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

Tuesday (7/16/13) 2:11am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Okay, I really need to start doing these more than once a month....]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Justified [1x08-1x13], Arrested Development [4x12-4x14], Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated [1x01-1x15]
Books:  <none>

Justified [1x08-1x13]
This is the series about a disgraced U. S. Marshal who gets sent home to a small, crime-ridden town in Kentucky.  It's based on a series of short stories by Elmore Leonard.  I discussed the earlier episodes here and here.

I don't really have much to add to my discussion of the show from here and here.  I loved that they found a way to accelerate the season to a high-stakes conclusion without losing the small, chamber-work feel of the show.  "Bulletville" is absolutely riveting, with Boyd's entire church annihilated and a tense-as-hell standoff by a cabin.  But still, the whole thing is just about the relationships between Harlan and Boyd and Ava.  It hinges on the same basic question that the whole season dealt with: is Boyd telling the truth?

And I can't say enough good things about Boyd's answer to that question: "I don't even know any more."  It's a great moment of zigging when any other show would zag, and giving us what somebody would actually say in such an agonizing situation.

That was the pattern I was seeing throughout these last episodes -- the show kept dodging the artifice of similar cop shows, and followed its characters to more logical places.  The hostage-taker at the Marshall's office knew negotiating techniques backwards and forwards, made fun of Rayland's attempts to relate to him, and patiently explained that there was nothing they could offer him.  Arlo tries to double-cross the FBI and turn in Rayland, and Rayland ably sees that coming.

It's like they're focussing on characters, and letting characters trump genre.  If the genre usually goes left, but this detailed character they've set up wants to go right, the show goes right, and we land in new, interesting, and complicated territory.

Looking forward to season two, which I hear only builds on the successes of season one.

Arrested Development [4x12-4x14]
This is netflix's long-awaited continuation of the long-dead Mitch Hurwitz comedy.

I don't have much to say about the show that I didn't say here or here.

I still feel ambivalent about the longer episode lengths -- yes, they get to do different kinds of jokes, ones that use longer spans of time for comic effect, but it also lets them leave a lot of fat in the episodes.  You sense that they haven't viciously pared each episode down to just the funniest bits.

But I still think they show is jaw-droppingly brilliant.  It's continuing to out-LOST LOST, in a way, with each of these final episodes closing the loop on a zillion unanswered questions from earlier in the season.  Maybe these aren't as funny as "The B. Team" or "A New Attitude", but they're still funny enough, and the plot acrobatics are still breathtaking.

So: one more episode, and then time to re-watch it from the start.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated [1x01-1x15]
This is the eleventh TV series in the Scooby-Doo franchise, featuring the classic group of meddling, mystery-solving kids.

This is really, really good.

I want to show some caution here, and make sure I don't oversell it, so let me qualify my claim: it's not as good as, say, The Simpsons or Avatar: The Last Airbender.  It's not a show that's significant to the artistic development of animation, like Ren & Stimpy or Batman: The Animated Series.  It is, however, the most fun I've had watching a television show in many, many months.  It's a joyful show.

Now, I should qualify *that* claim as well.  This is a show that will appeal to me perhaps quite a bit more than it will appeal to other people.  A possible litmus test: Harlan Ellison shows up in episode 13.  He plays himself.  His first line of dialog is, "... and that's why nobody's written anything decent since the 1970s."  If you're already in a giggling fit about this, then Mystery Incorporated might be for you.

The show also appeals to me as a TV nerd.  Some context: I am not a fan of the original Scooby-Doo.  It was badly animated, badly written, and eventually included Scrappy-Doo.  I'd go further, and say that kids' animation was a bit of a wasteland from the end of the Termite Terrace heyday in the 60s until the premiere of The Simpsons in 1989.  If somebody can point out an actual decent American TV cartoon from '69 to '89, and not some dismal piece of ironically-appreciated kitsch, I'm all ears.[1]  (My generation was cheated.)

So this makes this modern reboot of the show a sort of experiment: what happens when you process that original, bland, lifeless show through all the developments that have happened since?

