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

Monday (2/16/09) 10:43am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts
TV:  Burn Notice [1x08-1x10]
Books:  <none>

The Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts
This is one of the few times I'll shout from the rooftops that YOU NEED TO SEE THIS.  If you have any interest in animation, go watch it at the Alamo before the end of its run (on the 19th, apparently), or download the videos from iTunes.  It is an exceptionally strong program.

Okay, everybody's already seen "Presto", the CGI short that played before Wall*E.  But "Oktapodi" is a CGI short that's every bit as entertaining, and it's worth your hard-earned earth dollars to see it on the big screen.

They follow the Oscar-nominated shorts with a number of "highly recommended" shorts, several of which I liked better than the nominees.  "Varmints" is one of the most breathtaking CGI shorts I've ever seen -- it's weak on plot (passive hero, unclear stakes, meandering narrative), but its cinematography is nearly on par with Wall*E.  After that, they include a Bill Plympton cartoon (the delightful "Hot Dog") and "John and Karen", a great bit of observational humor that reminded me of "Bob's Birthday".  (I'd seen both of those at The Animation Show, but was happy to see them again.)

Even its weakest cartoons were pretty damn good.  "Skheizen" doesn't do much with its premise, but the premise is interesting:  after an accident with a meteorite, a man's image and physical presence end up displaced from each other by ninety-one centimeters.  "This Way Up" wanders all over the place, plot-wise, but it's filled with neat little character moments between its two undertaker protagonists.

Like I said, if you don't catch it at the Alamo, catch it on iTunes.  If you can't find it there, then hopefully you'll be able to see most of these shorts on the eventual compilation DVD. 

Burn Notice [1x08-1x10]
The third disc of season one of Burn Notice contains the episodes "Wanted Man", "Hard Bargain", and "False Flag".

Yes, it's the same show as always.  We still have A-stories where the super secret agent helps out people in distress and B-stories where he gradually uncovers the truth about his burn notice.  A few relationship scenes pop up here and there.

No, the season doesn't have a strong act structure.  As we go from episode to episode, there's no sense of rising stakes or acceleration in any of the season-long arcs.  Instead, they sort of drift along, in the same direction at a constant speed.

But that makes sense:  this show is much more episodic than narrative.  Put another way, it's much more about those individual A-stories than about the overall arc.

So that's the general lay of the land.  Now we move on to the difficult part of the review.  If a show remains pretty much the same throughout a season, it becomes challenging to find new things to say about it.  But then something interesting happened:  we finally got an episode with a rugpull.

"But Peter, 'rugpull' isn't a real word."  Okay, voice-in-my-head, I have to give you that one.  I use the word s 'rugpull' I mean 'any time when the show pulls the rug out from under the audience.'  It's that reveal right before the commercial break when you realize that character <x> has been lying to you, and that (*dum dum dum*) nothing is what it seems!  It's Captain Mal dropping to the floor in "Our Mrs. Reynolds", or Veronica figuring out why the car has to be located in "You Think You Know Somebody", or... well, any act out *ever* on LOST.

Here's the weird part.  Burn Notice generally *doesn't do that.*  It's like the old Star Trek joke about the Enterprise landing on a peaceful and happy planet where everything is exactly how it appears.[1]  In an episode of Burn Notice, Michael Westen takes on a shady client who's in a tricky situation... and the case turns out to be exactly that.  The client's stated motivations are for real.  Nobody's trying to play anybody.


Wait, isn't every modern show into rugpulls?  Doesn't every case on House hinge on some crazy deception from the patient?  How many bizarre double-crosses have the Cylons pulled on Battlestar Galactica?  This is so prevalent that, when you watch Burn Notice, you're just waiting for the client to reveal their nefarious plan... and it never happens.

That's not to say the show has no surprises.  I mean, an act out has to have some kind of twist, or the episode is kind of broken.  It's just that the surprises in Burn Notice are not of the form "Everything you know is wrong!"  Instead, they are of the form "Everything you know is much more difficult than you thought."

To put this another way:  say you're in a Burn Notice episode and you're getting somebody a sandwich.  This task would take about 42 minutes of screen time.  About ten minutes in, you'd discover that the sandwich was actually guarded by a top-of-the-line security system.  Then about twenty minutes in, your elaborate con to get into the Sandwich Room would be ruined by the arrival of federal agents who've been tracking you.  Then about thirty minutes in, after successfully retrieving the sandwich (yay!), you'd trip the alarms on the way *out* of Sandwich Mansion (boo!), and then desperately flee from the men of the Sandwich Cartel, and (in the process) send them straight into the main hideout of the Hoagie Gang.  They get in a big shootout, you hand over the sandwich to your client, roll credits.

It's not that your client didn't really want a sandwich.  It's not that the sandwich is actually a high-tech bioweapon.  It's more that (to quote Firefly) the job is never smooth.  External factors make it more difficult.  Mistakes lead to complications.  By the end of it, you have to execute a bizarre, impossible plan just so you can avoid getting shot.

As with the slow narrative pace from episode to episode, this makes perfect sense for Burn Notice.  It's not a detective show; it's a spy show.  As Matt Nix observed in the commentaries for the previous disc, we don't watch Burn Notice so that we can see Michael Westen go around interviewing witnesses while  taking notes on a notepad; we watch Burn Notice so we can see Michael Westen do crazy spy stuff.  It's not about "can he unravel this crazy web of lies?"  It's about "can he get past the sandwich security system while handcuffed and blindfolded?"

Frankly, by the time they throw out an episode with a rugpull, it's kind of disappointing.  "Oh.  That's what all the *other* shows do."  Fortunately, from there on out it's back to a standard Burn Notice episode -- helping the hapless little guy take on impossible adversaries.  Huzzah.

Side note:  in the commentaries for the previous disc, Bruce Campbell pointed out that Burn Notice is something of an oddity, in that all of the central cast are grown-ups.  It got me to wondering which is more youth-obsessed:  TV or film?  I suspect that film is more youth-obsessed than TV.  I further suspect that TV courts a wider variety of audiences than film does.  Obviously, the blockbuster films are going specifically for teenage boys, but I think you could make the point that other genres -- art films, romantic comedies, horror movies -- are also targetted at increasingly-narrow demographics.  Then again, maybe TV does the same thing?  It might be interesting to give this more thought....

For next time:  I'll finally catch up on Battlestar Galactica.  I'm still wading through Othello and listening to the audiobook of Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, but I'm still far from the end of either.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Chopin.  (Impromptus now.)

Podcast-wise, I've treaded water with my usual podcasts:  "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!", "Sound Opinions", "Podictionary Weekly", and so forth.

I also saw An Ideal Husband and the second performance of Parallelogramophonograph's Grimm.  Both shows are good; I may comment further about them later.

[1] ... the joke being, on Star Trek, that *never happens*.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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