Thursday, March 10, 2011

TV Shows That Survived Cast Overhauls

The quality of pop culture writing on the interwebs is generally poor. Some sites, notably the Onion AV Club, Slate, and the Atlantic, churn out some really great stuff on a consistent basis. But others are seemingly obsessed with making lists- so obsessed that the lists usually turn out to be pure and utter crap.

This list ( really caught my eye because it showed a shocking lack of critical analysis, and really just seemed designed to get some site traffic in the wake of the current Charlie Sheen debacle. I think the point the writer is trying to make is that many television shows have survived major cast changes, but the list is so scattershot and so devoid of anything approaching intelligent analysis that it falls flat on its face.

Look at some of these awful choices:

22. Singled Out- A game show on the MTV of yesteryear when they still played music videos. Does replacing one secondary host (Jenny McCarthy) with another (Carmen Electra) after one season and producing another season really count as success? We're not talking about a show that was A) Amazingly popular (with or without McCarthy) or B) Really relied on the wit and charm of its host.

20. Blue's Clues- A show for kids who are too young to change the channel. I really don't find the fact that parents continued to plop junior down in front of this show even after the host changed to really be that meaningful. (Especially if you're comparing this to a primetime sitcom)

17. Superboy- I'm a big nerd, and even I didn't realize they changed Superboy between season one and season two. You know why? Because this show was on for all of two seconds, and no one liked it. Sure it "survived" after a cast change, but "survive" is being used extremely loosely.

16. Talk Soup- This one's actually the opposite of what they're trying to prove. Talk Soup, the progenitor of The Soup, died for all intents and purposes after John Henson left. I remember watching through the dark times that were the Hal Sparks and Aisha Tyler seasons. The show dropped off the map, and was shelved for a really long time before being heavily revamped by Joel McHale and company. This show is more proof that a show won't survive a cast change based on it's own popularity alone, rather than proof that shows can successfully survive cast changes.

15. The Price Is Right - I'm skeptical of this mostly because I find Drew Carrey to be a fat soulless turd of a human being with the charm of a pebble (and not a shiny pebble either). Are there people who watch the current version of Price is Right and don't long for the days of Bob Barker? This seems more like a show that survives based on inertia and a complete lack of competition, rather than because Drew Carrey has successfully replaced Bob Barker.

13. Sliders - Um didn't this show get cancelled almost immediately after its first major cast change? Sure, it got picked up by the Sci-Fi channel and died a miserable miserable death after a few years that no one who lived above ground watched, but I wouldn't put this show on a list of shows that "survived" cast changes.

5. Star Trek- This one is a personal pet peeve. I hate nerds who feel the need to point out useless bits of common knowledge trivia in an attempt to seem smart/hip/cool. Yes, Shatner wasn't the Captain of the Enterprise in the series' pilot. No one cares. Cast changeovers from the pilot episode to actual series happen all the time. I remember watching a version of the Buffy pilot at comic-con one year where Charisma Carpenter was Buffy and Sarah Michelle Gellar was Cordelia. It's irrelevant, and certainly doesn't count as an actual cast change. The fact that Shatner was the main character from the actual first episode all the way until the end of the series makes this one a completely meaningless entry.

TV shows can and do survive cast changeovers, and the list has a couple of strong entries that prove that point. (Most notably E.R., Charlie's Angles, and Law and Order) But rather than really hit the nail on the head of why these changes worked, the list is too concerned with making a list for the sake of making a list.

I long for the days when blogging wasn't considered a legitimate form of journalism. It's just something cranky people like me do when they're bored at their desk.

P.S. The reason those shows survived cast changes is simple. It's because the cast didn't matter in the first place. Take the ultimate example Law and Order. The characters on the show aren't characters. They have no personality traits beyond, "gruff police officer" or "smart prosecutor." In fact, the few episodes that have tried to make the characters seem like actual people are notorious as some of the worst of the series. (Need I even mention, "Are you firing me because I'm a lesbian?") They have no motivations, no back-stories, or anything else that makes them different from interchangeable parts in a greater machine.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

This is What's Wrong With The Comics Industry

Dark Horse announced that they are going to start making comics of the critically acclaimed Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon.

