September 29, 2005

TV: Sex, Love, and Secrets

The social and romantic interactions of seven attractive 20somethings (well, six attractive 20somethings and Eric Balfour, an actor who always seems to be desperately in need of a shower) in the oh-so-trendy Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

How do I know Silver Lake is trendy? Why, it was in all of LA's most prestigious newspapers and magazines, my dear. And that couldn't have been more than 18 months ago (which means, of course, that Silver Lake's moment of actual trendiness was probably about three years ago), so UPN is right on top of things in setting a show there.

The show is, not to mince words, dreadful. It's ineptly acted, badly written, and captures nothing of the neighborhood in which it's ostensibly set. (Note to the producers: If you're going to tell a story of seven young people living in Silver Lake, at least two of them are going to be gay. And I mean out-of-the-closet gay, not just the sort of creepily androgynous "is he or isn't he" maybe-gay that we get in the character Milo.)

The sole redeeming quality of the show, and the reason it doesn't quite take the "Worst New Series of the Year" title away from Killer Instinct, is that it's inoffensive. Boring as hell, but inoffensive. Sex, Love, and Secrets is not campy enough to be Melrose Place, not witty enough to be The O.C., and not interesting enough to be bothered with.

September 28, 2005

TV: Commander in Chief

It's been 17 years since Geena Davis won the Oscar for The Accidental Tourist, and with the exception of Thelma and Louise, she's never really done anything that lived up to that early promise. She's never had any luck in TV, either, with two flop sitcoms before the Oscar (a supporting role in Buffalo Bill and the lead in Sara) and a third five years ago (The Geena Davis Show). It was easy to understand why people kept giving her chances at comedy, since that's where she's done her best work (for all the fuss that's made over its sociological import, even Thelma and Louise is at heart a buddy comedy).

So the thought of Geena Davis in a drama, as the first female President, was easy to snicker at. But while the show has its problems, it's a pleasant surprise to report that Davis isn't among them, and that she has the gravitas to be plausible in the role.

How Davis's Mackenzie Allen gets to be President, on the other hand, is not especially plausible. She's an independent, vice president to the conservative Republican Teddy Roosevelt Bridges (played briefly by Will Lyman), chosen for her telegenic features and her appeal to female voters (and only secondarily for her expertise in the politics of the Middle East). When Bridges has a massive stroke that will clearly leave him incapable of continuing in office, Bridges' staff -- and eventually, even Bridges himself -- urge Allen to resign so that House speaker Nathan Templeton, whose politics are more in line with the President's, can take office.

After Bridges dies, Mac has convinced herself to resign, but after meeting with Templeton (Donald Sutherland gives a master class in loathsome sleaze), changes her mind and takes office. Most of the cabinet agrees to stay, and she asks Bridges' chief of staff, Jim Gardner (Harry J. Lennix) to assist her as well. This upsets her own chief of staff, Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor), who also happens to be her husband.

The show comes off as a lightier, fluffier version of The West Wing; I don't think we're ever going to get the sort of rounded policy debates that Martin Sheen and company at their peak have given us. And we're clearly going to spend lots of time with the Allen-Calloway family, which includes twin teenagers (he supports Mom; she doesn't. "You go ahead and be John-John," she snaps. "I'll be Patti Davis.") and a TV-adorable tot.

It's a solid cast of actors, and the inevitable battles between Allen and Templeton should be great fun in the hands of Davis and Sutherland; I'm certainly happy to see Harry J. Lennix get a good role. My biggest fear at this point is that the show will focus too heavily on the family at the expense of the political drama; if it avoids that pitfall, it'll be an entertaining, albeit slightly cheesy, guilty pleasure.

The show is stuck in what is, at least for me, the most overloaded timeslot of the week. House, The Amazing Race, My Name Is Earl -- a lot of good stuff to watch there, and I suspect that Commander in Chief will need to be moved if it's going to find an audience.

(EDIT: LATER THAT EVENING: Or maybe not; preliminary ratings for last night have Commander in Chief as the night's most watched show among all viewers, and a reasonably close second to House among the advertiser-desirable 18-49 audience.)

September 25, 2005

TV: Ghost Whisperer

So in this time slot last year, CBS had Joan of Arcadia, a show about a young woman who has conversations with someone that no one else can hear. That wasn't drawing a big enough audience, so they replaced it with this show about a young woman who has conversations with someone (well, several someones) that no one else can hear. This strikes me as an odd programming choice.

Our heroine is Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who talks to dead people. Ghosts come to her, seeking her help in resolving whatever they've left unresolved so that they can move on to the other side. Husband Jim (David Conrad) is freaked out by her gift, and wishes she'd stop doing it ("Find me the remote that'll turn this off, then we'll talk," she tells him.) Best friend and business partner Andrea (Aisha Tyler) finds it fascinating, and is full of questions about how it works.

In the first episode, Melinda is approached by a Vietnam soldier who died before he could meet his son; she gives that son (who is now roughly the same age as his father's spirit) the info the Pentagon needs to find dad's body; there is a big emotional kerfuffle between father and son, with much sharing and crying and emotional honesty -- oy, you could just vomit from the sincerity.

To the extent that the show works at all, it works despite Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is a dull, blank presence at the center of the show. Guest stars Wentworth Miller (as the soldier) and Balthazar Getty (as the son) are quite good, and their scene together (with Melinda passing on Miller's words to Getty) works better than it has any right to. Aisha Tyler, in the sidekick role, has already created a more interesting and believable character than Hewitt has; I can't help but wonder how much more life the show would have if the two had swapped roles. (Tyler's going to get a show of her own eventually; she's been doing nice work in supporting roles on shows as different as Friends and 24, and deserves a shot at a lead role.)

I didn't hate Ghost Whisperer; I just found it bland and uninvolving.

TV: Killer Instinct

There are still about half-a-dozen new shows left to arrive this fall, but it's hard to imagine that we'll see anything worse than Killer Instinct. It's poorly written, poorly acted, and features lots of creepy lingering closeups of women being tormented.

The setting is San Francisco, and our killer of the week is a serial rapist/murderer who incapacitates his victims by releasing spiders into their apartments; the spiders' bite causes paralysis in a few minutes and death in several hours.

The show stars Johnny Messner, easily the stiffest, most wooden actor of the new season, as Jack Hale, who has just returned to the Deviant Crimes Unit of the San Francisco Police Department, several months after his partner (in both the professional and personal sense) was killed in the line of duty. (Criminal Minds shares the same plot point. Hmmm...) The usually reliable Chi McBride is Hale's commander, and like TV police commanders everywhere, gets to yell at Hale a lot for going outside the lines and breaking the rules and such.

Awful awful awful mess of a show.

September 24, 2005

TV: Inconceivable

Inconceivable is set in a fertility clinic that does lots of surrogacy work, so it was inevitable that we'd eventually get a white parents/black baby story; the fact that we get those shocked parents less than two minutes into the first episode suggests, though, that there may not be a lot of creativity in the show's writing.

Ming-Na and Jonathan Cake star as the clinic's doctors, Rachel and Malcolm; he's the arrogant Brit who charms his way out of every problem, and she's the conscientious one who worries that he's eventually going to cause a problem charm can't solve. The supporting cast includes Joelle Carter as the nurse/bimbo who's having an affair with Malcolm, Mary Catherine Garrison as the naive receptionist, and David Noroña as the clinic's lawyer.

