Thursday, August 27, 2009

Even Better for Ted!

I was shocked to discover the other day that one of my favorite current TV shows, Better Off Ted, was actually being renewed! The show debuted on ABC in the spring, ran for a few weeks with middling ratings, then was yanked during the May sweeps, never a good sign. The network brought it back to finish its run this summer and the ratings were dismal, so I had just assumed it was dead in the water, but several reliable sources note that it is returning with an 18-episode order in January, 2010.

The half-hour sitcom (my favorite TV genre, though one that gets little respect these days) is set at a huge conglomerate called Veridian Dynamics for whom money comes first, and worries about whether a product will cause mutations in babies come second (if at all). Ted (Jay Harrington) is a fairly sweet (but not sappy) single father who holds a high position in research and development. His boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi) is a tightly wound company woman for whom lying and displacing blame is second nature. We discovered late in the season that the two had a brief, torrid office affair, and this is presumably why Ted is reluctant to open a new can of relationship worms with Linda (Andrea Anders, pictured), the new gal in the office, though there are certainly sparks between the two.

The situations these three get into are amusing, but the secret weapons of the show, for my money, are Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett), the geeky researchers who, like the nerdy Sheldon and Leonard, read a little gay to me, though Phil is married and Lem dates women. It's through them that we are introduced to the crazy product schemes, such as beef without cows or an office chair designed for better productivity--it's so uncomfortably itchy, no one can sit in it for long. My favorite episode involved an error in the building's security system--it won't recognize black people, so white people have to follow the black employees around so they can get from room to room. In another episode, Phil and Lem invite Ted to their geeky Medieval battle club which meets in the basement once a week, and the cool, collected Ted begins to outgeek them all.

I admit I was drawn to the show by the handsome Harrington, who was about the only good thing in the American version of Coupling. He is sexy and funny, and his casual delivery (often directly to the camera) carries the show. I liked the wholesomely sexy Anders in the Friends spinoff Joey and she's just as charming here. De Rossi (at right) is fantastic, almost as good as she was in Arrested Development. The show seems to be done on a relatively cheap budget, but it always looks sharp. I admit I'd like a goofy guest star once in a while, and they probably don't have the money for that, but I'm quite happy that the show is getting a second chance. The first season is over, but it looks like the last few episodes are available for viewing on ABC's web site. Let's hope this breaks out as it deserves.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jon Stewart is making my ass tired

Much as I usually like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I'm finding myself increasingly unable to watch the entire show these days. The reasons are threefold:

1) Jon seems to be coasting lately. It used to be funny when he'd be lackadaisical about messing up a bit or dragging a laugh line out too long or making an obscure joke that only the studio audience would get. Now he does all three things too often and/or for too long. I feel like my 14 minutes of comedy (30 minutes minus the ads and the usually tedious interview) has shrunk down to about 11.

2) The focus on Fox News and their crazy mob followers is depressing me no end. Yes, Stewart and his writers do a nice job of pointing out their craziness (signs at town hall meetings saying "Government, Keep Your Hands Off of Medicare!") and their hypocrisy (showing that the Fox commentators who fully back today's screaming health-care reform protesters railed against the screaming anti-war and anti-Bush protesters of a few years ago). But the sense that they are preaching to the converted has become smothering, and the narrow focus on the health-care "debate" to the exclusion of most any other kind of political or news satire is stretching my nerves thin.

3) We record The Daily Show and the Colbert Report together as a one-hour block, and as Colbert still seems to make me laugh, I am anxious to speed through Stewart to get to Colbert.

This makes me a little sad, but I'm hoping when the health care monolith either stands erect or crumbles to the ground, Jon and company will feel like they can move on.

PS: I don't know what the phrase, "makes my ass tired" really means or where it came from. My dad used it all the time, in a kind of frustrated, weary way, and I guess it just means that I'm tired of something, but, as ass-related humor always makes me laugh, I like using this phrase whenever I can.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Into the Moon Pool

Everything I'm reading or watching these days is giving me dumb little epiphanies. The late 50's sci-fi flicks I've watched and reviewed over at the Moviepalace have made me proclaim that era as a sci-fi wasteland; the Woodstock books I've been reading make me think that no good memoir is coming to come out of any of the behind-the-scenes folks and that we need some audience member to write up his or her experience; taking my iPod off shuffle has made me realize I've lost patience with albums--life should be a radio, with me as the DJ, of course.

Now I just finished The Moon Pool, a sci-fi adventure from 1919 by A. Merritt, a largely forgotten figure from the early days of pulp fiction, and I've figured out that, despite all those science fiction books and magazines I read in my youth, I was never really a dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi fan. My favorite SF authors were Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, who are really fantasists. In the early 70's, a movement erupted to rename SF "speculative fiction," and if that had actually become a widely recognized genre, I probably would have continued reading SF. But after taking science fiction classes in high school and college, and reading Asimov and Clarke and Herbert, I drifted away from the genre, though I keep dipping my toes back in once in a while, attracted by cool covers or interesting premises.

It's hard to classify A. Merritt. One of my favorite novels when I was younger was his Seven Footprints to Satan, which was a mystery/adventure masquerading as an occult thriller. I've read a couple other Merritt novels, long pulp adventure stories with occult twists. Moon Pool falls more in line with the fantasy adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, the John Carter of Mars books) or H. Rider Haggard (She); a scientist named Goodwin and a blustery Irish adventurer named O'Keefe venture into an underground world ruled by an ancient godlike force called the Shining One which demands periodic sacrifices (the victims become alive-dead, which is, from what I could tell, rather like being immobile zombies or citizens of The Matrix). There are also three Silent Ones who try to help our heroes escape, and while doing so, liberate the underground race from the Shining One.

