Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

What I'm Watching Now

Ah, the summer season. I realized something about my television viewing habits: I don't watch a lot of sitcoms, or network TV. I watch a lot of basic cable. And summer time is when the new season starts for cable programming. So some of my favorite shows have returned, and a few new shows I've discovered have started. So I thought I might share my thoughts on what I'm watching now:

Adventure Time
Cartoon Network

This is one really weird cartoon. I mean, even by Cartoon Network standards, this is weird. And that's why I love it so. Characterized by strange animation, strange characters, and a warped sense of internal logic, show creator Pendleton Ward managed to create a funny, disturbing, and often poignant experience, an adventure show which is ultimately simply a story of a boy and his dog.

The boy being Finn (Jeremy Shada), a hyperactive but good-hearted 12-year-old adventurer, and the dog being Jake (John DiMaggio) a magical shape-shifting mutt who acts as Finn's voice of reason. Sort of. Sometimes. They dwell in the "Land of Ooo," a surreal magical world where they hunt treasure, defeat monsters, and rescue princesses of all shapes and sizes. That's pretty much the whole premise, but the genius is how their adventures play out. The Land of Ooo is a very, VERY strange place, and the adventures Finn and Jake go on are almost Freudian in their unfolding. The denizens of Land of Ooo consist of sentient candies, rocker girl vampires, and random mishmashes of mythological beasts. Finn and Jake live in an overbuilt treehouse and spend their free time cobbling together pieces of old junk into toys and weapons. In short, the Land of Ooo just the kind of fantasy land that a hyperactive 12-year-old boy would dream up. It's like something out of those halcyon days of childhood, when the couch cushions were a fort, and the field behind the house was where you fought monsters. The weird, sometimes frightening animation style works unbelievably well with this theme: the utter random craziness seems to fit right in.

Also adding to the uniqueness of the show is the casting. Apart from a few renowned names in voice acting, Adventure Time doesn't feature that many voices you'll recognize. So not only does it not LOOK like any other cartoon, it doesn't SOUND like any other cartoon either. And that just adds to the disorientation. Characters too are drawn with a certain self-awareness. One of the recurring antagonists of our heroes is the Ice King (Tom "Spongebob" Kenny), a strangely sympathetic psychotic villain. Despite his magical powers and his tendency to kidnap princesses, the Ice King largely comes across as a lonely nerd, who wants so desperately to be liked but just doesn't know how...so he ends up threatening to kill people instead. Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), ruler of the Candy Kingdom, is a super-smart scientist who Tampers in God's Domain pretty much once a month, and remains seemingly oblivious to Finn's massive crush on her (it's a bit of a running gag that pretty much every other princess in the Land of Ooo has a thing for Finn...except the one HE has a thing for). And it's a nice touch to see Finn as a genuinely earnest heroic character. He's 12 years old, so he's prone to fits of stupidity, but his heart is pure and he always strives to do the right thing (and he's no slouch at adventuring either). So many other cartoons feature protagonists who are just bumbling idiots, so it's nice to see a protagonist who's halfway competent...while still being slightly stupid in that teenage boy kind of way.

Generator Rex
Cartoon Network

The second cartoon created by the production team known as "Man of Action," Generator Rex is, I think, a vast improvement over the previous Ben 10. Much more mature in theme, and much less painfully trying to be hip, it manages to be a homage to time-honored comic book conventions while creating its own mythology (and I'm sure there is some comic book nerd out there somewhere having a fit right now, pointing out that the basic premise of Generator Rex is actually based on an obscure comic book from ten years ago that nobody remembers...but...I think I just won my own argument there).

