Tag Archives: television

Front Row With Owen and Paul: Get Paul Weller

Front Row Logo

Just one day after broadcast on Bucks101 radio, Owen Hughes and Paul Rutland are back with the latest bitesize podcast edition of their show.

This week, Paul is suffering from some serious, heavy studying over the weekend. After being up all night drinking Lemsip and popping paracetamol like Smarties, he was just about able to crawl into the studio to play through some tracks and round-up the week in sport.

Meanwhile, Owen reviews another documentary in the Movie Review section, albeit one that’s slightly lighter in tone than last week’s My Nazi Legacy. Following its screening through BBC’s Storyville series, Owen discusses The Great Gangster Film Fraud – still available to watch the iPlayer – leading to a conversation about the merits of Storyville in general.

The die is cast again at the end of the show, rolling on the number one, prompting a chat about the very broad topic of ‘television’. Top Gear’s new host and Jeremy Clarkson’s obnoxiousness, as well as the ensuing battle between streaming and traditional TV, are all squeezed into the final section of the show.

You can join Owen and Paul again for the live Bucks101 broadcast of Front Row on Thursdays at 6pm. Until then, enjoy the podcast!

Playlist:

  1. The Velvet Underground – What Goes On? (Owen)
  2. Guns n’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine (Paul)
  3. Pere Ubu – Heart of Darkness (Owen)
  4. Elvis Presley – Jailhouse Rock (Paul)
  5. The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner (Owen)
  6. Stevie Wonder – Superstition (Paul)
  7. Paul Simon – I Know What I Know (Owen)
  8. Bryan Adams – Can’t Stop This Thing We Started (Paul)

Right-click and choose ‘save as’ to download the podcast as an mp3

Failed Critics Podcast: TV Special (S3 Ep2)

game of thronesWhen you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. But the game of the Failed Critics Podcast is a bit more accommodating and has more of a flexible work-life balance. Plus it has much less incest too.

This episode is part two of our third TV Special podcast, featuring Owen Hughes as host in place of Steve Norman. As in part one, Owen is joined by Matt Latham from The Bottle Episode and Failed Critics founder James Diamond.

With the Emmy’s chat firmly done and dusted, the team move onto answering some tough, insightful and deeply ponderous questions such as “what TV show did you used to hate but now really like”, and “what is the best new TV show of the year”. You know, the sort of questions you just don’t hear anybody else deal with.

We’ll be back to our regular output next week with Steve returning to hosting duties as we review Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

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Failed Critics Podcast: TV Special (S3 Ep1)

emmyThe Failed Critics TV Special revolution will not be televised, brother. Although, it will still be a conveniently downloadable audio podcast. No change there, then.

However, what is different, for our third TV Special episode, there’s no Steve Norman. Instead, Owen Hughes leapt into Steve’s upholstered velvet host’s chair whilst it was still warm, swivelled himself around, and read questions from the teleprompter to our special guests for this episode. Owen was joined by both Matt Latham from the TV blog and podcast, The Bottle Episode, and returning to us like the prodigal son, former head-honcho at FC HQ, James Diamond, now co-running the Diamond and Human podcast.

With so much content to get through, you may consider saving this episode and box-set binging later in the week with the release of Part Two. Going massively over-time and blowing the entire Failed Critics Entertainment Budget on one two-part special, we just had so much to talk about that we’ve had to split our TV Special in half. In part one, we have our Primetime Emmy Award themed quiz, inspired by the recent announcement of the nominations for the 67th annual awards and our reactions to them. And to give you a taste of what’s to come in part two, the trio also respond to the first question asked of them, “what is the best ongoing show of 2015?” Spoiler: it wasn’t Masked Spooner.

Join us again later in the week for less Emmy’s chat and more Q&A’s, and the team each pitch an idea for a TV show that they’d like to see brought back from the dead.

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Pusher (S3 Ep17)

In a brand new entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, Tony Black of Black Hole Cinema fame inducts one of the most iconic TV villains of all time, Pusher, from one of the most iconic TV shows of all time, The X-Files.

by Tony Black (@BlackHoleWriter)

i want to believe“You mean you killed this man for nothing, you sick bastard?”

“Oh haven’t you figured it out yet, Mulder? They all kill themselves.”

One of the chief inspirations for FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, erstwhile and dogged investigator of The X-Files, was the master of detection, Sherlock Holmes. Chris Carter himself has cited Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary figure as a touchstone for Mulder, with his remarkable leaps of logic to explain the unexplained, not to mention his eccentricities and detachment from traditional life & relationships – plus he has a ready made Dr. Watson in fellow Special Agent Dana Scully, yanked out of her normal existence, swiftly enraptured by Mulder’s world. Up until ‘Pusher’, the seventeenth episode of The X-Files‘ third season–as the show was really hitting the mid-90’s zeitgeist–Mulder had never found his Professor Moriarty, his nemesis. He arrived ready made in Robert Patrick Modell, the eponymous ‘pusher’, and the result saw Vince Gilligan deliver the finest X-File in the show’s (to date) nine season run.

The genius of ‘Pusher’ is that it’s one of those concepts, even for an X-File, that is breathtakingly simple yet beautiful in construction; a man capable of talking another human being into doing whatever he desires, a form of mind control inducement thanks to the cadence of the person’s voice. Giving that power to a twisted, bitter sociopath who wants nothing more than a worthy adversary is a stroke of brilliance, and that’s the central key to ‘Pusher’ being such a perfectly constructed hour of television. The X-Files by its very nature, much like Doctor Who, had the freedom to go almost anywhere and tell a myriad of stories, such is the vast canvas of the paranormal & unknown in our world; when it wasn’t about global alien conspiracies, man eating monsters or natural pathogens or predators, often the more intriguing character-based concepts would come into play – the reality bending seduction of ‘Milagro’, the unnerving fetishism of ‘Irresistable’ or cold hearted pain of ‘Paper Hearts’. With ‘Pusher’ it was a battle of wills, a chess match between two adversaries, as Mulder desperately begins to realise that Modell simply wants to watch the world around him burn, look into the face of the man good enough to beat him, and smile. Indeed though he wants to be Moriarty, in truth he’s more like the Joker. Scully describes him at one point as “a little man who wants everyone to believe he’s big” and that’s the tragic, sometimes jet black comic ideal driving ‘Pusher’ as an episode.

“Modell psyched the guy out, he put the whammy on him!”

“Please explain to me the scientific nature of ‘the whammy’.”

Enormous credit must go to guest star Robert Wisden as Modell, because it’s his performance that truly sells Gilligan’s marvelous writing; he’s sly, calculating, quippy and strangely charming, a hugely tricky balance to pull off, but Wisden is able to flip between these styles at will. At one moment Modell may be calmly talking a court judge out of sentencing him, almost the friendly neighbour next door, then the next he’s inducing a cop to immolate himself, taunting Mulder jokily over the phone or, in arguably the second most memorable scene of the episode, talking bullish local detective Frank Burst into having a heart attack over the phone. It’s truly chilling and the moment of complete shock and horror on the faces of Mulder, Scully and the team of detectives around Frank at that point still sends a chill down the spine – topped off when Modell then calmly gives them the pay phone number Frank was keeping him on the line to trace. Wisden manages to craft the finest ‘human’ monster the show ever created – especially given that tinge of tragedy to the man; he’d spent his life being average, amounting to little, and only upon discovering his ‘power’ was he able to make any kind of mark, styling himself after the Japanese Ronin, a ‘warrior without a master’. Gilligan manages to tap into this psychology while always keeping Modell alien enough to be frequently terrifying.

In many of the stand alone episodes of The X-Files, you got the feeling it was just another case for either Mulder & Scully, sometimes having a deeper impact on the guest stars than they themselves. For Mulder in particular, ‘Pusher’ you know stays with him. That’s borne out indeed two seasons later in sequel episode ‘Kitsunegari’ which while vastly inferior, actually serving to hugely neuter Modell’s power, does show how much Mulder felt strongly Modell should die for his crimes in ‘Pusher’. Often he can saunter through a case facing a few scrapes but coming out the other end proven right and unscathed bar some cuts & bruises, but both times he encounters Modell he’s marked; you can feel the moments in ‘Pusher’ where Mulder is being pushed, being drained, such as his vociferous prosecution and frustration at the judge after he catches Modell, and later his aforementioned fury at Frank Burst’s chilling murder (and his desperate attempts to save him when he realises what Modell is doing). It all culminates in, appropriately, the show’s final act, an absolute master stroke in narrative tension from Gilligan and particularly director Rob Bowman, which sees a ‘pushed’ Mulder led by the dying Modell into a final battle of ‘Russian roulette’ in an evacuated hospital, with an emotional & shaken Scully acting as arbiter at the table. David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson give it their all, you can feel the power, tension and emotion at that table as Modell strives to win his final victory.

“It was like you said. He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.”

“I say we don’t let him take up another minute of our time.”

The reason that ‘Pusher’ might be the greatest X-File ever made isn’t just because of Vince Gilligan’s supreme script, or Rob Bowman’s expert direction, or indeed the magnificent guest performance of Robert Wisden, but rather because for a show built around the unknown, about the monsters within and without, Robert Patrick Modell was never truly a monster at all. He committed horrific crimes. He was deeply twisted and hateful. But he was also a sad, lonely, desperate figure who’s only way of making a stamp on the world was by controlling the whims of others and, perversely, trying to grab the attention of the man he no doubt wished he could have been. That wonderful sense of twisted humanity is what drama, what great storytelling, is all about.

As for this reviewer, as Modell’s victims might say, he had to go.

You can listen to Tony’s previous appearances on the Failed Critics Podcast here or read the rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles on our website.

Innocence (S2 Ep14)

In another new article for our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, first time writer for the site Matthew Latham looks back at one of the most pivotal moments in Joss Whedon’s hugely popular show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

by Matthew Latham (@theBottleEp)

buffy angel“Growing up is hard”. It’s the clichéd phrase that’s thrown around pretty much everywhere you look. There’s been a lot of TV shows that try to highlight this, but perhaps some get a little carried away in their own spectacle. They can show an over-exaggerated view of teenage life that doesn’t fully exist and creates high standards to live up to. Skins, for example, its first series is brilliant drama series but isn’t an exact representation of teenage life; it’s a character study for Nicholas Hoult’s character. Whilst other teenage shows of the last ten years appear to go for kitsch soapy drama (Gossip Girl and 90210) in niche areas of society.

