Thoughts, notes, observations on the everyday nonsense of American Pop Culture from one of the most not-hip people on the face of the planet...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Is it over for "Over There"?

Wednesday night marked the final episode of the season for FX's "Over There" – and quite possibly the last episode ever.

Though the show had a ton of press coverage, a decent effects budget and a cable-TV allowance for sex, language and violence, it just didn't get the ratings it should have.

Many of us in the media are left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong….when we likely have everything to do with it. We just don't understand that Americans, for the most part, just don't care about the war like we do.

Many Americans (or so the theory of the week proclaims) are sick of the war and even if they support it, they don't want to know anything else about it. Hell, they may not even be watching or reading the news coverage anymore, let alone tuning into a fictional show that depicts the very worst parts of said war. Who wants to see seven soldiers get shot at, kill civilians and get cheated on by their spouses when they could just be watching some craptastic reality show or the 20th version of “Law & Order”?

I hate to believe the theory, but it makes sense. "Over There" is the first television show to depict a currently ongoing war – and maybe this is why it never happened before. You can't escape from reality (that's real reality, not TV reality) when it's right in front of you.

I, for one, really came to fall in love with this show. At first, I found the characters to be somewhat unlikable and unfamiliar…but over the course of the season, as the characters got to know and trust each other, I came to care about them. By the end of last night's episode, I was jumping at every gunshot, fearing for their lives. I also appreciate the fast pace and constant suspense of every episode, making “Over There” much more an observant “action-driven” series than the usual variety of “character-driven” series. Maybe that’s something else viewers don’t like: They aren’t outright told everything that’s going on like on “ER”, “CSI” and just about every other drama on TV right now. They have to figure it out by paying attention.

Not to mention that unlike most shows (I daresay all shows) on both network and cable TV, the characters are played by newcomers who (gasp!) look remarkably like real people. How believable would it be for Benjamin Bratt and Lara Flynn Boyle to be playing soldiers, anyways?

Although I cared more for some than others, the intertwining storylines from Iraq and the home front make for a varied show from week to weel. In fact, my only qualm with the show was that there was just too much going on. Between Bo Rider's recovery after losing his leg in the first episode, Dim's wife's recovery form alcoholism, Sgt. Scream's re-enlistment, Mrs. B's AWOL in Hollywood, Doublewide's husband's flirtation with a fellow "Army wife"….it's exhausting.

But because there were so many storylines (and so many loose ends), I would like to think FX would be willing to give the show another season. Just because some people don't care about the war doesn't mean some (read: me) don't care about these characters and what happens to them. Not only that…but ending a series with a cliffhanger (in this case: who shot Captain Underpants?) is just cruel.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Elizabethtown isn't what's expected

What’s there to say about Cameron Crowe’s latest film that every single critic in the country hasn’t already lamented? Maybe that the film is quite good in that very Crowe way – but it fails in the places where the writer/director most often finds success.

As a huge Cameron Crowe fan, I had eagerly anticipated Elizabethtown, despite its bad reviews. In fact, it was the first of my must-see films for this season (still to come: Rent, Brokeback Mountain, HP4, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.). Everyone said it is too muddled, too whimsical and trying just too hard to make an impression. I just think it had one plot too many.

Crowe is a director renowned for writing the sort of “life crisis” films that resonate with audiences because “they’ve been there.” The hitch is that all of those movies with moments so resonant (the virginity scene in Almost Famous, the boombox in Say Anything, the end of Jerry Maguire) revolve around a simple pattern of a boy either saving or being saved by a girl.

Crowe went a similar route here, with Drew, a youthful shoe design prodigy, whose 8-year-long project culminates in a financial fiasco, driving him to suicide. He is interrupted in this very creative attempt by a phone call heralding the death of his father. As you can guess, he meets a girl who tries to push her way into his heart with her disturbing cuteness and make shim want to live. Sound familiar? It should, because Zach Braff beat Crowe to the punch with last year’s Garden State.

It’s an also ran plot that I couldn’t just never buy. But it’s the other plot that kept me watching, waiting and eventually weeping. So let’s forget Kirsten Dunst’s entire existence in this film (not that she wasn’t good as the psycho-but-cute flight attendant, Claire) and focus on that.

Elizabethtown at its heart is a movie for anyone that ever left home without ever getting to know their parents as adults.

Because his father, Mitch, dies on a trip to his hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Drew must make a pilgrimage of sorts to collect his father’s remains and return them to his mother (Susan Sarandon) on the West Coast. It starts as a typical fish-out-of-water as the city slicker Drew is tossed headfirst into a town where whoever isn’t family loved his father as if they were.

It is here that Drew finds out that Mitchell was a man who was special to a great many people. That he was more than just his father or his mother’s husband…that everyone has a version of Mitch that they hold onto and believe to be the real deal. He realizes that despite phone calls and hazy childhood memories, he doesn’t know his father at all.

