Archive for the ‘TV shows’ Category

muppetsI’ve been thinking lately about Jim Henson’s early involvement with “Saturday Night Live.” Though it was ostensibly a failure, it’s something that I actually find quite inspiring.

I didn’t see the recent 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live, and I don’t know if the special mentioned it. But Jim Henson’s Muppets were a regular feature on Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975.

But it wasn’t the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live that got me thinking about it, so much as this great write-up on The Dissolve, which recently made 1979’s “The Muppet Movie” its “Movie of the Week.” Particularly the idea of Kermit the Frog as a surrogate for Jim Henson, with his unfailing optimism and his ability to get other people to share his vision. Not through arm-twisting, so much as an ability to convey his child-like sense of wonder and fun, and have others want to be a part of it.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I consider Jim Henson to be a genius.

And I’m still in awe of what Saturday Night Live did in its first seasons, with the original cast.

I was nine when the first season premiered, and I remember what a big impact it had over the next few years until the original cast left in 1980. I’d compare it to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” or the early days of “The Simpsons.” It wasn’t just brilliant, but a game changer. (more…)

Great story in The Onion A.V. Club this week about Sesame Street. Since it’s been around so long, it’s easy to forget what a brilliant, ground-breaking show it was at its inception. And as with all children’s entertainment, you run the risk of dismissing it as puerile and overlooking the considerable artistry that went into virtually every aspect of its production.

I actually watched the very first season of Sesame Street when I was a kid. Hell, I remember being confused when Oscar the Grouch showed up in the second season colored green instead of orange. (At least they didn’t replace him with Ted McGinley.)

It got me thinking about my favorite Muppet from back in the day. That would be Lefty, the street-corner scam artist.

No, I’m not making that up. I even found video evidence, which we’ll get to presently. I looked up some stuff about Lefty on the Internet. Apparently he hasn’t been on for a long time, which doesn’t surprise me. This was in the pre-Elmo days. The early ’70s. Children’s entertainment or not, Lefty was from the milieu of John Shaft and Frank Serpico. Edgy. A man of the streets.

By the way, all of the references to Lefty I found on the Internet refer to him as a “salesman.” I’m not buying it. Just look at the guy. Do you really believe his livelihood is anything so pedestrian and legal as “salesman?” He’s a con artist. Wake up and smell the mingled cigarette smoke, cheap booze and desperation. I can see him in a back alley, pocketing a few bills and giving Philip Marlowe the word on the street. Specifically, the Philip Marlowe played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye.” Lefty has 1970s neo-noir written all over him.

In retrospect, I wonder if my early fondness for Lefty led to my later predilection for hard-boiled/noir fiction. Or was it simply an indication that the predilection already existed in my five-year-old subconscious? Oh well. Chicken or the egg, I guess. Lefty was cool. The fedora. The trenchcoat. The John Constantine-esque air of easy familiarity with dangerous realms that you and I sense only as an indistinct shadow on the periphery of our sheltered existence.

Anyway, watch this clip of Lefty in action. Remember that artistry I was talking about back there in the first paragraph? One thing that strikes me when I watch this now is how expertly this sketch is staged. Yes, the actors are puppets on a kids’ show. But it’s still freakin hilarious.

Since this sketch doesn’t include any lessons on letters or numbers, I don’t know if it was meant to be educational or not. But I like to think it was. I like to think that somebody at the Children’s Television Workshop figured: “Hey. Since we’re teaching these kids how to read and do math, we might as well teach them a few practical life lessons, too. Such as the existence of guys like Lefty. He may be cool, but watch your wallet around him.”

Important note: I was careful in the title of this post to specify that Lefty is Sesame Street’s coolest Muppet. Cool as Lefty is, some of the ones from The Muppet Show might give him a run for his money. I’ve always been partial to Animal and Beaker myself. R.I.P. Jim Henson. Someday I hope to buy you a beer in Valhalla.

 

 

 

continental opI’ve been checking out a few online lists of overused cliches in crime fiction. Interesting, amusing, and — being a writer myself — occasionally cringe-inducing.

I’ll readily admit to being guilty of a couple with my debut novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”

A trait that showed up on a lot of lists was the hard-drinking detective. And the investigator in my novel certainly fits the bill. He even carries a flask around with him to take swigs at appropriate or grossly inappropriate times.

Not sure if I have a problem with that, though. Or with any cliche, necessarily.

Keep in mind, I’m aware that all of this might be an elaborate self-justification. And to be fair, most of those lists specifically stated that a cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used in a creative manner.

