Monday, December 31, 2007

My Pop Culture Obsessions of 2007

This was all set to be one long post for Blogcritics, but they wisely asked me to split it in two:
Hints on some of what might be on those lists are below.

Have a happy, healthy 2008

Saturday, December 29, 2007

What's the question again?

One of my favourite lines in the favourite-line-ful The West Wing is the eventual payoff to a riff of Josh's throughout "Guns Not Butter." He keeps quoting a poll that indicated the public are not supportive of foreign aid: "68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut." Finally, Will gives him the setup he needs:

Will: You like that stat.
Josh: I do.
Will: Why?
Josh: Because 9% think it's too high and shouldn't be cut. 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for "I have utterly no idea what you're talking about. Please, God, don't ask for my input."

Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans segments and specials, where he gets unsuspecting Americans to congratulate Canadians on moving to the 24 hour clock, for example, prey on the human tendency to not want to look stupid, to play along with and even try to impress the surveyor.

Before Christmas, I fielded a call from Ipsos Reid, the pollsters, and felt a little like Josh's hypothetical citizen: "Please, God, don't ask for my input." But they caught me in a good mood – a mood where I accidentally answered the phone without checking call display – plus I've previously relied on Ipsos Reid data for my jobs and figured it was payback time.

The survey centered around the RCMP and the Mulroney/Schreiber situation (non-Canadians, just insert "blah blah blah" here – it's not important to my little anecdote). Rate my confidence in the RCMP on a scale from 1 to 5? Are we talking those who discourage officers in remote outposts to bring backup, with tragic results? The Taser-happy officers? Or the bulk of the force? Do I think a public inquiry should be held into the Karlheinz Schreiber affair? Yes. Do I think he's brought forward these allegations only to stay in the country? Yes. There's no room to explain to the indifferent surveyor how those two opinions aren't really contradictory, but I wonder what use the data will be without an explanation, without knowing how little I actually care about Karlheinz Schreiber.

There's the real truth of most public surveys. Most people don't care about most things, but most of us have an opinion when pressed.

And that brings us back to TV, of course. The Writers Guild and the producers they're on strike against, the AMPTP, have both hired high-powered PR firms as the strike enters its "never gonna end" phase. The WGA touts the fact that surveys show the public supports their side, such as a recent Gallup poll shows 60% support. The AMPTP counters that with a survey that shows almost 2/3 don't have a side in the strike and that 74% of respondents haven't changed their viewing habits because of the strike (but ... we've only just started seeing the effects on our screens).

In my circle of acquaintances, other than those who write for TV, no one cares about the strike. They care when their favourite shows will return, but they barely care what the strike's about, never mind who should get what. This will make some people shudder, but a few friends have asked me to explain (hey, when I worked at the cancer society they'd come to me with questions about their loved one's diagnosis – at least with writers strike questions I can answer the basics). When they understand the residuals issue, they think the writers should get what they want. I steer clear of the rest of the issues because they are less easily digestible. I'm still chewing on them.

But they don't really care. And they shouldn't have to. The strike won't be resolved based on public opinion anyway, but with nuclear weapons in unstable Pakistan and genocide in Darfur and homeless people in downtown Vancouver, not to mention job-related difficulties in every family and circle of friends, demanding that a member of the public care whether American TV writers have secure futures is a bit much.

Though it was apparently deplorable for Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly to return to work without their writers, now that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno are joining them this is apparently a great opportunity to have them speak out against their corporate overlords on air, and bring the writers' position to the public. David Letterman and Craig Ferguson are also returning, but with a WGA agreement and with their writers.

I love Dave for old times' sake, and love Stewart and Colbert when I catch them in daytime reruns, though I'm not much for late night TV anymore. I'll watch the first couple of episodes to see what format the Daily Show and Colbert Report use without writers, and what Dave makes of his advantage. But they're going to have to walk a fine line. Hammer too much on the writers strike, they'll not only piss off their bosses, they'll bore their audience. Don't hammer on it enough, and they'll be temporary pariahs in a community that, to judge by Deadline Hollywood Daily comments, sees the world in black and white, supporter of everything the WGA says and does or paid AMPTP shill.

Here's hoping the returning late night hosts can make strike jokes about such a head-up-our-own-asses subject entertaining, without having their audience echo Josh Lyman's "I have utterly no idea what you're talking about" sentiment. I have faith, but that's based on the feeling they won't be the strident on-air advocates some WGA members are hoping for.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Playa del Carmen

After driving to work today, watching snow fight with rain for precipitation supremacy, I started idly Googling warm vacation destinations. One package that came up was Playa del Carmen, which is also coincidentally the topic of the one article from my time at the Mexican newspaper that was included in that Christmas binder of my emails. So in my continuing quest to put the absolute minimum effort into this blog lately (I have a couple of meaty efforts coming soon - stay tuned House fans), I figured I'd reprint it for posterity. Or at least to fill space. This was written in July 2002 (these destinations were part of my whirlwind farewell tour of the country), so take specifics with a grain of ... sand.

Seaside seduction
Playa del Carmen succeeds in trapping the willing tourist

I'd read the travel brochures: It's the kinder, gentler Cancun. A beachside paradise without the resort infestation, a haven for those seeking a more tranquil experience by the turquoise waters of Mexico's Caribbean coast.

I'm not convinced. Playa del Carmen is still a tourist trap disguised as a town, though for the tourist who wants to be trapped into tequila-drenched dancing by the beach, lazing on white sands, and access to snorkling, diving and Mayan ruins, Playa is perfect.

The first sign that this former fishing village is no untouched Shangri-la is the Avenida Quinta pedestrian corridor, where most of the souvenir stores, restaurants, dive shops, and tour agencies are located and where vendors cajole passers-by to purchase their overpriced wares.

Even at night, this is where the action is, along with the string of bars along the beach.

Options include people-watching along the avenue, a quiet cerveza under a palapa, or gyrating to a variety of tunes under the stars. The Blue Parrot Inn's Dragon Bar, with its bar-side swings and uninspired dance music, was named one of the world's top 10 bars in 1996 by Newsweek magazine. Things change in six years, but the Dragon is still one of the liveliest places around to strut your stuff.

When the sun rises, the beaches offer access to sunbathing, swimming, windsurfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. The shore is remarkably unmarred by highrise hotels, and relative tranquility can be found here.

Though far from cheap, Playa houses decent, affordable hotels which are a good base for exploring this area at the heart of the Mayan Riviera.

In reach of a day trip are the magnificent ruins at Chichen Itza, the manufactured entertainment at Xcaret, and underwater oases such as Xel-Ha, along with Tulum and Cozumel.

A 45-minute ferry ride carts tourists tourists to the island of Cozumel, where Spanish is rarely heard and exorbitant prices are generally listed in US dollars.

After the Spanish Conquest, Cozumel's population was decimated by smallpox and remained largely uninhabited until becoming a refuge for pirates in the late 17th century. Today, it is home to more than 75,000 people. It is also a destination for hordes of tourists bound for the beauties of the Palancar coral reef, made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s.

Taxis, bikes or mopeds can take divers, snorkelers, and sun worshippers from the town of San Miguel de Cozumel, where the ferry docks, to the beaches at Playa La Ceib, Chankanaab National Park, or, a little further south, Playa Francisco and Playa Palanca.

