Monday, November 8, 2010

Harlan Ellison's Watching

It's funny - this is probably the only book I've ever read where the author manages to work his name into the title.

I've been a fan of Harlan Ellison since way back in my college days when, on a quiet summer evening, my dad handed me a copy of a Harlan Ellison book and said I would probably like it, since I like Stephen King.

Having read pretty much everything King's written, and perhaps a little over 1/3 of Harlan, I'm not sure the two compare. King considers Ellison an influence (and talks about Ellison's greatness in the now long-in-the-tooth "Danse Macabre") and Ellison, at least by the time "Watching" hit the stands, considers King a friend.

But beyond the fact that Ellison sometimes dabbles in scary stories, I can't say the two compare. I mean, they both use words to make head-pictures, but beyond that...

At any rate, "Watching" is now about two decades old. The copyright for the book says it came out in '89, and earliest columns contained therein (it is, more-or-less, a book of film criticism) date all the way back to the 1960s.

And what does that mean?

Well, it means that some of the book might as well be in Chinese, for all it will ever mean to me.

Video, of course, has preserved just about everthing that came out since about 1980 or so, but even talking to a friend who was around at the time the movies came out? He had no clue, either. Even "Joe," which Harlan praised to the skies, and which came out in 1970, well... it meant nothing to him.

And then there are the movies I have heard of. Stuff he hated, a lot, include "Back to the Future" and "Star Wars."

Then he turned around and gave a really loveable hug to "Dune," which, by all accounts, is not a very good movie and makes little to no sense unless you've read the book. And then, on top of that, he talks about all the lost footage, which he thought would fix whatever flaws the film had.

I'd love to have him take a look at the extended version, now on DVD.

And to me, that's what made this book intersting: It's the lense of age, now long cracked. I'd love to see an updated version with his lost coluns, and a re-comment on all the movies contained therein.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dollhouse Season 2 and the State of TV

I am just plain fascinated by the TV landscape these days.

Well, let me revise that: Mostly I’m fascinated by TV viewers these days, and how much the landscape of TV has changed as the big four channels do anything an everything to hold onto the fractional number of viewers they still have.

To wit: Veronica Mars. Easily one of the best TV shows of the last ten years. Top ten probably, and at the very least top 20. But so-so ratings, so they canned it. Off the CW.

Today, as I type this, the highest-rated show on the CW doesn’t even approach the number Mars was getting at it’s lowest point.

And yet, no one will fund a Veronica Mars movie. Or a Veronica Mars TV movie. Or a web show. Or anything related to Veronica Mars, because there just isn’t that much interest.


It’s reading things like that which cause me a twinge of sadness when I think about one of my favorite shows of the last couple of years: Dollhouse.

You might ask how I decide what constitutes a favorite show, and I’ll go ahead and tell you: My willingness to put down cash for it once I’ve watched it already.

I enjoy TV, to a certain extent, but I’m reaching a point in my life where I’ve come to realize there are certain things I’m just never going to go back and watch again. This includes most of the shows I’m watching right now. How I Met Your Mother. The Big Bang Theory. The Vampire Diaries. Glee. Modern Family. I like these shows. I like them enough to give them my time even though trying to scratch out an hour a week to watch them is getting harder and harder (it’s called parenting, folks).

But I don’t feel compelled to own them. I don’t feel compelled to bring them into my home on a permanent basis, in hopes that I can check ‘em out again. I have no interest.

Dollhouse was different.

People were hard on Dollhouse from the get-go, based on the fact that it wasn’t awesome right off the bat. Frankly, that didn’t surprise me. Both Buffy and Angel, Whedon’s best-known work, were slow to perfect themselves, and Joss Whedon had complete freedom to make whatever he wanted there.

With Dollhouse, that wasn’t the case. Fox bought Dollhouse, sunk a bunch of cash into it, and then wanted… something else. And Joss was nice about it. He admitted what he felt were mistakes. He shot a new pilot. He made changes to the format.

Then he shut the whole thing down, so he could “think.”

I’d like to imagine that somewhere in there, while he was “thinking,” he was actually calling Fox and telling them that what they wanted wasn’t really a sustainable show. He was making Charlie’s Angels, but with mind-wipes. And mind-wipes are creepy. They are.

I’m guessing Fox didn’t want to own up to that, and Joss gave them a choice – they had to let him actually create a real show, or Joss was going to walk, because he couldn’t make a weekly Charlie’s Angels with mind-wipes.

And Fox said, “Whatever, we’ll make our money on DVD…”

And Joss did a bunch of interviews that went, “Hey, starting with episode 6, things are going to be good, you’ll see!”

And everyone toed the party line.

The thing of it is, Whedon was both right and wrong. (At least, this fictional Whedon I created in my own head, here.)

Dollhouse was a good show, right out of the gate. The mind-wipes were creepy, yes, but The Weekly Adventures of Echo were fun and twisty, and there was clearly a bigger story around the edges of the frame.

Then the first season ended. And ended again on DVD. And the series was over. Until it was, shockingly, renewed.

At which point, all the details of the ending had to be explained again, with more episodes, more surprises, and in general a lot more grim, grim darkness. And then the show ended. And ended again.

