Case Study 22: Angelina Ballerina, Episode 23–“Angelina Sets Sail/All Dancers On Deck”

Original Airdate: September 5th, 2006 on CITV

Tonight’s offering bears quite a bit of resemblance to an earlier installment in my efforts to sift through a vast sea of weird children’s programming. Like Paddington, Angelina Ballerina is based on a popular and long-running series of British children’s books about anthropomorphic animals (mice instead of bears.) Like Paddington, it’s inevitably found its way to the small screen, and like Paddington, it seems destined to go through multiple TV incarnations–Ballerina was rebooted in 2009 as Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps. Like Paddington, its tentacles have begun to stretch beyond print and television, but instead of a feature film Ballerina was the inspiration for a 2007 English National Ballet tour, presumably in a thirsty effort to capitalize on even a shred of fleeting public interest in concert dance.

Unfortunately, Ballerina fucks up many of the things that Paddington did well.

Strengths

  • The bones of a good story. So the premise of this hour long special is that Angelina (Finty Williams) and her dance troupe have been invited to leave their home, a surrogate for 1920s England, and travel to surrogate Russia for a special dance performance. Almost all of the action takes place in transit, aboard the ocean liner Royal Stilton, which, heh. Taking your characters out of an established setting, putting them somewhere brand new, facing them with a new challenge in the form of a prestigious performance, taking them to a faroff land–these things are all ripe with potential. At several points along the line, Ballerina flirts with the elements of a solid story. There’s the threat of nautical disaster. Angelina is framed for a grave misdeed she did not commit. A character faces the risk of an unfair job loss. There’s nearly a confession of love. Does Ballerina take any of those opportunities? Well, of course not.

Weaknesses

  • Too long. The typical episode of Ballerina is 22 minutes, and these episodes are divided into 12 minute shorts. A big part of Paddington’s brilliance was its ability to get in and out in five. Even if you find the animation hideous and the characters annoying, chances are you can stomach five minutes for the sake of your tykes. I strongly suspect that Ballerina is much stronger in its 12 minute form, since the writers flounder desperately in telling a longer story. As I said above, it manages to meander past several things that could make for an interesting story–or really, any kind of coherent story at all–but instead we merely have a string of incidents. Let’s attempt a recap. Angelina’s beloved dance instructor Miss Lilly (Judi Dench, Philomena) has received an invitation for the dance troupe to travel to Lilly’s native Dacovia, which means a long sea journey. Miss Lilly’s nephew Yuri (Gary Martin*, Mr. Bean: The Animated Series) is the radio operator aboard the Stilton and is apparently having a star-crossed love affair with the captain’s (Martin) daughter. For unclear reasons, Angelina embarks on a crusade to convince the captain to approve of the relationship, and her wacky/contrived meddling leads to mildly amusing misadventure. Enter Ballerina’s recurring antagonists in the form of the bratty twins Penelope and Priscilla (Jonell Elliott.) They left their costumes back home and because they’re shitty little idiots they try to notify their family via the ship’s radio, which they proceed to break, because, again, they’re shitty little idiots. They plant a piece of jewelry that Angelina lost on the scene. She gets blamed but faces no real consequences; meanwhile, the ship “gets stuck” on an iceberg, which is not how ocean liner vs. iceberg encounters worked in the 1920s but no one cares because this is a show for four year olds and all the characters drowning might cause some nightmares and salty letters. Angelina saves the day by encouraging Yuri to engage in bastardized Russian dance, which involves a lot of stomping and dislodges the ship. The captain decides Yuri’s not so useless after all and the troupe safely makes it to Dacovia and performs there to much applause. The show is also padded out quite a bit to get it to the 45 minute mark. They could have used that time to sketch out something like a motivation for Angelina’s disruptive meddling, but no. At the very end of the show, a fellow dancer named William (Keith Wickham, Thomas and Friends) tells Angelina that he thinks dancing is the most wonderful thing in the world when he’s doing it with her. This comment is ripe with potential. Had he told her of his feelings at the top of the episode, the story would practically write itself. It would even provide Angelina with a plausible motive for getting all up in Yuri’s business–love is wonderful and nothing should come between two young lovers yada yada yada. It would be kind of dumb and cliched, but it would be better with the whole lot of nothing on offer here, especially considering this special marks the end of Ballerina’s run. What a great capstone it would put on the series to finally explore the simmering romantic tension between two leads! No, let’s waste a lot of time fucking around with a guest star on a boat, because the Ballerina writers are weary and the hour grows late.
  • Henry. I’m shuddering just thinking about this. One of the members of the dance ensemble is Henry (Jo Wyatt, Dragon Age II), who is supposed to be a three year old, I guess. It seems like 42 of the show’s 45 minutes consists of him boring everyone around him senseless in a grating warble about nautical facts and his nautical-related aspirations. Is this supposed to be cute? It’s really not. It’s awful. When the characters on the show are visibly bored by the tiresome antics of one of the other characters, maybe consider giving us a little less of that character. PLEASE.
  • One-note characterization. So I kind of get why the theoretically adorable toddler is fixated on boats and wants to talk about nothing else until everyone within earshot drives carpet tacks into their eyes so they can focus on the cleansing pain. That’s how toddlers are. They don’t care if you’re bored, they won’t shut up and will tell you everything they know about racoons. It occurs to me to note that the little boys and girls watching this show are probably also well aware of that as they have irritating younger siblings of their own, and instead of getting to escape from that unpleasant reality, here’s Ballerina shoving it in their faces. Anyway. Henry’s, like, three. What excuse does the rest of the cast have for having very few distinguishing characteristics? As mentioned, Angelina’s motives for stirring the gigantic pot of shit aboard the Stilton remain infuriatingly opaque. Miss Lilly is Dacovian and maternal. Angelina’s pal Alice (Wyatt) is obsessed with food. The twins are shitty little idiots. William provides us with an interminable series of “jokes” about his seasickness. Even the piano player for the dance troupe tags along on the cruise, and let’s see if you can guess her sole characteristic from her name: Miss Quaver.** It might be easier to spend 45 minutes watching the tepid antics of the mouselings if any of them were even slightly well-rounded characters, but if you wanted high-quality children’s programming you’d be watching a Pixar movie.

