Friday, March 31, 2006

Audiobook Review: She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

She Got Up Off the Couch is Haven Kimmel's sequel to the memoir A Girl Named Zippy, and it brings us back to small-town Indiana of the 1970s and the quirky kid she once was. Couch begins where Zippy ends – with her mother riding off on a bike to pursue an education – so the girl is a little older, a little more self-aware and aware of the adult world around her.

While Kimmel calls Zippy an homage to tiny Mooreland, Indiana, she says about She Got Up Off the Couch: "This is a love letter ... most of all to the woman who stood up, brushed away the pork rind crumbs, and escaped by the skin of her teeth. It is a letter to all such women, wherever they may be."

Like A Girl Named Zippy, this is a collection of essays rather than a linear narrative, and like Zippy, this book focuses on the child's perspective. Kimmel's explanation of how she came to write these anecdotes explains what makes them so perfect as an audiobook – she wrote them to amuse her sister and mother, and would phone them to read the stories aloud in her child's voice and intonations, bringing out the comedic in the mundane and the melancholy. She Got Up Off the Couch is read by the author, and any other reading is unimaginable.

However, while still describing the funny and sweet characters that populate her beloved little town, this book is darker than A Girl Named Zippy, with more direct references to the poverty and tensions in the family, and the neglect Zippy suffered, without bitterness or blame.

Kimmel doesn't so much write about her mother as write around her mother. Though many of the essays don't mention Delonda at all and centre on the misadventures of the reckless and headstrong Zippy, the focus always comes back to this woman who, later than many women, but just in time for her own sanity, took charge of her own life.

She describes a woman with unrealized potential, who gave up a chance at a higher education and a different life to marry at a young age a man who wasn't who she thought he was. Kimmel never uses the word depressed, but it's obvious Delonda Jarvis can't get up off the couch because she's weighted down with depression of the life she's found herself in, with a gambling, unsupportive husband in a chaotic household with occasionally running water and no central heating that she's embarrassed to open up to her friends.

Against her husband's wishes, and without much moral support from a mostly oblivious young daughter, Delonda learned to drive, bought her own $200 car and found ingenious ways to keep it running, effortlessly lost the weight she had piled on in her days on the couch, earned scholarships on her way to a Masters degree, and began to teach, creating her place in a world where women had finally earned the right to do just that.

The comment about her friends' parents, who "without a sigh or complaint where I could hear it, kept me relatively clean and well-fed," is an example of Kimmel writing around the dark areas. She never complains about neglect, but it's evident, from a mother who first had little will to look after her daughter, then had other goals in her sights. Also disturbing are passages about her father trying to distance himself from Zippy as she gets too old to sit in his lap, and hints at his shadowy life and friends. Her love for her parents is evident, but so is the knowledge that they didn't provide well for their family.

But through it all is the self-deprecating humour and lack of ego that make our narrator Zippy a likeable guide through mostly funny stories that are only tinged with sadness.

"I myself have been known to wince as if stabbed with wide-bore needles when faced with yet another coming of age memoir," says Kimmel in the introduction. What makes her memoirs a welcome addition to the genre is the pure acceptance of these people she so obviously loves, and her ability to paint even the painful memories with a joy and wonder in the details of a childhood that is as specific to her family as it is indicative of a certain time in our collective social history.

The audiobook version comes unabridged on eight CDs, and is available from the HighBridge Audio website, where you can also hear a clip as read by author Haven Kimmel.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Happy Monkey

At last, the news I've been hoping to hear:
Except ... do I get VH1? No. It's not available in my area. Gee, it's too bad there's not some alternate way to access television shows, like some interconnected network of computers where people could share stuff like that.

They're burning off the eight already-shot episodes - no word on it being renewed for a second season, but I wouldn't hold my breath. I'll be writing something about it for Blogcritics to spread the word, but I just had to post the news now, in my insomniac excitement. Here's my original Love Monkey article based on an interview with creator Michael Rauch if you missed it.

In sad but not unexpected news, Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz rejected Showtime's offer to pick up the series.
The studio says:
"While there are no plans to resume production at this time, we know all too well from our experience with 'Family Guy' - another brilliant comedy which didn't find its audience in its first network run - that anything is possible," the studio said in a statement to the press. "We'll always be a little hopeful that this is not quite the end for this amazing show."

I want to say: "Let it go." Time for the fans to stop blaming FOX, maybe time to stop getting our hopes up that it will come back, and be grateful they stopped before they could screw up the legacy, as Jason Bateman was quoted as saying.

In other pressing TV news, I finally got my brother, the person who long ago hooked me on Blackadder and therefore Hugh Laurie, to watch House. I know, after all the evangelizing I do on the web, I couldn't get my own flesh and blood to watch it before. I tend not to proselytize in real life. Here's what he said about it in a recent Instant Messaging conversation, which I saved because I knew I wanted to ridicule him at some point:
Brother: Why would you name a show "House" if it wasn't about a house? You take one word as a title, and you couldn't make it what the show was about?
Me: It is a stupid name. I mean, I think it's fun that they named the character that (it's a reference to Sherlock Holmes ... Homes ... House) but it's still not a great title for a TV show. And unGoogleable.
Brother: Oh, didn't know it was a character name.
Me: You didn't? Yeah, Hugh Laurie is Dr. House. He's like a medical version of Sherlock Holmes.
Brother: I've never seen it or heard anything about it except from you. And you only blather about the writers and Hugh Laurie with his cane, never about what it's actually about.

At this point, I gasped. That is SO not true. I just gave up on him early because I knew he wasn't interested in medical shows, and if the fact that Hugh Laurie was playing an American in a drama wasn't enough to intrigue him, my hands were tied. He knew I interviewed a writer, but was he interested in reading the article? No. Sigh.
Brother: ... "blather" means, of course, "intelligently discuss" in Samoan, which I am studying.

He's a funny boy. There's a bit of House in him, actually. I gave him the DVDs after he finally expressed interest after that conversation. He's only watched four episodes so far, but he seems to have the hang of it:
I really like it. A 40 minute episode seems to be House being wrong for 30 minutes, then finally getting it right. And I don't think a lot of shows have the guts to kill a baby. Maybe I'm wrong and ER kills them every other episode - I don't watch a lot of medical shows.

And he adds:
It's called House MD dammit. If people called it that in the first place I wouldn't have thought it costarred Norm Abram.

I had to break it to him that they dropped the "MD" at some point this season, since no one called it that anyway.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

TV Review: House - "Clueless"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired March 28)

The synopsis for "Clueless" that had been on the home page of FOX’s House website for weeks prior to its broadcast told you everything you needed to know about the medical mystery:
"House fights to find proof of how a woman is trying to kill her husband with gold."

See, promo people, it was supposed to be a surprise that the affectionate wife is trying to kill her devoted hubby, and that she uses hard-to-detect gold to poison him. Your first clue? It's not raised as a possibility until the 40-minute mark.

When creator David Shore introduced the episode before the William S. Paley Television Festival screening, he said he’d gone on the site to get an idea for how he might briefly explain the plot, was horrified to find out it revealed the solution, and figured he’d just say (to misquote him from memory): "It’s a new one. Enjoy."

Fortunately, I regularly avoid the FOX site, which I once slammed by misquoting an early Housism: "This job could be done by a monkey with a copy of Dreamweaver." It’s significantly improved since then, but still.

Wait … what am I analysing here? Oh yes, the episode, not the website. So anyway, I was happily unspoiled for this week's medical mystery that hints at crime procedural territory enough to more than hint at (bias alert) how much more engaging this show is than the CSI clones it’s partly modeled on.

In fact, I thought they might have accidentally started playing one of those clones, because the episode opens with a teaser of a masked man grabbing a woman from her bathroom and dragging her screaming to the bedroom, in quick-cut scenes shot in cool grey lighting. When he starts sputtering and turning blue and Potential Rape Victim says "Bob? Bob, what's wrong?" I knew we were definitely in Houseland.

Maria (Samantha Mathis) is perhaps not the cleverest murderer around, since delaying the 911 phone call might have furthered her evil plot to kill him. But then she would have had to go on one of those forensics shows, and we'd be watching a whole different episode of House, one that probably wouldn't have slipped in so many examples of clues versus proof.

This time there happens to be a crime, but House always plays detective. Whether he's probing the past of his coworkers or diagnosing his latest patient, he ponders the evidence, forms a clever (but not always correct) deduction, then relies on his team to test the hypothesis, gather additional clues and red herrings, and, very occasionally, offer their own deductions without being rudely dismissed, until finally all the clues fit together and he has proof, and knows for certain that it was Mrs. Sex Fiend in the Kitchen with the Gold.

