Friday, 31 December 2010

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Friday, 3 December 2010

On the Pursuit of Excellence

The press has long been obsessed with documenting the downfall of achievers, whether the achievements are academic, athletic, cultural or even pop-cultural. For me, there is no high greater joy than watching someone perform at the top of their game (which is a little bit ironic, given that I can't stand to watch any sports of any kind).

Anne Hathaway's performance on Saturday Night Live last week was one of those moments where you watch and you feel a little bit transcendent. She sings! she dances! she is HYSTERICALLY FUNNY! I know some reviewers have said that part of the reason the episode worked was that the writing was far superior than the rest of the season, which may be true, but she was so good that even the lesser sketches didn't seem to drag on.

Like her superbly ridiculous rendition of Obscene Mary Poppins last time she hosted, her impressions this time managed to get straight to the heart of the innocent victims, whether it be Katie Holmes (how the hell did she do the upside down eyes?), Kate Middleton, or in my favorite sketch, Alanis Morissette.

Part of the joy in finding out what a great comedienne she is comes from the fact that she also managed one of my favorite dramatic performances in Rachel Getting Married, and her two minutes in Brokeback Mountain were chilling.
So when they announced that she was hosting the Oscars, I just thought, what a FANTASTIC fit! She has more range than any host of the past few years (except perhaps Hugh Jackman, who was a joy to watch). So the combination with James Franco promises a more unpredictable, energetic and fun awards show than they've had in years (even though I still think that hardly any movies released this year so far have been awards-calibre).

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Fringe: "6995 kHz" or "FauxLivia has Pronoun Trouble"

I cannot begin to explain how simultaneously exciting and frustrating it is to see Fringe on schedule now (there's no way to spoil myself, and I get the pleasure of being shocked by each new revelation). BUT WHY ISN'T NEXT WEEK HERE ALREADY?!?


One of the things that makes Fringe great is that the way the story has developed, minute character developments can be just as mindblowing as big reveals like the Twin Towers in the parallel universe. We watch Fauxlivia closely for any betrayal of her true identity. We watch, desperate for any character to show a glimmer of recognition that Fauxlivia is not Ourlivia. Part of the reason this storyline works in this show, when it has failed so completely in other shows, is that it is not completely obvious that it's the wrong Olivia. There are slight moments when she's a little 'off,' but that's it. We know it's not her, but we can't really fault any of the other characters for not knowing, owing to Anna Torv's fantastic parsing of the two Olivias.

We can't fault poor hapless Peter, who's obviously blinded by romance. We can't fault Walter, for obvious reasons. Astrid only ever dealt with Olivia on a professional level, so it's not surprising that she doesn't detect the nuances. But Nina. Oh Nina. She is the first to really cotton on that something's not right, which makes perfect sense. She and Olivia have always had an adversarial relationship, and so she has probably studied Olivia extensively to understand how to manipulate her. And Olivia has never been as forthcoming to Nina as Fauxlivia was in this episode, so that probably sent up some kind of flag. While it's slightly surprising that she didn't say anything during her heart-to-heart with Walter, we all know that Nina plays things close to the vest.

(Unless of course, as other commenters have suggested, there's a massive long con going on where Walter, Nina and Peter already know that it's the wrong Olivia, but that's too convoluted even for this show.)

The only way to get through the opening scene is to pretend it's Ourlivia, which makes it cute and fun, otherwise the whole thing is pretty squicky. But it is sweet, and mercifully short. I like that Fringe doesn't dwell too much on melodrama, instead using emotional moments for short and sweet effect, rather than using character drama as a substitute for a plot (cough cough LOST!)

There was a lot happening this episode (I am very grateful to Fringe that it advances the plot every episode, and doesn't treat it's mythology as the be-all and end-all of the entire show, unlike that other J.J. Abrams show). This episode gave us the first hints about how this particular storyline might resolve: Fauxlivia shows the first sign of hesitation about whether her mission is actually the righteous one. Between Nina, Walter and Peter, we learn about a key difference between Earth Prime and Alt-Earth: hope still exists in Earth One. Science can be used as a tool to help humanity, and not just for destruction. We get the sense throughout that Fauxlivia has only been exposed to science as a tool for military dominance, for keeping society in check, not as a constructive device in its own right. So when Peter tells her, Doctor-style, "There's got to be another way," you can see her almost start to believe it.

