Wednesday, July 26, 2006

tv showrunners talk too much

It's probably not unreasonable to say that I do too much reading about television happenings (i.e. gossip) online.... but lately I've come across a disturbing trend.

Producers and showrunners talk too much. They should spend more time coming up with challenging storylines and aiming for good writing than gloating about how great their show is. The last two weeks or so have given a cavalcade of upcoming fall season previews by the major networks for television critics. At every reception and gala and panel they have proud television executives and producers and writers and the occasional star all showing up with bright smiles to talk about their next big hit. Of course, this is their job: to plug their show, to make sure people watch, to make money. Whether the show is actually good or not is an afterthought. (And sometimes, this question sneaks in on the faces of those smiling folks onstage).

But there comes a point when this goes a step too far. For instance, producers dropping tidbit after tidbit after vague tidbit after mannerism so that feverish geeks (i.e. me) can look up what they said/intuited in transcripts posted online. Let's take for instance The Powers That Be behind fans-are-foaming-at-the-mouth smash hits like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives". "Lost" is already starting to flirt too heavily with advertising addenda, with junky 'mobisodes' and fictional commercials and myriad self-sponsored websites (opposed from independent fan sites) and podcast after podcast of the producers talking in circles about their vision for the show or whatever. Similar leakage is happening with the creatively putrefying "Desperate Housewives", with the showrunner admitting that this last season sucked really bad and how he has a brilliant plan to bring it all back, and opening bags of breadcrumbs to give us gratuitous hints of what he has in mind. I say don't worry, dear showrunners, your shows are unstoppable right now, and will be well into the next season.

My gripe: when you talk too much about your show, when you talk about the goings on behind it, when you talk about the process, it destroys the whole allure of the show in the first place. In a way, it's breaking the contract with the viewer to have the story remain self-contained. Someone who I think agrees with my line of thinking is Shonda Rhimes, the showrunner of another foaming-at-the-mouth hit, "Grey's Anatomy". She's garnered a reputation for herself among TV critcs and gossip raggers as a spoiler nazi, keeping the behind-the-scenes planning of her show under close watch and out of the loose lips of the critics and columnists. But.... isn't that her job? So far it's working.... "Grey's Anatomy" (despite the disturbing and potentially naughty title) is white-hot.

Yes, I understand that all that extra stuff (podcasts, mobisodes (?), trick websites, "The Lost Experience") is an advertising goldmine.... but as it rakes in cash, it starts eating away at the integrity of the show and of the canon of the story. All this isn't anything new, though.... networks have paraded their shows with fearless plastic stoicism since the beginning of television. They've all tried advertising gimmickery many times before.... it's inevitable for any hit, really. But keep in mind, the networks are in it for the money, not for the art. Sure they want the show to be successful on an artistic/storyline level, but only if it's successful in raking in revenue for the network (hence why truly fantastic television sometimes gets unceremonoiously canned). It's the job of the writers and showrunners, not the executives, to keep the integrity of the story alive and not to dangle morsels of gossip like meat on a hook to their greedy audience. In the end, that audience might be more grateful if things were kept under wraps, and the surprises to come would feel new and organic; that the show can stand on its own, and not planned and plotted and bragged about for everyone to read about.

Monday, July 17, 2006

food network programming déjà vu

So far this summer when I'm not working or reading in Riverside Park or excessively loitering in bookstores or touring happy hours at my-kind-doesn't-belong-here swanky bars throughout the city, the television is likely on in my apartment. When it is on, it's usually tuned to the Food Network. Since I sacrificed my cable (and regained $40 a month), the basic package left behind mercifully includes the Food Network, aside from the other standard big 4 and a surprising number of Spanish-language stations, but that's about it. I don't really watch much TV currently because there's nothing to watch during the summer.... so for now it's serving mostly as a conduit for background noise. I've noticed, though, that if there's one thing the Food Network doesn't have, it's variety in its commercials.

With their commercials comes relentless advertising for a slough of new programming. Why, oh why are there so many travel-'n'-eating shows on the Food Network? What happened to good old cooking shows? It looks like the Food Network is slowly changing along the same lines as what happened to MTV, where MTV slowly shed everything that had to do with music to programming things only tangentially related to music (and now, not even that, I guess). Worse yet.... all these shows seem to be re-hashes of shows past. Out with the old, in with the new?

If the opening volley of Rachael Ray travel-'n'-eating shows from the past few years was a hint, now it seems like you can't watch a show without somebody traveling somewhere and relating it to food. The network is no stranger to this kind of show (citing now-golden oldies like "The Best Of..." and "Food Finds"), but I think they're approaching some kind of overkill. Keep in mind I haven't seen any of these new shows, because their commercials are already enough for me and I only like traditional cooking shows anyway.