There have been massive advancements in animation since the old Hanna-Barbera days, a rising tide that's lifted all boats, including the "TV animation" boat.  One specific example: Beauty and the Beast opened the door on combining CGI and cel animation, and then The Iron Giant refined it, making it less of a gimmick and more "a useful way to cel-animate simple shapes".  And then Futurama took those techniques into TV animation, with countless CGI ships and hovercars and robots populating New New York without looking like vaguely-plasticine render-farm tests.

And so this latest Scooby-Doo gets to draw on this, with a neatly-rendered Mystery Machine allowing the camera to move around it in three dimensions.

But mainly, shows are *written* differently these days.  Shows have world-building.  Shows have continuity, and in that continuity, relationships develop over time.  Shows have jokes that are actually funny.  Shows are not afraid to be very, very smart, trusting that attentive fans with streaming services will go back and catch any blink-and-you'll-miss-it joke in the background.  So we get to see how this show draws on that tradition to make... well, a better show.

And that's nice in and of itself.  Roger Ebert often pointed out that we, as a culture, remake the wrong things.  We don't need a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.  We don't need a mulligan on Total Recall.  Instead, we need to remake the shows that had potential, but were poorly executed -- the ones where a good idea just didn't get a fair shot.  And this show made me realize that the original show concept -- a bunch of kids solving mysteries -- is pretty solid.  Hell, Buffy lifted the concept wholesale and had its characters reference Scooby-Doo directly.

And I like seeing a remake that actually accomplishes something.  And I like how, ironically[2], this latest incarnation of Scooby-Doo is drawing from a television tradition that, in turn, drew inspiration from Scooby-Doo.

But really, one of the things that makes me happiest about this show has nothing to do with the material itself.

Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated could have been stupid.  It could have been disposable.  It could have been a normal, serviceable retread of the source material, and kids would have still watched it, because it's a familiar property, and it's still tolerably entertaining for youngsters when the writers are just phoning it in.  Or, if they were slightly (only very slightly) more ambitious, they could have done an arch, knowing parody like the live-action film, and strip-mined the property of "point at it and laugh at it" humor over a season or so.  And that would have been fine, too.

But instead, they somehow managed to make a very good show.  Somehow, they made something good, under circumstances where I can't imagine any bean-counter in the process cared about whether they made something good.  This always makes me happy in any medium -- when an artist delivers something brilliant when an audience only demands "good enough".  Think of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds -- the audience[3] would have been fine with more happenin' tunes about cars and girls, and instead they got a gorgeous, intricate, melancholy song cycle about doomed relationships.

I love it when ephemeral, disposable art turns out to be uselessly brilliant.  To me, that means that somebody involved in it just didn't have any *choice* but to put everything they had into just the act of making something wonderful, regardless of whether anybody cared.[4]  There's something quixotic and noble about that.

All of this is to say, I have some idiosyncratic reasons for liking this show quite a bit.

But Mystery Incorporated is also good in and of itself.  The show has the same basic structure -- the same five characters uncover the truth behind a supernatural monster-of-the-week -- but the showrunners have done some brilliant tinkering with the internal workings of the show.  First off: it has continuity.  The majority of the stories take place in the kids' newly-invented hometown of Crystal Cove ("The Hauntedest Place On Earth"), and we actually see some world-building with that environment, as we meet the kids' parents, develop recurring secondary characters, and revisit various locations in town.

I especially love the weird, out-of-time feel that the setting has.  The show now includes modern technology right and left, but the world still resolutely lives in the early 70s.  As you watch the show, you wind up having thoughts like, "Yeah, I guess that's what a camera phone *would* look like in 1973."  There's also a moment where someone tells a photographer "That's your third memory card," as the shutterbug snaps photos with an 60s analog camera, complete with the little cuboid flash bulb.

