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Posts Tagged ‘tv review’

RAWHIDE!

In history, television on March 27, 2015 at 12:16 am

Rawhide cattle logoToday maybe this western television series — filmed through its seven-year run (1959-66) in black and white — is best remembered for its theme song, and not even for its classic rendition by Frankie Laine but by nonsingers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers (1980). It seems a shameful travesty, as seen today — and I’ve been watching the entire run semi-religiously on the Turner Channel daily, sometimes twice a day for the especially good episodes — it easily holds its quality after all these years as the best western rerun, just shading Gunsmoke but utterly destroying the color extravaganzas Bonanza, High Chaparral and The Big Valley; with a nod to The Wild Wild West, very well done but as an interesting foray into a camp, period-set crime show that had more in common with The Man From Uncle, even Star Trek. The series was created by Charles Marquis “Bill” Warren, a writer who had begun in the business with MGM. Warren kept busy with television, turning out three classics among his five western series, the others being Gunsmoke and The Virginian; another not so bad was the later Iron Horse with Dale Robertson. On none of his projects did Warren stay more than one or two seasons, happy to move on to something new once his current series was established. As such, he must rate with Quinn Martin (The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Invaders) as among the most successful independent television producers of the 1960s.

Like virtually all successful American tv series that don’t drag through repetition for a whole season, Rawhide relied on seven or eight regulars to carry the stories as genuine ensemble efforts. Eric Fleming (33 when filming started) and Eastwood (28) dominated as the trail boss and his ramrod respectively, often alternating, though the older man commanded the screen as well as the drovers. The top-billed star’s personal story is a haunting one, from a boyhood filled with vicious physical abuse from his father, to traumatic military service and facial reconstruction surgery, to early accidental death by “drowning” in a raging river (several witnesses swear he was the victim of piranha attack) filming on location in South America. Sheb Wooley as trail scout Pete Nolan was a reliable third wheel with screen presence, almost as tall as the 6ft-3-to-4 Fleming and Eastwood and fit for romantic leads, but leaving in 1962 to further his considerable country & western career — though he had been a recognisable screen face from his role as the third doomed badguy in High Noon (1952) and made most money from disc novelties like “The Purple People Eater”. Steve Raines (as Jim Quince) and Rocky Shahan (as Joe Scarlett) had started as stuntmen and background expert horsemen and wranglers, but Raines shone in an often demanding role and early on performed as central character a number of times, a convincing westerner in the Fordesque mold and a more than competent actor. Even Mushy, the young naive (slow) “cook’s louse”, played appealingly but without mushy sentiment by James Murdock, was treated as an important character, having several stories built around him. A year or so younger than Clint in real life, Murdock was handsome too and over six feet, yet another slimline hunk to ensure covering every possible combination and permutation of demographic. In keeping with the historical veracity of cattle drives held paramount for the theme of the series throughout, little Robert Cabal as “Hey Soos” (Jesus, spelt phonetically) was in charge of the remuda (corral of working horses) and added many a fine coloring of Mexican folklore and trail superstition to the atmosphere. In his eyes, packs of wolves, rogue bulls roaming solo, patent medicine pedlars and travelling entertainment shows of Gypsies were never quite what they seemed, allowing for interpretation by the supernaturally inclined — much to the taste of the drovers but the constant derision of ever tough, level-headed trail boss Gil Favor. Far less conspicuous and never featured was John Hart, a semi-regular over two early seasons but trusted with few lines though yet another who was tall with movie-star looks and not without talent: on the slow road of neglect after having been tv’s fill-in Lone Ranger for two seasons while Clayton Moore ruminated over a pay dispute with the producers, and then again every boy’s small-screen hero in the Canadian-produced Hawkeye/Last of the Mohicans.

Bewhiskered Paul Brinegar (Wishbone the cook), always good value as comedy relief in westerns — seen in the Fifties as a regular sidekick of Hugh O’Brian on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp — and whose avuncular codger appeal a sizable section of Rawhide fans swore by, was a recognised star by 1964 and he and the two established principals toured Japan, where the series was number one in the ratings. In the States it was not as overwhelmingly popular as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza (1959-73), ratings toppers in turn for several years and all in color years before Rawhide folded; or a number of lesser western entries for that matter. Rawhide, a mid-season entry in the New Year of 1959, was an instant top 20 hit, peaking at no.6 for 1961, but then on a slow fade in domestic popularity despite a constant year-by-year improvement in overall production standards. And in the face of the fact that it was by far the most authentic western on tv through the Sixties including other vaunted candidates such as Gunsmoke, a revelation as the first adult western in 1955 and darkly noir-stylish in its early years (running till 1975), Wagon Train (1957-64), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-60) with Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter.

