Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Original Airdate: November 13th, 2013 on Hulu

Thanks to Netflix, it’s become de rigueur for streaming services to produce their own original programming, and Netflix hasn’t made it easy on its competitors, churning out critically-acclaimed hits like Orange is the New Black and Master of None. Amazon Prime comes in at a distant second for original fare, most notably due to the success of Transparent. But whither Hulu? If Amazon Prime is lagging behind, Hulu has died of a heart attack and is slowly decomposing in a heap somewhere. They had exactly zero shows in AV Club’s top 40 last year and the only Emmy nomination they received was for an election special helmed by the timeless and relevant Triumph, the Insult Comedy Dog. Honestly, the highlight might very well be The Wrong Mans. A network in this position is going to desperately try all kinds of crazy things in the search for the next big hit, including giving Eva Longoria money to star in an “edgy” animated sitcom described in Variety as being like “Family Guy for women.” Gulp.

Strengths

  • Periodically funny. If that sounds like I’m damning Mother with faint praise, it’s because I am. But it’s better than a joyless slog! Most of the jokes that work in this episode center around the near-critical levels of self-centeredness displayed by our protagonist, Rudi Wilson (Longoria, Desperate Housewives.) Here, Rudi tries to get her friend Sarah (Gabrielle Miller, Corner Gas) to loosen up, but after her first day-drinking bender, Sarah professes a desire to “buy drugs, burn things down and hurt people! Hurt them so much!” Without so much as a pause, Rudi cheerfully replies, “Okay! See ya tomorrow.” We get more along these lines from the episode’s subplot, which has Rudi’s ten-year-old son Dick (Jesse Camacho, Less Than Kind) unwittingly imprisoned when he tries to get close to an incarcerated father figure. The prison figures out their mistake before Rudi realizes Dick’s gone. This is exacerbated when she mistakes Sarah’s son for her own. Sarah corrects her, only to get a brusque “I don’t think so.”
  • Breaking up a boy’s club. Look, there’s no good reason for anyone to try and bring more versions of Family Guy into the world. Seth MacFarlane is a cancerous growth on the taint of comedy. But there’s something to be said for an animated series where the morally deficient and hijinks-prone protagonist is a woman, unlike MacFarlane’s crap, or The Simpsons, or Futurama, or Bojack Horseman, or Archer, or that shitty Bill Burr vehicle on Netflix. And many of the other characters are tightass suburban moms! Sure, it may be a hoary cliche to make fun of soccer moms, but at least we’re dealing with a story by and about women. Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t guarantee quality in and of itself—but Leslie Knope would be proud.
  • Turning around a derivative storyline. South Park famously lampshaded their own piss-poor creative skills by making a big deal about how The Simpsons had supposedly already tackled every good storyline, and Mother had me ready to compare Rudi and Sarah to Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in Las Vegas. While Mother does retain the device of the milquetoast character going way too far in their indulgence, Rudi proves to be an unlikely voice of reason and moderation. She ultimately brings Sarah back from the edge of total insanity, though she still has to engage in some kind of death-match with cobra venom coursing through her veins. You know, edgy, etc. But this is promising. Rudi reluctantly stepping in to do the right thing shows the possibility of a well-rounded character who isn’t just wacky for wackiness’ sake. Of course, Mother didn’t survive past 13 episodes, so it was all a big waste of everyone’s time.

Weaknesses

  • Tasteless. This is my big problem with “edgy.” “Edgy” could mean that something is interesting, experimental, attempting the never-before-seen. Unfortunately, it usually means “let’s see if we can get away with jokes about children masturbating in public and giving their bullies blood-borne hepatitis.” It can be hard to draw the line between jokes about negligent parenting that play on our insights and observations of the characters and jokes that are just supposed to shock us into laughs of discomfort, because normally people frown on child endangerment. But this is a constant challenge for comedies relying on despicable characters—when do we stop laughing at them and start laughing at their victims?
  • Unlikable protagonist. The protagonists of those male-driven animated comedies I listed above all exist on some continuity between well-intentioned idiocy and petty maliciousness. The further you get down that continuum, the more you’re forced to appreciate the show in spite of its hero, in the spirit of Archer. Mother Up was always going to struggle, but the fact that Rudi’s an asshole doesn’t help. I’ve never understood the TV writer’s penchant for assholes. Don’t we already have enough assholes in our day to day lives?

Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s not very good, but it’s head and shoulders above Family Guy. Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate Family Guy?

NEXT TIME: Hey, I liked it when Gundam had giant flying death robots, so I’m sure every anime with giant flying death robots is also awesome, right? RIGHT?! I review Zoids: Chaotic Century!

Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Original Airdate: December 14th, 1980 on CBS

Previously in this space we’ve discussed Norman Lear’s groundbreaking classic All in the Family. At the time I pointed out that Family was just the beginning of a cottage industry of sitcoms unafraid to probe political issues across racial, class and gender divides. He made sitcoms about working class white conservatives, rich white liberals, black families with newfound wealth and black families in the inner city. His next idea was to turn his attention to the newly relevant phenomena of single parent households—by 1980 nearly 20% of American children lived in such homes. This led to One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorcee raising two teenage girls. Lear had struck gold—Time was a huge hit and eventually ran for nine seasons. Some TV executive out there still thinks the show is relevant, because apparently it’s slated for a Gilmore Girls-esque reboot on Netflix. But is the original worth your time?

Strengths

  • Serious plot. This is one of the things that was refreshing about Lear—he wasn’t afraid to have a comedy deal with serious issues, even if that meant sacrificing opportunities for laughs. His legacy lives on in modern-day comedies like Transparent that relentlessly probe contemporary society while still managing to be funny, to the point where the legitimacy of that show’s Emmy nomination category is endlessly debated. In this episode, we have the protagonist’s mother, Katherine Romano (Nanette Fabray, The Band Wagon) trying to get back on the dating market in light of her husband’s recent death. It wouldn’t be a Lear sitcom if Katherine wasn’t treated as a sensitive, human subject.

Weaknesses

  • Missed opportunities. The problem is that the show doesn’t do anything interesting with what could have been really juicy material. After she makes a pass at wacky neighbor figure Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.), he turns her down. He consoles her by telling her that now’s her chance to be alone and find out who she REALLY is on the inside. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Now I’m not saying that her self-actualization wouldn’t be interesting, but that’s not what we’re getting here. Instead, we get to watch her get prompted towards self-actualization with no payoff. This is a great example of where the writers could have followed the golden rule of improv: accept the premise provided by the script and expand on it, instead of shutting it down and trying to go in another direction. Why not let Katherine and Schneider have an affair? There’s several different ways that could go. Maybe Katherine’s daughter Ann (Bonnie Franklin) is grossed out by her mom’s newfound sexuality and has to come to terms with that. Maybe Katherine thinks Schneider is more serious than he is and winds up lovelorn. Maybe they discover a problematic incompatibility. Maybe she realizes she’s not really done grieving her late husband. Instead, we’re just teased with the possibility of what could have been.
  • Nanette Fabray. Fabray’s Katherine might be fine as a comedic foil for Franklin’s Ann, but she struggles to stand on her own as the centerpiece of this episode. She’s dealing with complicated emotions like loss, heartbreak and despair. She flirts, she dances, she’s meant to come across as vivacious, but by the end of the episode she’s proclaiming that she’s got nothing to live for. Fabray doesn’t have the range for this and comes across like a stiff product of mid-century vaudeville and musical theater.
  • Primitivist joke. Primitivism is a term most frequently associated with art, but it’s a useful shorthand for a variety of racist thinking not too distantly related to Orientalism. If Orientalism exaggerates and exoticizes Arabs and Asians under the guise of an artistic sensibility, Primitivism does much the same for people living in Latin America and Africa. It casts these people as savage barbarians who are nonetheless spiritually connected to the earth and primal forces of sexuality and magic. It’s one tool out of many that white viewers use to distance themselves from everyone else. Here, it’s deployed in the service of a profoundly stupid joke: Schneider tells an anecdote about dating a “Mayan lass” in the Yucatan who couldn’t participate in a human sacrifice ritual because, thanks to Schneider, she was no longer a virgin. Now, some seven million people still describe themselves as Mayan in the 21st century, and before the Spanish conquest the historical Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Of course, that stopped in the 17th century and no one was throwing virgins down wells in the first place, so this joke isn’t just offensive, it makes no fucking sense in light of the show’s otherwise studied realism. Is it really worth being racist to make another dumb joke about how Schneider is slutty?

