GAME OF THRONES – FROM THE END BACK TO THE START

The second season of Game of Thrones ended this week, likely as most of us expected: with only a modicum of “closure” and placing us in melancholy consideration of how to get through the next nine months of television without it.  The sadness of this will fade, I know, as it always does: into resignation, distraction, and, come 2013, anticipation as the new season approaches.

I thought this a good opportunity to go back to where we started.  I had vague recollections of the first episode, but, unfamiliar with the books, or anything more than the basic premise, I did not know enough in April 2011 for anything much from this episode to stick.  It was only as the series moved along that it became somewhat clear who people were.  And by that time, I did not remember how they were introduced.  All I knew was that this was the best television I’d seen in a long time.

So I watched the show that started it all, titled “Winter is Coming.”  And it was bittersweet – to see the Stark family all together (all fully-mobile and fully-headed); to see the bond between Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark; to remember – as I had not – that Robert had loved Ned’s sister.  The coming of the king was obviously not a joyous occasion, but there was possibility there, possibility that would not necessarily end in bloody war.  Then-prince Joffrey displayed none of what he would become know for; in fact, the role of prissy heir to the throne was filled by ViserysTargaryen who, though self centered and arrogant, seems, in hindsight, to have possessed only a fraction of Joffrey’s demons.  Tyrion Lannister was displayed as somewhat of a bumbler with very little, save his one conversation with Jon Snow, to hint at the bravery and decency to come.  It is telling that the first significant act we see from Lord Stark is a beheading (this I remembered).  And his comment that it  is important that he who passes sentence must swing the sword stands to subtly foreshadow the distinction between his character and that of the one who passes Ned’s own sentence – as if such a thing were necessary later.

I have found this show to never let me down.  My only complaint is that, twenty episodes in, the plotlines have become so numerous that the course of a one-hour show has only minutes to give to each.  While the momentum and excitement of each episode are unquestioned, it seems as if, come 10:00 p.m. each Sunday, its individual parts have moved forward only in inches, and not in strides.

Yet, when the inches are as captivating as these, I am happy to crawl along, always wanting more.

The Common Problems of VPs and Prime Ministers

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s new HBO comedy Veep premiered last night.  I’ve been waiting for this since the first time I heard about it sometime last year.  But now that it’s come (and Episode 1 has gone), the question is: do I have anything unique to say about it?

Maybe.

But first, let me say what I’m sure many others have already stated today:

  • I like Ms. Louis-Dreyfus very much and usually like anything she does (including Watching Ellie);
  • I enjoyed the show and the supporting cast;
  • It’s great fun to hear her swear like she’s in a Kevin Smith movie.  (One has to assume that she relishes this as well.  Way back in Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Season 1 episode The Shrimp Incident, she sat with Larry David and mused wishfully over the profanity potential of an HBO show.)

Like I said, you could read these pleased-but-typical comments like those above anywhere.  But where, I ask, can you see a comparison of this breezy Sunday night comedy and 2011’s Oscar-winning The Iron Lady?  (Well, I’m hoping only here.)

During my recent hiatus from blogging (spurred on mostly, I admit, by the fact that I was really, really, tired), I went on quite a movie spree.  I watched DVDs; I went to the theater; I have any number of half-written (or at least half-contemplated) blogs about them.  For the second year in a row, I was able to see nearly all of the major 2012 Oscar contenders.  One of these was The Iron Lady.  And it was good.

After it ended, though, my wife and I concurred that we know nothing whatsoever about English politics (including America’s role in English politics).  While some background would have been helpful, the film moved us on an emotional level because of its portrayal of more common themes.  Generally, family life.  A little less generally, married life.  Specifically, the attempt of one spouse to cope with his or her own life once the other is gone.  It is a deal that we all accept (consciously or not) when we marry: that you will build a life together and, at some point, one of you will outlast the other and somebody will be left alone.  Margaret Thatcher was one of the most powerful people on the planet.  And in her last years she had issues with failing health, her family, and her end – and not necessarily the better end – of that bargain.  Just like most of us.

