old media: January 2005 Archives

Creepy is the new Cool

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The Starburst commercial begins in the hallway of a high school, with a slightly geeky guy standing there, as several girls get out of class and walk into the hallway. The boy calls out to Cheryl, who turns, and he tells her that he's got to show her something. They walk into what's clearly an art studio, and he walks her over to something that's covered with a cloth.

He takes off the cloth, and it's the bust of a female head, built entirely out of Starburst. "Cheryl, it's you," the guy explains. "I used lemon for your hair, because your hair's fresh and yellow. And I used cherry for your lips, because your lips are so juicy."

And as Cheryl stares at him in what I can only imagine is an emotion roughly parallel to my own as I watch this, he starts making out with this weird Starburst Chia Head. And as this happens, we hear Lionel Richie's "Hello" playing in the background. Umm. I was young enough when this song came out that I completed missed its psychotic, stalker overtones. Yeah. No longer. This particular combination of commercial and song may very well haunt my dreams tonight.

"Is it me you're looking for?"

Not so much.

Must G33k TV

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I've gushed in this space before about Monk, where I described it as the best television show not appearing on HBO. And while I think Lost may be giving it a run for that title, I'm not ready to do the soul-searching necessary to offer up such a decree. The new season began on Friday, and again, if you're not watching the show, you should start. While it's not quite as dramatic as Alias's remake, Bitty Schram left the show (over a contract dispute, I think), and they recruited Traylor Howard, whose career has mostly been being the "Girl" in Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. Her role there was largely cute and perky, I think. Much less so on Monk, I suspect.

And the result was basically a transition episode, introducing us to her, and giving us backstory to explain Sharona's absence. Not bad, but not brilliant.

And only part of my point in posting. By the end of the Patriots-Steelers game tonight, I was anxiously waiting for the new CBS show Numb3rs, which features, among others, a pretty solid geek ensemble:

  • Rob Morrow, formerly of Northern Exposure
  • Sabrina Lloyd, formerly of Sports Night
  • Judd Hirsch, formerly of everything and then some
  • Peter MacNicol, formerly of Ally McBeal
  • David Krumholtz, formerly of...umm...er...The Santa Clause

Morrow's an FBI agent, while Krumholtz is his brother and a math professor who apparently harnesses serious mathematics to assist him in his cases. I say apparently bc I don't really have the math to know. The show seems pretty interesting, although I'm hard pressed to say how they'll manage to come up with solid plots over the long term. But Ridley Scott is one of the execs, and it was pretty stylish. They did a lot of flashy math interludes, modeled (I suspect) after the CSI stuff, where formulae get superimposed on phenomena, with lots of arrows and notations.

While I don't really know the math well enough to comment, I can mention that tonight's episode featured some insights that I've come to associate with network studies--the human tendency to seek underlying patterns, even when resisting them on the surface, for instance. I got the impression from the trailers that Krumholtz would be a lot less socially adept than he proved to be in this episode, which was something of a relief, bc they didn't go for cheap stereotypes in that regard. He is a little bit of a Beautiful Mind type, and I'm sure that this was another influence on the visual style of the show.

All in all, I'd call it intriguing, and worth another look. Except, of course, that CBS has scheduled it for 10 pm on Fridays, which is the same &*#$@!ing time as Monk. Of course. All of the props scheduled for CBS, for airing a show with smart people as the protagonists, have been cancelled for airing it at a time designed to remind smart people in the audience that their social lives are such that they're actually home to watch it. Not nice.

Oh, and every single reference to the show I've seen (including the URL for the show's page at CBS) keeps the 3. Woot.

That is all.


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Oh. My. God. It's been years and years since I read Mark Trail. Heck, it's been years since I carried on a conversation involving deeply sardonic praise of the faux profundity of Family Circus. And yet, just when I thought the web couldn't give me any more of what I didn't even realize I needed, I found a link (hat tip to Johndan) to joshreads.com. Josh reads these comics so I don't have to.