Another easy hour-long journey from Playa del Carmen is the archaeological site of Tulum, spectacular not for the crumbling buildings, which betray the Toltec influence on a declining Mayan civilization, but for their setting on the cliffs above the sea. While you can't climb the temples and pyramids, you can stand on the rocks above for a breathtaking view of the tiny beach nestled between ancient ruins.

For a more private experience, but without the mystique of swimming next to a piece of Mayan heritage, are the beaches south of the ruins. Lined with cabanas where backpackers string their hammocks, giving it more of a hippy atmosphere, these shores are perfect for even a mid-day skinny dip for those so inclined. Boat rentals at the nearby dive shops can take slightly more clothed people out to the nearby reef, and snorkeling equipment can be rented.

Though Tulum's cabanas have their own charm and Cozumel's hotels can offer grand luxury, for those who want some pampering and a great location without the mammoth resorts, Playa del Carmen offers a world of Mayan heritage, beachside escapism, and underwater adventure in one pretty package.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Feliz Navidad

Merry belated Christmas! I got many thoughtful gifts this year, including a binder full of the emails I'd sent during my two years in Mexico City. So for a quick Christmas post, here's excerpts of Christmas in Mexico:

Christmas 2000

We were invited to a family's home for Christmas Eve, when Mexicans celebrate. It was a friend of ours, her mother and brother, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandmother. We had dinner at midnight and it was delicious, and very different from the ubiquitous turkey in Canada. There was pumpkin soup, a spicy fish dish, pork, chicken mole, beef, shrimp dumplings, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, apple salad, and probably many other dishes I'm forgetting. I couldn't possibly have tried them all and not exploded, but I tried my best. ...

Christmas Day it seems everyone packs into the Alameda, a central park close to where we live. We went there to get our picture taken with the Three Kings (they take over the same venue where Santa used to be) and it's a hilarious photo. [I can't find it at the moment, but it was my friend and I sitting with Los Reyes Magos in one of those Santa setups, and bizarre items like stuffed Teletubbies in the background]. It put us in a good, Christmasy mood. Then we had a turkey dinner at a restaurant and went to some non-Mexican friends' house to socialize (translation: drink, eat, and play Risk, believe it or not.)

Christmas 2001

Feliz Navidad! Prospero Año Nuevo! A bit late, but my seasonal organization went out the window. I had every intention of sending actual Christmas cards but was foiled by the fact that few stores sell boxes of cards here. I wanted to get these great ones with Mexican Christmas artwork, and the proceeds go to a charity, but they are only sold at the charity's office which was open only while I was at work. Then I thought of sending email Christmas cards but had a busy week before taking a week off work (I usually email from work). Then I thought of sending just an email to everyone and didn't get a chance to do even that since my mom was here for Christmas and I didn't do a lot of emailing. So do intentions count? It's New Years Day now and I'm (sniff, sob) at work. But I just had a week off -- the longest holiday so far since I've been here. So now I can say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and may your new year's resolution be to write Diane more.

This was my second Mexican Christmas but my least Mexican of the two. Last year I celebrated with a Mexican family, but this year my mom became a rent-a-mom for all my coworkers who were still in town and assorted Mexican friends who celebrated Christmas Eve with their families and were looking for an excuse to get out of the house. It was a good time and everyone was so grateful to have a mom-cooked meal.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

The day the free TV preview died

Dexter is dead. Big Love has been ripped from my arms.

For a brief, shining moment -- 3 months worth of moments, apparently -- I had been receiving every TV station known to man in a free preview courtesy Shaw Cable. Well, actually courtesy me splurging on a Shaw PVR and them wanting to hook me and then upsell me on a more expensive cable package.

For three months, I was getting the movie channels, Eastern time zone Canadian channels, and a whole lot of channels I quickly flipped through even when they didn't only broadcast the ominous black screen of "Subscription service - For ordering information, press info." Tonight they're gone, and I had to decide if I was hooked enough to be upsold.

I'd started watching Dexter on DVD over the summer, but hadn't finished the first season when I started catching second season episodes on my free preview channels. Jumping ahead like that kind of ruined the end of last season for me, but whatever, I'd already deduced who the Ice Truck Killer was and am still eager to see how it plays out. I caught a few episodes of Big Love and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, enough so that I intend to rent the DVDs ... some day, when I've caught up with The Wire DVDs I finally bought because it was too excruciating waiting for each individual DVD to be returned to the video store.

What appealed to me particularly about the free preview channels was that they aired movies I've seen a million times and love to watch bits of as comfort food, or movies I kinda thought I'd like and could now tell if I wanted to invest the time when I had the time, or these cable shows I could drift in and out of, knowing I'd want just a taste to decide if I wanted to get the DVDs so I could watch them at my own pace.

So when I came home from a shorter-than-average workday today, still burned out from the way-longer-than-average workweeks lately, with my salmon lasagna (homemade - in someone else's home) and my TV, Eh updating to do and emails to return, I was disappointed to turn to Dexter for background viewing and find he wasn't there. That's when I wondered, do I order the channel, knowing that there's at least two series I want to see, and little else on for the foreseeable future thanks to a writers strike?

I knew what they were doing, I was wary of it, I was prepared for it, and yet they did it - they hooked me on my free preview channels. It had become a habit, to turn to the movie channels and see what cable shows I'd been missing out on.

And that's when I realized: my PVR is 63% full of shows I haven't watched yet. And if I didn't think I wanted the pay channels in a good year, why would I want them in a strike year?

I know, I know, people are looking for shows that are new to them to fill in the strike gaps, but I've never had that kind of relationship with TV. Though I prefer to have one, and have never gotten rid of it on principal, just circumstance, I have happily lived without a television set. I start each fall wanting to catch any pilots that sound good to me in case I miss out on the next House, but I don't have a quota to fill. I'm happy when I have one or two must-watch shows in a year, but with much more than that, we're talking about wallpaper viewing, so they can't be too demanding on my time or attention.

Lately, I have only been watching wallpaper TV, things I can half watch while doing other things. The writers strike doesn't have me wondering how I can fill my time; it has me deciding to look at no more House or Pushing Daisies as a gift of time.

Lee-Anne Goodman of the Canadian Press, one of the few reporters to integrate Canadian television into her TV coverage as if it's not living in a ghetto, has an article about the strike today. It raises the question of whether the prolonged absence of scripted television will drive viewers to the Internet, fragmenting the audience permanently. The article is interesting in many ways, but one is that I think some of her interviewees are answering the wrong question.

I don't think people will turn to the Internet to look for the next Lost. I think people will look to the Internet for the kind of content the Internet does best, like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace and whatever the next big thing will be. I think people will continue to watch TV, but they will watch the filler reality shows and find they are not all cut from the same cloth and appeal to a wider range of demographics than those of us who scoff at them will admit. I think people will turn to cable shows and DVDs of shows they haven't yet seen, and some of that will supplant their network viewing.

People are not going to abandon television in droves because of the writers strike. If it goes on too long, their television watching habits will change, and some of that change will be damaging to the traditional television industry. But TV isn't going anywhere, not even when it becomes a screen in your living room indistinguishable from the screen that pumps YouTube and Facebook and MySpace into your living room.

