Both could be read as victories, and I'd be happy to see either outcome.

Betty and Sally didn't appear in the premiere. Though her part in the show has been drastically reduced, I still identify with and root for Betty. I doubt that there's more narrative space left to really explore her world, but the Betty and Sally relationship deserves some more attention. I hope these two can figure out to connect with each other, or at least reach some kind of mutual understanding, now that Sally has become disillusioned with her father. From their last encounter, Betty may still have some maturing to do, but she's grown up enough to get over Don. I'd like Sally to be able to do the same, maybe mirroring the scene with Roger and his daughter next week.

Speaking of Roger, I honestly don't see much hope for his redemption at this point, so I can only hope that his decline continues to be spectacular. The possibility of Joan becoming a real wheeler-dealer at the firm was raised this week, however, and suddenly I want her to be a successful account woman very badly. Pete Campbell showed up amusingly tan and happy, and though the little rat has caused a lot of grief over the years, I've grown fond enough of him that I hope he finds a way to stay happy and put all the bitterness behind him - though I know he probably won't. At the same time, I want something really nasty to happen to Teddy Chaough.

Among the minor characters, I'm still rooting for Ken and Ginsburg to make it out of Sterling Cooper with some dignity intact. And then there are all the other supporting characters who were left by the wayside as the show rolled on. I love that we got to see glimpses of what happened to Midge and more amusingly, to Paul. But whatever happened to Sal? And Abe? Does Harry Crane get any more time this year? And what of Bob Benson and the man named Duck?

Finally, 1969 will bring the Apollo 11 moon landing, My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family murders. And even if Megan Draper isn't supposed to be a analog of Sharon Tate, I still stand by my original assessment that she's not going to be a part of Don's world for much longer. I think the relationship has run its course, and I'd rather see it over sooner rather than later.
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2014-04-11 11:28 pm
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A Peek Into "Creature Shop"

"The Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge" sounded like a concept to good to be true to a Henson geek. Syfy's new reality show gives ten special effects artists a shot at working for the much beloved Jim Henson Creature shop, best known for creating elaborate creature suits and puppets for movies and television. It follows the "Project Runway" competition template, having the contestants build a new creature every week, and evaluating them via a screen test. The show is a very much a Jim Henson Company affair, hosted by "Farscape" actress Gigi Edgley, and featuring mentors and judges who are effects industry veterans. The head judge is Brian Henson, current president of the company, who looks more and more like his father with every passing year.

As a Muppet geek, I had to get a look at this thing. So I watched the first two episodes, and came away with somewhat mixed but mostly positive reactions. The contestants are all clearly talented and experienced, capable of turning out incredibly impressive work. It's a lot of fun to watch them build their creatures. We're not at the stage where more than a few big personalities have emerged, but the weekly projects are strong enough to carry the show. Also, the folks behind the scenes are still working through some bumps in the show's formula. "Creature Shop" hews to the "Project Runway" formula a little too closely, and sometimes it's not a good fit. The judges aren't the type to drop one-liners, and the contestants' array of creative skills are more interesting than the usual manufactured drama you can sense is being played up. I wish the design and fabrication portions of the show were longer than the judging portions.

The two rounds so far have been promising. I wasn't thrilled with the first, which asked the contestants to design a deep sea creature that had to lurk along the ocean floor, and resulted in some pretty unappealing entries. The second challenge, however, was great. The contestants were given the much more complex task of creating their own villainous Skeksis character from "The Dark Crystal," which included puppeteering it for the screen test. The results were far more impressive, and I could imagine the characters actually appearing onscreen, unlike the contenders from the first round. It didn't hurt that Hensons furnished "Dark Crystal" props and shared trivia about the film, which was very gratifying to this 80s fantasy geek. And there was much more shop talk about the business of effects work, which I hope continues.

However, it's hard to escape the sense that the show is really one big promotion for the Jim Henson Company and its work. I've loved these guys and their output for decades, so I'm very receptive to the hero worship many of the contestants have shown in these episodes, but at the same time I think they lay it on a little thick. The most familiar Muppet characters like Kermit and Piggy have been notably absent from the installments I've seen so far, but with a new movie in theaters, I'm sure they'll show up eventually. I recognized plenty of other material from the Henson archives, though, including lots of clips and artwork from "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," "The Storyteller," and "The Jim Henson Hour." Of course, we have to keep in mind that this is what the Hensons have the rights to.

Still, in the back of my mind I can't help noting that so few of the featured examples of the Creature Shop's work are very recent. It's a sad reminder that the visual effects industry has largely been taken over by CGI, and a practical effects operation like the Creature Shop has become a rarity. They're surely one of the best at what they do, but the demand has been steadily dropping off for a long time. I stumbled across a reel of their recent work, which mostly consisted of character puppets for obscure ad campaigns. Their last really big project that I know of was creating the Wild Things for 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are," and even those characters ultimately had CGI faces.

As thrilled as I am to watch the show and see the way that it celebrates all the different crafts that go into creature creation, it also feels a little like it's operating in a different world. I can imagine similar reality shows built around the finding the next great PIXAR animator or the next great Nintendo game creator, but those are big companies that are part of thriving industries. Would the PR be worth it for them to commit so many resources to something similar? I don't think so. Meanwhile, "Creature Shop Challenge" feels sadly a bit like it's pitching for its own relevance.