rawhide_original cast

Repeat guests of the suitably gritty quality of Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Simon Oakland, Claude Akins, R. G. Armstrong, Lola Albright, Ted De Corsia and L. Q. Jones had served the series’ long run well, along with bravura character thespians James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith, Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Patricia Medina, Fritz Weaver, Linda Cristal and others. Rawhide‘s production company, Revue-CBS, which in 1962 had finished with Laramie and begun the full-color, 90-minute blockbuster The Virginian/Men of Shiloh as a longrunning flagship project, by the end of 1964 was ploughing more resources into bolstering a failing series that was arguably better than ever. One episode from this period, “Canliss” directed by former sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) features Dean Martin as the titular gunfighter, surrounded by up-and-coming leading lady Laura Devon and prestige character stars Michael Ansara (famous from tv as Cochise), Theodore Bikel and silent-movie veteran Ramon Novarro. The recruitment of Martin — best-selling crooner and moreover bona fide tv star with his own popular variety series having started that September — was a sure sign of status, the first “special guest star” to be featured upfront in the opening titles, though the series was to survive barely a year more till the New Year of 1966, just half a season after the decamp of Eric Fleming with Clint Eastwood left as the sole regular star.

The episode did without Rowdy altogether, Eastwood on hiatus making A Fistful of Dollars with Italian director Sergio Leone. Clint had guested in a pre-Rawhide episode of Maverick, co-starred with other popular tv series stars David Janssen (Richard Diamond, later The Fugitive) and Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, later The Outsider) in an ill-starred remake of Lafayette Escadrille (1958) from prestigious director William Wellman, and gone on to guest star as himself in Mr Ed — a modest peak in American tv. Starting as a $600-a-week tv “star”, he had probably made it to a couple of thou by the end of the run — and received $15,000 for his first Leone outing; $50,000 for the second, For a Few Dollars More, filmed 1965; $250,000 for the third, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (’66). Eastwood called on Ted Post, a frequent director of Rawhide episodes, to handle his first independent film production, Hang ‘Em High.

Eric Fleming said, leaving after the 1964-65 series, the producers had let him go because he was costing them a million dollars a year — the same, record fee that Elizabeth Taylor had recently earned for Cleopatra, that took two years to film: good indication of Fleming’s centrality and appeal to fans of the show. For as long as he lasted, Gil Favor’s “Head ’em up! [six-beat pause] Move ’em out!” was an icon and probably the widest known feature of the series apart from its evergreen theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin. And when the show finally wound up the unforgettable personification of Favor, Eric Fleming, had just months to live.

While Charles Gray had filled in as scout Clay Forrester with charismatic performances (though on the back foot competing with scout Flint McCullough played by Robert Horton on Wagon Train) for a good while after the departure of Sheb Wooley, only for Wooley to return for a few episodes when it was almost all over, things were never the same when for the season opening of fall 1965 Rawhide recruited John Ireland (previously the gunslinger in Red River and Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral) and Raymond St Jacques for its final series — as fill-ins, as Wagon Train and Bonanza would try too for longevity. Ireland and St Jacques played it macho as badly drawn new characters, with the former bizarrely out of type as an obvious middle-ager nonetheless given to impulsive, foolish moves, previously the province of young Rowdy Yates — with Clint Eastwood now firmly in Sergio Leone mode as the unrelentingly grim, leaden-faced “man with no name” he would continue with in one context or another for the rest of his on-screen career.

Stripped of Hey Soos, “Mushy” Mushgrove III, and Joe Scarlett from its guts, gone were the incidental comedy and confrontations at the chuck wagon, around the camp fire and over the coffee pot that had made the series thoroughly human. Bit characters who had lent a special flavor, like “Teddy” and “Toothless”, were no more. And Wishbone, formerly blustering as lovably cantankerous mostly toward Mushy, was cast adrift as a bully flaying everyone in sight with pointless jibes. Young English supporting actor David Watson, with a full molded Beatle helmet and Peter & Gordon toffee-nosed accent, was introduced in hopes of updating the image to Mod 1965 — to no avail. As a supposed consolation, lost in tv history obscurity, a collective landmark was crossed with St Jacques joining Bill Cosby (I Spy) and Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as the first black actors as regulars in a tv series, all appearing in September 1965, to be followed by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura a year later starting Star Trek.

