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.

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(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)