Saturday, May 31, 2014

Katurday

Friday, May 30, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #6

"Face-to-Face with... the Lizard!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(November 1963)

Spider-Man's parade of great villains continues with the Lizard! We first see him menacing people in the Everglades, chasing them out of his swamp and hurling threats at them. He's got super strength--he lifts a tree right out of the ground--but there's something about the image of this lizard man in pants, shirt and a lab coat yelling at people to get off his lawn that I find disarmingly charming.

As a publicity stunt, the Daily Bugle challenges Spider-Man to go down to Florida and fight the Lizard, but when Peter Parker asks the paper to send him down to try and get pictures, J. Jonah Jameson confesses the whole gag was to sell papers and declares the Lizard a hoax and Spider-Man too cowardly to leave New York. But after rescuing a lovestruck Liz Allan from some robbers at a museum, Peter decides he can't let that affront go and, for the first time, confronts J. Jonah Jameson as Spider-Man. Spidey declares his intentions and warns JJJ that he'd better send a photographer down. (Though, in a moment of humility, Spidey admits to himself and to us that he can't afford his own plane ticket to Florida!)

Peter isn't thrilled that Jonah is going to accompany him to Florida, but it adds some nice comedy. I can always use more of Jonah. But Peter ditches Jonah right away, changes into Spider-Man, and heads off to contact a reptile expert he's read about named Curtis Connors. It's on his way to Connors' home that he first fights the Lizard.

Up until this moment, Spidey seems to have held out hope that the Lizard might just be a guy in a costume perpetrating a hoax, but his speed, power, thick skin and powerful tail put that to rest. This is all taking place near Dr. Connors' home, so Spider-Man rushes in to warn Connors, instead finding his wife, who tells him the truth: the Lizard is Curtis Connors.

Dr. Connors lost his right arm in the war. A former surgeon, he devoted his life to studying reptiles, and tried to create a serum that would harness the regenerative powers of some lizards in order to give himself a new arm. It gave him an arm, but also took his humanity, turning him into a lizard man who is apparently getting more savage by the day. Still, Dr. Connors haunts the area, unable to completely sever his connection with his wife and their young son, Billy.

And at that moment, the Lizard appears, frightening Billy, and Spider-Man fights him again. This time, Spidey tries to calm the Lizard, but to no good, and the Lizard retreats into the swamp. Spider-Man heads into Dr. Connors' lab and creates an antidote that will return Connors to his human self, but how will he get the Lizard to drink it? He doesn't have long to think about it before the Lizard attacks a third time! The Lizard has now become ruthless--talking about wiping out Spider-Man and taking over the world--and can no longer be reasoned with. The lab destroyed, the Lizard goes into the swamp once more.

The antidote is safe in a test tube, so Spidey decides he's got to take it, track down the Lizard, and get him to drink it somehow.

The Lizard has gone full villain now. When Spider-Man tracks him down, the Lizard is based in an old, abandoned Spanish fort and giving grand speeches to alligators. He even does a "Get him, my pets!" and the alligators attack Spidey! It's kind of... madly amazing. The entire fight that follows is epic, with the Lizard and Spider-Man chasing each other up and down the walls of the fort (the Lizard can climb walls with his claws), until Spider-Man manages to shove the antidote serum down the Lizard's throat. While getting it there, the Lizard manages to whip Spidey right in gut with his tail, stunning Spider-Man. Spidey seems about to get his throat ripped out, too tired to fight back, when the Lizard turns back into Dr. Connors and his reason returns. It's that down to the wire. The clawed hands are literally reaching for Spidey when it happens. Dr. Connors has lost his arm again, but he's just happy to be human and back with his family.

The rest is tying up the loose ends. Spider-Man agrees to keep what happened to Connors a secret. He returns to the hotel to find Jonah fuming, having called the police to search for him, and then declares Peter's shadowy Lizard photos--which he claims to have bought from "an old Indian guide"--a fake and the Lizard a hoax... and then refuses to pay Peter. In fact, Peter owes him the cost of his plane ticket and half the hotel bill! Then, when Peter gets home, Aunt May has chores for him and Liz Allan won't go out on a date with him. She's keeping the line clear in case Spider-Man calls.

Nutty luck, indeed.

Stray observations:

:: It's neat to see Spidey out of New York and in a different setting. That Spanish fort locale is really something; it's like Spider-Man starring in a pulp jungle adventure, and it works.

:: Peter's trip to the museum was to learn about dinosaurs. At the time, of course, the prevailing theory was still that dinosaurs were lizards, so Peter thought some of that knowledge might give him an edge against the Lizard. Later, when fighting the Lizard, Peter compares his thick skin to "dinosaur armor."

Peter's been dressing a little more hip these days. Being Spider-Man's really giving him some confidence. He's been flirting with Betty Brant every time he comes into the office, too.

:: Aunt May is uncertain about letting Peter go to Florida until she realizes J. Jonah Jameson is coming with him. She thinks he's a nice man. She also thinks Spider-Man is just awful. These are but the first of her many misjudgments of character.

:: The Lizard appears to actually be stronger than Spider-Man. Even Spidey thinks so. And the Lizard can rip Spidey's webs with no difficulty.

The pathos of a lizard.

:: Another creative use for webs?

Web swamp-shoes. Not a bad way to travel.

:: The art in this issue is much more like one of Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange stories; lots of small, uniform panels rather than experimenting with the layout. This one had a lot of dialogue, locations, and plot to establish, though. Ditko knows how to use his space.

