Saturday, December 31, 2005

Favourite diversions of 2005

My idiosyncratic best of TV, movies, websites, music, and books

I can't add to the "Best of the Year" lists that crop up annually around this time, not because I don't want to review the year myself, but because I don't like that word "best" - it's just as subjective as "favourite," but with an unwarranted air of authority. My "Best of 2005" would be from a too-limited sample, anyway, since I can’t watch or read or hear anywhere close to everything that’s out there, and some of the items that most entertained me this year were released earlier. Plus, I can believe in my head that a movie, television show, or book is superior in overall quality, but it might not engage my heart the way another, more flawed piece of entertainment does.

So with those multiple disclaimers, here’s my totally subjective list of favourite diversions of the past year, three in each category:


It’s the show that corrupted me, leading me to discover the joys and horrors of online fandom when I was desperate to talk about one of my new all-time favourite shows, but no one I knew was watching. It’s the show I can’t stop analysing and admiring, whether it’s talking about it with old friends I’ve now converted, new ones I’ve made online, or writing about it for the Blogcritics House column. I’ve written ad nauseam about why I love the show itself, but it’s also become more than a show for me – it’s a community, too. And why do I love the show? Whatever its flaws, it has the most appealingly funny nasty-but-noble, slightly tragic, largely infuriating lead character, biting sarcasm, intelligence and wit along with juvenile humour, an affinity for rationality and logic and a disdain for easy answers, plus bizarre medical stories.

My Name is Earl
On paper, it didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy - a small town Southern hick makes amends for past wrongs. But Earl is clever and sweet in its idiocy, and treats even its stereotypes with compassion and good-natured humour. The dumb brother isn’t only the butt of jokes, Randy is Earl’s best friend and, sometimes, conscience. The trailer trash ex-wife isn’t just a vindictive bitch, Joy’s a long-suffering, often-vulnerable foil for Earl. And the pretty immigrant chambermaid isn’t just the object of Randy’s affections, Catalina’s an ethically challenged but usually brighter-than-the-boys companion.

Grey’s Anatomy
I watched the pilot last season because of my love of medical shows and the interesting ensemble cast, including the wonderful Sandra Oh. But it didn’t leave much of an impression, and I saw only bits and pieces of later episodes until finally getting completely hooked sometime this season. It’s a perfectly addictive blend of fluff and emotion for a Sunday night, with sharply drawn characters interacting in humourous and poignant ways. I missed too much of the McDreamy-Meredith affair to care about the will-they-end-up-together romance, and Meredith herself is less interesting than Cristina, Bailey, and Izzy, but this is the rare ensemble where none of the characters are short-changed in stories and depth.


The Squid and the Whale
The Squid and the Whale was by far my favourite of the movies I saw at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. Ignore the fact that I only saw two. Writer/director Noah Baumbach's Squid is one of my favourites of any movie I've seen this year, anywhere. It's both charmingly bitter and bitterly funny, with compulsively watchable characters of varying degrees of unlikeability, and beautifully textured performances from the cast, including Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney.

At a couple of points, I felt as though I should feel that Paul Haggis' Crash was trying too hard to be a social lesson, with snippets of conversation that seemed like the screenwriters' voice rather than the characters', and coincidences that turned its realism into fable. But I loved it – it entertained me, surprised me, moved me. Great performances from the entire ensemble, including from some unexpected sources.

Good Night, and Good Luck
I loved the intimacy of this film, directed and co-written by George Clooney, which focused tightly on its subject in plot and camerawork. I knew only the basics about Edward R. Murrow or the McCarthy hearings, but rather than be annoyed that the movie didn't explain its context or secondary characters more fully, I was sucked into the story, its critique of both government and media, and a moral - "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty" - that sadly resonates today.


Behind-the-scenes blogs
I love movies and television, of course, but I also love hearing about the making of movies and television. Whether I’ve seen their particular products or not, these writers’ blogs give great glimpses into the behind-the-scenes process. Oh, and professional screenwriters are pretty good at, you know, writing, so many of them (especially these ones) tend to be entertaining even for a non-screenwriter:
Television Without Pity
I’d never had much interest in online forums, and still have mixed feelings, but back when I was looking for somewhere to chat about House, I passed through a few scary places before finding intelligent, friendly, and funny discussion here. Apart from the House forums, the vintage West Wing recaps let me relive the glory days with the bonus of added snark, and the Grey’s Anatomy recaps are also a perfect blend of snark and appreciation.

I’m not much of a web surfer – I tend to visit only my favourite sites, and learn about new ones through recommendations or when I’m searching for something specific. But StumbleUpon is a procrastinator’s dream, letting you land on random sites that are at least slightly in line with your interests. My most notable random stumbling was one I've since come across from other sources, too - PostSecret, a sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes creepy collection of actual postcards people have made, disclosing their biggest secrets.


The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A touching and compulsively readable tale spanning over 500 pages and the lifetime of its protagonists, Clare and Henry. The book is part high-concept - Henry suffers from a condition that causes him to involuntarily time travel, so that he first met Clare when he was 28 and she 20, but she first met him when she was six and he 36. But mostly, it's a finely realized love story focusing on fate, the pain and relief of being left behind, and the pain and excitement of leaving.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Heartbreakingly, hysterically funny Nomi Nickel is the wry, confused narrator of Toews' novel about a 16-year-old Mennonite girl whose mother and sister have both disappeared, leaving her to live with her bewildered father in a town that suffocates her with its religious restrictions and limited opportunities. While the book offers fascinating insight into a community that has turned its back on much of the modern world, it's easy to identify with misfit Nomi.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Haddon gets into the mind of an autistic 15 year old boy, who's a mathematical genius, but can't understand emotions and hates to be touched. When his neighbour's dog is murdered, he investigates and finds answers to questions he didn't know he should be asking. Told in the first person, as Christopher writes a book of his investigations, The Curious Incident is by turns heartrending and intriguing.


iTunes player, iTunes store, iPod
I know it should be the music that’s the actual diversion, but this year I fell in love with the iPeople for making it so much more convenient to listen to my favourite songs from my favourite CDs along with my favourite songs from digital sources — at home and everywhere I go. Well, almost everywhere. So maybe it’s a cheat, but rather than picking three favourite songs or artists, thanks to the iThree above, I’m picking them all … and putting them on shuffle.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)

Friday, December 30, 2005

I am not a geek. Much.

I may have whined a little about the pressure of choosing the most important technological innovation of the year for Blogcritics. (See I don't like Mondays for refresher whininess.) I did end up sending something in, hoping the bigger SciTech geeks would do “the heavy lifting,” as Trevor suggested in a comment. Well, turns out not many people responded to the challenge – possibly because the SciTech section is brand new and few feel an affinity for it yet, but probably mostly because technological innovations tend to develop over a period of time, so finding something that was launched in 2005 and is already recognized for its revolutionary nature is difficult.

Anyway, check out Blogcritics Best Tech of 2005 for geekier more intelligent responses, but mine was this:
I break out in hives at the thought of picking THE most important technological innovation of the year, but since my own SciTech nerddom is fairly specific to the entertainment industry, I'll say one of the biggest in that area is the video iPod. Not so much the device itself, but more what innovations it signals: the TV industry is getting serious about legal downloads by embracing the technology and selling recent shows as content. Taken with the fact that more networks are offering free, legal downloads of some shows on their websites, and that the Motion Picture Association of America has joined the Internet2 consortium to look at new technologies for content distribution and rights management, things are looking up for an industry that has been reluctant to use Internet technologies to their full advantage.
Yeah, OK, it's pretty geeky too, plus I dodged the real question a bit. Hey, it was a hard assignment for a pseudotechie!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Interacting with the top five TV shows

The 2005-06 television season will pick up after the holidays with CBS hogging three of the top five Nielsen rating slots with a few of its slew of crime procedurals.

This season has seen a surge of official online offerings for a wide variety of shows. Housewives aren't the only ones who are desperate – networks are desperate for younger viewers, viewers who are beginning to spend more time on the Internet than watching TV. So using the web more fully as a marketing tool is not only a logical step, it allows execs to feel clever by throwing around buzzwords like synergy and value-added.