FauxLivia breaks cover on three separate occasions in this episode, each one not enough to blow it completely, but hopefully are sufficient to create a few scratches on her facade. The first is what I mentioned earlier, that she won't confront Walter directly, but asks  Nina to do so instead. We all know Olivia is ridiculously brusque with Walter when he gets goopy (hence in Alt-Verse, all she has to do to prove that she's Ourlivia is yell at him, hilariously.) The next two are with silly Peter: first, she doesn't remember Ed Markham, midget bookseller extraordinaire. Then, more obviously, she betrays the fact that she doesn't have Olivia's photographic memory, when she struggles to recall the fateful numbers of Lost (sending me into shuddery flashbacks of hatred of Lost).

This episode also introduced an exciting new element: the First People, a race of humans that theoretically existed before even the dinosaurs. According to the only source, one Seamus Wiles, they were far more technologically advanced than modern man, and thusly proceeded to wipe themselves from the face of the universe. Also, most importantly, and I take absolutely no credit for noticing this, but ANAGRAM AHOY! Seamus Wiles = Samuel Weiss, who you will recall as being 'older than you think.' Before someone cracked that anagram, I assumed that the First People are one and the same as The Observers, but now I don't think so.

Finally, we get a tantalizing coda in the Alt-Verse, where we learn that Olivia is in imminent danger. And then I yelled at the tv for ending the episode. Cause shit be goin' down next week. 

Walter and Nina, sitting on a bench, sharing a joint and lamenting 'kids these days.' It was a wonderfully warm scene with two characters we wouldn't normally associate with warmth.

Astrid actually has a role! And that role is channeling Alt-Strid and being a numbers whiz (seriously is there anything this girl isn't an expert in?) Sudden increase in screentime = red-shirt alert...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

On The Viewing Habits of Political Parties

I really don't know what to say about this list. On the whole I'd like to say it means Democrats have better taste, but there's that #3, Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami. As Lucille Bluth once said, "I don't know what it is, and I certainly won't respond to it."

It's encouraging though that Modern Family is so popular on the Republican side, it's a great show for many reasons, not least of which that it normalizes the idea of gay marriage. Though the whole thing is a bit disingenous, as the company that ran the survey admitted that shows like The Good Wife and Modern Family are equally popular on both sides, which is absolutely not reflected in their little chart.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Extreme Show Catch-Up: Fringe


-Walter and his friendship with Astral/Asteroid/Asterix. His inability to remember Astrid's name despite his obvious affection for her makes me giggle everytime. My all-time favorite misnomer though is Ostrich.

-The whole concept of the Observers is so Classic Who that it makes me squiggle with glee. Mystery creatures living outside of time. The Observer-centric episode is definitely my favorite episode so far.

-The organic development of the Bishops' Father-Son relationship. There's something very deep (in Walter's case, so deep that there must be something supernatural involved) driving their love for each other, and that shows in every single scene; it's not like other shows that rely on cheap sentimental plot points to develop family relationships.

-Anna Torv's acting: I know some people think it's absolutely terrible, but the weird awkwardness as Olivia makes the character interesting and fun to watch despite the fact that THE WRITERS REFUSE TO DEVELOP HER BACKSTORY OR FRONT-STORY (though I hear this changes dramatically toward the end of the season).

-Most shows, especially genre shows, expand their main cast in the second season. Fringe seems to have taken the opposite route, where everyone's a red shirt apart from our Fringe team and Lance Reddick (I'm sorry, I have to refer to him by the actor's name. I don't know the character's first name, and I can't keep typing 'Broyles.' Seriously, it drives me nuts: "We gotta tell Broyles." "We need Broyles's permission." The only way I will get over this is if there's an episode where Broyles invites the gang over for BBQ in a very special episode called 'Broyles Broils'.)


-Mainly, I like the fact that the show is well and truly science fiction, complete with wibbley-wobbleys and timey-wimeys.

-Walter. Period. Has there ever been a more entertaining character on television? And it's even better as we learn, more and more, that he really used to be a quasi-evil bastard with no regard for ethics or the good of humanity; it's all about him and his science. So it's simultaneously saddening and heartening that that kind of misbehavior is rewarded with complete madness, reducing Walter to an almost doddering fool (with an insane hankering for processed foods). Ironically, the more that Walter's sanity returns to him, with accompanying guilt, the more we learn about how twisted he truly was.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Modern Family: "Chirp"

While I know that "Chirp" wasn't the funniest episode the show's produced, it's one of the most unique episodes. Like "The Dinner Party," the best episode of The Office, it lets the comedy develop out of quite serious dramatic issues which are clearly on the edge of blowing up.