:: The letters page opens with a letter from Ken Dixon. I like to look up the letter writers sometimes and see if I can find anyone who was active in fandom at the time or a future professional. I see there's a Ken Dixon credited with a script in Creepy #32 from 1970. This is the same issue with the story "Rock God," written by Harlan Ellison and drawn by Neal Adams, and based on that issue's great Frazetta cover. You can see that story here. I wonder if it's the same Ken Dixon.

The letters page is also the first time Stan Lee calls Doctor Octopus "Doc Ock" and promises to bring the character back. Alan Oberle of Glendale, Missouri, wants to see the Vulture return, and he will indeed be the villain in Amazing Spider-Man #7. Stan explains to Gerry Johnson of Superior, Wisconsin, that artists don't sign the Marvel covers because usually the covers are the work of several artists: rough layouts, pencils, inks, corrections, etc. He does point out that when it's the work of one man, like Steve Ditko, the covers are signed. The cover of this issue, for example, is signed.

The letters have some praise for Dr. Strange. People want more. There aren't really any special announcements, though. Just a reminder that Spidey was in Strange Tales Annual #2 and an effusive thank you to the fans for all of their letters, positive and negative.

This has been yet another great issue of Amazing Spider-Man. The Lizard, much like Doom, Sandman, and Doctor Octopus, was a believable threat, capable of killing Spider-Man and putting him through his paces, which creates so much suspense. As much as I love Fantastic Four, which is full of wonderful adventure, Amazing Spider-Man stories are the ones that are truly suspenseful. I love this. I enjoy the hell out of it.

Next Marvels: the Watcher returns!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Answers, Part V

I want to get into some questions from Kelly today.

First: Are we in the "Golden Age" of fan negativity? Or has it always been this way, and it's just easier to notice since fandom interaction is so much easier nowadays?

I wonder about this a lot, actually. And I think I want to blame the internet for this one, actually. (I know, easy target, but still.)

I always think back to Harlan Ellison's excellent essay "Xenogenesis," which cites all manner of negative interactions with fans by genre authors. Lots of arguments and rude interactions and time-wasting "pranks" over stories, but there are also tales of theft, sexual harassment, violence, death threats, stalking, and much worse. Barry B. Longyear was punched in the face by a fan who didn't like one of his stories. Another fan threw a cup of vomit in Alan Dean Foster's face.

David Gerrold tells a story in that essay about how draining it can be interacting with certain types of fans, and felt it was to blame for a five-year slump in his writing. Elsewhere, Harlan Ellison has told the story of how, when discussing his hatred for Star Wars with a convenience store clerk, a young fan went outside and keyed Ellison's car.

Those two in particular stand out for me.

When I first got on the internet, 16 or 17 years ago, I learned very quickly not to interact with groups of fans. You know that old saw about how geeks are a welcoming, accepting community to outsiders? Did you fall for that horseshit in high school, too? Yeah, that's a lie. I've never been treated more rudely and bullied harder by anyone than my fellow geek men.

Hey, finally I can talk to people about my love for Robert E. Howard stories! "You're a fucking idiot who doesn't know shit about REH!"

Oh, hey, let's have a discussion about Star Wars. "Your opinions are wrong, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

I get what Gerrold is talking about, because fandom negativity is what keeps derailing this blog. It's not that I "don't want my opinions challenged" or "only want to hear from people who agree with me" or whatever bullshit assholes use to justify their conscious choice to be fucking dicks in their personal interactions. I just see little reason to engage people who argue from the position of "Fuck you, that thing was genius" or "Fuck you, your opinion is idiotic and here's why." Those people aren't interested in a discussion, they just want to lecture you for daring to disagree with them.

Jesus, guys, The Phantom Menace is 15 years old. But I can't ever mention it without some prick jumping on about how the movie's very existence is an insult to the collective endeavors of the human race, as though this opinion has just magically become fresh or interesting in the past decade and a half. Because there are people who despise that movie in such a way that they just can't shut up about it until they've made everyone else hate it as much as they do.

And you know what? It works! I hated everything Star Wars for years because I could only associate it with the worst aspects of fan negativity. And sometimes I just hate blogging. I don't want to talk in depth anymore about the movies I really, really like because there's always someone who wants to jump on and tell me that I must be a gigantic moron for thinking Sam Raimi's Spider-Man was great, and then actually get mad at me for refusing to engage him in what he mistakenly thinks is a discussion.

Gee, why don't I interact with bloggers more often? Oh, right, because I'm selfish, apparently. At least that's what a couple of people have told me.

Sorry about the rant-y nature of this answer, but nothing pisses me off more than people who want to lecture at you and bully you until they've taken away all of the positive feelings you had about some fucking movie or TV show or comic book, because all they care about is that everyone hears their opinion endlessly--and then act like it's your fault for simply having a blog, or giving an opinion, or using a word to describe something. There are still movies I don't even want to watch anymore, because all I can associate them with now is some tone-deaf asshole telling me how stupid I am for giving it my time.

You want to know when I stopped being a Robert E. Howard fan? About three months after joining a group devoted to discussing his works.

I wrote and essay on Tolkien that was published in a small literary journal. Now I don't even want to discuss him anymore with anybody.

No, I don't bother with my old Evaluating Disney series anymore, because of a series of email exchanges with someone who kept telling me how objectively wrong my opinions were.

I'm tired of all the noise. What's the point of declaring you take pleasure in something when someone's just going to dump all over you for doing it? Why do I have to always write something like "yes, I know you hated it" when I talk about JJ Abrams' Star Trek in a feeble attempt to ward off the latest round of entitled whining about how it's not different enough yet not exactly the same enough as the TV series?

