Posts Tagged ‘television

01
Apr
14

How I finished “How I Met Your Mother”

I have written before — and often — of my love for CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, which ended its nine-year run Monday night. It was a show of true heart, relateable joys and heartbreaks, and outrageously funny characters that have kept me entertained for nearly a decade. I didn’t want to fire off a knee-jerk reaction to the finale — as the internet has proven time and again, that way lies madness. I wanted a little time to ponder, to sort out my feelings, to understand them before I tried to explain them. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think I’m ready.

Be warned. Spoilers ahoy.

To say the ending left me feeling conflicted is an understatement. There were certainly fine moments, and the structure works. At the end, the show is finally given its true context. The framing sequence, when Ted Mosby circa 2030 is telling the children how he met their mother, is really Future Ted’s attempt to explain to his children why — six years after the death of his wife — he’s considering trying to start up a relationship with their “Aunt Robin.” It explains succinctly why the story started with his and Robin’s first meeting, why so much of the story has centered on her, why over the years Ted and Robin  would backslide to one another so often. It makes sense.

Despite making sense, though, something about the finale left me feeling… hollow. And I needed to decide what that was. It wasn’t just that Tracy, the mother, was dead. I didn’t want that, but I’ve also never thought it was fair to judge a story by what you want it to be rather than what it is. And it isn’t that the ending was, at best, bittersweet, because those are often the most emotionally rich and spiritually honest ways a story can end.

My problem, I think, stems from the fact that the final few minutes of the show thrust Ted and Robin back together again — this after years of Ted trying to get over her and finally succeeding just a few short episodes ago. In the penultimate episode, in fact, he underlined that moment, telling Robin that he was not in love with her anymore. To leap, then, from that point to Future Ted returning to Robin’s apartment with the blue French Horn from so long ago… it felt like all the character development had evaporated. I could deal with Robin and Barney’s divorce, sad as that was. I probably even could have dealt with the Mother dying, as such sadness is true to life, is what ultimately makes the moments of joy all the greater. In the last minutes, though, I felt like we bounced back to square one.

In a way, I think the writers trapped themselves. In any long-running story — especially on TV, where the writer’s goals can be derailed by actors leaving, dying, getting arrested… really any circumstances where real-world events can intrude on the storytelling — there has to be room for flexibility. We all know that Aaron Paul’s character was originally slated to die in the first season of Breaking Bad, but Vince Gilligan changed his mind, and thank goodness. Then we have LOST, which initially hung a lot of significance on a 10-year-old named Walt. The mysteries around that character had to be dropped, though, because while only a few months passed on the show, in real time several years passed. The actor aged and hit a growth spurt. Now I remain a defender of LOST, I liked the ending, but I can’t deny frustration at some of the questions that were never answered because nature necessitated putting him on a boat off the island.

HIMYM’s problem wasn’t as dramatic — there was never a question of removing an actor or one of them leaving the show. Instead, the characters moved in a direction I don’t think the creators anticipated by focusing so much of the show of Ted trying to get past Robin, to the point where many viewers (I’m raising my hand here) wanted to just get past that and get on with the story of the Mother.

But the die had already been cast. To avoid “The Walt Problem,” they filmed scenes of Ted’s kids reacting to the end of the story eight years ago, before they had visibly aged from the scenes they shot for the first few episodes. It was a good strategy, but it kind of locked them into the ending, in which the kids gave Ted their blessing to go after Aunt Robin. With no wiggle room, they took an ending that may have worked in season two, or three, or even five, and applied it to characters who — by season nine — had outgrown it. The ending planned no longer rang entirely true.

I don’t hate the ending. There was, in fact, some fine work in there. Lily and Marshall have always been the stable core of the group (save for a brief period in season two), and having them act as a sort of Greek chorus in this finale, shuffling them between Robin, Barney, Ted and Tracy, all rang true.

