Thursday, December 30, 2010

Re-evaluating Fringe -- part one

When Fox premiered Fringe several years ago, I watched. And I watched the following week. After that I might have caught a bit of an episode, but I had abandoned the show. It seemed like too much of a poor man's X-Files, and I didn't see it lasting or sustaining, so I didn't stick with it. Well, now it's in its third season and considered some of the best sci-fi on TV right now. So in fairness, I've decided to check out what I'm missing and see if it has improved. It's difficult with television, especially serialized television, knowing if you'll stick with something. I hate getting involved with a show only for it to drop away. Some shows grab you right away, others don't. If I don't perceive something to have legs, I ignore it. I gave up on V awhile ago. I haven't even looked at The Event (and it seems I made the right choice there). But then there's things like Caprica which I tried to give a fair chance, though I didn't much like it, and it was canceled. Some great shows only pick up in their second or third year (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files), and since Lost is gone, I'll risk giving Fringe another go.

I've just finished watching the first season, and it's a better show than I had first considered it, but it's also not much more. While Lost had a great two-hour pilot, Fringe's feels too bogged down in mythology. It tries to dump far too much exposition on us at once. X-Files worked because it's mythology slowly grew over a year and a half. To have all this information about Dr. Bishop, Massive Dynamic, the Pattern, Tony Scott, etc. just felt like too much. And the excursion to Bagdad for a three-minute scene feels really out of place in retrospect.

The similarities to X-Files are glaring throughout the season, whether intentional or not. However, in all cases, X-Files is better. We have FBI agent working for secret government department involving bizarre events, a larger conspiracy, a skeptical character, experiments on children in their past, the woman gets abducted halfway through the season, etc. Fringe's conspiracy is based around evil corporations rather than U.S. Government. Some of these similarities are not surprising; sometime X-Files writer Darin Morgan is a "consulting producer" on the show. Other writers include show creators Kurtzman and Orci (the new Star Trek and the Transformers movies), Akiva Goldsman (Ron Howard's pet screenwriter), and Zack Whedon (Joss Whedon's brother). I'm no fan of Whedons.

I like Walter Bishop as a character, though in the early episodes he was too much of a joke for his own good. John Noble is an actor at his best playing someone insane. It's good to see Joshua Jackson in something good for change.

On the whole, it seems like the season doesn't quite know where it's going. There's a lot of talk of "The Pattern", but it felt more like they came up with a catchy name but had no idea what to apply it to. As the season went on, I'm buying it less. I don't like calling it "Fringe division". It seems like an arbitrary way to use the name of the show, again chosen because it sounds cool. The first chunk of episodes focused on William Bell and Massive Dynamic as the enemy, with John Scott as a double agent. Fine. Then the Scott stuff got strained (an contradictory) until it was dropped altogether. Suddenly we were introduced to Mr. Jones and ZFT and nearly everything from the first half was ignored. Only at season's end did they connect ZFT to William Bell, which frankly was necessary because otherwise they had shifted antagonists on us.

I hate the way the series does location legends. HATE them. And I hate that the same font was used in the new Star Trek movie. On the other hand, I like the little symbols that pop up during commercial breaks. I began to see there had to be some sort of logic behind them, and the DVD confirms that it is code. Cool.

It's also wonderful how long each episode is. Standard television drama these days runs about 42 minutes. Fringe gets a full 49 to 50. That's the same length as classic Star Trek and other series of the 1960s. I love that Fox allowed less commercial time for that. The show feels far less choppy than it otherwise might.

Fringe is set in and around Boston primarily, and this has caused some laughable concern for me. It's hard to suspend my disbelief sometimes, as a resident of the state. In the early episodes, it felt like the writers were just looking at a map and pulling out names. Locales looked nothing like what they should have. Now, as the series improved, so did their settings. It began to look more like Greater Boston. The early excursion at South Station was a joke. I do like the name-dropping of various towns. But just when I was ready to praise them for getting better, the season finale featured Walter taking a train ride to Grafton. This is fine. Grafton is a commuter stop; I used to take that train. But he gets off at a beach-side house. NO WAY. Grafton is west of Boston and is inland. It's almost to Worcester. There is no ocean in Grafton. That's REALLY lazy. I also realize exteriors are never real. David Kelley was good about exterior shots on his series. I could even look past the Boston Public Library being a courthouse on Boston Legal. But Fringe wants us to believe the Hancock Tower is the "Boston Federal Building". I might have bought it if it weren't the tallest and most famous tower in the city. That's like calling the Empire State Building a Toyota dealership.