I think the question is really one question and a follow-up. There's no "or" here. I think we're in the "Golden Age" of fan negativity, and it's easier to notice since fandom interaction is so much easier nowadays. It's because now we have social media, where liking last night's Hannibal episode or which reality show finalist is your favorite apparently says something deep and meaningful about you, and the mere act of saying "I don't care much for that song" is taken as a vicious personal attack on people who do.

That stuff was always there, it's just been given a much louder--and worse, expected--voice.

Second: I also have a hypothesis that fandom is a lot more fractured nowadays because it's so much easier to find the fan communities that are centered on what you like, and little else. Does it seem to you that there's less crossover these days?

I haven't given that a lot of thought. Certainly I see a lot of crossover on Tumblr, but more along the lines of "pictures of Marvel characters dressed as Disney princesses" or "Game of Thrones gifs with dialogue from 30 Rock." I think there's a strange and sometimes-wonderful way that people who are fans incorporate a little bit of everything into their expressions of fandom. I do still see a lot of people having the old Marvel vs. DC or Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalries. There are fandoms that define themselves less often as fans of the thing that they're fans of and more often as not fans of something else.

I think what you're defining as fracturing is really more of a politicization. People want to give being a fan of something a deeper meaning.

I've witnessed endless debates about the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who, and what it says about you as a person. That's weird to me. I love Doctor Who, but I don't love the Matt Smith era. To me, it's a disappointing run of stories and an approach to the show that just isn't what I think of as Doctor Who. If that's what Steven Moffat thinks of as Doctor Who, that's fine. He's running the show. My lot as a fan is to either enjoy it or not, and if I don't, hey, maybe the next era will be better. I could give you any number of reasons as to why I don't like it, but I'm not going to say you're "wrong" because you do.

But my point here is: I don't understand people who define themselves by whether or not they like this era of Doctor Who. So it seems useless to me to insult people who do like it, because I don't think their liking it says anything about them. Their liking it means they find something in it that speaks to them, appeals to them, entertains them, etc. And if I don't find it there, it's not because I'm "wrong" or they're "wrong" or anyone is. I just didn't have the same appreciation.

I can only speak out of my experience and my feelings. I don't speak for anyone, and neither do the people who want to tell you that liking the New 52 or Michael Bay movies or Two and a Half Men makes you a bad person. I may not like those things, but luckily for me there's a simple solution: don't expose myself to those things.

That's what I mean by politicization. It's become some sort of weird political thing in some circles to say that you like something that's problematic. What bugs me is that no one ever asks anyone else why they like something that's problematic, or whether they even acknowledge that it's problematic. It always becomes "You like something problematic? You must be deranged."

This is all kind of a vague answer to your question. This is how easy it is for me to go off on this attitude of how fandoms supposedly define a person, when such things are easy to ignore. Sure, it's fun talking to people who like the thing you like, but if someone doesn't like it, well, it's not like The Big Bang Theory is writing anti-gay marriage bills or deregulating gun sales or polluting rivers with toxic chemicals or killing us all by deciding to ignore man-made climate change. Someone not liking The Big Bang Theory doesn't say anything at all about their character.

Likewise, if the most interesting thing you can say about your identity is that you're an anime fan, well, that's not really saying very much about who you are as a person.

I feel like I haven't answered your question at all.

I think, also, there's a reluctance in some circles to talk about outside things because of internet arguments. If you're in a fan circle where you talk theories about Game of Thrones, attempts to also discuss, say, True Blood, since that's also an HBO show based on a series of novels, might get shouted down because, guys, that's not what we're here to talk about.

That all said, some of the most irritating-yet-fun people I follow on Tumblr are fans of seemingly everything. I may not care about Supernatural, I may actively dislike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but sooner or later they're posting stuff about Hannibal or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The variety makes it much more interesting.

One more question related to fandom: Is there anything out there that you kind of WISHED you liked because the fandom seems so cool, but you just don't?

Not really. Sometimes I just have no interest in a show while it's on, and then I'll suddenly watch it when it's all over just to see what all the hype was. With my general distaste for fans, I don't get caught up in wanting to be a part of what everyone's talking about. I just distrust groups in general. Pretty much every group I've ever been a part of has turned on me for dissenting with the groupthink. (I'll touch more on that when I answer your political questions.)

There have been times when a particular thing is recommended enough by people whose opinions I respect that I'll want to check it out, but if I don't care for it, I won't really bring it up. For example, a show I know you love: Firefly. I don't like Firefly at all, but I don't really have anything to say about it, so why go around slagging it off unless it's to deliberately antagonize its fans, which is not the kind of thing I'm interested in doing. Why get into it if I have no passionate feelings? For that matter, why get into it if I have negative passionate feelings, unless I'm genuinely interested in discussing a plot point or something.

Nah, fandoms never seem cool to me. Stuff seems cool. I like recommendations because sometimes I end up loving a thing I wouldn't have tried on my own. (Another Kelly example: sending me Leviathan Wakes for Christmas, a book I never would have picked up on my own because I don't even know where to start with modern SF, but which I absolutely adored.)

I'll take enthusiasm over fandom any day.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou 1928-2014

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Of the many truths she outlined, that's the one I've always felt was the most true. Thank you, Maya.