To painfully tie my threads together, the strike is kind of like a free preview of our future entertainment. When it's over, some will choose to continue with more channels and more choice. Some will find the reality strike fare is their new comfort food. Some will discover they prefer the pace of watching TV on DVD or downloads. Some will continue to sit down on the couch after work with their laptop or PlayStation instead of their remote.

Because what few will do while they're waiting for television to return to normal is to just wait. And once you get a new habit, it's hard to break it.

So once I've cleared off the PVR, and finished The Wire, you bet I'm renting Dexter and Big Love. But my moment of temptation is over - farewell, free preview channels.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

DVD Review: The Namesake

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare thought so. Gogol Ganguli might disagree.
Gogol: So I'm two inches away from her. Her luscious lips part. Just as I'm about to kiss her, she looks at me and she says, "What's your name?"
Friend: Gogol Ganguli.
Gogol: End of seduction 101.

In director Mira Nair's film The Namesake, an adaptation of the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, Gogol struggles to reconcile his American upbringing with his Indian heritage, as well as a name that represents neither and both at the same time.

Kal Penn, currently seen as one of the new fellows on House and best known as the stoner on a quest in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, takes a serious turn in The Namesake while demonstrating the same considerable charm.

Though it's his character referenced in the title of The Namesake, for the first part of the film Gogol is nothing more than the name of his father Ashoke's favourite author, Russian oddball Nikolai Gogol. The movie's core is really the love story between Ashoke (Irfann Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), whose quiet devotion acts later as a counterpoint to their American son's more expressive romances.

Our first glimpse of Ashoke has him reading the collected stories of Gogol just as the train he's riding in derails. Ashima we meet as a young woman trying on the newly recovered Ashoke's shoes just before the meeting that will lead to her marrying and accompanying this unknown man to New York.

As they get to know each other, their love becomes obvious but unspoken, and we follow them through a span of about 25 years and two children. The Bengali family lives their lives in two countries and two cultures, returning often to the warmth and colour of Calcutta, and lamenting what they've lost in their new life as much as they appreciate what they've gained.

One of the most obvious losses is the gap between their more traditional ideals and their Americanized children's, particularly when Gogol distances himself from his family to the point of rejecting the name that represents the life his father might never have had, after that train wreck. ("We all came out of Gogol's Overcoat," Ashoke quotes.)

His parents had given him the name Gogol as a baby while waiting for inspiration for his proper name, Nikhil. While a five-year-old Gogol decides to keep that nickname, a teenaged Gogol regrets it. So adult Gogol becomes Nick, and Nick becomes a stylish, successful young man becoming part of his rich white girlfriend's parents before ever introducing her to his own.

He doesn't so much want to turn his back on his family or heritage as to be recognized as someone other than simply the product of them. But small, telling moments show that he is not always wholly accepted as a product of the country he was born in, either, and because of that he is in fact a part of both and neither at the same time.

One of the movie's biggest weaknesses is that it feels very much like an adaptation of a book. The story has an episodic feel to it, with some of those episodes getting short shrift. Particularly underdeveloped is Gogol's later relationship with a sexy Bengali woman, Moushumi (Mo), who first appears to be more his match, and who has chosen a third culture, French, to embrace. It's an interesting but largely unexplored theme, the identity that is created from coming from one place, living in another, and embracing the otherness of a third.

But Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair) is a filmmaker with a lush visual style, and The Namesake is full of scenes beautiful both for their artistry and for their affecting character moments. A scene of a mature Gogol trying on his father's shoes echoes the earlier scene of a young Ashima, and airports become magical or heartbreaking gateways between two worlds. She makes us care about these characters even when their stories aren't explored as much as they could be.

The DVD extras include a commentary with Nair, a few deleted scenes that give a bit more time to Mo, and a brief segment called "In Character with Kal Penn," in which the actor is too erudite to be mistaken for Kumar as he insists that Gogol is comfortable with his identity but not the assumptions others make about it. (In a nice touch, given the themes of the movie, Penn is credited twice for The Namesake, under Kal Penn as Gogol, and under his birth name, Kalpen Modi, as Nikhil.)

In addition, "Anatomy of The Namesake" is a well-titled half-hour documentary dissecting the filmmaking process for a class at Columbia University. Director and producer Mira Nair is joined by others on her team to talk about everything from the vision of the film to financing to post-production. The detail is mind-numbing to a casual film fan like me who's interested in behind the scenes machinations but can't be bothered to understand exactly what a bond company is. Despite that, this is the kind of niche extra I think DVDs should do more often, in this case offering budding filmmakers a mini lesson.

The Namesake isn't as tightly woven or ultimately satisfying a story as I'd have liked, but the warm, funny, touching film uses a specific immigrant experience to illuminate universal themes of family, identity, and loss, which made following its meandering path through the lives of these characters rewarding.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Other Side of the Bridge

I suspect saying a book is beautifully structured comes across like saying "she has a nice personality" about a blind date. But in Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge, a book I picked up without knowing anything about it, the beautiful structure propels the finely written narrative to a climax I couldn't wait to reach, except that it meant reaching the final pages. In other words, this book was my best blind date ever.

The prologue, a scene of a childhood game between brothers, perfectly illustrates the relationship of silent, responsible Arthur -- the one his mother depends on -- and his charismatic, reckless little brother Jake -- the one his mother loves. It's a relationship that's irrevocably changed by an incident on the titular bridge, complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Laura, and that comes to a head in the charged climax, decades later.

The book spans Arthur's depression-era childhood on a farm in remote northern Ontario, through the devastation of World War II as seen from the home front, and into the 1960's life of young Ian, who begins to work on Arthur's farm as part of his attempt to escape from the expectation that he will become the next Dr. Christopherson.

The novel's moody atmosphere is punctuated with humour, and Lawson brings alive the tiny (and fictional) town of Struan and its inhabitants through fabulous details of the doctor's practice and life on the farm, for example.

By flicking back and forth through time, The Other Side of the Bridge sets up a sense of the stories colliding, but not of the how, until Lawson chooses late in the novel to reveal key scenes. We have information early on, like the fact that Laura becomes Arthur's wife, or that Ian has a crush on his boss's wife, that we don't quite know what to do with until the story unfolds. That structure adds tension to the quiet world of Arthur Dunn and his young employee, both fighting against their seemingly inevitable fates.

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Other Side of the Bridge is a tender yet catastrophic story of family expectation, responsibility, and rivalry, with exquisite imagery and detail. I haven't yet read Crow Lake, Lawson's first novel, but The Other Side of the Bridge has ensured that I'll be picking that one up, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Remember, avoid death

Quite a while ago, my brother posted a hilarious couple of photos of products with silly warnings, like the peanut butter jar labelled "Caution - Allergy Warning - Contains peanuts." Today, I saw this article about the contest winner of the 11th annual "Wacky Warning Label Contest," sponsored by Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch. Here's the winning photo from a small tractor:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

House on strike

Looks like this was shot during week 2 of the now 6-week old strike. Features David Shore, Paul Haggis, and at about 3:10, Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein:

Monday, December 10, 2007

North Dakota: The 11th province?

There's a lot about this story I don't understand -- copyright intricacies make my eyes glaze over -- but I'm tickled that a small city in North Dakota is fighting to get Canadian television and vowing not to rest until they manage it.