Kurtzman and Orci are also proving that they have no idea about multiverses. They seem obsessed with the idea, and it's polluting everything they write. The new Star Trek movie, it filtered into Lost briefly (care of Damon Lindelof), and I wouldn't be surprised if it's a point in the next Transformers. They seem to love the idea, and yet don't understand it beyond the TNG episode "Parallels". So far, it seems the show's mythology is about scientists building an army to fight coming invaders from a parallel universe. Fine. I don't know why we will be invaded from a parallel universe, but whatever. But it's becoming more ripped off from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and confused. Liv has flashed of the other universe, and it's described as "deja vu". They say that deja vu is when you experience another universe. That's insane. That would only make sense if the universes were out of temporal sync, but they aren't. Deja vu means you experience something you've already seen. It does not mean you relive a moment you've already lived in another universe. Deja vu does not describe what's happening. This is not a causality loop we're talking about. I now have a hard time trusting the writers.

At season's end, William Bell is played by Leonard Nimoy. Nice choice. And there's a revelation about Peter that, if you were following the tiny hints from the season, wasn't terribly shocking. But I hate that it ends with Liv in a parallel universe in the World Trade Center. That makes no sense. That would mean that she has not only crossed into another world, but that she's crossed space as well, which never happened in any previous shifts. Did Bell just beam her there? That felt like a cheap gag to get a reaction.

Anyway, I'm liking the basic character interactions and stuff, less liking the overall mythology. I know as the show goes on, we'll be more in the parallel world. But I don't trust these writers with it because they seem to not have a clue about what they write. Well, I'll plow on to season 2 for now.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

I have this album on vinyl.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

GLEE: "A Very Glee Christmas"

Well, they did a Christmas episode and for the most part it just ripped off various other televised Christmas episodes and specials. Not much to write home about, and little of consequence happened.

The main title was on a festive green background rather than a black one. I thought that was cute.

The glee club have found a tree in the street and are decorating it with stolen ornaments. It's pathetic, just like them. Might this be a sly reference to A Charlie Brown Christmas? Mr. Shue suggests they need to get in the holiday spirit, with which Finn heartily agrees. Mr. Shue says they will go caroling around classrooms to raise money and donate it to a local homeless shelter. The classroom caroling is a terrible idea. The students are not into it at all. One questions carolers who bring a band (this is a good point). The teacher throws a shoe at them. That ends that.

Mr. Shuster says that Christmas is about being grateful for what's happened in the year. Puck rightly responds, "I thought that was Thanksgiving." We will see throughout the night that nobody seems to know what Christmas is about.

Rachel asks Finn to meet her in the auditorium. When he gets there, she offers him a Christmas present: a solo sung by her. Way to think of others, Rachel. Despite being Jewish, she offers this Christmas gift as a peace offering to Finn hoping it will make things okay again between them. Somewhere in there someone says Christmas is about forgiveness. Again, no it isn't. I guess in a real stretch you can say that since Jesus came to forgive sin and Christmas is about Jesus it is sort of about forgiveness, but not really. Finn tells her he can't just forgive her that easily, and leaves her to sing her song alone; "Merry Christmas, Darling." It's not a fabulous song, but it's actually appropriate to this moment, which can't be said for many of the songs in this episode. A shame there's no mention of Chanukkah at all considering two of their leads are Jewish.

Artie learns the disturbing fact that Brittany still believes in Santa. But he doesn't want to come down on her and tell her the truth so he suggests they all go to the mall and ask Santa for something. I have no idea what he hoped to accomplish this way, other than continuing to validate a delusional belief. Things seem fine until Brittany does what you know she's going to do: she asks the impossible. Just like in every single TV show ever made where a kid asks Santa for something. She asks for Artie to be able to walk on Christmas morning. And the mall Santa agrees to it! Somebody fire this guy!