Selina Meyer, the main character of Veep, is also troubled by issues common to us all.  Yes, the running joke seems to be that she is a particularly powerless powerful person, but she is still the (fictional) Vice-President of the United States.  Even so, her office, and she in particular, is subject to the incompetency and nonsense that plagues your workplace and mine.  A “Making-Of” feature claims that the physical set of the show is a faithful replica of the VP’s chambers.  I’ll have to take their word for it.  But in real life, is there really such comic drama over greeting cards and coffee makers in Washington D.C.?  You know what?  I bet there is.

I can’t imagine that those involved with either of these projects were particularly threatened by the production of the other (although it is amusing to picture Julia Louis-Dreyfus in pre-production of Veep colorfully cursing Meryl Streep’s Oscar campaign), but even on the surface, there is a big similarity: both contain main characters who are female politicians and who have attained positions at the summit (or near summit) of their governments.

The common ground on which both projects succeed, however, is not that; it is their universality: the sense that its powerful characters experience many of the same issues that we commoners do; it is the ability of each to touch its audience with situations – loss or humor (or, in at least one case, both) – that they can relate to, regardless of whether that audience knows anything about the Falklands War or what Joe Biden’s office looks like.

Technological Upgrade Required

 Two conversations I’ve had recently have led me to a very clear conclusion.

The most recent was with my fellow-Clapperboard Junkie, Sean. In response to the incredibly impressive amount of shows he keeps track of, watches, and knows a whole lot about, I said (lamely), “I don’t even know when these shows are on.”

He proceeded to give me a thorough lesson on the countless ways that I can track shows without a TV Guide, play them at my convenience, and watch them without a television set. It was a bit daunting, but, in the end, quite exhilarating.

This led me to recall an earlier conversation I had had with my sister, who was talking about the movie The Switch with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. (For the record, she fully endorses it; I had never heard of it.)

HER: That movie was so funny! I fully endorse it.

ME: Really? I’ve never heard of it.

HER: If you have time, you can watch it. I recorded it.

ME: On VHS?

HER: (silence, incredulous look; then) No.

I realize that DVRs exist; I just don’t have one. And since I don’t, I still associate “recording” with a VCR. I can’t help it.

If I’m going to make it as an entertainment blogger, I think it’s time to upgrade.

When Butthead Met Snooki

I was in my late teens when Beavis and Butthead began its first run on MTV.  My friends and I watched it whenever we could; it was one of the few shows on the channel in those days, played in between the music videos that its titular characters alternately mocked, worshipped, or, with confused chuckles and grunts, watched blankly.

My mother and parents in general were aghast (as parents tend to be).  Who were these teenage idiots?  Our elders had seen the de-evolution of buddy pairings from Bing and Bob, and Richie and Potsie to Bill and Ted, and Wayne and Garth.  But they could not comprehend why these two were on our living room TV every day.  How could we possibly find this funny?

 I couldn’t convince my own mom at the time (I’m not sure how other teenagers fared – I imagine they were not successful), but that didn’t change the fact that the show was funny.  Very.  Yes, Beavis and Butthead were idiots; they did stupid and dangerous things; they were crude.  And we loved them.

 Mike Judge, on the other hand, was far from stupid.  In creating them, he knew that B&B’s humor (an example: Butthead: His name’s “Rod.”  Beavis: Yeah, um, heh, heh.  Rod.) would draw kids (both adolescent and post-adolescent) by the thousands.  But he also knew his characters were idiots.  That was pretty much the point of the whole thing.

 The thoughtful Beavis viewer watched and realized that the joke was on B&B more often than it was not.  (The most common exception to this was when it was on their middle-aged neighbor, Mr. Anderson)  All the while, that viewer could also laugh at the funny, raunchy, and (yes!) witty observations on suburban life and, most of all, music videos.  While Beavis and Butthead definitely had their favored genre (evidenced by their perpetual attire branded AC/DC and Metallica), they surprised us sometimes.  Who knew that the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’” rocked? 

