Friday, January 16, 2009

TV Fall Recap: Drama

Due to popular demand, here are some quick capsule thoughts on various TV shows that I actually did watch some episodes of this fall, but never got around to writing up full reports.

Easy Money

This show only lasted four episodes since it was buried on CW's Sunday night block. Lack of promotion plus bad network = less than 1.0 Nielsen rating and quick cancellation. It's too bad because the two episodes I watched were actually kind of interesting. Laurie Metcalf (of "Roseanne" fame) is the matriach of a family-run payday loan (loan shark) business. The family is a bunch of morally gray misfits, except for one of the sons, Morgan. He's the only competent employee and family member without whom everyone else would end up bankrupt or in jail, sort of like Michael Bluth in "Arrested Development". Oh, did I mention that he finds out that he isn't actually their son at all? This leads to internal conflict about whether he should stay and help the "family" business or strike off on his own in something that he can better put his talents toward. Unfortunately, I'm not sure anything gets resolved in just four episodes.

Where to Watch: Fancast

The Ex List

I was really looking forward to this light-hearted romantic comedy since it stars Elizabeth Reaser. Buried on CBS Friday nights in between "Ghost Whisperer" and "Numb3rs", it just never fit in and only lasted four episodes. I watched the first two, and found it mildly amusing but not necessarily something I would tune into watch every week. Based on an Israeli TV show, in the pilot Bella Bloom (Reaser) learns from a psychic that "the one" she's destined to be with is someone she's already dated, and unless she gets married within the next year she will be alone forever. So she compiles a list of all of the people that she's ever dated (quite lengthy apparently) and proceeds to track them down one by one.

Throughout each episode we get flashbacks of how the relationship went the first time to contrast with how it's working out in the present day. In general, we discover that if it didn't work the first time you'll probably have the same problem the next time. One problem with the show is that Bella isn't quite sympathetic enough. She's a little on the insensitive side when it comes to dating. For example, in the pilot we see her dump her folk singer boyfriend on his birthday for being too sensitive. In the present day, he's become a hardened punk rocker made bitter by the experience of dating her the first time around. As an aside, the weepy musician is excellently played by Eric Balfour ("24", "Six Feet Under"), one of my favorite TV actors who sadly will never be a leading man. And that's probably the biggest drawback. When you take a formula-driven show and add the fact that the best performance is turned in by a guest star, you get a show that's going to be wildly inconsistent.

Where to Watch: You can't anymore. CBS has gotten really stingy about what shows have full episodes on their website. Boo! They did shoot 13 episodes, so there's an extremely slim chance that this will turn up on DVD some day.


Touted as the next "X-Files", Meaghan and I were really looking forward to this new Fox sci-fi show. We stuck with it for the first six episodes, but ultimately decided that it just wasn't worth our time. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham is enlisted by a secret government organization to investigate a series of seemingly random scientific phenomena known as "The Pattern". Her team consists of a mad scientist named Walter and his less than reputable estranged son, Peter. You can see why comparisons to The X-Files would be made. FBI agents investigating unexplained phenomena... that sounds familiar. Unfortunately, this show has a lot of problems.

1) J.J. Abrams - This is probably just a personal hang-up, but I haven't enjoyed a thing the man has touched. Sucks for me that he created this then, eh? I never cared for "Alias" and watched the pilot of "Lost" and it didn't hook me. I think my main problem with him is his seeming emphasis of style over substance. Fans will say that they love the way he doles out miniscule pieces of information over the course of many episodes that add up to a bigger picture, but as a fan of many long-form comics which share this technique I think I just don't like the way that he does it. Case in point...

2) The Pattern - There's no reason whatsoever that we can see that makes the events in the show a pattern of any kind. That's all well and good to some extent as I'm sure things will become more clear as time progresses, but there's a problem. If we can't see a pattern, that means that the characters can't see a pattern. If they can't see a pattern, why the heck are they running around calling it "The Pattern". Yes, some but not all of the phenomena are related to inventions and discoveries developed by a mysterious global technology company by the name of Massive Dynamic (not incidentally headed by Walter's old scientific colleague), but that's just not enough for me.

3) The Characters - Or rather the lack there of. Agent Dunham is both not a compelling character and woodenly acted. This makes for a brutal combination. Poor Peter (Pacey!) is just not given anything to do, and Walter is only amusing when he's saying something absolutely kooky. So if a few random mad scientist outbursts are enough to get you through each episode, maybe you'll have better luck than we did.

