Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Surviving the Disney Channel?

Next up on my list was a new sketch comedy show for tweens on the Disney Channel -- "So Random". I've tried watching episodes of tween shows on Nickelodeon ("True Jackson, VP") and Disney ("The Suite Life...") before, but have never talked about it here. Truth be told, Meaghan and I absolutely love most things Disney, but the garbage they spew on to their TV channel is universally terrible. I haven't seen anything on it in the last 5-10 years that's even been close to good. Ahem. Let me amend that. I hadn't seen anything...

To talk about "So Random", I'll have to start with a not so brief but hopefully interesting history lesson. It all starts with another Disney Channel show that debuted a couple of years ago, "Sonny With a Chance". Yes, the name is terrible. "Sonny" shares a common setup to a lot of other Disney shows (analogies include: "Hannah Montana":Miley Cyrus, "Lizzie McGuire":Hilary Duff, "Wizards of Waverly Place":Selena Gomez -- if you don't recognize any of those names then you're living under a much larger rock than I am) in that it's primarily a vehicle for its leading lady. In this case, that lady is the star of the Disney Channel movies Camp Rock and Camp Rock 2, Demi Lovato. More on her in a bit, but first "Sonny".

"Sonny With a Chance" is the story of a girl from Wisconsin (Sonny Munroe) who is hired to join the cast of a Hollywood-based teen sketch comedy show called "So Random". It starts out primarily as a fish out of water story as Sonny has to adjust to the strangeness that is life in show business as part of a hit show. Complicating that is the fact that they share a studio with the #1 teen drama in America, Mackenzie Falls. Needless to say, the casts of the two shows do not get along... at all.

The ringleader of the people at the Falls is its star, the greatest actor of his generation, Chad Dylan Cooper (hilariously played by Sterling Knight -- remember that name). Most shows that feature a show within a show (or in this case, two shows within a show) fail miserably when they attempt to show anything from it -- "Studio 60" I'm looking at you here -- but that's not the case with "Sonny". Yes, the "So Random" sketches are hit and miss, but so is SNL. Sketch comedy is hard to do right. "Mackenzie Falls", however, is pure comedy gold as it single-handedly takes the mickey out of every CW show ever created. Behold!

In season 2 of "Sonny", the focus shifts to the burgeoning relationship between Sonny and Chad, exploring the regular hazards and pitfalls of dating as a teen as well as the complications that arise when those teens happen to be famous celebrities on competing shows. I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I'm proud to say that I've seen pretty much every episode of "Sonny with a Chance" and it's actually quite good. Sure, the acting can be a little rough at times, but those are the hazards when your cast is young and inexperienced. In particular, Lovato (who was only 16 when the first season was filmed) has a tendency to talk loudly and try to get through scenes by flashing her megawatt smile. Thankfully, she improves quite a bit in season 2 and blends into the show much better.

So if it was so good, why is a real version of "So Random" now on the Disney Channel? What happened to "Sonny" season 3? Well, the answer to that lies with its star. Demi Lovato is first and foremost a musician, not an actor. Prior to doing research for this piece, I hadn't heard a single song of hers, but now that I have it's not all that bad. It certainly tops trainwrecks like Ke$ha and the aforementioned Cyrus. She reminds me a little bit of a young Kelly Clarkson. Hopefully, she's able to grow into her voice in the future. This song in particular, "La La Land", from her first album is a catchy little earworm that I haven't gotten out of my head for the past week. Please take a listen and pay attention to the lyrics (which she actually wrote) as they're important to the tale I tell.

Ah... ain't naivete grand? The gist of the song (for those who refused to listen to it) is that even though she's knowingly stepping into the Hollywood hype machine, she's going to stay the same person she's always been. I think Mmes. Spears and Lohan (among others) might be able to offer a differing opinion. I actually think it's pretty appalling the way our culture treats young people in show business. It's almost as if it's designed to completely chew them up and leave them a frail shadow of the person they once were, after extracting every last penny of revenue from them, that is. Add to that the endless line of kids (and their parents) looking to get rich and famous and you can see why the individuals don't matter. There will always be someone there to replace them.

It's complicated enough being a kid in the first place. Add in the fact that you're expected to be a role model to other kids and everything you do is in the public eye, captured by tabloids or Internet gossip sites, and the pressure can be absolutely astounding. Interestingly enough, many of the best episodes of "Sonny" deal with these very issues, so not only was Lovato living them out in real life but she was play-acting them a second time over for her TV show.