Or rather, he reads the comics so that I myself want to. It's early, but I'm thinking that Josh will join Merlin's 5ives, the Onion, and Homestar in my personal Hall of Funny. Good stuff.

And yes, I almost titled this post "A Post about Collin Brooke, the author of Collin vs. Blog"

Well, not quite all of it. Needless to say, given my hostility to "reality" programming, I can't get behind WifeSwap or SpouseSwitch or FamilyFlip or whatever the hell that crap is called.

But in the interest of continuing my series of Directorial Decrees, and in response to a reader request (!!), I present to you the first recipient of "Most Favored Entertainment" status, the 120 or so minutes on Wednesday night where we are treated to the work of J. J. Abrams. I'm speaking, of course, of the shows Lost and Alias, the back-to-back anchors of my weekly entertainment cycle.

I'm coming quickly to the conclusion that it's largely pointless for me to conceal my own "aging fanboy" status, so I will warn you right now that this post reflects this status without apology. Years and years of fantasy and science fiction leaves a body with particular tastes when it comes to entertainment, and I recognize that those tastes aren't universal, that not everyone will share my preferences. So this is not a post about "why Lost & Alias are great" but rather "why I like them." Caveat lector, and all that.

Damn if I'm not a dork.

So anyhow, one of the core elements that draws me to both shows is a particular style of storytelling that Abrams has been honing to good effect for the last few years, and it's a style that these shows have in common with a lot of epic book series and tv series (and if you have trouble thinking of X-Files or Star Trek as epic, well, umm, don't read further?). For ease of analog, think the original Star Wars, and how provincial and nerdy Luke Skywalker is. Or think the character of Dr. Watson, whose understanding unfolds on our behalf in Sherlock Holmes stories. A good epic series begins with characters with whom the audience can identify. But there's always a disjunct between the character's horizon and the place she or he will ultimately occupy. Luke starts out on Tatooine and ends up defeating the Empire. The process of unfolding that character's horizon until it begins to reach an epic scale is the way that epics work best for me (and for most people, I suspect). When I reviewed the movie treatment of LeGuin's Earthsea a while back, for example, one of the biggest failings of that version was that it basically ignored the unfolding that LeGuin allows for in the books themselves.

So, unfolding. In Lost, a bunch of people get on a plane and crash on an island. There's an immediate goal--how we will get home?--but Abrams's island is far more than it seems at first, which provides the outer horizon of understanding, and a goal that's becoming more and more pressing as Said gets captured by a mystery Frenchwoman (in next week's repeat), as Clare gets kidnapped, and as various suggestions of the supernatural (Walt's strangeness, Locke's miracle recovery, Jack's hallucinations) manifest. One of the ways that Abrams draws that outer horizon out, though, is by giving us flashbacks for various characters each week, helping us to identify with them as individual characters. To my mind, one of the really genius moves of Lost is this strategy for dealing with a 40+ person ensemble cast. The series starts at an intermediate point, and moves both backwards and forwards to create that inner/outer horizon dynamic.

Alias worked a little more traditionally in the sense that Sydney Bristow is our "in," as the opening sequence now goes to great length to remind us. She begins as a part-time grad student, full-time spy for a covert branch of the CIA. Except that she finds out it's not the CIA, but a terrorist organization instead, and so she goes double agent. There's way too much more to capture here, but I'll note that the first three seasons of Alias uses plot tricks galore, pushing that outer horizon outwards, just as we think we understand it all, discovering new family members, Renaissance prophecies, genetically manipulated dopplegangers, competing organizations, etc.

I think that the Abrams crew recognized a couple of dangers in the show. First, it was awfully tough, I think, for the series to attract new viewers. It's not as complex as some people make it out to be, but then, I've been watching since the get-go, and for someone hopping in during Seasons 2 or 3, it was bound to be a little difficult. And the second problem was that the show was in danger of becoming a self-parody. They'd slowly killed and doubled one of Syd's best friends, put another in witness protection, married off her love interest (in the "2 years later..." cliffhanger of Season 2). In the terms I used above, they'd slowly removed Sydney's inner horizon, the life with which the audience actually could identify, and so when Syd flirts with the idea of leaving the spy game for good, it ends up sounding disingenuous--during Season 3, it was pretty tough to imagine exactly what life she'd be leaving for.

