Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”

Original Airdate: May 12th, 2013 on Nick at Nite

When I was growing up, the cable channel Nickelodeon was my only window to the world of wacky 60s sitcoms like Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island thanks to its late night broadcasts under the branding of Nick at Nite. Roughly 10 years after Nick at Nite debuted, Viacom decided it was doing well enough to make a 24-hour channel dedicated to old-time TV favorites—that would be TV Land. Nowadays, you won’t see Bewitched or Gilligan’s on Nick at Nite. The timestamp on their offerings has been creeping steadily forward. Today, their offerings feature 90s stalwarts like Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends, as well as George Lopez, which was on the air as recently as 2007. It’s enough to make a person feel old. Much like VH1, their partner in Viacom format creep, Nick at Nite has also been developing original scripted program as of late, filling a need that no one expressed. The only hint offered in See Dad Run that Nick at Nite used to be a home for classic sitcoms is star Scott Baio (Charles In Charge) and the increasingly antiquated laugh-track festooned multi-camera family sitcom style.

Strengths

  • Fleeting moments of wit. This may sound like damning with faint praise—because it is—but really, this is a not insignificant accomplishment given some of the flaccid attempts at comedy I’ve seen in my reporting here. It turns out that most sitcoms are dreadfully unfunny, which will come as no surprise to adherents of Sturgeon’s law. The possibility also exists that I’m just a terrible snob. But I got a few laughs out of this. It was about as funny as an average episode of Friends. On the other hand, I often hear Friends spoken of in hushed tones as if it were some master class in comedy, so I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The show centers around the life and family of washed-up sitcom star David Hobbs (Baio,) and this episode has him dealing with his overbearing mother, Maggie (Michele Lee, Knots Landing.) The show does better when it veers towards over-the-top. Maggie has no boundaries, and she regales the children with tales of her sexual exploits with Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Maggie’s intrusion occurs on the occasion of Mother’s Day, and David had intended to give his wife Amy (Alanna Ubach, Meet The Fockers) a scrapbook of family memories. Of course, Maggie takes this over as well, going so far as to insert a talking pop-up of herself into the scrapbook. On paper this is so-so; on the screen, timing, visuals and audio make it funny. The Hobbs’ also do a little half-hearted behavioral modification inspired by The Dog Whisperer, which doesn’t really go anywhere, but we do get to see Lee sprayed with a spritz bottle. It’s not Oscar Wilde, but there are certainly more joyless sitcoms out there.
  • Reasonably interesting integration of its central theme. As mentioned, David is a washed-up sitcom star, which probably convinced someone that Scott Baio was the right choice. (Scott Baio is never the right choice.) I was fully expecting this to be an entirely cursory background element to another generic family story, but it ties in nicely with the theme of the episode. You see, Maggie is an insufferable stage mom straight out of central casting, and David was a child star before he made his name in the sitcom world. Like many stage moms and dads, Maggie was/is trying to live vicariously through her child. She also values praise and validation from others above all else, which has made her constantly vie to be the center of attention in everything she does. Amy notes that David is exactly the same way, and while Maggie is about a thousand times more obnoxious, it’s clear that Amy’s assessment of David is accurate. The whole show is about him desperately clinging to scraps of faded glory—the two cast members who aren’t part of the family are David’s obsessive former production assistant and live-in servant (?) Kevin (Ramy Youssef) and former head writer Marcus (Mark Curry, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.) So it works on a meta level—the whole world of the show enables David as the slowly dying star at the center of his private solar system of delusion. Maggie is what you get when you take this to the extremes.

Weaknesses

  • Cliche. 22 minutes of somebody’s obnoxious mother-in-law? What is this, the Catskills? Now, I understand why this is a cliche. You’re cranking out a story about a family every week and inevitably we’re going to meet the grandparents, uncles, cousins and exes, and they’re going to be wacky, and there’s going to be guest stars. Sometimes this can work really well! Edith’s cousin Maude was such a hit on All In The Family that she got her own spinoff. The episode of Big Love where we meet Margie’s mom is one of my favorites. Ron Swanson’s ex-wives were reliably hilarious on Parks & Recreation. For this to work and not to come off as lazy, the family member needs to be a fully realized, memorable character who meshes well with the existing cast. Maggie does reflect David’s self-absorption, but that’s all she does. Let’s talk a little bit more about who she is and why she doesn’t work here.
  • Unsatisfying treatment of toxic family dynamics in service of maintaining the status quo. Maggie’s the worst. She doesn’t get a single moment of redemption. She only talks about herself. When someone tries to talk to her about something other than herself, she pretends to be asleep. She cheats when she plays backgammon with David’s son Joe (Jackson Brundage, One Tree Hill.) She criticizes David’s oldest daughter Emily (Ryan Newman, Zeke & Luther) for her fashion choices. She’s disrespectful towards Amy and is generally an impossible asshole. When David tells her to stop during Amy’s Mother’s Day breakfast, Maggie breaks out into a song about how nobody loves her. The thing is, in the world of most sitcoms nothing ever changes. This squanders so much of the potential of serialized storytelling. Not everything has to have a grand arc, but any arc of any kind would be nice. So what ends up happening here is that David reassures Maggie that of course everyone loves her and will always pay attention to her and never forget about her, and she’s temporarily mollified and returns to the breakfast table. Never mind the fact that it’s pathological for someone to rely on the attention of others to feel validated. Never mind the fact that her behavior’s unacceptable and she has no boundaries regardless of where it’s coming from emotionally, or the fact that it’s unlikely to stop just because she’s been given some quick reassurances. This could have been so true to life. So many people have toxic family members they feel suffocated by, and they aren’t just wacky guest-stars—they’re ever-present. Actually dealing with her behavior could make for a great story instead of just slapping a band-aid on things because, hey look, we’re out of time. This was the show’s chance to leave the realm of ephemera behind and actually make something meaningful and valuable. By now, should I really be surprised that they blew past it like it was a shit-spattered highway rest stop?

