‘Royal Pains’ is ‘Playing God’ meets ‘The OC’ (with a dash of ‘MacGyver’)

June 20, 2009

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FROM JASON’S HULU QUEUE — In case you didn’t know, rich people are evil. They do lots of drugs. They’ll only sleep with you if you own a jet. They either ignore their children or bend them to a sick kind of personal agenda. And if they speak with a Bavarian accent, they’re probably doing something illegal.

At least those are the conceits embraced by USA’s new drama, Royal Pains, which is one part Playing God, a dash of MacGyver, and a healthy dose of The OC (but replace angsty teens with a boat-full of vicious Long Island social climbers).

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Now, as a member of the lower middle class, I haven’t spent much time with the nouveau riche. But I’m fairly certain they aren’t the debased caricatures Royal Pains presents — vainly self-elevating, nearly James Bond villain-esque at times. And I have a good hunch that people who live in the Hamptons don’t need to remind themselves of such by saying, “Dear, this is the Hamptons,” or some such cloddy dialogue ever three-and-a-half minutes.

Why do we feel compelled to calumniate the uber-wealthy? I think we make them social Nazis out of sheer schadenfreude-ish jealousy. We hate them because we want to be them.

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That aside, Pains has several marks of excellence: While at time the characters may seem cut from uninventive archetypes, they are very well acted. Lead Mark Feuerstein is a bit dry as the doctor expelled from his profession; luckily, the supporting cast is vibrant enough to prop him up, and then some.

Paulo Costanzo (as Feuerstein’s brother) does more than anyone else to hook you with a loopy horndog lifeview, while Reshma Shetty and Jill Flint make for sympathetic (and eye-pleasing) cohorts in the shark-filled social pool.

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Of course, some of the eye-candy can be a tad distracting as Pains takes a cue from Two and a Half Men and saturates each episode (three, to date) with babes in order to snare its male viewers. Director Jace Alexander does nearly the same with establishing shots, offering what amounts to architectural porn featuring all the luxuries New England money can buy.

The real mark of excellence here is that Pains doesn’t dally too much on the debauchery, and so far it hasn’t stooped to CSI levels of procedural… well, procedure. It strikes a pleasant balance of bloody medical rescues and blueblood feuds, staking most of its bets on the intrigue surrounding the characters themselves.

It’s a drama where medicine and machination are both incidental, opening doors for relationship developments. And so far it’s been fairly (but not excessively) clever about it. Let’s couch it this way: This show has the potential to be the best that the summer season has to offer — which may be damning with faint praise. I’ll keep watching on Hulu for the time being (until something better comes along).

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Big Windup: Wait, is there really this much crying in baseball?

June 1, 2009

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bwlogoFROM JASON’S FANSUBS — When I typically sit down for a new anime, I expect — no, I demand! — mecha, evil reptiles, psychic samurai, or space pirates.

I’m looking for an escape from reality. So when Andrew put Big Windup in front of me, I wasn’t optimistic.

It’s ostensibly a baseball anime, totally destituteof laser battles or acid-spitting mutant biker girls. It doesn’t even sport jiggling breasteses or upskirt shots, so I’m not even sure it fits the definition of anime.

This one’s all about psychology, game strategy, and building character. And in the first seven episodes, a good chunk is dedicated to crying and/or getting our hero, Mihashi, to stop crying. He’s kind of a pussy.

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Honestly, I would have stopped watching after the fourth bout of crying if Andrew hadn’t promised to watch Gurren Lagann if I watch Big Windup.

The tears wear pretty thin, and they all stem from crippling self-esteem issues. Folks, you have to wonder what kind of everyday soul-crushing is going on amongst the Japanese youth with all these shows about abashed teenage boys bereft of self-worth. There just seems to be so much paralytic social awkwardness and self-doubt running amok in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Don’t get me wrong — I like the show so far, even though there are flaws. The animation is not top-notch (there are a large number of pans over stills), and the pacing drags just a bit. But I want to like it. I like baseball. I like Japan. I like cartoons. That should add up to winning numbers for Big Windup.

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What I like best isn’t actually the character story (which is rare for me; that’s usually what I put a premium on), but in this case I’m more obsessed with the baseball strategizing. There’s a lot of analysis of form and mechanics, as well as situational tactics, adaptation, and signaling. Maybe that’s the American in me fawning over his national pastime.