Where to Watch: Hulu
When to Watch: Once you've caught up, tune into Fox on Tue 8/7 Central.


Yet another show that only lasted four episodes on the CW's Sunday night block, but this one wasn't very good. It was a campy concept about how the Greek gods are alive and well in present-day Earth. Aphrodite and her son Eros operate a match-making company that's struggling to compete in the new era of Internet love. This is a problem because the less successful they are in spreading their influence the weaker they become. Not incidentally, Ares the god of war is one of the stronger gods in the modern world. In order to revitalize their business, they hire a mortal romance novelist as a consultant with the idea that she knows what modern people are looking for in love. Undoubtedly, Eros's love arrows go awry at some point and hilarity ensues in each episode. Strangely enough, there was an awful lot of Greek mythology knowledge necessary if you wanted to fully understand the "battle of the gods" subplot that was brewing under the surface in the two episodes that I watched. It may have eventually gone somewhere, but we'll never know.

Where to Watch: Hulu

Still to come in drama: The Mentalist, Knight Rider, Eleventh Hour, Sanctuary

Still to come in comedy: Do Not Disturb, Little Britain USA, Somebodies, Spaceballs: The Animated Series, Testees, The Life and Times of Tim, Childrens' Hospital, Worst Week, Gary Unmarried, Kath & Kim

Still to come in kids: Martha Speaks, Sid the Science Kid, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Suite Life on Deck, Gogoriki, Making Fiends, True Jackson, VP, Turbo Dogs, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight

Phew! That's a lot... we'll see if I get to all of them. Post your requests below and I'll do my best to prioritize.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

From the Long Box: Shadow of the Batman #1, Part 1

In the first of what is hopefully a long series of posts where I get off my butt and talk about some of my favorite (and not so favorite) comics from my collection, I'm going to pay homage to The Dark Knight (in theaters again on 1/23/09) by starting with a classic Batman tale from yesteryear. Shadow of the Batman is a 5-issue miniseries from 1985 that reprinted 10 late-70s issues of Detective Comics. When first published, these issues were dubbed by some as the "definitive Batman" and served as some of the inspiration for both Tim Burton's Batman and Batman: The Animated Series. Is it really all that good? Let's just say it takes a little while to get warmed up.

Note: Click on any of the images to make them larger.

Shadow of the Batman #1
(reprinted from Detective Comics #469)
Writer: Steve Englehart
Art: Walt Simonson & Al Milgrom

Before I get into the story and art specifically, I'd just like to take a second to talk about the writing style used by Englehart in these comics. There are a few schools of thought people use when writing a comic. Some writers prefer to use thought bubbles so you can see what each character is thinking and how they're reacting to events. Others find that approach lazy and assume that the combination of dialogue and art are enough to adequately explain what's going on. Still others insert a narrator to describe the action and set the tone of the story.

Trends have changed over the years. Thought bubbles were popular in the 80s and 90s, but have since become passé. As a result, you'll rarely find anything other than dialogue in modern comics. Back in the 70s and before? The narrator still reigned supreme. Englehart serves as an entertaining narrator here providing a lot of the action that drives us through the story. Some of the word choices end up dating it a bit, but they only add to the fun of the experience. You just can't get away with lines like "Don't judge him too quickly, amigo!" anymore. It's a good thing he's entertaining, too, because the story in this first issue is sadly lacking.

This reprint series is notable for its format which includes wraparound covers and absolutely no ads. That makes me slightly sad since part of what makes 80s comics so great are the ads for really ancient stuff. I'll try to share some of those when I get to other series in the future.

The cover is drawn by the great Marshall Rogers whose work we will see on the interiors, too, starting with Shadow of the Batman #2. A grim-faced Batman swings through the rooftops of Gotham City and out of the cover as a freaky glowing skeleton reaches out for him. Maybe we'll find out who all these folks on the back cover are inside.

"...By Death's Eerie Light!"

It's not often that trouble comes right to Batman's door, but this story starts with a bang as Batman's butler Alfred unexpectedly passes out while bringing him a refreshment. I love the jarring angle of Alfred's legs sticking up in the air in this picture. Whatever knocked him out must have been a doozy to make him take a fall that bad.

