Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

We'll be back tomorrow with a regular post (and a picture of my absolutely epic Talia Al-Ghul costume), but for now, have some gifs and eat some damn candy! It's nerd Christmas!


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Value of a Good Scare (Mockingbird Lane)

Back in the sixties, when television first started out, there was a question hanging over everyone’s heads: what should we make? What kind of programs will people want to watch? Because there had never been a television or thing like a television before, no one was really sure what to do with it. As a result, the fifties and sixties represented some of the most creative experimenting with the format that we’ve ever seen, and the things that they deemed worthwhile in those early days are the same things that we watch week in and week out now.

Things like monsters.

Technically speaking, The Munsters wasn’t really an original show. It was a knockoff of The Addams Family, and a blatant one at that. Being produced by a network affiliated with Universal, however, had its advantages, and The Munsters was able to take what they wanted from the Universal monster catalogue. So they had a Frankenstein (yes I know blah blah Frankenstein was the inventor no one cares), a Wolfman, and a couple Draculas.

What really separated it from Addams Family, though, was that it had real heart. While The Addams Family relied primarily on ghoulish humor and a mildly depraved sense of what passed for normal behavior, The Munsters was more about the way that these monsters interacted with each other and with their neighbors. It was a little sweeter, and a lot more focused on the psychology of being a monster, and not just the scare tactics.

So it makes sense that while The Addams Family did a run of basic-cable/quick release movies in the late 90s, it’s The Munsters that has now been snagged for a remake.

Well, sort of. Maybe. If NBC gets its act together.

Mockingbird Lane is an updated version of The Munsters that aired its pilot episode on Friday night. Since NBC has no money, a situation we’ve discussed at length previously, it’s highly likely that this will be the only episode we ever get to see, which is a real shame.

Starring Eddie Izzard as Grandpa, Portia de Rossi as Lily, Charity Wakefield as Marilyn, and Jerry O’Connell as Herman (and some random kid as Eddie), this is a fully updated Munster family. Part of the humor actually comes from the way that the Munsters, monstrous though they may be, are actually just a normal squabbling family trying to deal with their issues.

Herman and Grandpa butt heads over whether or not to tell Eddie that he’s a werewolf. Marilyn looks for her place in a family of monsters, when she’s the odd one out for having been born normal (and apparently having her mother try to eat her as a baby). Lily worries that she’s not a very good mother. Herman’s heart is giving out, again. Grandpa wants to eat the neighbors.

It’s all dealt with very deftly, balancing the humor at this wacky clan alongside the pathos of trying to figure out who you are in a modern world that doesn’t seem to admit you exist. The pilot episode focuses that angst on a barely pubescent Eddie, whose last camping trip with the scouts was interrupted by a “baby bear attack”. Unbeknownst to Eddie, that was actually his first werewolf manifestation.

Eddie desperately wants to be normal, like Marilyn, while Marilyn is busy justifying her very existence to Grandpa, who sees her as a sort of cosmic joke and infinite disappointment. It’s a meditation on what it means, exactly, to be a person, even if not precisely human, a fact made all the clearer as Herman (the Frankenstein monster) struggles with a failing heart, worn out because he loves too much.

Okay, you might think, all of this is nice and all, but it’s only one episode. Who cares whether this comes back or not?

Well, first of all, you should care because this show is great. I mean, really truly great. It has heart, wit, great writing and good performances. We should really reward that behavior, don’t you think? Besides, it’s a perfect Friday night show, and NBC really doesn’t have anything else they’re going to do with that time. I mean, I know it’s a show that will cost a lot of money, but it has potential to do for them what Once Upon a Time did for ABC.

More than that, though, Mockingbird Lane is important because monsters are important. Monsters are the demons that we created because we needed something to fear. Being afraid isn’t just an irritating side-affect of darkened movie theaters and abandoned parking garages, it’s a fundamental aspect of our humanity.

When we’re scared, we learn a lot more about ourselves. How we deal with stress is a part of it, but it’s more about what’s important to us. We learn whom we really care about and what we’d do to keep those people we love safe. Sometimes we’re happy with what we find out. Othertimes less so.

There’s a side aspect too, though. Monsters help us define ourselves in relief to them. They are monstrous and we are not. But sometimes it’s good to get the monster’s point of view. Whether it’s a silly little show like this, or a heavy retelling of a classic tale, like Grendel, finding out what the monster thinks is just as important as the story itself.

When we define ourselves in opposition to monsters, we create two categories, us and them. This is useful when there’s an axe murderer living across the street. We are nice and that is not. But it’s less useful when we deem monstrous someone who isn’t at all.