Final Judgment: 3/10. Norman Lear’s work is always interesting, but this is not the best specimen. Hopefully Netflix can rehabilitate this apparently beloved IP for the 21st century.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Eva Longoria had an original animated series for adults on Hulu? Come back next time as I review the unfortunately named Mother Up!

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Original Airdate: February 7th, 2015 on Starz

First things first—I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review posted! Black Sails is exactly the kind of super-plotty serialized drama that’s the most difficult to cover in this space, although of course super-plotty serialized dramas are hotter than ever. Yes, I watched each and every minute of the first eleven episodes of Black Sails and I came out the other side with only a few cutlass wounds and a venereal disease to show for it. I also found that it wasn’t exactly the kind of show that lent itself to binging. If I’m going to watch eleven hours of nautical-terrorism-themed chess I’m certainly not going to make them consecutive hours. Anyway, Sails is an attempt by Starz to keep producing questionably relevant “historical” dramas after Spartacus: Blood and Sand went off the air in 2013. It’s also an attempt to get anyone to care about a Starz original series. It’s looking like it didn’t succeed: at the end of this season Sails is getting put in dry dock. For those of you wondering—no, this is not the pirate show with John Malkovich. That would be the hastily cancelled NBC vehicle Crossbones. One more fun fact before we get into the pros and cons: Sails is part of the Treasure Island Universe! Yes, everything has a universe now, even 19th century novels. What this means in practice is that three of the characters can be found in the novel. On the other hand, an equal number of characters are based on actual pirates with varying degrees of legitimacy in the historical record, so this all amounts to a definite sense that no one involved is taking either history or Robert Louis Stevenson too seriously.

Strengths

  • Intricate power struggles. This may be the main reason why people watch plot-heavy prestige dramas, and Sails certainly delivers. Everybody’s got an angle. The overarching plot of these episodes concerns the efforts of a crew of pirates led by one Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) to haul in the Score Of The Century. The big problem with that is that Flint is by turns secretive and murderous and is constantly finding himself in danger of mutiny or worse. It also means that people who aren’t on his crew have a hard time trusting him. Here, he butts heads with the bloodthirsty Charles Vane (Zach McGowan.) Vane has recently taken control over the fort protecting the pirate haven of New Providence Island, but for the moment he’s more preoccupied by a pissing contest with the even more bloodthirsty Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy, Alexander.) Why should Vane care about Low? Well, Low’s creating problems for the island’s chief fence of stolen treasure, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Vane’s still carrying a torch for her. Speaking of old flames, Flint also has a semi-secret lover: seemingly respectable lady about town Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes.) She isn’t so interested in the Score Of The Century. Instead, she wants Flint to go straight and beg for acceptance back into polite society. Barlow also helped Guthrie’s well-connected father go into hiding, and here we see Eleanor negotiate with Barlow to try and salvage some of her father’s few remaining relationships. Then there’s the trio of Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz,) Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy.) They’re currently managing a whorehouse and personal romantic entanglements, but you know what they’d rather be doing? Finding the Score Of The Century. Vane extracts information about Low from Max in return for repairing Rackham’s reputation. It’s certainly fun to watch all the gears turn and there’s genuine suspense in wondering who’ll come out on top and how. The only downside is that all the Machiavellian machinations can take the place of actual substance. But if you want a complicated plot? They’ve got a complicated plot. It may be a little unfair to say the show elides substance entirely. You could make the case that all this is an extended lesson on how to fail or succeed at leadership. Flint has an instinct for tactics but struggles to manage his crew effectively. John Silver (Luke Arnold) Is charismatic and manages to ingratiate himself with a wide array of parties, but circumstance is frequently weighted against him. (Of course, we all know that Silver will eventually be a big success, so in some ways Sails is really all about his rise to power.) Eleanor is apparently supposed to be about 19, which is a big fucking stretch, but nevertheless, hers is a story about a young woman struggling to hold onto power in an old man’s world. And of course, Vane and Low rule by dint of force. However, this isn’t a theme explored in this episode explicitly but rather in the series as a whole, and more pointedly elsewhere at that.
  • Action! Michael Bay is an EP on Sails so it was easy to predict that it would feature thrills, chills and/or spills. In this episode they’re parcelled out sparingly but to great effect. Both moments involve Vane—when we first see him, he’s engaging in a swordfight with a crew member for practice and so we the viewer can enjoy a swordfight. This is just an appetizer, though. The big climax has him straight-up decapitating Low after some close-quarters combat. Anyone coming into a pirate drama is going to be expecting cutlasses and cannonballs, and while there’s more to be found elsewhere in the series, there’s also more to come: the cliffhanger has us poised for a violent confrontation between Flint’s men and Vane’s.