And this time, it stayed ended.

I’m loathe to reveal the true nature of the show – the original pitch line was that it was about people who could be rented for any kind of adventure… after which their mind would be wiped. And that’s really all you want to know before diving in.

I’d say that there’s so much more to the show, but that’s almost overselling it. The show is like a good novel – each chapter gives you a little more, until the genuinely shocking ending… which will make you want to start all over again.

At least, I do.

That’s my high praise, really: The show is worth watching again, just to pick it apart and look to see if all the clues were really there.

I know people do this with other shows, but I’m here to tell you, you’re wasting your time. People on other shows don’t look that far ahead.

But Joss does. Always has. And that makes Dollhouse worth a second look. Or at the very least, a first look.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What I'm Watching: The Big Bang Theory

Here's the thing: Theory is not tough to watch.

I need to throw that out there, because the more I watch the show, the more I'm starting to see the flaws. But even as the flaws became more and more obvious, I never once wavered from zipping through all three seasons of the show in roughly a month.

So there's that.

But now the fourth season is up and running, and in a lot of ways it's like seeing a flaw in a really great painting... once you see the problem, you can't UN-see it.

So, yeah, Theory? Good show. But still...

1. Man, is it EVER a sitcom.

The sad fact of the show is, it's a really, really, really, REALLY light show. It's probably 40% catchphrases now, along with 40% obvious character jokes, 10% kind-of-lame silliness, and 10% cleverness.

The thing of it is, I really like the 10% cleverness. And Jim Parsons, as Sheldon? He earned that Emmy. And as long as he continues to channel a younger Rowan Atkinson, there will probably be more awards to come.

But still: It's a sitcom, with all that implies.

2. For a geek show? Not all that geeky.

And that's the thing - the show goes for the easy joke, while pretending it's the hard joke.

Most of the references on the show play into really, really, really, REALLY well-known areas of "geekery." Star Trek, which everyone knows. Avatar, which everyone knows.

And in superheroes, they cover Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. The closest they come to a hard-to-get reference is probably The Flash.

Even in the realm of comic books, they go easy - talking about things that EVERYONE is aware of. Never mind the fact that Neil Gaiman is a New York Times bestseller, it's possible someone hasn't heard of him, so he gets no jokes.

And while they'll reference Star Trek, which made a huge splash in theaters in 2009, they totally skip over Watchmen, which also did very, very well.

When it came time to reference a comic book writer, they went to the Stan Lee well. Never mind that even a dude with a passing knowledge of comics should know Brian Michael Bendis. Or even Brian K. Vaughn - who also worked on Lost.

Is it whiny to want more from a show? Probably. But while I like to just sit and be entertained sometimes, more often than not it's nice to have one or two niche jokes, just for myself and my geeky pals.

And finally:

3. I question just how long they can keep the show going with it's current crop of actors.

This is not to downplay the folks on the show at all. Not one little bit. They're all talented, funny, and good at what they do.

But... there are only five of them, four of which are dudes. So making things stretch out using relationships is going to be not much of an option. And the whole on-again, off-again thing is gonna get old fast.

Right now, the show is one of the highest-ratest things on TV. But the backlash has already begun, with people deriding the show for often being too obvious (true) and for not being funny at all (not true).

It ain't a bad show. It goes down like candy. But I just wish it would try a little harder.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What I'm Watching: The Gates

In a lot of ways, I've insulated myself from "live" TV. I'd say that a solid 80% of the time, if I'm watching something, it's an old something... which I either recorded a while ago, and watched episodes back-to-back-to-back of, or something that I'm just now catching up with on DVD.

Sometimes, I'll catch up with something, and then make an effort to stay current.

But in the case of "The Gates," well... we just ran out of stuff to watch.

Summer in my house is all about the catch-up. Last year, we watched all of Roswell over the summer months, one or two episodes a night until we got to the end. This last year, it's been all about The Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family, and V, and a collection of FAR too many movies we borrowed from friends and need to return, and...

Then we came to the end.

And there was still a month of summer.

Somewhere-or-another, I had caught wind of a new vampires-and-werewolves series called The Gates, and I had set up the DVR to grab it, and here we were, with nothing left to watch.

(Well, that's not true. Now that Lost is finally over we intend to get through the last four seasons of that. But having finally watched with first two eps of season three, I'm remembering why we didn't think much of the show: It kind of sucks, and it kind of doesn't go anywhere for really, really, really long stretches of time. But that's for another day.)

If you don't know the setup, it's this: You've got a gated community with a new sheriff in town. He's got a dark past, and a family. Inside the community are werewolves, vampires, witches, and a succubus.

What goes on from week to week is, there's some kind of dark mystery, which may or may not be supernatural. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a lovely, quiet town, a lot of people are getting killed or doing horrible things.

It's a little Degrassi, a little Desperate Housewives, and a little Twilight, and...

It's not bad.

That's really all I can say for it. My wife and I zipped through ten recorded episodes in a little over a week, and at the end, we were mildly entertained. The mystery solutions were fairly well handled, a lot of the drama was well spaced out, and the repurcussions of various people's actions appear again and again, which is always something that I dig, but...