Meanwhile, as the US writers strike looks further from a resolution than ever (my laugh of the day came from the funny-because-its-true-ly titled post Strike Watch: Dear God, This Thing Is Going to Last Forever Edition), Canadians might finally be eager to watch Canadian television themselves.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Intelligence's Steppin' Razor

Monday's the two-hour season (series?) finale of Intelligence, and in honour, the Haddock gang have done a smokin' remake of Steppin’ Razor and created a video recap of the show:

Friday, December 07, 2007

Speech isn't all it's cracked up to be

It's sad that the official Writers Guild of America strike videos -- the neverending, one-note, generally missing-the-issues Speechless series -- have so much less impact that the YouTube videos thrown together by random individuals and groups of writers. The Speechless series has stars (and "stars") proving that actors have nothing to say without writers, and proving that the WGA thinks we'll watch anything just because it has a celebrity in it.

So The Late Show writers have their own rebuttal:

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Back to the future

From Pop Candy again ... confirms this is an actual video from 1967 predicting what the future will be like in 1999. It "did a fairly good job of anticipating some ways (if not the specific forms) in which technology might be used in daily life more than three decades into the future," as the urban legends site puts it. How it gets things wrong is interesting, too -- the wife controls a camera in a store to remotely make purchases from a screen in her home, and her husband (Wink Martindale) pays the scan of a bill from his console.

Makes you wonder what the next 30 years will bring.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Once, once again

Nic Harcourt, music director of KCRW and host of the best-named music show ever, Morning Becomes Eclectic, as well as music supervisor of the short-lived but much-loved Love Monkey, released his top ten albums of 2007 (wait, is the year over already? What the hell happened to November?!)

One is Radiohead's experiment in online distribution, In Rainbows (which looks like it will no longer be available for a pay-what-you-like download after Dec. 10). I'll have to check out some of the other top nine I've never heard of, but #9 is Once, which I raved about earlier. Well, I raved about the movie, but I meant the album too. Check out a clip below, or see Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sing Into the Mystic during their recent visit to Harcourt's show.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Happiness Sold Separately

People magazine is on crack.

That's probably not a newsflash, but the specific motivation for my accusation is the blurb on the front cover of one of the books I bought when I finally gave up on my non-serendipitous mistaken purchase.

"A touching, comic tale." - People.

I know, I know, never trust a blurb. Who knows what the full review said. But in Lolly Winston's Happiness Sold Separately, that word "comic" seems very out of place.

There are some funny lines, sure. I occasionally, accidentally make people laugh, too, but you couldn't call me a comic. The book's about "infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid." HA! Nothing funnier than those subjects.

OK, I kinda liked that sitcom about a Nazi POW camp, but still.

That aside, Happiness Not Included is an interesting and authentic take on infidelity, infertility, a failing marriage, and a troubled kid, from the point of view of wife, husband, lover, even housekeeper. It hit the spot for me, a light read with real emotion and depth, flawed but sympathetic characters, and insight into the messiness of love. And, yes, wry humour. But I swear you'll be more often closer to tears than laughter.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Oh, Canada. Do the right thing.

It's been a rough time lately for police PR in Canada. Now would be a great time to celebrate those who put their lives on the line for us, and honour one who died heroically in the line of duty.

"That's right, valour doesn't count after two years."

Read more here. And here.

For friends of the blog Jim and mef.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Embarrassing confession

I had a boss once who was bad at remembering people's names, but astonishing in his recall of the pattern of consonants and vowels in those names. He'd say, "it's Joe something, consonant consonant vowel consonant" and sure enough, it would be a Joe Blow. That's a lazy example so I don't have to write out "consonant" and "vowel" too many times, but he'd do it with long names, too. I found it amusing and, as always with the way memory works, intriguing.

I have my own version of that, but it's less Stupid Human Tricks and more Stupid Human. Echoing that consonant vowel memory but without its usefulness, I tend to mix up names like Harper and Martin. In fact, exactly like Harper and Martin. This is a problem, non-Canadian readers, because Harper and Martin are the last names of our last two prime ministers, who are not at all similar. When it seems like you can't remember who runs your country, it can be a bit of a credibility issue.

Recently, I had an even less explainable lapse. My local grocery store had a bin of discounted paperbacks by the register, and I impulse bought one by an author I admire, celebrating at my luck in getting such a bargain on a new read by the man who wrote Saturday and Atonement, Ian Whatshisface.

The book's been sitting on my shelf for weeks waiting for its turn in my reading lineup, and when I finally picked it up a few days ago, something didn't seem right. The jacket cover looked a little less literary than I'd have expected. Reading beyond the author's name and the title brought the sad news that this was number 13 in a series. The Inspector Rebus series. Uh oh.

I'd bought a book by Ian Rankin instead of Ian McEwan. There are consonants and vowels in the wrong place all over those names. I'm sure Rankin is good at what he does, and he probably sells far more books than McEwan, but I'm not a crime or mystery fan at all, never mind the fact that I've missed out on the first 12 of Inspector Rebus's adventures. You can tell, too, from reading Resurrection Men that there are constant references to already covered ground, which makes it an infuriating and boring read for someone coming in at #13.

Yes, that means I'm reading it anyway. I don't have anything more compelling in line at the moment, and I'm always looking for new authors to try out, and I thought maybe this would end up being a serendipitous memory failure. It wasn't. The book has my attention just enough to beat out the Cagney and Lacey book I should but probably never will review, but not enough of my attention that it will outlast my next book shopping trip, which I'm now motivated to schedule soon. Armed with a detailed shopping list.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Why Strikes Are Weird

My last post on the strike was supposed to be just a collection of strike-related links I'd found interesting lately, but that obviously got away from me.

Deadline Hollywood Daily
has started exclusively posting the misguided WGA Speechless campaign, with actors doing nothing for the camera or insulting Indian call centre employees. Blog author Nikki Finke added the disclaimer to this series: "In the interest of fairness and objectivity, I would be pleased to also debut a similar campaign conceived by members of AMPTP. But, as a journalist with a journalism outlet, I couldn't pass up any opportunity to have an exclusive."

Yeah, OK. Nothing wrong with being so obviously in the writers' camp when she's in blogger mode and not LA Weekly column mode, and I enjoy her strike updates, but let's not pretend Finke's blog has ever been unbiased, or even generally considered accurate -- she's the classic post first, correct later blogger. It's a common enough choice in breaking news blogs, and not one I admire, but I admire it more if the blogger owns their choices and their bias.

Anyway, it pisses me off that any time a commenter there makes a claim like "the WGA delayed coming to the table in the first place" or "this strike was poorly timed" or "maybe it's a better world when David Schwimmer is silenced," they get flamed. No negative word about the WGA or the strike is tolerated by the commenters. Which all helped sidetrack my last strike post into losing the inspiration for it in the first place. is the blog of blogging pioneer, author, TV writer, pop culture princess and Wonder Killer (whatever that means) Pamela Ribon. I reviewed her second book, Why Moms Are Weird, a while ago, and felt guilty because I didn't love it, much preferring her first novel, Why Girls Are Weird, which I've never reviewed. She's a former TWoP recapper -- before my time there, plus I only ever dipped into the House forums and fled the recaps fairly quickly -- who's now a writer on Samantha Who?, one of the bright spots on the comedy and new series landscape. She linked to her friend Daniel J. Blau's article about the America's Next Top Model strike, a strike she marched in. She's also a strike captain with the WGA.