Here's the top five shows so far this season, and their best online extras:

1. CSI (CBS)

The CSI site has the usual character and episode profiles, along with video clips, and adds a Handbook where you can learn more about tools, evidence, and procedures used by crime scene investigators. But for interactivity, the Clue Tracker lets you play detective at home while the show is airing. Gather clues about suspects, motives, and methods, answer skill-testing questions, participate in polls and compare your answers to the rest of the audience, and receive online clues and predict how useful they'll be in solving the case. You can play anonymously, but only registered users can use the chat function that lets you talk with other viewers. At the end, you're given a profile that rates your investigative skills.

It's a mildly inventive, logical connection between show and website, but it's not for everyone. Setting up the Shockwave-based game was a pain on my system – I couldn't get it to work at all in Firefox – but more importantly ... well, pick your complaint: my computer isn't in the same room as my television, I prefer to watch my favourite shows without distractions, and I don't watch CSI. Still, for those who don't suffer from the same objections, it could be a fun way to come as close as possible to being the next Gil Grissom or Catherine Willows, without all that messy blood.

2. Desperate Housewives (ABC)

Polls and quizzes are the only features on this site that interact with a visitor, unless you count the online store selling Desperate merchandise, like shirts that say “I'm a Bree.” I guess handing over your money counts as interactive, right? The “Which Housewife Are You?” quiz is the only thing I could call fun, but it's a one-time kind of fun unless you want to skew your answers next time (I'm a Susan. I'd redo it, but given the other choices ...). The site is full of other features, though, including bios, recaps, videos, photos, and downloads of wallpapers and icons.

3. Without a Trace (CBS)

Without a Trace gets the prize for most depressing but socially responsible audience participation feature. Amid the bland links about the show, cast, videos, and photos, there's a Find a Missing Person link. It shows photos and descriptions of actual missing people, with links to contact information for the FBI and United States embassies and consulates if visitors have any information.

4. CSI: Miami (CBS)

The CSI: Miami site is similar to its older sibling's, except with a writer's blog instead of the Clue Tracker. It's written by Corey Miller, Executive Story Editor, and even for someone who doesn't watch the show, it's a good read - educational and funny at the same time (“We’re on practically everywhere. I always thought love was the international language. Maybe it’s actually…death?”). He gives some great insight into how a show is put together, what it's like on the set, and what some of those jobs we see in the credits mean. Though there's no comments, Miller solicits feedback by e-mail and uses reader questions as the basis of some of his posts. That may not make it as interactive as some features, but it's a great way to investigate the inner workings of the show.

5. Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

Here you can learn about the medical procedures featured on the show, read character bios from a nicely designed page that pulls “Intern Quarterly Evaluations” from a filing cabinet, and of course catch up on episode summaries, cast bios, and browse through photos. The blogs really add the audience participation, though.

Grey Matter: From the Writers of Grey's Anatomy is a blog with episode-specific entries from the episode writers, including creator Shonda Rhimes, offering their perspective on the story and characters and explanations for where their ideas come from. There are also blogs for Joe the bartender and Debbie the nurse, which add some truly trivial additional show content through the show's lesser characters. Commenting is enabled on all the blogs, so viewers can leave feedback or join in on the illusion that they're conversing with the characters.

The show uses music effectively to add atmosphere, and the website not only lists the songs used in a particular episode, but has insider comments by Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor, explaining why certain bands or songs were chosen. It's not exactly a blog, but it'll help you run to iTunes for that great song you heard on the show.

Which reminds me ... the theme song is catchy enough, but thank you website creator for letting us turn off the annoying loop of it on the Grey's Anatomy website. Except you have to do it with every page. Interactivity is great, but forcing a visitor to select "Music Off" every time they leave a page is not the best use of their engagement with the site.

(Information on season-to-date rankings by total households from Zap2It)

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

My brother from another planet

Christmas is a time for family. Sometimes that’s even a good thing. My brother and I have our differences - he has no interest in House despite being the one to hook me on Blackadder and therefore starting me on the path towards Hugh Laurie admiration, and he refuses to acknowledge that Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing is just as fine as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. But he’s been the one constant in my life: the vaguely Frankenstein-headed little boy gingerly holding the baby blob in my first photo; now the gentle giant who knows when to let me rant and when to knock me off my soapbox with a deprecating joke. We don’t see each other often anymore, but he knows me well.

This Christmas, he fed my addiction to medical shows and well-crafted comedy-drama with the first season of Scrubs on DVD. We watched the first several episodes as well as one of his gifts from a friend, the Family Guy movie, and though very different, each provided both clever and stupid laughs in one package and we laughed ourselves silly.

In the three days I was in unusually balmy Edmonton, when we weren’t engaged in Christmas feasts we mostly stayed indoors and gorged ourselves on very unChristmas-like fare from his DVD collection, like Bruce Lee movies and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America, which was sick and wrong and made me laugh against my will … and made me the object of my brother’s mockery for covering my eyes during the gory scenes (“oh no, the kitties are gnawing on the puppets!”).

We don’t have similar tastes. I couldn’t sum up his, though. I end up watching cruder or more action-oriented films when I’m with him, but they’re often clever or satiric, too. He surprises me occasionally, with his love of Ingrid Bergman and ability to admit he ended up admiring House of Sand and Fog after ridiculing the desire to see a film about a property dispute. He thinks he can sum up my tastes. Years ago, after we saw Gattaca, he agreed with my one-word critique – “boring” – but expressed sarcastic surprise: “I thought you liked boring movies.”

But I’m often reminded of how much my tastes have been shaped by his. He was and is a science fiction geek, and helped me learn not to be afraid of the genre, even if I can’t pledge allegiance to it. I don’t have to be a science fiction fan to reminisce fondly about Star Trek and Star Wars (and appal science fiction geeks when I sometimes get the two titles mixed up). Because of him, I saw the first Star Wars about a million times, and played with the action figures endlessly, and while I haven’t seen the last one yet, I will.

We watched part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at Christmas, and recalled how much better the books and even the BBC miniseries were - which I read and watched because of him, of course. He’s made me promise to rent the new Battlestar Galactica and I will, now, even though I hadn’t been motivated so far despite nostalgia for the old one (guess who got me to watch it as a child?) and hearing nothing but raves about this one from other people. We don’t have the same tastes, but if my brother recommends something, I trust in his confidence that I’ll like it.

He also got me a book for Christmas, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It’s not his taste, but he knew I wanted to read it, and that I’m always starved for great reading material. I’m a little more selective now, but as a kid, I’d read pretty much anything - whatever was around the house between my own library trips, and that was usually his science fiction.

I didn’t like it all, or even most of it, and had no interest in aliens and spacecrafts. But I discovered some were just as captivating as my Nancy Drew or Jane Austen, with thought-provoking stories and well-drawn characters that weren’t just about life on Mars, but sometimes had something to say about social issues or human emotions. Though I would initially protest that I didn’t like science fiction, in time, the label didn’t matter to me, but the story and characters did.

When I was little and feeling petulant about something my brother did, I used to say I wanted a big sister. Until recently, my mother thought I meant that I wanted another sibling, but no, I wanted to trade my existing one in. But now I'm glad to have a big brother who, among many more important things, taught me early to look beyond genre. If only I could get him to listen to his little sister about the merits of Merchant Ivory and romantic comedies.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I don't do reruns

By the way, no post-show House analysis today, or until new episodes return on January 10 (that’s the date I’ve heard, anyway, but don’t take my word for it - I can’t handle the responsibility). But I’m incapable of writing a one-line post, so here’s a little traditional Tuesday House babble …

Tonight’s rerun first aired back when the ratings were in the “maybe I shouldn’t get my heart set on this show since it’s likely to be cancelled” range, so it’s nice that more people will see the holiday-themed episode in the Christmas season. “Damned if You Do” is one of my favourite House episodes, too. Not only does it respectfully and thoughtfully – and, most importantly, humourously - look at the whole spectrum of faith, from atheist to nun, it also marked the first and maybe only time we see House genuinely smile. Written by Sara B. Cooper, who doesn’t seem to be with the show anymore, the episode was nominated for a Humanitas Prize, which honours “stories that affirm the human person, probe the meaning of life, and enlighten the use of human freedom. The stories reveal common humanity, so that love may come to permeate the human family and help liberate, enrich and unify society.”

