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"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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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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The media has a major impact on certain parts of our lives in the way that it sets expectations and standards for our experiences. I ran across a show on TLC the other day that is a perfect example of this: "Say Yes to the Dress," a half-hour reality show about brides picking their wedding dresses. At first it looks harmless enough, akin to paging through a bridal magazine. Brides come in for appointments to try on dresses, model for the cameras, get advice from boutique employees on hand, and eventually comes the big moment: saying "yes" to a dress.

However, the further I got into the show, the more it made my blood boil. The featured fittings on these shows always become events, fraught with emotion and drama. Most of the brides drag large numbers of family and friends into the boutique with them. The unspoken assumption is that they can't settle for any old dress, but they need the perfect dress to make their big day truly special. Sure, lip service is paid to financial considerations, but all the dresses we see still cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and are treated as the most important item on the bride's shopping list. The wedding dress acquires a holy mystique, with the ability to inspire all kinds of familial strife and tensions. The episode I saw had a bride and groom clashing over the style of the gown. She wanted something form-fitting. He wanted a poofy princess dress. Their clashing visions were played up to ridiculous extremes, and spun by the show as an early test of the couple's ability to compromise.

Now, I fully understand that the choice of wedding dress is very important to a lot of brides, and picking one is a valued part of the whole experience of putting a wedding together. And I also appreciate that weddings are big, momentous events that tend to attract lots and lots of drama. However, all the wedding shows I've seen, including "Say Yes to the Dress," treat the weddings like life or death experiences that require months of planning, ridiculous budgets, and a list of things that you absolutely, positively have to do in order to have the best experience possible. Sure, you can go get married at City Hall in a pantsuit, but that would be denying yourself the opportunity for the perfect fairy-tale day that you'll cherish for years and years to come. It's the message we've all been fed since we were kids: a wedding means the white dress, the dapper suits, the bouquet, the rings, the big venue, the reception, the showers, the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the dancing, the alcohol, and the multi-tiered cake.

A show like "Say Yes to the Dress" is another insidious piece of marketing, adding another stop on the way to the wedding. Now the wedding dress boutique appointment has become another oh-so-special event that a bride-to-be shouldn't deny herself. It becomes yet another focal point for potential disappointments. It becomes something else to worry about when you already have too many things to worry about. The show hit a nerve with me personally because I got married last year and encountered a huge amount of pressure to conform to the typical wedding narrative. The scary part was, a lot of the pressure was coming from me, from my own internalized ideas of what a wedding should be. It took some significant time and effort to figure out what I actually did and didn't want to do, and I ended up foregoing many things that people running these wedding shows would have been aghast that I had skipped.

And the dress? I don't like traditional white wedding dresses, but I decided to get one in order to look nice for the pictures that would be circulated among all of my relatives for the next few decades. I visited exactly one boutique, without an appointment, before deciding this approach wasn't for me. Instead, I went to a dress outlet store with some girlfriends, tried on the five styles of wedding dress that were available, and picked one. The process took an hour, and the dress cost me $200, including the dry-cleaning. I spent more on hair and makeup. I spent more on the flowers. The dress was not the perfect dress, but it did what I wanted it to, which was to make me look like a typical bride for a few hours that everyone could take pictures with. I'd have rented the dress if I could have, because now all it's doing is taking up closet space.

I'm not saying that nobody should buy an expensive wedding dress, or that you shouldn't enjoy wedding shows. I'm pointing out that nobody is obliged to say yes to the wedding dress experience that TLC is pushing or even any wedding dress at all. And I'm suggesting that it's a good idea to ask yourself why you really want something before spending thousands of dollars to make it happen.
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There's been a lot written about how we're in a golden age of television. The cable model being able to appeal to smaller niche audiences has allowed television shows like HBO's "Game of Thrones" and AMC's "Mad Men" to flourish. Not so much has been written about the flip side of the equation, which is that reality shows are getting worse than ever, and spreading across the cable landscape at an alarming rate.

A few days ago I came across a press release for Bravo's latest slate of new and returning series. The network is one of the poster children for cable channels that have moved drastically away from their original branding. In the early days, it was an arts channel, home to "Inside the Actor's Studio," the early iterations of "Project Runway," and you could frequently find them running Cirque du Soleil specials on early weekend mornings. Now the channel is wall to wall reality programming, and their flagship is the "Real Housewives" franchise.

The new slate is an utterly depressing reflection of this. Nearly all their new and in-development shows are nominally differentiated variations on the same gut-turning formula of putting a group of spoiled, rich, ego-centric fame-chasers together and watching them behave badly in the name of furthering their dreams. "Below Deck" puts them on a yacht. "City Sisters" puts them in New York. "100 Days of Summer" puts them in Chicago. "Eat, Drink, Love" stakes out Los Angeles. “Southern Charm” tackles Charleston, South Carolina. And it's no mystery where "Princesses: Long Island," "Taking Atlanta" and "Ladies of London" are set.

The rest are a mix of human interest series that center around food, fashion, real estate, and rich people's problems. One of the shows in development is literally called "Rich People’s Problems," featuring Phaedra Parks, an attorney who was one of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta." Other new shows feature a "Divorce Diva," extreme parents, college admissions consultants, a songwriter mentoring youngsters in the music industry, a retired basketball player, newlyweds, two businesswomen opening a fitness club, and Courtney Kerr, whose gimmick is that she's on the hunt for a man in Dallas.

Some of these have some minor value as documentary shows, but mostly the audience is just expected to gawk at the subjects, the same way they do with the most awful examples of the genre, "Buckwild" and "Honey Boo Boo." You feel okay about it because they're getting paid, and many of the participants are rich and famous and want the exposure. However, it's all too clear what Bravo expects out of these shows: catfights, drama, hedonism, excess, and a few minutes of feel-good redemption now and then to ensure that the reality stars don't become completely unsympathetic.

These shows are heavily edited of course, to the point where most of the narratives are largely constructed. And so Bravo has made the logical choice this year to start developing scripted television, based largely around the same material. These include "Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce," "Heiresses," and "High and Low." I think the titles are self-explanatory except for the last, which is about the staff of a restaurant and takes place during the 1980s. And I'm sure we can expect all the same character types that we see on Bravo's other shows - catty rich girls, emotional gay guys, hardworking dreamers, artists, foodies, divas, and hot messes.

Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise when you look at Bravo's list of returning shows, the ones that have kept them going. We're up to five regular "Housewives" spinoffs that have been on for multiple seasons, a third year of "Shahs of the Sunset," and two different "Million Dollar Listings." The last surviving competition show from the "Project Runway" days, "Top Chef," increasingly looks like an odd man out, despite its high profile, and “Inside the Actors Studio,” which has made it all the way to season nineteen, looks positively retro.

I used to watch Bravo quite a bit when I first got cable, back in the late 90s. I liked that it was a little pretentious and a little highbrow, and that it would take risks on shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I think that's why this sad state of affairs stings worse for me than the similar declines of networks like TLC, A&E, MTV, and the others that have been swallowed up by similar reality programming.

I know that Bravo is far from the worst offender when you put it up against some of these other outlets. Heck, sometimes I find things on network television that I can't quite believe are real shows. Celebrity diving? Celebrity military boot camp? And "The Swan" is back?! It's clear that Bravo's bad habits are only a reflection of what's happening to the rest of television.
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On Friday it was announced that AMC was considering the creation of a new after-show called "Talking Bad," to accompany the final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" as they air this summer. It would be patterned after the "Talking Dead" show that currently runs with episodes of "The Walking Dead." Initially, I thought this was a nice idea. I haven't been watching "The Walking Dead" for a while, but I'd seen other shows with companion programs, like the "Doctor Who Confidential" production documentary series, which contained supplementary material and behind-the-scenes footage that were often a lot of fun. The BBC also did one for "Merlin" for a while. A similar "Breaking Bad" show sounded a little indulgent, but I thought it could be interesting.

Then I actually went and looked at the format of "Talking Dead," and it became obvious pretty quickly that it wasn't like "Doctor Who Confidential" at all. No, this was more like the companion shows that ran with "The Deadliest Catch" or "Project Runway," which are all about gushing reactions to the episode that we had just seen. These are shows devoted to aggrandizing the main program, extra marketing essentially. Sure, they would offer extra interviews with the creatives, and other content you'd expect to find in the DVD or Blu-Ray sets, but the "talk show" was the main component. In "Talking Dead," this consists of celebrity fans of the show coming in every week to gab with host Chris Hardwick. And because the show is produced by AMC itself, or course nobody gets to say much negative about "The Walking Dead," making it a hell of a lot less useful than even the most amateur "Walking Dead" review podcast.

