September 29, 2006

TV: Survivor and racism?

I'm a big fan of Andy Dehnart's Reality Blurred blog, where he provides commentary and news on the world of reality TV. But I think he's missing the boat in his commentary on last night's episode of Survivor.

If you've somehow missed all of the publicity surrounding this season's Controversial Twist, the 20 contestants were divided into tribes at the beginning of the season based on ethnicity -- Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American. Last night, the four tribes were merged into two though a complex process that guaranteed the new tribes would be as evenly mixed as possible by gender and ethnicity.

Members of the new tribes starting strategizing and forming alliances at once, and Dehnart suggests in his headline that these alliances are being made along racial lines. But they're not, really; players are -- as they almost always are at this point in the game -- remaining loyal to their original tribemates, and since the tribes were originally divided by race, that tribal loyalty might look like racial loyalty, or worse, racial exclusivity.

Even Jonathan's "I think we can align with a couple of the Asians" doesn't seem to be about race, really; the players had seven days in their original tribes, and very little interaction with the other tribes during that time. The tribal names were particularly interchangeable and hard to remember this year, and I'd have been amazed if Jonathan had learned those names well enough to say "I think we can align with some of the Hiki tribe" (or whichever one it was).

An earlier season of the show began with tribes of older men, younger men, older women, and younger women; if, after those groups had merged into two tribes, we'd heard one of the men say "I think we can align with a couple of the women," would we have assumed that that was about sexism or "gender wars"? No, it would just be the quickest and most convenient way to identify that group of people. And in a context where the show has begged the contestants to think of themselves and their competitors in racial terms, it's hardly shocking when a contestant grabs racial identity as the quickest and most convenient way to identify that group of people.

There are no "race wars" going on, just the usual struggle to be the dominant sub-tribe in the newly merged tribe. It will be interesting to see if the show itself attempts to portray what's happening as racial solidarity; I'll be keeping a close eye on Jeff Probst's questioning at the next few tribal councils.

September 27, 2006

BOOKS: Red Lightning, John Varley (2006)

Sequel to Red Thunder. This one stands on its own relatively well, and Varley slips in the necessary background and plot from Thunder in a smooth and graceful manner. But the first book is pretty darned good in its own right, and if you haven't read it, I'd recommend starting there.

Our narrator this time is Ramon ("Ray") Garcia-Strickland, son of Thunder narrator Manny Garcia. The family runs a posh Mars hotel, catering to spoiled Earthlings on vacation. There's just a hint of political tension between Earth and Mars, and that tension is brought to a boil when disaster strikes on Earth. It's not a natural disaster, exactly; something strikes the Atlantic at great speed, causing a massive tsunami that wipes out most of the Caribbean and swamps the east coast from Florida -- where Ray's grandmother lives -- to New York.

That sets in motion Varley's story, which is somewhat reminiscent of early Heinlein, and would appeal to the same bright teenage audience. Does Grandma survive the tsunami? What was that thing that hit the ocean, anyway? And why has Cousin Jubal, the socially disordered scientific savant, suddenly disappeared from his home in the Falkland Islands?

Ray's an affable narrator, and Varley's tale zips along with great momentum and lively energy. In an afterword, Varley discusses the book's parallels with real-world events -- the 9/11 attacks, the Christmas 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina -- some of which inspired the novel, and some of which echoed what he was writing in eerie ways.

Red Lightning, like its predecessor, is great fun for anyone who enjoys their SF on the light and breezy side.

TV: Help Me Help You

Ted Danson's been doing TV sitcoms almost non-stop for 25 years now, so why does it come as such a shock to see him with white hair?

This time around, he's Bill Hoffman, therapist to a motley group of misfits. Their problems are quickly sketched in the first few minutes. Meet the group:
  • Dave (Charlie Finn) is suicidal and angry about the dullness of his life
  • Jonathan (Jim Rash) is completely in denial about being gay, which is a mini-trend in this year's sitcoms; there's a supporting character on The Class who's even more stereotypically flaming than Jonathan
  • Michael (Jere Burns) has anger control issues (Burns apparently didn't get enough group therapy during his years on Dear John.)
  • Inger (Suzy Nakamura) has no social skills whatsoever, and a very unusual name for a Japanese-American
  • Darlene (Darlene Hunt) -- well, you name it, really; Darlene's pretty much a total basket case, but there's father-figure obsession for starters, which makes you wonder if she shouldn't find a therapist who isn't a white-haired man old enough...
We follow the characters outside the office, as they attempt to do Dr. Bill's homework for the week: Make a connection. And we look in on Bill's own life, which isn't going so well; he and his wife (Jane Kaczmarek) are in the process of divorcing, and his daughter is dating one of her psych professors, who happens to be a huge professional fan of Bill.

This one didn't leave me with strong feelings either way. There are a few laughs, but they're mild chuckles at best. It's not an awful show, it's just inconsequential and unnecessary.

September 26, 2006

TV: Heroes

In New York, Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) is having recurring dreams of flight. In rural Texas, cheerleader Claire (Hayden Panettiere) throws herself from great heights and runs into raging fires, apparently indestructible. Tokyo office drone Hiro (Masi Oka) believes that he can bend space and time. And Vegas showgirl Niki (Ali Larter) doesn't know what is happening to her, or why she constantly feels like she's being watched.

None of this would come as a surprise to Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a professor in Madras, India, who is continuing his father's mysterious research, which suggests that humanity may be on the brink of the next great evolutionary leap -- that there may already be people with extraordinary power among us.

