September 2005 Archives

The Apprentice

I think The Apprentice has just about run its course for me. The intense commercialization of the program, with each episode lavishing praise upon the corporate sponsor du jour while simultaneously elevating to godhood the Trump Organization or Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has gotten a little hard to stomach. The players are largely the same mix of ladder-climbing type-A personalities every season, without the benefit of exotic locales and bikinis to distract viewers. The challenges are capricious and success often has little relation to how well the players worked. Trump, in particular, places a disturbing emphasis on victory. When a team loses the challenge by a couple of bucks and Trump asks "What went wrong?" the correct answer is that nothing went wrong. The team did well and came up short by the slimmest possible margin. A mensch would tell the team that they did very well, but the nature of the competition is that there's a winner and a loser-- so let's talk about what could have been improved. Instead, when the team says it was a virtual tie, Trump just pounds them with "But you lost!" There's no praise for what went right, just griping about what went wrong. That may make for better television, but it cultivates an image of a guy I'd never want to work for.

I had hopes for Martha's version, but it appears to be heading down a similar path despite all the talk about a softer, gentler Martha. Yes, Chuck almost quit. But what wound up happening was that the entire team rallied around him, and he bounced back with renewed focus and leadership. He had a moment of weakness, and then rebounded. But Martha ignored the unity that brought to the team-- and the leadership he displayed by bringing Jim and Dawn to the boardroom in an effort to eliminate the central conflict within their team-- and focused instead on that one moment of weakness. Her reasoning was petty and superficial, ignoring the bigger and more pressing problem of Jim's collossal ego. One can't help but wonder if Martha's leaving Jim alone for the same reason Trump kept Omarosa around-- a good villain makes people tune in. If I was a boss and an employee acted with the disrespect and childishness Jim demonstrated in the conference room, there would be no question about who got fired.

A problem with judged shows in general, and especially ones in which the judges have such a vested financial stake in success, is there's a strong incentive to rig the outcome to create higher ratings. Perhaps Martha already knows that she'll fire Jim eventually, but wants to keep him around a while to spice things up. That might be exactly what some viewers want, but for viewers like me it undermines the integrity of the competition and makes us far less interested in tuning in.

Comment (1) | last by Rich, Sep 30, 7:35 PM

Serenity

If there's anything more annoying to a television fan than having a promising new series cut down in its infancy, it's when that series leaves unanswered plot points behind. We'll never get to the bottom of the mysteries behind Nowhere Man or John Doe, but for Firefly fans closure is finally here in the form of Serenity.

If you liked the show, you'll like the movie. All the same elements are there-- the snappy patter, the retro-western patois, the moral ambiguity of survival on the frontier, the gritty barely-holding-together ship. Many of the funniest bits are spoiled by the trailer (why, oh why do those Hollywood bozos not get it?), but there's plenty of Whedonesque humor throughout. Viewers unfamiliar with the series should be able to follow right along, but will certainly miss the deeper level of subtext and resonance that comes from having already spent 14 hours with these characters.

When the series ended, there were a few dangling questions: What did the Alliance do to River? Why do they want her back so badly? Where do the Reavers come from? Will Simon ever stop worrying about River long enough to return Kaylee's advances? Will Mal and Inara just drop the game and confess their feelings for each other? All of these questions get answered. In fact, the movie begins with a terrific double-flashback device that deftly handles not only the required exposition to set up the film for those who missed the television series, but answers one of those burning questions right out of the gate.

Whedon made some interesting choices with some of the characters-- in particular (highlight the space between the brackets to reveal minor spoilers) [not all of the main characters survive the film]-- which have me wondering if he planned things that way from the beginning or changed course to better serve the needs of a motion picture. Would things have wound up differently had the series been allowed to run its course?

The ultimate answer to the question of why the Alliance wants River turns out to be a bit of a letdown, if only because it was invented from whole cloth. Babylon 5 creator and former Murder, She Wrote producer J. Michael Straczynski once said that before you fire a gun, you need to have a shot of it sitting on the mantle. That's why every Bond movie includes a scene with Q demonstrating 007's gadgetry-- so when it actually gets used in the plot, it won't seem like it was pulled out of thin air. And that's actually a very ham-fisted solution to the problem. Far better is to show us the gun without having us realize it's a gun. Whedon set up the Reavers quite effectively in the television series, for example, with the result that their role in the film works. But the bug up the Alliance's butt-- the particular thing they're afraid people will discover-- came more or less out of nowhere. Perhaps the series just ended before Whedon could work in the setup, or perhaps this wasn't quite the payoff he'd planned when the show began.