Paula Deen's hunky sons get to tour the country on the Food Network's dime with "Road Tasted" (who gets paid to name these shows anyway?). They travel in a likely-it's-not-theirs vintage convertible and eat in mom-'n'-pop joints from coast to coast and tell you (yes, you!) the viewer how you can get these tasty treats at home. Wait a minute.... didn't the Food Network already have this covered with "Food Finds"? What's the matter.... Sandra Pinckney suddenly lost her charm? Also: has any one else noticed that the Deen brood's accents tend to be a bit uneven? That southern charm is part of their contract, people.

I'm not sure why Bobby Flay seems to be so popular; he must be testing extremely well in whatever markets the Food Network analysts are zeroing in on. Alas, "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" is yet another show where he gets to gloat about his cooking skills, and this time challenge you (yes, you!), America on how you cook your own down-home dishes. Doesn't Bobby Flay just seem mean? Maybe it's the perma-grimace. Maybe Food Network doesn't want to buy him out of his contract. A less invasive cousin of this show was in "Tyler's Ultimate", a relatively enjoyable variations-on-a-theme cooking show where Tyler Florence (gone extremely low profile as of late) globetrots and learns how real Italians make lasagna, real Spaniards make paella, and then sees how he matches up to par in is million dollar Manhattan kitchen.

Now for Alton Brown. Sometimes "Good Eats" can be charming and quite informative, but more often not it's like the Anal Retentive Guide to Cooking. Sometimes he just gets so tightly wound on how you (yes, you) MUST do what he says in the kitchen, and then goes overboard with self-consciously kitschy skits, that I can't stomach the show for weeks on end. Hopefully this won't be the case for "Feasting on Asphalt" (again, how much does this person get paid to come up with a sucky title like that?). Alton Brown tours the country on a motorcycle and acts as a one-man wikipedia on what food-related items he comes across. Food Network's first video blog, maybe?

Meanwhile, Rachael Ray's non-Food network talk show is picking up advertising steam; armchair cook cracks me up about this. I don't believe the Food Network is obligated to promote this future syndicated gabfest, so they don't.... but that doesn't stop local ABC networks from advertising how you can be a part of the show! (and with Rachael Ray suddenly calling herself "Rach") I just can't seem to warm up to the idea.... something about it is ringing fake all over the place for me. Maybe it's the fact that all talk shows ring fake. Maybe it's the promotional photographs of her in front of a wind machine mounting a motorcycle anchored to a sound stage.

Friday, July 14, 2006

most badass disney villain ever?

Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.

Think about it:
* Not motivated by inadequacy or jealousy or fear.... Sleeping Beauty doesn't have anything that she wants per se; she's just motivated by plain old hatred.
* How to stop Prince Charming from getting to the castle? A forest of thorns, that's how.
* She turns herself into a motherf-ing dragon.... because she can.

Trust me, I honestly don't sit around everyday thinking of these things.... somehow they just happen to come up.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

snippets of conversations I had at the Apple store today

(at this store, actually. The store is underground, and smaller than you would think. Lots of people, lots of greasy fingerprints on merchandise. Imagine the picture during daylight and with an exodus of people milling around outside)

Sales Representative (#1) with stained Apple Store uniform T-shirt: What seems to be the problem, sir?
Me: My iPod is broken.
Sales Rep #1: Have you....
Me: My computer won't read it. I've tried resetting it. I've tried putting it in disk mode.
Sale Rep #1: Well just go ahead and sign your name in the computer here.
Me: Do I have to use my real name?

Sales Representative (#2), cleaner, with clipboard: I'm sorry sir, have you checked in yet?
Me: The guy [points to sour cream-like stain] told me to stand over here.
Sales Rep #2: Well, they won't call your name to the Genius Bar unless you double check with me.
Me: Looks like I'm double checking now. We're double checking.

Sales Representative (#3), curly hair, curly beard: What brings you in to us today?
Me: My iPod is broken.
Sales Rep #3: Have you....
Me: The computer doesn't read it, it won't reset, disk mode does jack.
Sales Rep #3: Ah, it looks like your hard drive is on the way out.
Me: [curious if this Sales Rep needed a perm for that hair] Out where?
Sales Rep #3: Well, starting to fail, I mean. This particular model has been known to have these problems, especially if it gets jarred around a lot. Do you go running with it every day?
Me: No.
Sales Rep #3: Well, jogging I mean.
Me: No.
Sales Rep #3: Biking?
Me: No.
Sales Rep #3: Have you dropped it a few times?
Me: I suppose I could now, right?
Sales Rep #3: I don't think there's much we can do for this guy then. Sorry.
Me: Bummer. Can I use this exit, or do I go for the glass ceiling?

Friday, July 07, 2006

the emmys: more than just your typical hack awards show

I have a bone to pick with the Emmys. The 2006 nominations were announced yesterday (the list of popular nominations to read at your leisure), and people are crying foul.

But first let me say this: I find it hard to really respect any awards show because I have lost faith that they can actually honor the best of a field, now that they have turned into marketing spectacles that tend to shift their accolades toward mediocrity and popular opinion. The Oscars have reserved a bit of fun and surprise, but oftentimes disappointment follows in its wake too. (I know as little as possible would argue that in some sense this is part of the fun and anticipation of the Oscars, and it's true that I kind of agree.)