Heroes is happy to unfold its secrets slowly; most of its principal characters are strangers to one another. That can make the narrative feel a little cluttered, as we leap from one story to the entirely separate story of another character, but the storytelling is done with enough skill and style that the multiple plot threads are never overwhelming. Surely, as the show goes on, at least some of our characters will be brought together, and the threads will be woven together. The show's opening narration -- an on-screen text crawl, Star Wars style -- tells us of an impending threat that these heroes will have to face.

The characters are appealing, and the actors are solid in their roles. It's nice to see Ventimiglia getting to play a nice guy for a change; he's tended to wind up in sleazy creep roles. As Hiro, Oka is the heart of the show, giddy with excitment over his new-found powers, in sharp contrast to the other characters, who are terrified and confused by what's happening to them.

The show's look has a comic-book flair to it, especially in Hiro's scenes, which are in Japanese, and feature subtitles that float around the screen depending on where the speaker is located. (That's the influence of Lost, which showed that American audiences are willing to put up with subtitles if the story's worthwhile.)

Judging from the first episode, the writers know how to drop their tidbits of information at just the right speed to keep us involved, and they have a great way with an episode-ending cliffhanger. I hope this show finds an audience beyond the obvious comic-book geek crowd; it's a show with lots of potential, and it deserves to stick around for a while.

TV: Runaway

Paul Rader (Donnie Wahlberg) has been accused of a murder he didn't commit, and is on the run from the law, looking for the evidence that will clear his name. Paul's situation is more complicated than that of your average fugitive, though: The bad guys have threatened his family, and the only way to keep them safe is for them to go on the lam with him.

For Paul's wife, Lily (Leslie Hope), that's manageable, but for teens Henry and Hannah (Dustin Milligan and Sarah Ramos), it means being pulled from town to town, never staying anywhere long enough to make friends; for little Tommy (Nathan Gamble), it means struggling to remember what his name is supposed to be this time, or where the family is supposed to be from.

Wahlberg and Hope are fine actors, and if the show were more focused on them, it would be much improved. But this is the first new series from the CW, descendant of the WB, and that means we have to spend most of our time with Henry, moping about the girlfriend he left behind, or with Hannah, flirting with the cute boy next door. Milligan and Ramos are pretty in that bland TV way that the WB mastered during its existence, but they're not particularly interesting actors (to be fair, they haven't been given interesting characters to play).

The dullest show of the year thus far.

September 25, 2006

TV: Brothers and Sisters

Family drama with a large ensemble cast that includes lots of TV veterans.

William Walker (Tom Skerritt) runs a California food/farming business with the aid of two of his children, responsible son Thomas (Balthazar Getty) and executive Sarah (Rachel Griffiths), who's returned to the family business from the corporate world, hoping that she'll be able to spend more time with her husband and kids.

The large family of siblings also includes gay lawyer Kevin (Matthew Rhys) -- that's really all we know about him after the pilot -- and the troubled baby of the family, Justin (Dave Annable), a "gen-Y vet of foreign wars" who's struggling with post-war stress and substance abuse.

And then there's Kitty (Calista Flockhart), a right-wing radio personality who's come back to the family home in Los Angeles for the first time in several years; she's been offered a job as co-host of a political TV show. She's not excited about making the trip home, mostly because she and her mother, Nora (Sally Field), are on opposite ends of the political spectrum and can't seem to have a conversation that doesn't explode into argument.

The first episode sets up lots of melodramatic plotlines. Will Kitty's controlling boyfriend join her in LA, or does her new job mean the end of their relationship? What sort of shady financial dealings are William and Uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin) up to at the family company? Who's the sexy blonde (Patricia Wettig) having hush-hush conversations with William in his office? Can Sarah and Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson) make their marriage work? And most important, can Kitty and Nora find a way to get past their political differences and have a happy mother-daughter relationship?

By the end of the first episode, the Walkers face a tragedy (which the producers foolishly telegraph with their billing of the actors in the opening credits), the repercussions of which will be felt for the rest of the season.

The cast is talented, and the writing is better than usual; the relationships among the siblings already feel convincing. Many of these actors -- Flockhart, Rifkin, Griffiths -- have recently played memorable TV characters in other shows, which sometimes get in the way; it is to their credit that not once did I find myself thinking of them as Ally, Sloane, or Brenda.

This should be a good fit with Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights, and it ought to do well enough to last the season.

September 23, 2006

TV: Six Degrees

Six New Yorkers, strangers to one another as the show opens, find their lives intersecting in unexpected ways. By the end of the first episode, each has met at least one of the others, and it seems likely that they'll continue to be drawn closer together as the series progresses. What draws them together? Well, so far, it seems to be a mildly improbable series of coincidences, but perhaps there will eventually prove to be a Greater Power driving it all.

Carlos (Jay Hernandez) is a public defender who gets a mad crush on Mae (Erika Christensen) after she's arrested for public nudity. Mae is on the run, hiding from someone -- we don't yet know who or why -- and (using a phony name) she takes a job as a nanny for Laura (Hope Davis), a recently widowed mother who's just starting to pick up the pieces and wants to start a career in interior design.

Laura meets Whitney (Bridget Moynahan) at the salon; Whitney's a hard-driving PR executive putting together an ad campaign for a new fragrance. She finds a postcard in the park, and thinks the photographer who took the photo might be just right for the job. He's Steven (Campbell Scott), and he's also picking up the pieces of a shattered life; his problem was drug abuse.