Neil Patrick Harris, to use a baseball analogy, gets the save here. One of the best aspects of the show for the past few years has been the slow growth and development of Barney Stinson from a one-note character to someone you truly wanted to root for. When he and Robin broke up and he reverted to form, it was heartbreaking. In his case, though, it was not a question of true backsliding, of him becoming the person he once was. Even sadder, he was trying to return to the person he used to be, and with each protest that his friends “let me be who I am,” it was increasingly clear he was no longer that person.

Then he held his daughter and professed his truest, most sincere love. In that moment the old Barney — the Season One Barney, the Barney he put back on life support when he and Robin called it quits — well and truly died. And as sad as his split with Robin was, I don’t think the new Barney, Daddy Barney… hell, the real Barney… ever could have existed without her. It was a phenomenal moment, and although we didn’t get to see much of Barney as a dad, I have no doubt that it was Legend — wait for it…

And finally, Cristin Milioti as Tracy, the Mother. She gets this season’s MVP award. To come into a show in its ninth and final season would be daunting under any circumstances. To do so in such a way that makes the viewers feel for her and care about her as deeply as the five characters the audience has known all this time… it’s heroic. She was simply magnificent. We accepted easily how quickly Ted fell in love with her, because we did too.

I believed Tracy as the love of Ted’s life. Which is initially why that ending felt like a gut punch. upon reflection, though, I think I also see a seed of redemption in it. I can use it for a little perspective. Ted, after all, was the one who turned down Robin when she tried to take him back at her wedding. Tracy wasn’t his second choice, like I felt at first. Even though he didn’t know her yet, he gave up Robin to look for her, and he was rewarded. And it’s not like he ran back to Robin as soon as his wife died — he took six years, a more than respectable amount of time, before he decided it may be worth pursuing. Even then, he put the wishes of his children — Tracy’s children — before his own. Through that prism, I can see it as Robin and Ted finding solace with each other after her unexpectedly lonely life and the loss of his true love.

It’s not what I expected. It’s not how I would have ended it. But it has some truth to it nonetheless.

So while I’m not fully satisfied, I’m not really upset either. I’m certainly not angry. How could I be? For nine years, I’ve been allowed to join in on the adventures of characters right in my own stage of life, allowing me to grow with them. As Ted’s friends married and had children, so did mine. The first time Ted ever heard Tracy’s voice, she was singing “La Vie En Rose,” and as Erin and I prepare for our own wedding, they’ve given us the song for our first dance.

So thank you, show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and thank your writers, for nine years of joy. Thank you to Pamela Fryman, who directed nearly every episode of the series (a Herculean feat in and of itself). And thank you to our six incomparable friends, and the countless supporting players, for the pop culture milestone you’ve created.

For robot wrestlers and the Kennedy package. For slap bets and for Swarley, duckie ties and dopplegangers. For never buckling to peer pressure and explaining about the pineapple. (Yes, I’ve heard the rumors of a DVD extra. Shut up.) For making interventions fun again. For extending the cultural significance of the hanging chad by a good 13 years.

For making me cry more than once and never making me ashamed of it.

For blue French Horns.

For yellow umbrellas.

I request the highest of fives.

 

–dary.

Yeah. Totally worth the wait.

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19
Jan
12

In Defense of the Laugh Track

A day or two ago, during a Twitter conversation, a buddy of mine expressed surprise that the TV show How I Met Your Mother is already in its seventh season. Specifically, he said when he watched the first episode, his reaction was along the lines of, “A laugh track? Right, this is going to last.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him express a sentiment like this, and he’s be no means the only person I know who has felt this way. And I have an odd sort of reaction to it every time. While I’m not necessarily a fan of laugh tracks, I’m not instinctively opposed to them either, and in no way do I think the presence or absence of a laugh track is indicative of the quality of a show. Some of the greatest comedies of all time have featured either a laugh track or, even better, the laughter of a live audience — Cheers, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Sanford and Son… due to the sheer number of shows that have included the sound of laughter, it’s easy to argue that it has been present in most of the great English-language comedy shows of all time.