In every TV generation, a show is born. It alone will be able to take a more mature look at growing up with a more level headed respect for its audience. With relatable characters that are more like the average viewer. In this modern era, the closest we have is probably Awkward (if you finish watching it at the end of the third season), but even that descends into sometimes dodgy soap territory alongside some genuinely smart story-telling techniques. Before then you had Friday Night Lights that explored growing up in the context of a small town environment. There’s also Freaks and Geeks, which was aimed towards adults who were teenagers in the 1980s.

Okay, okay, so shows involving a blogger and football are a tad more realistic than a girl who fights mythological creatures. It’s not exactly My So-Called Life (the quintessential show about growing up) is it? What Buffy had was a clear goal: to show the struggles of growing up and the pressures that go with it; juggling school work, social lives, family, possible jobs alongside the fear of entering the adult world and preparing for it. Buffy throws in a bunch of metaphors involving mythological creatures that still was more relatable than those rich kids with that famous zip code. Felt ignored? There’s an episode about a girl who ended up turning invisible because of it. Pushy mum that wants you to do something that she did as a teenager? There’s an ep for that. It’s more apparent in the first season and the first half of the second, and the episodes aren’t superbly fantastic (and not to mention dated). The show couldn’t keep doing this forever, so it had to get to a point when it risks going for the bigger issues and extended arcs.

Innocence concludes a two-part story that started with the previous episode, Surprise. It’s when Buffy, the show and the character, begin the process of growing up. It has had arc plots before, but this sees a massive turning point in the season arc involving Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Geller) relationship with the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Since the pilot the attraction between them has grown from when Angel mysteriously popped up to give Buffy cryptic advice, and then vanish. Buffy (inevitably) ended up being drawn to him and vice versa before he revealed that he was vampire. Only one with a soul. It transpires Angel used to be an evil git in the past, with this life finally catching up with him after killing a young gypsy woman. Scorned, the woman’s family cursed him with a soul so he would be haunted in an eternal life of guilt.

It turns out that these gypsies had a pretty questionable loophole in that if Angel had a moment of true happiness, then he’d lose the soul. This episode sees the result of Angel losing his soul via sleeping with Buffy at the climax (ha!) of the previous episode. Thus he reverts back to Angelus. Immediately Buffy, her friends and the audience are taken out of their comfort zone. Whatever trace of Angel there was, and what we’ve seen in the past has gone. We meet the real “Big Bad” of the season as Buffy has to enter a war against a man who used to be the man she loved.

“But where is the relatable metaphor?” I (don’t) hear you cry. Innocence kicks off an extended arc which deals with the boyfriend that you sleep with and doesn’t call or seem interested in. Angel turns into the kind of guy who leaves after “doing the deed”, breaking Buffy’s heart in the process. Geller has to do a lot here, and she pulls it off effortlessly. The first scene between Buffy and Angelus (the name used to differentiate between him and Angel) sees him being incredibly crude; commenting on Buffy’s sexual prowess and cutting her down emotionally. It’s a heart-breaking scene and it helps you get on Buffy’s side immediately. The mystical events are a backdrop to a conversation that could happen in real life or any other “straight” (with no-fantastical element) dramas, as Buffy has to come to terms with the guy she thought she knew has gone. In his place is…well, a jerk.

And what a jerk Angelus becomes. Boreanaz is a delight, revelling in the fun as this darker incarnation of Angel. The previous episode introduced the show’s usual “Demon of the Week” villain in the form of The Judge, a being that “burn humanity” out of people. It’s very much a plot device that’s clearly set-up for the scene where The Judge tries to burn a recently de-souled Angelus but doesn’t. It’s another scene that whilst convenient, the writing is indicating that the show is different now. Characters are different. Angel is gone and we’re using every viable method we can to show this.

As the drama around Buffy and Angel’s relationship crosses its own Rubicon, other characters find significant changes within their own arcs. Willow (Alyson Hanningan) discovers that Xander (Nicholas Brendan) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) have…well, whatever the hell they’ve been doing. Alyson Hannigan gets one of her many great moments in the show here, laying into Xander and delivering the breaking: “it means you’d rather be with someone you hate, than be with me.” But it’s good in the long term, because in Willow’s quest to “even the score” she offers a make-out session with new love interest Oz (Seth Green) in a van whilst the Scooby Gang (the name given to Buffy’s friends) are sneaking into an army base. In perhaps the best piece of writing where you’ll find yourself loving a character, Oz replies with a “no”, spotting the reasons behind it in one of his better moments in the show. Even Giles (Anthony Steward Head) gets his own place to shine, acting as the father figure Buffy deserves and showing his loyalty to her in despite of the revelation that his girlfriend Jenny (Robia La Morte) was part of the Gypsy tribe that cursed Angel (Though I’ve always felt that they may have been a little too harsh towards Jenny).

The writing is incredibly strong in this episode and you can pin that down to Joss Whedon, the guy behind those recently successful Avengers movies you may have heard of. I often recall a quote he once said; “The two things that matter the most to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers. Party of Five, a brilliant show, and often made me cry uncontrollably, suffered ultimately from a lack of rocket launchers.” This sums up his attitude to the show: the emotional relatability is there to see, but to have that impact you need to make sure you have something exciting alongside it. This works from the opposite angle as well, as action sequences need a layer of emotional resonance for the audience to be attached to them.

In terms of Innocence, this is represented by an actual rocket launcher. It’s as if Whedon wanted to be subtle by not being subtle at all. It’s what her friends break into an army base to get; as “any weapon forged” can’t kill The Judge – so they get one that was made in a factory instead. It’s a very cool visual, one that will linger in the title sequence for seasons to come. The climax of the episode sees a fight between Angelus and Buffy in which she can’t bring herself to kill him, so she kicks him in the nether regions. It’s a great thematic end to the episode as the power that Angelus took via that conversation in his apartment is transferred back to Buffy. It isn’t much, but it’s enough. “Give me time,” she tells him.

Points of no return have been crossed. With Buffy’s loss of innocence, the show follows suit and the rest of the season spirals into a darker turn. Buffy’s mother asks her what she did for her birthday, and she replies with one word: “older”. Buffy had to grow up, and so did the show. Sure, the show would still dabble in the stand-alone metaphorical tales (like the late season episode Go Fish), but there was now more layers of characterisation, characters would react to situations differently. The show’s mission statement was in full effect: this is what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is capable of.

It isn’t an episode to watch in isolation; nor is one to introduce people in the show. But it’s a pay-off for those that stuck with it, accepted what the first season is and started to fall for the characters. The ramifications of this episode end up affecting the entire run of the rest of the show, and forms the backbone of the later Angel spin-off. If that doesn’t show the episode’s case for one of the best forty-five minutes of TV ever, then I don’t know what will.

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

Dish and Dishonesty (S3 Ep1)

In the latest entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, we’re introducing Nicholas Lay, a new guest writer to the site, who’s inducting one of the most intelligent episodes from the BBC classic comedy, Blackadder.

by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)

dish and dishonesty 1In the spirit of the frantic general election that last week, as per usual, made a mockery of the political and social system in the UK, it seemed only natural that my contribution to Failed Critics 100 Greatest TV Shows should be the timeless send up of British politics that is the opening episode of the late 80s sitcom, Blackadder the Third. While II and Goes Forth are arguably stronger seasons, certainly in terms of consistency, and are no doubt more popular, I find it difficult to hold any single episode in higher favour than Dish and Dishonesty. Set during what could perhaps be considered a ‘brave’ time period selection – the turn of the 18th/19th century British Regency (a historical period lodged primarily in further education compared to the primary school-taught, everyone-knows-a-few-facts-about-them Elizabethan and WWI periods of II and Goes Forth respectively) – the episode features some of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s finest, altogether smartest writing, terrific performances and comic timing across the board, as well as probably my favourite Blackadder sequence of all time.

Right off the bat there are jokes aplenty regarding the rather backward electoral structure of the age, with facts presented that could essentially produce the humour out right due to the almost tragic nature of their genuine existence. Curtis and Elton of course sprinkle their delicious sense of exaggeration on virtually everything, but as is the case throughout Blackadder the comedy stems from the reality that, while ridiculous, each social and political aspect ridiculed to the extreme isn’t actually that far away from the truth. Within the first five minutes or so we’re treated to a brief history of the unfair manner of voting procedure (“Look at Manchester…population, sixty thousand; electoral roll, three”), an introduction to the running joke of an overly adolescent Pitt the Younger, and the outrageous class divide as depicted by Blackadder himself, who describes MP Sir Talbot Buxomley’s interests as “flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood”.

Although helped by the fact that period pieces tend to stand the test of the time with greater success than their contemporary cousins, Curtis and Elton were evidently masters of the sitcom set up of their day. Immediately punching out lines and gags of this ilk over and over again, they really allow the old day BBC studio audience to get their teeth into things from the off, thus pulling the whole thing off spectacularly well throughout. Incidentally, the episode is a fine example of a time when a live audience laughter track genuinely did drive and enhance the comedy, from the perspective of both the working actors and the end user, so to speak, in the form of the audience at home.

Working in tandem is the superb delivery provided by the cast, led by Rowan Atkinson’s legendary title character, whose bitter sense of both curiosity and utter loathing alike manifest themselves marvellously with each straight close-up of his subtle, completely apt facial expressions. His calm, permanently sarcastic demeanour in the face of complete buffoonery, both above (Hugh Laurie’s elite thicko, Prince George) and below him (Tony Robinson’s ever-present dogsbody, Baldrick), results in punch line after spot on punch line. Laurie excels opposite as the brain dead Prince, the non-state related concerns of whom remain consistently at the forefront of the comic proceedings (“Socks are like sex…tons of it about and I never seem to get any!”). The nauseating guest characters are as close to perfection as one is likely to find in sitcom history, with Dennis Lill’s grotesque, flushed elitist Buxomly’s brief cameo matched by the depiction of two-time Prime Minster Pitt the Younger, played wonderfully by Simon Osborne. Like the “Darling” gag during Goes Forth, the joke that the PM is a mere teenager is simple but genius in both subsequent connotation and all round execution, as he continuously spars with Blackadder in fantastically immature, highly patronising fashion.