Weaknesses

  • Pointless, parsimonious flashbacks. This season has us spending part of our time watching Flint’s backstory in London slowly, slowly unfold. Once upon a time not long ago, Flint was a Royal Navy Lieutenant assigned to a special project with the goal of rooting out piracy in the West Indies. Instead, he ran off with his boss’s wife, aka Mrs. Barlow. This is all well and good, but I take exception to the structure. Each episode in season two, we’re treated to one or two scenes of his old life. This might be okay if they were thematically relevant, but there are no real themes here. Instead we’re getting a slow drip of something not all that interesting. If we must get the long version of Flint’s origin story, why not put it all in one episode, where we could actually get immersed instead of just getting jerked around between the exciting events of the present day and the tangentially relevant recent past?
  • Gratuitous girl on girl action. If there’s one thing pirate ships full of sweaty, lonely, drunken men are known for, it’s lesbian sex. Look, I’m always glad to see queer characters on television, but I don’t think the pairings between Eleanor and Max or Max and Anne are intended for queer audiences. Every episode of this show involves bare breasts. Many episodes feature the sight of a mons pubis. Sure, pirates aren’t famous for their decorum, but if there’s going to be a bacchanal, let’s make it equal opportunity, hm? We managed to go eleven episodes without any men having sex with men, but three out of the four female characters have gotten down with each other. Many scenes are set at the brothel run by Anne, Jack and Max, but the conspicuous naked women are never accompanying naked men. Apparently, later this season we learn that Flint fucked both Barlow and her husband. Good progress! Unfortunately, it’s still a demerit from this episode.
  • Solving problems with sex. Look, I understand the temptation. It ties up plot threads and we get to see boobs, because those are so hard to find pictures of in 2016. But it makes otherwise powerful characters like Eleanor seem flighty when she’ll throw down her convictions and best judgment to hop onto Vane’s dick just because he chopped off somebody’s head, and if Jack, Anne and Max are going to form a happy little triad, what was the point of setting up a love triangle between the two of them in the first place? All I’m trying to say here is if you’re going to take away time from sword-fights and manipulation, it had better be for either meaningful character development or thematic richness, not so I can watch every single woman on this show make orgasm faces.

Final Judgment: 7/10. Sure, it’s fun while it’s happening, but when you take a step back it’s pretty unfocused. Where is all this leading and why should I care? In the first few episodes of this show, it seemed like they wanted to develop a story about pirates on the margins of the world stage staking a claim to legitimate statehood. That really could be a fascinating story. Instead, it feels like we got caught up in an endless power struggle. It’s satisfying in some ways, but these are ultimately empty calories.

NEXT TIME: I return to the collected works of Norman Lear as I review One Day At A Time!

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Original Airdate: November 26th, 2004 on Channel Four

He’s not well-known in the US, but in Britain Peter Kay is a bona fide comedy star. His 2010 stand-up comedy tour holds the Guinness World Record as the most successful comedy tour of all time, with 1.2 million tickets sold, and he’s been the star of a staggering amount of television shows and specials, although since this is Britain we’re talking about, his total amount of air time is still dwarfed by something like Everybody Loves Raymond. Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere is a spinoff of Phoenix Nights, a sitcom about a working men’s club in Northern England. In the final episode of Phoenix, the club’s doormen go on the run in an RV after a wacky misadventure. If there’s one thing TV loves, it’s a wacky misadventure, so they continue apace in Nowhere.