*At least, I think it’s Gary Martin. His credit on the IMDb page for this episode just reads “voice” and the credits for the episode don’t break the performers down by character. I invite any Ballerina superfans out there to go ahead and contact me so I can give the actors proper credit.

**There’s a similar dearth of info on Miss Quaver, but I feel confident in assuming she’s either Wyatt or Elliott. Judi Dench ain’t got time for that shit and Finty Williams is too busy getting her mom to help her make stupid pet projects involving cartoon mice.

Motivation: As mentioned, the show really struggles to find a plausible motivation for Angelina. I’ll suggest some. Survival, if at any point there was even the suggestion of danger raised by the iceberg crash and the possibility of dying of starvation on the pitiless sea. Love, if the show followed through on its feeble feint in the direction of shipping Angelina and William. Knowledge, if she’s super-excited to get to Dacovia and learn about Dacovian dance, and, hell, why not have the whole episode set in Dacovia? Nope? We’re still doing the boat thing, then? Okay. Why not friendship, wherein Angelina is motivated to help Yuri because of his relationship to her beloved tutor? The show vaguely gestures towards all of these but doesn’t settle on anything. So I’m going to go ahead and credit Angelina with introducing us to a whole new kind of motivation: getting to the end of the episode.

Final Episode Judgment: 2/10. If your kid is obsessed with ballet, mice, and/or the greatest hits of British pablum, fire away. You, however, may just want to go in the other room and wear earplugs. Especially when you see Henry. RUN

NEXT TIME: I review Brothers and Sisters. Is it the same show as Parenthood? Maybe!

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Case Study 22: Angelina Ballerina, Episode 23–“Angelina Sets Sail/All Dancers On Deck”

Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”

Original Airdate: August 21st, 2011 on VH1

It’s time to consider another installment of that much-maligned genre: reality TV. Is there any better evidence that reality TV is far from monolithic than the stark contrast between this show and Comic Book Men? And that’s to say nothing of popular game show/reality TV hybrids like Top Chef.

In my entry on Men, I classified the non-game show variety of reality TV as “following around questionable celebrities,” and while that’s certainly true here it also feels rather uncharitable. No one wants to have their rehab experience televised and if your straits are sufficiently dire as to require drying out on national TV, chances are you need to leverage the slight tinge of bold associated with your name into a modest sum of money and exposure. However, this season’s cast includes one figure whose fame has always completely baffled me, and that would be Ms. Amy Fisher. 

Early in this episode, each of the people involved are given a helpful caption with their name and claim to fame, and the title given to Fisher is “tabloid celebrity.” Okay, that’s technically accurate, but one does not simply walk into tabloid celebrity. I guess it would be a little weird if the caption read “attempted murderess,” eh? For the uninitiated, Fisher was the subject of a national media firestorm when, at the age of 17, she shot her lover’s wife in the face. Was her lover anyone famous? No, he was a Long Island-based mechanic. Was her victim? Also no. And yet somehow this was enough of a story that an equally confused New York Times reporter remarked in 1999, on the occasion of Fisher’s release from prison, that his was the 233rd article in the paper of record about the sordid affair.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but doesn’t this kind of thing happen all the time? I’m sure every day somewhere in the world someone is plotting to kill the unsuspecting spouse of the person they’re having an affair with, or to kill the person that’s cheating on them, or to kill the spouse preventing them from living happily ever after with a strung-out teenager, or whatever. Adultery mixed with murder is, as Mrs. Potts would say, a tale as old as time. If it were the solution to a murder mystery on television, I’d be pissed off and bored, even if it is true to life. So why did we care about the l’affaire de Buttafouco so goddamned much? Why were there three made-for-TV movies aired on all three of the major broadcast networks?

Theories offered include: the age difference between Fisher and Mr. Buttafouco, it’s fun to say “Buttafouco,” sociopaths like Mr. Buttafouco are intrinsically interesting, the added tawdriness of Fisher’s underage prostitution, the pathos of the paralysis of the blameless Ms. Buttafouco or the fact that this whole thing happened in Long Island, in close proximity to the wake of media vultures circling New York City. Perhaps if all this shit went down in Dubuque we’d never have heard of her and Fisher wouldn’t be darkening the door of the Pasadena Recovery Center. None of these theories are really all that persuasive on their own, but perhaps when taken together they amount to something. Or perhaps not.