The highlight of the episode is the development of the by-election held in the fictional corrupt rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, discussed first by Blackadder and the Prince (in no other context could the lines “a small hen, its late forties” and “window tax” be delivered with such understated aplomb and work so damn well), before culminating in the eventual election declaration. One of the all time great moments of British television, the fourth wall-breaking election result – presented as a BBC-type event with contemporary political commentator Vincent Hanna speaking directly to the camera/audience – is a masterpiece of witty political satire. From start to end it precisely dissects the sometimes seemingly insane practice and nature of politics in the late 18th/early 19th century, alongside modern day politics and the ugly, concurrent themes of power, wealth, and corruption. The sight of Prince George holding Colin the dachshund and approving Mr. Hanna’s acknowledgement of the beast sets the tone for a scene in which each scenario, portrayal, and line is pure, side splitting gold. Baldrick’s old timey version of political “gagging”, Pitt the Even Younger crying to his mother in defeat, the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’s policy of the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, and Mr. Hanna’s Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette media outlet are just some of the standout moments, all held together by Blackadder’s treacherous, completely transparent rigging of the vote. Never again did a single scene have my heavily inebriated weeknight YouTube-watching first year history university student-self on the floor quite as long as this.

A momentous, everlasting piece of British comedy, Dish and Dishonesty opened a season that deservedly won the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series in 1988, with the episode itself a cornerstone of its success. The blend of quirky, restricted staging and cynical writing forever associated with the series is at its absolute strongest here, a factor from which the cast rose to the occasion to produce a practically flawless thirty minutes of television. To any fan of history, comedy or political satire who may have missed it, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. If you still don’t wish to give it a try, then I say, in the words of Mr. Pitt the Younger, poo to you with knobs on!

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Apologies for the week’s break.  Swamped schedule and I needed way more time to prep myself for this entry.

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


kfpBonus Entry #3] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 2

Author’s Note: With only 2 weeks, which have been filled with stuff to do in addition to getting these shows watched, to research these 6 shows sufficiently, I have not had time to watch every single episode of every show.  With the exceptions of All Hail King Julian and The Adventures of Puss In Boots (as those have so far only seen 5 episodes released from them), my thoughts on each of these shows are based on a 4 or 5 half-hour episode sampling from each show, with the episodes chosen at random, across each of their seasons.

The last time that we looked at DreamWorks Animation’s television arm, things weren’t doing so well.  The studio had tried three times to launch an original series of its own and all three instances ended in unambiguous failure.  Toonsylvania was a sub-par Saturday Morning Spielberg riff that was screwed by the network and forgotten about soon after, Invasion America was a confused and dull X-Files wannabe that didn’t even get a proper first run, whilst Father of the Pride was such a doomed public crashing and burning that DreamWorks have elected to forget that it ever existed.

As we deduced the last time we paid a visit there, one of the main reasons why those shows failed was because they just weren’t very good.  They had no original voice, nothing to make them stand out, and if they did have something different then the bodged execution hindered it completely.  Despite being original shows, they were too pre-occupied with cribbing from other shows.  They’re also, with the exception of co-production Neighbors From Hell (which will not be covered here), the beginning and end of DreamWorks’ original television output.  Presumably terrified of pumping significant money into non-safe bets, and also because DreamWorks are all about franchising everything (as we already know), the studio stopped making non-movie-connected programming.

Instead, their television output from 2008 onwards has consisted solely of spin-offs, both of a stand-alone and between-film nature.  It makes good financial sense – again, DreamWorks are all about franchising what successful films they have, although they have (to their detriment) really been reticent to fully jump on the merchandising bandwagon, and you’ve got a near-guaranteed audience built-in if the film’s a hit – and can even make good creative sense, too, since you’ve already got the world, characters and tone set up, and can deepen those really well-liked characters who get short-changed in the constraints of a feature-length film.

In this decade, there have been 7 different DreamWorks Animation Television shows, with an eighth on the immediate horizon, but the flood took a while to arrive.  Despite launching in March of 2009, after a November 2008 preview, The Penguins of Madagascar (Nickelodeon, 2008 – Present, 3 seasons, 145 episodes and 4 still unaired) was the sole series on screen until Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Nickelodeon, 2011 – Present, 3 seasons, 70 episodes and 10 still unaired) launched in September of 2011.  I get why, DreamWorks still didn’t really have any franchises prior to Kung Fu Panda’s Summer 2008 success, Shrek is not a series that would adapt well to a weekly TV format because there isn’t much you can do with the concept (as each subsequent film would demonstrate), and there’s no point sinking the amount of money required to get an all-CG TV series going if nobody’s going to turn up to watch it.

Premiere ratings of 6.8 million viewers, the biggest premiere for any new show in Nickelodeon history at the time, curbed fears that audience demand wouldn’t exist and once those ratings remained stable over the show’s opening weeks, making it an out of the box hit, the floodgates would truly open.  Kung Fu Panda was next up, although it would miss its planned 2010 air date, with Dragons (Cartoon Network, 2012 – 2014, 2 seasons, 40 episodes; Netflix, 2015 onwards) and Monsters vs. Aliens (Nickelodeon, 2013 – 2014, 1 season, 26 episodes) following each year after that, whilst their recent Netflix deal has seen a surge in DreamWorks-related programming, first with Turbo FAST (Netflix, 2013 – Present, 1 season, 26 episodes), All Hail King Julian (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), The Adventures of Puss In Boots (Netflix, 2015 – Present, 1 season, 5 episodes so far), and VeggieTales in the House (Netflix, 2014 – Present, 1 season, 10 episodes so far, will not be covered here)… but we’ll come back to that.

In theory, most of these shows should be slam-dunks, too.  They’re based on franchises that did great business as movies and are relatively beloved by kids and animation fans alike, and each of them very much seems tailor-made for TV, requiring minimal tweaking to make work.  The Penguins of Madagascar takes on a silly classic 11 minute cartoon set-up (amplifying the slapstick cartoon nature of the films to their logical endpoint), Legends of Awesomeness and Dragons (which semi-reboots itself each season with a different subtitle each time) aim to be TV versions of the films that they’re based off of (mixing comedy with drama, action, and heart), whilst Monsters vs. Aliens pulls away from Susan to focus more on the overall ensemble and be a cross between the wacky 11 minute shorts of The Penguins of Madagascar and a sitcom of sorts.  All Hail King Julian is a straight sitcom set pre-Madagascar, The Adventures of Puss In Boots is a swashbuckling action-comedy with elements of drama, and Turbo FAST is a formulaic cartoon.

Of these, the cartoons and comedies, with the exception of Monsters vs. Aliens – and we will touch on why that one doesn’t work in due course – work best for a variety of reasons.  For one, the writers for each of the various shows just seem to get comedy better than they do comedy-drama hybrids.  Shows like Kung Fu Panda, Puss In Boots, and Dragons have a tendency to come up with plots that are either too complex and busy to adequately deal with in just one 22-minute episode (the Dragons pilot, especially, is really bad about that) or don’t have enough going on in them to justify 22-minutes (the “Duchess” episode of Puss In Boots all but advertises its endless filler with giant neon signs), with the dramatic beats often either sped through or overly laboured on.

For another, they suffer most from flanderisation.  In having to do a weekly, often multiple season television series, it can be hard to keep on writing characters in a multi-faceted complex manner like they exist as in the movies.  Therefore, at some point, that depth will be accidentally or purposefully sanded down into more singular characteristics to fit the story the writers are trying to tell.  Occasional character beats will turn into full-blown tics and catchphrases – I only watched 4 episodes of Dragons and I’m still worried that “Bud” is now permanently seared into my eardrums – certain elements get blown out of proportion – Po’s naivety and over-earnestness more often than not ends up manifesting as full-blown childishness and selfishness, a complete betrayal of his character – and they’re rarely for the better.

But, more simply, the comedies are just better written than the action comedy-dramas.  In part due to the flanderisation, in part due to the story scope issues, in part due to pacing issues, the latter just never really hit me like they should have.  The comedy is often too broad, the drama never quite emotional enough, the action technically impressive but never really exciting or tense.  There’s a lot of plates to juggle, basically, and, for me, the shows never really manage to shake off the feeling that they’re just lower-quality versions of the superior films.  They have the voice of the parent franchise, alright, but they still never truly connect, they always feel… off.

Take, for example, “A Tigress Tale” (from Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Season 2, Episode 18).  On paper, this is an episode tailor-made for myself: a Tigress-focussed story about her finding what seems to be her perfect paradise – a Kung Fu training centre with a tough, firm mentor who pushes her further and an environment that takes Kung Fu very seriously – only to discover that she does crave companionship and fun.  The execution, however, never quite sticks.  To sell the change, she starts the episode as moodily serious, even outright hating Po despite the first film showing her beginning to enjoy his company, which feels forced and clunky.  The pacing is too fast to give off a decent enough impression that Tigress misses her old life, and the ending, where Po helps her escape, ends up making her personality evolution in Kung Fu Panda 2 (this series is set between the films) seem like it hinged on this one moment instead of something that naturally happened over time.  The episode just didn’t work, basically.

The comedy series don’t have to worry about overreaching story-wise or staying overly consistent to the way the films do their characters and such, however, because their only end goal is to be funny.  They can exaggerate certain character aspects – like Skipper’s crazed leader antics, or Mort’s stalker obsession with King Julian, or Chet’s safety-conscious ways – and get away with it as long as they don’t go too far (they rarely do) and if the resulting jokes are funny (they often are).  And since, unlike with Dragons and Kung Fu Panda, none of them purport to be tied to their respective franchises and their eventual future – The Penguins exists in some kind of alternate universe where the Penguins and the Lemurs got back to the zoo somehow, Turbo FAST changes and alters the premise to suit its own needs, and All Hail King Julian is only technically a prequel to Madagascar – they get to go nuts world-building and gag building without fear of contradiction down the line.

For example, I found a marked difference between an episode of The Penguins of Madagascar from Season 3 and one from the beginning of Season 1.  Not only has it cleaned up the pacing flaws and finessed the art style to keep the lower-quality animation from being distracting, but there’s a wider range of characters that recur from episode to episode outside of the main cast – the villainous Mr. X kept popping up in the episodes I chose – and minor callbacks to prior events.  It feels like its own universe instead of just an off-shoot of a movie.  Dragons does have continuous plot arcs – although I somehow picked primarily standalone episodes – but it feels restrained, as if the writers know that they have to save the big stuff for the movies, whilst Kung Fu Panda doesn’t have any continuity outside of two-parters (as far as I’m aware) which explains its pacing and characterisation issues.

As for the one comedy series that doesn’t work, Monsters vs. Aliens, that’s a case of the show trying to force its source material into a suit that it’s not comfortable for.  Pretty much every other show is operating within or near-enough to its general wheelhouse to not feel like there’s been a major disconnect between the film and the series.  Monsters vs. Aliens, however, is a singular-character-focussed feminist sci-fi action movie with (mostly failing) moments of comedy spliced in.  It doesn’t fit well with the loud ensemble sitcom-ish comedy series that the show forces it into.  Susan gets shuffled to the back by necessity, which buries that feminist heart, again by necessity, the episodes strain to adhere to their set formula, and the show is loud.  Like, headache-inducingly so.  The show doesn’t work, basically, despite it being the best looking of the CG shows.

