12th Sep2011

Book Report – Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry

by Will

This will come as a surprise to no one, but I used to want to work in the toy industry. Yeah, I did the whole 10 years at Toy “R” Us, but I also chose my college major in the hopes of landing a position at Kenner (hey, it was still around then!) or Mattel. My major was early childhood development, with a focus on play and interaction. Since there was no real “toy curriculum”, I figured knowledge of how children go about playing would point me in the right direction. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that toy companies want *designers*. Instead of trying to make educational toys that look pretty, toy companies attempt to make pretty toys that seem educational. Like with dating and job interviews, looks come first. I did, however, manage to snag an internship at a small specialty toy company in Chicago, called Manhattan Toy. Now, during my time at TRU, I’d learned that I didn’t really care about ALL toys – I just loved aisles 6D and 7D. So, when this small stuffed animal company came along, brash 19-year old me blew it off and jetted of to London. By the time I graduated, I started to realize my dream may not come true. Then came Diamond.

Many people may not realize this, but Diamond has a toy team. Sure, most of the focus is on comics, but they’re also the ones responsible for getting those overpriced toys and busts to your local comic shop. Sadly, the extent of Diamond’s toy decisions are usually something like “How can we get Kotabukiya to give us a great price on these Slutty Sakura statues?” By this point, I was already pretty much over the idea of working in the toy industry. I’d already been a brand manager, albeit in the comic world, and I was really just tired of the sense of entitlement. I didn’t wanna shift over to DST, ’cause a lot of those guys were asshats. Don’t get me wrong – like anything, there were some cool folks, but there were also quite a few douchebags. So, there ended my toy dream. Or so I thought. The moment I cracked open Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry, it all came rushing back to me. This might sound like hyperbole, but I feel this book should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the business side of toys. If you ever want to bitch about Mattel’s distribution, or wondered why NECA picked up a particular license, or needed to know how toy marketing and development actually work, you MUST READ THIS BOOK.

Toyland, by Sydney Ladensohn Stern and Ted Schoenhaus, primarily follows the creation, development, and release of Tyco’s Dino-Riders toyline. Along the way, however, they provide a great history of the industry – citing major players, as well as the stories behind all of the major toy companies. Published in 1991, many of the companies have since merged or folded, but that doesn’t change any of the history. I got the book about 8 years ago at a used book store, but never really got into it as I didn’t have a lot of attachment to the Dino-Riders line. To be honest, I didn’t even remember it being successful. Now, I clearly see that I was wrong.

I don’t want to give away all of the good parts, so I’ll just give you a sample of what’s inside:

-Sure, you knew about Toy Fair, but did you know about “pre-Toy Fair”?

-Toy companies, while always looking for the next hit, do better with “staples”. In fact, a success could actually be detrimental, as they may be unable to keep up with demand – which is what drove Worlds of Wonder out of business following supply problems with Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag. Hasbro’s acquisition of Milton Bradley helped them stay afloat in lean years, as board games are staples.

-Mattel was considered the “University of Toyland”, as many of its alums have gone on to lead other companies in the industry, bringing Mattel’s systems, terminology, and practices along with them. Most other toy companies ran like family businesses, but Ruth and Elliot Handler built Mattel into the first professional toy operation. Then, they were ousted for fraudulent stock claims, and Mattel eventually became the model of how NOT to run a toy company. Still, it’s nice to read about what it was like before it sucked.Due to its position in the industry at the time the book was written, much of the book serves as an “official history of Mattel”.

-It’s believed that Jem dolls ultimately failed because she was created in a different scale than Barbie. Had they been the same size, they could’ve shared clothes and accessories, despite coming from different companies.

-It’s somewhat amazing to read about the conception of Dino-Riders, and then follow along as it evolves into a completely differrent animal. By no means was the end result what the creators had envisioned, but it was close enough that they could still be proud that their idea ended in a finished product – something few can say.

– Of course a big chunk of the book is about how toy companies felt sidelined when home computing and video game systems came on the scene in the early 80s.

-While the Teddy Bear was originally seen as a fad named for Theodore Roosevelt, it was expected to be replaced by Billy Possum, named for William Taft. Apparently, Taft had eaten roast possum on a trip to Atlanta, but there was no demand for the product.

-When Stanley Weston invented G.I.Joe for Hasbro, the normal inventor’s fee was 5% of net wholesale revenue. Hasbro, however, cited high development costs and only offered Weston 0.5% . Weston countered with 3%, and Hasbro offered him 1% – prompting Weston to sue. In a private meeting before the 1964 Toy Fair, Hasbro asked Weston if they could just buy the concept from him outright, as they felt they were taking a gamble. Eventually, Weston agreed to sell for $100,000. Had he kept the original deal, he would’ve made $150,000 on the first year alone. Weston, however, wasn’t too upset, and had this to say: “I’ve been married and divorced twice. If I’d had all that money I probably would’ve been divorced four times instead of two.”

-Hasbro’s problems surrounding Flubber deserve an entire book of their own. Long story short, a massive Flubber recall resulted in the supply being buried under Hasbro’s parking lot, which has pushed the property about  2 inches higher than the rest of the site.

My Little Pony was the result of market research where Hasbro asked little girls “What do you see when you go to bed and close your eyes?”

-In the great GoBots vs Transformers debate, Tonka’s development team felt they were doing kids a favor by simplifying the transformations, while later research indicated that kids enjoyed the more complex transformations of the Transformers line.

-Toy companies seem to have more moles than a season of 24, which results in specs and samples being leaked to bootleggers and the competition. Most companies, however, take it as proof than they’re onto something big if other are that interested in stealing the idea.

-Xavier Roberts, creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids, is an eccentric genius. He was an artist first and foremost, making him a terrible businessman.

-There’s a goof chunk about the deregulation of the 80s, leading to the Program Length Commercial. It also into the deals that were cut between television stations and syndicators. For example, Lorimar syndicated Thundercats. If a station agreed to air the cartoon, they would get a percentage of LJN’s Thundercats toy sales.

-There’s a great comparison between the business practices of Toys “R” Us, Kay-Bee, and FAO Schwartz. Two of these companies don’t exist any longer, and the remaining one doesn’t look like it did then. Still, it’s an interesting snapshot in time.

Anyway, I’ve teased enough. If you’re interested in the business of the toy industry, I highly recommend Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry. How do you get it? I dunno. Do I look like Barnes OR Noble? Maybe it’s on bit torrent or Amazon or something. Geez, I can’t do everything for you!

25th Jul2011

So, That Was The Wonder Woman Pilot…

by Will

All of the “real” sites used their connections to see the rejected Wonder Woman pilot right after the network upfronts in May, but I don’t have that kind of Rolodex (does anyone use an actual Rolodex anymore?). Anyway, thanks to a pal on Twitter, I was finally able to see what all the fuss was about. Let me just get my snobbery out of the way: as a student of comics and television, it’s glaringly obvious as to why NBC passed on this show. Even in its position at the bottom of the ratings, Wonder Woman was NOT going to be NBC’s salvation. If The Cape didn’t save them, this sure wasn’t going to do it, either. Honestly, Wonder Woman is more on the level of the short-lived Birds of Prey series.

Few people remember it, as Smallville went on to last ten seasons compared to BoP‘s one, but I maintain that Birds of Prey and Smallville were of the same level of quality. The only difference was that Superman was a more recognizable character than Commissioner Gordon’s crippled daughter/niece and Batman’s daughter (?!). Both shows were on The WB, where it didn’t matter what the shows were about, as long as the people were pretty. With Adrianne Palicki and Elizabeth Hurley, Wonder Woman‘s got that in spades. Also, Birds of Prey struggled with the fact that it was trying to tell a story without being allowed a full understanding of the characters. As BoP was laid out, Barbara Gordon was the former Batgirl who, after being crippled by The Joker, now operates as infojock Oracle. If you’ve read the comics, that’s familiar enough. Next, you’ve got Helena Wayne, who in this situation, is actually the adult daughter of Batman and Catwoman. Oh, and she’s also a mutant. She’s got heightened senses and jumps high and shit, which enables her to patrol the streets as Huntress. Now, here’s the kicker: since Warner Bros wanted to focus on revamping the Batman movie franchise (this was pre- Batman Begins), they didn’t allow Batman in the show (except for a brief sequence in the pilot). So, you’ve got your core cast, whose origins revolve around a concept that can only be danced around. And to explain it in the show, apparently The Joker killed Catwoman. TV Batman was such a punk bitch that he became distraught, and left Gotham City forever. So, what followed were 13 episodes of Barbara and Helena, both inspired by He Who Shall Not Be Named, defending Gotham City in the hopes that He Who Shall Not Be Named decides to stop being a bitch and comes home. Sadly, the show didn’t last that long, but the finale did involve a cool fight scene set to the t.A.T.u. classic “All The Things She Said”.

