Feb 24, 2011

What’s That Grimy Sheen on Your TV?

     Wealth and fame are wasted on the wrong people.  I understand that for some people, addiction to drugs and alcohol (and whores?) is a disease.  But there comes a point when you stop caring about that and are just ready to see a major league asshole get what he deserves. 

     I am referring, of course, to Charlie Sheen, the spoiled hot shot of an actor on charlie-sheen-mugshotCBS’s hit show, Two and a Half Men. I’ve said here before that even though it is the most popular comedy on TV, I’m not a fan; I’ve just never found it all that funny.  I’ve watch 15 or 20 episodes over the years, and never felt the need to record it or make time to watch it every week.  Of course, I pay enough attention to know that it doesn’t take much for Sheen to get into the “hedonistic jingle writer (with a) free-wheeling life” character of Charlie Harper. Sheen has been into rehab almost as often as I’ve been into Baskin-Robbins. But, as the producers say, he shows up and he does his job. And the show gets huge numbers, so much so that Sheen was rewarded with a $2 million per episode contract. Then he goes on a drug fueled, whore-accompanied rated-X frenzy that leads him to rehab and the production of his show shut down. As of today, the show is shut down for the rest of the season.  Charlie will be OK, he’s got tons of money and can go make movies. His co-stars will be OK too, they make a good living.

     Who won’t be OK are the people who work behind the scenes to make Charlie look good, sound good, say funny things, have lunch to eat, have a clean toilet to do Coke on, and more. It takes a platoon of as many as 300 people to produce a show like this. Most of the folks are trade people who do not have salaries or contracts; they are considered freelance workers.  Many of them are industry vets and will be able to find other gigs, but there is nothing like the job security of working on a hit show and knowing that you’ve got work ahead of you. I can’t imagine how it must be to have your livelihood resting on the shoulders of an immature rich douche bag who is more interested in renting a woman for the night than whether his make-up woman can pay her rent by the due date.

     Maybe I don’t know the demons Sheen fights. Maybe I don’t know how difficult it can be to grow up in the shadow of a great actor like Martin Sheen, to have popular and critical success at an early age, to have some of the worlds most beautiful women throwing themselves at you. Maybe if someone was paying me two million dollars a week and I only had to work 24 weeks a year, I’d be so miserable that I had to drink and snort myself into a constant string of scandals. I get it, the guy likes to par-tay, but he is not beyond the law and his actions impact more than just himself, his numerous exes and children and the revenue of a major broadcast network. His immature narcissism is taking food and security away from people who have spent years making him a star.

     I can’t imagine his father is proud of him, I can’t imagine he has many people left that he could call real friends. Certainly, no one seems to be talking to him frankly about his issues.  If the first step in recovery is in admitting that you have a problem, and given that Sheen called AA a “cult,” and given that every time he goes on a bender, his ratings go up, I suspect his behavior will not change. While you can hope something will push him into a realization that his lifestyle is destructive to himself and others, leading him out of the darkness to a Robert Downey, Jr. phoenix-phase of his career, it seems so much more likely that he will keep up the chase, burn up, crack up and otherwise end up as another Hollywood tragedy of wasted talent.

Feb 14, 2011

Precisely, Watson

Watson UPDATE: Not surprisingly, (SPOILER ALERT) Watson the computer bullied his live competitors and beat them easily, but as one researcher says, this is a victory for humans. The result was utterly fascinating television. They played two rounds but spread it over three episodes so they could devote adequate time to explaining the technology.  They also made a strong point that this was not just some fun stunt. There are real-world applications of the type of "thinking" Watson was designed to do.