The Munsters remind us that even monsters are people too, something we could do with remembering in a time when xenophobia is rising rapidly and the American public is being told at every turn that the world isn’t safe for us. Fear has its place, but so too does respect and tolerance. And Mockingbird Lane reminds us to enjoy those in equal doses. 

I'd tell you when it's airing, but it's not. Sad day. You can find the pilot on Hulu and on NBC online.

Monday, October 29, 2012

On Letting Go of Community (With Help from Don't Trust the B)

I’ve found that it’s usually a terrible life choice to use sitcoms as a guide for your moral behavior. Sitcoms, after all, are full of lying, cheating, using your friends as pawns in a weird game only you understand, miscommunications, and, as I have hammered into all of your heads by now, really bad gender stereotypes.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that today I’m going to use a sitcom (Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) to explain why it’s okay that another sitcom (Community) probably isn’t ever coming back. I am a wizard.

Don’t Trust the B is about a bitch. Specifically, a bitch named Chloe and her reasonably moral and therefore generally disgusted roommate, June. Chloe and June are a simmering font of different life choices and conflicting worldviews, but they work and they’re funny. What more can you ask of a show?

Chloe’s best friend is James van der Beek, Dawson himself. More than being just a prancing monkey brought in for cameos and obvious laughs, van der Beek is actually a major character on the show. He’s characterized as deluded, megalomaniacal, and obsessed with his past career.

The season two premier focused on all of this. James, you see, has been refusing for years to do a reunion special for Dawson’s Creek, thinking he was squashing the other cast members’ dreams. Really, though, he was just being morally bolstered by a manipulative Chloe. When James finds out that Chloe’s been lying, he decides that he needs to do that reunion show, and do it hard. Just one problem: no one else wants to.

While June discovers that her high school friends are more successful than she is, Chloe is the only one to keep a level head (which is unnerving). As she says, you should never look back at your past. You walk away and let it explode behind you.

The Beek obviously falls into a funk, which is only matched by June’s autumnal sweater and life crisis coma. It takes Chloe bringing in a grown up Zach Morris to explain that you really have to move on for the message to hit home.

Which brings us to a Viking funeral in Central Park for James’ Dawson’s Creek memorabilia, and June’s sweaters, and an epic shot of the cast walking away from their pasts. (As it explodes behind him.)

Bravo, show. Bravo. Just, generally speaking.

But I promised to make this relevant, so here’s the deal. This whole episode works perfectly as a metaphor for the end of Community. Now, I know we were all disappointed when we found out that Dan Harmon was fired. And I know that there was a minor freakout upon learning that the show was being moved to the Friday deathslot. Oh, and now it’s not premiering at all? Hmm. But the fans haven’t given up hope. #sixseasonsandamovie

Except, I kind of don’t want that anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Community and I am definitely drinking the Kool-Aid, but it wouldn’t be so bad if we left things here. Leave the past in the past.

Community had a spectacular three seasons. They did three seasons that are better in each individual episode than a lot of shows are in their whole runs. They redefined what a sitcom could be and say. Why wouldn’t I want more of that?

Sometimes it’s better to just let things go. If Community ends now, and there is no fourth season, or if the fourth season (which has already filmed a bit, I hear) just goes quietly into the night on DVD, then it goes out on a high point. The season finale last year was kind of perfect.

Think about it. We got so used to the idea of needing some big story metaphor to end every season that a lot of people were disappointed, but realistically, all the characters stories have ended now. Jeff isn’t an asshole completely obsessed with his career and willing to use people anymore. Now he wants to help his friends because helping other people is the actual right thing to do.

Shirley can stand up for herself, instead of being a doormat. She’s newly married, has another baby, and just started a business. Pierce is finally past a lot of his daddy issues, race issues, and general problems with the world. He’s helping Shirley start her sandwich shop. 

Troy got past his anxiety about his future, and is studying air conditioner repair. It’s not a flashy job, and it may never get him acclaim, but he’s good at it and he can be proud of himself. He’s still the first person in his family to go to college. Abed is, well, Abed, but he’s made a lot of progress in how he relates to people. And there’s the barest of hints that he might be starting something with Annie.

Annie has let go of her desperate need to be loved, and is starting to accept people (including herself) just where they are. Britta isn’t chasing after an activism she thinks she needs anymore, and she is learning to like herself enough to be with a person who’s actually nice to her, like Troy.

They all passed biology.