How does this all relate to Wonder Woman? Well, just like BoP, it doesn’t seem like David E. Kelley was allowed full access to the character. Sure, it’s a Wonder Woman costume, and DC was behind the project, but it lacks an understanding of Wonder Woman. This has been one of the biggest problems for Wonder Woman, as the comics lost sight of what makes her tick quite some time ago. The Greg Rucka era was the last time that anyone proudly read the WW comic series, and even “female character wunderkind” Gail Simone couldn’t get a grasp on the character. I ranted about this at length on twitter, but I felt like they should’ve focused figuring out the answer to “Who Is Wonder Woman?” before committing her to other media, like a weekly TV series. If they had called this show “Donna Troy”, it would’ve worked better. She wears a similar costume, looks the same, and nobody knows what the Hell her deal is. That’s her gimmick! Over the past 30 years, her mere existence is perpetuated on the fact that she’s just a walking identity crisis. Wonder Woman, however, should have a defined mission statement, which is neither present in the recent comics nor this pilot. There’s nothing to “wonder” about the woman in this pilot unless you’re wondering how she got cast. Anyway, here are the thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the show:

-There’s a LOT of exposition, but you’re really only informed of Wonder Woman’s backstory through newscasts and political pundits.  I liked the pundit sequence. Not sure if they actually got Dershowitz, Dr. Phil, and Nancy Grace on board, or if it was just clever editing, but this is what would happen if superheroes existed in the “real world”. If that’s what they’re going for, however, this could be a problem down the line.

-OK, here’s where things get more confusing than they need to be. In the show, Wonder Woman has THREE identities! She’s Wonder Woman, she’s international businesswoman Diana Themyscira (who’s also publicly known to be Wonder Woman), but she’s ALSO Diana Prince, which is the mousy-’cause-she-wear-glasses-and-a-ponytail-even-though-you-know-she’s-really-hot-like-in-She’s All That identity. By day, she’s one of the first two, but by night, she goes home to be Diana Prince, where she watches The Notebook with her cat. Yes, that happens. Since she’s not a lawyer, nor is she in Boston, I’m left to believe that this is the “David E. Kelley Touch” on this project. First off, I don’t think Wonder Woman would watch The Notebook, nor would she ask her cat if she should set up a facebook profile. This is all part of the “Well, she is a single woman, so she’s got needs and is probably lonely.” Family Guy conveyed that best here:

 

I get it. Set up a love story to grab some female viewers, but all that’s missing is the pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Also, I don’t see why she needs a 3rd identity in order to be lonely and “normal”. So, she puts on glasses and hides in her modest apartment so she can pretend she’s making decent lonely single lady money, when she knows that she’s actually a multimillionaire with a penthouse and a multinational corporation? I can understand having a weekend getaway, but this is a bit much.

-I’m the one guy who’s never watched Friday Night Lights, so I have no previous experience with Adrianne Palicki, but I don’t feel this was good casting. She never conveys the strength of Diana.  Instead, she’s soft, and comes across as Kelly Kapowski in a Halloween costume. Her acting is also phoned in. Surrounding Palicki, everyone else feels like they’re over acting. Everyone has a sense of urgency, while she just seems…bored. In my mind, Lake Bell or Missy Peregrym would’ve been stronger, better choices, as they have the look, and they’re still somewhat “unknown talents”, since nobody watched Surface or Stick It.

 

-I liked the color/weight blind casting on Etta Candy, but I know the fanboys would’ve loathed that! They hate Wonder Woman, but still would’ve jumped on that. Plus, I some fangirls would be upset that Etta Candy wasn’t “properly” portrayed as a larger gal…

-This is always going to be a problem when you make an adaptation of a comic character, but the suit doesn’t translate to reality. Batman works ’cause he hides in shadows. Superman works in a way. Wonder Woman just looks like she’s on her way to her shift at The Crazy Russian. Call me sexist, but the suit doesn’t work. You don’t know if she’s gonna arrest you or try to take you to the champagne room.

-I hate Diana’s male assistant, Henry. Had the show been picked up, I feel like he exists solely to be the person close to Diana who gets killed by some villain trying to make a point.

-They say “prick”, “balls”, and “tits” as an attempt to be edgy.

-Can we talk about the political/legal ramifications of the structure of this show? Everyone knows that businesswoman Diana Themyscira is Wonder Woman, yet no one goes after her company in a lawsuit? They kinda address it, when a senator threatens to sic the Justice Department on her. Diana answers that threat by saying that the country’s in two wars, so it doesn’t have time to investigate her. Not only is that lazy storytelling, but it’s another problem with combining real world aspects with comic aspects.

-She fucking kills a guy! I mean, she throws a pipe through his fucking throat! A security guard who’s just following orders! Not a Star Wars guy, but it’s really the whole “independent contractors on the Death Star” debate all over again.

-The villain, Veronica Cale, was experimenting on folks from a slavery ring, yet they were all white males. Not who you usually think of being involved in slavery, even the white kind. So, I guess this is when the show decided to stop trying to ape the real world, huh?

So, in the end, it’s not a horrible show, but it’s certainly not great. Based on production value, this show would’ve lasted 6 seasons in weekend syndication back in the 90s, but sadly that market is dead. It could’ve been in a block with Mutant X, Night Man, and Viper. It might even work as a cable show, but it certainly wasn’t a good fit for NBC. At the end of the day, it’s a serviceable action hour of television, but it’s not Wonder Woman. They tried a different take on the character that just didn’t work. The funny thing is that there’s source material for what they were trying to do: it’s called Ultra. As the first big comic project from The Luna Brothers, Ultra was a miniseries from Image Comics which was basically “Sex and the City with Powers”. Sure, it had dating drama and whatnot, but there was also a lot of action. Based on what I’ve seen here, David E. Kelley would be the PERFECT guy to adapt that series. Wonder Woman, however, just wasn’t the project for him.

 

03rd May2011

The America Post

by Will

Well, as I’m sure you all know now, America finally got him. You know…he’s got a ZZ Top beard? Yeah, him. Anyway, I’m not really going to get into all that, but I did want to join in the widespread patriotism that’s catching like Pokemon fever! I support the troops, and appreciate all that they do for us. I kinda wanted to share what America means to me. Of course, things hold different meanings for different folks, so you may not agree. I still wanted to express myself in some way. In any case, I thought about doing another 5-part thing, you know, like “America Week”, but I can’t keep up that schedule (What do you think this is? Postcultural?) So, I thought I would just put all of my feelings in one post, and let the videos do the talking. Fly your flag, let your bald eagle out of its cage, and join me in celebrating the good ol’ US of A!

29th Apr2011

Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers

by Will

 

I haven’t really discussed Glee much on this site. I actually wrote a pretty scathing review of the “sneak preview” that Fox aired back in ’09, but it’s still sitting in draft form. Basically, I didn’t think the show would last, but I wanted to give it a chance to prove itself. After a bit, I became happy with myself for not publishing that post, as I fell in love with the show.