Strengths

  • Peter Kay as Max. The show isn’t riotously funny, but I can understand why Peter Kay’s career has been such a success. Almost all of the laughs come from his portrayal of Max, a bumbling and oafish but well-intentioned lowlife. It’s the little things that do it—the affection when he calls Paddy a “melon,” the indignant squawks of “How dare you!?,” and the gormless look on his face when everything goes wrong. This episode contains an inexplicably serious storyline, and Kay does credibly well with the dramatic fare. At one point Max straight-up launches into song, and Kay’s singing voice isn’t bad! For Kay, it’s quite a tour de force for a 22 minute sitcom.
  • Restrained and reasonably sensitive portrayal of dwarfism. This episode deals with Max running into his ex-girlfriend Tina (Lisa Hammond,) and she’s a little person. For a show with a distinctly vulgar sensibility, this isn’t played for laughs. No one feels the need to remark upon it and there are arguably no jokes at her expense. I say arguably because at one point Tina tells Max that she’s secretly given birth to his child. Max blurts out, “How tall is he?” He quickly corrects himself. I think this is really more of a joke about Max being a dumbass, but I also don’t have dwarfism or, indeed, any physical disability, so feel free to contact me and tell me if you feel differently about this exchange or Tina’s portrayal in general. Either way, it’s a damn sight better than Life’s Too Short.

Weaknesses

  • Crass. It tells you something about a show’s sense of humor when the very first thing that happens in a given episode is someone farting. Shortly thereafter, Max accidentally soaks a traffic cop with a bucket of urine. Later, a party-goer sings an angry song about being pressured into a vasectomy. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I don’t love this kind of humor. I prefer it when comedy reflects psychological, social and cultural foibles, or when it’s just flat-out absurdist surrealism. Everyone farts. Regardless of what Louis CK says, it’s not intrinsically funny. The piss joke is a little better because the director employs the classic comedy technique of conveying the awful situation (the piss-soaked bobby) and cutting away before we see the fallout.
  • Gay panic. I watched two episodes of this show and they both feature jokes about the protagonists cringing as people confuse them for lovers. Wikipedia tells me that this is also a central plot point in a third episode. Look, this wasn’t funny when it happened 9 million times on Friends and it’s not funny now. Maybe you could make a mealy-mouthed argument similar to the one I just made about Tina and say this is really a joke about their insecurity in their masculinity, but I’d just rather not have to spend the time making excuses.
  • Attempt at serious dramatic storytelling. The two episodes I watched were a study in contrasts. One was a shaggy dog story about trying to steal a plasma TV, and the other was about Max coming to terms with the fact that his ex has moved on—despite the fact that she secretly had his baby. It’s not a felicitous marriage of sitcom and soap opera. It doesn’t help when the show doubles down on this with a maudlin scene featuring Max singing the entirety of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” while giving Tina pointed looks. I mean, she could have left the room after the first verse. That would have given us more time for actual jokes. There is eventually a high comic resolution to this story when Max and Paddy abduct a school bus full of children in an effort to get closer to Max’s newfound son. Of course, the kid isn’t even on that particular bus. I’m not sure that’s worth trying to get the viewer invested in Max’s love life, though.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It turns out there’s a reason Nowhere fever hasn’t spread around the globe.

NEXT TIME: On the one hand: Pirates! On the other hand: A Starz original series…I review Black Sails.

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Original Airdate: March 7th, 2016 on FOX

Comic book superheroes have been filling airtime on your television since the 1960s, but the 21st century bore witness to an endless flurry of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the concordant money blizzard meant that TV shows weren’t far behind. In Hollywood, there’s one thing that’s better than beating a dead horse, and that’s beating someone else’s dead horse, so Warner belatedly caught on and introduced us to their own “extended universe.” DC has been less vigilant about brand synergy, so Gotham kinda-sorta stands on its own, disregarding the fact that it’s soaked and dripping with Batman intellectual property jizz. Between 2012 and today, a whopping total of 10 MCU/DCEU properties have darkened our screens, and that’s not including shows based on comics from DC’s Vertigo imprint, like iZombie, Preacher, and Lucifer. Really, the impressive thing is that I went through 66 other shows before arriving at the groaning board of comic book grimdark that made action movies (temporarily) obsolete.