Back at Dalton Academy, Blaine asks Kurt to help him rehearse his duet, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Kurt of course takes the female line. It's not bad, though some of the fun suggestiveness of the lyric isn't played up. I love this song, and it rightly won an Academy Award.

Coach Beiste has decided to run a Secret Santa for the faculty. Everyone draws a name and has to buy a gift for that person. Will gets Sue Sylvester. Since Will is terrible at getting gifts (we briefly see a Christmas with Terri in flashback -- yay Terri!), he goes to Dalton Academy to ask Kurt for advice. The gymanstics needed to keep Kurt in the show are starting to annoy me. First, they overused him. Then he's gone from the school but they still feel the need to have him in every episode. So we continue to get weird visits from him and to him each episode. I don't know how long this can last. We're getting into "Mr. Worf, what the hell are you doing here?" territory; where the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies had to concoct reasons for Worf to not be on DS9. Isn't it enough that we see Kurt at Dalton? Do we need to keep him interacting with the old friends too? Maybe as the season goes on, they should have episodes without Kurt. Maybe even do an episode set entirely at Dalton Academy. It can't survive the way it's going.

Kurt's suggestion for Sue's gift is a track suit with a fur-lined hood for the winter months. This is a nice idea. But it turns out Sue has rigged Secret Santa, and thus everyone had her name. She now has a horde of gifts from an angry faculty and won't give them back. This is one reason I hate Secret Santa. It's almost never a good idea, yet workplaces consistently institute it. At least it's better than a Yankee Swap. Later on, the faculty take the gifts back, but can't return them because Sue has opened them all (and licked them, she claims). The faculty decides to donate them to the homeless shelter, and puts them all under the glee club's tree. Sue objects, but Will calls her a grinch and leaves. ...I'm sure you know where this is going.

In yet another flagrant rip-off that far exceeds nodding homage or parody, the show does How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Sue decides to steal her presents back. She puts on a Santa suit and paints herself green. Why? "Camouflage". Yeah, because you'll blend right in THAT way and won't look like a green Sue. Come on. There's a funny reference to My Lai though. She dresses Becky up as a "rein-dog", that is, she has floppy dog ears and one antler, just like Max. Why bother making her part dog at all? It's stupid. Anyway, they sneak around the room taking presents, stealing ornaments from the tree, even doing that sliding-around-on-the-floor gag from the cartoon, all while we hear the strains of "You're a mean one, Sue the Grinch." I was so annoyed by this. As if it wasn't bad enough, Brittany walks in on the destruction, and thinks Sue is Santa. Brittany cannot be this stupid. She just met a mall Santa who was black. She now believes a green-faced woman to be the same person. She's that blinded by Santa magic. Anyway, this scene exists solely to make Brittany the "Cindy-Lou Who"; her hair is done up in little braids and they exchange the exact same dialogue. And once again, the fib about the light that's out fools the child. This is not funny, this is just lazy writing.

With the tree destroyed, everyone is depressed but Finn tries to buoy spirits. He and Rachel go out shopping for a new tree, but again Rachel tries to patch things up. The tree place starts playing "Last Christmas" by Wham! which Rachel says is "my favorite Christmas song". Seriously. Okay, I'll forgive you that because you're Jewish, Rachel. Anyway, logic is cast aside as Rachel and Finn sing the song, but the Wham! vocal is never heard. Is the tree place just playing some instrumental version? And then what's worse is a chorus comes in singing back-up. Who is singing that? The music in this episode is so messed up. You can tell that it's all just excuses to use tracks from the Christmas album and not the other way around. And their song choice throughout is bizarre. The club opens the episode singing that song from the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Complete with the silly dialogue about being a train with square wheels and all. What's worse, all the choral parts seem mixed far lower than the solos. This is fine for a record, but completely illogical if they are all singing together in a room. I try to suspend disbelief with this show, but the mix is so far off in this episode. And back-up singers come in when there is no one there on-screen. Not only "Last Christmas", but "Merry Christmas, Darling" have vocals that come from nowhere.

