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June 1, 2008

More Lost Than Ever

Lost (ABC) — Lost managed quite an amazing feat by leaving me, after their two-hour season finale, with no speculation on what’s to come. I let this season wash over me, without geeking out as much as usual, allowing the answers to satisfy me rather than asking endless, rabid questions…

The writers have done a fantastic job in this season of giving us answers — and not always the kind of answers that raise more questions. Sure, there was a lot of mindbending nonsense, especially in the finale (the mysterious rewinding tape — nice trick, guys), but when they said they’d give us answers, they meant it, and the answers have been pretty satisfying so far.

I’m left with three major questions, only one of which has to do with anything that happened this season:

  1. What’s the deal with “Adam and Eve,” the 60-year-old skeletons found in the “rape caves,” who had the pouch of black and white stones? This question goes all the way back to the first season, but with the introduction of a confirmed time-travel element, maybe they’ll give us a twisted, Twilight Zone kind of answer.
  2. Libby and Hurley? Do I even need to phrase that as a real question? This season, we got one tiny appearance from Cynthia Watros, as a ghost-vision in Michael’s big flashback episode, and I’m sure she’ll be back. The writers are on record saying they will see that story to completion — but come on, she’s been dead for two seasons! Hurry up!
  3. Why does Jacob appear to manifest as Christian Shephard? I grudgingly admit I was way off when I theorized that the healing island brought him back to life — regular, flesh-and-blood humans can’t magically appear inside freighters to give semi-cryptic messages to barely-redeemed characters. So why choose Shephard? Is that an indication that the real island king is Jack, not Locke? I don’t really care so long as it means more screen time for Claire and more appearances from John Terry, but it’s definitely an odd choice from both the writers and “Jacob.”

I have to give the writers credit for keeping the story moving without losing artistic integrity. They did this all season, but it was more evident in the finale, as they shuffled a million subplots, flash-forwards, and clues/answers. The plodding pace had been a consistent complaint since the start, and I know I’ve said it before, but it really feels like the “constraint” of setting the end date has liberated the writers. They can quicken the pace without losing essential elements of the story, but they no longer burden episodes with unnecessary and/or aimless subplots and flashbacks, because they know exactly how much story needs to be told and how long they have to tell it.

They’ve also ramped up the action, which I guess is a consistent complaint, but it’s kind of a stupid one. Nobody wants to be bored, but do people who have watched Lost from the beginning really feel like epic jungle shootouts and freighter explosions are what the show’s about? Don’t get me wrong — I love an explosion as much as the next guy, and the shootout with Keamy and his men kicked ass, and the writers integrated this aspect into the show better than I could have expected. Just seems like an odd complaint.

Speaking of Keamy, why do I get the feeling we’re never going to get resolution on his character? He had a downright Shakespearean death (in the sense that he took forever to die, monologuing the whole time), but I’ve held the belief that he has some kind of personal issues with Ben and/or the island. If he did, he neglected to mention them before dying. Just think about it: you have to either be a sociopath or a man with a wicked vengeance streak to load a freighter full of explosives because you think it’ll save your own ass, or to slit doctors’ throats for no reason, etc., etc.

Glad to see most of the freighter folk will be back, though. I know Lost is known for taking “risks” by killing off major characters, but I sure hope Faraday will return next season (same thing with Jin; I would have liked to see more of Michael, but it seemed pretty clear that he’s a goner). He was instantly the most compelling of the boat people, and although they’ve made some interesting decisions with the others — Miles staying around for an unclear reason that may have to do with the island ghosts, Charlotte staying because maybe she was born on the island?! — it’d be sad to lose both him and the “Desmond will be my constant” storyline.

Oh, and I assume we won’t lose Desmond, either. He’s another great character whose story feels far from over, yet he had his wonderful, tearful reunion with Penelope Widmore, and Ben didn’t make any mention that Desmond had to go back. From the sounds of it and the people he gathered, it seemed like only the Oceanic Six had to go back. The only speculation I’ll make — and it’s more blind hope than speculation — is that they’ll end up needing Desmond, too.

As far as confirmed non-casualties, I’m glad Claire’s still alive and kicking, even if she’s taken to hanging in Jacob’s cabin with her fake dad. Now that Jack knows the truth, too, they’ll have an interesting reunion if/when the Six get back to the island. I had unintentionally read a spoiler that assumed Claire would die in the finale (for real-world contract-related reasons, I guess), but the past few episodes have set the stage for Claire to take center stage in a big way. This is great news in general, but in particular because Emilie de Ravin is awesome and has needed a bigger role on this show since day one. (I know she had big moments in the first two seasons, but most of them had to do with her getting kidnapped, which meant she wasn’t on screen; when she was around, everything seemed to be more about Charlie than her.) Even weirder, I’m not sure if this was just a coincidence or if it was intentional, but I watched the finale twice, and in Kate’s dream, Claire sounded like she was sporting an American accent. No clue why that might be — I assume this is an island-related psychic dream and not just a normal weird dream, where one might say it’s a weird subconscious thing because Aaron, the Australian lad, will be raised as an American.