That’s the high point for me, though: watching the players obsess over strike zones, which breaking balls to use in different scenarios, how to load bases, how to shake a pitcher’s or a batter’s confidence, even a speech on how brain chemistry affects play (I’m not sure how pseudo-scientific the coach’s diabtribe was on thyrotropin, corticotropin and dopamine).

There’s just one nagging problem topping it all off: It’s a bit shonen, falling victim to what I’m going to label the “Bleach Syndrome.”

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For example: It takes three episodes to get four innings into a single ball game. That’s too long; it might as well be an epic showdown between Ichigo and Byakuya. It feels like our heroic pitcher is slowly leveling up, gaining the spiritual strength necessary to release his next big power-up move.

In this case, it’s just a special type of throw rather than some mystic energy release, and the show is “realistic” instead of fantasy.

Regardless, I’m probably going to keep watching Big Windup. At the very least, it will give me a little more insight when the wife and I go this summer to watch the Indians play. Go Cleveland! Please don’t suck!


Gurren Lagann believes in the me that believes its robots are awesome

May 23, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FROM JASON’S RANDOM POWER-UP — So there’s this kid, see. And he’s human. And he really, really believes in himself.

In the far-flung future, that kind of self-confidence has replaced fossil fuels and is used to run the giant robots that have replaced cars. Living underground has replaced mankind’s expansion into space. Meanwhile, evil alien beast-men have replaced the Internal Revenue Service as mankind’s greatest foe.

So, just to pre-cap here, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is about Ma-Ti from Captain Planet using the power of spirit to force his Transformers Headmaster to combine with Voltron and defeat BattleBeasts ruled by those aliens from V in a huge manifest destiny showdown for a Mad Max planet.

Or something.

lagann01Sounds pretty zany, huh? Well, at times it is, almost to the verge of spoofing every other giant-robo-shonen show out there. But Gurren Lagann takes care to mock its own genre and break some of the old conventions, including taking a wrenchingly brave turn by killing off a charismatic hero in early episodes.

It was that move that convinced me there was more to Lagann than its madcap earnestness — that there was a stoic story hiding under the fluff, V-wing sunglasses, fan service, and comically large drills.

Believe me, you’ll like the drills — especially when our protagonist pulls his GIGA DRILL BREAKER!!! finishing move by sprouting a borer as large as his robot’s entire body. There’s absolutely no phallic subtext there. Nope.

Yes, there are still the shonen stand-bys: last-second power-ups to unleash inner power and defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Sudden new robot transformations. Shouting the names of attacks as they are performed. The linear appearance of progressively stronger enemies. Some scantily-clad warrior babes.

But these cliches are delivered with enough of a wink at the camera, are punctuated roundly enough by truly gut-sinking tragedy, and filled with enough fist-pumping rock-soundtrack victory moments that you hardly notice. It also helps that Lagann has ditched the tendency of shows such as, say, Bleach, to obsess over a single battle for six or seven episodes. Simon the Digger’s battles are concise but epic.

The result is that the Gainax ‘toon so far has managed to draw a comfortable median between buffoonery and profoundness without choking on its own gravity.

It’s also demonstrated the rare ability to get me rowdy and cheering for the characters, mainly by tapping into that corner of my mind still hooked on the cheese and machismo of 1980s action flicks where good guys exploded the bad guys in the name of justice.

It cribs equal parts from The A-Team and Robotech with that old message: You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as your guns are big enough and your soundtrack is rockin’ enough. Determination, the show says, is the most deadly weapon, and it’s what separates the humans from the aliens. More than anything, the Japanese seem to worship the virtue of an untempered resolve.

Untempered resolve and jiggling boobies. In Japan, there is always a Yoko. I mean, the number of butt-cheek and cleavage shots here are embarrassing, and are clearly intended to bring the horny 13-year-old audience into the fold. The resulting fan art has strained Rule 34 to a breaking point.

All that considered, I give Lagann a big score, as it’s the first anime in about two years that’s actually coerced me to watch more than four episodes. Given its flash and dazzle, which is more in the writing than the at-times shoddy animation (see the infamous episode four), it will probably lodge itself in my top 10 anime list somewhere just above Tenchi Muyo and right below Outlaw Star.