Alfre Woodard, as the clinic's psychiatrist, was also meant to be a part of the cast, but was written out when she wound up on Desperate Housewives instead. The scenes in which it's made clear that Woodard will wind up taking the fall for the black/white mixup were clearly late additions to the episode, as were the scenes introducing Angie Harmon as the doctor who'll be joining the clinic, a character added to take Woodard's place.

The best performance in the first episode doesn't come from any of the regulars, though; it comes from Jonathan Slavin, as the boyfriend of Noroña's lawyer character; their own child is about to be born, and Slavin is so paranoid that their surrogate isn't taking proper care of herself that he's stealing her garbage and following her to the supermarket ("Do you have any idea how much mercury there is in tuna?"). He provides a much needed shot of humor in a show that tends to take itself too seriously.

If the show focused more strongly on the medical stories, it might have a shot, but it's already heading down the office-romance-soap-opera path that eventually made ER unwatchable. Still, the cast isn't bad, and it's not as if there's a ton of competition in the Friday/10 pm timeslot.

TV: Three Wishes

TV doesn't get any more sentimental than this show, the latest entrant in the Queen for a Day subdivision of reality TV.

Host Amy Grant and her team (made up of veterans of assorted home makeover shows on TLC) visit a different town in each episode and make wishes come true for three people.

We start in Sonora, California, where a 10-year-old girl needs major facial reconstruction after an auto accident; a 13-year-old boy wants to do something special for his stepfather; and the high school cheerleading squad wants to repair the school's dangerously inadequate football field as a tribute to their coach, who's in the hospital with acute leukemia.

With the help of other townspeople and lots (and I mean lots) of corporate-sponsor product placement, all the wishes come true.

Yes, it's sentimental and emotionally manipulative and cheesy as hell. But at the end of the show, when that boy is reading his message of love to his new father, on stage in front of the whole town, I admit my eyes got misty, and I am not easily moved to tears.

I'm not likely to keep watching; I don't find the philanthrotainment genre terribly interesting as a rule, and this one in particular contains even more "let's all pray" and "thank god" stuff than most, which I find annoying. (I assume that's because Christian singer Grant is not only the host, but one of the producers.) But for those who do enjoy this sort of TV, Three Wishes should certainly meet their needs.

TV: Criminal Minds

CBS gives us the exploits of a team of profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. These are the people whose job is to analyze the clues left by serial killers and figure out what type of person the cops are looking for. In the pilot, we're on the trail of "The Seattle Strangler," who kidnaps young women and keeps them for about a week before strangling them and dumping the bodies; there are, at most, 36 hours to find him before he kills his current victim.

The team is headed by Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin), returning to the field six months after a "major depressive episode" triggered by the death of a colleague during the capture of a killer. On the team: Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson), an expert in interview techniques; Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore), who specializes in obsessive crimes; Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), the team's young, socially awkward genius; and Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini), whose expertise is in sexual offenders.

One of the reasons I don't watch many crime shows is that in recent years, they seem to be less about showing us the work of the officers and more about showing us the work of the criminals, with as much punishment and degradation of the victims as possible. The first episode of Criminal Minds is less obnoxious in that regard than some, but there are still a lot of lingering shots of a woman in a cage, and closeups of her nails being cut with enormous clippers (so that she can't claw the duct tape from her eyes).

If you're less bothered by that sort of thing than I am, then your enjoyment of the show will probably be in direct proportion to your tolerance for Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin is given to acting on a large, theatrical scale -- he could find a way to overact if his character were in a coma -- and this show is no exception; he strides across the room, declaiming his profile of the suspect as if it were "to be or not to be." If the rest of the show were similarly scaled, he might get away with it, but the rest of the actors are giving more naturalistic performances.

The show's well made, but like E-Ring and the already cancelled Head Games, will likely need to be moved to another timeslot if it's to survive; Wednesday at 9 will be owned by Lost.

(On a purely shallow level, Thomas Gibson is finally starting to show a few lines on his face, to nice effect; and my goodness, but Shemar Moore is a handsome man!)

TV: Love Inc.

This sitcom takes us inside a New York dating agency.

Clea (Holly Robinson Peete) is the owner, recently separated from her own husband. Denise (Busy Philipps) and Francine (Reagan Gomez-Preston) are the agency's matchmakers, or "wingwomen," as the show puts it; they accompany clients to bars and advise them on what they're doing wrong. Viviana (Ion Overman) is the receptionist, devoted to getting one of their male clients to marry her so she can get a green card; Barry (Vince Vieluf) is the none-too-bright photographer.

The cast is certainly likable enough, and there's an occasional funny joke. Nothing especially memorable, and it's never going to be a great sitcom, but it's harmless and not offensively awful.

BOOKS: Live! From Planet Earth, George Alec Effinger (2005)

SF story collection from the late Effinger, who never quite reached the level of fame that he deserved. Other writers admired him immensely, and each story here gets a short introduction from a different author; when you've got Michael Bishop, Neil Gaiman, Howard Waldrop, Jack Dann, and Gardner Dozois (among others) singing your praises, you must be doing something right.

There are some fine stories here, such as "All the Last Wars at Once," a darkly comic story which takes identity politics to its logical conclusion; or "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything," a lighter tale of what must be the most annoying invasion in SF history.

Among Effinger's gifts is a dazzling talent for pastiche. The first half of the astonishing "Two Sadnesses" is a perfect imitation of A.A. Milne's style and tone (though Milne could never have imagined the subject matter); though I haven't read The Wind in the Willows, I trust that the second half of "Two Sadnesses" is just as good an evocation of Kenneth Grahame.

Then there are the "O. Niemand" stories. There are seven of them (plus a poem), originally published under that pseudonym -- "niemand" is the German word for "nobody" -- and each written in the style of a great American author. These are not parodies; Effinger isn't mocking the style of Thurber or Twain. He's re-creating them, paying homage; if those authors had written SF, these are the stories they'd have written. "The Man Outside," after Steinbeck, and the Flannery O'Connor-styled "Put Your Hands Together," are particularly fine pieces, and would be memorable stories even without the stylistic accomplishment.

Live! From Planet Earth is a marvelous collection, and if you're not familiar with Effinger's work, you should be. The editor's preface says that there are enough stories not included here for at least one more volume, which is something to look forward to.

MOVIES: Just Like Heaven (Mark Waters, 2005)

Just your average boy-gets-ghost story, with a weird political subtext.

Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) is a hard-working ER doctor, dedicated to her career at the expense of any personal life. She's headed to her sister's for a blind date, after a 26-hour shift at work, when her car is smashed by a truck. Fade to white...

...and cut to David (Mark Ruffalo), who's subletting Elizabeth's fabulous San Francisco apartment, and is horrified when Elizabeth's spirit appears, wanting to know what he's doing in her home. She doesn't realize at first that she is a spirit, and seems to be suffering from amnesia about the details of her life.

From here, the story goes about where you'd expect: David and Elizabeth bicker as David (who is, of course, the only one who can see Elizabeth) tries to figure out why she's still here and how to get rid of her, but they gradually fall in love.

OK, if you're the sort who's sensitive to spoilers, you should stop reading right now.

Because I'm going to be talking about a plot twist that you might not want to know about.

Note that I'm being kind enough to take my time getting there, so you have lots of time to STOP READING if you don't like to know that sort of thing.

So if you're still reading, I don't want to hear any "how could you give that away" nonsense, all right?

Turns out that Elizabeth isn't actually dead; she's in a coma after that car crash. It's been three months and her big sister is about to pull the plug. And suddenly we're in some weird Jeb Bush fantasy as David and Elizabeth's spirit fight to stop Elizabeth's body from being taken off life support.