The show also has plot continuity, something unheard of in the original show.  They're using the technique I first saw in Veronica Mars, and which has later been used in every-single-USA-show-ever, where every episode includes a self-contained mystery and also a nod to a season-long mystery arc.  It's such a simple technique, but it's widely popular because it works very well.

And that continuity extends to the relationships as well.  Daphne is pining after Fred, who remains utterly oblivious.[5]  Meanwhile, Velma and Shaggy have tentatively started a relationship, and have different notions of where to go with it.  Both of these plots move very, very slowly -- they don't go from A to B to C to Z, but instead glacially inch their way from A to B over a dozen episodes -- but that's fine by me.  The relationship plots mostly stay in the background, percolating along, giving things a little more weight and a little more humor, and helping to give some inner life to the main characters.

There are other, smaller changes.  The show opens with a teaser instead of cold-opening into the title sequence.  The title card itself is all mist against a black background, like the title page of a Lovecraft story.  The settings themselves are almost as dark as Batman the Animated Series.[6].  They fairly regularly get bits of science and technical jargon correct -- another item for the "doing things well even though nobody cares" file.

They fill the show with cultural references, but in a good way.  Either they're cultural references that they can build a show around -- like their entire episode dedicated to "H. P. Hatecraft" -- or they're subtle nods that you don't notice unless you're really attentive -- like naming a secondary character in that episode "Howard E. Robertson".  You've got to love the Mayor declaiming "by Grapthar's hammer!", or Daphne asking, "Was it one of my sisters? -- was it Dawn?  She thinks she's sooo perfect....", or the season-long villain informing them that "All of this has happened before...."

The voice casting is great.  They have the good sense to cast Matthew Lillard -- AKA "the only good thing about the live-action features" -- as Shaggy, and in a nice nod to the original, they have Casey Kasem playing Shaggy's father.  The familiar voices that show up are lovely -- Patrick Warburton as the blowhard sheriff, Lewis Black (Lewis Black!) as their irritable season-long antagonist, Vivica A. Fox as "Angel Dynamite", who runs the radio station and is exactly the character you're imagining right now.

And they do poke fun at the original show.  But they don't do it the way the film does, a sort of bored sarcasm directed at the original's silly and implausible show conventions.  Instead, they *explore* the strange implausibility and see what's on the other side of it.  They ask, "If these conventions are true for this world, what else is true?"  That's how we wind up with Crystal Cove proudly proclaiming it's "the hauntedest place on earth", or that Fred subscribes to a magazine devoted to trap-construction.

But anyway, the tl;dr version is, "In spite of its being a Scooby-Doo series, it's a really fun show, and it's probably worth your valuable time."

For next time: I'll take a break from Mystery Incorporated and start in on The Lost Room, a miniseries from the Sci-Fi Network back before it became (*shudder*) "SyFy".[7]

[1] I'll open the bidding with
The Real Ghostbusters (featuring J. Michael Straczynski on story-editing duties!), which just barely fits into the end of that window.
[2] ... at least, I *think* it's irony.  These days, I'm rarely certain about what is and is not, strictly speaking, irony.
[3] Granted, it was a dwindling audience, but it was dwindling down from a very high number.
[4] ... at the same time, I know I'm wildly misreading the truth of how the business works.  As they say, nobody sets out to make a bad movie.  It's more likely, in scenarios like this, that a distinctive voice just found a way to slip through the creative process without getting noted to death, like the isolated team of Florida animators that made Lilo & Stitch.  And in the case of Mystery Incorporated, they broadcast on Cartoon Network, where they no doubt were going after an audience that went beyond bored toddlers.
[5] The work they did with Fred here is wonderful -- he was a total nonentity in the original show, and they've reimagined him in this version as a dweebish engineer who's hilariously out of touch with his own feelings.  ("C'mon, Fred, keep repeating it to yourself: you're dead inside, you're dead inside...")
[6] ... a show which, if I recall correctly, had to fight for the privilege of painting their backgrounds on black paper, which nobody did prior to that.  I like to think B:TAS opened the door for these sorts of designs in animation.
[7] ... which I always pronounce in my head as "siffy".

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