Wallpaper of the Week: Flight of the Conchords

April 3, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Flight of the Conchords might have been deported in their season two finale, but muddy comments by HBO president Michael Lombardo suggest the New Zealand parody popsters could get a green card for a third season.

The duo have not confirmed this news, not even using their telepathic text messaging super powers.

I discovered FotC sickeningly late, just this January, and have been getting a big kick out of the band’s self-depricating-haha-we’re-simple-mumbling-shepherds humor. The HBO show’s gag is almost entirely a fish-out-of-water one, playing on the ethnocentric American view that New Zealand (which is better than Old Zealand) is just a backwater nation where Vikings and hobbits clash in epic warfare against a pastoral background filled with sheep.

It’s the kind of humor that’s not going to stick with most New World viewers, simply because it doesn’t have enough fart jokes, guys getting hit in the balls with baseball bats, or fratboys having hilarious sexual mishaps — the three most common and egregious forms of American comedy.

Witty cracks (like riffs on robo-genocide or Footloose dance homages) take a little more thought. Maybe that’s why FotC have been relegated to “cult” hero status instead of mainstream entertainment.

So to celebrate a possible continuation of the Conchords’ television success, I hunted down some desktop wallpapers featuring Bret and Jemaine in all their glory. They seem to be made using fan art from whatthefolk.net, which uses the appropriate three w’s (www.) in its URL instead of alternately four or seven. Click to enbiggen:

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BSG finale: Religious buffoonery and other shortcomings

March 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SPOILERS — Did you see the Galactica ram the base star? The crash was amazing! And the old-school centurions during the assault? Awesome! Cavil eating his own bullet? Sweet!

Not to mention how hot Caprica Six was in that flack jacket. Then Baltar finally got some redemption, and Andrew and I were all cheering for him as he took that assault rifle from Apollo. How cathartic was that?

And then there were angels. God-damned angels. Sigh.

It was Andrew, that dirty whelp, who convinced me in early February to consume a couple of hours every night for the past month and a half shotgunning all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I rather enjoyed it, mainly for the whodunnit intrigue.

I’m proud to report — and Andrew can attest to this — that by the middle point of season two I had successfully prognosticated the identities of the Final Five (though I was really only half-joking when I suggested early on that Tory was a nanny Cylon sent to watch over Hera).

I guess all those hours in college studying narrative devices and literary mechanics were worth something after all.

Sure, there were highlights: I had been rooting for Roslin’s death since season one, for instance. “WHY WON’T SHE DIE?!” became a rallying cry in nearly every episode. (Sorry, Lydia.) And who could deny that seeing the Final Five standing together on the CIC bridge was really stinkin’ cool and a pay-off well worth the wait?

But while I tremendously enjoyed the series, the finale rang a bit empty for several reasons, mostly thematic.

The biggest problem I had was the religious aspect. Of course the Mormon undertones are there; they have been since the 1978 iteration. There was the Christ symbolism with Baltar and the constant reference to the zodiac. There was the whole Last Supper promo pic ordeal. But that’s all just mythology, and I could stomach it. What upset me was the intervention — for no apparent purpose — of the supernatural on a scientific universe.

Those damned angels.

Baltar’s “mental” Six and Caprica’s “mental” Baltar turned out to be messengers, nay meddlers, from God instead of projections, Cylon programming, the products of the subconscious, or some other clever mechanism. Angels to me have always been the same as amnesia: the very worst kind of plot device.

Also, I had been hoping all along that the writers would choose the humanist high ground and force the characters to learn that higher powers — whether monotheistic or polytheistic or the Force — were all fake. I wanted the show to be about how people live or die by their decisions, not the whim of some invisible bearded man.

Even if they hint that god is Bob Dylan.

The larger problem with the idea that god’s master plan was behind the events of the series is that it makes god a horrible murderer. Think about it: He didn’t use his agents to stop the genocide of the 12 colonies, or the ensuing war that killed thousands more humans and (ostensibly) millions of Cylons. You’d think that an all-powerful being would answer a higher moral calling to prevent that kind of death, but no.

