16th Aug2011

Thrift Justice: Ranger Danger

by Will

So, I had an experience last week that was cute yet troubling. While everything turned out OK in the end, I’ve still been thinking about it for the last few days. Let’s see what y’all think.

A few of the thrift stores I frequent have what you might call “grab bags” in the toy aisle. Standard plastic bags hanging from pegs, these bags contain anything from kids meal toys to actual retail action figures. Part of the fun is identifying all of the random stuff you might find inside. I’ve often wondered if there’s a system as to how the bags are packed, or if they’re weighed or something. It’s just odd to see a Looney Tunes/DC Comics McDonalds toy from ’91 in the bag with a Ron Weasley and a broken Megatron.

Anyway, on this particular day, I found a nice bag packed with Power Rangers. If you’ve read the site before, you’ll know that I hav a bit of a thing for the Rangers. Seeing as how I stopped buying the figures about 10 years ago, I’ve missed out on the more recent stuff. This bag, oddly enough, was filled with things I didn’t own. YOINK!

I walked around the rest of the store, clutching my conquest, trying to see if there was anything else of interest. Not paying much attention to the people around me, I walked right past a little boy who immediately noticed the bag in my hand. His face lit up, as my heart said “Oh, shiiit.” Every kid in that place might as well be an orphan, as they’ve all run off from their parents. True to form, his parents didn’t seem to be around, either.

I took a few steps, and the boy followed me. He caught up to me, pointed at the bag and said “I want that.” I replied, “It’s mine, though. I already got it.” Don’t judge me! I found it fair and square!

He said, “Yeah, but I want it.” I started wondering if this kid was gonna jump me for these toys, or if he’d make a scene. I’m already the grownup in the toy aisle, so Lord knows what people think anyway! I, once again, replied, “You can’t have them, though. I found them over there.” At this point, I gestured over in the general direction of the toy aisle.

“They have more?” he asked. I knew full well that they didn’t have anything quite like the bag I was holding, but I still said, “Yeah, there’s more.” I was hoping he’d run off and join the rest of the little El Salvadorean Oliver Twists running through the store. What he did next, however, broke my heart.

He reached up his little hand, and said “Come on!”. He wanted me to take him over to the toy aisle. I guess he wasn’t so independent after all. Now, at this point, I felt I’d been talking to this child way longer than a grown man should, and I was already hating being seen in discussion with this kid. Now, he wanted me to hold his hand, and walk him over to the toy aisle. Oh, HELL naw! Sweet gesture, but not a good idea.

I started to walk away, but he ran up, still reaching his little hand up for me to take it. So, this was his endgame, huh? Well played. I sighed, and put the bag of Rangers in his outstretched hand. After all, that’s what he wanted in the first place. I can be cold, but I’m not taking toys from a kid. I didn’t even really want the things, and he clearly did.

He smiled, and just turned the bag around in his hands, marveling at everything inside. I was just going to throw ’em in a box, while he was going to enjoy them. I’d made the right choice. So, as he was mesmerized, I got the Hell out of that aisle before he tried to enlist me to go help him look for more!

Now, here’s my issue: that kid needs to be warned about Stranger Danger. Luckily, he found me and I’m far from a threat, but he didn’t know that. He sees a guy with a bag of toys, and he’s all “Sign me up, cap’n!” That’s not cool. That could’ve ended really poorly for him. For me, the takeaway was that I’m not happy to know I’m not enough of a bastard to take toys away from a little kid, but the B-plot was definitely the fact that this kid, and many like him, could be subjected to danger without even thinking about it. If you’ve got kids, teach them the proper way to deal with strangers – especially at the thrift store.

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:

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

25th Aug2010

RePlay: Natural – Keep It Natural

by Will

When last we met, I covered Solid Harmonie and their place in the long line of forgotten groups from Trans Continental Records. For every ‘NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Jordan Knight, there was C-Note, The Lyte Funky Ones (LFO), and Natural. Well, this week, I want to talk about that last group, Natural.