On a pure character note, I love Jack’s transformation from a self-described “man of science” (or was it Locke who described him as that?) into a “man of faith.” We learned a few weeks ago that Locke was once a “man of science” himself (as a teenager); the shift in Jack feels natural, considering the weirdness and trauma the island has caused, but perhaps the finale’s biggest surprise was when he begins to argue that if they have faith, they’ll get off the island safely. (This, of course, leads to the irony that the faith in getting off the island is misplaced, since it royally fucks him up and he has to assemble the Six to return.)

One more tiny bit of speculation: I do think Ben is manipulating Jack and the rest of the Six into going back to the island. What I won’t speculate on is why; I have no idea, other than the obvious “he wants his leadership position back” explanation.

Lastly, I wouldn’t be doing my analytical duty if I ignored The Man in the Coffin. Frankly, I’m a little bitter about the solution to this season-long puzzle. Last year, Internet nerds came up with a reasonably airtight explanation for Michael as the corpse. I liked it — Kate’s clear dislike led me to believe, perhaps, that he’d done something even worse upon returning to the island, which would make Michael an even more fascinating character. This entire theory was based on an extreme, high-definition close-up of the incomplete, misspelled obituary. (The exact “name” was “Jo… …antham,” very different from “Jeremy Bentham.” The theory floated was that Michael swiped the name of an influential African architect bearing a name that would fit the missing letters; I can’t recall the actual name, and Google searches for my best guesses come up short.)

So, okay, it’s Locke. This leads to my only nitpick of an otherwise excellent finale. Maybe the mysterious circumstances of Locke’s death and the “bad things” that are Jack’s fault will make for interesting television next season, but here’s the problem: you have a guy they knew for 120-odd days as “John Locke,” a man who undoubtedly made a lasting impression on all of them as John Locke, yet he comes to them once, out of the blue, calling himself Jeremy Bentham, and suddenly they accept that as his name? Even the clever-but-still-annoying “don’t say his name, dude” between Hurley and Walt didn’t make up for the fact that, as people, they’d be running around calling him Locke. It’s just human nature. Maybe if he’d hung around them off-island for five years insisting everyone call him Jeremy Bentham — maybe.

So what does it mean that he left the island, spread some blame around, and dropped dead? We’ll have to wait until “early 2009.” See you then!

Robin Hood (BBC America) — Oh, I see what’s going on now. Because they spent all of last season having members of Robin’s band of not-so-merry-men get nabbed by the Sheriff, leading to daring sieges upon the castle, the writers realized the well has dried and are now allowing random, never-before-seen associates of Robin get nabbed, leading to daring sieges upon the castle.

The show’s sticking to a pretty basic format, and I don’t have much of a problem with it as long as they keep it interesting and as varied as they can within their constraints. The crazy, old-timey biological warfare from two weeks ago did a nice job. This week, Robin realized he has a traitor in his midst, and that basically redeemed the episode for a not-so-great A story (the one-time addition of Whose Line Is It Anyway? regular Josie Lawrence as Robin’s medicine-woman friend helped to redeem that A story, as well, but she didn’t do it alone).

We finally got some good scenes of Robin’s band without Robin being around and without them existing solely in the service of Robin. As he leaves them behind and they attempt to root out the spy themselves, leading a bunch of “J’accuse!” moments and increasing paranoia from Much, we got to learn more about each of them than we ever have before. Well done. The merry men tend to suffer from a “Poochie the Rockin’ Dog” syndrome, in that they exist solely to please Robin; when Robin’s not there, they ask, “Where’s Robin?” Then they stage a daring siege on the castle.

Speaking of poor character development, most episodes this season have allowed Gisborne to spread his wings a bit, no longer the easily duped romantic foil; this week, the writers forced him to backslide into his old habits. As it stands, we get the impression there are only three actual people living in Nottingham Castle — Marian, the Sheriff, and Gisborne. Maybe they could put some faces and names to the endless, Storm Trooper-like rabble of anonymous guards. Flesh out the castle populous and maybe give Marian some new allies. I guess it’s a moot point since the entire second series has already aired in the U.K., but I’m sure there’ll be a third.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

June 29, 2008

Lardner’s Ring

Robin Hood (BBC America) — Last week, I voiced massive disappointment in the writers’ reliance on goofy plot contrivances and dumbing down their characters in an effort to advance the story.

Combining a compelling — but not ridiculous — mystery involving the word “lardner” with better character moments than anything we’ve seen before, the writers have pulled off a ridiculous quality turnaround. This might be the series’ best episode (so far, let’s hope). I had two minor quibbles that the show smartly addressed before the hour ended. First, Robin’s crew rush off to save him and Marian, except none of them actually know where they are. Fortunately, a short scene in which they get lost in the woods solved that problem. Second, they introduced yet another random, one-episode character who serves no purpose other than feeding Robin exposition. Except, oh wait — they integrated him naturally and completely into the plot, and he didn’t rush off or die at the end.

Sticking Robin and Marian up a tree at the same time Gisborne arrives was an excellent way to attack that triangle — the best idea the writers have had for this subplot. It also gave Marian an opportunity to show her independence in a way that felt more natural than last week’s shrill whinefest. More amazingly, the episode not only portrays Gisborne as an intelligent-but-lovestruck man — Robin actually comes out and says, “He’s too smart to fall for that.” More than once!

