Archive for category Television

Gargoyles “Shadows of the Past/Heritage”

Gargoyles Heritage screenshot

We’re back!

After so many weeks of being absent, I have finally returned. Part of my disappearance was due to an increase in work (which has since died down, kind of). Some of it was due to the sheer number of TV shows finishing up their seasons, which of course I had to catch. Some of it was general fatigue – between work, television, and the gym, my body was beginning to wear itself down. I needed to mentally and physically rest. But now I’m back, and not only are essays on their way, but there should be some other things coming too.

But this isn’t about that – this is about the “World Tour” ventures that Goliath, Angela, Bronx, and Elisa are embarking on in the wake of the Avalon saga. As Tom yells to Elisa: “Avalon does not take you where you want to go, Avalon sends you where you need to be.” In other words, while we’re still in the midst of season two, this feels like a new season, or at least a reboot of some sort, a mystical way to create some breathing room between all those crazy, complex, wild events from before and the events coming up. While it’s bit early to tell how things will go, right now it feels like a good idea. Fewer characters, fewer schemes, fewer plotlines – not that Gargoyles was a particularly tough show to keep up with, it was just coming dangerously close to crushing itself under its massive complexity. With episodes like “Shadows of the Past,” the show gets some room to breathe.

“Shadows of the Past” is a unique episode not just of Gargoyles, but of animated TV in general. There’s no real action until late in the episode; instead, there’s a lot of pondering and rumination. It’s no coincidence Disney brought in their A-TEAM animation crew for this, to signify the “reboot” nature of this series and to give the necessary visual panache to an episode dedicated to thinking and talking existentially. It was the details I love most; Elisa almost tripping when she’s climbing a cliff, the wind blowing through her and Angela’s hair, Goliath panting in fear and fatigue – and the strong visuals match up to a strong character-driven episode.

Working with such few characters helps this show immensely, in particular how it focuses on Goliath’s attempt to keep his sanity and Elisa’s and Angela’s attempts to calm him now. Goliath taking stock on his past and his role in the events that happened in “Awakenings” is powerful stuff, and kudos to Michael and Brynne Chandler Reaves to really work and break down his mental state. Gargoyles are driven by both the need to protect and the need to avenge. Without the former, they’re aimless and lost; without the latter, they’re lacking and dishonored. “Shadows of the Past” brings up the latter point to great effect; by not being there for his clan when they were killed, and failing to adequately seek revenge on those who betrayed/killed his clan, has Goliath truly failed in his role as leader?

Essentially, the answer is yes, he failed, but it was far from his fault, and it’s true that Goliath has to come to terms with. But it’s hard, and the two mysterious energy spirits that grant Goliath his fevered visions aren’t helping. I love how the episode lets the weirdness drives the stakes here; it’s pretty obvious that everything he sees is fake, especially when the stone-versions of his former clan appears before him, but to Goliath, all of this is real. The tension isn’t in the audience trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t, but in hoping that Goliath can figure it out for himself. That’s a bold move, letting the audience root for Goliath and not the narrative.

The visions being perpetuated by two green spirit “things,” revealed to be Hakon (the leader of the Vikings which destroyed the gargoyles) and the Captain of the Guard (who betrayed the gargoyles to the Vikings). I’m not sure if the show will get into it, but the episode barely pays lip service to explaining how and why the two are in spirit form, and how they are generating the magic ability to cause such visions. It’s irrelevant thought, as the point is that these two are trapped souls driven by hate and revenge, working in tandem to draw Goliath’s life force out and apply it to themselves, restoring it to them. It doesn’t really make sense (the location where this all take place is nebulous at best), but it doesn’t have to. The point is that Goliath’s guilt is being exploited by Hakon and the Captain.

