Sunday, December 24, 2006

CNN Presents: Welcome to the Future


Christmas 2006 weekend CNN Presents has been hosting a panel discussion, led mainly by Miles O'Brien, about the legal and social implications of the rapid increase in personal technology in the past fifteen years or so.

The point was made that many parents did not grow up in an Internet and cell phone era, and do not have an concept of how to monitor their kids' use. Of course, we had parallel problems in earlier generations with television, when junior high school teachers would implore "read, don't just watch television" and we survived.

Another point is that new legal concepts about balancing free speech on the Internet with the implicit impact on privacy and reputation will have to be developed. Old clearly established torts may not work properly in an era of search engines and free entry.

The book by Irshad Manji, "The Trouble with Islam Today" was discussed, and her putting it online (as I did with my "Do Ask Do Tell" was seen as provocative. The panel discussed the idea of "the globalization of grievance." The website is "Muslim Refusenik".

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Oprah Winfrey runs report on North Korea Dec 19 2006


Oprah Winfrey also did an interesting report on North Korea on Dec 19, 2006. Christiana Amanpour started with a report about the nuclear testing, and then the journalist Lisa Ling made a report after getting in by pretending undercover to be a medical board assistant to an eye surgeon from Nepal.

The journalist says that the North Koreans could have done a search engine check before letting her in, and didn't. The North Koreans are not allowed to have cell phones, as they don't want people to get ideas about the outside world. They went into one apartment, which was decorated only with pictures of Kim Song Il. The control of the individual people is astounding.

Friday, December 22, 2006

CNN: After Jesus: The First Christians


After Jesus: The First Christians (2006, CNN, prod. Anderson Cooper 360) is a 110 min documentary (with commercials) about the first few centuries after Christ, about the growth of Christianity and about all of the paradoxes it invoked. It was first aired Dec. 22, 2006.

The film traces the early apostles: Peter and Paul, and the stoning of Stephen, and deals with the controversy over whether Gentiles could become Christians without first converting to Judaism.

It then covers the problems of the paradigm: is this a religion of faith and salvation (the four canonical Gospels) or of knowledge and wisdom (the Gnostic gospels, as found in scrolls in the 1940s and almost burned frivolously). What is the relationship of man's mastery of himself and his logical facilities with his experience and his faith? We see that dichotomy in moral and social issues today. The way books get carried forward is covered: writings not accepted simply don't get manually "copied", an idea that bears an interesting contrast when one thinks about the controversies today over the Internet and free entry. Yet, even in that time, ideas could circulate rapidly and become politiclaly destabilizing. The early church would itself become very political, and challenge the authority of Rome.

The earliest Christian society was a socialistic culture, in which property was held in common and family life was very much the "village" concept. It contradicts the competitive, meritocratic culture of today. One was very much his "brother's keeper."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

PBS Nova: World in the Balance: The People Paradox


PBS Nova: World in the Balance: The People Paradox (56 min) was aired on MPT (Annapolis, MD) on Dec. 21, 2006. We have lately heard a lot of concern about the lower reproduction rates in Europe and Japan, well below replacement rate. Russia will lose 20% of its population by 2050, and Japan’s rate is 1.3 children per family. More women have joined Japanese corporate culture, which is so demanding that families cannot afford the time to have children. There is also the problem of “parasite singles” who deny becoming “Christmas cakes” at 25. In Japanese culture, families, especially women, are expected to take care of their aging parents, so they are heading toward a dead end.

India has a birth rate of 3 per child, but needs to reduce it further to get hold a reasonable population level. The educated south has a rate of 2, but much of the rest of the country has an illiterate patriarchal society with arranged marriages, dowries, and burnings of women who fail to bear male heirs, which keeps the population exploding and impoverished.

Sub Saharan Africa still has a huge birth rate, providing reproduction age men, but AIDS is creating a “knob” style pyramid, especially in Kenya. AIDS is often transmitted in marriage, and a new gel may kill HIV and allow children to be conceived more safely.

The United States has an almost sufficient replacement rate, and replenishes its workforce partly with immigration, so its demographic shrinkwrap is not as bad as Europe’s (despite the social security and Medicare debate).

Of course, all of these observations are collective in nature. People in poorer societies behave according to the familial demands of their cultures. People in richer countries have other options for self-fulfillment, and it leaves some career women and homosexual men in the position of being regarded as potential moral parasites. All of this makes up an “inconvenient truth 2” perhaps. Ultimately, we are left with debating how global problems translate into moral demands upon individuals.

Related book review, Philip Longman's The Empty Cradle.

Friday, December 08, 2006

ABC PrimetimeLive: North Korea: Inside the Shadows

I had earlier reported on Diane Sawyer's Good Morning America report on this on this blog on Oct 19 (look here>).

Tonight ABC Primetime Live had a full hour "North Korea: Inside the Shadows" where Diane Sawyer made a twelve day visit to Pyongang and the surronding, purifying "countryside."

The show characterized the trip as a voyage to a different universe, or perhaps a reconciled Dominion, if you use Clive Barker's terminology from his 1991 novel "Imajica." The people tend to behave like social insects in a group-mind hive (again, the 1996 Bill Pullman sci-fi film "Independence Day"), putting on shows at public stadiums with cards acting in unison a hundred thousand at a time. They seem like a cult that workships Kim Jong-il. The children are very disciplined, and expect very little in the way of freedom as we know it. The people are four inches shorter in the north than in the south because of poor diet. They use human beings as stoplights, and have little traffic, and the apartment buildings in the city are rather like movie props of shells with little functionality inside. Indeed, this is a collectivist utopia.

The show does bring up our moral thinking, about what happens when you try to have a perfect utopia where no one can take advantage of anyone else. Left wing pundits, you got your wish.

I noticed a rainbow symbol on a storefront in Pyongang. I don't think it means what it means here. I wonder if Kim Jong-il even knows it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dr. Phil on bigtime issues with teacher/principal reputations


On Dec 6, 2006 the Dr. Phil show (NBC, 3 PM weekdays EST) featured two troubling stories involving teachers and public school administrators. The story URL is this.

The first story presented a 32 year old female high school science teacher in Kentucky who had, eleven years before, worked in the "adult film" industry and had appeared in up to 25 "films" some of which are still available. The show did not mention whether they could be found on the Internet or Web. Some students found hardcopies of the films and watched them, and in time they came to the attention of school administrators and the school board, which suspended her with pay for the year and refused to renew her contract. She was non-tenured.

She had not violated any laws, and was clearly dismissed for off-duty conduct that was objectively legal. In fact, as her lawyer pointed out on the show, she had not even engaged in this particular off-duty conduct since starting her teaching contract, and she had not been asked about such past conduct. There was a debate, and about 60% of Dr. Phil's audience felt that she could be allowed to teach today, as this had happened a long time ago. There were serious concerns about her ability to serve as a "role model." It was suggested that she try for other school jobs, but she is excluded because she has been suspended from teaching.

Dr. Phil sounded sympathetic to her situation.

I definitely believe that the school board should be receptive to rehiring her. Perhaps her classroom duties should involve only more mature students (Honors and AP in high school chemistry or physics) although this raises philosophical questions of fairness to other teachers. But she did not break the law and her activities were protected by the First Amendment, to the extent that the films are non-obscene but intended only for adults, but likely to wind up in the hands of minors through happenstance, which is what did "happen." So the legal problem is more like "conflict of interest." To resume teaching she would have to agree not to participate in producing or publishing such "adult" materials and to remove from circulation (including from the Internet and search engines) any such materials under her control. (I would believe that she actually has no such mateirals under her ownership, since she says that she gave this up eleven years ago and regrets her "choice" of engaging in it.) She would not be expected to remove "residuals" under the control of others, and these will always exist any publication or entertainment distribution.

