Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1978 on CBS

You may not care that much about TV shows from the seventies, but if you were asked to name three, there’s a good chance you’d say All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary won a staggering 29 Emmys. It coronated the title actress as comedy royalty. It eventually gave us 30 Rock. It also generated a flock of spinoffs rivaled only by Norman Lear, Happy Days and Star Trek. Rhoda made a modest splash in the sitcom world—it even inspired an inexplicable animated pilot about Carlton the doorman, as voiced by the inimitable Lorenzo Music—but the most successful Mary spinoff was actually an hour-long drama. Mary’s gruff boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner,) evidently made the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and left TV behind for a good old-fashioned newsroom. The end result was Lou Grant, a socially conscious melodrama that proved to be another successful entry in James L. Brooks’ resume. Is it worth your time in 2017? Of course not. But it wouldn’t be any fun to leave it at that, would it?

Strengths

  • Politically engaged. I’m always going to like anything that challenges conventional wisdom about TV being vapid and pointless, especially old-school Silver Age fare like this. Lou was a valuable precursor to more memorably woke dramas like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, which were also productions of MTM Enterprises (guess what the MTM stands for.) Each episode features the intrepid reporters of the LA Tribune wading into a hot topic ripped from the headlines of Time magazine. This episode confronts an issue that we’re still lamenting nearly 40 years later—the disparities in the way the media treats white crime victims and victims of color. I recently saw two salient examples of this phenomenon. I live in a part of the city that’s mostly non-white and afflicted by violent crimes. A few weeks ago, someone was stabbed to death and left to die in the street. There were two paragraphs about this in the newspaper. I don’t know for sure that this person wasn’t white, but I have absolutely no way of knowing for sure since the paper didn’t even print his name. A few weeks before that, I saw Jon-Benet Ramsey on the cover of Globe in line at the supermarket. In June of 2017. These two victims lived maybe 30 miles from one another, but they might as well be on separate planets. This episode is all about the same issue—a young black mother gets senselessly murdered the same day that some old dowager gets robbed, and our heroine Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) has to fight tooth and nail to get the Tribune to devote any resources to covering the murder. The news media landscape in 2017 would be unrecognizable to the folks at the Tribune, but chances are they’d find modern-day media racism all too familiar.
  • Underused institutional setting. Why aren’t there more TV shows about the media? Clearly the issues are still relevant and it’s an unfamiliar setting for most people. Is it because The Newsroom has irretrievably poisoned the well? That’s probably why, isn’t it? God, that show sucked out loud. (I was about to write a sentence calling Aaron Sorkin out as one of the biggest hacks in television, but there are just so many hacks that my sentence would have buckled under the weight of qualifiers.) Nevertheless, one of the more interesting things that TV dramas can do is to pull back the curtain on the institutions that drive our society. It’s what made The Wire a masterpiece and it’s why I’ll gladly sit still for Frederick Wiseman’s 3-hour-long documentaries. Lou offers some of these pleasures. We get to see editorial meetings about what’ll make it on the front page. We see Lou giving guidance to young reporters. It’s not Spotlight, but it’ll do, I suppose.

Weaknesses

  • Over-the-top direction. We open on the gruesome murder of Marla Evans (Gail Cameron, Another You). Of course, we’re given a little slice of Marla’s life in the minutes before the murder in order to humanize her and emphasize the terrible tragedy of her death, and that’s all well and good, if a little obvious. The thing is, when it comes to larger-than-life drama, a little goes a long way and the director would be well-advised to use a light touch. The director, one Mel Damski (Yellowbeard), does not use a light touch. Instead, there’s a soaring soundtrack worthy of Michael Bay and sweeping, erratic camera movements. It’s meant to be thrilling. Instead, it’s cheesy melodrama.
  • Maudlin. Billie’s trying to convince the cops to let her examine the bloody crime scene when Marla’s seven-year-old daughter, Lisa (Alene Wilson, Battered) comes skipping down the hallway, singing a merry little song. The cop stops the little girl from going into the apartment, picks her up and carries her away. She cries out for her mother. Is this really necessary? Do we really have to attend Marla’s funeral? If we do, do we have to spend five minutes there? We get it. The lady’s dead. It’s sad. It doesn’t make it more sad if you turn it into a tragic anecdote from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” 
  • A thirsty eagerness to call attention to moderate character work. So the whole deal with Lou Grant as a character is that he seems like a crotchety old man but he’s got a heart of gold. His gruff mannerisms keep people at arm’s length but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It’s kind of a cliche, but it is what it is. So we get a scene where Lou seems like he’s discouraging Billie, but he’s really motivating her to try harder to write a compelling article about Marla. It was reasonably deft and I would have praised it, except it’s immediately followed by Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) coming up to Lou and congratulating him on understanding human psychology while still seeming like an old curmudgeon. For chrissakes! Just let the moment breathe! We get it! Why do the writers of Lou Grant think the audience are a bunch of fucking idiots?
  • Too much time spent with the dowager. If this episode of Lou has one fatal flaw, it’s a total lack of subtlety, but if it has a second fatal flaw it would be that there’s not enough of a story here. Everyone wants a happy ending, so Billie has to come up with a great article for the paper, and sure, that means spending some time in the community and getting to know Marla’s milieu. So far, so good. Then we spend an eternity at her funeral, which, teary but okay, I guess. Then Billie helps catch the murderer. Okay, pretty unrealistic, but whatever, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about how every human life deserves the full consideration we give to blonde children and how it’s silly to spend all our time focusing on cute old white ladies foiling a robbery attempt. So what happens next? Oh, of course the show spends more time focusing on the cute old white lady. There’s this whole b-plot about hotshot young reporter Joe Rossi (Robert Walden, All The President’s Men) covering the hell out of the robbery story. He also helps catch the robbers. Why does Lou Grant think all reporters also fight crime?