Having now seen Ty Burrell outside of a purely comedic role (as Diane Arbus's put upon husband in Fur), I've realized that part of what makes Phil Dunphy so effective as a comic character is the slight sadness that always seems to be hanging behind his eyes, a bit like Charlie Chaplin or Madeline Kahn. As a result we never completely write Phil off as a complete doofus. And like last week, except more subtly this time around, we see Phil's silliness driven by very normal insecurities (not the sort of la-la dreamland ones that Michael Scott is often plagued with in lesser episodes of The Office). His existing fears are only amplified by the fact that not only is he failing at his own job, but he's failing at doing Claire's job while she's sick.

As for the Pritchetts, we get to see Gloria being hilarious as usual (she really has become the scene-stealer in a show full of scene-stealers).

And as for the gays, it starts off as a usual parental disagreement: Cam wants to be a showbiz dad, and Mitchell absolutely does not. But Cam sneakily gets Lily into a commercial anyway, and while this could go into predictable Cam and Mitch fight and then make up territory, it takes a left turn into...RACISM YAY RACISM. As it turns out, Lily was only cast to be one of two Japanese twins fighting off a monster that can only be described as Foreclosure-Zilla (straight out of Arrested Development). So blah blah, Cam makes a big speech about the nature of stereotypes to the director of the commercial, and then, in a twist that's too funny to imagine, HE TAKES THE WRONG BABY. Because all Asians look alike.

Now I know I didn't write about last week's episode (which I really should have, it was too hilarious for words. Especially when Gloria talks in an "American Accent"), which was one of the show's comedic high points. But this episode showed how strong the cast is, that they can do a little bit of drama just as well as anything else.

Chirp chirp!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Best Doctor Who Episodes for Newbies

Doctor/Tardis = OTP

The internet is chock-a-block with top ten lists of Doctor Who episodes, ranging from "best monsters" to "best use of glasses-porn" to "best cases of the Doctor licking things". But I am a longstanding fan, and I've had a lot of friends, particularly in the US, comment that they've seen and loved Torchwood: Children of Earth, and want to get into the mothershow, but find it completely intimidating to sift through.

So this is my attempt to create a sort of handy guide to the best episodes from the new series for people who have never seen the show. There's a combination of episodes that are there for pure quality and episodes that best introduce the broader mythology of Doctor Who. And even if you never watch another episode of Doctor Who apart from these, you'll know what people are generally referring to, and you'll think the show is bloody brilliant (There are a number of absolutely terrible episodes that make even me embarrassed to watch the show. I am, however, keeping you clear from the really really naff stuff that producers still feel compelled to put in the new series.)

Fair warning: the "Place in the Mythology" subheadings will more than likely contain spoilers.

"The clock on the mantle is broken, it is time! Doctor, it is time!"

For fans of: The Time Traveler's Wife, steampunk, generally beautiful things
Best for: melding history and science fiction together seamlessly

The Story:
Louis XIV's court at Versailles is under attack from sinister alien robots. Louis' lover, Madame de Pompadour, contacts the only man who can help, the mysterious 'fireplace man' that saved her from the same robots when she was a child. The Doctor, who has crossed her fireplace into her boudoir multiple times, answers her call and leaves Rose and Mickey stranded in the 51st century. Who are the robots, and why are they so obsessed with Madame de Pompadour?

Why You Should Watch It:
Casting the impeccably good-looking David Tennant led to a lot of speculation that the Doctor would suddenly become a time-traveling Kirk. And yet, this is the first real romance we see on the show. Madame de Pompadour takes the term 'companion' to its logical conclusion (Aside: Joss Whedon did an interview long, long ago, about why he named the prostitutes on Firefly 'companions' - apparently he got irritated with the subservient, genderless and formless role of companions in classic Who, and wanted to subvert it).

There's no sex in Doctor Who that isn't deeply disguised (at least not until the current Moffatt era), but this episode is the closest we get to a true love affair, and not just with anyone, but with the favoured courtesan of Louis XIV.

