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

Monday (1/10/11) 10:03pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Avatar:  The Last Airbender [1x01-1x04], Better Off Ted [2x01-2x09], Breaking Bad [1x01-1x03]
Books:  <none>

Avatar:  The Last Airbender [1x01-1x04]
The first DVD of Avatar comprises the first part of "Book 1:  Water".  It contains the episodes "The Boy in the Iceberg", "The Avatar Returns", "The Southern Air Temple", and "The Warriors of Kyoshi".

What amuses me is that, shortly after I started watching this, I went to go to the "Special Features" menu so I could turn on the subtitles and switch the soundtrack to the original Japanese voice acting.  But that wasn't available.  "Great," I thought, "Nickelodeon brought this show to the United States, but couldn't be bothered to provide us a subbed version.  Thanks, corporate America."

It was only later that I found out no, this is an American show, written by a couple of guys whose previous gigs were on shows like Family Guy and King of the Hill.

But they both really, really liked animé.

So they wound up producing this strange and lovely amalgam of styles.  You could argue that the earliest animé took American animation, reprocessed it through Japanese artists' minds, and eventually sent it back to us as something simultaneously familiar and yet a bit 'off'.  If that's the case, then this is another iteration of that, where we see the same style re-filtered through American sensibilities.  At times, it feels like characters from Peanuts are going off on a fantastical Chinese martial-arts adventure.[1]

The show's concept is not *terribly* complicated.  This is a world where different nations are capable of manipulated the four elements:  fire, water, air, and earth.  And there's always one person -- the avatar -- who keeps the peace between the nations.  But then the fire nation got especially belligerent and put the avatar -- a twelve-year-old boy named Aang -- into a glacier for a hundred years.  Then, two kids for a water-nation village -- Katara and Sokka -- find and rescue him.

So each episode has Aang, Katara, and Sokka going off on another adventure, as they're chased by an obsessed fire-nation prince, and as they try to get Aang trained in the four element-bending arts.  It simplifies logistics a bit that they have a giant flying bison to take them from place to place.

The episodes impart pretty clear moral lessons to the characters.  If the show is ostensibly about learning magic to defeat an evil army, it's *really* about learning enough about life to be a successful adult.  Hell, Sokka says explicitly in the intro that Aang has a lot of growing up to do.  Oddly, I don't mind the mildly thwack-you-over-the-head moralizing tone.  It keeps the show from being just a big pile of pointless magical fighting, which can only sustain my interest if it's done by Genndy Tartakovsky.

I always like it when a story is about something specific and perhaps fantastical, but it's *really* about something far more universal and relatable.  I'm keen to see what further adventures they have.

(Side note:  also, our heroes are quickly joined by a troublemaking lemur, so I'm starting to wonder at what point Lani snuck into the writers' room.)

Better Off Ted [2x01-2x09]
So I finally picked up a Roku box, which means I can view lots of Internet content on my TV:  my flickr photostream, the latest AIC vimeo vids, hulu plus videos.  But most notably, I can use the box for netflix-streaming.  And that in turn means that I've been consuming season-two episodes of Better Off Ted like they were candies.

The show hasn't changed much, or really *at all*, since its first season.  Veridian Dynamics is still the most affable psychopathic company on earth, which gives a sharp edge to what would otherwise be harmlessly-surreal twenty-minute adventures.

I'm intrigued that they aren't really pushing any romantic storylines between their two leads, Ted and Linda.  Honestly, it's something of a relief.  I firmly believe a show should devote itself to stories that other shows can't tell -- and Friends-like character couplings are something that any show can do.  The more time you spend on "ooh, will they or won't they?", the less time you have to explore the latest affront to humanity from Veridian Dynamics.

Side note:  my sister just got netflix streaming, and has finally started watching Better Off Ted.  As I expected, she's enjoying it quite a bit -- given that half of Veronica's lines sound like jokes she would say, I shouldn't be surprised.  Apparently a Veridian Dynamics T-shirt is on order.

Breaking Bad [1x01-1x03]
Breaking Bad is AMC's acclaimed follow-up to Mad Men about a high-school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal lung cancer and decides to start cooking up crystal meth.

It's interesting to look at the speeds of different shows.  Soap operas can burn through one storyline after another, chewing up plot as they go.  Some sitcoms are manic, full of farcical energy in each episode, but then hitting the "reset" button at the end so that they never really go anywhere.  Dramas often go at two speeds at once, with a '<blah> of the week' storyline that twists and turns at each act break, and a slow, season-long arc that only very slowly pieces itself together.

With Breaking Bad, I'm mostly watching the show's speed.  The pilot is a flurry of activity -- Walter White goes through his status-quo life, then collapses, then gets his terminal diagnosis, then goes on the DEA bust, then tracks down the meth dealer, builds a mobile lab, has a showdown with high-level criminals...

... and then everything slows down.  And we find out that this isn't going to be the story of 'Walter White going out on adventures'.  Instead, it's like the pilot was a big, wet stain, and we're going to spend the rest of the season watching that stain slowly spread.  Every loose end that a dumb action show would sweep under the rug gets picked up and looked at from every angle.

So you've got a dead body to deal with.  How are you going to dispose of it?  Can you really bring yourself to dissolve a corpse in hydrofluoric acid?  How about your victim who survived?  What'll you do about him?

And what are you going to tell your family?  And what are you going to do about your day job?  And hell, what about that gas mask you left out there in the New Mexico desert?

I'm reminded of, of all things, the start of season two of LOST.  Those episodes go over the same tense, violent, five-minute span of time over and over again, approaching it from different angles, drawing out more details, teaching us more about the situation.

Breaking Bad kind of employs the same strategy -- it starts with a tense, violent, five-minute span of time, and slowly expands on it.  Except in this case, we're not filling in all the details, we're drawing out all the consequences.  And we see just how painful these consequences are (seriously, can you imagine having to boil away a corpse in acid?), and how much conflict they cause (... or having to decide whether you have to boil the body, or the other guy does?).

This emphasis on consequences was what surprised me most about the show.  Knowing the premise, I expected it to be some sort of reclaiming-your-manhood fantasy -- "Once milquetoast Walter White gets a death sentence from the Big C, he swigs a big bottle of who-the-fuck-cares and becomes a badass gangsta!"  And the thing is, that might *be* the overall arc of Breaking Bad -- but it doesn't feel like it's about what Walter White gains.  It's about consequences.  It's about what he loses.  And it's looking like the consequences are so steep that, while he might survive, you've got to wonder how much of him will remain at the end.

I'm about to finish The World Without Us.  I'll watch more of Better Off Ted and Avatar:  The Last Airbender.  And, as always, I'll continue listening to my audiobook of A Game of Thrones.

[1] ... and if this does not fall within your set of "things that would be awesome", then DEAR GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

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