So, no, none of this is earth shattering, and we didn’t get a third paintball episode, except in flashback. But it was precisely what we needed for the show to feel complete.

I’ll be totally honest, I don’t want Community to come back. It’s perfect right now. Yes, it probably would have been good if it had kept going, but it’s okay to let things go sometimes. Sometimes you have to move on.

And before all the Community fans grab their sonic spanners and come after me, let’s just remember that I am admitting that the show is amazing. Can we remember that before you chase me with pitchforks?

All I’m saying is that there’s going to come a time, maybe not now, but soon, when we’ll have to let Community go. As long as we remember to take Chloe’s advice and walk away from the past, instead of clinging as hard as we can, we’ll be fine.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

City of Links (Weird Science, Mockingbird Lane, and More!)

This is from my awesome friend Duc's blog, - follow it!
Oh gosh. It turns out that starting over in another country (again) isn’t super easy, and is just a skosh time consuming. So, I apologize for the zaniness with the posting schedule. It’s hopefully under control now.

And for all those who stuck with us, yay, have a double links post!

1. In ah-my-ancestral-home news, apparently Danvers, Massachusetts is the creepiest town in the country. Given that it’s situated right next door to Salem, I find it impressive that Danvers somehow edged out the heavyweight contender. Read about Danvers’ creeptastic past here.

2. In science news, NASA has found a new planet that has four suns. FOUR. That’s more than the planet in Pitch Black! The science is a little squiffy to explain, but suffice to say that it is super cool and I am continually amazed by the things we’re learning about our universe. Full story here.

3. In handy news, someone finally broke down and made a Game of Thrones infographic that explains who the hell everyone is and what relation they have to each other. Definitely needed.

4. In progress-what-progress news, the WSJ Blog has an article examining the ways that our media culture still punishes plus-sized female comics by centering the humor of their characters in their weight. And that is not cool. Stop being mean to Rebel Wilson.

5. In total-downer news, I think (or I will prefer to think) that we can all agree that jailbait porn and cyber-bullying are bad things. Unfortunately, until we, and more specifically until the guys we know, send that message loud and clear, this behavior is apt to continue. It thrives on the homosocial bond and coded acceptance from other men. This needs to stop.

6. In stop-NBC news, Mockingbird Lane, NBC’s Munster’s remake aired last night. It’s probably not going to series because NBC has no money, which is very sad. But still, read about it here, and hope against hope it gets picked up. It has Eddie Izzard and Portia de Rossi in the same show.

7. In good-advice news, Social Justice League has some advice on how to like problematic things. You know, media that is clearly offensive or badly done in some way but that you love all the same. The key is to recognize that it is problematic, and not try to defend it. It may offend someone. Your job isn’t to tell them they’re wrong for being offended. Enjoy what you enjoy, but respect those who don’t. Read it here.

8. In interesting-what’s-your-proof news, The Telegraph thinks girl power is dead. Hmm. More specifically, they think that the brand of feminism espoused by the Spice Girls is gone, leaving a more nuanced version to be endorsed by Lady Gaga and her ilk. I don’t know I agree, but check it out here.

9. In someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet news, one of the bloggers over at The Daily Beast apparently hates Lauren Conrad. Now, I am no particular lover of Lauren. I mostly don’t care. But I hate the idea that this woman is tearing down another woman for the perceived slight of not enjoying partying anymore and wearing cardigans. I wear cardigans. So, check it out here, make your opinion, and speak up in the comments.

10. In strong-language-warning news, my friend Ana Cosma wrote a fantastic article explaining her love of the C-word, and how she wants it to come back as a good word. Definitely food for thought.

11. In teehee news, here’s a list of the 10 skimpiest sci-fi costumes from io9. Fortunately, quite a few of them are dudes. Yay for gender equality!

12. And, finally, in science-you-are-magic news, this video shows what happens when you transpose a song that is traditionally in a minor key into a major key. It’s based on the idea that our brains are coded to hear minor keys and feel sad, but hear major keys and get happy. I dunno. Science. Mostly, just enjoy the pretty!

So that’s all for this week! This afternoon at 3pm PST we’re going to be doing Crossover Appeal, and you can catch us on Google+, Facebook, or Youtube.

Have an awesome Saturday, we’ll be back on Monday!

Friday, October 26, 2012

There's Nothing Wrong With Being a Girl (The Abhorsen Trilogy)

With Pilot Season finally over, I think it’s time we dove back into that other form of media that we’ve been casually ignoring for while. Books. Remember books?