After-shows have been around for a while now, mostly tied to reality shows like "Teen Mom," though the first one I remember getting any significant push was "Oprah After the Show," which aired on the Oxygen Network for a few years starting back in 2003. There's no mystery why the studios like them. They're extra content that can be produced on the cheap, often using leftover bits of footage and production detritus that would otherwise go to waste. They share the same DNA with reunion specials, recap programs, exit interviews, and other time-fillers. They're also not far off from plain old regular talk shows, where the guests are acknowledged to be making appearances in order to promote a new movie, television show, book, or album. However, tying this kind of talk show after-show to a fiction drama series is a relatively recent thing. Aside from a few series finale specials, I think "The Walking Dead" is the first to do this, and certainly the first to run this kind of show on a regular basis.

These after-shows are proliferating because they feed off the audience's desire for more information and discussion about their favorite programs. Rabid fans will obsess over promotional pictures, plot rumors, and pretty much any other tidbit of new information. There's already a lot of chatter about the imminent return of popular series like "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men," which recently started another round of publicity. I tend to stay away from these discussions because of concerns about overhype and the ever-present spoiler problem. Not surprisingly, one of the criticisms I've heard about "Talking Dead" is that it can sometimes get carried away teasing about spoilers for upcoming episodes. Some fans like this kind of thing, but I'm not one of them. I prefer sticking to more in-depth analysis and reviews, which I tend to get more out of, but which aren't a good fit for the format constraints of a show like "Talking Dead."

I'm not saying that these kinds of shows can't be done well and that they aren't entertaining. "Talking Dead" wouldn't have lasted more than a season if it weren't both. And it certainly wouldn't be expanding to an hour when "Walking Dead" returns next season. However, as far as I can tell there's just not enough real content being offered that would tempt me to seek out the proposed "Talking Bad," as much as I enjoy "Breaking Bad." The show already has an official "Insider Podcast" that is excellent, often featuring interviews with directors and other crew members. Last season, individual episodes of the show were discussed extensively on the Firewall & Iceberg and Slashfilm podcasts. The AV Club had reams of interviews and articles in addition to regular reviews. Why would I need a fluffy talk show that will spend the majority of its time on the opinions of celebrity fans when I already have access to all of this?

I don't think that "Talking Bad" will have much impact on "Breaking Bad" itself, so it's no skin off my back. However, I do find it disconcerting that AMC is essentially is using the same ratings grabbing gimmick that Bravo, Lifetime and MTV use with their reality programs.

But if it had been "Breaking Bad Confidential" - I would have watched that show.
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In the mad rush of the oncoming awards season, I've been neglecting the television world, as evidenced by the fact that I spent last night guiltily scanning through about two months worth of "60 Minutes" episodes that I'd missed, including the entire run-up to the recent election. Last year my "too much to watch" posts helped me do a lot of catching up. So here are a new batch of television shows that have been sitting on my "to watch" list for a little too long. Network television hasn't been too good to me lately, but the cable offerings seem endless.

"Key & Peele" - I knew the Comedy Central sketch comedy show was on to something big when clips of their sketches started being passed around, and I started hearing serious comparisons to "Chapelle's Show." Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both mixed race comedians, and while their material explores a lot of racial issues, it's far from all they're capable of. The "Bullying" sketch is a good example of this, with its insightful deconstruction of a common trope. That said, I like their "Luther, Obama's Anger Translator" sketches the best.

"The Hour" - British period drama about the production of a newsmagazine show, starring Ben Wishaw, Ramola Garai, and Dominic West. It's often described as a counterpart to America's "Mad Men," since it takes place during the 1960s and covers some of the same thematic ground. However, what really caught my interest was that the primary subject matter, something that seems oddly old-fashioned these days: investigative reporting. Also, Peter Capaldi from "In the Loop" gets an arc in the new series, and he's worth seeing in anything.

"The League" - Having become enamored with the mumblecore charms of Mark Duplass, and having noticed that his wife Katie Aselton and several of his other collaborators are in the cast of "The League" with him, I need to check this FX sitcom out. I'm five seasons behind and I have no interest in fantasy football, so this is probably a lost cause, but I want to at least give it a try. FX has several oddball, cult shows that have slowly sucked me in one by one, including "Louie" and "Archer." This might end up being the next one.

"The Newsroom" - New Aaron Sorkin show! With all-star cast full of actors I like! Pounce! Alas, this is an HBO production, which means a long, maddening waiting period for the DVD sets to arrive. I've been hearing mixed reactions for months, particularly on the subject of the romantic relations between the main characters played by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. It wouldn't be an Aaron Sorkin show without some controversy, now would it? Along with "The Hour," it's also nice to see the heroic side of the news media again, even if it's only aspirational.

"Project Runway All Stars" - I was totally caught off guard by Lifetime immediately following up the last season of "Project Runway" with the second season of "All Stars," putting me several weeks behind at the time of writing. Yes, it's a guilty pleasure, but I can't resist. The catfighting, the creative madness, and those crazy, crazy clothes suck me in every time. And the best part about "All Stars" is that there's no "getting to know you phase" with the contestants. You can just dive right in - and this season has both Wendy Pepper and Ivy Higa! And Andre!

"30 for 30" - An ESPN documentary series on sports, marking the 30th anniversary of the network. As I've said before, I'm not usually one for sports, but you can't ignore the caliber of the directors who participated in this series: Barry Levinson, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, Steve James, John Singleton, Morgan Spurlock, and many more. The series started airing in 2009, and several of the installments have found their way to Netflix, so I'll probably start with those.

And "The Wire." I swear that I'll stop putting it off and watch the series in 2013. Wait. I got all the way through "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" this year. Why should I feel bad?

Also, I want to give a quick shout-out to the one television podcast that I've found this year to be indispensable: Firewall and Iceberg, where television critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg review and discuss the best and worst of TV. I originally wanted to write up a post on television podcasts to go with the one I wrote for movie podcasts, but I haven't found anything remotely in the same league as these guys, so that didn't happen. I feel a little bad about appending this recommendation to the end of a sort-of related post, but I also can't think aof anything more appropriate.

Happy watching!
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I was catching up on this season of Project Runway on Lifetime's website, and couldn't help marveling that the network, which is pay cable, would allow one of their most popular shows to be streamed online for free. Most other cable networks, with the exception of Comedy Central, are extremely protective of their new content. You don't see current season episodes of shows like "Burn Notice" or "Breaking Bad" on Hulu Plus. One of the reasons I've fallen so far behind on "Top Chef," is because Bravo doesn't make it easy to watch them online. So I felt pretty good about Lifetime, until I was about halfway through last week's episode and I remembered what was offsetting any lost revenue - the product placement.

"Project Runway" is probably the perfect product placement show. Sure, there are some sponsors that are shoehorned into episodes with a notable lack of tact - the Lexus challenge where the designers were required to use the color of one of the new models in their designs was pretty ham handed - but others are so deeply ingrained into the format of the show itself, it's hard to imagine "Runway" without them. Any "Runway" fan will tell you that the workrooms are located at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and the one season when they tried to move shop to a new location was not a good one. The designers stay in the Atlas apartments for the duration of the competition. They get their fabric from Mood, home of a shop dog named Swatch. They sketch designs on HP tablets and use Brother sewing machines. The accessory wall has been stocked by various companies, including Bluefly and Piperlime. This season it's Lord and Taylor. And then there's the hairstyling segment of every show, where just before the models are sent out to the runway, they get a quick consultation from stylists wielding Garnier products, never mentioning prior sponsor Tresemme.

Challenges are often built around major retailers trying to appeal to different kinds of customers, or celebrities preparing for specific events. Then you have the judges. Michael Kors is a big designer with his own stores. Nina Garcia is an editor of Marie Claire magazine. Even Tim Gunn, who started out as a teacher and dean at Parsons, went and joined Liz Claiborne a few seasons back, and is always introduced as their man now. Everybody's selling something, and there's nothing wrong with that in this context. The fashion industry is all about marketing yourself, making your name into a recognizable brand that will fuel the sales of your products. So in an environment that is naturally obsessed with branding, the high amount of product placement is actually very appropriate. The producers have been good about picking their partnerships, and ensuring that while the promotions are obvious, they're also pretty well integrated. I mean, if you're going to have a whole challenge based on making clothing out of candy, why not get the candy from Dylan's Candy Bar in Times Square? On the other hand, they're not always successful. Again, the Lexus challenge.