This week, the Sheriff and Gisborne’s often over-the-top stupidity didn’t cause or contribute to their failure. Robin’s men actually came up with a pretty intelligent, old-timey way of enshrouding the forest in smoke and tying a rope between two trees to get Robin down a safe distance away from the Sheriff’s men. I’m not saying it’s plausible, but it’s a lot less stupid than some of the other plans they’ve used. The Sheriff also came up with a good idea to stop the pigeon, and atypically, Robin and his crew outwit the Sheriff without rubbing his face in it (thus increasing his rage and shattering his confidence).

No joke, the writers did a fantastic job this week, easily surpassing the first two or three episodes this season, which were formerly the strongest in the show’s short history. I hope they keep this up.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

June 22, 2008

Get Carter

Robin Hood (BBC America) — So when Robin comes up against the most powerful enemy he’s ever faced — he turns out to be a Crusades fighter who allies with Robin at the drop of a hat? Okay, maybe not the drop of a hat, but after a big fight, Carter acted far too willing to say, “Gosh, Robin, I was mistaken. I guess you didn’t kill my brother.” Yet, at the same time, I never felt like he’d turn around and betray them (as much did). It wasn’t a bad episode, but every time the show tries to raise the stakes, they end up fumbling without giving a real sense of danger or suspense.

And they’re back writing Guy of Gisborne as a clueless meathead. I do admire the occasional glimpses into Gisborne’s psyche the writers have tried to give us, but they still write him as too dumb/gullible/naïve. I’d accept this behavior from a character lower on the totem pole that Gisborne, but he’s the Sheriff’s second in command. He should be tough, smart and ruthless, to complement the Sheriff’s raging stupidity and quick, emotional decision-making. I have a feeling writing Gisborne this way will only get worse now that Marian’s all but joined the band.

Which, of course, brings us to Robin and Marian’s squabbling. Look, Jonas Armstrong and Lucy Griffiths are fine, but they aren’t exactly Nick and Nora Charles. I’m happy they’ve elected to make Marian independent-minded, but in this episode she didn’t come across as independent so much as stubborn, to an annoying degree. Their fighting made an unnatural escalation from “witty banter” to “seething bitterness.” Why couldn’t she be at odds with the rest of the group, too? She doesn’t fit in, and they know she’ll get preferential treatment because she’s his love thang. That would cause some resentment, yet everybody seems cool with her except Robin. As a result, Robin comes across as petty and insecure.

I wasn’t hugely fond of the “Robin fakes his death to get into the castle” strategy, either. This isn’t an example of fitting contemporary ideas into an older setting (something the show usually does quite well) so much as relying on a cheap, ancient gimmick that doesn’t amount to much. Also, I know they didn’t forget because they mentioned it, but Marian’s father died last week. Isn’t it too soon to use death-faking drugs in your ploy? If she felt anything regarding the plan, the writers didn’t let Marian show it — a huge missed opportunity to integrate her grief organically.

On the plus side, they gave Allan a decent subplot in which he tries to help out Marian by lying to Gisborne. It blows up in his face, but all’s well that ends well.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

June 15, 2008

Miniseries Mania!

This week, on top of Robin Hood, I checked out a couple of epic summer-miniseries events. I’m a big fan of so-called “event television” and, over the past decade or so, have grown more and more disappointed by the dying media of the miniseries and movie-of-the-week. In the ever-changing television landscape, I can understand the reasoning behind not putting a massive (for network TV) budget and time commitment behind something so questionable — with 500 channels to choose from, would anyone choose you?

Instead, we get smaller-scale “events,” more often from cable channels than any of the networks. TNT, AMC and even Spike TV have had some level of success debuting miniseries and “limited series” (like Spike’s The Kill Point and TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes). A&E has decided they want a piece of the pie, while Lifetime has decided to reclaim their rightful status as the master (or mistress) of gut-wrenching, ultra-depressing tearjerkers.

The Andromeda Strain (A&E) — Like everything written on Idiot Boxing, I’m going into this assuming everyone’s seen it. This is an analysis, not a straight-up review, so if you’re looking for spoiler-free reviews, click these.

I read this book many years ago, but I don’t think I ever saw the original film version. I can’t stack this miniseries against either, which probably works in its favor. At the very least, I’ll say that everything I remember from the book is covered within the first 10 minutes; after that, it’s a free-for-all of pseudo-science and ridiculousness. It’s entertaining ridiculousness, more akin to something light and fun like the National Treasure movies than something ultra-pretentious, deadly serious, but ultimately ridiculous (like The Da Vinci Code).

A&E has assembled a terrific cast that includes Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order), Andre Braugher (legendary for his portrayal of Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street; he also starred in the underrated FX limited-series Thief), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Viola Davis (last summer’s underrated Traveler), Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Christa Miller (The Drew Carey Show) and Rick Schroeder (most recently seen on 24, but I’ll always remember Little Ricky from Silver Spoons). With the exception of McCormack, each actor lends a bit of gravitas and reality to the over-the-top goofiness of the plot. Again, with the exception of McCormack, the characters have assembled in a secret military lab/bunker to cure a crazy, lethal virus.