Place in the Mythology:
This is a purely standalone episode, it has no link to anything that happens before or after. And yet, it tells us, and his companion at the time, so much about the Doctor, who he is, what he's fighting internally, and what really drives him. He will always save someone in need, even if that means leaving others even MORE at need. He is quick to fall in love, but falling is the furthest he can go.  When he gets caught up in the pure joy of some of his adventures, he forgets some of the human costs. Until he doesn't. And that's when you can almost see it in his eyes, a piece of his heart ripped out everytime. Which makes you wonder if eventually, he doesn't let it be ripped out anymore (and in the case of David Tennant's Doctor, this definitely happens at the end of his tenure).

"Everything has its time. And everything ends."

For fans of: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, hard sci-fi
Best for: learning why the Doctor has moments where he seems to be suddenly shrouded in darkness.

The Story:
The Doctor takes Martha Jones to Earth's future as a reward for saving his life. When they get there, they find millions of people stuck, quite literally, in traffic gridlock. As the Doctor works to find out what's keeping humanity trapped in their vehicles underground, he meets a rogue's galleries of anthropomorphic cats and squabbling old lesbians. And once he finds out what's at the end of the tunnel, he'll never be the same.

Why You Should Watch It:
It's one of the only new Doctor Who episodes that has a pure sci-fi premise; most Who episodes are more in the "fantasy with future technology" realm. More importantly, we get to see the Doctor open up completely about his past, about his people, about everything he's lost in an honest, emotional way without disaster knocking on the door.

Place in the Mythology:
It has a villain from the old series that even I am not aware of (there are years of episodes that were burned by the BBC during a writers' strike, and are lost to posterity). We get an info-dump about the Doctor's home planet, which establishes the mythology of the new show. Most importantly, we find out what happens to Captain Jack Harkness, esteemed hero of Torchwood (though we won't find out exactly what until much, much later).

"The the stop everywhere..."

For fans of: Alien, complicated time travel stories
Best for: Seeing the Doctor evolve before your very eyes.

The Story:
The Doctor receives a message from someone claiming to be a friend, drawing him to what was once the biggest library in the universe. However, when he arrives, he finds that all the patrons had disappeared one hundred years ago, leaving an ominous message to 'count the shadows.' The Doctor is left to solve a number of mysteries: what happened to everyone, what exactly are the flesh-consuming shadows, and most importantly, who is River Song?

Why you should watch it:
It's brilliant, for a start. It's set in a library that has spoilers for everything that ever happens. It's genuinely terrifying in places, both emotionally and physically. It's clever and complicated in a way that longtime fans would not have expected from Doctor Who, and it has an ending that Neil Gaiman would be proud to have written (in fact he has said something to that effect). Nothing happens as predictably as you'd expect. Entire lifetimes come and go, without any magical potion.

It's one of the rare Doctor Who episodes that doesn't undermine the depth and darkness of its story with a cheap happy ending. In fact, even though you're rooting for the Doctor's plan every step of the way, there's a coda that makes you really question whether he saved the day at all.

To say anything more would spoil the experience. This is one of the few episodes that really had me guessing every step of the way.

Also, it has a terrific soundtrack.

Place in the Mythology:
Silence In The Library introduces firecracker archaeologist River Song, who has since become key to the mythology of the series. But owing to the non-linear nature of her story, how and why she's so important remains a mystery.

For the first and probably only time, we see the Doctor genuinely on the back foot, as he struggles with the idea of this woman who will one day be deeply connected to him, and knows more about him than he knows himself. It's particularly touching because we know that David Tennant's Doctor has too much baggage, so much heartbreak and angst, that he couldn't possibly be so at ease with another (human? Timelord? god knows), but you can see the glimmer of hope in his eyes (and the snap of his fingers) when River convinces him that one day that will change.

And I haven't even mentioned Donna's story. Oh god the heartbreak.

"The stuff of nightmares reduced to an exhibit...I'm getting old."

For fans of: Buffy/Angel (though more Angel)
Best for: introducing the Doctor's tortured past.

The Story:
In the far future, under the harsh Utah desert, billionaire Henry Van Statten maintains a collection of all the alien detritus that has every arrived on earth, including the last of the Dalek kind. As the Daleks destroyed all of the Doctor's people except himself, what will happen in this face-off between the last of the two ancient and mighty species?

Why You Should Watch It:
The Daleks are historically the Doctor's greatest enemy, a bunch of technologically superior neo-fascists. They are the villains that turned the show from a curiosity into must-watch television back in the 1960s, and were generally pretty scary (until all manner of silliness occurred, which the new series is bent on repeating).  There's an excellent moment in the original series where the Doctor has the opportunity to stop the Daleks from ever being created, and his failure to act led to countless deaths and extreme devastation later on.