Least connected to the rest of the group so far is limo driver Damien (Dorian Missick), trying to leave his criminal past behind him; his gambling habit makes that difficult, as do the constant pleas for help from his brother, who's still a thug.

The first episode crams in an awful lot of coincidental meetings and near-misses; I would hope that once the basic connections are established, there won't need to be as much of that. The cast is a fine ensemble (I mean, c'mon -- Hope Davis and Campbell Scott doing weekly TV? How fabulous is that?), and there's enough potential in these characters and the ways they might play off one another that I'll keep watching for a few weeks to see what develops.

TV: Shark

Hey, remember when I said that Justice seemed to be lifting its characters straight out of House? Well, that was before I saw Shark, which reaches whole new levels of character-set theft.

Once again, we have an acerbic, blunt professional with an attractive, multi-ethnic team of support staff/professionals-in-training, and (unlike Justice) Shark even gives him an ineffectual female authority figure who can't control him at all.

Our hero (?) is Sebastian Stark (James Woods), a brilliant defense attorney who gets an acquittal on charges of attempted murder for his wife-beating client, and then (having apparently never seen a single episode of any TV legal drama from the last 20 years or so) is shocked when the thug kills her a few days later. His epiphany leads him to the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, where he agrees to head the new high-profile crimes unit.

That means he's now working for his old foe, District Attorney Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan); most of their interactions consist of Stark boasting about his prowess -- legal, intellectual, sexual -- and Devlin looking as if she's just stepped in something slimy. Ryan is one of those actors who was perfect in their breakout role -- as the Borg who wants to be human again on Star Trek: Voyager, her stiffness and icy demeanor was just right -- but now that she's being asked to play an actual person, it's becoming clear that she wasn't playing stiff and rigid, she just is stiff and rigid.

There's a team of four or five Junior Lawyers appointed to assist Stark. They are uniformly uninteresting and personality-free, to the extent that I can't even remember how many there are, or which stock characters are represented among them. I think there was a Snooty Rich White Girl, and maybe an Ex-Jock Striving For Respect, and it's Los Angeles, so the Latino Guy from East LA is obligatory.

The other regular character is Stark's 16-year-old daughter, Julie (Danielle Panabaker), the only actor who comes close to holding her own against Woods. It's not much of a role; she's there solely to give Stark a hint of humanity. Aw, he loves his daughter, he can't be all bad!

In the lead role, James Woods plays the same character he always plays; he's an amoral sleazeball who'll cut any ethical corner to win. Woods is good at this character -- after 30 years of it, he ought to be -- but it's nothing we haven't seen before. Your fondness for Shark, I think, will be directly proportional to your fondness for Woods; there's certainly nothing else in the show that demands your attention. I'm not fond enough to keep watching.

September 18, 2006

MOVIES: Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005, Sydney Pollack)

I go to concerts at Disney Hall here in Los Angeles a few times a year. I think it's a hideously ugly building, but it's adored by most Angelenos, and within the world of architecture, it's worshipped.

The building was designed by Frank Gehry, who is architecture's superstar of the moment. Sketches of Frank Gehry is an inside look at Gehry's process and several of his more famous buildings, notably the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The movie is directed by Sydney Pollack, a longtime friend of Gehry; Gehry had been approached for years by directors wanting to make a documentary, and he finally asked Pollack to make one. Pollack tells us that he was reluctant, pointing out that he had never made a documentary and knew very little about architecture; "that's why you're perfect for the job," said Gehry.

The process is fascinating to watch; the curving metallic facades of Gehry's recent work are possible only with the advent of computer technology that allows these complicated shapes to be precisely translated into plans for the factories that will build the pieces and the engineers who will assemble the buildings. Gehry himself has never learned to use a computer, but he has a team of several assistants who translate his plans and 3-D models into computer models.

So revered is Gehry in the world of architecture that the few critical voices in the film are all apologetic and defensive about the fact that they are criticizing his work. Most of his colleagues, though, are in agreement that he is the most innovative and brilliant mind in architecture; the praise becomes a bit monotonous by the end of the movie.
I still think Gehry's buildings are ugly, but I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at how they're created.

September 17, 2006

TV: Smith

First episode currently available for viewing at Google; show premieres on Tuesday night.

How much power does producer John Wells have in TV? When the pilot episode of Smith came in 20 minutes long, CBS didn't ask him to cut 20 minutes. They asked him to cut 5 minutes, and will be running the pilot with almost no commercials. Must be nice.

The show has a high-powered cast: Ray Liotta, Virgina Madsen, Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller, Franky G, Amy Smart, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Liotta stars as Bobby, who appears to be a corporate drone living the happy suburban life with wife Hope (Madsen). But every few weeks, Bobby gets a call from Charley (Aghdashloo), who has a new assignment for him; Bobby rounds up his gang (all those other actors), and they head off to pull off a robbery of some sort. In the pilot, three paintings are to be stolen from a Pittsburgh museum. The heist is clever and the crew cleverly overcomes the obstacles that arise.

The challenge here is to get the audience to root for criminals. There were two shows that tried something similar last spring -- Heist on NBC and Thief on FX -- and neither lasted very long. AMC had significantly better luck with the BBC co-production Hustle, but that's a show about con men; there's no physical violence, and each story carefully establishes the target of the con as a nasty sort who deserves what's coming to him.