In this case, House remains convinced throughout that heavy metal poisoning is the culprit, despite repeated negative tests. His team, as usual, is exasperated at his irrationality. Since he's always right, I could call them clueless, but that's their role – to fight against House's crazy theories and help nudge him down the trail of undiscovered clues. This time, the initial crazy theory happens to be the correct one. Though she may have been a little too quick to dial, Maria was clever enough to use a heavy metal the doctors had no reason to test for.

The two keys to solving the mystery are provided by House's clinic patient, a man indignant at his herpes diagnosis because he's been married for 20 years ... so House gives him a prescription for himself, his wife, and their daughter's karate instructor. When the wife storms to the hospital to complain to Cuddy, then tests positive for herpes herself, House decides the philandering husband is seeking proof that his wife is also having an affair by making her believe she passed it on to him and, presumably, force a confession. (It's all a little complicated. I saw the episode twice and both times, the explanation fell right out of my head. Thank god for PVRs.)
“You'd give your own wife herpes just to shift the blame?” Wilson asks House.
“He'd give his own mother herpes if it got him out of clinic duty,” Cuddy mutters.

House isn't sure though. “Of course, maybe it was the wife ...” he begins. And that's the point – 40 minutes in, promo people! - where he decides Maria is poisoning her husband.

The negative tests are still negative, though, so he has no proof, and both Cameron and Foreman are demanding it before acting on his hunch. When Mr. and Mrs. Herpes return for some House manipulation, where he (sort of) proves the husband is the only cheater, it's Mrs. Herpes' discarded wedding ring - her gold wedding ring - that provides House with his last clue.

He races home to search for a box, which we don't yet know is a chemistry set he needs to test for gold on Maria's hands. He looks in his formerly messy hall closet, finds it impressively neat, and accuses new roommate Wilson's housekeeper of moving it.

He’s unforgivably rude to her, but when he discovers he was (gasp) wrong, and that the box has always been under his bed, at least he’s given a chance to show off his stellar apology skills: "Umm ... thanks," he says. I teared up a little at the heartfelt sentiment.

A brief explanation about the box does give us a tiny glimpse of his childhood, with the mini-revelation of formative years spent in Egypt with his military dad, and little Greggie’s scientific interest honed while searching for mummies. (While Hugh Laurie has joked in interviews that his character’s accent is American with a touch of Hungarian and Pakistani, this is the first solid evidence that the show might be making a well-travelled back story official.) Maybe some day we'll get an explanation for his freakish knowledge of ants and snakes, too.

Oh, and why on earth does House keep his childhood chemistry set under his bed, with apparently fresh chemical reagents? Best not to ask, I think. Between the chemistry sets, hookers, and married ex-girlfriends, I’m not sure I want to know much more of what goes on in there.

We do get a tiny bit more on his romantic life, with the long-burning, recently back-burner Cameron crush story getting another spark in this episode. Maria lectures her on how people don't change, which should resonate with Cameron given her attraction to and extreme frustration with House.
“People thinking their partner will change, that's another reason marriages fail. People don't change. Not in any way that matters.”

But even though he forces her to be a spectator at the urinal as he tests “the second half of the caffeine delivery system,” calls her childish, and mocks her so-called attraction to the damaged and dying, there is a brief connection between the crusher and the crushee. Cameron was clueless enough to accept a bet from House, having apparently not learned from the boys that House always wins. The bet? That Mr. And Mrs. Sex Fiend were happily married, pitting Cameron the idealistic romantic against House the cynical romantic – though neither claims the overall victory.

“You're pleased, aren't you? You think you've proven every marriage is a mistake,” Cameron asks. “Do I look pleased?” responds the displeased-looking House. They hold a gaze and their fingers linger just a moment too long as she pays him his winnings — not long enough to start ordering the wedding invitations, but enough to indicate we haven't seen the last of this warped flirtation.

Though any attempt at actual coupledom would force me to throw kitties and puppies at my television screen, I love that the counterintuitively sexy House has sexual tension with pretty much every female to cross his path. It was even a strangely tension-filled scene when he holds Maria's hand to press the reagent into her skin (“I've never heard of anyone using gold before. It's almost poetic,” he tells her). I almost expected them to lean in for a kiss, though I knew it was a ridiculous thought. He does like to flirt with danger, but I think that's more metaphorical than literal.

“I never said you didn't love him,” House says when he accuses her of murder, and her defense is that she loved him. I liked that we didn't get a pat answer about why Maria wanted her husband dead. We got clues that she was bored. That maybe she never loved him as much as he loved her, and maybe killing him seemed better than killing the marriage. That sometimes bad people do bad things, and there is no simple answer. Besides, the how is House's domain, not the why. Once he solves the medical mystery, his interest ends, and so does the episode.

But not before we get the perfectly ironic musical choice of Al Green's “Love and Happiness” playing over scenes of the husband being told about his wife's murderous intentions, and miserable House careening home on his motorcyle to prove, in his Housian way, his affection for his friend Wilson.

The subplot where House steals Wilson's carefully labelled food is pure comic relief, with an Odd Couple setup that promises the show might cater a bit more to my craving for more on the House-Wilson friendship. An added bit of comedy came from House's TiVo listings. While Wilson mocks him for the season pass of New Yankee Workshop, a listing for Blackadder (starring Hugh Laurie) is sandwiched in there, too.

Last episode, we saw House making himself a peanut butter sandwich and anticipating a beer just before a newly separated Wilson arrived on his doorstep, so it’s fitting to find him here getting seduced by Wilson’s gourmet treats of macadamia nut pancakes and stuffed peppers (while predictably complaining, "What are they stuffed with? Vomit?").

Early on, House nastily orders Wilson to find another place to stay, and nags him throughout to leave.
“Why do you want to sleep on a couch anyway?” House asks him. “You've got money. At least until the divorce is finalized.”
“I'll be out of your hair tomorrow. What's left of it,” Wilson zings back.

But when the episode ends, we see House erasing a voice mail on his machine that informs the clueless oncologist that he needs to call back immediately to secure the condo he had put an offer on (Wilson’s wife apparently is getting his cell phone in the divorce). House can't simply invite his friend to stay, of course, because that would be too straightforward and therefore psychologically healthy.

Wilson obviously prefers House’s hostility to a hotel, but why, Wilson, why? I get how stimulating it must be to hang out with the guy, but I'd also think it would be a relief to be able to escape his abuse at the end of the day. But Wilson seems to have learned he can't just say "I don't want to be alone" to House – not without a smackdown, anyway. He also seems to have learned that 1950s maxim ... how does it go? The way to a man's lumpy couch is through his stomach?

I had wondered if I enjoyed the episode as much as I did because of the novelty of seeing it at the festival, but I loved it on rewatching, too, with its intriguing medical murder mystery and hilarious Wilson and House exchanges. I don’t want to be too insufferable by dwelling on "Yay, I was there," but I do want to add a bit about the experience of viewing it in a theatre with 599 other appreciative fans, in the presence of many of the people whose talent and effort brings this show to life (only to have people like me dissecting it and pointing out flaws every week. But ... uhh ... I mostly point out why I love it, and how its richness and complexity makes me use my brain and stuff, right?)

"Clueless" director Deran Sarafian was in the audience, and I hope episode writer Thomas L. Moran was, too. I imagine there aren’t too many opportunities for TV scribes to watch an episode along with fans who aren’t related to them by blood, friendship, or contractual obligations, to see and hear the real-time response to their words – the many laughs, big and small; the hordes of people averting their gaze from the traumatizing scenes (or was that just me? Hard to tell, since I had my hands in front of my eyes); the unexpected applause during the episode, not just at the end.

That was a priceless moment where House — and therefore the disgustingly multi-talented Hugh Laurie — juggles three disparate objects (That Damn Ball, the Magic 8 Ball, and a stapler) while listening to and impatiently dismissing his lackeys' theories on the cause of the patient's lung disease. When House finishes with a flourish after catching the ball behind his back, the audience laughed and clapped. Both the laughter and the ovation escalated when House turns to his minions (and the camera) to say: "What, no applause?"

More than anything, the already-devoted-fans-in-a-theatre setting amplified these many comedic moments. As those evil geniuses who inflicted laugh tracks on sitcom audiences knew, laughter stimulates laughter, and the group dynamic just added to the comedy of this drama that's always had more witticisms than most sitcoms.

Another new episode of House airs next week, April 4, at 9 p.m. on FOX or Global in Canada, so gather several hundred friends to watch it with you for that full viewing experience.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

LA, from pop culture to real life

I love movies and television. I love travelling. I live a three-hour plane ride from Los Angeles. So now I'm wondering what took me so long to finally get there.

