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So Long To A Late Night World Of Love

May 21st, 2015 No comments

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By the time this article is posted, David Letterman’s final Late Show broadcast will have already occurred, but as I write this, it’s still a couple of days off. There have been approximately one godzillion tributes to Letterman in the weeks leading up to his retirement, but I couldn’t let the event pass without offering a few words of my own.

I’m old enough that my first exposure to David Letterman wasn’t CBS’ Late Show or NBC’s Late Night, but his late ’70s stint as a semi-regular replacemet host on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was such a fan that I was one of the few loyal viewers of his ill-advised gig as a morning show host in the summer of 1980.

Dave’s ironic detachment and self-aware mockery of television itself came to influence a generation of comedians and late night talk show hosts during his 11-year run on Late Night. He changed the tenor of witching hour TV with surreal comedy bits such as Chris Elliott’s appearances as a vaguely menacing guy living under the audience seats. Most people will bring up Dave’s Velcro suit or the Late Night Monkey Cam, but my favorites were theme episodes such as the annual “International Night” (with Kamarr, the “discount magician”) and the infamous “360 Degree Image Rotation” stunt in which the picture slowly spun over the course of the hour.

While I don’t believe that it influenced my decision to attend Ball State University, I certainly was delighted when I learned that Letterman had gone to school there. He and I even had one of the same broadcasting professors. During my junior year, Dave established a scholarship program and funded a radio studio with a plaque dedicating it to “all C students before and after me.”

As much as I would like to think that I picked up some residual Letterman mojo during my Ball State days, I have to say that his true influence on me was in demonstrating the fun of working in the medium of television, of getting on camera in front of thousands and doing something you can’t believe you’re getting away with. For good and ill, more than a few of my pledge drive moments have been informed by that “I’m the only thing on Channel 12 right now” attitude.

Happily, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Letterman’s Late Show in person a few years ago during a trip to New York. It was one of those “right place/right time” things. And while the Dave we saw was more settled-in than the one who staged elevator races or pitted a humidifier against a dehumidifier, I’m grateful to have witnessed a few minutes of Letterman’s late night legacy.

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Back With A Flash

May 18th, 2015 No comments

The Flash has long been one of my favorite superheroes. He’s got a cool costume and an amazingly versatile superpower that allows him to pass through walls, run across water, and even travel through time. His colorful gallery of foes is unusual in that they behave as a sort of tradesmen’s association of villainy. (They even share a tailor!)

I was a fan of the short-lived live-action TV series from 1990 starring John Wesley Shipp as the speedster and the delicious Amanda Pays as his scientific sidekick Tina McGee.

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While it was clearly influenced by Tim Burton’s Batman–as well as Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy–CBS executives were skittish about going full comic-book. That’s why in early episodes the Flash found himself in decidedly one-sided conflicts against garden-variety gangsters. Eventually the network came around and the show began to introduce the Flash’s “rogues,” including a pretty decent Captain Cold and a rather dire Mirror Master played by…David Cassidy?

Then there was Mark Hamill’s career-reviving pair of appearances as the maniacal Trickster, which served as a dry run for his iconic turn as the voice of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series.

Flash-forward a quarter century, and there’s a new Scarlet Speedster in Central City. From the producers of Arrow, the CW’s take on fellow DC hero Green Arrow, this rebooted Flash TV show is an enormously satisfying slice of Silver Age comics heroics.

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Obviously, the creative team were also fans of the John Wesley Shipp series. Not only have they taken the inevitable step of hiring Shipp to play the Flash’s dad, they’ve brought back Amanda Pays as Tina McGee and Mark Hamill as the Trickster.

And yet, there are two big differences between the shows. One is that the special effects are–not unexpectedly–far superior. The original did well with 1990 effects technology, though the switch to a green screen background made it easy to tell when the Flash was about to shift into superspeed. The current incarnation takes full advantage of modern FX tech, enabling the Flash to run up walls, create vortices of air, and vibrate through solid objects.