I know all the arguments against product placement, that it's more insidious and blurs the boundaries between content and marketing in unwanted ways, but honestly I prefer advertising like this to the more intrusive commercials and the screen-obliterating pop-ups that are the blight of many network and cable programs. Especially in the reality shows, it feels odd when you don't see branded products everywhere, because brands are everywhere in real life. Blurring out logos actually draws more attention in some cases than if they were left alone. However, product placement has to be handled carefully, especially for the scripted shows. For every charming visit to a period Howard Johnson's in "Mad Men," or the Subway sandwiches that became a running joke on "Chuck," there are the more poorly considered ones. For instance, the infamous "Modern Family" iPad debacle, which read like too-obvious product placement even though Apple didn't actually pay to have anything promoted. Or Peter Parker's use of the Bing search engine in this summer's "Amazing Spider-man" movie, which was mocked from all sides.

There is a not-so-subtle art to this, and it'll be interesting to see how strategies and campaigns develop as more and more product placement is introduced into our content to make up for the waning effectiveness of more traditional forms of marketing. There is definitely a danger of some shows turning into extended commercials, but then, this is not a new problem. Keep in mind that television shows specifically created to shill products have been around for ages, and in the past they were often much less subtle about it than anything we see today. Look up the old "Mr. and Mrs. TV Show" episode of "I Love Lucy," for an eye-opening spoof, if you have the chance.

For now, the aggressive product placement on "Project Runway" isn't hurting the show much. Sure, some of the constant repetition of brands is annoying, but it's much less annoying than the high volume commercials for related products I used to have to sit through. And they don't interfere with the most dramatic moments of the competition - the judging, the eliminations, and the meltdowns. If the price of getting the show free online is more emphasis on all this product placement, so far I think it's been a good tradeoff.
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It's hard to believe that there have been twelve seasons of the reality show, "Big Brother," with a thirteenth on the way in the US this summer. I watched the first season, way back in 2000, and didn't get much out of it. I understand that the UK version is more popular and has become a bigger part of the culture than it has in the US. And that's probably why one of the most interesting pieces of media to comment on reality show culture to come out of British television centers around it – Charlie Booker's "Dead Set."

In 2008, shortly after the ninth series of "Big Brother" finished airing in the UK, "Dead Set" premiered on the same channel. It ran as a five episode miniseries, aired over five consecutive nights, chronicling what happens to a group of "Big Brother" contestants and various crew members when a zombie apocalypse breaks out. "Dead Set" extensively incorporates the "Big Brother" format, including the show's host, Davina McCall, playing herself, and former contestants making cameos. All the rest of the crew and the fictional season's "houseguests" are played by actors. We follow several characters, including Kelly (Jaime Winstone), a runner on the show, her boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed), an abrasive producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), and a full house of constantly quarreling contestants.

"Dead Set" has one of those concepts that anyone could think up – zombies attack "Big Brother" – but the execution was surely much trickier. Like any good zombie media, it has to have a high degree of camp, but it also needs to develop a few strong, sympathetic characters for the audience to care about, in order to sell the thrills and the horror. The tone has to be light enough for the satire, but also heavy enough to feel like there are actual stakes to the story. "Dead Set" manages to balance all of these things. For the bulk of the time it it's a morbidly funny horror program that just happens to take place in and around the "Big Brother" set. It follows all the rules of a zombie movie, It's only toward the end, when all the storylines converge, that the group dynamics that are at the center of the reality show come into play, and the commentary and metaphor become more pointed. I didn't think it went quite as far as it could have with the satire, but taken as a whole, "Dead Set" is still much smarter than most recent zombie movies I could name.

The central irony is that we only see the reality behind the reality show through the intervention of the fantastic. Facing a real crisis, affected personas are dropped, profanities are plentiful, and the contestants get the chance to show what they're really made of. Or more often, to reveal the weaknesses inherent in their fame-seeking, self-centered personalities and the damage done by the poisonous, artificial game show atmosphere. "Dead Set" is rough on the houseguests, but it saves its worst barbs for Patrick, the obnoxious control-freak producer who reflexively insults everyone within earshot, and spends most of the story trapped in the show's green room with Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), the dimmest of the contestants.

The five episode length of "Dead Set" means the pace has to be brisk, and there is no shortage of blood and guts and gore. Every thirty minute episode features some kind of attack or escape, culminating in a massive action sequence in the last episode that is everything a horror fan could wish for. No slow-moving "The Walking Dead" style storylines here. And no squeamish heroines either. Kelly dispatches her first zombie with a pair of scissors right through the cranium, and subsequent kills get even more graphic. And yet, I think the usual audience for "Big Brother" would enjoy "Dead Set" just fine, assuming they're not too squeamish. There's still plenty of romance and gossip and backstabbing – just with real world, life-or-death consequences this time around.

Like it or not, reality television has become part of the culture, and while I'm not too thrilled with most of the reality shows themselves, I've enjoyed how they've been incorporated into or addressed by other media. "Slumdog Millionaire," and "Mon Meilleur Ami" wouldn't have been quite the same without "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "Dead Set" wouldn't exist without "Big Brother," and so I'm actually glad I saw what little of the show I did, in order to be able to better enjoy Charlie Brooker's vicious pop culture parable all the more.
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When I think of "Project Runway," there are two personalities that come to mind first and foremost: the contestants' mentor Tim Gunn and the competition host Heidi Klum. "Project Runway All Stars," which features memorable contestants from the first eight seasons of "Project Runway," has neither of them. Also gone are the show's usual judges, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. In their place, we have a new host, new mentor, and new judges. I was skeptical when I realized this, because changing the chemistry of a show by just removing one or two parts of its formula can be disastrous. I thought back to the sixth season of "Project Runway," which dipped in quality largely because of absent judges and moving the action from New York to Los Angeles. Were we in for even worse?

Well, after four episodes, I'm not getting very attached to any of the newbies. Supermodel host Angela Lindvall is lovely and well-spoken, but she's not very memorable. Ditto designer Georgina Chapman, one of the two regular judges. If you put the two women next to each other, I wouldn't be able to tell you which was which. Their personalities aren't coming across very well, and are a far cry from their more outspoken counterparts. Isaac Mizrahi, filling the other judging position is a familiar face, and immediately stands out for being the only male member of the new team. He also has a much more easygoing attitude and a good sense of humor which I appreciate.

As for the designers' new mentor figure, Marie Claire Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles, she's been pretty grim-faced so far. I really didn't appreciate Tim Gunn enough until suddenly he wasn't there. Joanna's first critiques were awkward, her presence was cold, and she seemed to be the furthest thing from nurturing. I wondered briefly if her appearance was a condition for letting the show offer up a Marie Claire guest editorship as one of the season's big prizes. However, she's mellowed out considerably over subsequent episodes, and I expect she'll continue to improve. The lady clearly knows what she's doing, but I'm not sure the severity of her attitude meshes that well with the show's formula.

Thank goodness then that "Project Runway All Stars" fills the quota for big, memorable personalities with cherry-picked contestants from the early seasons. As talented as many of these designers are, their invitation back to the runway was clearly based more on their personalities than their clothing. And so we have the return of Season 1's Austin Scarlett, bearing a new Errol Flynn mustache, and the Bettie Page doppelganger Kenley, from season 5, and both drama queens from Season 8, Mondo Guerra and Michael Costello. It doesn't matter that the support staff might be a little lackluster when this bunch is onscreen, emoting and panicking and catfighting and getting weepy together, just like old times. Yes, I'm utterly shameless about loving the drama generated by this show.

After four episodes, I'm getting worried that the cast may be too imbalanced in favor of the male competitors. Every eliminated designer so far as been female, but when you look at their rankings in their respective seasons, this isn't much of a surprise. The first designer given the boot was Elisa Jimenez, that very earnest, earth-mothery , eccentric who barely made it into the top ten of Season 4, while everyone else managed at least a fifth place ranking. In fact, I'm just going to call it right here – the competition is probably going to come down to Rami Kashou and Mondo, who were both first runner-ups in their respective seasons. None of the other designers appears to have improved dramatically enough to offer much competition.

But just because the show is predictable doesn't mean it's not still fun to watch. Boy is it fun to watch. The weekly challenges, which so far have included designing cocktail dresses for Miss Piggy and whipping up garments inspired by gelato flavors on a strict six-hour deadline, have been great. The level of the competition is higher than usual, and the pace feels like it has been ramped up as well. With so many big personalities in the workroom, there have already been some minor clashes. While I do miss Tim Gunn, I'm not noticing his absence as much as I might have with a group of new and unfamiliar contestants. This was the right way to break in a new judging and hosting team.

"All Stars" suffered delays, and had a lot of bumps to work through, but I'm happy to report that they made it work. I look forward to the rest of the season and for the regular "Project Runway" to return for its tenth year soon.
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A few days ago, I stumbled across a clip on Youtube that I thought was a short film, but turned out to be an episode of a recent British science fiction anthology program called "Black Mirror." And without a doubt, it was the most fascinating piece of science fiction that I've seen in a long time, either in a theater or on television.