Motivation: Family, the last refuge of the mediocre sitcom.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. Eminently forgettable, but at least there’s a chuckle or two.

NEXT TIME: I crack the creme brulee of ridiculous high-concept sitcoms of yesteryear by reviewing Mister Ed! Keep coming back, folks—we’ve got a long way to go.

Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Original Airdate: February 4, 2015 on VH1

I’m so happy because I’ve finally found the first show I haven’t seen before that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I hadn’t even heard of Hindsight until it came up via my selection method. It aired for all of two months before vanishing into the abyss, and even when I did hear about it, I was dismissive–it aired on a network not known for scripted fare, it was a complete ratings flop and the critics ignored it. I think the biggest stumbling block was the network–if it had aired elsewhere it might have found an audience.

I have fond memories of VH1. My older brother got me excited about music at a young age and VH1 was his station of choice. We quickly became Pop-Up Video addicts. Of course, VH1 was intended as a softer version of MTV for an older demographic, so I was saturated with dreck like Natalie Imbruglia, The Wallflowers and Smashmouth. I tuned into VH1 occasionally through 2004 for things like I Love The 80s, and then I stopped watching much TV at all for several years. By the time I came back, VH1 was wall-to-wall reality shows and I haven’t payed very much attention since. Now that I look at their slate of shows, it seems that the demographic has decidedly shifted from aging white people looking for a Phil Collins fix to young black women. Which is great! There aren’t enough black faces on television and K. Michelle is bookable. The thing is, VH1 is also now known for reality shows. It is not known as a source of high-quality original scripted programming. It is not AMC or HBO or even FX. I do understand why VH1 thought this would be a good match for their audience and those who watched it when it was on the air probably enjoyed it. But the rest of us didn’t notice it, and that includes critics–I could only find two mentions of the show on the AV Club’s website and both included grumbling about its resemblance to Do Over, a WB series from thirteen years ago that aired 11 episodes. That is a complaint you’re only likely to hear from a profoundly nerdy TV geek, and look who’s talking. For the purposes of this review, I watched episodes 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Hindsight for context.

Strengths

  • Strong story. This episode uses the very common trope of presenting us with an end point in the story and going back chronologically to show us how events unfolded. This isn’t any kind of narratological innovation, but the execution is damn near flawless. It’s also thematically appropriate to use this trope, since Hindsight is about Becca Brady (Laura Ramsey, She’s The Man), a woman on the verge of turning 40 who regrets the decisions she’s made in her life. She gets a second bite at the apple when unexplained circumstances transport her back in time to 1995. She gets a job writing for a music magazine and predicting the next new thing. Here, she gets her first serious assignment: covering an R.E.M. concert in Chapel Hill, NC. So this is a road trip episode–complicated by the fact that the event we were shown in the opening moments of the episode is a grisly car accident. Joining Becca is her best friend Lolly Lavigne (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) and Lolly’s friend Paige Hill (Drew Sidora, Step Up.) Misadventure follows on misadventure as the ladies endure a flat tire, getting pulled over by a cop and arriving at Chapel Hill only to find their ticket connection has fallen through and they can’t get into the concert. All’s not lost, however–they’re able to get a sweet vantage point amidst a bunch of college students partying atop a nearby parking garage. Interviewing young lovers for her article reminds Becca of another problem in her life: her relationship with Andy Kelly (Nick Clifford, The Opportunist.) Twenty years into the future, the night Becca travels back in time is also the night before her marriage to Andy, a family friend since childhood who has always carried a torch for her from afar. In 1995, the two had recently shared a clandestine kiss–behind the back of Andy’s girlfriend, Melanie Morelli (Jessy Hodges, Beside Still Waters.) The road back to New York City features an exit to Spring Lake, a town where Becca and Andy’s families shared a cabin and the site of Becca’s idyllic childhood summers. She decides to pull the trigger on her feelings for Andy and invites him to the cabin to discuss their relationship. He feels conflicted, so Becca gives him an ultimatum–drive to Spring Lake and move forward together, or stay in the city with Melanie. Andy heads to the cabin–and gets into the accident. The episode also sees Becca and Paige achieving a mutual respect for each other after getting off on a bad foot due to Paige getting involved with Becca’s first husband, Sean Reeves (Craig Horner, Legend Of The Seeker.) Overall, we’re given a tight package showcasing Becca’s ongoing quest to make good decisions in a world where she has extensive knowledge of but little control over events. The car accident we’re shown in the opening throws a pallor over a road trip already laden with tension and we wince as Becca locks eyes with Paige multiple times as she’s speeding on her way to the concert and as they careen down the highway on the way home. The hour also crams in subplots about Lolly’s relationship with her father, Harry (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Becca’s brother Jamie (John Patrick Amedori, The Butterfly Effect) tries to reconcile Andy and Sean in the wake of a fight over Becca’s affections. There’s not a wasted second here and all the pieces matter. It’s a great example of effective storytelling in action.
  • Well-drawn characters. The best example of this isn’t a single character but rather the interplay between Becca and Lolly. At the beginning of the series, Becca looks back on a failed marriage, a wasted career, disappointed and divorced parents and a brother struggling with addiction. But the thing she regrets the most is the end of her friendship with Lolly. Lolly is the yin to Becca’s yang. Becca diligently works long hours at a thankless job, whereas Lolly does everything she can to not be productive at the video rental store where she works. She’s a shit-stirrer while Becca is a people pleaser. Becca’s never been with anyone but Sean, but Lolly is adventurous enough to engage in a seamy hookup at Lollapalooza. They need each other. Becca keeps the cupboards in their apartment laden with food and Lolly gives Becca a necessary release valve from a stressful, button-up life. So Lolly is the natural choice when Becca needs to reveal her secret to someone and the chemistry between Ramsey and Goldberg is perfect. Here we get to see another side of Lolly and another contrast with Becca. Becca has close ties with her parents and is anxious at the prospect of their incipient divorce, though the show seems to drop this plotline after the pilot, probably because there was already enough on the plate. Lolly, on the other hand, had her childhood disrupted by a tumultuous divorce and is now estranged from both parents, especially her father. Much like Becca’s mother Georgie (Donna Murphy, Tangled) will be 20 years later, Harry is disappointed in his daughter’s dead-end job and failure to meet her ambitions–though Lolly calls him out on the fact that he doesn’t even know what her ambitions are, due to his chronic absentee status. Strong character based moments show up throughout the episode, whether it’s Paige explaining that she’s still dedicated to a career as an actress despite her parents stealing all the money she made as a child star or Andy drunkenly regaling Sean with the details of Warcraft.
  • Resonant thematic cohesiveness. Hindsight weaves a very compelling tale of retrospection and regret. Who hasn’t wondered how their life would have unfolded if they had made different decisions? Humans have been using narrative to contemplate fate, destiny and critical decisions since Oedipus Rex. This is something that will always hold our interest. Like its female-driven HBO cousin Girls, Hindsight delves into resonant and provocative questions about the awkward period of transition known as your twenties. This episode in particular makes a compelling case for the idea that taking provocative action is the best way to resolve conflicts and uncertainties, for better or worse. This crystallizes for Becca when one of her interview subjects (Matt Orlando, Pieces of Peace) says of the possibility of a relationship with a female character that “it’s an open road.” In addition to the obvious road-trip theme, it’s a reminder that for Becca, anything is possible now, including a relationship with Andy. Lolly confronts her father, and though she has every reason to be angry, she gracefully says that she doesn’t want them to grow further apart, and he agrees to try harder. Spurred by Lolly, Paige and Becca work out their issues and come to a mutual respect for one another’s abilities. Though Jamie has the ulterior motive of impressing Lolly, he tries to broker a peace between Andy and Sean, and while that doesn’t work both men learn something about themselves. We’re also given a counterexample of the toxicity of unresolved conflict–Melanie spends all night viciously sniping at Andy over his indiscretion. The viewer wonders why they’re still trying to work it out or if they ever will. Many shows try to tie all their subplots together with a unifying theme, but it’s seldom this successful.