In Lovato's case, she quickly became popular with the tween crowd from her TV roles and her albums. As I'm writing this, she has nearly 3.5 million followers (dubbed "Lovatics") on Twitter. Think about this for a minute. How many people are you or I even going to interact with in our lifetimes? She has 3.5 million people watching her every move on the Internet. After messy public breakups with childhood BFF (and fellow Disney star) Selena Gomez and boyfriend Joe Jonas (of the Jonas Brothers), it was only a matter of time before something was bound to go wrong.

And go wrong it did. While on tour in South America in late 2010, she punched out one of the Jonas Bros. (her tour mates) backup dancers. This was quickly followed by her leaving said tour and checking herself into a medical treatment center to deal with eating and self-harm issues. After receiving treatment and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lovato recently reemerged to begin work on her third studio album, which is due out some time this year. She's also been hired to write editorials for Seventeen magazine in an effort to help other young girls cope with problems like the ones she experienced. I hope everything works out for the best, but that brings us back full circle to "So Random".

Left without a star for "Sonny", Disney was forced to make a decision: cancel it entirely, or do something else with all of the actors under contract. Hence, the new sketch comedy show. It features all of the other main actors from "Sonny" along with a variety of musical guests and guest hosts, much like a little 20-minute version of Saturday Night Live. Is it any good? As with the sketches from the show within a show, it's hit or miss. Without any compelling characters or ongoing storylines, though, there's no real reason for me to watch it.

Now that Lovato is in the public eye again, will "Sonny With a Chance" ever return? It's doubtful, and that makes me sad. But maybe, if we're lucky, she'll make a guest appearance on "So Random". I'd probably tune in for that.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cartoon Cartoons!

It all started when I decided to do what I've been known to do from time to time: look into some new TV shows. Little did I know that I would soon be embarking on a rather specific quest...

It began innocently enough. Cartoon Network's Regular Show is one of the few new shows I picked up last fall as appointment TV (for my DVR). Nearly 40 episodes have aired to date, and few if any of them have been misses. Given that, I decided to start with some programs that recently began airing on CN in the hopes of striking it rich again.


Specifically, I started with a new show that aired on Adult Swim -- a late night block of animation that shares a channel with Cartoon Network. Ostensibly geared for the 18+ crowd, they draw an awful lot of teens their way, too. They air a lot of popular stuff that I or people I know watch from time to time: "King of the Hill", "Family Guy", "Robot Chicken", and "The Venture Bros". They also air a fair amount of anime and some rather off the wall stuff, too.

One of those off the wall shows is something called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force". If you've never heard of it, that's probably okay, but it's now in its 8th season so it must be fairly popular with somebody. I'm just not real sure who that somebody is. I like a lot of weird stuff (goodness knows I'm a huge David Lynch fan), but this really does just seem to be weird for the sake of being weird. Featuring the adventures of an anthropomorphic milkshake, french fries, and meatball, ATHF is chock full of non sequitur, absurdist humor as well as a bunch of pretty offensive stuff.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. I thought I was watching a new show. So why am I telling you all this about ATHF? Well, that new show I watched is something called "Soul Quest Overdrive", and it's a spin off of a particular episode of ATHF. In that episode, we're introduced to three anthropomorphic fruits. I think the schtick is supposed to be that they claim to be born-again Christians, but then proceed to do a bunch of crude, violent, and illegal things. Unfortunately, that's just not funny.

For "Soul Quest Overdrive", the fruits have been turned into sports equipment, but the characters remain the same. I just can't recommend this at all. The only thing I found amusing is what a good time the foley artists must have had using bowling pins, basketballs, and the like to emulate the characters moving about. Watch at your own risk.


Beaten down from that horrible experience, I turned my gaze back to the regular Cartoon Network and decided to try "The Looney Tunes Show". Wait... what? Did you know they were making new Looney Tunes? It's admirable that Warner Bros is trying to reintroduce their classic characters to a new generation of teens and tweens, but unfortunately this show pales in comparison to the originals or even the Tiny Toon Adventures that I grew up with.

Part of the problem is just that -- it's a show. Where all previous incarnations of Looney Tunes have been a series of largely unconnected shorts, each episode of this is one long-form story with one or two 2-minute unrelated shorts mixed in. In the era of ADD and short attention spans, I find it a curious choice that they would turn their back on a format that would seem tailor-made for today's kids. To make matters worse, there's little chance that they'll be able to tell the diversity of stories they have in the past.

Each episode is based in the same coherent universe. Bugs Bunny lives in a house out in some suburban neighborhood development and Daffy Duck is his unwanted permanent house guest. All of the other characters only exist in so far as they enter and exit Bugs' and Daffy's lives. I watched the first six episodes to get a good feel for it, and I still haven't even seen some classic characters like Sylvester, Tweety, and Foghorn Leghorn. This would all be okay if it were funny, but beyond little bits and pieces its just not that great. It seems to be doing reasonably well in viewership numbers, so unless it's egregiously expensive they'll have some time to improve. I just don't know that I'll be there to see it.