Let’s examine the perceived problem with the laugh track. The opposition, I believe, stems from the feeling that the producers of the show are being insulting or patronizing by cuing the audience to laugh, or that it speaks to an inherent lack of confidence in the material that requires the canned laughter so the viewer knows it’s supposed to be funny. In some cases, this is probably true — it’s a little less painful to watch a terrible attempt at comedy if we hear somebody laughing. But for most of us, that’s not nearly enough to disguise bad material. In fact, when used on a bad show, it can even serve to accentuate what’s wrong with it. For example, think of the critics’ current go-to example of terrible programming, the NBC sitcom Whitney. Among the show’s many crimes against the viewers, Whitney Cummings starts every episode by announcing, “Whitney is taped before a live studio audience. You heard me.”

Huh?

The “live studio audience” bit is standard, of course, it’s been used by sitcoms for decades to let the viewer know that, yes, real people were there when they taped the show and, yes, they really laughed. But Cummings takes it a step too far: “You heard me.” Suddenly she’s become abrasive and confrontational, as if she’s anticipating some critic using the laugh track to condemn the show and wants to cut him off by saying, “See? THESE people like it!” It’s supposed to set the tone with a joke, but it doesn’t work. Then again, “abrasive,” “confrontational,” and “it doesn’t work” are all terms I would use to define the show in general, so perhaps it’s more successful at setting the tone than is readily apparent.

Regardless, Whitney doesn’t suck because it has a laugh track, it sucks because it’s poorly written and performed by soulless automatons that couldn’t hold on to their jobs frightening children in theme park dark rides. The laugh track itself is just a convention of muti-camera sitcoms, and we’re so used to it that such a show would feel strange without one.

There are, basically, two kinds of comedies on television, single-camera and multi-camera, and each has different demands based on the way the television show is filmed. “Single-camera” shows are filmed like movies, with one camera in use at any given time, and no audience. Shows like this — such as Scrubs, The Office, or Community to name a few — allow for location shooting, outdoor filming, and give the director the opportunity to record a take as many times as he wants until he gets it right. The “multi-camera” technique was popularized by Desi Arnaz when he was making I Love Lucy. Like their predecessors in radio, early TV sitcoms were often performed in front of a live audience. The problem here is that you can’t do as many takes are you want with an audience.

People will only sit so long to be entertained, and even worse, the jokes lose their impact upon repeat viewings. Even the funniest scene ever written (and here I am specifically thinking of the bit in The Dick Van Dyke Show when Rob and Mary are afraid their child was switched at birth, only to find out the other family is black) will fail to elicit a laugh if you’ve seen it ten times in the past hour while the director tries to get different angles. Using several cameras to shoot different angles at the same time drastically reduces the number of takes necessary. The vast majority of TV comedies over the past several decades have been multi-camera, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when shows like Scrubs became successful, that single-camera began to regain popularity. (Virtually all TV dramas, by the way, are filmed single-camera, and thus aren’t particularly germane to this discussion.)

The result is two very different experiences for the viewer. Single-camera shows are packaged like movies, with more incidental music and greater opportunities for action or special effects. They come to the viewer in a very complete fashion. But multi-camera shows aren’t made like movies. They are performed and packaged like a stage play, and it is for this reason that laughter isn’t only expected, but almost required.

A stage play is far more immediate than a movie. There’s a greater energy and urgency, not only for the actor, but for the audience as well. Live actors can feel when an audience is enjoying a show and feed off that energy, and conversely, when an audience isn’t into it, the show suffers. There is nothing you, as an audience member, can do that will change your experience watching a movie, but simple audience consensus in a live play actually does make it better or worse.

Obviously, this isn’t true of a TV show, once you’re watching it at home. But the point I’m making here is that these shows — probably unintentionally — are designed in such a way as to imitate the shared community experience of watching a live play, which is different even from the shared community experience of watching a movie in a packed theater. And it is because of this that hearing laughter during a multi-camera show “feels” right, and why a laugh track added to a single-camera show “feels” wrong. In 2010 NBC rolled out yet another of their many doomed sitcoms, this one called 100 Questions. This single-camera show was weak to being with, but the producers did it no favors by adding in a laugh track. This sitcom convention, which is almost unnoticable when used well on a multi-camera show, is unbearably conspicuous in a single-camera setting.

