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Archive for the ‘Idiot Box’ Category

Posted by Matt on July 29, 2011

I try to avoid watching newer episodes of The Simpsons. It’s not simply that I don’t find them funny anymore, although they aren’t. I have a much stronger reaction to them than I should, really. They are more mediocre than outright offensively terrible. But this is The Simpsons, and The Simpsons means a lot to me. So to see something under the name of one of my dearest pieces of entertainment, featuring characters who have provided with me so much over the years, spout out easy jokes and go for whiz-bang technical stuff and overly complicated plotting over any real heart or humour…it’s like the uncanny valley. It makes me feel ill.

I think a couple months ago, I saw most of two episodes. One of them had Werner Herzog as the guest star, which should be right up my alley, but it just didn’t click. For one, Herzog wasn’t really playing a character (although he is one of the few celebrity guests nowadays who wasn’t playing himself), but rather a vehicle for Wernzer Herzog to say things on The Simpsons. That isn’t terrible in itself, but it shows a real lack of thought behind the whole thing. Aside from that, there was a plot about Lisa inventing some sort of medication that made things placid, and giving it to all the established elderly characters on the show so they’d be less grumpy. Then their eyeballs pop out of their sockets, and we get some speech about how being grumpy is a natural and good and etc. Nothing about any of this is inherently funny or insightful or whatever. It just sort of…happens. I’d say the premise is too outlandish for the show, but I since some of my favourite episodes feature outlandish plots (“Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, for example”), I really can’t use that as a major negative. The difference is that where in episodes like “Deep Space Homer”, the ridiculousness of the plot was a major vehicle for jokes and character moments, something like this episode doesn’t really have much of either. I guess the writers just thought it was a funny visual? It isn’t, but that’s the best explanation I can think of for it.

Now, none of what I saw in that episode was truly awful, and considering the obnoxious stupidity of some of the show’s brethren on Fox Sunday nights (The Cleveland Show, for the love of god), it’s almost a palate cleanser. But it’s still incredibly middle-of-the-road material, only slightly more sophisticated than the average syndicated sitcom. And really, that’s the level I put The Simpsons and Family Guy (a show that, while never to everyone’s tastes, could have at least been considered inventive some years ago, before falling into a predictable and sometimes smug routine), basically animated counterparts to King of Queens and the like. The only reason I care about this at all is because, at one point, I liked these shows. In the case of The Simpsons, I loved it, internalized it, and still watch the good episodes whenever I get a chance, and still laugh at them. It could be an easily ignored program if it didn’t seem like a mediocre puppeteer controlling the corpse of something once great. So I avoid it not just because it’s no good, but because it’s no good and it was once the greatest and that makes me cringe.

Part of what helps ease the pain of the loss of The Simpsons (and really, can you consider getting 8 years of some of the funniest material ever that can be rewatched infinitely a loss? Most good shows can only dream of having that level of consistency for that long) is that since the show went south, others have picked up the ball and ran with it. Comedy both animated and live action have been influenced by the show as much as I have, and they not only aspire to reach the levels it did at its peak, but to do it in their own way. Considering the level of impact The Simpson had, you could probably connect it to all modern comedies in some way, but the best of the disciples are the ones who are so good, the influence is subtle.

To use some of my current favourites as examples, the whip-smart dialog of The Venture Brothers can be attributed to the Simpsons influence, but it’s also a show with its own ideas, a real desire to create characters, and not just shapes with names that jokes are attributed to. Not to mention the action and real dark satire of how the promise of the future in the boys adventure fiction the show skewers has been fucked up royally; stuff that the more sitcom-y Simpsons wouldn’t dream of doing. Even something like Adventure Time, which is part of a wave of childrens’ cartoons that aim to bring back the animator-driven format of old that the writer-driven model represented by The Simpsons seemed to antagonize, has taken the show’s cue when it comes to its dialog-based jokes and attention to detail (both AT and the earlier Simpsons seasons understand the sheer comic potential of facial exaggeration, for example). Even if I hadn’t heard Pen Ward explain how much he looks up to The Simpsons, I can still tell that Finn and Jake fighting Why-Wolves and George Takei Heart wouldn’t be possible in a world without Flaming Moe’s and GABBO GABBO GABBO.