When it came to bubblegum pop, one of the biggest gripes from the “music snob community” was that the artists didn’t play their own instruments. As far as boybands went, Lou Pearlman had already delivered the harmony group (BSB), the dance group (‘NSYNC), and he decided to finally give the critics what they felt had been lacking: a boyband where the members played their own instruments. Since their acoustic foundation would give them a more “natural” sound, that became their group name.

Natural came about after Lou’s boyband empire had peaked, post-BSB/’NSYNC lawsuits, and right around the time of O-Town. There are conflicting reports as to how the group actually got together, but the main point is that Lou did what he did with most of his boybands: he sent them off to Germany for grooming. When you get down to their look, they were just like every other boyband: there was the blond, sensitive one; the edgy one, with the spiky hair; the one who’s your mom’s favorite, etc. The gimmick, of course, was that they were a band made of boys, but not a boyband. To break it down, they acted as if the music came first, while avoiding some of the common tropes of that era’s boyband, such as smooth dance moves. In execution, the music came off as “BBMak, by way of California Dreams“.  It’s very reminiscent of Guys Next Door (am I the only one who remembers that old NBC show?).There’s definitely a camp factor, as the songs are cheesier than Velveeta, but they’re damn catchy! It was a different sound, as this period was still dominated by the sound of Max Martin, and the rest of the guys are Cheiron Studios. While there were cutsey pop acts of the time who depended on a more acoustic sound (The Moffats, the afore-mentioned BBMak), most of those groups failed to really make a dent in the landscape. Trying something different may have been the wrong call for Natural.

Keep It Natural, like so many other lost Trans Con albums, was released in Germany. Here’s the video for their first single, “Put Your Arms Around Me”. Hey, remember the days when every TV show/movie ripped off The Matrix, even in cases where it didn’t fit? Wait for it

Bet they’re wishing they hadn’t taken the red pill…

In the US, the single was released as a promo in Claires stores, yet wasn’t universally released until the exclusivity window closed, resulting in Natural not getting much airplay outside of Orlando.

Musically, Natural weren’t “bad”, per se – especially in the pop climate of the time. It just seemed that they were being molded, visually, into something that they were not. The next single, “Will It Ever”, wouldn’t have been out of place on Backstreet Boys’ Millennium album. You’ll notice, however, the addition of another forced dance break. The cut scenes and wacky angles are meant to mask the fact they they are not ‘NSYNC 2: Electric Boogaloo.

This video is a crane shotstravaganza! With a hint of Liquid Dreams…

One of the final singles from their debut was “Let Me Count The Ways”, which ended up as their highest charting German single (#11). Again, this is a pretty catchy song, but it’s not the kind of thing being delivered by their labelmates in the States. I will admit, though, that this video may have hurt them. I know Europe is a bit more liberal with things, but what is she, like, 14? These boys are so lucky they were out in a pre-Chris Hansen world…

We were just gonna watch some movies and hang out. Well, yeah, I brought beer…

Natural went on to release another album, It’s Only Natural, before parting ways with Lou. That’s when things really got ugly. Lou tried to keep the “Natural” name, as he was going to replace the guys who had broken his boyband rules (no facial hair, no girlfriends, etc). Meanwhile, the guys tried to rebrand themselves as more of a rock group, but nothing came from it. Neither album was released in the US, and Natural’s only real impact on North America was that their 2 lead singers provided the singing voices for Bart & Millhouse in the boyband episode of The Simpsons.

At the end of the day, Keep It Natural is a really enjoyable pop album. It’s not representative of the “2000 Boyband Sound”, and that may have been a blessing and a curse. It set Natural apart from the countless other boybands, but it simply wasn’t what the audience wanted at the time. I always feel I have to reiterate that the reason I do this column isn’t as a “This Is A Thing That Exists” piece, but rather it’s an attempt to show value in something that may have originally been overlooked. This music isn’t going to change the world, and it’s not groundbreaking. At the same time, it also doesn’t require you to follow a tweets for hidden meaning, nor does it force you to wonder if the guys eat truffle fries. It’s good old fashioned “Hey, ‘phone’ rhymes with ‘alone'” pop. It’s catchy and it’s fun – definitely earworm material. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and pop is just pop. I, for one, don’t see anything wrong with that.