There's not much suspense in the ending, or anywhere in the movie, for that matter; it is a romantic comedy, after all, and we know that David and Elizabeth have to wind up together and live Happily Ever After. As such things go, though, this is adequately done (if you can get past being clubbed upside the head with the pro-life-support message), and Witherspoon and Ruffalo, two of our most likable actors, do a lot to sell the story's most implausible moments.

This is director Mark Waters' third straight film that's better than it really deserved to be (it follows the Freaky Friday remake and Mean Girls), and it will be interesting to see what he does when he gets his hands on a decent script.

BOOKS: Banned Book Week

Banned Book Week begins today, a time to remember that there are still those who would censor the ideas they don't like. The American Library Association's list of the 100 most-challenged books follows; I've marked the ones I've read in bold. How many have you read?

1. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
2. Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
7. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
8. Forever by Judy Blume
9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
10. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
11. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
12. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
15. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
16. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
17. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
19. Sex by Madonna
20. Earth’s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
21. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
22. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
23. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
24. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
25. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
26. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
27. The Witches by Roald Dahl (Yay!)
28. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
29. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
30. The Goats by Brock Cole
31. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
32. Blubber by Judy Blume
33. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
34. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
35. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
36. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
37. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
38. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
39. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
40. What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
41. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
42. Beloved by Toni Morrison
43. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
44. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
45. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
46. Deenie by Judy Blume
47. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
48. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
49. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
50. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
51. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
53. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
54. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
55. Cujo by Stephen King
56. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
57. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
58. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
59. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
60. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
61. What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
62. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
63. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
64. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
65. Fade by Robert Cormier
66. Guess What? by Mem Fox
67. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
68. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
71. Native Son by Richard Wright
72. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies by Nancy Friday
73. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
74. Jack by A.M. Homes
75. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
76. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
77. Carrie by Stephen King
78. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
79. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
80. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
81. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
82. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
83. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
84. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
85. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
86. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
87. Private Parts by Howard Stern
88. Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford
89. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
90. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
91. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
93. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
94. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
95. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
96. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
97. View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
98. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
99. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

September 23, 2005

TV: Invasion

Third of this year's alien invasion shows, and the best first episode of the bunch. Creepy, with lots of mysteries to be figured out -- a very nice companion for Lost.

The show's creators would surely have wished for better timing for their first episode, which is built around the arrival of Hurricane Eve in Homestead, Florida. The show quickly introduces a large group of characters. Russell is a park ranger in the Everglades; his ex-wife Mariel is chief of staff at Homestead Hospital. They have two kids, 15-year-old Jesse and 7-year-old Rose, and Russell's new wife Larkin, a TV reporter, is pregnant with their first. Larkin's chronically unemployed brother, Dave, lives with them. Mariel is now married to Tom, the sheriff, who has a 16-year-old daughter, Kira, from his own first marriage.

Rose gets caught in the storm, looking for her cat, and sees some mysterious lights sinking into the lake; she and her uncle Dave go out the next day to explore, and Dave finds what he believes to be evidence of an "EBE" -- an extraterrestrial biological entity. Russell doesn't take that too seriously at first -- Dave is, after all, a bit of a conspiracy nut -- but when they are attacked by a large creature (which we don't get to see) in the lake, he begins to believe.

Mariel gets lost in the storm and is found by the lake the next morning, naked but otherwise unharmed; we are led to believe that she has been somehow changed in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kinda way. ("Mommy, you smell different," says Rose.) A local priest seems to have gone through a similar transformation, and a bit of ambiguous dialogue at the end of the first episode raises the possibility that sheriff Tom is also possessed and has been for some time, suggesting that he is some sort of advance scout for the aliens who arrived during the hurricane. (Tom is played by William Fichtner, who has just the right sort of "is he a creep or isn't he" face to heighten the ambiguity.)

Are there aliens in Homestead? Can Dave and Russell figure out why they're here? What has gotten into Mariel? Is Tom a bad guy? (Yes; eventually; the aliens, natch; of course he is -- if you ask me.) All will no doubt be revealed, very slowly, and with any luck, Invasion can keep the suspense ratcheted up with as much success as Lost has had.

September 22, 2005

TV: E-Ring

The E-Ring is the outermost of the Pentagon's five rings; it's where the top officers work and plan missions. (I would have thought that the most sensitive stuff should be on the innermost layer of the building, just for security reasons, but hey, no one asked me...)

Among those officers is Major J.T. Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt), who's just back from 14 months in Afghanistan and is called into work a week ahead of schedule by his new commanding officer, Colonel Eli McNulty (Dennis Hopper). A Chinese woman, working in Shanghai as a US spy, has signaled for extraction, and Tisnewski and McNulty have to get the mission approved.

And in that phrase -- "have to get the mission approved" -- we find the biggest problem with E-Ring. Our principal characters are too high up the ladder to actually carry out the mission -- that's left to an anonymous Navy Seal team -- and too far down the ladder to approve the mission, themselves. We're left with a show about middle management, watching McNulty and Tisnewski work their way through the bureaucracy to get things done, and no matter how exotic the setting, middle management doesn't make for great TV.

Neither does Benjamin Bratt's performance, which is overly melodramatic, with each line milked for ever drop of emotion that might be found. Dennis Hopper, on the other hand, is relatively subdued and understated. The most appealing member of the cast is Aunjanue Ellis as Sergeant Jocelyn Pierce; the role threatens to teeter into cliched sassy-black-woman territory, but I think Ellis will be able to keep that from happening.

In one of the season's most competitive time slots, up against five other dramas, including Lost and Veronica Mars, E-Ring isn't worth the bother.

BOOKS: Stiff, Mary Roach (2003)

People have been telling me for two years now that I had to read this book, but I was so put off by the subject matter -- the medical and scientific uses to which human corpses have been put over the years -- that I resisted. Silly me. Stiff turns out to be a charming, tastefully written, and surprisingly funny book, covering a wide range of unexpected ways that cadavers have benefited humanity.

There are the obvious uses, of course -- donation to medical schools for use in anatomy labs or plastic surgery practice sessions; organ donations -- but a host of more offbeat applications as well. Human bodies have been used to calibrate crash-test dummies, crucified to help test the validity of the Shroud of Turin, and even (in less enlightened ages) used to make medicine.

What lies down the road? A Swedish company has been exploring the possibilities of using human bodies in compost heaps; a research facility in Tennessee studies the decay rates of unpreserved bodies as an aid to forensics experts.

Yes, there were moments when I was creeped out, but Roach is well aware of the ookiness of her topic, and she does a marvelous of minimizing the gross-out factor through humor, and honest descriptions of her own reactions when visiting assorted labs and research facilities.

A very pleasant surprise.

TV: The Apprentice: Martha Stewart

As you may recall, I was not overly fond of Martha Stewart's new daytime talk show. I thought she was cold, abrasive, and domineering, all of which had me looking forward to her version of The Apprentice, a show on which cold, abrasive, and domineering might actually be assets.

So what does Martha do? She glides through week one of The Apprentice with charm, a sense of humor, cheerful spirits, and even a touch of warmth. She was barely recognizable as the same person. This Martha would never have scolded her mother for crying at her own birthday party.

The show itself isn't much changed from the Donald Trump version. Sixteen Martha wannabes arrive and are divided into two teams (Martha asked them to divide themselves into teams, a new twist) who compete in various business tasks; the winning team gets a reward and the losing team joins Martha in the conference room, where one of them will be fired.