This is what's wrong with the comics industry. Who on earth is the audience for this comic? I'm sure whoever pitched this made it sound great. "We'll take one of the most popular kids shows ever and make it into a comic book. Surely the little rascals will snap it up in droves." But is there any evidence to prove that's the case? It assumes kids: a) knowing about the comic, b) caring to read an adaptation of a story they've already watched, and c) convincing their parents that the comic is a worthwhile investment.

A) won't happen because this comic, like so many before it, will be solely talked about on comic book websites which are predominantly read by people like me- people who are not kids and are too old to be this comic's target audience. B) won't happen because how often does anyone ever want to read the book adaptation of a movie/tv show/video game/etc? Sure, these adaptations sell a few copies based on the name brand recognition, but I can probably count the number of people I know who read the novelization of the last Iron Man movie on a single finger. C) won't happen because comics are expensive and hard to find. While your average Borders may carry a few, kids would also have to convince their folks to spend $3 on a slim 22 page floppy that is part 1 of whatever.

So who's the target audience for the Avatar comic? There isn't one. This comic will almost certainly come out as a 6 part mini-series, not sell well, and never be heard from ever again.

The Avatar comic is representative of the largest problem facing the comic book industry- oversaturation caused by a complete lack of awareness of who their target audience is. One need look no further than what is currently going on with both Thor and Captain America. In anticipation of the movies coming out next year, Marvel is in the process of launching a seemingly infinite number of series, mini-series, and one-shots featuring these characters, with the though being that by the time the movie comes out there will be numerous books for movie goers who are inspired to read the comics to seek out. (I won't even bother going into how ridiculous this idea is).

I'm going to pick on Thor because he's my favorite character, but you could insert a near infinite number of characters into the following conversation and it would play out the same.

So imagine that some random movie goer comes out of the Thor movie really amped up and desperate to plunk down some cash for a Thor comic book, which do you tell him to read? Thor? Mighty Thor? Ultimate Thor? Astonishing Thor? Thor For Asgard? Or one of the other half a dozen or so related books coming out each month (ranging all the way from Loki to the Warrior's Three)?

For a relatively long time (in comic terms at least) there was no target audience for a Thor comic book at all. Thor was killed in spectacular fashion in 2004 and actually stayed dead until 2008. There were few, if any, Thor comics published during that time. Prior to that there had been a single Thor comic that didn't sell spectacularly well. After putting out nearly a hundred issues it became clear that there was, at least at that point, not a very large target audience for Thor, and the publisher rightfully responded in kind by cancelling the book.

Now with a movie coming out, the decision has been made to print as many Thor comics as possible without any thought as to who the target audience for these comics is or memory of the dark days of not too long ago where Marvel couldn't pay people to read Thor comics. The basic idea of supply and demand is being completely bypassed at the expense of both quality and readership. While in an economically perfect world Marvel would publish a single Thor comic, and then perhaps publish a second when demand became apparent for it, and maybe even a third should demand rise more (as happened when the original Tim Burton Batman movie came out over two decades ago), here Marvel is not responding to any kind of demand when they're publishing all these Thor comics. They're not addressing a particular customer segment who wishes there was a certain kind of Thor comic not already on the market- instead they're simply taking advantage of idiot fanboys who can't miss an issue and an ordering system that ridiculously does not allow retailers to return stock.

This has two obvious effects. First, quality goes down. The more books you publish, the more talent you need In any industry, there are only a select handful of people who are able to perform at the highest level, whether that's pitchers who can throw 100mph fastballs or comic book artists who draw beautiful 22 page books every month. Even these elite people are not machines, and their consistency cannot be relied upon 100%. It should seem obvious then that at some point if you continue to publish more and more comics, you're going to run out of top level talent and/or you're top level talent will be more likely to misfire. At some point you're going to have to bring some people "up from the minors" who aren't quite ready and/or suffer through the slumps of your top tier talent.

The second effect is a loss in readership. The reason for the loss in readership is two fold. First, readers don't like the aforementioned dip in quality described above and will stop reading titles as a result. Second, too many comics coming out each month is a fundamentally bad thing. New readers may get scared off by the sheer number of choices. Old readers (myself included) become annoyed at needing to buy an ever increasing number of books to keep up with the goings on of their favorite character. Annoyed and scared customers are the right market for Hazmat suits, not comic books. If an industry had to default to either making me wish there were more Thor comic books or making me wish there were less, wouldn't reason dictate that you should err on the side of too few? Sure, there are short term gains to be made from pinching every penny out of a hot character, but this is surely not a viable long term business model.