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. It’s definitely not the nadir of hour-long dramas, but it just can’t compete in a world where there’s something light years better airing for the first time somewhere on TV every night.

NEXT TIME: I continue to explore alleged TV classics as I review Family Ties!

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Original Airdate: November 9th, 2016 on CBBC

Aardman Animations had been cranking out stop-motion claymation cartoons since the 1970s—you may recognize their work with Peter Gabriel—but they only really hit the big time when director Nick Park’s short film Creature Comforts won an Oscar. That same year saw the debut of A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit at the Bristol Animation Festival. This was the beginning of a franchise of lucrative and beloved Wallace and Gromit cartoons, including a feature-length film in 2005. Aardman also brought us the classic kids movie Chicken Run, and, yes, a movie based on Shaun the Sheep. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave, a Wallace and Gromit adventure that won an Oscar of its own in 1996. Aardman is like the Pixar of Plasticine, except they’ve been out in these streets for a hell of a lot longer than John Lasseter and company. Since 2007, Aardman’s been cranking out scads of 7-minute cartoons about Shaun for the BBC’s children’s programming channel. How does it compare to other animated short subjects?

Strengths

  • Animation style. Okay, the aesthetics haven’t changed much since Comforts, but the animation looks better than ever. One of these shorts entails more than 10,000 individual frames, which means hours and hours of painstaking work, and the folks at Aardman didn’t skimp on the details. You can never see the strings here and it’s surprisingly easy to disappear into the pastoral world of Shaun despite the admittedly distinctive array of bulbous heads, thick brows, gapped teeth and ridiculously huge noses on dogs.
  • Cute. So anything with dogs and other domestic animals gets brownie points from me right out of the gate, but this is one of those purportedly comic affairs where the comedy comes from the most gentle of observations and decidedly sedate hijinks. This short involves an escaped convict posing as a sheep to avoid scrutiny from the police. He walks on all fours and uses pilfered socks to imitate the black ears of a sheep and it looks pretty silly. A small child might find the whole enterprise intrinsically amusing for this reason.
  • Dialogue-free. It’s an interesting move by the people at Aardman to have each episode of Shaun offer a soundtrack with music, sound effects and absolutely no talking. Sure, there’s baa-ing, and barking, and grunting, all of which makes perfect sense if the protagonists are sheep and dogs. Strangely, even the humans don’t speak, though they emote in a kind of nonsense language akin to the dialogue voiced by the characters in The Sims. This makes the show more accessible for international audiences or for pre-verbal children, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hackneyed or too-clever-by-half dialogue that pours out of lesser children’s fare. Of course, there are trade-offs…

Weaknesses

  • Insubstantial, even for something seven minutes long. There’s not a lot happening here in terms of story. A jailbird escapes to the farm, poses as a sheep and gives himself up when he realizes that the nameless farmer might eventually kill him for food. Of course, the farmer isn’t going to kill anyone—I feel fairly confident that this is the kind of farm where sheep are only used for wool—but the convict doesn’t know that. You could get a lot of comedy and story out in seven minutes, but it looks like Shaun doesn’t have that kind of stamina 143 episodes in, if it ever did.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. It’s light-hearted, sweet and very hard to dislike, but it’s also not very memorable and it doesn’t have much of the distinctive wit that made Comforts and Wallace & Gromit so successful.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three separate spin-offs? Did you know that these include a wildly successful drama starring Ed Asner, pictured here trapped deep inside the uncanny valley? That’s right, baby—come back later for Lou Grant! It won 13 Emmys!

Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Original Airdate: July 9th, 2009 on BBC One

Back in 2005, Russell T. Davies helped revive the hibernating Doctor Who franchise with a reboot that made many common-sense changes, like switching to film over videotape and increasing episode length to the 50 minutes that are standard for a TV drama. He also added story structures and a sense of humor that revealed he had been closely studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nearly 11 million people watched the debut, and now Doctor fans have taken over every last nook and cranny of the internet. Davies is a man so smutty that he named a trio of miniseries after the gradations on a penile hardness scale, so of course he jumped at the chance to make an adults only Doctor spinoff.* Some letters were rearranged and some clues were dropped in episodes of Doctor and Torchwood was born. For its third season, Torchwood was a five-episode series called “Children of Earth.” I rewatched all five for this review, as well as a few extra episodes of Torchwood and Doctor for good measure.

Strengths

  • The 456. “Children” is a first contact story, and it’s always fun to see how any given creative team conceptualizes that moment when humans realize they’re not alone in the universe. Of course, that moment had already come and gone for the Whoniverse, but this season chronicles first contact with a different alien species. Except it’s technically the second contact, but most people don’t realize that. Anyway, the litmus test here is whether or not the aliens are cool, original and intimidating, and the 456 are definitely all three. They demand that British civil servants secretly construct a chamber full of various exciting toxic gases, and then they beam down an ambassador that’s really more of a thrashing, tentacled, vomiting monster. It also yells a lot. And then come to find out that they slowly suck minerals and resources out of terrified, living human children to use as recreational drugs. It kinda blows ALF out of the water.
  • Provocative ethical problems. So of course the aliens want more delicious children. But they’re not unreasonable—they only want 10% of all human children. Of course, if they don’t get their fix they’ll use unimaginably powerful alien technology to destroy all life on Earth. This raises several issues. Do you fork over the kids? The British government feel like they have no other options, although of course our hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Arrow) eventually finds a solution. The show still doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask whether it’s okay to do something unethical even if you have no other option—we watch as Jack lacerates himself over coughing up an orphanage’s worth of podlings to the baddies back in 1965. Even more revealing are the conversations we watch unfold at the top levels of the British government over which kids get selected. They eventually decide on students from the 10% worst performing schools, because if there’s anything Torchwood loves it’s shitting all over the sunny optimism about human nature on display in Doctor. But how would you choose which kids get turned into alien bath salts? At this point I’m required to remind you for self-promotional reasons that if you want additional discussion of BBC miniseries about aliens invading decades after they first appear to a select group of individuals, you can always read my review of Invasion: Earth.
  • Jack & Ianto. Get poised on your fainting couches, because one of the revolutionary, edgy changes brought about by Torchwood is homosexual PDA! Gloriously pansexual Jack has been sniffing around Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) since season one, and now they’re finally an adorable couple. Straight-laced nerdy secretary Ianto is a plausible and satisfying partner for a charming, cheeky hero like Jack, and a scene where Ianto angstily confronts Jack about his actions in 1965 adds texture to their relationship. Of course, Davies ruins this like the big drama queen that he is, but I’ll hold off on that for now.
  • Extended families. Over the course of “Children of Earth,” we get to see how the alien invasion impacts Jack’s daughter and grandson as well as Ianto’s working class sister. Lesser shows would have tried to squeeze an hour of drama out of an introduction to the family members of the main cast, but Torchwood manages to handle something as momentous as Ianto coming out to his sister elegantly in a single scene. It’s also clever for narrative purposes to include Jack and Ianto’s families so we can get a perspective on the alien crisis from people that aren’t government officials or rogue secret agents.
  • Peter Capaldi. Hey, look who shows up in “Children” as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher! Of course, Davies and Steven Moffat have a patently nonsensical explanation for why Capaldi showed up in both Torchwood and Doctor in other roles before he became The Doctor, but it’s always a pleasure to see Capaldi regardless of the circumstances. His performance is the highlight in a season that also features stellar turns from Barrowman and Eve Myles, who plays nominal main character Gwen Cooper.
  • Espionage. In the long run it doesn’t matter whatsoever, but much of the season is taken up by a plot thread involving Frobisher’s secretary, Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo, The Good Wife). Quick sidebar: Davies explained in an interview that they couldn’t get Freema Agyeman to reprise her character Martha Jones in season 3 of Torchwood and that instead viewers get Lois, “who’s kind of the Martha figure,” which is true in that she is a black woman and in no other way. Good one, Russ! Aaaaaanyway, Lois thinks Frobisher’s skullduggery is weird and becomes a mole for Torchwood, complete with high-tech gadgets and clandestine meetings and pointlessly announcing her secret affiliation at the most dramatic possible moment. This kind of stuff is always thrilling to me, even if it’s completely pointless as far as the main plot is concerned.