At some points, it was a true competition. There were stretches where Watson ruled with a silicon fist, but there were stretches where he couldn't beat the guys to the buzzer.  He also gave a number of wrong answers, particularly in the first Final Jeopardy question.  And Watson’s betting strategy on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy seemed to have come from the Random Number Generator portion of his circuitry, but of course, it didn’t.  In all, this was fascinating to watch, and apparently lots of people watched. Hopefully, they will repeat the episodes soon, or make them available on the Internet.  We may have witnessed the beginning of the rise of the machines, or the first step towards the Ship's Computer.  At the very least, IBM is cool again, at least for now.


From Science Fiction to Science Fact

You've probably heard the story of Deep Blue, the Chess playing IBM computer that in 1997 won a 6 game match against Chess Master Garry Kasparov. People recognized this was cool, but not completely surprising as Chess is really a numbers game with a limited number of moves and some predictable strategies, perfectly suited to an overblown calculator.

Watson and Trebek Starting today, you'll be able to see the next big test for artificial intelligence as IBM's latest computer tries it's LAN at a game show. The two smartest Jeopardy players in history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, will compete in a three-day match against IBM's Watson. This is a bigger challenge than it might seem. Jeopardy clues tend to use puns, double entendres, and pop culture references. Watson has to be programmed to sort through these things to get to the question being asked, form a list of possible answers, then decide if it has a confidence level high enough to warrant ringing in. Most importantly, it must remember to answer in the form of a question, all while beating out two human players who play as if they were computers.This should be fun. It starts on Monday, 4/14, and continues for 3 days. If you can't get home early or set your DVR from work (thanks, DirecTV!), be sure to record the last two episodes. You may witness the beginning of the Rise of the Machines. Will Alex Trebek be the first to go?  I’d be happy if the thing just sounded like Sean Connery.

Jeopardy, Syndicated, Check local listings.

More to Come.

Events on the Horizon

There are some interesting new Sci-Fi and mystery shows in production, so I thought I’d give a recap of what you can see, will see and might see on television if you’re a fan of the genre.
Bar KarmaPremiering this week (and being BAR-KARMArepeated often) on Current TV (yes, the one owned by Al Gore) is an interesting show called Bar Karma.  The show takes place in a mysterious bar located somewhere beyond the edge of time and space. The show has a sort of Twilight Zone vibe, but with some philosophy and quantum mechanics (and maybe a little Quantum Leap) thrown in.  There’s a lot of talk of timelines and branching events.

The bar is run by James, a mysterious old bartender, played by the always entertaining William Sanderson (Newhart, Deadwood), and Dayna, a exceedingly attractive young waitress, played by newcomer Cassie Howarth.  In thebarkarma1221x-large premiere, the deed to the bar was just won in a poker game by Doug, an Internet millionaire who doesn't know how he got to the bar. Doug is portrayed by Matthew Humphries (Big Love, Burn Notice).  James and Dayna make statements that indicate they are very old and have lived outside the normal timeline for quite some time. The purpose of the bar, they say, is to help people who are at a junction of branching points to make the right decision. 
Bar Karma is a quirky dramedy that looks like it will have interesting stories to tell. What makes it very interesting is that it is the first so-called “first community developed program” in that anyone can go to Current.com and contribute story ideas and elements that may be incorporated into the series. No writers are listed for the show, but dozens of screen names are listed under “Developed by”. Current members provide everything from the graffiti on the bathroom walls to the plots of the episodes.  Based on the first episode, this works out remarkably well. I’m interested to see how this develops. And if I don’t like it, apparently I have the ability to fix it. 

Bar Karma, Fridays, 10/9C on Current TV (DirecTV Channel 358)

Falling Skies
Coming in June to TNT is a show that looks like it might be very cool.  Noah Falling_SkiesWyle (ER) stars in Falling Skies.  The show starts six months into the aftermath of an alien invasion that has left the world we know in ruins. Wyle’s Tom Mason is a history professor who is one of the survivors trying to fight back.  Mason’s wife was killed in the invasion and one of his three sons has been captured.  He uses his knowledge of military history to guide a division of the resistance movement.
Falling Skies has a pretty good pedigree, having been conceived by Steven Spielberg, who also serves asfalling-skies_web_scene Executive Producer, and written by Robert Rodat, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Saving Private Ryan".  Based upon this trailer, the production values appear to be outstanding. To help you get ready for the show, the producers have created a web comic that gives some of the back story.  This could be the best show of the summer, especially with SyFy having given up on intelligent fare like Caprica and Stargate Universe in favor of wrasslin’.