Judge Judy & Dr Phil: Egos that know no bounds backed by unbridled power

In ideology, morality, psychology/psychiatry, television on March 7, 2014 at 5:05 am

One of the few benefits of age is, having picked up in middle age the gist of a few patterns in the way life works, your ability at judging character and people’s motives grows more acute. This is never better illustrated than when watching celebrities — such as tv stars Judge Judy and Dr Phil. No matter how well groomed, titivated, glossed over, edited they are to appeal to the masses, the real essence sometimes shows through.

When Oprah Winfrey quit her daily talkshow about everyday people’s problems to concentrate on the world she knows and loves best — celebrities — she anointed “Doctor” — no, he’s only a psychologist — Phil McGraw as her heir apparent. It was the kind of done deal — he working for her tv empire — that told you what she was all about all along: wielding populist power from a position of pseudo-journalism coverage of trendy themes, handled almost solely from the woman’s point of view, and basic ignorance of many things. But he had the letters after his name so, being a simple Mississippi girl after all dependent on her “inner child” to do her thinking for her, she must have assumed he would go down as an expert with the daytime tv-watching public. And, as with all tv dynasties, relatives (Phil’s wife and at least one son) have been taken on board automatically without credentials as ready-made “experts” whether they have anything worthwhile to offer the audience or not.

drphilEven with all the spin, poor Phil often unintentionally shows the cards he was dealt. Some of his pet sayings like “I didn’t come in on a load of turnips” and “Is stupid written here?” (pointing to his forehead) speak vividly of a kid picked on by older siblings and remembering their taunts word for word. He’s begging to be called on them, and I wait for the day when someone with presence of mind who isn’t intimidated by Phil’s defensive bluster when he’s cornered retorts: “I didn’t know it was supposed to be” or “No. Someone must have rubbed it off.” I hesitate to suggest Phil’s vast expanse of forehead was the cruelest cut of all, but this is maybe his one point of modesty. In fact he mentions it so often — even to the point of rudely comparing guests’ with his own hairline — that I can’t help thinking he believes it’s his only imperfection, though a glaring one that’s all the more embarrassing to him: as self-absorbed as any other showbiz diva.

The result is he’s an overblown, self-aggrandising street fighter (or the Oklahoma equivalent) who somehow stumbled into academia to start what became a great “meat-hunters” career in a “carnivores’ world” as he likes to call it. He and his great buddy Donald Trump once got together on the Dr Phil show to carve up a former contestant, a young black woman who had displeased Trump by going public with her complaints against his show The Apprentice, taking slices off her turn and turn about, incessantly grilling her third degree style and talking over each other in their bloodlust to get at her. Funny that in this context one of his favorite aphorisms didn’t occur to him: “This situation needs a hero”, when he’ll invariably turn to the man in any dispute versus a woman and tell him to “Man up!” — a blatant call to chauvinism. But Phil and the Donald were disgustingly lacking in manliness that day. After many years of watching him in action, I can much more easily imagine him as organiser of local dogfights with the goal of shredding people more than he pretends to help them. Watching Dr Phil this very afternoon, he was faced by the nemesis he just cannot stand: an ultimately confident man who is also more intelligent than him (not an unusual circumstance on his show).

This was an elderly widower who had lost his wife in a car crash not his fault, and whose daughters had been on his neck ever since for marrying a younger woman who was getting a share of his resources. A guy who looked seventy should have sought out a woman the same or an older age? The man was dead meat toward the end of the session when McGraw insisted he must apologize to his daughters (whom even their mother hadn’t liked when she was alive) for making them feel sad, and making them angry enough evidently for one of them to threaten him with a hitman. He, in all conscience couldn’t see himself doing this and honestly declined to.