T Is for Titan

A few years ago, I created a Tumblr called Godzilla Haiku. It struck a chord with a lot of people. It got mentions on Warren Ellis' website, Gamma Squad, i09, Neatorama, The New York Times, and Huffington Post. People have taken the idea and run with it. There's a Twitter out there doing Godzilla Haiku, for example. It really hit with people. It's easily the most popular thing I've ever done.

I put the blog on hiatus for a couple of years. I felt like maybe it was done. Like I'd reached the apex of it. My therapist thinks I sabotaged myself; that I ended the blog because I didn't like my negative beliefs about myself being challenged. She's right; looking at the archives, I see I posted the last one in August 2011, which is not long after my mental issues really had a grip on me. I actually had a couple of other popular side blogs, like Muppet Music--the first Muppet fan blog on Tumblr, thank you--that I deleted.

So I restarted Godzilla Haiku back in December. I don't post on it every day, but it's there, and a lot of people have been very pleased to see it back. That makes me happy. That's validation at a time I need it. And it's something I do to really challenge those negative beliefs. It's part of therapy. And it's as fun as it ever was.

Here are some of my favorites, which I'm seeing again for the first time since 2010 and 2011.

Some of them are meant to be on the funnier side, but I do like to indulge in the philosophical the best. A couple of the new ones:

This is a fun therapy for me! I'm glad I brought this back. It's something I like to do that people still get into, and that makes me feel, you know... less insignificant. But more than that, Godzilla just has a meaning for me. As I mentioned over the weekend, my Dad and I used to watch Godzilla movies on weekends when I was a kid. For a long time, I've pulled so far inward and so far away from everyone, that I didn't feel like I had a Dad for a while. That's not his fault; it's mine. It's survivor's guilt from my sister dying. I still can't get over that. I didn't give my Dad enough credit that he would listen when I needed him to, or that he would understand things I thought he couldn't.

So this thing does go beyond just having a hard time acknowledging that I did something good that people liked and complimented me for. It's also about me and my Dad. Seeing the new movie this weekend with him was a connection we haven't had since I was a happy little kid. And that was nice.

Pop culture means a lot. Somehow, it does.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

GODZILLA (2014)
This is so close to being a really great movie. It's a very enjoyable, well-crafted movie. I like that director Gareth Edwards just assumes you've seen a Godzilla movie before and get the basic concept. I also like that Godzilla is played as part of a natural disaster/crisis that's going on in the background, for the most part, rather than some kind of villain. (And Edwards knows, as I hoped, that Godzilla is not the bad guy.) There are some bold, surprising choices that the movie makes, and there are actual themes beyond the whole nuclear allegory (which is done very well and has some very striking imagery that eerily recalls the Fukushima disaster), but there's a point in the story where everything is put aside to deal with Godzilla and other giant monsters, and this movie is so artfully crafted and stylish that it really deserves better than the dry characterizations it ends up with. For the most part, the last act is running and monster fighting and blowing things up, and that's fine, but it drags a little bit and the characters get lost in it. It has moments, don't get me wrong. I liked this movie a lot. It's obvious model is Jaws, though, and Jaws was story all the way through. I wish Ken Watanabe, whom I always like, had more to do than just mutter wearily about nature and balance. Elizabeth Olsen is lovely and talented, but she more or less drops out of the third act and becomes a piece on a board. But it's still so good, and Godzilla himself is just so great. It's almost everything I wanted it to be, and much, much more than I allowed myself to expect. More of these, please. ***1/2

PETALS ON THE WIND (2014)
Wow, they really fast-tracked that Flowers in the Attic sequel on Lifetime. It's not quite as good as the first one, but it's still soapy and perverse and kind of awesome. I would watch more of them. Heather Graham goes full on bugfuck crazy in this one. I like how these movies manage to be over-the-top and subdued at the same time. ***

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sir Christopher Lee Is 92 Today

Speaking of personal heroes, my favorite actor is celebrating a birthday today, too! (Actually, two of my favorite actors: today also is the anniversary of Vincent Price's birth, and yesterday was, of course, Peter Cushing's. Shouldn't this be some kind of national holiday already?)

Harlan Ellison Is 80 Today

Harlan Ellison is one of my personal heroes, and one of the few people I admire who didn't disappoint me when I met him in person. Hell, I even made him laugh once (though it was at the suggestion that his wonderful I, Robot screenplay would ever be filmed). Happy Birthday, Harlan!

The 2013-2014 TV Season

I haven't been doing a ton of TV Reports this season, so I thought I'd do a sort of TV Report Card for the now-finished season of American TV. Here are all the shows I watched this season, in alphabetical order, how I'd grade them, and all other manner of useless subjectivity. (A couple of these programs have not completed airing, but I'm confident of the grades I'm giving here.)

About a Boy: I stuck with this series for about four episodes before I felt the premise had been completely worn out. Guy is an unmotivated jerk, learns to let people in, goes back to being an unmotivated jerk, the end. Every time. I don't need to see any more. C-

Agents of SHIELD: Wow, lots of people complained about this show this year. Based on the fan whining, people seemed to want wall-to-wall superheroes, but I liked that it was more interested in the idea of what it was like to be a human being who wanted to protect people in a world suddenly filled with Captain America and Thor and Iron Man. I tend to get impatient these days with case-of-the-week type programs, but I found this one breezy and enjoyable, and those last seven or so were a little epic. And Clark Gregg is just so damn likable. A-