Some of this discussion applies to public employees. A private employer may feel it is appropriate to announce a policy that it will not hire someone who has earned a living at any time in the past in some morally objectionable but legal way (say, employment with a tobacco company, or maybe even in telemarketing). However, carried too far, this would sound objectionable, might involve legal issues, and would seem to promote blackballing. A public school system will need to have more specific personnel policies to deal with situations like the one presented on this show, and announce the policies in public (as on a school system website and to the media) to all teachers, including substitutes (who may not have as much training in teacher legal issues).

There was a second story where a school assistant principal sued at least two students and their parents after the students posted a fake page in her name on myspace.com, and made a "self-presentation" that would be perceived as derogatory by most people. She is apparently suing for defamation (libel) and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At least one boy may be prosecuted. Dr. Phil expressed the idea that protection of school employees is the duty of the state legislature (in structuring disciplinary procedues in the school system) to protect employees and teachers, and not for the courts after the fact.

The incident does sound like one of the worst abuses of social networking sites known.

There was also an incident in Richmond VA where a teacher was suspended for selling artwork that was produced in an offensive manner ("butt-printing" art). "Teachers must set an example to students through their personal conduct" was the comment made by the Chesterfield County school district. The story is here.

The story does feed into the online reputation defense, that I discussed on another posting, here. Some of the companies involved include Reputation Defender, Naymz, and Ziggs.

There is a related blog here on teachers and gay issues (outing) here.

Update: Oct 4, 2007:
The Chesterfield County teacher was eventually fired but has sued. The AP story by Bob Lewis on Oct 4, 2007 is here.

Update: Oct. 12, 2007


Today Dr. Phil had a show on school security issues, given the incident in Cleveland, Ohio on Oct. 10, 2007 at the Success Tech school. Dr. Phil expressed the opinion that medical records of students should not be shown to administrators because they are not very predictive, and could simply complicate lives for students. Here is the link.



Update: Feb. 16, 2008

The Chesterfield school district case with the middle school teacher fired when his off-duty "offensive" art work appeared on the Internet, goes to civil trial in March 2008. Here is the NBC4 story.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Oprah Winfrey hosts Al Gore on global warming


On Tuesday Dec 5, 2006, Oprah Winfrey hosted Al Gore, narrator and filmmaker of An Inconvenient Truth (2006, Paramount Vantage). Mr. Gore reproduced a number of the charts and illustrations from the film, which was a colorful college lecture. Oprah also presented a supportive comment from Leonardo Di Caprio (on the day before, where he mentioned his own documentary, 11th Hour), and she also presented the counter argument from Marlo Lewis, who has a book "A Skeptic's Guide to An Inconvenient Truth."

The link for Oprah's show is here.

There were many disturbing images, like a polar bear trying to get on the ice. The disappearing glaciers on Kilomanjaro and in Patagonia were shown.

Julia Whitty has a major article in the Novevember + December 2006 issue of Mother Jones, "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," about voluntary cooperation to reverse global catastrophe. Social animals like dolphins understand this; why don't we? The magazine cover featured a chimpanzee with the coverline "Evolve or Die: Will humans get past denial and deal with global warming?"

My own review of this here.

A discussion of the Dec 4 show is here.

NBC4 presented a "Going Green" segment the same day, and had a spot about the Willard Interntational Hotel in downtown Washington DC, as a hotel with voluntary conservation programs like not washing sheets every day during multiple-day stays.

The picture shown is of the Natural Tunnel in SW Virginia.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

David Letterman and duct tape

CBS Comedy king David Letterman invited Michigan teenager William Beacom to his show on Dec 1, 2006, in which William demonstrated how to make all kinds of products, including athletic shoes, from duct tape. It used to be called "duck tape" during World War II. It became a household name in the Levittown suburban housing booms after World War II. Of course, there has been a lot of humor about civilian WMD preparedness by using "duct tape" to keep out radiation and bad stuff. Sounds like Dr. Strangelove.

Letterman, back in January 2000, had taught us never to go to the doctor. One Friday morning he went to his Manhattan physician and he didn't come home. A few hours later he was in suspended animation undergoing emergency coronary bypass surgery. Again, never to go the doctor.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

ABC The View presents major story on adoption and foster care



On Tuesday Nov 28 2006 ABC "The View" (11 AM EST) presented an interesting show on the shortage of adoptive and future foster parents. One gay male couple was presented, one female couple was shown, as well as one conventional heterosexual couple.

The website for the show is this.

Rosie O'Donnell is one of the co-hosts, and she drew attention to the issue of gay parents when she came out as a gay parent. Stories from The Advocate, MacLauin Kidzworld. Rosie tried to help a couple of gay foster parents in Florida, which will not allow gay parents to adopt children.

There are about a half million children in foster care, and the "moral case" for interesting more potential parents in adoption is becoming more visible in the media. In many states, single people are welcome to adopt. (In Minneapolis there were multiple ads at bus stops encouraging singles to consider both adoption and foster care.) At the same time, allowing gays to adopt undermines the "birthright" of a mother and a father for any child. Is this realistic? Would public policy incentives encourage more heterosexually married people to adopt, or will unmarried people always be needed? This is becoming a complex moral question.

Rosie mentioned the "celebrity feud" between Kelly Ripa and Clay Aiken on an earlier episode of "The View" this month. I did watch a tape of "Live with Regis and Kelly" of that episode and didn't see much happen, but she did yet at him when they were horsing around at the end.

TLC: "World's Tallest People"

The Learning Channel featured a one hour documentary, "World's Tallest People," on Nov. 20. About 1% of adult men are over 6 ft 3 in (75 in), and the average male height is 5 ft 10 in (70 in). Most very tall men (and women) are so because of simple genetics and probability. But one in 750 men has the XXY chromosome anomaly, and some of these are very tall. One in 5000 or so has Marfan's Syndrome, which can lead to rupturing of the aorta. President Abraham Lincoln may have had Marfan's.

People are slowly getting taller in western countries. It seems less unusual today for some teenager boys to reach the height of 6 feet or so by age 13 or 14.

There is anecdotal talk that gay men may be slightly taller than average, and a look across a gay disco floor would seem to bear out that impression. Could there be any connection to biological or genetic theories?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

PBS: Frontline: Living Old

On Tuesday Nov 21, 2006 PBS Frontline broadcast "Living Old" (dir. Navosky and O'Conner). The show emphasized the difficult decisions faced by families as medical technology enables people to be kept alive longer but sometimes with great dependence on others. This has not only financial but social and moral consequences. The Living Will was discussed, but one 94-year-old woman still working as a financial planner refuses to sign one for her children, saying its all right to "be a problem -- where there is life, there is hope."

The show mentions the census fact that people over age 85 comprise the largest growing segment of the population.

The show did not mention filial responsibility laws or discuss the financial issues like Medicaid and Long Term Care Insurance in detail, as does a recent U.S. News & World Report Issue (Nov 27).

Related blog entry, on the US News magazine story, is here.

That same day ABC Nightline presented actor Stephen Baldwin who has become a born-again Christian evangelist using extreme sports like skateboarding as part of his ministry.

House, M.D.

This series "House, M.D." with Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House, has been well touted by Fox (since 2004) as a counterweight to ER and maybe even Law & Order. Ironically, it is produced by NBC Universal, though aired on Fox.