Season 1 of Glee was this musical quirk fest that shouldn’t exist, yet somehow became popular – kinda like Lady Gaga. You’d ask anyone why they liked it, and you’d get the Apple Jacks response: “I dunno. I just do.” Glee launched a bit slowly, but then exploded after winter hiatus during its first season. Of course, the candle that burns brightest burns fastest. Season 2 started off contrived, and just continued to go downhill. In conversations I’ve had with folks, I’ve pointed out that I was driven away by how preachy the character of Kurt had become. If you want to know more about that viewpoint, we can handle that in another post. Mainly, I felt that few of the characters were likable, and it was no longer worth tuning in just to hear the gold that comes from Brittany and Santana’s mouths – especially when those lines will just end up on twitter.

My biggest problem with the second season, however, is the role that the music now fulfills: in the first season, the plot dictated the song choices, but now it’s the other way around, as the song choices have begun to dictate the plot. It was already illogical that these kids would break out in song this much, but now it’s harder to believe that they all suffered Britney Spears-centric hallucinations from a visit to the dentist. These are Sitcom Season 6 plotlines, when the cast is just trying to burn off some stories to add to the syndication count. Glee now feels like an odd combination of lazy/forced, as you can tell that a lot of work went into the musical aspect, but they’re just so lazy in setting up a *reason* for said music. So, I gave up on the show about 6 episodes into the season. However, one good thing did come from this season: The Warblers.

I dropped out of Glee just as The Warblers were introduced, so I don’t know the full story there (nor do I care enough to wiki it). I know Kurt was thinking of transferring to Dalton Academy, and his new school would feature this A-MAH-zing all-male group called The Warblers. While New Directions music contained instrumentation, The Warblers were full-on a cappella, bringing a new sound to the show while also showing people that not all show choirs are a cappella (and vice versa).

Once I gave up the show, I continued downloading the songs, as I still liked the music – especially the songs that clearly had unique arrangements and weren’t just karaoke versions of Top 40 hits. The tracks that never failed to impress me all came from The Warblers. Not only do they tackle some pretty intricate arrangements, but they also have a sound remiscent of late 90s collegiate a cappella, which was a time before technology came to dominate those recordings. Currently, as technology has become cheaper, a cappella recordings have started abusing autotune as much as Top 40 radio.

The main force behind The Warblers’ sound would be the Tufts Beelzebubs, an all-male collegiate a cappella group from Tufts University. The Bubs dominated a cappella during the late 90s/early ’00s with a clean blend that was achieved through talent and effective mixing, but didn’t overuse unnecessary effects. The current Bubs actually contribute the vocals for The Warblers, and it’s nice to hear that the group is still amazing at what they do. When you meet someone on the street and tell them you sang a cappella, they always ask “Oh, like Rockapella?”. Yeah, sure, but what we really wanted to be were The Bubs, The Derbies, The Crosbies or The Dukesmen. So, you could say I’m a fan.

I finally got around to listening to Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers, which collects the Warbler songs that have been featured on the show. I had heard tracks here and there, but after listening to them altogether, I feel that this is once of the best a cappella albums I’ve heard in QUITE some time. From start to finish, from song selection to blend, this is a nearly flawless collection. Plus, it’s nice that Chris Colfer has a platform where his voice can finally shine. He has that distinctive voice where, in an a choral setting, it would be a bitch to get him to blend, but the trade-off would be that he’s a dynamic soloist.

There are some real standout tracks on this collection. A cappella groups have done a good job reinterpreting Train songs, and that’s true here as they guys turn in a great arrangement of “Hey, Soul Sister.”You can also hear the fun in their voices in their cover of “Animal” by Neon Trees. Out of nowhere, they blow the doors off “When I Get You Alone”, originally performed by a “Robin-less” Thicke. Finally, I found myself really enjoying a simple, yet still moving, rendition of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”. If there’s one track that might go into the “miss” category, I’d have to say it’s their version of “Blackbird”. It’s not bad, per se, but it lacked the dynamics of the other arrangements. Other than that, it’s a solid collection.

If you went to a school that didn’t dabble in a cappella, or if you just want to hear what some consider to be the gold standard of collegiate a cappella, you can’t go wrong with Glee: The Music Presents The Warblers. I consider this a nice little “Bon Voyage To Glee” present for me. I came for the Lea Michele, but I left with the Darren Criss. Y’all let me know if they ever make a Warblers spinoff show.

07th Apr2011

So, Which TV Network Are You?

by Will

I’m not sure if this is obvious to some, but the “television experience” has changed a LOT in just a few short years. Once upon a time, people were concerned about airdates and antenna positioning, however, the prevalence of DVR and cable have pretty much done away with all of that. The aspect which has experienced the greatest change, however, is that of network branding. Currently, networks no longer really have a specific identity, instead choosing to let their shows speak for themselves. This can be confusing, though, as what does it say about a network when its most successful shows involve crime scene semen or anti-social nerd caricatures? This wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not that long ago, when networks not only promoted their programming, but also their identities. This was true from the biggest network affiliate to the smallest local syndicated outlet. For example, Channel 5 used to show the same reruns of Mr. Belvedere, Three’s Company, and Who’s The Boss?, but for the summer of ’92, they expected you to refer to it all as “Camp Teeheehaha”. Sure, you’d seen the shows before, but they were taking advantage of the American experience of going off to summer camp in an attempt to rebrand the shows. That’s some Don Draper shizz right there! Networks did little things like this to show that they supported their series; after all, they’d already paid for the syndication rights, so they might as well get their money’s worth. Nowadays, all we have are court shows. If you miss one, another will be on right after it. There’s no real need to promote, as there’s no real difference: sassy black woman judge, sassy white woman judge, sassy might-be-Latina judge, etc. The shows have changed, but so has the promotion of said shows. So, where am I going with this? Well, growing up, I used to think about which network I’d want to be on were I to have my own series. As I grew from boy to man, in what was (to me) a golden age of television, I noticed certain things about each network that made me want to park myself on their prime-time lineup. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

ABC

This one is pretty much a no-brainer, as anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s knows where I’m going with this. ABC had a bunch of shows which made them seem like The Touchy-Feely Network, whether it was the family drama of Life Goes On, or the generational experiences of Thirtysomething. Judith Light starred in the riveting TV movie of The Ryan White Story, and families loved gathering around to watch dads across America get hit in the crotch on America’s Funniest Home Videos. All of those shows, however, had NOTHING on the powerhouse known as TGIF.

I’m not going to go into the history and lineup of the TGIF block, ’cause most of y’all were there. Maybe it’s the comic fanboy in me, but what I loved most about TGIF was the shared universe. I guess I’m always looking for a sense of community, and I loved how the early series tended to be related to each other in some way: Mark Cooper (Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) subbed for Michelle Tanner’s (Full House) class, while Harriet Winslow (Family Matters) was the elevator operator at Larry & Balki’s job (Perfect Strangers). Steve Urkel (Family Matters) did a science project with Mark Foster (Step By Step), while Dana Foster (Step By Step) gave love advice to Cory Matthews (Boy Meets World) at Sea World. With all of this crossover action, it was kinda fun trying to imagine where I might fit in. Maybe I’d be friends with Eddie Winslow, like Weasel and Waldo Geraldo Faldo. Or maybe Karen Foster would reject me before her character oddly disappeared to pursue a country music career. Or maybe I’d be the black friend that Cory and Shawn used to have when Minkus was still around. The possibilities were endless!

One of this biggest perks of a perch on the TGIF lineup was that you also got to host the Saturday Morning Preview special. These are relics of days gone by, but back when networks still had Saturday morning cartoons, they always kicked off the season with the Saturday Morning Preview one Friday night in September (Sure, NBC had one, too, but those were usually hosted by Cosby kids or those awkward kids from ALF or The Torkelsons). The TGIF ones were great, as everyone was (usually) still in character and they genuinely seemed excited about dreck like Hammerman and Little Rosie. Everything was awesome in TGIF Land! As an added bonus, once Disney bought ABC, every show was pretty much required to do a stint at Disney World, so free vacation!