I recently made my first trip, a short one, and there's so much more I want to see or do. Go to some great theatre. Catch a taping of a television show. Visit more of the tourist landmarks, like Mann's Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood sign. Go to the beach, see the Santa Monica pier. Win the lottery and actually shop on Rodeo Drive, instead of pressing my nose against the windows after the stores were closed.

So that's what I didn't do, and must plan for next time (especially the lottery part). What I did do was get that thrill from seeing pop cultural touchstones become actual personal memories, not just memories once removed through the collective memory of film and fiction. I walked down Rodeo Drive. OK, the shops were closed, but I was there. I saw Sunset Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, the Hollywood Hills, drove on a little slice of Route 66. All these names I've had in my head since childhood, because movies and television put them there, and now I have actual personal associations with them, too. We passed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences building – it's fairly hideous, but c'mon, they're the Oscars people.

This trip brought back memories of my one-and-so-far-only trip to New York City, back in 1993. That was when I learned Times Square isn't really square, and, driving down from Quebec in order to get there, that Rhode Island isn't really an island (before you point the finger of stupidity at me, Americans, think for a moment about the brainiac who named the state). My friends and I arrived two days after the World Trade Centre had been attacked – as I have to say now: "you know, the first time" – and there it stood before us like the evening news.

The Empire State Building conjured up images of King Kong and other films ... and little else, since fog obscured the famed view of the city. There was the Statue of Liberty, a real, concrete statue, not just an image on celluloid. I was thrilled to listen to David Letterman's monologue in person, even though his guests were the unimpressive-to-me Raquel Welch and Nigel Mansell. I sat in a darkened theatre watching a mediocre play and felt excited and privileged because it was Broadway. These were concepts that were more familiar to me than some cities I'd lived in, because I'd seen them all so many times onscreen.

And there were the people. It's always about the people. The rude, obnoxious New Yorkers, who always noticed the mystified tourists peering at the subway maps and kindly helped us find our way, who were eager to recommend good places to eat and drink and see and do. The snarky bartender who ridiculed us for our naiveté of all things New York, but gave us extra drinks just for being the only three people in the bar who weren't middle-aged women wearing spandex leggings and rhinestone-encrusted sweaters (a Barry Manilow concert was about to begin across the street).

We met two stereotypes, cops from Brooklyn whose banter seemed rehearsed from a bad buddy comedy. "Indiana" Jimmy Jones and "Dirty Harry" Bob Callaghan asked with disgust why nice girls like us would want to visit such a vile city. They actually said: "Be careful out there." Yet there was pride in their voices as they talked about the excess of everything in New York. Thirteen years later, I suddenly realize maybe they were flirting with us a little bit, too.

And 13 years later, I finally got a glimpse of that other American city of movie legend, Los Angeles, and the people in it.

I've already written about the highlight of the trip: seeing the House session at the William S. Paley Television Festival. Even though it was a treat to see an upcoming episode in a theatre setting and get some insight into the show, it was all about the people, too. Obviously they were still on the job, so maybe they were only acting like they liked each other, but it was nice to see the cast as human beings with an easy camaraderie between them, and not as their characters. Much as I admire Hugh Laurie, I was happy to see the entire panel getting to contribute funny and insightful answers to questions that ranged from fangirly to thoughtful. Plus the writer I'd interviewed months before was warm and generous and, of course, funny when I approached him after the session, instead of politely dismissive as I half-expected.

My friends and I learned that not everyone in the city aspires to show business by chatting with Mike the Getty Centre security guard, who wanted to take advantage of their employee scholarship program and study for an art conservation degree, and Minilik the cab driver, who had moved there from the east coast to study for a business degree.

Yet we joked about the pervasiveness of the star culture, with one friend proclaiming how weird it was to think of the people living in these mansions, doing regular things like bringing their kids to school and going to the grocery store. At a little martini bar called Lola's in West Hollywood, we had a waitress who looked like Julianne Moore's little sister. After she left us our drinks, I whispered to my friend: "She's really beautiful" (because it's bad to let someone hear you complimenting them? What can I say, it didn't seem like the thing for a straight woman to blurt out to her waitress). "Yeah, I hope she makes it," my friend whispered back.

The charming Giuseppe at the Enoteca Drago restaurant in Beverly Hills treated us like guests in his home, even though we were not part of The Beautiful People crowd. After exhausting our ideas for what appetizers we wanted to share, but not our hunger for more, we put ourselves in his hands and he brought us delicious item after delicious item. He bonded with my oenophile friend who took charge of ordering the wine, to the point where I was afraid she might prefer his company to ours. After the wine glass incident, I'm not sure I'd blame her ... though it was partly her fault.

At one point, our other friend tried to shush our passionate but ridiculous conversation, which had been fuelled by a couple bottles of wine. She put her glass down emphatically as a gesture of exasperation – a little too emphatically, crushing the stem to her horror and embarrassment, but, as she happily pointed out, not spilling the wine. Without batting an eye, but with a gleam in them that expressed "you girls are troublemakers" as clearly as any words, Giuseppe had the mess cleaned up and the glass replaced without wasting a single drop. He even made a hilarious show of bringing her the sturdiest, stemless-est glass he could find for a subsequent drink. If he had show business aspirations, they didn't interfere with him being the best waiter ever.

Adam, our sardonic tour guide at the Warner Brothers studio with the purposely affected enunciation, was obviously hoping to make it in the biz. He'd taken performing arts at an Ivy League college, and slipped in and out of voices and attitudes on a whim. He either loved or hated the three of us, but we all seemed to embrace the concept that a mutual exchange of insults is a sign of affection. "I'm a stripper by night," he joked in some context I've mercifully blocked out of my mind. "Thank god we're here during the day," I replied.

His quirky personality was only a small highlight of the tour, as he showed us exactly what I was most excited to see – the Hollywood magic. Off-screen, of course, it's just as fake as a magic act, too.

He showed us the street that was Paris in Casablanca, and I could picture Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing there. We saw the iron stairs that were the scene of the upside down kiss in Spider-Man, and it looked so much smaller than the image in my mind. We saw the exterior of the ER hospital and Doug Ross's apartment, the preserved Central Perk set from Friends, the soundstages of Two and a Half Men and The Gilmore Girls, and, from a distance, outdoor filming in the town square of that show's Stars Hollow, where the trees, Adam told us, had silk leaves, because the real ones had been pulled off for previous winter episodes and hadn't grown back yet. He didn't seem to be joking. As appalled as I was for the poor trees, that's Hollywood, right? I was even thrilled to be appalled.

I've heard the complaints: Los Angeles is a giant parking lot with psychotic drivers, presided over by yellow skies and snooty people. But my experiences of any place are always about the people who fill it, and in the case of Los Angeles, it's not just the Rick and Ilsas, the Doug Rosses and the Phoebe Buffays who will fill my memory, but also, now, the Giuseppes and Adams.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Sex is bad. The Bedford Diaries is worse.

The show hasn't even been broadcast yet, and the WB's The Bedford Diaries is already part of the controversial news about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This week, the US regulatory body levied fines on CBS's Without a Trace for a teen orgy scene that showed no naughty bits and that was part of a storyline emphasizing the need for parental supervision, while leaving Oprah unscathed for a show on teen sex parties that used explicit language to describe oral and anal sex.

The good news is that the networks are mad enough to fight the fines, in what The Progress and Freedom Foundation, for one, sees as a possible beginning of the end for federal regulation of broadcast content, regulation that protects viewers and listeners who haven't mastered the off button, the concepts of changing the channel or taking the television out of their children's bedrooms, or the V-Chip. From the PFF's blog:
"Broadcasters will have a strong case when they get the rules in court. The FCC has steadily increased the scope of its indecency enforcement policy over the past 15 years and created a regulatory regime that is about as clear as mud."

The Bedford Diaries is riding on the coattails of this news because it is currently available for viewing over the Internet in its uncut form, but the WB has announced that a censored version, clipped of brief shots of two women kissing and a woman opening her jeans, will be broadcast on Wednesday.

"They're intimidating the networks and levying these fines, so the networks are not sure of what they can or can't do," Bedford producer Barry Levinson said.

From CNN:

"We can't point the finger at the network," [Levinson] said. "The network is responding to governmental intimidation."

In a statement, the WB said it "takes its responsibility as a broadcast network very seriously and we have always been mindful of the FCC's indecency rules.

"While we believe that the previous version of The Bedford Diaries is in keeping with those rules, out of an abundance of caution, we decided to make some additional changes" to the first episode, the network said.

I don't quite buy the "blame the FCC" party line. Those particular cuts weren't dictated by the FCC, they were dictated by the network's fear of what the FCC might do. But the two cuts don't mirror the scenes the FCC objected to in the latest round of fines. Two women kissing? Yawn. The unzipping-the-jeans scene is a quick shot to suggest a woman about to masturbate, with no explicit visuals or audio accompanying it. And while most news articles are calling her a "girl," these are university students. Adults. And wait ... is masturbation bad again? There is definitely salacious content in The Bedford Diaries, but those two snips are either cowardice or genius.

