Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Golden Age of Sydication

WB and UPN are merging which will probably leave a lot of stations without programming. This may create a new market for syndication. It's worth looking back at the last time this happened.

For decades cities were limited by the FCC and the channel selector of the TV. Channels 2-13 had separate clicks on the main VHF dial. For channels above that, you set the main dial to UHF and tried to find the channel on a second dial. It was difficult and you needed a different antenna to get acceptable reception.

The VHF stations were dominated by the big three networks - ABC, CBS and NBC. UHF was usually a weak PBS station. The few independent stations showed reruns of old shows from the big three and British TV, talk shows, and inexpensive productions such as Solid Gold (top music countdown with scantily clad dancers).

A very few independent shows were produced such as Space 1999. Hour-long shows seldom lasted more than a season and never more than two seasons. The main exception was the Muppet Show.

In the 1980s, the FCC loosened up restrictions on how close stations could be to each other and how many stations a metropolitan area could have. This created a large number of independent stations.

The first wave of independents was signed up for the fledgling FOX network. FOX built up its programming a bit at a time starting with a show about a werewolf then expanding into Sunday night and adding more nights over a few years.

This left a lot of prime time hours to fill.

At the same time the success of the Star Trek movies convinced Paramont to bring the show back. Gene Rodenbury agreed but only if he was free of network restrictions. Star Trek the Next Generation was born as a syndicated show proving that an independent production could match the production values of network TV.

This was only the beginning. As FOX expanded its programming the FCC allowed a second wave of independent stations, all looking for original programming.

This is what I refer to as the golden age of syndication. Hours of new programming was produced each week. Most of it was fantasy/science fiction based. Costs were cut by using unknown actors, shooting on location instead of building sets, and by shooting in other countries. Still, the results were entertaining and sometime exceeded anything seen on network TV. I don't remember any unwatchable shows among them.

The very best were Star Trek and Babylon 5. They boasted production values and special effects comparable to feature films and intelligent writing. These were shows that made you think.

Other shows like Highlander (immortals who fought each other with swords) and Forever Night (a vampire detective) were entertaining action shows.

Then there was Hercules and Xena. Even though some of the plots were pretty serious, the shows were campy fun and very popular.

Then Paramont and Warner started their own networks, sucking up the independent stations. Without prime time slots to fill, stations were not able to pay as much for syndicated shows. At the same time cable stations started producing their own original content, often aimed at the same fantasy/sci-fi market.

The powerhouse syndicated shows ran down and ended. No new ones took their place. The age of syndication ended.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The New World

John Smith spends most of The New World wondering around with his mouth open as if he is trying to figure out what just happened. After seeing the movie I know just how he felt.

According to reports, director Terrence Malick works by shooting lots of improvised scenes, then decides on a plot during editing. That would explain a lot of the movie. It doesn't flow, it moves in fits and starts, sometimes disjointed. For example, a battle between the colonists and the Indians seems to start over three times with the colonists losing each time. We have no idea how the colonists survived. Occasional voice-overs inform us what is happening. In most cases the accompanying visuals are unrelated. For example, at the end we are told that Pocahontas has died. This is followed by a shot of an empty bed, trees, and Pocahontas splashing in a pool.

The real Smith was a shameless self-promoter. Colin Farrell's version is quiet and introspective. We are a half hour into the movie before he says anything (not counting voice-overs). Things just happen to him. He is told to lead an expedition to find Powhaten. He is captured and armed warriors appear with clubs raised. Pocahontas saves him and spends lots of time wandering through the wilderness with him. He returns to Jamestown and a couple of malcontents make him president. In his one act of assertiveness, he orders a well to be dug. When he declines to take Pocahontas prisoner he is unelected (Jamestown not only had secret ballots, they seem to have had secret elections). Later he is told that the King has ordered him to map New England and he is told to go fufill his ambition.

