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

Tuesday (10/1/13) 1:11am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Death to Smoochy
TV:  Orphan Black [1x01-1x04], Spartacus [1x01-1x08], QI [series 6, series 1], Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x01]
Books:  <none>

Death to Smoochy
This is the 2002 black comedy about a Barney-the-dinosaur-esque performer who gets his big break in the corrupt world of children's television.

This is a film with a reputation.  On the one hand, it was a commercial bomb.  Jon Stewart jokes that it was the film that kicked him out of the acting business.  Robin Williams was nominated for a Razzie for it.  The late, great Roger Ebert gave it a blisteringly (and therefore hilariously) negative review.

On the other hand, Smoochy has acquired a cult following.  Ebert concluded his review saying that "In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant," and a lot of fans have discovered this film on video, pushed past the unpleasantness, and reveled in its inexplicable oddness.

I land in the middle: I feel perplexed by both extremes.  To my mind, Death to Smoochy a perfectly serviceable little riff on Network and the like, only set in the world of children's entertainment.  So: it's not staggeringly original, you pretty much know where it's going from its first ten minutes, and you just sit back and wait for the jokes to come along.  As satire goes, it has no real teeth.  (Yeah.  We know.  Entertainment conglomerates are evil.)  But it's still pleasant and entertaining, in a gallows-humor kind of way.

Anyway, Death to Smoochy works its way through that plot, and it's entertaining enough as it does so.  The cast is leagues and leagues better than the material, with Jon Stewart ranking as an unknown compared to the luminaries in the cast.  It's fun to watch good acting in service of a good-enough script.  Somehow, Catherine Keener and Edward Norton play characters arguing about creative-control issues in this paper-thin, harmlessly-satirical world, and it all works pleasantly enough.

It's hard for me to figure out what the big fuss is all about.  If you're not easily offended, it's a nice little movie.

Orphan Black [1x01-1x04]
This is the Canadian sci-fi show about Sarah Manning, a small-time crook who realizes she's the result of a sinister worldwide cloning experiment. 

At the moment, Orphan Black is the best example of what Mo Ryan affectionately calls "B-Movie Television".  In the last few years, a bunch of TV shows have cropped up that share certain traits: they're genre shows, they're on low-rated cable networks, they're shot on shoestring budgets, and there's something breathlessly experimental about them.  Maybe these B-shows don't aim to be the best show in history, but they scrappily entertain their audiences, and they strain to differentiate themselves from the bazillion other shows out there.  In the end, even a relatively bad "B-Movie" show can hold an appeal that more refined and respected shows lack.

That said, I don't want to build up your hopes too much.  All I'm saying is that Orphan Black is scrappy and entertaining.  On its shoestring budget and its tiny cast (which is mostly Tatiana Maslany playing a variety of clones), it zigs when you expect it to zag, and it shows you a bunch of scenes that you really haven't seen before.  You know you're not watching the best show ever, but you know you're watching something different and refreshing.

And fast.  Lord, does this show burn through plot.  The only comparable examples I can think of are Freaks and Geeks, which burned through every episode of its single season knowing that cancellation was imminent, and season one of Heroes, which finally spun out of control, crashed into a retaining wall, and was a charred, blackened mess for its remaining seasons.  With Orphan Black, you spend the first couple episodes thinking, "Hey, it'd be cool if Sarah decided to -- oh, never mind" interrupting yourself because Sarah has already *done* whatever-that-was while you were lost in your reverie, and has already moved on to the next crisis.  Eventually, you give up and let the show surprise you.

I don't know if I really have much more to say about Orphan Black at this point, other than that it's just really solidly written.  If a thriller is about (say) a woman crossing a rope bridge, then a *good* thriller is one in which that rope bridge is swaying dangerously in the wind, the woman has to cross it to escape a pack of feral, mutant dogs, and the natives start shooting arrows at her once she's halfway across.  While this show includes no actual rope bridges (yet), it does a great job of giving Sarah dangerous things to do, giving her very compelling reasons why she has to do them, and adding in dizzying complications that ratchet up the difficulty midway through.

This is to say nothing of Tatiana Maslany's brilliant (and Emmy-snubbed) performances as the various clones, or the heavy ethical questions about cloning that the shoe necessarily dips its toe into.

Hopefully I'll have more to say about that as I watch the rest of the season.

This is the Starz TV series about the gladiator who led a slave rebellion against Rome.