 I admit that I left the show before the show itself left the air.  I don’t remember making a conscious decision to stop watching; there just came a point when I realized that they were gone.

 Now they’re back.

 I have to say that I was not overly excited when I first heard about their return to MTV’s fall schedule; I reacted to the news with a nostalgic smile.  When I saw the commercials, however, I began to laugh.  As I heard people talking about it, I realized that I was looking forward to this.

 Last night, I finally got around to watching an episode.  It was like they never left: there they were in a garage playing with power tools and trading the least subtle double-entendres you’ve ever heard.  The episode brought back Mr. Anderson, the hapless Stewart, and the Great Cornholio.  My wife begged me to turn it off, but it was funny.  We watched it through to the end.

 The main difference of this reincarnation is that in addition to watching and commenting on music videos (which, thankfully, they still do and, just as thankfully, they still – when they get the urge – get up and dance to), they watch clips and comment on current MTV shows.  On this episode, they watched Jersey Shore and Teen Mom.

 And here’s the point . . .

 In 1993, Beavis and Butthead were the dumbest characters on TV.  The only other series I remember MTV playing at the time was The Real World.  This was back before bacchanalia and hook-ups ruled the show and people were still (semi-) real.  Shortly thereafter, though, (and this might be important) came the season of Puck, who was possibly the first reality show cast member who realized the draw of utter obnoxiousness and bad behavior.  I couldn’t stand him, but that, I’m sure, was the reason he was there.  And so people watched.

 Nearly eighteen years later, Puck has helped spawn countless shows full of people doing stupid things, displaying a near-unfathomable self-centeredness, craving attention, and showing a willingness to do anything to get it.

 One of the best places to find this is MTV.  Turn on the channel and, chances are, whatever show is on will give you an unhealthy dose of any or all of the above.

 Now that Beavis and Butthead are back, there is some serious irony going on here (thank you, Mike Judge).  In the pairing of their show with current MTV staples such as Jersey Shore, cartoon characters are commenting on the real world (no capitals required).  Everyone on the screen is ridiculous, but only the cartoon characters were created specifically to be so; besides they’re funny.  Time has passed Beavis and Butthead by and they are no longer the pinnacles of crass, immature behavior.  Compared to real people doing real things (and televising them), our beloved teenage idiots are, in a way, both wiser and more innocent.

 I wonder if my mother would agree.

Sons of Anarchy – Is Kurt Sutter Available for Conflict Resolution!!

I have made no secret about the fact that I believe that “Sons of Anarchy” is the best show on television right now and has been for a few years now. I feel comfortable saying that this past week’s episode,”Hands” was one of the best to date. When this episode was over all I wanted was more. I was so ecstatic when I realized that there are still three more episodes left in this fourth season. I was even more thrilled to read on Deadline Hollywood that FX has decided to add a 14th episode, at Kurt Sutter’s urging, to this season in order to properly finish off the story arc. This is not a huge surprise as SOA is basic cable’s #1 rated drama series, and this season is the highest rated in the shows 4 seasons run.

Once again Katey Sagal was captivating as the SAMCRO matriarch and head “Old Lady”. This week Ms. Sagal’s ability to captivate while on screen was tested as Maggie Siff gave a powerful performance. Ms. Siff has always been strong as Dr. Tara Knowles, but this was her best SOA work to date. You could see the utter hopelessness that Dr. Knowles felt as she realized that she was so close to getting out of this life, so close to escaping, but once again her chance was pulled out from under her. She knows the outlaw biker lifestyle is not healthy, not safe, not something that will have a positive outcome, but she cannot seem to escape it, not without having to leave behind the thing she covets the most, Jax Teller. Dr. Knowles has sacrificed so much in an attempt to make a life with Jax and her boys away from SAMCRO, but for the first time you felt she knew this was not going to happen. She was defeated, beaten by this life that has taken so much from her. The one thing that Tara has always been able to fall back on is that she is a doctor and a good one. This has always been her security blanket, it has always given her the ability, in her mind, to relocate anywhere, to get away from the “club” and still be OK. Now she faces the ugly truth that her days as a surgeon, as a doctor, are most likely over, you could see the breakdown, the culmination of years of hope slipping away, as all of a sudden it hit her that she is now stuck in Charming, stuck in this life, stuck with these people forever. You could see the despair come over her as she realized she is now even closer to becoming the one thing that terrifies her the most – Gemma!