CBS

Growing up, I can’t ever remember wanting to be on CBS. That’s not to say that I didn’t watch CBS shows. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Up until the dawn of the CSI Era, CBS got a bad rap as The Old Folks’ Network. Yes, they had programming like Murder, She Wrote and 60 Minutes, but I never saw it like that. If anything, I always felt that CBS shows had a sense of maturity that couldn’t be found on other networks. I grew up watching Murphy Brown and Designing Women – both shows that spoke more to my experience of being raised by strong, single women from the South. So, I never wanted to be on CBS, as I felt I was already there. Next!

NBC

While ABC was courting me with TGIF, NBC had another acronym waiting in the wings for my affection: TNBC. By far, the most successful NBC branding of that era was “Must-See TV”, but I couldn’t really relate to that. I enjoyed the shows, but they all took place in Manhattan, as the protagonists seemed to have these fantasy jobs that paid for their massive apartments. As much as I love New York, I wasn’t gonna be on “Must-See Thursday” unless I sold a joint to Theo Huxtable or got transferred to Hillman College. Then, along came TNBC as a world of possibility for young black guys. Sure, Lisa Turtle didn’t do much for The Cause, but California Dreams came along and showed me that I could be a drummer. And there was that black dude on The Guys Next Door – sure, no one remembers that show, but I remember he was there. Then, we got Saved By The Bell: The New Class, which always seemed to have a slot for a hip, dancing black guy that needed to be filled. And Hang Time – a show about basketball! C’mon! As a teenager growing up in the late 90s, nowhere felt like “home” as much as TNBC. Yes, I realize that those shows were basically created for girls, but I still kinda felt like those characters were my people.

The BIGGEST perk of being on NBC, however, is one of these:

I don’t know if it’s contractual or what, but if you’re on an NBC show, you are pretty much guaranteed to film one of these public service announcements. A lot of PSAs just come off kinda clunky, but The More You Know has gained a special place in the annals of pop culture. Most PSAs are lame, but I always saw these as some kind of badge of honor. I’ll take one of these over those Truth.com kids ANY day!

Fox

Oh, Fox! It’s amazing how an entertainment network can be so edgy, while its news wing is so conservative. Fox was founded on Married…with Children, so that has colored its identity. While ABC was the Touchy-Feely Network, Fox was on the complete other end of that spectrum. Besides the early reality fare like World’s Greatest Police Chases, there was a “Fox Show” model: the aforementioned Married…, Top of the Heap, even Herman’s Head. Generally, if you wanted to make middle America uncomfortable for about 6 episodes, and your show wouldn’t work anywhere else, then Fox was the place to be. Even to this day, I’m surprised by how much Fox Standards & Practices allows on the air – the entire Seth MacFarlane franchise is a good example of this.

I’ve admired Fox because they are willing to take chances. They still carry shows that you just wouldn’t see anywhere else, and they miss more than they hit. The beauty of the network, however, is that it lives by American Idol alone. The show airs 5 months of the year, but the ratings are high enough to make Fox the #1 Network for the entire season. Growing up, all they had was The Simpsons, but the attitude seemed to be the same as it is now. Sure, reality programming has evolved, and Fox has taken advantage of that, but it’s still the same old Fox. I’d want to be on Fox ’cause they’ll promote the Hell out of your show during NFL and MLB games, but you’re still gonna get cancelled after they move your show to Sundays at 7:00 PM.

UPN

Has there ever been a network with more of an identity crisis than UPN? It’s remembered as The Black Network, but that’s not entirely accurate. Sure, the network had a lot of horrible black shows, like Homeboys in Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, but there was so much more to it than that. The oddest part of UPN was the it’s prelaunch reputation didn’t match what ended up on the screen. Here’s the pre-launch promo for the network:

As you see, it’s relying on the reputation of the shows that had been developed by Paramount in the past, yet doesn’t really go into detail as to what we should expect from the network. Were they just going to rerun all those shows they just mentioned? Should we be expecting new stuff? Classical music! Rock music! Then, the network launched, and we were introduced to DiResta, Marker and Platypus Man. When your network is bolstered by shows starring a Mad About You costar and Richard Greico, you’re in trouble. Yeah, there was Star Trek: Voyager, but it could also be said that UPN was the nail in the Trek coffin, as both of its offerings were reviled by fans. Early UPN was the television equivalent of the Dot Com Boom, as they really just threw around a lot of ideas to see if they’d stick. Richard Dean Anderson as a cowboy. A Love Boat reboot. A bunch of shows NBC had knocked off their schedule because they apparently weren’t “New York” enough. Through all of this, there was one spot where I could see myself.

Around the time the NBC’s TNBC block was at its peak, UPN started toying around with a similar concept for weekday afternoons. Comprised of reruns of Sweet Valley High and a new teen show called Breaker High, the network adopted the slogan “UPN is U’pn”, which was pronounced “oo-pin”. Sure, it made no sense, and to say it aloud sounds like something you’d hear in a commercial for Dunkaroos. Maybe they were implying that UPN was moving up? Maybe UPN was jumping? I don’t know, but where there are teen shows, I’ll be there. Anyway, Breaker High was about a bunch of kids who were in a semester-at-sea program. It had everything you’d come to expect from teen shows, but starred a charismatic Ryan Gosling and Tyler Labine. I loved the Hell out of that show, even though it didn’t even last an entire season. The U’pn block ran for about 3 months on a daily schedule until it just disappeared one day in November, as the timeslot was given back to the stations. Breaker High finished up its run on Sunday mornings, but the only time I ever saw anything worthwhile in that network was the 3-month U’pn Era.

The WB

OK, I already covered the fact that I’m drawn to things that give off a sense of community, and no network exemplified that as much as The WB. When it first launched, the network’s promos revolved around the image that all of the stars hung out on the Warner Bros backlot. Going to work seemed like it would be a ton of fun, as you’d see Nikki Cox on the elevator, and run into Tia and Tamara Mowry on the way to the set.

Plus, I was entering a point in my life where I really kinda wanted to be in a boyband. While girls my age were pining for heartthrobs, I wanted to be one, and nobody developed teen stars quite like The WB. The stars of those shows kept the teen magazine industry in business for the better part of a decade. If you were under the age of 20, and wanted to make it big, you either needed to fly to Orlando and audition for Lou Pearlman, or you needed to get yourself on a WB show.

Even though it’s a bit of a joke in some circles, The WB did more for pop culture over a decade than people realize. I explored this once before, and my feelings haven’t changed. For that reason, The WB is where I’d want my show to air. You can thank them for Buffy, even if you blame them for Katherine Heigl. To top things off, I think they had a really classy send-off video. A network hadn’t folded since the DuMont Network, so I had no frame of reference for these things. However, if you’ve got to go out, this is the way to do it:

28th Mar2011

Why Starfleet?

by Will

Yes, this began as a late night Twitter rant last week, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized a full blog post would give me a reason to play with MS Paint.

As some of you may know, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for most of my life. Back in middle school, my friends and I had the Star Trek Encyclopedia, as well as any tech guide or manual that Simon & Shuster decided to put out. We were the ones watching all those Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns that used to clog up Channel 20’s schedule. As I got older, however, my pallet began to prefer more mature tastes, such as Power Rangers and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I gave up the ghost during Voyager, and I’ve only seen a handful of Enterprise. That said, you can take the boy out of Trek, but you can’t take the Trek out of the boy. My brain’s still full of a lot of useless 24th century knowledge, and every now and then I find myself trying to make sense of it. During an usual bit of insomnia last week, I found myself wondering why, exactly, a human would even want to join Starfleet.

For those not in the know, in the Star Trek Universe, Starfleet is the “Space NATO” to the United Federation of Planets’ “Space UN”. Its members are predominantly human, and it is headquartered in Fort Baker, California. While Starfleet’s primary mission is to explore and seek out new life, things can get pretty tense out in space. Between wars with Cardassians, or lethal electrical feedback, there’s no shortage of danger for a Starfleet officer. Based on current economics and world affairs, I find myself wondering what would inspire a human to join an outfit like Starfleet, as the risks seem to outweigh the rewards. Let’s take a closer look at a few things.