Recently, she answered some questions about the strike and how that could affect her show, answers that are enlightening and even a little poignant. The writers have walked away from episodes they've written and would normally see through until the final cut. Showrunners have, in Ribon's words, "stopped making sure that the product that will go on the air is reflective of exactly what they do so well." Her first episode aired last week, but she hadn't seen or been involved with the final cut, since they were working on it when the strike was called. "I trust the people inside, but it's very strange to be completely detached from the project, and have nothing to do with the ultimate finished product, when it's going to say 'written by' and my name up there tomorrow," she says.

She explains the lack of control, the uncertain product viewers will soon be seeing on their screens, and how the strike could affect the show's survival in her post. Here's an excerpt:
We just turned in the script for episode twelve when "pencils down" was called. Which means they shot episode twelve without us. So there are six episodes "in the can," but we aren't there to complete the product. No editing. No rewriting. No fixing segues or looping dialogue. No input on which take worked the best when we were on the set. No changing music cues or finding music that works great with a scene. No reshoots. Nothing. Six episodes that will have six writers' names on them that we had to walk away from. ...

We don't know how the next six are going to go in the ratings, and we have less control over what those episodes will look like, so it's like being on a rollercoaster. What if the show loses fans because the episodes don't feel like they used to? Or we lose fans because of the strike? Or if the strike goes for a long, long time, will they want us back next season? At a certain point, we aren't going to be able to make up those ten episodes we haven't created yet. Which means right now, every person who walked out of our show or was laid off from our show is losing money. Every week. Every day. And they say you don't make back the money you lose in a strike.
There's much more to her post, which is worth a read for the peek into the strike from the eyes of someone other than a millionaire showrunner, someone who is undeniably committed to the cause but is cognizant of what's being sacrificing for it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Singing Daisies

James Poniewozik of Time's Tuned In blog points out that with all the hype over Viva Laughlin's abject failure to popularize the TV musical, Pushing Daisies has quietly done it.

This week had Ellen Greene singing a weird and wonderful version of Morning Has Broken (the widescreen video is sadly distorted to fit 4:3 - that's not part of the show's distinctive look):

Previously, Kristin Chenoweth and Greene sang They Might Be Giants' Birdhouse in Your Soul:

And my personal favourite, early on, Chenoweth belted out a hilarious and heartbreaking version of Hopelessly Devoted to You:

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I say it with love. And some eye rolling.

You're not supposed to point out the flaws in the side you support in a strike. You're supposed to support the notion that all issues are black and white, and your team wears the right colour hat. In fact, thinking for yourself is frowned on in any contentious situation like war or the "war" of a labour negotiation. But while I support the writers in their regular jobs and in their current strike, I'm not a big fan of their guild.

Hindsight is wonderful, but the WGA's not-stellar skills were on display in the failed 2006 strike, where they used the America's Next Top Model writers (or "writers") to test the waters of organizing reality shows, and then walked away, leaving the writers (or "writers") without jobs.

Daniel J. Blau, an ex-ANTM story editor, recently wrote an account of the WGA's feeble Plan A, and no Plan B, for the LA Times. He points out that their failure in 2006 is resulting in their weak position right now:
Had the WGA fulfilled [then-director of organizing, now executive director David] Young's initial promise to procure guild status for all writers working on reality, animation and nonfiction shows, the networks would shortly have nothing new on the air at all. As it stands, the WGA has pushed its members to walk out on their own jobs, and it has left the networks with powerful leverage -- the ability to keep making new TV content.
Should the WGA incorporate reality writers? (I'll stop with the "writers" – I might not be completely comfortable with that term for what they do, but they do craft the stories.) I don't know. I don't care. I only know they tried, badly, and failed, badly, and therefore missed out on the biggest strategic advantage they could have had in their current and future negotiations.

Blau's article reminded me of two posts I wrote a couple of years ago. In the year or so before the failed strike, the WGA ramped up to it by waging an odd campaign to discredit reality shows. (Wait, did they ever have credit?). They marched against product placement in reality shows at the same time as they had a Reality Organizing Committee with a mandate to expand their membership into the reality show ranks.

They created an Internet campaign, including the Subservient Donald viral site that amounted to nothing more than a sneeze, and a fun but pointless website called Product Invasion, both of which have since been as abandoned as the ANTM story department. The explicit point of that 2005 campaign was to protest product placement in reality shows, which were not and are not under the WGA purview. The hidden point was, of course, something entirely different: setting the stage to organize reality show writers.

A commenter to one of those Blogcritics posts on the subject makes that point explicit, and I have reason to believe it was made by a WGA member:
You're missing the point of Product Invasion. The producers of reality shows do not recognize the Writers Guild of America. Therefore, the reality writers are unprotected, working 100 hours a week, while the producers are making boatloads of money by (a) not paying union wages and (b) not paying for actors and (c) placing commercials within the episodes of their shows. The Product Invasion campaign is meant to embarrass the advertisers into forcing the producers to sit down and negotiate.
My response:
I understand the point - that's what the Variety link expands on. But the Product Invasion site is an indirect, dishonest way of making that point. It's couching the issue in a way that makes it seem like they are protecting the creative integrity of their shows on behalf of the audience. I fully support the writers getting fair union wages, and a bigger piece of the pie. I object to a campaign that pretends to be about one thing when it's really about another. If they succeed in their negotiations and get a fair deal, will they continue to wage war against product placement? If so, then you and I are both missing the point. If not, then the Product Invasion message is hypocritical - unlike what the text of the site says, the issue all about money, not the undue influence of advertising, or the type of advertising.
I could have been briefer (I could always be briefer). If I were to reply now, two years later, I might just say: The WGA's point was to organize reality show writers, and if they had succeeded, they would have happily, hypocritically taken the product placement money. Why should I care, then?

The producers' side of the current strike gives no one any reason for optimism. But looking back on that failed 2005/6 campaign (which, by the way, occurred under the leadership of the current president of the WGA), I find it hard to be optimistic about the WGA either. They might be wearing the white hats in this strike, but they also might be taking a few too many photo ops in them.

There's too much at stake for this strike to be a flashy PR campaign. So as negotiations continue after the weekend, it can't hurt to remind both sides that what happens in that room is what's important, not posturing and pencils.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans. I'm thankful Canadians get turkey dinner a month early. But a high percentage of my coworkers are American, and a crazy friend of mine wants us to go cross-border shopping this weekend, the busiest shopping days of the year, so it's on my mind. This is hardly a unique idea, but to celebrate, here's the classic bit from WKRP in Cincinnati:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Haiku for Them

I've written about Haiku for You a couple of times, and now I finally submitted my own anecdote for them to do their haiku magic on (how it works: you give them a couple of paragraphs of your story and they come up with a picture and poem). I always prefer the personal ones, like There can be no rest or Fear is a restraint so ... I didn't do that. It's about the writers strike. Because pencils are futile, but a haiku you can take to the bank.

You can see the whole story here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Rage behind the machine

It struck me the other day, stuck in traffic, watching some asshole purposely cut someone off who was driving too slowly, that urban driving is a lot like surfing the Internet.