The focus shifts to Pocahontas who has been disowned and no longer has a name because she helped the English (strangely no one ever says "Pocahontas"). Smith left orders that she be told he died a couple of months after he left. She takes an English name and starts wearing dresses. John Rolf courts her and she has a child with him. (Very quickly - she manages to go from holding Rolf's hand to playing with a baby in one scene change.) Through it all she still mourns for Smith.

Rolf and Pocahontas are summoned to England where she meets Smith again and realizes that she loves Rolf. Then she dies.

The high point of the movie is the cinematography. The wilds of Virginia are shown in all their glory. Extra credit goes to the movie for actually filming near Jamestown. The costumes are good, except for Smith's grey shirt, and the sets satisfied Jamestown's chief archeologist.

At 2 1/2 hours, the movie could improved by drastic cuts. One friend commented that he had never seen a movie shot in real time before. Even at that, the movie is fifteen minutes shorter than what premiered in December. Another half hours of cuts, some tightening up of the plotline, and it might not be half-bad.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Countdown to 1980

A couple of interesting things on That 70s Show. One is that they are back in 1979. The credits have always included a license plate with a year sticker on it. Previous episodes this season have left the year sticker blank leading some to believe that the show already made it into the 1980s. The 79 sticker put that rumor to rest.

More interesting, Jackie mentioned that her TV show was interrupted by a news special on "some hostage crisis." The big hostage crisis, the kidnapping of the US embassy staff by Iranians, started Nov. 4, 1979.

Not that this matters much. Without the character of Eric and Kelso the show suck and will not be renewed. The only question is if the last episode will take place Dec. 31, 1979.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Eko & Charlie

A little Lost-blogging.

This week's episode was a masterful example of misdirection, almost as good as the first Locke episode. It appeared that the episode was about Mr. Eko. After all, the flashback was about him. He was in nearly every scene. It wasn't until the last shot that we realized that it was really a Charlie episode.

Major spoilers ahead.

The events as we see them are:

Claire tells Eko that Charlie must be religious because he carries a statue of the Virgin Mary with him everywhere. Eko breaks it open showing that it contains heroin.

Charlie is fishing and singing when Eko approaches him and demands that Charlie show him where the statue came from. Charlie tries to put it off but Eko is insistent.

Claire confronts Charlie about the heroin. Charlie says that he was just holding on to it to "feel safe", a common action among recovering addicts. To show his sincerity, he throws away the drugs.

At first Charlie tells a straight lie. He points to a broad tree and says that it is where he found the statue. Eko is not fooled.

Next Charlie says that he is lost. This is reasonable considering that he was led to the plane the first time. Eko makes him climb a tree to get his bearings. While Charlie is in the tree the monster appears as a cloud of smoke. Eko faces it down. Charlie tells him that
he spotted the plane and leads Eko to it.

While Eko is burning the plane we see Charlie pick up another drug-filed statue. Later, after Claire has thrown him out, we see him burying it. Is he getting rid of it out of shame? Nope, he's adding it to a stash.

Now that we know that he has a stash we can see what was actually happening.

Claire was wrong. Charlie wasn't carrying a statue around with him. He was transporting several statues from the plane to his cache.

Charlie was probably acting so happy and singing because he had taken a hit earlier.

When he tried to put Eko off, he meant to sneak back to the plane and gather as many statues as he could.

It was easy for him to throw away the drugs in front of Claire. He had more.

He lied about where he found the drugs and being lost in order to hide his source. Eko facing off the monster unnerved Charlie so much that he stopped playing games.

Claire was right to throw him out. A drug user cannot be trusted. Charlie was already lying to people.

We got all of that about Charlie. In contrast, everything we learned about Eko came from the flashback.

A few other thoughts:

We already knew of five people with violent background but Eko is the worst of them. Even Sayid feels remorse but we saw Eko slit peoples' throats without blinking. When he killed one of the Others, he took a 40 day vow of silence but showed no remorse. He does show love.