Which is as good a link as any to talk about the animation.  Now, obviously, these shows can’t look as good as the films that they’re based on because they don’t have the budget.  No show has that budget.  Therefore, each show has to adapt its art style in order to remain visually appealing.  Most simply reduce their level of detail, because their parent franchises have gifted them an art style that works well regardless (Kung Fu Panda, in particular, comes off excellently).  Others turn into the skid and embrace the lower-budget by emphasising the squash and stretch capabilities and changing the character designs to make them look like playable dolls (The Penguins of Madagascar).  Others are able to deliver images and sequences that are almost film-quality, but fall down due to inconsistent character animation and subtle little details (Dragons whose character animations, in particular, switch between semi-naturalistic and semi-robotic depending on the episode or scene).

What most of them suffer from, however, is a general feeling of lifelessness.  Thanks to the lower budget, there’s simply not enough money available to create bustling streets and worlds filled with extras which means that there’s lots of empty space and lots of re-used character models.  That’s understandable, but the problem is that some of the shows keep drawing attention to it.  The Adventures of Puss In Boots is set in a once hidden city, which seems like a built-in defence mechanism against this sort of criticism, but even with that the town still feels empty and hollow.  There are seemingly only 10 residents of this city and all of them are cast members, which doesn’t help, whilst the bandits are all literally copy-pasted from the same guy all of the time, which really doesn’t help.  Coupled with the lower-than-usual CG quality and sub-par boarding – a problem for the majority of the shows mentioned here, just plain uninteresting layout and storyboarding – it begs the question of why the show was done like this in the first place.

Especially since Turbo FAST ditches the CG style and is instead a Flash-animated cartoon.  That is a decision that pays off.  Yes, the art style occasionally veers a little too “early-to-mid-2000s EXTREEEEEEME” and it has this habit of artificially lowering the brightness at more complex points (presumably to get Flash and such to actually make the damn scenes), but otherwise the show looks fantastic.  The art style is distinctive, the colour scheme is aesthetically pleasing, the boarding and layout are often striking, there’s a legitimate sense of life thanks to being able to afford extras, and the animation itself is consistent and so smooth that there were many times that I had to forcibly remind myself that this was Flash instead of traditional animation.  None of this should be surprising, the show’s animation company is Titmouse, Inc. – who did the animation for the criminally short-lived Motorcity and who DreamWorks approached to work on this from the outset – but it’s still the best-looking of these shows by a country mile.

Oh, I almost moved away from close analysis without mentioning Clover from All Hail King Julian!  Now, throughout this long and ridiculous series, I have frequently brought up DreamWorks’ troubled relationship with the female gender, because animation does have a gender problem, and their TV shows (from what I have seen, I must qualify that) continue that mainly through exclusion.  All of their shows, barring The Penguins of Madagascar, have at least one female member of the main cast – The Penguins does feature Marlene the Otter, but she’s in the secondary cast and factored into none of the episodes I managed to see – and pretty much all of them (again, from what I have seen) get nothing to do.  Astrid, Susan, and Viper barely factored into their shows, whilst Burn simply sticks to the same overly attached girlfriend role she had in her film, Tigress retains the overly serious and joyless side of her first film personality, and Dulcinea of Puss In Boots has the barest sketch of a personality at the moment besides “excessively kind and polite”.  They’re barely featured and, when they are, they don’t get to be more than a one-line-one-trait summary.  Exclusion.

Which is why I bring up Clover.  Clover, in stark contrast to her fellow female characters, is a full-on character.  She is the paranoid, self-confident, power-abusing bodyguard to King Julian who is always alert, nervous and/or intimidated by the previous King Julian, and devoted to her job.  And she is hilarious!  No, seriously, she is a comical force of nature as the show takes her no-nonsense archetype and plays it for genuine comedy.  She’s not the straight man, she’s allowed to look the fool and be as stupid as everybody else in the show in her own way, something that many comedies seem worried to try doing for some reason.  Couple that with India de Beaufort’s magnificent vocal performance, who takes already funny lines and turns them hysterical through her delivery, and you get one of the strongest female characters in DreamWorks’ entire history because she’s a proper character!

Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but just let me have this, OK?

So, at a time when DreamWorks have been struggling majorly with their cinema releases and could really use the eyeballs and network money that commercial television can bring them – the Dragons series has even been pulling in numbers close to those of non-event episodes of Adventure Timewhy move to Netflix?  Why seemingly limit the potential audience outreach?  Well, for one, Netflix is actually reaching a tonne more homes now – 57.4 million worldwide at last count – so the built-in potential audience is already massive.  For two, Netflix, it turns out, is apparently very hands-off when it comes to exerting control over the shows created, which undoubtedly must please those working on them to no end.

And for three…  Well, Nickelodeon really hasn’t been doing so well recently.  They’ve taken a major step back with their animated programming – shows like The Legend of Korra were unceremoniously booted online, The Fairly Odd Parents still exists although you wouldn’t believe it considering how irregularly new episodes of their once flagship show are being aired, and they are still actively giving Breadwinners money and airtime – and, in the last few years, they’ve begun unnecessarily screwing about with their cash cows.  The reason why The Penguins of Madagascar is still listed as “2008 – Present” instead of “2008 – 2012” is because Nickelodeon straight up refuses to just air the last 4 episodes, already, two and a half years on.  Kung Fu Panda’s third, and seemingly final, season has managed to air 18 episodes in about as many months because, again inexplicably as the series still draws good ratings, it keeps going on endless months-long hiatuses without warning and with no return date.

So with Nickelodeon not exactly being the most reliable of networks right now – not to mention the fact that Monsters vs. Aliens was cancelled in part due to the network wishing to make “more ‘Nickish’ shows”, the network’s ratings generally being in the toilet, and the possibility that this may all be being done out of spite for the Netflix move – and Cartoon Network treating Dragons well but its potential growth being rather stunted for now, it makes sense for DreamWorks to move to Netflix.  After all, Netflix is offering hands-off stability with room for viewer and programming expansion.  For a company that’s currently in financial turmoil on its home turf, the cinema, why wouldn’t it look for a nice bit of stability in a field that it’s doing well in?

But now we close with the question that has under-pinned this entire push to the finish line: why?  Why is TV successful?  Why was The Croods a success but Turbo wasn’t?  Why have DreamWorks been succeeding in television but not at the cinema?  Why is this their stable platform?  It’s a big important question, one that I can’t speak with full authority on, but I do have a theory.  DreamWorks have been creating TV shows that, for the most part, represent the spirits and tone and style of their successful films.  They are extensions of these films, the Dragons and Kung Fu Panda series especially, but delivered on a weekly basis.  It’s more of what worked (kind of, but I’m a jaded 20 year-old so what do I know).

And kids are more than likely going to eat that up.  What kid hasn’t come away from a film that they’ve loved mentally wishing for more of it?  More time with their favourite characters, more time in that universe, new twists, new surprises, new characters.  These shows offer that on a weekly basis, which undoubtedly satisfies and interests kids like those, and also explains why certain box office prognosticators worried that the Dragons TV series may have cut into potential box office demand for How To Train Your Dragon 2.  They may continue to fulfil the perception that DreamWorks only think of stories, films, and television as so much interchangeable product that you simply scale for size, but can you really blame a company for offering supplies to a prominent demand?

Point is, their shows are fulfilling a need and that need seems to be becoming the company’s main income source right about now.  As their film business crumbles around them, the stability afforded by their television arm justifies its continued existence even if the shows weren’t any good.  I mean, honestly, most of them kinda aren’t, but they’re connecting with the target audience, and in a way that the studio was seemingly incapable of doing pre-2008, so what do I know and what do I care?  At least they’re trying.  There’s clear effort put into each of these shows, which again is more than I can say for most of the pre-2008 output, and it’s paying dividends.  Time will tell if those dividends are strong enough to keep them propped up in case their film output continues to underwhelm.


Next week: we finally bring this whole thing to a close, as we look back at what we’ve covered, fill in the gaps of 2014, and then look ahead to the future to see if we can fashion some sort of optimistic ending out of all of this for DreamWorks Animation.

The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will conclude next Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch is underground, never commercial.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Fifteen Million Merits (S1 Ep2)

I haven’t got a speech. I didn’t plan words, I didn’t even try to. I just knew I had to enter the Fifteen Million Merits episode of Black Mirror series one into our 100 Greatest TV Episodes list!

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

fifteen million merits 2 Despite churning out a tidal wave of daytime TV shows, borderline freak-show “documentaries” and surprisingly off-kilter comedy shows, Channel 4 have a knack for occasionally producing intelligent, entertaining and edgy TV dramas. For example, Babylon began this week after a successful pilot / one-off episode (directed by Danny Boyle) back in February. In the past few years, they’ve also been responsible for shows like Charlie Brooker’s zombie-satire Dead Set, the comedy-drama Misfits and more recently the really quite excellent Utopia.

However, I want to focus on a mini-series they produced almost three years ago; the Twilight Zone-meets-Tales of the Unexpected anthology series, Black Mirror. Each episode of Black Mirror was different; entirely new cast, different story set in different realities, with different writers and directors even. The one thing that linked the series was creator Charlie Brooker’s influence on the absurdly twisted humour and satire of the “Twitter generation”.

Whilst the series as a whole (and last year’s second series) was fantastic, one episode in particular that stood out was the second episode from the first season starring the vastly underrated Daniel Kaluuya & Jessica Brown Findlay in a futuristic anti-utopian society. Living in stacked glass rooms no bigger than a prison cell, the occupants of this shiny facility are constantly bombarded with adverts, propaganda and strict rules flashing uncontrollably on the screens around them. Imagine living inside a Facebook news feed that simultaneously has constant porn-pop-ups. It’s that. Inescapable promotions, videos and nonsense.

To survive costs the characters in the story money – or, rather, it costs them merits. Whether for a squirt of toothpaste or a piece of fruit from a vending machine, it all costs varying amounts of credit. Merits can be mainly earned by watching certain shows or by pedalling on exercise bikes to produce enough energy to keep the self-fulfilling lifestyle going. Which is exactly what Kaluuya’s character does in order to earn enough merits to send Abi, the girl he’s fallen for, to a talent show. If her singing impresses the judges and she’s successful, she could be saved from this worker-drone life. But if not….