Strengths

  • Impressive special effects. It’s nice to live in an era where the special effects necessary for a vaguely supernatural action-adventure crime procedural don’t reduce the viewer to Manimal-grade fits of hysterics. The nice people behind Gotham are quickly digging through their supply of famous Batman villains, which I’m sure will lead to an excellent confrontation with Calendar Man in season 7. Tonight’s offering, along with its immediate predecessor, tells us the sad tale of the rise and fall of Mr. Freeze, aka Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards.) And where would Mr. Freeze be without blasts of icy death? Gotham’s finest stumble upon a victim who was shooting his gun mid-freeze, and the bullet is captured mid-air like an icicle emerging from the gun. At one point Fries throws an ice grenade into the For-All-Intents-And-Purposes East River, and the instantaneous appearance of giant icy spikes is very satisfying. The show doesn’t waste all its industrial light & magic on Freeze, either—Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is briefly subjected to questionable mad-science based therapy and some fun color filters and deft camera-work does a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the audience’s atrophied imagination.
  • Strong ensemble cast. Taylor’s Penguin is the real discovery here, and his range is fantastic—mincing, brooding, menacing, sycophantic and downright maniacal—but the cast is almost exclusively (see below) excellent. I can never get enough Donal Logue (Ghost Rider) and he inhabits the role of the Bad Cop nicely. B.D. Wong (Jurassic World) is delightful as the cartoonishly fiendish Hugo Strange. Erin Richards does well as Barbara Kean in what could have been a very dull role, although in this episode she’s in a coma, so it’s not going to show up on the sizzle reel. You may also have heard about how Jada Pinkett Smith made an enormous splash as Fish Mooney in season one, so, yeah, the casting directors know what they’re doing. For the most part.
  • Atmospheric. At least 50% of any given Batman narrative is nailing the feel of Gotham City and environs. It’s a caricature of the most forbidding parts of New York in particular and the urban experience in general. It’s outrageous wealth and intimidating architecture. You get the sense that the show understands this even in its stock transition shots, which swoop across the forbidding skyline. Arkham Asylum is an experience unto itself, a total institution straight out of the nineteenth century and packed to the gills with colorful sociopaths. Once again, Gotham gets it right—the sets, the lighting, the classic jailbird outfits. The bat cave is also everything you’d want in a bat cave—stalactites, mysterious water source, late Victorian lighting fixtures and all the trimmings of a research laboratory perfect for a weirdo who hangs out in a cave under his mansion.  
  • Making the best out of a tired Mr. Freeze story. The way the show handles Freeze is something of a disappointment. Every other villain you’d care to name gets a unique origin story—Penguin, The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), Poison Ivy (Clare Foley, Sinister). What does Mr. Freeze get? Dying wife, same as in town. Why reinvent the canon everywhere but here? Tip: If for some reason you’re trying to bring Mr. Freeze back into the public consciousness of people who don’t read comic books, the last thing you want is to remind anyone of Batman & Robin. At least they managed to resist ice-related puns. This episode has a fun twist, though—Victor’s long-suffering wife Nora (Kristen Hager, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) decides she’s had enough of her husband’s crime spree and her own terminal illness and kills herself with Victor’s own defective cryogenic solution. I’m choosing to interpret this as a political victory for the death with dignity movement.

Weaknesses

  • Bruce Wayne. Here’s another tip. Thinking about using child actors? Think again, motherfucker. It’s not really actor David Mazouz’s fault—the least interesting thing about any Batman story is Batman himself, and I assume Bruce’s flat affect and critical lack of a personality is as written. The thing is, this story is about the world of Batman before Batman is a major player on the scene. I would be thrilled if Bruce was featured only occasionally and when absolutely necessary. He is not necessary here.
  • Gordon. And while we’re at it, there’s a major exception to the praise I’ve doled out for the casting on this show. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon has the charisma of a deck of beige paint samples, which would be okay if he were a minor character. Instead, he’s the main event. This isn’t the first network drama to have a painfully bland white man holding down the top billing—I see you, Lost—and God knows it won’t be the last. It does take the wind out of the sails for many of the storylines, though. I know I’m supposed to care about Gordon’s slow descent into the dark side. I understand how Gordon and his lover, Leslie (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) are meant to form a thematic pair with the Frieses. I remain unmoved.
  • Contrivance. The big set piece in this episode entails Freeze taking Arkham by storm to rescue Nora. Why is Nora there? Oh, because the cops decided that they couldn’t secure a room in a regular hospital or at the police station, so clearly the best thing to do was to take her to a prison for the criminally insane. This yields dividends—seeds are planted for the ongoing relationship between Strange and Freeze, Gordon is forced to come face to face with Penguin after letting Penguin take the fall for a murder they were both involved in—but it feels pretty cheap since the whole reason all the characters came to Arkham in the first place was complete fucking nonsense.