Weaknesses

  • Thickly applied 90s nostalgia. I’m half-convinced this is why the show got greenlit in the first place. Much of VH1’s programming is still tangentially music related and it is all immersed in pop culture, so I bet they were hoping that viewers would come for the endless parade of eminently licensable 90s favorites and 90210 references and stay for Hindsight’s many charming qualities. Though it got toned down a touch, the constant Rhino-grade musical cues felt assaultive. In a historical drama that’s much more concerned with the psychology of its characters than with historicity, we’re beaten over the head with the 90s-ness of it all thanks to Montell Jordan, Collective Soul, The Gin Blossoms, Deep Blue Something and both goddamned Spin Doctors songs. The actual good music of 1995 from folks like Oasis, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, 2Pac, PJ Harvey and Bjork proved too expensive for deep cable, I suppose. This episode manages to keep its worse instincts mostly in check, partially through more high-quality offerings from R.E.M. and a concession to the fact that the 90s didn’t exist in a historical bubble via “September Gurls” and the inevitable road trip anthem “Life Is A Highway,” though no one will ever use that song more deftly than The Office. I’m not sure this makes up for Becca eyeing the Spring Lake exit while Del Amitri enjoins her to “look into your heart, pretty baby/Is it aching with some nameless need?” Woof. On the other hand, I could forgive a lot solely for this episode’s use of the melancholy “Nightswimming” over its tragic final scenes, as Becca waits alone and puzzled at the beautiful lake house.

I’m going to break the format a little and present some meta-analysis of the shows we’ve covered so far. I have two observations. The first was inspired by Hindsight: the three fundamentals of a good story, regardless of genre or tropes, are the three strengths discussed here: plot, characters and themes. Other things matter–style, execution, performances. But if a show can deliver the big three, chances are I’m going to be satisfied. Of course, as we’ve seen, it’s something of a tall order…

The other point I have is that I found myself thinking recently about The Sims 2. In that game, Sims have a set motivation that guides their wants, desires and fears throughout life. It’s occurred to me that the motivation of characters in every story corresponds to one of the five aspirations from The Sims 2, with one addition. Hindsight manages to motivate Becca with five of the six. Let’s review–Love/Sex/Romance. Becca has to decide between a relationship with Sean, Andy or neither. Money/Work. Becca is weighed down by a dead-end job and a demanding boss for 20 years, so she very quickly quits that job and embarks on a new career as a journalist. Family. Becca wants to prevent her brother from becoming a drug addict, and in the first episode, it’s implied that she’ll also try and save her parents’ magic. Maybe if there had been a season 2…Friends/Popularity. As mentioned, Becca’s greatest regret is losing Lolly as a friend. Perhaps the most interesting motivation is Knowledge/Self-discovery. By returning to the past and making new decisions, Becca is trying to reshape her life to become the person she wants to be.

The sixth motivation occurred to me while thinking about the plot of the Paddington episode I reviewed, of all things. Paddington isn’t motivated by any of that–he just wants to buy some pajamas, eat a marmalade sandwich and take a nap. That’s a bit farther down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Hence we have the Survival motivation. This accounts for not only Paddington but also Ripley aboard the Nostromo, as well as things like the episode of Seinfeld with the Chinese restaurant. A survival narrative can just involve trying to get through the day.  