Finn tells Rachel that they are officially broken up, because he can't get over the fact that both of his girlfriends have cheated on him. They do not buy a tree. Back at glee club, Mr. Shuster walks in on the group deciding to "go 'Gift of the Magi'" to raise money to replace the presents. The boys will sell their watches and the girls will sell their hair. Thankfully he stops them from executing this stupid idea. He asks if any of them have ever read "Gift of the Magi" and no one has, which is evident. At least this scene errs on the side of parody. Not like that awful 7th Heaven episode where they did the O. Henry story verbatim. Santana says everyone knows the point of the story is that "Christmas sucks" or something like that. Here would have been a golden opportunity to use a song like "Hard Candy Christmas", but of course the powers that be are not that smart. And whatever point was to be made about "Gift of the Magi" never gets made. The conversation just sort of shifts.

The guys convince Coach Beiste to dress as Santa and go to Brittany's house to explain that he can't make Artie walk. This scene continues a storyline that's already ridiculous. We learn that Brittany's parents "want her to believe" too. So it's their fault that she is so dumb! This is bordering on child abuse. And Brittany believes that Coach Beiste, with a fake beard, is Santa. The same Santa who was black at the mall, and a beardless green woman at school. What saves this scene from total awfulness is that Beiste tells a story of when she was a girl and all she wanted was to be like the other girls. Instead, Santa gave her patience. It's a very moving scene. It's also got a witty line in there when Beiste says there was once a husky little girl, and Brittany asks if it was Ricki Lake. I like Coach Beiste and they way they write her. She is a glimmer of goodness in a lackluster season.

The visit from "Santa" shakes Brittany's faith, and Artie takes her home from school the next day. They miss out on the performance Mr. Shue has arranged: the glee club is caroling for the faculty. Finn gives a little speech about how when things are bad at Christmas, there's "nothing a little more Santa or a few more Jingle Bells can't fix." Nonsense! At this point, I'm just wanting to go all Charlie Brown and shout "Isn't there ANYONE who KNOWS what Christmas is all ABOUT?" Note that Jesus gets no mention at all in this episode. Not saying we need Linus to quote Luke 2, but I need a little more than just recycling Dr. Seuss.

And speaking of which, the circle completes as New Directions start singing "Fa-who fores, da-who dores..." Really, you've come to sing Christmas songs and you open with that? And Sue the Grinch hears from her office and lightens up, bringing back all the gifts. I wonder if she has an enlarged heart now. They also sing "Christmas day will always be just as long as we have glee". Those aren't the words. Do they mean glee like the club? Glee like the feeling? Either way, it totally ruins the sentiment of the song. The lyric is "Just as long as we have we." While it might seem cutesy to throw the name of the show in, it undercuts the message of togetherness that Seuss was conveying.

Artie and Brittany discovered a present under her tree for Artie. It is a robotic pair of legs that enable Artie to stand and walk a bit. Nobody knows where they came from. So the episode ends like all these shows do, with a Christmas miracle and the granting of the impossible. I will give the show points however for showing us that it was Coach Beiste who provided them. Any other TV show would have had "the real Santa" be the gifter. I've seen it over and over. I was very glad that at least that cliché was avoided.

Despite that one brief glimmer, the episode was little to write home about. It was a hackneyed smattering of familiar Christmas tropes. I was glad that they didn't try to cram It's a Wonderful Life in there too, though I fear next year they might try. There wasn't much in the way of real brilliance beyond a few good jokes. And I think part of what bothers me most is this need they all felt to keep Brittany believing in something they know to be a lie. It's aggravating because earlier this season Kurt had expressed trouble with religion, equating God with Santa Claus. But God is NOT Santa Claus, and this episode is a classic example of why the two should be clearly defined. When Brittany finally learns "the truth", what will that do to her? I mean, if Finn had a crisis of faith over a grilled cheese sandwich, what will become of Brittany? But of course, God got no mention at all in this episode; what does Christmas have to do with God anyway?