As my DVR began to replay this piece of television gold, I began to think about SOA as a whole, the full journey, and I could not help but wonder where this all would end, what does Kurt Sutter have in store for us. I need to know his vision, what he sees as the outcome for not only this season but for the series as a whole. I need to know the outcome for each character, the path they take to that outcome. I cannot wait, I cannot put in the time it will take to watch every episode, that will take way too long. I have to know now! This is my problem, there is my conflict! I cannot imagine this show coming to an end, I want more!!! I savor each and every episode and never want them to end. As soon as I see the closing credits I immediately look forward to the next week. I love to speculate what will happen on the next episode and enjoy it so much more when something happens that I never imagined, which is usually the case.

How can this be? How can I need so badly to know what happens but at the same time not want to know so I can enjoy the journey each and every week? How can this type of conflict exist? That is a testament to Kurt Sutter’s vision, his writing. SOA is a rare television experience. It encapsulates you, is sucks you in, it makes you yearn for those elusive answers, it makes you need those answers but at the same time it makes getting those answer at the storytellers pace so enjoyable that you never want it to end. SOA keeps you coming back again and again, for more and more!!

Bravo Mr. Sutter, my hats off to you. If you are reading this please give me a call and let me know how this all ends! On second thought forget that I am enjoying the current journey way too much!!!

No wait… please let me know the ultimate end here, I cannot possibly wait, please share your vision with me!!!

Scratch that, I will get it every week like everyone else!!

Random Trailer Watching – Wanderlust

On a visit to IMDB this morning, I watched a trailer for a movie called Wanderlust.  It was center on the homepage and showed a picture of Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, but there was only one reason I was particularly interested in clicking on it: I had never heard of it before.

I like both stars.  Paul Rudd has a now well-defined tendency to play not quite against his good looks, but to use them well in some off-center roles.  And, while not particularly a Friends fan, I have always found Jennifer Aniston appealing.  Her recent role in Horrible Bosses has certainly boosted her comedic reputation and, hopefully, will broaden the parts she is offered.

As shown in the Wanderlust trailer, these two play married, successful, and straightforward professional types who wind up in a commune.  Before they get there though, comes the first real positive sign: Ken Marino as Rudd’s obnoxious brother.  I’m happy anytime I see an alumnus from The State in a high-profile movie.  And what I’ve learned is that if there’s one member of this troupe around, chances are that there are probably more.

A minute later, Joe LoTruglio arrives – stark naked.  Soon after comes Kerry Kenney.  A check of the movie’s details turn up that it was written by the fore-mentioned Marino with David Wain, and directed by Wain.  (It also notes a release date of February 2012.)

In addition to former State-ees, the preview showcased a number of other promising faces.  Only recently, while watching an episode of Parenthood, I wondered what Lauren Ambrose was up to (with her former television brothers from Six Feet Under both in highly visible and popular shows).  Well, here she is.  Also joining the crowd are Malin Akerman, Ray Liotta, and comedy royalty Alan Alda.  As far as pure trailer appeal goes, you can never go wrong with a little of Elvis Costello’s Peace, Love and Understanding.

The trouble with a lot of comedies out there is that they either play too close to the middle and you wind up with a pretty mundane ninety-minutes, or they strategically reach too far and end up with something shocking, but not really amusing.

 While the premise of Wanderlust seems to be of the standard fish-out-of-water variety, for those of you familiar with the talents involved here – and their clearly off-kilter sensibilities – you know as well as I do: this could be very funny.