Unfortunately, no ambulances are available in Gotham City as an unknown epidemic is sweeping through the city. According to the New York Times, as of 1987 the real life New York City had a fleet of 170 ambulances. I don't know how many of those were typically in use at any given moment, but it at least gives an idea as to the scope of the outbreak. After delivering Alfred to the hospital as Bruce Wayne, Batman learns from the medical staff that in the last hour over 50 people have been admitted with a mysterious sickness that "sweeps through the body like wildfire". A quick chat with Commissioner Gordon reveals that the police have received this ominous note from somebody named Dr. Phosphorus:

I'll talk more about this Phosphorous character later when he actually shows up, but for now I'll just state that I hope I'm never so furious that I have to underline random words for emphasis when writing an angry note. Righteous wrath, indeed!

After some quick detective work, Batman comes to the realization that the sickness is spreading through the city's water system, but he's not quick enough to save Commissioner Gordon from slipping into a coma, too. If we stop for a moment to use our own deductive skills, we might come to the conclusion that someone's putting phosphorus into the water system. It's flammable, it glows green in the dark, and it's highly toxic when ingested. Anything involving the phrase "smoking stool syndrome" seems like a bad thing. Will Batman be able to save the residents of Gotham City in time? He rushes to the city reservoir to find...

Dr. Phosphorus

Yes, it's the freaky glowing skeleton we saw from the cover. Why writers feel the need to make up their own silly villains when they first take over a title I'll never know, but you see it all the time. I'm sure Englehart got the Batman assignment and thought, "Let's see... the Joker, Penguin, Riddler? Nah! I'll go with my own fantastic creation: Dr. Phosphorus!" There must be some egotistical need to feel like you've added something to the Batman mythos instead of just telling a good story with the tools you're given. Luckily, he strays back into more mainstream territory in future installments.

Since we're stuck with him for now, let's see what makes the good doctor tick. Body of "living phosphorus"? Check... whatever that's supposed to mean. Its main side effect is that he burns when exposed to air making hand to hand combat difficult for his opponents. It also means that he was able to poison the entire city in one fell swoop by soaking his toxic body in the reservoir. Why would he want to do that? It's not entirely clear. It seems that he's seeking vengeance for some unnamed act: "I am sworn to destroy it, as it has destroyed me!"

Batman brawls with him for awhile, burning his hands in the process until he realizes that wrapping his fists in his cape provides better protection. Apparently the cape is made of tougher stuff than the standard issue Bat-gloves. When Dr. Phosphorus comes to the realization that neither of them is going to win the fight, he runs away with the age-old excuse of not wanting to kill Batman in their first encounter claiming that it would ruin "the thrill of the game". Yeah, yeah, we've heard it all before. I guess there's probably not a lot you can do in a world where it's difficult to kill anyone permanently.

Our story concludes with Batman standing... defiantly? I'm not really sure what that stance is supposed to say, but for a story featuring such dynamic art it sure goes out with a whimper in the end. We're also left with some questions. Who is this Dr. Phosphorus guy and why does he want to destroy Gotham City? How the heck does Gotham plan on filtering all of that phosphorus out of the drinking supply? Will all the people (Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, etc.) who've fallen into a coma and suffered liver damage pull through? Do we really care? Eh...

All in all, it wasn't an auspicious debut. Englehart introduced a silly villain and told a straightforward action story. My definitive Batman has more subtlety than this, so we'll hope for better in future installments.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to $pend a Sunday


1) Gaze out your windows as a "significant" 3.6 inches of snow falls.
2) Rest easy in the warmth of your house on one of the coldest weekends of the year.
3) Go to retrieve cat food (if cat food is not available, any item will suffice) from your car Sunday afternoon.
4) Discover that your car is not where you left it Thursday night, even though you just saw it 3 hours ago when you were shoveling snow.
5) Get a little mad at the city of Minneapolis when you realize that they've called a snow emergency, unbeknownst to you since the amount of snow that fell in your neighborhood was no more significant than a storm that blew through 2 weeks earlier when you actually did check to see if there was a snow emergency (there wasn't).
6) Go to the impound lot. Feel like a criminal.
7) Wait in line outside in -10 degree wind chills for 2 hours with hundreds of other people.
8) Wait another hour inside the impound lot office. Watch a Simpsons rerun on the token "isn't waiting in line fun?" television.
9) Pay towing charge of $138 and get receipt that will give you your car back.
10) Collect ticket ($34) for illegally parking during a snow emergency.
11) Wait in new line for another hour so security can take you to find your car.
12) Ride around lot for 15 mins looking for car.
13) Clean snow off car.
14) Drive home.
15) Go to bed.

Gosh, I miss my driveway. We'll have to make it a priority to have one of those when we go house-shopping in a year or so. I'll also apparently have to check for the existence of a snow emergency every time it snows since there's no apparent guideline about what a significant amount is. You learn something new every day...