Falling Skies premieres in June, 2011 on TNT.

Terra Nova
terra-img4Also executive produced by Steven Spielberg is Fox’s upcoming series Terra Nova. This show starts off in 2149, when the environment has become intolerable. As a last ditch effort at saving humanity, we have begun colonizing, a common Sci-Fi meme. In this case, however, we are colonizing Earth. Earth 85 million years in the past, that is. The show focuses on the Shannon family, part of the tenth wave of colonists headed across a temporal divide to Terra Nova, a settlement in the far past, where it isterra-nova shannons hoped that armed with knowledge, the settlers can build a society with a better future. The showrunner is Brannon Braga, a producer with good science fiction credentials, including writing some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The first commercial for Terra Nova is available here.  (Yes, that’s the bad guy from Avatar in a sci-fi show wrapped around an ecology theme.)  For its premiere, Fox is pulling out the strategy that proved successful for Glee; the pilot episode will premiere in May, then the show itself will be on the Fall schedule.  Outside of Lost and Fringe, Network TV has not had a strong record with science fiction lately (Heroes, V, FlashForward, No Ordinary Family, etc.), but this looks like a quality show with a strong pedigree and strong production values. I’ll be watching.

Terra Nova, premieres May 23 and 24, 2011 at 9/8c on Fox TV.

This is really early to be looking forward to a show, but ABC just announced it is John-Cusack-As-Edgar-Allan-Poegoing to film a pilot of Poe, which tells the fictional exploits of Edgar Allan Poe solving crimes in 1840’s Boston. While Poe is most often associated with64351-john_hawkes_1_large Baltimore, he was actually born in Boston and had many connections there. Considered the father of the detective genre, and the godfather of the science fiction genre, he is a character that could be well suited to a fictionalized drama.

The show has yet to be cast, but I am starting a campaign to get John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) cast in the role, based on physical resemblance and acting ability.  Again, too early to have a lot of details on the show, but hopefully the pilot will be made and it will go on ABC’s schedule.  For now, it might be worth throwing a “Complete Works” on the Kindle so you can be sure to catch all of the references in the show.

Poe, TBD, on ABC.

More to Come.

Feb 13, 2011

RIP, Mrs. Babish

garrettBetty Garrett died on February 12, 2011 at age 91. A Broadway comedienne, dancer and singer early in her career, Garrett was signed to an MGM contract in 1947 and starred in a number of musicals and comedies. She and betty-garrett_2her husband, Larry Parks, fell into the sights of the House Un-American Activities Committee for past affiliations with the American Communist Party. Parks was in fact blacklisted and Garrett had a difficult time finding work for years.

In 1973, Garrett join the cast of All in the Family as Archie and Edith’s liberal neighbor, Irene Lorenzo.  In Mrs Babish1976, Garrett joined the Happy Days spin-off, Laverne & Shirley as the girls’ landlord, and future Stepmother to Laverne, Edna Babish. A side character for most of the series, she did get to show off her musical talents on occasion when the show put on a talent show, for whatever contrived reason they chose.  In her later years, Betty Garrett did guest spots on TV shows like Becker, Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy.