So yeah, seeing The Simpsons flail about is sad, I don’t mourn it. Because even when the show no longer worth watching, I know that it’s existence made it possible for many shows that are worth watching to enter the game, and then try to one-up the senile master. That’s what creating entertainment should be about, shouldn’t it? Showing how much we, the creators, have loved something by trying to surpass it, to DESTROY it. What better way to know you have been a major part of someone’s life, than seeing a bunch of upstart punks beat you at the game you invented.

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Television Aliens I Have Known (Not About ALF. The ALF post will come later this week)

Posted by Matt on July 14, 2011

Why don’t I explain why I like Doctor Who? I don’t think I’ve done that yet.

Now, one thing to be noted is that I became a fan of the show recently. However, it wasn’t with the new series; I found a bunch of Tom Baker-era reruns on television before the new series aired, and was fascinated with them. Because of my latecomer status, I think I have avoided the zeitgeist that often comes with something as old and fanatically loved (and, in the case of the UK, ingrained in the basic fabric of the culture) as this, and can thus rationalize how I like this show a little more clearly.

One of the big things that endears to me about this series, both the original and the new ones, is that they seem to be able to balance different ideas of sci-fi quite effectively. What are those ideas? The first one is the speculative, the one that has dominated the first half-century of Science Fiction prose before the even pulpier aspects of the genre turned into space opera and took over. This side of sci-fi is the obsession with big ideas, with futuristic plots, with What Ifs. The show’s time travel element, more than it’s space exploration, exemplifies this, especially in the last few seasons, where going back and forward in the timeline to alter things plays a significant part of some of the plots (look at the “Pandorica Opens”/”Big Bang” finale from last year). When the show got weirder ideas in its head, even better. Some of the first episodes I saw were the wonderfully strange “Talons of Weng-Chiang” (which managed to mash together a time-travelling criminal, a killer ventriloquist dummy, Victorian England, giant rats, and Chinese stereotypes into one story) or “The Face of Evil” (which is essentially the standard ‘technology influences a primitive culture’ plot, but also has a computer with multiple personalities, including the Doctor’s). Even in the show’s lesser moments, you could often find a weird story idea or two that stand out among the Sci-Fi television landscape. Whether the show went into the future, or added an alien twist to the past (the latter of which I really enjoy because of the mash-up of incongruous elements. A story about medieval England is so much better when a robot shows up to fuck shit up).

The other element is the one that has been a part of pulp fiction for years, but was really solidified in the 50s: the love of goofy monsters. DW, more than any other big science fiction television show I can think of, has embraced that side of sci-fi, always attempting to come up with some sort of alien beast for the characters to face. Helping that is the low-budget nature of the show; for whatever reason, costumes and make-up and puppets (the show hasn’t even had the money to utilize some stop motion) just make more of an impression than impeccable computer creations (even when the show uses CGI these days, it’s pretty low-rent). I think it may be because the people behind the show had to be creative to make up for the fact that a lot of their monsters were simply fake fur and spray paint. A lot of the scariness ends up being implied; the Daleks and Cybermen are simple and low-tech in execution, but they were given unsettling concepts (the Cybermen were the Borg some 25 years before the Borg, remember, and what are the Daleks but miniature Panzers with a super-Nazi ideology?) to make up for being kind of goofy looking. Sometimes that didn’t work, and we ended up with something completely laughable (Kandy Man?) But even then, there’s something endearing about them. I mean, even bad old monster movies, not Dracula or Bride of Frankenstein, but The Giant Claw and From Hell it Came, have followings. The same deal applies here: it doesn’t matter how stupid a monster is, something about those rubber costumes instills delight in people.