Smith, on the other hand, is a more violent show, and the crimes are committed for purely monetary gain, so it's going to be a lot harder to get us to root for these characters. It's possible to have a show in which the principals are unlikable criminals -- The Sopranos gets away with it -- but it takes impeccable writing and acting, and despite a talented cast and a flashy style, Smith doesn't rise to that level.

MOVIES: The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006)

Turn-of-the-century Vienna, and the city is all abuzz over the performances of Eisenheim, the illusionist (Edward Norton). There's so much excitement that even Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends the show one night, and volunteers a young duchess from his party (Jessica Biel) to serve as Eisenheim's assistant for a trick.

Eisenheim recognizes her immediately; she is his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, and they had been separated nearly twenty years ago by her family, who would not allow her to socialize with a commoner. Sophie does eventually realize who Eisenheim is, but their relationship is even more forbidden now, as she is betrothed (reluctantly) to Leopold, who is rumored to be a violent man under the best of circumstances. This triangle leads to tragedy, and it falls to Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to investigate. It's not an easy position for Uhl, who is torn between his professional loyalty to Leopold and his admiration for Eisenheim's craft.

The performances are generally quite good, though the actors occasionally relax and slump into body language that's much too contemporary. There's one shot in particular of Eisenheim waiting for Sophie's arrival; Norton plunges his hands into his pockets and his shoulders collapse in a way that is not at all elegant, European, or period-appropriate. The movie looks gorgeous, with lush sets and costumes, and old-fashioned iris shots marking the transitions between scenes.

I'd have been happier without the final scene, in which Uhl realizes (or at least thinks he does) what's actually happened, but at least it is presented in such a way that there's some ambiguity about whether we're seeing the actual events or merely Uhl's hopeful fantasy about what might have happened.

TV: Jericho

Premieres this coming Wednesday; first episode is currently available at Yahoo Video.

Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) has come home to Jericho, Kansas, to take care of some family business. It's been at least five years since he's been home, and everyone asks what he's been up to. "In the Army," he tells one friend. "Playing minor league baseball," he says to the town grocer; "in the Navy," to his high school sweetheart. Wherever he's been, his disappearance is clearly at the root of the discomfort between Jake and his father, Jericho's mayor, Johnston Green (a perfectly cast Gerald McRaney).

Jake is on his way out of town when he loses radio reception. The power goes out in Jericho, and a boy standing on a rooftop sees a mushroom cloud rising in the distance. You've seen that image in all the show's TV ads, and it's an even more striking and powerful shot in context. The best guess is that it's Denver, but what's happened -- accident? attack? invasion? -- is a mystery, and Jericho is unable to communicate with the outside world.

The first episode focuses on the immediate impact in Jericho. The mayor tries to keep people from panicking; parents worry because the school bus hasn't returned from its field trip; the police and fire department try to maintain order among an increasingly frightened and paranoid citizenry. It's all done with great suspense and tension, and Ulrich is particularly good in the role of the reluctant hero.

There's a large cast, most of whom zip by too fast to make much impression in the pilot. Those who do register include Pamela Reed as Jake's mom, Gail, who tries to keep the peace between Jake and Johnston (it's always nice to see Reed, a marvelous actress who never got the big break she deserved); Sprague Grayden as grade-school teacher Heather, who seems likely to be Jake's romantic interest; and Lennie James as Robert, the newcomer to town who happens to be a preternaturally competent jack-of-all-trades and just might know more than he lets on. (It is a bit worrisome that the "can he be trusted or is he a creep" role goes to the only black guy on the show; let's hope the writers manage to deepen that character very quickly.)

If the show stays as taut and dramatic as the pilot, it could be terrific stuff, sort of a Lost variation with Jericho filling in for the island. There's one big speech late in the pilot, though, suggesting that we might be in for a mushy feel-good family show about the inherent decency of small towns, with everyone cooperating and no conflict, a post-apocalyptic Waltons, and that would not be a good thing. At this point, I'm hopeful.

MOVIES: Population 436 (Michelle MacLaren, 2006)

A direct-to-DVD thriller which generates more tension than I'd expected from an overly familiar plot and setting.

Our hero is Steve Cady (Jeremy Sisto) of the US Census Bureau, who's been sent to Rockwell Falls, Kansas, to investigate an odd anomaly: In every census for more than 100 years, the town's population has always been 436. Steve has trouble finding the town, and the locals in surrounding towns are oddly unhelpful, clamming up as soon as he mentions Rockwell Falls.

When Steve does find the town, it's a quaint, wholesome little village -- it's not called Rockwell Falls for nothing -- where everyone is content in that slightly glazed Stepford way, and where everyone is busy baking pies and sewing quilts for the town's upcoming festival. Everyone's polite, friendly, and helpful -- at least on the surface -- but there are clearly Dark Goings On in Rockwell Falls.

There's not an ounce of surprise in the movie; from the opening scenes, it's clear how Rockwell Falls maintains its population so precisely, and the scene meant to be the big shocker -- in which the town honors the woman chosen as "Festival Host" -- will come as no surprise to anyone who's read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."

But as familiar as it all is, the movie does create a suitably shivery atmosphere. Sisto is quite good, in an unusual role for him; he usually tends to play the disturbed and creepy roles himself, so it's a change of pace to see him as the normal guy at the center of the weirdness. There's also a sweet, low-key performance from Fred Durst (yes, the guy from Limp Bizkit) as Deputy Bobby, who becomes Steve's best buddy during his stay in town. The performances from most of the villagers are a bit flat, but that's not altogether inappropriate here; the particular darkness afoot in Rockwell Falls is somewhat cult-like, so people might be less likely to display much individual personality.