The other difference is that the producers have fully embraced the comic-bookness of the concept. Not only have there been the usual shoutouts to obscure DC comics characters (Ralph Dibney, Simon Stagg, etc.), but over the course of this first season they’ve introduced recognizable versions of most of the classic “rogues,” including Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Weather Wizard, Rainbow Raider, Golden Glider, Pied Piper…and freakin’ Gorilla Grodd. In 1990, we got David Cassidy and some mirrors; in 2015 there’s a giant, telepathic gorilla on network TV.

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And of course, there’s also the season-long story arc featuring Tom Cavanaugh as futuristic nemesis Eobard Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to hear the name Eobard Thawne on a live-action TV show, much less spoken by the guy who used to play a bowling alley lawyer.

Tomorrow night is the season finale, in which the Flash races through time to save his mother and, quite possibly, to muck up his own reality.

Next year promises even more superhero fan service, with a Supergirl series starring the adorable Melissa Benoist, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, in which “time master” Rip Hunter recruits a team of heroes and villains to combat immortal archfoe Vandal Savage.

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31 Monsters Between The Screams #27

October 27th, 2014 No comments

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“It’s this clause right here that I have a problem with: ‘We have the right to recast your part with Johnny Depp.'”

31 Monsters Between The Screams #12

October 12th, 2014 No comments

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Domo arigato, Mr. Mugato.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #11

October 11th, 2014 No comments

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The Twilight Zone‘s “Howling Man” is happy to provide a photo op…for a price.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #10

October 10th, 2014 No comments

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Seriously, Bob freaks me out even here.

(Still, I can’t wait until Twin Peaks returns in 2016!)

It’s All Too Much

October 9th, 2014 No comments

I’ve written before about one of the differences between the TV of my childhood and that of today: the variety (and longevity) of sci-fi/fantasy dramas. In my day, you were lucky if there was one such series on network TV, and the odds were greatly against it surviving a single season. In other words (imagine me standing on my front porch, shaking my fist as I say this) you took what you could get, and you liked it.

Now, genre fans are marinating in the stuff. There’s a franchise for every taste, and even the unloved ones achieve renewal. (Beauty and the Beast will soon begin its third season.)

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The other day, I attempted to create a comprehensive list of all sci-fi/fantasy/horror dramas currently on the air or in active production. Here’s what I came up with:

  • The 100
  • American Horror Story
  • Arrow
  • Atlantis
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Bitten
  • Constantine
  • Continuum
  • Da Vinci’s Demons
  • Defiance
  • Doctor Who
  • Dominion
  • Extant (just renewed for season two, despite no one watching it)
  • Falling Skies
  • The Flash
  • From Dusk to Dawn
  • Game of Thrones
  • Gotham
  • Grimm
  • Haven
  • Helix
  • Hemlock Grove
  • iZombie
  • The Last Ship
  • The Leftovers
  • Lost Girl
  • Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Once Upon a Time
  • The Originals
  • Orphan Black
  • Outlander
  • Penny Dreadful
  • Resurrection
  • Salem
  • Sleepy Hollow
  • The Strain
  • Supernatural
  • Teen Wolf
  • Under the Dome
  • The Walking Dead
  • Witches of East End
  • Z Nation

Forty-two. Fortytwo. And that’s not counting the cartoons.

Of these, I regularly watch seven: American Horror Story, Doctor Who, Falling Skies, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Sleepy Hollow and The Strain.

I’ve heard good things about Arrow, Defiance and Orphan Black, among others. I’m intrigued by Once Upon a Time and will get around to Game of Thrones one of these days.

But there are literally dozens of genre shows I’ve never seen and will never see. And while I admit it’s a stupid thing to complain about, I honestly think it’s all a bit much. Even the relatively narrow fanbase for such programming is fractured six ways from Smallville. We all live in our own personal fantasy worlds, and those with whom we once might have shared our enthusiasm are a universe away.

