Out the Window

Hurricane Andrew was easily one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I had only just moved to Orlando, Florida and found an apartment when it rolled right through town. Over the next 4 years, hurricane season in Florida was something of a let-down after the sheer awe-inspiring force of nature that was Andrew introducing me to my first storm season.

 

Out the Window

Ebon storm clouds advance

Across an azure canvas

 

Perilous beauty.

Irreverently Funny? Or Just Irreverent?

Irreverence is not the same as comedy.

I have a follow-up post to my previous entry about Bud Selig, but it’s not quite complete. However, I find myself needing to get something off my chest before I can really focus on other topics, like school, or baseball, or that short story I have started over sixteen times now because I keep distracting myself.

I’m not a very big television guy. I used to be. Growing up I watched plenty of television and then some. Nowadays however, my television watching is fairly moderate. For one thing I am not much of a fan of the current level of writing that permeates modern television. I’m not very big on being treated like I am stupid. I don’t need writers explaining things to me like I am in a class of kindergarteners. Nor do I care for shows where common sense is simply tossed aside in such a reckless manner that those same kindergarteners are scratching their heads. (Yes, I’m looking at you Eric Kripke of Revolution.) However, there are certain actors that I like, so, when they get a show, I generally tune in to watch. One such actor is Tim Allen.

Last year, Tim Allen made his return to prime time television with his new sitcom, Last Man Standing. The show was a somewhat safe twist on the concept he had guided to success with Home Improvement in the mid-90s. In LMS, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a successful, conservative salesman in suburban Colorado. He lives in a nice house with his successful wife and their three daughters, the eldest of which has a young child, Boyd, from a teenage indiscretion. The wife is smart, witty, good-looking, and strong-willed. She is an independent woman. The eldest daughter, despite the complications of being an unwed mother of only 21 years, is level-headed and also pretty intelligent. She works to provide what she can for Boyd and is intent on bettering herself and also not letting her sisters repeat her mistakes. The middle daughter is a Kardashian groupie, complete with the looks to succeed in following the Kardashian success plan. She’s not overly bright, but she’s very adept at the things she sets her mind to, especially anything dealing with social media. The youngest, and most intelligent, daughter is making the transition from junior high to high school. Along with this change comes a transition from being a sports-minded tomboy to being a young, dress-wearing, boy-conscious woman.

The ingredients for the show were carefully cast, and the show saw some moderate success. The show was not the huge hit that Home Improvement had been, but in all fairness, it’s tough to expect any show to reach that level of success. However, this is network television we are talking about. Moderate success instead of overwhelming success kept the network from making any sort of decision on whether or not to renew the show for a second season until very late into the game. With no decision reached, the last five episodes of season one saw LMS limp across the finish line – still successful, but with ratings that had the network demanding a change. This is where things turned for the worse.

The show replaced the oldest daughter with one that looked 10 years older. They aged Boyd from toddler to kindergartener. They brought back Boyd’s father (but not the actor) to become a constant foil to Tim Allen’s character in the mold of Meathead versus Archie Bunker. They made the second daughter so dumb she didn’t realize she was trying to read a book upside down or that batteries were a source of energy. Even the wife is no longer a strong character. To top it all off, ABC moved the show to the farthest reaches of prime-time civilization – Friday evenings. The majority of the changes were made by a new show-runner, with input from Tim Allen, in hopes that the show could become a modern take on All in the Family.

Now, in his defense, Tim Doyle, the new show-runner, does admit that this show is not as good as All in the Family, but he is still dead-set on hitting what he calls “red meat issues.” He wants to expand the quality of comedy on television to include things that make the audience think instead of simply churning out relationship or parenting stories. I applaud him for wanting to raise general social awareness on hot-topic issues through television, but, as of six episodes into the season, it’s been made fairly clear that, not only is it not working, but the approach is alienating what little audience remains. Yet, Doyle and ABC actually seem surprised.

Really?

Let’s review, a show that started out as sort of a reimaging of a 90s sitcom is changed mid-run to be a modern re-imaging of yet another, completely different show that aired in the late 60s and early 70s. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? Oh, that’s right – it’s the year 2012.

Even the edgiest network sitcom, pushing the bounds of political correctness to the extreme, will still fall far short of the crass, chauvinistic, racist satire that was All in the Family. The problem is, All in the Family only worked because it was “all-in.” There are people that love All in the Family, and others that hate it. But, regardless of where a person falls in regards to enjoying the show, there is little denying that All in the Family was a cultural icon that redefined network sitcoms forever.