Cliches are kind of tricky when it come to genre fiction. Because readers of genre fiction expect certain elements. Let’s take the anti-cliche mindset to an extreme. “Why does every thriller need to have a crime in it? That’s so overdone. How about a thriller where the sole conflict is the hero’s attempt to complete a batch of cupcakes in time for the church social?

True, wouldn’t be a cliche. Wouldn’t be much of a thriller, either.

Another example: Why does the hero in every single martial arts movie have to be a martial arts expert? Isn’t that a cliche? Maybe. It’s also the reason we watch martial arts movies, so I’d just as soon that one stay around.

But I’m certainly sympathetic to readers who get fed up with cliches. The kind that make you groan and say “not THIS again!” One of my least favorites is the meet-cute between the male and female characters who initially hate each other, but who are obviously gonna hook up before the end of the book. In fact, pasted-on romantic subplots in general are kind of tedious for me. Can the hero foil the criminal plot without getting laid in the process once in a while?

Recently read a novel — Won’t name it here. My policy is to name only the books I like. — where I felt like the writer was working though a checklist of crime fiction cliches. We-don’t-like-each-other-but-I-guess-we’ll-have-to-work-together-to-solve-this-case relationship with a colleague? Check. You-may-be-brilliant-at-catching-criminals-but-your-personal-life-is-a-mess talking-to by an exasperated colleague? Check. You get the picture. I finished it out of obligation, bored and annoyed the whole time.

But I guess it’s subjective. Because if you don’t like a story element, it’s a “cliche.” If you do like it, it’s a “convention.”

Not long ago, on a whim, I picked up a book on writing the modern mystery novel. In it, the writer decried the cliche of detectives with no apparent personal lives whose only role in the book is solving the case. Modern readers, this writer insisted, demand complex detectives with well-developed back stories, home lives and romantic histories.

With all due respect to that writer, I disagree. I happen to like the old-school detective whose only role in the story is solving the case, and maybe delivering some wisecracks and punches to deserving jaws along the way. Call me insensitive, but I don’t really care about the lead inspector’s conflicted relationship with her father, unless it’s tied into the case somehow.

We didn’t even need to know Columbo’s first name. Or his relationship to his wife — who in all likelihood didn’t exist, and was a ruse he employed to put suspects off balance. (And don’t tell me about the later seasons where he had phone conversations with her, or the defilement that was the “Mrs. Columbo” spinoff. That was bullshit.)

The name of my book’s protagonist, the Freak Foundation operative, is never provided. That’s a tribute to Dashiell Hammet’s Continental operative, the employee of the Continental Detective Agency who’s never given a name and doesn’t need one.

I also like hard-drinking, emotionally troubled — troubled, but not self-pitying and whiny — detectives. Not just as a throwback to the old-school, hard-boiled detectives, though that’s a factor. It strikes me as a logical outgrowth of the who they are and what they do.

A lot of people who deal with violence, death and its consequences in the course of their jobs drink and have emotional issues. If protagonists are seeing death and violence all the time and AREN’T emotionally affected by it, they’re probably screwed up in a different way.

I guess the whole idea of cliche is subjective, and changes with time, anyway. For example, I just watched the first season of “Hannibal,” and it was great. Ten years ago, if you’d asked if I was interested in watching some popular entertainment about an investigator playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a brilliant serial killed, I might have actually physically assaulted you.

“Enough!” I’d have cried, while slapping you about the face. “That whole thing has been driven into the freakin ground!”

But somewhere in the intervening time and pop culture’s obsession with other matters — boy wizards, vampires, zombies, etc. — that convention appear to have lost its stale quality to some extent. So I guess I can enjoy it for now.

Until it becomes cliche again, and the circle of life continues.

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Here’s a refresher course in American history that’s particularly important and relevant for this year’s 4th of July. For some reason, I just remembered it this morning and found it on Youtube. If you were an American kid in the 1970s, you might remember those wonderful “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. They were catchy little snippets of educational material that ran between less edifying cartoons during Saturday mornings. Which a lot of kids of my generation spent camped out in front of the TV, wolfing down bowls of sugary cereal. So don’t be fooled by those bullshit sanctimonious re-posts on Facebook by middle-aged people about how *sniff* OUR generation didn’t need electronic gadgets to stay entertained because we were out riding bikes and organizing community patriotic rallies when we weren’t busy plowing the fields. We’re just jealous because our electronic gadgets weren’t as cool. But I digress.