28th Jun2010

It’s Been A While But We’re Back With Style…

by Will

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We’re coming up on the 7th anniversary of my entry into the world of blogging. Seven years ago, I was 2 months out of college, looking for something to pass the time during my temporary data entry job. Fast forward 7 years, and it’s now something to pass the time during my unemployment. Hmm…As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been gone a while in order to work out some kinks behind the scenes.

Ya see, It all started when I found out I had to move platforms. I’d been using Blogger since the beginning, but they no longer want to waste time on anyone publishing via FTP. So, we had to move on over to WordPress (hence the new look and features). After migration, I realized that the site really wasn’t that searchable. There were things I’d think about writing, but I would find myself wondering if I’d actually already written it and just plain forgot. So, I took a LOOONG stroll down memory lane, and reread each post, adding searchable tags to everything.

Over the course of this project, certain things stood out to me. For example, I apologize a LOT. Whether it was apologizing for not writing enough, for writing too much, or just for having a public pity party, it was all pretty pathetic. So, going forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort not to do that. I don’t owe y’all nothin’.

I also deleted some posts, be it they contained dead links or they were just unnecessary. There was a time when I adopted a “write like no one’s reading” mentality because, well, no one was reading. At that point, the site devolved into a bit of a livejournal clone. A lot of “Why doesn’t she notice me?” or “Happy first day at work, baby” posts. I had honestly forgotten how some of the stuff read, but I would have people say, “So, I was reading some of your old posts…” Those relationships ended, the world kept on spinning, no need of leaving all that up there. I’ve got NOTHING against self-deprecating humor, but a lot of those posts didn’t accomplish anything. They weren’t funny, and they were usually written in response to a “Why don’t you ever write about me on your site?” conversation. So, most of those are gone, but I doubt you’ll even miss them.

I also used to make a lot of promises: “The San Diego posts are coming soon” or “I’ll get to that story later”. I haven’t gotten to my Toy Fair experience YET, and that was in 2008! If I don’t feel like writing it then, I probably won’t feel like it later. I shouldn’t tease posts, as I can only write when I *feel* like writing about something. I can’t force it. So, certain “teased posts” tend to come out 6 months later or, in many cases, never at all.

Even worse are all of the promises of an upcoming redesign or renewal of interest in the blog. I don’t do the design stuff, so I’m at the mercy of my friend, Jenn. Most of the times I posted those promises of a new layout, they happened to coincide with times when she had absolutely no time to even care about this site. The site has really only had about 3 different incarnations, yet I promised redesigns like they were annual treats. So, I made a lot of empty promises, and ended up looking like more of a huckster than a poor man’s Stan Lee.

What really stuck out to me were all of the things I’ve actually *never* written about. For example, I thought I’d written more about my time at Diamond, but I guess I didn’t want it to become fodder for comic gossip sites, so I kept a lot of it to myself. Now that I’m pretty much never working in that industry again, maybe there are some good post ideas there.

Anyway, I also notice that I do a lot of these introspective posts, like the one you’re reading now, usually on a “milestone”. As narcissistic as I may be, I really don’t like these kinds of posts. You don’t wanna read this kind of shit! In the words of Depeche Mode, “Though things like this make me sick, in a case like this I’ll get away with it”. Now that it’s all out of my system, I know why you’re here: you want to read about my love for TNBC, comics and boybands. That’s the stuff I love to write about, and if this ain’t your first time here, then you already know it’s the kind of stuff you came here to see. I just needed to get this out as a bit of a “state of the union”. To steal from a played out United Negro College Fund commercial, “We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been.” So, on with the show. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

11th Mar2010

Don’t Wake Me Up If I’m Dreamin’

by Will

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OK, so my love for California Dreams has been documented on this site before. That said, I pretty much thought I was alone in the CD fan camp. That’s when Jimmy Fallon came along and rocked my shit.

About a year ago, Jimmy Fallon took over Conan’s job, as the host of Late Night. Nobody really knew what to expect, as his SNL work was decent, but his movies had been terrible. As he took over the position, it was clear that his tenure would be quirky and off the wall.