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A Little Late Night Music

April 29th, 2014 No comments

Last night it was announced that Craig Ferguson will be ending his run as host of CBS’ Late Late Show. Ferguson is yet another falling domino in the chain that began with Jay Leno’s not-entirely-voluntary retirement from The Tonight Show earlier this year. And as much as I’ll miss Ferguson, his robot skeleton sidekick and his Doctor Who fixation, it’s really the also-retiring David Letterman I want to write about here.

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Even though Johnny Carson was the late night host of my childhood, I was truly a Letterman kid. I loved it when he filled in for Johnny, and eagerly followed him on his brief, ill-advised stint on a morning talk show during the summer of 1980.

Of course, it was on his own Late Night that he became the Letterman we all came to know, his show an exercise in surreal experimentation . While Top 10 lists and Stupid Pet Tricks remain his signature bits, what fascinated me were such stunts as his succession of unusually-mounted cameras (e.g. the Late Night Monkey Cam) and a regular bit in which he dropped a variety of objects from the roof of a five-story building. Chris Elliott showed up in a variety of guises, my favorite being a vaguely sinister man who lived beneath the audience seats.

I was a huge fan of Letterman’s theme shows, such as the ones in which he allowed the audience to vote on various production aspects of the episode, changing the theme music or the backdrop behind his desk. Then there were the “international” episodes featuring such dubious talents as Kamarr (whom Letterman nicknamed “the discount magician“). But one of my all-time favorite episodes of television was the “360-degree rotation show,” during which the picture imperceptibly turned through one full rotation over the course of the hour.

So many Late Night moments have stuck with me: elevator races, the “General Electric handshake,” Paul Shaffer’s “Bermuda” song (“it’s a cuckoo kind of place”), Dave’s chats with Meg in the window of the building across the street, and Larry “Bud” Melman handing out hot towels at the Port Authority.

Much of that was lost when Letterman moved to CBS and (more significantly) an earlier time slot. The rough edges were sanded, the weirdness toned down to suit a general (older) audience. Dave himself became older, crankier and less willing to leave the studio.

Which is not to say that CBS’ Late Show wasn’t essential viewing at times. Letterman wasn’t afraid to toss tough, challenging questions at political guests, and his post 9-11 speech was one for the ages. But as much fun as it was to hang out with such found-talent as Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee, the anything-can-happen quality of Late Night was lost. Conan O’Brien, Dave’s successor at NBC, kept the freak flag flying for a time, as has Craig Ferguson, with his cursing hand puppets and pantomime horse cohort. When Craig and Dave hang it up later this year, it really will be the end of an era.

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Happily, Vicky and I had a chance to see the Late Show in person during our 2012 New York trip, and as you can see above, we got the full experience, including lunch at the Hello Deli. To have that crossed off our bucket list is especially comforting, now that Dave’s late night days are numbered.

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Hail Hydra

April 10th, 2014 No comments

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly looked like a sure thing. The first televised spin-off of the massive popular Marvel Comics film mega-franchise, centered around fan-favorite supporting character Agent Coulson, co-created by God Emperor of Geeks Joss Whedon and produced by Whedon’s close associates, at the very least it should have been a much beloved mayfly à la Firefly, and perhaps even whatever passes for a hit these days in the 500-channel TV universe.

Instead, it was arguably the biggest disappointment of the fall 2013 TV season, a dull procedural set in the periphery of the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but refusing to engage with it in any meaningful way. Even the episode that was intended as a direct follow-up to the theatrical feature Thor: The Dark World amounted to nothing more than Coulson’s team picking up scraps of Asgardian technology. It reminded me of the old Marvel Comics series Damage Control, about the working stiffs who show up after the big superhero fight and clean up the mess. Coulson and his crew of prettily bland agents weren’t even the S.H.I.E.L.D. B-team. At best, they were the C minus-team.