If Ben 10 could be seen as something of a riff on Green Lantern, then Generator Rex is a riff on X-Men. The story takes place sometime in the not-so-distant future, five years after "The Event." The Event was a catastrophic accident at a nanotechnology lab, a global fallout of nanites which embedded themselves in pretty much EVERYTHING on Earth. Since then, things have been...different. While most of these nanites are dormant, every so often they will randomly activate, and cause horrific mutations in whatever living creature they happen to be in at the time. These mutants, dubbed "EVOs" by the authorities, are dangerous things, causing random destruction, and normally must be neutralized. A shadowy high-tech organization known as "Providence" has arisen to combat the EVO threat, and they have a secret weapon: a teenage boy named Rex (Daryl Sabara). Though technically an EVO himself, Rex has a unique ability: he can consciously control the nanites inside him. This means he can alter his body at will, making him a living weapon. This also means he can "cure" other EVOs, by shutting down their active nanites and absorbing them into himself. Providence sends Rex wherever there is an EVO incident as their first line of defense, accompanied by the standard team of comic-book characters: Bobo (John DiMaggio...man this guy gets himself around), a trigger-happy wiseguy chimpanzee (presumably he's an EVO, but the show never flat-out says it); Agent Six (Wally Kurth), taciturn MIB who's lethal at hand-to-hand combat; and Doctor Holiday (Grey DeLisle), babe scientist and emotional rock of the team. Opposing Providence is an enigmatic figure known as Van Kleiss (Troy Baker), an immensely powerful EVO who dwells in Abysus, the crater formed by The Event, and who has drawn a small army of EVOs to his cause...which isn't really quite clear yet.

A vast improvement over Ben 10, Generator Rex is a pretty cool show. It's got that same sleek animation style that Man of Action is famous for, and it actually has the courage to follow its serious premise to its conclusion. The world of Generator Rex is basically a post-apocalyptic one, and the show does not shy away from the horrors of living in such a world. Mutated monsters roam the wilderness outside civilization, and military shows of force are commonplace - quite understandable in a world where ANYONE could change into a monster at ANY TIME. EVO design is appropriately creepy, nudging as close to Cronenbergian as is possible for a cartoon. Your average rampaging EVO is a random amalgam of overgrown flesh and teeth, and the more focused EVOs that follow Van Kleiss are no less creepy. One of his followers, Breach, is a four-armed freak with J-Horror hair and a Catholic School girl uniform, and the episode focusing on her mental state was one of the more disturbing half-hours of animation I've ever seen. It's also a nice touch that the show subtly hints at darker events happened behind the scenes. Despite being the nominal "good guys," Providence is clearly not to be trusted; Rex is little more than an expendable asset to anyone outside of our team of heroes. Van Kleiss, the Magneto of this world, has some agenda in mind that includes Rex, but he hasn't yet tipped his hand. Also important is Rex's amnesia: he has no memory of his life before The Event, though Van Kleiss and some other characters have hinted that he was involved in it somehow. All fascinating plot points, that hopefully will be developed more fully as the show goes on. 

River Monsters
Animal Planet

Where did this show go? The second season only lasted about four episodes, then it vanished from the schedule. This is unfortunate, because I love River Monsters. As a general rule I don't care for "extreme nature" shows; gung-ho Australian naturalists taunting dangerous animals for the sake of ratings is NOT science to me. That's why River Monsters is so refreshing. Hosted by naturalist and angler Jeremy Wade, it follows him on his explorations of isolated lakes and rivers throughout the world, hunting down creatures of legends and folklore. Giant stingrays in Malaysia. Bull sharks in South Africa. Some unknown aquatic monster in an Alaskan lake. It's fascinating show: eye-opening, alarming, and strangely comforting. Because Jeremy Wade is a naturalist in old-school vein of Sir David Attenborough: he has great respect for the creatures he's showing off, and he never once doesn't look like he knows what he's doing.

I never thought a show about freshwater fishing could be EXCITING. That was before I saw Jeremy Wade wrestle a 12-foot catfish from some muddy river in Nepal. It's frankly mind-blowing that creatures like that still exist, and it's oddly comforting to know that there's a grizzled old Englishman out there keeping us safe from them. I think that's what makes Jeremy so awesome: his grizzled Englishness. He's like a Great White Hunter from some bygone age, tough and quietly competent, asserting his mastery over the natural world by rod and reel. Granted, Jeremy is more of a "tag and release" guy; for him, it's about the thrill of the catch, and the enlightenment of his viewing public to the existence of these creatures. That kind of nature show host is rare these days. That's why I hope the show is coming back. I really hope the absence of new episodes doesn't mean that Jeremy finally got himself eaten, though...