It brings to mind the old Epicurean addage:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Or to crib from Denis Leary: “If there is a god, he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.” Or if you prefer Mark Twain: “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

Then there’s the Starbuck quandary. She’s apparently an angel too, which ruins the big emotional investment we had in her character. She just vanishes while talking to Lee. There’s not so much any pay-off there, and no real answers as to why she’s been “special” since she was a child or why she’s been painting the concentric circles so long. Another great character chalked up to mysticism.

Neither was I such a fan of the colonial and Cylon settlement of “our” Earth. I mean, Douglas Adams called: He wants his plot back. If you looked carefully, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect were in the background checking out the same group of 148,000 AD primitives.

And who but Arthur Dent would have slept with those primitives? Surely not the advanced humans; they wouldn’t cross the huge intelligence and developmental gaps to mate with Neanderthols. So when did the Cylons, humans, and proto-humans merge into our singular modern race? The whole “they are us” idea is just candy, but it doesn’t really work.

The anti-technology message, though it’s a typical mantra in science fiction, was a bit too strong as well. Our buddy Thaed said it right: The show’s lesson is that technology is bad. Hell, it’s practically a recruiting tool for the Amish. “I have never seen a bigger middle finger given to an audience of a show before in my life,” Thaed said.

And I agree. Why would such a brilliant show overall advocate that kind of arbitrary Ludditism?

That’s all I’ve got to say. Everything else I’m going to choke back to avoid fanboy gushing or overt nerdiness (I mean, more overt than outright blogging about a sci-fi show to my Internet friends. It’s possible to get more nerdy, I suppose, if I were to try). I’m going to clench my teeth and make sure this isn’t a revisiting of the ol’ Firefly trauma. The show is over.

Now I’m off to watch the 1978 version, which has people in capes and that one guy from The A-Team.


Literary feedback loop: Same ol’ books, same ol’ movies

March 2, 2009

godfatherFROM JASON’S REDUNDANT HOME LIBRARY — Well, it happened again. I grabbed my battered, old copy of The Godfather on the way to the bathroom a couple of days ago, and before I knew it two hours had passed and I was 120 pages in.

It started when I caught a much-edited showing the Coppola’s film on Bravo — it’s one of those films that is a must-watch if I stumble across it while flipping channels. But the Bravo version didn’t end the right way, with Kay (nee Adams) Corleone praying for Michael’s soul.

The more I saw, the more scenes I missed… either those that were edited, or those that never made the script. It’s perhaps my favorite movie of all time (I waffle between The Godfather and Goodfellas, which is strange because I don’t really care so much about mafia as a subject, just the conspiracy of it all).

But there’s none of Vito Corleone’s rise to power in Coppola’s film. You don’t meet Genco Abandando. Almost all of Johnny Fontaine’s story has been excised (which was supposedly all about Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra hated author Mario Puzo for it). Aside from the first scene, there’s nothing more about Lucy Mancini. You don’t get a whole lot about the wooing and turning of ex-cop Albert Neri.

I love those character studies. They are not the focus of the story. They are not the brain of the story. But they are its heart — all the people Vito has pledged to protect and provide for.

My reading binge didn’t stop there. The Godfather was just the ignition point for a terrible habit. I go through re-reads like fire goes through gasoline. I find myself, year after year, returning to the same cache of old hard-bound friends: The Three Musketeers. Breakfast of Champions. The World According to Garp. Dune, The Belgariad, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 2010, Ender’s Game, Robin Hood.

They are familiar. I worry this habit is just childish, escapist regression. I justify it as stress relief, as returning to familiar works that deserve time and attention on a second or third or forty-third reading.

It’s happening with movies, too. I went through a particular rough patch in my life a few months ago, and ended up watching Fight Club every other night or so for two weeks, just because it was looping on G4 and my emotional malaise turned into apathy.

I rarely hit the video rentals these days (though I just finished watching Oliver Stone’s W.). Instead, I opt to watch the animated 1984 Transformers movie endlessly, or to rehash Lucky Number Slevin for the 20th time, or pop in a random Arrested Development disc.

I’m a little paranoid about the habit, I think, because I’m nearing 30 and starting to wonder whether my choices reflect an overall mental slowdown. I find it less and less appealing to pick up an all-new title with its unknown depths. It’s so much more comfortable to go back to those novels to which you already know the ending as soon as you read page one.