Strengths

  • Intimate. The conventional wisdom about reality TV is that it isn’t reality and it barely qualifies as TV. It’s true that with many standard-bearers of the genre I’d be entirely comfortable classifying them as “reality-adjacent.” I’m sure Caitlyn Jenner’s transitioning led to many conversations and conflicts amongst the Kardashians, but I feel equally sure that there is not a one-to-one correspondence to those actual conversations and conflicts and the ones that we saw play out on television. Some shows take this further, and like Marco Polo, they do violence to actual events in order to create a more satisfying narrative. The creators of Kitchen Nightmares evidently think viewers want to see all the problems affecting a failing restaurant heaped on the shoulders of a likely scapegoat rather than a clear-eyed assessment of a variety of factors creating a confluence of failure in a wintry economic climate. But Rehab bucks these conventions. I feel like it’s awfully hard to fake teary therapy breakthroughs, and when Michael Lohan collapses into sobs about how broken he feels inside and how he feels like a disgrace to his family, it feels raw and truly real. This show is startling and remarkable, because no one wants to be seen broken and at the bottom and therapy, of all places, is an arena that most people would want to keep top secret. I was prepared for this to be as seedy and tawdry as a TV movie entitled Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story, but it was actually a rare privilege to be able to peer into real moments that would otherwise be totally private and inaccessible. This is an experience that reality TV is always offering but seldom delivering.
  • Dr. Drew. The people that go on TV and the radio calling themselves “doctor” frequently offer questionable advice and equally questionable medical credentials. Much as with Gordon Ramsey, the viewer is left to wonder whether if the “expert” is sufficiently laden with conflicts of interest to no longer be capable of offering useful expertise. Dr. Drew Pinsky has been doctorin’ it up in the public eye since 1984, when he made his first appearance on the radio show Loveline as a fourth-year medical student. This doesn’t mean that Pinsky is infallible–far from it. From what I can tell, there are two critical flaws to the work that he does on Rehab and in his other media properties. By their very nature, they’re exploitative. At the start of this season, Fisher bristles at the prospect of receiving treatment at Pasadena Recovery Center, because she’s had “cameras shoved in [her] face” since she was a kid. If your patient is someone reeling from the trauma of intense, unkind media scrutiny, perhaps it’s an additional risk factor to put her on a fucking reality show? Pinsky rationalizes this by saying that without compromising the patient’s treatment in this way, he could never get his messages out about addiction in the first place. Pinsky’s second major failing is equally serious, but it’s far from unique or unusual even among non-televised medical practitioners: reliance on 12-step programs. Even more perplexing, Pinsky seems to have some sort of problem with proven maintenance drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which is where we get into legitimately dangerous malpractice territory as opposed to widespread if ignorant treatment methods like 12-step. (If I had seen evidence of the former on the episode that I watched he wouldn’t be in the positive column.) So Dr. Drew may epitomize everything that’s wrong with the rehab industry in this country, but his practices are in line with generally accepted medical wisdom and he’s not an asshole trying to suck all the air out of the room abusing his patients in the name of tough love, which already has him 10,000 miles ahead of Drs. Phil and Oz. After researching him and American rehab in general, I’d think twice about recommending that anyone I love go to a rehab center that does nothing but AA, but he didn’t want to make me throw my shoe at the TV, and that’s the quality we strive for here at Oryx & Cake Boss. In all seriousness, Pinsky comes off as genuinely caring and reasonably intelligent and given the low standard of public intellectualism around medicine on TV, I’m willing to damn him with the faint praise seen above. I’m more sympathetic to Pinsky around the issue that led him to stop making the show. He stepped down due to exasperation at constant public criticism after his patients succumbed to their addictions. Sure, he leans heavily on ineffective 12-step programs, but I’m willing to bet 99% of the other doctors in your insurance network will lean on them as well. Sure, he puts traumatized, suffering people on television, but it’s not like that’s being done without the patient’s consent. Pinsky is a symptom of a much larger problem, and that’s an American criminal justice system that turns people with an illness into felons and an American health care system that prioritizes profit over patients. Hacks like Phil and Oz compound the problems with emotional abuse and snake oil, but Pinsky seems to be doing his genuine best. Even if he were using best practices–even if it were possible to do that while actively opposed by the criminal justice system, the healthcare industry and the media–that’s still no guarantee that patients wouldn’t die or relapse. When they leave his clinic, they’re no longer in his care and are free to make their own decisions. It’s got to be tremendously painful to see patients you care about lose the fight against addiction. It can only be worse when everyone rushes to blame you for their mistakes, even if one of their mistakes was agreeing to be a part of your three-ring circus in the first place.
  • Empathy-building. I suppose this strength depends heavily on the mindset of the viewer, but Rehab does its best to discourage your impulse to be shitty and judgmental. Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities. Some of these folks have a very tenuous claim on celebrity–on one end of the spectrum you have 1980s baseball superstar Dwight Gooden, and on the other hand you have Jessica Kiper, third place contestant in season 17 of Survivor and 20th place contestant in season 20. The celebrities are obviously at a low point in their lives, and it’s easy to imagine people snickering as Michael Lohan storms out of the rehab to have a screaming match in the parking lot with his now wife Kate Major. It’s also easy to imagine the transition between derisive judgment and angry judgment. Most people who go through rehab aren’t lucky enough to do it in a posh facility in Pasadena, complete with equine therapy. It’s always easy for people sitting at home on the couch to throw icy shade over someone else’s bad decisions and delusions. On the other hand, Rehab is just as likely to have the opposite effect. The fact that these people are united by a brief moment in the spotlight fades into the background and you begin to see what truly unites them is a deep well of pain and suffering. You see them making a sincere and earnest effort to confront their problems, and a quick journey to Wikipedia tells you that some will fail. One particularly depressing example has the staff of the rehab center insisting to Lohan that unless he addresses his anger issues in tandem with his alcoholism, he’ll hit Kate Major and go to jail for domestic violence. In return, he insists that this won’t happen, despite the fact that he’s nearly gotten arrested twice before for domestic violence. Wikipedia: “On October 25th, 2011, Lohan was arrested in a suspected domestic violence incident in Tampa, Florida, involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate Major.” And yet despite the fact that he’s a hurricane of poison tearing his family’s life apart, and despite the fact that an abusive partner is the last person in the universe that I’d have any sympathy or pity for, Rehab brings me closer than I’d ever be likely to come otherwise. Seeing the pain on his face as he struggles to reckon with the mess he’s made of his life is difficult, even if his choices were his own. If he were a fictional character, I’d most likely look on him more harshly, but knowing that he’s a real person trying to be better makes it all the more painful. The show becomes sadder when you realize how it’s impossible to try and heal the pain on display in 28 days, and how focusing solely on addiction is in some cases trying to remodel the bathroom of a house collapsing into a sinkhole. An inherent failure of mental health care in our society is that it can only address itself to the individual, even when the individual’s pathologized response is completely reasonable. Bai Ling (The Crow) tells of her miserable childhood enlisted as an entertainer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, plied with alcohol, raped by officers and impregnated all before making it out of her teens. Jesus, who wouldn’t self-medicate in that situation? As hard as Sean Young (Blade Runner) is trying to get sober, she’s going straight home to a husband who’s also a raging alcoholic. Even though he makes a commitment to try and dry out for her sake, it’s hard to feel very optimistic. And these are struggles just one level above the personal. It’s hardly shocking that Jeremy Jackson (Baywatch) got addicted to steroids and believes that all of his value and self-worth is tied to appearance. He works in an industry that ties the value and worth of its workers to appearance. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Kiper, Ling and Young rue the fact that their addictions got in the way of their careers, but Hollywood treats young women as disposable flavors of the month anyway, while we’re still being subjected to Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon decades into their careers. Add that to the fact that Ling is a woman of color in an industry that almost never casts women of color in starring roles in major films and it seems particularly hopeless to imagine that booming careers would have been right around the corner, if only.