There is also something appealing to the idea of a show where the protagonist is more of a thinker than a fighter, even if it doesn’t always follow up on that idea (here is an analysis of that). Despite being an alien and having lots of gadgets (and, at one point, mastering kung-fu for some reason), the Doctor is not superpowered or a gun-ho type, nor are most of his companions. The characters on the show end up having to solve their problems with thinking…and the odd deus ex machina (again, inconsistencies are there, but not enough to ruin the whole enterprise). This is usually where the horror and mystery elements kick in, which is another thing that makes the show stand out. For someone like me, who can enjoy well-done action with kick-ass heroes beating the shit out of evil, it’s a refreshing thing in to see in the genre pantheon. It’s fun to have an eccentric science-type to be the real hero of the story, and like the monsters, I think the limitations set by having (generally) normal characters who have to use their wits lends to some fun, inventive storytelling.

I think this is why it appeals to me more than the various branches of Star Trek, for example. Now, even though I’ve never tried to become a Star Trek, I do respect what it was trying to do, for the most part. Well, what the original series was trying to do, and TNG tried to emulate, and every other one after that sort of lost. Especially in those original episodes, there was an attempt to combine social awareness (the fact that it had a multiracial and ethnic cast should not be overlooked; I know my generation has come to loathe ‘affirmative action’, primarily because they are a mob of spoiled dickheads, but really, trying to be diverse shouldn’t be considered a problem) and the pulp goofiness, a potent combo that defined Science Fiction literary canon for years (including works from alumnus who worked on the show, like Harlan Ellison). Later series tried to capture that again, and sometimes succeeded, but starting with TNG, the series started to bog down with a love of the bureaucratic utopia the original show proposed, wedging itself firmly up its own ass and losing the sense of fun that the adventures of Kirk & The Gang had (I know there are lots of fans of Picard’s Merry Band out there, and I’m not someone who wants to hate TNG or anything, but I’ve found lots of enjoyment in original series fans’ evisceration of it). So, yes, Star Trek, on paper, should be right up my alley. But it isn’t, and Doctor Who is. To put it simply: I’ve just never been as much of a fan of stories about the kind of space adventuring on Trek, which feels almost militant and colonial; but I can dig the more free-spirited nature of Who, which feels more like wandering from place to place, never knowing where you’re going, not having any sort of mission or objective other than pure curiosity. Add in the horror and mystery stuff that DW aspires to more than most sci-fi televison, and we’re set for life.

But that’s not all. Remember all those production limitations I mentioned before? While the show’s special effects and conflict resolutions are kept in check, the one area where the show doesn’t really have much of a limit is in story possibilities. As I mentioned before, we could have an episode in 13th century England with robots, 20th century Germany with slug monsters, or some distant planet with robot slug monsters. It’s that freedom of imagination that really appeals to me, I think; a show where you can really do anything has always been very agreeable to me.

Being a new convert, as well, means that there’s a ton of history of the show to get into. It’s been fun looking back and seeing how show has evolved over the years, reflecting the times, etc. It’s just like how I was a late convert to comics, and found that I pretty much have ‘new’ material to last me for the rest of my life. It’s reassuring to know that I am still wading in the shallows of the ideasphere. I always have something to go back to.

And that’s why I like Doctor Who

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Posted by Matt on May 22, 2011

…and while I’m complaining about television, I got another issue.

Despite being heavily based in genre fiction, in books, comics, games, and movies, I have a hard time getting into most genre television. Most of it is because of the length issues I talked about the other day (and although many are not so heavily plot-based, most series since X-Files have story arcs). There’s something else, though, something that I think is far more ingrained in today’s genre TV conventions.

I have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an extended period of time. I may have seen a few episodes here and there; in fact, the only season I have any real exposure to is the first one, which contained episodes about giant praying mantises and hyena people that I’m sure most fans are wont to forget (the only other episode I can remember watching? One that featured John Ritter as an evil robot. As far as I’m concerned, this is what Buffy is, a show about giant praying mantises and evil John Ritterbots). I do know many people who have seen all of it, and love it, and evangelize it. This audience kept a cult show on for seven seasons and a spin-off, and it has acquired a bit more cultural cache because of that. It has, really, become an influential force on the world of genre fiction. That’s where my problem begins.