By contrast, look at a multi-camera show with no laugh track. There are plenty of efforts on YouTube to strip the track from assorted shows, and most of them suffer from rather poor and obvious editing, but it’s enough for you to get the idea:

Even the funniest show, when stripped of its laugh track, feels like sitting in a play where nobody is laughing, and that’s a miserable feeling for actor and audience alike. The tone is similar to the  webcomic Arbuckle, which repackages Garfield comic strips without Garfield’s thought balloons, thus giving Jon Arbuckle the appearance of being a sad (well… sadder), lonely man who talks to his perfectly conventional pets as if they could respond. (This is not to be confused with the more popular Garfield Minus Garfield, which strips all characters and dialogue save for Jon Arbuckle himself, giving him the appearance of being a lunatic suffering from advanced schizophrenia. Although one wonders if The Big Bang Theory would feel this way if you edited out Johnny Galecki’s Leonard and left Jim Parson’s Sheldon by himself.)

To give one more example, this of a fantastic show where virtually everything was done wrong, look at Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. It was a multi-camera sitcom that, strangely, felt very wrong with a laugh track added in. When the producers dropped the laugh track, it made for a better show, but it also made it clear what the problem was: the show wasn’t really written as a comedy, but a drama. At most, it was a “dramedy,” and should have been shot single-camera, where it may have at least stood a chance. But Sorkin learned his lesson on his next show, a little thing called The West Wing.

While I can accept that a person can prefer the single-camera format to the multi-camera or vice versa, I soundly reject the notion that either format is inherently superior to the other. And I think the sound of laughter (I do prefer live audience to canned laughter, but that’s another discussion) is hardwired into the genre the way comic books use panels. Is it possible to do without? Sure — but it feels… off.

If, perhaps, we were to eradicate the laugh track entirely, we could learn to live without it. Twenty or thirty years from now, it could be considered quaint, and the next generation would find it unusual if someone tried to bring it back. But it’s part of an experience that has been conditioned into our brains, and that’s really hard to change.

25
Aug
11

Phineas and Ferb: The Spin-off?

As you may have heard by now, I love Disney’s Phineas and Ferb. I think it’s the best cartoon to come on the air in a decade, if not more, and I eagerly await each new episode, which premiere far too infrequently for my taste.

Earlier today, I saw a post at Geek Tyrant that seems to indicate the show’s creators are indeed working on a big-screen Phineas and Ferb movie — not a surprise, it’s been rumored for a while. More interesting to me, though, is the notion that Disney may be in the hunt for a spin-off.

My.

Whenever a TV show creates a spin-off, you have to ask yourself which character(s) will be involved. And if the spin-off happens while the parent show is still on the air, how will it impact the series? For example, the most obvious character to get his own spin-off would be Perry the Platypus, the semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal of action. While it would be fun to see longer adventures with Perry and his best frenemy, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, I don’t think I’d want to see that if it means they’d leave the core show. It’s too woven into the DNA of the show. Removing them from the series would be a terrible blow, and I don’t know if the resultant “new” series would be the same.

Would it be the second bananas? The Adventures of Buford and Baljeet? It sounds funny, sure, but could that particular odd couple sustain a show by themselves? The dynamic between them is funny, but if it was the main element of the show I could see it getting old quickly. What if they went with recurring characters instead of regulars? I could see a show about the rock band Love Händel. They’re on tour, travelling the world, having adventures… that could possibly work.

Or maybe it’ll be something totally new. I really don’t know. But I know that if Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh are in the steering wheel, I’ll at least give it a try. Let’s just all hope that if and when the P&F spin-off happens, it’s more Frasier than The Tortellis, more Laverne and Shirley than Joanie Loves Chachi, more Pinky and the Brain than The Cleveland Show.

Yes, I know The Cleveland Show doesn’t have the same parent as Pinky and the Brain. It just sucks.

04
Mar
11

What I’m Watching: Who Do You Think You Are?

I am digging this show Who Do You Think You Are?