I mentioned before that it features a short or two every episode. So far there have only been two types of these. The first type is a slick CGI version of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. These exactly capture the spirit and feel of the originals. If you were a fan of those, you'll actually enjoy this 2 minutes of the show. The other type is an absolutely horrific new version of Merrie Melodies. Watch the video below for an example at your own risk.

I warned you.


Having failed again, I decided to give Cartoon Network one more chance to impress me. The final show I tried is something called "The Amazing World of Gumball". And impress me it did, despite the fact that I have little to say about it. It's essentially a family-based comedy with everything that entails, but it has an absolutely zany cast of characters and a good sense of humor.

My only problem with it is that it skews pretty young -- it is rated TV-Y7 after all -- so it's not likely to be something that I continue to watch on a regular basis. If I had kids, though, I would definitely make an effort to tune in every week. Check out the first episode and let me know what you think.

Shall we tell the truth and face the consequences of our actions?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Little Musical Theater

I know this is nearing 5 years old now, so any self-respecting fan of "How I Met Your Mother" and/or Les Miserables has probably already seen it, but I can't resist posting it here. I discovered it while doing some YouTube research for a future post.

For those familiar with the original Broadway cast recording of Les Mis, I really dig how much they're channeling Terrence Mann and Colm Wilkinson in this. I also find the reactions of the other HIMYM cast members on the sofa to be hilarious.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Lazy Bachelor

So I wish I could say I had a good reason for the recent hiatus. In fact, I thought I would have loads of time to build up a big buffer of prepared posts. Well, I have had loads of time...

You see, right after the end of the school year back in the 2nd week of June Meaghan left the country and I've been living the bachelor life ever since. It turns out I'm apparently really lazy when I'm all alone, or maybe just demotivated from doing things -- not sure which.

Why is Meaghan gone? Remember that German teacher exchange? Well, she got to go to Düsseldorf to visit Cordula for the 2nd half of the program. In fact, she'll be staying in Europe for the better part of a month. She co-sponsors a writing-based trip at her high school. Last year, she took about a dozen kids to London, Paris, and Rome. This year the trip size is up to 20 and they're going to Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England. What am I saying? We're going to those places. 20 was the magic number that they needed to hit for me to go along as a chaperone. I leave Monday, and am starting to get amped up for the trip. Hopefully, not too many of the teens give us grief.

So what have I been up to for the last couple weeks? Good question. I've attached a couple small pieces below along with a teaser for the series that will hopefully keep you company while I'm gone -- assuming I can get them all written before I leave. Enjoy!


Before Meaghan left the country, we went to see another movie at one of our local art house theaters. This probably deserves its own post, but I'm probably not eloquent enough to do it justice. The film was Terrence Malick's new work The Tree of Life. Like all of his films, it was beautiful and strange if not lacking a little bit in coherency. For those not familiar with Malick, despite the fact that he directed his first movie back in 1973 this is only his 5th full-length feature. I've only seen the two previous to this: The Thin Red Line and The New World.

It's a largely autobiographical story about his childhood growing up in Texas in the 1950s. Depicting his father as a violent force of "nature" and his mother has a beautiful force for "grace" (nature vs grace is the dichotomy set up in the opening narration, hence the quotes), it's essentially a series of related vignettes showing their interactions, their troubles, and the events that shaped him into the person he is today.

My childhood was not nearly as contentious as Meaghan's (she's compared us to the Cleavers on more than one occasion), so I didn't relate to the actual story elements as much as she did, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a beautifully made film. And oh yes, there are dinosaurs!


Last year when Meaghan was in Europe, I spent a lot of time watching the World Cup, so it's only fitting that this year I've been keeping my eye on the Gold Cup. What? You didn't know that North America's largest soccer tournament has been going on in our country over the last two weeks? I'm shocked.

Wait, no I'm not. Apparently this is the year that I spend all of my sports-related energy on the sports that Americans just don't care about. The finals are tonight, but the only places you can see it are on FOX Soccer (who knew that existed?) and Univision (in español). Predictably, the USA is facing off with Mexico. It's not been an easy road to the finals for the US, so I'm expecting them to get pasted by "El Tri". We'll see what happens.


Lastly, I spent a lot of time on an unexpected journey that I'll be sharing over the next two weeks. It started with me questioning my sanity, and then I thought I'd completely lost my taste. In the end, though, I came to grips with reality and learned how to stop worrying and love the tween.

Monday, June 6, 2011

New School, Same as the Old School

This weekend Meaghan and I kicked off the summer blockbuster season by going to see the brand-new X-Men prequel/reboot X-Men: First Class. With James McAvoy as Professor X and a Rotten Tomatoes rating up above 80%, we had high expectations. Did it meet them?