Now, I’m not going to dismiss Buffy or its fans; I have no reason to, as I have not been presented with anything that says the show was particularly bad. But I have become quite aware of the show’s, and Joss Whedon’s, storytelling tics from exposure to fans and critics online. Since that awareness came, I have begun to see them everywhere. The show may not have been a cultural force, but it was a nerd cultural force, and so the nerds with a creative drive start getting their work out there, it’s influence spreads like a plague.

But what is this influence that haunts me? I think it boils down to the following recurring qualities:

1) General cheapness, with little or no desire to make up for it visually
2) Snarky dialog coming from all characters
3) A strong sense of ironic detachment

The first is more or less out of the creator’s hands; TV budgets are notoriously minuscule. Which is generally no excuse for lame direction, which is an epidemic among genre TV. Budget or no, bad action is bad action, and it’s not like its impossible to make something LOOK good on a small budget.

The second and the third are tied together, and this is what really gets me. It’s a nerd thing; they want to like the things they like, but they can’t look like they take that shit too seriously (even when they do), because well…it’s silly stuff. I know it’s odd to think of nerds having any sense of social awareness, but it’s there, every once in a while. What it does is when these types get a hold of entertainment, however, is make a contradiction.

Now, having an ironic, or less-than-deadly-serious take on genre conventions is not in itself a terrible thing. It can be done right, and has. The problem is that…everybody’s doing it now. You can’t have wizards or vampires or aliens in anything without at least one character who thinks the whole thing is a joke. But then the story plays it mostly straight otherwise, so any sort of commentary or comedic value is removed. It’s having your cake and etc., is what it is. These writers really do love stories with vampires and wizards and stuff like that, but they know that most people think that shit is stupid. So, they make this show that basically says “Here’s a monster, but just between you and me, this is really pretty dumb! Keep watching anyway” It feels a bit dishonest to me.

I think a lot of this comes from comics culture. I’m sure most of the people who write genre television was, at one point, a Marvel or DC reader. By the mid-90s, all the kids and teenage comic readers had vacated superheroes, leaving the long-time readers to hold the fort. Being adults, they knew that if other people found out they still loved stories about men in gaudy costumes punching each other, they would be ostracized…moreso. So they started that ironic detachment, mocking most of what had built the superhero comics up until that point: the silly adventure stuff, the world domination plots, the super pets. Then these same guys went on to be the writers of the comics, and they brought that sensibility to the books themselves. Superhero comics have yet to recover from that incursion of irony, and even the movies have yet to really capture the kind of grand cosmic weirdness that they were capable of 25 years ago (both Thor and Green Lantern seem to be getting closer, though).

In fact, it really seems that in the last decade, all the mainstream comics have essentially become genre television in ink form. All above features I listed above are there, in addition to things like a focus on ongoing story arcs, and even the contradictory desire to be both shocking (usually via character deaths) while maintaining the status quo (because change makes people feel scared). As I mentioned, some of this stuff originated in comics and comic readers, so it’s all full circle. It’s worth mentioning that many comics writers in the mainstream today either moonlight as television writers, or seem to desperately want to be (I don’t remember where exactly I read this, but I remember someone saying that Brian Michael Bendis, for example, seems to want to write crime or espionage thrillers, but life dealt him superheroes instead). So there really is no mystery to why all this is going on.

I just don’t really like it. It’s not the type of writing I can really enjoy very often. It gets tiring. You just want them to commit to an idea; either be a full-on comedy making fun of genre tropes, or just write a story using those tropes (hopefully in a creative way). The closest thing to it on my regular viewing plate is Doctor Who, which while not completely serious, is still pretty devoted to its sci-fi ideas, which I find enjoyable more often than not. The funny thing is, the original run of the show is one of the things that I think a lot of genre writers aspire to, but are forced to distance themselves from because of its (perceived or real) cheesiness. The new show embraces its past, but has still taken in what has changed within the world of genre TV within the past two decades, so it ends up avoiding the major shortfalls of both eras. It’s a nice balance, one that I hope to see more of.