Let’s classify the shows that have been reviewed so far and see if a pattern emerges:

  • The Monsters We Met. Well, this is nonfiction, so it’s more or less guaranteed to be motivated by the promised knowledge of prehistory.
  • So Little Time. This is a tough case, since it was a shitty clip show with no story. We did get large chunks of storyline about the teen protagonists, however, and it all had to do with their love lives. Romance.
  • Comic Book Men. Since it’s a show about running a small business, money/work comes to mind. This episode is also about a bunch of bros pressuring each other to get tattoos, so friendship comes into play, as well.
  • Dead Like Me. George, much like Becca, is placed in the unenviable position of having to decide who she wants to be when confronted with an embarrassment of options. Knowledge/self-discovery.
  • Lupin the III. Lupin’s in it for the $$$. Money.
  • The Wrong Mans. In the superior first season, it’s a story about survival and self-discovery. In the crappy episode I watched, however, the characters are motivated by lurrrrve and family.
  • Paddington. As mentioned, survival.
  • Major Crimes. Procedurals are almost always a quest for knowledge, since a murder needs to be solved. There’s also the inciting issue behind the crimes, which is money here and in NCIS.
  • Danny Phantom. You could make a case for this being a survival narrative, but Danny’s survival isn’t actually in question. What is in question is his very identity, making this a quest for self-discovery.
  • Early Edition. The deadly plastic surgery is motivated by romance, but the protagonist’s actions are spurred by his unnatural knowledge of events yet to transpire. When used this way, the typical quest for knowledge is inverted–the problem is the character has knowledge and must act on it. I suppose this is the motivation for Janice in that NCIS episode as well.
  • Alcatraz. Knowledge, of course! What’s going on with the reappearing Alcatraz prisoners?! WE MAY NEVER KNOW
  • NCIS. As mentioned, the Crimebros seek knowledge about the murder, Celodyne faked safety data because they were greedy for money and Janice uses that knowledge to strike out at them. None of this would have happened without Celodyne’s lust for profits, though, so I’m going with The Weeknd on this. 
  • Hindsight. As mentioned, this show manages to cover all five top-level needs. 

Obviously, it’s a nifty and promising trick to cover so many bases in one story. I wonder if there should be a brighter line of delineation between knowledge and self-discovery, since I notice that I particularly enjoy stories that include that component, such as Dead Like Me or The Wrong Mans, whereas I don’t care so much about a general “we need to know the thing” type knowledge-quest. Phantom is great evidence of how thoroughly you can ruin a self-discovery narrative that could have been really interesting. I may keep track of this taxonomy as I review further shows.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is easily the best single episode I’ve covered for this project so far. I’d give the pilot an 8/10 and episode six a 7/10, but episode 3 was also very strong and deserves a 9/10 as well.

NEXT TIME: Another one-season wonder and our inaugural foray into sci-fi coverage, Space: Above and Beyond.

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men

The embarrassment of riches on television these days has gotten to the point where the CEOs of television networks are complaining to the media.

Part of me thinks Landgraf’s complaints are a bit strange—Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of different options that can speak to lots of different people? Predicting the demise of TV’s golden age because your new Billy Crystal vehicle flopped reeks of California’s sourest grapes. The entertainment industry has always been mercurial and this business you hear about how “back in the day shows had time to hit their stride” sound a lot like contemporary myth-making about the good old days. Capitalists love the free market until their pet project fails, and then we get this schoolyard whining about how robust and diverse competition is unfair.

But there’s also a grain of truth. There really is quite a lot of critically acclaimed, high quality television out there, and we’re well and clear past the point of water-cooler TV. It’s another example of how the zeitgeist has shattered into a million pieces in the age of the Internet—these days, everyone has options that offer unique appeals to their tastes and interests. (See also: pop music. Movies have too much overhead and still veer to an imagined mainstream, which is why you hear so many people talk about how TV has gotten so much more compelling than film.)

And that’s if we’re just talking about new, high-profile, widely lauded American TV shows. Once you start digging into international TV, your options grow exponentially. There’s also tons of older shows on Netflix and other streaming services begging for your attention, and every time you talk to a friend you’re likely to come away with 5 new recommendations. The preponderance of different narratives on offer makes TV look a lot less like TV and a lot more like books—millions of options for millions of readers. Someone with an interest in pop culture these days has to devote serious thought to what they’ll consume next—at least, if they’re as obsessive as me.

I already have nerdy, intricate systems in place for deciding what book I’ll read for pleasure next—because otherwise I’ll spend the second half of the book I’m reading now agonizing over it—as well as systems for new movies and music to check out. TV, however, was the case I couldn’t crack. I couldn’t come up with any hard and fast rules about how far back I’d go, how much of a series I’d watch, how I’d pick those shows, and how I could do that while including the mostly unknown options being cranked out all over the world, both in English and in other languages. Hell, the extensive variety of anime alone is enough to drive a person like me berserk.

So I’ve put a system in place that will expose me to completely random TV–the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll take this blog along for the ride and write reviews of each episode I watch.

Since it’s me we’re talking about, though, there have to be some rules.

  • One episode at a time—also randomly selected. This means I won’t have to watch all 119 episodes of Sister, Sister back to back. I love my readers, but I don’t love you that much. This presents its own complications for today’s fast-paced, can’t miss an episode mega-dramas where each episode is a single chapter in an endless novel, but I hereby swear to do my due diligence and thoroughly research every show I drop into so I know who the players are and what the overarching story is so I can offer a fair assessment.
  • Some kinds of TV shows are simply too impractical to cover. Anything that airs a new episode every day is out, whether it’s Maury, JeopardySportscenter, The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, whatever. It’s not that I’m not interested in these shows—well, I don’t care about Sportscenter—but that it would be impossible for me to actually find a random episode of Jeopardy from 1996, so I couldn’t use the same democratic technique of randomness. Even though it’s a weekly, 60 Minutes and its ilk are also out. A rule of thumb: If Wikipedia or a similar source doesn’t have a numbered episode list, it’s pretty much not viable. This doesn’t mean I’m adverse to covering current events programming or non-fiction, but it has to be discrete enough to fit in this framework. Frontline works, Newshour does not. As you’ll see, the very first episode I’m reviewing is non-fiction. This also means traditional daily game shows of all stripes aren’t going to work, but reality TV game shows are up for grabs (see more about those below.)
  • Obviously if I can’t find some way to watch a show, it’s not going to be possible.
  • I’ll do my best to give every episode a fair hearing on its own terms. For shows I’ve never seen before—like all three of the episodes I’m reviewing tonight—it’ll also serve as a de facto review of the show, since it’s my first impression of the entire series. I’ll try and get a sense from research about how representative it might be, especially if it’s one of those intricate mega-dramas I talked about above. If it’s something I’m already familiar with, I’ll obviously be able to provide more context and perspective.
  • I’m totally fine with covering multiple episodes from the same show, should the gods of random chance dictate thus.