Weaknesses

  • Dramatics, your honor.** For some reason, Jack brings Ianto with him to have a violent confrontation with the 456 and it ends exactly how you’d expect when you fight evil aliens with secretaries. Hell, we already established that you can’t even fight evil civil servants with secretaries, although Frobisher’s senior secretary (Susan Brown, The Iron Lady) gets the last laugh in episode five. And it’s not just Ianto who dies pointlessly to lend everything a sense of tragic gravitas: Frobisher kills himself and his entire family in the finale! If Davies and Ryan Murphy should ever find a way to collaborate on a TV show, it would inevitably be the world’s most melodramatic exploration of the identity of cis gay white men.  

*Ironically, the new show’s “after dark” sensibility was thwarted later in its run when BBC blanched at all the gay sex that happened in the fourth and final season. They also edited earlier episodes after popular demand from younger viewers.

**If you recognized that this was a Good Wife reference in honor of Cush Jumbo, you win a fabulous prize to be determined later or possibly never!

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Torchwood should please all but the most ardent sci-fi haters. I was astonished to find that I liked every episode I watched of Torchwood more than I enjoyed the one Doctor episode I watched for this review, which was “The Christmas Invasion.” And that’s classic Tennant/Piper-era Doctor! HAS THE WORLD GONE TOPSY-TURVY?!

NEXT TIME: We stay in Britain but go plummeting down a couple of age brackets as I review Shaun the Sheep!

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on CBS

CBS is currently airing 17 dramas. That number alone is despair-inducing for a hard-working blogger trying to write about every remotely memorable television series ever made, but consider the following: a whopping eleven of them are about law enforcement and most of them could be fairly described as crime procedurals. CBS does this because these shows get great ratings. People eat this shit up. NCIS, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, and Hawaii Five-O regularly show up in the coveted top 25 broadcast slots for ages 18-49, and when you factor in the fact that older folks apparently can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet crime solving action, even MacGyver squeaks in. But there’s a certain amount of churn involved in keeping America’s La-Z-Boy recliners pointed at everyone’s favorite unblinking eye, and something like Unforgettable can fall through the cracks. In fact, Unforgettable fell through the cracks three times: CBS reluctantly brought the show back for two summer seasons after giving it the axe after season one. They gave up on the show for good after season three. But Unforgettable had an unlikely third life on A&E, who was tentatively trying to develop a slate of original dramas at the time! I guess they figured it’d make a good complement to endless syndicated reruns of Minds. Alas, 13 episodes later A&E decided they had better get out of the original drama business, and now all that’s left is the sleeper hit Bates Motel. And it turns out it’s kind of a shame that Unforgettable got lost in the shuffle, because I really liked this! Which may be a minor miracle unto itself, since AV Club called it the second worst new drama of 2011 on the strength of the pilot!