Weaknesses

  • Sentimental. It was fortunate that this was the episode I watched, since the main focus was the celebrities reading letters they wrote to their addictions and then throwing them into a fire as a purgative exercise. To accompany their recitations, the producers showed us clips recapping their “arc” during their stay at the center. This could have been cheesy, but it was useful in putting a capstone on their rehab experience, for good or for bad. What was entirely unnecessary, however, was the sappy montage at the end of the episode, set to the strains of some medium-beige VH1 generic adult contemporary sludge. Especially gratuitous is the fact that the montage includes a clip of Dwight Gooden tearfully reading his letter that aired ten minutes earlier. The first 15 minutes of the episode feature an interlude where Pinsky brings in three previous celebrity patients to offer guidance and wisdom about what happens when you leave rehab. This could have been interesting and valuable, but what happens instead is that most of the time slotted for these celebrities is showing clips of their time at the center, complete with highs and lows. Receiving special attention is Tiger Woods mistress Rachel Uchitel, whose pain stems from losing her fiance on 9/11. We see an extended sequence of her own purgative-letter-writing experience from Season 4, complete with throwing said letter into the middle of a lake. What does this have to do with her post-rehab experience? Oh, absolutely nothing. Does it teach any of the assembled rehab participants anything? Nope. Why is it here? To make you cry. This show already has enough of a legitimate claim to pathos without trying to milk it like an aging Guernsey.

Motivation: These people are quite literally fighting for survival, and sadly, the history of the show has taught us that there are some who won’t win.

Final Episode Judgment: Provided you can look past Pinsky’s ineffectual if mainstream addiction treatment philosophy and are willing to keep a box of tissues handy, Rehab (or at least this episode) is worth watching if inessential. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: As you know, I can’t get enough of obscure children’s programming, so I’ll be checking out Angelina Ballerina.

Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”

Original Airdate: December 12th, 2014 on Netflix

Ah, yes, here’s another genre that’s mostly new for us–the historical drama. I say mostly because Hindsight is technically a period piece, but it’s depressing for me to think that 1995 now counts as a “period.” Unlike Hindsight, most of these shows are big-budget, prestigious affairs–all those costumes, period appropriate props, sets and location shoots get pricey, so you’re more likely to see them on pay cable, although there are occasional outliers like Mad Men on AMC or Downton Abbey on PBS. Since Netflix is clearly trying to position themselves as an outlet for the kind of prestige content usually found on pay cable, it was inevitable that they’d throw their hat into this ring, and the outcome is Marco Polo. It’s also worth noting that they’ve chosen to include period pieces like Peaky Blinders and Borgia in the slate of shows aired overseas that they distribute in the States.

It’s also come in for an intense and unilateral critical drubbing, which I find somewhat puzzling. The capsule summary tends to be “a pale imitation of Game of Thrones,” which is both unfair and inaccurate. The cynical part of me wonders if this is something like what you traditionally see played out in video game “criticism.” The hot new title in the tired old franchise that’s guaranteed to sell millions of copies to millions of slavering manchildren receives universal acclaim because the critics are afraid to a) step outside the zeitgeist b) anger their corporate overlords c) get SWATted by the aforementioned slavering hordes or d) all of the above. So even if it’s tired, bland and lazy, Gears of Duty: Destiny Effect Syndicate 19 gets 10/10 across the board, and when some other thing that’s an unknown property but is as tired, bland and lazy as the big ticket items gets eviscerated in a form of cathartic release. Thrones is not the hot shit that people seem to think it is. Like most things in life, it is flawed, and in some ways those flaws are critical. Of course, that also applies to Polo–see below–but it’s really about on par with Thrones. In some ways Thrones is better, in some ways it’s worse, but it’s also somewhat different seeing as how it’s fantasy and there are magic and dragons and Polo is allegedly based on actual history. Thrones  is slightly above average; it’s entertaining but not groundbreaking with occasional transcendent, spellbinding moments. And not to spoil my final judgment or anything, but Polo is much the same. For this review, I watched both this episode and the pilot. Let’s take a look.