Or not. The word "fired" never actually crosses Martha's lips. "One of you will be sent home," she says, or "one of you will be asked to leave." When the moment of truth arrives, rather than the brusque "you're fired" that Donald barks out each week, Martha gently tells the departing candidate, "You just don't fit in." And after he leaves, Martha whips out pen and fine stationery to write him a personalized farewell letter.

(No, really, she does; I know that sounds like a bad "How obsessed with propriety is Martha?" joke, but she actually writes a goodbye note.)

The first task certainly wasn't anything Donald would have assigned. The teams met Martha at the offices of Random House and were told to write a children's book, updating a classic fairy tale to be "relevant" to modern children. As is often the case on The Apprentice, it was clear in about ten minutes which team would win and who'd be going home; Team Matchstick was obviously in trouble from the time their leader decided that their Hansel & Gretel update would be written in verse. Page one included a stanza rhyming "Skittles" with "vittles;" good thinking, that -- choosing one word that will require expensive trademark fees and one word that the average six-year-old has never heard.

Is the show worth watching? Well, admittedly, the Apprentice shtick is starting to wear a bit thin, but if you're still enjoying Donald's version, or if you're a fan of Martha, this one should be fun, and it will be interesting to see whether Martha's tasks continue to be so different from Donald's. I'll keep watching, being an utter slut for reality TV, but I do wonder where the icy dominatrix of daytime has gone to, and I sort of hope she'll show up before The Apprentice comes to an end.

September 21, 2005

TV: My Name Is Earl

Here's another sitcom that feels a bit out of place on its network; NBC tends to be very blue-state, and you won't find a more red-state sitcom than My Name Is Earl. We're somewhere in rural America, and our main characters are -- at best -- working class, struggling to make ends meet.

Earl thinks he's solved his problems when he buys a $100,000 lottery ticket; unfortunately, he almost immediately loses the ticket. A late-night talk show introduces Earl to the notion of karma, and Earl decides that if he wants good things to happen to him, he has to start doing good things. To that end, he draws up a list of all the wrongs he's done, setting out to atone for each one. In the first episode, Earl decides to do the nicest thing he can think of for the kid he used to bully in school: He's going to get the guy laid. Things Go Awry and Zaniness Ensues. (Well, what'd you expect? This is a sitcom, after all.)

Earl is played to perfection by Jason Lee, who finds the warmth and likability in a character who could have been a creepy low-life. He's surrounded by a fine supporting cast, all of whom hit just the right tone; Ethan Suplee is especially good as Earl's even less ambitious brother, Randy. The writing is very funny, and the whole thing is vaguely reminiscent of Raising Arizona, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay to a comedy.

September 20, 2005

TV: Kitchen Confidential

And Fox completes Monday's set of new sitcoms with this entry, based very loosely on Anthony Bourdain's memoir about life as a chef in an upscale restaurant.

It's Jack Bourdain (played by Bradley Cooper of Alias and Jack & Bobby) here, and he's hired to run the kitchen at Nolita. He's got only two days to hire a staff and put together a menu (this is not a particularly realistic look at the restaurant world). And so we rapidly assemble a team: British sous-chef Steven (Owain Yeoman), pastry chef Seth (Nicholas Brendon), insecure novice Jim (John Francis Daley), and bimbo hostess Tanya (Jaime King). Waiting for Jack to fail so she can take over is Mimi (Bonnie Somerville), the owner's daughter.

First episodes are tricky; you've got to introduce the characters, set up the premise, and tell an interesting story. This one shortchanged the characters; they're even less well-defined than usual for a first show. The show's got potential, though it's a bit frantically paced for my taste. Certainly the weakest of the night's new comedies, but worth giving a few weeks to see how it develops, I think.

TV: How I Met Your Mother

How can this show be on CBS? All of the show's characters are under 35.

Except for the narrator, that is. The show opens in 2030, as two bored teenagers listen to their father (the off-screen voice of Bob Saget) explain how he met Mom 25 years ago.

That father is Ted (Josh Radnor), and in 2005, he's beginning to worry that life is passing him by, a worry brought on by the engagement of his best friends Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan). Ted's hanging out at the local bar with pal Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, continuing to re-invent his image, post-Doogie) when he sees a beautiful girl across the room.

She's Robin (Cobie Smulders), and the tumultuous courtship of Ted and Robin will be our principal plotline, at least for a little while; it's clear by the end of the first episode that Robin isn't actually the "your mother" of the show's title.

The show is a little bit Seinfeld, a little bit Friends, and though there's nothing especially original about it, it's got a very likable cast (Hannigan, in particular, is just as adorable here as she was on Buffy, which is no small feat), and the flashback narration isn't overdone. The characters are realistically quirky, and it should be fun to watch the show develop the relationships among them. A solid B.

TV: Out of Practice

From Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, two of the writers of Frasier, we get this new sitcom about a mildly dysfunctional family of doctors.

Well, mostly doctors, anyway. Ben (Christopher Gorham) isn't an M.D., but a couples therapist, and his family never lets him forget that he's not a "real" doctor. Brother Oliver (Ty Burrell) is a plastic surgeon, and sister Regina (Paula Marshall, veteran of many many short-lived TV shows) is an ER doctor. The Barnes parents, Stewart (Henry Winkler) and Lydia (Stockard Channing) -- gastroenterologist and cardiologist, respectively -- are recently divorced, and still squabbling whenever they find themselves in the same room.

First episode features (as did some of the finest Frasier shows) the farce of crossed conversations; everyone except Ben knows that Ben's wife is leaving him; everyone except Lydia knows that Stewart is having an affair with his secretary, Crystal (a very funny performance by Jennifer Tilly, which is a good sign, because I usually can't stand her). Lloyd and Keenan write this sort of "who are you talking about?" conversation very well, and the cast has just the right comic timing to make it work.

Characters are a bit one-dimensional at this point. Lydia's brittle; Stewart's ineffectual; Oliver's a shallow womanizer; Regina's a slightly less shallow womanizer (yes, she's a lesbian). Ben, as the central "voice of reason" character, is slightly bland. But that's par for the course for a first episode, and there's certainly enough talent here to make me very hopeful. This one could turn into something really good.

September 19, 2005

TV: Just Legal

Another second of its type for the season, this one in the legal odd-couple family.

We first meet David "Skip" Ross (Jay Baruchel), 18-year-old prodigy who's already been graduated from law school and passed the bar; none of the big firms in downtown LA will hire him because he's just a kid. He occasionally gets hired to write briefs for Grant Cooper (Don Johnson), a functional alcoholic who scrapes by on court appointments (which he invariably settles) and hasn't actually argued a case in court in years.

The formula here is obvious: Skip and Grant wind up working together; Grant gives Skip some street smarts and toughness; Skip gives Grant some idealism about justice and the law. Within the limitations of that formula, though, the show's not bad.

I never watched Johnson in Miami Vice or Nash Bridges, and have always had the general impression that he's a bit of a joke as an actor. He's certainly not brilliant -- Gandolfini and Sutherland needn't worry about losing their Emmy spots, I think -- but he's got a nice, laidback charm, and he's letting his age work for him; his voice has gotten a bit raspy, and he's got a tired look that suits the character.

Not a groundbreaking show, but pleasant enough entertainment, and off to a better start than the other legal-team drama, Head Cases.

TV: Surface

The second of this fall's "weird creatures out there" shows, following Threshold.