Maybe the WB really won't risk even the remote possibility of a fine. Maybe it was a demonstration of the futility of regulating TV when the same content can be offered on the FCC-unregulated Internet. Maybe they were hoping to hop on a hot news story to shine a spotlight on their new show.

And what about the show itself, beyond the controversy? It's about university students taking a human sexuality class, which in itself is likely to draw the watchful eyes of groups like the American Family Association who foam at the mouth over sexuality but show no signs of froth at depictions of torture on prime time's 24, for example.

These characters are shiny, smug young adults who don't resemble anyone I've ever met, participating in fast-paced scenes trying too hard to be sexy, and cut with the students' video diaries created for the class. It's not terrible, it's just not terribly new or interesting.

Canadian viewers might recognize the human sexuality class concept from our Showcase series Naked Josh, and there is a similarity in the classroom scenes presided over by Matthew Modine as the professor. But he's not the central character, he's one of a large ensemble focusing on the students, so there's not much similarity in the execution of the concept.

But see for yourself before you buy the hype or my ennui. You can see the uncensored pilot on the WB website, or watch the edited version March 29 at 9 on the WB.

"Talking about sex in a classroom setting is a very volatile thing," Modine's character is told in the pilot. You think that's bad? Try talking about it on television.

Happy Bones, Sad Love Monkey

Brief news on two shows I've covered, from Zap2It:
  • FOX Rattles Them 'Bones' for a Second Season (Translation: the show has been given a surprising early renewal, letting them plan for a cliffhanger ending)
  • Cavanagh Not 'Monkey'ing Around (Love Monkey star Tom Cavanagh has signed on for another CBS pilot, signalling the show is almost certainly dead. But I wasn't holding my breath for a renewal; I'm still waiting to hear if we'll get to see the already-shot but unaired episodes).
So a friend and I had a joking conversation a while ago about whether I'm a jinx or a good luck charm as an interviewer, and this finally tips the balance and puts me on the side of good luck. I've interviewed three TV writers this season so far. One went on to win a Writers Guild Award, one had his show pulled from the schedule, and now one's had his not-quite-a-sure-thing show renewed for a second season.

Disclaimer for the humour impaired: No, my ego's not that big, and my superstition isn't that pronounced - I know I had nothing to do with any of them. But you can blame me for Love Monkey if it makes you feel better.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nothing to declare

Last in the “scribbled on a plane” series, here's a few sort of pointless anecdotes about my minor adventures with customs or airport security.

I've never had a horrendous experience at customs, but it's never fun, either. I don't sleep well at the best of times, let alone on a bus or plane, the excitement of an upcoming trip makes me sleep less well, and flights are often rudely scheduled early in the morning. That means pretty much any time I hit a border crossing, my IQ has plunged to somewhere around my shoe size. My feet are big, but not that big.


I have the kind of face that makes little old ladies want to sit next to me tell me about their grandchildren, and the kind of heart that makes me want to plug into my iPod and stick my nose in a book so little old ladies don't sit next to me and tell me about their grandchildren. For some reason, even though I am actually a nice (though not stranger-loving), law-abiding person, it irks me that I don't look like I could have a dangerous streak.

Tiny men with giant guns dotted the La Paz, Bolivia, airport, and all passengers were escorted individually into what looked like department store fitting rooms. My guard patted me down so half-heartedly that I could have had an actual Bolivian duct taped to my body and she wouldn't have felt it. After that, it was time to get my bags inspected. The guard there saw my passport and said with a big smile “Oh, Canadian!” before taking a cursory peek at what was on top of my luggage and waving me through.
What I thought: “Hey, I could be a drug mule!”
What I said: “Thank you, sir.”

United States

Despite the reputations of our respective countries, I've had more problems with rude Canadian border guards and more kind experiences with American ones. The one jerk of an American guard I encountered really had every reason to deny me entry into the country, but he made damn sure I was suitably grateful that he didn't.

Over 10 years ago, I lived in a tiny French town in New Brunswick. It was an hour in any direction to get to anywhere that had a movie theatre, or decent shopping, or anything but an Irving gas station and an incredible variety of bars. One of those directions was to Caribou, Maine, which had the benefit of having the only English cinema in the vicinity. My roommate and I crossed the border frequently, sometimes for a movie, sometimes just for a break from the tiny town, and the border guards on both sides would always give us a friendly wave on through. Caribou was also the home of my boss, who invited my friends and I to dinner one weekend. It was such a habit to go back and forth that it didn't even occur to me as I grabbed my jacket and coin purse that I was crossing a border. I forgot to bring ID.

Very likely not coincidentally, the one time it was more than just the two of us, the one time we had men in the car with us, one of whom was black, we were stopped at the border, told to get out, our car was searched, and the guys were patted down. At that moment, I realized that I'd forgotten my ID, and that dinner was looking doubtful.

When I explained, the guard quizzed me ferociously about what we were doing in the US, saw that between us we had just about enough money to fund a jujube smuggling ring, and eventually decided to let me in, saying: “You should be grateful - if you were a guy, I wouldn't let you go.” It was an idiot thing to forget my ID, and I'd like to think that in a post-9/11 world, I wouldn't have (I'd also like to think he wouldn't have let me in). Still ...
What I thought: “Screw you. Don't do me any favours just because I'm a woman.”
What I said: “Thank you so much, sir.”

In this post-9/11 world, my innocent-looking face hasn't help much with humourless and stern border guards, and my tales of woe come mostly from my own country. Wait, aren't we supposed to be the nice ones?


I'd been on a plane all day, then hopped a Greyhound from Seattle to Vancouver, arriving at the border bleary-eyed at about 2 a.m., when apparently the most disgruntled guards are on duty. They were quizzing the Korean students who were on the bus, shouting their questions louder and louder instead of rephrasing in simpler language, guided by that age-old wisdom that everyone speaks English, but foreigners are deaf. When it was my turn, the guard asked what my occupation was. I told him the name of the large non-profit organization I worked for at the time. He snarled: “I didn't ask where you worked, I asked what you did.” I meekly told him I was in communications. “What's that?” he snarled again.
What I thought: “Unless you think it's code for 'drug runner,' maybe you could be a little nicer.”
What I said: “It's like public relations.”
What I thought: “You could use some training in that particular field, by the way.”

Canada, again

The security agent opened my carry-on and found my open bottle of water.

“Prove its contents,” she barked.

I stared blankly at her, images of Bunsen burners and chemical equations running through my head.
What I thought: “Huh?”
What I said: “Huh?”

“Prove its contents,” she repeated.

How on earth do I prove it's water and not vodka, I wondered, casting my memory back to high school chemistry and cursing the useless knowledge I gained there. My eyes began to search wildly for a fellow passenger who might be able to produce a Bunsen burner from their carry-on, when I spotted the other guard staring at me with a twinkle in her eye and miming drinking from a bottle. I gratefully took a swig of the water, finally understanding that the guards didn't care if it was water or vodka, as long as it was potable.

See, it works for English speakers too – if someone doesn't understand what the hell you're talking about, rephrase, don't repeat.

Categories: ,

Monday, March 20, 2006

TV Review: House - "Sex Kills"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired March 7. I prefer to think the episode aired early rather than that I wrote this late.)
Wilson: "It's not all about sex, House."
House: "Really? When did that change?"
"Sex Kills" could be the title of a very unsubtle public service announcement, but instead it is the title of an equally unsubtle House episode, in which it is all about sex, killing patients literally and Wilson's marriage figuratively.

Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati) is very un-Johnny Fever-like in this role as Henry, a sweet, bridge-playing divorced father whose sweet, bridge-attempting single daughter is alarmed when he has what they discover is an absent seizure. Combined with his other symptoms, House and his team believe Henry might have a sexually transmitted disease. "A disease that attacks his brain, heart and testicles. I think Byron wrote about that," our Byronic hero muses.

Though Henry initially claims he hasn't had sex since his divorce, House is skeptical. For validation, he calls to Wilson across a crowded waiting area: "How long can you go without sex?"

"How long can you go without annoying people?" Wilson retorts in a comic if ill-advised rejoinder that would seem to indicate he is seriously addicted to sex.

When his daughter is out of the room, Henry decides to fess up. He didn't want Amy to know about his latest dalliance with her mother, his ex-wife, since she would think he was foolish for still loving the woman who cheated on him. Their date at a cheese tasting resulted in a bacterial infection that is destroying his heart.