RIP, Betty Garrett, May 23, 1919 – February 12, 2011

Feb 10, 2011

Still Friends

UPDATE: I watched the pilot of Mr. Sunshine, and let's just say that out of respect for 10 years of Chandler Bing, I'll give it a couple more episodes to find its voice and hit its stride. As for the pilot, the only time I laughed was during the opening title, which lasted all of 10 seconds.  The rest was too much, too quick. This may be the fault of a pilot, having to introduce all the characters, their relationships and their idiosyncrasies in 22 minutes.  As for Matthew Perry, his role in this episode seemed solely to react.  Hopefully, in the coming weeks, they can slow down the pace and bring the funny.  If not, it may mean Perry disproves the second shot theory.  More to Come.

friends_tv_showFriends (NBC, 1994-2004) was arguably one of the most successful television series in history, ranking in the Nielson Top Five every season it aired except its first, when it ranked 8th. Since closing the door at Central Perk in 2004, most of the cast have tried other TV shows with mixed success. In a variant on the Seinfeld Curse, it seems that each of them is finding their best success with the second show they try.
jennifer-anistonOf the six primary cast members, two have moved on from television. schwimmerJennifer Aniston (Rachel Green) has become a RomCom staple on the big screen and a tabloid regular based on a hit and miss love life. She has been a true Friend, however, guest starring on episodes of Courteney Cox’s two series.  David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) has avoided TV and his face has avoided the big screen. His voice, however, makes regular appearances in the Madagascar animated films as Melman the Giraffe. He’s done some directing, including Little Britain USA for HBO, but that’s not TV, it’s HBO.

Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribbiani) had the most noted attempt at a second hit, rolling right into matt-leblanca spin off with the universally panned Joey. I watched the show and thought it was OK, but no one else agreed and it lasted only two seasons. LeBlanc is getting much more critical and popular praise for playing a caricature of himself on Episodes currently airing on Showtime. Episodes is simply hysterical, skewering the fakeness of Hollywood and celebrities through the eyes of a successful British husband and wife writing team. LeBlanc seems to be having fun and is perfectly happy to make light of his past success, as when one of the Brits disparages the use of catch phrases, and he replies, “Tell that to my house in Malibu.” How YOU doin’?

Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay) has developed a nice career in a number of independent films.lisa-kudrow Her first attempt to return to television was an HBO show called, ironically, The Comeback.  Critics raved about the show, and the episodes I’ve seen are funny, but it only made it to 13 episodes in 2005.  More successful, both critically and with a strong cult following, is Kudrow’s web series Web Therapy.  Kudrow plays a psychologist who treats her patients via a live web conference. The show is apparently adlibbed and allows her to bring on a wide variety of guest stars.  The episodes generally run about 15 minutes and since 2008, Kudrow has done 48 of them. In addition to her Web show, Kudrow is also the Executive Producer of the reality show Who Do You Think You Are? which traces the family tree of celebrities with sometimes surprising results. It begins its second season this week.

courteney_coxThe best second-try success has come from Courteney Cox (Monica Geller). Three years after Friends, Cox came back to TV with Dirt (FX), a behind the scenes look at a tabloid magazine. Critics hated it and fans ignored it and a guest appearance by Jennifer Aniston couldn’t save it; Dirt was wiped away after 20 episodes. But Cox struck comedy gold in 2009 as Jules Cobb on Cougar Town (ABC). This nearly was another miss for Cox, but the original concept of a 40 year old woman chasing younger men in a Florida community was quickly ditched in favor of a richer ensemble show that focused on Jules and her family and friends. Despite the name, Cougar Town has blossomed into one of the most reliably funny shows on the air. Read more about it here.
And so that leaves the last of our friendly sextet, Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing). Perry made a high-profile return to series television in 2006, costarring with Bradley Whitford, Steven Weber, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley and others in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Created by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night), Studio 60 was one of two behind-the-scenes of a faux-SNL shows that premiered that season, 30 Rock being the other. Studio 60 may have suffered from the comparison to Tina Fey’s work of genius as well as from uninformed expectations. It was an hour long dramedy with Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue, with layered, flawed characters. I for one loved the show and list it among my personal “Gone too soon” favorites.