In a word, yes. Although it continues to play in the same thematic pool as X2, it does so with enough skill to easily wipe away the bad taste left in my mouth from the horribly flawed 3rd and 4th entries in the franchise. From its setting (1962's Cuban Missile Crisis -- of sorts) to the surprising turn by Kevin Bacon (I had no idea he was even in it) as Sebastian Shaw, villainous leader of the Hellfire Club to the slam bang action sequences, First Class makes a lot of right moves. And with director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) at the helm, that's not completely unexpected. The acting is competent, the effects are good, but what has always made the X-Men movies worthwhile (or not) are the ideas.

At its heart, as in most of the first movie trilogy, First Class is an exploration of what it means to be different. It uses its two main characters, Charles Xavier (Prof. X) and Eric Lensherr (Magneto), to present two differing viewpoints. In the film, the existence of evolved humans (mutants, if you will) is just becoming known in some circles. Charles, a child of privilege, believes that mutants can and will be integrated and accepted into human society. Humanity will flourish as a result of the unique things these individuals can do. Eric, a Jewish child of the Nazi death camps, knows from his personal experiences that humans are ugly beings that persecute others for their differences. It's a kill or be killed world, and Eric knows that in order to survive mutantkind is going to have to go it alone and be ready to defend itself.

The beauty of X-Men is that neither viewpoint is necessarily painted as right or wrong. Although Xavier is clearly intended as the moral center of the story, you can understand and accept what informs the opposing arguments. Also, mutants can be used as a cipher for many of the issues that are debated in the world today: gender, race, sexuality, etc. Even though it feels to some extent like we're stuck circling around the same ideas as the previous films, no one can deny how much they resonate, and the climax of the film sets us up nicely for further exploration in this space. Planned as the first in a new trilogy, hopefully First Class will make enough at the box office to allow us to see more.

If you're a fan of previous X-Men movies, particularly of X2, I don't think you'll be disappointed.


Djokovic Watch != 44

You won't be seeing any more tennis updates from me for some time. As feared, Novak Djokovic's win streak was stopped at 43 as he fell in four sets to Roger Federer in the semifinals of the French Open on Friday. That leaves him tied for 3rd longest streak of all time. If he (or anyone else) starts another one, I'll let you know when they get up around 30. Until then...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Music to Work By

Today I bring you two music-related items to either brighten or darken your day depending on your mood.

First is a new lip dub that the people of Grand Rapids, MI made to protest their inclusion on a list of America's Top Ten "dying cities" published earlier this year in Newsweek. I heard about this on NPR yesterday, and it's definitely worth a view. The amount of coordination that was necessary to pull this off is awe-inspiring.

Second, I bring you Dmitri Shostakovich's tortured and riveting String Quartet #8. Written in only three days in 1960 after he was diagnosed with polio and forced to join the Communist Party, it's a dark tour de force and ranks among my favorite classical pieces. I first heard this a year ago when the string orchestra at Meaghan's high school played an arrangement of it. If you're not on the edge of your seat by the end of the 2nd movement (the end of the first video), then you have no heart.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I've been a little short on time since coming back from Atlanta this weekend so I'm sorry in advance for the lack of detail in this update. More will be coming as time allows, which might not be until the weekend.

It was a good, long, tiring weekend. We exceeded our expectations in the tournament by finishing the best out of all schools from Minnesota, making it to the second day of play, and even winning a match in the playoffs. Overall, our A team went 7-5 and our B team just missed the playoff cut at 5-5. Both teams improved greatly on their finishes in last year's national tournament, so Meaghan and I are really pleased with the result. I also got to see the aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, and the best 24-hour diner/karaoke bar in all of Atlanta. I might even have some pictures to share if I can find our camera. Stay tuned.


The SWAT team is reconvening this Saturday to jump out of airplanes again. Since hours of training will not be needed this time, I will probably be on hand. I'll see if I can get some pictures of the festivities.


Djokovic Watch = 43

After beating Del Potro in four sets, Djokovic breezed through a straight set win over #16 Richard Gasquet and then got a free pass to the semifinals because his would-be Italian opponent pulled out with a torn leg muscle that he'd suffered in the previous round. Because of this Djokovic won't be able to tie the record by winning the French anymore as walkovers do not count as victories. It also means that he'll have had four days in between matches when he takes on #3 Roger Federer on Friday, always a tough task. Incidentally, all four of the top seeds advanced to the semifinals in the men's draw. I'm not sure how often that happens at a grand slam event, but it does mean that we're probably in for some quality tennis the rest of the week.