“Damned if You Do”’s exploration of science, religion and faith definitely seems to fit. But the pilot was also nominated (neither won – it went to The West Wing). Now, I loved the pilot, but I’m not sure how that particular hour with the morosely sarcastic, Vicodin-loving doctor who insists brain tumours are boring, everyone lies, and humanity is overrated really fits that description. House himself would scoff at the ideals behind it. But whatever. Gotta love the Humanitas people for recognizing that our “common humanity” includes cynicism and pain.


It's Freedom bacon now

''Canada is a sweet country. It is like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he's nice but you don't take him seriously. That's Canada.''

- Tucker Carlson
This is the sort of thing us hypersensitive Canadians are supposed to get outraged about, but I think I’ll be offended on behalf of intellectually challenged people instead. I’m oddly OK with people like Tucker Carlson being annoyed with my country.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Home for the holidays

I feel as though I should write a Christmasy post, but I'm not a very Christmasy person. Welcome to my version of holiday thoughts.

I'm going “home” for Christmas, but I don't know what that means anymore. I haven't lived there for over 10 years, and there's never been a family home to return to. We moved a lot, and after we went our separate ways, continued to do so individually.

“Home” is Edmonton. In winter. There's a reason I didn't return to Alberta after two years in the temperate climate of Mexico City (though, to be fair, also a reason why I longed for Alberta's blue skies while living under a yellow haze).

Moving to Vancouver started as a joke: “There's no way I'm going back to -30 degree winters.” Then I started to think more seriously about returning home. Mexico City is beautiful and vibrant and welcoming, and ugly and polluted and violent, and a life of sticking out like a glow-in-the-dark Amazon who talks funny, being constantly on guard, never quite belonging, became unimaginable after a while, and I longed to go home.

But where was home? I'd lived in Calgary before moving out of the country, but I had little to go back to there, and no desire to go back to Edmonton (it's a fine city, but ...) or any of the other places I'd lived but never put down roots. I had nothing to go back to in Vancouver, except memories of a city whose natural beauty and unnatural charms I'd fallen in love with during rare visits, plus the appealing climate (hey, I like rain). But that was enough to have my heart set on Vancouver.

So here I am, three years later. Except not really, because I recently moved to an adjacent suburb ... though I cling to the fact that I'm still in the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

While I have no intention of leaving, I have no history of staying, either. If home is where the heart is, I'm glad hearts come in such handy portable containers.

So, um, happy holidays, wherever your heart takes you.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lawrence Kaplow of House gets Writers Guild nomination

Congratulations to Lawrence Kaplow, nominated for a Writers Guild Award for the “Autopsy” episode of House, M.D. Because everything is all about me, I'm not just thrilled that my favourite show was nominated, but that it's the guy who was so generous with his time and thoughtful responses (except about that damn ball) when I interviewed him recently. I'm surprised David Shore's “Three Stories” wasn't nominated, but I suppose he'll have to console himself with his Emmy. And I could quibble with some of the other series nominations over House, but I'm a glass half full kind of girl. Sort of.

Feb. 4 edit: And he won!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Truth is tricky

Since writing about the dangers of blindly trusting bloggers (except me, of course - you should blindly trust me), I’ve been meaning to write similar thoughts from the other side of the blogger/journalist line. We can rant about media bias and factual mistakes, but there are also smaller, more benign reasons to bring our critical thinking skills to the mainstream news, too. Even when we’re not being purposely manipulated (and I’m not nearly as cynical as some who think that’s the agenda of the media), we can’t possibly be given the whole picture of an issue in the bite-sized chunks we’re willing to sit still for.

At the beginning of my career, I interned at a museum that waived the fee for non-profit groups to use our auditorium. We were blindsided by a controversy about a gay and lesbian film festival using our space when a radio talk show host started reading excerpts on air from the festival’s brochure, which used explicit language to describe its rather tame films and workshops … and used our logo as the most prominent graphic element. All media outlets ended up covering the story, and while the information they presented was factually correct, the issues became so distorted I wouldn’t recognize it as truth.

In one instance, I watched a TV camera crew interview my boss. When watching the final news story, I was struck by the fact that our spokesperson had said everything the organizer’s spokesperson was quoted as saying, about the merits of the event, the evils of censorship, and the assertion that they were entitled to the same use of our space as any other non-profit group. None of our supportive words made it to air. The only sound bite they used for our organization was the information that they had used our logo without permission on their brochure, which we hadn’t even seen until we went to the radio station to see what the host was talking about.

Nothing in the story was incorrect. But the way the quotes were selected, it created the appearance of two opposing sides, when in fact we agreed more than we disagreed … until the story aired and the organizers believed we were slamming the event in the media.

When I worked for a cancer charity, I occasionally had to endure media interviews about research stories, just to give the sound bite that every advance in research does not translate into an immediate advance in treatment, and curing cancer in mice is far different from curing it in people, but it’s all part of a process leading to our goal blah blah blah give us money. But while that caution applies to so many of the multitude of stories we see about the latest medical findings, most of them appear without it. And most of them aren't ready to be news except in the research community. That’s what leads to people’s frustration that one day scientists say chocolate is good for you, the next they say it’ll kill you. (Sometimes I have to go with tastebuds over science – I believe it’s not only healthy, it’s vital.)

I work for the health care system now, and we are limited by our inability to comment on media stories about specific cases due to privacy laws. Reporters are limited too – they end up reporting one side of a story because they are unable to get a balanced view. We can’t speak; they can’t stay silent. Even when the media include the disclaimer that we’re legally unable to comment, do viewers at home get that they’re missing half the story? I really doubt it, and it doesn’t much matter, since they will never know what that other half is.

I was briefly a world section copyeditor for a newspaper in Mexico before I made the transition to Living editor (that was my actual title, prompting the inevitable question from people on the receiving end of my business card: “are the other editors dead?”). The job consisted of combing through newswires for the most important stories of the day, and editing them to fit our space and our style. But ... it's a big world out there. Every day, we'd have qualms about what we chose not to cover. Every day there were wire stories about people dying in religious conflicts in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, but they were places "no one cares about."

Canada was on that unwritten list, too, despite the disproportionately high percentage of Canadians working at the paper, and the large number of Canadian ex-pats who apparently weren't starved for news from home. Our 2000 election finally made it into the paper, barely, on a slow news day and with the best sidebar ever: Rick Mercer's petition to have politician Stockwell Day change his name to Doris, to poke fun at Day's proposal that a petition with 3% of Canadian voters' signatures could trigger a referendum on any subject.

Instead of anything on Kashmir and Sri Lanka and Canada, for over a month we dedicated space to a special section: “U.S. Election Watch 2000: We Never Would Have Devoted A Whole Section To It If We'd Known It Would Go On This Long But We Can't Change Our Minds Now.”

Someone has to decide what's news on behalf of readers and viewers. Sometimes that someone is making pretty random decisions about what we should care about.

So all this to say: knowing that we don't know the whole story is a good place to start when evaluating news stories, and should maybe spur us to find other sources before making up our minds. The paper may be written in black and white, but there's always shades of grey hidden in there.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Shirley MacLaine is my soulmate

Me, yesterday:
"We not only get glimpses of stars in pretty clothes, but drunk stars in pretty clothes. The Hollywood Foreign Press knows how to throw an awards ceremony: with dinner and drinks. The prospect of acceptance speech after acceptance speech is far more appealing when they have the strong potential to be delivered under the influence."
Shirley, today:
"I love the Golden Globe Awards. Ever since Jack Nicholson taught everybody it's OK to moon the audience, it's been so much fun. Everybody's drunk by the time the important stuff comes up."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

TV Review: House, M.D. - "Deception"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Dec. 13)

Trust House to have a holiday-themed episode called “Deception” with the moral that people don't change and will go back to their gambling ways, risking their lives, their happiness, their careers, their money, but probably not their Vicodin. Sniffle. It warms my heart so.

Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) is terrific as this week's patient of the week, Anica, a woman House (newly minted Golden Globe nominee Hugh Laurie) meets and – is it possible? - almost flirts with at the horse races. When she collapses from a seizure, he notes mysterious bruises on her abdomen and has her taken to Princeton-Plainsboro so he can play doctor.