“You’re a right fighter…” came in Dr Phil with one of his favorite put-downs that would be a compliment to anyone with integrity. “You’re going to end up a lonely old man,” he added with relish, almost licking his lips in anticipation at the thought of fruition at the hopeful curse he’d just put on his ‘guest’. The man took it in equable spirit, agreeing it was a possibility. As the show ended good-ol’-boy Phil couldn’t resist one last sly dig as he leaned in and insincerely shook the man’s hand goodbye/good riddance: “You’re gonna feel like a real asshole when you get home and watch this.” Someone on Phil’s staff must be getting heartily sick of him because the epithet (though delivered off-mike) was audible and not blocked in post-production.

judgejudyJudge Judith Sheindlin is praised for her strength by her admirers and even her detractors grant her a certain repellent straightforwardness. But this is only part of the picture, and maybe a misleading one. In the many years I have watched the show off and on (mainly off over recent years) I have seen her grant any degree of deference to just two of her thousands of ‘guests’. One was, maybe surprisingly, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols; the other, Beatrice Arthur, famous for playing essentially the same domineering character in television’s All in the Family, Maude and The Golden Girls. On both occasions, such was the contrast to Judge Sheindlin’s normal, outright disdain, she came across as fawning in her approach to them: maybe a little taken aback in the presence of people with at least a modicum of talent to show for their millions.

She claims to be “a truth machine”, the kind of line that might go down well with any tiny tots unlucky enough to end up surfing her channel. Insisting that she has infallible judgment in people’s veracity, for it to work properly they have to look her direct in the eye without flinching — an act of courage that shouldn’t be underestimated. If they hesitate with an answer, thinking, or look away for a moment, this is a dead giveaway of attempted deceit. She, like Phil, has outlandish overconfidence in her intelligence. When she’s challenged a simple “I’m smarter than you are on your smartest day!” is enough to leave all comers at a loss for words. At first you can’t help laughing out loud at this. But pretty soon you realise it isn’t just a courtroom tactic, and how really dangerous this is that she takes these comic lines so very seriously. It’s too much to hope for Albert Einstein to show up in the dock, but I can’t wait for Stephen Hawkings or Noam Chomsky to be placed in the stocks as her whipping boy and modestly announce who he is to the Grand Know-It-All. Maybe the best place for Judith Scheindlin is a walk-on in that Muppet sketch, the one where Kermit hails, “Call the Royal Smart Person!” Enter Judy, taking bows and totally straight-faced.

Delivering her usual shtick, one of her common refrains is to berate a solo mother or unemployed man on welfare for sponging on her tax dollars. This by itself is deeply pathological coming from a woman who works a total of 52 days a year and receives $47 million for it. Do the arithmetic, and think what unbounded chutzpah and self-love this must take, amounting to an unrecognized diagnosis.

To draw together my few observations, I can’t help but stick my neck out and suggest that both Phil and Judy (is it her Americans mean when they coin the word “Judyism”?) are self-revealing Republican supporters and strong proponents of the ongoing Trickle Down con job in international economics. It shows every time Phil, at the end of his diatribe, graciously offers a downtrodden guest, “I want you to have help — and I’m offering this treatment to you, from me, free of charge”, as if he’s giving it out of his own obscenely bloated paycheck. Both of these tv superstars — and many others — know very well that most of the human tragedies they see every day on their shows, year after year, wouldn’t even arise if the United States followed the United Nations human rights resolutions on health, poverty, employment and education as part of its stance on economic, cultural and social rights. Instead they make themselves feel good by trotting out piecemeal, one-at-a-time charity to people they treat as charity cases, who should be receiving these services as of right.

EXACTLY HOW SPOILT ARE WESTERN WOMEN?

In anthropology, ideology, television on May 9, 2013 at 10:57 am

The theme of tonight’s ramble came to me as I flicked through a dating site of African women, then another of Asian women — representing most of the adult single women on earth who are searching for male partners. Time after time, in the slots for preferences regarding a prospective partner’s ethnicity, height, weight, occupation, earnings, was written “any, any, any, any…” At the bottom, invariably, was the conclusion that the main, often only qualification, that “he love me and look after our family”. Of course, this contrasts starkly with my other favorite haunts: dating sites featuring New Zealand, Hawaiian and Southern Californian women. Far from the men of the Western world demanding anything very specific from women — as is the subject of popular and politically correct myth — the women demand as their right men of a certain physical size and activity, personality, wallet, philosophy, religion. It’s testimony to how indoctrinated men are in the modern world that they take this in stride until it comes to abominably stupid women showing just how obnoxious they are in their demands; e.g. a woman of say, 5ft-11, insisting on her right to wear her in-fashion seven-inch heels and then specifying a man who stands taller than her, totally oblivious (and indifferent?) to the fact that she has just excluded 99.999 percent of mankind.

My mind went back a week or two to viewing an hour-long episode in the British tv series Tribal Wives. It typically features dissatisfied women from the British Isles who go to live for a month in an African tribal setting to discover… something. On seeing glimpses of it previously I got the impression of idle white women slumming, maybe living out the earth mother fantasy, or reliving a previous life, to great but much-deserved disillusionment. And back they went to having too much time on their hands and finding their true callings in crystal therapy or numerology.