The episode is titled "15 Million Merits," and presents a vision of a dystopian future where young adults live in windowless dormitories, surrounded perpetually by video screens. They spend every day peddling on exercise bikes to generate energy and earn merits, which are used to pay for food and other necessities, but mostly end up spent on virtual goods. Most daily interactions and transactions are virtual, carried out with virtual world avatars. To help compensate for the endless drudgery, reality shows play around the clock, including a popular variant of what looks like "The X Factor," called "Hot Shot." Beyond synthesized food and identical clothing, tangible possessions are almost nonexistent for the workers, but the elites glimpsed on the entertainment programs seem to live far better lives.

The rat in this maze of video screens and virtual landscapes is Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), a quiet man who has amassed a small fortune in merits, the fifteen million of the title. He falls in love with a newcomer, Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay), after hearing her sing, and decides to pay for her entry fees to the "Hot Shot" competition. And then, because this is dystopian science-fiction, Bing learns how dark and twisted his world really is. "Merits" is a stinging attack on the culture of distraction, targeting reality shows, social networking, and virtual reality. It's "Harrison Bergeron," for the digital age and uses its own best tools against it. Initially I thought that the show must have had an incredible budget, but look close and you realize the sets are actually quite small and limited. It's all the graphic blandishment on the video screens that makes everything look bigger and cooler than it really is.

So much of the effectiveness of "Merits" comes from the production design, making great use of already existing virtual world iconography. The virtual avatars look like the "Mii" characters used in the Wii gaming system, and the hand movements that control them are reminiscent of current motion capture gaming technology, just minus the controllers. Food dispensers have low-resolution graphics with displays that could have could have come from 8-bit video games. The graphics are so well designed, full of all the pop and brightness of Facebook games and iPhone apps, it's hard not to stare and marvel. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that all this dazzling eye candy is a poor substitute for the real world.

The nice effects certainly aren't the only thing to write home about. Daniel Kaluuya's performance as Bing is exceptional, helping to make a story about big ideas very personal and immediate. The writing delivers a lot of good surprises, from a morbid spin on a talent show judges' panel, to the cathartic monologue at the episode's climax, to the final, chilling scene where we learn Bing's fate. I was surprised at how raw and unfiltered the dialogue was, but British television hews to different standards, and I was glad for that here. And at the helm, director Euros Lyn, veteran of many recent "Doctor Who" episodes, expertly juggles a lot of outlandish elements to create a cohesive whole, and brings out all the claustrophobic paranoia and black humor.

I love science fiction, but it is rare to find something as topical, sharp and intelligent as "15 Million Merits." Too often it's all giant robots and laser guns, instead of the social critiques and moral parables that science fiction is so good at, and should be used for more often. The "Black Mirror" anthology specifically singles out recent technological developments for examination and seems keen on really delving into the potential implications of our Internet-fixated society, and illuminating human nature through the fantastic. That makes it closer in spirit to "The Twilight Zone," cited as one of its chief influences, than most of the "Zone" clones I could name.

I have absolutely no idea when "Black Mirror" and "15 Million Merits" is going to make its way to the rest of the globe, if at all, and if there are going to be more episodes beyond the three produced so far. But one thing I'm sure of, is that I want to see more television and more science-fiction like this.
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I complain as much as anyone about how too much of current American television stinks, that many channels have been hijacked by cheap reality and talent shows that cater to the lowest common denominator. How I wish we were rid of all the "American Idol" clones and the gosspmongering dating shows and the brainless Kardashians and the cast of "Jersey Shore." But if the government stepped in and mandated that the number of these shows be cut back, I'd be the first to protest.

Because this is exactly what's going on right now in mainland China. The government recently introduced new programming guidelines that reduced the amount of entertainment programming shown on Chinese television by two thirds, down to 38 hours a week from 126. "Lowbrow" reality, talk, and talent shows are the chief targets, being replaced by more news and informational programs. Recent remarks by Chinese president Hu Jintao indicate that the move is part of a new effort by the Chinese government to rein in the power of Western-style entertainment. He recently remarked, "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration."

Now let's be clear on what we're talking about here. Among the shows sustaining the most criticism are "Super Girl," a popular talent program that was yanked from the airwaves back in September for retooling, and the dating show "If You Are the One," profiled in this revealing New York Times article. They seem harmless enough to Western eyes, but the worry is that these programs place too much emphasis on what the Chinese media watchdogs consider to be frivolous activities, can be too honest about certain social issues for comfort, and build up cults of celebrity and influence that are outside the government's ability to control. Remember that this is the same Chinese government that railed against the use of time travel in drama programs, because they often inluded inaccurate or altered portrayals of history, and regularly frowns on fantasy programming for being too escapist. For them, entertainment is a secondary concern to pushing the "socialist core value system."

Against this lot, is is any wonder that Western programming is making such inroads? The secret of America's cultural power isn't much of a secret. We have an entertainment industry that is devoted to one primary objective: to make money. To that end, it does whatever is necessary to draw in viewers and keep them happy, be it appealing to the lowest common denominator or pumping millions into the development of fancier special effects. Hollywood may have its biases, but there is no real ideology being pushed aside from reflecting the tastes of the audience it wants to attract. If American values tend to crop up a lot in our television, it's because it's being programmed to Americans.

We have our own media watchdogs, and our own television regulations and requirements, such as the Children's Television Act that has full service television stations provide a certain number of hours of education and informational programming. There are content standards enforced by the FCC, but it only acts rarely in extreme cases. So the stations and networks and content producers are free to put shows that people want to watch on the air, in order to deliver more eyeballs to the advertisers who pay the bills. Out of this system comes a lot more crud than quality, but let's not sell ourselves short. American television is in the middle of one of its richest periods in history, turning out lots of quality shows like "Mad Men" and "Louie" that rival anything that came out in a movie theater this year.

Now American television shows don't get much play on Chinese television stations, because of strict regulations on foreign content. However, a recent influx of Western formats for shows have allowed Chinese localizations to be made of everything from Disney's "High School Musical" to "Britain's Got Talent." Nowadays this is a common practice, with many American and British shows spawning multiple versions all across the globe. In China, producers get a leg up by working with the framework of previously established hits, learning how to mount big productions on par with what you see on Western television. But even with most of the content of these shows carefully retooled to fit Chinese sensibilities and anything too Western stripped out, the government gets nervous when they become too popular and successful.

China talks up becoming a new media powerhouse, but they only want to do it on their own terms They don't want to give the Chinese people what they want, but to dictate what they should want from the top down. Even if television programming originates in China, from Chinese creators, and becomes a genuine hit with Chinese audiences totally removed from any Western influences, if it doesn't fit into the nation-glorifying, culturally conservative narrative that the Chinese government wants to promote, it's suspect. The whole spiel about Western cultural hegemony is a smokescreen to continue stifling free expression and creativity, a stance that is often counterproductive to the ends that the government claims to want to achieve. They want to build up Chinese media to compete with those who might become more influential that they are, but not at the expense of the state-controlled propaganda machine.

So the Chinese media may be doomed to plod along in a state of perpetual cultural stagnation, forever scolding the Chinese audiences who would rather watch "Idol" knockoffs than yet another highbrow historical drama that toes the party line.

Almost makes you grateful for Western crap television. I'd rather watch "Downton Abbey" over the Kardashians any day, but I do appreciate having the choice.
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Sometimes being a media junkie can get a little overwhelming. I know I'm lucky to have the free time to indulge in watching movies and television at all, and that I have access to so much content, but lately my "To Watch" list has been getting out of hand. Here's a sampling:

- I'm currently about two weeks behind on "The Daily Show." I usually watch the shows online the next morning before I go to work, or I catch up on multiple episodes over the weekend. However, lately the morbid hijinks of the would-be Republican presidential candidates has been depressing, so I put them off for a couple of days, and the backlog built up, and now I'm seriously considering just skipping all the ones I missed and moving on.

- A few months ago I saw ads announcing that a new season of "Project Runway" had started on Lifetime, and I made the mental note to seek it out. And then I turn around and find news articles popping up about the upcoming finale. Already?! It turns out that season nine is currently about two thirds of the way through, so I still have time to catch up if I want to. It used to be that I never missed a season of "Project Runway" or "Top Chef," and now I have no idea how long it's been since I watched either. What year was Mondo on "Runway"?

- The new fall season just started, which means I should be out there gobbling up pilots and reporting back on what's good and what isn't and what may need a few more episodes to render a verdict. I haven't watched a single premiere so far. Not one. Fortunately most of the shows that have made their debuts so far haven't been getting very good reviews, which assuages some of the guilt. However, I need a replacement for "Law & Order: SVU," and I need to figure out if it's going to be "Prime Suspect," "Person of Interest," or something else. After those two, "Pan Am," and "Terra Nova," I think I'm in the clear until the fairy tale stuff lands in late October.