Here’s what they’re up against: a space virus, brought to Earth in a crashed satellite, that is deadly, airborne and highly adaptable. For instance, the virus has no effect on birds, until it “realizes” they can travel farther faster and spread the disease like wildfire. That’s right: the virus is sentient and able to communicate with its own rapidly spreading cells via (if I understood the details correctly) some kind of crazy mirror-crystal-vibration thing. Does that make too much sense? How about this: the virus traveled through time in a satellite, along with some goop that’s encoded with a message from the future that, when all is said and done, tells them how to cure it.

How, exactly, does the virus work? Doesn’t matter. The details are sparse and unconvincing, but it kills instantly or, in more absurd cases, causes its victims to kill everyone in the immediate vicinity.

In a movie like this, the virus turns into a MacGuffin, and the real benefit is in watching the characters interact, savoring the obstacles that prevent them from stopping the spread of the virus. This miniseries isn’t exactly rich with character nuance, but it does include a nice subplot that finds Davis forced to steal the virus when a shady government agent has her family kidnapped. Even that qualifies more as an obstacle, of which The Andromeda Strain has no shortage, than character development, but it’s well-acted by all involved.

The biggest problem is the inclusion of McCormack’s subplot. Ironically, he gets the meatiest character, and it’s not that he plays the role badly — it’s just that his whole subplot feels pointless. I’m not sure what the writers intended — was this supposed to be the “Everyman” experience? If so, why choose a drug-addicted tabloid-TV “journalist” as your Everyman? Aside from leaking classified information at the start, his character has very little to do with anything else that’s going on. At the end, I guess we’re supposed to think he’s learned the errors of his maverick ways, but that change doesn’t come across at all.

The changes — none of them massive — in the other characters come across a little better. It feels like half the team of scientists end up sacrificing themselves in their attempts to stop the virus. You’d think, at some point, having the doctor nobly die like Spock at the end of Wrath of Khan would feel like a cheap, manipulative device. It’s a testament to the acting quality that it never comes across this way.

The ending contains a sort of mind-blowing, Rod Serling-style twist: that sample Davis stole? It gets out, so the movie ends with an astronaut storing the sample — with a numerical marker that the team earlier received, in code, in the black goop sent back through time. They never find out what it means, but we do. It gets all circular: if they hadn’t sent the virus back in time for present-day scientists to find a cure, the virus wouldn’t be plaguing humanity in the first place. It’s like Escape from the Planet of the Apes, only instead of an ape baby, it’s a virus, and instead of an ape uprising (as dramatized in Battle for the Planet of the Apes), it’s a humanity-destroying plague.

Still, it’s fun, light entertainment. Don’t go into it expecting anything as grim as the novel, and you’ll have a good time. Even the twist ending has a “gotcha!” feel that makes it feel all fluffy and inconsequential, not as dark and cynical as it sounds. It looks like A&E blew a boatload on it, so I’m sure they’ll be rerunning it all summer.

The Capture of the Green River Killer (Lifetime) — I can’t say what I expected from this. I had no real interest in the story of the Green River Killer, and I had my suspicions (which proved correct, albeit snobby) that this would involve some kind of weepy teen-angst melodrama. I watched for two reasons: Tom Cavanagh and James Marsters. I guess I just hoped it wouldn’t completely suck. The good news: it didn’t. The big surprise: I was unexpectedly blown away by Amy Davidson, former star of 8 Simple Rules… I hope it doesn’t sound mean to say that I didn’t see that coming.

I’ll plead ignorance to knowing anything about the Green River Killer other than the vague, press-manufactured name. I knew nothing of his M.O., the length of time it took to catch him, the number of women he killed — nothing. In that sense, Capture did a nice job of building an effective mystery out of a story that, theoretically, most people already know. I watched the miniseries with somebody who knew much more about the case than I did, yet it has moments that make a person with familiarity with the case question whether or not they’re remembering correctly.

So it’s effective as a mystery. It’s also effective as a Lifetime-style movie. The network has often been mocked for melodramatic, women-as-victims movies. I can’t confess to ever having seen a Lifetime movie before, but this one did a very nice job of showing us a composite character, Helen (Davidson), whose shoddy upbringing and propensity for trouble-making lead her down the path to the Green River Killer’s arms. The first part of the miniseries focuses primarily on Helen’s story; it cuts back and forth between Dave Reichert’s (Cavanagh) efforts to solve the case, but by the end of the first part, Helen is dead.

We learn everything we need to in that time: raised by a poor single mother (Sharon Lawrence) and raped by one of her mother’s endless string of boyfriends (which prompts little more than jealousy from the mother), Helen eventually runs away from home. She meets a cokehead (ironically, he “rescues” her from what she feared was a run-in with the Green River Killer) who convinces her to start sleeping with dealers to score cocaine; after awhile, this leads to full-time hooking, which ultimately leads to her death. Counterpointing this is Helen’s friend, Wendy (Jenna Ullenboom), who starts on a similarly troubled path but ends up happily married (and, sadly, the only person who cares about Helen after her death).

Helen is a fictitious composite created by the writers. I don’t know how that makes me feel. It feels inauthentic because she isn’t based on a real, individual victim; on the other hand, the inevitable compromises the writers would have to make to appease both the known facts and the living family members (for instance, the negative portrayal of the mother) would cheapen the story. Davidson gives a terrific performance — the least convincing aspect is believing she’s supposed to be in the 16-20 range when she’s clearly 10 years older.