But this time it struck me as one of the few reality shows worth the price of admission on free-to-air tv, usually a very hefty price of switching your mind off to receive some “aimless thrills” to quote Basil Fawlty. It involved an “African” English woman of 36 whose most recent ‘long-term’ relationship had broken up, giving her pause about whether she was suited to relationships at all or had she, even, been missing something in the mix. The Masai women who were her hosts were very concerned about her suitability for such a hard life and at first cosseted her through the hardest parts, including carrying heavy loads for miles every day. She finally adapted fairly well, with the exception of getting used to sleeping in a smoke-filled hut and defecating just outside the front entrance where everyone else did. After all, this, mixed with the mud underfoot, cattle dung and straw, had built the hut in the first place, she realised. I half laughed and half sneered, thinking of an aspiring San Diego dater who actually named the fragrance her man was supposed to wear.

She also had chances to meet and chat with local, eligible single men who were openly complimentary of her beauty and personality. Though their aspirations to have more than one wife jarred at first this was countered in her mind by their alarm expressed at the thought of deserting a female partner and children as she knew young men in the Western world were apt to do. From the point of view of local men, love for a wife was based on her worth as a person, to his and her children, to the tribe, and a much broader feeling of caring; not the narrow definition of so-called love in the Western world, an ego-centric mix of glorified mirror-gazing, enhanced status and passing lust that is dressed up as “romance” and more often than not ends up as two people callously manipulating each other to do the other’s will. Her attitude at the end for all their nurturing and all she had been taught, was one of gratitude and the feeling that she would genuinely miss the place and the people.

Hope there’s a follow-up episode some time.

TV REVIEW: Invasion of the CSI Snatchers

In film, television on March 17, 2012 at 2:01 am

You never saw Clark Gable and Gary Cooper together in a movie… Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power… It was a surprise even to see two medium sized stars (as they were in 1942) John Wayne and Ray Milland together in Reap the Wild Wind. It was a waste of resources — Only a Cecil B DeMille extravaganza could afford it. Anyway, the big stars in a similar niche were normally at different studios. John Wayne and Henry Fonda got together just once (Fort Apache); John Wayne and James Stewart ditto (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but when the rules were relaxed in the Sixties — and suddenly you were allowed to have Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark all in the same western, The Way West). In the mid Fifties, after a decade in movies, Burt Lancaster finally had enough cred to appear with a major figure of the older generation in decline: Gary Cooper (in Vera Cruz), then Clark Gable (in Run Silent, Run Deep) — but as the junior partner in both.<p>

There’s a photo that’s always fascinated me, one taken in 1949 by Life magazine visiting the MGM studio, in slowly dimming twilight after a quarter century of unquestioned dominance in movies. All the stars had been ordered to turn up dressed in character costume and here they were lined up in rows like for a school photo — 58 star names of the time with the lovely Lassie front & center. Tracy and Hepburn are at opposite sides looking blase; Sinatra dangerous; Ricardo Montalban and Angela Lansbury to name just two much better known on tv decades later. One’s gaze is drawn to four figures at the center of the second row, directly above Lassie. Of these all-time greats, far right is Judy Garland, then Ava Gardner; next to her Clark Gable, then Errol Flynn. Broad-shouldered Gable, 48, looks his smiling self, as ever. Flynn, about to turn 40, looks dressed for Soames Forsyte, his temples greyed for the occasion and looking conflicted for the character.<p>

Or was it that? What on earth did Gable and Flynn find to say on meeting for the first (and probably only) time as they sat next to each other? — What’s your score? Flip you for a date with Ava? Or purely professional on the finer points of acting the hero on screen, or Tilt your head — your left side is your best. Flynn happened to be there on a one-off loan from Warner Bros, and was earning at least as much as Gable who traded earnings for the minders, personal care and other perks MGM afforded. Had Gable said something belittling to the younger man, turning slightly away and looking somewhat indignant? Gable had been nearly 20 years the hunk of Hollywood, only now starting to make way for Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and still had another dozen years of popular films in him. Both were men’s men, but Flynn, for 15 years already the head Hollywood Pretty Boy along with Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, was fading. He was apparently emotionally damaged: as a child by a cold mother, then ridiculed as a walking penis — “In like Flynn” — taking on teenagers, then for not going off to the war (he had a secret heart condition) despite what his movies said. Vastly underrated in the official popularity polls, he was one of the very few megastars through the second half of the thirties and most of the forties whose studio could spend a massive $2 million “negative cost” on his movies (and more millions on worldwide distribution and promotion), which he usually carried alone (with secondary help from Olivia De Havilland or no help from a minor leading lady) time and again and be certain of coming away with a profit. Taking to drink and drugs, he was nonetheless an icon and his name still meant something substantive on the marquee till his death 10 years later.<p>