Does the monster attack based on fear? Locke once faced it but when he tried a second time it dragged him into a pit. Did he have a moment's fear?

The Apple II cannot start communications but it can respond to someone else. Probably it is acting as a dumb terminal.

When Jack saw the screen it was blank, even through Michael had been communicating with Walt. Did Michael simply hit the power switch while we weren't looking?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Spider-Man's Worst Moments

Spider-Man has had a long and generally good run but there have been some points that should be dropped into a black hole. Here are a some of them:

The death of Gwen Stacy. When Stan Lee left the strip and Gerry Conway took over it was felt that Peter and Gwen's relationship had stagnated. The solution - kill Gwen and replace her with a stagnant relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Shock value is not a substitute for good writing.

The clones. The issue after Gwen died, Conway killed off Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. Not long after that a skinny green character called the Jackal started trying to kill Spidey. This turned out to be Peter's only named college teacher, Professor Warren. Warren produced clones of Peter and Gwen. The Peter clone was killed and the Gwen clone left.

The death of the Hobgoblin. In the 1980s, Roger Stern decided to bring back some of the excitement of the Green Goblin. The Goblin appeared for years before we found out who he was. Stern had a plotline where someone found a stash of Goblin equipment and used it to become the Hobgoblin. Stern kept this new villain's identity a secret, even from other writers. He actually was thinking of a fashion designer Mary Jane was working for but later writers planted clues that the Hobgoblin was Ned Leeds. Then, Leeds turned up dead, killed during a German spy plot. They had to have an issue where a new Hobgoblin explained that he had assassinated Leeds for the costume. Much later Stern wrote a limited series wrapping up the plot.

The return of the clones. The presumed-dead spider-clone returned. Then a clone of the Jackal returned. Then hordes of clones appeared. Peter decided that he was the clone and retired. His replacement turned out to be the clone and Peter came back. Like a copy of a copy, the clone plotline just got worse.

Aunt May marrying Doc Ock. In the first Spider-Man annual, Peter's girl friend, Betty Brant, and Aunt May were captured by some of Spider-Man's enemies as bait. ay never quite figured out what was going on and was impressed with the nice, cultured Doc Ock. Gerry Conway expanded on this, first having Ock take a room as May's boarder then propose. It turned out that she had inherited a Canadian breeder-reactor that Ock wanted access to.

The death of Aunt May. Marv Wolfman invigorated the strip in the late 1970s but, as part of this revival, he killed Aunt May. I doubt that anyone bought it. It was an anti-climax when she reappeared, a prisoner of the man who had killed Uncle Ben.

The return of the Green Goblin. At the end of the clone plotline it turned out that Norman Osborn had not died. He had just gone to Europe. He also got a lot richer and more powerful than previously shown. This violated one of Stan Lee's basic rules about death - if you see a body then he's really dead. The premise was bad. The execution was bad. I stopped reading the strip.

The second death of Aunt May. Once again, it didn't take. Don't kill a character unless you mean it. This was part of the return-of-Osborn plotline. Notice how these bad plots sort of build on each other.

The death of Mary Jane. Somewhere in the return-of-Osborn plotline, Mary Jane decided that she couldn't take being married to a superhero. When Peter kept doing heroics she left him. Not long after Peter started talking about how she must be dead. Why? There was no body. The real reason was that editors decided that a single Spider-Man was more interesting than one who was married. After the first movie came out, they had to bring Mary Jane back.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Bad Year for Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder is mainly known for three movies - The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (plus two movies where he played second bananna to black stars - Blazing Saddles and the Silver Streak). Two of those movies were remade in 2005. In both cases the production values and expectations were much higher.

I just saw the new Producers last week and the original Willy Wonka last night which gives me some insights on Wilder's career.

Anyone who has seen much of Wilder knows that he is not a great actor. anyone who has seen The World's Greatest Lover knows that Wilder can be really awful.