Population 436 is a bit old-fashioned -- little strong language, one very mild sex scene, no gore -- and its R rating seems a bit harsh. Fifty years ago, something like this would have been labeled a B-movie, and you'd have seen it as part of a double feature, a warm-up for the big movie on the program. Yeah, it's hokey and cheesy and predictable, but within the limits of its story and genre, it's well crafted and skillfully made, and it's kinda fun.

September 13, 2006

TV: Men in Trees

Anne Heche stars as "relationship coach" Marin Frist, who's in Alaska on a publicity tour for her new book about the secrets to dating success. This is pretty unlikely to begin with -- I doubt that many publishers send their authors all the way to Alaska to do readings -- but even more so because Marin's been sent not to Anchorage or Juneau, but to the little town of Elmo.

Elmo is a town populated mainly by men -- Theresa, the waitress at the local bar (Sarah Strange), says "it's like a ten to one ratio" -- and Marin is at first frustrated to be there, but begins to see this as an opportunity. What better way to understand men (and get material for her next book) than to live among them? And so, by the end of the pilot, Marin has decided to stay in Elmo for a while.

Elmo offers quite an assortment of men to study. There's Ben, the urbane bartender (Abraham Benrubi); Buzz, the town pilot (John Amos); Patrick, the naive young innkeeper/radio host (Derek Richardson); and Jack, the hunky wildlife ranger (James Tupper) who seems destined to be Marin's principal love interest.

There are a few women on hand, of course. Annie (Emily Bergl) is Marin's biggest fan, who's followed her to Elmo to console her after her breakup, and finds herself falling for Patrick; Sara (Suleka Mathew) is the town prostitute; and Marin's editor, Jane (Seana Kofoed), will pop in from time to time (often by phone, I imagine) with advice.

If you're already thinking Northern Exposure, you're right -- big-city type living in a small Alaska town, populated with eccentrics (and both towns with people's names, Cicely and Elmo) -- and the show occasionally strains a little too hard for its quirkiness. There's also a lot of Sex and the City (one of the Men in Trees creators was a writer for that show), right down to Heche's episode-closing monologue/life lesson.

The cast is very likable, and the writing above average. My biggest qualm after the first episode is the casting of Anne Heche, who is a good actress, but not one who naturally projects vulnerability or empathy. Marin's opening scene, a lecture to an audience of fans, doesn't play quite right because Heche doesn't come across as very warm or comforting; she's a brittle onscreen presence, and it will be interesting to see if she can find the softer edges this character is going to need.

September 11, 2006

TV: The Class

New sitcom from CBS, which doesn't premiere until next week, but had an exclusive sneak preview on TiVo this weekend.

The setup is wildly far-fetched: Ethan (Jason Ritter) throws a surprise party for his fiance, inviting as many members of their third-grade class as he can track down, because they first met in third grade 20 years ago. She arrives for the party and completely freaks out; she accuses Ethan of being too smothering and dumps him. But that's OK, because the party serves entirely as an excuse to get the show's eight principal characters together, and the show will follow the relationships among them; it looks like it will be another Friends variation, but with more characters.

In addition to Ethan, we have:
  • Lina (Heather Goldenhersh), the wacked-out, blissed-out flake
  • Kat (Lizzy Caplan), Lina's twin sister, the sarcastic, brooding cynic
  • Nicole (Andrea Anders), the pretty blonde stuck in an unhappy marriage to an older ex-jock
  • Duncan (Jon Bernthal), the popular boy who still lives with his mother and still wishes he had never split up with Nicole
  • Kyle (Sean Maguire), the high-school heartthrob, now apparently the happiest of the bunch, living happily with his boyfriend
  • Holly (Lucy Punch), successful news anchor
  • Richie (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who's depressed almost to the point of suicide

The first episode doesn't waste any time establishing new relationships among these characters (and re-establishing old ones); by the end of the half-hour, we've set up three romantic couples. Beyond those couples, though, it's hard to imagine how or why these characters will spend any more time together.

In general, it's the women who make the biggest impression in the pilot. Goldenhersh, playing the show's Phoebe-equivalent, has a voice and inflections that reminded me of Paula Poundstone; Anders (a survivor of the Joey fiasco) is extremely likable, with a loopy charm; Caplan is stuck with the most cliched character so far, but she delivers her zingers with great energy.

The men don't come across as strongly. Bernthal and Maguire are the show's designated hunks, and Ritter is clearly meant to be the sane voice of reason at the center (a job for which he's suitably bland).

Eight characters is a lot to introduce in a half-hour, though, so the show didn't have time to do much more than whip through a lot of backstory and quick introductions. There were enough good laughs, and there are enough interesting actors, that I'll give the show another week or two before giving up on it entirely.

September 10, 2006

BOOKS: Triangle, Katharine Weber (2006)

We begin with an aria:
This is what happened. I was working at my machine, with only a few minutes left before the end of the day, I remember so clearly I can still see it, that I had only two right sleeves remaining in my pile -- my sister Pauline, she did the left sleeves and I did the right sleeves and between us we could finish sometimes as many as twenty-four shirtwaists in an hour, three hundred shirtwaists on a good day, if the machines didn't break down and if the thread didn't break too often, and if nobody put a needle through her finger, which happened all the time and the biggest problem then was you didn't want to bleed on the goods but you didn't want to stop work so you took a piece of scrap and you wrapped your finger tight and you kept working -- my sister was a little faster than I was and sometimes her finished pile would be high because she did her sleeve first and then I would take from her pile to do the right sleeve but I have to say my seams were the ones always perfectly straight.