Is this a sign that I’ve reached my mental peak? If I am more and more hesitant to absorb new knowledge, new stories, does that mean my cognitive growth is stagnant? Is that the point where I can consider myself old?

And here I thought the middle age crisis was a psychological myth.

By the way, have you heard of Goodreads.com? It’s a list-keeping service that helps track all the titles you’ve ever read, organizing them into databases that can then be cross-references to find new books you might enjoy. You can share and compare your lists with your friends.

Some of mine include:goodreadsI had been wanting to sit and draw out just such a list for a few years, trying to see just what scope and breadth of literature I’ve read. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, and will continue to flesh out my account as I remember and/or visit the library.


That stupid jerk, Andrew, is making me watch ‘Battlestar Galactica’

February 11, 2009

FROM JASON’S SIGHS OF RESIGNATION –– Well, Andrew has finally convinced me to join him in his nerdery and watch stinkin’ Battlestar Galactica. I might as well start spouting pimples and debating whether Plastic Man or Reed Richards would win in a fight.

I’m only five years late; I wanted to get in on the ground floor with this one, but missed the miniseries in 2004. And if I miss the establishing episodes of a serialized drama, I can never get into it.

So here we are in 2009, with the series finale coming up, and I’m about two hours and 20 minutes into the opening act. I’ve ignored all the geek buzz and speculation about the plot that’s been so prevalent on sites like our favorite forum, so I’m still pretty much a virgin where the twists are concerned.

That said, I grasp so far that there are 12 “wetware” cylons built to blend in with humans, so I figure the show’s going to play out like an Agatha Christie who-dunnit, with the chance to spot 12 culprits instead of one. That’s turned Battlestar already into a spot-the-literary-tell-tales game, and I have some guesses.

1) One of the Adamas is definitely a cylon. It’s apparent that this show’s going to be about religious iconography, and it doesn’t get more blatant than a corrupted form of “Adam,” the supposed first man. Both characters have made decisions that sacrifice lives callously in the name of “the greater good,” and the elder made that ambiguous speech at the start of the first ep about how morally the cylons and humans really aren’t that different.

2) Tigh is probably a cylon. In an early scene, he’s seen lighting a pic of a woman on fire; Andrew says with a wink that it’s just his wife (or ex-wife, I can’t remember), but again in religious terms there’s nothing quite like purging by fire to show hatred and a desire to seek purity.

3) Baltar could well be a cylon. He’s seeing visions of Six, which she chalks up to “maybe while you were sleeping I put a chip in your head that projects images of me right into your conscious thoughts,” but I think she could just as easily be transmitting right into his CPU. She’s all about writing backdoors into software, right? And there’s nothing so far that says that all the cylons know they’re cylons — maybe they’re programmed to think they’re human until they need to complete some specific task, just like with post-hypnotic suggestion.

4) The Asian pilot (I don’t know her name) is probably a cylon. I can’t remember her name, but she’s an orphan. Now, this is completely based on a gut feeling, and also on my English degree — writers don’t typically make characters orphans unless it’s going to contribute to the story by casting doubt on their origins. If they wanted to sympathetically round out her past, they would have given her a family to lose in the Caprica invasion.

5) The following people are probably not cylons: The “president” (cancer is not an identifying characteristic of a machine), The Chief (he’s too emotional and relatable), Gaeta (he’s made mistakes that have inadvertently helped the Galactica safe), Billy (the guy who assists the lady president) is too vanilla, and the really, really cute black girl in the Galactica control room, whatever her name is. I’d get with her. Oh yeah. I would. You know it.

Whether Starbuck is a cylon remains up in the air; I wouldn’t put it past the writers to write that in there as a big 180 punch on the audience. So far, she seems to have very little to do with the plot except as a foil for Lee Adama, anyway.

Now, those of you who are five seasons ahead of me and know the answers, KEEP YOUR GOD-DAMNED MOUTHS SHUT AND HELP ME STAY SPOILER-FREE. If you ruin this for me, I will cut you.

Oh, and Reed Richards would totally kick Plastic Man’s ass. So many reasons.