I watched this show on the recommendations of Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee, TV critics who have been practically shouting from the rooftops about it, claiming that it's a gripping and fascinating drama, apparently in the face of a larger critical community that watched its first few episodes, assumed it was some kind of soft-core porn, and never watched it again.

I'm eight episodes in now.  I'm not sure if the show is good, but I know that dismissing the show out-of-hand was a mistake.

Yes, the show has sex.  It has sex, it has nudity (both sexes), it has a lot of freewheeling carnality.  It also has violence -- frequent violence, graphically depicted, sometimes at a level you'd associate with torture porn.  (For example, one man gets his penis severed, and you see the grisly results of that.)  And it's easy to dismiss all that as (to borrow Rob Thomas's phrase) "Spartacus: Blood and Tits", as pandering to the lowest common denominator, but at the same time, it helps to create a world.  This is a world that's very carnal, very hedonistic, and very, very dangerous.  You can feel viscerally that, in many important ways, this world is not like ours.

I think that's what I appreciate the most about the show at this point.  Who knows if their depiction of the Roman empire is accurate (my guess: no), but it's a unique world, and a fun one to explore.  The style of dialog, a sort of stilted faux-Shakespeare with a heavy dose of profanity, feels awkward at first, but then both the writers and the audience kind of settle into it, and it suddenly just feels like the right way to speak in this world of intense and heightened stakes.

That said, I can't yet tell if it really adds up to anything besides fevered, soap-opera nonsense.  I do like the fact that this show's villains make convoluted plots that actually make sense.  Sure, sometimes their machinations have a few different moving parts, but they don't need ESP or the ability to see the future to make these plans work, so that's okay by me.

So it's exciting, and it's an interesting world, but I don't know if the characters are that strong, or if it's about anything thematically.  There's a potential for deeper meanings here, especially since most of the characters are slaves.  Each gladiator has his own way of dealing with that situation, and own feelings towards "freedom".

So it's intriguing, and it has potential, but I doubt I'll be shouting its virtues from the rooftops the way that Mo Ryan & Ryan McGee have done.

QI [series 6, series 1]
This is Quite Interesting, the British trivia program hosted by Stephen Fry in which panelists are awarded points for being interesting and penalized for being obvious or dull.

I actually sampled a whole set of British panel shows in preparation for my appearances on You Think You're So Smart at the Institution Theater.But all of that said, QI was the real standout.  It discusses general knowledge, which meant I generally knew what they were talking about, and they have an endless supply of neat facts, the sort of things I'd post as "utterly-useless facts of the week" on my blog.

And of *course* Stephen Fry is an amazing host.  How could he not be?  Yes, he's as brilliant and witty and affable and gently subversive as he is everywhere else.  The real discovery for me was Alan Davies, who is a perfect foil for Fry.  He's like the book-averse, snarky schoolboy in the back row of Fry's classroom -- but at the same time, they're both such warm personalities that their mutual sniping never feels hostile.

So QI has become the thing that I watch while I exercise.  It is funny and fascinating enough to distract me from the wretched discomfort of pushups and bicycle crunches.  It seems like only the willfully ignorant would dislike this show.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x01]
This is the pilot of Joss Whedon's new show about Agent Coulson and his team of government agents who investigate cases in the superhero-filled world of The Avengers.

I don't know what to make of Joss Whedon's pilots.  By my reckoning, the man has yet to make a good TV pilot.  This is strange, because he also has yet to make a bad TV show.  But none of those TV shows arrived fully-formed.  Buffy took a season or two to settle into a format that worked.  Angel did a bit better, only requiring a single season to work out its kinks and figure out how it should work.  Dollhouse only needed six episodes before it evolved into the bizarre, disturbing, Philip-K.-Dick-style mind-scrambler that I hold dear to my heart.  Firefly came closest to having a decent pilot -- its characters were fully-formed from the get-go -- but even "Serenity" had long stretches of bloated, logy exposition.  (Much as I hate FOX, prompting Whedon & Minear to write "The Train Job" as a 'second pilot' was all to the good.)

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot felt underwhelming to me in a lot of ways, but it feels wrong to assess the show that I just saw.  Instead, I should try and assess the show that it could become.

It certainly has potential.  Obviously, Disney/Marvel have put several national GDPs' worth of money into this project, and it looks as slick as any genre television out there.  The Marvel universe has a lot of material to explore, even if we just limit ourselves the current film franchise.  And the central conceit -- a group of non-super-powered people investigate all the weird goings-on in this world of superheroes -- is a clever way to show a new perspective on a very traditional genre.[1]  (See also: Gotham Central.)