Listen- it's there business to do with as they please. But they're clearly running it into the ground. We need an Avatar comic about as much as we need another Thor comic. The best way to sum this all up is to provide a bit of perspective. Prior to the first Tim Burton movie, there were only 2 Batman comic books published each month, now there are almost 30. As recently as 10 years ago, there was only a single regularly published Avengers book, now there are at least 5. Last month there were over a dozen Thor comics published. Deadpool, a character who most non-comic book readers have probably never even heard of, has 4 monthly comic books being published along with several other mini-series. At one point it seemed like the Quesada regime got it. When they first took over Marvel, they notoriously cancelled tons of books and demanded that each book they published needed to have a distinct purpose and identity. Years later, this mentality is gone.

The solution is simple. Comic book companies need to start from scratch. Focus on putting one Thor comic book of the highest quality out each month. (Save for Ultimate Thor, I'm not sure there even is one at the moment). From there, when demand gets strong enough come out with a second one. Or if there is a particular segment of the market that is going unfulfilled, create a Thor comic book that can respond accordingly.


I've been ruminating a bit on this and realized that there are great examples of the comic book industry finding a target audience for a book before publishing it and actually meeting with great success.

For some time, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics floundered due to oversaturation and a lack of direction. How many people really wanted to read a side story about Drusilla? (Especially one that read more like fan fiction than an actual stand alone work). So Dark Horse cancelled all of the Buffy books, let them rest for a bit, and then relaunched with a book there actually was demand for- Buffy Season 8. While I think sales and enthusiasm has waned a bit for the series as its gone on, when it was first published it was big news. (My non-comic book reading Dad who loved the show even went out and bought a few issues). This was a great example of finding an actual target audience, people who liked Buffy and wanted to see what happened next to the Scoobies, and making a product that specifically catered to that target audience in a way no other book on the stands does.

The same can't be said for the glut of Thor books currently on the market. There are plenty of books where Thor hits things with his hammer. Even if there weren't Thor comics, there are plenty of comics where other mythological characters hit things. Comic companies need to work harder to figure out what sets each individual book apart and then playing to that strength, and there are tons of ways to do it- even with characters like Thor.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gilligan's Island as the Skipper's Fantasy

So is it just me or is Gilligan's Island really just the fantasy of the Skipper?

Gilligan's Island tells the familiar tale of a group of unlikely castaways stranded on a deserted island. The ship's captain ("the Skipper"), his first mate, a movie star, a millionaire, the millionaire's wife, a professor of an unnamed discipline, and some random woman named Mary Ann. The castaways have numerous adventures on the island, highlighted by frequent hijinks.

While the viewer is meant to take the story as a simplistic comedy, upon deeper inspection the story begins to unravel and it becomes clear that all of the characters and set pieces are simply the hallucinations and fantasies of the Skipper.

Some may ask, "Why the Skipper?" The Skipper is the only character on the show, save Gilligan, who's presence on the island actually makes sense. Why would any of the other characters have decided to take a "3 Hour Tour" on the Skipper's crappy little fishing boat? What is far more likely than all of these random folks deciding to hop aboard the S.S. Minnow is that they are figments of the Skipper's imagination designed to counter his raging inferiority complex.

The Skipper is a troubled angry little man. Even in the show, which is merely his hallucination, he is prone to childlike temper tantrums. He is an older single man who is out of shape and has to rent out his fishing boat for tours. His best years are clearly behind him, and he has amazingly little to show for it except a crappy boat and a stupid hat. He's an almost tragic figure and the ideal candidate to have a massive inferiority complex.

One day, perhaps in a drunken rage, he crashes his boat onto a deserted island. He then proceeds to imagine a group of unlikely companions. In his mind, these rich, famous, and intelligent people likely came aboard his stalwart vessel because he was the world's greatest sea captain. Once the group has crash landed onto the island, they come to rely on him and look up to him as the leader of their faux community. For a person with an inferiority complex, this sudden influx of power and respect, especially from such well to do members of society, would be a great boon.