- And of course, all my regular shows are coming back. "Big Bang Theory" and "Community" are both on at the same time tonight, as usual. I just realized I missed the season premiere of "Criminal Minds," which reversed course and brought back AJ Cook and Paget Brewster after the spinoff crashed and burned. And "Nikita" starts again tomorrow. And "Mythbusters" is back next week. And Charlyne Yi is on "House" this year! I love her! And the season premiere has House incarcerated, which feels a little too much like that premiere they did with him in the mental hospital, but whatever. I have to see how they're going to write off Cuddy. I guess I should at least watch the premiere of "Law & Order: SVU" too, to see what happens to Stabler.

- Meanwhile, I'm still trying to keep up with a few summer series like "Breaking Bad" and "Doctor Who." They've both been really strong this year. Writeups are forthcoming.

- Gee that new "Thundercats" reboot looks good. And "Young Justice" is back. And I really need to check out that new "Batman" cartoon, "The Brave and the Bold." Wait, what do you mean it just ended after three seasons on Cartoon Network?! This may be the year I finally stop watching cartoons since they keep getting pushed farther and farther back in the mental queue. Don't even get me started on the anime. Five years ago I was among the most hardcore otaku you ever met, and now I have no idea what's popular anymore. What's "Tiger & Bunny" about? And when did I last watch "South Park"? I used to love that show.

- Oh boy. "60 Minutes" is coming back soon too. And I'm so far behind on "Frontline," I don't even - gah.

- September is traditionally a slow month for movies. The blockbuster season is over but the awards contenders haven't started campaigning to the masses yet. However, there are more than a few films still in theaters that I'm debating over whether I want to see now or if I can wait for DVD. I might sneak off to a matinee of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" in the near future. And my Netflix queue is still full of titles from earlier in the year and I'm picking through the last few stragglers from last year. I think once I get through this batch of September releases, that'll be it for 2010 and I can finally put that Top 10 list out. This is about the same time that I did it last year, so I guess I'm still on schedule?

Okay, so what's my game plan? Usually I watch a movie a day, but with the influx of new TV programming I think I might take a break after this month of Netflix expires and I get the Top 10 list out, and I'll just play catch-up on the TV side for a week or two. There are going to be a couple of series I don't see myself keeping up with regularly anymore, like "Hawaii Five-0," and as much as I like my news and information shows, I'll probably end up picking and choosing among episodes based on what they're covering. Consequently, you'll probably be seeing a lot of blogging about TV shows for a little while until I regain my media equilibrium.

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I haven't been paying as much attention as I should to the new television season that's set to kick off in a couple of days now. There are lots of new shows that are going to be premiering on network television this fall, so I figured it was a good time to take stock of some of the more interesting contenders. Who knows which are going to last a month and which will outlast "Entourage"?

"Prime Suspect" - Based on the long-running British crime serials starring Helen Mirren, the new version will follow an American policewoman played by Maria Bello. With so many other crime dramas out there right now, "Prime Suspect" needs to distinguish itself from the pack. However, with NBC's "Law & Order" empire in its decline, and the "CSI" format wearing out its welcome, this is as good a time as any to try.

"The X Factor" - The dominance of "American Idol" will be challenged by another British talent show import, "The X Factor," created by Simon Cowell. He'll also be appearing as a judge in the first season, along with fellow "Idol" alum Paula Abdul. The shows won't be in direct competition, though, since both will be on FOX, which will be running "Factor" in the fall and "Idol" in the spring. I wonder if that much reality will prove to be too much for the American public. Or if the two shows will just join forces to crush "The Voice."

"Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" - The fairy tale bug has bitten this season hard. We have two shows that will use fairy tale elements and characters in modern settings to try and become a new genre hit. "Grimm," which uses the cop drama model, is starting out in a Friday night slot, so it already has its work cut out for it. I'm more interested in the mystery series "Once Upon a Time," which has a few "Lost" creators involved and Jennifer Morrison starring. And it'll be fun to watch the "Fables" fanboys flip out over any inevitable similarities.

"2 Broke Girls" and "Whitney" - I admit I'm not one to get too excited about sitcoms, but it looks like Whitney Cummings may be on the brink of becoming a TV superstar. She has somehow managed to come out of this year's pilot scrum with creator credits on two different comedies on two different networks. Moreover, "2 Broke Girls" will be on CBS's Monday Night comedy block, while "Whitney," where Cummings will be playing the title character, writing, and producing, will be on Thursdays on NBC after "The Office." You couldn't ask for better starting positions.

"Person of Interest" - What would a new fall season be without JJ Abrams? Add another high concept Bad Robot crime drama to the pile, one using science-fiction crime-predicting technology to stop major crimes before they happen, "Minority Report" style. "Persons" will star Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, and Taraji P. Henson, so I was already interested. Add some great buzz on top of that, and this is shaping up to be my most anticipated new series of the fall season.

"Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" - Two 10PM dramas chasing the retro cool of "Mad Men." Both are trying to pull a "Sucker Punch" with their marketing, trumpeting women's empowerment storylines while plastering sexy visuals of its stars all over the ads. 60s stewardesses and Playboy bunnies? Oh yeah, that just screams women's lib doesn't it? I'll give the edge to "Pan Am" for now, since it features more reliable talent and Christina Ricci as the lead. However, controversy is sure to give "Playboy" a boost. One NBC affiliate has already refused to air it.

"Last Man Standing" and "Suburgatory" - There are lots of female-led new series this year, but ABC is pushing several sitcoms starring men, including "Last Man Standing," with Tim Allen as a last bastion of masculinity under siege, and "Suburgatory" where Jeremy Sisto will do battle with the horrors of suburbia and a few former SNL cast members. I'd say "Suburgatory" has a better shot, enjoying a nice Wednesday berth between "The Middle" and "Modern Family," while ABC hasn't had much luck lately with the Tuesday 8PM slot, where "Last Man" is standing.

"Terra Nova" - FOX's time-tripping adventure series has been in the works for ages and suffered multiple delays, because they keep tweaking those special effects that are supposed to blow all our minds. Having been bombarded by the extended trailers for this thing for months, I'm more worried about the cast of characters, who will have to sustain the series when the fancy CGI dinosaurs aren't onscreen.

There are also some more interesting titles coming up for the midseason, but that's a post for another time.

Happy watching!
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Remember that montage at the end of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," when the title duo find the names and addresses of trash-talking online commenters from a movie discussion board, track down the offenders, and proceed to pummel each poor dweeb into oblivion? That was a fun bit of fantasy catharsis for director Kevin Smith, but no one in the media would be stupid enough to try that in real life, would they?

Well, last week CW announced its new reality show "H8R," that's more or less going to take that "Jay and Silent Bob" premise, remove the physical pummeling, and stick it on prime time. In each installment, according to TV Guide, a celebrity like Snooki from "Jersey Shore" will ambush and confront one of their online "haters." The sales pitch is that the show will contain a strong anti-bullying message and empower victims. However, anonymous online vitriol-spewing trolls are not bullies. They're trolls. The insults they lob are meant to entertain themselves and those like them. Their rants are never meant or expected to be seen by the celebrities in question, and are easily ignored. Moreover, celebrities are public figures by nature of their profession, which makes them perfectly legitimate targets for public criticism and discussion. Snooki and Kim Kardashian aren't some poor high school freshmen being harassed by the cool kids all over Facebook, but well-compensated TV starlets who play up their own bad behavior as part of their public personas. So when they single out some poor inconsiderate schmuck for belittling them online, that makes them the bullies.

And that's not even getting into the power imbalance that's inherent in the show's setup. Each target who appears on "H8R" thinks they've been recruited for a different reality show. They have no warning before they're suddenly getting lectured at by some indignant C-lister who wants to make it clear that "rich and famous people are really wounded and hurt when they hear someone hating on them," according to executive produced Mike Fleiss. And of course, we know whose side the cameras and the editing folks are on. The goal is to get the hater to renounce his or her hating ways and make up with the celebrity browbeater in a round of hugs and apologies. The setup is so absurd that it doesn't always go according to script, and those behind the show have admitted that sometimes the haters refuse to be intimidated and just go right on hating. Will these segments go to air, I wonder? An average schmoe shouting down and knocking one of these celebrity accusers off their high horse sounds a lot more entertaining than the other way around.