Once again, the theme of purpose and drives are full force and center, but here, the question of that drive is brought into focus. Gargoyles hasn’t really put a lot of stock into the thought of whether the ideas that drive a person to continue on is justified, at least not until this episode, and I’m curious if that something the show will explore later on. Here, though, as the Captain watches Hakon draw Goliath’s life force away, he too takes stock of his role in the gargoyles’ destruction, and realizes his own failures. He attempts to atone for this by attacking Hakon, and in a visually strong moment, the two spar within the strange, hieroglyphic-laden structure as everything glows and surges around them. Again, there’s no clarity as to exactly what’s going on, but the idea is clear. Everything explodes, and when the smoke clears, the Captain is finally granted the freedom to move on into the afterlife. He and Goliath, after thousands of years, finally come to, if not an understanding, then at least a peace.

Goliath and company head back out into the waters to try and head home, and Hakon is trapped in rock, and its telling that what upsets him the most is not being trapped, but not having anyone to hate. For you see, having nothing to drive you is a fate worse than being stuck somewhere for all eternity, a fate that, as Goliath mentions, he chose for himself. It’s a strong episode, one of the best since “Awakenings,” really. I kinda feel bad for Elisa at the end though, who has to wait by the stoned gargoyles all day before they can move on.

After such a great outing with “Shadows of the Past,” “Heritage” is a letdown. The A-TEAM animation is replaced with Sun Min, who do passable work, although I’m not sure they were given a strong script to work with. “Heritage” is a lot more episodic, attempting to be something like the really fun “Protection,” where the Elisa and the gargoyles appear in a random locale with problems, get involved, and fight their way into saving the day. With a little more work and time Gargoyles will most assuredly get better at this during this “reboot” period, but “Heritage,” comparatively speaking, feels sophomoric.

Part of the issue is that it kinda plays uncomfortably in the “Native Americans are all about their past and closeness to the earth!” cliche, with only a few moments of depth that allow it to surpass it. Adam Gilad, the episode’s writer, most likely meant well when writing this episode, but a lot of the developments border on generic stereotypes, like Natsilane (who’s Westernized nickname, Nick, is portrayed as being distancing from his heritage), who is so engaged in Western ideas (he graduated Harvard, ya’ll!) that he isn’t able to connect to his Haida history, and as a result the land is dying.

“Heritage” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s definitely lacking. After a weird sea monster attacks their boat and simply swims away (the gargoyles put up a good fight but there’s no way in hell they could’ve bested that beast), they find themselves separated from Elisa. Elisa, near-dead, is nursed back to health by Nick’s grandmother, who is referred to as Grandmother, while the gargoyles side with a creature-gargoyle named Raven. For a chunk of the episode, there is an interesting grey area, the story blurring the line of who’s the real villain: Raven claims Grandmother is persecuting his brethren, while Grandmother claims Raven is sucking the land dry and taking it for himself. The episode isn’t a moral quandary though. It’s clear that Raven is the true villain.

The episode doesn’t explain who he is outside of a dangerous evil being, and even though there’s always the chance we’ll see Raven in the future, the episode doesn’t hint at anything significant, or even why he’s wants the land in the first place. Part of me thought he was one of Oberon’s children, the dark elves that pop up from time to time to just cause trouble (like Puck), but it’s revealed that Grandmother is actually one of Oberon’s children. (SPOILER: some research revealed that Raven is a children of Oberon, which raises the question why Raven and Grandmother were fighting in the first place. I mean, we could get into a whole thing about Oberon’s relationship to the Haida history and the land, and I’m eager to see if Gargoyles will get into that, but I have my doubts).

There are some things I like about this episode. I like that Angela noticed what looked to be an animation error – a wing from a flying monster moving through one of Raven’s fake-gargoyle – as an illusion and played it cool, revealing it to her father later. It’s only been two episodes (not counting “Avalon”) and we don’t have a real sense of who Angela is, but she seems to be a bright, self-sufficient character who can kick ass. We haven’t passed the Bechdel test yet, since Elisa and Angela so far have talked mostly about Goliath and other males in the show, but I don’t think it can quite apply here. Still, I’m curious to see if they both move past that and grow as characters. Angela is still a blank slate, but any more development on Elisa is always welcome!