Following House's disciplinary action from last time, for this episode – oh please, let it just be this episode – Foreman is in charge of the diagnostic department. Cuddy does dangle the carrot of permanent leadership in front of Foreman, so House can be the “mad scientist” while the administration of the department runs smoothly, but neither Wilson nor I believe that will ever come to pass.

Foreman and House predictably disagree on Anica's treatment, with Foreman, Cameron, and Chase deciding she is suffering from Munchausen's Syndrome, a psychiatric disorder that causes her to self-induce illnesses. House believes aplastic anemia is contributing to her symptoms, and shockingly resorts to devious means to prove it to Foreman, who has discharged her. Turns out, House was almost right, but also wrong, stopping the treatment for the anemia just in time when he realizes she actually has an infection.

It was fun to see the diagnostically brilliant House forced to play hands-on doctor, ineptly doing a medical history and tests he has left to his minions likely for years. The man is barely an adult when he's in charge, so the role reversal of this episode gave him a great excuse to indulge in his childish side, and gave Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) another great line: “House assisting – that's funny. Too bad Foreman's gonna die.” There were cute moments: House shows off his surprisingly-not-tragic flirting skills again with a pretty lab technician; Cameron has a fantasy fulfilled when she gets to ride on the back of House's motorcycle. And it's good to see that New Jersey still has seasons, and hasn't become New California as I feared.

But the flaw of “Deception” is that while it was a lighter, fluffier House - not as much to sink my teeth into as usual - it didn't really play the implausible setup for laughs. The Foreman-House head-butting has been played out much better in other episodes, and Foreman is at risk of losing his personality to pedantry. “She should have died,” he says to Cuddy, about Anica. “House doesn't break rules, he ignores rules. He's not Rosa Parks, he's an anarchist.” House isn't Rosa Parks? I'm not sure Cuddy or I will recover from the shock.

I'm no doctor, but House's rationale for why Anica's problems weren't completely explained by the Munchausen's made sense to me, and his entire career hinges on his reputation for pulling the unlikely diagnosis out of the blue. So Foreman and Cuddy's refusal to let him perform one more test to either prove or disprove his theory rings false. “Deception” seemed designed to prove the entire premise of the show – House's methods are wacked and would cause chaos if all doctors followed his lead, but his deductions are ultimately brilliant and end up saving his patients. Which most fans got, oh, a season and a half ago, but we're expected to believe this is an epiphany for Foreman and, perhaps, Cuddy.

Tis the season for reruns. New episodes of House return in January.

Note: For something even more heartwarming than a House holiday episode, check out the eBay auction for House's season one cane. From the site: “Co-Executive Producer [and co-writer of season premiere Acceptance] Garrett Lerner has arranged this auction in honor of his son Zeke who suffers from a rare disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. This horrible neuromuscular disease is progressive, robbing children of their ability to walk, to stand, and eventually to even breathe. All proceeds from this auction will go to Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a charity dedicated to finding a cure. Go to to learn more.”

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Anticipating the golden hangover

I’ve already admitted my shameful love of Hollywood awards shows. Go on, ridicule me - I deserve it, and I can handle it. I don’t take them seriously, anyway; it’s all about the spectacle. But the Golden Globes have to be the most fun of all. Seven guys from the Kazakhstan Times* pick their favourites in movies and television, and we not only get glimpses of stars in pretty clothes, but drunk stars in pretty clothes.

The Hollywood Foreign Press knows how to throw an awards ceremony: with dinner and drinks. The prospect of acceptance speech after acceptance speech is far more appealing when they have the strong potential to be delivered under the influence.

By the time Oscar nominations roll around, I’ve usually seen a fair chunk of the contenders. But the Golden Globes this year have made many of their picks from films that haven’t opened near me yet, a couple I didn’t realize had opened anywhere yet, and some I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet. Of the few I have caught —The Squid and the Whale, Good Night, and Good Luck, Crash, and Pride & Prejudice — I can give my stamp of approval to their nominations. The Foreign Press is hugely relieved, I’m sure.

But their television choices seem either boring (all Desperate Housewives, all the time) or random (Commander in Chief? Wentworth Miller? They’re fine, but … really?). And oddly, the old guys from Kazakhstan gave nods to several men I’d put in a category for best eye candy rather than acting.

No surprise that I’ll be rooting for Hugh Laurie (House, M.D.) as best dramatic actor, while Zach Braff (Scrubs – aww, I remember way back when that used to be on TV) and Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) will have to fight for my favour as best comedic actor. For their talent, of course, but I wouldn’t kick any of them out of the eye candy category either. Well, Lee might have to shave the moustache first.

My money’s on no one, though. Especially when it comes to the television side of the awards, I suspect the Foreign Press votes drunk, too.

The Golden Globes are handed out January 16 on NBC. I can’t wait.

Related posts:
(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Semi-incoherent ramblings on Crash

I finally saw Crash last night, the movie that was unexpectedly popular as an unapologetic look at race relations in L.A. At a couple of points, I felt as though I should feel it was trying too hard to be a social lesson, with snippets of conversation that seemed like the screenwriters' voice rather than the characters', and coincidences that turned its realism into fable. But I loved it – it entertained me, surprised me, moved me.

I have no insight on race issues, and no real desire to enter the fray. I've seen glimpses of subtle racism toward friends and strangers, and I've been the beneficiary of uncomfortable levels of preferential treatment as a guerita during my time in Mexico City, a place that often seems to value otherness above its own heritage. While Canada's racial tensions are quite different from the United States', they do exist, most commonly as a subtle undercurrent, but occasionally rising to the surface with racially motivated killings or Jewish schools and cemeteries vandalized, for example. I called bullshit on a couple of Canadians who told our Mexican friends that there is no racism in Canada, but their position fit better with the pervasive Mexican perception of Canada as a nice, polite country, and the US as the centre of all that is evil – though the worship of McDonalds, Friends reruns and Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs made that opinion something of a contradiction.

Crash provokes thoughts beyond race. Our jobs, our social class, our marital status, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, they all become indicators of who we are. We all do it - we slot people into categories and make assumptions and form expectations based on those categories. And we all fight against it – we want people to see us for who we really are, not for what category we fit into. Recognizing our tendency to apply generalizations to individuals can help us counteract that tendency. And a movie like Crash helps us step back and realize that as much as we want people to see us, to hear us, to touch us, we have the power to see, hear, and reach out to others as individuals.

The opening line is talking about L.A., but it transcends geography: “I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” The hope suggested in Crash is that we can choose how we react when we crash into each other.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

House + Earl = engaging TV

Last week's January TV lineup announcement brought me happy news – no longer would the two shows I watch religiously be on at the same time. House will stay put in its Tuesday 9 p.m. slot on Fox, while My Name is Earl heads to Thursdays on NBC.

On the surface, the two shows have little in common. Cranky doctor solves medical mysteries in a one hour drama. Reformed criminal makes amends for past wrongs in a half hour sitcom. But both shows are focused on a narrowly defined premise, and each week the plot unfolds within that conceptual framework. To put it more simply, they follow a formula.

But formula implies precision. It implies predictability. It implies boring. And both shows have a talent for the unexpected within their framework. We might be able to detect Plot Detail A + Plot Detail B = Outcome X, but there are many variables along the way, and the occasional deviation from the formula puts our expectations at risk.

The first half of House's first season was more rigidly formulaic than it later became, but it hasn't always managed to shake the criticism despite shaking things up and moving away from the two wrongs eventually make a right diagnosis pattern. It's thrown in a couple of non-linear timelines, added more continuing character arcs, and produced more variations along the diagnostic path. Still, it has defined its concept more narrowly than “a group of doctors face medical and personal challenges in the ER.” It's a crime show without a crime, with perpetrators with no motives and victims with hidden ones.

On the other hand, just a few months into its first season, My Name is Earl not only displays an assured grasp of its characters and its comedic sensibility, it has managed to use its brilliant but potentially limiting concept in interesting ways. In the pilot episode, Earl wins the lottery, gets hit by a car, and is inspired by Carson Daly to try to turn his karma around by doing good deeds, so he compiles a list of all the bad things he's done in life. Every week, we see Earl make amends for another item on his list. The formula is that he tries to do a good deed for the person he wronged, some complicating factor makes the task more difficult than it appeared, but he finds a way to help in the end. The list assures a steady stream of plots for the next several years and beyond, since Earl has already added to it.