Final Judgment: 6/10. The media landscape is saturated with superheroes right now, and DC is as usual behind the eight ball, but based on what I’ve seen of the rest of their TV shows, Gotham might be the best of a bad lot. Team Marvel for the win.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been a little over a year since I reviewed The Wrong Mans, so in honor of that I’ll review another British buddy comedy: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere.

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC

Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.

Strengths

  • Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
  • Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.

Weaknesses

  • Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
  • Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
  • Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.

Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.

NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!

Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Original Airdate: April 29th, 2006 on The WB

This special was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the staggeringly popular Pokemon franchise, which means that this year was the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and that I am therefore as old as the stars and the seas. If you don’t know what Pokemon is, I’m guessing there are no children with you underneath your rock, because Pikachu and company have been delighting kids across a smorgasbord of media platforms for two decades now. It all started with a handheld video game that’s gone on to enjoy six direct sequels. There’s also the TV show. Did you know you can watch 930 episodes of the TV show? It’s been running continuously since 1997 and Ash is still going through puberty. There are also 19 movies, and I’m talking feature films, not the “very special episode” crap we have the misfortune of examining tonight. The trading card game you might remember from elementary school? Still totally a thing. There’s enough tie-in merchandise to make a robust and healthy garbage island. And if you’ve been watching your hysterical and reactionary local news, you’ve probably heard about how a certain mobile game is leading us all to fiery doom at the hands of pedophiles and vandals. Most adults are probably exclusively familiar with the video game and haven’t watched the TV show since 5th grade. How has it held up? Well…

Strengths

  • Great concept. There’s a reason the Pokemon franchise is such a big hit. It’s intrinsically interesting to imagine a world crawling with hundreds of unique semi-intelligent life forms with magical fighting powers. Sure, here in the real world we just found out that there are four species of giraffe that we hadn’t realized existed, and that’s legitimately thrilling, but what if there was a giraffe that had a separate brain in its ass, complete with a mouth full of teeth ready to bite your damn hand off? And what if you could capture that giraffe and make it fight your enemies with searing blasts of psychic energy? Personally, I love it when fantasy is closely wedded to the real world, and while the world of Pokemon seems to have armies of clone nurses and a robust and nonsensical economy, the world inhabited by trainer Ash Ketchum (Kayzie Rogers) and his retinue of hangers-on is modern, technologically sophisticated and ostensibly realistic, allowing fantasies and projection to take root faster than a hungry Tangela.
  • Strong choice of medium. And really, in some ways, Pokemon makes a lot more sense on TV than in a video game. The fundamentally magical premise becomes hidebound by stats, type effectiveness, movesets and endless grinding when it takes the form of a game, but the creators of the show cheerfully fly in the face of established rules about type or how strong/useful any given move is when it makes for good spectacle. This might infuriate the turbonerds out there, but this kind of poetic license can go a long way in making a fight that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion fascinating.
  • Cute. They might keep you in your seat with flights of fancy about riding a flaming horse into the sunset, but chances are they lured you in with a button-eyed talking mouse, or a kitty, or a puppy, or a…balloon, I guess? Hell, these people even managed to make a literal pile of toxic sludge cute. Also, a bag of garbage. Those people at Nintendo know what they’re doing when it comes to luring you in with candy-coated adorability.
  • Sci-fi horror premise. Okay, now that we’ve gotten generalities out of the way, let’s stick those brass tacks into our eyes. At first it seems like we might be in for something cool: Ash and all his friends are lured to the compound of one Dr. Yung (Bill Timoney, Mission to Mars,) who has used only the most cutting-edge developments in pokemon mad science to create “mirage” pokemon, which he replicates instead of catching in the wild. They’re strong against things that would normally knock them out and eventually he harnesses the power to let them use any move they want. They’re super-powerful and they can’t be stopped. Professor Oak (Jimmy Zoppi) is quickly captured and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. The show does take on themes of science vs. nature with all the subtlety of Joe Eszterhas and Misty (Michele Knotz) nearly plummets to her death, but all of the cool pulpy things they could do with this premise quickly fall by the wayside as we descend into the worst episode of Pokemon I’ve had the displeasure of seeing, and it’s not like it was Masterpiece Theatre to begin with.