I dunno. For some reason, I could just never invest.

A lot of shows take a while to find their feet, and I guess that could be why neighter my wife nor myself have managed to invest in this one fully. It's only got two episodes to go, and given the fact that the ratings have been sub-CW levels, I heartily doubt the show is going to return.

And yet...

In some ways, I hold out hope. There are good ideas here, and solid character dynamics, and somewhere in my subconcious, I feel like this show could be the next Supernatural - but it needs to get away from weekly mysteries and into something more serious and season-long, to really work.

I gotta admit, I'm kind of dying to see the end-game on this one. A lot of the time, shows up their final stakes, just to remind you to come back. There might be no "Next time on The Gates" after this Sunday, but I'm looking forward to what might happen when the writers get into a room and decide to bring their A game.

Farewell, The Gates. You held my interest, and got me into next week, when all the shows I dig will return. Good work.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What I'm Watching: The Vampire Diaries

I shouldn’t be the one to have to write this.

I can be honest about this. I can. The fact is, there just aren’t a lot of 30-something dudes who view Thursday night with great anticipation, because all those adults playing teenagers are going to be on the screen, being all vampire-y and such.

But I get tired of people kicking TV shows around. “Well, my girlfriend watches it…” “Well, it’s my guilty pleasure.”

Feh. Feh and nonsense, I say.

You enjoy something, or you don’t. You watch something, or you don’t. Unless you have some sort of a deal worked out with your girlfriend where she washes your car if you watch The Vampire Diaries with her, why waste your precious hours on earth if you don’t want to look at it?

(Also, please stop saying things like, “I watch this show for the eye candy!” Dude. If you just want to look at pictures of cute girls, the world contains something called The Internet, and it doesn’t suck up an hour of your time each week.)

Digression begins… now.

Most critics are bitter, angry people, and there’s a good reason for it – it’s because to explain why something is good is just about impossible.

Consider: In your workplace, do you spend more time talking about how awesome your coworkers are? Or complaining about how some people can’t, or won’t, do their job?

The latter. Right. Because it’s easy.

So here’s my quick list of reasons why The Vampire Diaries is great, and why you should be watching it RIGHT NOW, instead of wasting time watching things your girlfriend (or boyfriend, I suppose) likes.

First: The show is lightning fast. I mean this sincerely. After you get through the first few episodes of season one, the show is on rails, and people are dying or being horribly injured right, left, and center.

A perfect example: Early in the show, the idea of a chamber with a bunch of bad vampires is introduced. A normal show would have parceled that out. The characters would have spent the season trying to prevent the opening of the chamber. Then the last episode of the season would have arrived, and BAM, all the vampires are free.

These vamps got out less than halfway through the season. Then they did some damage. Then they did some more damage. Then they were killed of, in various ways enjoyable and heartwarming and sad.
Yes, sad. Vampires die, and dangit, you get a little weepy.

Which leads me to:

Point the Second: After a while, you start to get involved with these people.

Teen shows always have a certain amount of churn. Love triangles, past loves, all that kind of thing. It’s easy to be cynical about it, but they exist in real life, and The Vampire Diaries does a pretty decent job with it. People seem hurt. People seem confused.

And at the end of the day, the emotions they’re experiencing have a certain amount of truth.

Which leads me to:

Point the Third: There are some really good performances going on here.

Seriously now. Ian Somerhalder. The dude who mostly made me want to slap his character when he was on lost? The guy deserves a medal for being evil. But funny. And heartbroken. But mostly evil. Every week, the writers shove something like 16 emotions at the guy, and most of the time, he gets where he needs to be.

And the rest of the cast? Much better than people give them credit for. Much.

So yeah. That’s all good stuff. But here’s the big one:

Point the Fourth: The show is like a shark – it NEVER stops moving.

I know this sounds just like point number one, but I’ve got to close with this idea. While a lot of shows drag their feet (I’m looking at YOU, Lost) and set up mysteries they’re never going to work out (Lost again) and… just leave you hanging, week in and week out, SOMETHING HAPPENS on The Vampire Diaries.

You’ve gotta love that.

Of course, you’ve also got to go back to the beginning and get through five or six episodes.

Do it. You must.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everybody Thinks They Can Write: An Intro

Greetings, and welcome to my new/old blog.

Or maybe it's my old/new blog.

Long story short, I had another blog, and it's still out there:

If you want to read about my writing over the course of several years, starting with my first movie, start there.

The other part of this story is my other, now-dead blog, that I was doing for the local paper. They changed how their blogs work, and since I was never an actual employee, the blog came to an end. It was called The Fox Valley Geeks, and you can still read it here:

And then, there was this placeholder blog, Everybody Thinks They Can Write.

Mostly, it sat here and told people to go other places. But now, those other places lay fallow, so here we go again.

(Oh, and there's another blog as well:

I was going to use that to do other postings, but I'm trying to turn it into a book and didn't want to confuse the subject matter. So never mind.)

What am I going to put here? Updates on my writing. Reviews, of just about everything. Thoughts on things.

All those things that used to go other places? They'll go here now.

I hope you'll join me.