Songs in this week's episode:
The Most Wonderful Day of the Year
We Need a Little Christmas
Merry Christmas, Darling
Baby, It's Cold Outside
You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Last Christmas
Welcome Christmas

Next week: Glee is on hiatus until the spring. What will the rest of the season hold? We can be sure of a return from Sunshine. I just hope the quality goes back up and we get episodes like "Duets" again, and nothing approaching the awful that was "The Rocky Horror Glee Show".

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

GLEE: "Special Education"

Sectionals are upon us! This episode had a bit more for the Mr. Shue/Emma shippers. He invites her to Sectionals as a kind of good luck charm. She points out what the audience has been saying since last year: that his set list is going to include Rachel and Finn doing some ballad and then a classic rock number where Mercedes hits the final note. I'm glad the show is taking its criticism and working it into the story points. At Emma's suggestion, Mr. Shue decides its time to spotlight some other talent in the group. He announces that the solos will be going to Quinn and Sam. Rachel is not at all happy. Mr. Shue also says that there will be dancing featuring Brittany and Mike Chang. He knows their competition will not be into movement. This is a very good idea. For their past competition performances, the group has been barely choreographed, even though they've had more movement in their repertoire and they have good dancers. Why did it take them a year to realize this?

The group is turned against itself in this episode. It was nice to see this kind of drama back after the "we all love each other" stuff the season started with. I like when Rachel is mean and they call her on it. We don't often get to see that side of her anymore, and there was a throwaway reference to her gay dads who we also don't much hear about. In the chaos of Mr. Shue's bombshell, Santana tells Rachel that she and Finn knew each other biblically. This puts Rachel and Finn's relationship on the rocks, mostly because Rachel is very insecure about her own looks when compared to Santana.

Brittany is nervous about dancing in competition with everything depending on her. Artie gives her a comb, saying it is a magic comb that guarantees they will win. Yes, Rachel is just dumb enough to believe in such things, and Glee has just given us an homage to Dumbo.

There's a point where Rachel seeks couple's therapy for her and Finn... with Emma the guidance counselor. It's not very helpful, but it was kind of funny. The best part was Rachel asking if it would be useful to hit Finn, and Emma saying no, but suggesting she storm out.

Meanwhile, Kurt is having trouble settling into his new life at Dalton Academy. Their glee club, the Warblers, are much more uniform and structured than he is used to. He is used to screaming for attention, whereas the Warblers are about a sense of team. It's tradition to present new members with a literal warbler, a small bird to take care of. Why? To make a handy metaphor for Kurt, of course. Glad the show avoided the phrase "I know why the caged bird sings". Kurt is given the opportunity to audition for a solo in competition. He asks Rachel what he should sing, and she suggests "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina". We are treated to an intercutting of Rachel and Kurt singing the song (similar to the "Defying Gravity" last year). I think it was an odd choice, and the Warblers seem to deem it "trying too hard". The best bit is when it cuts to Rachel and she's actually up in a balcony singing. It's just so absurd.

There's a moment when Rachel walks into glee club with duct tape over her mouth in silent protest over Mr. Shue's decision. Firstly, let me just say I hate silent protests. I find them so snobby and ridiculous. Besides, they are usually perpetrated by whiny outspoken people and the chance to not have to listen to them for awhile strikes me as a boon and doesn't sell their protest. It's a funny gag for the show though because it is the sort of thing high schoolers sometimes try, and because Rachel is so bad at it. She doesn't go a minute without removing the tape to explain why she's protesting. Thankfully, Mr. Shue yells at her for it and her attitude.

Tina becomes suspicious of Mike Chang and Brittany, fearing they are doing more than just dance practice. She starts dressing sort of like a goth cheerleader (which leads to a funny exchange with Artie) and tells Artie she suspects Brittany is cheating on him.