The characters, however, remain faithful to their established selves-- particularly Mal, whose journey rings especially true. I have other quibbles-- the editing in the climactic space battle made things difficult to follow, some of the series regulars were given short shrift in the screenplay, and the groovy theme song was noticable in its absence-- but I left the theater remarkably satisfied.

Comments (4) | last by Steve Dupree, Oct 31, 3:14 PM

Prison Break

I don't care how much I loved my wrongly-imprisoned, soon-to-be-executed brother, or how determined I was to free him by any means necessary. If I went from a white-collar world to a high-security prison, got caught in a race riot, and had two of my toes brutally snipped by a hedge clipper, my resolve would be shaken. Not so with Michael Scofield, protagonist of Fox's high-concept Prison Break. Save for a moment when someone literally died in his arms, in five weeks we haven't seen him crack or waver. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. It'd certainly be more realistic to see him freak out a little, but it would also undermine the bedrock upon which the show is based. It's vital for us to believe that Michael has the intelligence, resourcefulness, courage and fortitude to conceive of and execute his plan, or else the entire series goes down the crapper. Despite the ex-girlfriend lawyer, the doomed brother's ex-wife and son, and the cell mate's fiancee, at its core this is a caper story. We're tuning in to see the details of Scofield's plan unfold and watch him succeed. Sure, we might pick apart the details-- there was no real reason for him to tattoo "Schweitzer" on himself, the Secret Service guys have thusfar been too prescient and omnipotent-- but a caper is all about the cleverness and intricacy of the plan, of seeing the bits and pieces of the Rube Goldberg machine drop into place and make magic. And at that level, Prison Break does not disappoint.

Unlike most high-concept shows, this one actually seems to have a plan. Plot points are introduced multiple episodes before they pay off, increasing the viewer's satisfaction when they do. The real question is how the producers plan to parlay this into a second season. A show like this wants to have a beginning, middle, and most of all an end. I'll have no problem if, after breaking out, our heroes then discover a need to break back in. But once the underlying conspiracy to frame Michael's brother Lincoln is thwarted, it would stretch credulity beyond repair for the same characters to get involved in a second escape. And when your show's called Prison Break, you don't have much flexibility in your subject matter. So I'm hoping the producers are wise enough to make this season a self-contained story, and focus on a new set of characters should a second season come about. Because I'm willing to do my time for 26 episodes, but if this story hasn't wrapped up by then I'm busting out.

Comments (2) | last by Nichole, Dec 4, 6:40 AM

Apes Online

AOL users have long been ridiculed on the Internet for being generally clueless about how things really work, but this takes the cake. Since last season, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's Ask the Audience lifeline has generated two results-- one from the studio audience, and another from an AOL Instant Messenger poll. Tonight, when asked which of ABC, CBS, NBC, or PBS can be typed using only the bottom row of letters on a standard keyboard, only 85% of the AOL audience-- each of whom was sitting in front of such a keyboard-- got the question correct. The remaining 15% must have been preoccupied trying to fax something by holding it up to their monitor screen.

Comment (1) | last by Stephen Glenn, Sep 22, 10:34 AM


Spam musubi, from Wikipedia

A new Hawaiian restaurant opened in my neighborhood recently. Sadly, the food I sampled was unremarkable. In a town where the only food outlet more ubiquitous than teriyaki shops is Starbucks, anybody serving marinated chicken or short ribs over rice has got to really go the extra mile to stand out. That said, perhaps I bypassed the true star of the menu: Spam.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Spam, right there on the menu, as a peer with chicken, beef, and shrimp. Grilled over rice, or-- and this blew my mind-- as a form of cooked sushi called musubi. I asked the proprietor about this, and was informed that musubi-- and in fact Spam in general-- is a culinary staple in Hawaii. Everyone eats it. Over 5.5 cans of Spam are sold per year, per Hawaiian. I gather that Hawaii's fondness for Spam is well-known, but until now it wasn't to me. Talk about cognitive dissonance. When I think of Hawaii, I think of roast pig, pineapple, and poi. I think of fresh, colorful tropical foods with simple, traditional preparations. Discovering that the island's culinary tradition now includes Spam is a bit like learning Italians lead the world in Spaghetti-Os consumption (don't panic-- I made that up).

To be fair, I've never eaten Spam. I don't much care for ham to begin with, so I don't imagine that ripping the SP off of Letterman's varsity sweater to transform it into a canned meat would do much to improve it for me. But it will take some time to get used to the notion that the tropical nirvana I envision in my mind's eye goes gaga over an oft-ridiculed canned luncheon meat.

Comments (14) | last by Tim H., Oct 15, 1:05 PM

Official Mascot?