In its second season, each week this show takes a different celebrity guest (I know, this is usually where I stop reading too, but bear with me) and takes them on a journey to uncover secrets about their own family history. The editors of this show are brilliant — they manage to take celebrities I don’t give a squat about and craft a compelling one-hour narrative where I follow them along in the desperate hopes of uncovering a truth about their lives. No other show ever made could possibly make me care about Kim Catrall, let alone her grandfather, much less get pissed off at him for walking out on his wife and kids.

Look, the show is a glorified commercial for Ancestry.com, I know that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to watch. There are so many people in our country today who don’t have the slightest clue where they came from and what their true heritage is, and even worse, don’t care. If this show compels a few of them to find out a little about that, then it’s worthwhile. Honestly, I think they could grab random people off the street and have them take this journey instead of celebrities and it would be just as compelling, if not more so. But right now I’m watching Lionel Ritchie trace the life of his great-grandfather and I’m totally drawn in. That’s pretty damn impressive.

26
Feb
11

My Saturday Morning Shuffle

A little while ago, chatting with Erin and Mark on Facebook, we call came to the conclusion that there just aren’t any good shows on Saturday mornings anymore. Certainly no decent cartoons. And I decided that the only way to remedy this, at least until I take over television programming, is to get an enormous DVD player capable of holding dozens of discs and placing the episodes on random shuffle. So I looked at my DVD collection to decide what I would put on that shuffle if I could do so right now…

  • Animaniacs Volume 1 (I so gotta find the rest of these)
  • Challenge of the Super-Friends Vol. 1, 2
  • Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers Vol. 1
  • Count Duckula Season 1
  • DC Super-Heroes: The Filmation Adventures
  • Danger Mouse Seasons 1 and 2
  • Darkwing Duck Vol. 1
  • Ducktales Vol. 1-3
  • Dungeons and Dragons: The Beginning
  • Exosquad Season 1
  • Flintstones: The Complete Series
  • Galaxy High Vol. 1
  • Garfield and Friends Vol. 1-5
  • Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 1-3
  • Looney Tunes: The Golden Collection Vol. 1-2 (I desperately need the rest of these)
  • Max Fleischer’s Superman
  • The Muppet Show Seasons 1-3 (Not a cartoon, but I dare you to tell me these don’t deserve to be here)
  • Peanuts 1960s Collection, 1970s Collection Vol. 1-2
  • Pinky and the Brain Vol. 2 (Still need more!)
  • The Pixar Short Films Collection (Because they’re cool)
  • The Real Ghostbusters Vol. 1
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle Season 1
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series
  • Star Wars Animated: Droids & Ewoks
  • Superman: The Animated Series Vol. 2
  • Tiny Toon Adventures Season 1 Vol. 2
  • TransFormers: The Complete First Season Vol. 1
  • Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White; Silly Symphonies Vol. 1; Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; The Chronological Donald Vol. 2; The Complete Goofy

Looking at this list, my collection seems woefully inadequate. Why have I never finished the Looney Tunes collections? Or Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, or Pinky and the Brain? Why don’t I have the Batman cartoons, Batman Beyond, or the Justice League? (Why has Warner Brothers not yet released a complete set of Static Shock?)

:sigh:

Someday, my friends. Some. Day.

25
Jan
11

Time Travel Tuesdays: Please, Touch That Dial

I’ve got a confession to make, friends. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I did something I’m not proud of at all. I watched American Idol. Non-ironically. I call this dark time “season one.” Once season two rolled around, it had become evident that the show was going to become a juggernaut with any potential entertainment value leeched out of it by television programming demons from the Fox Network, and since then I’ve stopped watching each season as soon as the first audition round ends and the singers that are bad enough that they lap the scale and become entertaining again are gone. Consequently, I have no idea who won the show for the last several years, and I’m fine with that. But now that there’s an almost all-new panel of judges, I glanced in again and found that even the painful opening rounds just don’t have the entertainment value it once did. So in memorial, I’m presenting the column I wrote way back on June 22, 2002, regarding that first year of Idol and reality TV in general.

June 22, 2002

Please, touch that dial!