That's the voice of Esther Gottesfeld, remembering the day of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which nearly 150 sweatshop workers were killed, most of them women and girls. (The fire is an actual historical event, but Esther and her story are fictional.) At the time of her death, Esther is 106, and she is the last living survivor of the fire. There are still mysteries surrounding her story, though, and small discrepancies in the versions of the story that Esther has told over the years. We get to read several of those versions -- trial testimony shortly after the fire, a reminiscence from fifty years later (the source of the above paragraph, which opens the book), contemporary interviews -- as Esther's story recurs throughout the novel.

Those contemporary interviews were done by feminist historian Ruth Zion in the year before Esther's death; Ruth later approaches Esther's granddaughter, Rebecca, and Rebecca's partner, George, in the hope that they may be able to answer some of Ruth's remaining questions.

Triangle shares some themes with Weber's previous novel, The Little Women (which I raved about here). If you're telling someone else's story, how do you balance your obligations to the subject of the story with your obligations to truth? And in Triangle, Weber complicates things by adding the factor of historical relevance and asking how that changes the balance of obligations.

For the most part, the characters are very sharply drawn. Esther comes through very vividly, especially since all we ever really hear from her is the one story, repeated over and over. I especially admired the way Esther's language changes over the years; you can hear the difference between the recent immigrant, still not very comfortable with English, and the Esther of 90 years later who's being interviewed by Ruth.

Rebecca and her partner, George, are a believable couple, and the secondary story of George's career as a composer is nicely handled. Weber almost always gets the musical terminology right, which doesn't often happen when novelists write about musicians, and her description of the premiere of George's Triangle Oratorio is a magnificent piece of writing, so perfectly capturing the thrill of a live performance that you feel as if you've heard the music yourself.

The character of Ruth is the novel's greatest weakness. She's a stiff, unlikable cliche of the humorless feminist academic, a woman who says the words "Ha ha ha" instead of actually laughing, and she's the only character in the book who doesn't feel like a real person.

As for the mystery of what really happened to Esther and her sister on the day of the fire, the answer is telegraphed too early and too obviously, which lessens the drama of the final chapter; those revelations should land with far more impact than they do, because we've long since seen them coming.

Despite those flaws, though, the writing is lovely and the story compelling. Triangle doesn't reach the level of The Little Women, but it's a fine piece of work.

BOOKS: Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern (2006)

Two children disappear from a playground during recess, and are later found in the nearby woods. Amelia has been murdered, and although it is assumed that 9-year-old Adam witnessed the crime, he is autistic and not able to easily or clearly communicate what he might have seen.

Adam's mother, Cara, is better able to communicate with Adam than anyone else, and when another child goes missing, Cara realizes that it's up to her to make sense of what little Adam has said about what happened in the woods.

There is much to like in Eye Contact, especially in the first half of the book -- believable characters, an interesting mystery, crisp prose -- but it all gets buried under the weight of too much illness. Nearly everyone in this book either has some sort of mental or emotional disorder -- there's autism, agoraphobia, post-traumatic brain damage -- or is coping with the difficulties of being a caretaker for such a person.

And as the mystery of what happened to Adam and Amelia is gradually explained, it begins to feel as if every character in the book trekked through those woods during the crucial half-hour. The coincidences pile onto another far too rapidly to be credible, and the resolution of the mystery isn't nearly as satisfying as the setup had been.

September 07, 2006

TV: Happy Hour

The show feels like a mix of Friends, That 70s Show, and every other sitcom from the last 15 years about a bunch of cool young pals hanging out. The jokes don't always work, and the situations are on the stale side. But the characters have potential, and some of the actors are interesting, and if it lasts long enough, it could develop into something fun.

Henry is a small-town Missouri boy who's recently moved to Chicago with girlfriend Heather. But Heather's just dumped him, thrown him out of their apartment, and gotten him fired from his job (his boss was her uncle). Henry finds a new apartment in the same building, moving in with Larry; Larry needs a new roommate because Brad has just moved out to live with his fiance, Tina. Larry is horrified by this development, because Tina is a control freak who insists on dictating Brad's every move; in response, Larry adopts Henry as a personal project, plotting to "build a better Brad" out of Henry. The first step is to get Henry a job working for Larry's friend Amanda.

Unfortunately, the show's least interesting actor is at the center. As Henry, John Sloan is vaguely reminiscent of That 70s Show's Topher Grace, but lacks Grace's charisma and comic timing. The more interesting performances come from the supporting players, especially Lex Medlin as Larry and Beth Lacke as Amanda. Medlin is like a younger version of Greg Grunberg (Alias), and he conveys a certain charm through Larry's vulgarity and cockiness. Lacke puts a distinctive spin on her lines, and gets more laughs than the dialogue deserves.

I'll keep watching for at least another week or two, with a sense of cautious optimism.

TV: 'Til Death

Brad Garrett moves from sidekick to star in this mediocre retread of Married With Children.

