Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A New Look for Blogcritics--and a Possible New Direction for TV
Regular readers of this blog (both of you, in fact) know that much of it consists of reprints of articles I originally wrote for Blogcritics. BC just went through a redesign, which I find quite exciting. Rather than go into a lengthy dissertation about the redesign, I'll just sharewith you some comments I left in a letter to the writers' group:
I'd call this more a relaunch than a redesign. And it's long overdue. I was a never a big fan of the 2nd generation page-- it was staid at best. It certainly didn't look like a "magazine"--more like a table of contents. The new look is hip, a little edgy, and gives newcomers a second pause. It's not "busy" at all--if anything,it's a look of controlled chaos that's perfect in keeping with the "sinister cabal"core idea of Blogcritics.
The word baloon header is a great idea, and I hope it sticks. I instantly lets the viewer know they've stumbled upon a site that may deal with convoluted issues, but doesn't take iteself overly seriously. After all, BC is not a scholarly journal-- it's about pop culture in one form or another when all is said and done.
For a first-timer, navigation is intuitive--I think BC regulars may be resistant to change. I'm glad to see the "Fresh Comments" bar disappear-- it had gotten to the point where it was a private playgroung among regulars, and didn't do much to enhance the site's overall image. There was also no reason to list each writer individually on the front page, so that's an improvement, also.
I dig the new look immensely. Finally, the Blogcritis splash page looks like the magazine it's always claimed to be. Expect a lot more attention in the future!
In short, check it out! Now! Blogcritics
I was very pleased to be a part of the lead piece of the relaunch, in which Eric Olsen asked writers to submit ideas about the Obama's administration's impact on pop culture. This ia what I wrote:
The Nation Has a New Face--So Does TV
President Obama knows how to work a room—and well he should. Born in 1961, he’s the first President of the United States who cannot remember a time before television. I Love Lucy was already in syndication when he was born. NBC was experimenting with color TV, most notably via Bonanza. And on a related pop culture note, the so-called Marvel Age of comics was born when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released the first issue of The Fantastic Four. JFK may have been the first president to utilize the power of the then new medium (notably in his televised debate with Nixon), but Obama is the first to be a child of it, fully immersed in it, and fully in control of it.

Let me rephrase that—no mere mortal is in control of what Harlan Ellison dubbed “the glass teat.” Television has always been ruled, in one way or another, by corporate bean counters. It exists, not to entertain, but to sell product. “Product” can be anything from hygiene accessories to political messages, and often, the two are so subtly intertwined, the guy sitting at home on the couch doesn’t realize he’s been had. The political climate of any given time sells those commercials. Thus, in the past eight years or so, we’ve been barraged with commercials treating everything from household insecticides to baby wipes as articles of urban warfare. And the programming that accompanies them has had that same take- no- prisoners attitude. 24 is a glaring example, extolling as it did, the virtues of torture in the name of the greater good. Dexter, too, made serial killing acceptable, if it was done in the name of justice. Comedies, even game shows, fell under the us-or-them spell.

The winds of politics and culture are fickle, and a storm of change is in the air. We’re already seeing it. President Obama personifies cool, with his swagga and his almost Spock-like way of expressing his thoughts. His approval rating never wavers below 60%, and Michelle’s is even higher. And it has as much to do with style as politics. What America craves now is a whisper from the darkness that things will get better. have no idea what Obama watched as a child, but it’s not hard to imagine he spent more than a few hours with Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Dream of Genie, and even The Wild, Wild West. We do know that these days these days, the President is a fan of HBO’s Entourage, which is not too surprising, since it revolves around an aspiring actor and his friends beating the odds in Hollywood. Obama was also a regular viewer of the now defunct The Wire. Considering the series’ gritty portrayal of urban life and sociopolitical issues, it stands to reason he would be a devotee the show. But the President also enjoys Hannah Montana and Spongebob Squarepants with daughters Malia and Sasha. And of course, his love of ESPN’s SportsCenter is well documented.

Obviously, even the President has no control over the whims of network programming—that’s more the province of the almighty 18-49
demographic (which Obama falls into.) But we have a First Family that has already become a barometer of the state of pop culture. Michelle has an even higher approval rating than Barack, due in no small part to her no nonsense fashion sense and her dedication to education, the daughters are always adorable, and even Bo the puppy has elevated a little known breed to superstardom. Barack, of course, is just cool—urban hip, confident, with an air of reserve and detachment when it matters, yet with a fighter’s instinct smoldering beneath it all.

With that kind of popularity (not to mention the street cred to back it up), the President will have at least an indirect influence on television programming over the coming years. I don’t think it will be anything revolutionary, but I do believe that we’ll see a return to stylish storytelling, and well thought-out scripts. We’re already seeing a shift in crime shows, returning to characterization and motivation as opposed to the dry procedurals that we’ve endured over the past years. NBC’s newest entry in the field, Southland, works because it portrays the cops and the bad guys as players on the same game board. The Mentalist, on CBS, emphasizes the smug self-assurance of the lead character, rather than any kick-ass attributes. Show that were once favorites, like 24, seem hopelessly dated now, remnants of a Bush-Cheney agenda that didn’t work.