But the episode itself felt a little boring.  Part of it was that all the main characters are just barely drawn in at this point.  I know that Grant Ward is an uptight superspy.  I know that Skye is a sassy (*sigh*) blogger.  I know that the two scientists are aiming to be dorky and adorable.[2]  But the characters don't have any details yet, and so far only Melinda May hints at having more going on under the surface.

All that said, Clark Gregg is just amazing.  It's fascinating to watch how little the man acts -- it's like he homes in on the one or two things he really needs to convey in any given scene, and focuses on doing those.  And what's more, he doesn't let anything else in his performance get in the way of those goals.  He doesn't do a lot of business, or a lot of motions, or a lot of tics -- he just hits his marks, says the lines, and lets the character come through without any noise.

The warmth that Gregg conveys is used to great effect.  As Coulson, he just has this "friendly resting face" that turns most of these supernatural-procedural scenes on their head.  If a (*sigh*) blogger is brought in for questioning by a super-secret government agency... that scene doesn't normally have a guy like Coulson in it.  It's usually two hardasses and a punk who doesn't abide by any of the man's "rules", man.  Instead, we trade out one hardass for Agent Coulson, and the whole balance of the scene feels different and unpredictable.

As for the rest of the cast, I have no idea what to make of them yet.  It's certainly not the sharp variety of perspectives and inter-relationships we saw in Firefly, but I trust that Whedon will find ways to explore the characters as the show goes on.  I assume there will be monsters-of-the-week, and I further assume that those monsters-of-the-week are just excuses for the characters to bounce off of each other in revealing ways.

And they've set up a couple of bits of mythology they can explore.  The "Centipede" is a nice standard-issue Shadowy Organization doing Dangerous Things.  And I couldn't be happier that they're just going to sit on the mystery of how Coulson was revived from the dead.  I love that the one answer every Avengers fan is desperate for, they're going to have to wait for.  And I love that, whenever that answer comes, it'll likely be devastating for Coulson himself.

On top of all that, it's fun to see that, yes, this is very much a Mutant Enemy show, even though it's a flagship product for a multibillion dollar entertainment conglomerate.  Guest star J. August Richards was a central cast member on Angel.  Ron Glass from Firefly puts in an appearance.  And it's fun to see Whedon's usual subversion of expectations: Coulson brings out the threatening-looking truth serum, and surprise! injects Agent Ward with it.[3]  Even the new actors are often playing familiar types: Agent Ward shares a lot in common -- in general appearance, and in nonplussed "straight man" energy -- with Angel, and Skye is basically Faith from Buffy as a (*sigh*) blogger.

The episode's plotline is simple and functional.  In this case, the Thingy of the Week is Mike Peterson, a factory worker who gains superpowers, but the powers are unstable, and... meh.  Plot moves happen.  It's hard to really care about Mike, because we've just met him.  The whole story is hilariously light on detail: he works at some undescribed factory, he was fired because of some undescribed injury, he was given superpowers with a random collection of technobabble, it has nebulous and highly plot-convenient effects on his personality, and the finally superpowers will make him explode because of reasons.


But the story serves its purpose.  It gives the two science geeks things to science about.  It gives the combat guy a guy to combat with.  It gives the (*sigh*) "blogger" some computer things to computer at.  And, at the end, it gives Agent Coulson a nasty hostage situation to defuse, and tasks him with talking Mike down from literally exploding.  This last scene includes a Big Speech that serves as a nice statement of purpose for the series, and makes me think the show might really be about something.

So I'll be back to watch future episodes.  I feel certain that Coulson will continue to be a riveting character[4], and I have faith that the rest of his world will eventually start catching up.

This coming week, I'll probably finish off season one of Spartacus.  After that, I might have a go at watching Rubicon, a one-season spy thriller about intelligence analysts whose trailer feels a lot like The Conversation, in the best way possible.  Meanwhile, I'll keep listening to my audiobook of A Clash of Kings (this is my second attempt at the book).

[1] It's also a neat little inversion of Buffy, come to think of it.
[2] No I will not portmanteau those two words together.
[3] Sure, it's not really a surprise, because Whedon's moves are fairly familiar by now, but it's still fun.
[4] If Gregg's wife
Jennifer Grey comes in to play the "cellist from Portland" that Coulson is seeing, there will not be enough w's in the world to spell out the "d'awwww" of my response.

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