Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Friday, September 24, 2010

$#*! CBS Taught Me Last Night

I'm kind of ambivalent about the new Fall lineup for Thursday.

For one thing, I liked The Big Bang Theory right where it was. CBS' Monday night lineup lost momentum with the shift to Mike & Molly, a decent enough pilot that still suffered by comparison. It felt like following up three headliners with the warm-up act.

But I can see the logic behind the shake-up, because I'm still into CBS Monday but they blew the lid off my NBC Thursday. When it came to TV, I was like the guy who wouldn't let the entree touch the side dish. There was CBS Monday Night, ABC Wednesday Night, and NBC Thursday. I'm not opposed to channel surfing, but my sensibilities just grativated toward one-channel, one night last year.

So I sacrificed Community to watch Big Bang Theory last night. It was a little stressful, sure, but only as much as sacrificing a pawn to capture a queen. The real problem came with the 7:30 Central matchup. There's no question in my mind that 30 Rock is the best NBC comedy out there. The Office has been sinking for a while, but 30 Rock gets better every season. So what could CBS possibly counter with?

I didn't think Bleep! would be anywhere close to 30 Rock quality, but I figured it was worth a shot just to see Shatner in his first sitcom. I was right on both counts. And that's left me feeling even more ambivalent about Thursday nights.

Bleep! was pretty much everything you'd expect when you've got that kind of talent experimenting with a new format. Shatner occassionally blew some of the better lines with awkward delivery, but he single-handedly saved the weaker material, too. I laughed out loud more than I expected. The emotional core, an aging absentee father trying to reconnect with his son, is solid. If Bleep! can find the proper balance between cariacture and real human emotion, I suspect we'll see a second season.

"#$* it Jim, I'm a doctor, not a !@# network censor!"

Where does that leave Thursday? I'm not ready to say. But one thing I am sure of: CBS came out a winner for shaking things up. Sure, I'd have been happier if they'd left well enough alone on Monday night. But CBS is in the business of keeping audiences engaged, not comfortable. They didn't lose me Monday, and they might just have gained me Thursday.

And that's $#*! CBS taught me last night.

Wide H50pen Spaces

"We've got to find a way off the Island!"
Okay, so Hawaii Five-O is a little before my time. I was two when the show ended its recordbreaking run in 1980, and I honestly can't say I've seen a single episode in its entirety. That said, CBS has done good work with the hype. So much so that I felt a little pumped going into this premiere Monday for a variety of reasons.

"Respect the shades, McGarrett."
First off, H50 grabbed the 9 Central timeslot that's been held by CSI: Miami for nearly a decade. While the CSI, Law & Order, and NCIS franchises are well-crafted, I find myself longing to return to a more romantic take on law enforcement. Numbers is my personal pick for the best crime drama from the past decade.

You could transplant the setting to Arthur's Camelot, make Charlie a wizard instead of a mathemetician, call the FBI the Knights of the Round Table, and it would essentially be the same show. The math is mystic, the characters are fun, and the action felt larger than life.

The crime procedural dramas, by contrast, feel claustrophobic after a while. The characters are dwarfed by the science. They view law enforcement through the lens of professionalism rather than adventure. There's nothing inherently wrong with that take, which actually skews closer to the reality, but that's precisely the problem for me.

So I entered the H50 pilot already somewhat invested in its success. The advertisements promised big action, an expansive setting, and an old-school buddy cob vibe. As someone who came of age at the height of the 80s action franchises, this naturally appeals to me.

So did it meet my expectations? Absolutely. The teaser sequence feels like something straight out of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone film. Within a minute there's a hostage situation, a military grade helicopter attacking a federal prisoner transport, and a cold-blooded murder. H50 is built for widescreen.

The characterization keeps pace with the action, too. McGarrett's partner, Det. Danny "Danno" Williams, is a "mainlander" who hates Hawaii. He's only here to be closer to his daughter, who lives with her mother and very rich stepfather. His divided loyalties pave the way for conflict with the single-minded McGarrett. This leads to some humorous exchanges, like when a sulking Williams reminds McGarrett that it's common courtesy to apologize when you get someone shot. It's a classic complementary mismatch in the vein of Lethal Weapon's Riggs/Murtaugh dynamic, if a bit more subtle.

While it will take some time to see where the group dynamic goes, Detectives Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and Kona "Kono" Kalakau (Grace Park) round out the task force nicely. Kelly's motivation as a cop on the outs looking for a way back has potential, and "Kono"'s easygoing nature offsets McGarrett, Williams, and Kelly's brooding ways.

H50 still has room for some slight tweaking. Nearly every chase ends with lethal force. While I have nothing against these scenarios in moderation, I do see a need for balance. A chase is typically more fun because the bad guy gets caught, not killed. The commercials made use of the nostalgic, feel good "Book 'im, Danno" line. Unfortunately, that line loses something coming right off yet another dead perp.

The pilot deals with McGarrett's quest to avenge his father, though, so it's likely the tone will balance out by the next episode. Here's hoping they can take down the body count a notch without losing H50's edge.

Regardless of that minor criticism, this show's off to a strong start in the race to make my "can't-miss" list. It's not quite Numb3ers good, but it might fill the "fun-factor" void left by that show in time. Here's hoping H50 is just the beginning of a programming shift that takes crime drama out of the lab and back into the wide open spaces.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back-to-Back to the Future

This weekend I watched the entire Back to the Future trilogy in a single sitting. I'm not sure if devoting this much time to television is something I should brag about, but it certainly didn't feel like wasted time when all was said and done. I was a huge BTTF fan in the day, but this was the first time I experienced it as a trilogy.