American Horror Story: Coven: The previous series, Asylum, was so great because it embraced its craziness and really went for it. This season suffered from an identity crisis and too much fan-pandering. It also went on too long. When that final episode happened and the little witches were competing in their whole Xavier school about who was going to be the new Supreme Witch, I realized how much I didn't care about that entire aspect of the series. They'd already killed off all of the interesting characters in the previous episode. That whole witch race war thing was far more compelling, and it had the good actors in it. The rest of the series was trying too hard to throw in too much, and the characters who were meant to be its main characters faded into the background. So when the finale came back to them, I didn't really care. The strength of the season was its style and its actors (Jessica Lange, Angela Basset, Kathy Bates and Danny Huston were all great), and it carried them through a series that just didn't completely come together. B-

The Americans: The second season was a little rough at first, but adding a villain to it really amped up the tension and got us back to the cat-and-mouse games of the great first season. A-

Bad Teacher: Cute, and with a good cast, but even the show itself seems to understand that it's not really going anywhere and is just running out the clock. It suffers from the same "learning the same lesson repeatedly" problem as About a Boy. C

Barry'd Treasure: Cute show on A&E starring Barry from Storage Wars. Kind of a loose format where Barry picks up a weirdo before haggling over collectibles, but it's enjoyable and there's always something neat. Also, Barry's cars are pretty amazing. I'd like to see more about the collectibles, but hey, it's not bad. B

Bates Motel: Dropped it.

The Big Bang Theory: This show's always on the bubble with me. I don't love it, but I like enough of it to not hate it. Sometimes it just seems like everyone on that show just sort of barely tolerates each other, and I find that very annoying. They're always digging at each other like a group of jerks. It makes for a frustrating watch, because you wonder why these people would even all hang out anymore if they weren't all on the same sitcom. I'm not invested in it. Frankly, I'd rather watch a show about Stuart taking care of Howard's mother with occasional appearances by Melissa Rauch. I always feel like I'm about to drop this show, and then I don't, so who's the real jerk here? C

Boardwalk Empire: This show remains so fascinating that I was really, really sorry to hear that next season is supposed to be the last one. A

Bob's Burgers: I still dig it, but I didn't really love this season. It missed more than it hit. I think part of the problem is that the show never knows when it's going to get preempted for sports, and there are a few too many episodes where the situation gets a little too big and breaks the show. It's not bad at all, but it feels a little off. Not as strong as it was. It'll probably play better on Netflix or Adult Swim without the many breaks. B

Breaking Bad: My only complaint about the second half of the impeccable final season of this impeccable series is that it turned into another one of those weird cultural referendums meant to designate whether you were hip or whether you were bizarrely proud of never watching it. All of that stuff annoys the shit out of me. Either watch a show or don't, like it or don't, just don't turn being a viewer or a non-viewer of a series into yet another thing that's supposed to define you as a person in some way. My opinion is that it's one of the greatest shows to ever air on television. But I don't need to fight over it. A+

Bring It!: Like Dance Moms, I just find the dancing fascinating. I was unfamiliar with hip-hop majorette dancing, but it's really exciting to watch. I like dance, mime, acrobatics, stuff to do with movement, which is a big part of my fascination with creatures, special effects and animation. I thought this was going to be another Dance Moms, with a strong personality riding over everyone else's, but it surprised me. Like Kim of Queens, it has a lot to say about being supportive while pushing kids to work harder, rather than tearing them down or telling them they're special and wonderful just because. B+

Castle: Dropped it.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: A worthy successor to Carl Sagan's original series, enhanced with great special effects. I like that the show has served as four things: a history of discovery; an overview (and in some cases more) of important scientific concepts; a warning as to where we might be going; and a surprisingly specific (but not mean-spirited) refutation of every go-to fundamentalist argument and climate change denial. That it's airing on Fox is just icing on the cake. And it's all held together by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is the most engaging man, able to communicate both his enthusiasm and his sense of wonder along with hard scientific fact. It's been a long time since I've seen someone on television who not only made science interesting, but accessible, and exciting. A+

Dance Moms: It was on pretty much all year last year, why is it taking a huge break now? Especially when they've got the drama all ramped up like they do? Either way, at least Kelly's gone. That's a major third of the toxic elements right there. I'm much more interested in the dance company and the competition than in the political backstage drama, but it's just enough reality soap to pull me in. B

Doctor Who: Some day I'll go into why all of this Matt Smith/Steven Moffat stuff just doesn't work for me at all. Not today, but some day. D

The Eric Andre Show: Great deconstruction of the increasingly irrelevant chat show format, and incredibly funny. A

Fargo: I didn't know what to make of this show at first, but it quickly became engaging and then sort of transcendent. It's like the Coen Brothers doing Twin Peaks. Barring some sort of disaster in its final episodes, A+

Game of Thrones: Also still going on, but I give it an A. I think it's improved over a not-always-amazing third season, and is taking its time a little more. This is an exemplary show for how to handle having so many characters at once. I also give Oberyn Martell an A, because, damn.