Now it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Goldblum and Al Pacino all together in a movie — combined summoning about half the star power of Gable alone on the screen. But my beef isn’t primarily with them this time.<p>

It is, in particular, with the performances of Gary Sinise and William Petersen — and those of the entire cast of Criminal Minds (except for the guy who used to be in Dharma & Greg). I’ve always wondered why actors capable of absolutely rivetting, diverse characterisations in their movies are so very, very BORING in their tv shows. It must take one hell of an effort for people so obviously talented to neuter their characters to such a degree. And for why? And now we have Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, Tim Roth and that blond young Canadian actor with the constant simper, somehow ‘starring’ in his own series, to add to the list. That makes how many leading actors in movies who, for my money, are absolutely wasted on television. Some of the most vapid leading men of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” — and they know who they are by reputation — John Boles, Walter Pidgeon, George Brent — couldn’t be as wooden if they tried.

Either the writer/creator has written these intelligent, scientific types as cold fish with no visible personalities. Or there is an overriding philosophy in television acting today that says only robots in action movies are allowed to display marked emotion — otherwise tone it down to non-acting, walking through a scene. This was obvious as I watched a scene in Criminal Minds last night — and don’t say, You have to watch more than one scene! Any person with taste and discernment doesn’t have to watch more than that to see what is going on. I’ve always thought the way the group scenes in this series are written is ludicrous. Each one gets one line to say, then they all leave at the same time, like the heroes in Scooby Doo, to take on their tasks. The young walking encyclopedia with the stupid hair (again, he couldn’t get it that wrong by accident — even Einstein had some clues, social nous) sometimes displays more personality than the others, which in itself is very, very scary. I guess he’s based on Shaggy from Scooby Doo just as that scatterbrained girl back at base with the funny face, hair and outlandish wardrobe (there’s one too in one of the CSIs) comes from that little roundish girl in the original cartoon. They haven’t managed a human form of Scooby himself yet in live action, but give them time.

Contrast, say, Monk. It is very well acted and choreographed, and yes, I realise they are going for a light touch and dark humor. This is almost the only genre that American tv gets absolutely right these days (though not as good since Bitty Schram left) and can be seriously ruined, as with many entries in Murder She Wrote. I make exceptions for excellent serial miniseries like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men… each made with more of a feature film sensibility and production values.

TV REVIEW — CELEBRITY COOKS: EGOS BEYOND ENDURING

In celebrity, morality, television on December 31, 2011 at 7:12 am

Since the invention of so-called “reality tv” — talk about The Big Lie — there have been thousands upon thousands of viewing hours under this category on screen that must be admitted are a total waste and actually destructive of the chance to do something useful for an hour. Who ever decided watching someone cook, never mind eat, is entertainment? (Here in New Zealand there are wall-to-wall cooking/dining series on almost every channel, through peak viewing hours and elsewhere.) Cooking shows didn’t start this way. They started in an attempt to make common and desirable dishes more palatable — not, as they revel in today, to explore every square inch of the globe, land and sea, earnestly attempting to turn increasingly rare species into food.

<p>Here in New Zealand there was one local celebrity chef in the early years of television, name of Graham Kerr (1962-66), who later found fame in the States as The Galloping Gourmet — after being unceremoniously dumped from the NZBC for being too fancy. He was replaced by a self-proclaimed cook, who carried on solo for many more years. One half hour a week seemed like plenty to devote to brightening up our home menus a little — Our priorities were focused elsewhere on important things. I’m sure Alison Holst’s, the humble cook’s, heart was in the right place, without ever once attempting to turn the testicles of the Yellow Finned Thailand Octopus into a delicacy the wealthiest among us can’t do without. In the end, eating is something we lucky ones do every day, simply to keep us alive. Anything more is a bonus. And the more superfluous lengths we go to in cookery the more rapacious we humans become — way out on our own as the only species intent on destroying our own and others’ environments, and at an accelerating rate despite all the p.c. hype about conservation. One yearns for someone to finally stand up and shout at the top of their lungs: “IT’S ONLY FOOD — IT GOES IN ONE END AND COMES OUT THE OTHER! IT’S SHIT IN INTERMEDIATE FORM!