This time, it's sea monsters, discovered roughly simultaneously by several people scattered about the US. Laura Daugherty (Lake Bell) is an oceanographer exploring in the northern Pacific when she sees what she thinks may be a new vertebrate. Aleksandr Cirko (Rade Sherbedgia) is a mysterious government scientist trying to hush up Daugherty's find, and examining what appear to be enormous bite marks on a nuclear submarine found several thousand miles off course in the Antarctic. Richard Connelly (Jay R. Ferguson) is a Louisiana fisherman, wracked with guilt after his brother is killed in a diving accident by some large creature. And Miles Bennett (Carter Jenkins) is a San Diego teen who finds lots of strange eggs floating in the sea, and brings one home with him.

The first episode bounces back and forth among these stories; Daugherty and Cirko are the only principal characters who meet, and that only briefly. But by the end of the show, most of them are headed for South Carolina, where a large carcass has washed up on shore, and the government is doing its best to keep anyone from seeing it.

Surface moves really slowly; the storytelling is often murky; and the refusal to let us see the creature clearly is already annoying (lots of long-range, out-of-focus shots). And oddly enough, making the creature terrestrial in origin makes the story feel even more implausible than the aliens of Threshold; if this thing has been down there long enough to get that big, surely someone would have noticed it before now. Not a good start.

September 18, 2005

TV: Martha

Ah, my loyal readers, my faithful fans! How willing am I to sacrifice for you? How much do I love you? So much that I actually watched the entire first week of Martha Stewart's new daytime talk show, that's how much.

And it wasn't easy, let me tell you. Martha's trying desperately hard this time around to be light, witty, and charming; she simply isn't capable of it. Martha is so cold a presence that she even makes David Spade (Tuesday's guest) look warm and cuddly.

To her credit, Martha is not hiding from her recent prison experience; the opening credits montage includes a photo of her leaving the courthouse after her conviction, and she makes frequent reference to the experience. Her segment with Spade, in fact, was "microwave recipes I learned at Alderson," and Monday's show opened with a poorly thought-out gag about her entire staff wearing ankle bracelets so that she can keep track of them.

And occasionally, Martha's attempts at self-deprecation work; it's witty, for instance, that the "Martha" T-shirt included in audience gift bags has T-shirt folding instructions printed on the back.

The problem, though, is Martha's need for control. Most of Martha's cooking/crafting with guests segments -- making scrambled eggs with Marcia Cross (whom Martha repeatedly called "Bree," her character's name on Desperate Housewives), container gardening with Susan Lucci, making Chinese dumplings with Sean "Diddy" Combs -- eventually devolve into Martha barking at her guests, "No, do it this way!" (Combs was the week's most surprising guest; as embarassing as it must have been to have to give Martha "Rap 101" lessons, he was charming and poised throughout.)

Even worse was Friday's show, a 91st birthday party for Martha's mother, "Big Martha." As a surprise, Martha brought out some of her mother's old friends, including one woman Mom hadn't seen for 15 years. Not surprisingly, Big Martha reacted emotionally, and Martha snapped at her, "Mom, we talked about this. Don't cry, Mom. Cry later."

That's also a reflection of Martha's need to make everything about herself. A segment on the destruction in New Orleans, for instance, turned into a reminiscence about Martha's favorite shops and restaurants; the message was "A city has been destroyed; it's so tragic what I've lost!"

I admit that I'm still looking forward to Martha's new version of The Apprentice, because I think her icy dominatrix persona might actually be well suited to that show. But a daytime talk show with celebrity guests and a live audience is not the right format for Martha, and it's hard to imagine that people will keep tuning in to watch a mean-spirited control freak bitch at her guests for their incompetence.

September 17, 2005

TV: Twins

This is the first time I've set the goal of watching at least one episode of each of the new fall TV series. There are a few I don't have terribly high expectations for, and Twins was one such. It is, therefore, a surprise to report that it's not utterly wretched; it's just uninspired and bland.

Sara Gilbert and Molly Stanton star as twin sisters Mitchee and Farrah, who are about to be given joint control of the family's lingerie company. Mitchee is the brains, and designs most of the company's garments; Farrah is the beauty, and the company's lead model. Their feuding parents are played by Mark Linn-Baker and Melanie Griffith, and their physical contrast is supposed to help make Gilbert and Stanton more plausible as twins. (It doesn't.)

Twins is not an ambitious show; it's content, for instance, to get most of its laughs in the first five minutes from the repetition of the phrase "butt-pucker." The pretty-sister/plain-sister jokes are stale, and ironically, Gilbert's character is so much less neurotic and tightly wound than many she's played in the past that while she's certainly no bombshell, she's much prettier here than she's ever been.

The depressing thing is that Twins is just so lazy. Gilbert and Linn-Baker are experienced, talented sitcom veterans; Griffith doesn't quite have the right timing for TV yet, but is otherwise quite good in her role. The show is created by the team who gave us Will & Grace, so there's certainly some talent behind the scenes. And yet the show just sits there, content to be mediocre. What a waste.

MOVIES: Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005)

Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn, Benjamin Bratt -- these are good actors, and they all do good work here. (I know, some of you are snickering at the inclusion of Reeves in such company, but he's perfectly cast, and his scenes are among the movie's funniest.)

But the story is yet another Quirky Indie about a disaffected, aimless 17-year-old, and there's nothing fresh or distinctive about it, nothing to distinguish it from the dozen other such movies we get every year. The whole movie is an exercise in been-there-done-that, and it's not helped by Mills' choice to score the movie with songs by the Polyphonic Spree, whose twee orchestral-choral shtick has gone from hip to cliched faster than any band in recent memory.

At best, you should wait for this one to pop up on cable.

TV: Threshold

This alien-invasion drama got off to a fine start with a terrific 2-hour premiere. Friday night has long been a graveyard for dramas, especially SF dramas (the Sci-Fi Channel could run for a year on Fox's dead Friday night series alone), so this will probably either die quickly or eventually be moved to a different night.

Carla Gugino stars as Molly Caffrey, a "contingency analyst" whose job it is to prepare instructions for getting through various worst-case scenarios -- natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and such. She's summoned by the government and told that her "Threshold" scenario has come into play.

Threshold is a first-contact scenario, and Caffrey is ordered by the Deputy National Security Advisor (Charles S. Dutton) to assemble a "red team" of experts to investigate what appears to be the arrival of extraterrestrial intelligence. Caffrey's team: forensic biologist and former 60s radical Nigel Fenway (Brent Spiner), nervous young engineer Lucas Pegg (Rob Benedict), and womanizing, boozing linguist/mathematician Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage), all of them under the protection of mysterious government agent Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt).

The alien ship appears in the sky near a small Navy ship, and there are many mysteries for Caffrey and her team to solve. How did half of the crew compleletly disappear? What's happened to the only survivor found on board (William Mapother, even creepier here than he was in Lost last season)? Have the aliens infected the missing crew members (and maybe even some of Caffrey's team) somehow, and to what purpose?

There's always room for nervousness when a show sets up a large mystery; it's not easy to keep that kind of suspense going for very long without the audience feeling either cheated by the lack of answers (Lost, for instance, is teetering right of the edge of that pit), or disappointed by the answers when they are revealed. Further cause for worry is that the executive producer of Threshold is Brannon Braga, blamed by many fans for the decline of the Star Trek franchise during the Voyager and Enterprise years.

But boy, those first two hours were fun. The cast is solid (with the exception of Van Holt, who is stiff and awkward, and out of his league in this group); the characters, if still a bit thin at this early stage, have the potential to develop into interesting people; and the final image of the premiere is a nifty chiller. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

September 14, 2005

TV: Head Cases

Jason Payne (Chris O'Donnell) is a high-powered attorney who cracks under the stress and has a nervous breakdown. When he's released from the institution, his shrink assigns him a "buddy" with the idea that the two will provide support for each other at moments of crisis. That buddy is Russell Shultz (Adam Goldberg), also a lawyer, who suffers from "explosive disorder," which seems to mean that he loses his temper a lot and has a tendency to hit people. Jason gets fired from the law firm of Fancy & Pants, and by the end of the first episode, Payne & Shultz have set up a lovely little beachfront law office together.