Garrett and Joely Fisher are Eddie and Joy Stamm, longtime married couple; their new neighbors are newlyweds Jeff and Steph Woodcock (Eddie Kaye Thomas, Kat Foster). The humor, such as it is, centers on the differences between the youthful idealism of the Woodcocks and the tired boredom of the Stamms. Eddie gives Jeff a lot of lectures, explaining to him how miserable his marriage will inevitably become. "Men want to have fun," Eddie says. "Women want to drag that fun into the forest and kill it."

For this show to work at all, we have to believe that deep down, underneath all of the cynicism and the carping, Joy and Eddie really do love each other. But Garrett and Fisher are both specialists in cynicism and carping; they're such glum presences that it's impossible to imagine that they ever even liked each other, much less had any genuine affection. As for the newlyweds, Foster has a pleasantly ditsy chirpiness, but Thomas is so bland as to be invisible.

The jokes aren't very funny -- an assortment of "Woodcock" jokes were about as good as it got -- and Garrett and Fisher haven't made the adjustment to playing leads instead of supporting characters. Sitcom sidekicks can be loud and pushy, but you don't want that kind of energy at the center of a show; the worst seasons of Will & Grace, for instance, were the ones in which Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally took over, turning the show into Jack & Karen. Fisher and (even more so) Garrett are playing these roles as though they're still the eccentrics off to the side of the action; they both need to tone everything down a notch and quit pushing so hard.

But even if they were better suited for the roles, we've seen this before. Eddie and Jeff are already threatening to become Kramden & Norton, with Jeff getting caught up in Eddie's schemes; I can already see the inevitable Lucy/Ethel plotlines that will be built around Joy and Steph. And the Stamms' relationship is a pale, even less funny version of Al and Peg Bundy.

Not something that I need to watch again.

September 05, 2006

TV: Standoff

Matt and Emily (Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt) are the best team the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit has. They talk to the bad guys and defuse whatever crisis has arisen -- hostage situations, bomb threats, stalking cases. They've also been sleeping together for three months -- strictly against FBI policy -- and now their boss (Gina Torres) knows about it, because Matt blurted it out to the world during one of his negotiations.

This is the most schizophrenic show in years, alternating between crisis scenes and romantic banter that's lifted straight out of Moonlighting. The negotiation scenes are tense and dramatic, and the interplay among the team feels realistic. Matt and Emily manage (most of the time) to rein in each other's more impulsive, reckless side. The conflict between the CNU and the trigger-happy cops of the Hostage Rescue Team is sharply drawn; the CNU isn't only negotiating with the bad guys, they're also negotiating with the HRT for more time to reach a peaceful resolution. In the lighter romantic scenes, Livingston and DeWitt are a terrific pair, completely convincing as a couple trying to balance their illicit romance with the stress of their jobs; their dialogue is sharp and funny.

But the two halves of the show don't mesh well, and you could get whiplash from the abrupt changes in tone and style. I like these actors, and I'd be happy to watch them in either of the shows that have been flung together here, but the writers need to blend the two more smoothly if the show's going to have any chance of surviving.

September 04, 2006

MOVIES: This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)

Kirby Dick's documentary about the American movie ratings system is a sharp recital of the common complaints against it: It judges sex more harshly than violence (a striking contrast to the ratings systems in most other countries); it is particularly unhappy with depictions of female sexual pleasure, or of homosexuality; and according to several directors, it judges independent films more harshly than those produced by the major studios.

Several directors are on hand to talk about their experiences with the ratings board. Matt Stone discusses the different experiences he had with his independent film Orgazmo, where the board refused to answer his questions about what cuts he might make to get an R rating instead of an NC-17 (because to ask for specific cuts, the board said, would put them in a position of actively censoring his movie), and with his South Park movie, a studio project, where the board was happy to offer recommendations of specific cuts.

Kimberley Pierce and Jamie Babbitt compare the NC-17 ratings their films received for depictions of female sexuality with the R ratings that similar scenes involving men had been given. Dick himself offers a telling montage of side-by-side sex scenes from NC-17 and R movies, virtually identical except that the NC-17 scenes involve same-sex couples.

Film critics David Ansen and Stephen Farber (himself a former member of the ratings board) provide historical perspective on the ratings system; Lawrence Lessig, a specialist in intellectual property law, offers a legal view.

The identities of the ratings board members are kept secret, ostensibly to protect them from pressure. Dick hires a team of private investigators to track down the raters, and this is the least interesting part of the movie. We spend far too much time watching his team sit in their SUV and jot down license plate numbers.

The best part of the movie is the last 20 minutes, in which Dick submits this very documentary to the board for a rating; it gets -- no surprise -- an NC-17 because of all the explicit clips from other movies that are included. We follow Dick through the appeals process, which involves a separate (also secret) board, this one made up of studio executives, theater owners, and (creepiest of all) representatives from the Catholic and Episcopal churches. John Waters talks about his appeals experience with the movie A Dirty Shame, and he's delightful to listen to as he narrates his absurd adventures.

Aside from the wasted time spent with the private investigators, this is a very funny indictment of a broken system. If there's a flaw, it's that neither Dick nor any of his subjects offer any suggestions as to how the system might be improved, or what might replace it.

BOOKS: Vanishing Point, Marcia Muller (2006)

24th (!) in the Sharon McCone series.

I keep forgetting how large a supporting cast Muller has created around McCone in these books, but every now and then she brings them all together, as she does in the opening chapters here; Sharon's friends and family are celebrating her marriage to Hy Ripinsky. It's a marriage of people who understand one another's careers; she's a private investigator and he works for a somewhat mysterious private security firm.