Let’s get this party started.

Case Study 1: Monsters We Met, Episode 1–“Eternal Frontier”
Original Airdate: April 8th, 2003 on BBC

This also aired in the US on Animal Planet under the name Land of Lost Monsters. It appears from the muddled Wikipedia page that there were some changes made, including new narration from an American, because who wants to listen to some snotty British person narrate a BBC documentary, I guess? Why settle for Ian Holm, the acclaimed star of stage and screen, when you can get the guy that played the crooked cop that was in league with Jack Palance in Batman? Clearly I don’t understand this business—how dare Animal Planet disrespect Bilbo Baggins! Anyway, Land of Lost Monsters also featured footage borrowed from other BBC documentaries about prehistory. I’m not sure how transformative the changes actually were, since I watched the BBC version.

This is part one of a three-part historical documentary about encounters between early humans and megafauna. It centers on North America; the second and third installments focus on Australia and New Zealand, respectively. I imagine this was produced along with a rash of similar BBC programming on prehistory in the wake of the astronomical success of BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs as narrated by Kenneth Branagh in 1999.

Strengths

  • Interesting Subject Matter. You see lots of documentaries of this stripe about dinosaurs (with many latter-day examples inspired by the Branagh series) and you see lots of documentaries about nature in the modern world, but I haven’t seen anything that specifically talks about megafauna, which is a shame because it really is a fascinating topic. Kudos on that!
  • Educational. This serves as an appealing introduction to this topic for the unfamiliar. I happen to have spent some time reading about megafauna recently, so the facts discussed here didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but this wouldn’t be out of place in a classroom or in the living room of anyone interested in prehistory.
  • Comprehensive. Admittedly we have limited knowledge about this subject and have to make a lot of intelligent inferences, but this does hit the most interesting points and is able to paint a mostly complete picture. I do have some quibbles—I was disappointed to see that this series doesn’t touch on Eurasia/Africa at all. North America, Australia and New Zealand are widely considered to be the hot spots of interaction between megafauna and early humans, but I think there’s enough to talk about with Eurasia/Africa to have eked out another episode. This doesn’t mention that mammoth migrated over the Bering Strait land-bridge and that these animals may have been familiar to the Clovis, for instance, so that’s a bit of a blind spot. As I’ll mention below, the series’ commitment to dramatization and narrative seems to wed it to Montana specifically, which also limits the scope—the speed with which the early settlers explored the breadth of the Americas from Canada to the Tierra del Fuego is remarkable, and “Frontier” doesn’t touch on that. Still, these are minor complaints about a take on the subject that is really quite thorough in 45 minutes while also being entertaining.

Weaknesses

  • Unnecessary Dramatization. I’m aware that this is a common downfall of television documentaries, but it seems even more ridiculous in light of how little actual information we have about the Clovis. On the other hand, that very fact makes the dramatization all the more appealing for the creators—it’s harder for the viewers to wrap their mind around a subject where there’s so many questions, so why not make some intelligent guesses and make up some people with a fake language and fake names and give them a story? My answer to that would be that every minute we spend watching the adventures of Xi’yuu and friends is time we could spend learning about something real. I’m also a little dubious about the amount of lipstick and eyebrow plucking this woman from 14,000 years ago appears to enjoy.
  • Cheesy SFX. This feels a little unfair to me even as I write it, because I’m sure the producers did the best with what they had. Still, the saber-toothed cat running to catch its prey looks so laughably fake that it really does take you out of the moment. I think a big reason people watch these documentaries about prehistory instead of just reading a book is the thrill of actually getting to see the animals. This is a big part of why Walking With Dinosaurs was such a hit (although perhaps if I ever review that I’ll be similarly dismayed.) Monsters does not provide those thrills. A big part of this is just bad timing—if this series had been made 10 years later, it would be a whole different ballgame. And I’m sure the resources of the folks at the BBC were not unlimited here—it’s not like they’re working with a Jurassic Park level budget.

Final Judgment: 6/10. If you’re interested in this topic, I doubt there’s a better television documentary out there. If you’re just looking generally for a TV documentary, this will probably fall more towards the bottom of the to-watch list, as it’s hardly essential for the average viewer. It’s well-done for what it is, though.

Case Study 2: So Little Time, Episode 24–“Look Who’s Talking”
Original Airdate: March 23rd, 2002 on ABC Family

This is the second and last TV series starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the wake of their wholesome early 90s megahit Full House. In view of the news that Full will be revitalized on Netflix under the unfortunate name Fuller House, Nickelodeon has apparently scooped up the rights to a substantial chunk of the Olsen back catalog and are airing this show in the hot and unforgiving light of 2015.  As you’ll see…this isn’t a great decision on their part.

Let’s talk a bit about the Olsens. Thrust into the limelight at 6 months old, they took turns playing the role of cutie-pie Michelle Tanner on Full due to those darn labor laws that say you can’t make a toddler shoot 18 hour days for scale. (Ah, just kidding—they were probably making a lot more than that. I sure hope so, anyway!) They’re the archetypal child stars of my generation and this was just one stop on a gravy train whose returns increasingly diminished the further away they got from the halcyon days of the Tanner household. Mary-Kate has been forthright with the press about how her under-18 career was entertainment and not acting, though there’s no word on how she looks back on her blip of an adult career, featuring a serviceable but forgettable stint on Weeds and a role in 1990s period piece (how appropriate) The Wackness as someone named “Union.” Both the Olsen twins have since retired from the acting biz (though there are threats that they are “teetering” re. a decision to appear in Fuller) and have established themselves as quite successful businesswomen in the upscale fashion industry. Their couture brand The Row has been well-received by the fashion world, and if you’ve got $200 to spare, you can snap up an Olsen-designed no-frills Made In The USA t-shirt at Barney’s, so it sounds like they’re arrived to me. (Though to paraphrase Marge Simpson, fashion is none of my business.) It sounds like the twins have found their calling and are doing quite well for themselves; Mary-Kate is even married to Nicolas Sarkozy’s half-brother. I wonder if their younger selves would be surprised that their baby sister Elizabeth would be the Olsen to walk away with a serious acting career; I wonder when they realized that their own acting careers had peaked at the age of 5; I wonder what they think of Bojack Horseman. Eh, there’s too much good TV these days—they probably don’t watch it.