Girls: Much better than the somewhat-meandering second season. I don't know why this show gets the flack it does except oh yeah it's about women. A

The Goldbergs: It's cute sometimes. I love Wendy McLendon-Covey's hair. I always think I want to see an 80s version of The Wonder Years, but it's too sitcommy for me, with it's silly narration and it's "sometime in the 80s" mash-up feel. It bugs me that on one episode they're going to the opening of Return of the Jedi (1983) and the next they're listening to "Livin' on a Prayer" (1986). It just does. That's not how I remember it. The spirit is there, but I just don't love the execution. I always think Jeff Garlin is funny, though. But it's not the show for me. C

Hannibal: Masterful. Like a dark fairy tale. I really appreciate that the show doesn't try to be realistic at all, actually. It doesn't have to be, and imposing any reality on it now would break the show. This is an opera. It's all heightened. A+

Hello Ladies: I didn't like this at all. You know, for all the shit Ricky Gervais gets about his cringe humor, Stephen Merchant is the one whose humor has always come across as needlessly mean-spirited to me. I think the differences between Hello Ladies and the sentimental Derek illustrate that. D-

Homeland: Boy, that major character death this season was the right call. For me the whole show has been Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, anyway. I thought the second season was rough, but last fall's third season was gripping. A-

House of Cards: I caught up with the first season just before the second season was released in February. I found it very compelling. I'm not sure where they can go from here, and sometimes it can be a mess, but I can't deny it's compelling television. B+

House of Lies: This show's never really been a great show, but I've generally found it compelling. After the way last season blew everything up, I thought this season had a better balance than the show had had previously. They gave everyone higher stakes, and it worked. I hope this has been a transition into a finally great fourth season. B+

How I Met Your Mother: You're all familiar with my feelings for this by now. The final season: D-

Kim of Queens: Surprisingly engrossing and fun. I like that it's about building kids up instead of tearing kids down. B+

Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge: Wonderful! Yeah, I'm biased because I'm a Henson fan and a creature fan, but it was engrossing watching people build creatures every week. The art and craftsmanship that went into the creatures blew me away, and it didn't ratchet up any kind of fake drama. I love that it was hosted by Gigi Edgley; on Farscape, she was a fascinating creature on her own, and she only had makeup. Her movements were incredible. Loved this show, need more. A

Kitchen Nightmares: Well, it is what it is. More of the same. It's in a comfortable rut and it's not moving out of it. I still like the non-histrionic British version better. C+

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: I'm not a Daily Show viewer (I haven't been for a long time, and when I once pointed out why, someone got really, really, really pissed off about it). I've been really liking this show, though. I think I just needed something political and smart with a sense of humor to replace Real Time since that show got so hard to watch. (It's smug! It does puff pieces with actors pushing a movie! It defends psuedoscience! And it seemed so smart in the beginning before it started pandering! It's the Huffington Post of TV shows!) A

Lindsay: Wow. This documentary series was surprising. I don't know exactly what it set out to be, other than another of Oprah's fake concern exploitation enterprises, but it was a shockingly honest portrait of a relapse. It was so uncomfortable. The show humanized Lindsay Lohan, tabloid punching bag, turned her into someone genuinely seeking redemption and stability, then followed her as she fell back into every one of her negative habits. I could identify a lot with what she talked about, just based on my being in therapy for so long. But being more aware of myself and my habituation, I could see the exact moment when she started lying to people and, more tragically, herself. Gee, who could have guessed that taking a person out of rehab and then letting them go back to work right away would turn out badly? It's easy to make jokes about Lindsay Lohan, but now that I've seen the tragic repetition of behavior based on addiction and what seems like a lot of deep-rooted traumas, it just seems mean-spirited. She's not a tragic figure, but she really needs a lot of help. But she needs to be willing to take that help, too. It's fascinating that the show was more honest about recovery by showcasing someone who is so incredibly dishonest with herself and with everyone else. A-

Louie: So far, this season has been sublime. A+

Low Winter Sun: Very interesting pilot, but that got dull very quickly. D

Mad Men: I really dislike this new trend of splitting final seasons across two years. The first seven episodes were very, very good. I'm kind of glad I came into this show all at once rather than watching it live for years. For me, it's been sort of building and building in intensity. The basic theme of the show as I see it--remaking the world to be what you want, the futility of that, and the unhappiness that comes from being unable to reconcile life as it is with life as you think it should be--is endlessly compelling to me. (I also just need to mention here how excellent the sets and costumes are. And the great music.) A

MasterChef Junior: I'm surprised it worked, but it sure did. This was a charming show. Turns out the judges can be quite warm and supportive when they want to be, and I'm glad for that, because I don't think (as much as we joked about it) that America wanted to see a show where kids were ripped apart and screamed at for not already being at professional cooking standards. And it was nice how the kids could compete with one another and not be jerks. When those kids always hugged the kid who was being sent home... that was sweet. I would watch another of these in a heartbeat. "Whip like a man!!" A

Masters of Sex: Genuinely engrossing, well-acted show. It took a while for it to get into its groove, but I really appreciate that this is more about the characters and the social importance of Masters & Johnson's sex study than about being naughty and prurient. Some of the best drama I saw on TV this season. A-

The Michael J. Fox Show: I so wanted this to be good. I was so glad to see Michael J. Fox back on TV. But it was just so mediocre. It wasn't even bad, really, it just felt like it didn't try very hard and didn't know what it wanted to be. Also, like a lot of sitcoms, the pacing really killed it. Too much at once, no room to breathe. C-

Modern Family: I still enjoy it. They did some things in the last few episodes that were especially good. It's not breaking new ground anymore, and I'm surprised at how often it still falls back on easy (hackneyed) gay jokes or cultural stereotypes. It's being rerun everywhere right now, and it doesn't hold up as well as it seemed like it might. You really do get a sense of just how hit or miss this show can be. Still, some great episodes this year, a few of them showing just how well a modern show can translate the kind of farce Lucy used to do. The rest tends to be somewhat pleasant noise. B