Every time I encounter obnoxious online commenters, I wonder why the percentage of idiot jerks is so much higher on the Internet than real life. And it's plenty high enough in real life, as I notice every day during my commute. The answer's pretty simple, of course: anonymity brings out the worst in us. Or is it the truth in us? I'm certainly crankier online than with off-line people I don't know well, though my friends will tell you I can be plenty snippy in person.

Haiku for You recently received a haiku request to illustrate this very phenomenon. In part, the request read:
Some of the people who comment on these boards are friends of mine in real life and it is amazing how—safely cloaked by the impenetrable mask of the Internet—they assume arrogant, belligerent personalities they would never adopt in reality.

It is all such a charade, one undoubtedly perpetuated by web surfers across the country, all of whom are donning thinly veiled disguises so they can beat up on each other without remorse.
The haiku result:

A wise — not belligerent—commenter replied:
The question is which is the real charade—their real life persona or their online angry and judgmental persona? It’s a bit frightening to think about when you filter through the comments on most websites or worse, when you’re the one under attack for an article, a film or even just another comment of your own.
I'm inclined to agree with the commenter. I think a scary percentage of us have this seething rage bubbling just underneath the surface, ready to be unleashed at the slightest provocation. There's nothing like someone who writes something you disagree with on a website with an open comments policy, or who cut you off in traffic, to bring it out.

A couple of mild-mannered people I know have made off-hand comments about experiencing road rage every day. Not rage directed at them, mind you, but theirs directed towards others. I was baffled. But then I drove with people who would never yell or shove someone in person, people who hate confrontation face to face, but get them inside a giant chunk of steel and they'll obnoxiously honk, give the finger, tailgate, and generally be just as dangerous on the road as the jerks they're protesting.

Whether it's the anonymity afforded us by the Internet or a windshield, it's interesting to ponder what the true self is, the one acting brave behind the impenetrable machine, or the one abiding by the niceties of social conduct?


That was supposed to be the end of this post, until I read an e-newsletter from Social Signal with a link to this blog post, Five ways to shape the soul of the Internet, which offers a much more productive conclusion.

It's a little mushy for my tastes, but it was also inspiring. The basic message is Ghandian: Be the change you want to see on the Internet. Visit sites that reflect your values. Approach each online interaction as if we were encountering a good friend. Let down your guard (but not too much). Contribute. And make financial transactions based on your values.

There are lots of good points there – and writer Alexandra Samuel introduced me to the cool site Etsy, a place to buy and sell things handmade – but for me, the simplest and most important takeaway was to resist the urge to trade hostility for hostility, or to fight willful ignorance with smug superiority.

That could apply to driving, too, I suppose, if we were to take the lesson that we should treat fellow drivers as though they were friends and not adversaries, people to be extended consideration instead of hostility, whether they deserve it or not. Because we deserve it, and only we can create this shiny happy new roads, just like only those who value the community spirit of the Internet can create it.

As Samuel puts it:
The Internet is too powerful and too pervasive to be left as the province of people who don't need or value interpersonal connection. Every online encounter that dispenses with personal affection in favour of brusque efficiency or places self-protection ahead of empathy for others, pushes the Internet towards an online culture that is as pathological as our worst offline moments.

Pencils up, fans

My latest post to Blogcritics is all about my conflicted opinion about the Pencils2MediaMoguls campaign, where fans and writers are encouraging people to send pencils to the heads of the companies on the other side of the strike. It's yet another Send Crap Campaign but now tainted with self-interest, since the writers have begun spearheading it instead of fans. But it's a well-intentioned campaign started by viewers, anyway, bound to get publicity for the writers if it succeeds, just when negotiations are slated to resume. And it's clear this strike is a PR exercise more than a negotiation at this point.

So the Blogcritics post is my way of helping spread the word without wholeheartedly agreeing, and to put in a word for the Actors Fund again (hey, it's good enough for George Clooney...):
  • Pencils Down For Writers, Pencils Up For Fans
    "I've never been a fan of futile gestures. I've (all in good fun) ridiculed fandoms for proceeding with "send random crap to the network" campaigns immediately in the wake of Jericho's successful nut campaign, both for the lack of creativity and the lack of rationality in some cases – no amount of crackers were going to save The Black Donnellys. But I appreciate the desire to do something when our favourite shows are threatened with cancellation. Now, there's more at stake than my favourite show; all our favourite shows of the present and future are at stake." Read more.
The post was inspired by writer Doris Egan of House. So here's my challenge to House fans: let's all do something concrete and practical to show our support for the writers who have brought us so much joy and food for thought. I've donated to the Actors Fund and now to the pencil fund, despite my misgivings. Whatever you feel comfortable doing, whether it's donating to something, or phoning Peter Chernin or Kevin Reilly of Fox to (politely) express your displeasure with the network's stance on the strike (310-369-1000), let's all commit to do something to make our voices heard.

For Americans, I'd encourage at least that last option. For everyone, I'm still pulling for the Actors Fund. From Variety:
Joe Benincasa, exec director of the 125-year old Actors Fund, said that the payment process is quick, after claimants apply for relief and meet with social workers who evaluate their need and resources. Last year, the Fund distributed $2 million in its emergency program. That figure is likely to soar if a strike continues and workers are displaced.

"If you can't make your mortgage or buy food for your family, we can cut a check the same day or the next day," he said.
Still wonder what the fight's about? This is what the writers are up against:

Friday, November 16, 2007

Great news, good news, puzzling news

It's not an end. It's not even necessarily an end in sight. But it's the only way for the end to start. Tonight, the WGA and the AMPTP released a joint statement saying the striking writers and struck studios are going back to the bargaining table on Nov. 26. They say no other details will be revealed. Except on Deadline Hollywood Daily, I'm sure.

In other news today, NBC has picked up the until-now web-only series quarterlife from writer/producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So-Called Life, thirtysomething), presumably to fill a gap in their scripted schedule after Christmas -- ironic, since shows that go the other way, from television to Internet, are at the centre of the current WGA strike. I haven't seen it yet, and I've heard lukewarm things about it, but everyone's ready to pounce on the first major web-to-television transition so there will be a lot of eyeballs on this one, including mine.

The stranger news is that ABC has ordered a full-season, 22 episode pick up of Dirty Sexy Money, just when it was starting to appear as though a show's full season this year would consist of whatever scripts were completed before the strike. ABC is either sweetly optimistic or covering all options or ... you know, I can't even think of a nefarious alternative.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It's a world of laughter, a world of hope

My favourite thing about television is that when it's actually more a world of tears and fears, it can be so simple to get a dose of happiness piped into your living room absolutely free (cable fees and television/PVR amortization costs not included). Last night was a good example.

First up was House, which I've been enjoying immensely this season, and not just because I allowed myself the luxury of simply watching it. But last night's was probably my favourite of the season so far, with line after funny line, themes from past episodes twisted and turned, and shadows of House's tortured self. It was written by a new addition to the House writing staff, Sean Whitesell, but he seems to be fitting right in (assuming he wasn't drastically rewritten before his episode went to air).

He's previously written for shows I didn't watch, like The Black Donnellys, Cold Case, and Push, Nevada, but, unusual for a writer, his face might be more recognizable than his name: He's also an actor. A friend recently made me watch some of Oz, and while it appeared to be a great show, I couldn't continue when left to my own devices -- too many disturbing people and scenes, including this freaky guy named Donald Groves. Played by Sean Whitesell.