Money: In today’s society, a big reason that people enlist in the Armed Forces is money. Whether they want to provide for their families with their signing bonus, or get in on some of that G.I. Bill money, the financial benefits entice many into joining the service. This, however, isn’t true for the Starfleet cadet. You see, the 24th century is based on what has been called “The New World Economy”. For all practical purposes, Earth has done away with poverty and hunger, but it has also done away with currency. As a sidebar, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. Whenever I’m looking for work, people always ask me “Well, what would you want to do if money weren’t an issue?” I HATE this question because money is ALWAYS an issue. I just can’t wrap my head around that not being the case. I know that there are people who can, and God bless ’em, but that’s just not me. So, that’s why I have a hard time understanding why you’d want to go out in space, and risk getting tubes shoved in your ass and ear holes by a bunch of space zombies if there’s no financial gain. That’s too much danger to just write off as “the cost of exploration”!

Sex: Could the lure of Space Pussy be enough to get you to join up? But could you imagine the STDs out there? Or will a hypospray just clear that right up? Also, note that I said Space Pussy and not Space Dick, because the future doesn’t seem too bright for women – utopia be damned. If you’re a young, single woman in Starfleet, you’ll end up phasing through the floor or being killed by a large sentient oil spill. And don’t even try to be a gay male! Over the 40 year franchise, we’ve seen men in miniskirts (the “skant”) & go-go boots, but we were still led to believe that they liked the minge. Have they ever shown a homosexual on Star Trek? The closest they got was that androgynous race, and Riker still couldn’t help himself from giving one of them a bunch of confusing urges. Otherwise, the only gay icons of the 24th century were Major Kira, Tasha Yar, and Harry Kim. No, they never confirmed this, but c’mon…

Technology: If you’re a tech geek, then Starfleet is probably a dream come true. You could join Starfleet Engineering and test out all of the gadgets that you used to read about on your PADD before mandatory lights-out at the mining colony where you grew up. There’s a lot of leeway for experimentation, and there’s no battle for patents and ownership ’cause there’s no money to be had. The worst part, however, is when that technology backfires on you. I’m going to go with the simplest case here. You see, during space battles, the ships are protected by shields. When those shields are struck, it results in electromagnetic feedback that sometimes shoots out of the ships consoles and control panels. Many a Starfleet officer has been killed while simply sitting at his station during the wrong battle. When you graduate from the Academy, they might tell you to watch out for The Borg, but you’ll find that you risk your life just by simply walking down the hall. Observe (the fun starts at 01:18):

Meeting New Races: It might sound exciting to meet a new race of beings, but some of them have some crazy beliefs that you have to put up with. Sure, we’ve got the Scientologists and the vegans, there’s one 24th Century-era race that will KILL YOU IF YOU STEP ON THE FLOWERS! Did I also mention that they worship a giant space chandelier? Aside from little quirky things like that, sometimes you just deal with some straight up, fucked up shit:

Supporting Your Government: OK, I get it. There’s no money to be had, you’re not that into green chicks, and you don’t really mind phasering giant space slugs. Then, what is your incentive? Oh, maybe you’re just really patriotic. After all, your government (which now commands a network of planets rather than just Earth) has created a society in which you are taken care of, and given a chance to be a tool of discovery. Why wouldn’t you want to support a governing body like that? Well, maybe it’s because the United Federation of Planets is just as shady as today’s governmental bodies.

First off, there’s Section 31, which is The Federation’s version of the CIA. Nobody talks much about them, as very few people know that they exist. Not only do they exist, but they’ve had their hands in everything from the Temporal Cold War to the outlawed genetic enhancements that were performed on humans, like Dr Bashir. You may think everything’s well and good, but your government still doesn’t trust you, even in the 24th century. Also, their tactics are questionable, as they engage in full-scale, Jack Bauer level torture. They ended a war by eradicating an entire race. For Section 31, no one is off limits, so they might come for you one day.

On top of that, there’s all the shady stuff that the Federation does to coerce non-member planets into joining. The sheer existence of a bunch of space hippies like the Maquis proves that not everything that the Federation does is liked by all. Sure, you can’t please everyone all of the time, but the Star Trek Universe is based on the assumption that you not only can, but you have. So, why are The Maquis so mad?

So, I know it’s science fiction, and I really shouldn’t overthink it, but I’m just starting to think that the Star Trek Universe posed more questions than it answered. When I was 5, I used to weep at the fact that I’d never live to see the creation of Starfleet. I mean, even if I did, it would’ve been the crappy, Kirk-era Starfleet, and I don’t get down with The Original Series. After some careful thought, however, I’ll take capitalism, with its non-exploding walls and curable-by-penicillin-STDs, any day! The future’s just not for me, but I hope my great, great, great grandson, Hyperflex Westion IV, is a better man than I am, and will find a reason to beam up.

09th Mar2011

Peter Engel’s Forgotten Children: Obscure Teen Sitcoms Part I

by Will

I’ve never made a secret of my love of bad teen television. My love for the TNBC franchise is only second to my Power Rangers obsession. That said, I watched that lineup from its inception to its demise at the hands of Discovery Kids. What some people may not know is that the bulk of the TNBC offerings were the work of one Mr. Peter Engel. Primarily a television producer, Engel’s professional journey has been somewhat unorthodox.  He got his big break producing teen sitcoms, primarily for NBC. Later on, he became Dean of Pat Roberson’s Regent University. Once that ended, he somehow found himself producing NBC’s Last Comic Standing. What I love most about Engel is that he found a way to build an empire by recycling the same tropes. We’re all familiar with the hits, such as Saved By the Bell and California Dreams, but I want to focus on the shows that never reached the same level of success as those shows, despite being cut from the very same cloth.

As I said before, we already know the bigger shows: Good Morning, Miss Bliss (which we now refer to as Saved By The Bell: The Junior High Years), Saved By The Bell, and its spinoffs The New Class and The College Years. Mixed in there was California Dreams (basically “Zack Attack: The Series”), which also had a lengthy run. Now, if we’re going chronologically, Hang Time would be next, however it’s not technically an “Engel Show”. Go watch the first season – it’s not even really a sitcom. Engel came onboard during the second season, and basically changed it into Saved By The Bell: The Basketball Team. No, even Hang Time isn’t obscure enough for what we’re here to do. I want to talk about USA High.

USA High was a Peter Engel show that aired, appropriately enough, on USA Network, from 1997-2001. It has been said that it was originally developed for TNBC, but it somehow became a companion show to Saved By The Bell: The New Class reruns when USA Network acquired the rights to them. At its core, USA High was Saved By The Bell: The Paris Years. Basically, it was all the SBTB adventures you’d already seen, only now they were set at the American Academy boarding school in Paris, France.

Oddly enough, it felt like the whole Paris thing was added as an afterthought, as there are no European qualities to the show whatsoever. The dorm where the kids live is just the Saved By The Bell: The College Years set reused. They hang out at Cafe USA, which is really just the American Chain Restaurant for Tourists version of The Maxx. There’s an outdoor nighttime set that they used for date episodes, but it was just some cafe tables next to a window. Honestly, the show could’ve been set anywhere, as the locale never really factored into anything that took place.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the characters, many of whom you’ll recognize. First up, there’s Jackson Greene (portrayed by Josh Holland), who’s our resident pretty boy schemer. Of course, most of his schemes are just attempts to date All American, albeit flatchested, Lauren Fontaine (portrayed by Elena Lyons). Oh, did I mention that Lauren is a waitress at Cafe USA? Next, we had our musclebound German heartthrob, Christian (portrayed by Thomas Magiar). Here’s where you might say, “Well, he’s German, so that’s European, right?” It might’ve been special if Saved By The Bell: The New Class hadn’t added a German kid to their cast the previous year. Then, there’s goody two-shoes honor student Ashley Elliot (portrayed by Kristen Miller), who traded in Jesse’s feminism for a cute British accent. In the “annoying little guy” role, we’ve got Bobby Lazzarini (portrayed by James Madio). Rounding out the cast is probably the biggest change from the SBTB formula, which was the role of Winnie Barnes (portrayed by Marquita Terry). While Lisa Turtle was originally a Jewish character (what? you didn’t know that?), it’s clear that Winnie was black from the get-go. She’s stereotypical enough that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear “I’ma cut you!” come out of her mouth. Switching things up, it’s Christian who’s madly in love with her instead of Lazzarini. All of their adventures happen under the watch of bumbling Headmaster (and Ashley’s father), Mr. Elliot (portrayed by Nicholas Guest). In the second season of the show, Lazzarini’s written out, and replaced by California Dreams alum William James Jones in the role of “Dwayne ‘Excess’ Wilson”.