Strengths

  • Transporting. This is what a period piece banks on, and Polo executes it well. I felt like I had opened a window onto the 13th century. The imagery of Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) traipsing in a caravan across a vast desert, hiding from bandits in fear for his life, contracting deathly illness in an unforgiving tundra, walking the streets of Khanbaliq, witnessing a standoff between two great armies–it casts an undeniable spell, and in this respect at least Polo’s big budget pays off.
  • Kublai & Marco. Hands down, the best scenes in this show involve conversations between Marco and Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, Prometheus.) That makes sense, because this is the beating heart of the Marco Polo story–a chronicling adventurer meets one of the most powerful man in the world and tries to make sense of what he finds despite a gaping cultural gulf. In the world of the show, Marco and Kublai peer at each other across that gulf, and on opposite sides of a huge power differential–Marco and his party literally enter the court of the Khan crawling on hands and knees. Despite all this, the show makes the case that they’re essentially the same kind of person. They’re both attuned to diplomacy, curious, fearless and eager to reach across cultural divides. They yearn for adventure–Marco never would have wound up in Khanbaliq otherwise, and Kublai lives vicariously through Marco’s gift with words and language. He summons Marco so he can regale the Khan with detailed and keenly observed stories of his travels. The art direction on this show is fabulous and there are many visually striking moments, but the scenes in the court do a great job at conveying Kublai’s larger-than-life status and the hushed magic of a seat of global power. The remarkable symmetries between Marco and Kublai and the tensions caused by their differences as Marco teeters between survival, flourishment or escape from his servitude to the Khan are this show’s greatest strength.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. This brings us to the subject of why Marco’s in servitude in the first place. One of the many liberties Polo takes with history (see below) has Marco’s father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino, Rush) bargaining with a displeased Khan. He exchanges Marco’s enslavement for Silk Road trading rights. In real life, Marco stayed voluntarily and was treated as a guest of honor, holding prestigious positions in the Khan’s court. Of course, the dramatic stakes are raised if Marco starts from the inside of a prison cell and rises to a position as a trusted confidante of the Khan. Regardless of the cheerful disposal of actual facts, it works well for the story. Marco is stung by his father’s move, and feels deeply betrayed by him–for the second time. In the show, Niccolo was a stranger to Marco. He didn’t marry his now dead mother and spent his time as an itinerant merchant, and when he returns from his grand journey to the east, Marco wants a chance to adventure, to satisfy his wanderlust, and to get to know his father and find some way to forgive him.  At one point during their journey east, Niccolo advises Marco that he can stave off fear and uncertainty by remembering where his home is, and that if he follows the stars in Orion’s belt they’ll always lead him home. Marco gazes longingly up at those stars early in this episode, and he’s clearly conflicted because with a dead mom and a dad who literally sold him out, he may not have a home there any longer. The main plot of this episode deals with the fallout of a failed strike on Wuchang, the key supplier of food for Xiangyang, the defensive bulwark of the Southern Song dynasty. The strike failed because a key contingent sent by Ariq Böke (Baljinnyamyn Amarsaikhan, Thief of the Mind,) Kublai’s younger brother, did not arrive. The entire Ariq plotline is another aggressive digression from history–instead of Ariq seizing power in Karakorum and inciting all-out civil war, Kublai appears to have granted Ariq control of the Mongolian homeland willingly. The end result remains the same, though–Ariq dies after the failed attack on Wuchang when Kublai’s army arrives to confront him for his treachery. The two face off in a very dramatic duel while their armies look on, but the night before the brothers sit with one another last time to say goodbye. They reminisce about their childhood, they explore their differences and they make peace with what’s about to come. The bounds of family and political obligation constrict them as they do Marco. Rounding out the hour, we have a subplot involving another fantastic character, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng.) She’s a concubine in an awkward and tenuous position in the Southern Song dynasty–she has no official power, but she has favor with the emperor and other well-placed politicians because of her sexual prowess. She’s also deeply devoted to her small child, the bastard product of her union with the emperor. Of course, the emperor is very old and sick and promptly dies. Seeing as his successor is a toddler, a power struggle is inevitable, but Mei Lin has been deprived of her patron. Her brother Jia Sidao (Chin Han) is the arrogant chancellor, and he takes the opportunity to get her out of the way while possibly gaining valuable intelligence–he sends her to infiltrate Kublai’s harem and spy on his court. Thus Mei Lin’s worst nightmare comes to pass–she’s separated from her daughter and may never see her again. Once again, the interplay between family and politics leads to a toxic brew, and much like Marco, Mei Lin will be trapped in a foreign culture with ample danger and no easy means of escape.

Weaknesses

  • Historical inaccuracy in service of racist tropes. I don’t penalize this kind of show for being historically inaccurate in general–it’s meant to be entertainment, not a documentary, and dramatic license is often necessary to tell a well-crafted story. It’s more fun to watch Marco claw his way up from the bottom. It’s exciting to watch Kublai decapitate his brother in one-on-one combat. It’s intriguing to watch Mei Lin attempt to infiltrate the court, although in actuality an unknown foreigner being admitted as a concubine into the Khan’s harem was laughably impossible. But when you start distorting history in the service of racist tropes, it gets tired very quickly. Not only because racism is corrosive, but because these tropes are incredibly lazy and don’t make for very good television. Oh, look, here comes a white guy we can “identify” with–even though 13th century Venice is just as baffling to me as 13th century Mongolia. Oh, and here he is immediately enmeshed in danger and sinister intrigue, when in reality he was a welcomed guest. Oh, and here he is being the real driving force behind all of Kublai’s remarkable accomplishments, because someone as exceptional as Kublai couldn’t have existed without a brainy white guy in his corner. This all reaches the apogee of ridiculousness when Marco is introduced to his kung fu tutor. Are you fucking kidding me. I can only imagine TV and movie producers hearing about any drama set anywhere in Asia or featuring Asians in any major aspect and then immediately asking what the martial arts angle is going to be. Marco Polo doesn’t need to know kung fu! He’s a charismatic diplomat! Aren’t the power games enough? The show explains this away by rationalizing that Marco needs to know these skills to survive, but once again, he was venerated and respected in the court in real life, and even within the show’s twisted logic, this doesn’t make any sense. When Marco contradicts Kublai’s heir Jingim (Remy Hii, Neighbours) in open court and comes to confront Marco, Marco’s tutor Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) remarks that Jingim is the Prince and is welcome to kill Marco where he stands. Oh, and let’s talk about Hundred Eyes for a minute. Not only is he a Wise Old Kung Fu Master, he’s also blind. Jesus. In real life, Marco Polo’s writings did speak of an actual person named Hundred Eyes. Of course, the real Hundred Eyes wasn’t a blind kung fu master because that’s ridiculous racist nonsense. Instead, he was a major general in Kublai’s army, and a sighted one to boot. So he totally could have played a major role in this series, as Hundred Eyes does. Alas, it was not to be. This show also takes Thrones’ lead in indulging in constant gratuitous naked women, best demonstrated in the laughably bad orgy scene at the end of the pilot. You know we’d never get through a drama set in Asia without a literal heap of writhing, naked, objectified Asian women serving some muddied metaphorical purpose. This episode wasn’t as bad about the wildly unnecessary nudity–there is a nude scene, which for once I won’t spoil except to say that Polo earned the hell out of that one.
  • Dumb romance plotline. Isn’t a pivotal moment in the unification of China enough!? What about a historic meeting between the East and the West?! Nope. We have to have an idiotic, moon-eyed love story thrown in for some godforsaken reason. And even in the annals of stupid tacked on romance plots, this one’s a doozy because of course it’s love at first sight. As soon as Marco locks eyes on Kokachin (Zhu Zhu,) there are little pink cartoon hearts everywhere. Of course, she’s a kept woman in the service of a powerful man. Of course, this is all completely ahistorical. There was a real Kokachin, and the real Polo describes the circumstances behind her arrival in the court with bland neutrality in one paragraph, a paragraph that’s as boring to read as this subplot is to watch. Boo.