Admittedly, the first episode was nothing special, playing like a lesser product of the David E. Kelley quirky-law-show factory. I am a sucker for courtroom drama, though, and would expect there to be more of that in future episodes; this one spent a lot of time introducing the non-legal sides of the characters. I'm also a big fan of Adam Goldberg, and of Richard Kind, who joins the cast next week as their paralegal. And I like the chemistry between O'Donnell and Goldberg; once the writers feel comfortable enough with the characters to let them be more than just two bundles of mental quirks, their relationship might be interesting. So I am inclined to be a bit more charitable to this one, and will give it a few weeks in hopes that it develops into something interesting.

September 13, 2005

TV: Bones

The forensics craze continues with this new entry from Fox, a younger, hipper version of the CSI franchise.

Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a forensic anthropologist who works at the "Jeffersonian Institute" in Washington, DC, and is often loaned out to work with the FBI on its cases. Most often, she's partnered with Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), who admires her skills, but doesn't really think that scientists can be of any real help in solving murders. (He calls Brennan and her team "squints," a bit of jargon that's already annoying after only one show.)

Brennan has three sidekicks/colleagues. Jack (TJ Thyne) is the insect expert and conspiracy freak; Zack (Eric Millegan) is the young prodigy; Angela (Michaela Conlin) is the scientist who re-creates the crimes with her nifty 3-D hologram projector ("patent pending"). They're better developed characters than supporting players usually are in week one, and Conlin is especially good; she's like a young, pretty, non-annoying version of Illeana Douglas.

The show is certainly nicely put together; Temperance and Seeley have one of those bickering-to-hide-the-sexual-tension relationships, and Deschanel and Boreanaz make that work fairly well. If you're a fan of the forensics genre, this will probably keep you happy. But I'm not especially fond of the genre, and I'll stick with Gilmore Girls in this time slot, thank you.

MOVIES: Touch the Sound (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2004)

"Sound is who I am." Those are the first words we hear from percussionist Evelyn Glennie in this documentary. "It's what makes me tick as a human being."

Glennie is the world's foremost classical percussionist, and the first (perhaps still the only) to make a full-time career of the job. She tours the world giving solo performances and performing percussion concertos, many written specifically for her, with top orchestras.

If you're not familiar with her career, it will come as something of a shock when you learn, about 20 minutes into the movie, that Glennie is almost completely deaf; she began losing her hearing at age 8, and it was nearly gone by 12. She began studying percussion, and found that she could "hear" -- she'd object to those quote marks, I think -- different pitches by the way they resonate at different places in her body. However it works, her sense of pitch is good enough that she's able to sing in tune with other instruments.

The music we hear throughout the film is by Glennie, most of it improvised, and despite her formidable performance technique, most of it dull. There are some exceptions -- a mournful duet for Glennie (on marimba) and electric guitarist Fred Frith, a marvelous rehearsal with a group of Japanese Taiko drummers, a solo performed in a small Tokyo nightclub with a pair of chopsticks and the empty dishes from her meal -- but most of the music is meandering and unfocused.

That's true of the film as a whole, too. Too often, Riedelsheimer fills the screen with cliched nature images -- leaves rustling in the breeze, waves crashing on the beach, ripples in a pond -- as the music plays, instead of letting us watch the musicians at work. And we follow Glennie from place to place, but with no sense of chronology; the scenes feel almost entirely disconnected from one another, random snapshots from Glennie's life.

Glennie herself is a fascinating woman (though she tends to be a bit on the New Age-y side for my tastes, going on about how music and sound are just as important as breathing and such nonsense), and if you're a fan, as I am, the movie's worth seeing just to watch her at work and marvel at her skill. But if you don't come into the movie already a fan, I fear you'll be bored to death.

September 12, 2005

BOOKS, Reading "Six Feet Under," Kim Akass & Janet McCabe, eds. (2005)

I think it's terrific when TV and pop culture are taken seriously as a form of literature, and subjected to the same kinds of analysis that novels are. And the essays in this book certainly do that, treating Six Feet Under with immense respect as a significant work of television.

But oh my lord, the academic jargon is dense here; these authors have been professors for so long that they're no longer capable of speaking comprehensible English. An example, chosen by opening the book to a random page:
Russell's queer identity emerges precisely through his refusal to claim an identity with an essence. The illegibility of his sexuality produces a queer positionality, and his rejection of his only heteronormative options constitute his resistance to heteronormativity.

Or this:
Six Feet Under's complicance with and departure from television conventions reveals to me how female subjectivity emerges as fluid, unstable and contingent precisely because it is represented in aesthetic and narrative forms that say it is. In the liminal spaces of the series -- its themes of death, its playing with conventions, introducing a character like Claire in the process of becoming -- might we see the television discourse preparing for another kind of subjectivity, another discourse?

It's as if it's been badly translated from some alien language. Not worth slogging through unless you're an obsessively devoted fan of the show.

September 11, 2005

TV: The War at Home

First of all, let's fire whoever it was at Fox who completely overlooked the possible insensitivity of debuting a show with this title on September 11. Oy...

The show itself combines bits and pieces of lots of other Fox family sitcoms. It's got the talking-to-the-camera shtick from Malcolm in the Middle and Bernie Mac; the "ooh, aren't we edgy!" sensibility of -- well, pretty much every Fox sitcom; the parents-vs.-kids topic matter of Grounded for Life (which started at Fox before moving to the WB for its final years).

The parents this time are played by Michael Rapaport and Anita Barone, and they're coping with three kids. Hillary is 16, screams "I HATE YOU!" a lot, and likes to freak out her parents by dating boys they won't like. Larry is 15, and his parents think he might be gay (which is milked for way too many really unpleasant jokes). Mike is 13, and the schemer of the family.

The actors are very good, but the writing is on the trashy side and the jokes aren't especially funny (and you'd think that the first episode would be the one they'd spent the most time on). Nice comfy timeslot between The Simpsons and Family Guy, but I won't be surprised to see this one moved or cancelled early in the season.

MOVIES: Côte d'Azur (Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau, 2005)

Marc and Beatrix are vacationing at the seaside cottage where Marc spent his own youthful summers with his family. Their son Charly is with them, and he's invited his friend Martin to spend a few days. Beatrix thinks Charly is gay; Marc thinks she's crazy; neither is particularly bothered by the idea that he might be. Martin is gay, and certainly wishes that Charly were, too.

As if that's not enough, Mathieu, Beatrix's lover from the city, shows up, expecting her to make time for him; there's a hunky plumber, Didier, who gets involved in the family's romantic intrigue.

It's all very French. Everyone is terribly attractive, terribly sophisticated, and terribly blasé about such things as infidelity and sex with underage boys.

What it isn't, I'm afraid, is very memorable. It's a competently made piece of fluff, and it may keep you mildly amused while it's happening, but you'll have forgotten it entirely in half an hour.

BOOKS: Fallen, David Maine (2005)

We all know the stories of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel. But we only know them in sketchy outline, because that's all the Bible has room to give us. In Fallen, David Maine offers a fleshed-out version of those stories, and it's a sharp, sly, witty family portrait, occasionally irreverent without ever becoming sacrilegious.