A typical episode was aired on Nov 21 2006 (Tuesday) in which an eighteen year old man has a heart attack, which is traced to brain disease and inherited immune disorder that can be cure by bone marrow transplant from a younger sibling.. The young man is himself orphaned, and has been involuntarily dealt the responsibility of raising younger siblings. In these individualistic times, it is interesting to note that numerous times movies and network or cable series have dealt with the themes of involuntary family responsibility, often for siblings or other relatives. Other examples have included TheWB's Summerland, and the movie "Raising Helen."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Area 51: Fact or Fiction


TLC presented the 1 hour documentary Area 51: Fact or Fiction, on Nov. 16, 2006. In 2000, I actually drove a rental car from Las Vegas the 200 miles around the horn to Rachel, Nevada and the Little Alien Inn. The documentary traces the efforts of a local to gain access to Area 51, about 30 miles of desert away from the Inn. He traveled to Denver to get satellite maps of the area, and found that the government and FBI got a search warrant to his mobile home. He says he didn't do anything illegal, and that he his being bullied or chilled off. The documentary showed various sensors on the land, and some UFO-like objects which could be top secret military aircraft.

I remember that trip. On a 1997 trip to Vegas, I had an ignition key break (that can really happen!) when another rental car was parked at Hoover Dam, and had to have the rental company come and rescue me.

Day Break

ABC has started a new series "Day Break" with a two-hour "movie" Wed Nov 15, 2006. The gimmick this time is that the protagonist Detective Brett Hopper (Taye Biggs) wakes up and lives the same day repeatedly, trying unravel a mystery of his being framed for the murder of a DA. The film has a bus crashing into buildings early on, echoing a tragic wreck in Washington DC in the 1990s when a woman sitting in a barber shop lost both legs. The film goes off into the space of shady government interrogation techniques, where he is masked. How often has someone wanted to relive a day and do just one thing differently. Not to be confused with the 1996 film "Daylight" with Sylvester Stallone, reviewed here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

ABC Nightline on Panama

On Monday Nov 13, 2006 ABC "Nightline" had an interest spot on American retirees moving to Panama City, in Panama (not Florida), which now is back under control of Panama the country since the US relinquished control of the Canal Zone in 1999. (Here is a typical story on the sovereignty issue.) The link for the ABC news story is here.

The Panama Canal was a contentious issue during Ronald Reagan's first presidential campaign back in 1980.

The city appears to be booming with multiple high rise condos (one as high as 100 stories) going up, and housing prices seem to be much less than in the US, and there is no exchange rate. One family was living comfortably in a large house with staff for $1200 a month. Health care up to US standards is available, with a private hospital room costing $150 a day, compared to $900 a day for a semi-private room in Orlando, FL, according to one retiree.

Retirees have felt pressured to move there (or to low cost areas) with their pensions less certain, and with social security age increasing.

The report did not state how well developed entertainment, and media infrastructure (Internet) is developed.

Judge Roberts, from the Supreme Court, was also interviewed on the broadcast.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

ABC 20-20 "Working Moms" Nov. 10

ABC "20-20" had a major segment on working mothers. Of course, mothers have been common in the workplace for decades, and equal employment has been a legal expectation since at least the 1970s. When I worked for Univac 1973-1974, it was at the time one of the most progressive companies with executive opportunities for women.

There is growing controversy about the accomodations expected by employers and, at least indirectly, from employees who do not have children. The United States is the only major western country that does not mandate paid maternity leave (the FMLA of 1993 would mandate unpaid leave). In practice, mothers often use vacation time and most companies have maternity leave policies, sometimes covered by short term disability mechanisms. Some more progressive companies do voluntarily offer paid maternity leave to long term employees. The "voluntarily" is important in a libertarian perspective.

With Democrats in control of Congress, this issue will likely be debated. And it is a debate that we need. In a population with an increasing aging population and eldercare and retirement issues, a lower birthrate among income earning people is an issue.

Should people who do not choose to have children be expected to make personal sacrifices to help those who do? Radio talk show host Tom Lycos is quoted on the show as asking that question bluntly. This is a debate that we need, and there will be more about it soon.


Elizabeth Vargas: Can Working Moms Have it All?

Lee Hoffman and Natalie D. Jacquez" "The Great Balancing Act"

The Washington Post has a column Nov 20 by Leslie Morgan Steiner, "On Balance," in which she asks "Are Parents Better Employees?" The link is here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

ABc 20-20: Privileged in Amerca: Who's Shutting You Out?


On Friday, Nov. 3, 2006 ABC 20-20 had a provocative two hour journalistic "movie" with John Stossel, much of it broadcast from the Phipps family Westbury Estate on Long Island, about the culture of privilege in America. Many issues were covered. These include nepotism, privileged treatment of schol athletes, racism (which can now go both ways), fame, and lookism, and particularly in the criminal justice system.

The racism component presented a man who looked completely Caucasian but who had one black parent, and who pass as "white" when his brother could not.

The lookism component showed nightclubs and bars denying admission to people based on "looks" (or the "halo effect"). That practice was shown in the movie 54 (1998), when the character played by Ryan Philippe waltzes in, past the bouncer, to Studio 54, shirtless with smooth chest and all. Even though I am 63, I have not run into this with gay disco clubs at all, although once a bouncer would not let me in to a small club in Minneapolis when he claimed that I was stumbling when I had not had any alcohol. Generally public accomodations in most cities may not legally discriminate this way, but it seems that the practice continues. I once berated a friend for suddenly gaining weight when I saw him at Pride, and he emailed me back that he was not pleased with my verbal comment, or with the "lookism" that infects the male gay community. "You should be more mature..."

What's disturbing is the "morality" of all of this. Family values seem, in the minds of many people, to justify privilege and nepotism, which is one reason that the nuclear family has lost moral credibility as a socializing institution. What seems to matter in a free society is how well each person can "play by the rules" of fairness, whatever they are.

There was a segment toward the end on fame and celebrity, which sometimes has an "expiration date." Indeed, the legal concept of "right of publicity" originally applied mostly to celebrities (and was a common law perk of earned "fame"). I can recall in 2002 getting into discussions with other callers in a phone bank about our society's idea of "meritocracy" and about "who is better" and whether or not this is really earned or deserved. There was a certain sentiment that often it is not, and there was a certain indignation against "rich people." Of course, remember that anger helped undergird Communism, in its most extreme forms like the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; today China has a bizarre mixture of capitalism and a pretense of communism and "forced fairness" (?!?)

(Photo: a well known apartment building near Independence Hall in Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Boston Legal

ABC has a prime time show that runs up against NBC's "Law & Order", and that is Boston Legal, which presents Massachusetts with a bit of a Todd Field point of view, with controversial cases with the fictitious firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt.

In December 2005 the show had gay parents battling for custody, and other times it has detailed the legal consequences of HIV testing and seropositivity.

The Oct 24, 2006 episode dealt with particularly disturbing subject matter, as a woman is accused of second degree murder of an older woman involed with her grown and attractive son, whom, shall we say, is presented in Oedipal fashion.

It's odd to see Massachusetts portrayed with the "banned in Boston" mentality, when this is the state whose supreme court protects same-sex marriage

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Good Morning America: North Korea visit

Diane Sawyer has been reporting from North Korea on ABC News "Good Morning America." Thursday, she showed a tour of a typical "upper class" apartment in the city. North Koreans are obsessed with housekeeping perfection and neatness as moral virtues, to the point that fans have covers. They are a foot shorter than their peers in South Korea because of meager diets, which are sparse even for the few well off. The City was immaculate, with every little piece of litter picked up. A beauty salon for foreingers was shown.

Earlier tours had shown the capital city of Pyongang emptied as everyone had to go out into the field and work like peasants, as in the style of a Maoist 60s cultural revolution. Kim Jong-Il, of course, has it good.

The ABC News story warns that war with North Korea really is possible if the US enforces sanctions because of the "nuclear" test. The link is here.

In the mid 1990s, the Clinton administration had been more concerned about the possibility of war erupting in Korea than it was about radical Islam.