As for the episode… well, after Angela exposes Raven for the sham he is, all the layers come tumbling down. Grandmother exposes herself as a child of Oberon, the gargoyles reveal themselves to Nick, gaining his trust and restoring his belief in “the old ways,” and he gains all the necessary magic powers to defeat Raven, in a surprisingly anti-climatic fight scene. Again, it’s a bit unclear what Grandmother’s connection to the land is – the ending sequence, where Grandmother’s hair turns into water that restores life to the land is oddly not commented upon – and while the show’s commitment to accuracy is commendable, correctly placing the Haida tribe in western Canada, it isn’t exactly on point when it comes to clothing.

“Heritage” feels like a placeholder, an episode designed to given the whole “World Tour” premise some context – that is, to display the kind of episode adventures these core characters will find themselves in. I do hope things from a narrative perspective will improve though. The potential is there. Hell, I even enjoyed Raven, with his sassy remarks, he makes a for a entertaining villain who seems to enjoy himself, a nice addition to the self-serious badguys of Gargoyles’ rogue gallery. But “Heritage” focus on “Othering” without giving characters like Nick something to build on other than the “get in touch with your roots!” type of agency that he has in the entire episode makes it overall disappointing. I’m hoping we’ll see Nick, Grandmother, or Raven again, but I feel like, other than Raven, this is a narrative thread the show won’t be coming back to. It’s understandable – Avalon most likely have more significant events for our characters to deal with. I could be wrong though.

“Shadows of the Past” A / “Heritage” B-

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Family Feud’s “Success” is Built Upon its Irony

There are enough pictures and gifs on Imgur and Reddit that pretty much sum up the current run of Family Feud: questions clearly geared towards sexually provocative answers, lots of hooting, hollering, and laughter, and host Steve Harvey mugging wildly at the mere suggestion that, oh my god, how could seemingly normal people possibly come up with these answers? Remember that scene in The Cable Guy where Matthew Broderick was playing “Porno Password” with his family, growing more and more uncomfortable with each sexual suggestion? That’s essentially Family Feud.

Family Feud

The thing is, everyone’s in on the joke, with Steve playing the stuffed shirt role. I’m going to get into Steve Harvey in a bit, but for now, it’s important to understand that Family Feud has, at this point, stewed in its ridiculousness, of innuendos and gotcha-responses, and everyone is playing along. There was once a point where people played Family Feud to actually try to win. Now? You practically hear the assistant director urging families to say the most suggestive responses they can think of (or the most bizarre ones). Family Feud is less a game show than an elaborate comedy skit.

The internet has taken to it for sure. It’s a wonderful jpeg/gif smorgasbord, perfect for quote/expression/reaction captioning. In some ways, social media is what keeping Family Feud’s current run afloat, and the producers are obviously aware of it, coming up with some of the most insanely, specific questions they can muster up. Gone are the vague “Name something that you drink out of mug.” Now we have “Name something that gets hard when it gets cold,” and it’s hard not to eye-roll or facepalm at it. The show’s and contestants’ energy, however, is so contagious, you can’t help but watch along.

It helps that Family Feud has, at its core, a rock solid premise. Richard Dawson ran the show during its initial debut in the 70s, quickly making it his own. He spent literally the first ten minutes chatting and talking to the contestants, passing kisses to all the women, regardless of age, and shot the shit – which sounds boring, but Dawson’s charisma made it work. Dawson had a confidence, a presence that made him imminently likable, and he knew it, too. He also knew to control it, never coming off too cocky or arrogant. He was definitely one of the best game show hosts around.

“The Feud” was cancelled in 1985. It returned in 1988 with new host Ray Combs, who was passable but not nearly the presence that was Dawson (Combs ultimately committed suicide in 1996). The format changed slightly, dropping the extended introduction and focusing on a new “Bulleye/Bankroll” concept (this would eventually be dropped as well). The show proceeded to work through various hosts – Louie Anderson, Richard Karn, and John O’Hurley – all of whom were fine for different reasons. Family Feud itself, though, was a former shell of itself, a easy-going, early-morning game show with a fun format, where stay-at-home parents would shout the obvious answers at the screen in between commercials for cleaning products.