The presence of Gilligan makes sense in this context as well. Gilligan is the Skipper's imaginary foil, designed to make the Skipper look even better in comparison. Every time Gilligan bumbles, the Skipper can swoop in and save the day, thus further proving his superiority to the other imaginary castaways.

The series' ending also makes sense in this context. In show's last episode, the castaways are rescued, but end up returning to the island after discovering they preferred island life to life back in the real world. This ending makes no sense for characters like the millionaire and his wife, who went from a life of great leisure to eating nothing but coconuts and relying on a bicycle made out of bamboo for power. But it does make sense if the Skipper is the only actual character. Upon returning to the mainland, the Skipper is thrust back into the harsh reality of being an outsider and a loser. This is a stark contrast to the "life" he had built for himself on the island where he was a confident and desirable leader of a community. The Skipper heads back to the island, so he can continue to live in his perfect fantasy world, rather than continue a life he was unable to deal with in the real world.

Or I could be reading entirely too much into that...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Superman Earth One Review

DC's latest attempt at "modernizing" the Superman mythos has sold out at most retail outlets, and has inspired numerous reviews that all share one common flaw. While they all recognize that the book is generally not very good, they all miss the book's largest flaw- the narrative's central emotional conflict is handled terribly and resolved in an anti-climactic way that only further exacerbates the problems with the false emotional conflict.

Superman Earth One tells the story of Clark Kent come way of a Twilight novel. He's a young hard body who is terribly unhappy. You see, Clark has all these powers, but he can't figure out what he wants to do with them. In an interesting twist to the Superman mythos and one of the best scenes of the book, he tries his hand at numerous professions, ranging from professorial athlete to research scientist. Clark just wants to fit in, something he has never been able to do because of his powers. (Query if this is a tacit removal of Clark's time at Smallville High School from the new "modern" Superman origin.) But, he's under massive pressure from his parents to use his powers to become a superhero.

The pressure being exerted by the elder Kent's creates the false emotional conflict that permeates through the rest of the book. Why on earth do they want their child to be a superhero? (Going as far as making him a costume and giving him stern lectures on why he should never wear a mask.) The Kent's insistence that this is the most noble and best way for Clark to use his powers comes off as strange, and really makes little sense in a world where cape wearing vigilantes do not exist. Surely there are numerous ways Clark could use his powers for the betterment of mankind that don't involve him wearing spandex and punching bad guys. At one point in the book he shows a great knack for science by solving an equation that allowed researchers to create cold fusion. Wouldn't using his powers in this way help more people and be far more noble? The foundation of the central emotional conflict of the book, whether Clark is going to "take the hard route" and become a superhero or "take the easy way out" and use his powers in other ways, is just nonsensical. It's based on the false premise that somehow superheroics are better/more noble/more helpful to the world then any number of other imaginable uses of Clark's powers.

As emotionally conflicted characters are wont to do in modern teenage dramas, the reader knows about this conflict because Clark whines about it. It's not hard to imagine that by the book's end, the constant whining about how hard it is to have super powers has made Clark thoroughly unlikeable.

So we have an unlikeable protagonist suffering a false emotional conflict, what could the writer do to make things worse? Have the conflict solved almost entirely through forces beyond the heroes control. Clark ultimately makes the decision to don the cape when an alien armada threatens to literally blow up the planet Earth. Clark of course decides to fight off the alien menace, and subsequently decides to become a superhero. But is this a satisfying resolution to the book's emotional conflict? No, not at all. It only serves to make Clark a more unlikeable character. What else was he going to do when placed in the situation where only he could stop the planet from blowing up? There's no real choice. Death or superheroics? I guess I'll take a set of spandex please.

By removing choice from the resolution of Clark's emotional conflict, the book strips away the facet that makes Superman an interesting and enduring figure in American fiction. Superman works as an enduring character in American fiction because he represents the mythology that people are inherently good. When given the powers of a god, Superman uses them only to better the world around him. He makes the choice to do so, even though it would be easier and more personally satisfying to use his powers in other ways. It's the choice between altruism and selfishness, not the choice of using his powers to be a superhero or using his powers to follow some other career path, that make him an interesting and meaningful character.