The Nine

ABC introduced this suspense series (the title reminds one of "The 4400" doesn't it) on Wednesday nights (10 PM EDT). Nine people's lives are tied together when they are in a Los Angeles bank when it is robbed in spectacular fashion, in a manner that reminds one of the Al Pacino film "Heat" (1995). In succeeding episodes, their lives weave in and out, and we find that one or more of them could have been involved in the crime (the sliding around of a cell phone is an important clue). The most familiar cast member to me is Scott Wolf, who played a retreating doctor in Everwood, is a surgeon (Jeremy Kates) in this series. Reviewers say that this series must be watched faithfully, in every episode. It does seem like a manipulation.

There are funky scenes, like when someone discusses automating an insurance claims processing system, and the objection is raised is that the "inefficiency" of the old system makes the company profitable and keeps people working. Another clue.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What about Brian?

Title: What about Brian?
Network: ABC
Season: 2

Barry Watson, who played Matt Camden, the oldest son and doctor (who doesn't know how to turn off a cell phone in the operating room) on 7th Heaven, comes back as a "left behind" (not exactly Tim La Haye style) bachelor in a nest of upscale professional friends in contemporary LA. His best chance for a matchup is Marjorie--Sarah Lancaster, who played Madison (Ephram's undoing) in Everwood. Adam (Matt Davis) is Brian's best friend, a lawyer, who isn't afraid of a lap dance in a bar just before marriage himself. There's a lot of activity, like accidental bedroom fires, car wrecks, and the like, and the pace is quick -- even if this is a combination of "coming of age" (you expect to see Zach Braff show up) and a kind of 70s friendship movie (Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice, or Four Friends, etc.) In one scene, another girl says that Brian looks "manly."

Barry Watson had to recover from a random bout of Hodgkin's Disease, which usually requires rigorous chemotherapy, and strikes young adults in unpredictable fashion, although it has been associated with certain common viruses (like Epstein-Barr) and sometimes appears in minor clusters. Watson also appeared in the horror film Boogeyman in 2005.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Author's direct contact with television industry

I have been on or been associated with television several times.

On February 25, 1998, I gave a one hour lecture on my 1997 book, "Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back." The show was videotaped and shown on Minneapolis independent television, then Channel 6 in downtown Minneapolis. It was shown in two one half hour segments, with "commercials" from the Libertarian Party of Minnesota. It was repeated a least twice and seen accidentally by many coworkers. It was broadcast on Sunday mornings on the "Liberty!" show. A trivia about the lecture is, driving back, that got my only speeding ticket while living six years in Minensota (1997-2003) at a speed trap near the railroad overpass on University Ave. in St. Paul.

On April 11, 2006 I appeared in the morning on NBC4 in Washington DC as a volunteer taking calls for other volunteer for the DC International Film Festival.

In the spring of 1976, when I was living in New York City (in the historic Cast Iron Building at 11th and Broadway) and working for NBC as a Univac programmer-analyst at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (I held the job 1974-1977), I worked for six weeks on "strike duty", opeating a sound boom when broadcast engineers working for NABET went on strike. The show as a half-hour soap called Somerset which is no longer on the air. Bruce Minnix and Jack Coffee were the directors. I stike had come about over controversies in, for the time, great advances in broadcast tecnnology with hand held cameras. Other employees worked as camera operators. I was not difficult to learn the union jobs while working as a "scab" in a studio that then was located in Brooklyn.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Law & Order

NBC/Universal broadcasts the popular and educational Law & Order series, which has run since 1990.

The series has always done well. Although some of the episodes are graphic, many of them raise issues that should be aired in high school civics classes. An underlying concept is that freedom as we know it is not possible without a grounding in the law that can be applied in a predictable fashion.

In 1999, a subseries called "Special Victims Units" (SVU) started, and in 2001, another subseries called "Criminal Intent."

The show has a huge number of episodes, and some of the recent episodes have been exploring some of the ambiguities of law and technology. A May 2006 epsiode dealt with the webcam and chatroom issues, similar to those that have created a sensation in the media (the Justin Berry case). In September 2006, a girl writes a journal on a social networking site that would appear to incite a crime, and someone she knows actually commmits the crime. She is convicted of second degree murder. But the episode raises serious legal questions about whether amateurs' writings on weblogs and social networking profiles will be viewed the same way that books, magazine articles and movies from established companies are viewed, when these "legitimate" sources present similar materials. Writings by an "amateur" or more likely to imitate real life and incite or entice others to act, or at least appear to do so. This raises what seems to be still unexplored legal questions. COPA (Child Online Protection Act) would appear to deal with online content at face value only.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Runaway

Title: Runaway
Network: CW (formerly TheWB)
Started: 9/25/2006

The setup of this series will remind the viewer of the 1993 Warner Brothers film, "The Fugitive." This time Paul Rader (Donnie Wahlberg) was been framed for murder and jumped bail. The takes his family (wife Lily -- Leslie Hope; kids: Henry (Dustin Milligan, originally born in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories), Hannah (Sarah Ramos) and a grade school boy Tommy (Nathan Gamble) on the lam, the Iowa. The police (it looks like the omnipresent Judith Scott, a staple of thrillers and police dramas, is in charge) are hunting them, and they have to make up stories the way you would play a Schubert impromptu. When stopped for a traffic violation and without a DL, Lily makes up the story that they are "refugees" from Hurricane Katrina.

Henry creates a family crisis, as his own life is compromised by having to hide who he is, even as a teenager. (Forget about myspace, he can't even be anything in the bricks and mortar world.) The whole question of family solidarity, and its moral foundation, comes into question. "I have no friends," Henry says. "You have your family," Paul says. Why should Henry sacrfice for his Dad's mistakes? Henry is not sure that his dad is innocent and starts to run away.

A cat has apparently witnesses the original crime, which is covered up with a bit of computer hacking. If only felines could talk, there would be no problems.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Heroes


Series: Heroes
Network: NBC Universal
Creator: Tim Kring
Premiere: Monday Sept 25, 2006

We've seen the hero idea repeatedly with Smallville, Jake 2.0, Kyle XY, and most of all, The 4400. This time there seems to be some kind of global plot or mechanism to introduce "special" people with genetic mutations able to give future humans extraordinary abilities. We have the male nurse (Milo Ventimiglia) who dreams that man can fly, and maybe he can; the drug-addicted artist (Santiago Cabrera) who paints "evil" images of future catastrophes that always happen. A genetics professor from India Mohinder Seresh (Sendil Maramurthy) starts to investigate and even he could be extraordinary. But it seems that the government has plans for these people, just as in The 4400.

As the series moves into 2007, there is plenty of future manipulation and time reversal, and "man can fly" stuff that emulates the "Fantastic Four" more than Superman. There is also the idea of a vaccine to dull the abilities so that the "hero" cannot harm others (as if he could be possessed with some kind of psychopathic compulsion). That reminds me of "promycin" (the green liquid that looks like green krrptonite) on USA-Paramount's "The 4400" and sounds like a takeoff on the idea that the government sometimes is suspicious of gifted people or different people and wants to neutralize them. That was my experience at NIH back in 1962.

The series also plays on the theme of predicting and preventing (by rewriting the future) a viral pandemic.

Further, it presents the idea of art predicting life, as Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) predicts the future in his paintings, first noticed by hospice nurse Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimigilia). In the recent (Nov 2007) film "Southland Tales" and amateur screenplay predict life. Teenage character West (Nicholas D'Agosto) can fly in a manner similar to what Clark Kent eventually does as Superman.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Kidnapped - new NBC series

Title: Kidnapped
Network: NBC / Universal
Director: Michael Dinner
Writer: Jason Smilovic

This is another new series, supposedly in close to real time like Fox's "24". The program starts out with a broad daylight kidnapping of the 15 year old son Leopold Cain (Will Denton) of has business mogul Conrad (Timothy Hutton) who has made enemies with a hostile takeover. The supposition is frightening. The kidnapping starts in traffic as if it were a carjacking; the middle school brother takes the message back, not to call the cops. Private Eye Knapp (Jeremy Sisto) specializes in getting the tough cases back without involving the police. The family must play him off the FBI. At the same time, the kid seems clever enough to be about to escape. Still, the show maintains that the families of high profile people can be vulnerable, a frightening notion. Compare to the movie Ransom. In the famous 19th Century novel of this name by Robert Louis Stevenson, the kid David Balfour is kidnapped by his greedy uncle's plotting and has to live by hiw own wits and interpersonal skills. We shall see.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Take 3 from Colours The Multicutural Network


Take 3 is a proposed cable television series (following Take 1, Take 2) sponsored by Colours, The Multicultural Network, in connection with the International Diversity Film Market. An event that presented these films is discussed at this
link.