Those Skesis sure looked impressive, but what film would actually use them in this day and age?
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2014-04-10 09:46 pm
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Colbert Rising

I admit that I wasn't expecting this, and certainly not so soon. CBS only waited a week after Letterman's retirement announcement to name his successor to the "Late Show. The lucky comedian is Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," whose contract with Comedy Central will be up in 2015. I'd seen various rumor pieces peg Colbert as a frontrunner, but I didn't take any of them seriously.

I mean, I love Colbert's work and I think he's a supremely talented satirist, but he didn't seem to check enough of the right boxes. The network late night shows are helmed by comedians with very broad, mainstream appeal. Colbert always struck me as a bit of an acquired taste, especially when you put him next to some of the guys who have been described as an awkward fit for the job, like Craig Ferguson or Louis CK. Sure, Ferguson and CK are a little more experimental and off-kilter than the average late night host, but they haven't spent the last nine years playing a fake version of themselves lampooning right-wing news pundits.

Speaking of the other Stephen Colbert, it's been announced that the persona that Colbert uses on "The Colbert Report" will be retired when he makes the move to CBS next year. The real Stephen will be back, but good grief, I barely even remember him from his eight-year stint on "The Daily Show" anymore. I know that he filled in for Jon Stewart a few times, but for the most part his hosting and interviewing performances have all been through the filter of this satirical construct, and who knows how he's going to perform without it? Okay, I'm being alarmist here. Stephen Colbert has spent nearly a decade successfully putting out his own award-winning comedy program, and has clearly been honing his skills during that time. There are a few of his excellent non-satirical interviews floating around the web that suggest he'll be find without the egomaniacal blowhard routine.

And as a fan of Colbert, this is a great opportunity for him. As much as I enjoy and admire "The Colbert Report," I don't want to see him doing it forever. In fact, to be quite honest, I'm surprised that he's managed to keep it going for as long as he has. I still tune in occasionally, but I grew weary of the fake right-wing schtick a few years ago and stopped watching regularly. It'll be great to see him pick up and move on to something different, hopefully after ending "The Colbert Report" in a truly glorious fashion. And remember, his departure from Comedy Central opens up the post - "Daily Show" slot for someone new. It'll be interesting to see who comes in next, especially as the network had some trouble keeping anything in that timeslot - I vaguely remember "Insomnia" with Dave Attell being the best of the pre- "Report" shows. Maybe another "Daily Show" alum will be up next?

And what about all the other contenders for "Late Night"? I am a little disappointed that Conan O'Brien's not coming back to network television and I still think he should have stayed the host of "The Tonight Show." Ferguson, Stewart, and Louis CK seem to be perfectly happy doing what they're doing, and good for them. It would have been nice to see a lady invited to the sausage party, but then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have plenty of other opportunities to exercise their talent, and I'm not familiar with Chelsea Handler's work, so I have no real opinion on her. Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have had their day, and wouldn't have brought anything new or interesting to the table. And Arsenio? Better luck next time.

So now it's going to be Fallon versus Colbert, with Kimmel as the third party candidate. I like Stephen Colbert's odds and think he's going to be a real contender. He's the oldest of the bunch at 49, but he's also the one with the most personality and the most range. He can never be David Letterman, but he's already done a very fine job being Stephen Colbert for nearly a decade. I'm also a little apprehensive that the move to a network means that he probably will have to adjust his style for more mainstream viewers. That sharp satiric edge that has served him so well will probably have to be put away, to be brought out only for special occasions. Many members of Congress may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Then again, it's not wise to underestimate Stephen Colbert. This is the man who delivered that devastating takedown of the Bush Administration at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and managed to wrangle himself a cameo in one of the "Hobbit" movies by sheer force of his nerdiness. I'll bet he still has some surprises in store for us.
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2014-04-04 08:35 pm
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The Late Night Landscape

I didn't write much about the handover of "The Tonight Show" much, because I didn't have much to say about it. I never watched Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon with any regularity. I never had much of an attachment to "The Tonight Show," only barely remembering the very end of Johnny Carson's legendary tenure. I was a fan of Conan O'Brien and felt he was cheated out of the hosting job, but that was years ago. I really don't watch late night television anymore aside from "The Daily Show" with John Stewart, which I tend to watch the next day in the early evenings when I get home from work.

But then David Letterman announced his retirement, and suddenly I found that I did care. There was a brief period in grad school where I would stay up to watch Letterman, and then Craig Ferguson most nights. But more than that, it's Letterman who I view as a one of my cultural constants, not Leno. I've been hearing about his late night antics with the Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks since the '80s. I know about the Crispin Glover, Madonna, and Drew Barrymore incidents. I remember the year he hosted the Oscars. I actually made a point of tuning in to see the Oprah appearance on his show. The idea that Letterman is retiring hit me much harder than I anticipated, and I realized he's been on television nearly as long as I've been alive. He's outlasted popes and presidents and the Cold War and Andy Rooney.

Moreover, there's the makings of some real drama going on around his departure. The battle over "The Tonight Show" was over in 2010. We knew that Leno was going permanently once he made the announcement, and that he would be succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. The only question was whether the ratings were going to hold up this time, and they did. David Letterman's successor is very much in question. Craig Ferguson is still hosting "The Late, Late Show" and has a small but very dedicated following. However, it's not clear how well his brand of humor would carry over to a bigger and more conventional program. There's also a good chance that Ferguson would turn down the job. That means the door is open for the network to pursue other options, including cable hosts Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien, whose contracts on their current shows will be up in 2015 when Letterman is planning to make his exit.