Superman Earth One essentially misses the point of what makes Superman so super by forcing Clark to become a superhero. If he hasn't made the choice to use his powers to help the world around him, then he really hasn't developed as a character past the unlikeable whiny emo kid from the beginning of the book. At the end of the book he's just an unlikeable whiny emo kid in a cape, not a young man coming into his own and making hard decisions about his path in life.

The false emotional conflict and its poorly handled resolution are the actual problems with Superman Earth One. That is not to say that the other numerous criticisms that have been leveled against the book are wrong. The pacing is off and Shane Davis' art has never looked worse, but these problems pale in comparison to the major substantive storytelling problems.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Jetsons and The Flintstones as an Argument in Favor of Gross Income Inequality

So I may be reading too much into this, but aren't the Jetsons and the Flintstones a giant argument in favor of gross income inequality?

The Jetsons and the Flintstones are essentially the same show, each involving a family with contemporary culture, values, and problems, one taking place in a futuristic setting and the other in a prehistoric one. As the show's were produced by the same company they were able to crossover in a 1970's made for TV movie. When the two families encounter one another they find that they share a common language, morphology, and culture. They have similar phraseology, are able to fit into each other's clothing, and even listen to similar music. An average viewer might reasonably believe that this means that the Flintstones are living in the past and the Jetsons in the future, but wouldn't the striking number of similarities instead indicate that the two families are, in fact, living in the same time period? What if instead of a time machine, the families were instead just using some kind of teleportation device that was transporting them from the Earth's surface to the Jetsons home high above the sky? What if the Flintstones are part of an almost slave labor sub-class who is forced to live in substandard conditions to support the frivolous lifestyle of the upper class living in the sky above them?

So many quirks of both shows begin to make sense under this explanation. For example, The Jetsons offers the viewer no explanation as to why "everyone" has chosen to live in apartment buildings in the sky, and the viewer never sees what is going on under the cloud cover below the family's apartment building. (A passing reference in the Jetsons movie seems to indicate that this is due to pollution, as the buildings are shown rising above a thick layer of smog. This may help explain the "prehistoric" setting of the Flintstones, which is a world ravaged by the pollution created by the upper class living in the sky.)

This explanation also explains where the material to make Sprockets comes from. How would a society who lives entirely in the sky mine the minerals necessary to make sprockets? The explanation is quite simple. The minerals are coming from the Earth's surface, where Fred Flintstone tirelessly mines day after day after day.

But what is subversive about the Flintstones is that, even though they are clearly the exploited underclass being taken advantage of by a cruel upper class, they are a generally happy people. They are amazingly poor and unable to afford the many luxuries the upper class living in the sky has, like robot maids or flying cars, and yet they never wallow in self pity about their economic situation. Instead, the show displays them thriving and enjoying their station in life, as if they were completely content being members of the poorest working class. To them, the gross income inequality present in the world, where some live in futuristic splendor while others literally sleep on rocks, really doesn't seem like a big deal. Sure, they may not enjoy as high of a quality of living and their education system is clearly lacking (as is evidenced by Fred and Barney's numerous idiotic schemes), but the show brushes all of these issues under the rug, as if to say, "look being poor isn't so bad."

Further supporting the animators argument that gross income inequality isn't really such a big deal, they frequently show that life in the upper class isn't all it's cracked up to be. While Fred Flintstone is generally jolly, George Jetson is a cranky little man who never seems quite happy with the numerous luxuries being born into the upper class has afforded him. The rich in the Jetsons/Flintstones universe suffer just as many, if not more, problems than the poor living below them. In this way, the shows seem to be arguing that being poor isn't really that big a deal. By displaying George's constant problems and annoyances, the creators are saying, "look being rich isn't that great anyway," while all the while Fred and his family merrily trot along through their lower class existence.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it ....

Why Do The Transformers Hate The Mentally Challenged?

So is it just me or do the Dinobots on Transformers teach kids that its okay to discriminate against the mentally challenged?