How to Convince Your Kids to See The Muppets

Two words:

Mahna Mahna.

Here’s the backstory.  I’ve loved the Muppets from even before the episode of The Muppet Show starring both Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker.  (I still wonder how they managed to pull that off.)  I may have forgotten that adoration over the years, but deep down it was always there.  When my kids were born, I remembered and embraced it. 

We bought the original Muppet Movie and while my oldest did enjoy a few viewings of it, she moved past it shortly after (she was two years old at this point) and never really looked back.

In the few years since, I’ve tried to lobby for holiday viewings of The Muppet Christmas Carol and It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (both highly recommended, by the way), but to no avail.  So I watch them on my own and am content that the kids do enjoy the original Grinch cartoon and Elf.

When I heard that the Muppets were once again coming to the big screen, however, I knew there was some brainwashing to be done.

ME: (casually) Do you guys want to go see the Muppets in the movies?

THEM: No.

ME: We can get popcorn.

THEM: Can we have popcorn here?

Drat.

My wife, though, is a wonderful accomplice.  She convinced them to give me a Muppet-themed birthday dinner.  Since there are no Muppet-themed decorations (can you explain that, Party City?), she focused on gifts.  The first was a gift certificate to the movies to see The Muppets.  The kids couldn’t argue with that – but they didn’t have to be happy about it.  The second, though, was stealthier: The Green Album.  This is a CD with current artists doing Muppet classics.

For me, the album itself was a hit.  My personal favorites are Mr. Bassman by Sondre Lerche and, especially, Movin’ Right Along by Alkaline Trio.  Little did I know (though I’d hoped), that constant playing of it in the car would slowly open a Kermit-shaped window into my kids’ little minds.  Soon they were singing along.  And the one they really liked?  Mahna Mahna (emphasis on the “na”; both times).  Credit to The Fray for doing a faithful and, thus, very entertaining version.

So we’d sing it.  And then, we You-Tubed it.  (When the kids were very young, they thought every CD had an accompanying movie, or at least a video – that’s what you get when you only listen to The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Shrek soundtracks.  Luckily for me, this time they were right.)  And when they watched it, they loved it.

Now, if you’ve never seen this little skit (it’s been done several times with several variations over the years), here’s one of the earliest (though not quite the original): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8N_tupPBtWQ.

Watch that and maybe we’ll see you at the movie too.

Two-Thirds of a Documentary, or: What Kind of Trickery is This?

NetFlix has had some trouble recently. Maybe you’ve heard about it.

The root of this seems to be that they made a very unpopular decision and executed it poorly. I’m an optimist, however, and do believe that they will pull it together and rebound, maybe a bit chastened, but mostly all right.

That said, I had a run-in with them over the summer that I now see as a clear and ominous foreboding.

Here’s how it went down:

My wife and I are low-level (read: kind of lazy) Kennedy enthusiasts. We don’t particularly go out of our way to read anything about them but we are very excited to come across just about any documentary or, even better, movie about them. A claim has recently been made that a whole generation’s knowledge of the assassination has been informed by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. Yup, that’s us.

Anyway, while browsing the streaming documentary offerings on Netflix this summer, we came across one from 1988: The Men Who Killed Kennedy. It was a six-parter, each part approximately an hour. The plan was to watch one episode per night.

(As an aside, what we saw of this – more on that later – proposed some things that I never heard before, but, for the most part was completely supportive of the theories proposed in Stone’s movie. In fact, there were parts when the talking heads in the documentary delivered dialogue from the movie word-for-word – or, really, vice versa; the movie came out in 1991. Did the director use this as a prime source while making his film? I might know if I had enough ambition to check the end credits of JFK or actually do a little research, but I don’t. Suffice to say, the documentary did not change my opinion that Tommy Lee Jones was clearly involved. Back to the point . . .)

When we finished part four of the documentary, I clicked on part five. I had no intent of watching it at that time; I just wanted to read the description. And the description was, “Available on Disc Only.” The same for part six.