Strengths

  • Urk. I really don’t want this project to turn into “Oryx Shits All Over Obscure TV Shows.” I really don’t. I want this to be about uncovering hidden gems and curiosities in the vast tapestry of television content. I know people put love, sweat and hard work into this (though actually being able to see the hard work in the finished project is a bit elusive in this case.) Time, however, is truly terrible. A big part of this project will be to find the quality in forgotten dreck, but the scale has to have a low end. So I guess it’s good that we’re getting it out of the way early? And make no mistake: I don’t feel this way because I’m prejudiced against kids’ TV. Stories for and about kids can be just as good as things pitched at adults. A story doesn’t have to have nudity and violence and swearing to be compelling. (Looking at you, HBO.) Even light fare like Time can be a showcase for great performances, witty writing, amusing situations and complex characterization. But this truly ain’t it, folks.

Weaknesses

  • Clip Show. A clip show isn’t ideal at the best of times, but I’m a bit baffled as to how a clip show came to exist in the first (and only) season of this show with a scanty 23 prior episodes to draw on. I suspect that the twins and the other producers (yep, the Olsens had EP credits—every great show has two fifteen-year-olds on the senior production staff) saw the writing on the wall, knew that posterity was not in the offing and that the curtain was soon to fall. Still, this could have played to Time’s advantage: this could have been an exhibition of all the series’ highlights and best moments, revealing Time at its best. For all I know, this is what they did. If so, I cringe for all the Nickelodeon viewers out there being exposed to the full run at a tender age.
  • Unfunny. At exactly one point in this supposed collection of highlights from a comedy show did I make a noise somewhat resembling laughter. (I guess I’d peg it somewhere between a chuckle and a snicker.) We were treated to a montage of Ashley’s character Chloe trying to get neighbor Travis (Brandon Tyler) to notice her by attempting different poses on a patio that Travis kept walking past. The culmination of this montage featured Chloe laid out like an odalisque atop the skinny railing, and of course she promptly fell off. A good sight gag/slapstick one-two punch is the kind of comedy bread & butter this show needed. Instead, the show relies on cliche: look, here’s the flamboyant, sassy, scenery-chewing housekeeper Manuelo (Taylor Negron, The Last Boy Scout) wearing a dress. Har har! Men aren’t supposed to wear dresses! To make it even better, he’s wearing a thong, which gives him an opportunity to deploy his dumb catchphrase! Oh, look, here’s a montage of him saying the dumb catchphrase! Another tepid cliche is on full display as we watch Chloe leave an increasingly painful series of answering machine messages for Travis.
  • Reactionary. Allow me to put forward a hypothesis that I believe we’ll have an opportunity to test again and again in this project: reactionary politics are the watchword of lazy comedy. The big offender here is rape culture, which I’ll get into momentarily, but a bit on queer politics—Manuelo is clearly coded as queer, but of course he’s not textually queer. This leads us to a interesting tidbit of Time trivia. The internet tells me of another episode of this show where the girls’ dad Jake (Eric Lutes, Caroline In The City) is chatting with their Annoying Friend Larry (Jesse Head.) Jake is recounting a moment when he saw a movie featuring a woman in a strapless dress and he was fascinated by the question of how the dress was able to stay on. Larry asks, “Is that when you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer?” Jake says that no, he wondered if he was gay. Wokka wokka. Nickelodeon decided that joke was too edgy for 2015 and cut the gag. Hooray for puritanical homophobia! On to gender. There’s a moment where a character named Tedi who works as a model (Natashia Williams, She Spies) laments the fact that she was unable to signal a wildfire rescue copter by virtue of her sexy body. There’s another moment where Manuelo responds to breakfast chat from the women in the family with “I feel like I’m watching The View!”…because, you know, if a group of women are talking it’s remarkable enough to make hack jokes about. But the really glaring thing here is two separate montages on the topic of how it is charming and endearing to perpetually harass people who have made it entirely clear that they want nothing to do with your misguided affections. I guess I should be pleased that both male (Larry) and female (Chloe) characters are given the opportunity to be gross and creepy.
  • Teaspoon-shallow characterization. The way this particular clip show is set up, each of the major cast members is given a montage of memorable moments. Chloe and Riley (Mary-Kate) come across as complete ciphers, since they are the object and the subject of the above-mentioned celebrations of rape culture—Chloe harasses Travis, Larry harasses Riley. Hilarity is meant to ensue. Jake’s montage is about how he’s in touch with his sensitive side. Manuelo gets to say his catchphrase about a million fucking times & the show is brazen enough to lampshade the fact that they had no idea what to do with mom Macy (Clare Carey, Coach.) Eventually they settle on a half-hearted montage of her losing her cool (just because, you know, her, Jake and Tedi are trapped in a wildfire.)
  • Laziness to the nth degree. This is really the disease of which all of the above are merely symptoms. It’s probably pretty clear by now some of the many ways this show is as lazy as a ground sloth being hunted by the Clovis, but let’s enumerate a few more. Some of the choices made around the clips are baffling. We get to see Jake doing yoga, and the “punchline” is that he follows the directions on the tape, which instruct him to congratulate himself out loud for the good job he is doing with the yoga. Okay? Is that really one of the highlights of the show? I’m kind of afraid that it is, even though it’s not really a joke so much as a slice of life. And not a very interesting slice, either. The writers and actors struggle with the punchlines—this episode begins with a big set-up: all the family members see something on their TV that horrifies them and they immediately run to one another. It seems like it might be a natural disaster—they’re not sure how long it’ll be until things return to normal, they think they’d be safer in Santa Monica but the freeway would be clogged with others panicking for the same reason, etc. It turns out that the cable is out. This is a big punchline on a silver platter that they spend a significant amount of time setting up, and they totally bury it with only a brief chortle from the laugh track. This let me know early on that I was not in good hands. The more superficial details of the show are also puzzling in their incompetence: the musical cues are terrible (the theme song is particularly wince-inducing,) the set dressing is off-putting (why does their house have newsroom clocks?) and the view out the windows is jarring in its lack of realism—the Carlsons live in an ocean-front property, so you expect to see ocean out the window, but here’s what you see instead. There’s a difference between living in a beach house and living on a boat.