Or they could go even farther afield. Just about every major comedy star is suddenly a contender - Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Neil Patrick Harris, Drew Carey, and Chris Rock have come up repeatedly in the early speculation. Are late night audiences ready for a woman host like Chelsea Handler or Tina Fey? Would CBS be bold enough to poach someone like Jimmy Kimmel or Ellen Degeneres? Could Jay Leno be lured out of retirement? Or maybe it won't be anyone we know. After all, Conan O'Brien was practically an unknown when he inherited the old post- "Tonight Show" timeslot back in 1992 when Letterman decamped to CBS. There are a lot of up-and-comers who could really make a splash, though it's not going to be like the "Tonight Show" handover. Leno inherited program with a long and storied history. Letterman's show was always Letterman's show.

Whoever gets the job, it's going to really mean the end of an era this time. I still think of the late night hosts as being primarily a brotherhood of older gents, but now Kimmel and Fallon have firmly established themselves, and 60-something Letterman will probably be succeeded by someone a decade or two younger. Will it be enough to lower the ever-advancing average age of the viewing audience again, I wonder? Everybody used to watch Carson, and then everybody watched either Leno or Letterman, but in recent years the audience has fractured thanks to a wave of alternatives, and I expect we're just going to see it fracture further in the years to come.

The late night talk shows, like everything else on network television, is losing ground to cable and the internet. The "Tonight Show" transition garnered a ratings bonanza for NBC, and I expect the last few David Letterman shows in 2015 will do the same for CBS - news of the retirement announcement was enough to boost his numbers earlier this week. But after that's all over, when things settle down and we have a new status quo, what then? I can't see myself changing my current viewing habits no matter who ends up in the Ed Sullivan theater, and I doubt many others will either. Unless something drastic happens, I suspect the end of Letterman will be network late night's last hurrah.
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2014-04-03 10:32 pm
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My Top Ten "Star Trek: The Next Generation" Episodes

I wasn't the most consistent viewer of "Star Trek," but when I was in junior high, I spent every weekday before dinner watching the syndicated reruns of "Next Generation" and marveling over an adventure show where problems were solved by smarts and diplomacy as often as fisticuffs and gunplay. It was my gateway into science-fiction television, and though I never became as attached to the other "Star Trek" iterations, I still count myself as a "Trek" fan wholeheartedly. Here are my top ten favorite episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. And I am totally cheating and counting two-parters as single entries.

"Q Who" - "Next Generation" famously suffered through some rocky early seasons, but Q episodes were always a a highlight. I debated between "Q Who" and "Deja Q," but this one has to make the list for the first appearance of the Borg, the greatest villains introduced by the "Next Generation," and a great supporting turn by Whoopi Goldberg, who joined the cast in the second season. And I love that the whole story was a lesson in hubris - there's always going to be something out there that humans will be unprepared to face.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" - I used to get this one mixed up with the seventh season episode "Parallels," but "Yesterday's Enterprise" is the far better episode, a time travel story that has the Enterprise-D encounter its predecessor ship, the Enterprise-C with some dramatic consequences. I always appreciated that this episode gave Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and was so fully committed to a fairly heady premise involving alternate timelines. You almost never see time travel stories that deal so much in similar consequences.

"The Offspring" - The tale of Data's daughter Lal is one of the funnier hours that the show ever came up with, but also one of the most poignant. Data's experiments to understand humanity and his own existence better were hit-or-miss, often coming across as too pat or contrived. However, his first jaunt into parenting is definitely one of the hits, giving us a brief glimpse of relationship I wish we could have seen expanded into further episodes. It also makes a good counterpart to the famous "Measure of a Man," which just missed a spot on this list.

"Hollow Pursuits" - Poor Lieutenant Barclay. He's that awkward introvert we all know who loves shows like "Star Trek," but is rarely portrayed as part of the "Star Trek" universe. This episode fixes that, giving Barclay the spotlight for a self-contained adventure that takes a piece of future technology we're familiar with, the holodeck, and using it in a way we don't expect - namely giving a man's fantasy life a little too much life. I always liked it when "The Next Generation" gave us a break from formula, especially for stories as much fun as this.

"The Best of Both Worlds" - There's no denying the impact of the Borg on the "Star Trek" universe, and this was arguably their best appearance on "Next Generation," finally clashing with the Federation in full-scale combat. There are so many memorable moments in this two-parter: the wrecked Federation fleet, the first separation of the Enterprise's saucer and stardrive, and who can forget the shocking cliffhanger that introduced Locutus? It's no wonder this remains one of the series' most popular stories, and influenced so much "Star Trek" to follow.

"Darmok" - The first episode that I remember watching, and one of the best examples of a "Star Trek" story that favors thinking through problems instead of using brute force. I've read through enough analyses of this episode to understand that the linguisitic puzzles are pretty much bunk, considering the use of the universal translator, but still the message and the execution of it are so well done that they hit home beautifully. And special kudos to Paul Winfield's performance as Dathon, still one of my favorite guest appearances on the show.

"I, Borg" - There were only six episodes in the entire run of "Next Generation" that featured the Borg, and I've managed to include four of them on this list. This is the last, where Geordi LaForge meets a young Borg he names Hugh, and teaches him the foreign concept of individuality. This is such a wonderfully thoughtful episode, that really gets into what it means to be human and how we define the self. And after the fireworks of "Best of Both Worlds," it's a good reminder that every villain in "Star Trek" is a potential friend.