Specifically fantasy and sci-fi books. Now, some of this is my own personal preference. I make no excuses about the fact that I like my stories full of dragons and spaceships, and I like to think you’ve probably gathered that by now. But there’s another reason we’re going to focus on some speculative fiction for while here, and that’s simply that this is the area that traditionally has the most problems portraying women.

It doesn’t seem fair, right? I mean science fiction and fantasy are actually both poised to give us some of the most amazing female characters, because they aren’t bound by the strictures of our actual culture. That’s how we ended up with Xena, Buffy, and Ripley. Or Elena (the Bitten series), Alana (Lioness Quartet), and Nimisha (Nimisha’s Ship).

Without the strong ties of our own societal heritage holding us back, there’s no reason why books and comics (and really speculative fiction of all kinds) can’t give us a more compelling view of female behavior, and one that just so happens to involve lasers and spells.

Which is why it sucks that this is almost never the case.

For some reason, most science fiction and fantasy heroines are more in the damsel vein than anything else. Oh they may pick up a sword and swing it around for a while, but like Bella Swan (and really, has anyone ever been more of a doormat?) they’re just sitting around waiting for their boyfriends to save them. Blech.

And it’s not like being a strong female character is going to stop you from getting the guy or being all pretty. This is fantasy. At the very least, we should get to finally have it all.

That’s where the Abhorsen Trilogy comes in. Actually, as of 2013, it’s going to be a quartet, and I am super pumped for that day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Abhorsen Trilogy, written by Garth Nix, is a series of fantasy books that follow the exploits of the Abhorsens, magical anti-necromancers who fight against the evil encroaching on their home country.

Like Slayers, there’s really only one Abhorsen at the same time, or at least one active one. Our story starts by following Sabriel, who is the current Abhorsen’s daughter. When her father is taken by evil forces, she must travel across the country to take up his mantle and save the kingdom. It’s all very magical and cool. Sabriel is fighting against the evil dead by putting them back to rest. She uses bells. It’s a really cool magical system.

What concerns me more than the sheer awesomeness of the books, though, (but don’t forget that they are super awesome) is that Sabriel as a character is well-rounded and compelling. She doesn’t have all the answers, but she is interested in finding them out. She’s willing to fight for her father. She’s afraid. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s going to do it anyway.

She falls in love.

Sabriel’s love interest isn’t interested in keeping her safe, because he knows that she is actually much more likely to keep him safe. And it’s true. Her journey includes saving him, the last of the royal line, in order to defeat the evil Kerrigor and bring the kingdom back to life. Her strength as a character isn’t incidental to the story, it is the story.

And that’s important. Sabriel’s personal strength doesn’t just affect her love story, it’s what carries her through the book. It’s this strength that makes her interesting, and that makes her a character we want to root for. It’s what made me want to read the book in the first place.

It’s so easy when writing a female sorcerer character, one who works primarily with words and spells, to make her physically weak, or frightened, or otherwise “girly”. Now, I have no real problem with girly things, but I resent the idea that fear and inaction are inherently feminine, and that magic is a coward’s way out.

Many kudos to Nix for writing a form of magic that is a battle and yet somehow beautiful, brings up a lot of philosophical questions, and never lets you think that the caster is anything but spectacularly brave. Fighting against evil shouldn’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean the people doing it shouldn’t be awesome.

And there’s nothing to say that you have to be a wimp in order to get the guy. Nothing at all.

Also, there is nothing wrong with owning a cat. For the record.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pilot Season: Nashville (Let's All Hold Hands And Sing Kumbaya)

Just so you know, as I type this, I am hunched over like Quasimodo with a kitten lying on my neck. It’s very uncomfortable and unforgivably cute. And, for the record, the kitten’s name is Mjolnir, because you just can’t lift her once she lies down.

Anyway, onwards to our business for today. Nashville is the last pilot we’re going to be covering (yes!), and while we’ll mop up with a few more returning shows, pilot season has officially crept to an end. Finally.

Sadly, this was not the best way to end it. While I really enjoyed the Grey’s Anatomy-lite medical shenanigans of Emily Owens, MD, Nashville is kinda leaving me cold. There are a few reasons why.

First, though, let’s talk plot. The show follows Rayna James (Connie Britton, a surprisingly good singer), a faded country music legend, as she gets ready to go back on tour. Tickets for her tour aren’t selling as well as the label would like, and Rayna’s just not ready to give up on her career yet, so she’s been asked to open for Juliet Barnes (Hayden Pannettiere). Juliet is the label’s new big star, and while Rayna can’t stand her music, the kids love it. She’s the next big thing.