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Posted by Matt on May 20, 2011

First thing: I have started a Tumblr site. It is mainly a place for me to post things (videos, pictures, links, etc.) that catch my attention at that moment. I need to post those because the Internet has so destroyed my attention span that I will forget whatever it was I was doing five minutes ago. This way, like my notebook collection and my dream log, I will never forget anything that happens to me, ever. Plus, I made the decision, one I have rarely broken!, that I don’t really want this to be a linkblog. I will reserve wordpress for longer things that are slightly less ill-thought-out, but still ill-thought-out.

****

Enough of that, let’s get to business.

Remember Lost? It was a television show that was on a while back, and I think some people watched it. I never did, and something tells me I never will.

Why is that? Well, there is a lack of interest in the central concept, but good execution or a slightly more interesting take on the idea could still lure me in. But really, the main reason I will likely never watch Lost is this: it would take over 100 hours of my life to finish that one story. It would have to be the best fucking story ever to make me put in that level of commitment. It would probably have been easier when the show was originally being run, but I can barely get myself to watch half-hour shows that don’t follow a regular storyline every week. I am no longer a television viewer, I think.

But thinking about Lost again, after it left the cultural discussion (rather quickly, I might add, which is rather odd considering the force it was), as well as the serial television rage it inspired, alongside 24, I realized something: network television is awful for serialized storytelling, It goes back to what I was saying before: you have to devote so much time in order to follow it. It was alright when it was something like the X-Files, with “mythos” stories mixed in with standalone episodes, but once you start playing with a single devoted narrative? Then things start to become shaky.

This is primarily because of the large episode orders networks put out for shows. 20+ episodes a season is a lot of television, especially at the 40 minutes standard to network dramas. You would need a very expansive overall plot to make that work, with every little character moment or subplot or whatever mean something. Understandably, that would be difficult. So it should be expected that anyone who wants their big overarching story told in this way is going to end up farting around for a couple of episodes a season. The standard television season is pretty bloated, which is why it generally favours shows without overarching stories, and why it took so long for one to become successful.

The other problem, one that I remember being brought up while Lost was still on, was that if something is successful enough to actually be able to complete its story, it is also successful enough for the network to want to expand it beyond it’s original length in order to guarantee maximum profit on it (mostly via syndication, which doesn’t really work well for serial stories, but that won’t stop them). So a story that is already combating the bloat of long network seasons can also face additional bloat, and in these situations, you would need to be a pretty powerful Hollywood player to get the people airing your show to let you make it the way you want. There are ways to overcome something like this…for example, ending a storyline and then starting a new one. But would eliminate part of the appeal of these shows, wouldn’t it?

This is why I think cable channel schedules are far better for a serialized story. The average season on HBO or any other specialty channel is 13 episodes; this is a perfectly good number to work with. Plenty of time to move the plot forward, plenty of time to do character work, and barely any time for excess. You think you’re story is too ‘epic’ for 13 episodes? Fuck you. Limitations will probably help you make your story better. It makes you consider what’s important, what you need to make the whole thing work. Making your little epic leaner won’t hurt it…probably.

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Posted by Matt on March 14, 2011

Okay, first thing’s first: I’ve been watching a lot of Teletoon Retro lately (for any American readers who may or may not exist, that would be the rough Canadian equivalent to Cartoon Network’s Boomerang. It started up a year or so ago, and has thus become the object of affection for ironic twentysomethings who don’t want to evolve their entertainment palates past third grade) and have to ask, what’s with my obsession with shitty cartoons? I watch the shit on this channel, and removing the old Looney Tunes shorts and the odd episode of The Real Ghostbusters it really is just a sea of shit, why? And it’s not just this, either. I braved the grating, unfunny Nostalgia Critic just because I kind of enjoy hearing someone talking about these shitty cartoons that I often remember as well. (And before you question why I waste so much of my time, remember that this is the age of multitasking. I am usually coupling these pointless adventures with something far more important, like…I don’t, sorting some files I have alphabetically. Something like that.)