Writing a show with a narrow focus is in some ways a bolder creative choice than a show that offers more freedom. With Friends, you've got six characters hanging out – that leaves a lot of wiggle room, plot-wise. With Earl, you're focused on one main character doing one action each episode. Criticising House for its chosen scope seems as illuminating as criticising Lost for its implausibility, or Fear Factor for being sensational. That's the point. The basis for critique should be in judging how well a show accomplishes what it sets out to do, and whether it fits our idiosyncratic tastes or not.

There's a corny saying that happiness isn't a destination, it's a way of travelling. Well, the joy in these shows isn't the outcome – will House find the correct diagnosis? will Earl atone for a past wrong? - but in how they arrive at that outcome. The rich characters are as important as the plot. And within their chosen framework, both shows inject innovation in the details. Along with clever, playful language and characters with depth, the shows sustain audience interest with repeat doses of the unexpected. House's patients can die or lose their hands. Earl can fail to make up for ruining his dad's election and abandon his list when he realizes he's neglecting his brother. And sometimes, for a special treat - but not so often that the audience is jolted out of these self-contained worlds - the framework is bent almost beyond recognition and we get a “Three Stories” episode, that takes some of its power from toying with our expectations of the formula.

So you say formulaic, I say framework – let's call the whole thing off. It's semantics and personal taste. But “formula” is not a dirty word. Ask any mathematician ... it can even be beautiful in its elegance.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


Monday, December 05, 2005

I don't like Mondays

Our department Christmas party for tonight was cancelled, I'm cranky, so what is there to do but whine?

I'm halfway through writing a post for Houseless Tuesday tomorrow, defending the show against accusations of being formulaic – in particular, a comment posted to last week's episode review, and the funny nod to the accusation in the episode itself. And then I read a post that, in the context of a much broader point, says pretty much what I'm arguing – that it's less of a formula, more of a framework. Only Dead Things on Sticks Guy says less of a formula, more of a template. And he's a TV writer so he's all insightful and shit. But his post is about a lot more than that, talks about way more than House, and doesn't babble on about My Name is Earl the way I am, so screw it. I'm posting tomorrow anyway, even though I could just do this – go read The Second Episode Problem.

What I really want to whine about isn't whine-worthy either, it's pretty much just evidence that I need to be slapped when I start to overthink things. I got an invitation from the Blogcritics SciTech editor to contribute to the Best of 2005 list for that category. She wants to know what I think is “the most important technological innovation of 2005.” The invitation itself is a little peculiar in that I usually write movie and TV reviews for them. I have an English lit degree. I have no real SciTech geek credentials, except web editing, I guess, and I have written about podcasts.

But really, it's the “the” that scares me. I'm not an absolutist. My rods (or is it cones) can't see black or white – just grey. I can't name a favourite movie – it changes from mood to mood. I am afraid to commit to an absolute opinion. If you ask me for directions to my home, and we are standing on my doorstep, I will point and say “I think it's right there.”

Plus, while my technophobe coworkers think I'm a technogeek, the woman who has a dollar seems rich to the woman who has a penny. I have no silicon chip inside my head. I'm not qualified to name “the” most important technological innovation. All the true technogeeks at Blogcritics will probably take care of the important gadgety stuff anyway. She wants interesting responses, from any area of science or technology. I work for the medical system – I should try to represent that. Somehow. Think someone will invent a cancer-curing technological innovation between now and the end of the week? Any other ideas?

I could decline to participate, but it sounds like a fun thing to think about and research during my cranky week. Yes, torturing myself with overthinking when I'm cranky is fun. Shut up.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Movie review: C.R.A.Z.Y.

Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y., currently playing in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Waterloo (in French with English subtitles), has been selected as Canada's foreign language film submission for next year's Oscars, and is riding a not-so-crazy wave of critical and home box office success.

While U.S. distributors have so far shied away from C.R.A.Z.Y., maybe for fear American audiences wouldn't be able to relate to a quintessentially Québécois film, its broader appeal has already been proven. It was named best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and tied for audience award for best feature film at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival. After having made an impressive $6 million in Quebec, the other side of Canada's two solitudes is now embracing the film as well.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a gay, Catholic, French-Canadian man, but the story of outsider Zac Beaulieu (Marc-André Grondin) struggling to find his identity within his family and within himself resonated and entertained, as did the finely rendered – though humourously exaggerated and often surreal – details of a family life vastly different from my own, but still recognizable in its conflicting emotions.

Zac was born on Christmas Day, 1960, and we follow him through two decades of alternately fighting and succumbing to family and societal expectations. He shares a mystical connection with his mother (Danielle Proulx), who can often feel his physical and psychological torments, and who calls him her Baby Jesus and believes he was given the gift of healing. As a child (played by Émile Vallée, son of the writer-director), he adores his father and is treated by him to special French fry runs without his brothers.

That bond is threatened when dad Gervais (Michel Côté) becomes agitated over Zac's birthday wish for a baby carriage, and his softness. The relationship is forever altered when Zac smashes his father's beloved, imported Patsy Cline record. Zac tries in vain through the years to find a replacement, and tries in vain to deny the increasingly obvious fact that he is, as his father has feared all these years, gay.

C.R.A.Z.Y. finds humour in its occasionally serious subjects, and joy in its details. One of its most impressive accomplishments is transporting the audience through the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s with visual and audio faithfulness. The hair, the fashions, the cars, the home decor, and above all, the soundtrack (filled with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and yes, Patsy Cline, and which cost a good portion of the film's $7 million budget) give a wonderful sense of time and place that allows us to enter this C.R.A.Z.Y. world.

But most of all, these are crazy characters we want to spend time with – which is a good thing, because at over two hours, and a brief digression to a middle eastern desert I could have lived without, the plot could not be described as tight. It's a character study, and the emotional journey of father and son is a trip worth taking.

So why the title C.R.A.Z.Y. as an acronym, instead of Crazy like the Patsy Cline song? It's a nice little “oooooh!” moment revealed just before the final credits that I'd hate to ruin if, like me, you hadn't picked up on the reason during the movie.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

TV Review: House, M.D. - “The Mistake”

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Nov. 29)

This week's House opens with a feisty mom soothing her daughters' nerves before their big talent show number, when they are upset at rich Sally Ayersman's snooty remarks about their costumes. “If Sally's mean to you again, I'm just going to have to key her daddy's new convertible,” mom Kayla says with hilarious near-foreshadowing.

When we see her popping painkillers in the audience as her precious kids take the stage and massacre “Itty Bitty Pretty One,” it's almost a funny moment – except that the CGI shots of her oozing gut tell us it's really not very funny at all.

This set up provides the introduction to a very non-formulaic episode structure, as “The Mistake” unfolds with hospital lawyer Stacy (Sela Ward) preparing mistake-maker Chase (Jesse Spencer) and his boss House (Hugh Laurie) for a peer review following the patient's death, and we see their alternate and sometimes opposing versions of past events.

Despite that definite article "the", there are a few mistakes referenced in “The Mistake.” The most obvious is Chase's that led to Kayla's misdiagnosis and eventual death, and this is the mistake that Stacy is determined to find a mitigating reason for, but Chase and House are determined to leave unexplained.

Instead of a bleeding ulcer, Chase diagnoses Kayla with Behcet's disease, leading to a cascading chain of medical woes when the undetected ulcer perforates. His “little” mistake is in not asking her any questions when she comes to the clinic for her test results, despite her mentioning continuing pain – but as House says, paraphrasing himself in other episodes, “Mistakes are as serious as the results they cause.”

She eventually needs a liver transplant, which she gets thanks to her brother and a blackmailed lab tech who hides the fact that little brother Sam has Hepatitis C, and thanks to House and a blackmailed transplant surgeon, a Dr. Ayersman, whose new convertible does wind up getting keyed (though not by Kayla). Prize for best line reading of the week goes, of course, to Hugh Laurie, for the priceless “Are you free?” after he lays out his plan to ruin the doctor's marriage – and halve his income – if he doesn't perform the risky surgery. Though the surgery goes well, unfortunately, the Hep C had also caused liver cancer, which was treatable in Sam but led to immunocompromised Kayla's death.