mr-sunshineNow Perry is making his second try at reproducing the Friends success story with Mr. Sunshine (ABC) premiering Wednesday, February 9th.  Perry plays “Ben Donovan, the self-involved manager of a second-rate San Diego sports arena who begins to re-evaluate his life on his 40th birthday.” It’s called “Mr. Sunshine” because he manages the Sunshine Arena and because he’s a bit of a selfish curmudgeon, get it? The show also stars Allison Janney as his boss, apparently playing against the type she established in her Emmy winning role on The West Wing. Her character has been described as “unpredictable“, “highly erratic”, “shameless” and “politically incorrect and inappropriate.”  The show also features Andrea Anders, who has thus far been the Typhoid Mary of sitcoms. Anders is a very funny actress and as cute as could be, but given that her previous shows include Joey, The Class and the superb Better Off Ted, each of which lasted two seasons or less, one wonders if she has some bad Karma following her.  The setting of Mr. Sunshine allows for all sorts of acts to come to the Arena, setting up all sorts of things for Perry to react to, and Perry and Janney are both engaging and fun actors, so this show may have a chance. It will be interesting to see if his famous Friends decide to stop by, during sweeps weeks, of course.  So tune in to see if the second shot theory holds up for Matthew Perry.

In the meantime, I’ll track down Gunther and see what he’s been up to. 

Mr. Sunshine, premiering Wednesday, Feb. 9 at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.

More to Come.

Feb 1, 2011

AonTV's Best & Worst of 2010 – The Hour Longs

You know how it goes.  The best laid plans…  Why do today what you can put off…  Honest, I ran out of gas. I had a flat tire. I didn't have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn't come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN'T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD.

Anyway, it’s a little late, but here is part two of my Best and Worst of 2010, the Hour Long Shows.

Best Hour
Fringe-castFringe (Fox) – With Lost now gone, Fringe has become the best source for mystery, confusion and otherworldly intrigue. In its second season, it is hitting its stride. Much like its uncle, The X Files, Fringe provides a satisfying blend of standalone episodes and mythology episodes. The outstanding scripts are made all the better by a terrific cast (More to come on that below.)  I’d write more about it, but I’m still not sure if I understand it all. And therein lies the fun.
Runner Up
Glee (Fox) – I’ll admit it, I’m a Gleek. My family watches this together and my wife and kid buy all the glee_castsongs on iTunes. Others have complained about this second season being all over the map, but I’ve found it fun and entertaining. The Rocky Horror episode was pure fun and the wedding episode was pitch perfect. The increased use of the ancillary characters, like Brittany, Santana and Mike Chang, has added to the show, distracting from the weekly “Rachel has a complaint” lines of the first season. The music has been outstanding, too. And while Chris Colfer has received much praise for his positive portrayal of a gay teen, I believe equal kudos should go to Mike O’Malley for his honest and tender presentation of a gay teen’s father.

Best New Hour
Men of a Certain Age (TNT) – Maybe it’s because I’ve reached a certain age as well, but this show is tremendously entertaining. The story of three late-middle-age friends at varying landmark points in life MEN OF A CERTAIN AGEis at times very funny and at times sobering in its depiction of the curveballs life throws at you. There is great acting all around (more to come below), but the biggest revelation is certainly Ray Romano, playing Joe Tranelli. Romano brings this middle-aged small business owner to life, showing the weight of his recent separation and his gambling addiction in every crease of his hang-dog eyes. It’s not that we didn’t know Ray could act, but who knew he could act serious, and here he does. Andre Braugher is equally superb as Owen Thoreau Jr. (emphasis on the Jr.), a family man trying to step up from car salesman to running his Father’s dealership. The triad is completed with Scott Bakula in full Peter Pan Syndrome as Terry Elliott, a small time actor finally facing up to the career that isn’t going to happen. While these guys are facing emotional times in their lives, the show also offers its share of laughs. Many of these come around the diner table as the guys meet for lunch each day.  Well worth your time.
Runners Up