Anyway, I’m always surprised that more people haven’t seen USA High, as there were a total of 95 episodes compared to Saved By The Bell‘s 86 episodes. I understand it never had the network/syndication exposure of Saved By The Bell, but I’m sure people just stumbled across it and said “What’s this show?”, without really knowing what they were watching.

Where Are They Now?

Most of the cast of USA High have faded into obscurity, as teen sitcom stars are prone to do. Engel’s really good at “keeping it in the family”, as shown by his decision to hire Jones from California Dreams. Josh Holloway went on to play a date rapist in City Guys (another Engel show), while Marquita Terry went on to join the cast of Malibu, CA (yet another Engel show). Elena Lyons appears to have gotten a boob job, and can be see in Broken Lizard’s Club Dread. Kristen Miller went on to costar in That’s My Bush, as well as She Spies. James Madio went on to appear in HBO’s Band of Brothers, and has a steady career in voice acting.

Engel Extra!

While USA High was cranking along on USA Network, Engel got One World added to the TNBC schedule. Basically, the show followed a couple who had taken foster kids into their home. It was heavier stuff than typical Engel fare, but it was still teen-focused. Honestly, the fact that it was on the TNBC schedule was a testament to how much the television landscape had changed by that point. Ten years prior, the show would’ve aired in the same primetime slots as ALF or The Torkelsons. As primetime got edgier, “family shows” were now being seen as kid’s fare. Anyway, the most recognizable cast member was Alisa Reyes, who had grown up as a cast member on All That. Apparently, she’s a DJ for Playboy Radio now. Oh, and it had that kid who starred in all those Johnny Tsunami Disney Channel movies. Anyway, One World tackled those hard hitting questions, like “Do foster kids hook up with each other?” No, seriously.

Join us next time, as we tackle City Guys, and a little known gem called Malibu, CA.

18th Feb2011

The Digital Revolution Is Being Televised

by Will

I like to think of myself as an informed person. By no means am I a genius, but I like to think of myself as “Jeopardy Smart” – I know a little about a lot. There’s one thing, however, that I know a LOT about, and that’s television. I’m not just talking about shows and actors, but the behind-the-scenes aspect of television. I’ve studied the biography of Brandon Tartikoff, I’ve read everything I could about the Late Night Wars, and I recognize there’s more genius to Peter Engel than we give him credit for. So, with all this focus on TV, I’m always taken aback when something fails to make any real sense. One such occasion was the broadcast switchover from analog to digital. While we were given plenty of warning (and even an extension), it was never fully explained as to why the switch was taking place. For non TV folks, I’m referring to the fact that you can no longer watch TV with a simple antenna, but are now required to have a digital box in order to catch an over-the-air TV signal. Some explanations suggested that it would free up the analog airwaves to be used for emergency purposes. According to some accounts, the government plans to auction off the vacated analog spectrum. For whatever the reason, it was never clear, and it was a huge headache for the elderly population. Most of the folks reading this have cable, so y’all never noticed any real change. I, however, grew up without cable and I was raised by the Black Golden Girls. Preparing them for the switchover was akin to prepping them for potential missile attacks from the “reds”. What truly came as a surprise, however, was that the switchover would open a door to the past that I never dreamed possible.

It was like this, but picture them black

Here’s a little full disclosure for you: I’ve never had cable. My mom finally caved and got it once I moved out, but I have never lived in a place that had cable. To make matters worse, I have a basement studio apartment, so getting any kind of over-the-air signal was a bit of a challenge before the switchover. I’ve never minded a little static, though, as I grew up watching Baltimore TV through the static because their Channel 54 had better shows than our Channel 20 (syndicated Punky Brewster, son!). Nobody told me, however, that digital airwaves would do away with that ability! Now, if you don’t get a signal, the screen just goes blue or you get a “No Signal” message. Another part of my childhood gone. That damn digital box ruined my life, as it pretty much eliminated the ability to watch any local station. What it did provide, however, was a link to the past. You see, I now only really get 3 channels, but those 3 channels have turned out to be more awesome than I could have imagined. I tend to suffer from a pretty bad case of seasonal affect disorder where pretty much any condition makes me depressed. Yeah, I should probably see a professional about that, but my home remedy is regression. That was a big deal back in college: “Hey, it’s Finals Week, so come to RPU and join us for comfort food and your favorite cartoons!” It’s a remedy I still employ to this day, and it works. Apparently, “everything old is new again”, and the 3 digital channels that I manage to get actually do a pretty good job recreating my childhood. Let’s take a closer look at what we have here, shall we?

As I said, none of my local network channels seem to work any longer, but most of those channels have additional digital channels that the stations seem desperate to fill with programming. For instance, our local NBC station has a digital channel (4-2) that played nothing but old beach volleyball matches. Our local ABC affiliate, however, has something I actually enjoy. You see, they carry the Retro Television Network (Channel 7-2). In what could be considered a “Poor Man’s TV Land“, RTV focuses on showing hour-long dramas from the past. Stumble across the channel, and you’ll find yourself watching I, Spy or Magnum, P.I. The true beauty of the station, however, is that it shows Knight Rider and The A-Team every glorious night. It’s like I’m 3 years old again, and I ain’t complaining! Sure, those shows haven’t aged all that well, but I simply don’t care. Forget How I Met Your Mother 5 times a week – I’ve got the DVDs; when I’m rushing home in the evening, it’s to travel back to a time when bullets didn’t kill and a talking car was a rarity.

I first discovered RTV last winter when I was unemployed, and I pretty much thought that was as good as the retro television scene was going to get. Then, everything changed on January 1, 2011, when the local CW affiliate started carrying Antenna TV on one of their digital channels (Channel 50-2). While RTV is more of a TV Land clone, Antenna TV is more of a Nick at Nite clone. It hearkens back to the days when Nick at Nite used to play actual classics, and not The George Lopez Show and Roseanne. We’ve had a ton of snow days recently, and during that time I’ve seen shows that I haven’t seen in years – things like  Too Close for Comfort, The Monkees, and Gidget. What really put a smile on my face was when I read that Antenna TV would also be adding Three’s A Crowd to their schedule. I know it’s a terrible, formulaic show, but I’m a Three’s Company fanatic. It has always bothered me that spin-offs Three’s A Crowd and The Ropers aren’t a part of the syndication package. Antenna TV will be showing the entire franchise. I don’t care if it’s 4 in the morning, I’ll be watching.

I’ve been familiar with qubo for some time, mainly due to the fact that the qubo programming block took over the NBC Saturday morning timeslots formerly occupied by TNBC and Discovery Kids. My biggest gripe with qubo was that they focused on thinly-veiled Christian CGI cartoons, like Veggie Tales and 3-2-1 Penguins.  I actually enjoyed Penguins, but I felt they were hitting kids over the head with the Morals of the Week. So, when I realized that there was a qubo digital channel (66-2), I wasn’t exactly rushing home to watch it. Sadly, I get the strongest signal from that channel, so I find myself watching it more than I would like. Well, imagine my surprise a few months back when I caught something called qubo Night Owl. Apparently, qubo acquired the rights to the Filmation cartoon library, so starting around 1 AM, they show He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Bravestarr, and (the “unreal”) Ghostbusters, with the gorilla. It’s not award-winning television, but it’s pretty cool to watch if you’re drunk and/or can’t sleep. You might, however, find yourself wondering if She-Ra’s skirt was always that short…

So, while I still can’t explain the reasoning behind the digital switchover, I found a way to turn a negative into a positive. I kinda proud of myself, as I tend to like to just complain about stuff. In any case, I’m just like you. I can drive a car and hold a job. I just can’t watch television shows when they air. Oh well, thanks to the internet, I can just watch them the day after. While you’re consumed with your DVR and your On-Demand, I’m taking a trip back to a better time. Everything old is new again, and I’ve got a front row seat. Don’t you wish you could be me? Ok, you can stop laughing now. Come on, that’s not cool. Stop laughing!