As an example of this quirkiness, Jimmy decided that one of his first goals would be to organize a Saved By The Bell cast reunion. After all, it was the 20th anniversary of the show, and he wanted to pay tribute to a show we had all watched back in the day. Well, he got everyone to agree (including an AMAZING skit with Mark Paul Gosselaar AS Zack Morris), except Tiffani Thiessen and Dustin Diamond. Tiffani didn’t want to really be associated with the show, as that’s not what she “wanted to be remembered for today”. Dustin, on the other hand, is just an asshole now. So, no reunion.

Fast forward to last Thursday night: Jimmy’s been spending all week celebrating his 1 year anniversary, and he mentions his inability to reunite the cast. It was unfortunate, HOWEVER, he has gotten the next best thing. Without any promos or prior announcement (besides a twitter spoiler from a TV insider), Jimmy has managed to reunite the cast of California Dreams!

They all come out onstage, most of them looking great. Not only does Jimmy let each one give an update on what they’ve been up to, but then he had them perform the theme song! I just about died. In any case, I’ve always got an opinion, so here were my thoughts on the reunion:

-As great as it was to see everyone, not everyone was present. They were missing Lorena Costa (Diana Uribe) and Sly’s cousin, Mark Winkle (Aaron Jackson). It may seem insignificant, but these were 2 regular characters. Not only did the band practice in Lorena’s loft for the majority of the series, but she was also co-band manager with Sly. Plus, she was the rotating love interest whenever the guys got sick of Kelly Packard. Mark was the band’s keyboard player and handled vocals. His character was a bit of a whiny bitch, but he was still a Dream.

-Brent Gore, it was good to see you! As leader of the Dreams, Matt Garrison, Brent left the show after the 2nd season. He looked good, but he kinda looked like Aging Rock Star (think Rick Springfield).

-William James Jones, as drummer, Tony Wicks. Acting hadn’t been so kind to WJJ after California Dreams, as he was only getting cameo roles on shows like Living Single. He looked good, though, and it was great to hear that he’s got a wife and kids at home.

-Jay Anthony Franke, as mysterious heartthrob, Jake Summers. Basically, The Fonz of the Dreams. Oh, Jake, Jake, Jake…it was a brave move coming on TV. There were a lot of expectations, and I’m not sure they were met. He’s gained a bit of weight, and he’s bald. He was still kinda mysterious. Looked a bit like Duff from Ace of Cakes, though…He’s living in Australia with his wife, and they just shot a pilot. Lord knows what it’s about, as he didn’t elaborate. That said, he clearly wants the world to know about it. So there.

-Heidi Noelle Lenhardt, as Jenny Garrison. Full disclosure: Growing up, I was IN LOVE with her! She had an amazing voice, and she was just a striking brunette. She left the show after the first season, so she definitely left me wanting more. Seeing her at the reunion, however, was bittersweet.

First of all, she’s blonde now. Not really a fan. Also, it seemed like she was coming in slightly flat on her part of the song, so maybe she hasn’t been singing much these days. Anyway, I did love the tongue ring she was rocking!

-Kelly Packard, as Tiffany Smith. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much from her. She’s certainly been the most active, as she went on to Baywatch, and co-hosted Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Like Heidi, she said she’s taking care of her family, but mentioned that she had a movie coming out soon. It seemed almost like she was shy, and I felt she should’ve said more since she’s been doing more.

-Jennie Kwan, as exchange student Samantha Woo. She was so cute and nervous, but she was also gracious. Though she didn’t mention it, she was also a member of girl pop group Nobody’s Angel (you’ve seen ’em. They were on that Boy Meets World episode at that diner. Remember?). She was also the voice of Suki on Avatar: The Last Airbender.

-Michael Cade, as sleazy band manager with the heart of gold, Sylvester “Sly” Winkle. Cade looked good. I’ll give him that. He’s charismatic, and he’s still trying to make the acting thing happen. And he’s pretty ripped, especially for a 37 year old.