The "Take 3" showing presented four proposed programs, with directorial discussions and excerpts. Each excerpt provided a pretty goods idea of what the finished program would look like.

(1) P.N.O.K. Primary Next of Kin (2005), dir. Carolyn MacDonald, wr. Karyn L. Beach, is a docudrama where soldiers in Army dress greens go to the homes of "next of kin" of those who have died in Iraq (or Afghanistan or other scenarios). The incident as presented is quite emotional, challenging the compassion skills of the soliders.

(2) Eye of the Beholder is a short based on the idea of a haunted painting. The painting can change, with the viewers fantasies. This concept is known from Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." No relation to the 1999 film om IMDB.

(3) Hope takes us on a journey with a man who, grieving over the loss of his wife, wants to kill himself on the highway.

(4) New Orleans: My Home, My Life, My Love contains many images of the city after Hurricane Katrina.

Update: Sept 12, 2007

I got a call from parties affiliated with the show, and there will be up-to-date information about this show available shortly. Take 3 has a press release PDF file here.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Survivor - Cook Islands

Network: CBS
Producer: Mike Burnett

The 2006 Survivor, filmed in the Polynesian Cook Islands (it's easy to find maps of them with search engines) has created controversy because the four teams are intentionally "segregated" by race. The four teams of five players each are Aitu (Hispanic), Puka (Asian), Hiki (African American) and Raro (Caucasian). The names of the tribes are four-letter sequences from the names of the individual islands on which they are assigned. Visually, the differences among the groups are not that striking, and that is probably intended.

Visually, the show has the look of a Robinson Crusoe movie, or perhaps even Zemecki's "Castaway". The teams are put into a relay race and puzzle type contest that resembles similar tasks on NBC's "Discovery Kids." The losing team has a tribal council and picks who is sent off the island, so we have the reality TV version of "rank and yank" discussed in David Callahan's book "The Cheating Culture." The losing team gets to pick one member from another team to go into exile for two days on a tiny exile island, with a clue to finding a valuable icon.

But what is most interesting is the emphasis in the contest on "tribal" values in a very physical world, a bit of a paradox for those of us used to living virtually in a cyber world. "Tribalism" places great emphasis on social hierarchy, leadership, and loyalty, which, however, must be fractured as eventually each tribe member must look out for #1. An interesting morality play, to be sure.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Kyle XY

Series ran 9 episodes in the summer of 2006 on ABC Family cable.

Who is Kyle XY? A teenage boy (played by Matt Dallas) wakes up nude (in his skivvies for TV) in a park in Seattle, with no memory of who he is. He scares away a snake. He winds up in a juvenile center where he quickly relearns basic bodily functions. He is taken in by a loving family (a therapist and her husband -- the Tragers, played by Bruce Thomas and Marguerite MacIntyre) as a "foster child." The family already has a 15 year old boy Josh (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) underachieving in school, and an older girl (April Matson. They name the boy Kyle, and he seems to be a bit of an idiot savant. But he learns very quickly, picking up conversational English in a couple of days. He seems tireless physically, unable to fall asleep until he sleeps in a bathtub. In school, he can already solve major differential equations, and can memorize all of history by going through an encyclopedia in one afternoon on his first day of high school. He is a good influence on Josh, who suddenly is doing well himself. (Although at one point Kyle takes a take-home algebra test for Josh, in an incident that explores right and wrong.)

The plot thickens as Kyle looks for clues to his past and as the family seems to be stalked. The ending may remind one of Aldous Huxley and "Brave New World" or of a technological future where heterosexuality has lost all of its meaning (George Gilder's prophesy).

Kyle becomes a lovable character. He narrates his story in good, if a bit formal English, and he tends to speak formally when his skills are developed. He does have some of the super strength of a "Clark Kent" in a few scenes, as when he defends Josh in a confrontation at high school.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The 4400

The 4400, produced by Paramount/Viacom, appeared as a science fiction mini-series on the USA Network first in 2004, and it just finished its third season in 2006.

The premise is that 4400 people have been abducted at various times since about the Korean War and suddenly returned near a Cascade mountain lake near Seattle, after what looks like a comet approaches the earth. The 4400 are put into quarantine, and many are found to have special gifts and abilities. Gradually we learn that they were sent back to change the future and prevent the earth from destroying itself with greed.

Jordan Collier is the main guru, and he has a bit of left-wing activism, with a bit of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" thrown in. He sets up the 4400 Center, and the government gradually grows more suspicious of The 4400. Since they are "different" they are perceived as a threat to "normal people" and the show takes on political overtones. Members of the government start secret projects to destroy them (with promycin, a liquid that looks like green kryptonite) or create new super beings. One of Jordan's friends is college-age Shawn Farrell (Patrick Fleuger, another Minnesota actor!) who was taken mistakenly when his cousin Kyle (Chad Faust) was intended. A girl Isabel, daughter of a soldier who was taken in the 50s, grows up immediately and tries to seduce Shawn into a relationship and marriage. We will learn than she was sent to destroy The 4400.

The show says a lot about our morality when we are faced with the unknown. The political issues in the show parallel those of the Patriot Act and Gitmo. Shawn has the gift of healing people and most of the time is a particularly kind-hearted, appealing character, rather like Clark in Smallville.

The 4400 has a bit of a hook, a fancy website with blogs and one can even get text messages on cell phones from the 4400 characters, as if they were real. Maybe they are. It has a fancy theme song, "a place to call our own."

I've dreamed what it is like to be abducted a couple of times, but always returned unchanged, with no new gifts.

The DVD's for Seasons 1 and 2 are available for rental from Netflix.com. Season 1 has a 2-disc series, and Season 2 is 4 discs. I rewatched the first few episodes of season 1 recently, and I would have liked to see a director's commentary. I hope that Paramount will add commentaries for later DVDs.

This series does provide an interesting paradigm for considering the balance between civil liberties for the majority, and draconian measures putatively needed to counter an unpredictable assymetrical threat. In these cases, government often becomes corrupt (as does the character played by Peter Cayote). It also deals with whether people who are "different" and have unusual abilities are are threat to others. What kind of "responsibilities" do such people have? Shawn Farrell's character strikes a good balance. But this show illustrates why I write about television series and movies in relation to political and social issues. In the current political climate, consideration of The 4400 can teach us a lot.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Just Legal

It's good to see that TheWB (or CW) brought back the remaining episodes of Just Legal in August 2006, at least for the Sunday afternoon "easyview."

This series features an 18-year-old prodigy Skip Ross (Jay Baruchel) who goes to work for a down-and-out middle aged lawyer Grant (Don Johnson), who rather reminds one of the seedy Florida lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) in "Body Heat" (1981). Here, the practice is in skateboard crazy Venuce, CA, and the cases are weird.

The series was canceled or stopped after only three episodes in the fall of 2005. It had been competing with Monday Night Football and had drawn a largely over 50 audience, to the disappointment of the "bean counters." Perhaps this was an embarassment to Jerry Brucheimer, albeit a minor one.

One episode has Skip having difficulty finding an apartment, because landlords don't like to rent to lawyers. Is this really true?