We get pieces of the puzzle doled out slowly in flashbacks, then retracted and replayed differently as Stacy realizes her narrators are unreliable. She starts the episode trying to avoid House, whom she hasn't forgiven for stealing her therapy files and manipulating her into nearly revealing her desire to be with him instead of her husband.

“40% of our lawsuits last year were about House. If you can't work with him, you can't work here,” Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) admonishes the reluctant Stacy. (Later, in another case of a small detail being picked up for humour, House says: “I'm not the one being sued. I feel funny.”)

House's past manipulation is another mistake. Sort of. “You're mad at me for letting you know what I did, because you liked where things were going,” says House, in a sincere apology with the Housian twist of not quite being sorry for the right thing. “And for that I actually am sorry. It was stupid.”

The structure isn't just clever, it's fun, too, with House occasionally stepping out of a flashback scene to interact with Stacy in the present. We get the pleasure of being able to piece together the mystery of the episode without needing to follow the medical twists and turns - though they're not as baffling as some, they're also not really the point. The cancer diagnosis is the “aha” medical moment, and it's another flash of brilliant House deduction that even Stacy seems to admire. But the real “aha” moment is the revelation of why Chase made the mistake.

When they learn that in addition to the peer review, Chase and the hospital are being slapped with a huge lawsuit from Kayla's brother, Chase finally reveals that recently, when he found out the family couldn't afford to keep Kayla's house after her death, he goaded the brother into suing by saying he had been hungover when Kayla came to the clinic for her test results. Just when we think the mystery might be solved (though a little unsatisfyingly), House takes Chase privately to the new Balcony of the Second Season Budget Increase to prod him to tell the truth: Kayla's clinic visit had interrupted a phone call that informed Chase of his dad's death – a mitigating factor for his distraction.

When Chase asks how House knew, he starts off with the smart alecky response: “There's this interconnected network of computers, or Interweb, where you can ...” before admitting that when dad visited, he told House he only had two months to live, and “when you screwed up, I did the math.”

Finally, and just a week after I expressed my bloodthirsty desire for the writers to kill off Chase's dad, they did, and in a way that says he's been appropriately dead all this time and we just didn't know it. Sly writers. Since the episode would have been filmed long before that review, I can't claim any credit for the plot turn. Oh, plus the fact that I have absolutely no clout. (I do have a slight grudge against them for messing with my detail-oriented [see also: obsessive; picky] mind by changing Dad's three months to live in last season's “Cursed” with two months to live here.)

It was a beautifully played scene, with Chase's pain and indignation that House had kept his dad's illness from him, and House's compassion hidden in brutality and frustration that Chase would throw his career away rather than tell the committee. Throughout the episode, we had seen House fighting to save Kayla through unethical, desperate means, and suddenly there's another possible motive, other than his usual ends-justify-the-means tactics on behalf of his patients – he's fighting for Chase's job, too, and continuing to respect the uncharacteristically noble choice he made months ago to stay out of Chase's relationship with his dad.

Chase's trials also reflect something about House, when he admits to Stacy at the end that he is the one who can't figure out how to work with her when he still has feelings for her. “I don't want to end up like Chase. I don't want to get emotionally caught up and kill ... you,” he finishes semi-lightheartedly. They're left realizing the difficulty of working together, admitting their not-completely-negative feelings, but no closer to a resolution.

Chase does decide to reveal the cause of his distraction to the committee and gets off with minor punishment, but House is held accountable for his reluctance to see patients. In a final scene that makes up for in humour and a promising set up what it lacks in plausibility, Cuddy is ordered to have another doctor supervise House for at least a month. She assigns the employee who has been his most frequent challenger, Foreman (Omar Epps), to the role. While Foreman and House exchange evil glances, Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) nods at Foreman and closes with the best last word of any episode so far: “Guess I'm his best friend now.”

(House is pre-empted next week on Fox, but should return Dec. 13 with a new episode.)

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

This isn't a House review

If you were looking for my usual House episode review ... I have been posting them within a couple of hours of the show's Pacific time zone airing, but an early morning meeting tomorrow, and a differential diagnosis of Canadian sleeping sickness, means this week I'll be doing it tomorrow night instead.

In the meantime ...

My one-sentence review - It was a cool experiment in really putting the mystery in the medical mystery, plus it gave us some nice, subtle character revelations, and finally wrapped up the loose end of Chase's dying dad. But I'm feeling a new need for some charts and graphs on the show's timeline, though maybe that's a symptom of the sleepiness. (OK, that's a second sentence, but it's really just a sidenote. And TM amysusanne from TWoP on the charts and graphs thing. I'm done now.)

Favourite Housism from tonight's episode - "Livers are important, Cuddy. Can't live without them. Hence the name."

Eurythmics - Ultimate Collection

Amid some laments in the 1980s that the soul was being sucked out of pop music, Eurythmics infused synthesized hooks with a passionate intensity, thanks to Dave Stewart’s inventive productions and Annie Lennox’s rich vocals.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was their first breakout success in 1983, and brought Lennox’s sexy-androgynous style and Dave Stewart's more enigmatic charms to the pop music landscape. Their sound evolved over several albums, with the synth pop sound they helped pioneer married to rock- and soul-tinged tunes - including the memorably empowering "Sisters are Doin' It for Themselves," with the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.

Not just a nostalgic treat, Ultimate Collection packages digitally remastered versions of 17 of Eurythmics’ previous hits with two new songs, recorded when Lennox visited Stewart’s Los Angeles home in the summer of 2005. The older tunes have lost none of their power to age, and of the previously unreleased material, the new single “I’ve Got a Life” in particular doesn’t sound out of place with the best of Eurythmics.

It wouldn’t be a proper collection if fans couldn’t lament the omission of at least one obvious track – here, it’s “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)”, which wasn’t included on their Greatest Hits release, either.

However, the casual fan will be well-served by the Ultimate Collection's near-complete representation of Eurythmics’ highlights. Even those who already have that 15-year-old Greatest Hits will want to pick up the Ultimate Collection, not just for the two new songs — which are well worth it — but for the broader sampling of hits, including two from 1999's reunion album Peace.

Ultimate Collection - track listing
  1. I’ve Got a Life [new]
  2. Love is a Stranger [from album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)]
  3. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) [from album of the same name]
  4. Who’s That Girl [from Touch]
  5. Right by your Side [from Touch]
  6. Here Comes the Rain Again [from Touch]
  7. Would I Lie to You? [from Be Yourself Tonight]
  8. There Must be an Angel (Playing with my Heart) [from Be Yourself Tonight]
  9. Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves (with Aretha Franklin) [from Be Yourself Tonight]
  10. It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) [from Be Yourself Tonight]
  11. When Tomorrow Comes [from Revenge]
  12. Thorn in my Side [from Revenge]
  13. The Miracle of Love [from Revenge]
  14. Missionary Man [from Revenge]
  15. You Have Placed a Chill in my Heart [from Savage]
  16. I Need a Man [from Savage]
  17. I Saved the World Today [from Peace]
  18. 17 Again [from Peace]
  19. Was it Just Another Love Affair [new]
(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Friday, November 25, 2005

I'm outraged at my lack of outrage

Those wacky reality show writers. First, they try to convince us that someone actually writes reality shows. Then, when they finally accomplish that, they try to convince us to muster some outrage about product placement in their shows.

Remember the Subservient Chicken, who would do your bidding with a simple command, that made the rounds a while ago? Now we have Subservient Donald – as in, Donald Trump. As in, The Apprentice, whose use of product placement has been a target of television writers' protests against the pervasive and growing practise of inserting brand names into shows, especially reality shows. The site is brought to us by an even more entertaining site called Product Invasion, itself the product of a group of “very sleep-deprived writers and Writers Guild of America, west staff."

Subservient Donald is their masterpiece, but we're also treated to tragic behind-the-scenes tales about producers having to pretend that participants in The Swan were eating sponsor Jenny Craig's food, even though the trainers didn't want them to. The stylish, funny site invites readers to submit pre-written e-mails to advertisers telling them how boring reality shows are now that they're more like infomercials.

So, um, if they're so dull, why are you watching?

The website is effective in helping me see the reality writers' point of view. They make me want to care about their cause. But looking at the issue from my point of view – and I'm trying to convince the world to revolve around me – I just don't. I don't care. I'm sorry.