Final Judgment: 0/10. Run, don’t walk from this turkey—currently a revenant stalking the halls of Nickelodeon. Really, it was cruel of them to bring this back from the grave.

Case Study 3: Comic Book Men, Episode 6–“Ink”
Original Airdate: March 18th, 2012 on AMC

Since this is our inaugural study of reality TV, a preamble on that subject before we dig in to the particulars. As the folks at the Emmys have taken note of, there are really two types of reality TV—there’s the modern day game show where Regular People are brought together to win a contest of some sort. Think Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef. Staples of the genre, these shows have an intrinsic hook and are often quite fun. People who are otherwise reality TV snobs—and we all know them—tend to be a bit more forgiving of this genre, since there is a clearly defined point to the drama that plays out on the screen. The Bachelor is the black sheep of this family, I think.

Then there’s the other kind of reality TV, where we follow around a questionable celebrity (Kathy Griffin, Kardashians, Flavor Flav) or a group of allegedly interesting people in some subculture or another (the quirky staff of an animal rescue shelter, the staff of a black owned and operated tattoo parlor, ice road truckers, inebriated Southerners) as they go about their day to day lives. As far as the snobs are concerned, this is what makes reality TV irredeemable.

Comic Book Men flaunts these genres, to a certain extent. There’s a group of allegedly interesting people who work at or hang around a comic book store. There’s a questionable celebrity in the form of future Hollywood Square Kevin Smith (dir. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.) There’s also the game show aspect pioneered by proto-reality show Antiques Roadshow and more latterly by Pawn Star. Comic’s genesis is somewhat interesting—AMC is one of those TV networks whose name literally used to stand for something but subsequently pivoted into a different format. In 2003 they shed their past as “American Movie Classics” to devote more attention to original programming. They’ve had a few mega-hits: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Two of those have increasingly popular spin-offs. (Sadly, the Mad Men spinoff I dream of was not to be after Peggy rejected Joan’s offer to run a production company together. I want to live in the timeline where Holloway, Harris & Olson is real. I want that more than anything. Single tear.) They also have a wide back bench of also-rans and hopeful up and comers. And up until 2014, they had a healthy slate of reality shows, all of which got brutally massacred with the exception of this show and Chris Hardwick’s Talking Dead. Aren’t you thrilled that there are three separate shows that allow you to immerse yourself in a universe where a hellscape of shambling corpses constantly threaten to eat your children? Also, Talking Dead sounds like a joke show. Perhaps the fact that these are the two shows that survived signals that the Podcast Revolution has arrived at last, since Hardwick is of course emperor of The Nerdist podcast networkWhich brings me to my next point…

Comic started its life as Kevin Smith’s podcast. Take it away, Wikipedia: “Filmmaker Kevin Smith was drawn to television through his love of podcasting, through which he says he realized his true calling: telling stories with words rather than pictures.” I can think of two things wrong with that sentence. 1) This filmmaker realized his true calling was telling stories with words rather than pictures? and 2) This realization led him to create a TV show? But here we are.

Strengths

  • Entertaining appraisal of comic book memorabilia/depiction of ensuing negotiations.  This is positively fascinating! I’m an unabashed lover of Antiques and narrowing the focus to the wide and deep comics market is a great move. It’s always interesting to see the variety of objects that people bring in to have assessed. We get to see how that assessment transpires and how value is determined. Adding the haggling component is also a good decision because it allows us to see the flexibility of value and it gives us a better sense of the investment the parties have, as well as their connection with each other. It’s very fruitful ground—my favorite exchange in this episode is between manager Walt Flanagan and a customer whose appearance Walt compares to Kirk Cameron. Flanagan and the customer instantly form a warm bond over the comics that the customer has brought to the store, which include several very valuable items as well as a classic Alan Moore story, “The Killing Joke,” and an issue of Steve Ditko’s landmark title “Mr. A.” (Weirdly, Smith hadn’t heard of this. Dude, you own a comic book store and I’ve heard of “Mr. A.” And I am hardly a comics nerd—I felt my eyes glazing over as the group discussed which specific superhero team formation was their favorite because there were so many heroes I was unfamiliar with. Comics nerds have endlessly fertile fields to trawl.) Caustic hanger-on Bryan Johnson jokes that Flanagan is desperate to be friends with the customer. The customer and Flanagan finalize their transaction by sharing an awkward hug over the counter, which Johnson later mocks. This kind of moment is gold for an appraisal show like this. For better or worse, however, the show spends a lot of time on things that aren’t appraising.
  • Kevin Smith himself.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, as he’s obviously the reason this exists, Smith is the most charming person on this show. I don’t think his movies are very good (I was greatly amused to see a poster for Jersey Girl hanging in a place of prominence in the store, memorabilia which Miramax is thanked for providing in the credits) but every time he was on the screen I found myself smiling and wishing we could spend more time with him. He only appears in the segments of the show where the group are recording the podcast, which is unfortunate because that’s one of the most questionable parts of the show. However, Smith is a saving grace in these segments, despite the fact that it looks like he always wears the same shirt. I hope he has 50 of them, because otherwise he probably smells. And I don’t want to imagine him smelling bad, because I want him to be as cool to hang out with as he is on TV.
  • Amusing moments. One of the potential strengths of this flavor of reality TV is the ability to let funny moments float to the surface organically. Of course, we’re all cynical about how staged and over-produced reality TV is, but if the production isn’t obtrusive and gets out of the way, real-life moments can shine through. Two examples, both stemming from the episode’s main “plot” about the staff getting tattoos together: Smith tells an anecdote about getting drunk on pink Zinfandel while working on Clerks and subsequently getting a tattoo of what turned out to be the wrong character from “Alice In Wonderland,” and a moment in the tattoo parlor: Comic store employee Mike Zapcic asks the tattoo artist if people ever ask for comic themed tattoos. The artist replies that people do ask for the big names—Superman, Batman, Spiderman. Zapcic says, “That’s cool.” Artist: “Eh. I guess.” Ha!