Cain and Abel are in conflict from the beginning, brothers whose personalities simply don't mesh. Cain is the dark, brooding one, given to suspicion. Abel's personality is sunnier, but he tends to bossiness; his two favorite phrases, Maine tells us, are "you should" and "you shouldn't."

As for Adam and Eve, they are constantly haunted by the expulsion from the Garden of Eden; their new life is difficult, and they struggle to reconcile their guilt over having eaten the forbidden fruit with their anger at God for setting up such a trap for them in the first place.

Maine draws strong parallels between God's treatment of Adam and Eve, and Adam's treatment of his own children. We learn how to be parents from the way we were raised, after all; and Adam is just as given to cryptic pronouncements and "because I said so, that's why" as God ever was.

And Maine lets his characters contemplate the theological puzzles raised by their own story. Eve tries to solve the riddle of the serpent, for example:
This is what keeps her up nights. No matter how many times she goes around with it, in never quite coalesces into anything logical.

If she had been taught to sin, who then taught her? God and Adam were her only companions. As for the serpent, she had seen him only the one time. And besides, if the serpent was evil, what was it doing in the Garden in the first place?

Far more likely, then, that Eve was born a sinner; of if not born exactly, then created with some flaw that led her astray as surely as a snake, born legless, will crawl on the ground. But in that case, how can she be held accountable for her acts? It's as mad as blaming the snake for its lack of legs.

There's a surprising amount of humor in the book, too, as when strangers move into the area, and Cain and Abel try to figure out where exactly they came from.

Maine's first novel, The Preservationist, was a re-telling of the Noah story (and is also a fine piece of work); if he chooses to continue in this vein, there are certainly enough Bible stories to keep him occupied for many books to come. Both books are highly recommended.

September 10, 2005

TV: Everybody Hates Chris

Another early look, this one courtesy of an "exclusive" DVD -- exclusive to me and anyone else who bought this week's issue of Entertainment Weekly, that is. The show premieres Thursday, 9/22 on UPN, in another of the season's most competitive timeslots (Alias, The O.C., Survivor, Joey/Will & Grace, Smallville).

UPN has very high hopes for this sitcom, expecting it to be their first breakout hit, and maybe even the show that pushes them past the WB into 5th place among the networks. It's basically the Chris Rock version of The Wonder Years, a look back at Rock's childhood in Brooklyn.

It's 1982, and Chris is 13; the family's just moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood from the projects. Chris's younger brother and sister go to the local elementary school, but Chris has to take two buses to the junior high in Brooklyn Beach, where he's the only black kid, because his mother thinks he'll get a better education there than at the "hoodlum school" in their neighborhood. "Not a Harvard education," says Rock, who narrates each episode, "but at least a not-robbing-liquor-stores education."

The cast is terrific, and Tyler James Williams is immensely likable as Chris. Even better are Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold as his parents. His father, Julius, knows the cost of everything (to Chris at bedtime: "Unplug that alarm clock, boy. You can't tell time when you're sleeping. That's two cents an hour!"), but has no idea what sort of juggling his wife, Rochelle, goes through to decide when to pay which bills every month ("I run this house the way the government runs the country -- on a deficit.").

The jokes are funny, and the show is honest about the difficulty of being just barely in the working class (Julius works two jobs; Chris has to wear his brother's good shoes to school). It's stuck in a miserable timeslot, but it just might be as good a show as UPN thinks it is, and if it lives up to the first episode, it'll be well worth watching.

TV: Supernatural

This one doesn't actually premiere until Tuesday night, but the WB has made the first episode available for viewing at Yahoo.

Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles -- each with experience as a supporting hunk on the WB (Gilmore Girls and Smallville, respectively) -- star as Sam and Dean Winchester. Twenty-two years ago, their mother was killed by a Mysterious Evil Creature; their father has devoted his life to hunting said Creature, and killing whatever other MECs he might come across in the process. He's trained his sons to follow in his path.

Sam, who was an infant when his mother was killed, wants to lead a normal life; he's left home, found a girlfriend, and is about to enter law school, when Dean shows up and announces that Dad's gone missing on his latest hunting expedition. Sam reluctantly joins his brother and they go off in search of Dad. By the end of the first episode, you will no doubt have guessed, Dad remains missing and Sam's agreed to ditch law school and join the search full-time.

So what we have is a sort of cross between Route 66 and The X-Files, as two handsome young men drive cross-country in their vintage car, fighting demons and ghosts and spirits and whatnot as they search for their father. I assume there will be some sort of ongoing mythology developed as the search continues, and perhaps a principal villain will be added, along the lines of Buffy's annual "Big Bad" (at the moment, the brothers are the show's only regular cast members).

The challenge of doing horror on TV is that you can only go so far in terms of violence and gore on a prime-time network show. Supernatural, at least in its first episode, pulls off the balancing act fairly well, with one or two jump-in-your-seat moments and special effects that are more effective and less cheesy than I'd expected. Ackles and Paderecki are believable as bickering brothers (though the bickering will have to be toned down, or it'll quickly get tiresome), and they are certainly pretty to look at.

The scheduling of the show is odd to me; it follows Gilmore Girls on Tuesday night, which isn't the most natural pairing. I'd have thought it a better fit with Smallville on Thursday night (and Smallville is paired with Everwood, which would fit much better with Gilmore Girls). It's also an extremely competitive timeslot; Tuesday at 9 also hosts House, The Amazing Race, Commander in Chief, and My Name Is Earl. I won't be surprised to see major shuffling of the WB schedule in a few weeks.

September 09, 2005

BOOKS: Music Lust, Nic Harcourt (2005)

From the same publisher who brought you Nancy Pearl's two Book Lust volumes (one of which I commented on here) comes a very similar book on music, this one by Nic Harcourt, a DJ at Santa Monica's KCRW. His show Morning Becomes Eclectic has a large following, and a good word from him can go a long way in jumpstarting a band's career.

The format is the same as in Pearl's book volumes -- lots of short chapters built around geography (great bands from Liverpool, Wales, Canada), family connections (brother/sister duos, husband/wife teams, sister pairs), genre (hip-hop, blues, Latin alternative rock), or some other connection.

One of the book's major flaws is also shared by Pearl's volumes: The descriptions of each album are often so brief that they aren't much help. It's a bit less problematic here, I think, because there's a larger common vocabulary of major musicians than there is of authors. Harcourt can refer, for instance, to the Beatles or to Frank Sinatra with a reasonable expectation that most of his readers will be at least vaguely familiar with their music; there are fewer authors who Pearl can use as points of comparison with similar expectations of mass understanding.

But the biggest problem with Harcourt's book is that it's not really that eclectic. There's a smattering of jazz, less pop, even less country, virtually no classical (Steve Reich gets a mention in a list of favorite instrumental albums), and lots and lots of rock. And most of that is at least a decade old, and of the tasteful, critically approved variety. Harcourt rarely surprises us with any risky choices of new bands we might not have heard of, or older bands he thinks deserve better reputations than they have. Surely a chapter on Canadian music, for instance, could come up with more surprising choices than the Guess Who, Barenaked Ladies, Gordon Lightfoot, Shania Twain, and k.d. lang.

Like Pearl's Book Lust volumes before it, though even more limited, Harcourt's Music Lust is a mildly interesting glimpse into one mind that would benefit from a more in-depth look at fewer titles.

September 08, 2005

TV: Reunion

Reunion premiered tonight on Fox. The show opens at a funeral, where we learn that one of a group of six friends has been brutally murdered; there is much linguistic hoop-jumping to keep us from finding out the gender of the deceased.