When I was seven, BTTF blew my mind in the best possible way. It ignited my lifelong love affair with time travel, dopplegangers, alternate universes, paradox, and the music of Huey Lewis. The final sequence is still one of the most memorable moments in movie history, one that held out the promise that the real adventure was just beginning.

And so it was.

By the time BTTF II came out in 1989, the Delorean had already shattered dimensional barriers forever. Doc Brown and Marty McFly's adventures carried over into my readings of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap.

So did it live up to my exploding expectations? The difference between seven and eleven is a big one, after all. But man, did it ever. Hoverboards, a dystopian 1985, and the overlap between Marty's future/past selves blew my mind all over again. And then taking it into the Old West for one final adventure? Heaven.

BTTF was at the forefront of my thoughts for several years. BTTF: The Animated Series followed Doc Brown and his family's misadventures for two seasons. Here's a clip from the intro to the first season, and here's the intro to the second.

I also spent a lot of time playing two BTTF video games. The first game followed the events of the original BTTF:

It's a fast-paced game that's worth looking into if you're a fan of 8-bit gaming.

This was followed up by another that covered the rest of the trilogy:

It's a crawling monstrosity of a game that's worth forgetting (and heaven knows I've tried).

My BTTF kick probably ended around 1991, a year or so after the final film. I'm not sure I ever watched the second or third films again until now.

I rented the first installment about a year ago and it became a massively disappointing experience. The DVD was scratched and I never reached the end of the movie. To make matters worse, I got disapproving glances from my wife every time Marty cursed and my son thought the whole thing was lame.

So when I happened upon the trilogy this Saturday on Ion, I was playing for big stakes. This was the first time I had ever watched the trilogy as a unit. Would it succeed as one continuous storyline? And would my son feel differently this time around?

Thankfully, the answer to both these questions was a resounding yes. My son was as enthralled as I was for the next six hours. He has a habit of repeating lines he likes over and over, and it was halfway through the second film before I got him to stop yelling, "It's not you, Marty! It's your kids! Something's got to be done about your kids!" That in itself was interesting (if a bit annoying). I got more mileage from the line, "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads!" when I was his age. But we're clearly not getting our hoverboards by the year 2015, so who can blame kids these days if they're a bit jaded to the whole flying cars thing?

But on to why I think the films benefit that much more from viewing them as a whole.

1. The Compression Paradox. When you view the films independently, it's easy to forget the action takes place in the span of a few short weeks. I know both sequels make it clear we're just coming off the events of the last, but there's a huge gap between intellectual assent and experience. When you watch the films as a unit, the result is a delightful paradox that contrasts the way we measure Time with the way we feel it.

Eastern sages have long held that Time is an illusion, and a Christian sage tells us that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years a day to God. But it was Gale and Zemeckis' vision that first opened me to the possibilities that go far beyond a life ticked out one second at a time.

As Marty would say, "That's heavy."

2. The Marty/Doc Brown Dynamic. Taken individually, both characters would be eminently watchable. But the real joy is the bond they share, and more than that, the way it deepens with (dare I say it) time. That comes across even more forcefully in a single sitting.

There's a real sadness in the sequence when the oncoming train wrecks the DeLorean. It truly feels like the end of an adventure. But it's not so much about the time machine for Marty as the implication that he'll never see Doc Brown again. The centuries are merely the landscape where the real adventure-- Marty and Doc's friendship -- plays out.

Which makes Doc's return in the final scene that much more enjoyable. It's a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, and yet one that's as open-ended as the first film. The possibilities of friendship are endless.

3. The Uwritten Future. There's a core message to the trilogy that's as relevant today as it's ever been. The future isn't written in stone. For that matter, neither is the past. It's a message that rings true wherever I find it. Around the same time I was watching BTTF II & III in theaters, I was thrilling to the adventures of Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. Two years later I also dug it when T2 reversed Judgement Day and put the future back in our hands. Of course, they went and screwed that up with T3...but that's another story for a crankier blog.

It occurs to me that BTTF AS trilogy might get shortchanged because we tend to attach epic expectations to that label. If you're not taking down the Death Star or storming the Gates of Mordor, it's just a boxed set. But it's precisely this focus on the human side of history that makes BTTF such a substantial accomplishment.

Compare the philosophy of BTTF with that of, say, "City on the Edge of Forever," and you'll see what I mean. In the latter, McCoy inadverently alters history for the worse when he saves the life of pacifist Edith Keeler. Her philosophy will delay America's entry into WWII and lead to Nazi rule. Even though he loves her, Kirk is forced to prevent McCoy from saving her yet again to set the timeline right.

In BTTF III , Doc Brown has a similar "right time, right place" experience with Clara Clayton, a teacher destined to plunge to her doom. While Doc expresses some concern over the implications of saving her, it only amounts to the ravine where she died going by a different name in the future. It's the difference between a universe where man meets the needs of history or vice versa.

I can't say with any certainty where the idea we transform history at the local level first struck me, but it's a safe bet it had something to do with the BTTF trilogy.

So that's what I took away from the films this time. Like any other form of storytelling, movies are an experience. There are different ways to approach (and transform) that experience.

So go ahead. Watch them again for the first time. You'll need six hours, some popcorn, and a couch. But you won't need roads where you're going.

And by all means, let me know what you think. Do you see BTTF as a cohesive trilogy, or a diluted brand? Is my "City on the Edge of Forever" comparison way offbase? And did you ever get past the DeLorean stage in the original Nintendo game????