Meanwhile, Cavanagh gives a revelatory performance as Dave Reichert. I’ve loved Cavanagh since Ed, but I’ll be frank: I’ve really only seen him play the “Ed” character. On Scrubs and the short-lived Love Monkey, he played similar charming, affable motor-mouths. These shows had their share of dramatic moments, but seeing him stay in a distinctive character so dissimilar from what I’ve seen before shows me that he should be a much bigger star than he has become. He does a great job as he grapples with faith, his own competence, and his family; he even does a great job “aging” over the 20-year hunt for justice — not just with makeup and hairstyles but in movement and speech. The scene where he finally confronts Ridgway, unleashing a torrent of pent-up emotion, is harrowing — really great work.

The idea of Helen reappearing as a “ghost” is sometimes hokey — like when she talks to the camera in a The Real World: Purgatory-style confessional — but it quickly becomes effective when she starts appearing to Reichert. It’s a great tool to show Reichert’s internal struggle, the impact that these victims had on him and the toll the investigation takes — I think I can attribute the effectiveness more to the actors than the writing (because even describing now, it sounds goofy).

Finally, there’s James Marsters as Ted Bundy. Well, sort of. I loved him on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and tolerated him on Angel) and was practically salivating to see what he’d do with such a complex character. The answer is hard to gauge considering he appeared in one scene (and later, in a very brief flashback). It’s little more than a cameo — in fact, I don’t even think he’s listed in the “main cast” credits at the beginning. So any Marsters fans looking for a fix in the Smallville off-season, you’ll have better luck with your Buffy DVDs. He does a fine job, but it’s a letdown to hear the miniseries described as “A detective (Tom Cavanagh) seeks help from Ted Bundy (James Marsters) in tracking a serial killer.” That sounds like it’s the entire plot of the movie. I know you can’t trust often-misleading synopses, but that’s extreme.

Nonetheless, it’s a fine miniseries. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but purely on a movie level, it works.

Robin Hood (BBC America) — I know this aired months ago, but I’m always happy when writers anticipate my complaints. Just after complaining that Robin Hood needs to add a larger, more nuanced population to Nottingham Castle, they introduce a random, lovesick knight looking to pay his lover’s debt to the Sheriff. When it turns out the Sheriff has already sold her into marriage, he joins up with Robin (who’s looking for the Great Pact). Unfortunately, all turns out well, which means this knight will likely never be seen again, in or out of the castle.

On the plus side, they continue to layer depth onto Allan. He’s willing to help the Sheriff plug his castle-related leaks to save his own hide, but he’d never sell out Marian — an interesting, tricky-gray-area moral code. The downside? Marian’s father, Edward, escapes (also to steal the Pact) and is killed. So, you know, no need to hold back from selling her out. She’s escaped to the forest with Robin.

I feel like the death of Edward should have been a bigger deal. Though it came toward the end of the episode, it felt like they rushed past it and on to the happy “the knight marries his bride” ending. I assume they’ll delve into the grief more later, but it didn’t really fit together as well as it could have.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

June 8, 2008

And Then There Was One…

So Lost is done, and so is everything else. I planned this column as a 52-week bonanza of televisual analysis and excitement, but the writers’ strike has finally put a crimp in my master plan. A few summer shows have started, but nothing I intend to watch. Swingtown, a show touting itself as The Ice Storm: The Series (But Sexier)? It piqued my interest for about five minutes when I learned it takes place in suburban Chicago, where I too learned how to swing, but then I dug deeper and discovered this is a shelved cast-off that not even the writers’ strike could get on the air before summer burn-off season.

It exists to air when nobody’s watching, never to be renewed. Does that mean it’s a bad show? Not at all. In fact, considering CBS is the one burning it off, it’s probably a terrific show, well worth watching, challenging and intelligent and the polar opposite of all other CBS programming. But I got similarly burned with last summer’s Traveler (ABC), the best serialized thriller to hit television in a decade (sorry, 24; if you were more consistent, you’d still have my heart).

So what is on the agenda for this summer? I might check out Cleaner, the new Benjamin Bratt vehicle that A&E is calling their first original series. I’m pretty sure they’re forgetting their forgettable series 100 Centre Street, but either way, “might” is the key word of the previous sentence. CBS’s Flashpoint immediately hit my “must-watch” list. What’s that, you say? I’m agreeing to watch a CBS summer burn-off one paragraph after saying I wouldn’t be burned again (and I just now noticed the pun there and apologize)? Flashpoint is different: in an astounding move prompted by the writers’ strike, real networks are testing the water by picking up Canadian programs and airing them; that’s right, even if CBS doesn’t want to keep it around, there’s a good chance that CTV will continue producing it…that is, if all 67 of Canada’s ardent television fans watch it.

I’ll also be covering the returns of old favorites: Mad Men, Burn Notice, Monk, Psych, The Dead Zone… Oh wait, scratch that last one. USA Network, under a sinister shroud of darkness, unceremoniously canceled both The Dead Zone and The 4400 sometime last fall. It’s hard to argue with the decision after The Dead Zone’s marked decline in quality over the past few years, but it had finally started to get good again, it ended on a cliffhanger and…whoops!