So seeing the Doctor face off one-on-one with the last of the Dalek kind, just as he is the last of his kind, has a beautiful poignance. There is an even lovelier moment in the resolution of the episode which questions the whole nature of predetermination, of revenge, and of forgiveness.

It's important to see this because it is the only Christopher Eccleston episode that has stood the test of time, which is unfortunate because his version of the Doctor really is one of the best but the writers gave him the worst story-lines of the series. Ever. Farting aliens were involved in not one, but THREE episodes.

Place in the Mythology:
Let's face it, where the Daleks are concerned, there is no such thing as mythology, past events, total elimination, or any logical narrative sense. They became too popular so they were hideously overused by pretty much every Doctor Who producer ever. But Dalek aired before the writers managed to ruin the overgrown pepperpots completely (again!).
"The Angels have the phone's my favorite! I've got it on t-shirt."

For fans of: Greek Mythology
Best for: a beautiful tale of how people on the periphery are affected by the wars of the 'gods'

The Story:
When visiting an old house, Sally Sparrow finds a number of cryptic messages from a man called "The Doctor." Then, when her best friend disappears, she starts to take the the mysterious warnings more seriously. She follows a trail of breadcrumbs spread throughout time, but still doesn't know what to do, except for one piece of advice from the Doctor: 'Whatever you do, don't blink.'

Why You Should Watch It:
In this case it might be fair to confuse causation with correlation; the following year, Carey Mulligan had an Oscar nomination. The episode has the Doctor in it for a very brief time, which perhaps makes it an odd choice for the best intro episode. But Mulligan really sells it as winsome Sally Sparrow, drawn into time travel shenanigans purely by accident.

Again, the balance is pitch perfect between humor and horror, and there are actually moments where I jumped out of my skin. To this day, my grandmother can't look at a statue without a twinge of fear. The beauty of the whole thing is the nature of the threat - when you close your eyes, inanimate objects  move to steal your life.

The fact that the Doctor appears so little in the episode, and often only in slight clues or cryptic messages, means that the viewer gets to really understand his approach to and relationship with being a hero; more often than not, he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he'll fix the problem, and damn the collateral damage.

Place in the Mythology:
We meet the best modern villains on the show, the Weeping Angels. Part of the beauty of this episode, though, is it's standalone nature; we are privy to an episode of Sally Sparrow's life, not to the Doctor's, which makes a change. We get the start and the finish of her time with the Doctor, which has a closure that few other companions get. (There were numerous rumours that they were going to bring her back full time, but then the Academy rang.)

"He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun...And he's wonderful"

For fans of: Neil Gaiman, especially the darker bits of Sandman.
Best for: Letting the companion shine, seeing what happens if the Doctor is not really the Doctor...

The Story:
In England just before WWI, a teacher named John Smith starts to have strange dreams of travel to far off lands and impossible places. Meanwhile, Martha holds the only key to getting the Doctor back, which becomes increasingly urgent when a menacing family arrives from the stars. Unfortunately, that key is stolen by one of the students...

Why You Should See It:
It is desperately stressful to know that there is a fearsome threat in the town and being able to see a man who looks just like the Doctor but has hidden that side of himself away so completely. We see John Smith live the life the Doctor never can: uncomplicated, simple, committed.  There's a great tension between this wonderful love story that we want to see work and our (and Martha's) desperate need to get the Doctor back.

Also, the ending is terrific. It goes to a dark place that the show never had before or since (though Neil Gaiman will hopefully correct that!). There's a Brothers Grimm fairy tale element, which leaves you wondering which part of the Doctor is actually subsumed when he shifts identities: the human or the omnipotent alien?

Place in the Mythology:
We are introduced to a magical plot device known as the "Chameleon Arch," which essentially rewrites every cell of a Timelord into a new species, even replacing real memories with false ones. The original Timelord "essence" is then stored in a key, which always seems to be an old-timey fob watch that the Timelord in questions recognizes, but never opens. The minute we learn about this, we know (though the Doctor doesn't figure it out quite yet), that there might be other Timelords scattered about the Universe, their identities subsumed into a new consciousness, which is how they've managed to survive when the rest of the species died. 

Moving on:
Right then, I hope some of you find this helpful! There are a number of other episodes that I considered for this list, but writing this post is already ruining my entire life, so I'll leave you here.

But, if you need some immediate recommendations to follow on, here they are:

Fires of Pompeii
Planet of the Ood