-When they performed, I wonder how they decided who would sing what parts. After all, “Matt” and “Jake” sang the same parts during different times in the series, as did “Jenny” and “Sam”. I felt kinda like Heidi should’ve sung more (since I felt she was better, vocally, than Jennie), but I guess it was only fair how they did it, seeing as how Jennie Kwan had been on the show longer.

Anyway, here’s the video so that you can follow along at home:

12th Oct2008

How’s Usher Gonna Get Off That Damn Mountain? And Other Reality TV Stuff…

by Will

“You want White Castle, need White Castle, long as you got me it won’t be no hassle.”

– I’m usually not the biggest Weird Al fan, but his cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” had me laughing for about 30 minutes. Absolutely priceless!

– I really wanna work for the company in Britney’s new “Womanizer” video. I mean, I never knew the fauxhawk to be “corporate”, but it seems to fly at that organization. Let’s hope this really is her comeback this time. Not the biggest fan of the song, but the video helps to sell it. MUCH better than that anime shit for “Break the Ice”…hey, didn’t that video end with “to be continued”? Let’s hope they don’t make good on that promise. Anyway, Brit’s looking pretty damn hot, so I guess we could all use a dose of crazy, if it does a body that good.

– Speaking of “to be continued” videos, Usher just released the video for “Trading Places”, but it’s just a random-ass R&B video. Last I remember, Mr. Raymond was stuck up on that mountain. How the Hell did he get off that damn mountain?!

– I’ve gone from a state of loving everything on MTV to hating everything on MTV. I guess I finally caught up with the rest of the real world (no pun intended). I was looking forward to Exiled, but realized I’d never watched enough My Super Sweet 16 to really care enough about those girls. I’m SO over The Hills, as well as the fact that Audrina and Whit have spin-offs coming. Don’t care about The Island, ’cause I really wanted a C.T./Dunbar ‘roid rage face-off, but that wasn’t in the cards.

Who the Hell thought Man & Wife deserved to be ripped off the web? It’s like the old Loveline, but nowhere near as informative. If anything, it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s like an interactive version of those shitty, traveling Black stage shows. You know, they always have names like, Seeing Jesus on the Downlow, and star hasbeens from Good Times & What’s Happening!!.

Sex…with Mom & Dad? Really? Dr. Drew, is this the best you could come up with? Do you miss your boy, Adam? Was he the brains of the operation? Now, this show does NOTHING for me. In the past, MTV sex shows were edgy, like the afore-mentioned Loveline. That was pretty groundbreaking for TV, but this is like Drew needed something to hold him over between Celebrity Rehab sessions. I don’t really think the show accomplishes much other than making the teens, the parents, and the viewers EXTREMELY uncomfortable. If anything, you end up learning the mom used to be a whore, and doesn’t want the daughter to be a whore. But the daughter’s only gonna react with the whole “Let me live my life and be a whore if I want to” response. In some ways, I kinda agree with that, but they could’ve had that “breakthrough” off camera.

The only shows I can still stomach are Making the Band 4 (I TOTALLY called the Danity Kane break-up before the season started!) and Parental Control. Plus, True Life and Made are always good entertainment.

-If you love “meta” humor, you’ll love this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HE9OQ4FnkQ . It’s A-Ha’s “Take On Me”, only it’s been remixed to tell you exactly what’s going on in the video. Watch it and you’ll understand. It’s one of those things where I wish I’d thought of it first.

-I’ve been wondering this for a while, but HD Radio – why? So, you mean to tell me there are secret stations, hidden between the stations I know, playing a bunch of different songs? If these songs are so great, then why hasn’t Clear Channel already shoved them down my throat? They know exactly what I like! No, these songs are being hidden, like ugly children and incontinent pets. They try to sell the fact that it’s near-CD quality sound, but if I wanted that, I’d buy the CD. When it’s free, I can deal with a degredation of sound quality. After all, you get what you pay for, and free radio is workin’ out just fine. Nice try, HD Radio, but you’re gonna have to try harder than that!