But no matter how well people understand one another, marriages don't always work as well as you'd like to think they will; Sharon's case in this novel is a reminder of how complex marriages can be. She's asked to search for Laurel Greenwood, who disappeared 22 years ago; Laurel's daughter, Jennifer, is now in her 30s, but has always been haunted by the loss of her mother. (Cold cases really are the rage these days; Sue Grafton's last Kinsey Millhone mystery was also built around a long-unsolved crime.)

Muller, as always, provides an entertaining mystery with a range of interesting suspects and sources. If you're looking for a solidly written traditional private eye story, you can't go wrong with Muller; this it top-notch stuff.

MOVIES: Talladega Nights (Adam McKay, 2006)

Will Ferrell stars as Ricky Bobby, whose dominance of the NASCAR circuit is threatened by the arrogant French driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). There are some funny moments to be had here, and no one commits to silliness as thoroughly as Ferrell, but the movie drags on for far too long, and Baron Cohen is dismally unfunny.

The best performances come from the supporting cast. Jane Lynch and Gary Cole as Ricky's parents, Greg Germann and Molly Shannon as Ricky's chief corporate sponsor and his lush of a wife, John C. Reilly as sidekick (and perennial #2 finisher) Cal Naughton Jr. -- all are spot-on, and none outstay their welcome.

Baron Cohen's performance as the gay French driver, on the other hand, cripples the movie; it's a collection of insulting stereotypes and tired cliches, delivered in a bad imitation of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau accent. He's painful to watch, and he shows up just often enough to keep the movie from ever developing any real momentum.

A disappointment.

MOVIES: Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)

This movie's been sitting on the shelf for at least a year, and has been dumped into a handful of theatres in a few cities, with no advertising support; it wasn't made available to critics for review before opening. Those are normally indicators that we have a massive turkey on our hands, but Idiocracy, though certainly no masterpiece, isn't that big a disaster.

Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bowers, a private in the army who's chosen as the guinea pig for a hibernation project; he's chosen because he's a perfectly average guy (and he has no family who would be upset if something goes wrong). Unable to find a suitable female soldier for the experiment, the military recruits prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph). Joe and Rita are locked into their cryo-coffins, which will be opened in a year.

Well, things go wrong (as they do in movies like this), and it's 500 years later when the boxes finally open, releasing Joe and Rita into a vastly changed world. Stupidity has taken over completely. The most popular TV show is Ow! My Balls!; the latest Academy Award-winning film is Ass, a 90-minute shot of -- yup -- someone's ass. Brand names have become personal names -- Joe's lawyer is Frito Lexus (an annoying performance by Dax Shepard) and the President is Hector Mountain Dew Camacho. Joe is given an IQ test, and with his perfectly average score of 100, is declared to be the smartest man in the world and drafted into service by the US government to solve the many problems faced by this society of morons.

The background is the best part of the movie. Judge provides a perfectly plausible explanation for the spectacular dumbing-down of America, and the look of the movie is terrific, with every square inch of space cluttered with trash and decay. The story is a bit weak, and there's only so many laughs to be gotten from stupidity, no matter how spectacular it may be.

It's probably not worth forking over full theater prices to see Idiocracy, but like Judge's Office Space before it, it may well develop a healthy cult following on DVD.

BOOKS: The Color of Law, Mark Gimenez (2005)

A. Scott Fenney is a fast-rising Dallas corporate lawyer. Shawanda Jones is a heroin-addicted prostitute who's been charged with murdering the son of a Texas senator; the senator is running for President.

From those two sentences, you know the plot. Scott must defend Shawanda; his law firm pressures him to keep the dead guy's shameful secrets secret to protect the senator's campaign; Scott learns that he has a conscience, after all, and proves that someone else committed the murder in a magnificently hokey Perry Mason moment.

You could, in fact, probably write this book yourself, and you'd almost certainly do a better job of it than Gimenez has done, because you wouldn't do any of the following:
  • Have the judge in Shawanda's trial appoint Scott, a corporate lawyer with no criminal defense experience at all, to serve as Shawanda's attorney. (And if you did do this, surely you would at least try to provide some sort of clever double-talk rationalization for such a ludicrous thing; Gimenez can't be bothered.)
  • Use To Kill a Mockingbird as lazy shorthand to convince us that Scott is really a decent guy; why, it's his favorite book and his daughter's even named Barbara Boo Fenney. (And if you don't know that the "A." in "A. Scott" is for "Atticus" long before Gimenez gets around to telling us, then you may just be too damned stupid to live.)
  • Make Shawanda a horribly offensive African-American stereotype, the kind of ignorant black woman who has a daughter named Pajamae (which is pronounced "pah-zhu-MAY").
  • Have the resolution of the trial turn on an observation that the police could not in a million years be stupid enough to miss.

This is a mess of a book, and it was only the jaw-dropping embarrassing crappiness of it all that kept me going; on some level, I was in awe of Gimenez' achievement here. Not a page goes by without a stupid plot twist, a racist characterization, or a magnificently dimwitted line of dialogue. It's not just a bad book, it's a spectacularly bad book.

I've moved over to the new version of Blogger, which allows categorization of posts (hooray!). Over the next few days, I plan to go back and add labels to all the old posts, so that if I (or you) ever want to look at only the movies posts, or only the TV posts, that'll be possible. I think there will only be five labels: TV, Movies, Books, Music, and a tiny group of Other.