So, Season 4. Alias has undergone something of a plot reset. Some of last season's cliffhangers are dumped, almost apologetically. Syd's recently discovered half-sister Nadia is tortured by her father (Arvin Sloane), and yet chooses to join him at the end of the 3rd season. The darkness of that choice has pretty much been abandoned in favor of a much less developed character, one that seems a little at odds with the character as it was conceived last season. They've kept the main characters together, dumped some of the marginal ones, and taken them out of the institutional context of the CIA (they're now a black ops team).

For me, the problem of the new season is that outer horizon. The only ongoing tension is the fact that Nadia remains unaware of Jack Bristow's role in the death of her (and Sydney's) mother. But "I've got a secret" is an inner horizon issue. And after 3 episodes, there's no outer horizon, no real reason for what they're doing, no ongoing villains, no context to place the characters in.

To be fair, I thought tonight's episode was the best of the new season. It felt like they finally committed to treating Vaughn as a character, and they did it in an interesting way, allowing his attempt to turn a former IRA agent turn into self-therapy. And the closing scene, where he falls asleep while Sydney tries to connect with him, led me to think that Vaughn may actually (finally!) grow into a character that's more than just "Sydney's boyfriend." That's a good thing.

And I hope that, after a few freestanders to bring in new viewers, we'll start to develop the kinds of ongoing stories that reward loyal viewing, and make a series more than an interchangeable set of shiny objects. Right now, the potential tension between Nadia and Jack just doesn't do it for me. I simply can't reconcile Nadia crying over a picture of her mother with the potentially dark, kick-ass, wild card character she was at the end of last season. It's certainly not beyond the Abrams crew to simply have her be part of the gang for a couple of months, and then turn out to be someone completely different and unpredictable later on--in fact, that'd be par for this course. But she's got to acquire some inner horizon and characterization of her own or be part of an outer horizon. The character hasn't earned a pass, as far as I'm concerned.

So, I'm guardedly optimistic about Alias. And I'm pretty high on Lost, which strikes me as a show that demonstrates Abrams's ability to learn the lessons provided by three seasons of Alias. Lost has an awful lot of polish for a new show, and it does things that no one else on the networks is even trying. For a while, I'll be watching Lost and staying tuned, but hopefully by mid-season, they'll both be can't-miss.

Flavor is the new taste

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If, like me, you watched more than your fair share of football over the holiday season, perhaps (again like me) you encountered the sports fan's version of the old Chinese "man-butterfly" dilemma. To wit, am I watching football with beer commercials, or beer with football commercials? No matter how much you cling to the worldly illusion of the former, those beer commercials sink in a little.

And so, one of the things I've noticed lately is how beer companies are no longer content to exaggerate the "taste" of their product. Now, they are skirting the issue of bad taste by speaking instead of the amount of flavor, as if there's a certain amount of flavor that's significant. First time I saw this was from Miller Lite during their really stooopid "Election 2004" campaign. In one of the ads, reporting on the results of a national taste test, they beam with pride over the fact that a majority of tasters found that Miller "had more flavor" than Budweiser. Not that the majority of tasters preferred the flavor (as you learn in the small print to the ad), but that Miller has more. At least one more company has followed suit in their ads, and recently, I saw that KFC has taken up the "more flavor" banner.

Umm, ok. I'm just going to say this once: motor oil has more flavor than water (I think), but that doesn't mean that I'm going to go out and start ordering pints of it at my favorite bar.

Somewhere out there, there's an ad executive who's feeling all smug and self-important, believing that this strategy is cleverness incarnate. Don't. It's dumb, and more than a little pathetic.

That is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the old media category from January 2005.

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