I’d been toughened up over time by having had the majority of movies that I searched for not be available for streaming. I could handle it (even when I came across such irrationalities as Iron Man 2 being available, but the first Iron Man not). But to have only four parts of a six-part documentary series borders on deliberate cruelty. I’m glad that I happened to realize this prior to sitting down for part five. If it weren’t available when I had actually planned on watching it, I would have pouted for a full minute or more before deciding to see if Freaks and Geeks was playing on IFC.

Now that we all pay for streaming movies and home-delivered discs separately, this situation would be absolutely ridiculous. NetFlix seems to have avoided this by having removed (at my last check) all parts of The Men Who Killed Kennedy from its streaming options.

And that’s my story.

As I said, what was a minor inconvenience to me then (I could have just gotten the remaining parts by mail), obviously turned out to be a harbinger of dark, dark times for the Netflix-subscribing population.

I’m sorry I didn’t mention it to you all sooner.

Where have you gone Bud Bundy?

I was watching the best show on television last night, “Sons of Anarchy”, and there was Katey Sagal lighting up the screen, completely carrying each and every scene in which she appeared and all of a sudden it popped into my head, that this actress, the 2010 Golden Globe winner for best performance by an actress in a television drama for her work on Sons of Anarchy, played Peg Bundy on Married with Children for eleven seasons. I don’t know why I never thought about this before. Perhaps the depth and conviction that exude from Ms. Sagal as she portrays the matriarch of the Sons of Anarchy biker gang made it very hard for me to see her as the ditzy, self centered Peg Bundy. I think this is a testament to Ms Sagal’s acting talent.

As I thought about Peg Bundy the rest of the Bundy clan popped into my head, I quickly remembered that Ed O’Neill, who played the down on his luck shoe salesman Al Bundy, is currently on the hit show Modern Family. The Bundy parents seem to be doing very well but what of the Bundy offspring, Kelly and Bud.Christina Applegate who played the self centered, slutty Kelly Bundy is currently on Up All Night, a new critically acclaimed sitcom with Will Arnett. That just leaves David Faustino who played the loveable, never give up, get rich quick, schemer Bud Bundy. Nothing current came to mind for David Faustino, so I checked the entertainment bible; IMDB, to see what he has been up to lately, perhaps there was something I missed. What I saw was somewhat disappointing, especially when you take into consideration the recent success of the rest of the Bundy family. There have been a few cameos on various shows; some voice work on cartoons, a failed attempt to become a rapper and that was just about it. My first thought was that portraying Bud Bundy for so long and so well might be too much of a stereotype for an actor to overcome. Maybe the parts are not coming his way because he cannot shed the “Bundy” image. Then I thought how can that be? The other three actors in the Bundy family have broken that same stereotypical mold and branched out to other projects, so why not Bud? Could it be a choice by Mr. Faustino, maybe his days as a child actor combined with his tenure on Married with Children have soured Mr. Faustino on this profession, maybe he has had enough? I would love to have the answer to this question but I guess we will never know for sure. Married with Children lives on through Al, Peggy and Kelly but why not Bud?
I have to ask

Where have you gone Bud Bundy

Poll at ew.com

I realize that most of my recent posts have been focused on scary stuff.  While a small part of this may be a predilection that I fully admit to, I blame the rest of it on the season.  Now that Halloween is over, it’s time to move on.  But before we leave this dark road completely, there’s just one more stop to make . . .

A recent poll at www.ew.com voted The Twilight Zone the third creepiest TV show ever.  It came in with a solid 18% of a close vote, behind American Horror Story (22%) and The X-Files (20%).

I saw this and couldn’t help grinning – irrationally, I realize – like a proud uncle.  Or, considering the show turned fifty recently, more like a wide-eyed younger cousin.

Though the show was (is) about far more than trying to give people the shivers (for that, see Night Gallery), I’m just happy to see it still in the public consciousness.  And, in defense of its poll ranking, it does have some episodes I’d rather watch with the lights on.

Just thought I’d say.