‘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).


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

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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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