"Cheese is the devil's plaything," House intones when Henry explains the fateful date. (A bit of trivia for you: Hugh Laurie named that as his favourite line at the Paley Festival Q&A, after first attempting to ingratiate himself with creator David Shore by saying all lines were his favourites.)

"If you're not prepared to look stupid, then nothing great is ever going to happen," Henry says wistfully, which provokes some compassion from the man who stalked a rat in his ex-girlfriend's attic in order to win her back. House lies to Henry's daughter in order to preserve his patient's dignity.

Unfortunately, the bacterial infection was caught too late to save Henry's heart, but the 66-year-old is too old to be considered a good candidate for a heart transplant. House appears before the transplant committee in a futile attempt to try to get a scarce organ for his patient. He gives an impassioned speech that older people should not be less worth saving than younger people, that if longevity is a criteria for transplant candidates, women should be considered over men, and white people over black people.

When he later tells Cameron they made the right decision in rejecting Henry, she is confused about his motives. "I was advocating for my patient," he explains, demonstrating a consistency in his philosophy of always doing what he thinks is right for his patient, even if it's not right for the greater good, even if he thinks it's futile, acting like a defence attorney in an adversarial legal system.

Stymied by the transplant committee, House turns to extreme measures to get a heart for Henry, and begins to look for an organ that has been rejected by the organ procurement system. Enter Laura Neuberger, a soon-to-be-deceased ER patient whose bewildered husband Donald (Greg Grunberg, Alias) is soon to be part of House's game of manipulation.

In talking to the grieving man to assess the viability of her organs before he even knows his wife is dead, House demonstrates the lengths he'll go to for a patient, and also the complete insensitivity that oddly doesn't translate into a complete lack of compassion.

When he tries to stop Neuberger from pulling the plug and refusing to allow her heart to be transplanted, House says: "It's just her meat we're dealing with here." But House understands emotions enough to know how to manipulate them. Neuberger stomps out of Cuddy's office, only to be confronted by a grateful, angelic-looking Amy (the angelic-looking Keri Lynn Pratt) thanking him for donating his wife's heart so her father can live.

"Don't you think that's a little manipulative?" Cuddy asks. "No, it's hugely manipulative." House responds. When he implores Neuberger to take out his anger on him, not Amy, the man knees House in the groin, causing him to collapse in a heap as Neuberger tells Amy her father can have the heart.

House doesn't hold a grudge, apparently recognizing that while that wasn't the "take it out on me" he meant, it was deserved. Now that his dead wife is House's patient, too, he even treats Neuberger with as much compassion as he can ever muster.

House and his team must use their investigative methods in order to cure the dead woman of her mysterious infection in order to use her heart. When the husband discovers his wife dyed her hair and took medication he knew nothing about, he glumly says "I guess you never really know someone." House shows some kindness by pointing out the insignificance of those lies.

When the team determines that they can't rid Laura Neuberger's body of what they believe is an amoeba infection without destroying her organs, House is ready to move on and try to find another donor. To Cameron, he raises that challenge women everywhere dread hearing from the object of their affection: "If you really cared about me, you'd find me a better corpse."

Donald Neuberger, however, insists that they persevere in trying to use his wife's heart, and House agrees. I'm not sure if he's inspired by the husband's passion – doubtful, since he trusts no one's judgement but his own – or if he senses Neuberger knows something he's not telling, but uncharacteristically doesn't prod him to reveal it.

Whatever the reason, they are right to persist, since they discover that Laura actually had gonorrhea, presumably from an affair, which probably caused her to pass out and get into the car accident that killed her. And we see that House's kindness to Donald is purely circumstantial. When House lies in order to protect him from the fact that his wife had a sexually transmitted disease, Cameron is astonished: "That was kind of you." But no, House wanted to delay the news so the husband would keep his knees to himself until the heart was in Henry's body. He orders Cameron to tell him once the operation is underway.

But Neuberger has a secret of his own: he was the one who had the affair, but kept quiet about his gonorrhea in the hope that he'd discover his wife's accident and death weren't his fault. With House's focus on sex, he seems to have missed out on the fact that it is the relationship secrets that kill, rather than simply the sex, which causes him to not quite dig deep enough. Just as well, since “Relationship Secrets Kill" would be a really bad episode title.

Entwined throughout the patient of the week story are House's encounters with Creepy But Sweet Clinic Patient, a young man who wants a prescription for Depo-Provera to chemically castrate himself, in order to curb his attraction to cows. "Make love, not belts. Beautiful," a skeptical House says. We learn that CBSCP's secret is that it's his sexy step-mother he's attracted to, and he's desperate to restrain his impulses until he can move out of the house.

“Sex Kills" shows a richness to the many patients and their loved ones we are introduced to, with broad strokes giving us some depth to the father-daughter relationship of Henry and Amy, the love and issues of Donald and Laura, and the twisted but almost noble desperation of the clinic patient. This episode is better than many at spreading the show's focus, with so many characters, most notably Wilson, getting time to shine.

House is not a true ensemble show, unless your definition of “ensemble" is that there is more than one actor in the cast. Almost everything we know about the secondary characters is in relation to the title character. Chase's daddy issues? Brought out by House. Cameron's dead husband? Informs how she relates to House. And that's fine with me. With a character like this, I'd be OK with Dr. House being on screen every second, as long as I wasn't aware of the whimpers coming from Hugh Laurie's direction. But I do get occasionally frustrated that some of the other characters are neglected, despite their intriguing relationships with House.

So "Sex Kills" writer Matt Witten has now earned my Season Two Wilson-Cuddy Memorial Award for giving us more of a personal glimpse of my favourite non-House characters: Cuddy in "Humpty Dumpty" and now Wilson here. (I hear Foreman is getting his turn soon – yay.)

Wilson and House's verbal sparring bounces from being about the patients to being about the affair House believes Wilson is conducting, so that even they are often confused about which topic they're currently talking about. As usual, what we learn about Wilson also illuminates House's character. No surprise, House is House even when dealing with his troubled only friend. It's not that House doesn't care about the people closest to him, it's that his caring comes in the form of highly intrusive and insensitive curiosity, which might make them wish he didn't care.

"Does it occur to you that ... maybe a friend might value concern over glibness? That maybe I'm going through something that I need to have an actual conversation about?" Wilson pleads, as Robert Sean Leonard gives a heartbreaking performance of the doctor at his most vulnerable. You know he must be hurting deeply if he's looking for sympathy from House.

"Does it occur to you that if you need that kind of a friend, you may have made some deeper errors?" asks House, to which I can only add: "No kidding."

We know Wilson knows House better than anyone, since the character often acts as the House interpreter. We know they've been friends since before House's leg infarction, but we don't know why. Is Wilson crazy to put up with him? Maybe that can be the medical mystery at the heart of a future episode, but for now, we've been shown often that House's friendship speaks in actions more than words.

Good thing, because House's words are nasty. He prods mercilessly at Wilson about his marital troubles, using his reasoning skills on his annoyed friend to come to the conclusion that Wilson is having an affair – a theme House has nagged at since early in season one – and offering questionable advice based on that deduction.

"You always want to simplify everything," Wilson says, “boil it down to nice easy equations, nice easy answers."

"Go home and have sex with your wife," House says, proving him right.

After all the prodding, Wilson finally talks. Despite his plea for compassion over glibness, Wilson knows House's limitations and still turns to him in the end. He arrives at his doorstep, bags in hand, to reveal that his wife is the one having an affair. With no smart remarks, just a stricken look on his face, House opens the door to offer Wilson his lumpy couch and a beer – manspeak for support and concern, I suppose.

The next new episode airs on March 28 at 9 p.m. on FOX, or Global in Canada. And not to rub it in that I've seen it already or anything, but it's a good one.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Audiobook Review: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy is a memoir of childhood in Mooreland, Indiana, whose population stayed steady at 300 throughout the decades. Nicknamed after a chimpanzee who zipped around on rollerskates, Kimmel narrates the tale of her life in the late '60s and early '70s, when the prevailing trends of American life bypassed tiny Mooreland.

The book is therefore not a snapshot of the United States at that time, but a snapshot of a certain kind of small-town life, a certain kind of Quaker upbringing, a certain kind of girl. And yet, there's enough of the universal in Zippy to appeal and entertain, with her perceptive outsider's take on the world, her love for and frustration with her family, and her small adventures with friends, neighbours, and most of all, dead animals.

Kimmel herself reads this audiobook, in a sharp, clear voice that takes on a childlike cadence when she's speaking as Zippy the quoted character rather than Zippy the narrator. It's hard to imagine another reader doing justice to the distinctive voice of Zippy, with her traces of a child's rural syntax and colloquialisms, and peculiar intonations to get just the right tone of indignation or exasperation with the adults around her.