Perversely, the show barely even drew upon S.H.I.E.L.D.’s decades of comics storylines, introducing a brand-new opposing faction named “Centipede” rather than the long-established terrorist organizations A.I.M. and Hydra. And many of the B-list, street level superheroes that would have been realizable on a commercial TV budget (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Power Man) were reserved for a Netflix production deal. The best that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could manage was a D-lister named Deathlok, and it took them most of the season to introduce him.

At last came the release of the Captain America movie sequel The Winter Soldier, which involved S.H.I.E.L.D. in a big way. And it became clear why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been treading water. This week’s episode was set within the events of The Winter Soldier, and was a huge step up in terms of excitement and relevancy. I’m not certain it will be soon enough to help, however.

(Massive spoilers ahead for both The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Do not cross below the threshold unless you have Level 6 clearance.)

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So, it turned out that the franchise had been playing a long game, with S.H.I.E.L.D. fatally compromised by Hydra infiltrators from its inception. I don’t have a deep knowledge of Marvel Comics history, but it did strike me as reminiscent of the mini-series Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., which posited that S.H.I.E.L.D., A.I.M. and Hydra were all components of an über-organization.

In The Winter Soldier, it served as an excuse for a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller and a rebuke of our modern surveillance society, with Hydra secretly manipulating world events for decades to bring humanity to the point at which they would welcome fascist domination. (It also served up something I would never, ever have expected: Robert Redford hailing Hydra.)

At the moment, it’s unclear how it will affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. My guess is that Coulson and company will form the backbone of a restructured, lower-profile espionage company, rooting out Hydra sleeper agents in preparation for the next big movie chapter, Avengers: Age of Ultron. At least they may finally have a purpose. Too bad that they lost most of their initial audience by the time viewers were given a reason to care.

 

 

How We Left Your Mother

April 3rd, 2014 No comments

Monday night, the Internet lost its collective shit over the finale of How I Met Your Mother. It raged its feelings of betrayal in all caps. And more than 10,000 of its denizens took the entirely reasonable next step of signing an online petition demanding that the offending ending be rewritten and reshot.

If there’s one good thing to come out of all of this sturm und drung, it’s that everyone will shut the fuck up about the Lost, Seinfeld and Battlestar Galactica finales for a while.

The other day, I wrote about how HIMYM overstayed its welcome, dragging out to ludicrous length its tale of Ted Mosby’s quest for love. And yet, in this final hour, things clicked into place for me. It may not have been the ending I wanted, but in hindsight it was the only one that made sense of its nine-year shaggy dog story.

(Major spoilers ahead. Stop now if you care.)

So, as many viewers suspected for at least the past year, it was revealed in the final minutes that the titular mother had been dead (of a vague illness) for the past six years. The show was about Future Ted asking his children for permission to date his first love Robin again.

This explained a lot of things, not the least of which was why Ted’s long, long story began with his first meeting with “Aunt Robin.” And why so much of it revolved around their unresolved feelings for each other.

It was a brave choice on the part of the producers, given the expectation on the part of the audience for a happily-ever-after ending. But I think that to a large extent the audience  brought that disappointment upon themselves. They became obsessed with the Mother, treating the show as a Lost-style mystery box to be puzzled open.

To be fair, they were aided and abetted by the producers, who kept teasing them with hints, glimpses and almost-meetings. And I agree with the criticisms that the execution was muddled by the many obstacles and walkbacks necessitated by the show’s nine-year run. If it had a made a graceful exit at the end of the fifth season, if it hadn’t spent an entire year building up to Barney and Robin’s wedding only to have them divorce 15 minutes into the next episode, I don’t think that there would have been nearly so much of an outcry.

For my part, I was okay with the final episode. It was melancholy, but it felt truthful. Things don’t always work out the way we want. People die. And the only thing we can cling to is hope that things will be better tomorrow.

 

 

 

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