I have great respect for television writers. Well, maybe the adjective is overkill if we're talking about reality show writers. It's possible the noun is, too. But even though I find it hard to take seriously the creative integrity of reality shows, product placement is rampant in scripted shows, some of which I do care about.

The always witty Lisa de Moraes, television columnist for the Washington Post, objected in a recent column to Medium's use of product placement, when the main characters discussed the upcoming film Memoirs of a Geisha in exchange for Geisha's producer Sony buying ads promoting the television in various high-profile publications. Show creator Glenn Gordon Caron was enthusiastic about the deal – no word on what the episode writer thought.

It must be annoying as a creative person to be forced to incorporate a specific product into your script. But unless they're really bad at it, even if I notice, I'm still not going to care that much. It's fine with me if a show has characters discussing an actual movie, unless the dialogue comes across as more copywriting, less creative writing. Because that means it's bad writing, not that it's necessarily a bad idea.

In any case, television revolves neither around the viewer nor the creator. It revolves, of course, around money. And where does the money come from? Unless we're talking HBO (and we're not, because I don't get HBO, and the world revolves around me), it's the advertisers. As long as companies are willing to pay, and people are willing to watch (because that's the only reason the companies are willing to pay), there's no incentive for networks to turn away product placement.

If we can stomach watching Tyra Banks somberly pass out head shots, while intoning “Congratulations, you're still in the running to become America's Next Top Model" time after bloody time to women who are never going to be America's next top model, there's no way we are going to tune out because the girls are strutting their stuff at K-Mart (seriously – they had a catwalk competition in K-Mart). There's an element of the ridiculous to most reality shows, so what's a bit of ridiculous product placement on top of that?

I have only so much outrage to go around, and at the moment it's all taken up with the fact that my hair salon won't tell me where my beloved hairdresser defected to. Though come to think of it, the replacement I went to was pretty great. Maybe I just don't have outrage in me. I'll make Donald Trump do the chicken dance, and laugh at the clever gimmicks on the writers' site. But even if I cared enough to say I care, unless I care enough to turn off the TV, my words mean nothing. And if everyone cares enough to tune out, these shows will fail, and the writers will be out of a job. Am I expected to believe that's what they want?

Maybe the writers will instill some outrage in the kind of people who are horrified at the content their kids are exposed to, but who can't be bothered to monitor their viewing habits or take the TVs out of their bedrooms. But unless they can get them to care enough to turn the TV off, the writers' only hope may be the FCC – who presumably don't care about advertising or ratings, but who might care about actionless outrage and standards. That is, if they can get them to care.

So sorry for not caring, writers, but thanks anyway ... you sure can write a good website.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

TV Review: House, M.D. - “Hunting”

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Nov. 22)

Instead of the usual pre-credits focus on getting to know the patient of the week – or the fake-out non-patient of the week - “Hunting” jumps right in with a shot of House (Hugh Laurie) and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) discussing the question that really needed asking last week. To paraphrase Wilson wildly: what the hell did House think he was accomplishing by stealing Stacy's therapy notes and attempting to manipulate her into acknowledging that she'd rather be with House than her husband?

Because House is House, his answer is more of a non-answer. Because House is House, we also meet the patient of the week pre-credits – an HIV+ man, Kalvin, who is stalking House to try to persuade him to take the case. Hmm, doing something creepy and illegal in order to get someone to look favourably on you? Can't imagine why Kalvin thinks House would understand that method.

When House's not-quite-a-hit sends Kalvin backwards into Wilson's car, causing him to collapse, House finally has a reason to be interested in the case. Not only does the anaphylactic shock introduce a symptom he can't easily explain away, House is reminded that treating the patient might stave off the lawsuit.

That reminder comes from ex-love Stacy (Sela Ward), during a cozy domestic scene courtesy the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital of Inappropriateness, where lawyers take meetings in their kitchens while waiting for the exterminator. Of course the scene is a wonderful excuse to introduce us to the House and Stacy of infarctions past, interacting with a casual familiar humour and warmth. It's one of many pseudodomestic moments in the episode as House finds excuses to return to her home and Stacy finds excuses to let him. In absurdly comic and sweetly affecting scenes, House traps the rat in her attic, then becomes obsessed with the sickly creature as a patient instead of a pest, returning to treat it, trap it, and continue with his devious plan to force Stacy's hand.

When House and Stacy go on a stakeout for the rat, which he's oddly and adorably named Steve McQueen, they have a conversation with a couple of layers and more than a little romantic tension. “Admit it. You like him,” House cajoles, lying shoulder to shoulder with the woman he obviously loves. “He's alright,” she responds coyly. “For a rat.”

Call me easy, but after an episode that tested my faith last week, all I needed to be back on House's side was the obvious disconnect between his admitted motivations and his actual motivations, which were full of nuances of pain and the desire to inflict pain, conveyed beautifully by Hugh Laurie's expressive face. (Well, I needed that and the impish humour that brought the funny back to the bastardly.)

House tells Wilson he doesn't want Stacy back, he just wants her to admit her feelings for him so he can tell Cuddy and have her fired or reassigned. Problem is, we've already seen her admit her feelings for him. Twice. Try again, House. A horrified but also apparently fascinated Wilson tries in vain to get House to be ashamed of his methods and drop the game of cat and mouse: “If you want her back, either tell her, or better yet, shut up and cry yourself to sleep like everybody else.”

House's game nearly works, except that Stacy isn't the only one whose emotions are being manipulated. Never very self-aware, or at least never very willing to acknowledge his awareness, House finds his plan backfiring when his file-stealing and manipulation are revealed and repel Stacy, just when his own feelings were rising to the surface.

Speaking of the time immediately after the surgery she authorized that crippled him, their lines are simpler and more straightforward than any of their previous interactions, and the emotion behind them belies his stated intention to simply manipulate her.
Stacy: “You could have asked me how I was.”
House: “I already knew. I'm sorry you were miserable.”
Stacy: “I'm sorry I caused you so much pain.”
It's a huge breakthrough for him, except it's not, really, because even though I believe he means it on one level, he's also acting out his plan on another. House fittingly, sadly, ends up home alone, with a drink ... and the rat.

Overlooking the fact that House seems to have moved again, the episode is full of lovely continuity nods to past details and character revelations. Wilson's marital troubles don't get a lot of play in “Hunting,” but his “cry yourself to sleep” line is one of a couple that's shaded with his own woes. Chase's father issues get a minor airing - but when is dad going to die, already? (I mean, not that I want him to die. Not exactly.)

And occasional references to Chase's attraction to Cameron get a major workout here. The medical storyline has Cameron exposed to HIV+ blood and taking lessons from Kalvin in seizing the day and eliminating regrets. Cameron's gravity and distraction when faced with the regime of medication and HIV tests, and the abandon and regret of her meltdown, which has her taking drugs and seducing an all-too-willing Chase, are handled well by Jennifer Morrison, who sheds the beatific demeanour that sometimes plagues the character.

One of the funniest lines in the episode had to be purposely self-referential. House explains to Wilson that he can't hit another patient to create an excuse to see Stacy again, saying: “I hate to repeat myself. People will say I'm formulaic” - mocking an often repeated criticism of this show that broke free of its original formula long ago.

In another bit of repetition, House gets punched by Kalvin's father. While my first thought was: again? (He was also punched in last season's “Detox”.) My second thought was: it really should happen every episode. The man does ask for it. And this time, he was literally asking for it so he could retaliate. It was pure House: punch as diagnostic tool, to confirm the final diagnosis – father and son hunting trips led to a shared parasite.

The patient story suffers a bit from the show's insistence on tossing out the obligatory ethical discussion that doesn't really discuss or provide any ethical meat. In a very short scene, a throwaway line by Foreman blames Kalvin for not using condoms, while Cameron defends him as getting caught doing something others do all the time with no consequences.

The medical mystery this week was buried under the far more interesting focus on character, and Kalvin either seemed irrelevant or was channelling House. For example, the patient gives Cameron, who stoically refuses to blame him for coughing blood on her and stoically takes House's little cruelties about her distress, this Housism: “Stop being nice. It's useless. And worse, it's boring.”