Motivation: Like many well-thought out television shows, Polo touches on many different motivations–as I mentioned, family is of particular thematic relevance for this installment–but each episode of this show is so overwhelmingly concerned with power struggles that it’s hard for anything else to take precedence over that.

Final Episode Judgment: Despite the thorough critical beating that Polo’s received and some undeniably major flaws, fans of political intrigue and soapy historical drama will enjoy this. 8/10. The pilot only merits a 6/10, but hopefully that’s bad pilot syndrome and not a sign of deep inconsistency.

NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I check into Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”

Case Study 19: Max Steel [2000], Episode 7–“Snowblind”

Original Airdate: May 20th, 2000 on The WB

Conventional wisdom dictates that children’s programming designed to shill toys in easily-digestible 22 minute infomercials disguised as narrative are the nadir of TV for kids. I can definitely sympathize with this line of thinking, but the more time that’s gone by and the more I think about it I’m not sure how persuasive it really is. The entire business model of broadcast television is an inundation of advertisements with blandly inoffensive dancing monkeys inserted periodically. Now we have DVRs and streaming and other technological magic, so instead we’re treated to lovingly detailed portrayals of the features of Alicia Florrick’s Lincoln Town Car and desperately self-aware gags about Snapple in 30 Rock and Subway in Community. And you might say that at least these shows aren’t conceived out of whole cloth to sell tie-in merchandise, but the networks are currently inundated with shows designed to get you addicted to an endless parade of superhero movies, not to mention prestige shows determined to sell you board games and comic books and an endless variety of things that look like relics of British public infrastructure from 50 years ago. In addition to shilling Lincolns, my beloved Good Wife will gladly sell you a $6000 dollar sofa that looks exactly like the generic leather couch in Will Gardner’s office. When it comes to our offspring, though, we expect them to eagerly swallow tepid moralism and sage life advice about not doing shots before a marathon. So if you’re going to judge Max Steel, judge it by its own unique failings, not because it was intended to make money selling crappy toys. Make no mistake—I’m a dyed in the wool pinko, but we can hardly afford to get doctrinaire about the relationship between art and commerce in the hot light of 2015. After all, Powerhouse was brought to you by a non-profit organization and look how well that turned out.

Having said all that, Max Steel may be more successful as a media franchise than as a line of toys. The reason I had to specify up in the title that this is the 2000 Steel is because it’s just been rebooted, although the fact that it’s been on the air for three seasons and each season has seen it on a different network doesn’t exactly bode well for its health and welfare. Still, there have got to be 12-year-old Steel superfans out there, because they’ve also cranked out 9 straight-to-DVD movies.

Strengths

  • Intrigue. Hey, have you got a generic superhero story filled with generic superhero nonsense? Do you lack the rich and varied history of decade-spanning comic book franchises? Do you want to avoid the Danny Phantom or Murder, She Wrote trap of having an improbably large amount of excitement and adventure occur in a flyspeck town? Well, take a page from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and have your superhero adjacent antics take place within the context of a secret international crime fighting agency! By mixing a bit of intrigue in with your superpowered action, you’ve got a whole new well of stories to draw from, and it’s even better if you’re an animated show like Steel—you can use settings from all over the world without cheesy soundstages, green screen effects or unpersuasive attempts to replicate the Mongolian steppes in the outskirts of Vancouver. This also has the effect of making the heroes’ adventures seem more substantial and grounded in an existing and tangible reality. Despite the show’s inevitable silliness, the insertion of the counter-intelligence agency–here called N-Tek–turned out to be a great decision.
  • Sly metacommentary. So the main event of this episode of Steel centers around criminal mastermind John Dread (Martin Jarvis, Titanic) luring our eponymous hero (Christian Campbell, Trick) into an ominously unstable Aspen ice cave by pretending to be N-Tek’s resident teenage tech prodigy, Dr. Roberto Martinez (Jacob Vargas, Next Friday.) The show uses this plot device to slyly and ingeniously subvert some of the hoariest cliches of potboiler action/adventure. Since it’s Berto’s job to spew an endless stream of technobabble, Max credulously believes the patent nonsense Dread makes up on the spot, just like he does every week. How many times have you seen a show with a scene something like this?

 

RUGGED HERO: Nebulously Qualified Science Geek, we need a way to defeat the Asshole of the Week in time to save the Civic Center, and we need it NOW!

NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: Well, my calculations have shown that if we just apply [string of gratuitously made up jargon] to the [actual scientific concept that makes no sense whatsoever in this context] we should be able to triangulate the signal!

ALLEGEDLY SASSY SIDEKICK: Give it to us in English, you friendless virgin!

NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: I made a map of the building he’s in, I’ve circled the locations of the plastic explosives and I somehow installed a GPS chip in his urethra!

RUGGED HERO: LET’S MOVE

 

As we near the end of the second act, Max begins to put it together, but it’s hilarious how easily Dread tricked him with the usual handwavey TV nonsense. And Steel doubles down on another cliche-one-note characterization, often hung on a very tenuous hook. As far as I can tell, Berto’s character has two traits: he’s a wildly unrealistic teenage super-prodigy of the Doogie Howser variety and he’s Colombian. Since this is TV, of course he loves the Spanglish. Again, it takes Max to the end of act two to figure out that Dread’s version of Berto is using the wrong variety of Spanglish salutations. It’s very easy for Dread to trick Max into thinking he’s Berto because Berto is a cardboard cutout. Of course, by foregrounding the glaring flaws in the fundamental properties of their own TV show, the writers of Steel may be shooting themselves in the foot to a certain extent. And it’s entirely likely that your average 8 year old isn’t going to pick up on or remotely care about tongue-in-cheek lampshading. But you’ve got to take your thrills where you can find them when you’re reviewing eminently forgettable children’s television from the past.