So, Rayna and Juliet are off, clashing personalities and egos. We’re clearly supposed to root for Raina in this, as she’s most definitely the more relatable character for ABC’s demographic (hard working momma and talented worker being pushed out by the young upstart). Juliet has a surprising amount of depth for a character who is basically just “the bitch”, and the overall plotlines have some complexity.

Rayna is conflicted about continuing her tour and missing the holidays with her daughters. She’s emotionally invested in her guitarist, and pretty much having an emotional affair with him. Juliet is trying to seduce that same guitarist away from Raina and into her own band, while she sleeps with their mutual manager. It’s all very soap operatic.

Oh, and Rayna’s father is manipulating her husband into running for mayor of Nashville, and Juliet’s mother is a drug addict constantly calling for money. There. I think that’s everything.

Like I said above, it’s a very well plotted show. Everything is done with just enough subtlety and care that the storylines really work. Rayna is likable and strong, but Juliet isn’t a total villain even when she’s pushing out her boobs and sneering for all she’s worth. I just didn’t like it.

Eventually, with shows like this, it comes down to a matter of taste. No one can like everything, not even me. I can understand and easily see that Nashville is a good show. It passes the Bechdel Test. It has strong characters. It portrays women in a holistic and compelling light. I just don’t enjoy watching it.

In our culture we like to think that media is objective. That some things are just plain better than others. That Mad Men is better than Teen Wolf, Sherlock is better than Elementary, and Breaking Bad and The Wire are better than everything else. To some extent, that’s true. There is such a thing as an objectively good show. There is definitely such a thing as an objectively bad show. Trust me.

But in between, you have shows that people just like or don’t like. The objective value of something rarely has any impact on the subjective opinion of it. I love Teen Wolf and can barely sit through an episode of Mad Men without wanting to pry my eyes out. I know that Mad Men is better written, acted, and directed, but I just like Teen Wolf more. My subjective tastes lean more towards the shirtless guys running around the woods playing werewolf. And that’s okay.

During Pilot Season, I think a lot of people (myself included) tend to forget about how subjective this all really is. I might think that Arrow was a little cliché, but Beauty and the Beast was phenomenal, but I have friends who very much feel the opposite. That’s fine. Actually, it’s more than fine. It’s great.

Diversity of taste and opinion is what’s given us our current diversity of media. There are hundreds of channels offering thousands of shows that will be watched by millions of people. Of course we can’t all agree!

So, no, I didn’t like Nashville. But that doesn’t mean you won’t. And I hope that, if what I’ve described sounds good to you, you won’t let my bad opinion steer you away.

Nashville airs on Wednesdays at 10pm on ABC.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pilot Season: Emily Owens MD (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Okay, remember all that stuff I said about how Made In Jersey was the anti-Mindy Project? I totally take it back. Emily Owens, MD is the anti-Mindy Project. In a good way, obviously.

To remind all of you following at home, The Mindy Project follows Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful OBGYN in New York City who just can’t seem to get her life together. She’s a complete mess, but, hey, at least she’s funny! It’s a very well written sitcom that bases all of its humor off of Mindy’s self-loathing and terrible life choices. Needless to say, I was less than impressed.

Emily Owens, MD is pretty similarly structured. It follows Dr. Emily Owens, a resident at some hospital somewhere as she comes to the realization that hospitals are just like high school but for grownups. Emily is painfully awkward and shy, terrible at expressing her feelings, and a little judgmental and juvenile.

I adore her.

The major difference between these two shows, which really do have very similar premises, is that Emily and Mindy view their lives in completely different ways. Emily (played to perfection by relative newcomer Mamie Gummer) really cares about what she’s doing. She doesn’t do it for the money or the excitement, she’s just genuinely interested in caring for people to the best of her ability.

And her awkwardness and insecurity is completely unrelated to her job. She knows she’s a great doctor, she just can be a little down on herself. But at the end of the day (literally, the pilot episode takes place over the course of a day), we know that Emily really likes who she is and what she’s doing. Everything else is out of her control.

Emily is earnest. Painfully so, in fact. She just cares so darn much that it’s a little hard to watch. You see her completely empathizing with a little girl who’s going to have to go in for a major surgery. She gets overly emotionally involved in the life of an elderly patient. Yes, she’s a little over-emotional. But it’s never raised as a truly bad thing that Emily cares. It’s part of what makes her a good doctor.

More than that, though, Emily doesn’t actually hate herself for being awkward and occasionally really weird. She’s insecure, but she’s coming to accept that it’s not the worst thing in the world to be insecure about yourself. And, it isn’t.