Mom: This one's a mixed bag, and I wish it had been a little more streamlined. I appreciate that it's an attempt to talk about class and about recovery, but because it deals with big topics like that, it desperately wants to reassure the audience that it's a sitcom by going over-the-top and hacky so often that its attempts to deal realistically with issues like putting your child up for adoption or your absentee father coming back into your life don't seem very genuine. I like some of what it does, but there are so many characters running around that it gets lost in the canned laughter. I'm not sure if I'll watch a second season. I'm not sure if I even liked this one. The potential's there, but... Everyone wants to go back and do Roseanne but without the emotional sincerity and the sense of reality, and especially without giving Roseanne any of the credit. C+

Nashville: This season spent so much time going over it, I wonder if it even knows where the top is anymore. It's a silly soap that's getting a little too silly and a lot too soapy. I'm still enjoying it, and I'm not as bizarrely angry with it as some critics got, but it's never going to transcend what it is. C+

Parenthood: This season sprawled a bit, but to be fair, it was the first season I watched live instead of on Netflix. It had some problems, particularly in terms of finding believable motivators for some of its plot threads, but I really liked most of it. And I'm glad they didn't get rid of Ray Romano and kept him around. (Anyone else think Zeek is going to die next season? I'm totally calling that now.) A-

Parks and Recreation: Another great season of a great sitcom. And they even dropped their most extraneous characters! Lots of shows never do that. A

Pretty Little Liars: It continues to be the most awesomely ridiculous little thing. I mean, it's not like it's great, but it's so wonderfully, hilariously silly and engrossing. I love this stupid little show. B-

Ravenswood: Just because your audience is mainly teenage girls, that doesn't mean you can just decide to forgo plot, character, premise and drama in favor of pretty people standing in moody lighting. Like the old Dark Shadows, but without the same level of commitment and glossy production. Yes, sarcasm. F

Restaurant: Impossible: I tend to find this show more interesting than Kitchen Nightmares because it introduces the budget aspect of it. There's no magic fix-up that gets taken care of overnight. If you're going to remodel the restaurant, you're going to figure out how to do it within a certain financial boundary. That seems more realistic to me. Kitchen Nightmares is like a wish fulfillment show, Restaurant: Impossible is more like actually teaching someone how to fix their failing business. B

Restaurant Stakeout: This show's pretty weirdly watchable. Nothing to say about it, but it's watchable. C

Revenge: Dropped it.

Rick and Morty: Brilliant. A

Robot Chicken: I don't really watch it anymore, but I did watch the second DC Comics special, and it was really, really fun. More fun than anything else DC's doing with those characters. So I recommend that special. Otherwise, I'm just waiting for them to do another Star Wars special.

RuPaul's Drag Race: If this season suffered a tiny bit, it's because some of the drama was half-hearted (and some of it was downright irritating) and the clear front runner from the beginning was the drag artist who won, so there wasn't a lot of suspense. But this season had a lot of great contestants, and it's still the best reality competition series on television. I'm going to miss it until it comes back, like I always do. Also, I need more Adore Delano in my life. A

Saturday Night Live: People are being really hard on this season. I think it was only below average. It doesn't help that the Weekend Update segment got tethered to comedy black hole Colin Jost. It helps even less that Jost is co-head writer. The show has lost its teeth, seems to have no interest in what goes on outside of it, and is just embarrassing now when it tries to go political. (It seems to have ceded the political comedy ground to John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.) What remains is a show that doesn't have much of an identity anymore. Still, I think some generally funny episodes came out of it. A few them were even wildly overpraised by critics. It's typical SNL: the good stuff seems better in retrospect, and the bad stuff seems worse. It's just wallowing in its average blandness. It's time to start culling cast members and get some edgier writers. B-

(Aside: did you watch The Maya Rudolph Show? Real fan love is watching a show because Kristen Bell is in it even though you find Maya Rudolph as insufferable as you find Kristen Bell adorable. It was like an SNL episode but with surprisingly edgier and funnier material. Maybe she should have a creative say over at the other show. Also Kristen should host SNL.)

Shark Tank: I couldn't even tell you why I enjoy this show, but I do. I think it's the whole business/invention part of it. Business stuff weirdly fascinates me. Not corporate stuff, but business stuff. B

Sherlock: It's always too bad when shows replace smart writing and interesting characters with contrivance and fan service. D

Silicon Valley: I probably won't watch a second season. It's not that it's bad, it's just not that engaging and doesn't have much of an identity of its own. B-

The Simpsons: I don't watch it anymore, but I just wanted to point out that I did watch the Lego episode, "Brick Like Me," and that it was fantastic. I was expecting a gimmick. Instead, I got a Philip K. Dick-inspired sci-fi mindfuck, and it was excellent.

Storage Wars: Again, it is what it is. It's bizarre that they keep trying to turn it into more of a sitcom. I don't need to see these people in their homes, that's not interesting to me. I give the show a C, but I give Brandi an A. Or a D. Haha, it's a sex joke.

Storage Wars: Texas: Surprisingly fun for what it is. C+

Suburgatory: Dropped it.