Weaknesses

  • Hilariously bad animation. Animation in the mid-to-late 90s is a classic case study in “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The wonders of digital animation with 3D effects were only just being discovered. There was Pixar, making that shit look gorgeous. Of course, Toy Story cost $30 million goddamned dollars. Did the creators of Steel have $30 million dollars? They did not. Look, I realize this was 15 years ago and the people who made this show can’t hear me, but please don’t do this kind of thing unless your show is set in the uncanny valley. Watching this was like watching a Let’s Play of Deus Ex. And the thing about Deus Ex is that it’s not really contingent on acting. When you’re making a TV show wherein people feel emotions, it often helps if their face and/or body moves in a vaguely realistic way. I will also tell you that despite the illustrious cast of people who peaked in the 90s, the voice acting leaves something to be desired. They could probably have saved a lot of time and money if they had just made characters in The Sims. Compared to this, Super Mario 64 looks like Gustave Courbet. And what the hell is wrong with good old fashioned 2D animation? If it worked for Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Hayao Miyazaki somehow I think you clowns can piece something together.

Motivation: Even when his life’s on the line, Max is on the job. Preventing Dread from poisoning his hometown with some sort of magical ice artifact or whatever the fuck is all in a day’s work.

Final Episode Judgment: If you’re a hopeless superhero TV junkie and you’ve somehow managed to exhaust the mountains and mountains of name-brand material out there, you could actually do a lot worse. Like Danny Phantom, for instance. 6/10.

NEXT TIME: I dive into the over-chlorinated swimming pool of “historical” drama for a game of Marco Polo!

Case Study 19: Max Steel [2000], Episode 7–“Snowblind”

Case Study 18: Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Episodes 12 & 13–“Episode 2.4” & “Episode 2.5”

Original Airdates: September 25th and October 2nd, 2008 on ITV2

Secret Diary of a Call Girl is one of those shows that belongs to a micro-genre—it’s a soapy sex comedy in the vein of Sex and the City or Coupling. Those are the only two other examples I can think of, but there have got to be others. It’s vaguely provocative and somewhat raunchy while being decidedly softcore. The soapiness and the comedy can be distributed in wildly unpredictable proportions but usually there’s at least a little of both. You’ll also notice that this is a first for the blog—I’m officially reviewing two episodes instead of one for reasons that will become apparent.

Strengths

  • Telling a sympathetic story about a prostitute with agency. It’s exceedingly rare to see a prostitute as the protagonist of a movie or TV show. When Secret first appeared, it occasioned a firestorm of controversy around the subject of its handling of gender, feminism and sex work. One of the lynchpins of that controversy is the fact that the protagonist, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), is in Piper’s words “a witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it.” It’s certainly true that this is the type of prostitute you’re most likely to see as a protagonist in movies and TV—Pretty Woman and Firefly come to mind—but that doesn’t necessarily make it unrealistic, either. Secret does not make a claim to tell the stories of all prostitutes everywhere and sex work is not a monolith. It’s insulting to sex workers to assume that no one would ever do this by choice, just as it would be insulting to assume that all sex workers were doing it by choice. The world is rich and multifaceted and it would be extremely unfair to dismiss Secret out of hand because its chosen subject matter challenges easy platitudes about sex work. The critique deepens with claims that the show both sanitizes and glamorizes Hannah’s profession, and while that may have held some water when the show’s first few episodes were generating an avalanche of hot takes, that’s not what I saw here. Sure, the fact that Hannah is on the high end of the economic scale means that she can afford fancy restaurants and a nice apartment, but each of these two episodes features a scene with Hannah on the job, and both seem rather unglamorous and distinctly awkward. Even when it pays well, work is still work. Having said that, there’s quite a lot of people out there with extensive expertise in the subject with a wide variety of opinions and points to make about the politics of the show, and you can read more about that here. I will point out that most of the opinions there are pretty negative, but, again, these folks were reacting to early episodes of the show and it may have changed course by the middle of the second season.                                       
  • Portraying people with disabilities as sexually active. Hannah’s encounter in the second episode is with Blake (David Proud, EastEnders,) who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. As you can imagine, this is also politically fraught and it’s not executed perfectly, as you’ll see below. Let me preface this by saying that if you’re in a wheelchair and you’ve got an opinion about this scene, I’d really love to hear it—hit me up in the contact form. The internet is littered with inarticulate college students who have been forced to publicly write undercooked response papers critiquing the representation on display here—I’m not sure if it’s one professor inflicting these on the internet or a multitude, but the prompt seems to have been “Explain how this scene reinforces stereotypes about the disabled,” so there’s not a lot of diversity of opinion. I’m much more interested in hearing the opinions of people who are actually in a wheelchair, and the only thing I could find was a YouTube video from a guy who said he thought the scene was realistic amidst a slew of lecherous comments about Ms. Piper’s body. Admittedly, the scene invites lechery—it’s actually pretty damn sexy and David Proud is something of a fox. Regardless, the scene taps into larger issues around stereotypes about the sexuality of the disabled—many have remarked upon pernicious myths centering around the idea that the physically disabled are unilaterally uninterested in or incapable of sex. On the other hand, the idea that sexual release for the disabled inevitably happens through the lens of prostitution is also controversial. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen. There are entire organizations devoted to connecting the disabled with compassionate, trained and well-vetted sex workers, and a 2005 survey revealed that 63% of disabled men would see a sex worker under the right conditions. Some disability activists are campaigning for governments to subsidize sexual services for the disabled, a service which is already available in The Netherlands. Of course, there’s nuance here as well—some in the disabled community have said that meeting needs further down the Maslow hierarchy should take precedence. Others have pointed out that as with all sex work, there’s a vast disparity here when it comes to gender. That same 2005 survey also found that only 19% of disabled women would feel comfortable with a sex worker. Others have pointed out that plenty of disabled people are able to have healthy and fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships without needing to rely on sex workers—in fact, Secret suggests this as well when Hannah reassures Blake that this is eminently possible and that he shouldn’t despair of the possibility. Perhaps the most resonant quote on this issue that I came across in my research was from YouTube activist Mik Scarlet: “I don’t want a world where it’s easier for disabled people to visit sex workers, I want a world that sees disabled people as sexual and valid prospective partners.” I still think Secret is a positive intervention—it’s a sensitive depiction of the subject and I came away from it very inclined to see David Proud as a sexual and valid prospective partner.