The difference between these two shows really comes down to acceptance. Mindy believes that her life is incomplete because she doesn’t have some fairy tale romantic comedy going on, while Emily figures she still has some growing up to do before she’s comfortable in her own skin. Their goals are completely different, and I’ll be totally honest about how much more interested I am in Emily’s journey.

It’s not that the show’s amazing. It’s good, but it’s pretty obviously a Grey’s Anatomy cash in. What really works here is Emily herself. You like her, you feel for her. When Emily accidentally makes a nurse think she’s a lesbian, you cringe for her.

Emily’s a good person. The show never makes you feel like she should apologize for this or hate herself. And in my book, that’s a winner every time.

I will leave you with a quote from the end of the pilot episode, because I can.

The thing about being an adult that no one tells you growing up is that you don't feel like an adult...I’m done feeling stupid and insecure about feeling stupid and insecure.”

Emily Owens MD airs on Tuesdays at 9pm on the CW.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Returning Shows: Parks and Rec (NBC Isn't Really Evil)

Parks and Rec is one of those shows that just about everyone agrees on. I mean, I don’t really know anyone who (if they’ve seen it) actually dislikes the show. That’s impressive. I can’t say that about many other shows or movies, not even the ones that are, to me, so obviously awesome (Community, Doctor Who, The IT Crowd).

But all of this unadulterated adulation makes it a little hard to actually assess the show from an objective standpoint. Yes, it’s a fantastic show. Yes, I enjoy watching it a lot and am very happy that it appears in my magic picture box. But, no, I’m not really sure that NBC is making the right ratings decision to keep it on the air.

Please hear me out before you start leaving death threats in the comments. And, remember, a properly punctuated death threat is a happy death threat.

Okay, we’ve all known for a while that NBC is a poopiehead when it comes to shows that are critically loved and, you know, good. They have a very tight rein on what airs on their network, and lately it’s seemed like the noose is only getting tighter. 30 Rock is going into its last season. Community has been postponed indefinitely and had its showrunner fired. Whitney is terrible but tragically still on television.

And Parks and Rec has also had to bear some of that brunt. Why, NBC? Why are you being so mean to all these shows that get you Emmy nominations and critical acclaim? Why are you trying to rush them off the stage when they are some of the most brilliant sitcoms television has ever seen probably?

It’s really very simple: money.

I don’t mean that in a cynical, “Oh, well, it’s all about money, isn’t it?” kind of way, and I don’t mean to imply that the people at NBC are all money grubbing jerks. I mean, practically speaking, it’s all about money.

NBC needs money from advertisers in order to keep having a network. In the past few years, they’ve really gone down the tubes on this, and the network is visibly struggling. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t shows actually need money to run? Parks and Rec is an amazing labor of love done by the fabulously talented cast and crew, but they’re not doing it for free.

The Thursday night comedies that we love suffer from a lack of ratings. And while some networks discount ratings in favor of a loyal and slavish fanbase (see the CW), NBC can’t afford to do that. They need money. Actually, literally need it in order to stay in business. And Parks and Rec, sadly, doesn’t make them any money.

“But what about artistry?!” I hear you cry. “Why can’t we just make good shows and not worry about the money? Why does it always have to be a battle between art and commerce?”

Nice points, straw men, but you know as well as I do that the world doesn’t really work that way. Shows need to make money in order to stay on the air. And Parks and Rec, tragically, doesn’t make money.

Amy Poehler is a crazy talented woman. I think that Leslie Knope is one of the best television characters we’ve been blessed with in a long time, and I can’t express how happy it makes me to see an effortlessly feminist, sexually empowered, exasperatingly nice and relentlessly ambitious female character on my screen every week. True story.

I think Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones, and Retta are amazing actresses who inhabit fully realized and absolutely hilarious characters. I think the show is one of the finest sitcoms on TV and when it gets cancelled I will weep into my waffles.

But it’s going to get cancelled. Have no illusions about that. NBC has already been very generous to its Thursday night block, and we can’t blame them for wanting to make a little more money off of some choice TV real estate. It’s not a crime for a network to worry about how it’s going to keep the lights on next year. They’re not dicks, they’re just being prudent.

So, yes, I will cry with the rest of you when Parks and Rec gets the boot. I’ve already shed my tears about the upcoming Community news, and I’m gonna be a sobfest during the last episodes of 30 Rock. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong. It just means that I’m really going to miss these shows, and I’m super psyched to see what these crazy talented people do next.