Speaking of which, a couple of summer favorites are hovering between life and death in the netherworld known as IFC’s atrocious website. The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman and The Business may or may not come back this summer. The closest thing I could find to news is a random post on IMDb’s always reliable* forums, suggesting the former was a “casualty” of the strike. I don’t know; maybe both shows were delayed because of the strike, but nothing about cancellations or casualties have appeared anywhere else.

I can’t say it’d kill me if The Business was canceled; it’s funny enough, but frequently reaches heights of crassness that get a little tiresome. Also, it faltered a bit in a second season that consisted of little more than genre spoofs inspired by the producers hearing pitches from various writers. Still kinda funny, but very uneven. The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman, on the other hand, got even better in its second season (and it was pretty damn good in its first).

Lastly, a couple of cable’s most popular shows, TNT’s The Closer and Saving Grace, return this summer, and I…won’t be watching. I gave a vague, ill-informed assessment of both shows last winter, and I stick by my lack of interest.

At any rate, there will be more thrilling “Idiot Boxing” coverage. It just won’t happen until mid-July, when the shows I like return.

Robin Hood (BBC America) — Allan, the ousted merry man, might just be more interesting on the outs with the gang than he ever was within them. I suppose it makes sense; he’s probably the least familiar of the “merry men” characters, and even at that, they rob him of his defining characteristic (he’s a minstrel, a skill that would have come in handy in this episode). He has neither Little John’s brute strength nor Will Scarlet’s youth; he doesn’t have Much’s neuroses or Djaq’s foreignness. He’s just kinda there, so this is an improvement. I don’t know if it’ll happen or not, but I’d like to see him start informing on the Sheriff now that he’s Gisborne’s #1 crony (apparently).

In the meantime, the A story finds Robin foolishly accepting the word of an old man, a supposed friend of Marian’s father, who turns around and betrays them. On the plus side, it shows that when pushed, Robin will have the balls to take everyone down — in theory, anyway, he killed all the Black Knights. If they hadn’t already known of his ruse, he would have accomplished the task. It was a nice emotional journey, marred only by the treacly subplot involving Marian. I know, I know, but I’m just not into their romance. I can’t help it.

One of the better elements of the episode showed Will’s ingenuity and craftsman competence, as he built a bundle of weapons disguised as musical instruments and got the merry men hired as the musical entertainment in the castle. The clever ploy didn’t amount to as much as it should have, but one hopes we’ll either see this particular ruse reused or get a little more of Will acting as Q to Robin’s James Bond.

* Sarcasm

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

June 23, 2008

Fame

Author: Allison Burnett
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 7

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Logline:

A disparate group of students spend four years at a prestigious high school for artists in New York.

Synopsis:

Young Artists study their craft while teachers (in voiceover) describe the struggles on the road ahead. A pseudo-montage follows as each character is introduced amid the cacophony of American Idol-esque bad auditions. JENNY LANG, petite and blonde, performs a monologue she’s written herself. DENISE DUPREE, the sheltered daughter of a minister, gives a nervous piano audition. MARCO BRUNELLO, a working-class Italian-American Brooklyn boy, sings a heartfelt love song. MALIK WASHBURN, a stylish African-American, recites a poem. ALICE BARTON, a down-to-earth girl raised in a ritzy household, impresses with her dance skills. KEVIN BAILEY, a sweet-faced Midwestern dancer, performs an expert tap number. NEIL FLEISCHER, a nebbishy butcher’s son with filmmaking ambitions, auditions for the acting program. JOY MOY, a tiny Chinese-American girl, acts the hell out of Juliet. VICTOR TAVERAS, Dominican and cute, skinny and cocky, is a songwriter and multitalented musician. ROSIE MARTINEZ, a voluptuous Dominican girl, impresses with her fierce attitude and aggressive dance skills. These are the lucky freshmen who have been accepted, all of them 14 and eager.

Freshman year starts with each student getting ready and making the commute to school. Immediately, their teachers warn them of the difficulties they’ll have, try to prepare them for the next four years. At lunch, the cafeteria is jammed with artists creating. After and impromptu musical number, Denise and Marco leave the chaos and share a nice, quiet moment. She offers him half a sandwich, and they each empathize with the other’s feeling of being an outsider in this new world. Looking for Rosie, Victor encounters Alice. She’s coarse and unpleasant; he’s cocky and obnoxious. They don’t get along.

By winter, Malik and Jenny are rehearsing scenes together. Malik finds the concept uncomfortable, fearing nobody will believe him playing someone so thoroughly outside of his skin. Jenny’s about to give him some words of encouragement when she runs into ANDY MATTHEWS, an upperclassmen, whom she immediately drools over. Malik teases her about him.

DOWD, the acting teacher, tells his students to start a journal chronicling the world they inhabit and question it. Alice has an awkward dinner with her parents; they’re gleeful about a former peer of Alice’s getting into Yale. Despite Alice’s disinterest in Yale, her parents hold out hope that the friend’s surprise success story could also happen to Alice. Meanwhile, REVEREND DUPREE, Denise’s father, is unhappy hearing his daughter will have to be out so late to perform with the school orchestra.

Joy Moy, Kevin, Neil, and Marco wander around Times Square and Broadway, discussing their dreams and aspirations. Later, all the students discuss their varied summer plans. Marco asks Jenny to dance, and she gets angry and storms away. He’s shocked.