At the beginning, Kimmel says her sister believed “the book on Mooreland has yet to be written, because no one sane would be interested in reading it.”
"'No, no, wait,' she said. 'I know who might read such a book. A person lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here comes a candystriper with a squeaky library cart, and on that cart there is only one book. Or, or maybe two books - yours, and Cooking with Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland then.'”
That passage is a good demonstration of Kimmel's folksy, funny writing style, and keen observation of detail, using hyperbole and mock exactitude for comic effect. She also demonstrates an admirable lack of ego, creating a memory of herself as Zippy as a likeable, engaging kid, but also a bossy, sly, often inconsiderate, and amusingly unhygienic kid. She describes herself as peculiar-looking, and the cover of the audiobook box backs her up, since her baby photo, while adorable, is not making the Gerber baby quake in his booties.

Though not packaged this way, A Girl Named Zippy is really a collection of essays rather than a single narrative. The book as a whole is not chronological, as Zippy bounces around in age, characters are introduced and reintroduced, and some events and ideas are referred to more than once in different essays, in different ways. It's actually a perfect format for an audiobook, since the vignettes feel like nostalgic stories told to a friend, and we literally have Zippy herself telling us story after story of her unextraordinary life in her extraordinary way (though I presume she's grown out of the nickname now).

Kimmel maintains a child-like perspective, with an adult voice peeking out to provide context and depth. There's a disconnect between her childhood memories of a loving family and picturesque upbringing, and the shadows of knowledge that there was a darker reality around her. She never dwells in this darkness – A Girl Named Zippy is a light, bright listen – but we get hints of poverty exacerbated by her father's gambling, and of her mother's apparent depression and benign neglect. (Zippy describes her mother's occupation as “not moving from the couch,” and her continuation of this memoir is the more recently published She Got Up Off the Couch). These essays are, however, tender reminiscences rather than recriminations.

Most of the essays are more anecdotal, less analytic, painting an entertaining and vivid picture of Zippy's world. But one in particular, The Social Gospel, more blatantly uses the juxtaposition of the child with the adult perspective, and the nosy gossip Zippy with the kindhearted Zippy, to make a point. She tries to ingratiate herself with a pious classmate whose family life fascinates her by claiming she wants to be a better Christian, and fails miserably according to the standards set up for her. At the same time, she learns that her friend Rose is uncomfortable staying after class for private lessons with the music teacher, and though she does not quite understand Rose's discomfort – though our adult perspective comes immediately to the conclusion that he is abusing her - Zippy insists on staying with her after class from then on. Zippy struggles throughout the book with religion, calling herself an atheist but describing herself as mad at God, and with a strange fascination with Jesus, and in this one essay, demonstrating that good acts are not always recognized as such.

The childish perspective and memories are played far more for humour, though, and this is an audiobook that will have you laughing rather than thinking for the most part, with passages like: “As far as I knew, shrines wore absurd hats and drove miniature cars in circles during the Mooreland Fair parade. And were praised, inexplicably, for burning children. Although, actually, if I was perfectly honest, I could think of a couple kids who could use a good frying.”

A Girl Named Zippy is lighthearted fun with unexpected moments of depth and insight, and Kimmel's vivid recollections of Zippy's cast of characters are likely to stay with you as happy reminiscences of your own.

The audiobook version comes unabridged on five CDs, and is available from the HighBridge Audio website, where you can also hear a clip as read by author Haven Kimmel.

Categories: books, review

Friday, March 17, 2006

Shuffle off to ... not Buffalo

Here's another in the series that could be titled “things I scribbled on the plane.” Yes, crankypants House fans, I did say I'd do my usual analysis of “Sex Kills”, and I will soon now that my head no longer feels like it will explode with the slightest exertion. But for now ...

I completely stole this idea from a fellow Blogcritic Dave Nalle, who wrote Take Cover, My iPod's on Shuffle! based on an idea he stole from another Blogcritic, Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti, so that's why I won't be posting it there. Hmm, this is almost turning into a meme by people who don't know how to do memes properly. The idea is this: I drowned out the noise of the plane and my snoring seatmate and put my iPod Shuffle on, well, shuffle, and then I ruminated on the first 10 songs I heard.

You have no idea how risky this endeavour was for me, with my seriously uncool dabbling in Barry Manilow, Roger Whitaker, the Irish Rovers, Neil Diamond, Cher, and Nana Mouskouri, for example. I'm even a little grateful none of my many alt-country songs shuffled by, since they always provoke my overly defensive "I don't like country! This is alt-country!" explanation. Fortunately, none of the really embarrassing songs popped up. Unfortunately, I've just told you about them.

1. “Breath” by Swollen Members featuring Nelly Furtado
The first song and it's not representative of my musical tastes, though I do have some Eminem, if that counts. But I adore Furtado's voice and I admire the poetry of a lot of hip hop. There's one little slice of lyric from this song I can't get out of my head, for the rhythm and the sentiment: “Beautiful minds, trying to keep it independent in recruitable times.” Plus, it's a local group so they're my homies. Yeah, I really can't get away with saying things like that.

2. “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens
There are advantages and disadvantages to never listening to the radio. The advantage is never having to listen to DJs, who provoke violent impulses in my normally pacifist self. Plus I am virtually immune to overexposed songs. The disadvantage is that I live in a cave when it comes to what's out there I might like, beyond recommendations from friends and, increasingly, television and movie soundtracks. Sufjan Stevens' folky-poppy album Illinois headed many Best of 2005 lists, however, which penetrated my cave and forced me to look beyond iTunes to buy the actual CD. This is one of my favourites on a new favourite album.

3. “You're Beautiful” by James Blunt
This is one of those songs that makes others groan after having heard it for the million and second time, but I was happily oblivious, and have been known to sing as loudly as I do badly when it plays on repeat in the car. I refrained on the plane. The album Back to Bedlam was a gift from a friend and has other songs I prefer, but there's something irresistible about this one, even if the supposedly romantic lyrics are impressively idiotic. I could summarize with: “I saw a pretty girl on the subway. The end.”

4. “Where Does the Good Go” by Tegan and Sara
Television has proven to be a great way for me to get introduced to catchy or evocative songs, and Grey's Anatomy is a goldmine of music that fits my taste. This one is from the show's soundtrack compilation. I've got some older stuff by Tegan and Sara, from when I lived in Calgary and they were an up-and-coming local act, but I hadn't kept up with them. When their music showed up on Grey's, I realized they must be doing fairly well.

5. “Say Something” by James
I've had this CD, Laid, for a long time and still love it. This isn't my favourite track but I like it, especially the lyrics of a screwed up relationship, with the singer begging for a return of intimacy, or at least the illusion of intimacy. Most of their lyrics are about screwy relationships, and while I'm not a fan of actual bad relationships, they do make the best stories.

6. “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths
Another old favourite, with The Smiths' patented twisted humour. I have a blander version by Joshua Radin, too, which I should delete at some point since it only makes me wish I were listening to the original. This song also makes me think of Douglas Coupland, who stole the title for one of his books with its own brand of patented twisted humour. I like twisted humour.

7. “A Puro Dolor” by Son by Four
Well, OK, this is one of those saccharine, highly embarrassing songs I was talking about, except I have some confidence no one will recognize it. I have it in two mixes – a ballad, and this more Latin-flavoured beat. But it's catchy, and sometimes I have a shameful sweet tooth, and everything sounds better in Spanish anyway. It's basically about a guy who won't leave his poor ex alone and whines about the pain he's in because they're not together. Trust music, TV, and movies to make stalker-like behaviour seem romantic. [Oh god, I just found out there's an English version when I went to look up the Amazon link. My confidence that no one will recognize it is slightly less now.]

8. “Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West
I seem to have a lot of Canadian content here, though it's not intentional. These guys are from ... Winnipeg, I think? ... though they have a vaguely Celtic sound on this song, the perfect vacation song:
“You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best,
I've been gone for a month, I've been drunk since I left
These so-called vacations will soon be my death
I'm so sick from the drink I need home for a rest.”
It's not quite accurate about my too-short LA vacation, or about my lightweight drinking abilities in general, though we had enough wine at the lovely Enoteca Drago restaurant that one of my friends broke the stem of her wineglass while making an overly emphatic point, and the martinis at Lola's did lead to some interestingly uninhibited conversation.

9. Silent All These Years by Tori Amos
Starts with a poem by Leonard Cohen in his gravelly voice, then segues into the sweeter tones of Tori Amos. This is from a compilation called Rare on Air Volume One (selections from KCRW-FM music performances) which I've had forever. Or at the most since 1994, according to the copyright date. I'd never heard of KCRW when I got the CD, I just liked the mix of tunes, but now it has the interesting-only-to-me blog connection of being the home of Nic Harcourt, music supervisor of the sadly short-lived Love Monkey, which I've written about.