They’re not interesting to think about, other than in a “I can’t believe real, adult people spent hours of their lives producing this, what the fuck”; the vast majority are the definition of pure mediocrity, a wisp of a thing (for whatever reason, animation does not seem to have a large number of fascinatingly/entertainingly-bad oeuvre like live action does; the bad stuff is by and large painfully boring), obviously developed for sugar-addled 7-year-olds who have time to be subliminally advertised to. Or maybe that’s not true….well, not for me. The fact that animation is not limited in its imagery, capable of so many thing, that sort of draws me to it. So…I guess it’s the fantastic stuff that endears to me? Or maybe part of me is secretly one of those dreaded nostalgia-driven nerds, and the dominant rational nerd part just keeps it under wraps most of the time? Who knows.

But yeah, I keep watching this shit. Here’s a list of observations that have developed over this time:

He-Man is really, really, really bad. Like, I think calling it animation might be giving it too much credit. It’s only a few steps above Clutch Cargo. I’m sure the people at Filmation did the best they could with the zero budget they had, but still. We really have had an television animation renaissance once the 80s ended; sure, some stuff is still stiff and ugly, but at least they seem to have enough money/skill to animate scenes where the characters actually interact with each other. (And yet Paul Dini and Bruce Timm would move on from this crap to much better things.)

The Real Ghostbusters is much better than pretty much everything else on the channel in terms of both animation and writing (which isn’t saying much, really); some of the stuff still plays up my folklore/weird monster love. However, it has that weird “Obviously outsourced to Japan” aesthetic that I often find pretty jarring. (And yet J. Michael Straczynski would move on from this okay stuff to become a rather mediocre comic book writer)

-The main difference between the G.I. Joe and Transformers animated spin-off movies? The Joe one is one of the few exceptions to my “animation doesn’t do interestingly-bad” observation from above. Even with just some cursory knowledge of that property, you are led to question every single story decision on display. It’s amazing in its ability to make both fans and people who have never heard of G.I. Joe have no idea what is going on. I still don’t recommend ever watching it, though.
The Transformers movie, on the other hand, is just a slog, with the only point of interest being the way it attracted a bunch of C-Level ‘name’ actors and Orson Welles in his dying days. It’s written almost as if they expect us to actually care about a story with characters named Hot Rod and Ultra Magnus, Weird Al Song Out Of Nowhere or no.

The Raccoons is quintessentially Canadian; who the hell else would think that kids would be interested in watching what is essentially a bog-standard family drama with cartoon animals? Heavy moralizing, a complete lack of excitement…yet this show was on television for 8 fucking years. It looks alright, but man, what the fuck?
Of course the breakout star of the show was the primary antagonist (most of those ironic twentysomethings I mentioned before all know the name Cyril Sneer), and this is of course because the protagonists were so boring that we really do cheer for the unrepentant cartoon capitalist to just bulldoze them all into oblivion. Yes, it’s one of those things.

I swear, one of these days I’ll actually have something worthwhile to write about.

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A different kind of list

Posted by Matt on March 13, 2011

It’s another tier list. Because these are easy to do, but also interesting.

So may I present The Unarguable Tier Rankings of Major Simpsons Supporting Characters*

Top Tier
(These are the best of the best. These characters have developed the knack to not only be great gag characters, but can easily carry their own storylines, often contributing to some of the series’ best episodes

Mr. Burns
Grampa Simpson
Ned Flanders
Principal Skinner
Apu
Krusty

Mid Tier
(These characters carry many of the same strengths of the Top Tier class, being funny for one-off gags as well as having enough character to support a story, but they lack the sheer versatility of the Top Tiers)

Chief Wiggum
Milhouse
Mrs. Krabappel
Patty & Selma
Smithers
Moe
Barney
Reverend Lovejoy
Nelson
Mayor Quimby

Mid Tier
(These are fun characters to have around, but generally are not strong enough to really carry a strong storyline)

Groundskeeper Willie
Maude, Rod & Todd Flanders
Superintendant Chalmers
Kent Brockman
Martin
Lenny & Carl
Ralph
Dr. Hibbert
Mr. & Mrs. Van Houten
Otto
Dr. Nick
Comic Book Guy
Jimbo, Kearney, & Dolph

Low Tier
(One-note joke characters. Often times funny, but all-in-all flat.)