In fact, Drew and Mitch’s inexplicable distance is replicated in the form of his Uncle Dale (Loudon Wainwright), his son Jessie and his grandson Samson. Jessie is a failed musician (who once played in a band that once played in the same vicinity as Skynrd) raising a wild son without boundaries and without rules, much to his father’s disapproval. Dale doesn’t realize how important Jessie’s failed dreams are – and that Jessie is trying in some way to make up for their distance by raising his own son as a buddy instead of a father. In a spectacle that really can’t be described in words, father, son and grandson come together in an understanding that will make you never, ever hear “Freebird” the same way again.

But anyway - amidst all of this family hoopla, a budding romance and a cross-country road trip, Drew projects empty shock. Orlando Bloom (in his first believable adult role) so perfectly captures a guy who actually doesn’t feel anything (but comes very close a few times) – making his family and the audience wait for the inevitable moment when It Hits Him.

When Drew finally discovers that maybe those missed holidays spend working on a stupid shoe was time lost with his father – it is that patented Perfect Realization (set to perfect music, shot in a perfect fashion) that finally Puts You There.

And putting you there is what Crowe does best. And he did it again – you just have to wait for it. And I promise you that as soon as the credits roll, you’ll want to go right home and call your parents – not out of guilt, but out of fear.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

When fan fiction goes even more horribly awry

If you aren't a raging geek (usually grappling with gender identity problems), you probably know nothing about the world of fan fiction. This is when obsessive fans of a fictional storyline and its characters decide to write their own stories. These range from TV shows to movies, book and comic books (among other things, I'm sure).

Some fan fiction can be quite good (I'm an unabashed fan of Minsinoo's X-Men FF at The Medicine Wheel)...but more often than not, it can rank among the worst thing sone can ever read. Once in a great while, a good writer can make a good story out of anything, but I've found that most of the FF online is nothing more than disturbing softcore porn between fictional characters.

I thought it was harmless. But apparently, it isn't. Turns out some people have started writing fan fiction about REAL PEOPLE.

Today I found a Livejournal fanfiction community about....the Daily Show? That's right: Bad fiction written by lonely teenage/college girls about Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the gang getting into various misadvantures, but mostly just eachothers' pants. Oh ew.

Though you could make the argument that they are playing TV characters, you can't make any excuse for when non-actors enter into the fictional foray. For instance, there's one story I saw that details an illicit affair between Jon Stewart and Anderson Cooper. As much as this blogger would happily engage in illicit affairs with either of them...I do not...DO NOT have any interest in even imagining them together, let alone reading about it through the eyes of a girl who has never had sex.

Moreover, I'm disconcerted about the legality of these stories. T As despicable as stories about Harry and Ron gangbanging Hermione (actual horrific Harry Potter fan fiction) may least they aren't real people who have real personalities, reputations and lawyers. I'm a journalist myself and you can bet I'd get pretty upset if I found out someone was writing a softcore porno about my private life.

There's simply no excuse for it. I know someone could get all weepy and First Amendment on me, but I stand by this: If you write fictional stories about TV news anchors having sex with one another, you need help. End of story.

Monday, October 03, 2005

"Chris" keeps it real - mad real

If you haven’t checked out “Everybody Hates Chris” (UPN, Thursdays), I wanna know what your goddamn problem is – and don’t tell me it’s because you’re too busy watching “Joey”.

UPN has scored a mainstream winner with “Chris” – in fact, it beat that horrific “Friends” spin-off in the ratings last week. By God, people are watching UPN!

But it’s easy to see why “Chris” is catching on: It has all the makings of a big hit comedy, with enough humanity to make it classic. Sure, it is based on the childhood of- and narrated by – the hugely popular Chris Rock, but this is no “Everybody Loves Raymond” sitcom. Set in period-perfect 1980s Brooklyn, this is not only Rock’s childhood, its also the source of his material. From dealing with typical childhood traumas (bullies, girls, siblings) to poignant observations on poverty and racism, “Chris” is more of an heir to “Wonder Years” than “Bernie Mac”. It’s also the first family-style comedy in years that has appealed to me with its fresh writing and characters.

Yes, it’s hilarious when young Chris (played by a precocious Tyler James Williams) tries to “outblack” a bully at his new all-white school…but it’s also quietly touching when the narrator reflects on something as simple as a father’s unspoken love (reflected in the fact he actually returns home after work every day). Sure Chris’ parents have crazy little tics that likely gave their son endless material, but they are also loving, responsible and appropriately stern.

Most importantly, the characters, settings and plots of “Chris” show a black America Cosby completely ignored during the same era. “The Cosby Show” was beloved by a multiracial audience, but the reason it was accepted into mainstream TV was that the situations made them seem like every other TV character of the time. The Huxtables were educated, well-to-do and lenient parents. Their kids were perfect overachievers. Crime, poverty and racism never seemed to enter their lives. In “Chris”, the world is raw, scary, and fraught with pickpockets, racist schoolchildren and a dad who has to work two jobs just to get by. You get the impression that Rochelle Rock could kick Claire Huxtable’s ass without a thought – but she also seems even more believable because of it.

Are white audiences ready for a “real” black show? Will they stick with it? It’s hard to tell, but I’d like to think that Rock’s popularity and crossover appeal will keep this show thriving on the little network that could.