Next, before I collapsed into bed wondering how it already felt like such a long work week on the Tuesday after a Monday holiday, was Pushing Daisies (which thanks to CTV we get a day earlier than on ABC). This show in general just makes me happy. It's so sweet and charming and nice. It's not every show that can get away with comparing women to dogs, in an episode called "Bitches."

Emerson Cod (House alumni Chi McBride) is quickly growing into a scene stealer, with his "He don' wanna sit"s and "Why do I always have to be around for this stuff?"s. Chuck and Olive becoming friendly is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. But at its core it's about the sweetest sweethearts who ever baked sweets: Ned and Chuck. Their peculiar romance thrives despite -- or is it because of? -- the fact that they can't touch, and last night's episode ended with a giant "awwwww" from me.

The writers' names looked familiar (Dara Resnick Creasey and Chad Gomez Creasey), and their credits revealed that they were on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which I watched faithfully to the end, even as I wondered "what the hell happened." But something else was nagging at me. Then it twigged: he was an assistant for John August, the screenwriter I've been linking to for his clear insight into the writers strike, and August mentioned him and their writing success on his blog.

So yes, it's a small world, and the Internet makes it a lot smaller (thanks IMDB).

(The sneak peek of this week's Pushing Daisies episode)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Wire soundtrack

My search for the music of The Wire is over: the show, entering its fifth and final season in January (for those lucky Americans with HBO -- I'm still waiting for the season four DVD release) is getting its first soundtrack release by nonesuch records:

The Wire: " ... and all the pieces matter" will include several versions of the show’s opening theme song -- Tom Waits’s "Way Down in the Hole" -- as performed by The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, and DoMaJe, a group of Baltimore teenagers. To listen to DoMaJe's take on the song, click here.

The disc will also feature a number of tracks from the Baltimore club and hip-hop scene that have never appeared on a major label release, including Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away,” Tyree Colion’s “Projects,” Diablo’s “Jail Flick,” Mullyman’s “The Life, the Hood, the Streetz,” and “What You Know About Baltimore?” by Ogun featuring Phathead.

Other songs include “Oh My God” by Michael Franti, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” by Paul Weller, “The Body of an American” by The Pogues, “I Feel Alright” by Steve Earle (who also has an acting role on the series), Solomon Burke’s “Fast Train,” and the show’s closing theme, “The Fall,” composed by The Wire music supervisor Blake Leyh.

Some of the most memorable dialog from the program’s five years will also be included on the record. The CD booklet will feature essays by the author and series writer George Pelecanos and the noted hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang.

Times have changed

24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot
"Jack Bauer saves the world with AOL 3.0."

(h/t to Mark Medley of The Ampersand)

Lost irony

A brief post to Blogcritics ... haven't posted there in a month, and suddenly I'm all over the place. Anyway, the day after Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof pens an op-ed about how he's prepared to lose more in salary during a strike than he can ever hope to recoup in the online residuals they're fighting for, ABC puts Lost webisodes online.
  • The irony's not Lost on anyone
    "It's not as bad as it sounds: it can get lost in the strike rhetoric, but writers and performers can and have been paid for original online content, and it sounds like the Lost writers were for these." Read more.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blogcritics book reviews: Rick Mercer and, um, more

Nothing better than a long weekend to catch up on writing my Blogcritics book reviews:
While I could have just not linked to this next one, instead I'll bury it a little (it was published earlier). It's quite possibly the worst thing I've ever written -- a "review" of a book that was so far over my head, I couldn't read it:

Everybody lies, even atheists

I'm not going to stop writing about TV for Blogcritics because of the strike – the only payment I get is the pleasure of writing, and giving that up is too much of a sacrifice to show my solidarity – but in honour of the WGAers, I've peppered this post with as many of the writers' names as possible. Heh. It's a long-winded examination of how religion is treated in the series:
I should add that Barbara Barnett and CindyC have begun writing weekly House episode reviews for Blogcritics this season, so the show is well-served on that site despite my abdication. Check 'em out, House fans.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Writers on the strike

She uses the war metaphor I'm so tired of, and on Remembrance Day, but the rest of her post is so eloquent that I'll forgive her that, mostly (but come on, they're demanding fair compensation for their creative work - can't they get a little more creative with their rhetoric?). But anyway, House writer Doris Egan weighs in with passion on the WGA strike:
Edited to add: Screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's Angels) remains the most clear-headed explanatory voice I've heard from the writers side, one of the few who seems to have rejected the Kool-Aid and makes me forget why I sometimes have to remind myself I'm on their side:

Remembrance of things past ... and present

It's a peculiar thing, but part of the reason I value books and TV and movies and the people who create them so much is that I'm often affected far more by a fictional account than reality. Reality is so ... messy. All that extraneous information and digressions and chaos and distance. Fiction puts a story in a powerful box and gives weight to the important ideas contained within.

I feel as though I know far more about the Holocaust from reading Elie Wiesel than from taking history in school. I was certainly more profoundly affected by his tales than the facts I learned. World War I is alive in my mind partly thanks the post-Green Gables Anne books and that "Green Fields of France" song that makes me choke up every time I hear the final verse, when you realize the narrator resting at the fallen WWI soldier's graveside has a more recent perspective:
And I can't help but wonder, oh Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing and dying, it was all done in vain.
Oh Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
When I was a schoolgirl, we were taught to honour Remembrance Day every 11th day of the 11th month with a minute of silence at 11 am -- though since it was a holiday, the honour would actually take place over the intercom a day early or late, and the day itself was usually passed by sleeping in and enjoying the free day off.

My grandfather had exciting tales of adventure and camaraderie from his time at war, and proudly displayed a letter of gratitude from a town in the Netherlands that his Canadian regiment had helped liberate. He didn't share any tales of horror with his young granddaughter, and I hadn't yet heard the stories of how shell-shocked he was on his return. Like most children, I was idealistic. I knew war was a horrible thing, and adults were stupid for letting it happen, but the horrors of war weren't real to me.

We wondered, my classmates and I, what would happen to our holiday when all the veterans of WWII and the Korean War had died off, as we watched impossibly old men march in parades and stand at cenotaphs. It never occurred to us that Canada could be involved in war again.

It's different today, of course. Our young men aren't being drafted. We haven't declared war. But over 70 Canadian soldiers, men and women, have died in Afghanistan, many more have been wounded, and even more are in harm's way, not necessarily with the best equipment we can offer.

I'm more of a defeatist than an idealist, now. I still think war is horrible, and we're stupid for letting it happen, but I've lost that child-like certainty that it's always avoidable. The reality is messy, though. Our reasons for being in Afghanistan and our effectiveness there are not necessarily clear-cut, and my instinct is to think that we shouldn't be there.

But another fictional account has made the background at least clearer to me, if not clear-cut. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, recently released his follow-up, called A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's not about the war, exactly. It's the story of two generations of women and how their lives intertwine over the backdrop of war after war in their beloved country. It's an absorbing story of hope and hope dashed, and while the end point of the story of course cannot encompass the end of the current war, it offers a heart-wrenching perspective on what we're fighting for ... even if it's not quite what the politicians are fighting for.