Looking at the entire six episodes of Black Mirror, this episode, written by Brooker’s wife Konnie Huq and directed by Euros Lyn, it might seem like the least subtle of the lot. Obviously the satire is focussed on the need to constantly be instantaneously satisfied, of the social media culture that has developed and the supposed Generation Y. But it’s so exceptionally well executed that any lack of subtlety it may be accused of can easily be forgiven.

I remember finding out that Konnie Huq – primarily known as a presenter of Blue Peter – had penned Fifteen Million Merits and being utterly flabbergasted. Not because I didn’t think Konnie was intelligent! But the writing here was so vastly superior to a million other Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopian knock-off films and TV shows that I half expected it to be been written by a seasoned veteran film writer, not a children’s TV presenter. It deals with social class, of the workers and them, with an awareness and sophistication often lacking in similar narratives.

On top of all that, the story is heart-stopping, emotional and completely absorbing. Consumerism is given a kicking alright, just as you might expect, but the despair-driven tension surmounts any obstacles presented by the relatively short run time of 60 minutes or the desire to get a message across to the viewer. Certain scenes are overwhelmingly moving and left me open mouthed, gasping at what I’d just witnessed. It also features one of the best conclusions to any TV episode aired in the UK. Call to arms speeches are so passé these days but this is something else! The delivery and performance by Daniel Kaluuya is exceptional.

It’s bleak, it’s relentless but it’s an incredible hour of modern TV. So many films released in the last few years have tried to tackle a similar scenario. The penultimate film in the Hunger Games franchise is due out this time next week, but this one little episode of TV says so much more – and way more eloquently – in a snippet of the combined run time of the Hunger Games movies.

I’ll end it here in true sixth-form rebellious nature with a quote from a punk song called The Decline by NOFX. It somehow seems strangely apt. “And so we go on with our lives. We know the truth but prefer lies”. Well said, Fat Mike. Well said.

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

By Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


invasion americaBonus Entry #2] DreamWorks Animation Television, Part 1

In the 20 years that it has existed for, DreamWorks Animation has gone from another wannabe pretender to Disney’s animated throne to one of the biggest and most influential animation companies on the planet today; one responsible for helping shape the face of Western Animation for a good decade and one with a considerable pop culture presence even long after the Shrek effect has worn off.  See, the company’s influence doesn’t just reside in the realm of film.

Even before the release of Antz, DreamWorks Animation was trying to stake their claim on the land of television, in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s continued attempts to beat out Disney across all possible fronts.  Not that you’d know that as the company’s first… scratch that, every attempt prior to 2008 to break into the half-hour animated television show market was swiftly and unceremoniously cancelled.  The company has even expunged their existence from their own website entirely, like they’d rather everybody forget about them and focus on the stuff that worked instead.

Well, such selective memory is not how we do things here at the DreamWorks Animation Retrospective – although certain weeks really make me wish we did – so that’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks going through enough of the company’s first attempts at television to get a feel for each show in order to theorise why nobody turned up to them.  (I am excluding Alienators: Evolution Continues as they were one of several companies involved in that show, and this series is only looking at DreamWorks specifically.)  The next time we reconvene to look at their television output – which will be at the end of this series – we’ll be looking at the shows made post-The Penguins Of Madagascar.  Today, though, we look at the three made prior.


1) Toonsylvania

Network: Fox

Number of Episodes: 19 across 2 seasons with 2 unaired

Original Run: 2nd February 1998 – 21st December 1998

Have you ever seen Freakazoid! or Tiny Toon Adventures or even AnimaniacsToonsylvania is basically a horror-tinged mediocre version of those.  I mean, this isn’t really a surprise, Steven Spielberg was the show’s executive producer, but it also very easily explains why the show came and went within a year.  There’s no real unique voice here, nothing to truly separate it from the other shows that I just compared it to and which were gone by the time Toonsylvania debuted (Animaniacs was wrapping up its run that year).

Not that there wasn’t some good old fashioned network meddling to help speed along that process, of course!  The show first debuted on Saturday mornings, as was the norm for animated shows on network television, at the beginning of 1998, usually paired with Goosebumps and re-runs of Eerie, Indiana.  By the time that season two came around, however, Toonsylvania’s original guiding voices, creator Bill Kopp and director Jeff DeGrandis, had left and were replaced by former Animaniacs writer Paul Rugg who threw out most of the show’s established style and replaced it with something less anarchic and more sitcom-y.  Couple this with a move to Monday/Tuesday afternoons (conflicting sources on that info) – which is basically Fox admitting that they’d rather burn through the episodes and be done with it – and it likely surprises no-one that the show was cut down quickly after.

I do not know just how much the show changed in its second season; I haven’t seen any of it.  I couldn’t find it.  I can’t find much of Toonsylvania on the Internet at all because the show has basically disappeared off the face of the Earth.  The most that I could find – in English, the series is now streaming on Mexico and Brazil’s Netflix – was a VHS rip of a Best Of Season 1 collection.  Each of the shows that we look at today have been buried in some way shape or form, but Toonsylvania might as well be about five feet away from the Earth’s core.

Therefore, I have only seen four full episodes of the show – the lowest amount out of the three we’re going to discuss – and even then they’re not the actual episodes; they’re random cherry-picked segments ordered and placed like how they would end up in a regular episode of the show.  That being said, I have a good enough grasp on the show to talk about it.  That’s probably more of a testament to the bland, forgettable averageness of the show, mind.

Anyways, each episode is split neatly into four segments.  The first involves the adventures of Igor (voiced by Wayne Knight, whose voice I apparently never tire of) and Phil (better known as Frankenstein’s Monster) as they attempt to serve their master, Dr. Frankenstein, although Igor would rather the roles were reversed.  Although this observation can be applied to every other segment on the show, these segments primarily derive their humour from slapstick and absurdity, albeit a very restrained and formulaic kind.  For example, one episode involves them looking after Frankenstein’s grandmother who spontaneously transforms into a werewolf at the slightest appearance of a moon of any kind.  This sounds like a bountiful set-up for a nice variety of gags, but the structure is the same for six straight minutes, right down to the animation of Granny swallowing Igor’s head looking suspiciously identical every single time it happens.

After that we get Night Of The Living Fred, created by award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters – as becomes abundantly clear the second one claps eyes on the art style.  The gag for this segment, the one gag, is that it’s a terrible 50s-style sitcom but the family we’re focussing on are zombies.  That’s the gag and, unsurprisingly, it wore out its welcome with me long before the end of the first of these, let alone the fourth.  Not helping matters is the stilted delivery of pretty much everything in each instalment – lines, pacing, physical humour – everything feels too off-beat and in a way that’s really distracting instead of humour adding.  These segments would sometimes be replaced by a B-movie parody instead, but none were included on the VHS so I can’t comment.

Igor’s Science Minute is up next and is basically those brief little educational segment breaks from Animaniacs only less witty.  Finally, there’s Melissa Screech’s Morbid Morals, where the kids at home are taught life lessons via a Dr. Seuss-style rhyming storybook.  These segments are fine if unremarkable, notable only for the instances where the show skimps on its rhyming metre and for the fact that Melissa Screech herself is voiced by Nancy Cartwright in one of those fun little “hey, it’s that voice!” moments (also prompting that reaction: Billy West who seems to have used this show as a training ground for his various Futurama voices).

In fact, that basically describes Toonsylvania as a whole: fine if unremarkable.  There really is little to differentiate it from the other, better Spielberg-produced animated shows it too closely resembles.  It lacks personality, it lacks anything particularly great, and it lacks the amount of big laughs required to get over its derivative nature.  I get the feeling that’s a big reason why the show never caught on.  The network meddling can’t have helped, and the rise of cable cartoon programming with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon undoubtedly was responsible for said meddling, but a show that isn’t particularly distinctive in the first place isn’t really going to receive mass tears of anguish when it gets dropped at some point.  Unlike DreamWorks’ 1998 films, there was no personal personality in Toonsylvania, just a hollow attempt to emulate what worked elsewhere before.


2) Invasion America

Network: The WB

Number of Episodes: 13 across 1 season

Original Run: 8th June 1998 – 7th July 1998

I have absolutely no idea who Invasion America is supposed to be for.  I have watched 7 episodes of this show and I have absolutely no idea who the thing is supposed to be for.  On paper, I get why The WB must have whipped out the chequebook faster than a man on speed.  “Steven Spielberg, major filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and Harve Bennett, the man who came up with the story for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, want to create a prime-time animated sci-fi action show for our network!  This must be some kind of wonderful dream!”  And it was, because in practice Invasion America is a dreadful dull mess.

There.  That’s why I could only make it 7 episodes through a 13 episode show.  Now, Invasion America has a lot of problems, and we shall look at them in due course, but they all add up to create the show’s easiest and most tangible flaw: its complete and total mind-numbing boringness.  For every last one of the 20 minutes that each episode runs for, I sat there in completely and total boredom; never engaged, never interested, just bored.  I’d get my phone out and browse Twitter or the Internet, I’d go to the toilet without pausing, I’d do laundry, pretty much anything whilst paying the bare minimum of attention, which is really all one needs as stuff only ever ends up happening in the last two minutes of each episode.

Yes, Invasion America is a show with a formula and that formula is as follows: cliffhanger wrap-up, exposition, big action scene that takes up the majority of the episode, short little comedown exposition leading into cliffhanger.  Now, of course, that’s not really a complaint as every television show has a formula of some kind – that’s sorta how TV works – but Invasion America’s formula is the bad kind of formula – the episodic mystery television show that keeps resetting to its default status quo to heighten stakes.  Questions are never answered, the villains never receive any setbacks at all, and lead character David is forever alone.  Not kidding; aside from about three people who somehow keep making it through episodes where they meet him, everybody that David comes into contact with dies.  All of them, all of the time, because David being alone apparently makes for better drama, and the show treats each and every one of their deaths as a huge shocking thing we should be torn up over.

Naturally, a point came where I just simply stopped caring.  It’s very, very hard to balance a show where the heroes have to remain the underdogs for a very, very, very long period of time.  Get it wrong, you see, and the audience just decides “well, what’s the point, then?” and switches off, because it becomes clear that nobody will ever win and that watching and rooting for the cast is pointless.  A show that offsets that really well is The Legend Of Korra where the screws keep getting turned tighter and tighter, to such an extent that one can wonder if Korra and co. will ever catch a break, but apathy in the audience is abstained thanks to constantly granting little victories and having a strong cast of characters who are lovable and entertaining.

