Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Has Shark Run Aground?
Shark has always been more a guilty pleasure than a serious pursuit. It’s an old school series with an unlikely premise—that an amoral, high priced trial attorney with a taste for luxury would suddenly develop a conscience, shuck it all and go to work as a prosecutor. With a premise like that, it was inevitable that the show would have to have an actor who shamelessly chews up scenery as its protagonist, the kind of actor audiences love to hate, and hate the fact they love him.

In short, Shark was the perfect vehicle for James Woods. That has proven to be a Damoclean sword for the series, however. Woods’ bombastic portrayal of Sebastian Stark often borders on the campy, especially in the courtroom scenes. Without his over the top performances, though, Shark would be just another procedural courtroom drama, albeit one that owes more to House, structurally speaking, than Perry Mason.

Courtroom procedure is a constrictive canvas, especially in the case of a show like Shark, with a lead character broadly painted by Woods. It’s no wonder, then, that Season Two has gradually veered away from standard courtroom fare to explore Stark’s unsavory past.

In “Bar Fight,” Stark’s unsavory past comes back to destroy his present and future. It seems that in 1996, he witnessed a client dispose of a body, and failed to mention it to the authorities. Twelve years later, the birds have come home to roost, and Stark faces disbarment, as well as accessory to murder charges. Riddled by guilt (not to mention the possibility his life could crumble), he goes on a quest to solve the mystery of how the victim actually died, and who was ultimately responsible for her death. The fact that he’s prompted by the state attorney general’s office to do this is to clear his name is of little consequence, of course.

The story is all a bit contrived, and very little of it rings true. Villains who are presented as killers with no conscience spend most of the episode negotiating with Woods’ character, rather than merely eliminating him. Despite the TV formula script structure, “Bar Fight” finally offers plot surprises and double crosses that leave us begging for more.

Admittedly, Shark faces an uncertain future, and “Bar Fight” could signal the end of its run. If that proves to be the case, this episode lets it go out with a modicrum of dignity. If, on the other hand, this episode represents a turning point in the show’s direction, it’s a just maybe possibility that Shark can redefine courtroom dramas.

I’m not really betting on the latter. Trapped between the currents of Boston Legal, Law and Order and its CSI brethren, Shark is a fish out of water. It’s been moved in scheduling slots repeatedly, and now it’s pitted against the forces of American Idol. It’s not a pretty scenario, but Shark has a tendency to beat the odds.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Car of the Future: So Many Options, So Little Time
We don’t have a love affair with cars—we’re obsessed with them. The automobile is that teenage crush that still haunts you, that illicit love affair from which no good could come, that harsh consort teasing you with promises of unbridled vitality and sex appeal—at a price, of course.

In my case, it was a ’75 Pontiac Firebird Esprit—black with a metallic sparkle underpainting and over the canopy silver and gold striping, powered by a tricked out 350 cubic inch V8 with a four-barrel carb. Its rumble spoke volumes about the nature of masculine power. Its exterior made it a chick magnet. It didn’t matter to me that I paid nearly $200 a month (in 1975) to attract all that attention. Even though I had a perfect driving record (mainly because I was never nabbed for racing), and my insurance rates rose as the car was reclassified as a sports car, I was happy in the knowledge that this was the closest I was ever going to get to the Batmobile.

But my beloved Firebird averaged only about 15 mpg, and it wasn’t even equipped with an afterburner. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing from the 49 cents a gallon I was used to—hovering at nearly a dollar a gallon-- and insurance costs weren’t decreasing, either. The ‘Bird and I reluctantly parted ways, but the memory of the times we shared still hold a special place in my heart.

Some thirty-odd years later, my passion for fast, cool cars hasn’t waned a whit. It’s tempered, though, with awareness that over 800 million fossil fuel-breathing dragons prowling this planet’s highways can’t go unchecked forever. NOVA: Car of the Future, airing on PBS beginning Earth Day, 22 April (check your local listings) looks at the challenges confronting the automotive industry, and consumers as a whole, in the quest for efficient alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Besides being vastly informative, it’s also hugely entertaining.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, hosts of NPR’s Car Talk series, frame the show as a quest to replace Tom’s beloved, but somewhat dilapidated, 1952 MG Roadster. Appropriately enough, a global road trip of sorts finds them exploring the future of the automobile, and more specifically, what will power it. Their journey moves from the traditional (the Detroit Auto Show) to the innovative (Iceland’s experiments with hydrogen-powered public transportation) to the explorative (the Tesla electric-powered sports car) and back again to the garage where it began. It’s sort of a magical mystery tour that explores the history of our love affair with the car while raising a brow or two about the consequences of that dalliance., John Lithgow

Hi-jinks alone do not a documentary make, of course, so Car of the Future balances out one-liner sarcasm, such as the ludicrousness of a 500+ horsepower Mustang, with somber narration delivered by John Lithgow, who points out that that the current number of cars on the road now would circle the Earth 1½ times, and that ratio is growing. That’s only a springboard, though. The show focuses more on alternatives than past mistakes. It’s interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields. David Greene, of Oak Ridge Laboratories, talks about the implications of the hydrocarbon footprint. Martin Eberhard demonstrates his Tesla prototype, an all- electric vehicle with a 250 mile range on a single charge, and capable of 0-60 in 4 seconds. Other experts, from diverse organizations ranging from environmental think tanks to General Motors, explore a multitude of options available as we wean ourselves from oil. They also delve into the problems those alternatives present.