Strengths

  • Carrie. As soon as you get past Poppy Montgomery’s earnest yet atrocious attempt at an American accent, you realize that our protagonist is more intriguing than your typical TV investigator without being as over the top as the stars of things like Monk and Sherlock. You see, the big gimmick here is that Det. Carrie Wells has hyperthymesia, a condition that gives her extremely detailed autobiographical memory. On the face of it, this is a pretty silly concept, but between The Mentalist, Medium and Limitless, CBS isn’t exactly subscribing to the Dogme 95 manifesto. I could see how this could lead to unevenness—VanDerWerff seems pretty upset about it and the other episode I watched stretched plausibility to a certain extent. But in this episode, everything sings. The writers don’t overplay their hand. Everything Carrie remembers is something she could have actually perceived in the first place and no superpowers or great feats of contrivance are needed. Even with all the attendant foolishness, Carrie still comes across as a real person. Her skills have made her overconfident, but her natural drive pushes her boldly forward, even if the results could be risky, messy or both. It makes sense that when she’s not at work she’d be gambling too much and making unwise romantic decisions. She’s fully conceived and a hell of a lot more likable than that wang on Psych.
  • Meatier story than you usually get from a procedural. This episode plays into an overarching plot line about a mysterious precision sniper locked into a cat and mouse game with Carrie. Sure, actual serial killers are super rare—one percent of all murders at most—but fiction about them remains compelling, especially when we entertain ourselves with the “evil genius” archetype personified by Hannibal Lecter or the dude from Se7en. Here’s another way the show would rather be fun than be realistic. If you want realism, watch Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire. I like those shows just as much, but don’t compare them to Unforgettable, because despite superficial similarities they’re doing completely different things. Anyway, I was pleased that this show was willing to turn the sniper killer into a whole plot arc instead of just an easily syndicated case of the week affair all too common in a post-Law & Order world. And they do something interesting with it! In the first episode about the sniper, all the clues point to a crazed loner who turns out to be a patsy for the real puppetmaster. The trail goes cold until Carrie meets a high-powered attorney named Walter Morgan (James Urbaniak, The Venture Bros). Her suspicions gradually become more tangible, but on the way he helps her solve tonight’s primary mystery. Procedurals live and die in the nitty gritty details, and Unforgettable delivers in spades: an up-and-coming tennis prodigy is killed in a staged robbery/homicide. Before long we’re introduced to the corpse of her drug-enthusiast boyfriend from the amateur circuit. Then we learn about a shadowy trust fund that was giving vast sums of money to both the victim and to another tennis player, Ella Zimmer (Sophia Rokhlin, Buffering). The trail leads back to a politically powerful family and their intimidating fixer, Jonathan Hedstrom (Jay O. Sanders, Green Lantern.) It’s plausible and it’s textured enough to be satisfying, and the only thing more scary than a sociopathic killer is a ruthless politician, so the mystery plot is rewarding even though it’s only window dressing for the longer plot arc about the sniper. Pretty graceful, considering the source.
  • Strong/improving supporting performances. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge Urbaniak, though? He absolutely nails Morgan’s creepy intelligence while still making him believable as a smarmy attorney, which is impressive since he’s already demonstrated his ability to make clever if insane cartoons. Apparently Urbaniak has a thing for crime procedurals, too: he’s also shown up on Hawaii, Mentalist, Body of Proof, Medium, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, Numb3rs and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I don’t know if he improves those shows as much as helps this one, but he’s a definite highlight. Also coming into her own is Jane Curtin (Saturday Night Live), who plays stock wacky medical examiner Joanne Webster. She was introduced halfway through the first season and at first it seemed like she’d be mugging the hell out of some hacky CBS “humor,” but she’s settled down a bit and made the character seem more natural.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. This episode really inspired me to think about what a perfect rating means. On the one hand, I’m tempted to reserve this rating for only the very best the medium has to offer–something so artful and instantly canonical that it would give Harold Bloom a wet dream. But by that metric, no episode of Unforgettable could ever possibly qualify, seeing as how it’s a crime procedural with a silly premise designed to fill the hours and entertain the old and infirm. Instead, I’m giving out this rating based on the fact that the show achieves everything it sets out to accomplish with grace and aplomb. It has no real meaningful larger social or thematic message. It doesn’t stir the depths of human emotion. But it was a consummately entertaining 42 minutes with no real flaws. It absolutely made me want to watch more of this dumb show, inconsistent though it may be. As far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with We Bare Bears.  

One more fun fact before we go that I couldn’t fit anywhere else: the working title for this show was The Rememberer. Listen, the title Unforgettable is a lazy slice of cheese, but The Rememberer sounds like Jenna Maroney’s next project after The Rural Juror. The only excuse is that the show is based on a short story by the long-suffering J. Robert Lennon, and the stupid title is his. That is just a breathtakingly dumb title for a TV show, though.

NEXT TIME: It’s been too long since we’ve discussed any science fiction, and it’s been even longer since I’ve come glancingly close to reviewing Doctor Who, so let’s talk about Torchwood!

Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Original Airdate: March 29th, 1975 on ABC

The 1970s were a golden age for movies about dudes beating up other dudes. Martial arts movies had been around for a little while, but by the early seventies the action movies pouring out of Hong Kong were getting darker and more serious. Hundreds of movies were dubbed into English and glutted the syndicated airwaves. Soon a superstar emerged—after a lukewarm reception as an actor in LA, the martial arts prodigy Bruce Lee started making movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, breaking Hong Kong box office records one after another. Enter the Dragon, the iconic movie that would rocket him to international stardom, came out in 1973, but Lee wasn’t around to enjoy the dividends of fame: he died mysteriously a month before the movie premiered. If it wasn’t for Lee and the kinds of movies he was making, Kung Fu wouldn’t exist. Hong Kong action movies had proven themselves immensely marketable and a TV series would have been inevitable anyway, but there’s been a long-running debate about whether or not the entire concept for the show was stolen from Lee outright. We know that Lee had shopped around a suspiciously similar idea for a show back in his LA days. Lee was closely considered for the lead role, and according to his widow he certainly felt like his idea had been stolen. Of course, Wikipedia hosts seven paragraphs of claims from a white TV critic that all of the ideas and IP behind Kung Fu were 100% original creations of Ed Spielman and he deserves all the credit he’s been given over the years going back to his time as an earnest young gweilo seeking the “secret knowledge” of kung fu. For any Wikipedia editors out there, I’m pretty sure that whole apologia fails to meet your standards of admissibility, but if you’re defending the honor of white people against charges of racism, then by all means break your own turbonerd rules. WHATEVER. Let’s talk Kung Fu.