Kalvin also espouses the big lesson that's turned on its ear. He advocates living life without regret, while we are treated to House and Stacy's relationship being all about their past regrets, and Cameron's misguided attempts to plan regretless fun backfiring almost as surely as House's misguided plan to pursue Stacy.

I love these writers for having the courage to make their main character unlikeable. They're not just flirting with unlikeability, they're making passionate love to unlikeability. House is not bitter with a heart of gold. He's bitter with a heart of nastiness – and, yes, some gold mixed up in there, just enough that even when I'm horrified at his methods to manipulate Stacy, I sympathize with his turmoil of emotions. And even when I'm appalled at his callousness to Cameron, I almost admire him for not bothering with niceties that don't change anything substantive and that might make him the focus of her carpe dieming.

House isn't nice, but he definitely is interesting.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


Raincoast Books introduces literary podcast series

Raincoast Books – best known as the Canadian publishers of the Harry Potter series – have taken a page from electronic media to promote their literary offerings.

The less exciting finding is that they have a blog ... sort of. It looks like a blog. It acts like a blog. But it definitely does not quack like a blog. In tone and content, it's a mechanism to distribute press releases and other announcements. You can make comments, but why would you after these dry posts that do little to encourage interactivity? Still, their latest blog post introduces another development that they do get right.

Planned as the first in their literary podcast series, Raincoast is promoting The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch in the inaugural release. The professionally produced 13-minute podcast maintains a casual, friendly tone with a brief introduction by a narrator, followed by short readings by the author which are interspersed with his comments on the concept, themes, and process of writing.

Recorded on Granville Island while he was in town as part of the Vancouver International Writers Festival, Lynch comes across as conversational and articulate, and the reading is enhanced with maritime sound effects to complement the maritime theme of the book.

From the publisher is this description of The Highest Tide:
Thirteen-year-old Miles O’Malley lives on Puget Sound and knows everything there is to know about the sea and its creatures. When he becomes the first person to sight a live giant squid he is hailed as some sort of prophet. The media descend and everyone wants to hear what Miles has to say. But Miles is just a self-described “increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac” who’s in love with the girl next door and obsessed with the writings of Rachel Carson.

While the sea continues to offer up surprises from its mysterious depths, Miles navigates the equally mysterious world of adults. Strange events continue over the summer, culminating in the highest tide in 100 years.
The podcast, available through iTunes or by following the links on the Raincoast blog, is a great way to taste the novel to see whether you want to swallow it whole. But what they really get right is in packaging it as self-contained entertainment, too, for those who want a bit of insight into a writer's mind and an enjoyable, bite-sized tale from the novel.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Who's the boss?

One of my favourite Cary Grant movies, His Girl Friday, uses the ludicrous philosophy “production for use only” as the defense of a murder suspect. Have gun, must shoot. It's a screwball comedy, and it's supposed to be ludicrous.

But maybe it's not. Maybe it's a philosophy that is truly ingrained in our brains.

I've had a shaky relationship with cars. I got my license at 27 after starting to feel ridiculous at my state of licenselessness. After getting behind the wheel only a scary handful of times since then, I finally bought a car last year, at the shamefully late age of 34, and not because I really wanted one, but because I really wanted the job in the suburbs that required occasional travel to distant facilities. Despite all those years of happily walking, taking public transportation, or bumming rides, suddenly I'm one of those people who doesn't even think of alternate forms of transportation even when it makes more sense. Though I've never driven to the corner store, I have struggled for an hour through commuter traffic and fought for downtown parking when it would have been a relaxing 20 minute ride on the skytrain. Have car, must drive is not a philosophy I ever thought I'd follow, but I succumbed quickly. (Last night, a few months after moving to a suburb, I had a breakthrough and took the train to an event downtown ... and had a drunk kid throw up next to me on the way home. But my point is still valid. I think. Let me get back to you after I've done laundry.)

We all notice it with cell phones – some people can't bring themselves to shut them off, and if it rings, they must answer. A teacher friend of mine answered her phone in the middle of a tutoring session to tell me she'd call me back. A coworker recently answered her phone in the middle of a training session she was conducting, and continued the non-urgent conversation until her trainees wandered off to do some work. For some reason, the same production for use philosophy doesn't seem to apply to voice mail.

Our communications department just got a laminated, wallet-sized phone list of our coworkers so we can reach each other even when we're out of reach of the phone directory. I'm the only one of the 19 who has a blank space in the table under “cell phone,” which led to my boss wondering if I should get one. But I'm also one of the few whose job requires being in front of my computer most of the time. If I'm not beside my desk phone, I'm in a meeting, or driving to a meeting, or trying to catch a moment of respite from work. But if I end up filling in that gap in the table, I doubt I'll be able to preserve those moments. Have cell phone, must have better excuse not to answer than: “I went for a tea. Can't you wait ten *%$# minutes for a return phone call?”

Worse, the coworker who is preparing our emergency preparedness plan thinks we should all have BlackBerries. But my colleagues who have them now ruefully call them CrackBerries and end up answering non-urgent e-mails late at night, early in the morning, on weekends. Because they have the technology to do so, they feel an obligation to respond immediately. Again, production for use doesn't seem to apply to the off button. And while lives don't depend on us, people on the other end of those phone calls and e-mails equate the ability to respond instantly with the need to respond instantly.

I'm a low-level technophile, but not to the point where I need something just to have it. I'd love to play with a BlackBerry. A work cell phone would let me finally retire my poor old underused pay-as-you-go personal cell phone. But if I have a cell number, or access to work e-mail wherever I go, I know I'll get sucked into that world of synthetic urgency.

I can use this metaphor now that I'm (pretty much) over my car phobia: it should be me in the driver's seat, not the technology.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Podcast marketing: Show me the results

For a project at work, I checked into existing research on how podcast creators are succeeding - or failing - to reach their intended audience.

Turns out, there’s not much. Beyond slapping a podcast on a website and listing it with iTunes and other directories, or creating a podcast for a captive employee audience, what innovative things are people doing to reach a specific group of listeners? Anyone having success partnering with schools, media outlets - particularly radio, but also other media websites - or others?

I’m looking for hard facts on who’s listening and how they’re being reached, so I thought I’d slap my preliminary research up on Blogcritics - and here, why not? - and invite readers to point out other resources on targeted podcast marketing. And if I get nothing … well, maybe this will be a useful starting point for others. Or at least shame some corporation with big bucks into doing some analysis.


Because of its recent popularization, research into podcasting beyond trends and predictions is limited. There are a lot of projections on podcasting’s potential because of the exponential growth of the number of podcasts and people using the technology.

The Diffusion Group, a digital media research firm, predicts the US podcast audience will grow to 60 million listeners by 2010.

Bridge Ratings, a radio research firm, says 4.8 million people downloaded podcasts in 2005, up from 820,000 last year, with iTunes the most popular way to access them. (See Bridge Ratings’ press release Podcasting to hit critical mass in 2010.) They predict a more conservative 45 million listeners in 2010.


Much of the demographic information on podcast listenership is sketchy, conflicting, and based on small samples.

A June survey of 4,000 Internet users by Jupiter Research showed that 7 percent of those surveyed downloaded or listened to a Podcast in the last year (the survey predates the launch of iTunes with podcast capability). Those who regularly use RSS/XML feeds, podcasts and blogs are most likely to be users with more than 5 years of online experience, male, between the ages of 18 and 34, with annual incomes of $75,000 or more. (See article.)

An August survey of over 8,000 American consumers by CLX showed that podcasting is most popular with those over 45, with 21 per cent of those questioned listening to podcasts. This compares to 13 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds. (See article.)

The demographics of those using MP3 players (such as iPods) have been used to demonstrate the untapped potential for podcasting. In Canada, sales of MP3 players more than tripled between June 2004 and June 2005. 40% of Canadian households have an MP3 player. Males between 18-34 make up the majority (60%) of the MP3 player market. (See NPD Group press release.)

However, Bridge Ratings found that only about 20% of podcast listeners download podcasts to their MP3 player, meaning the potential pool of podcast listeners goes well beyond those who have the portable devices.


Podcast marketing tends to rely on directory listings, viral marketing (online word-of-mouth), and integration with existing online marketing tools (websites and e-mail campaigns). Since corporations are just stepping into the podcasting arena, there’s not much research into the effectiveness of podcast marketing campaigns.

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