Friday, March 31, 2006

Smallville

TheWB, weekly (Wed, Thursday). 5 seasons

This hit series has been one of the most controversial sci-fi hybrid drama series ever. It was launched in 2001, right after the national tragedy, and ironically starts with the town of Smallville, Kansas (aka Lawrence, KS) being pummeled by a meteor shower. A loving farm couple, the Kents, adopt a two-year-old whom they find in the field, who grows up to be a teenager, names Clark, a kid with super physical abilities in strength and sensory perception. He will grow to be the comic book character Superman. But the character, played by Tom Welling, is much richer than the movie character. Most of all, he anguishes over the requirement to keep his alien origins – his identity and desting – secret. In a curious way, the show comes across as a political allegory challenging the “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality that drove public policies about gays (even though the character is very straight), especially in the military. A major plot thread concerns Clark’s desire to play football, and his father’s reluctance to allow him for fear that he will “cheat” in a desire to win or accidentally injure or kill another player with his powers. So “doing the right thing” becomes a major dramatic and moral premise of the show.

The show is filmed in British Columbia, with Vancouver as the backdrop for Metropolis, which would logically be Kansas City, MO/KS. The first four seasons cover Clark’s four years of high school, but seem to spend little time on school work. Presumably Clark has super intellectual abilities as well, as he seems to learn his academic subjects effortlessly. The Pilot in Season 1 is a masterpiece of television screen writing, carefully paced to deliver its punches, especially the scene where a (14-year-old) Clark rescues and resuscitates (with correct CPR) Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) from the river after Lex has crashed from a bridge, leading to the touching scene where father tells Clark about his alien origins, and then the scene where Clark is pilloried for not playing football and made into the homecoming scarecrow (a symbol for the show).

There are many other threads. Clark is disabled by green kyprtonite, and his personality changes when exposed to other kinds of kryptonite. He has a long term love with Lana (Kristin Kreuk), and Allison Mack plays Chloe, the supergirl reporter of the high school paper The Torch. Lex is supposed to be descending deeper into evil each season.

The third and fourth seasons tended to go for the gee-whiz stuff. This show has a real potential to migrate to independent film and focus on the really dramatic potential of the problems that it poses.


The following links on this blog don’t show on the left:

http://billstvreviews.blogspot.com/2006/03/beauty-and-geek.html

http://billstvreviews.blogspot.com/2006/03/passions.html

http://billstvreviews.blogspot.com/2006/03/days-of-our-lives.html

Jake 2.0

UPN, one half-season in 2003, weekly (Wednesdays)

This was a most promising series where a previously workmanlike NSA technician Jake (Christopher Gorham) gets “infected” by nanorobots in a lab accident at work and takes on superman like abilities. Maybe not quite like Clark Kent, but at least super strength, endurance, senses, and running speed. The government “drafts” him to be a spy, but Jake always insists on using his abilities to do the right thing, not to serve the political agendas of others. In one episode he rescues his misbehaving kid brother out of “loyalty to blood”.

UPN cancelled this show after about ten episodes without letting us see the entire season. It was aired on Wednesdays after Smallville but had to compete with “The West Wing.” This was a promising concept. Maybe the merger of UPN and WN could revive it.

Everwood

TheWB, four seasons, started 2002, weekly, usually Mondays.

This has been a star series. A surgeon Andy Brown (Treat Williams) in New York City with a precocious piano-prodigy son Ephram (Gregory Smith) and smart younger daughter Delia (Viveen Cardonne) moves to Everwood, Colorado after losing his wife in a car accident. The family settles in, with a major plot thread the first season over whether Dr. Brown can save the life a local car accident victim Colin without “playing God.” In the second season Ephram’s piano talent comes to fore as he plans to audition to Julliard, but unfortunately he gets involved with a college girl Madison, and a baby results. Dr. Brown tries to hide the baby from Ephram by sending Madison away – a plot idea known from English novels. Ephram’s resentment of his father’s controlling nature (and the unfortunate consequences for his own career) becomes a dominant theme in the series.

Here is a more detailed review from my doaskdotell.com website:

Then, of course, there is Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith) on the Everwood WB series (created by Greg Berlanti). Besides playing the Beethoven Appassionata (and later, The Tempest – that bell-like 3/8 Allegretto), he keeps his wayward dad in line and doesn’t let anyone treat him like a baby. Gregory Smith might just be the next Ed Norton. Read the essay “Ephram’s Fatal Flaw” at http://www.thewb.com/Shows/WithFormat/0,7930,132740,00.html. (Now obsolete; I'd like to see TheWB reinstate it.) During the three years of Everwood, Ephram obviously matures physiologically as well, a point built into the direction of his intimate scene with Amy in season 3. But Ephram has a skeleton in his closet: his first “experience” (which he smirks about in a school hallway after failing the first time with premature ejaculation) is with a twenty-year-old college student Madison (Sarah Lancaster)—and it will result in a hidden pregnancy, kept from him by a well-meaning father, Dr. Andy Brown, played by Treat Williams (who moved his family to Colorado to honor the wishes of his wife when she dies in a tragic auto accident in New York). This plot device is known from George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans) as in the novel Adam Bede. Ephram will resent his dad’s manipulations so much that he skips his hard-won Julliard audition and evaporates at the end of Season III and runs off to Europe. There is also an episode where Dr. Brown has to let a teenage patient Colin (Mike Erwin) die after a tragic auto accident in which Bright (Chris Pratt) son of competing Dr. Harry Abbott (Tom Amendes, who often directs with Kathy Bates) has driven recklessly but never been held fully accountable..

Bright is always manipulating others, and tries to give the sharp-tongued but sensitive Ephram pointers on how to “score.” There is a scene at the beginning the next episode after Ephram has “scored” with Madison where he walks through the high school hallways with a smile on his face because he is now “a man” (finally! At 16). In the final season he will build his relationship with Amy Abbott (Emily Van Camp), who has recovered miraculously from a junior year filled with drugs. This leads to a very sensitively filmed intimacy in a cabin where Amy finally decides that Ephram is really “grown up.” But then, of course, comes the catastrophe as Ephram blows his chance for a career at Julliard. (Had I written the final episode, I would have had him play the audition first – the violent Chopin G-minor ballade, as in The Pianist, and then let Madison tell him.)

The whole Ephram piano career thing reminds me of my own abandonment of piano as a possible career at the end of high school. The reasons are different (the Cold War and sputnik are part of it) but the complexity is about the same.

One other thing—Andy Brown does not charge for his services. This raises interesting problems – “the Andy Brown problem” of lowballing the competition!

An important point in all of the Ephram-Madison episode is also that sometimes teenage boys want to prove themselves with older women; this reinforces their self-concept. This kind of situation has led to prosecutions of the older partner in some cases, and it is dangerous.

Another good character is Dr. Jake Hartman (Scott Wolf), who has a great pediatric way with kids in some episodes despite never having married or parented.

The interplay between Eprham and Madison in Season 2 introduces another cute idea when Madison (well before their laison) calls Ephram an "old soul." Teenagers often feel that their world encompasses everything and has gone on since the beginning of time.

In Season 3 Ephram gives piano lessons, and one of his students is another teenager, Kyle (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the famous actor of the 1950s). Kyle is very independent and determined to make up his own mind about things, even trying to go to Julliard. In a spring episode "An Ounce of Prevention" Kyle resists Ephram's efforts to make Kyle more comfortable in dating situations, and Ephram begins to "suspect" that Kyle is gay. There is a confrontation scene where Kyle says literally that he doesn't want to identify himself as anything, and Ephram has to reassure him, that he can lead the "life you deserve," a great line.

Two weeks later there is a tremendous episode "The Land of Confusion." Ephram's piano teaching has grown into a class, and he stages an event for his students. At the same time, Andy arranges for Ephram to meet a concert pianist who could give him another shot at an audition. The pianist tells him that being at the top has caused him to neglect his family. Ephram decides to become a public school music teacher so that, among other things, he can have a real family life (with Amy, maybe).