Strengths

  • Interesting narrative technique. The premise of Kung Fu is that Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) flees China after a crime of passion to get in touch with the American side of his ancestry. He finds himself in the Old West and the show is a hybrid of a western and a martial arts drama. I guess we need the western touches to make the people that would rather have been watching Gunsmoke more comfortable. But in tonight’s installment, we don’t spend a second in the American West—the whole thing is a flashback embedded within a flashback. The frame narrative shows young Caine (Radames Pera) wondering what his life will be like when he’s a practicing Shaolin priest. The sage Master Po (Keye Luke) offers a prediction of what that would look like, and this prediction gives us the bulk of the episode. So the story takes place before the main events of the series, but after the young Grasshopper’s apprenticeship, and it may not have even happened. It’s entirely plausible, given the framing, that the entire thing is a hypothetical imagined by Po. All this narrative infrastructure doesn’t really amount to anything, but it’s better than a perfunctory episode where present-day Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget.
  • Intriguing plot. Instead, recent-past Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget. The particulars are worthwhile, though. Caine is sent from his monastery to attend to a request from the Grand Duke, Shen Ming Tien (John Fujioka, Who Finds a Friend Finds a Treasure.) But oh snap! That Grand Duke is dead, and now there’s a new Grand Duke in town, his shady cousin Chun Yen (James Hong, Kung Fu Panda,) and what do you know—he’s kind of an asshole. But oh snap! Shen Ming Tien isn’t dead, just imprisoned! Caine has to restore the rightful ruler to the throne, armed with nothing more than his wits and his sickening hand-to-hand combat skills! You could do worse, as far as stories go, but the plot can only get you so far.

Weaknesses

  • Yellowface. Ain’t no gettin’ around this one! I can already hear certain people out there complaining that I’m applying today’s modern standards to something that’s more than forty years old, except that argument doesn’t work, because it’s not like we learned our damned lesson about respectful media portrayals of Asians in the first place. Carradine’s performance here doesn’t exactly give us a lot of opportunities to suspend our disbelief—he seems to be borrowing heavily from the old “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, since his delivery is wooden and emotionless and I know he can do better, dammit.
  • Overall poor writing. Shen Ming Tien was a benevolent ruler, but Chun Yen is more of a robber baron. Is this shown to us? Of course not. It’s told to us. More precisely, it’s told to Caine by the lovable rogue Sing Tao (Harushi). Sing Tao comes bearing a special couriered briefcase full of contrivance. He disguises himself as a priest and fellow traveler of Caine’s to pass through town undetected, but they find themselves summoned to the throne, where they’re told that they’re both going to be imprisoned. Why? Shen Ming Tien’s daughter Mei Ming (Clare Nono, 48 Hrs) is getting forced into an arranged marriage for political reasons, and apparently Chun Yen wants her to have a wedding so extravagant it requires capturing and imprisoning two priests. Of course, the real reason he needs two priests is that the whole plot to take down the evil Duke is a two man job and the writers couldn’t come up with anything remotely more plausible. The improvised scheme continues to evolve in increasingly unlikely directions. Mei Ming’s betrothed is a child, but he’s accompanied by a burly wrestler (Peter Kalua, The Paradise Connection). Caine starts a fight with the wrestler so Sing Tao can steal the key to the jail cells from Chun Yen. He gets away with the key but gets outed as a thief nevertheless. Somehow Chun Yen doesn’t kill them on the spot, because that would be anticlimactic, I guess. Eventually Caine puts things to rights and Shen Ming Tien reassumes the throne, but not before an improbable body switch trick has Mei Ming’s maid Lutien (Jeanne Joe, First Blood) hidden behind a conveniently elaborate veil, and at this point we’ve left reality so far behind that we might as well be in Harry Potter and the Chinese Anachronism.
  • Love at first sight. You know what makes this whole thing even better? Sing Tao and Mei Ming fall deeply in love the first time they lock eyes, just like humans do all the time in the real world poorly scripted melodrama. Once again, this doesn’t pay off in any way except in the form of giving motivation to characters who are already waist deep in a profoundly ridiculous scheme.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. If watching crap like this doesn’t make me appreciate the Golden Age of Television in contrast, nothing ever will.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review a show that was cancelled not once, not twice, but thrice! Let’s find out exactly how ironic the title Unforgettable is, shall we? Also, I’ll do my best to get the next post up sometime before June!

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Original Airdate: April 22nd, 2005 on MTV2

Wonder Showzen was the first major TV production from PFFR, a curious alt-comedy concern that Wikipedia characterizes as a “production company/art collective/electronic rock band.” Art collectives don’t usually have TV shows, so the relative success of PFFR is notable: they’ve had five other TV shows get past the pilot stage, mostly on Adult Swim. Adult Swim has proven over the years to be the premier showcase for avant-garde, experimental comedy, with other outlets like IFC, Netflix and Comedy Central struggling to keep up. Showzen would have fit in nicely alongside Tim & Eric, Eric Andre and Scott Aukerman, not to mention the vast world of bewildering YouTube videos. I’ll leave the question of whether or not PFFR has communicated a coherent artistic message in their body of work for others to answer, but for now let’s see how an individual installment holds up.