Anyway, I actually felt a little but guilty when I found this. Because much as I loved Schoolhouse Rock as a kid, I always wanted to change the channel when this one came on. It was one of those women’s lib (that’s what we called it in the 1970s) things. Girl stuff. I found it not only irrelevant to me as a boy, but offensive. What? Were these “women’s libbers” implying that they were somehow BETTER than men?

No. They were simply claiming their rights as human beings in a free and democratic society. I hope the boys growing up today have a better understanding of that principle than I did. How suffragists should be heroes to them, as well as to girls. How whenever people are denied basic rights for no good reason, that’s a threat to everyone. How being part of one group that oppresses another doesn’t ennoble you, but demeans you.

So here’s a tribute to some true American heroes. The women of the suffrage movement. Pour yourself a bowl of sugary cereal and enjoy.

 

The original “Rosemary’s Baby” from 1968 is one of my all-time favorite supernatural thrillers. It’s a testimony to the principle of “less is more,” seen all-too-rarely in popular entertainment these days. Roman Polanski (yeah he’s a scumbag, but the guy knows how to direct) doesn’t need to use a lot of CGI monsters to generate chills. Just a slow-boiling, claustrophobic tension undercut with elements of sly humor that only accentuate the unease.

I’d hoped the four-hour miniseries update that ran last month would come out on DVD, so I could see if it was true to the original. But now? Well … I’ll let you read the interpretation by somebody who’s eminently qualified to judge the quality of supernatural thrillers. E.F. Watkins is one of the more notable and talented writers of supernatural thrillers out there these days. She generously agreed to let me run her review of the series. And once you’re done reading it, be sure to check out “Hex, Death and Rock & Roll,” her latest paranormal mystery, which was a recent finalist in the mystery category for the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Take it away, Ms. Watkins:

Recently, NBC presented a four-hour miniseries based on Rosemary’s Baby, the 1967 Ira Levin novel and 1968 Roman Polanski film. The TV version kept the basic plot but made many “updates.” In general, this was a good idea, since it avoided direct comparisons with the original classic. By the end, though, my complaint was not that they modernized the tale but that they didn’t update it enough.

The original Rosemary’s Baby was a “smaller” story with which almost anyone could identify. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple, luck into a great apartment in an upscale but spooky old Central Park building. Soon, they find their lives invaded by quirky old neighbors, the Castevets, who seem overly interested in the Woodhouses’ personal business, including Guy’s stagnant acting career. After a macabre sexual dream, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. Guy takes credit and “acts” delighted, but afterward becomes standoffish. As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary feels worse and worse, but Guy, the Castevets and the obstetrician they picked for her all belittle her complaints. Some people who either block Guy’s career ambitions or try to help Rosemary get answers are eliminated through accidents or sudden illness. Eventually, her research on the building’s dark history leads her to believe the neighbors and their friends are “witches” (more accurately, Satanists) and she thinks they want her baby for a sacrifice. Rosemary makes several attempts to escape and get outside help, but in vain. In her apartment, struggling against her husband and the cult leaders, she goes into labor. Guy later tells her the baby was born dead, but one day she hears it crying from the Castevets’ apartment. Armed with a large kitchen knife, she investigates and finds her baby … not on a sacrificial altar, but in a black-draped bassinet in the living room. Strangers of many nationalities are gathered around, chatting happily. They coax Rosemary to put down the knife and see her healthy baby boy. It takes her a second to notice something inhuman about the infant’s eyes, and they tell her Satan was the father. She is horrified, but finally her mothering instinct wins out. In the last scene, she rocks the bassinet, cooing to the baby, and the Satanists around her hail the birth of their Dark Master into the world.

Levin said he was inspired by the 1966 cover of Time magazine, which asked in big block letters, “Is God Dead?” If he was, Levin wondered, might Satan get a chance to step into the void? The original book and movie also served as a clever satire on the hustling atmosphere of Manhattan, where an actor might literally sell his soul—and his wife—to the Devil for stardom. Not to mention, that great apartment on Central Park West!

The 2014 miniseries takes place in a different world. The young Woodhouses moved to Paris where Guy, an aspiring novelist, has a shot at a teaching position. They are living in cramped, temporary quarters when they meet up with the Castevets, this time a rich, attractive, sophisticated, middle-aged couple (“Minnie” is now “Margaux”). When a mysterious fire damages the Woodhouses’ apartment, the Castevets—who happen to own the Chimera, a mammoth apartment building lavishly carved with stone dragons—offer them free housing until they can get back on their feet. They also invite them to a glamorous Parisian party where Guy makes connections helpful to his career.

