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