"The Inner Light" - Boldly going where no man has gone before can take on many different forms, and perhaps no voyage of discovery Captain Picard ever took was as strange and wonderful as the one he experiences in "The Inner Light," where Picard lives out the simple life of a man on a different planet, from a different civilization. It's such a quiet, seemingly uneventful episode where it's not clear what is going on until the final set of reveals, but the emotional punch that it delivers rivals anything else that "Star Trek" has ever done.

"Ship in a Bottle" - I always had a thing for the holodeck episodes, which often provided a nice change of scenery or access to unusual characters. Daniel Davis's Moriarty was introduced way back in the Season 2 episode "Elementary, Dear Data," a clever story but nothing special. I'm glad that they brought him back for this follow-up, where the question of whether a hologram can be considered a form of life is introduced, and there's a twisty plot involving figuring out who is in what frame of reality. I don't even mind that the ending cheats.

"All Good Things" - The finale two-parter gives us a chance to say goodbye to all the beloved characters, gives us another ripping time travel story, and brings back Q in the judge's outfit to deliver a final lecture. It makes for a fitting ending to the series, giving us a peek at what the future holds in store for the crew without setting anything in stone, revisiting familiar themes, and leaving plenty of room for more adventures. "The Next Generation" went out on top, and precious little in the "Star Trek" universe has come close to it since.

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2014-04-02 08:55 pm
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Ruining the Red Wedding

Lots of spoilers for the third season of "Game of Thrones" ahead. That's the third season that aired roughly a year ago, kids, not the upcoming fourth one that you've been seeing all the marketing for. Why am I writing a post about something that happened in year three now, after I already wrote up my thoughts on that season back at the end of last summer? Well, because I think that enough time has passed in regards to spoilers and such that I can finally get my rant on about one of the biggest events in the show so far: the infamous Red Wedding.

I managed to avoid most of the spoilers about the third season. I didn't know who got married to who, who got various body parts cut off, who nearly got killed by who, who became unlikely friends with who, who conquered what, and who finally stuck it to a White Walker. The Red Wedding massacre, however, was something I had been hearing about in offhand comments long before this season began. It seemed like everyone who was a fan of the books was anticipating it, and they weren't shy about broadcasting that anticipation. I've been pretty good about avoiding places where spoilers tend to come up, but talk of the Red Wedding seemed to be the exception to every rule about spoilers. Even the most conscientious and considerate "Thrones" fan couldn't seem to resist referring to it as a major event coming up in the show, and thus is was practically impossible to avoid being hyped up for it. And that's really what killed it for me.

After "Rains of Castamere," the episode where the Red Wedding actually happened, aired on HBO, matters got exponentially worse because suddenly the information went viral in the mainstream media. Even though the details of what actually went down were still fairly scarce, the response to the episode itself became a talking point. I was reminded of this when earlier in the week, Jon Stewart brought up the Red Wedding in his "Daily Show" interview of Peter Dinklage and the popular Youtube videos of upset viewers reacting to the big moment. There were thinkpieces circulating everywhere, and from the titles alone it became obvious that the Red Wedding was a massacre where a lot of major characters died in an especially horrific fashion. I understand the fans' need to share in the experience, and the media commentators' need to generate meta, but this was too much. You had to avoid the internet entirely to avoid being spoiled, something I wasn't willing to do.

When I finally watched "Rains of Castamere" several months later, it didn't live up to expectations. How could it? So much of the effectiveness of the Red Wedding was the suddenness of it, that with hardly any warning the writer would kill off a major protagonist who had up to that point been the center of a major thread of the story. The same thing happened in the first season with the execution of Ned Stark, which was also spoiled for me, but that one stung less because it had attracted much less attention and commentary, so the impact still hit me the way it was supposed to. The Red Wedding was billed as being an even bigger game changer, but honestly I didn't think much of it. The characters who got killed off were among the least interesting, and it was honestly a bit of a relief to learn that they wouldn't be taking up any more screen time. One of the female victims was so bland, I was happy her actress, who I like, would now be able to go take on better work.

I know almost nothing about the upcoming fourth season of "Game of Thrones," except the identities of a couple of the characters are going to survive to the fifth season because they're still being referred to in the present tense by a friend of mine who reads the books. It's actually fairly heartening to hear some claim that it's all downhill after The Red Wedding, and there's nothing in the series that lives up to that moment. That means that I'm not going to have to weather the fallout of another of these big, shocking surprises for the foreseeable future. Instead, I can enjoy season four the way I enjoyed most of season three - completely obliviously.

Season three has actually been my favorite year of "Game of Thrones" so far, but the Red Wedding really didn't play much of a part in that. Would I have appreciated it more if I didn't know it was coming? Sure, but I'd still have been more invested in what was going on with practically all the other characters. I'm sure I'd have been impressed by the twist, but there were plenty of other developments in the season that were just as important narratively. I'm really looking forward to the fourth season coming up, and I'm really looking forward to watching it without the threat of so many spoilers hanging over my head this time.

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2014-03-31 09:15 pm
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Here's To Television Without Pity

Another chapter of online media fandom is about to end, fellow media junkies. The beloved website Television Without Pity (TWoP), that had a big hand in creating the TV recapper culture we know and love today, is scheduled to be shut down in April, with its famously boisterous forums following at the end of May. It's an old, familiar story by this point. A media website attracts a loyal, fervent following for a few years, they're acquired by a major company that doesn't really know what to do with them (in this case NBC Universal via their Bravo unit), the original folks responsible for the early success moved on, and the site slowly withered away until the plug was finally pulled.