Deadliest Warrior

I'm not sure how I got addicted to this show. I guess I'm a sucker for scientific re-enactment programming. Granted, on Deadliest Warrior you have to use the world "scientific" very loosely; compared to these guys the Mythbusters are quantum physicists.

The whole premise of the show is to take warriors from past cultures or armed forces, analyze the effectiveness of their weapons and techniques, then simulate a battle between them to find out who would win. Like say, who would win between a Viking and a Samurai? Or a Shaolin Monk versus a Maori Warrior? Or a Roman Centurion versus an Indian Rajput (wait, WHO?) It's kind of like someone taking the whole "Pirate versus Ninja" debate to a ridiculous, over-analyzed extreme (oddly enough, both pirates and ninjas have been featured, but for some reason they didn't have them fighting each other).

That's not to say the show isn't fun to watch at times. The three hosts of the show - computer programmer Max Geiger, trauma doctor Armand Dorian, and scientist Jeff Desmoulin - are really enthusiastic about their work. Their nerdgasms on seeing explosions or scenes of simulated carnage are endearing in an odd kind of way. And the scenes of simulated carnage as they test ancient weaponry are viscerally satisfying, I must admit. To see the damage some of these weapons can do to ballistics gel dummies or pig carcasses is to feed a guilty pleasure of bloodlust (man, these guys go through a lot of pig carcasses. Is this why the price of bacon has skyrocketed lately?). Although, the nerdly enthusiasm of our hosts can make for some unintentionally-uncomfortable moments, especially with the weaponry and cultural experts who come in to demonstrate the hardware. Some of these guys are just really, REALLY into what they do, and our hosts' reactions to them can come across as a bit disrespectful, or at least clueless (case in point: a recent episode involving the Somali pirates, where a native talks about Somalia being a dumping ground for Cold War Soviet weaponry. "If it goes 'boom,' it winds up in Somalia," he says. Our host's response? "We need to get over to Somalia." Unh...hunh). Occasionally, the rivalry between the two teams of experts seems genuinely tense; makes me wonder just how much is staged and how much is testosterone-fueled posturing.

As much fun as the actual simulations are to watch, the match-ups often seem a little contrived. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the actual weapons the hosts choose to compare, and giving an edge to one or the other seems equally arbitrary. It makes the results of the simulations somewhat suspect; as a student of military history, I find it hard to believe that a Comanche could even hold his own against a Mongol, let alone decisively beat him. And when they move up to more modern cultures and armies, performing five-on-five squad battles, the discomfort level rachets up a little more. The episode pitting the Green Berets versus the Spetsnaz was particularly tense; both experts freely admit that they were trained to kill the other. One especially discomfiting episode for me was the IRA versus the Taliban. Frankly, the only episode where I didn't care who won. To hell with them both; let them kill each other.

But I guess I have no room to complain. I'm expecting serious, respectful, scientific analysis from a show on SPIKE?

Warehouse 13

This show is kind of a guilty pleasure, and I'm glad it's back for a second season. SyFy has a surprisingly good track record with original TV series, and Warehouse 13 is one of the better ones. It's got a great sense of humor and a great cast, and fortunately they decided not to mess with the formula in the new season. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. Agents Bering and Lattimer (Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock) once again scour the world for dangerous magical artifacts, bickering like siblings all the while. The two actors have great chemistry, reminiscent of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting, and it's refreshing that the writers are resisting the temptation to put them in a romantic coupling, instead keeping a brother-sister dynamic. Saul Rubinek is back as Artie, despite a fakeout in the first season finale, and Alison Scagliotti joins the cast full-time as Claudia, every nerd's fantasy girl. I loved Claudia in the first season - you gotta love a girl who listens to The Cure while doing housework - and I'm glad they brought her back full-time. The two of them have a great chemistry too, a weird father-daughter relationship full of manic nerd energy. And of course, it doesn't hurt that Alison Scagliotti is easy on the eyes. In fact, all the girls on this show are easy on on the eyes. What is it about Canadian actresses? Is there something in the water up there or something?