An Australian man built up a 40,000 volt charge of static electricity in his clothing as he walked, enough to ignite a carpet and just shy of spontaneous combustion. This is the first time I've seen one of these bizarre stories happen in a first world country and not some backwater village in Mongolia, where news sources might be more suspect. Of course, The Weekly World News is headquartered in Florida so there goes that theory.

Big Brother 6 Winds Down

The final Head of Household competition was, I think, the closest in BB history. Janelle just kind of fell apart, making some really bad guesses and losing her chance at $50,000. Yes, fifty. Regardless of who she chose, there was no way she could win the grand prize-- the jury is just too stacked in the other players' favor. Much of the blame for that can be laid squarely at Howie's feet for making the colossal mistake of wasting his first term as HoH and getting manipulated into nominating the very two players the competing faction wanted to get nominated, fracturing his power base in the process.

I don't care for Maggie's supercilious demeanor-- in a game like Big Brother, there's no such thing as playing dirty-- but I have to hand it to her. If the other players had had ANY brains whatsoever, Maggie would have been evicted weeks ago. She was not only the brains behind the "Friendship" alliance, but their backbone and anchor. Had the others realized that and ousted her at the first opportunity, the rest of that alliance might have crumbled. Instead, the doomed other faction let emotions rule their nominations. Janelle may have been the tougher competitor, but Maggie was the better player. Yvette cries a good story (at every opportunity), but I expect the jury to recognize Maggie's solid play and give her the money.

Nobody goes on a show like Big Brother or Survivor to make friends. Once, just once, I'd love to see someone reach that final three moment and make the intelligent choice instead of the emotional one. "Jane, you've been my best friend these past weeks, and I don't know how I'd have gotten through this without you. But everyone loves you, and if I take you with me to the finals, there's no way I can beat you. I hate Bob, but so does the jury-- if I take him with me, I'll win the money. And the money is why I came here. We all came here for the same thing, and we all knew the rules. We knew we'd be getting close to people and then voting them out of the game. It's hard, and it stinks, but that's the game we signed up for. The game came first, and our friendship developed second. I have to finish what I started and make the best play I can to win the money-- and that means voting you out." Just once.

Comment (1) | last by Doug Orleans, Sep 17, 6:39 PM

Survivor Guatemala

It looks like Stephanie and Bobby Jon will get a reasonable shot on their new tribes, both of which have lower-hanging chaff to boot before their numbers come up. I'm one of the millions who was utterly enchanted by Stephanie's determination and spirit, and agree with one of Bobby Jon's tribemates who said Bobby Jon is not the sharpest tool in the shed. So I'm rooting for Stephanie's tribe all the way, and I'll admit to cheering when Stephanie won her first tribal immunity challenge. That had to feel good.

Comments (2) | last by Chris Lemon, Sep 17, 2:27 PM

Supernatural

When a genre show gets buzz, I pay attention. So despite the pretty-boy casting typical of the WB, which exists in a universe populated by catalogue models and pin-ups, I tuned in for the premiere of Supernatural. And the jury's still out. The characters are a little too pat, for one thing. There's the dutiful older son (Dean) faithful to his father's demon-hunting obsession, and the reluctant younger son (Sam) trying to live a normal life only to get sucked back into the hunt against his will. The irony is that the family's descent into the supernatural is all about Sam, although he doesn't know it yet-- and I don't think the viewers are supposed to have sussed it out either. Sam's mother, y'see, was killed when Sam was just a baby. She stumbled across something-- from the back, seemingly just a guy in a trenchcoat-- standing over Sam's crib, and next thing you know she's plastered to the ceiling, then immolated. Twenty years later, Sam's girlfriend is killed in precisely the same way. Something out there seems a touch jealous. In the pilot we also learn from a spirit that Sam will someday be unfaithful, perhaps (and I'm just guessing here) triggering the creation of a vengeful spirit who travels back through Sam's life, murdering all the women who ever loved him.

The thing is, we'll probably never know. It's exactly the kind of mystery shows like this dole out in tiny scraps over the course of the series, stringing the viewer along with a promise that is never fulfilled. If the show succeeds the mystery gets stretched on to infinity (c.f.: The X-Files). If it fails, no resolution is ever forthcoming (John Doe). It's a Kobayashi Maru test for the viewer, and like global thermonuclear war the only winning move is not to play. So you have to tune in just for the episodic goodness and treat the overarching story as a bonus, an after-dinner liqueur compliments of the house. Supernatural did manage to pack some decent chills into its first hour, so I'll give it a few more tries before I decide if it makes the cut.

It's got some tough competition for the 2 Tuesday at 9 TiVo slots. The Amazing Race has one of them locked. That leaves a three-way battle between Supernatural, House (which I didn't watch last season but have heard raves about), and Commander-in-Chief starring Geena Davis as the first female president which premieres later this month. We'll see what makes the cut, and what makes BitTorrent.