I wasn't a very consistent visitor to TWoP, but I did visit fairly regularly for a few years. A lot of people did. What drew me to the site wasn't the recaps, which have now become industry standard, but the forums. I have a long history of loving obscure little genre shows that have almost no fandoms to speak of, and no matter how obscure a show was, the TWoP forums could be counted on to have a thread for nearly everything you could think of. Even if it was a single one-season reality show, late night time-filler, or a foreign cult import, if it was airing somewhere on American television, someone on TWoP was talking about it. On the other hand, it was also the only place I regularly found a decent level of discussion going on for shows that didn't really attract traditional media fandoms - the crime procedurals, the family sitcoms, and even news programs.

So the TWoP forums were where I went to look for reactions to new episodes of dubbed late night anime (from viewers who weren't part of the usual anime crowd), "Law & Order: SVU," "Project Runway," and occasionally even "60 Minutes." It was where I went when I first started working my way through older shows, because I could follow along with the archived discussion threads simply by keeping track of when posts were made relative to the original airdates for the episodes I was watching. I always preferred old fashioned message boards to social networking based sites for media discussions for this reason. It was so much easier to find things. And, of course, there were always far fewer technical glitches than with "talkback" style comments like Disquis.

I also appreciated that the participants were mainly casual viewers like me. There were certainly big fandoms on the forums, often with their own separate subforums and subcultures that generated lots of activity, but I tended to stay away from those. Certain media fandoms are notorious for generating drama, and I was always wary of getting too involved with them. I also knew where to find forums and message boards devoted to specific shows, like "Project Runway," but they tended to be more insular and myopic about their particular fandoms. The TWoP crowd could be counted on to be a more laid-back, more eclectic crowd that was interested in a variety of different shows.

Most of the write-ups I've been reading about the end of TWoP have focused on the recaps, naturally, on the snarky, obsessive, yet refreshingly self-aware brand of criticism they helped to popularize. It helped the mainstream to realize that there is an audience for good television writing, and that even the most heinous pieces of pop culture detritus could be good material for serious dissections. There have also been some inches devoted to the site's brushes with fame over the years, as various TV showrunners have dropped by to engage with their audience directly over the years, with mixed results.

The obvious successor to Television Without Pity has been the A.V. Club, which takes a more curated approach to television recaps and reviews, and has also nurtured a great little community. However, it hasn't got quite the same verve or the same breadth of coverage as Television Without Pity. Few media sites do. That's why there are still a significant number of regular users on the site, and they're debating over where to migrate the community next. This is a common occurrence now, fandoms moving from platform to platform and site to site as the internet chugs along.

I can't say I'm going to miss Television Without Pity. Though I had the site bookmarked for ages, I haven't been by in years. I'm far too busy to follow along with message board discussions of the shows I watch anymore. However, in its own way TWoP was an institution, one that gave TV fans a place to be TV fans for well over a solid decade and changed the way a lot of us watch and engage with television.
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2014-03-27 08:15 pm
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The Heinous "Marry Harry"

I try not to get too worked up about bad reality television shows. I understand that they cater to the lowest common denominator and that they're as much of an embarrassment to their viewing audience as they are to the participants or the network or the production company. It's in my best interest to ignore them and pretend that they don't exist, because ultimately they don't matter and don't deserve any extra attention, even if it's as the subject of scorn. But once in a while I hear about one of these shows that just gets under my skin and I can't stop thinking about. So I am compelled to rant.

I guess I was too premature in hoping that the FOX network had turned over a new leaf in my recent "Cosmos" post. I thought that they had left behind the most awful reality competition shows like "The Swan" (a plastic surgery show masquerading as a makeover show) and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" (a woman's entire innocent family is subjected to a fake nightmare fiance). And then I heard about their new summer reality matchmaking show, "I Wanna Marry 'Harry,'" which has one of the most horrendous premises I've ever heard of. The more I think about it, the more it makes my blood boil.

Twelve American women are shipped off to the UK to spend a few weeks vying for the affections of an eligible man who they think is Prince Harry, actually a lookalike recruited to fill the role. It's a hoax show of course, in the same vein as "Joe Millionaire." You have to be exceptionally badly informed or gullible to think that a member of the royal family would consider participating in a crass American "Bachelor" style reality show to find potential mates. It's akin to George Clooney joining Match.com. This points to the contestants being an exceptionally dim bunch, or willing to play along and humiliate themselves for a chance at fame and fortune. I'm not sure which possibility is worse.

The appeal to that certain demographic is obvious. The show is taking advantage of the hype over the royal wedding and parlaying the acceptance of Prince William marrying a commoner into the possibility that anyone now has a shot at his eligible bachelor brother. It's also playing that age-old game of shame the gold digger. The unspoken assumption is that it's fine to laugh at the contestants because they're stupid enough to fall for the ruse and if they're on this kind of dating show then they're probably terrible people anyway. It's another spin on the freak show, similar to "Honey Boo Boo," "Real Housewives," or "The Kardashians." The audience gets to watch their antics with disgust and feel safely superior in the knowledge that they would never stoop so low.

In the case of "Marry Harry," however, that's clearly not true. There are many women out there who would jump at the chance to fulfill the princess fantasy we've all been spoon-fed since childhood and marry into royalty. Think of all the princess-themed junk aimed at little girls and the Prince Charming narratives that still work their way into so many romance stories. Well ladies, this is where all that leads. You end up a poor, deluded dupe on a reality show being exploited and mocked in prime time for taking to heart all those movies and shows where any ordinary girl can land herself a royal with enough pluck and determination. Generally I enjoy seeing princess fantasies subverted and their adherents set straight, but this is just cruel for the sake of being cruel.