We flash back to 1986, as the six are graduating high school, and begin a standard-issue teen soap. Will and Craig are in a car accident; Will (who was sober) claims to have been driving so that Craig (who was drunk) won't lose his license, and gets sent to jail for a year when the driver of the other car dies. Samantha is Craig's girlfriend, but she's pregnant with Will's baby. Carla loves Aaron, but Aaron loves Jenna. Yadda yadda yadda.

The gimmick is that each episode will take place (primarily) in the next year of their lives (next week will be 1987), with occasional scenes set in the present as we watch Detective Marjorino (Six Feet Under's Mathew St. Patrick, the only actual actor in the cast) work on solving the case.

The same six models will play the lead characters over the 20-year period, as we watch their relationships develop and find out how they got to the point of violent murder. We only saw one of them in present-day makeup tonight, and it was not a good omen; the passing of 20 years was signified by a new haircut.

It's a great concept -- the long-term story arcs of Lost meet the "let's play with time" attitude of 24 -- but so far, it's just a teen soap with a hint of mystery overlaid, and it's not a particularly good soap at that. The most fun I had during the show was checking each of the many, many pop songs used as background music to make sure the show wasn't cheating by playing songs from later than 1986. (For the most part, they weren't, though there was one song that didn't start to get radio play until later in the year than the summer setting of the episode.)

September 03, 2005

BOOKS: Consequences, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (2004)

Third in the "Retrieval Artist" series.

The background to Rusch's series is a universe in which humanity is only one of many intelligent races. As part of being allowed to join the galactic community for trade and such, Earth has had to agree to one basic principle of justice: If you break the law on another planet, you're subject to its judicial system, no matter how draconian or barbaric it may be by the standards of your own culture.

This, of course, creates an underground network of Disappearance Artists, who are sort of the witness protection agents of the future; if you want to avoid punishment, a Disappearance Artist can -- for a sizable fee -- help you go into hiding with a new identity.

And where there are people trying to hide, there will be people trying to find them. Two types of people, in this case: Trackers, who are hired by various governments to track down fugitives from their justice; and Retrieval Artists, who are hired by families of the Disappeared to find them if it becomes safe for them to return.

Miles Flint, the main character in this series, is a Retrieval Artist, and as Consequences begins, he's been hired to find Carolyn Lahiri. Carolyn is unusual for a Disappeared, in that her crimes weren't against an alien society; she was wanted for her involvement in a civil war among the human settlers on the planet Etae. That war has ended, and the new government has pardoned all war criminals.

But shortly after her return, Carolyn and her parents are murdered, and Miles fears that if he doesn't solve the crime, he'll be the primary suspect. Heading up the investigation for the police is Noelle DeRicci, who was Miles' partner when he was still a cop.

It's not easy to write mystery novels against a science-fiction background; it's too easy for the writer to cheat by introducing some last-minute technobabble or previously unknown gizmo that allowed the crime to be committed in a way the reader could never have suspected. (Isaac Asimov's Baley & Olivaw mysteries are still, I think, the gold standard for SF mysteries; David Brin's Kiln People is also a solid piece of work.) Rusch never falls into that trap; her mysteries are fair, and any technology involved in either the crime or its solution is introduced early on, so there are no unfair surprises.

This is an entertaining novel, but I think it's the weakest of the series so far (its predecessors are The Disappeared and Extremes), mainly because it lacks the interesting alien presence that the earlier books had. A backdrop like this allows for some fascinating alien societies, and some difficult moral issues surrounding alien views of what justice means. To give up those opportunities for an all-human story, as Rusch does here, sacrifices most of the best possibilities inherent in the premise. But it's still a good series, and the fourth volume, Buried Deep, is already on my shelf.

MOVIES: Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)

Bill Murray stars as Don Johnston, and on the off chance that this is too subtle a character name for you, he's watching an old movie about Don Juan when we meet him, and several other characters point out that he's a regular Don Juan himself. His most recent conquest (Julie Delpy) has just left him when he receives an anonymous letter from an old girlfriend, telling him that he has a 19-year-old son.

Don isn't particularly motivated to do anything about the letter -- he doesn't seem motivated to do much of anything about anything -- but his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright, giving the movie's best performance) insists that Don go on a road trip to visit all of the potential mothers/ex-girlfriends and try to solve the mystery. So off goes Don to visit four exes (played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton).

If you were annoyed by BIll Murray in Lost in Translation, or if you didn't like that movie much, you'll hate Broken Flowers; Translation was a roller-coaster ride of action by comparison. Very, very, very little happens in Broken Flowers, and it happens extremely slowly. Murray, whose recent films have pushed the limits of catatonia as an acting style, goes well beyond those limits here; Don has no apparent personality, and we have no clue what might have attracted these women to him 20 years ago.

Or him to them, for that matter; they are almost as devoid of personality as he is. His reunions are (with the exception of Stone's character, the most interesting of the women) awkward and uncomfortable, and it's difficult to imagine any of these couples as having been happy together for even an instant.

The flatness and anonymity of the characters in the movie extends to its settings; we have only the vaguest clues of landscape to tell us where any of these people live (I'd bet on upstate New York or northern New England for Swinton, and we know that Don's local airport is served by Northwest, but that's the extent of our knowledge).

Were it not for Wright's lively, funny performance as Winston, there'd be nothing to recommend the movie, and even Wright's fine work isn't enough for me to suggest that you should buy a ticket.

MOVIES: The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)

I've always been a bit puzzled by the fondness so many have for Ralph Fiennes. I mean, sure, he's a good actor, but there are dozens of others just as good who don't have the career or the adulation that he does. And as a sex symbol? What the heck are people thinking? Those beady little eyes, sunk deep in that harsh angular face, its edges so damn sharp you could slit your throat if you slipped mid-kiss.

So it is not the least of the many accomplishments of The Constant Gardener that there are moments when Fiennes' face relaxes and he smiles just so that I found myself thinking, "Oh, my, now I see what all the fuss was about."

Fiennes stars as British diplomat Justin Quayle, and those stunning smiles come early in the movie, as Justin falls into bed with the woman he will marry, Tessa (Rachel Weisz). It's a hasty marriage, and the two don't really know one another very well; Tessa's desire to get married so quickly seems driven by her desire to go with Justin to Kenya, where he's been posted, as by actual love.

Tessa spends her days with a black Belgian doctor (Hubert Koundé), and Justin doesn't know exactly what the two are up to, so he's stunned and horrified when they are murdered in a remote corner of the country. (For the paranoid among you, this is not a spoiler; we're told of Tessa's death in the first ten minutes of the movie.) The rest of the movie jumps back and forth in time, as Justin tries to find out what Tessa was up to, and who might have wanted her dead.

The Constant Gardener is a thriller, a love story, and a murder mystery about the reprehensible behavior of global pharmaceutical companies in Africa. It's an intricate storyline, but Jeffrey Caine (adapting the novel by John Le Carré) and director Fernando Meirelles lay it out with great clarity, letting the pieces fall slowly into place. If you saw Meirelles' first movie, City of God, then it will come as no surprise that this one is also beautifully photographed (César Charlone is the cinematographer), though in a less flashy manner than was City of God.

Lead performances by Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes are impeccable; Danny Huston and Pete Postlethwaite are very good in supporting roles; and Bill Nighy turns in yet another little jewel of a performance as a stiff-upper-lip British diplomat.

We're headed into the fall Serious Movie season, and The Constant Gardener is among the early contenders for Oscar nominations in several categories. It's a fine movie.