This is all pretty uncanny for me. The family neglect thing rings true, as work v. family became a very serious issue even for a single person. But the idea of 18-year-old Ephram having a whole class blows me away. When I took piano lessons, the first music teacher (who would die suddenly of cancer in 1957 when I was in ninth grade; I would have a second teacher in north Arlington with a much more laid back style, and she would wind up losing her hearing) had Wednesday afternoon classes, in which we sometimes played for each other, but the main focus was teaching music literature. She would play records and taught us the rudiments of record care and high fidelity, 1950s style. Some of her records were large old 78s. Somehow the Thais Meditation by Jules Massenet, the brittle old 78, still plays in my mind. Later, I would take organ lessons from a Peabody (Baltimore, MD) student who was 18 (Ephram's age) at the time.

In substitute teaching I had some music assignments. A few times I encountered students (particularly vocal) capable of performing professionally, as good and mature as "the kids" in various films and series (TheWB and otherwise) today. One regular class had a tenth grader who actually wanted to start piano. But in middle school, discipline problems in a couple classes proved fatal. Being a music teacher in public school would be an enormous challenge; the teacher will have his or her performing choruses, madrigals, bands or orchestra (even jazz and guitar), and will encounter students with professional potential, but will also have classes with students with many learning problems. Teaching people to play or sing together in lower grades is a tremendous challenge and a pedagogical issue in itself. Future seasons of Everwood or a movie could do a lot with this situation.

I recommend (especially for film and acting students) listening to the commentaries on both the Smallville and Everwood DVD’s.

The O.C.

Orange County, weekly, Fox

Some people call this a “soap opera”, but it is pretty much in the manner of young adult dramas that have become popular. Peter Gallagher is Sandy Cohen, a developer in Newport, Orange County, California, right on the gold coast. Seth (Adam Brody) is his star high school son, a bit of a well-rounded geek who has authored a comic book that has movie potential. Sandy takes in a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), who, despite temptations from his gang past, obviously responds to a stable home environment and a de facto brother (that is, Seth) who can set a good if unconventional example; Ryan starts to live up to his potential, with stops along the way.

Let's see if Seth Cohen's oeuvre "Atomic County" gets him into Brown with his girl friend!

Summerland


"Summerland" was run on TheWB (now CWTV), weekly (usually Mondays) two series, in 2004 and 2005. It was created by Lori Loughlin and Stephen Tolkin. Spelling Television (from Aaron Spelling) was a major production company; it also produced "Seventh Heaven" and "Charmed."

This miniseries went two seasons and creates an interesting premise: A single professional woman Ava Gregory (Lori Loughlin), with a rewarding design career, takes on raising her sister’s three kids when the sister is killed in a tragic car accident. Family responsibility is not always voluntary. The kids move in with her in her house on the California coast, somewhere near Malibu. The oldest kid is Bradin Westerly (Jesse McCartney) takes up surfing and seems to have world-class competitive ability. Bradin’s growing up (and dealing with girls) becomes a major plot generator, as well as his communication with his aunt, who has her own boy friends. McCartney has since become a pop singer. Ava at one point falls in love with a middle school principal, who walks away from the wedding. Zac Efron plays super nice kid Cameron Bale, just moving into high school, but his episodes seem to have little with the plot. (Efron would later go on to do the "High School Musical" movies, as well as "Hairspray").

The shows started with a theme song that had a nice lilt, and showed a merged family on the sunny California beach, somewhere around Malibu or perhaps Santa Barbara and Goleta, coming together with a degree of psychological cohesion.

The idea of "involuntary family responsibility," where one winds up raising a sibling's kids while still unmarried, has been tried in the movies, as with "Raising Helen" or "Saving Sarah Cain".

I wonder how a movie or television series like this would go if the adoptive parent and adult sibling were gay. The character could be in a committed relationship (and bring up the gay marriage debate), or be single and bring up the gay adoption or singles adoption debate. "Family responsibility" can be something that pre-exists sexuality, a turnaround from the usual way of thinking about these things.

7th Heaven

Seventh Heaven, TheWB, weekly, Mondays (ironically when Mormons have "family home evening"), eleven seasons

This is Brenda Hampton’s series and it has run for eleven years, giving the chronicles of the life of the Camden family, headed by a minister Eric (Stephen Collins) (in Glen Oak – CA?) and his devoted stay-at-home mom wife (Catherine Hicks) and seven kids. The oldest is now a medical resident Matt (Barry Watson), but the most visible is probably Simon (David Gallagher), now in college. Simon went through the trauma at 17 of accidentally striking and killing a bicyclist with his car, but the cyclist, with drugs in his system, was at fault. Simon also made a family home video which made an amusing episode in 2003. This is a “Christian” show with somewhat sheltered Ozzie and Harriet like values. But the daughter Lucy (Beverly Mitchell), married to a policeman (Geroge Stults) and now with a daughter Savannah, has become a minister herself, and in one episode has the embarrassment of giving a long sermon in which everyone falls asleep. Tyler Hoechlin, now 18, plays Martin, a usually super-mature teenager, aspiring to be a baseball star with a dad in Iraq, and he lives with the Camdens as a border and is practically a family member. But he loses his cool over his dad, and in another series accidentally gets a college girl pregnant and does not want to take responsibility for the baby. Yet, Martin Brewer is still one of the most likeable young male characters in contemporary television, and it is easy to imagine that Hoechlin could have taken on a Clark Kent kind of role in the movies. One wonders if the show could have dealt more honestly with leading edge social issues that might challenges the beliefs of the families. There is a strong undercurrent of support for abstinence, and that sex is a privilege that only married people should enjoy.

One Tree Hill


TheWB, weekly, now five seasons.

This ("One Tree Hill") is Tollin-Robbins’s second venture into teen/young adult drama (the other is Smallville). The basic premise is the conflict and parallel growth of two half-brothers Nathan (James Lafferty) and Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) in a Tree Hill, North Carolina high school, especially on the basketball team, with the “evil” and self-serving father and other parental characters in the background. Each episode starts with a picture of a river bridge and the song “I don’t wanna be anything other than what I’ve been lately.” Both half brothers grow as characters considerably, and Lucas has to face the possibility of genetic heart disease. Lee Norris plays the nice guy student sportscaster. There is plenty of drama, including some school and domestic violence.

Update January 8, 2007

Season 5 started with a two hour "movie" on Tuesday, Jan. 8, something like what you might see at a Landmark theater (sort of like a Warner Independent Pictures release), though still in two "episodes". The actors, who are too "mature" to keep playing high school kids anyway, get the chance for time-lapse. Four years have elapsed. Lucas, with his congenital heart ailment, has become a writer, and has gotten his first novel "An Unkindess of Ravens" published and has a book singing party, but his agent is giving him a hard time because an author needs a future with more books. (Look at Stephen King.) It seems that Lucas has made other kids from Tree Hill recognizable characters in his novel (that can be a problem -- remember "Touching" -- but North Carolina is not California.) Nathan is in a wheel chair, slowly recovering but his basketball career shattered because of a dumb bar brawl. Lucas is also now the high school basketball coach. Chad Michael Murray now looks terrific as a grown man. In a critical scene, Lucas says "I am nothing," and his wife wonders why having a wife and son doesn't make him more than nothing.

Haley, as "Mrs. (Nathan) Scott" starts her true career as a high school English teacher, and immediately the lower-income students rebel, causing the class to fail as she tries to order them to the principal's office. She gets coaching, but discipline problems are serious for a teacher. They helped drive me out of substitute teaching. I had problems in a couple middle schools (they seem to need continuous, direct discipline), and few problems in high school, until one day I had an earth science class comprising mostly gang members. Security had to keep coming. I had not experienced what they had experienced and they acted like I had no right to be there.