In the end, Car of the Future poses more questions than answers. The future of the car is not uncertain—it’s only how it will change in a new environment. It’s an issue in which we all have a stake. To that end, PBS has a companion website to the show: in which the public is invited to share their ideas about the automobile’s future.

There’s always going to be a place for Firebirds and MG’s. They’re just going to look a little different, and be a whole lot more efficient. We’ll all be driving Batmobiles someday.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Amazon and the Lessons Learned
As goes the Amazon, so goes the Earth.

Caught up as we are in the near-term effects of dwindling economies, political turmoil and profitable energy alternatives, we too often fail to see the core issues of the global environment. We leap aboard the latest fad, from soy milk to ethanol, and never pause to consider the effects those seemingly beneficial things have on the larger issue. We leap before we look, and pat ourselves on our collective back, confident that we have “gone green.”

Truth is, we can’t see the forest for the trees. The core reality is we’d best start looking at the forest. In particular, we need to look at the rain forests of the Amazon Basin. Consider this:

The Amazon is home to over half of the world’s remaining rainforests, and they produce 20% of the Earth’s oxygen.

A full 50% of the planet’s annual rainfall evaporates or originates from the Amazon rainforest to the atmosphere. Unbridled deforestation will result in less rainfall, thereby producing significant implications for the global climate.

A single big tree in the Amazon stores about 1.3 tons of carbon. The cutting and burning of forests alone accounts for about 20% of the carbon going into the atmosphere.

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures: Return to the Amazon (airing on PBS this month, check your local listings) looks at the issues confronting the Amazon, and by extension, the entire planet. Airing in two parts, it’s a fascinating story that spans from the Amazon’s mouth at the Atlantic ports of Brazil to a glacier in the Peruvian Andes. It’s an inspiring journey, wrought with incredible natural beauty and laced with subtle warnings about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring the ecosystem of the Amazon.

In the 25 years since Jean-Michel first explored the Amazon with his father, the legendary Jaques Cousteau, potentially disastrous changes have altered the Amazon. An area the size of Texas has been deforested. Even though the Amazon is 4250 miles long, that’s a significant amount of acreage in the global scheme. Rainforest covers 1.9 million square miles of the Amazon basin—Texas covers over 268,000 square miles. Broken down, that accounts to over 18% of the rainforest lost to mostly illegal logging and burning of the forests.

As dire as that is, it’s not the focus of Return to the Amazon. Granted, the first part of the two-part show explores the fragile balance of the rainforest in the wake of developers, but it skirts any political agenda. It does scrutinize the issues of unregulated global commerce in the region that feed American, Asian and European egos. It’s ironic that we think of soy as a healthful alternative, but seldom think about the wholesale destruction of the rainforest in favor of plantations that make our “healthful” beverages possible. Illegal lumber trading makes luxurious mahogany flourish in upscale furniture markets. The list goes on—commercial fishing, exotic animal trafficking, exploitation of the native flora all share a vibrant underground commerce—often tainted by blood.

Whereas the first part of Return to the Amazon draws attention to the delicate ecosystem of the region, poignantly illustrated by the impact of human intrusion, the second half offers cautious optimism for the Amazon’s future. While government agencies struggle, with mixed results, to sustain the environment, indigenous tribes of the region seek to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquer it. Commercial interests are realizing it’s in their best interest to keep the region alive and vibrant. As a result, a sort of symbiotic relationship emerges, with new business models of ecotourism and the development of, and exportation of sustainable products and
medicines, leave a new footprint in the global landscape.

Ultimately, Return to the Amazon is a cautionary tale that offers hope for the planet’s future, while warning of the consequences that await the planet if we fail to heed the lessons learned. It’s never preachy, but it gives one pause to consider. . . and hope.

As goes the Amazon, so goes the Earth.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Sifting Through the Wreckage of the Writers'Strike
The Writers’ Strike didn’t really alter the landscape of network television, unless you figure in the flood of game and “reality” shows left in its wake. Those were trying times, to be sure. But now that the dust has begun to settle, and the wounded sitcoms and dramas are limping into their abbreviated season finales, we can more clearly assess the damage the protracted war between producers and writers left in its wake.