This approach lacks the cleverness of making the Satanists a doddering old couple across the hall, because we almost expect rich and powerful people to be in league with the Devil. And Parisians—! Don’t they already have a reputation for decadence? Still, it works on the level of The Devil’s Advocate, as Guy and Rosemary become seduced by their charming, generous new friends and The Good Life. As the familiar plot unfolds, the sex scenes are steamier, and the deaths of those who might scuttle the Castevets’ plans are gorier, than in the original. The acting and atmosphere are decent; though Guy is blander this time around, Zoe Saldana gives Rosemary strength and sass and realistically conveys the wild roller coaster ride of her emotions.

At the end, though, I felt the TV version fell apart in terms of both its internal logic and its final impact. In the original book and movie, one young woman in the apartment building in the past had committed suicide—apparently because the Castevets tried to recruit her for their scheme and she became desperate to escape. You had the feeling they’d just begun this attempt to create an Antichrist in the flesh (possibly because God was now dead?). In the miniseries, a police captain finds that a string of young women have been murdered over the decades by the Castevets. Have they really been trying for all that time to find a suitable mother for Satan Jr.—and failing, in spite of all of their powers?

In the original, it seems as if Minnie and Roman are just picking young, fertile women who live nearby. But this time around, the Parisian couple appear to seek out Rosemary, an American visitor, and toward the end they tell her, “You were chosen.” Why? There aren’t enough fertile, young French women with ambitious husbands? If there’s something special about Rosemary, it’s never explained, and it should be.

But I think the biggest flaw in the remake is that the consequences of this baby’s birth don’t seem ominous enough. Back in 1968, life for most Americans was pretty comfy. Just the idea that God might be dead, and Satan might rise to power instead, was enough to shock audiences. But in 2014, unfortunately, it takes more than a few fatal hexes and a baby with black, fathomless eyes to frighten us. If the Castevets and their friends really are the most successful Devil-worshippers ever, with many power brokers among their circle of friends, what is their ultimate agenda? Satan Jr. should have at least as much apocalyptic horror up his sleeve as the kid in The Omen!

Without at least some inkling of that threat, though, an updated Rosemary’s Baby falls flat. In these days of global climate change, worldwide financial disasters and international terrorism, mankind seems all too capable of destroying itself without any outside help from the Devil.

 

In my recent post on the movie “Night of the Templar,” I mentioned Creature Double Feature on Channel 48 out of Philadelphia. I since found the original intro and outro from it on Youtube. This made my week. Took me back to those Saturday afternoons in the 1970s camped in front of the TV, watching the cavalcade of old black-and-white movies, or the more recent (and frequently more gory) drive-in and grindhouse fare. Sometimes they’d show one of the classic Universal monster movies. More often, they’d be grade-B films. And there was certainly nothing wrong with that. Although I still remember tuning into what I thought would be “Bride of Frankenstein,” and instead watching Ed Woods’ “Bride of the Monster.” I was a bit too young for irony, so I didn’t yet appreciate Ed Wood’s work on the level I would in later decades. That may have been the first time in my life I uttered the words: “What the FUCK?”

Anyway, check out the Youtube clip. It’s decidedly low-budget and campy, but eerily effective all the same. Much like most of the movies Creature Double Feature showcased.

 

VeronicaThe trailer for the “Veronica Mars” movie is out. And it looks … well, I don’t know how it looks. I’m not going to watch the trailer for fear of seeing a single spoiler. And it’s not like I need to be sold on seeing the movie. Hell, I’d pay a large sum of money just to see a five-minute resolution of the season three cliffhanger, which is where the show wrapped up in 2007.

Soon after I discovered “Veronica Mars” a few years ago — perhaps “had been converted to” is a more accurate term than “discovered” — I was raving about it at a party. A rather sardonic friend of mine asked: “What are you, a 15-year-old girl?”

That’s the kind of misinterpretation the show engendered. For the record, I’m a 47-year-old man, and I’m a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction. (By the way, check out Alex Segura’s “Silent City” if you’re also a fan. For that matter, check out my novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”) As I don’t really follow TV, I was vaguely aware of the show when it was on from the years 2004 to 2007, felt no desire to check it out, and didn’t give it a second thought.

Ironically, I think the ideal viewer of the show is somebody like me, who has an idea that it’s some kind of lightweight teen mystery/soap opera hybrid. Somebody with no natural inclination to watch it, who ends up seeing it anyway through some chain of circumstances. That’s precisely the type of person most in a position to be surprised at first, and then blown away by how clever, darkly funny, edgy, complex and just flat-out freakin good it is. (more…)