Invasion America, as previously noted, doesn’t do the former enough, whilst the latter is foiled by the fact that it has no characters.  Oh sure, there are characters in the sense that everybody has a name, face and voice, but a deep and complex personality?  Their sole plot trait is their personality.  David’s character trait is that he’s our protagonist.  His mother and father exist to disappear and die, respectively.  He has a mentor figure who vomits exposition at him and then heroically sacrifices himself.  There’s a grumpy fellow alien hiding out in the desert with a good animal alien as a pet; his role is to bump into David shortly after mentor figure bites it and then “I’m too old for this sh*t” his way in and out of the show as required.  David has a best friend from high school who just keeps wandering in and out of the plot, there are two good government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil government agents, a whole bunch of interchangeable evil aliens, and a brother-sister alien pair who get the closest thing to an actual personality in this plot dump.

This, arguably, is the show’s biggest problem.  With no actual characters, and so many of those blank husks running about the place, the show simply devolves into watching unimportant things happen to people you don’t care about.  That’s why all of the dialogue is so unbearably clunky, because it really is all just exposition.  That’s why none of the show’s giant action sequences excite on any level despite the great melding of the hand-drawn with CGI, because none of it means anything.  It’s why none of the frequent deaths carry any weight, because nobody was a character to begin with.  It’s why it takes the sight of a crazed near-death alien general trying to run over our hero with a spaceship the size of a hundred haemorrhoids combined to get a “so bad, it’s funny” reaction from me, because the show is so frickin’ joyless – including line readings that have less emotion than the population of The Neutral Planet from Futurama.

So, who is Invasion America for?  The relentlessly serious and miserable tone, and prime-time television slot, indicate a desire to appeal to adults.  But the lead is a teenage boy (who is The Chosen One, obviously), so they clearly want teenagers watching as well.  But the art style too closely hews to action cartoons that were popular with kids, like 90s X-Men specifically, so maybe kids are supposed to find all of this exciting?  But then they’ll be turned off by the grim tone and the painfully dull stretches of expository dialogue, whilst older audiences looking for something intelligent will be turned off by the overlong action sequences and the lack of anything going on under the surface.  Maybe it’s supposed to be aimed at families?  That would explain David’s pointless reflective internal monologues that keep bookending each episode…

The WB didn’t really have a clue what to do with it either, as it turns out, and they burned off the series in hour-long double bills (triple-bill in the case of the finale) over a month in the Summer.  The show was then kicked down to Kids WB! in an edited form for a second run before disappearing entirely, although the Internet has been better at saving this series than they have Toonsylvania – the whole thing is on YouTube if you want to simulate going brain-dead for 13 half hours.  Would Invasion America have caught on if it were scheduled properly?  I highly doubt it – it’s a show that clearly only exists to capitalise on The X-Files being a thing and audiences can smell terrible cash-ins a mile away.  Ultimately, the show is just a slog to sit through and one that has no idea what it wants to be, except maybe all things to all people, and ends up doing nothing well.

I do, however, know that its final episode ends with the text “End of Book One”, like everyone involved thought that they were guaranteed a renewal, which I find hilarious.


3) Father Of The Pride

Network: NBC

Number of Episodes: 15 over 1 season with 2 unaired and 1 unfinished

Original Run: 31st August 2004 – 27th May 2005

Father Of The Pride was doomed from the start.  On October 3rd 2003, long before the show went to air and about a year into production, Roy Horn, of famed lion-based magician act Siegfried and Roy, was mauled on stage by one of the pair’s tigers and was inches away from death.  Overnight, an animated show based around the question of what the lions in Siegfried and Roy’s magic show got up to when not performing went from an intriguing if slightly cynically designed for cash money show idea, to an incredibly tasteless and extremely awkward affair.  Even with the pair urging the show to continue production, it was all but guaranteed that a large subset of Americans would tune out immediately.

It must be stressed, though, that Father Of The Pride would likely have been doomed to failure even without that undeniably tragic event.  For one, DreamWorks, like it or not, had made their name by this point with animated films aimed primarily at kids.  With the DreamWorks connection front and centre on this one, many families will likely have tuned in expecting more of that on a weekly basis and immediately been horrified by a show that heus closer to Family Guy than Shrek – that being the view of animation in this day and age.  For two, advertising was apparently through the roof on this one, NBC pimping it like crazy during the 2004 Summer Olympics, and over-exposure is just as likely to turn people off of a show as it is to get them to tune in (again: fine balance).  For three, each episode cost between $2 million and $2.5 million to produce.  Sure, the primetime CG sitcom sounds like the kind of “well that sounds new and original, let’s tune in” sellable premise that execs dream of, but you’re still gonna need a sh*t-tonne of viewers to break even, let alone generate the tiniest slither of a profit.

Therefore, Father Of The Pride’s one season run – complete with a skipped pilot, a swift pulling from the schedules, outright cancellation shortly after that, and several episodes never making it to air in the US – will come as no surprise to anybody who could read the giant glowing neon signs from miles away.  The fact that critics tore it to shreds and that it’s generally looked upon with nothing but disdain by many animation fans to this day should also surprise nobody.  That DreamWorks Animation have culled any and all mentions of it from their website and anything affiliated with them also shouldn’t be too surprising, but shocked me regardless.  I get not wanting to have your major failures sticking too hard to your resume, but to deny you ever had any involvement in something that clearly had a hell of a lot of time and effort and money put into it seems a bit disingenuous.

But, in any case, let’s not get wrapped up too much in the ways in which this was doomed to fail from the start.  I mean, that is a through-line for all of these shows – all set to fail before they even got out of the starting gates – but shows also get cancelled based on quality, or lack of, so mismanagement isn’t always completely to blame.  So, Father Of The Pride had sealed its fate long before it hit the air, we know that much.  Unfortunately, the episodes that did make it to air didn’t exactly provide a good counter-argument for said treatment.

The problem, quite simply, is South Park Syndrome.  You see, animation is typically seen as something near-exclusively for kids – a really f*cking infuriatingly incorrect assumption that I have refuted here and will likely do so again many, many more times to come – and so the quickest way to break out from that assumption is to be as offensively adult as humanly possible.  Drugs, sex, violence, rape jokes, as much political incorrectness as you can get away with.  The Simpsons may have shattered that glass ceiling before, but its strong child fanbase meant that it didn’t really change anything.  Hence: the South Park.  Now, of course, South Park always had something more going on than just vulgar humour and mean-spiritedness, but remember our talk on the quantifiable from way back when?

So Father Of The Pride goes as South Park as it can within network television restrictions.  Except that it also marries those vulgar tendencies with continued forced attempts at heart that come off as unnatural – the marriage between Larry and Kate is the kind where the pair spend all of the time bickering hatefully at one another until it’s time for the heartwarming serious stuff; a dynamic that is never believable, with the only sitcom that I can think of that doesn’t partake in it being How I Met Your Mother – and situates these vulgar jokes in plots ripped straight from Baby’s First Sitcom Outline.  Despite that show premise, Father Of The Pride instead gives us plots about the lions trying to not be racist to some new friends of a different species, Kate and Larry suspecting their teenage daughter of being a drug addict, setting up a friend with another friend but said other friend actually having the hots for the person doing the setting-up, parent-teacher conferences, a disapproving father moving into the family home, and so on.

To put it bluntly, it’s like the show is still stuck in the 80s and no amount of drug references, fancy 3D computer graphics, and inexplicable Dick Cheney appearances and pot-shots could disguise those creaky old bones.  Audiences had seen this before and they’d seen it done better, especially since laughs were rather thin on the ground.  All this being said…  I don’t actually mind Father Of The Pride.  Oh sure, it had some terrible episodes (the Thanksgiving episode is awful), an almost admirable commitment to going through every cliché sitcom plot in the book, and a pair of blatant cross-over advertisements/ratings stunts (The Today Show’s Matt Lauer in one episode, Donkey from Shrek in another), but I still rather like it for three reasons.  For one, I got a couple of decent laughs out of most of the episodes, which should always count for something.

For two, the CG and storyboarding.  Now, obviously, this is never going to win any awards for animation quality or fully convince the eyes of the viewer – Siegfried and Roy, in particular, look like humans halfway through the process of being converted into Ken dolls – but the money has been well-spent in getting the animation to be as close to movie quality as one can manage – Donkey in this show is only some extra detail on his fur and more fluid movements away from being dead-on with his movie counterpart.  Well, most of the time, anyway – there’s a rave scene where the extras look like they’ve been ripped from a budget PS1 title, it’s pretty funny seeing just how blatant the drop in quality is in that scene.

Specifically, however, I want to praise the storyboarding and camera placements.  Have you ever noticed in primetime animated sitcoms how the majority of them have very standardised, uninspired and generic shot styles and placements?  Primarily wide-angle backgrounds of flat-looking rooms where the cast stand slightly side-on to the camera with little movement, the only change coming from the occasional Medium Close Up on a character talking before we cut back to that master shot?  I’ve probably done a poor job explaining it, but pay close attention the next time you watch Family Guy, American Dad! or Archer and see if you can tell what I mean.

Whilst Father Of The Pride does sometimes indulge in that – albeit with backgrounds that actually have depth – it also takes advantage of the 3D CGI aspect of the show to create more interesting storyboards and set layouts.  Say two characters are talking in a room.  That master shot, with the wide angle and such, will rarely be deployed outside of the beginning and ending of a scene.  Instead, we get plenty of over-the-shoulder shots, MCUs that come in from a slightly different angle, full on pans through a room, and many instances of the camera dollying along to shoot the scene from a different position.  It ends up livening up scenes of characters talking at each other, makes things visually more interesting, and overall gives the show a visual identity that both ties into and goes beyond its 3D CG DNA.

Finally, for three, there’s Siegfried and Roy themselves who are undeniably the best part of the show.  Now, considering the fact that this show was conceived, essentially, around them in what can be perceived as a marketing stunt, this is a major surprise in its own right, but what is truly surprising is just how far the show goes with them.  At no point does it paint the duo in reverential light, like a lot of shows do to celebrities who show up to play themselves (although the duo here were voiced by impersonators).  Instead, it is nearly always taking several mountain-fulls worth of piss out of them, but in an affectionate way that adds to the comedy.

The Siegfried and Roy of Father Of The Pride are heterosexual life partners who are pompously egotistical, announce their entrance to anywhere with their own theme song and usually some overly-elaborate magic trick, are almost childlike in their petulant attitudes, total lovebirds for the capitalist wad-shot known as Las Vegas, and who both love each other even when they’re bickering.  Therefore, not only do they end up as the heart of the show, weirdly enough, they are also a lightning rod for its more ridiculous and off-beat jokes and subplots.  One of them involves the pair attempting to “save” Vegas from a family-owned B&B, treating it like Patient Zero of a plague that will wipe out their way of life, whilst the ones that are clearly designed for marketing opportunities, the aforementioned Matt Lauer appearance and one entirely dedicated to Siegfried wanting a Big Gulp from 7-11, are saved by their ridiculous behaviour.