Mrs. Scott tells the kids that the rest of their lives are being shaped right now. Good show. A permanent teacher with authority to grade can well say that. A sub will only be believed by kids who are mature enough to know what their own best interest is. I loved the AP and Honors classes.

The lyrics for the theme song (which did not air tonight) are here. Try singing them in karaoke.

This show appears to have gotten done for 2008 before the WGA strike. I was impressed with the pilot for this season. It was like a good indie film. It reproduced some circumstances close to my life. But, then again, I think the production company knows me.

The Apprentice

NBC, weekly, several series since 2004

The Donald Trump and producer Mike Burnet started this sensational reality series in early 2004, and now Trump has it in a fourth (if I count right) series. This is a thirteen-to-sixteen week job interview for a single job running one of Donald Trump’s
operating (usually real estate) companies, based on the rank-and-yank principle. Every week, there are two teams that compete; the losing team is called into The Boardroom (actually constructed for the show), and Trump (with two other executives) decides whom to let go. We all know his favorite phrase, “You’re Fired.”

Most of the tasks involve a team working together to sell something to the public. In almost all episodes, Trump works with another business in New York City or the nearby burbs to build a task. Sometimes the winner is defined by a numerical competition (who makes the most project); less often the task is to design a commercial, and executives from the client company pick the best commercial.

Some of the tasks have been mundane indeed. In fact, on the very first episode, Trump called everyone together in the New York Stock Exchange to announce that they would be selling lemonade. The commercials have involved some real filmmaking. It is interesting that executives generally want simple, visual, clear, non-verbose commercials. In a contest for Pepsi Cola, the losing team had designed a bottle with a map of the globe, and executives thought that this was a boring geography lesson.

The episodes show the contestants living together in one of Trump’s buildings. Typically there is a lot of politicking centering around the Boardroom, and there are a lot of catfights. Younger male contestants have often stayed out of these, and tended to last a long time in the competition as a result, even if they are not old enough to run a traditional company in a traditional way. The criticisms of the contestants do offer jobseekers some ideas as to what real-world employers may expect of them.

One series was “street smarts” (people without degrees) vs. “book smarts.” In season 1, one contestant, Troy McClain, went quite far, and Donald offered to pay for his college education. In one episode, Troy underwent the humiliation of having his legs waxed on television, “for the team.” (That task was about “negotiation.”) There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some persons who did not win the contest (or even people who applied but did not get onto the show) have been hired for some positions in the organization or even associated with the show.

Martha Stewart had one series of “The Apprentice” in the fall of 2005, and it seemed much weaker. She could not use the phrase “You’re Fired!” and instead just said “asked to leave.” She would handwrite a consolation letter to each contestant that was eliminated.

The Starlet

TheWB, weekly (one series in 2005)

In 2005 TheWB offered a single reality show series where a number of young women compete for a slot in the network’s hit One Tree Hell. Each week there would be a different acting challenge. The series also showed a glimpse of the acting world, with classes in how to evince “emotion.” One week the competition was a screen test for a scene in “Smallville.” Faye Dunaway was the lead running the thing, and the catch phrase for “firing” someone was “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Beauty and the Geek


TheWB weekly, two series starting in 2005

All of this is from the devious mind of Ashton Kutcher, who would like to become a producer and probably director as well as lovable comedy figure (“punked”). This reality series has had two sequences so far. Eight male geeks are paired up with eight “beauties” and put through a rank-and-yank elimination with tasks and then a quiz. Unfortunately the series tends to pander to gender and social stereotyping, but the geeks especially are quite likeable. There was particularly silly episode, inspired by the “man-o-lantern” scene from Universal’s “The Forty Year Old Virgin” where two of the geeks really “got it” in whole body makeovers.

Update: Oct. 18, 2007

The Beauty and the Geek, on Tuesday Oct. 16, 2007, did it again. Right off the bat the host promised complete “head to toe” makeovers of all the male geeks, and for at least one hapless geek he meant it. The wax job from “The 40 Year Old Virgin” on Steve Carell (which that actor helped to write – he did himself in) was repeated on “Josh” but it had been done on another BG episode on 2005. This time it was rather humiliating. I’m surprised that heterosexual women would want their men smooth, like them. The ritual in this episode is even more curious and gratuitous because when Josh appears after his makeover, he is wearing dress shirt and necktie. The 2005 episode had reinforced that idea. (It also happened to “Troy” on The Apprentice in the first season.)

But then Beauty and the Geek took a more constructive turn, having the beauties compete as substitute teachers (doing math – arithmetic), with real kids and a real principal.

In the past, the program has tried role reversal: the girls as geeks, the boys as beauties.

Passions

NBC, weekdays, 2 PM Eastern time

This soap (started in 2001) seems like a two’s complement of “Days of our Lives”. But the science fiction element is even stronger. The town is a New England coastal hamlet called Harmony, and there is a COM (“creepy old man”) Alastair Crane who runs things and whom everybody hates. There is a witch who pulls strings through her oracle, and she is even raising her little granddaughter to become a witch. The characters become pawns. Teresa has chased lawyer Ethan for four years. Ambulance driver Noah Bennett (a spectacular Dylan Fergus) tries to do the morally right thing (he saves Ethan) and gets into trouble with the fibbies. There is baby trading and swapping. And there are disasters, such as an earthquake leading to a tsunami; there a side trips to Mexico; there is even Bollywood.

Days of our Lives

Corday Productions, NBC, weekdays at 1 PM Eastern time

This famous soap opera with the wordmark “as sands of the hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives” has run since the 1960s, and traces the stories of a couple of families in the fictitious city of Salem, as they fall under the spell of an evil man “Stefano” and his honcho Tony DiMera, and the intrigues of government intelligence agencies.

But the mail hook of the show is the way it constantly gets all of the major characters in terrible trouble, constantly leading the viewer on to watch the next episode. A major issue is the way the characters lie to preserve blood family relationships. For example, when psychiatrist Marlena Evans (Deidrei Hall) is accused of a number of murders in 2004, her daughter Belle lies to her sweetheart Shawn to protect her mother and provide a false alibi. But as a result, over the next two years, her relationship with Shawn falls apart, and Shawn winds up marrying Mimi. Now Mimi has lied to cover up an abortion with her grad student boyfriend Rex (one of the nicest characters in the show) and loses Rex. In the mean time , Belle has married Philip, who lost a leg while in Iraq, and doesn’t realize that she had the baby by Shawn. This show has all of the intrigues of Victorian English novels.

In 2004 many of the characters were “abducted” and taken to a tropical paradise island replica of Salem set up by Stefano. (Marlena was taken out of a grave!) For a while, I thought that the idea was that the island was Purgatory, and that the show would set up a religious or supernatural explanation. But instead, it turned out to be an adaptation of Richard Connell’s 1920s story “The Most Dangerous Game” (read by high school students) and famous classic film.

There is also a major episode where lost illegitimate girl Chelsea hits a little boy with a car and her mother tries to cover it up. A number of the female characters in the show are schemers: Samantha (most of all, who actually impersonated a man Stan while Philip was in Iraq), Kate (Katrina maybe?), Bonnie. A number of younger adult male characters are quite likeable: Brady, Rex, Max, and most of all undercover guy Patrick who has seedy origins but who always does the right thing (he exposes Chelsea).

But still the underlying theme of this soap is, when do people have to tell little white lies (or big lies) to hold their families together? As Sami says, “all I wanted was to be happy and to have a family.” These are people for whom blood family is all they have to live for, and that is their problem.

Bill's television series reviews

Here I present some comments on a number of my favorite television series. I've picked series that I believe have some significance in shedding light on a number of important social and political issues or values of importance to me.

A related link is my main free browsing site at http://www.doaskdotell.com/movies