So, last night J. Christ. (no, not Jesus – He’s got more important things to do than read this blog; He’s too busy hanging out with all those rappers) told me that I don’t nearly keep up this site enough. I’ve gotta say that she’s right. I mean, in my neglect, I forgot to acknowledge my 5-year blogiversary back in July. I’m a big fan of streaks, and I know I’m always citing the anniversary of when I started blogging, or the anniversary of when I bought the williambrucewest.com domain name, or the anniversary of when I started actually using that domain name – plainly put, I like milestones. Anyway, I started rambling a little over five years ago, and man have I done nothing since then. I find that whenever I do these milestone posts, it forces me to look back in a pseudo-pessimistic tone. Well, I’m gonna try not to do that this time around. But, man, what I’ wouldn’t give to go back to being 13, when all I really looked forward to was a new episode of California Dreams every Saturday, and the promise of a positive, yet unknown future. Well, we can only go up from here, right? In the words of (probably unknown to most of you) Swedish pop star, Bosson, “we live, we die, and we learn to find the things we live and die for.” Guess I’m still learning to find those things. Here’s to 5 more years of the journey.

17th Sep2007

Strippers In Wedding Rings, Soul Train, Amanda Peet’s Breasts, Date Lab

by Will

“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

One of these days, I’m going to sit down an have something intelligent/entertaining to say. For now, I just have a few random bits floating around in my head. Maybe I’ll expand some of these into full length posts should the spirit move me. Anyway, here’s what we’ve got:

-There’s nothing quite like sitting in church, looking down at your pants, and realizing they’re the same one you wore to Scores a few nights ago.

-On that note, strippers, don’t wear wedding rings at work. You’re just killing the illusion. Even if it’s a “fake-out” ring, that “Til Death Do Us Part” tattoo across your lower back is also a buzzkill. Just sayin’.

– Lately, Soul Train has been playing The Best of Soul Train, showing all the good ’80s episodes with Don Cornelius. Man, do I miss that era of Soul Train! Last week, their big musical guest was former Soul Train dancer, Jermaine Stewart, with his big hit, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.” Most of you young ‘uns know this as “that Gym Class Heroes song”, which is so misguided of you. Anyway, this was the Soul Train era where people really danced. They were innovative and they were electrifying. Soul Train isn’t like that anymore. Now, the only standout dude is that guy with the cane who just nods at girls’ asses…

-The most dynamic performance of the VMAs, hands down, was Chris Brown.

-I have never met a Prius driver that I liked.

-I never planned to like Rock of Love as much as I do. The same could be said for Life in the Fab Lane with Kimora.

-Considering she has, probably, the worst breasts in Hollywood, Amanda Peet sure does go around flashing the girls a lot. For reference, see Saving Silverman or The Whole Nine Yards.

-My life right now is pretty much the same as it was 4 yrs ago, only now I can drive and I’ve swapped out TNBC for the Disney Channel.

-OK, these engagement announcements have to stop.

-I think the Washington Post Magazine should end their Date Lab column if they can’t come up with any success stories.

-I wish my dreams would catch up to the real world.

-I’m still surprised by how few people use the “we hooked up” friend detail on Facebook. With a few of my recent high school additions, I’m dismayed at how many have opted for the standard “we went to high school together” or “we worked together”. Was that all it was, baby? Was it that bad? Hell, why list anything at all? I usually just skip that step…

02nd Jul2007

Surf Dudes, With Attitudes…

by Will

“I’m walking on eggshells here, when I’m used to fucking throwing eggs.”

I f’ing love youtube, for this alone:

Not just the credits, but the music video! This takes me back to such a better time. No student loans. No underpaid job. No heartbreak. No Quartlife Crisis. All I cared about was whether or not I’d get McDonald’s that afternoon (I was a fat kid, and I got McDonald’s almost every Saturday) and I wondered if I’d ever end up with a girl like Heidi Noelle Lenhart (“Jenny”, aka “the brunette”). God, did I love that girl. And she pretty much never worked again. Little known fact: her stepfather is Haim Saban, creator of the Power Rangers and former owner of the Fox Kids Network. That bitch’ll never have to work again!

Why is this show not on DVD?!! The fucking Waltons series is on DVD and that demographic doesn’t even know how to operate a DVD player. It’s a travesty…

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