Comments (4) | last by zeigen, Oct 22, 5:29 PM

Early reports are that this season is brutal. Palau was a gorgeous island locale with beautiful beaches and scenery, while Guatemala is rainy, brown, and muddy. Contestants are plagued by clouds of mosquitos and packs of howler monkeys. Reportedly there's nowhere to fish, making one player's fishmongering expertise useless.

Minor spoilers follow: The show begins with a gruelling 11-mile trek through the jungle, with the winning tribe getting flint and first pick of the two base camps. Reports indicate the trek kicked players' butts, turning out to be far more difficult than producers expected. Which should, at least, make for some interesting television. But the bigger twist to the season is that two familiar faces get a second chance at the game. Stephanie and Bobby Jon from Palau's doomed Ulong tribe return to captain each of the Guatemalan tribes. It'll be interesting to hear their reasons for returning. For Stephanie, I can't imagine it being anything but an anticlimax. She was a tragic heroine last season and went out as one of the darlings of the show. I can't imagine players letting her get near the prize money this time-- I expect we'll hear a lot of players conspiring to vote them off quickly, although smart ones will choose to keep them around for a while to leverage their experience-- which means the second chapter of her tale will have a less glorious finish. But then, I never would have thought Amber would win All-Stars, so what do I know? Far stranger things have happened on Survivor.

Comments (2) | last by Doug Orleans, Sep 20, 8:31 AM

I was talking with someone recently and mentioned that I have a hard time thinking of myself as an adult-- that my self-image is more of a college student, despite being fifteen years out of college. I hadn't really thought about it any more deeply until then, but the reasons make sense to me. A lot of things in life have changed-- location, job, hairline-- but one thing that hasn't is that, as a single guy, I'm still only responsible for myself. My decisions are based on what's best for me, or what I want. Any mistakes I make affect only me. I see that as a key hallmark of one's college years.

I think the true passage into adulthood comes when you start making decisions based on how they affect others. For most people, that comes first with a committed relationship (which may or may not include marriage), then again with children. I have none of those things and therefore enjoy the luxury of living selfishly, in a non-pejorative sense.

It was suggested to me that I'm not unusual-- that few of us really think of ourselves as adults. I have no doubt that's true physically-- that many of us imagine ourselves to be as attractive, slim, athletic, and fit as we were in our primes-- I'm less convinced that the pool of Peter-Pan-complexed adults isn't kiddie-sized.

And so, in the interest of science, I turn to you. How do you view yourself-- as an adult, a college student, a teenager, a child? Do you feel older than your years, or younger? What reflection does your psychic mirror show you?

Comments (6) | last by Dave, Oct 24, 11:57 AM

Raspberry Bars

The latest issue of Cook's Illustrated included a recipe for raspberry bars. I've made it twice now-- I'm working my way up to my true goal, raspberry linzer cookies, which are a lot more work what with the rolling and the cutting of the dough, but have all that almondy goodness-- and the bars have come out perfect both times. It's a great, super-easy recipe, and it's available at the Cook's Illustrated web site for free. I used frozen raspberries both times and have no complaints, so don't let a lack of fresh berries stop you. Do your family a favor and give it a try.

Comments (3) | last by Nathan Beeler, Sep 14, 11:11 AM

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!

Funny story.

My old web host migrated me to a new server (without telling me). Suddenly, POOF! Movable Type stopped working. Wouldn't even let me log in. Calls to tech support got misinformation and no progress. At precisely the same time, Matthew Baldwin sent me an email chiding me for not having registered staticzombie.com. And so the universe aligned, and one thing led to another web host, and presto-- here we are, running on the new Movable Type 3.2-- which I'm sure has some whiz-bang features that I'll discover when I have more time.

Actually, one feature that it does have is TypeKey support. If I turn this on, it would require that you register with TypeKey in order to post comments. Yeah, I know-- a bit of a hassle, but it's actually quick and painless, and you only have to do it once. Then you just provide your TypeKey ID when you post a comment. The HUGE advantage for me is that it would effectively eliminate comment spam (or so I'm led to believe). Cleaning out comment spam costs me quite a bit of time, so getting rid of it would be a huge relief. Any other MT 3 bloggers care to share advice on plug-ins to install, anti-spam strategies, etc? Is there a good alternative to turning on TypeKey authentication?

Meanwhile, everything here seems to be working. Entries that link to other archived entries are broken, but I'll fix those when I have a few minutes. If you spy anything awry, let me know.

Welcome to the new Zombie.

Comments (4) | last by Peter, Sep 9, 5:44 PM