<p>Yes, it’s nice if it tastes good, all the better if it’s nutritious and sustains us another day, but who the hell inflated searing animal flesh, garnishing it with aromatic additives to disguise its flavor, and arranging other bits and pieces around a plate into a high art? The program I avoided this evening starred Gordon Ramsay. He is just one of several British cooks on television here in New Zealand who cannot look at an animal without licking his lips and imagining what it would smell and taste like swimming in gravy and infused with an array of spices. To my mind this says it all about how limited they are as people.

Ramsay is travelling around by train to every corner of India to find out its real cuisine. Among the highlights, he is presented with a snake whose heart is still beating to eat. Now you know why I didn’t watch — However it turns out, it’s beyond disgusting to use such a thing as an attraction, no matter how authentic or otherwise it is as a cultural artefact. Don’t get me started on the God-given-rights-in-perpetuity of Japanese and Icelanders to eat whales to their little hearts’ content…

A_Cannibal_Feast_in_Fiji,_1869_(1898)<p>Gordon prides himself on going to the ends of the earth to find authentic dishes. I once witnessed him risking life and limb climbing down a remote cliff face in the Mediterranean to collect the eggs of a rare bird — Yum, yum — irresistible — into the pot is what they’re best for, eh? In the TV Guide article on his latest series he claims that, unlike other chefs he is famous on the back of his work, not the other way round. Come now, Gordon — You seriously believe you’re watched because you can cook something a little better than others, when we can’t taste it, even smell it from where we’re sitting? Please, just cut the celebrity self-delusion.

NEWSFLASH: [PHOTO] “The Shoe on the Other Foot” — Gordon and his crew caught by cannibals on their latest expedition for rare species to endanger.

TV REVIEW: REALITY TV? — GET REAL!

In morality, psychology/psychiatry, sociology, television on December 29, 2007 at 7:43 pm

So-called ‘reality tv’ in the Survivor format must be the sickest, most degenerate form of entertainment created in the 20th Century for a mainstream audience — that is, short of such obvious moral atrocities as snuff films, and excluding bear baiting, dog fights, bull fights and other wantonly abusive ‘entertainments’ invented in previous centuries but still enjoyed by the morally calloused.

Yesterday I watched the final episode of one of the milder series, produced in Britain, in which eight morbidly obese youths trek 500 miles (800km) in eight weeks, from Land’s End at the southwesternmost tip of England, through some of the mountainous country of Wales and Cumbria to Edinburgh in Scotland. The strict diets they were on doubled the ‘challenge’ and heightened tempers as the natural camaraderie among the young people descended to ruthless rivalry and the stronger picked off the ‘weak’ one by one.

Two fell out relatively early on but another two who walked about 400 miles were still deemed to be losers. One of them, a young man of over 400lb, had lost 65lb (30kg) by his own efforts but, defeated by the ever-increasing daily pace, was still nagged to carry on by the producers and relentlessly berated even by his mother — though he was obviously close to physical and mental breakdown. In my (admittedly limited) experience of watching these shows it struck a new low in exploiting emotionally fragile young people. The narrator concluded at the end that four of the eight had taken control of their lives — obviously the ones who had stuck to the program’s format and succeeded as tv stars, in fact the ones most controlled by the producers.

The vast number of last-man-standing type series are too numerous and too loathesome to go into here, and deserve a condemnatory book of their own — if anyone with common decency could stand wallowing in the filth long enough to do the job justice. It beggars belief (like the inexplicable quarter-century existence of Hip Hop) that such ‘reality’ series — where teams of weak characters are exhorted to sink to the lowest of the low, gnawing at the other and then turning on their own to prove themselves ‘worthy’ to survive and win a million bucks — could themselves survive the endless train of personal destruction taken from one Pacific paradise to the next.

Possibly, being as popular as they are, it is a perverse ‘tribute’ to these Survivor-type programs that they have helped materially to lower the morality of wider society — to the point where the programs themselves seem so mild by now that Internet entrepreneurs and webcam stylists have taken the destruction through the next ‘logical’ steps, to such ‘entertainment’ as “Kick the Wino to Death”, or “Sexually Attack an Innocent for Fun and Humiliation”.