Professor Frink
Jasper
Hans Moleman
Cletus

(*Discounting guest star characters like Sideshow Bob, Fat Tony, etc., who are made to be able to carry a story on account of being guest star characters. I didn’t include the Hartman duo of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure because they’re sort of in a class of their own).

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Posted by Matt on November 10, 2010

“Some say a lack of evidence is an argument against the existence of the creature”

Thanks, Monster Quest.

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Posted by Matt on August 28, 2010

Here is a post about CBC (I’d also check the previous three posts, all on the same subject, as well)

I for one completely agree with the assessment: the CBC gets FREE money, maybe not as much as they used to, but it’s still there; they are a government institution, and a well-established apart of the country’s cultural fabric. That said, why are they such big pussies when it comes to making new shows? They are almost as conservative (and the margin of difference grows shorter every year it seems) as the for-profit channels, who also get free money, but for different reasons. And as Henshaw points out, that means that NOTHING ever gets funded; if the channel that’s not supposed to worry about ratings as much (although it sounds like the recently-departed tyrant who ran the corporation pushed for the opposite) doesn’t feel like funding Canadian-made shows, why would the ones who DO care about ratings?

CBC TV has been drifting into irrelevance for the past few years, although thankfully radio and web news have been able to maintain some level of quality during the same timeframe (I must say, however, I guess I’m one of the few who isn’t up in arms about the shift on CBC Radio 2 from classical to contemporary). I do hope that something will be improved when the new regime is brought in. But with the federal government constantly finding new ways to make the CBC feel less welcome, I won’t count on it.

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Posted by Matt on August 23, 2010

I usually have a hard time just sitting down and watching a lot of something. There’s a lot of TV series out there I’d probably like that I just haven’t gotten to watching, for example. I hope to rectify this soon enough.

I guess I’m starting with Mr. Show, the cult classic sketch comedy from the mid to late 90s. I’ve spent the past two weeks watching all 30 episodes, and I can easily understand why it’s received the lofty position it has. It’s a truly ambitious show, shooting for something far greater than the average show of its type, while at the same time embracing the most absurdist comedy possibly (now put that on the back of the DVD case!)

Although it fluctuates wildly throughout the series, the structure is really what struck me the most. It was fun to see all the scenes transition into each other (which is something that posting Youtube videos of scenes can’t truly capture, although that isn’t stopping me from posting them) and how they connect in other ways, especially in earlier seasons where each episode had a central theme (not the ones that did away with them for the most part, season 4 especially, really suffered significantly from it). The thing about most sketch comedies in the SNL mold is that entire episodes mean very little; this is, of course, why entire shows are never called ‘the best’, while individual sketches are (the other major issue being the sheer volume). Mr. Show, by being both more conscious of structuring an entire half-hour and being much smaller, is able to avoid this, and this feels much stronger overall as a show rather than as a sketch-producing machine (for more and better insight into the strengths of Mr.Show‘s individual episodes, read The AV Club’s weekly retrospective.)

Of course, the sketches themselves probably wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the actors weren’t up to snuff. As the ‘With Bob and David’ part of the title would suggest, most of the comedy is in the hands of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who are able to pull it off pretty much all the time. Their delivery and ability to inhabit the weird characters they always end up playing (Cross is great at playing shills and annoying salesman, while Odenkirk always seems to find a point in each episode to wear a fake mustache and old-timey clothes while using funny-sounding accents). But they also found a great supporting cast as well: Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, John Ennis, and Jay Johnson and the others recurring cast (including infrequent appearances by the likes of pre-infamy Jack Black and Sarah Silverman) are all crucial to each sketch. The cast is always willing to give their roles that extra push that the scripts demand, and are sometimes even able to get as much comedy possible out of even the weakest idea.