Sophomore year. Neil obnoxiously videotapes Jenny and her friends, and they insult him. Joy Moy, Kevin, and Rosie discuss Rosie’s curves and her laziness. Although Rosie protests the laziness remark, dance teacher MISS KRAFT seems to agree with Joy Moy and Kevin. Later, Dowd adjusts the acting assignment: the students are to take the information accumulated in their journals, create a character based on someone they know and have studied, and find a way to correspond these characters with a character from a famous play. Marco sings a passionate love song for his class but makes it clear he’s singing to Jenny. Victor is accosted by CRANSTON, the music teacher, for playing with his own style instead of obeying traditional music rules. Victor argues that Bach is only famous today for breaking traditional molds 300 years ago.

Marco tries to apologize for embarrassing Jenny; Jenny doesn’t accept. Marco notices Jenny’s attraction to Andy Matthews. Denise, accompanying a singer on piano, gives the upperclassman some tips on singing. Victor finds out Denise’s “secret” — that she’s an excellent singer herself — and teases her about it. He asks her to sing on some demo recordings he’ll be making, and she reluctantly agrees. Jenny complains to her friends that Andy Matthews doesn’t notice her. Neil performs a character based on his father, who reminds the class of Willy Loman. When Andy Matthews says something offensive to Joy Moy, Kevin mocks him. Andy and his friends surround Kevin, acting menacing, but Marco steps in to rescue him.

At a Halloween dance, Victor slips Malik (the DJ) a CD of Denise singing “Fame,” and everyone dances. Joy Moy gets drunk and performs a monologue (videotaped by Neil) inspired by Jenny. When they play it for the class, Jenny’s humiliated. She asks to “borrow” Neil’s DVD, then hands it to a geeky kid to upload it to YouTube. Her sister discovers it quickly and says she’ll be in deep trouble.

Marco convinces Denise to go to a poetry slam, where she’s surprised by Malik’s engaging reading. After complaining that she has no friends, Alice’s father convinces her to sign up for a nonprofit activity, which will look good on her Yale application. At the poetry slam, Marco hooks Malik and Denise up. As they walk home together, Denise argues with Malik about his anger toward everything. She doesn’t see a reason for it.

Alice volunteers at a soup kitchen in a slum with Victor. After Miss Kraft harasses Rosie again and threatens to throw her out of the school, Rosie picks a passionate fight; Miss Kraft recommends her for the acting program. At the end of the year, Joy Moy rushes in and says her YouTube video got her an agent.

Junior year. Joy Moy auditions for Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls. The director suggests that Denise, who’s accompanying, should audition. Denise is reluctant; she sings an original gospel ballad that blows everyone away.

Neil engineers a meeting with Martin Scorsese by waiting around his dentist’s office. Scorsese is polite and encouraging; he agrees to look at Neil’s short script. Malik performs a monologue about his sister dying; it’s passionate, but Dowd knocks him down by telling Malik he covered everything except how the incident made him feel. Malik becomes abrasive and stomps out of class. Jenny and her friends sneak into a Columbia frat party and run into Andy Matthews, who has now graduated.

Joy Moy excitedly lets Denise know that she, a lowly junior, got the role of Sarah Brown. After a night at the soup kitchen, Victor asks Alice out. Kevin invites Joy Moy to her apartment; they rehearse a scene together, and she gets so in the moment that she kisses him, even though she’s supposed to be playing his mother. At a seedy warehouse, Victor and Alice go to see some performance art. At first, it freaks Alice out, but she gets into it. Joy Moy confesses her love for Kevin, in spite of his homosexuality. He lets her down gently. Alice apologizes for her hostility toward Victor.

Denise explains the role of Sarah Brown to Reverend Dupree, who already knows and disapproves. Neil gets a call from Scorsese, who has read his script and thinks it has a lot of potential. Neil asks him for money to finance it. At a karaoke club, the students perform a raucous country number. MISS ROWAN, the teacher chaperoning this event, tells a disappointing story about having so much potential but turning out to be a tiny fish in a vast ocean of superior talent, which is what led to her teaching at P.A.

Malik’s mother arrives at school, and everyone is shocked to discover she’s white. Denise quits Guys and Dolls. Alice lets Victor know she’s been accepted in the Joffrey Ballet and is leaving P.A.

Senior year. Dowd gives Malik a pep-talk about being half-white. Neil asks Jenny to star in his film, but she refuses; Rosie happily agrees to star in it. Later, Jenny is date-raped by Andy Matthews. Neil finishes up his script. MISS SIMMS convinces Denise to sign up for a college arts program. Alice’s leaving inspires Victor’s music. Neil’s film premiere and is loved by the students. Jenny apologizes for treating him badly. Neil cheers her up by naming now-famous actors who turned down famous roles.

Malik and Denise come to an understanding — both realize they need to stop doing what’s expected of them and do what they want to do. Denise decides to go to her college program, while Malik reunites with his family. Meanwhile, Jenny learns Marco has pounded the daylights out of Andy and is grateful. The class graduates, set to a musical number.

Comments:

The story has its moments — some of the relationships and parental conflicts are sweet — and the writer does a great job with writing dialogue for such a diverse group of characters. Although many characters (especially the teachers) do little more than spout clichés, each character has a distinctive voice that feels authentic.