It's no credit to me that it took reading a book to bring those issues to life, and it hasn't turned me into a pro-war advocate -- it's not a pro-war book by any means -- but it's given me a taste of renewed idealism and the perspective of the people we're theoretically fighting for.

What can we do?

I can live without TV. A strike-related gap in this season doesn't make me too sad. It's the human element of the current WGA strike that makes me sad: people standing up for their right to make a fair percentage of profits, knowing that in so doing, they're quite possibly contributing to the industry's reduced profitability as viewers -- and more importantly, advertisers -- drift away.

I earlier quoted WGA-supporting James Poniewozik of Time's Tuned In blog saying that the writers and producers were dragging each other over a cliff. Now that seems truer than ever, as Fox is positively salivating at a post-Christmas lineup that includes the non-WGA American Idol and does not include much scripted competition.

Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post writes:

Citing the strike, Fox, like other studios, axed many of its overhead deals with producers. [Fox CEO Peter] Chernin said the network would save more money on those axed deals and "story costs" and by not making pilots "than we lose in potential advertising."

Of course, the money saved by not making pilots for next season would be somewhat offset by the problems inherent to having, um, not made pilots for next season.

I suspect Chernin is not overlooking that point, and is preparing a development slate of reality-heavy shows for next season. That was the legacy of the last strike: more cheap, strike-proof shows.

But the most poignant part of the strike has nothing to do with the audience and everything to do with the people who will lose their jobs. The writers will be affected by lost wages, of course, and have a lot to lose as well as to gain from the strike. They also have a strike fund to see them through financial crises. The crew do not.

I have to keep reminding myself that I'm on the writers' side on this. Strikes rarely bring out the best in people, and the "I drank the Kool-Aid" rantings and "we're special" delusions can be hard to take at times. But amid the tired war analogies and dismissals of lost jobs as collateral damage -- even more repugnant to consider on a Remembrance Day during a time of actual war -- are articles quoting writers firm in their beliefs, but lamenting the fact that there will be hardship for those people who did not make the choice to strike.

Then there are writers like Shonda Rhimes. De Moraes quotes her reversing her position on continuing with her non-writing duties:
"I absolutely believed that I would edit our episodes . . . until a thought hit me: How can I walk a picket line and then continue to essentially work? How am I supposed to look at myself in the mirror or look at my child years from now and know that I did not have the courage of my convictions to stand up and put myself more at risk than anyone else?"
The Post reporter adds:
No word as yet from the "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" cameramen, costumers, lighting crew, etc. -- some of whom will be laid off if the shows go dark -- in reax to multi-millionaire Rhimes's "more at risk than anyone else" gag.

A key grip on The Office wrote to the LA Times urging both sides to get back to the bargaining table before too much damage is done:
We all know that the strike will be resolved. Eventually both sides will return to the bargaining table and make a deal. The only uncertainty is how many of our houses, livelihoods, college educations and retirement funds will pay for it.
It's a helpless position to be in as an audience member wanting to support the people who create our favourite shows. Some fans are advocating that we help the writers find the highest cliff possible to jump off, and stop watching shows now, before we even run out of originals. That's a nice recipe to escalate what's already happening: since production must stop on low-rated shows like K-Ville because of the strike, there's likely not much point starting it up again when the strike is over. Pushing Daisies got its full season renewal early as one of the strongest new series out of the gate, but ratings are eroding each week. I wonder how itchy would ABC's trigger finger be if ratings on the not-inexpensive, not-blockbuster show suddenly plummeted. I don't want to find out in the name of a pointless gesture.

The earnest folks at Fans for the WGA have heard from striking writers with concrete and meaningful examples of what we can do to make a difference. From CSI's David Rambo:
The WGA currently has a $12 million strike fund. However, the people who will need assistance as this drags on longer are those in film and TV who don't have access to the strike fund: the office assistants, crew members and actors. They will really need the help to be able to continue in support of our strike, and there's no fund for them. There is, however, a wonderful 125-year old nonprofit organization that provides direct, confidential assistance to all entertainment professionals in need, such as those I just mentioned. It's called the Actors Fund, and you can find out more or make a donation through their website.

If you do donate, let the Actors Fund know that your contribution is in support of those affected by the writers strike., started by the rabid folks at Whedonesque but now encompassing all fandoms, have even more suggestions.

Friday, November 09, 2007

I have turned into a cat blogger

But my brother passed on this animation that will be laughably familiar (if a tiny bit exaggerated) to anyone who's been owned by a cat, so I can't resist posting.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Another Canadian TV podcast

Just like Law and Order, the TV, Eh? podcast is spawning spin-offs. I'm happy to report I do not feel like Dick Wolf.

TV Archive webmaster Patrick Allec, who contributed a segment with Jackson Davies of The Beachcombers to the first TV, Eh? effort, has launched the TeleRetro podcast, chock full of celebrity interviews including:
  • Gabrielle Miller, Fred Ewanuick, and Eric Peterson of Corner Gas
  • Ian Tracey of Intelligence, but also the "retro" Huckleberry Finn and his Friends
  • Christopher Bolton and Derek McGrath of Rent-a-Goalie and Little Mosque on the Prairie respectively, but also My Secret Identity
  • and many more
Patrick even went to the Geminis for some close-up interviews. Check it out at TV Archive.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

This is not what House meant

Today comes a chilling reminder that horrible news does not mean something like a writers strike, and that television is not to be taken literally. A school shooting in Finland left at least eight dead, including the killer. The photo CNN and other outlets are using is from his video manifesto posted to YouTube, and the t-shirt he's wearing proves that having common affection for a particular TV show is not necessarily a heartwarming bond.

Media reports are playing up the YouTube angle, of course, because as the AMPTP would tell you, this Internet thing is new and scary. But as Greg Sandoval of CNET News points out, that's as ridiculous as blaming the US Postal Service for the Unabomber.

Danah Boyd is an academic who studies social media, and posts more casually about it on her blog, Apophenia (which, coincidentally, means basically what my blog title is trying to convey - "making connections where none previously existed"). She's written frequently about the media's demonization of the Internet. One of her best starts there but gets into the idiocy of pointing fingers at things like YouTube instead of the root issues. Growing up in a culture of fear: From Columbine to banning of MySpace was written two years ago, but not much has changed:
Post-Columbine, we decided to regulate the symptoms of alienation rather than solve the problem. Today, we are trying to regulate youth efforts to have agency and public space. Both are products of a culture of fear and completely miss the point. We need to figure out how to support youth culture, exploration and efforts to make sense of the social world. The more we try to bottle it into a cookie-cutter model, the more we will destroy that generation.
Today, Sandoval writes his Perspective: In Finland shooting, fallout for YouTube?:
So what's YouTube's role? YouTube is a tool anyone can use, not an edited newspaper. It's policed by the community that uses it. If something is indeed offensive, it can be removed. Yes, it's a change from the old days, when a few people controlled who gets to speak at the bully pulpit. This is the democratization of information. No one gets to control who gets to say what anymore.
The finger-pointers would seem to want to control what troubled teens like Pekka Eric Auvinen post to YouTube instead of wonder why he would post what he did and do what he did and look for meaningful solutions to prevent the motivation for both. The Internet might be a wilderness, but if someone's crying into it, it's not just because it's there.