Weaknesses

  • Reactionary. Oh, Jesus, here we go again with this shit. Let’s look at the genesis of the tattoo plot—a customer comes in with a lot of tats and when he leaves this becomes the subject of discussion. Johnson recalls an incident where Flanagan vowed to get a New Jersey Devils tattoo should they win a championship, and when they proceeded to win, Flanagan backed out of his pledge after it turned out his wife wasn’t happy with the idea (though she did have to bribe him.) This leads to a lot of hay being made over the fact that Flanagan is pussy-whipped just because his partner wants to have some input in a major decision. Ugh. More along these lines floats up when Johnson mocks employee Ming Chen for being short, pointing out that while Chen is sitting his feet don’t quite touch the floor. Johnson compares him to Lily Tomlin doing her Edith Ann bit. (Boy, these guys are really in touch with the youth culture.) This sexist bullshit climaxes when Flanagan refuses to purchase a customer’s special edition superhero Barbie dolls. It’s not that they don’t sell toys—there’s fucking Walking Dead figurines on sale right next to the goddamn register. (Nice synergy, AMC. Also prominently displayed: Walking Dead comics, because of course. Right next to the Clerks comics.) As becomes clear in a podcasting segment (where Smith rightfully calls Flanagan on his egregious bullshit,) the only reason Flanagan won’t buy the Barbies is because they’re Barbies. They’re for girls. I guess this show is called Comic Book Men for a reason. Let’s not forget the racism, heaped unilaterally on perennial punching bag Chen—in a conversation about who would prevail in a fight between Chen and Johnson, Johnson says he’d take on Chen and Jet Li at the same time. An Asian customer comes into the store shortly thereafter and when asked for his opinion he says he’d back Chen out of racial solidarity. Johnson announces that both Chen and the customer are “racists.” Later, when Chen is showing the others the design for the family crest he eventually ends up getting tattooed on his back. He hands the small piece of paper that it’s on to Flanagan, who likens it to “something out of a fortune cookie.” Enchanté.
  • Unlikable characters, apart from Smith. Admittedly, we don’t spend a lot of time with Chen and Zapcic, so I’m not 100% sure how I feel about them. Flanagan, however, is completely unappealing. In addition to being a sexist asshole, he’s also a windbag. He loves to brag about his negotiating tactics in the podcast segments. He tries to spin his geeky bonhomie with the Kirk Cameron-esque guy into a scenario where Flanagan is “sneaking up on an unsuspecting elk.”  As we see, however, his negotiating prowess amounts to having to take a complete pass on the rare issues the guy brought into the store in exchange for giving him $12 for “The Killing Joke” and “Mr. A.” Yeah, what a master negotiator. The AV Club calls Johnson “mordant” and forecasts that he will be a “breakout star.” I think the word I’d use is simply “asshole.” A woman comes into the store looking for a gift for her boyfriend. In response, Johnson proclaims that if she’s looking for a thoughtful gift, “the honeymoon’s over,” despite her protests that they’ve been seeing each other for a mere four months. Later, when she balks at spending more than $100 on two comic books, (Flanagan protests too much on the podcast about not trying to soak her as a novice buyer, and of course he doesn’t suggest any option that’s within her price range) Johnson crows about how she doesn’t think her boyfriend is worth more than that. People love to carp about how Kim Kardashian doesn’t “deserve” to be famous or on television, but here’s the thing about her: people like her. She’s charming. She’s fun to watch. People want to spend their limited amount of TV time with her. Conventional wisdom is that reality TV needs “villains,” but this is asinine. This isn’t Wacky Races and I don’t need Dick Dastardly plotting in the background. That’s a bug, not a feature. Smith brings charm and humor to the show, but jagoffs like Flanagan and Johnson suck the air out of the room.
  • Bad banter. I have a friend (who is incidentally heavily tattooed) and once we were listening to sports radio in anticipation of her boyfriend being interviewed in an upcoming segment. She took the opportunity to bemoan banter of any stripe, calling it the bane of her existence. “Say something or don’t—but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by giving me a window into your inane chit-chat.” Now, this is somewhat of an extreme position. Obviously she is not a part of the Podcast Revolution. But a show like this makes me see where she’s coming from. I’m not exactly surprised to hear geeky talking points about the merits of the Superfriends or the mechanics of the Green Lantern’s power batteries, but the tepid riffing we get here adds nothing, even if you care about the Superfriends or the Green Lantern. Can we leave spitballing about the kid-friendliness of The Munsters vs. The Addams Family in Smith’s shitty movies where they belong? This does make me wonder about an alternate universe where Tarantino’s career sputtered out after Reservoir Dogs, Netflix was never invented and he wound up on reality TV managing a custom-branded video store. Vincent & Jules’ Secret Stash. File that next to Holloway, Harris & Olson, I guess.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has some robust strengths, but its flaws make it something I won’t voluntarily return to. If the idea of a Pawn Stars with comic books and Smith compels you enough that you’re willing to put up with some rancid bros in a hastily stitched-together Frankenstein of a show designed to keep people watching AMC after The Walking Dead have stalked off into the sunset, you’ve met your match.

NEXT TIME: Dead Like Me and others!

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men