The only reason I can imagine that any celebrity would want to appear on "H8R" is for the network screentime and a chance for a little "image rehab" as the producers put it. Snooki's episode has already been shot, and apparently gives her a chance to talk about her charity work. Of course, this begs the question why, if Snooki wants to come off as a better human being, why she doesn't just change her dim-bulb party-girl act on "Jersey Shore" or in any of the other media arenas she already occupies. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too. If Snooki complains to the hater she confronts that he's not getting the whole story about her, that's not really his fault, now is it?

On a meta level, maybe this is some indication of the growing influence of the Internet and Twitter, arenas that the traditional media gatekeepers have found they can't control as much as they'd like to. "H8R" feels like an attempt to counterbalance the collective power of the anonymous masses who hold sway on message boards and discussion forums and now play a big part in shaping attitudes toward media. A crucial part of "H8R" is taking away that anonymity so that a single identifiable individual can be held responsible for the negative views expressed by many. In an odd way, the entire show is actually an admission that the trolls and the haters have a certain measure of real clout, and that Hollywood may be secretly scared to death of them, hence the ridiculously overblown celebrity reactions to what some nobody said on the internet.

Is anyone going to watch "H8R"? Initially, there's sure to be some curiosity over the concept, but I can't see an audience sticking around once they realize how one-sided the farce is. Will the show actually change any attitudes? Of course not. This might actually create an uptick in celebrity-targeting takedowns by people looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. And though the show's creators might be able to pressure their targets into renouncing trolldom, there are millions of others who will go right on mocking Snooki and the Kardashians, then mock the reformed haters for caving, and then mock "H8R" for trying to shame them with such obvious tactics. I am already anticipating the parodies and send-ups that are sure to come.

And though I am blogging with a pseudonym, I'll be quite happy to tell anyone involved with the show to their face that "H8R" is a really stupid idea.
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I promised this list a while ago as a counterpart to my My Top Ten Guilty Pleasure Movies. Enjoy.

"Sesame Street" - As a kid, whenever I was home sick from school and still conscious, the television was usually turned to PBS so I could look in on "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." We used to live within range of three different PBS stations that showed everything at different times, so I could expect to spend at least two solid hours catching up with the Muppets and letting a few good old Joe Raposo songs make me feel better. I still can't help scanning the airwaves for "Sesame Street" if I happen to be home on a weekday morning.

"The View" - Yes, I'm one of those people. I originally started watching back when Lisa Ling was on the program out of Asian solidarity, but somewhere along the line I got attached to Joy Behar and Meredith Vieira, and I always enjoy Barbara Walters' visits whenever there's a notable guest. Yes, Elizabeth Hasselbeck makes me cringe, Sherri Shepherd is dead air, Rosie O'Donnell was a disaster, and I'm still not sure if Whoopi Goldberg is all there, but "The View" has somehow managed to stay relevant after all these years, and whenever I catch an episode, I feel a little more plugged into the present.

"I Love the..." - VH1's nostalgia programs can suck me in like nothing else. I've wasted whole weekends reliving the best and worst of 80s and 90s pop culture with various C-grade comedians providing tepid commentary. There's just something fascinating about barely remembered commercials and shows and other cultural artifacts. At least with other backward-looking specials like the AFI Movie countdown lists I can pretend there's something sort of educational or informative about them. With "I Love the 80s" and "I Love the 90s," I know it just amounts to collective navel gazing.

"The MTV Movie Awards" - I have a certain yen for award shows, but I really have no business watching the MTV Movie Awards ceremony. It's always terrible, a collection of vacuous promotions cobbled together into an awards-show format. Occasionally you might get a decent tribute or a few good parodies, but otherwise it's a strangely hypnotic train wreck. As actual awards, of course they have no integrity at all. You can't even call them populist anymore, as the "Twilight" franchise has swept the past three years, signaling that MTV has set its sights square on the adolescent female demographic.

"X TV" - I could fill an entire list with just the wretched anime I've watched over the years, but I think my favorite bad anime has to be the television series based on the CLAMP manga "X:1999." It collects together two group of superpowered people together in Tokyo, and because destiny says so, they proceed to kill each other off in various inventive, over-the-top ways. Occasionally they pause to angst. There's also a movie version that's goes to even further extremes with the big battle sequences, and manages to destroy most of Tokyo in the process. Yay carnage!

"Food Network Challenge" - Hey, a couple of cake decorators have been rounded up to make themed cakes based on PIXAR movies! Lets watch them run around in a panic to create these fantabulous confections, and maybe they'll drop them at the end when they have to move the cakes to the judging platform! I watch a lot of food-themed programming, and "Food Network Challenge" is definitely the most haphazard in every sense. If you've seen one you've seen them all, and with the recent shows the creators have fixed it so that hardly anything gets dropped anymore.

"E! True Hollywood Story" - Yep, sometimes I like the gossip shows too. However, I'm not particularly entertained by individual acts of celebrity debauchery unless they're on the level of a Charlie Sheen or a Mel Gibson. I prefer my dirt nicely aggregated into glossy, hour-long narratives, and if they can work in some nostalgia, all the better. What was really going on behind the scenes during "Growing Pains"? What has Lindsay Lohan been up to for the past year? I don't know why, but sometimes I just gotta know. Hollywood is a never-ending soap opera, and this is its Soap Opera Digest.

"Hoarders" - I gawk. I gape. I secretly feel better about myself and my Dad, who is something of a hoarder himself. The garage may be full of cardboard boxes, but at least he's not as bad as some of the miserable souls on this show. I'm slightly OCD about cleaning, and I always get an odd sort of rush seeing the homes of the hoarders transformed from nightmarish heaps of clutter into livable spaces again. The A&E show doesn't have the budget for the more dramatic, full-scale makeovers that "Oprah" and others have done with hoarders in the past, but they do enough to keep me tuned in.

"Dateline NBC" - Okay, once in a while "Dateline" will come through with some decent pieces, but let's be honest. It's one of the more salacious, dumbed down news magazine shows out there. It doesn't hold a candle to "60 Minutes" or "Frontline," or hell, even "20/20" most weeks. Much of its content revolves around true crime stories, and it's probably best known in recent years for "To Catch a Predator." But I have to say that "Dateline" is very good at what it does, and even as I'm rolling my eyes at the corny narration and musical stings, I still watch all the way to the end.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" - I didn't mean for this list to have so much reality television, but I guess it makes sense. I have way higher standards for fictional narratives than I do for documentary and news programs. "SVU" has been bad for a while now and it's been getting worse. Chris Meloni and B.D. Wong are not coming back, and Mariska Hargitay is on her way out too. I miss the early days of this show, when it skirted the edge of good taste, but could be powerful television. Now it's all guest stars and histrionics and trying to out-sleaze "CSI."

But then again, maybe the new cast could help turn things around. I guess I could give them a few episodes...
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I've been meaning to check out NBC's "The Voice." So while I still have cable for a few more days, I might as well take advantage of it and do a quick liveblog.

10:00PM - Ooh, recap. The TV Listings say this is "Battle Part 2," so there's obviously a "Part 1" that I've missed. Hey, it's Frenchie from that season of "American Idol" I think I watched.

:02 - At this point it's just a blur of coach and assistant names that I don't recognize.

:03 - Hi Cee Lo. On his team, we have Guillermo del Toro (Nakia) vs. a gigantamous walking Afro (Tje Austin), who will both be singing "Closer." A lovely lady named Monica assists - another recording star I don't know.

:07 - Battle Round time! Good grief, they're pacing around a pseudo wrestling ring. Calling the sing-off a "battle" is kind of silly, but having them in a ring together makes for a good visual.

:10 - The thing to remember about these singing shows is that you can't trust the audio because the recording conditions aren't great. Nakia sounded better in practice and Tje sounded better in the ring.

:11 - And they abruptly cut to commercial right before Cee Lo picks the winner. Naturally. So far I think the show is a lot less polished than "Idol," but that's no surprise considering how new "Voice" still is.

:14 - I think I've got the gist of the rules. You have the judges responsible for picking and mentoring contestants to do battle with each other in upcoming live performances. Right now it's the judges who are making elimination decisions, whittling down their teams.

:15 - Nakia wins. Bye Tje. I will miss your humorous hairdo.

:16 - Now it's Ellen v. Jared, who will be singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Their mentor is Blake Shelton, a country star I don't have any familiarity with either. Reba McEntire shows up as his celeb assistant. Too bad all we get to hear of the coaching is a quick pep talk.

:23 - Oh lord. Two days after the upfront, they're already rolling out the "Playboy Club" promos.

:24 - Hang on, the contestant isn't Ellen. it's a duet called Elenowen, made up of a Josh and a Nicole. They're terrible. Jared wins!

:29 - It took me this long to realize that the host is Carson Daly. I honestly have no personal beef with this man, but how many showbiz lives does he have? After "TRL" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" - waitaminute - "Last Call With Carson Daly" is still on the air? He survived the NBC late night wars and Conan didn't?!