And the other thing that makes Mr. Show stand out is its ability to push each scene to its limit and pull hilarious new directions out of nowhere. Rather than simply rest on one funny idea, they will branch out, or completely subvert it, or just go all-out bonkers. This is also one of the things that appealed to me personally: anything that go in such silly, surreal direction on a dime gets thumbs up from me.





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Posted by Matt on July 23, 2010

Here’s a dumb little newspaper column.

There’s obviously a tongue-in-cheek element to it, but it does bring up an interesting point. Do Canadian shows need to be more ‘American’ in order to sell anywhere? What makes a show ‘Canadian’ and ‘American’?

I’ll start off by saying that I haven’t seen any of the three shows mentioned in the article, and I don’t plan on it; not my thing. Even so, I find the failure and success of shows like these at least somewhat interesting, as they are the industry’s scattered attempts at mainstream entertainment, and I like to see how that’s going. Because you need some sure-fire hits in order to fund the better stuff, most of the time (unless you’re cable. But they’re off in their own little fantasyland of rainbows and freedom, so we’ll just leave them out of this conversation).

The thing is, up here, the major networks usually only greenlight a very select few new shows per season. This, of course, hurts their chance of success even more by putting all the network’s eggs in one basket, thus leading to the networks getting a new excuse they can use to convince the government to loosen the original content spending requirements so they can continue to air American shows while still being government-protected. In most TV seasons, there’s a larger number of new programs so that the likelihood of success is greater; not every show is going to catch on, but the more you air, the more likely you’ll find a winner. Canadian network television doesn’t seem to get that luxury, or aren’t willing to spring for it, making their own shows more out of obligation than actual desire to create their own hit programming.

The point being that new shows in fewer numbers may mean that, if the networks like CTV are serious about making these shows successful, they will try to make them as safe as possible. Combined with the need to make sure the show succeeds in the US as well, a second revenue stream that they have seemed to embrace more often now, and you can see why the ‘Americanization’ of the shows seems to be taking place.

But on the other hand…what would make a sure recognizably ‘Canadian’ to viewers like this guy? Aside from the stereotypes, and settings being recognized, what would make a cop procedural made in Canada different from a cop procedural made in the US? Maybe I need to do more research on the subject, but I can make a guess that cop shows are pretty similar all over the place, based more on adherence to formula than real cultural imperialism. The column writer seems to think that having the shows be cliche-ridden high-octane thrillers is not representative of Toronto, or Canada in general, but what the fuck else is a big budget cop show going to do?

When I think of successful Canadian TV shows, I think of the same two everyone else on the Internet does: Trailer Park Boys and Corner Gas. The two are on opposite ends of the spectrum (a cable comedy able to do whatever it wants and an unabashedly mainstream network comedy, although one that still seems to be of a greater quality than most), but they both have what most shows in either country would envy: long, successful runs that ended on their own terms. I’m not too sure if they ever found any sort of success, or even a cult following, anywhere else, but they were both big deals in Canada. Were either of these shows noticeably Canadian? They seemed to capture their own unique settings in this country very well, but I don’t think there’s really anything either show did that made them unaccessible to Americans, or anyone else really. So, what is the ‘Canadian voice’?

To me, at least, the Canadian voice is simply whatever it is the people who create entertainment and those who buy into want it to be. We should just attempt to share ideas in order to build up our ‘culture’, whatever they may be, without having to worry whether or not these are identifiably ‘Canadian stories’. In my mind, if they come from a Canadian’s imagination, they’re a Canadian story. It doesn’t matter if they’re set it in Ontario, Alabama, or the distant moons of Shabadabahey; whether they accurately depict our municipal bodies, or whether or not people talk about milk bags and lacrosse; the whole point is to support the ideas of the creative forces in this country, so we can learn what is ‘Canadian’ from their output.

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