Then Steve Harvey began hosting.

To get why Steve Harvey “works” so well for Family Feud, it helps to really understand his career as a comedian. Steve Harvey’s routine isn’t really all that memorable or distinctive. His classic stuff was one might call “top tier” during the early rise of the young black comic in the early 90s, where HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and BET’s Comicview allowed African-Americans an opportunity to speak to a very particular “urban” viewpoint, when headlining The Apollo was as game-changing as getting top billing at Caroline’s, which boasted a heavy use of racial/sexual explicitness. Like its hip-hop counterpart, much criticism and controversy arose during this era. A lot of it was borderline racist, but there was a legitimacy in criticizing such comedians and their focus on comedy as shock value (he said nigga! she said she likes to suck lots of dick! and so on). There’s truth to the fact that so many young black comedians were blindly ripping off Richard Pryor’s success without grasping Pryor’s vulnerability and self-depreciation. (It also helps that Pryor’s routine took place during a very provocative era.) But it was a unique viewpoint nonetheless, and those voices were at least given the chance to be heard.

Steve Harvey was one of the breakout successes, post-Eddie Murphy (others included Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, DL Hughley, the Wayne Brothers, and Bernie Mac). They were all given TV shows and writing opportunities, and for a while they were managing a decent amount of success. In fact, Harvey, Cedric, Hughley, and Mac arguably reached their pinnacle with Spike Lee’s The Kings of Comedy, released in 2000, netting almost 40 million dollars on a 3 million dollar budget. Their routines were raunchy but pointed, speaking to a very specific crowd of African-American youths AND adults.

The rise of the alt-comedians in 2000 spelt the end of the “black comedian” so to speak. While the best black comedians found comedy in distinctive racial differences, alt comedians found comedy in “irony,” including self-aware distinctive racial differences. While everyone split off in different directions, Steve Harvey still had some success in the stand-up business, but began to turn towards a more religious viewpoint (one can’t help wonder if Bernie Mac’s death affected him more than he lets on), soon after refusing to use vulgar language, a la Bill Cosby. The Steve Harvey of today – the fixture of his radio show, his talk show, and his books – is more of a soft parental figure, a charming advise-giver and seemingly innocent, Christian, non-threatening black man who simply asks his audiences to let him into his home every morning.

So it’s funny to watch Steve Harvey host Family Feud. Harvey’s excessive mugging and over-the-top exasperation at the responses are, in their own ways, a load of shit. Harvey has said much worse during his 27 years as a stand-up comedian; he simply cultivated a much more home-spun, traditionalist “character” in the last six years or so. He’s no fool, though; the man knows comic timing, and he understands his role as a host. He’s not reading comments like “Give me a word a married man would use to fill in the blank: ‘I would _______ for sex’ ” without being self-aware enough to know that the show’s contestants would respond with “pay,” “lie,” or “kill.” Steve Harvey is playing his part. Everyone is playing their part, including the internet. It’s all a show within a show, a certain degree of irony that, in some ways, allowed Steve Harvey to indeed find his place within the alt comedy world.

Family Feud is the second highest rated show in all of daytime television programming (just behind Judge Judy). The core concept of the game show is strong enough to merit watching and playing along, but now its been given a jolt of pseudo-outrageousness with its questions and responses, exacerbated by a host who acts bewildered by it all but is clearly in on it. There’s nothing subversive here; we’re all in on the joke – the families, the producers, the viewers, the internet, hell, even the “100 people surveyed”. Family Feud, the game show, is really window dressing to Family Feud, the comedy. It’s not about the money. It’s about the fun. So let’s play the Feud, and lets try and keep it clean (and yeah, we won’t).