Teen Titans Go!: I don't regularly keep up with this show, but every time I see it, I find it fun and enjoyable. It's nice to see something involving DC characters that's just funny and silly and not so intense and caught up in its own symbolism. A-

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: I still think the format's dead and uninteresting, but I've caught episodes here and there, and they weren't bad at all. Jimmy's pretty engaging. B+

Trophy Wife: I enjoyed it at the start, but quickly got tired of it. Every sitcom these days has 700 lead characters, and they're all as quirky as possible, and it just got old. Nice try. C+

True Detective: One of the most engaging shows I've ever seen. Layered, complex, very well-acted and directed, this thing only ran for 8 episodes but had more to it than some entire seasons of network shows. Some people are still on the fence about the finale, but I loved the note it ended on--even though my wife and I still can't agree on what tone that note had. I just think it's wonderful that there's still something to talk about with this series. A+

2 Broke Girls: It's never going to be anything more than just another sitcom, but I like it for what it is. I just wish that every season didn't involve one of the girls getting involved with someone who adds a lot to the show (Ryan Hansen, Eric Andre) only to put them on a bus if it means there's going to be too much, you know, growth and character development. But Kat Dennings is wonderful and she commits to it. I also wish the show would shake things up more instead of always resetting back to that damn diner. And let's just retire Jennifer Coolidge, okay? Her presence is generally forced and her Miss Piggy impression is grating. B

Veep: This is the kind of show that I love while I'm watching it, and tend to more or less forget about when it isn't on. It's very smart and funny, but if it were canceled tomorrow I don't think I'd have any feelings about it. B

Vikings: The second season was a significant improvement on the first. I'm glad that I watched it all at once rather than live, though. The season premiere really should have been the finale of the first season. It only tied up a lot of the loose ends. Then the second episode did a time jump and sort of started the real plot of the season. But I really, really dug this one. B+

I should have been doing this since I started talking about TV. Ah, well. I think that's all of the shows I watched over the season. I'll do this again at the end of the summer.

Anything I should be watching that I missed?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Bunny Yeager 1930-2014

Pinup photographer Bunny Yeager is basically the reason I love pinup photography. I'm sorry to hear she passed yesterday. I first saw her work when I was just the right age, and it's what got me into classic pinup photography and the entire 1950s cheesecake aesthetic. And now I'm married to a pinup photographer, so there you go. Thanks, Bunny.

Kristen Bell Mondays


[via]

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Song of the Week: "Never Before, Never Again"

Frank Oz is 70 years old today. For my money, this song from The Muppet Movie is his single best Muppet performance.

Miss Piggy is a character that I found a bit grating as a child. I didn't really get the personality types she was meant to be a parody of. But as I got older, I started to really appreciate just how great Frank Oz is as Piggy. It's an amazing balance between exaggerating the characterization and taking the character seriously. Piggy's not funny on purpose; she may be a hustler, but she knows what she wants and she knows who she is.

That's why this performance--the part that made me impatient when I was 6--is so wonderfully hilarious, and my favorite Oz performance. He's just so damn sincere. He's so sincere, so breathy and tremulous, gaining ever more confidence and triumph, culminating in genuine abandon... that it reaches this level of sublime hilarity that, really, few things ever do. That high note, where Frank's voice breaks and he just keeps powering through it, because that's exactly what Miss Piggy would do, is hilariously wonderful and wonderfully hilarious.

Happy Birthday, Frank Oz.

Answers, Part IV

More answers!

Adam H asks via email: How would you spend your perfect Sunday?

And Nik asks: Describe one perfect day?

If you gents don't mind, I'll combine these two, because my perfect day would most likely be a Sunday. And it would be a mild day in early spring, maybe with a cool breeze.

Here's something I've just realized: I think what I always want is to just have one day where nothing goes wrong, nothing demands my attention, and nothing gives me an anxiety attack. And really, I've just got to come to grips with the idea that I'll probably never have that day, but that having a little hiccup in the middle of it doesn't mean that the whole day is ruined. Worrying about it, whether it happens or not, is what ruins it.

So for me, a perfect day would just be an easygoing day where I could deal with everything. And I'd like it to be a Sunday, because Sundays are quiet and soft and Becca's home and we have coffee and breakfast and a donut. I love breakfast. I love breakfast for every meal.

Last Sunday, when we just sat around and watched all 6 Fast and the Furious movies was pretty perfect, because we were just relaxing and having a good time. Today, my Dad is coming up and he wants to take us to see Godzilla because he can't find anyone else to go with him. So maybe today will be pretty perfect.

When I was a kid, Sundays were for church and Sunday school, but every once in a while, we just stayed home. And Dad made pancakes and Mom made coffee and we listened to 8 tracks and then we watched wrestling or Godzilla movies or kung fu movies and the Three Stooges. Those kinds of days have never stopped being the perfect days for me.

Or: going to the zoo. It's always a great day when you can go to the zoo. (I have not been to the zoo since 2008.)

Lindsey Kelly has a couple of questions: What's your favorite color?

Blue. It's the color I find most comforting.

What book will you never get tired of rereading?

Probably Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Also The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

What's your favorite Disney movie?

Bambi. I think it's just breathtaking. Every emotion is in Bambi, and as an animation geek, it's one of the richest.

Will you be doing anymore smartass reviews in the near future?

That ties in with one of Kelly's questions: Would you be willing to summarize a Nicholas Sparks novel in your 'smartass' persona?

That's something we could think about. When I did Twilight, it wasn't that long after doing the Bible, but it was a little draining. I figured I'd do another one after a bit, but "a bit" turned out to be about four years. When Carl sent me Fifty Shades, I thought it would be a lot sillier and easy to make fun of, but it turned out to be joyless, soulless, and crushing. I had a lot to say about it, but jeez. I thought it would be funnier.

A Nicholas Sparks novel is probably a better fit for something like that. I asked Carl recently "What's the modern equivalent of the easily-digestible The Da Vinci Code?" because it's way too late to do that book, but something like that is ideal.

If anyone has any suggestions, let me know!