Of course, there is a down side to not fixing what isn't broke. There are no surprises in this second season. Even the central story arc of the first season - the rise and fall of rogue Warehouse agent James MacPherson - was wrapped up a little too neatly in the season premiere. You'd think that there would be some lasting fallout to the wringer MacPherson put our heroes through in the first season, but if there was it hasn't yet surfaced. The revelation of a new supervillian - a female evil genius who was apparently the inspiration behind HG Weels - has not yet made any impact on our heroes' adventures. Maybe something is waiting down the road. But for now, it's good for a laugh.

Royal Pains

Another show back for a second season, and another one I have some mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it's a fun show. On the other, it's not a GREAT show. It's certainly not as great as Burn Notice, the show that leads up to it (but then again, Burn Notice is such a good show that it's really not a fair comparison). Like many USA Network TV shows, it's more character-driven than it is story-driven. The problem is that the characters are not as strong as they should be, and I keep waiting for the show to get really good...and it hasn't happened yet.

Our brothers and business partners, Hank and Evan Lawson (Mark Feurstein and Paulo Costanzo) are back, peddling their concierge medical service to the extremely eccentric denizens of the Hamptons. Also back are Divya (Reshma Shetty), their Physician Assistant, and Jill (Jill Flint) administrator of the local hospital, and off-again on-again love interest for Hank. Once again, the formula remains the same, but here the formula seems to be stretched a little thin. There are only so many times a patient can refuse conventional medical care before it starts to get ridiculous. And there are only so many times a conventional medical person can be cast as an absolute bastard before it gets old. Seriously. Every doctor we've seen besides our heroes is cast as smug and unpleasant and uncaring for their patients. The medical profession does not get off easy on this show. And it's well past the point of "Okay, we get it!" Almost to the point of parody. The "patient of the week" scenario also has the unfortunate tendency toward "House Syndrome." That is, our heroes spend the entire episode chasing mysterious symptoms that could have been explained very easily had the patient just mentioned one tiny thing beforehand...

But then, as a USA Network show, the focus is more on the characters...but even they seem a little one-dimensional. Hank and Evan are pretty one-note, a classic double-act of straight man and comic relief. Divya is a stereotypical overachieving Indian woman, struggling to break free of her equally stereotypical domineering Indian parents (it's made even more distracting by the fact that the actor who plays her father is the same guy from the Fiber One commercials; "Stereotypes, no. Delicious, yes!"). It's also a little distracting that the writers seem to trying to artificially create conflict to drive the plot along. The absolutely cute and perfectly logical relationship between Hank and Jill was derailed throughout the first season for no readily apparent reason. And the introduction of rival concierge doctor Emily Peck this season seems to be the same thing: she's evil for no real reason, other than as a counterpoint to the too-good-to-be-true Hank Lawson. The recurring appearance of Henry Winkler as Hank and Evan's absentee father also seems to be for no other reason than to create artificial conflict (their father is the Fonz; that explains so much...). I'm entertained by the show, but that's really all. I keep waiting for it to get really good...and maybe I'm expecting too much from a summer season show about laid-back doctors treating the rich and famous in the Hamptons.

Comedy Central

Hoo boy. I wish I didn't have to write this. I was a huge fan of Futurama during its original run, and I loved the DVD movies. I had high hopes for it to come back....hopes which unfortunately have so far been disappointed.

I can't quite put my finger on why I can't get into the show. Maybe it's because the show was able to wrap itself up so neatly beforehand. Or maybe the world of adult-oriented animation has moved on so much since the first run of Futurama. Something just doesn't feel right about this new season. Like it's trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, and just not able to. Maybe the premise has been stretched too thin.

One of the things I always liked about Futurama was that it was sincere. That's the thing that tended to separate Matt Groening from the likes of Seth MacFarlane or the South Park guys. Futurama was funny and satirical, but it was never MEAN. That's what I liked about it. And I fear that this new incarnation of Futurama is heading down that road. The last few episodes have embraced some of the old spirit of the show, but for the most part it's becoming a bit mean-spirited (one particular recent episode, a satire of the iPhone, was a little TOO real to be truly funny). For the most part it feels like it's going over the same old ground again...and it was funnier the first time around.

Well, I still have faith in Matt Groening, and I hope against hope that things will get better. They HAVE to, right?