Even before the strike began in November, the 2007-2008 proposed TV season was less than stellar. It was loaded with overly hyped shows that promised much more than they ultimately delivered. (Cane comes to mind.) On the other hand, it offered quirky nuggets like Pushing Daisies. In that regard, the strike was a godsend to viewers. It gave us a chance to take a deep breath, and decide for ourselves what may actually be worth our time.

The three-month strike ended in early March, and the networks are now trumpeting the return of scripted series with child-like abandon. All is well in TV Land once again, or so they’d have us believe. That pesky strike was only a minor diversion—a family spat, if you will. Family spats, however, lead to a realignment of hierarchies. And in the post-strike landscape, the networks are taking few bold steps. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea that there will always be some incarnation of the ER, CSI and Law and Order franchises.

That said, it’s unlikely that network television is going to undergo a revolution anytime soon. With all the ancillary markets out there—cable, DVD, online and so on—even the most ill-conceived project will find a niche somewhere. Jericho fans mounted a massive peanut campaign to save the series on CBS, but failed to turn out in numbers to save the series. No matter—they knew the Sci-Fi channel would give it the home they knew it deserved, if only in reruns. The most mind-bogglingly idiotic game show of all time, Deal or No Deal, has already found a rerun niche at NBC’s less than revered financial news cable offshoot, CNBC. Cable has become the dumping ground for series that couldn’t pull in mainstream ratings, where they can languish in perpetuity, bringing in enough viewers to keep the rabid fans happy while never posing a real threat to the networks.

Cult and critical favorite Friday Night Lights is a case in point. It will be back for a third season in October, but for only DirectTV subscribers will see it initially. Theoretically, NBC will air the new episodes in early 2009, but I wouldn’t hedge any bets on that happening. Sure, DirectTV has over 16 million subscribers, and a large reason for that is its sports programming. Friday Night Lights wasn’t really a sports program, though. My guess is it will flounder at DTV, be heavily promoted as a DVD boxed set and quietly die a lonely hero’s death.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. One thing the writers’ strike accomplished, however inadvertently, was that it gave programs an opportunity to live or die on the strength, or lack thereof, of their own merits. It also gave viewers more than ample time to consider where their preferences lay. As a result, some shows highly touted by the networks back in September are falling by the wayside, and other, more traditionally risky programs, are finding a second chance at life.

As a result, ABC’s Pushing Daisies is being renewed for the fall season, rescued from early cancellation, I think, by the writers’ strike. Without the abbreviated schedules and the juggling of timeslots that came about as a result of networks scrambling to hold onto viewers, it’s doubtful this quirky show would have had a chance to find an audience. Fortunately, Cavemen and Cashmere Mafia have been axed, and are unlikely to find their way elsewhere.

At CBS, fans can look forward to seeing their favorite CSI versions return, as well as Numb3rs, NCIS and Cold Case. Moonlight, the vampire detective melodrama is scheduled for at least four more episodes, and, if it’s retooled sufficiently, may have a chance to survive into the fall season. The Unit, however, may have fought its last mission, and Cane appears to be a casualty, as well.

Pseudo-science fiction didn’t work out too well for NBC last season, and the writers’ strike didn’t help any, either. Bionic Woman and Journeyman are both history, reduced to a faint possibility they may show up as filler on the Sci-Fi Channel. As feared, though, Knight Rider is scheduled to be a full-fledged series. Other than that, NBC’s schedule will stay pretty much the same. One thing I’m happy about is that the little viewed, but very intelligent cop drama Life will return in the fall.

The fates of newcomers Terminator: the Sara Connor Chronicles, New Amsterdam and Canterbury’s Tales are unknown at this point, but with American Idol, House and its Sunday night cartoon line-up, FOX really has no need to worry. I do think, however, that 24 may end up being a casualty of the writers’ strike. The series depended on momentum, and it lost it this year. Interest, I believe, has waned. On the other hand, Smallville and Supernatural have been renewed at CW, so anything’s possible.

At its height, the writers’ strike seemed a clarion call to revolution that looked poised to shake the studios to their core. But in the end, it was nothing but two factions nickel and diming each other. Now that the war is over, reconstruction efforts are centered on keeping that system in place. The writers are getting a bigger chunk of revenue from the ancillary markets, miniscule though that chunk is. What’s largely missing from the equation is any attempt to up the quality of programming across the spectrum. Instead, both the writers and studios are content to rehash the trite and true formulas with which they’re comfortable.

Admittedly, television ultimately exists as an advertising medium. Anything memorable that emerges from that is accidental. It’s all about demographics. Programs that sell product stay on the air—those that don’t, die. At least, that’s the way it worked before cable, DVDs and online programming. The viewer now holds unprecedented power in shaping the future of the medium. Both the studios and the writers need to realize that the profits they battled over will be linked to a product that holds up to repeated viewings. Otherwise, they’ll find themselves in the same position as the record industry, commiserating about the good old days, when mediocrity was enough to hold sway over the populace.