However, there are simply too many characters to make every single character and subplot satisfying. In trying so hard to hit as many ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds possible, the writer doesn’t have any room to breathe. I give him credit for trying to give each character his or her due, and he does a better-than-expected job of keeping all these characters straight, but it’s just too much. Taking two of these romantic couples and really fleshing them out will help streamline things a bit, rather than giving us a total of ten characters (not counting the teachers, parents, and supporting players populating the script) and trying to balance each of their stories.

Another significant problem is the lack of a clear antagonist, or any real jeopardy. Each character has a moment or two of conflict — sometimes significant conflict, as in the case of Jenny’s rape — but the lack of clear goals and antagonists makes the story murky. The writer never shows what these kids really want out of this school, other than the obvious: fame. Why are they so desperate for fame? I never felt close enough to any of the characters to know. The script introduces vague adversaries and obstacles, but for a story that spends about 15 of its first 30 pages telling us, in blunt terms, how difficult this journey will be — none of the students have a difficult time. The few obstacles hurled in their way resolve themselves within a few pages. Clearer goals and a true antagonist would give this story a much tighter focus and help it earn the happy ending.

With the enormous success of the High School Musical movies and American Idol, a story like this would definitely appeal to the teenage and young-adult demographics. It also has nostalgia value for an older audience familiar with the original film and TV series — the kind of movie parents would happily take their teenage daughters to see. The fact that it’s a musical but doesn’t overwhelm with musical numbers — there aren’t many and they are naturally integrated into the storyline — might also appeal to non-musical fans.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 4:27 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

June 18, 2008

The Porn Review Site

For nearly two years now, I’ve done glorified volunteer work on a former college professor’s film site. It started as a pretty basic thing — he needed someone to help him post reviews once a week; in exchange for that, I got free screeners and the opportunity to have published reviews in a semi-legitimate location — but gradually I wormed my way up to a full-fledged web guru, spending a shitload of time using my limited web-design knowledge to bring the site into the 21st century.

Despite the lack of substantial payment, I’ve found the work rewarding enough to not bail. I mean, there are a lot of things I look to get out of the experience, and as long as I get a few of them, I’ll be okay for awhile.

And then The Webmaster sent me an e-mail that made my brain explode.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:17 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, Day Jobs, The Webmaster

June 11, 2008

Write What You Have

Now, look, I know I’m pretty hard on Stupid Blogger, because, well…I think it’s pretty clear. Maybe I’ve only devoted one officially sanctioned Stan Has Issues™ post to her, but I still read her blog daily and mock her to pretty much anyone who will listen. I won’t start some kind of blog jihad because that’d make me look publicly crazy. I’m really only prepared to look crazy in private, where my friends can assemble behind my book and discuss how worried they are about me and my obsession with people I find intellectually inferior.

But she wrote something recently that, while comically moronic, gives me a good subject to broach from a screenwriting standpoint.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:13 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Screenwriting Articles, The Writer

June 4, 2008

Free Work’s for Suckers

For nearly two years now, I’ve been “working” for a semi-legitimate film-criticism website that has, so far, earned me a broken computer that I can’t fix (which was supposed to be a bribe that I could either use myself or sell on eBay — hard to do either when I can’t make it work). In my defense, I don’t do that much work for it, and when I do it’s pretty much self-satisfying. In the beginning, the guy who runs it would send me the shit cluttering his desk, which nobody else wanted, and I’d happily review it. I haven’t done that in a year; he still sends me the clutter, but I don’t review it.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:23 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, Day Jobs, The Webmaster

June 3, 2008

The CT Scan

So because my recent endoscopy/colonoscopy didn’t turn up much, my doctor recommended getting a CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis. I know this doesn’t sound like much fun, but believe me when I say, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as liquid-shitting.”

The plus side is that the hospital makes you pick up this barium goop to drink before the test, which allowed me to get the rough location of where I needed to be. See, the genius who decided our local hospital apparently felt like it’d be a really good, non-confusing idea to make it a giant circle. It strikes me as kind of odd, since most of the people frequent this particular hospital seem to be in their mid- to late-hundreds, that they’d go with a layout that can confuse a person who has reasonable mental faculties (sort of).

So I got the barium stuff, which is labeled “Berry Smoothie.” I dunno, I guess that’s a good name, but if you’re going to give somebody this chalky crud with a slight tinge of berry flavor, isn’t “Berry-Yum” the obvious choice?

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 10:28 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, My Life and Times and Random Observations

June 30, 2008

Screwed

Remember the co-op? Remember how I described it as part-sales-pitch, part-new-age-feel-goodery? I had an uneasy feeling about it from, let’s say, day three. Basically, after Big-Shot Producer’s initial pitch — which made it sound pretty good — he began ladling on the creepy gravy until I felt very uncomfortable about the whole prospect. I wanted to know what happened to the mild but very much existent promises that some crazy group of foreign investors would read Disappear and have a response in three weeks or less. I wanted to know what happened to the co-op concept of getting 20-30 (maybe even up to 50) individual pieces of feedback on my script.

Instead, what little information I did receive — which reached a standstill by mid-April — consisted of nothing but impersonal marketing-speak. Gone was the producer who encouraged me despite his reservations about my pitch-black sense of humor. In his place stood a pod person. I didn’t like where this was headed.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 10:34 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, The Big-Shot Producer, The Writer