It will be epic. 

Parks and Recreation airs on Thursdays at 9:30pm on NBC.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Based on a True Story (Argo and the Importance of History)

Last night, I saw Argo. It was great. Really, honestly, tensely great. Ben Affleck has once again proved that he is a far more interesting director than he is an actor (though, he is a good actor when he’s directing himself it seems). Bryan Cranston, Clea Duvall, Victor Garber, John Goodman and Alan Arkin were all spectacular, and the newcomers whose names I didn’t (and still don’t) know were pretty great too.

In case you haven’t been able to piece it together from the trailers (and in that case, I totally don’t blame you), Argo is based on a true story about the Iran Hostage Crisis. In my mental picture of historical films, this is the film that hits right between The President’s Men and Charlie Wilson’s War. Also, happens at the same time as Miracle. Had to get that in there.

In 1979, the people of Iran revolted and ousted their Shah, who’d been put in place by the United States some thirty or so years before. The US liked him because he gave us oil rights. The people hated him because he trampled all over their civil liberties, taxed them into starvation, and had a secret police that tortured and killed thousands of dissenters. [You can learn more about this with the graphic novel Persepolis.]

They installed Ayatollah Khomeini as the ruler, and set about changing the country. The Shah fled to America. Naturally, this upset the Iranians, who were none too pleased at being denied the chance for justice (though, at this point, justice far more likely meant death). 

In rage at the United States for its actions in support of the Shah, a group of radical students and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 hostages and holding them for 444 days. Eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian died.

That’s the Iran Hostage Crisis. It was a chilling chapter of history that only solidified the darkness that seemed to be creeping over the world, caused President Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election, and has shaped US relations with Iran, and our entire foreign policy, for the past thirty years.

This is a movie that takes place during that time. So, no, it’s not a very happy movie.

The film follows six of the embassy workers who actually escaped and were forced to hide in the Canadian Ambassador’s house for 79 days. It takes you into their claustrophobic, strained life, and then shows you how they got out. Which is the ridiculous part.

I won’t spoil the whole thing, but if you’ve seen the trailers, then you know what I’m talking about. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a real guy, whose specialty was to get people out of hostile countries. And in this case, the best way to get those people out of Tehran was to pretend that they were Canadian’s making a sci-fi movie and scouting locations. Which is ridiculous.

But it really did happen. And that’s where the story gets, well, interesting. The Canadian Caper, as it’s best known, didn’t become declassified until 1997. So, for twenty-five years, we only knew part of the story. It was a cool part, admittedly, but only part. And the story we knew gave most of the credit (all of it, actually) to the Canadians.

Is that really such a bad thing?

There’s an issue that we run into in movies that are “based on a true story”, especially ones that are focused on a particularly sore historical spot like the Iran Hostage Crisis. We want to watch the movie and uncomplicatedly root for our guys, right? We want to see the film and think, these are the bad guys, these are the good guys, I can tell who is supposed to win.

Life is nothing like that. Yes, the Iran Hostage Crisis was horrible, cruel, and devastating to the American consciousness, to say nothing of what it did to the hostages. But when we simplify the story down to “us good them bad”, we lose the real story. We lose the complexity to say that while the militants were inarguably wrong in their actions, they were also justifiably angry. They had been tortured and starved for almost thirty years by a man that we put in office. They had a right to be pissed.

Does that ever excuse something like what happened? No, of course not. But it can explain it.

And while I, just like everyone else, enjoys a nice solid cheer for the good guys (see here my love of the film Miracle), I think that Argo might have put too fine a point on it. I think that in telling the “true” story, we actually lost something.

That something was Canada.

Stay with me here.

For twenty-five years, we were under the impression that those six Americans were saved because of the efforts of Canadian diplomacy and bravery. The film, though it doesn’t contradict that, puts far more credit on CIA and their operations. I’m not saying it’s wrong, precisely, just that it’s not the full picture. For starters, Tony Mendez actually worked incredibly intensively with Ottowa to put the plan in place. It wasn’t a CIA op that happened to involve Canadian cover identities, it was an in depth collaboration that lasted months.

The real Ken and Pat Taylor.
Furthermore, Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber’s character) was arguably the most influential man in the entire story. While Mendez labored in North America to put the story together, Taylor had to conceal six people moving in and out of Canadian safehouses in Tehran, all while maintaining diplomatic relations with a government that wasn’t too discerning about the difference between Canada and the US.