10. In the Deep by Bird York
Another deeply mellow song to finish it off. Fair enough, since mellow and depressing is probably the most accurate description of my overall musical taste. I first heard this song in an episode of House, another show that's increased my iTunes collection, but it's originally from Crash, which I saw shamefully late. Singer/songwriter and actress Kathleen Bird York was given the script early on and created it specifically for the themes of the movie. She had previously worked with writer and director Paul Haggis on Family Law, where she had a guest starring role and ended up writing music for the show as well. This may be completely coincidental, or maybe it's why the song was used on his show, too, but David Shore, creator of House, worked on Family Law too. It's a small world, huh? Or maybe that's just proof that I can turn anything into a House anecdote with enough effort.

Categories: ,

Thursday, March 16, 2006

White Like Me

Though I'm no paler than the average freakishly pale person, I've always been self-conscious about my complexion, or lack thereof. The insecurity stems from years of good-natured (I think) teasing in school about how much embalming fluid I drank. Well-meaning (I think) people have given me tanning tips throughout the years, refusing to believe that I come in two shades: radioactive white and fire engine red.

So before heading to LA, I dug out the tube of fake tanning goop I'd bought in a moment of weakness last year, when my beach volleyball team began to comment on my legs as our secret weapon to blind the opposing teams, and were skeptical that I'd really missed a game to go to Mexico for a friend's wedding. (“It was an indoor wedding,” I protested.)

I dug out the tube, put it on my bathroom counter, and stared at it for the week leading up to my departure, remembering the disastrously streaky orangeness of my legs - and palms - after I tentatively tested the stuff out the first time. I'm sure I could do better the second time around. I mean, I think I could. But did I want to bother? I'm hardly body-image-neuroses-free, but I have come to accept that whatever I think of my body's inherent qualities, I might as well decide to be OK with them rather than constantly fight nature.

But I was going to LA – land of The Beautiful People – and suddenly all my neuroses were fixed on this one irrational thing. It was silly to worry about my lack of colour, when there's so much else I could be insecure about. I suppose it was the one thing I could fix. I wasn't going to turn into a size 0, but by god, I could be orange.

I also knew it was silly to be fixated on the thought of LA as the land of the perfect. I was passing through for a few days, to be with friends who not only couldn't care less if I was white or orange or purple, but whose complexions are not entirely uncorpse-like themselves. It's not like I was trying to land a spot on The OC. I'd never been to LA before, but I was fairly certain they didn't drive all the normal-looking people out of town. Who else would admire the famous people?

So it tempted me for a while, but the tube of goop remains untouched on my bathroom counter. Some day maybe I'll take that final step towards acceptance and move it to the garbage can.

Categories: ,

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tuesday TV Newbie Ratings

Compared with the recording juggling act I achieved last week in order to view all four Tuesday at 9 shows I wanted to catch, yesterday was a piece of cake. It helped that I was at home in Nyquil-induced mellowness, House is on an American Idol-enforced break, and The Unit has dropped off my radar, so I could easily watch Scrubs on the Eastern feed and Sons & Daughters on the West Coast feed.

The Unit
is doing extremely well without me as a viewer, down only slightly from its debut last week, with 17.8 million watching, despite being head-to-head with the bloated American Idol. As I guessed, it’s not my kind of show, with a military theme, action-oriented plots, and testosterone-fuelled characters I can’t respond to. Worse, all the female characters make me want to smother them with pillows to put them out of my misery, and surprisingly, there’s no redeeming MametSpeak.

But Sons & Daughters … now here’s a show I could love. Except my inevitable heartbreak is foretold in the ratings, as it plunged 30% from its not-hugely-successful debut last week, for a total of 5.4 million viewers. Though I realize it’s taking the place of the troubled Commander in Chief, I find it hard to believe that ABC has no more supportive timeslot for this on their schedule than dead against another quirky comedy – Scrubs, which didn’t do much better in the ratings – in one of the most competitive timeslots of the week. Despite the Arrested Development comparisons, I think the partially improvised Sons & Daughters has the potential for more widespread appeal, with likeable characters in a relatably dysfunctional family. But that won't matter if it never gets in front of the right people.

Co-creator and star Fred Goss has a blog on ABC, where he unfortunately sounds defeated:
The numbers were OK but not great. Now we're looking at two weeks opposite American Idol. Sweet. My feeling is that no matter what the promos or the good just doesn't matter at this point.
and defensive:
The subject matter, while not striving to be blue is often unfiltered and very real. It's not a family show; it's a show about a family. It's not for young children. If you personally find the show offensive and you are an adult, I'm not sure what to tell you. It's a great country we live in. We have the freedom to make this show and you have the freedom to watch it if you like it or to not watch it if you don't. It isn't our intent to offend, but what's offensive is as subjective as what is funny. We had to make the show that we would like to see and hope that there are enough people out there that feel the same way about it. To try and make a show that we think everybody else wants to see is an impossible way to express one’s self artistically.

So apparently not everyone agrees with my likeable and relatable assessment. I might whine about having too many shows to watch at the same time, but I hate it when cancellations make my viewing decisions easier. I hope this one finds an appreciative audience.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Fun House at the William S. Paley Television Festival

At the recent William S. Paley Television Festival, about 600 people filled the Directors Guild Theatre in Los Angeles to watch an upcoming episode of the FOX medical drama House. Despite that drama classification and the gripping patient mystery at its core, it provoked more laughter than the average multiplex comedy feature. Listening to the entire cast and all four executive producers answer questions about the show afterwards, House's comedic sensibility comes as no surprise: these people are funny.

Creator and executive producer David Shore; executive producers Bryan Singer, Katie Jacobs, and Paul Attanasio; and cast members Hugh Laurie (Dr. Gregory House), Robert Sean Leonard (Dr. James Wilson), Lisa Edelstein (Dr. Lisa Cuddy), Omar Epps (Dr. Eric Foreman), Jennifer Morrison (Dr. Allison Cameron), and Jesse Spencer (Dr. Robert Chase) fed off each other's responses with teasing rapport, and showed a facility with one-liners that Dr. House would envy, if he didn't firmly believe he was superior to others in every possible way ... and, if you want to get picky about the distinction between fiction and reality, if he weren't simply a product of these funny people.

At one point, the actors were asked what they'd like to see for their characters in the future.

“Perform Hamlet in its entirety,” contributed Broadway veteran Leonard.

“Do a differential diagnosis in interpretive dance,” said lithe Morrison.

“Disappear,” offered the overworked Laurie.

“Have sex,” responded quirky Edelstein, before adding slowly: “Oh, you meant my character?”

“And I actually thought that would be helpful to me,” writer Shore sighed, mock-exasperated.

In the beginning

Shore announced at the beginning of the session, to applause but no great surprise, that FOX had renewed House for a third season. The panel then delved into the genesis of the show. Producers Attanasio and Jacobs decided to pitch a medical series inspired by the Diagnosis column in the New York Times, and turned to Shore to write it. When asked how he conceived the character of the hostile doctor, Shore said: “I tend to take all characters and attach the word 'hostile' to them.”

“I'd still be practicing law if I didn't have to deal with clients,” he continued. “It's not just me – we all have to deal with idiots. We never think we are the idiot, but we often are.”

He recounted an anecdote about going through with a doctor's appointment even though the hip pain he'd been suffering from had already disappeared. He imagined the doctors whispering about him behind his back, and used that as the inspiration for a doctor who had no qualms telling patients exactly what he thinks to their faces. Combined with the vision of a doctor attacking medical cases with Sherlock Holmes-like deduction skills, the character of House was born.

Hyperkinetic Singer, known for the first two X-Men movies and the upcoming Superman Returns, also directed the pilot episode and helped shaped the show's visual style, with its rapid walk-or-limp-and-talk scenes. “This was like The West Wing in a hospital. It has that energy and pace,” he said. “It was almost a throwback to working on The Usual Suspects, working with these actors and this dialogue.”

Jacobs indicated that they brought the idea for the show to FOX because of their desire to work with then-entertainment president Gail Berman. “You end up with a marriage out of a blind date,” said Attanasio, Jacobs' husband. “You don't know what network would be the best, yet it's one of the most important decisions you can make.”

Jacobs mentioned that when they sold the show to FOX, House was supposed to be in a wheelchair. “FOX, to their credit, changed it,” said Shore. “I will never again thank a network for changing a character.”

They pondered a scar, then “Gail said canes are sexy,” Jacobs said to some laughter and comments of “well, they are now” from the audience, before she added that Laurie uses the cane like a superhero, not only as an extension of his hands to open doors and grab items, but throwing and twirling it dramatically to punctuate a scene.