*channel numbers based on Washington, DC viewing market. Check your local listings for your own damn digital channels

28th Sep2010

2010-2011 TV Season: A Week’s Worth of Analysis

by Will

So, we’re a week into the 2010-2011 television season, and I decided that I needed to write up a little review in order to sort my thoughts on the shows. Since I love attention, I thought I’d share those opinions with you. You may have seen some of these thoughts on twitter, but I wanted to expand on some of them, as 140 characters can be a bit limiting. I didn’t take a lot of chances with new shows, ’cause they all wanna be the next Lost. I figure they’ll be canceled before they get the chance to actually disappoint me (plus, I never watched Lost), so I don’t even give them the chance. Most of these reviews pertain to returning sitcoms.

MONDAY

How I Met Your Mother (CBS): As we enter season 6, it seems that they’re now back on track in regards to the Ted-meeting-the-mother gimmick. There have been tons of interviews with the producers where they acknowledged missteps during season 5. They preferred doing standalone episodes last season, which critics called “sitcommy”. They hinted that the premiere was a game changer, but it didn’t feel like it. We were led to believe that the framing device had changed, so that now Old Ted was reflecting on his wedding day, while also reflecting back to the events that led to it. At the end of the episode, however, it seemed to be implied that Ted was actually the Best Man in the wedding scenario, leading us to wonder who might be the groom. It’s not Marshal, but could it be Barney? After all, who else is close enough to Ted that they would ask him to be their best man? I’m sure they’ll throw some kind of curveball into things, but for now there aren’t enough clues to really decide. In all, it was a pretty solid premiere.

Two and a Half Men (CBS): Returning for its 8th season, it’s the show that critics love to hate. It’s the butt of pop culture jokes, but it has lasted longer than many of the shows that criticized it. The popular joke is that it should just be called Three Men now, but I still think the concept works. There’s not a lot of character development here, so it’s basically the same show it was 7 years ago. This kind of show is PERFECT for strip syndication, as there are no real plots to follow. I did notice an interesting  joke, though: At the beginning Charlie Sheen’s character wakes up from a night of getting blackout drunk, and he doesn’t know where his pants are. When the housekeeper comes over, she hands him his pants, which she found in the mailbox. What I found odd, though, was that the pants were jeans. If you’ve watched more than 2 episodes of the show, you’ll know that Charlie NEVER wears jeans. He wears bowling shirts and shorts. Anyway, it was a pretty solid episode, even if it didn’t have a *premiere* feel to it.

Mike & Molly (CBS): This show is going to be interesting, from a behind-the-scenes perspective. Basically, it’s a sitcom about 2 overweight people who meet at Overeaters Anonymous. Most reviewers have said the same thing, but the problem is that the show doesn’t seem to know if the characters’ weight is the butt of the joke, or the thing that makes them endearing. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to root for them to lose weight, or if I’m supposed to learn to accept them at their current size. If it’s the latter, then I KNOW some media whore fitness guru, like Jillian Michaels or Jackie Warner, is gonna come out against the show because it “wants us to accept obesity as an acceptable lifestyle”. I expect it to be Jillian, as the latest season of The Biggest Loser just started.

TUESDAY

Glee (Fox): Well, the show everyone seems to love has returned. Since it’s a new school year, that means there are also new students. I said this on twitter, but I haven’t seen a “hear come the new kids” episode that heavyhanded since Head of the Class. I know they had a lot of points to hit, but it all just felt forced. In fact, it felt as forced as the songs. I’ve had a problem since Glee became a hit, and that’s the fact that the songs are now dictating the plot, rather than vice versa. Plus, it was nice when they pulled out older songs, while now it’s just a Top 40 showcase, with no real context for the songs. And don’t even get me started on the autotune effects. I also found it unnecessary to introduce new kids when they haven’t really utilized the ones they had. We just finally learned that Asian dude has abs and a speaking voice! Final problem: Rachel’s too hot this season. It’s not that the character wasn’t attractive, but she never really played it up. The thing with season premieres is that everyone has the new look they acquired over the summer, but she seemed to be a bit more fashionable than she had been in the past. Her old look was “slightly dated schoolgirl prep” – not the most “in” look, but it worked for her. Now, she seems to have gotten a bit more fashion-forward, and I don’t know if I like that for her character.

Raising Hope (Fox): A single camera comedy by the creators of My Name Is Earl. It is such the spiritual cousin of that show that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were set in the same universe. One unique thing about Earl, which I think was lost on the people who didn’t get it, was that it’s setting was always unknown. It was never said in which state Camden was located, and Earl was poor enough that he didn’t dabble in modern luxuries, so the show could have been set at any time period over the last 20 years, and you wouldn’t have known it. The same could be said about this show, where a young guy struggles to raise a baby – the product of a one night stand with killer who’s later executed. It felt like a Fox show, almost like a darker Malcolm in the Middle, but I don’t know if there’s really a home for that kind of show anymore, even on Fox. It’s got a Glee lead-in, so it’s being given a fighting chance on a silver platter.

Running Wilde (Fox): I hate this show. Really. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s the kind of thing that should appeal to Arrested Development fans, but won’t, because it TRIES TOO HARD to appease them. Where AR was a smart show, this thing is just a live action cartoon. Will Arnett should only be taken in small doses, and Keri Russell is horribly miscast. I’m not going to get too upset because it’s only a matter of time before Fox ends up moving it to the graveyard of Friday Night (or worse, the Sunday 7:00 slot that’s always preempted by sports).

WEDNESDAY

Modern Family (ABC): Considered the best comedy of last season, Modern Family came back with a very non-premiere episode. It’s not that it wasn’t good, but it didn’t come out of the gate swinging. It felt like a non sweeps filler episode. Everyone was in character, but it just lacked any heft to it. I wonder if ABC’s showing the episodes out of order.

Cougar Town (ABC): It was great to see the gang again, and all of the Bill Lawrence quirk was intact. The Anniston cameo seemed wasted. She didn’t bring anything to that guest role, and it could’ve been saved for a ratings boost during sweeps. You don’t have to resort to stunt casting for a season premiere. People are tired of the 2 months of reruns, so they’ll show up. As much as I love the show, I’m always worried that ABC might not like it as much as I do. I haven’t heard anything about low ratings, but it seems like it has a loyal fan base, while it isn’t necessarily attracting a lot of new viewers. Some felt the name was off-putting, but the “cougar” aspect was mostly abandoned by the middle of last season. Now that it’s an ensemble show, I think it would appeal to anyone who liked Scrubs. You don’t have to like Courteney’s character, but you’re bound to love one of the characters.

THURSDAY

Community (NBC): The best thing about this show is how meta it is. It fully acknowledges sitcom tropes, and then uses them to its advantage. Just like with Cougar Town, the ensemble nature guarantees that you’ll love at least one of the characters. I enjoyed how Abed acknowledged how he wanted their return to school to be as epic as the time they played paintball, which was a reference to their most critically acclaimed episode from last season. It’s a show that knows what people wants, and it delivers.