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Why The Action Cartoon Era Ended – And How We Can Bring it Back

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” is a joke. Literally. As of this post, the only cartoon aired in during this block is Teen Titans Go!, along with a smattering of various DC shorts, which are cute, but primarily entertaining to the Youtube crowd (this is not an insult – most of the DC shorts are great). Yet with Young Justice, The Green Lantern, and Beware the Batman cancelled, there is something sad in listening to the deep, booming voice announcing the intense, upcoming “DC NATION” during the interstitial graphic, only to be led to another wacky episode of Teen Titans Go!. Teen Titans Go! is actually a really funny show (albeit from the Adult Swim template); its hated reputation stems from how its goofy approach to superheroism is really the only thing on Cartoon Network that’s related to superheros.

Beware the Batman

I wrote about this briefly over on my tumblr, but I wanted to expand upon this more, especially in light of a recent comic post made by the showrunner to The Green Lantern, Giancarlo Volpe. I sort of wish Volpe had a bit more insight on the superficiality of the testing process, and the portrayal of Bruce Timm as a cigarette-smoking, too-cool-for-school badboy irks me at a gut level, but the directness of testing and its poor scientific procedures (everything is geared towards a specific outcome, from the lack of a control to splitting boys up by ages but not girls) is notable. If testing is a creative hell that animation showrunners are going to go through, then they’re already at a disadvantage. That being said, testing is only a part of the issue – toy lines, marketing, ratings, and word of mouth is another. Beyond that, let’s be honest: Cartoon Network was never committed to DC – that much is obvious. The general vibe among all the kids’ network is clear:

1) The action cartoon is dead. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But let’s take stock of the action cartoons currently on the air. There’s Ben-10, Legend of Korra [NOTE: as of July 24, 2014, Nick has removed this show from its schedule], Agents of SMASH (UPDATE: no longer on hiatus), Ultimate Spider-man and Avengers Assemble (which apparently is terrible), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, if we’re reaching, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness). Note that everything has a strong comic element to it, save for Legend of Korra – none of the other shows listed delve into more serious, dramatic matters. (It’ll be a while before any of those cartoons pull a “The Man Who Has Everything.”) All of these shows have mixed reviews; Legend of Korra tends to have the most buzz when it airs, and even so, there have been issues with the current books. Time was that the major kids networks aired a block of action cartoons that mixed well with the comedy entertainment. Now, it seems like networks are scrambling to get rid of them – or, at the very least, to make them sillier and cartoony. I like my cartoons to be cartoony. I don’t like my action cartoons to be cartoony.

2) MARVEL killed the action cartoon. It’s the sad truth. The thing that made action cartoon thrive in the 90s was their ability to engage directly with their comic book aesthetics, delving to the more bizarre conceits like time travel, aliens, robots, and multiple dimensions. CGI was pretty much shit back then. Cartoons were where you went to see the cool stuff. Advancements in CGI took place in the 2000s, but movie studios still believed that superhero fare could only succeed with the right degree of campiness (give or take a Batman Begins). The seeds were planted when X-Men and Spider-man did well at the box office; Marvel simply doubled down on their movie properties, to great success. The kind of rich visual aesthetics that were only available on the animated screen were now visible on the big one. Of course, these films were PG-13, so children of all ages could see it, and they were so enamored with the films that the cartoons look like crap in comparison. It doesn’t help that the writers, producers, animators, and executives of the last vestiges of the action cartoons were amateurish, working with low budgets and dwindling ratings and mediocre scripts. As Marvel films took their products seriously, action cartoon creators didn’t.

3) Action cartoons didn’t help themselves. Going up against a behemoth like Marvel is a daunting task, but it’s doable. The cartoons didn’t do themselves any favors though. Marketing research has emphasized comedy – apparently this is exactly what kids want to watch. So everyone – from executives to creatives – got caught up in the need for their action cartoons to be a few action scenes inserted in the middle of a vaudeville act – heavy on the jokes, goofy on the visuals, and silly on the set pieces. Which, in all honesty, is fine. The last thing we want is the brooding male mentality to seep into our animated fare. That being said, not every episode and not every scene need to be built around a million punchlines. Action cartoons have room for drama, for heart, for real character development, and of the shows mentioned above, I hardly see it (again, save for Legend of Korra).

