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

Tuesday (1/24/12) 1:27am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Muppets Take Manhattan
TV:  Star Trek (The Original Series) [2x01-2x09], The Twilight Zone [season 1], Doctor Who [2006, 2x01-2x05]
Books:  <none>

The Muppets Take Manhattan
With The Muppets out in theaters, I figured I'd check in on the third Muppets feature for the first time.

While I was watching this one, I spent a fair amount of time wondering if movies just weren't the best format for the Muppets.  I guess a film budget allows for big, spectacular scenes, but I don't really come to the Muppets for spectacle.  I suppose it lets you tell a more epic story than a TV episode, but I don't really go to the Muppets for large-scale storytelling.

Mind you, I think this claim is wrong -- I'd say The Muppet Movie is a pretty convincing argument that the movie format can serve the Muppets just fine -- but there were things about The Muppets Take Manhattan that made me keep pondering the question.  It felt pretty meandering to me -- like a collection of good skits, and a great Broadway set-piece at the end, had been stitched together with a bunch of awkward 80s-B-list-star cameos into something the same length as, but not really, a movie.

And some of those bits are really, really good.  The sketch with Rowlf working at the kennel, and the sketch with Gonzo's ill-fated water-skiing routine, were great, and the Manhattan Melodies sequence at the end was, against all expectations, every bit the great Broadway number that Kermit had claimed it was.[1]

But the movie never made me care about the overall storyline.  Maybe it's just that I can't really relate to the problems of producing a musical[2] -- it could just be too 'inside baseball'.  Or maybe I'm too cynical about old "first, drum up a million dollars of investments" production style, and I'd have more sympathy for, say, a bunch of seat-of-the-pants filmmakers with a RED camera.  Or maybe they were starting to run out of good story ideas, and this was the start of the decline that would continue through the 90s.

Whatever the cause, it made it feel like a bit of a slog from one good bit to the next, and miss the TV show, where they could just do wall-to-wall production numbers without too much concern about setting up character arcs and the like.

The Twilight Zone [season 1]
After checking out some highlights of the series last time, I went back and watched the whole first season, mostly to prepare for the Hideout's Science Fiction Comedy Double Feature.  I don't think I have much to add to what I said then, and to the notes I took on that first season.

The show feels a bit old-hat now, probably because The Twilight Zone has lodged itself so firmly in our collective consciousness that we all kind of know what the twist to a Twilight Zone episode is going to be.  But you've got to admire the austerity of these shows.  You watch a bunch of Twilight Zone episodes, and you start feeling like any modern show is just a collection of so many crutches.

In a typical Twilight Zone episode, you get very little to work with.  You get two, *maybe* three characters.  You get one, maybe two locations.  And you just get that one concept -- that one bit of 'what if?' -- to work with.  A modern show has all sorts of ways to spackle together a weak episode -- is the A-plot flagging? just switch to the B-plot!  Have you painted yourself into a corner? just invent a new piece of sci-fi to deus ex machina your way out!  Is everything dull? create a bit of CGI spectacle to jolt your audience back to attention!

No, in The Twilight Zone you *just* have the simplest elements of classic drama, and if you can't make it work, there is nothing that can save you.  You just can't write a sloppy Twilight Zone script and make it muddle through somehow.  It has to be clear, and simple, and deeply unsettling.

And the fact that it's one guy (Serling) writing episode after episode after episode, adapting short stories half the time but half the time coming up with concepts all on his own, only makes it more impressive.

Star Trek (The Original Series) [2x01-2x09]
After watching some of the highlights of the series, I decided to hunker down and watch a stretch of season two.

I don't really have much to say beyond what I said before, along with the notes I took for the "Science Fiction Comedy Double Feature" improv show.  I'm coming to the conclusion that Trek is kind of the mirror image of The Twilight Zone.  In both cases, you have this clear structure where our heroes encounter something peculiar, explore possible ways of explaining it and dealing with it, and then take on the weirdness head-on at the end.  They just differ in their results:  in Trek, the heroes win in some ironic way; in The Twilight Zone, the heroes lose in some ironic way.

This reflects the big *difference* between the two shows, which is that Gene Roddenberry thinks humanity is basically good and Rod Serling thinks humanity is basically evil.  Both attitudes get wearying after a while.  After enough episodes, The Twilight Zone's knee-jerk cynicism feels reductive and stupid -- and after enough episodes, Star Trek can feel annoyingly pollyanna-ish, especially when their vision of 'enlightened humanity' involves crushing sexism.

