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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (10/7/08) 12:10am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Team America:  World Police
TV:  Mad Men [1x10-1x13] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Team America:  World Police
Really?  This is what all the fuss was about?


I mean, I've been hearing about this movie for four years now.  I've heard countless assurances that it's hilarious.  Kids quote the songs to each other regularly.  Maybe there was no way *any* movie could live up to its level of hype.

So I tried to keep my expectations reasonable, and I sat down and watched it, and... yeah, it was okay.  I laughed a half-dozen times.  I was happily offended twice.  And... that's about it.  For some reason, it just didn't connect to my sense of humor.  Most of the time I was just *observing* the humor:  "Ah yes.  It's like bullet time, only it has no relevance to the fight.  And it's with puppets.  Yes, that is... a joke.  Well-done.  *golf clap*"

While watching, I started thinking about the Backpack Picnic show I saw at Out of Bounds.  See, lots of sketch troupes have the problem that, once you've seen the first five seconds of the sketch, you know how the next five minutes are going to go -- Backpack Picnic avoids this by pulling a screenplay-Crazy Ivan every couple of minutes and thus staying unpredictable.  Team America had that problem on a grand scale:  once I saw the first five minutes of the movie, I knew how the next two hours were going to go.  And it was there on smaller scales, too:  once I saw the start of a scene, I knew how it would play out.  Most of the laughs I got out of this were from its (few) moments of genuine surprise.

I suppose you could argue that it was so predictable because it was a parody.  It needed to hew to tradition to work as a parody.  But... I think it kind of sucked as a parody, too.

Or, more accurately, I think there are multiple "levels" of parodies.  There are the incompetent parodies, which don't even effectively make fun of their genres -- say, Superhero Movie.  There are the competent ones, which manage to tick all the checkboxes for aspects of the original to send up -- I'd put Team America in that category.  Then there are the good ones, which are competent *and* serve as an awesome example *of* what they are parodying -- I'd put The Princess Bride in that hallowed category.  The best parodists love what they hate -- they simultaneously make fun of <x>s and unflinchingly try to film the best <x> ever made.[1]

Time and again, Team America does just enough to hit the genre conventions (only, look! it's with puppets!) and move on.  Okay, they've got the "I'm getting over a traumatic experience" monolog -- only, hey! it involves monkeys!  Ha!  How random!  Let's move on to the next bit.  I felt the same way about the songs:  yes, they parodied inspiring montage songs.  Yes, they carried the joke of using the lyrics to talk about montages through the whole song.[2]  But the song... sucks.[3]  So it's only a competent parody.

The other thing that bugged me was the voice acting.  From South Park, I pretty much know all the voices that Trey Parker can do.  So I couldn't hear any of his voices in this one without picking it apart:  "Ah, this is basically Mr. Garrison only with a slight southern twang."  And the bits of the movie that could have used dramatic acting fell completely flat in the voice-acting department.  Let's be clear about this:  puppets have no facial expressions, and limited body language.  Andp uppets in the "Thunderbirds are go!" tradition are *very* limited in terms of what you can do with character designs.  So basically, the voice acting has to say *everything*.  Your characters *are* your voices.  So yes, I will harp on that.

I dunno.  Maybe I'm being too hard on the flick.  Like I said, I got some laughs out of it, they do an upstanding job of trying to offend *everybody*, and it's clear that a mountain of effort went into the production design.  Basically I'd call it a pleasant time-killer, and I happily recommend it to anyone too wussy to check out Meet the Feebles.

Mad Men [1x10-1x13] [spoilers]
The last disc contained the following episodes:  "Long Weekend", "Indian Summer", "Nixon Vs. Kennedy", and "The Wheel".  And with that, we complete season one of the newly-crowned Emmy winner for best drama.  (I suspect an inverse relationship between the quality of the Emmy broadcast and the quality of their choices of nominees and winners.)

Well, that was a very solid end to the season.  Pretty much every Chekovian gun we saw in act one got fired here in act three:  "will people find out about Dick Whitman?"; "Will Don finally tell off Peter?"; "Will Peggy finally blow off Peter?"; "Will Peter get ahead at the company?"; "Will Betty get wind of Don's philandering?"; "Will Don become completely detached from his family?"  None of this was resolved with lots of shouting and explosions, but the drama was focussed and intense.

That said, those were only a few plot-heavy moments.  To the end of the season, the show was mainly about letting us observe the characters and their world, as opposed to stressing over what'll happen next and how it'll all turn out.  When plot happens, it's rarely about logistics -- it's more like, you take some conflict, interpersonal or internal, and slowly & steadily ratchet up the tension on it.  If Don feels guilty about abandoning his brother, then let's make the audience realize just how bad it is by showing Don hiding away on the train, and let's make it worse by having the guy finally commit suicide.  Notch by notch, the tension rises.

Do I like it as much as the critics do?  I dunno.  I enjoyed the end of the season quite a bit.  It was definitely the best new show of '07, but that was kind of a tallest-midget competition.  But again, there were bits here and there where the lack of plot left me a bit bored, and sections where I just didn't understand what was happening.  If you didn't have a instinct for what was going on with all of the characters all of the time, you were going to wind up watching a few scenes that just felt like people sitting around having a boring chat.

... which leads me to something I like about this show, a quality I don't see enough of in TV:  it bears rewatching.  There is so much going on with everybody -- even the minor characters have turbid[4] internal struggles, and what the major characters struggle with usually becomes apparent a few episodes *after* they start struggling with it.  It's a subtle show that plays things close to its chest, but it's worth trying to puzzle it all out.

I wonder if any other shows will ever try to play like that.

For next time:  I'll watch There Will Be Blood, see some more of MythBusters, and perhaps finish The 10-Cent Plague.

Still reading/listening to Noel Murray's  "Popless" column at the AVClub.  No real discoveries this week.

I've also been plodding through the TEDTalks podcast.  Highlights have been this talk about classical music and this one about crows.

[1] Another example:  "Dare to Be Stupid" is an awesome DEVO song, in spite of having been written by "Weird Al" Yankovic.

[2] ... another example of "you figure out in the first five seconds what you'll see for the next five minutes."

[3] Unlike, say, the songs from the South Park movie, which were badass.

[4] I know, my use of that world is fairly unclear and kind of pretentious.  What I mean is, internally, conflicting forces are roiling things up and making things all... well, turbid.  This figurative usage assumes that the inside of a person is the same as the inside of a river, so I guess it doesn't quite work.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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Date:Tuesday (10/7/08) 7:14am
I just now started watching Mad Men myself. I didn't go back and watch season 1 and started off w/ season 2. They constantly recap what had happened before. And I'm like you, not entirely sure if I really love it, but it is captivating to see how they capture the time period. NPR did an interview w/ the writer and he described why he picked the 50s as opposed to either earlier or later time period. It was interesting to hear.
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