Beyond that, the actual action is questionably portrayed. The thing about action scenes is that they’re a physical extension of the dramatic beats of the current scene (it’s why thugs in Batman are dressed similar to the current rogue Batman is up against). Action scenes, like any scene in entertainment, needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need to have a clear goal and clear obstacles. What is the protagonist trying to physically accomplish? How are the villains actively trying to stop him/her? My rant against the second season of TMNT is antagonistic but clear, and I’ve questioned a few action scenes in Legend of Korra. Thundercats failed because it never took full stock of the seriousness of its premise; Beware the Batman took way too long to get to its admittedly intriguing story arc.

The future of action cartoons look grim, but there may be a way to save them. Primarily, we need networks willing to commit to them, in a way that goes beyond toy sales. From a critical perspective, though, action cartoons need to do the following:

1) Hit the ground running. You have about two or three episodes before you lose the attention of kids. So your first few episodes should hit some serious dramatic beats. Don’t only establish the world you built. Establish the characters we’ll be introduced to AND the kind of action scenes we’ll be seeing. Go big, don’t go ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be dark, but it does have to mean something. It has to be appealing. Blow their minds. And everything that you establish – action, drama, comedy, world-building, tone, and atmosphere – has to travel to the next few episodes. Beware the Batman had tonal issues and its rogue gallery had potential but never amounted to anything but various villains with different voice actors. All that has to be clear in the aesthetics, so make sure to —

2) Bring your A game (in storyboarding, animation, and writing). I find myself noticing more and more hiccups in storyboarding – the staging of the action is unclear and muddled, the animation tends to get lazy at time, and the writing feels forced and goofy. Both Beware the Batman and TMNT have passable action beats, but it’s obvious that both shows feel the need to have brawling actions scenes all the time, despite the fact that the heroes of these shows are ninjas and should be working more in the shadows. There’s a discrepancy here, when everything has to be working on all cylinders. The writing has to display why action is happening, the boarding needs to make every move and beat clear (why is he jumping out the way vs. running away?), and the animation should make every impact and near miss feel real and tense. That being said —

2) Stakes must be huge. Early and often. Thundercats’ pilot was dark, deep, and intense. It involved the murder of a leader of a kingdom, a kingdom that was isolated from the rest of the world and treated outsiders like shit, which was then followed by the mass genocide of said kingdom. Subsequent episodes pretended like that didn’t happen. It took till the second season before actually characters were developed, the genocide/hated-strangers-in-a-strange-land aspect was downplayed, and what started as a murky grey area quickly changed into black-and-white heroes and villains. (Probably due to that stupid testing?). The lesson we can learn from this is —

3) Don’t pander. Kids will know when you pander. Enough with mustache-twirling villains, charmingly-vague heroes, solitary female companions, and goofy sidekicks. How are we still working with this template in this day and age? I suppose that there’s plenty of marketing out that saying kids want to see goofy, comic versions of themselves in the characters on-screen. That may work now, but kids – especially those older kids – need to be challenged if we’re ever going to “earn” their respect for cartoons. If we can show them that cartoons can be as dramatically appealing and audaciously diverse as their live-action counterparts, we can work towards breaking down those “anti-cartoon” barriers. Do you know what else would help with that? Action cartoon should —

4) Appeal to adults and “trickle” the admiration down. Cartoons have a “trickle up” approach right now. Appeal to a specific demo – 6-11 boys mostly – and hopefully bring in girls, older boys, and ultimately, not irritate the adults who watch them with their children. Maybe we should work backwards. I’m not saying action cartoons should be super-serious. But maybe if action cartoons caught the attention of adults first and spread across word of mouth, then children (who want to be “grown-up” like their parents) would follow suit, watching it along with their parents instead of parents watching it along with their kids. That’s a bold call, but in some way, that’s exactly what Marvel is doing. I would argue that’s what Dreamworks managed to do with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon as well (in some ways, this is exactly what WB did with their DCAU properties in 1990s-2000). Applying this approach to action cartoons today may save them. With so few studios willing to commit, though, this most likely may not happen anytime soon.

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