Watching Willy Wonka I was noticed that the character was not really going anywhere. In the remake, Johnny Depp plays Willy as someone obcessed with making chocolate but who is afraid of people in general and children specifically. Wilder just plays that character as a Gene Wilder character.

I first saw The Producers after seeing Blazing Saddles and I was dissapointed. It seemed like it should have been funnier. It was like a Shakespearian commedy = Wilder and Zero Mostel were doing things that should have been funny but most of the laughs just weren't there. The remake fixes that. The plot has been revised a bit and musical numbers added. The acting and staging are still pretty close to the stage version which helps a lot. Some things will get a laugh on the stage but not on the screen. I saw one critic complain that they hadn't "calibrated the performances up" for the big screen but I disagree. That would have made the movie overblown instead of funny.

Both Johnny Depp and Mathew Broderick are real actors, able to play completely different characters. This just points up the problems in Gene Wilder's version even more.

Good thing no one has talked about remaking Young Frankenstein.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Kong vs Kong

How does the new Kong stack up against the original? Peter Jackson make a lot of choices when He made his remake. Some worked, some are questionable.

First an aside - comparisons between Kong and Lord of the Rings box office are dumb. Lord of the Rings was the first live-action adaptation of the 20th century's most popular novel. Kong is a movie from the 1930s that has been reshowed multiple times. It was remade in 1977 plus the Japanese gave the character a good going over in the 1960s. There was even a Kong cartoon show on Saturday morning. LoTR had a lot of pent-up demand. Any demand for Kong came from Jackson's treatment of LoTR. Jackson himself was fairly obscure prior to LoTR. Given all that, Kong has done pretty well but was unlikely to equal LoTR.

Notice that no one bothered to compare Rent with Chris Columbus's Harry Potter box office.

Back to Kong.

They could probably have cut an hour out of the remake and we would never notice. It would still be longer than the original with deeper characters. This could be the first director's cut DVD with less footage than the screen version (but I doubt it).

In the original, Kong was a giant ape. In the remake he is a giant gorilla. I liked the ape better. But using an unknown species of ape, they could give Kong what ever characteristics they wanted.

The modern Kong moves and acts like a gorilla.

It's a lot easier to sympathize with the ape version. He looks a bit more human. The scene of modern Kong shaking Ann while looking the other way must have been based on modern gorilla behavior but it reminds up how inhuman Kong is.

A book on the natural history of Skull Island shows a Kong who looks much more like the original. I'm betting that his look changed during production.

In the original we never find out what Kong does with his sacrifices. In the modern one we find that he plays with them until he gets tired of them then he drops them into a pit to die. No wonder the Fay Wray version screamed a lot.

In the original the two don't bond. Kong is still stripping Ann's clothing and sniffing it a few minutes before she escapes. She has good reason to be afraid. We aren't sure why Kong is so interested in her but he got her scent on the island.

In the remake we know that he liked her vaudeville act. We don't know why she bonds with him. Was it the shared sunset? The fact that he saved her from the T-rex pack? The original Kong saved Ann but it was probably more territorial than caring.

I could have done without the insect pit. It added nothing to the plotline and it went on too long.

The remake added some new characters but they died or vanished from the plot when Kong was captured. They could be cut an no one would notice.

Upping the fight from one T-rex to three was fine but then they made it a three-part fight - on top of the cliff, in the vines, and at the base of the cliff. This was excessive.

Why did the T-rexes want Ann so badly? They were snapping at her while she was in Kong's fist.

Ann trying to save Kong on the Empire State Building seemed like it was straight from the 1977 version. That is not a good thing.

In the original, Denham was a straight-shooter but things went bad. In the remake he was a walking disaster area.

The cast in the remake was really good.

Some movies look better in black and white. Kong looks better in color. Because of the rear projection used for the special effects the original was lots of shades of grey. The remake is gorgeous.