She also explained how the disability contributes to his psychology. “He's hiding. He doesn't want to see patients, but he also doesn't want them to see him.”

“If he was just a healthy, good-looking guy, we wouldn't be able to do as many things with him,” Shore explained, causing reluctant sex symbol Laurie to wonder if he'd intended a comma between "healthy" and "good-looking" in that sentence or not.

Congregating a cast

Early on, the moderator asked what attracted the actors to the show. “It's going to be a boring answer,” Leonard warned when it was his turn. “It was a great script, great writing.”

“I don't find this boring,” Shore countered.

“The stupidity is astounding in this town,” Leonard said to the LA audience about the quality of scripts he tended to see, before explaining his attraction to the role of House's only friend, Wilson, and invoking an Odd Couple comparison. “I like being the guy who isn't the guy but that the guy counts on. Plus I've wanted to be Tony Randall all my life.”

After commenting that the pilot script was “phenomenal,” Epps tarnished his compliment slightly by mentioning that on meeting Bryan Singer for his audition, they “talked about life and everything but the script.”

“Sorry,” Singer called to Shore, who was sitting on the opposite end of the stage.

Hugh Laurie read for both the Wilson and House roles, though he discounted his chances of being cast as the “handsome man with the boyish, open face.” Instead, he focused his energies on the irascible House. “He didn't try to be liked, and the show didn't try to be liked, and I found that very likeable,” Laurie explained.

At the time, the show was simply called The Untitled Attanasio/Shore Project (“that title didn't test well”), and Laurie was only faxed three pages to his Flight of the Phoenix shoot in Namibia. So he was shocked to eventually find out that House was the central character.

Singer told the now-familiar story of being unfamiliar with Laurie's previous work – or at least, not recognizing him as the same actor – and his excitement at finally finding a red-blooded American to fill the role. “I'd said I didn't want to see any more fucking foreigners,” he admitted.

Laurie's story of getting only a glimpse of the script resulted in a fun game of one-upsmanship between the cast. Spencer indicated that he got six pages, while Epps rubbed it in that he got the whole script. Edelstein, last to be asked about her audition, complained: “I only had one joke, and that's that I got the whole script.”

“She also played the hooker on The West Wing, my favourite show,” Singer added helpfully, explaining her audition success.

“I'm a hot hooker. That's my thing,” agreed Edelstein,who also played a transvestite in a memorable Ally McBeal role.

“The biggest challenge with FOX was getting them to see her as a woman,” Singer said, before Morrison quipped: “Cuddy's back story hasn't come out yet.”

“This is why you never see Cuddy wearing pants,” declared Edelstein, who looked stunning – and undeniably female - in a blue and white dress.

Jesse Spencer, who appeared in clothes mercifully more stylish than Chase's eye-straining wardrobe, claimed to have murdered both the American and English accents before the producers were convinced to let him speak in his native Australian voice. “At one point we were going to make him English,” he said. “I'll never forget Hugh's face at the read-through.”

But before that, the then-24-year-old had been reluctant to even audition for the role of Chase, who was originally written as a 35-year-old American radiologist. His motivation came from his agent asking what else he was going to do today, and realizing that the pub was perhaps his only other option. When he recalled that he had to pay for his own plane ticket to appear for a second audition, Attanasio suggested perhaps they should pay him back now.

Jennifer Morrison claimed her House audition was the worst she'd ever had, and she went to bed depressed after meeting Singer as “a sopping mess” in the lobby beforehand. However, admitting for the second time that his directorial eye may not translate well to recognizing faces, Singer recalled FOX sending him a reel of audition tapes and asking him to choose two actresses as finalists for the role of Cameron. “They sent me one of you as a blonde in Dawson's Creek, and one of you as a brunette in something else,” Singer recalled to Morrison.

“And you picked both of them,” Morrison remembered with a laugh. “I ended up being my own worst competition.”

Writing the gospel

All the panelists praised the writing of the show, with head writer Shore in particular expressing his pride in his writers, who were sitting in the audience. “I've got a great writing staff,” he said in response to a question about how they find the medical stories that drive the plots, “and we have a lot of help from a lot of doctors. I don't think of it as a procedural, but you need the procedure.”

When he and Attanasio discussed the pilot for the show, Shore had told him: “I've only got one idea. I don't know what episode two is going to be. Paul's advice was, 'you only need one right now.'”

Each medical story begins with a real life case, but evolves with the dramatic needs of the show and the characters. “We've resisted a lot of weird stories because they don't fit the show," Shore said.

When an audience member who suffers from vasculitis and runs a vasculitis foundation asked why they'd chosen that disease as the possible diagnosis that seems to pop up in every episode, Shore quipped: “Because we're doing God's work” before adding: “No, we're just trying to entertain.”

“My brother e-mails me when he thinks he's seen something wrong, and he writes 'ha ha' at the end,” said Spencer, whose brother and father don't just play doctors on TV.

“The thing that's real is that doctors don't know,” said Attanasio. “Most of the time when you walk in, it's a medical mystery. They put on the white coat because they don't know.”

“The show is a hypochondriac's worst nightmare,” laughed Singer.

Leonard revealed that every script comes with a vocabulary list, with definitions and pronunciations. Morrison said she used to obsessively look everything up so she could understand it completely. “I've stopped that,” she grinned, but suggested that the actors have to know enough to understand what their characters are fighting for against House. “I don't know why we always argue with him – he's always right,” she added.

Shore said the memorable Housisms that pepper the show “just kind of happen” and that the writers' challenge is to not succumb to the allure of the brilliantly sarcastic one-liners. “That's one of the temptations we have to resist. That's the biggest challenge – to motivate the Housisms.”

Singer's stock answer to questions about the possibility of future romances, revealing Cuddy's Ally McBeal-esque back story, or making House more likeable, was to yell “Sweeps!”

“He gets really nice in February and May,” Morrison joked, before Shore promised that “House will never get soft and cuddly,” provoking applause from the audience.

“I want to thank FOX,” Shore continued. “That was the note everyone expected - 'make House more likable.' We never got that note.”

New episodes of House return March 28 and are scheduled to run without further breaks until the season finale.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Categories: ,

Saturday, March 11, 2006

House and home

I'm back, and working on a Blogcritics article about the highlight of my trip to LA, but for now I need to recuperate from my vacation and try to stave off the cold that hit about halfway through my flight home today.

It was my first time to that city, and though I've been talking about heading down since moving to the west coast, and I was meeting up with a couple of friends, I have to admit the timing of our trip was not entirely coincidental.

The William S. Paley Television Festival featuring House “happened” to be on while we were there. We got to see the next, as-yet-unaired episode, and to hear the entire cast and all the executive producers answer questions from a moderator and the audience. I won't completely scoop my own article, but I thought I'd throw out a couple of anecdotes that won't fit into my normally staid and impersonal House articles on Blogcritics. Stop laughing.

Writer Lawrence Kaplow, whom I interviewed by phone several months ago, wasn't on the Paley panel, but he was in the audience. He had the good manners to win the Writers Guild Award recently and have his acceptance picture floated on the Internet, allowing me to recognize the one Housite to whom I could justify introducing myself as we filtered out of the theatre. While it's possible he now curses the fact that choosing a behind-the-scenes career apparently doesn't guarantee the ability to pass incognito after all, he was perfectly gracious.

Someone – not me, I swear – asked the panel about the ball on House's desk. After some puzzled, “You mean the big tennis ball?” comments from Robert Sean Leonard (Wilson) and Jennifer Morrison (Cameron), Hugh Laurie remarked with a trace of Housian sarcasm: “That's just on the outside - it obviously stands for something. But we're not going to tell you.”

Executive producer Bryan Singer supplied one of our vacation catchphrases when he again told the story of not recognizing British actor Laurie at his audition. He was excited to find their real American for the role, saying he'd gotten tired of seeing so many “fucking foreigners.” (Actually he said “fuh-foreigners,” but when he realized by the titters that the audience had filled in the blanks and didn't for a second believe he'd simply stumbled over the word “foreigners,” uncensored himself.)

That line provided my American friends with the perfect opportunity to upgrade their jokes about my overly polite Canadianness, and instead gleefully call me a “fucking foreigner” for the rest of our trip, where we went highbrow with a visit to the Getty Centre, went lowbrow with a visit to a psychic (my chakras are apparently blocked), and went Hollywood with a studio tour at Warner Brothers, conducted by a sardonic tour guide who either loved or hated us for our penchant for showing affection through insults. Other than that, we spent a lot of time eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and insulting each other.

I hope to never get blasé enough about travel that even a short trip like this doesn't make me giddy and full of stories I'll likely torture you with over the next while. But first ... copious amounts of cold medication and sleep.

Categories: , ,