Head. Desk.

:33 - Okay, now it's on to the Maroon 5 guy's team. Angela v. Javier, singing "Stand By Me." I can already tell Angela's going down. Was there an assistant there? Wikipedia says he's producer Adam Blackstone, but I think I missed him.

:38 - Yeah, Angela's one of those singers who has a lot of bad habits she's going to have to train herself out of. Use your diaphragm, woman! Breathe! Javier's a nice surprise though. Nice, smooth voice.

:40 - The other judges give opinions, but only the team leader makes the decision. So, for all intents and purposes their proffered opinions really just serve to remind us that they're there. Of course Javier wins.

:42 - Thank you for identifying yourself, Alison Haislip, backstage correspondent. Now please go away.

:43 - That "Kung Fu Panda 2" promo seems so sinister. Please don't suck. You're probably the only movie my mother will agree to see in a theater this summer.

:45 - Hi Christina Aguilera! You're awesome. She's getting a bald lady named Beverly and slightly portly fellow named Justin to sing "Baba O'Reilly." The assistant is one Sia Furler. Nope, don't know her either.

:50 - These coaching scenes are already getting repetitive, especially since we're only getting really awkward clips from each one.

:53 - Something about the back-from-commercial musical sting makes me think "Star Search." Or possibly "Magnum P.I." Hmmm.

:55 - I love this song. I wish they'd let them sing the whole thing. Beverly the bald lady looks so happy. And she wins!

:59 - The current format is fun, but I think it's a good thing that it changes for every stage of the competition. What I thought was most promising about "The Voice" from the outset was that the coaches had to choose contestants based on voice alone, literally without being able to see them.

These second round "battles" where they contestants share a performance also emphasize vocal talent and performance ability over image. What worries me is what will happen in the final rounds, the live shows, when the audience will get involved.

But so far, "The Voice" isn't bad. The contestants are better singers than "Idol" features, and the rougher spots will probably get smoothed out with time. I might tune back in for one of the live shows later, to see how things progress.

Good night!
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You always hear bout how movies have supposedly warp young girls' perceptions of romance. All those romantic comedies and fairy tale films set them up to expect impossible happily-ever-after scenarios, and raises standards for potential mates so ridiculously high, they can never possibly be reached. I'm sure this is true for some unfortunate, starry-eyed kids, but I never really bought it. There are so many other messages about love and marriage embedded in our media, especially in TV. And we all watch a lot more television than movies. Portrayals and attitudes toward relationships can be entirely different depending on what you're watching. I've included some examples below.

Sitcom Love - There are several different kinds of sitcoms, but they can be easily separated into two categories: shows where the central couple is already married or in a long-term relationship, and shows following singles. In the former case, happily-ever-after means dealing with all the day-to-day aggravation of suburban life or coupledom, usually with the added complications of in-laws, wacky neighbors, cute kids, and colorful friends. Clashes with the significant other are rarely very serious, but they are constant. Expect an awkward dinner at least once a week. If you're still single, it will take two to five years of active pining for any serious attraction to be consummated, after which your life becomes very boring very quickly. All the excitement of sexual tension evaporates the second love is reciprocated, you see. On the other hand, being single provides opportunities for romantic experiences with a parade of attractive guest stars, who never stay longer than an episode and can be instantly forgotten once they're gone.

Soap Opera Love - In addition to the multi-year pining requirement, all sorts of other obstacles can crop up between potential lovers to keep them apart. Insane ex-lovers! Scheming relatives! Horrible secrets from the past! If a couple manages to get through the obstacle course and say "I do," their happily-ever-after tends to be short-lived. Someone will be kidnapped, or have to disappear because of mob ties, or one of them turns out to be a clone. It's all very exciting when it's going on, but it's also frustrating as hell. The more perfectly matched a couple is, the less likely it is we'll ever see them happy together for any meaningful period of time. If they're totally wrong for each other, however, fate and the writers will have them in bed together within an episode and a half, usually as part of a plan to wreck whatever storybook romance is in their closest proximity at the time. To raise the chances of success with the opposite sex on a soap, your best bet is a strong career in villainy.

Crime Drama Love - Most prime time dramas are really soaps, so I thought it best to single out the crime drama, which operates by a very different set of rules. This does not include such programs as "Castle" and "Bones," which have male/female pairings as their leads, obviously intended for future romantic entanglement. No, I'm talking about the cop shows and the investigation shows that are intent on showing audiences the seedier side. If you're a hero or a principal player, you're asexual. Love lives are kept almost entirely offscreen, unless somebody's significant other needs to be kidnapped or killed off for a season finale. If you're a suspect or a victim, your love life is a train wreck. Crime dramas are hotbeds for romance gone awry, or happily-ever-after endings that turned out horribly, horribly wrong. Falling in love leads to anguish and trauma and getting read your Miranda rights - if you haven't already been pushed out a window or shot in the head.

Reality TV Love - The newest television genre is also one of the most versatile. You have the dating shows, where the only way to find love is to put your potential paramours through a long series of contrived contests, usually determined by luck and a willingness to embarrass oneself. Winners get the headliner until the next season of the show rolls around, and castoffs often get a chance to be the prize themselves. You have the freak shows, with titles commonly prepended by the words "The Real Housewives of," which suggest that a spouse is of secondary importance to material possessions and well-honed catfighting skills. Occasionally you will have the gentler documentaries about love in adversity, following dwarf couples, couples who never heard of birth control, and couples flaunting bigamy laws - until they inevitably become shows about lawsuits and breakups and why it's a bad idea to expose your personal life to a media circus.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Easily the television show that had the most impact on me in my formative years. "Buffy" had a little of everything. Buffy and Angel got the storybook romance, very short-lived of course. Xander braved a rough, demon-infested dating scene before, before he finally found the right hellspawn to settle down with - and then chickened out in the end. Willow had an adorable high school fling with werewolf boy Oz, but realized she liked girls when she got to college. Spike and Drusilla proved that even the most stable, centuries-long relationship based on mutual bloodlust and evildoing couldn't stand up to infidelity. Spike and Buffy were so very wrong for each other, which is probably why they were so much fun to watch. But what I really loved about "Buffy" was that there was ultimately no perfect person for anyone. The characters changed, they grew up, got over crushes and breakups, and their relationships changed with them. Destiny usually didn't work out and there were never happy endings, but nobody ever gave up on love either.

So yes, most TV romances are terribly unrealistic and shouldn't be taken at face value. But there are a few shows that can be candid and have some good insights into relationships and still be entertaining. Our media may be rife with skewed depictions of love and marriage, but there's good in there along with the bad. And sometimes a little idealism can be helpful. I mean, if hopelessly shallow kids like Bella and Edward from "Twilight" can be happy together, maybe the rest of us can find somebody to love too.
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To all those viewers of "Dancing With the Stars" who are currently hyperventilating over the fact that Bristol Palin, daughter of former governor Sarah Palin, made it to this season's finals over Brandy Norwood, why are you surprised? The minute I heard that Palin would be participating in the show, I knew that there would be a decent chance that she'd last the entire season whether she could actually dance or not. This is because the weekly eliminations from the competition are determined by audience vote. Sarah Palin and her brood are magnets for drama in abundance, and have the benefit of association with the Tea Party political movement. There's no shortage of people, from the show's producers to political muckrakers, who benefit by her continued presence on the show. With the benefit of the audience participation mechanism, and it's no wonder Bristol Palin's still here.

It may come as news to some viewers, but "Dancing With the Stars" is not a dance competition. It's a popularity contest, like "American Idol" and other talent programs. The judges sit behind their podium and give out their scores and opinions, but none of it means anything, or Brandy's higher scores would have put her ahead. This isn't a real competition like "Top Chef" or "Project Runway" where the professionals are making the elimination decisions. Rather, it's the audience that is invited to vote who they want to see for another week. There are no rules that say you have to vote for the best dancer or that you can't let personal biases affect the decision. You can vote for Bristol because she's young and attractive. You can vote for her because you agree with her mother's politics or her stance on sex education. You can vote for her to spite the liberal boyfriend you broke up with. You don't even need a reason.

This is why the winners of reality shows determined by audience poll are invariably young, attractive, charismatic, and tend to skew male and from the South. This is why becoming an "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent" winner is a lousy predictor for actual success after the show is over. Just compare the careers of Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry, who were eliminated in early rounds of "American Idol," to the eventual winners of those seasons, Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks. The voting audience will often get caught up in the dramatics of the competition dynamics and utterly fail to take actual talent into consideration, leading to unfortunate results. This is why I gave up on "American Idol" after watching two seasons. I have a better ear for musical talent than the bulk of the people who were voting, and the tyranny of the majority was driving me crazy. This is why I don't bother with these kinds of competition shows anymore.