But both shows are coming from the world of classic sci-fi short stories, with some great sci-fi writers of the day peppering the staffs of both shows, so it feels like they have a lot in common.

Doctor Who [2006, 2x01-2x05]
I got cast in The Professor, an upcoming improv show inspired by Doctor Who, so I figured it was a good time to start watching episodes.

Mostly I'm noticing how 'light' the show is, in terms of sci-fi.  It's not the sort of show that sets down, "okay, here are the three or four counterfactuals to how this world works -- we're going to stick to that and explore its consequences".  Instead, it's lighter sci-fi, the sort that trots out whatever piece of magic it needs to fix the plot problem at hand.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing.  Mostly it's the sort of thing that makes you heave a big sigh of relief, as an improvisor.  "Okay, inventing something arbitrary and convenient two-thirds of the way in won't feel off-genre."  Mostly it just tells me that the show isn't really about clever plotting so much as it's about its basic optimism about humanity, and getting to go on crazy adventures.

My favorite episode of this batch is "School Reunion", mainly for its reintroduction of Sarah Jane (and yes, even K-9).  It was a clever plot development -- a way to explore a reasonable consequence of the show's structure.  And it was an engaging consequence; I couldn't well relate to mysterious aliens taking over a school and plotting universal domination, but the awkward dynamics of the returning Companion felt real.  It also gave the show some emotional weight.  Just knowing that K-9 had appeared in episodes from decades ago made his (100% predictable) sacrifice at the end surprisingly affecting.

Plus, I'm a sucker for any story that ends by sending off a beloved older character to have more adventures of her own.  For me, at this point in my life, it's nice to be told I still have some adventures left in me. 

(Maybe I should go re-watch "Relics".)

My biggest concern, improv-wise, is whether I can get the show's optimism right.  As far as I can tell, the fundamental draw of Doctor Who is its feeling of joy and its faith in humanity.  (Or to put it more intelligently, "the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.")  I'm not saying I'm the most gloomy and cynical person on earth -- for that, I'd really have to be a teenager -- but I'll want to keep an eye on how I tackle this, and nudge myself towards moments of unexpected optimism and wonder as necessary.

For next time:  more Doctor Who, and perhaps a re-watch of Freaks and Geeks, in preparation for the Institution production.

[1] So often, movies that feature false documents -- like the amazing song that the songwriter-hero's been writing, or the great poem that the poet-hero's been writing, or the great comedy routine the comedy-hero's been writing -- all fall down when they actually show the piece in question, and it turns out that this breathtaking work of art really kind of sucks.  (See:  almost every sketch on Studio 60. </zing!>)

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Date:Thursday (1/26/12) 1:04am
I'm very unsure of my ability to be analytical about the first three Muppet movies, because my brother and I watched and rewatched them so obsessively as kids. The trilogy (which is in no way a trilogy) of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan are my first point of reference for what the Muppets are and ought to be, and it's very hard to break out of the "OMG CHILDHOOD JOY AND LOVE" thing and see them on their own as movies rather than beloved cult objects.

If I were breaking it down, though, I'd have to say that:

1. The Muppet Movie: has the strongest emotional content, the most to say artistically and philosophically, some of the best visuals, hands down the best music, and is essentially a love letter to America and at least the idea of Hollywood

2. The Great Muppet Caper: has the best story overall (bearing in mind that plot cohesiveness isn't really ever the Muppets' strong suit), the best guest stars and use of cameos, some of the best technical work (the multi-bicycle ride number! HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?!), is generally the funniest, and is essentially a love letter to England

3. The Muppets Take Manhattan: has some of the best set pieces, gags, and comedy sequences, interspersed with some stuff that doesn't work 100%, has some moments of genuine emotional power (I have trouble not wibbling at "Saying Goodbye," and the marriage scene at the end always makes me weep. Don't judge me), though they're not quite as fresh and authentic as in TMM, some fun meta stuff that I still find relevant in my daily life ("Ocean Breeze soap will get you clean!" "You mean we should just...say what it does?!"), and is essentially a love letter to Broadway.

I agree that the musical at the end of TMTM is exactly as great as it's been built up as, which is pretty amazing. This was one of my gripes with the most recent movie, which I...mostly enjoyed. But there was all of this build up about how awesome and inspirational the original flavor Muppets were, but very little display of their actual awesomeness compared to the amount of time spent showing them being sad and remorseful. :/
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