I was wondering what they would do about the missing slot now that Kurt is gone. Mr. Shue asks Puck to help him recruit someone. He tries to sell the football players on joining glee club with a speech about Bruce Springsteen. It doesn't work. It seems any football players who would be interested are already in the club. They lock Puck in a port-a-potty for a day. He is rescued by a large girl wrestler. She becomes their newest member.

Finally, it's time for competition with everyone mad at everyone else. Emma cannot go because her dentist boyfriend still doesn't trust Will. So they proceed without their good luck charm. The first group up is a bunch of seniors who've gone back to high school to get their diplomas. This seems to be a shout out to Young At Heart and those kinds of elderly singing groups. They perform "The Living Years", which I think is kind of a funny choice of song for old people. It was strange though because the song was edited oddly and ended at a weird point.

Next up is the Warblers. Of course Blaine gets the solo (what happened to the two guys who beat Kurt for the solo at auditions? Did the Warblers do another song that we don't get to see?). They do an a cappella version of "Hey Soul Sister", another song that I find terribly annoying. The words make no sense. What's next, LFO's "Summer Girls"? Despite my feelings about the song, they do it with a lot of nice harmonies. Kurt seems to enjoy himself, and when they are done, Mercedes leads a standing ovation.

Brittany is upset that she has lost the magic comb (just like Dumbo), and Artie tells her that she doesn't need it (just like Dumbo). She has not been cheating on Artie. Artie and Tina apologize to their significant others. Mr. Shue gives a big pep talk, and on we go.

Oh no, we're starting with a walk down the aisle from the back AGAIN. They did it at Sectionals last year. They did it at Regionals last year. Frankly, I'm really tired of it. Anyway, it's Sam and Quinn singing their duet. Their song is "(I've Had) The Time of My Life", you know, from Dirty Dancing. Their performance is decent. Even though it's not the most inspired of songs, considering the rest of their performance will be dance-heavy, it was nice to have a song that reminds us of dance. As they finish, Santana blasts a solo vocal on "Valerie". Santana's hair looks weird. I don't know if she's wearing some kind of hat thing or something, but it looks stupid. Mike Chang and Brittany have an amazing dance, and the rest of the group have some good moves thrown in as well. If they keep up this sort of thing, they can beat Vocal Adrenaline next time around. It was so refreshing to see dancing at competition.

It turns out that the winner of Sectionals is... a TIE. Both New Directions and the Warblers are going to Regionals. Well, of course they are. Because Kurt's in the other group.

Emma tells Mr. Shue that while they were at Sectionals, she and Carl went to Vegas and got married. Oh no! What will this mean for Will and Emma's relationship? Is it officially over? Personally, I'm hoping this leads to a more permanent return of his ex-wife Terri.

Rachel's jealousy has calmed down and she and Finn seem to have patched things up. He promises no more lies. ...uh oh, you know what that means. Rachel feels the need to come clean about something. She says that she had a little make-out session with Puck in retaliation. I'm curious just what she told Finn, because what we see happened is that Puck backs off, saying he can't hurt Finn that way again. Either way, Finn is ticked at Rachel. He rightly says that they weren't together when he was with Santana, and that Rachel is just mean. It seems they are broken up... again. Sheesh, it's like Ross and Rachel all over again.

The episode ends with Mercedes and Tina singing solos as the group does "Dog Days Are Over" in celebration. It's good hearing Tina sing again! I really wish she got more to do; they don't let her sing enough. Maybe she'll get a solo at regionals.

This episode was much more like classic Glee than the show has been for awhile. There were callbacks to previous episodes, some good lines, most of the major relationship threads, and some good performance. It still frustrates me that they don't know how to do the show this way on a consistent basis. I will say though there was a conspicuous lack of Sue Sylvester this week.

Song's in tonight's episode:
Don't Cry For Me, Argentina
The Living Years
Hey, Soul Sister
(I've Had) The Time of My Life
Dog Days Are Over

Next week's episode: You'd think that with Sectionals over, that would be the end of new episodes until after the holidays. But you'd be wrong! They want to squeeze in a Christmas episode! With Christmas music! Why? So they can sell a Christmas album! One wonders how much the church/state issues surrounding Christmas in public schools will effect the storyline.