The Emmys are in fact the grand poobah of hack awards shows; the Golden Globes come in a close second, mostly for their unabashed starfucking and also because they tend to be an accurate precursor of the Oscars and therefore kind of fan that flame. The Emmys carry no respect or any indications of awarding the best that television can offer, and have in fact historically settled for less. The question always remains: does the television academy actually watch television?

So, I have no build up or excitement for Emmy nominations, because in the end I could care less. Why? The last nail in the coffin: Susanna Thompson was flat out robbed of a rightful nomination in 2002 for "Once and Again"'s third season. I won't go into too much lush detail, but this woman pulled off perhaps the most heartwrenching story arc in recent network television history, and was ignored when Emmy nominations came around. Her performance was so affecting that it's an insult that she wasn't recognized.... isn't the point of the Emmys to award the best aspects of television in the year? The unfortunate story involved here is that a) "Once and Again" had been canceled and was receiving zero support from ABC for an awards campaign, b) viewership of the show dwindled so severely thanks to ABC's mistreatment of the show, and c) the Emmys traditionally didn't herald nominations from canceled shows. (A trend that ended with this year.... but more on that in a bit.)

This year, though, the Emmy nominations seemed to pull a more widely-perceived upset. Out of the gate with some kind of new-and-improved nomination system (out with the mass ballots and in with a top-secret panel of judges to handpick from a list of potential nominees), it looks like there was some kind of weird backfire. Oddly missing from the line-up: "Lost" scored no major acting nominations, nor one for Best Television Drama. In a year when "Lost" was red-hot, this is strangely of suspect. Also conspicuously missing from major categories were expected heavyweights like "Desperate Housewives" and "The Sopranos". I for one am tired of "The Sopranos" walking away with wheelbarrows of awards when the show is kind of loopy and misguided. As for "Desperate Housewives", good riddance. It's about time someone stepped up and publicly bitch-slapped this overrated drek, pointing out that the only thing going for the show in the first place was a suspiciously aggressive marketing campaign, becoming the first watercooler hit of ABC's programming renaissance before it even hit the air. The phenomenal Alfre Woodard gets the last laugh though; despite how underwritten and misused her character was on the show (she left at the end of the season), she walked away with "Desperate Housewives"'s only acting nomination.

So people were expecting this new nomination system to finally bring underdogs like "Gilmore Girls" (why?) and "Battlestar Galactica" to the light of Emmy attention.... but it didn't. In fact, it seemed to pull some obscure nominations out of the hat, many of them from already canceled shows (for instance a nod to "Commander in Chief" for Geena Davis). This is an interesting development, almost like a slap in the face to the networks that canceled shows that are now being nominated as the best in the field.... including triumphant (and very well-deserved) nominations to the dearly departed "Arrested Development" (for both Best Television Comedy, and to GOB for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy). Too bad "Once and Again" couldn't have taken advantage of the new system when it needed it.

But, just like every Emmy year, too much non-challenging material is showered with praise: [insert vapid sitcoms here]. The Emmys also tend to show love to the same actors over and over again (Blythe Danner racked up three acting nominations last year for three different performances); thus Stockard Channing walks away with a nomination for some forgettable sitcom this year when she had already swept the decks clean with numerous historical "The West Wing" nominations and wins. Thankfully gone, however, are entire categories partitioned off by nominations for the same show (*ahem* "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing"), as seen in the past and jilting more deserving shows and performances of eking into a slot.

Award shows with respect to television always seem to jump the gun, unloading on the first seasons of promising shows nomination after nomination.... and in some cases impulsive wins, such as the usual Golden Globe win for actors on a show that has spent no more than two months on the air (see Jennifer Garner for "Alias" in 2002 and Geena Davis for "Commander in Chief" this year). They also tend to follow along with the yes-men nodding of high ratings and glowing reviews (hence a massive influx of HBO/Showtime programming stepping up to the plate in recent years). In a year where every damned article mentioning "24" has to gush about how the 5th season was its best, when in actuality it was its most bland and predictable, it seems the Emmys could only reciprocate. So, with enough gushing and enough prodding and lauding, "24" walks away with the most nominations of any show this year. Don't get me wrong: I'm happy that Jean Smart picked up a Best Supporting Actress in a Television Drama nomination for her eclectic (and enjoyable) performance as the First Lady, but somehow I can't help but think that another actress from "24"'s past deserved a nomination in the same category a few years ago.

So, some people think that this year's nominations are a total hack because the usual suspects didn't make an appearance, and others were holding out for the Susanna Thompsons of this year to land a surprise slot. What they don't understand is that the Emmys have always been a hack, and this year it's just been dragged into the light. I for one and am intrigued (and not exactly disappointed) that "Lost" ended up with diddly squat (and it should give something for those grandstanding podcast-happy producers of theirs to suck on for awhile) and that this "new" nomination system has dredged up some unexpected choices, as well as exposed a flaw in the networks' terminating of shows that had some more juice left in them.