Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Inhumans and the Munsters

Someone left an anonymous comment that got me thinking:

The Addams Family TV show: 1964-66
The Munsters TV show: 1964-66
First appearence of the Inhumans: 1965.

Looking back at it, I don't think it was a coincidence at all. This sort of melding of popular culture with the Marvel Universe was something that Lee and Kirby (especially Jack Kirby) excelled at a few years later. The Inhumans began appearing in late 1965 (not counting Medusa who was introduced without an origin more than a year earlier). By 1968 and 1969, Stan was openly promoting the take-offs of pop culture in the FF. Two of the most memorable were the 1930s gangster plot (an entire planet of Skrulls were so taken with gangster movies that they redid their planet like one) and the Prisoner plot (Doom imprisoned the FF in a village much like the one in the classic TV series).

With this in mind, you can almost see the story conference. One of them (I'm going to guess Kirby) suggested that they do a take-off of a Munster standard where Marilyn, the normal-looking Munster, brings home a boyfriend who meets an array of monsters. In this case, the normal-looking one is Crystal, the only member of the Inhuman royal family who does not wear a mask or costume. She meets the Human Torch, mistakes him for an Inhuman, and takes him home to meet the family. Being the Marvel Universe, the family has hidden powers and wears masked costumes instead of being monsters. Things go as well as can be expected until Crystal introduces the Torch to her sister - Medusa.

This tied nicely into prior stories. They never explained where Medusa came from and there was some speculation that Medusa had escaped the Torch a few issues earlier because he was attracted to her. She was a bit old for the Torch but her younger sister...

I haven't looked it up yet but I think that there was even a reference to the Munsters in one of these issues.

The Torch was involved in a few 1960s situations. Back when he had his own strip, his girl friend, Dorris Evans, hated his powers. While dating a superhero might seem glamorous, their dates were constantly interrupted. Dorris wanted a regular boyfriend instead of one who burst into flame. This echoed TV shows of the time like Bewitched where mortal Darrin wanted his wife Samantha to stop using her supernatural powers and live like an ordinary housewife.

By the end of the story arch that introduced the Inhumans, Johnny and Crystal were deeply in love but were separated. The separated, anguished lovers was another 1960s staple (it happened constantly on Dark Shadows). While Reed and Sue managed to get married, most other superhero had some reason for not being able to tell his true love about his feelings.

Doomed Superhero Romances of the 1960s (off topic but a fun exercise)
Spider-Man/Betty Brant - hated violence after her brother's death
Iron Man/Pepper Potts - not fair to date with a heart condition
Daredevil/Karen White - not fair to ask someone to date a blind man
Cyclopes/Marvel Girl - not fair to ask someone to date a man whose eyes can destroy buildings
Hulk/Betty Ross - do I have to elaborate?
Thor/Jane Foster - romance forbidden by Odin
Human Torch/Crystal - Crystal imprisoned in a sphere of negative energy
Silver Surfer/Shala-Bal - separated by Galactus

And a few DC late-entries:
Metamorpho/Sapphire Stagg - not fair to ask her to date a freak
Dead Man/Lorna Hill - he was dead

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Return of Futurama

In the late 1990s, Fox approached Simpsons creator, Matt Groening about doing a follow-up series to be shown following the Simpsons. Taking his cue from the approaching year 2000, Groening set the show a thousand years in the future and gave it a retro-feel. Even the name, Futurama, somes from the "rama" suffix that was popular in the 1960s (my high school's marching band contest was a Band-o-rama).

Almost as soon as the show started, Fox began playing with the schedule. The show was moved multiple times. Even dedicated fans had to pay close attention to find it. This was made worse when Fox moved it to 7:00 Sunday. This spot was frequently preempted by football games. In fact, the show was preempted so often that Fox used unaired episodes from the third season to create a fourth season. Even though the show's ratings were fairly good and it often won its time slot, Fox canceled it.

But things didn't end there. The Cartoon Network picked it up as part of their Adult Swim, showing it at 11:00 or 11:30 (or sometimes, both). It also came out on DVD. Given a consistent time slot, the show did quite well. Comedy Central picked it up and commissioned a set of four straight-to-DVD movies. These were designed so that they could be cut into four half-hour episodes, each, essentially giving the show a fifth, 16-episode season. The response to these justified new episodes.

I admit that I was only luke-warm to the show when it started but it grew on me. After seeing all of the episodes multiple times in syndication, I think that the first season was the weakest and it grew stronger with each season. Most of the best episodes were in the final season and the last episode, where Fry writes an opera after exchanging his hands with the Robot Devil's, is especially strong.

The DVDs varied in quality. The first one, Bender's Big Score, was the best, but also had the most complicated plotline. The third one, Bender's Game, was also enjoyable. The second one, The Beast With a Billion Backs and the final one, Into the Green, didn't really merit two-hour status.

The new season has 26 episodes. The first two showed last night and showed that you can go home again. The style and tone of the show is unchanged from its years on Fox and the quality matches the fourth season.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cartoons to Live-Action

Someone commented on cartoons being made into live-action. That got me to thinking about this genre. This is a mushy group. I'm going to include characters from syndicated comic strips, non-realistic comic book characters, and animated characters. The main criteria is that they are not presented in a realistic manner in their original form but were done as live-action, anyway.

This seems like a stupid idea but it can work. The Addams family began as single-panel cartoons. They worked because of the magnificent job that the creators of the TV show did in fleshing out the characters.

There was a popular series of movies based on Blondie in the 1930s and 40s. IMDB lists 26 of these.

Lil Abner was made as a life-action movie twice in 1940 and 1959. I've only seen the 1959 version but it was true to the comic strip and a critical success. It also holds up well. Much of the political commentary seems as relevant now as it did 51 years ago.