The Dinobots are a small group of Transformers created on Earth by the scientist Wheeljack. They are the first attempt by the Autobots to create new Transformers since fleeing Cybertron. Since the Autobots lacked all of the high-tech resources they had on Cybertron, the Dinobots turn out to be less than perfect creations. In fact, they seem to be functionally retarded. They can only speak in broken English, have poor motor skills, and are unable to grasp all but the simplest of concepts. (Note that the cartoon show departed from the characterization established by the comic books on this point. There, the Dinobots are extremely intelligent and gifted warriors.)

Having created their own "special" children, how do the Autobots react? With ridicule and disdain. The Dinobots are the constant the butt of the other Autobots' jokes. When "raising" the Dinobots proves too hard, the Autobots send the Dinobots to their own "special" island. In the Transformers movie, when the Autobots are forced to retreat from a battle, the Dinobots are placed in a separate ship from the normal fully functional Autobots.

What makes this harsh treatment worse is that the Autobots are the source of the Dinobots disability. While in real life there are many factors that can cause cognitive disabilities in children, the Autobots knew they were making mentally disabled "children," and yet they continue to ridicule their poor creations.

So when little Billy makes fun of the "weird kid" on the bus, maybe this is where he got it from. Or I could just be reading too much into that ...

The Transformers as Pro-Communist Propaganda

So I may be reading too much into this, but isn't the Transformers a gigantic piece of pro-communist propaganda?

Transformers is about an intergalactic civil war between two factions of robots from the planet Cybertron-the Autobots and the Decepticons. It's meant to be taken as a basic morality play for children. Each episode is about the evil Decepticons coming up with a nefarious plot, and then the good Autobots thwarting it. Wash, rinse, repeat. But looking a bit deeper into some of the subtext of the show reveals a deeper layer.

The Decepticons are consistently displayed as evil, and yet they display many distinctly capitalistic traits. The Decepticons are made up primarily of the military class of robots from the planet Cybertron. Their culture is based on an extremely hierarchical structure founded upon traditional "survival of the fittest" principals. Megatron leads because he is the strongest of the Decepticons. When he dies, the Decepticons engage in a battle royale to determine who should replace him. Subsequently, Megatron's replacement is himself replaced after be bested in an, albeit extremely brief, confrontation with a stronger Decepticon. Their culture is entirely merit based, with the strong advancing while the weak are cast aside (or literally thrown out of the side of a moving train in one episode).

Decepticon society is colonialistic. The primary source of conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons is the Decepticons' desire to constantly expand the Transformer empire in search of resources. In an extremely capitalistic way, the Decepticons' modus operandi is to seek out a new planet, subjugate the planet's inhabitants, strip away the resources of the planet, and then move on to the next planet. The Decepticon's feel entitled to these resources because they are stronger/smarter/more technologically advanced then the people they are taking the resources from.

Compare this with the Autobots. While the Autobots are portrayed as the consummate heroes, their culture is socialistic enough to make even the most left leaning of American politicians blush.

The Autobots were Cybertron's working class. Prior to the beginning of hostilities with the Decepticons, the Autobots were laborers who seemingly toiled away endlessly expanding Cybertron's infrastructure. During peace time, the Autobots lived in awe of the Decepticons, who Cybertronian culture viewed as being a higher echelon of society (primarily due to the Decepticon's ability to fly). The Autobots, angered by the Decepticon's foreign policy and dictatorial rule, rise up in an attempt to overthrow the cruel capitalistic upper ruling class.

Autobot culture runs almost completely contrary to Decepticon culture. While Optimus Prime is clearly the leader of the group, the Autobots are almost uniformly treated as equals regardless of their inherent worth. Their culture is the complete opposite of a meritocracy. The show frequently beats the viewer over the head with this message, as perennial loser Bumblebee (the show's bungling comic relief character) constantly finds new and creative ways to be captured or otherwise mess things up. While Decepticon culture would likely castigate Bumblebee over these infractions, the Autobots continue to accept him as an equal member of their community. Unlike in a more capitalistic society (or Decepticon-ian?) Bumblebee suffers no real problems due to his almost complete inability to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

So be mindful next time you catch an old episode of Transformers that the good guys you are rooting for are, to quote one of my high school teachers, "dirty rotten pinko commies." Meanwhile, the bad guys, who's presence makes you want to boo and hiss are the one's advancing the virtues of capitalism.

Or I could just be reading way too much into that...