Summer is traditionally a bad time for television, but I am coming to the conclusion that this year the network and cable executives have entered a secret competition to see how many people they can drive screaming from their living rooms into oncoming traffic, hopefully while being taped by the Fox network.

I am basing this hypothesis on ads I have been deluged with lately for the Animal Planet’s new series, “The Pet Psychic.” Say that with me here: “The Pet Psychic.” They have found a woman who claims to be able to read the minds of animals and given her her own television program.

Look, I love animals. And I believe wholeheartedly that they each have their own personalities and their own style and their own likes and dislikes. That said, anyone who needs a telepath to figure out what an animal is thinking is just dragging down the human race to begin with.

Let’s look at cats, since these are the domestic animals with whom I have the most personal experience. After years of observing several cats in several environments, I have concluded that at any given time, your average cat is only thinking one of four things:

1. Feed me.

2. Pet me.

3. Entertain me.

4. Leave me alone, you buffoon, I’m taking a nap.

Furthermore, most cats are not shy about making it perfectly clear to you what mood they are in.

Dogs are even less complex, they’ve only got three thoughts on average:

1. Can I eat that?

2. Can I chase that?

3. Woof.

So you see, even if you’re so dense that your cat leading you into the kitchen, looking at her empty bowl, jumping onto the bag of food and meowing like a hungry banshee doesn’t tell you she wants food, you’ve still got a one-in-four chance of being right if you just guess what she’s thinking.

What’s more, the Pet Psychic herself is just plain creepy. And I don’t mean “spiderweb in the corner” creepy, I mean Christopher Walken creepy. The kind of creepy that has you reaching for a crucifix and Max Von Sydow’s phone number.

Animal Planet is not alone, of course. As usual, we can count on Fox to be the home of fine, quality programming that could inspire a person to jam hypodermic needles into his eyeballs. That’s right, from the people who brought you the Emmy Award-Winning “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and “Temptation Island” comes “Looking For Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska,” the heartwarming story of a squad of nauseating, publicity-starved women competing for the love of a pack of cold-weather hunks. Hot tubs galore, folks. Keep the kids up for this one.

Fox is also responsible for a program I am rather ashamed to admit I have watched, “American Idol.” Evidently they held open auditions some time ago for anybody who wanted to pretend they could sing, eventually narrowing the field down to 30 people. To achieve this they employed the services of a rude Englishman, a Grammy winner (really this time) and Paula Abdul. One of these 30 people, Fox promises, will be the new American Idol.

Well… I suppose I could live with this if I thought the American public would be smart enough to vote for competitors who aren’t likely to become Britney Aguilera or 98 Backstreet Synch Town clones.

This program does have entertainment value, I’ve gotta admit, at least in the first episode. I frequently cracked up as the British guy told people auditioning exactly how bad they were (actual transcript: “Have you ever taken singing lessons? Who was your teacher? Do you have a lawyer? Get a lawyer and sue her.”)

What really disturbs me about this show is the fear that it will invoke thousands of people who have watched the bad, bad, bad contestants, thought “I can sing better than that,” and embarked upon a musical career of their own. The problem, of course, will be that these people will be wrong.

So summer programming isn’t much to look at, folks, but let’s not lose heart. The fall season is only three short months away. That’s the time where the real stars of TV come out to shine, where quality is king, where–

What’s that? They renewed “Watching Ellie”?

Never mind.

Blake M. Petit entered the American Idol competition but was forced to withdraw when Paula Abdul proved unable to resist his wily charms. Contact him with comments, suggestions or a reality check at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com

 

17
Oct
10

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 192: TV Talk 2010

The fall television season is about a month old, so the boys discuss the new slate of TV shows. What do they like? What are the surprise hits? And what shows have they given up on entirely? Some spoilers await herein. In the picks this week, Kenny loved Action Comics #893, Daniel has an… interesting time talking about The Royal Historian of Oz #2, and Blake is still in love with I, Zombie (specifically issue six). Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp!

Music provided by the Music Alley from Mevio.

Episode 192: TV Talk 2010

Inside This Episode:




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