The man was amazing. Let’s remember that Taylor had no actual duty to those people. He could have turned them away like most of the other embassies had, and no one would have looked down on him. They weren’t his, and he was in a precarious position to begin with. But he didn’t do that. He took them in and kept them safe for 79 days.

Not only that, but he also managed to subtly get his staff out of the country safely, close the embassy, and flee the country before diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran soured. It’s a lot.

Now, again, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with following Mendez’ journey on film, or that what he and the six hostages did wasn’t spectacular and insane. Because it totally was. What I’m saying is simply that, in focusing on the fantastical elements of the story (Fake movie! Hollywood! Cover identities!), we can lose sight of the other heroes. The ones who did it all quietly and in constant danger, but didn’t ask for recognition.

The Canadians.

Look, history is not an exact science. Everyone has a different point of view. This was an American movie, so of course it told an American story. That happens. But we have a duty in film, television, and any cultural medium, to tell not just the flashiest, most exciting story, but to tell the most important ones as well. And those aren’t always the same thing.

So, here’s to you, Canada. You jumped on a grenade to save us, ruining your diplomatic relations with a volatile country in order to keep just a few of us safe.

If you could see me now, I’m clapping in your general direction.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Pilot Season: Once Upon a Time (Curse Broken, Now What?)

Meh, I’m still behind. I stink.

Okay, last year we talked about Once Upon a Time a few times, and I know I mentioned how much I love that it’s a show focused on its female characters. Sure, there is a central romance (Snow White and Prince Charming), but the real relationships we as the audience care about are between the women. Which is awesome.

Well, hold onto your hats, because this season is just as lady-full as the last! But more, while last season was looking at the way women relate to each other as mothers and rivals for romantic affection, this season has largely doubled down on the first part and eliminated the second. This season is about family. And that’s pretty freaking cool.

Let’s backtrack. Last season ended when Emma finally broke the curse and all the fairytale characters remembered who they were. Yay, happy endings restored! Tragically, though, Rumplestiltskin was there just as soon as it ended to pop a bit of magic into the works. We didn’t know what happened, and now…we still kind of don’t know.

The season opens with some other people off in fairytale land, but we’ll get to that in a second.  We saw Snow and Charming embrace. We saw Belle and Rumple having a tender, if a little weird, moment. We saw Red and Grannie hugging everyone, there were dwarves, etc. But probably the most (intentionally) touching moment was when Snow and Charming turn to Emma and just start hugging the life out of her.

And this is when it got good for me. I mean, all that other stuff was fine, but this was the nifty part. Emma was not thrilled. Emma was not really that excited to find out her parents were about her age and a fairytale prince and princess. Emma, bastion of normalcy that she is, was pretty freaking nonplussed.

I’ve talked a lot this season about how I get irritated with inaccurate portrayals of women, and especially about inaccurate reactions to things. This – this is perfect.

I get Emma. I feel her. Her point of view here is totally valid. While I understand that to a viewer’s eyes, it might be easier if Emma would just fall on her knees and embrace her parents, I absolutely love that she didn’t.

Emma is our view in to the show. She’s the normal one. Henry, though technically more a part of the world than Emma is, is a bit too wide-eyed and embracing of the whole fairytale schtick to work for the audience surrogate. Also, he’s kind of super annoying.

Emma, though, Emma is the person we get. She’s our character, and her difficulty in accepting that the parent’s she’s longed to meet are actually Snow White and Prince Charming, and also some random people she knows as peers and occasionally felons…it’s pretty understandable.

Now, the first episode of the new season isn’t just all about Emma. Tragically. Regina (the evil queen) is also there, reeling from the loss of her upper hand, and frightened that she’s forever lost the love of her adopted son. I have to say, I like the new and improved scared Regina. I mean, I still hate Henry, but I like Regina’s constant striving for love. It’s sad and a bit touching.

The new characters introduced are reasonably compelling too, though Aurora needs a few lessons in not being a whiny saddlebag (and totally looks like a low-rent Natalie Dormer). Mulan is a fantastic addition and a nice sign that we might finally get a more diverse cast this year, instead of constantly feeling like we’re watching the contents of a sour cream carton.

Overall, I’m pumped and excited for another season of wacky adventures. I think Emma and Snow fighting through the other lands will be awesome, and I’m happy that my two least favorite characters have at least been quarantined away from everyone else (Charming and Henry – bleh).

But more, I’m happy that this season looks to be shaping up with some realistic female characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances and somehow managing to be human and freaked out by the situation. It’s comforting.

Once Upon a Time airs on Sundays at 8pm on ABC.