BEING AMERICAN: Letterman — “That’s why the world hates us!”

In ideology, politics, television on December 24, 2007 at 2:16 am

A few weeks before the current television writers’ strike I was watching ‘The Late Show’. David Letterman was presenting his own version of the new tv series ‘America Has Talent’. The first guy he brought on displayed his own spectacular talent — kicking himself in the head thirty times within thirty seconds. He completed the task well within the time limit and with all the aplomb that could be expected of this form of entertainment. Letterman congratulated the man but then after he left said, “That is why the world hates us.” The second guy he brought on had a similarly unique talent that he must have spent hours and hours ‘perfecting’. As the drummer from the CBS band played a suspense-heightening roll on his snare, the young man fired a dart from a blowgun to trip a catapult propelling a marshmallow back in his direction, catching it in his mouth. Such an exacting manoeuvre took three tries before he got it right, first missing the catapult, then failing to catch the marshmallow, but finally completing it to the satisfaction of Letterman and the audience. Letterman remarked, “No, I’m sorry. That is why the world hates us.” The third man seemed to impress even Letterman — by drinking a glass of beer through his nose, sucking it up sip by delicious sip and then down his throat. Though some in the audience were audibly disgusted, Letterman praised this technique for its practical use: enabling you to smoke literally at the same time as enjoying a leisurely drink at the bar. But in another sense, according to Letterman, this feat trumped the others: “I have to apologize to the other two gentlemen: This is why the world hates us.”

From this superficially hilarious satire the obvious implication by Letterman is that Americans are for the most part absorbed in such trivialities: maybe the adult equivalent of playing with your peepee. And he could have added baseball, a national pastime raised to a spiritual observance but a competition largely irrelevant since cheating has been allowed to run rife for the past decade and a half; (American) football, a gladiatorial sport, the physical qualifications for which allow a tiny fraction of one percent of males to ascend to a similar pedestal in society, its attendant violence calling for layers of padding in a sometimes forlorn attempt to escape death; basketball, involving probably even more exacting physical disqualifiers for the general population, and believed to be a meaningful career for abnormally tall young men; and ice hockey, for which the childhood pastime of skating is ‘elevated’ by the additive of unprovoked aggression and other gang behavior to a religious experience observed for several months either side of the winter solstice. Americans are absorbed in these distractions every bit as much as Roman citizens were in gladiatorial circuses, orgies and freak shows through the decline of their empire.

This is not to say that New Zealanders and other nationalities don’t have their own crippling choice of tunnel vision in whiling away their days. They do. But, America being all-powerful and easily the dominant cultural influence around the world, living here in New Zealand as I have since 1960 I am frequently called on in casual conversation to defend the priorities of my original homeland, the United States. This used to be simple, I thought. I was only fourteen when the Sixties ended and America had always been the Good Guy as far as I knew, despite how some Vietnam War protesters had it. From the time I started university at seventeen and under the influence of my elder sisters I became a liberal (and, of course, a feminist), by my mid-twenties highly sceptical of how America functioned as a political unit in the world — diverging so far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Under virtually continuous Republican administrations during my adult life — increasingly right-wing ones — it has been easy for scepticism to settle into deep disillusionment. The Clinton administration seemed in comparison an oasis of enlightenment in foreign relations, claiming to actually care about what the rest of the world wanted. Whether this was largely PR I’m not sure, but when the president visited New Zealand he was greeted like the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi: with almost the same moral authority, a comparable charisma quotient, and a lot handsomer to boot. Since then New Zealand has been downgraded from an ally to a ‘friend’ of the United States, mainly because not following Bush automatically into Iraq as Australia did under its conservative leader John Howard, recently voted out in a landslide.

Of course, a lot depends on whether you argue on a moral or on a historical basis:

“Yes, it was illegal, even immoral, for the United States to launch an unprovoked invasion against Iraq and remain as an occupying power — as it did against Hawaii, the Philippines, tried to do against North Vietnam. But, historically, look at the Roman Empire. Examined objectively, given America’s investment in naked power and as the one superpower in the world it has to be ruthless to maintain its power, or otherwise go backwards, relatively speaking”

… and this broad, philosophical argument trails off into intellectual abstractions and rationalisations. Standing back, it is seen this perspective is not objective at all but obtuse self-justification. I get the feeling a lot of Americans wouldn’t be content to think of their country as a historical parallel of the Roman Empire, despite the two societies’ many similarities in lifestyle, political priorities and reliance on military might to get their way.

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