Dick Tracy also made the jump to live action and made a lot of money. It played up its comic strip roots with stylized sets and costumes.

I'm going to skip Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the Phantom as too realistic for this genre.

The live-action Popeye suffered from several bad choices. One was to adapt the comic strip which no one remembered rather than the cartoons. The pacing was uneven. Most of the movie was very slow with half the plot taking place in the last fifteen minutes (I discovered that this is a much better movie if you skip the rest).

Some movies don't totally make the leap to live-action. Scooby Doo work pretty well because most of the elements of the cartoon were realistic. The main non-realistic part, the dog, continued to be animated. This approach has been used with kids movies like Alvin, Garfield, and Marmaduke. Adults should avoid these.

Jay Ward cartoons translate poorly to live action. Rocky and Bullwinkle was a mistake. George of the Jungle was better than it should have been, mainly because of Brendan Frasier's ability to play goofy roles.

The live action Flintstones was successful enough to warrant a sequel, but not successful enough to pay the original stars to come back. I skipped the movies so I can't comment on them.

Then there are the star vehicles. Richie Rich and Mr. Mcgoo are the two worst offenders. Mcgoo, was an especially puzzling choice since the title character is supposed to be short, bald, and half blind. None of those made the transition to the movie.

All of this reflects Hollywood's laziness in creating new characters and its belief that a familiar name is better than a good movie.

Friday, June 11, 2010

TV to Movie

When I was growing up a surprising number of TV shows were based on movies. Many of them were successful and ran for several years but, with the exception of M.A.S.H., none of them were memorable. Things did not go the other way - TV shows did not become movies.

There were minor exceptions to this. Some TV shows would make a theatrical version - basically an extended episode shot during production of the TV show with the regular cast. These were shot in color and had a slightly higher budget than a regular episode but otherwise were indistinguishable. Examples include the 1960s Batman movie and ones featuring the Munsters and McHale's Navy.

As far as I know, Star Trek was the first TV show to make the jump to the big screen after it had been canceled. It is also a special case for reasons I will get into later.

I'm going to sub-divide the TV-to-movies genre a few different ways. First, there are the movies made with the original cast. These have generally been successful, either artistically or financially. This includes Star Trek, The Simpsons, Firefly/Serenity, Sex in the City, and the X-Files.

The other divide is movies with entirely new casts. These can be further divided into dramas and comedies. I said that Star Trek is a special case - with the recent reboot, it now qualifies as both original cast and new cast.

The dramas have been fairly successful. I am including lighter shows like Maverick and the Wild Wild West in this (WWW made a lot of money, even if I don't want to see it ever again). Mission Impossible is probably the top money-maker in this class. Some of the early efforts like the Fugitive show that it is possible to get critical acclaim in a TV-to-movie.

There have also been a lot of bombs. Comedies usually translate poorly. The Brady Bunch is the only one I can think of off-hand that made enough money to get a sequel. Others like McHale's Navy, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Car 54 Where Are You sank fast, leaving a stink behind. Even a first-rate cast like Bewitched had couldn't save it from being a bad movie.

There is one exception to this - the Addams Family. Both movies were very good and quite profitable. The question is, do they count? I am not counting other media that was adapted to TV before being made into a movie (Spider-Man). The Addams Family was a series of cartoons first and some of the humor in the movies came directly from these. On the other hand, the cartoon characters were undefined. They didn't even have names. This came from the TV show.

I think that the lesson here is that characters and situations that can fill an hour-long TV show can be expanded to fill a feature-length movie but half-hour situation comedies rely of short doses and established characters. These are much harder to flesh out.

A further lesson is that SNL sketches usually strain to fill ten minutes. Trying to expand most of these to feature-length is an exercise in futility.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Looking back at Lost

We've had a couple of weeks for things to settle after the Lost finale episode. Looking back at it, we can see that each season had a general theme:

Season One - Where are we?
Season Two - Pushing Buttons
Season Three - Meet the Others
Season Four - The Freighter
Season Five - Return to the island
Season Six - Everyone dies

When you consider the show by season instead of by episode then season six represents a clear break with the rest of the show. Up until then they held out the possibility of a scientific explanation for everything. Granted their science didn't meet high school levels, but at least they pretended that there was some science behind the show. Magnetism was given a lot of the credit, especially for healing people and time travel. Even the smoke monster could be repealed through science (sonic towers).

The final season abandoned almost all pretense to science. Jacob and his mother explained the island in mystical terms which all turned out to be true. They didn't even try to explain how a stone plug in a pool of water caused the glow or how manipulating the light and water could cause the island to shift in time and space.

Exposure to extreme electro-magnetic radiation caused Desmond to become aware of the sideways time but this turned out to be some version of an afterlife.

The sideways time was the biggest cheat of the show. The implication was that it was a parallel world created by detonating an explosive in the pool of magnetism that the hatch was built over. At the very end we found out that it was really some sort of consensual afterlife. The producers had promised that the island was not an afterlife. Having non-island time turn out to be an afterlife was a cheap trick.

The show ended in a fit of symmetry. It began with Jack waking up in the bamboo grove then seeing the dog and the shoe suspended from a tree. As he died, Jack passed the shoe and the dog lay beside him as he died.

Possibly the biggest disappointment in the show is the idea that a stone plug in a glowing pool is so important. This raises too many questions about who built the pool and the plug in the first place.

The producers say that the show was never about the plot. It was about the people. They were all "lost" when they arrived and it is true, the whole cast had been nothing but losers in the outside world. Locke tried to point this out at the end of the third season - they had nothing to return to. Jack didn't listen, but then Jack was always wrong.