Weaknesses

  • Jarring change in voice actors. This special is most infamous for the fact that the production company somehow decided they weren’t making enough money on this hugely popular series and sacked all the principal voice actors. Which is a shame, because the original cast was very strong. Comedic stylings centered around Team Rocket’s high school drama club antics and Brock (Bill Rogers) being a pussy hound have always been weak sauce, but at least the original cast could sell it. The backlash against the voice acting was so intense that the dialogue was re-recorded for the DVD release and Kayzie Rogers was straight-up replaced, which makes sense, because while Ash was always voiced by a middle-aged woman impersonating a gravelly voiced preteen boy, Kayzie Rogers’ voice is slightly higher-pitched, which makes it seem like Ash has Benjamin Button disease. It probably didn’t help that Rogers is also the voice of Max, an eight-year-old.
  • Team Rocket. Speaking of Team Rocket, why the fuck are they even here? It’s great evidence of the show’s tendency to cling to its formula even when it doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of previous episodes that didn’t need a conflict with dastardly villains had Team Rocket inserted sideways on the theory that an antagonist is always essential, but there’s already a clear and obvious antagonist here: the mad scientist with the super-powerful, weaponized monsters. The Rockets ultimately end up just bearing witness to the proceedings while offering witlessly snide commentary and the occasional interjection from Wobbuffet. Don’t worry, Wobbuffet’s voice actor didn’t change. (It had always been Kayzie Rogers.)
  • Filling time. Here we have another case study in a 22-minute children’s program airing a “special” where proceedings are dragged out to an hour. With a plot this cliched, the last thing the writers need is more run-time to fill, but still we endure an interlude where Yung captures Ash’s Pikachu and tortures it in order to get information. Aghast, Professor Oak agrees to reveal the information peacefully. Why not just skip a step and torture Professor Oak? Oh, that’s too far? But it’s okay to torture animals in a cartoon for kids? I mean, they’re essentially cockfighting in the first place, so I guess we’ve already lost our innocence in that regard.
  • Predictable. Believe it or not, they go through this whole pretense where Dr. Yung has also been kidnapped by the nefarious Mirage Master, but it turns out he was REALLY DR. YUNG ALL ALONG! Of course he was. What would be the point of having two mirage experts, one of which only exists to wear a turtleneck badly and get captured? How else would he have been able to master the complicated mirage technology instantly? Why else would the compound have been equipped with mirage generating missiles, allowing the mirage pokemon to pursue our heroes outside of the compound? God, I can feel myself getting less cool with each word I write. But this whole charade also reveals a critical plot hole: after the dramatic revelation of the Mirage Master’s double identity, Oak blusters that it all makes perfect sense, given the fact that Yung was pushed out of the Pokemon Institute for unethical research practices. Oh, you didn’t think to mention that fun fact back when he invited you and a bunch of children to his mysterious lab facility?
  • Maudlin & hamfisted. The worst thing of all about this episode is that the thing that finally defeats Yung’s mirage pokemon is an intervention from floating cat fetus Mew, whose power is hastily explained as coming from the fact that he represents a merger between data and a “true soul.” You see, he didn’t meet Yung’s exacting requirements as a research subject and was left to dejectedly hang around the facility and suffer the occasional torrent of verbal abuse. Of course, the true-hearted Professor Oak recognized Mew’s inherent worth, and Ash nobly forced himself through a barrier of pure energy to save it from imprisonment, and the initially helpless and pathetic-seeming pokemon was really a big hero in the end. The exertion of fighting Yung’s powerful Mewtwo caused Mew to disintegrate, but we’ll “see him again someday.” None of this makes any goddamned sense at all, but it appeals to that same part of your brain that made you coo over Pikachu in the first place, assuming that cat fetuses are your thing.

Final Judgment: 1/10. Look, despite how it may seem, I don’t hate the Pokemon TV series. This was just an unusually bad episode, but it’s not really surprising that after ten years, everything starts to look a little threadbare, considering that the show was never high art to begin with. 

NEXT TIME: I was going to review The Bachelor, but I thought I’d go for something a bit more intellectually stimulating, so Scooby-Doo it is.

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”