It's a fast read with some exciting setpieces, but mostly cardboard characters, lackluster romances, and predictable plot turns. The first five chapters, originally published as a stand-alone short story, really suck you in, but once Merritt starts explaining everything, it becomes a rather dry, juvenile action story, though the concept of the Shining One may have been an influence on Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos. I had the same problem with this as I had with Burroughs' John Carter stories: they start off well with what seem like an interesting, original concepts, but devolve into average action-filled melodramas with little "science" interest and no character development. Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune books had some of the same problems. I ventured into the Moon Pool because I found a used copy at Powell's during my Portland trip, and I also bought a ratty little copy of another Merritt book, The Ship of Ishtar, which might be a good quick October read.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dance, dance, dance

I've hit a string of solid books this summer, and the latest is one I bought on impulse a few years ago and almost gave away without reading. Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro, is one of the best books about music that I've read in the past several years, and the reason isn't so much the subject matter or the insights the author has about his subject (though though those are both interesting), but the way he describes the music he writes about.

I'll start with my only real criticism of the book: the structure. I know that there are ways to structure a non-fiction narrative other than by chronology, but in a book that purports to be the history of a popular music movement, direct movement through time would seem to be the clearest way. There are problems with chronological order, I know, as history can be messy, and using some other organizing pattern might bring to light interesting insights. Shapiro begins with the earliest days of public dance halls which used recorded music rather than live bands (small town America of the first half of the century, clubs in Nazi Germany that played forbidden swing and jazz music), and moves quickly through the glory days of the glamorous European discotheques of the 60's, but the real story begins in the gay clubs of the post-Stonewall era (early 70's) like the Mineshaft and the Anvil, where as much sex was going on as dancing. Still, this is where the disco sensibility (sex, drugs, total abandon) and the disco style (long pumping waves of music with songs segueing into each other with no break between) were born.

After this, the book becomes more or less thematic in focus, looking at various subgenres like Eurodisco, Hi-NRG, and soul disco—interestingly, he identifies mainstream R&B artists like The Temptations and Eddie Kendricks as early purveyors of what became the disco sound. All the info here is very interesting, but because the timeline gets a little hazy, how it all fits together is less clear. The disco craze era, epitomized by the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, is covered fairly quickly, and after the chapter on the death of disco (1979-1980), he discusses how disco went underground, ignoring how it also went on to influence mainstream dance music from Michael Jackson to hip-hop, right up to current genres of house, trance, and electropop.

Still, the book is well worth reading, both for the sheer number of songs, artists, and personalities he covers, and for the descriptions of the early gay discos (lots of sweat and "spunk" and cocaine and Crisco, though the squeamish can relax--there are no explicit descriptions of sexual activity) and the music. Here’s how he describes a 1966 soul song, Eddie Holman’s "This Can’t Be True," which he claims as a forerunner of the Philly soul sound: "Holman’s helium falsetto against a background of dangling guitar phrases laced with cavernous reverb, a dragging bass line that reached down to the center of the earth, a slow shuffle drumbeat that recalled doo-wop rhythms, and backing vocals not far removed from the countrypolitan productions of Eddy Arnold … reinvented the sound of male vulnerability.” He also gives a fabulous reading of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" (one of my own favorite disco classics) which takes up 7 or 8 pages. This book has made me want to listen to the music it describes, and that’s a strong recommendation.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Worms and mermaids and... Cthulhu?

I snuck in a second trashy beach read this season, a horror novel called The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene. It's published by Leisure, a company known for its line of horror novels, some of which can be fairly gory, as this one is. To be fair, though the gore is extreme, it is limited to two or three scenes in the book; it's only a little more over-the-top than Stephen King can get.

The book feels like it was two novelettes stitched together. 40 days of unending rains have come to the world (or at least the eastern United States), flooding most coastal cities, drenching even some of the inland states including West Virginia where the first part of the book is set. An old coot named Teddy is struggling to survive after he ignored warnings to vacate his land; his carport now is covered with layers of earthworms, and gigantic worm monsters seem to be digging their ways out of the earth and hiding in the woods. We follow him and a buddy as they try to stay one step ahead of the man-eating worms and a crazed acquaintance with a gun.

Halfway through the book, a helicopter crashes and we get the story of two young survivors (Kevin and Sarah) from Baltimore, where mermaids are drawing men to their deaths and a group of crazed folks think they know what's going on: some horrific primitive gods have loosed themselves on our world. Lovecraft is name-checked (as is H.G. Wells) and Kevin is pretty sure that the huge monster that is slaughtering people and tearing down skyscrapers might be Cthulhu itself, even though he knows it's a fictional creature. The slightly disappointing finale leaves Teddy barely alive and the fate of the others unclear, though there is an ambiguous (and fitting) sign of hope in the last few sentences. Or not...

Keene (at left) creates characters who are likable and real, but I never got invested enough in any of them to really care about their fates, even old Teddy. The Baltimore narrative could have been a stand-alone story, and fleshed out a bit more, even a separate novel. We wind up never knowing anything more about what's caused the apocalypse than we did at the beginning, and the world Keene sketches is interesting enough to make me wish we did, or that we could get more stories set in that wet world. A fast, mostly mindless read, which is pretty much what I wanted.

PS--I just found out that there is indeed a collection of stories, Earthworm Gods, set in the Conqueror Worms universe. Maybe a good read for October.