I don't begrudge the viewers who enjoy these shows, but at the same time it's a little sad and very funny to see people who are still treating "Dancing With the Stars" and its ilk like serious competitions. I've run across several bloggers referencing Youtube videos, highlighting the differences in skill between Palin and Norwood, and trying to make their case that the results are wrong and unfair. Of course they're unfair. They've always been unfair. It's abundantly clear that nobody was voting for Bristol Palin for her dancing ability, but because she's sympathetic and they like watching her on the program. That's a perfectly legitimate reason. If this were a real dance competition with a title worth anything, the contestants wouldn't be celebrity amateurs and Bristol Palin wouldn't even be there. "Dancing With the Stars" is spectacle in the guise of a competition, a reality show mimicry for the benefit of the home viewers. It's not worth getting worked up over, or breaking television sets for, like that guy in Wisconsin did.

I find the fuss all very entertaining personally, and I don't even have to sit through the show to enjoy the aftermath. For those who do not enjoy schadenfreude, however, I offer a little perspective. If there's anything to take away from the recent results of "Dancing With the Stars, it's that Bristol Palin has a lot of the American public on her side. There aren't any real stakes beyond that except gossip column fodder. Maybe she ought to consider running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska instead of Levi Johnston. On second thought, that may be a little too much reality for reality television to take.
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When "Top Chef" first premiered on Bravo, it was in the shadow of its production sibling "Project Runway," and I couldn't see how it could possibly be as compelling. Watching cooking programs has always been fun, but in a cooking competition a television audience is hampered by not being able to smell or taste the results. On "Runway," we saw as much of the designers' garments as the judges did so you could more or less follow along. But over the course of four years and seven seasons, plus spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been proving me wrong. Right now I'm keeping up with "Top Chef: Just Desserts," the newest variant featuring pastry chefs.

I really enjoy these shows for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with being a foodie or liking to cook. "Top Chef" is a very well produced competition program that understands all the ins and outs of the formula. The weekly challenges are well-conceived and fun to watch. While viewers don't get the sensory experience of the food, the judges and contestants are very good at being proxies for us. In a way it's more accessible than the fashions on "Project Runway," because not everyone gets the allure of a thousand-dollar dress, but everybody eats. And being fashion-forward is a harder concept to grasp than a dish being too salty or meat being overcooked.

There's also my favorite aspect of these competitions, which is watching creative people being creative. The amount of time actually spent depicting the food preparation is limited, but the efforts taken by the chefs comes across. The cooking is often secondary to the conditions in which it is being undertaken, usually limiting ingredients, equipment, and time. Past challenges included catering an entire wedding in two days, cooking on the beach in barbecue pits, and creating dishes from the contents of a vending machine. The resulting frenzy in the kitchen makes for very good television. An extreme cooking show on the Food Network, "Dinner: Impossible," gets a lot of mileage out of similar challenges.

However, "Dinner: Impossible" doesn't have the competition dynamics of "Top Chef." The show's usual panel of of judges includes Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, who don't have the personalities of some of their counterparts on similar programs, but come off as knowledgeable and outspoken critics with no shortage of zingers in their repertoire. The contestant chefs are usually a good mix of up-and-coming professionals with a few larger-than-life characters in the mix. Interpersonal tensions sometimes erupt, the way they have with contestant Seth Caro on "Just Desserts," but it's not really necessary to the show and doesn't affect its watchability. The competition itself provokes plenty of good drama.

There's also the benefit of getting what feels like an insider's glimpse into the world of professional chefs, the same way that "Project Runway" does with fashion design. I've picked up all sorts of interesting food-related terminology and can identify many ingredients and foods that I never encountered before watching "Top Chef." The show usually won't slow down to explain what a ceviche is or where jicama comes from unless it's specifically part of the challenge itself, like the time where the contestants were directed to make an amuse bouche, a one-bite appetizer. The more you know about food and cooking, the more you get out of "Top Chef," and I appreciate that the show doesn't pander and maintains that level of professionalism and authenticity.

Because they keep that nice balance between being a show that actual chefs won't groan at, yet novices will find accessible, I find that I keep watching. "Just Desserts" has been especially addictive because I have a sweet tooth and a yen for pastry shows like "Ace of Cakes" already. I wasn't surprised when "Top Chef" snatched the Emmy for best reality show away from "The Amazing Race" this year, ending its multi-year streak. However, I am a little worried about overexposure. Back when Bravo had "Project Runway," they would stagger their broadcasts or alternate between the two. However, with all the different versions and spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been going practically nonstop. Bravo will be rolling out "All Stars" version next and a "Juniors" competition for teenage chefs in the near future.

As for me, I had my first ceviche a few months ago, followed by my second, third, and fourth. I think watching "Top Chef" may be turning me into a foodie. Alas, for all my appreciation, my cooking skills have not improved at all.
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My own personal vision of Hell can be found in the 2006 Mike Judge film "Idiocracy," which presents a vision of the future where the IQ of populace has dipped to precariously low levels and corporations have run amok. All forms of entertainment and advertising pander to the very lowest common denominator, as the crassest, most vulgar sensibilities of adolescent boys have become the standard. Thus "Ass: the Movie," a film consisting of nothing but onscreen flatulence wins all the Oscars and monster truck spectacles are considered high art. It wasn't a great movie, but it stuck with me.

Over the last decade, I often fretted that the future presented by "Idiocracy" was coming true. The year 2000 brought not only "Scary Movie," the first in a series of increasingly derided spoofs from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, but also the "Jackass" television series, featuring a gang of daredevil hooligans performing crude stunts and pranks, which would soon find its way to the big screen. A few years later, the first "Saw" film would usher in the era of "torture porn" horror movies that were often less about scaring the audience than stunning them into submission with graphic content. Could "Ass: the Movie" be far behind?

Now fast-forward to 2010, and all three of these series are still alive and well and profitable. Friedberg and Seltzer released "Vampires Suck," their "Twilight" spoof, at the end of summer, "Jackass 3D" won the weekend box office two weeks ago, and "Saw 3D," the seventh and purportedly last installment of the franchise, followed suit this past weekend. We'll probably be getting more of all three in some form or another. And yet I feel no outrage, no resignation, and no despair for the human race. Instead, to my surprise, I experienced another feeling entirely upon the release of these latest exercises in cinema gratuity: nostalgia.

It's been a good year at the movies for looking backward, from the final films of the "Toy Story" and "Shrek" franchises to all the reboots of 80s properties that the studios have been sending down the pipeline. The return of the "Jackass" and "Saw" films felt like part of the trend, because their best days are clearly behind them. The second "Jackass" film was released in 2006. "Saw" has dutifully trotted out sequels every Halloween since the first one, but its fortunes have been in decline since "Saw II," and "Saw VI" was soundly trumped last year by the decidedly non-graphic "Paranormal Activity."

At some point the trend of shock-and-awe content hit a peak and went into decline. Sure, we still get a "Funny Games" or a "Human Centipede" or a "Serbian Film" testing the tolerance gore-loving audiences every year, but these are films that are recognized to be of only very limited appeal and haven't been widely distributed. Lately horror films have turned to demon possessions, zombies, and reboots of older horror franchises like "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween." The turning point was probably "Captivity" in 2007, which tanked at the box office after its advertising materials added fuel to the whole "torture porn" debate.

On the comedic side of the equation, the Friedberg and Seltzer spoofs have been losing steam for years. Their films are done cheaply enough that they always turn a profit, but the duo are a long ways from the blockbuster success they once enjoyed with "Scary Movie" and its sequels. Raunchier R-rated content is now pervasive in mainstream comedies like "The Hangover" and Judd Apatow's movies. The same can be said for the stunts in "Jackass," which surely paved the way for Sasha Baron Cohen's "Borat" and "Bruno." These films changed the standards of what audiences found acceptable to see onscreen, and were then promptly left behind when other filmmakers started doing more interesting things with their newfound creative freedom.

Graphic content for its own sake had its moment, but my sense is that the moment has passed. All the arguments about immoral vulgarity and mindless splatter have already been played out in every conceivable forum and now feel old hat. Whatever your stance on the role of "Meet the Spartans" and "Saw" in dumbing down or desensitizing the country, there's no denying that they've become part of the culture, one that I learned to avoid and ignore without much effort. The newest installments actually strike me as kind of quaint now, a throwback to the early noughties when full-frontal male nudity and onscreen dismemberment were still considered shocking. Trends and standards have changed, but now I don't think it's necessarily for the worse.

For the record, I've seen the first two "Saw" films, one "Scary Movie," and selected excerpts of "Jackass."


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