They’re entertaining, on a consistent basis, no less, and it’s because the show demonstrates an off-kilter and silly fun sensibility – likely helped by the real Siegfried & Roy apparently loving everything the show did with them – that rarely comes through in the rest of the show.  That being said, though, unlike Invasion America and Toonsylvania, I managed to remain interested throughout my time with the show, even genuinely entertained at points.  Father Of The Pride was a fool’s gambit, one that was going fail no matter what it did and one that likely still would not have truly found its voice even if it did miraculously make it to Season 2, but it’s a darn interesting one and I prefer interesting failures to dull-as-all-hell failures, if nothing else.

Plus, you know, John Goodman was in it.  I like John Goodman.  I mean, who doesn’t?


 

We will pick back up the television output of DreamWorks Animation in about three months’ time.  Next week, we return to their filmic output and look at the last film before their commonly cited creative rejuvenation period: 2007’s Bee Movie.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch wishes he could buy back the woman you stole.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Homer the Heretic (s4 ep3)

The latest addition to our 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by Gerry McAuley. Homer the Heretic makes The Simpsons the first series to have two separate entries into our list!

One of my criteria for greatness in the arts is timelessness. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Now, that isn’t to say that you can only call something great if it’s been around for a long time; sometimes you just know instantly that something is so amazing that your grandkids could watch it* and, while they may not get the same experience as you did given the different cultural environment, there’d still be something tremendously valuable about it. In this case, it’s that the episode is still brilliantly funny and simultaneously tells us something interesting about the culture of its time.

In a few months time, Homer the Heretic will be 21 years old. It was on TV recently and even watching it for the umpteenth time I was laughing like a loon. David Meyer’s writing is so crisp and poised and brilliantly structured that it’s almost divine. This is where I feel we see Homer at his best, the Homer of the earlier series: selfish, ignorant and gluttonous in a way that we can all identify with, rather than just some oafish buffoon to do slapstick gags and dumb jokes with. What’s more, he asks genuinely insightful questions of society through his actions and even his words – famously and poignantly asking God:

“I’m not a bad guy, I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”

Who knew he could say something that wasn’t entirely stupid, eh, current Simpsons writing team?

homer 1

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

For the handful of people whose lives have somehow led to them being able to read this article online but not having seen this episode, here’s the story: one freezing morning, Homer decides to stay in bed rather than go to Church. He enjoys it so much that he decides to stop going to Church altogether, incurring the wrath of Marge and causing various concerned Springfield citizens to try to bring him back into the fold and see the error of his ways.

Homer’s joy at having the house to himself is something I think we can all relate to and, while we may not all enjoy his patented space age out of this world moon waffles, I’m fairly confident we’ve all enjoyed some of the activities he does when home alone. The Simpsons is brilliant at making movie references and the Risky Business reference is actually one of the most obvious. It is, however, sure to bring a smile to your face. They also riff on the previous year’s Backdraft, finding comedy in the classic cinematic trope of the heroic rescue.

This is The Simpsons at its most bold. To actually depict God, in physical form, appearing in dreams and chatting to Homer is quite ‘out there’, especially in the good ol’ US of A. To show God as an ordinary guy at heart (“You know, sometimes even I’d rather be watching football”), mocking certain aspects of religious beliefs (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear in a tortilla in Mexico”) – that really takes some stones.

Meyer was brought up Catholic but became an atheist and the combination of detailed knowledge and devastating criticism here is perfectly balanced. The episode drips with quotable, funny lines.There’s a very fine line to tread when dealing with multiple religious groups and managing to poke fun at Christians, Jews and Hindus (or “miscellaneous” as Reverend Lovejoy calls them) without really annoying them massively is an impressive feat. The resolution, with its message that we’re all human no matter your religious beliefs, chimes with God approving Homer’s decision to worship in his own unique way. Meyer and his team manage to provide a ‘message’ that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different audiences and thus keep everyone laughing and largely unoffended.

homer 2

This episode has everything that makes the show great: bags of humour, thought-provoking social commentary and satire, an insightful depiction of family life and a remarkable likeability even when characters seem to be acting selfishly. Episodes like this are also significant in that they laid the ground for shows like South Park to really tear into things that people hold dear. A much more delicate and family-friendly balance than that is struck by The Simpsons team at the height of their powers; sadly, they don’t replicate such highs these days, but at least we have the memories. Or should I say, at least they show the classics on TV on a regular basis so we can keep enjoying them. As I say, I have every intention of still laughing like a lunatic at this episode with my grandchildren many years from now.

 

*The caveat being that some truly great shows might be a bit uncomfortable to watch with your grandchildren, no matter how old they are. Like Game of Thrones. 

homer 3

THAT’S GAME HENDRIX!

Failed Critics Podcast: TV Special II

a-field-in-england-1024_LRGAfter the success of last year’s TV Special, we decided to recommission a second series. And not just because none of us wanted to watch The Internship. Oh no. So we review TV programmes we’ve been watching recently, including The Newsroom, Arrested Development Season 4, Sherlock, and Jericho, and in Triple Bill we pitch our movie remake ideas for shows from our youth.

We also review Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, the civil war psychedelic horror film that debuted in cinemas, on DVD, and on free-to-air television on the same day.

Join us next week for our Monsters Double Header, with reviews of Pacific Rim and Monsters University.

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

DIRECT DOWNLOAD LINK

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Song for Europe (s2 e5)

Father TedThey just don’t make sitcoms like Father Ted anymore. Sure, you can still turn on BBC1 during the week and catch a studio-filmed multiple-camera setup sitcom, complete with laugh track, but you’ll have to put up with an annoyingly voiced woman falling over or an unfunny Irishman dressed hilariously in drag. What you won’t find is a smart yet silly flight of comic fancy that feels both fresh and timeless all at once.

Between 1995 and 1998, Father Ted was a cultural phenomenon. It may have been tucked away on Channel 4, but this was a time when we only had four channels of note, and the show regularly topped five million viewers. The 1996 Christmas Special received the highest viewing figures for a non-film in Channel 4’s history at the time. Even people who didn’t watch the show knew about the drunken priest who yelled “Drink! Feck! Girls!”, and the insistent housekeeper determined to ensure visitors to the parochial house had a cup of tea. Look past the catchphrases and one-joke characters though, and you’ll see that Dermot Morgan’s Father Ted Crilly is one of the great TV comedy creations. Co-writer Graham Linehan has admitted that Ted is the only human and realised character in a show full of charicatures. Ted, exiled to Craggy Island by Bishop Len Brennan for financial irregularities (the money was just resting in his account), spends every episode wishing to escape from the drudgery of his rural posting, and trying to survive living with archetypal idiot Father Dougal McGuire.

Written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, Father Ted was probably my biggest comedic influence growing up. It made me want to write comedy, and is responsible for the tiny part of my brain that refuses to give up on this foolhardy dream. Running a film blog, I was tempted to pick one of the many great film parodies the show produced in its short three series run. Speed 3, where Father Dougal McGuire’s milk float (long story, but it concerns Pat Mustard and babies with mustaches) can’t drop below 5mph or it will explore; or Night of the Nearly Dead which replaces George A. Romero’s zombies with pensioners.

Ultimately though, I have plumped for an episode that resonates on a very personal level. Obviously, publishing this piece on the eve of Eurovision Song Contest 2013 is pure good fortune.

Song for Europe sees catholic priests Father Ted Crilly and Father Dougal McGuire entering Song for Europe, a Eurovision-style competition. As is often the case in this series, Ted’s competitive spirit is stoked into action by the news that his nemesis Father Dick Byrne is also entering. Dougal, as ever, gets a little carried away with the idea of fame and fortune, “Imagine if we won. We’d be like Nelson Mandela and his mad wife”.

The pinnacle of the episode is watching Ted and Dougal’s creative song writing process. From the suggestion of writing a song “about a lovely horse”, Ted has to remind Dougal that they’re not actually in love with the horse. Hours pass, and Ted explodes in a ball of rock diva rage shouting at Dougal to “Play the f**king note! No, not the f**king first one! The first one’s already f**king down”. With Father Jack and Mrs Doyle unimpressed by their efforts, Ted decides to steal the tune (or honour the memory) of a long forgotten Norwegian Eurovision b-side, and the magnificent My Lovely Horse is born.

And this is the real reason I chose the episode. Like the show’s title music, My Lovely Horse was written and performed by Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy. My favourite musician of the last twenty years writing a Eurovision entry for my favourite TV programme of the last twenty years. Pretty much every Divine Comedy gig I’ve attended has featured at least one request for My Lovely Horse from the audience, and after much fan pressure Hannon finally released it as a b-side on his Gin soaked Boy single in 1999. Here are the song’s lyrics in all their glory:

My lovely horse, running through the field
Where are you going, with your fetlocks blowing in the wind?

I want to shower you with sugar lumps, and ride you over fences
Polish your hooves every single day, and bring you to the horse dentist

My lovely horse, you’re a pony no more
Running around with a man on your back, like a train in the night…

Ted and Dougal make it to the finals of A Song for Ireland, where we get a glimpse of Ted’s pretty non-committal relationship with religion, and Catholicism in general. Flustered by the revelation that the show’s producer and presenter are homosexual partners, Ted desperately tries to make conversation, “Must be fun though. Not the… but the nightclubs and the whole rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. When the producer is surprised at a catholic priest condoning homosexuality, Ted tells his that “sometimes the Pope says things he doesn’t really mean”. To Ted, being a priest is just a job that fulfills a role on the island. Like being a milkman, or running the local shop.

Sadly, Dermot Morgan died at the shockingly young age of 45 before the final series of Father Ted was aired. While we will never know where his career would have taken his after Craggy Island, we can at least admire his genius in portraying a comic character that is right up there with the likes of Basil Fawlty, Mr Rigsby, and Norman Stanley Fletcher.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Skorpio (s1 e6)

Archer and LanaEver since Arrested Development was cruelly taken away from us in 2006, I have struggled to fill the void it left in my life. Then, a few months before AD’s triumphant return (15 brand new episodes available on Netflix from May 26th) I discovered my Bluth family methadone in the shape of US animated series Archer.

Much in the same way I stumbled across the pilot episode of Arrested Development late one Sunday night on BBC2, Archer is the type of show that you either discover by accident, or through the passing of secret television wisdoms by friends that you trust. It’s been showing on digital channel 5star for the last three years, but the first time I had even heard of it was when my brother-in-law recommended I watch it on Netflix.