I can't help wondering how the show's producers are going to try putting a positive spin on "Marry Harry." Most of the hoax shows try to soften the blow, often handing out large sums of cash to help assuage their victims' embarrassment. And Joe Millionaire did become a proper millionaire on the show's last episode. Will the producers try to suggest that true love blossoms between the winning wannabe royal and the fake Prince Harry? Will they declare her a real princess in all the ways that matter and hand over a shiny tiara for her trouble? I'm fantasizing about the last girl calling out the faux royal and the scumbag producers, but that's not going to happen.

It's depressing that shows like this are still being made. I can only be glad that this is the kind of scenario that can only be pulled off once. No other royal out there has the same draw as Prince Harry, and other shows have already put forth fake millionaires and fake tycoons, so the basic idea is already pretty played out. Also, I take heart that this is one of the last shows to be ordered by FOX's departing Director of Specials, Mike Darnell, who is leaving the network in May, hopefully to go wreak programming havoc somewhere less visible. Let's hope shows like "Marry Harry" are likewise on their way out the door.
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2014-03-24 09:29 pm
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Exploring the "Cosmos"

I'm too young to have seen the original "Cosmos" series hosted by Carl Sagan, which ran on PBS way back in 1980. However, I saw my share of nature and science programming in a similar vein as a kid, and enjoyed them. Lots of "Nova" and "Nature," and various educational documentary shorts screened in school or on museum trips. So I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new "Cosmos," which is inexplicably airing Sunday nights on the FOX television network, and being produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane.

Well, maybe McFarlane's involvement isn't so inexplicable. "Cosmos" stands out from the rest of the crowd for its use of lots of CGI special effects, and there have been animated segments in each of the three episodes that have aired so far. The visual spectacle goes a long way in helping to keep my interest in the science lessons delivered by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Though Tyson makes for a very engaging lecturer, the American television audience wants shiny CGI, and boy do they get it. Gorgeous shots of celestial bodies are constantly displayed for us to marvel at. In the second episode, prehistoric creatures and microscopic structures are rendered for us in loving detail with computer animation. There's lots of green screen work, as Tyson interacts with a spiffy looking "ship of the imagination" and takes a walk on a giant "cosmic calendar."

So far the material has been great. The first episode covered a lot of astronomy concepts I was already pretty familiar with and had seen other programs cover in a similar, though less snazzy fashion. The second and third were more interesting for me because it was my first exposure to some of the concepts and ideas. I especially liked the use of the domestication of wolves into dogs as the lead-in to the discussion of evolutionary mechanisms and the development of life on Earth. I assumed from the title that "Cosmos" was only going to cover space exploration, but it looks everything related to science is going to be fair game, with outer space serving as a jumping-off point to get into all kinds of different topics. Personally, I'm hoping that we get into the climate change debate in future episodes.

I have a few nitpicks about the production, most of the them pretty minor. The longer 2D animated segments done with Flash look a little cheap next to all the CGI. Last night's program used a lot of it to relate the history of Isaac Newton's writing and publishing of the "Principia Mathematica," and the famous coffeehouse wager between Edmond Halley and Robert Hooke regarding planetary motion. In shorter doses these segments are all right, but the longer ones just highlight how stiff and limited the animation is. Also, the show tends to get carried away with the pageantry. This is especially evident with the full blown orchestral score, composed by Alan Silvestri, which tends to sound much too concerned about being big and impressive. They could stand to tone down the fireworks a bit.

"Cosmos" stands out as an anomaly on network television because it is so high-minded and so ambitious. I don't think there's been anything comparable since the "Planet Earth" documentary series, and even that didn't have the same pointedly educational aims. While I've been enjoying "Cosmos" and applaud its creators and the FOX networks for airing it, I can't help but be mystified as to how the new show managed to happen in the current television landscape. Is Seth McFarlane's leverage so great that he get a thirteen-part science documentary on primetime solely as a passion project? Is someone at FOX purposely trying to pursue loftier programming choices as a new tactic in light of their "American Idol" numbers cratering?

I have to bring up the fact that FOX's news organization has traditionally been very right-wing and anti-science. And of course, the new "Cosmos" is already drawing fire from anti-evolution folks, particularly after the second episode which devoted a good amount of its screen time to laying out the case for natural selection and directly addressed some anti-evolution positions. The cognitive dissonance going on is pretty breathtaking, even though FOX News and the other FOX subsidiaries have always had very little to do with each other. I have to say it's nice to get something so pro-science in a year where we're seeing a resurgence of Bible epics at the box office and the culture war shows no signs of abating.

But I'm getting off track. If "Cosmos" does well, will it mean more prime time documentary series in the future? Will the networks be inspired to create more educational programming? I'd love to see the production values of "Cosmos" or "Planet Earth" applied to history and culture programs. Or more regular science and technology programming, focused on current developments in a variety of different fields. There's been a lot going on recently that could use more attention and support.

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2014-03-20 07:31 pm
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The McConnelling

I didn't see last Thursday's edition of "The Daily Show" until last night, so I'm a little behind on the newest political meme that has apparently taken the internet by storm - well, at least in certain circles. House minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently released what's essentially two-and-a-half minutes of B-roll footage, just shots of him looking patriotic and competent without any dialogue or narration. The intention was for any pro-Republican PACs and super PACs out there he's not supposed to be coordinating with to to use the footage to generate supportive ads independently. More on that in a minute.