It’s not that Obama has a television agenda—if he did, the cable news channels would be in dire straits, since he never watches them. Conversely, ESPN would be top of the pops. But his election reflects a shift in the American psyche. We’ve become a little more aware of the world around us—maybe too aware in some ways. With the economy a major daily concern and new wars always lurking on the horizon, we’re going to expect more substantial entertainment delivered to our homes. Expect more wit and social commentary on the tube in the future, particularly in dramas and comedies. And don’t be surprised to see so-called reality shows drop in popularity. We have enough reality—we’re craving old-fashioned entertainment. As the President would say, “Change is coming.”
Of course, my piece is only part of a larger article, and you can read the article in its entirity here. It's good reading, and you'll probably discover some new writers you'll want to follow.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Returns
When I was a wee tyke, there was nothing in the world cooler to me than The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And why wouldn’t it be? Week after week, intrepid U.N.C.L.E. operatives Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) saved the world from the nefarious clutches of THRUSH, and they did it with aplomb and style.

Jack Bauer was barely out of diapers when the exploits of Solo and Kuryakin debuted in 1964, the first and only spy series on television at the time. Instrumental in its creation was James Bond creator Ian Fleming, so it’s no surprise that Napoleon Solo had much of that same debonair charm as Bond. In fact, the original premise, as envisioned by Fleming, was titled “Solo.” Producer Sam Rolfe, fleshed out the premise, creating the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and Solo’s Russian counterpart, Illya Kuryakin. U.N.C.L.E. was a global agency that knew no borders and was beyond ideologies. It had one mission, and that was to thwart the machinations of THRUSH, or the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

That was pretty heady stuff for me as a little kid. The idea that there was a clandestine organization based in a secret passageway behind a tailor shop somewhere in the upper forties of NYC, operating solely to save humanity from equally shadowy, but infinitely evil, forces fueled my imagination. It wasn’t long before I was a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent, outfitted with my own UNCLE gun and ID badge, saving my little childhood world from evil adults that I knew made their way through secret corridors once they left their day jobs. That is, until I got bored with that game, and took some time to play rock star ala The Monkees or superheroes like the Green Hornet.

As I grew older, my priorities changed, I guess. The closer I got to puberty, the sillier The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed to me. It wasn’t just me getting older, though—these were the Swingin’ Sixties, after all, and the series, in its second and third season jumped on the camp bandwagon that the Batman TV series ignited. Halfway through its fourth season, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled, replaced, fittingly enough, by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Still, it’s those childhood memories that we hold most fondly, and that eventually shape us as adults. Solo and Kuryakin inspired me, much like Sherlock Holmes and Batman, to investigate all the angles and be prepared to act with confidence when the situation warrants it. More importantly, though, they taught the importance of looking and being, well, cool. And even at its campiest, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cool.

That’s why I harbored high hopes for The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. When it first aired on CBS as a made-for-TV movie, I wasn’t terribly impressed, as I recall. Then again, in the early eighties, I was jaded about pretty much everything on television. Twenty-five years later, the movie fares a bit better on DVD. It’s not that I believe the film is any less asinine than it was when it originally aired, or that it takes on some significance in retrospect. No, it’s much simpler than that. It illustrates, that despite all the technological advances that propel TV stories in 2009, the formulaic storytelling techniques of television haven’t advanced one whit.

The set-up for The Fifteen Years Later Affair is simple enough—THRUSH has hijacked a nuclear weapon that will detonate over a major U.S. city unless a 350 million dollar ransom is paid to them. There’s one other proviso in their demand—the ransom must be delivered by U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo. The problem is, Solo retired from active duty fifteen years earlier. And therein lies the hook. Solo, for unexplained reasons, is retired from the spy business, and now sells computers, theoretically, at least. From what we see, he spends most of his time in Atlantic City casinos, gambling poorly, wearing immaculate tuxedos and rescuing mysterious femme fatales from equally mysterious KGB agents. He’s lost contact with U.N.C.L E., now headed by Sir John Raleigh (Patrick MacNee), after Mr. Waverly’s (Leo G. Carroll) death. Illya Kuryakin is a bit easier to find, since he’s turned his back on espionage in favor of fashion design.

After some plot contrivances that take up half the movie (including a car chase that features George Lazenby—the forgotten Bond-- known only as “JB” here-- cruising in a rather beat-up Aston Martin DV8--) the U.N.C.L.E. duo are eventually reunited, if only briefly. The movie fails in that it loses the interaction between the suave Solo and the introspective Kuryakin. Instead, it sends them on parallel missions to thwart the ransom demand.
To see the JB car chase scene, click here:

The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was intended to spark interest in reviving the series. Unfortunately executive producer/ writer Michael Sloan watched only a few episodes of the third season of the original series as a basis for his research. The result is a campy version of any of the Roger Moore James Bond movies (which in themselves were campy.) If the Batman TV series had been a Quinn Martin production, it would probably have looked a lot like this. All those late seventies/early eighties character actors that dominated the small those screen are there—particularly Anthony Zerbe, as the head of THRUSH.

There are some little nudge-nudge jokes here, and some insider references, but the made for TV movie falls back on cliches to drive the story. THRUSH grunts wear orange overalls, U.N.C.L.E. agents wear blue. The final assault plays out like a boy’s fantasy wherein good guys never get hurt and the bad guys drop like flies. And that’s the part that reminds me of when I was a ten –year old U.N.C.L.E. operative. This DVD also reminds me of how some childhood fantasies are best left alone. It’s a TV movie, presented in its original format, mono soundtrack and all. The only extra is a trailer—read that “commercial”-- promoting the film. And while it’s not the reunion I would have wanted, it was still enough to transport me to a time when when things were simpler.

Even if the bad guys had a nuke pointed at us.