When people say that a film or TV show is “something meets something else unrelated” it’s usually the sign of laziness and a lack of imagination. But if you’re reading a blog by me you’re used to that by now, so Archer most definitely is Arrested Development meets James Bond. Proper James Bond as well, not these fancy modern shenanigans. It’s not just a facile comparison though, Archer utilises snappy dialogue, call-backs and in-jokes, and even loads of the same cast as Arrested Development. Most recognisable is Jessica Walter as Mallory Archer, head of an U.N.C.L.E-style international spy organisation known as ISIS. In fact, she landed the role after her agent read a script describing Mallory as “think Jessica Walter in Arrested Development”.

Skorpio is a brilliant episode from the first season, and one which really allows the main characters to develop and start to make their own mark. Mallory is explaining the latest ISIS mission to her son, and ISIS super-spy, Sterling Archer. They have been tasked to kill an overweight terrorist by the name of Skorpio, with Archer wondering “is diabetes busy?” Much like Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development though, Mallory Archer gets off on being withholding to her son, and offers the mission (and substantial bounty) to Archer’s ex-girlfriend and fellow field agent Lana Kane.

This opening scene exposes the deliberate anachronisms and contradictions that underpin the style of the show. The drinking in offices, stylish fashions, and rampant misogyny  scream Mad Men. Surely I can’t be the only one to have struggled through an episode where nothing happens and wished it was half the length and had Don Draper fighting off three scuba divers with a harpoon gun? Or wished he’s stop looking all moody in a bar and talked someone into bed with a line like “Lana, your eyes are amazing. I mean, not compared to your tits…” If you’re anything like me, you’ll love Archer’s blending of cold war style with modern pop culture references.

Like any sit-com worth its salt, there’s a love triangle featuring the show’s womanising bastard of a protagonist, his ex-girlfriend and fellow field agent (Lana Kane, played by 24’s Aisha Tyler), and her oppressively clingy boyfriend and ISIS accountant Cyril Figis (played brilliantly by Chris Parnell, better known as 30 Rock’s Dr. Leo Spaceman). Unlike most sitcoms, each character is so unlikeable you can’t root for any of them to end up with each other, just to share some dark and disturbing sexual encounters. The supporting cast of office drones (including an overweight and undersexed gossip queen in charge of HR, a psychotic heiress working as Archer’s secretary, and a scientist cloned from the DNA of Adolf Hitler in true Boys From Brazil style) add some wonderful touches of banality to the exotic location and cartoonish violent action.

I’m a sucker for self-referential shows that treat call-backs and in-jokes as gifts for the loyal fans. Archer is full of them, and one that delivers time and time again is Sterling Archer’s failure to come up with awesome names for his brilliant plans, or when dispatching enemy henchmen. At one point in the episode he sets off to rescue Lana from Skorpio’s clutches, otherwise known as Operation something about I rescue Lana and she begs me to take her back so Cyril commits suicide. Unlike every action hero to have ever graced the screen, Archer is constantly looking for validation with his laboured one-liners. When he can think of one, unlike during an escape in this episode where armed with a hand-grenade he struggles to maintain his air of cool detachment with the immortal line “Damn, I had something for this too. Dammit. Eat grenade, stupids!”

I already can’t wait to watch every episode again, and that’s the sign of a great show in anyone’s books. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting my turtleneck. I’m not defusing a bomb in this!

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Win, Lose, or Draw (s4 ep22)

(This article features a television episode not yet broadcast in the UK. It contains spoilers.)

knope 2012By Kelly

So I just googled Plato and Aristotle’s theories on comedy (I go HARD every night, you guys). According to Plato, comedy is a little bit malicious. Its characters are ignorant and foolish and hampered by delusions of grandeur. According to Aristotle, comedy is ridiculous and ugly, its characters “lower types.”

Nice try, philosophy, but (K)nope.

Parks and Recreation makes its own rules every day, reimagining the comedy landscape as a place where good things happen to good people. These characters love and support each other. They know themselves and chase their own ambitions, which are great and worthy and never taken lightly. So much of what makes this show different is in the way it lets people grow over time. You can’t see all of that in one episode. But if you could, “Win, Lose, or Draw” would be that episode.

To start with, it’s a brilliant little study in the absurdities of the government process. Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Pawnee Parks Department, has run a hard-fought campaign for City Council against “legendarily stupid” golden boy Bobby Newport (played by Paul Rudd. PAUL. RUDD). This should be no contest; Leslie’s worked her whole life for this. Bobby’s only there because his dad runs the biggest corporation in town. He doesn’t even want the job, and he wouldn’t know what to do if he got it. Still, thanks to his campaign manager’s manipulations, Bobby could easily win this thing. Pawnee is a hot mess—case in point: in the event of an exact tie, the woman is thrown in jail—but sometimes it’s also frighteningly true to life. Tampering with voting machines, anyone?

And yet despite everything, the show itself isn’t cynical toward public service. When Leslie selects her own name on the ballot, fulfilling a lifelong dream and achieving one of her all-time happiest moments, we all get to pause and enjoy it with her. From the way she’s fighting back tears, it’s clear that the vote is its own kind of victory. Hard work is its own reward, and at the end of the day, even an imperfect democratic process is still pretty darn amazing—win, lose, or draw.

Spoiler alert: Leslie does win. But this episode works because we don’t feel like she has to. She already had her big moment in the voting booth, and it’s easy to imagine Leslie picking herself up and finding a silver lining. A loss would be better for Ron, because the man hates change. He still gets his milk delivered by horse. A loss would free Chris to date Ann. And of course, since Jerry forgot to vote, a one-vote loss would be hilariously poetic. There’s more than one person to consider here. No one achieves anything alone. That’s the Parks and Rec motto.

It’s fitting, then, that “Win, Lose, or Draw” is peppered with great relationship moments, as the whole team comes together for the big day. Ann helps Leslie keep her mind off of the election. Ron knows right where to find her when she goes missing. Ben holds her hand and writes her victory speech—and just her victory speech, because he never believed she’d need anything else (awww!). In return, Leslie tells Ben to take his dream job in DC. She puts a Washington Monument figurine in their very special box, and she lets him go.

It wouldn’t be the quintessential Parks and Rec episode without that box, would it? I keep all of my Leslie and Ben feelings in there. It’s where they put the things they sacrifice for each other. As Ron so adorably reminds his deputy, love isn’t about personal glory; it’s about unconditional support. Ben and Leslie probably have that embroidered on a pillow somewhere, because it’s just how they roll. They build each other up, and they’re not the only ones. When April makes a huge mistake in the office, Andy’s right there beside her, hiding under the table and planning a possible escape. In return, April helps Andy figure out his dream job. “Catch Your Dreams” really is this campaign’s theme song, in more ways than one.

But maybe the most remarkable thing about this episode is that it gives us all of those big happy tears and still manages to be absolutely hilarious. If you think sentimentality stands in the way of laughter, try watching this show cut from Leslie’s emotional victory hug to Bobby Newport’s concession speech (“Honestly, I’ve never been more relieved in my entire life”). There is genius everywhere here: Paul Rudd giggles at a boom mic, Jean-Ralphio shows up long enough to sing about insurance fraud, Ben tries an awkward non sequitur about jeans, Leslie is tempted by Joe Biden’s home phone number, and Adam Scott literally wipes his drink off of his tongue, which might be the hardest I will ever laugh about anything in my life, and I’m fine with that.

“Win, Lose, or Draw” wins. On all counts. Care to join me in some victory waffles?

Kelly is an aspiring television writer who’s currently trying Brooklyn on for size. Find her online at TVmouse, where cheese is strongly encouraged.

100 Greatest TV Episodes: To Be a Somebody Part 1 (s2 ep1)

crackerI was a very serious child. A real worrier. I had problems sleeping throughout my teens and, as this 100 Greatest TV Episodes series progresses, a pattern of self-inflicted televisual abuse may well become clear. While my nightmares of imminent nuclear destruction, terrifying child murderers, and dying several horrific deaths on a farm could be traced back to the factual media of late-night documentaries, Crimewatch, and public information films that are seemingly only shown in Devon, they were still hysterical and slightly fantastical nightmares. The type of things that I could convince myself only happened to someone else. We lived in a world of right and wrong, of good and outright evil.

Then in October 1994, I watched the latest series of Cracker; the Jimmy McGovern police drama starring Robbie Coltrane as the alcoholic, gambling-addicted forensic psychologist Fitz. I can just about remember the first series, but it was during the second, and the opening story ‘To Be a Somebody’ in particular, that Cracker became a one of the most-watched dramas on UK television. Coltrane’s Fitz is one of the great television ‘detectives’, with a brain sharper than anyone on the force and about 15 different vices when most flawed mystery-solvers have one or two. And I fucking loved him. When most kids my age were idolising Eric Cantona or Jon Bon Jovi, I wanted to be a forensic psychologist when I grew up. Preferably a chain-smoking, obese forensic psychologist, who spent most of his day in the pub.

But there was something that disturbed me about this particular story-line  and it can be briefly summed up in two words: Robert Carlyle. Carlyle plays Albie Kinsella, a lonely but otherwise normal man struggling with the death of his father, and his recent divorce.  Despite being intelligent, he does a manual job and struggles to earn the respect he feels he is owed. After work, Albie pops into a shop to buy teabags and the Guardian but, following  an argument with the shopkeeper over four pence, storms out. He returns later having shaved his head, and stabs the shopkeeper in cold blood. It is this ‘snap’ and transformation from downtrodden citizen to monster that captivated and terrified me. Carlyle’s portrayal of a seemingly good man capable of acts of such violence is the first time I can remember seeing the many shades of grey that exist in this world. People weren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘evil’ any more.

The episode also referenced, quite controversially at the time, the Hillsborough disaster. Albie’s mission becomes an extreme ‘eye-for-an-eye’ project, intending to murder 96 people for the 96 who lost their lives in the terrible tragedy. At the time a number of survivors groups criticised the making of this episode, but I remember it being the first time I had really questioned the official version of events that we now know to be a disgraceful police cover-up. I’m not saying Cracker was the first media source to question what The Sun laughingly referred to as ‘The Truth’, but the way it invited us to empathise with Albie in spite of his crimes was incredibly powerful television.

The rest of the storyline plays out with a little more convention. Once Albie has been set up as the psychotic avenging angel, the focus shifts to the police and Fitz’s increasingly desperate attempts to stop him. It’s still compelling television though, and the death of a major character will live very long in my memory. This was probably the peak of the Cracker series, and almost certainly the one episode that everyone remembers.

It’s a shame to see how far ITV have fallen.