Archie Bunker was hilarious. He was also the sort of character that would have the politically correct pundits calling for modern networks to not only cancel the show, but to issue formal apologies for the offensive nature of the humour. Yet Doyle seems to think that LMS can be a show in the mold of AITF, but simply not go so overboard with the characters. Unfortunately, the humour of AITF does not work at half-speed. Irreverence can be funny, but it must be sincere. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s true. Comedies like AITF, or the movies of Mel Brooks worked because they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were offensive and brought a comic light to that fact. Comedy was used to increase social awareness of a number of issues while allowing the dominant hegemony to still have something to identify with.

The political correctness police would never allow such irreverence in today’s television. So, in order to appease them, the writers give us a hot-topic issue, or a racist issue and then proceed to make fun of it. But that’s a huge difference from the likes of Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Those two made the issue part of the actual comedy itself. The issues were the vehicle through which the comedy was delivered. Now, comedy seems to try and heighten awareness by making the issues the focus of the comedy. So instead of the issues being a vehicle for the comedy, the issues become a target for the comedy. This has the effect of coming off as preachy and making the shows uncomfortable to watch for those that might be sensitive to an issue. One approach irreverently embraces a subject and shines a light on how backwards the world can be eliciting laughs and increasing awareness by using the hot topic as a vehicle for the comedy. The other approach is so careful to be sincere that it ends up being both unfunny and irreverent and eventually, driving away the audience.

It’s hard to make a statement is no one is paying attention.

Prejudice, class strife, poverty, political scandals, working poor, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, these are not topics to be made light of. The pain and suffering attached to these sorts of topics is real. Using these topics as a vehicle to express comedy for the purpose of entertainment however, does not make light of the issues. Rather, it raises the awareness of the issues by presenting them in a manner that does not drive the audience away. That is irreverently funny. Making fun of the gay rights movement, or any other hot button issue, on the other hand, is simply irreverent, and has no place in mainstream media.

Where Have All the Good Authors Gone?

No offense to Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins or E.L. James, but I really wish someone would come along and create a literary phenomenon that was so big, it simply wiped them from the map of literary discussions. I am getting sick and tired of hearing about the repressed sexual anxieties of Bella Swan, the emotionally wishy-washy, child-slaughtering Katniss, and the sadistic woman-beater Christian Grey and his brain-dead punching bag of a wife Anastasia. Just listing the characters I feel like I need to scrub my brain with bleach. I feel dumber now than I did five minutes ago just for realizing that I’ve spent enough time with the material to actually know such details. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have read the Meyer books, the Collins books, and the first James book. I will not be reading the second and third – my brain can only handle so much abuse.)

I mean, Harry Potter may not be the most exquisitely written works of English literature, but at least they are infinitely more readable and enduring than 50 Shades of Hungry Eclipse Games. I considered using this entry to actually explain how far the world of literary excitement seems to have fallen, but a fellow blogger, Alice, has already spent many, many pages on demonstrating just how bad things have gotten. For those who love witty snark, you should really get over there and check it out. She does a much better job of deconstructing the insanity than I ever could.

Anyway, I’m off to go find some more vintage Bradbury or early King (whose novellas are incredible). Maybe reading enough well-written literature will help to sooth the scars inflicted upon my brain from all the scrubbing I had to do after reading E.L. James.

When Fairy Tales Go Wrong

It was bound to happen eventually. I was hoping that I was wrong when I called it about nine months ago, but, unfortunately, I was not. The guilty pleasure that was the surprise treat of television in 2011, Once Upon a Time, has fallen victim to its own success and the past successes of the people running the show. Now, that’s not to say that I have given up on the show, far from it actually. But what started out as a beautifully simple premise has now become so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings and teams of people picking apart and analyzing every muscle twitch of every character, every street sign, and every bird flying by in the background to keep up with what’s happening.

For those that are actually unfamiliar with the show, let me give a quick primer. OUAT is based (originally) on children’s fairy tales as reality. The versions of the fairy tales were the Disney versions (which makes sense as ABC is a Disney entity and the Disney versions, good or bad, are easily the most well-known). The premise is that the Evil Queen from Snow White obtains and unleashes a terrible curse upon all of Fairy Tale Land, depriving all the characters of the happily ever afters, and banishing them to real-world Maine. But wait! The intrepid adventurers of FTL, knowing the curse is coming, prepare for her and send the baby child of Snow and Prince Charming through a portal before the curse hits. That child grows up to become Emma Swan, a jaded orphan with a penchant for sniffing out the truth and finding things (mainly people) in this, the real world. In addition to being an orphan, she too has given up a child. So needless to say, she was a bit surprised when a 10-year-old boy named Henry shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her son. He drags her off to Storybrooke, home of the people cursed in FTL. In this town, the Mayor is a woman named Regina – and she has all the power. She also just so happens to be the Evil Queen, and, unlike everyone else in town, she remembers the time before Storybrooke. Oh, she also happens to be Henry’s adopted mother. You see, Henry has figured out Regina is the Evil Queen from fairy tales and he wants/expects Emma to break the curse. From there each episode plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner. Emma is presented with someone in need of help. The episode then splits between the current story of Emma helping and that person’s FTL story. As each episode is added to the chain, more and more background is provided until, as we reach the end, we have a full picture and Emma finally realizes that, yes, the fairy tales were indeed real and yes, she is to be the saviour.