Strengths

  • Gleefully bizarre. It’s always refreshing to see something no one else is doing, and while alt-comedy might be on the upswing now, Showzen was definitely the only place where you’d see an electric chair electrocuting a smaller electric chair, followed by a smash cut to children threatening to “tear your soul apart” while dressed as Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty and a hot dog. I have to give them points for the chutzpah to put something so insane on television. In fact, a more austere network took a hard pass on Showzen: after ordering a pilot, the USA Network called the result “immoral and antisocial.” I guess it just wasn’t up to the high standard set by La Femme Nikita.
  • Funny. Of course, all the gonzo trappings wouldn’t be worth much if this comedy show wasn’t actually funny. Thankfully, it’s hilarious. Dave Chappelle and Peter Jackson might have had the idea earlier, but Showzen is a pitch-perfect deconstruction of children’s variety programming in the vein of Sesame Street. It gets a lot of its comedic oomph out of being wildly inappropriate for children despite having a cast of child actors. If you like absurdism, you’ll also be delighted. Highlights include a character called “D.O.G. O.B.G.Y.N.,” a genius “man on the street” segment where a child dressed as Hitler asks a man in a cowboy hat whose hat represents more oppression and receives an equivocal answer, and a segment where children are asked “When is it okay to lie?” and respond with things like “Accepting Jesus on death row.” One little girl takes so long to answer that she turns into an identically-dressed old woman. The show’s humor is equal parts unrestrained silliness and pointed leftist satire, which makes for a pretty intoxicating blend, especially if you’ve been raised on The Onion.
  • Special guest star Christopher Meloni. Anyone who’s seen Wet Hot American Summer knows that Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is capable of leveraging his stern TV persona into absurdist comedy. When you also consider his magnetic performance on Oz, you realize we may have been underestimating Meloni all along. Hopefully he isn’t typecast for all eternity as a police detective who is Taking! It! Personally! Anyway, he shows up here in a public service announcement about the profound dangers of cooties, warning you that cooties could turn your nipples into lips. Well done, Showzen. Well done.

Weaknesses

  • Gross. So the main plot of this episode involves a character named Wordsworth (John Lee) who comes down with a case of the cooties, which takes the form of a highly debilitating disease where the body is covered with oozing sores. A character named Him (Lee) then decides to make a profit by peeling off Wordsworth’s scabs and selling them as a delicious snack treat. This is hardly the only gross thing that happens, either—that dog OB/GYN segment ends in the most disgusting way imaginable. Suffice it to say that whatever you’re imagining right now, the dog segment is more disgusting than that. Among other things, a “dancing animal” segment entails close-ups of a mouse with an enormous tumor. It’s so edgy and in-your-face, man! I like to think that the art world would have held these guys to a higher standard. And, yes, that’s the same art world with Piss Christ and the Virgin Mary/elephant shit combo that got Giuliani so exercised.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. There’s plenty that’s deliberately alienating about this style of comedy, but I still feel tempted to binge-watch everything these people have ever made. That’s gotta count for something, right?

NEXT TIME: Get ready for another angry rant about racism as I review Kung Fu!

Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Original Airdate: May 14th, 2007 on Toon Disney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a huge corporation in possession of marketable intellectual property must be in want of a television cartoon. Pucca got her unlikely start in the year 2000 as a character from South Korean animated e-cards. Remember e-cards? Web culture from the turn of the century is so quaint. Much like Hello Kitty, her East Asian comrade in marketing excess, Pucca was a merchandising gimmick before narrative of any kind entered the picture. But great things can come from ignoble beginnings, and the Pucca cartoon is downright charming. It’s the product of an international collaboration between Korean creators, British producers, Canadian animators and American writers. Internationalism: first it brought you the Large Hadron Collider, and now it brings you Pucca. What’s not to love?