Weaknesses

  • Using a person with a disability as a narrative device. Well, it was unlikely that a smutty cable comedy was going to be able to pull this off effortlessly, wasn’t it? The whole reason we’re given this extended scene between Blake and Hannah is that it’s a reflection on Hannah’s personal problems and her conception of herself. You see, these two episodes center on Hannah’s abortive attempt at a romantic relationship with Dr. Alex McCloud (Callum Blue, Smallville.) It’s difficult for obvious reasons—Hannah is very discreet and doesn’t advertise her line of work to most of the people in her life, including men she hooks up with in her personal life. But before she knows it, a casual hook-up turns into something more serious, and Alex is getting suspicious about why she’s disinclined to show him her apartment or introduce him to friends. In addition, Hannah’s best friend Ben (Iddo Goldberg, Salem) is secretly carrying a torch for her and aggressively disapproves of her keeping this secret from Alex. Of course, Ben’s opinion isn’t stemming from a deeply principled moral code but rather from incandescent jealousy, and this leads to a decidedly unpleasant lunch date with Hannah, Alex and Ben. Given Hannah’s serious feelings for Alex, she realizes the deep tensions here will need to be resolved fairly immediately and resolves to tell Alex very soon. In the meantime, Hannah has her appointment with Blake. In the conversation where Blake bemoans having to resort to prostitution to have a sexual outlet, Hannah muses that sex with strangers can make a person feel even more alone. She also tells him she can relate to his fears about never being able to have a normal relationship. It’s exceedingly obvious that this conversation exists to reinforce Hannah’s fears that her profession forecloses on her ability to find love. Blake is a guest star in Hannah’s life, and the reason he’s here isn’t to tell a story about what Blake’s going through, or to start a conversation about disability and sexuality and prostitution—it’s to underline the poignancy of Hannah’s problems. It’s dehumanizing and disrespectful to use other people’s subaltern identities as narrative props.
  • Lazy lover. This is infuriatingly common—I can think of examples stretching all the way back to Romeo & Juliet-–but that doesn’t make it less stupid. We’re meant to believe that Alex and Hannah have a deep and meaningful love connection. The climax of the first episode is this big conversation about how Alex feels too strongly about Hannah to be able to abide her seeming unwillingness to commit, and the final line of the episode is Hannah tearfully confessing her love to him. But this is entirely unearned. We have no reason to believe that Alex and Hannah are any more special of a couple than any other two people. They don’t seem to have much in common. There’s not buckets of chemistry. There’s no wonderful shared romantic experiences. The best we’re given is a bit of cutesy banter. A romance story can be bewitching and frustrating and an all-around emotional roller coaster. Its myriad flaws notwithstanding, this is something that Secret’s American cousin City pulled off on the regular. It’s interesting that Hannah’s job makes it very challenging for her to have a traditional relationship, but because this romance is so unconvincing, it’s really only interesting in the abstract.
  • Unnecessary and somewhat implausible dramatics. So how does that conversation with Hannah and Alex go? It doesn’t happen at all, because he finds out about her job in the worst and most dramatic way possible—he shows up unannounced in her apartment as Hannah and Blake are having sex. How was he able to get in? The show foregrounds the fact that Hannah left her door unlocked for the stupidest of reasons–Blake was ferried to the appointment by his father Gary (Clive Russell, The 13th Warrior.) He goes to wait in the car and for some dumb reason Hannah thinks she needs to leave the door unlocked in case Gary needs to get back into her apartment. Buh? He has her phone number. She has his phone number. And in the worst case scenario, Hannah knows that he’s downstairs waiting in the car. The mind rebels at any scenario where Gary would need to come into the apartment and Hannah wouldn’t be available to unlock the door. The incredibly awkward scene where Gary dotingly delivers Blake to the apartment and fusses over him and kisses him goodbye, as well as a brief interlude where we see him fidgeting in the car with nothing to do, makes it seem like he’s going to interrupt Blake and Hannah at a crucial moment. If this is obvious to us, why isn’t it obvious to Hannah? If for some reason the writers were set on Alex dramatically interrupting Hannah at work, why not just have Hannah leave the door unlocked because her presence in the apartment makes her unwary of intruders, or simply because she forgot? But that assumes that this ridiculous scene needs to happen in the first place. Wouldn’t it be more affecting to have Hannah do everything perfectly in revealing her secret to Alex and having him still reject her in abject disgust? Sure, it’s wacky for him to walk in on Hannah and Blake, but it’s also improbable. A difficult conversation makes for better television than a misadventure straight out of the script of Three’s Company.
  • Not freestanding. So the reason that I had to cover two episodes of this show instead of one is that Episode 2.4 is entirely set up. I get that allowances must be made for a serialized show to develop stories and characters over time. But that doesn’t mean that an individual episode can’t tell a satisfying, discrete story while still being a part of a larger whole. Here’s the story we get in Episode 2.4. Hannah is realizing she has serious feelings for Alex, and this makes it impossible for her to have a seamy threeway instigated by a guy in a mullet and a leopard print speedo (Jeff Rawle, Hollyoaks.) Alex is eager to meet Hannah’s friends, so she makes a lunch date with Ben. Ben insists that Hannah tell Alex about her job. During the lunch date Ben acts like a pissy little baby and threatens to tell Alex himself before storming off. Alex tells Hannah it’s too painful for him to continue if she won’t commit and she tells him she loves him. That’s it. All the show does is establish the tensions underlying this relationship, tensions which could be established in less than five minutes. It doesn’t tell a story. A story would look like “Hannah meets a guy, but her job makes things difficult, ultimately resulting in rejection and heartbreak.” Diary stretched that out over three episodes, and there’s simply not enough meat there.

Motivation: Sure, she has a lucrative career—but will Hannah ever find looooooove? Can today’s high-priced call girl HAVE IT ALL!? Expect a think piece in The Atlantic on that very subject before the year is out.

Final Episode Judgments: 2.5 gets a 4/10 for actually telling a story. 2.4 only musters a 3/10. For a more probing look at sexuality and disability, check out the movie The Sessions, which occasioned the Guardian article linked above.

NEXT TIME: I review a cartoon based on an action figure: Max Steel. Will it clear the high water mark set by Danny Phantom? Only time will tell!

Case Study 18: Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Episodes 12 & 13–“Episode 2.4” & “Episode 2.5”