Anyway, "The Daily Show" found the footage and had so much fun setting the bland, boring visuals to a variety of pop songs, including Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” that they devoted a whole segment to it. Then Jon Stewart put up a "#McConnelling" hashtag and invited his audience to join in the fun. The internet hasn't disappointed - my favorites so far include ones set to The Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy," and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" theme song. McConnell does look strangely like cartoon turtle from the right angles. Another tactic has been to stick McConnell into the credits of old TV shows as a featured guest star. I expect we'll be getting a compilation of the best videos when "The Daily Show" comes back from break next week.

Media reactions have been fairly muted. The meme is silly and tame enough that it would come across as pretty ridiculous to try and take any offense. McConnell's people have embraced McConnelling, even adding links to some of the blander mashups on the Congressman's official website. I'm not sure that he understands that he's being mocked, though. Most of the successful McConnelling videos are playing on the total incongruity between McConnell's milquetoast appearance and songs full of sex and angst and ninja turtles. And I don't think that many of the participants really understand the full implications of what McConnelling has done.

The internet, at the instigation of "The Daily Show," has essentially appropriated the footage meant to be used for some fairly shady campaigning and made it impossible to take any of it seriously. I don't know that I'll be able to watch at any ad using this footage with a straight face. And there's a pretty good likelihood that future Mitch McConnell ads are just going to be mined for more material if this meme sticks around through the next election cycle. However, I don't feel too badly for the guy because he essentially brought this on himself by putting the original footage out there, and making it pretty obvious what it was intended to be used for. He can't really complain about McConnelling being appropriate because the ads they were intended for are hardly appropriate in the first place.

There have been lots of spoofs of political ads over the years, and election seasons practically demand them. One of my favorites to emerge from the internet was a fake John McCain ad from back in 2008, where a couple of clever filmmakers put together a campaign spot as if it had been directed by Wes Anderson, complete with a Bowie song and captions in Futura font. However, I think it's telling that McConnelling happened almost spontaneously, outside of the context of any serious campaigning going on. Most McConnelling videos are almost aggressively apolitical, and I expect that any attempt by either side to inject any politics won't be well received.

Consider the wider implications of this. The internet culture is now moving so fast now that we're essentially spoofing political ads that don't exist yet. This should be a good wake-up call for everyone that was scoffing about President Obama doing the "Between Two Ferns" appearance on Funny or Die last week. It doesn't matter if you don't engage with the Millennials because the Millennials are eventually going to engage with you, and good luck trying to keep control of the message when that happens.

I don't think that McConnell is going to be too successful if he tries to capitalize on his newfound fame with the meme-generating set. Fortunately, I don't think he has much interest in doing so. Responses in interviews regarding the McConnelling phenomenon have included the usual requests for help with fundraising, but mostly his people have been pretty quiet, which is probably for the best. Politicians who have tried to capitalize off of memes haven't had a very good success rate.

Remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" sketch from "Saturday Night Live"? Yeah, now do you remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" fundraiser when she was trying to run for governor of Florida back in 2002? Not the best idea, as it turned out.

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2014-03-17 10:00 pm
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Kicking it To "Mars"

So the long-awaited "Veronica Mars" movie finally appeared in theaters and online this weekend, to the delight of "Mars" fans everywhere, and to the fascination of industry watchers curious to see what a Kickstarter-funded movie was capable of. "Veronica Mars" is not destined to be a blockbuster hit, being far too much of a love letter to its existing fanbase to be very accessible to new viewers unfamiliar with the former teen-detective television show.

After a quick exposition dump to fill in for any brave newbies what the premise of "Veronica Mars" is, we learn that Veronica (Kristen Bell) is living in New York, fresh out of law school, and on the verge of landing a lucrative job with a prominent law firm. She's in a steady relationship with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), and steadfastly refusing to acknowledge her upcoming ten-year high school reunion. Then she gets the fateful phone call from her high school bad boy ex, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has been accused of murdering his high profile pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to the sunny, corrupt town of Neptune, California to help save Logan's skin, reconnect with old friends, and get herself thoroughly tangled up in a big mystery once more.

As a fan of the show, the "Veronica Mars" movie gave me exactly what I wanted. There's lots of snarky banter, updates on the lives of all the familiar characters, Veronica getting her sleuth on again, and some pretty big questions about her future that get definitive answers. I didn't mind the fact that the whole thing felt more like one of those old reunion TV movies that they used to do for shows like "The Brady Bunch," or the pilot for a new "Veronica Mars" series than a proper stand-alone movie. And I didn't mind that it was clearly made on the cheap with very TV quality production values, with a soundtrack full of indie acts that seem to have been chosen by lottery. It felt like we were comfortably back in the universe created by Rob Thomas, even if Veronica could throw out a few unbleeped expletives now.

What did concern me was the parade of cameos. At times it felt like every minor recurring character whose actor was willing to return was shoehorned into the story somewhere. I understand why time was devoted to Veronica's besties Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), and sometimes ally Weevil (Francis Capra), but did we need to check in with the high school principal (Duane Daniels)? Or Veronica's long-ago crush, Deputy Leo (Max Greenfield)? And that's not even getting to the actual celebrities who make appearances, whose identities I won't spoil here. At certain points the movie feels like a game of spotting the famous and familiar faces, and it gets pretty distracting. Oh, and there are in-jokes galore for fans to catch and for newbies to feel self-conscious about not getting.