Strengths

  • Distinctive visual style. As we’ve seen time and again in this space, animators have a tough line to walk. Ideally they can create a cartoon whose aesthetic leaves a distinct impression. The goal is for someone to be able to take any random frame and identify the source based solely on the art. Of course, this can backfire horribly, because “distinctive” doesn’t automatically translate to “appealing.” But for Pucca, it mostly works! The characters are all about two feet high with oval heads and tiny little stubby arms with no fingers. Backgrounds are colorful and stylized without being too abstract. It’s very well done, and it has the desired effect of cheer and whimsy. Man, if Pucca is anything, it’s whimsical.
  • Original, if outlandish, stories. Cartoons are the perfect showcase for unbridled creativity. You aren’t confined to the limits of the human body and the tightly-budgeted set designer, and kids are generally more willing to accept nakedly ridiculous premises. Pucca takes full advantage of this. In the first segment, a dishwasher named Dada (Lee Tockar, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) discovers Mr. Dishy, a magic genie who lives inside a bottle of dish soap. Mr. Dishy has one very specific power: he can give Dada a makeover, complete with a stylish hairdo, a sharp suit and natty accessories. So what does he use this power for? Why, to impress a woman, of course—namely, snotty mean girl Ring Ring (Tabitha St. Germain, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.) The catch is that he loses his sleek new look the second he gets any kind of dirt, grime or stain on his duds—and there’s a limited number of uses before Mr. Dishy pops like the sentient soap bubble he is. The remaining segments are just as bizarre. In the second installment, ninja Garu (Brian Drummond, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) is tasked with transporting an ancient, magical urn across the country. While en route, he has to keep the urn from getting smashed by the sinister Tobe (Tockar.) The strangest story of all is the final segment. The Pucca characters are inexplicably transposed into the Netherlands, where they find themselves under attack from fiendish Belgians led by Tobe. The show doesn’t make a big deal about completely revising the setting, and I’ve gotta say, that fluidity is pretty attractive. It speaks to an inventive and flexible writer’s room. Stories this inspired can really reinvigorate tired narrative cliches—for instance, the “moral” of the dish soap segment is one we’ve heard a million times before: it’s not worth making superficial changes to impress someone who will never appreciate your true self—but everything’s better with a magical soap genie.
  • Unabashedly silly voice acting. The show earned a few belly laughs from me over the course of a half hour, but the overall feel of the cartoon’s sense of humor is greatly supported by its perennially game voice actors. Pucca (St. Germain) and Garu only speak in grunts and squeaks, but everyone else is firmly committed to deeply silly voices. Ring-Ring has a honking Brooklyn accent that rivals Harley Quinn, made all the more amusing by the fact that she’s also supposed to be some kind of Chinese wind goddess. Garu’s mentor Master Soo (Richard Newman, Beast Wars: Transformers) undercuts any whiff of Orientalism with a thick Jewish accent, complete with the occasional “Oy vey!” And you’d be surprised how much comedy St. Germain and Drummond wring out of those grunts and squeaks.
  • Humor. This helps keep the show vital just as much as the unique animation, stories and voice acting. It’s all about the little moments. Mr. Dishy describes Dada as a “sad little man with dishpan hands.” Being a soap genie, it’s only natural that Dishy would take careful note of who does and doesn’t have dishpan hands. The second segment features a couple of goofy references to Thomas the Tank Engine, including an appearance from Sir Topham Hatt* (French Tickner, Barbie in the Nutcracker.) When Hatt reprimands the engine about going too fast, it responds by discharging a cloud of hot locomotive steam right in his big ugly face. It’s Hatt’s “AUGH” that really sells it. And when those angry Belgians shoot cannons full of food at Pucca’s friends, it gives them an excuse to shout, “Look out! HERRING!” I mean, come on. Herring is a perfect comedy food.

Weaknesses

  • Sexual harassment comedy. This dates back to Pepe Le Pew and Kermit and Piggy on The Muppet Show, but it’s not cute. Pucca is forever trying to win the affections of Garu. She follows him around. She goes to great lengths to speed up the train so he can deliver the urn on time. She chases him. She tries to kiss him. You see, it’s funny because she wants to get physical with him but doesn’t have his consent. Haw haw! Do you really want your kids getting the message that doggedly pursuing someone and kissing them against their will is funny and charming? And this isn’t an incidental occurrence—it’s so central to the brand that if you do a Google search for Pucca, this is the first image you see. This is the image on the Pucca Wikia article about “Pucca and Garu’s Relationship.” Look, Pucca doesn’t talk, which is fine, but it means we have to figure out what her character is like based on the actions she takes. It’s hard to conclude that her main characteristic is anything other than “sex offender.”

*Let’s take a brief moment out of your day for a fun fact about Sir Topham Hatt. Even though his name is Sir Topham Hatt, the title of his Wikipedia page is “The Fat Controller,” a phrase that sounds like it was ripped straight out of some alarming fetish porn.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Overall, this is pretty damn charming and I’d be happy to binge-watch Pucca with a small child any day of the week. Just couple that marathon with a stern lecture on consent and boundaries and you’ll be fine.

NEXT TIME: I’ll put aside the endless torrent of wacky cartoons in favor of a wacky alt-comedy parody of wacky kids’ programming: Wonder Showzen! As long as it’s wacky, dammit.

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”