The pacing and original takes on the various stories were spot-on for the most part in season one. With the show turning out to be a big hit, I feared that the writers and executives were going to find ways to artificially draw out many of the aspects and just keep the story perpetually developing, but not really going anywhere. The story was almost perfectly designed to fit inside of 22 episodes, and you know what? The writers stuck to that. The only thing that kept the first season from being perfect was that the show was coming back for a second season and so, it needed to end on a bit of a cliffhanger. But the writers even respected the audience and did an admirable job with the final episode of the season. If the show had not been picked up for a second season, only a few minor alterations to the season finale would have been necessary in order to bring the entire series to a satisfying conclusion.

Then we come to season two. Now, what started out as a beautifully simple concept has to be resuscitated. A new ultimate goal needs to be created, and, for the most part, the story no longer could support the villains the way it did in season one because of how season one played out. Now, not only do we have FTL and a new version of Storybrooke, but we also have FTL 2.0, the post apocalypse/curse FTL. We also have 2 new villains (though one was at least introduced as a character in season one), and two new heroes. We have the original crew being split up across alternate realities, seeking ways to reunite with each other and to right various wrongs. Previous villains, including Rumplestiltskin (played deliciously by Robert Carlyle) still exist and continue to do their own scheming as well

The show is brought to us by the minds behind another ABC hit show, Lost. That has, unfortunately, turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for the show. These are gifted, talented writers, capable of weaving wonderful tales using many threads. But they are also capable of having so much fun weaving complex plots within plots that the story loses its way. Two things really stood out about the first season of OUAT. First, the concept was simple without being dumbed down. The story was fully fleshed out and the world building was rich and exciting. The second thing that really made season one stand out was part of that world building and fleshing out of the story. It was the characters. Each week the audience learned more about each character and was given a chance to become invested in various characters and actually develop reasons to root for or against various outcomes. The first season was almost entirely about character.

The second season has moved away from that focus. Sure, we still learn about characters, but they are no longer the true focus. The backstory, plotting, and scheming is now the focus of the show. The story is no longer simple. Now, missing an episode can be a dangerous thing if a viewer wants to have any clue as to what is going on later. What’s more is, we have four more characters now added to an already large ensemble cast. Unfortunately, already a quarter of the way into the season, we are given essentially zero reason to care about any of these characters. Our two new heroines, have been so inconsequential as to make one wonder why they are even there, they have provided nothing to the story that could not have been achieved through some ingenuity on the part of the writers. But instead of exercising that ingenuity, we are given window dressing that pretty much just hangs out in the background doing nothing of substance. Even the character’s stories seem to lack any of the thoughtfulness applied to the various fairy tale characters in the first season. On one hand, we have Mulan, who apparently was never a Chinese warrior “princess’, but instead a warrior from some remote, unexplained, never given much thought part of FTL. She’s apparently an awesome fighter, but we know little else despite the fact that she travels constantly with our heroine Snow White. Then there is Princess Aurora. But this is not the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tales. No, that Sleeping Beauty has already been discussed as having defeated Maleficent. This is (apparently) her daughter, who, for some reason that the writers have chosen to not bother going into begins the season under the same curse, under the same circumstances, as her mother.

I am all over the place with this post. This post started out with a simple idea and was railroaded into getting far more complex than it needed to be. I guess that should, in some ways, be a warning how easily that can happen. Once Upon a Time was once beautifully simple. Now, it gets more and more convoluted with each passing episode, providing very little hope that the story can ever again become fully contained. I know there are plenty of people out there that appreciate a complex story, filled with all sorts of puzzles to figure out. However, OUAT started off as a show that entire families could sit and enjoy. Sure, there were some dark elements, but, for the most part, they were deftly handled in a fairy tale manner. The show started out being equally approachable by both the eight-to-ten-year-old group and the coveted 28-40 demographic. The new, wide-open and now-complex story and the substantial increase in situational darkness has made the show a much harder sell for young audiences. I appreciate a gritty story as much as the next person. I just wonder how many shows really exist that have the potential to remain fun for the whole family. OUAT could have continued in that vein. Adult audiences really wouldn’t have minded.

This post has rambled on enough. I should probably bring it to an end before I spin off on some other tangentially related rant.