Fortunately there is a strong story to keep the whole thing together, and Veronica is still as fun and watchable a heroine as ever, who works fine on the big screen. The case has some good twists, landing Veronica in serious peril. The sheriff's department of Neptune has gotten even more corrupt since we saw it last, making it even harder for Veronica to conduct her investigation. The Veronica-Logan-Piz love triangle is inevitable, of course. The major conflict of the film, however, is actually the question of what Veronica wants to do with her future. If you were left unsatisfied, as I was, with how the ending of the television series played out, and where we left Veronica Mars as a character, the movie does a great job of giving us some resolution as she confronts some demons and gets her priorities in order.

Veronica remains one of the best female characters to come out of TV in the past generation, and I'd love to see "Veronica Mars" get a sequel, either on film or on television. Heck, I'd settle for that rumored spinoff series featuring Ryan Hansen as the doofusy surfer bro Dick Casablancas, who is deployed as much-needed comic relief throughout the film. Or one for the movie's MVP, Enrico Colantoni, as Veronica's father Keith Mars. If there's any character who I wanted to see more of in the "Veronica Mars" movie, it was him.

There's been a lot of drama around the film because of the Kickstarter campaign, but I can't imagine that many of the backers could be too upset with the film itself, which is absolutely made for them. And while I don't have a non-fan perspective, I think that the film is a good enough watch on it's own to potentially hook a few viewers who were unfamiliar with the "Veronica Mars" series. I don't know if Kickstarter is a good option for many cancelled shows, but I'm happy with the results here.
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2014-03-14 11:56 pm
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My Top Ten "Twilight Zone" Episodes

The original "Twilight Zone" that aired from 1959 to 1964 remains one of my fondest media touchstones. I watched the marathons every year at New Years, borrowed the companion book from the local library multiple times, and freaked out classmates by recapping my favorite episodes for them while waiting in the lunch line. So here's a very overdue Top Ten list of my favorite episodes. As always, entries are unranked and listed in order of airdate.

"Time Enough at Last" - Burgess Meredith starred in four different "Twilight Zone" episodes, but Henry Bemis, the little man with the big glasses who just wants some time to read, is by far the most memorable. Like so many of these episodes, the story is simple but the execution is magnificent, delivering one of the cruelest ironies in all of science-fiction. It also made it clear to the audience that the series had teeth from very early on.

"Mirror Image" - A young woman at a bus depot waiting for her ride out of town spots a perfect doppelganger of herself. It's a wonderful, paranoid scenario that hints at sinister forces in the universe just waiting to take advantage of us in a vulnerable moment. Where the more high concept stories have lessened in effectiveness for me over time, I've noticed it's the simpler, more universal episodes like this that tend to stick with me.

"The Eye of the Beholder" - Everyone knows the famous twist ending, and even if you don't I'm sure it's pretty easy for modern audiences to guess. However, that doesn't take away from how wonderfully the reveal is handled, and the horror of this all too familiar dystopian world where conformity is so highly prized. I love the long, tense buildup to the climax too, something that few shows are brave enough to do anymore.

"It's a Good Life" - What is the point of this episode? That small children are really monsters? That innocence can be as awful as knowing evil? There is no point, except for the series to present us with a particularly potent nightmare scenario that continues to make me squirm at the thought. The version of the story in the "Twilight Zone" movie is even more sadistic and terrifying, though it famously bungled the bleak original ending.

"The Midnight Sun" - Scientifically, it's easy to dismiss the story as complete bunk, but of all the apocalypse scenarios that "The Twilight Zone" featured, this remains my favorite. We often hear about the world theoretically burning up in a fireball, but to see the effects of of such a disaster unfolding in slow motion, and to see the psychological effects on the desperate populace up close really helps the idea to hit home.

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" - One of the simplest and most existential episodes with a charmingly sentimental ending. I don't think this one works for everybody because it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the reveal may be too twee or too incongruous with the rest of the story for some. However, I liked the mystery and appreciated the completely out-of-left field explanation for the characters' state of limbo.

"Nothing in the Dark" - An old woman afraid of Death secludes herself in her home, determined to keep him out. As good as the show was at scaring and disturbing its viewers, I always appreciated that occasionally it could deliver an installment as touching and humane as this one. "Nothing in the Dark" is also notable for featuring two acting greats of different eras: Golden Age actress Gladys Cooper and a very young Robert Redford.

"To Serve Man" - When you think about it, the whole premise is based on a very silly pun that has been thoroughly lampooned over the years by everyone from "Naked Gun" to "The Simpsons." Still, the episode is a lot of fun with the big goofy Kanamit aliens (hey, it's Richard Kiel!), the recycled props and effects footage from famous period sci-fi movies, and a story that delivers a big old wallop to humanity's collective ego.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" - That's a young William Shatner freaking out at the "thing on the wing," in one of the undisputed "Twilight Zone" classics. Anyone who has ever been nervous about flying understands his character's terror, which director Richard Donner ramps up to terrific heights. This was another story remade for the "Twilight Zone" movie by Geroge Miller with John Lithgow - and their take is actually better than the original.

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" - Often shown together with "Eye of the Beholder" to underline the criticism of our looks-obsessed culture, "Number 12" seems to get more relevant every year and you can see its influence all over the media landscape. The ending of this one always got to me, not because our heroine ends up physically conforming with everybody else, but because she ends up thinking like everybody else too, which is far scarier.