Big Bang Theory (CBS): There was a slow build with this show. When it premiered, I never thought it would work. It seemed like a geeky, inverted Three’s Company, and it didn’t seem to know who it was targeting. Was middle America supposed to laugh at the nerds, or were geeks supposed to laugh at how dumb Penny seemed to be? Over the past 3 years, though, it has really found its stride. That’s why I was surprised to see it rock the boat so soon. For one thing, something about Sheldon in the premiere seemed…off. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe Jim Parsons is taking a new approach to the character, but it’s almost like he forgot his “voice” during the offseason, in a figurative and literal sense, as the Texas accent shone through more than usual. Also, considering “Sheldon as Asexual” has been a big part of his gimmick, I’m not quite sure where they want to take this Mayim Bialik thing. It was fine as a one-off, but she’s recurring now, and I don’t really enjoy those scenes. His shtick works because he was a virtual unknown before BBT, but she keeps making me think to myself “Why is Blossom acting like this?” It’s a hit, and CBS is banking on it as the anchor for their Thursday comedy block, but I feel like BBT is going to use this as their “phoning it in” season.

30 Rock (NBC): I hated last season. Too much Jack comedy when he’s supposed to be the straight man. They basically made Elizabeth Banks and Julianne Moore regulars, while completely stiffing us on Tracy and Jenna goodness. This is their season to make it right, especially since it’s the last season for Baldwin. I feel his departure will somehow be tied to the whole Kabletown purchase of NBC, but I’d like to see a return to the old 30 Rock before he leaves. There were a lot of jokes about how “nobody thought we’d make it five seasons”, so I enjoyed the 4th wall humor. The comic geek in me, however, thought there was something wrong with that timeline. After all, if we’re to believe that each season of 30 Rock is also a season of TGS, that means TGS has been on the air longer than 5 seasons, as Tracy Jordan was only brought in once the ratings started to slump, so the show had been on the air for some time by the pilot of 30 Rock. Maybe it premiered as a summer series? Anyway, I’m hoping for better things this season.

$#*! My Dad Says (CBS): Yeah, everybody knows about the twitter feed. Making it into a show, however, was a bad idea. I think everyone involved in development understood this, which is why they turned it into a Shatner vehicle. Again, as I said on twitter, the best part about the show is the MadTV reunion of Will Sasso and Nicole Sullivan. CBS has had Sullivan in a talent holding deal for years, so it’s good they’re finally doing something with it. That said, the characters feel wrong. I’m not sure about you, but I always got a bit of a gruff, blue collar feel from the @shitmydadsays twitter feed. I know “Dad” was a radiologist, but I didn’t really see him having shiny, nice things in his retirement. The show was developed by the Will & Grace team, and I feel they gave the setting a bit of a polish that’s out of place. The way the characters speak to each other is also full of W&G riffs, again out of place here. It’s all at a “New York pace”, if that makes any sense. It’s a show that feels like a pilot. It doesn’t seem fleshed out, and there’s really nowhere for it to go. The show could last 7 years, and it would still just be Shatner being Shatner. To get picked up as a series, it needed a marquee guy like Shatner, but I feel like the role would’ve been better served by someone like Kurtwood Smith. After all, he played this same kind of guy for 8 years on That ’70s Show.

The Office (NBC): This show should’ve ended with Jim & Pam’s wedding. If not then, the series finale could’ve been the birth of their baby. There’s no reason for this show to still be on, other than the fact that NBC has nothing to put in the slot. Sure, the ratings are still healthy, but the quality has been on the decline for some time. And Michael’s nephew? Are we going to be stuck with him next season, so that there’s always a member of the Scott clan around? It’s Carell’s last season, and I wouldn’t mind if Dunder-Mifflin saw this as the time to close up shop.

Outsourced (NBC): Young guy exits manager training for an American novelties corporation to find that everything has been outsourced to India. So, he either goes to India to train the call center, or he’s out of a job in a bad economy. What can I say about this show that hasn’t already been said? Plainly put, the plot is “America kicks ass, you backwards foreigners!” This would already be offensive if it involved someone from India coming to America, but the ethnocentrism is even more pronounced as the lead guy goes to India and tries to Americanize everyone and everything. The culture shock provides some humor, and there’s a spark of a message as the Indians fail to see why Americans waste time and money of something as trivial as fake vomit and foam fingers. That observation leaves the viewer with the hope that The American will actually learn more about himself once he gives in to the experience, rather than try to change everything. Then again, such an approach would mean he’d probably lose his job, which is the sole anchor of the loose plot. It’s clear that, should the show actually last, the main focus is going to be the love triangle between The American, The Aussie, and The Bollywood Queen, while the assistant manager schemes to get promoted to this Big Job. We’ve seen this all before, and the only thing that makes it “unique” is the setting. The problem is that Americans don’t know enough about India for this to be culturally acceptable. The only show to successfully pull off Indian humor was The Kumars at No. 42, and that was because it was created by an actual Indian who used his own experiences for inspiration. The show has a great cast, and it is inspired by a critically acclaimed indie film, but I’m not sure if it’s going to make it. Maybe it’s just a case of a weak pilot. I feel the goal is Northern Exposure, but the execution is Desmond Pfeiffer.

Not a lot to say about cable shows, as their seasons got underway over the summer, but Mad Men‘s still excellent, The League is a gem, and It’s Always Sunny is still as offensively hilarious as it’s always been.

Come back next time, when I’ll probably talk about comics.

12th Jan2010

They Don’t Make ’80s Shows Like They Used To…

by Will

“Well, I’m not the kind to kiss and tell, but I’ve been seen with Farrah…”

In case you didn’t pick up on it from the current Knight Rider layout, I LOVE 80s action shows that ended up in Saturday syndication. I didn’t have much of a social life growing up, so a lot of my weekends were filled with shows like these. Don’t cry for me – I really enjoyed them, so these tend to provide nice escapist entertainment when I’m trying to remember “the good times”. Last night, I found myself staying up just to watch the pilot for The Fall Guy on Hulu. In case you’ve never seen it, The Fall Guy stars 70s leading man, Lee Majors, as Hollywood stuntman Colt Seavers. Generally, the life of a stuntman is a non-publicized, unappreciated one, as the leading man tends to get all of the credit for the roles. In order to pay his rent, Colt serves as a bounty hunter between films, taking jobs from his friend, “Big Jack”. He’s assisted by Douglas Barr (who went on to Designing Women cameos, and not much else) and 80s pinup beauty Heather Thomas.

The show is great because it follows the typical Glen A. Larson show model: cast a rugged leading man, get a cool vehicle (in this case, an elevated GMC pickup), and find a way for it to jump over shit. You saw it in Knight Rider, you saw it in Magnum P.I., and you see it here. Plus, it’s a lot like V.I.P., in that it’s Hollywood locale allows for cameos from C-list celebrities. Since Colt is a stuntman for well known stars, you’re always saying, “Hey, that’s James Coburn!” or “That’s Robert Wagner!” (on a side note, is there an 80s leading man more dapper than Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart? I mean, besides Brosnan in Remington Steele?).

Another thing I liked about this show was the frequency of bar fights. I swear, it was a dream of mine to get into a bar-fight and break a chair over a guy’s back. Sure, they hit people with chairs in wrestling, but on The Fall Guy, they actually broke wooden chairs over guys’ backs. Guns were available, but the fists spoke just as well as bullets. If anything, guns in these shows were only brandished in order to signal the end of the fistfights.

I posted the pilot because I really feel that this is the way to do television. They just don’t make pilots like this anymore. Sure, it’s dated, but it’s oh so good. Plus, there are a couple of highlights in this premiere:

-Lou fucking Rawls, as a black country star!

-Eddie Albert, of Green Acres fame, stars as a crooked sheriff who kills a kid in a drunken hit & run

-Terry Kiser (Weekend At Bernie’s) must have been the hardest working man in showbiz during that decade. This is his first Fall Guy appearance, but he returned 5 more times over the show’s run, always as a different character.

-Holy God! Young Delta Burke is H-O-T!

-The final 5 minutes of the show feature a surprise (well, it’s a surprise if you didn’t pay attention to the special guest starts listed at the beginning) appearance by Farrah Fawcett, who just a few years prior had been known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors. This is a BIG DEAL, as Lee and Farrah were basically the Brangelina of their time, yet were separated at the time of filming. It’s not just a cute scene, but it also seems to signal the end of an era. I know that Farrah’s death was overshadowed by the sudden demise of Michael Jackson, but I believe that no Farrah tribute is complete without this scene: