Thursday, December 31, 2009

Will they never learn?, part 2

"Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it."--George Santayana

"There's a sucker born every minute!"---P. T. Barnum

The "sucker" in this case has to be Mrs. Dixie Carter, co-owner and president of Total Non-Stop Action (TNA) Wrestling. As the company prepares for a live, 3-hour Monday edition of their Impact program on January 4, Mrs. Carter, at the behest of her new business partners, Hulk Hogan & Eric Bischoff, has been rumored to be bringing in older wrestlers who were part of the success Bischoff enjoyed in WCW in the late 90's, such as Scott Hall, whose last go-around with the company was virtually aborted 2 1/2 years ago, and Sid Vicious, whose career was thought to have ended due to a freak leg injury nearly 10 years ago. There are rumors, too, of Ric Flair, who recently toured with Hogan in Australia, signing with TNA.

Hogan & Bischoff believe that it's the veteran stars that fans are more interested in seeing, instead of the younger, hungrier wrestlers that are supposed to be the foundation for TNA. After all the pomp & circumstance of Flair's "retirement" in April 2008 from WWE, the "Nature Boy" could be coaxed into signing with the promise of the one thing he didn't get during his last tour of duty with WWE (2001-08), a World championship run. Flair won 3 tag titles and an Intercontinental title during his 2nd tour with WWE, but was never seriously considered to be World title material.

TNA has been plucking veteran names off the WWE scrap heap over the 7 1/2 years of its existence, showing little or no trust in the likes of current champion AJ Styles or Samoa Joe to be the true standard-bearer for the company. What did WCW in, as most of us know, is complacency, allowing the NWO (New World Order) gimmick to continue well past its expiration point, simply because it was the company's #1 cash cow. But even the best cows run out of milk eventually. Bischoff, blinded by his own arrogance and complacency, let the NWO get bloated out of control. While he was a figurehead GM on Monday Night Raw (2002-05), Bischoff didn't have any creative control, and was kept in check, though some fans got tired of his act very quickly. For now, Bischoff figures to remain behind the scenes, where he has grown very comfortable in recent years, as his production company has been churning out one cheesy reality show after another, including a few with Hogan, for VH1 and other networks.

Hogan will be the centerpiece in Orlando on Monday. WWE is responding by bringing in Bret Hart, who left the company in a cloud of controversy and disgrace in 1997, and ended his career in a fading WCW 3 years later. Hart figures to be around no more than about 3 1/2 months, including Wrestlemania 26 in March. Because Hart has kept himself out of the spotlight for nearly 10 years, he's relatively fresh. Hogan, because of the reality shows and the attendant tabloid headlines that go with them, plus a run hosting American Gladiators, has remained a constant, annoying presence since his last WWE match a few years ago. You figure there are only enough people that will tune in to see if he is the savior TNA needs to compete with WWE, or if he's really there to sink the ship as some people suspect. By coaxing Mrs. Carter to bring in Hall, Vicious, and presumably Flair, plus cutting rookie wrestler Cody Deaner from the roster, Hogan is making the same exact mistakes that TNA has made right along. Hogan might as well buy TNA outright, then proceed with the process of sinking the ship.

If TNA is going to compete with WWE, relying on aging veterans isn't the answer. WWE knows this. Earlier this month, Sheamus O'Shaughnessy, who'd only been with the big club less than six months, defeated John Cena to become the WWE champion, matching the rapid ascension of Brock Lesnar 7 years ago. Scotland's Drew McIntyre, on his 2nd tour of duty with the main team (he previously had a cup of coffee in 2007 before being sent back to the "farm"), is the Intercontinental champion. WWE has a number of younger wrestlers dotting the rosters of all three brands (Raw, Smackdown, & ECW), some of whom were rushed to the big club, like Sheamus, while others, like McIntyre, paid their dues before getting the permanent call-up. TNA already has had a NWO-style group, the Main Event Mafia, which seemingly dissolved a while back. Do they really need to go there again so soon? In the delusional mind of Hogan, who now claims to have studied mixed martial arts as a youth while also considering a music career, it seems that way. Hogan is pushing 60. Flair is already there. Not the kind of guys you want at the core of your roster.

They say desperate people do desperate things. TNA has been desperate for attention since day 1. This latest move is like inviting an iceberg to meet the Titanic.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Will they never learn?

A year ago, there was a dispute between Time Warner Cable and the Viacom family of cable networks (Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, etc.) that threatened to pull those networks off TWC systems across the country. The dispute was settled on New Year's Eve just before midnight.

Now, TWC is embroiled in another dispute, this time with Fox, which wants $1 per subscriber for its broadcast channels to continue to be on TWC systems. I've also read that Fox has the same issue with other cable providers. I realize the economy is not that stable, but to charge a fee for common broadcast channels on cable? This smacks of outright greed. As was the case last year, TWC is running ads in newspapers stating their case, and Fox, dutifully, is doing the same. In large markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, Fox affiliates that are also owned by News Corporation are also affected. That is not the case in Albany, since Fox affiliate WXXA is owned by a different entity (Clear Channel). WNYA, home to the fading MyNetwork TV (MNTV), is also owned by an outside concern. Thus, there isn't as much of a panic over losing Fox staples like American Idol, House, & The Simpsons or MNTV's flagship series, WWE Friday Night Smackdown, as there would be in LA, NYC, or elsewhere. Fox's cable networks, such as FX, Fuel, & the Fox Sports Net regional channels, are in danger of being yanked on January 1, however.

It's just history repeating itself. We'll wake up Friday morning as if nothing happened. Everything will stay the same after another 11th hour deal is reached. And, then, next year, we'll be reading about the same thing all over again, this time with TWC having to deal with NBC-Universal or Disney instead of Fox. The process will continue until TWC runs out of opponents. We as consumers stand to lose, and lose big, potentially, if there isn't a settlement by January 1, but what if TWC were to finally cave to the NFL Network? If there is an impasse with Fox, TWC would suddenly have room to add the one channel that has fans packing sports bars a few Thursdays a year because of the stubborn mule mentality TWC suits have hung on to the last few years. If anyone is rooting for an impasse, it'd be the NFL.

As TWC pitchman Mike O'Malley (ex-Yes, Dear) might put it, what is with the complexity? How hard can this be, year after year? Check your greed and your egos at the door, boys. This is one time where the consumer comes first!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The soap suds are slowly fading

With news that CBS plans to terminate As The World Turns next fall, leaving the network with two soap operas, it seems that the genre is dying a slow death, while game shows are gradually making a comeback on network television.

After Guiding Light ended 3 months ago, it left World as the last soap produced by Proctor & Gamble's television arm, and now, P & G, maker of equally iconic products such as Ivory soap and Secret deodorant, is leaving the genre it founded during the golden age of radio. CBS' lone remaining soaps are Young & the Restless, which is closing on its 40th anniversary, and Bold & the Beautiful, which has been around since the 80's. NBC has just one, Days of Our Lives, a network staple since the 60's, but within striking range of the cancellation ax the last few years. Rather than build their daytime schedule around Days, NBC gives the time in between it and Today to network affiliates, suggesting that they have no interest in getting back into the game show business, other than their night-time hit, Deal or No Deal. ABC is holding firm with their top-rated lineup.

CBS filled the Light void by reviving Let's Make a Deal, now 1 hour instead of a half-hour, and rumors have them bringing back Pyramid, which was last in syndication just a few years ago. Of course, another network staple from the 70's, Match Game, has been talked about, but trying to mount a new version without the late Gene Rayburn is a difficult task in and of itself. Not only that, but it was talked about a year ago that cable's TBS was in the running to revive Match, so a return to CBS is not 100% certain.

So what has killed the soap opera? Too much tinkering with the formula, in an effort to keep it relevant for younger viewers, or so it would seem. I know from watching General Hospital on a part-time basis in the 80's that it had reinvented itself to appeal to fans of James Bond and cliffhanger serials of the Golden Age, then gradually reverted back to a more traditional format.
Nowadays, it seems as though the idea is to try to draw the same people that are watching the "trendy" prime time shows by including once-taboo subject matter as same-sex relationships, things that just weren't allowed on radio way back in the day.

Can soaps make a comeback? I am not entirely certain. Maybe releasing the old classics on DVD could spur a revival, but I don't see that on the horizon right away.

George Michael (1939-2009)

No, it's not the singer, but rather the sportscaster who hosted the long running George Michael Sports Machine, which ended with Michael's retirement 2 years ago. Michael was one of the few sports reporters who actually treated professional wrestling with more respect, as if it really was a legitimate sport, putting it on equal footing with football (ironic, since a number of grapplers had transitioned to the ring from the gridiron), basketball, & baseball. Michael passed away earlier today at 70 after a lengthy illness.

Television has lost a true gentleman and a friend to fans everywhere. Rest in peace.

On DVD: G-Force (2009)

Who would've thought it possible? Jerry Bruckheimer, producer par excellence (CSI, "Pirates of the Caribbean", "Beverly Hills Cop", etc.), making a children's movie? You betchum, Red Ryder!

"G-Force", Disney's new would-be franchise from Bruckheimer, spins the tale of a trio of guinea pigs, Blaster, Suarez, & Darwin, and Speckles the mole, trained as the most unlikely of FBI field agents by Dr. Ben Kendall (Zach Galifinakis, "The Hangover"). Fearing the loss of funding of his project, Kendall sends his team out to take down a millionaire businessman who is secretly using his product as part of a plot to destroy the earth, or so it would seem. However, just when it looks like G-Force has succeeded, a key piece of evidence is sabotaged, and snooty Agent Killian (Will Arnett, ex-Arrested Development) shuts down Kendall's lab. G-Force is moved to a local pet shop, then separated pro tempore, before reuniting in time to finally close the case, despite odd twists and turns along the way.

The voice casting is an eclectic mix, including Nicolas Cage as Speckles and Tracy Morgan (30 Rock, Scare Tactics) as mouthy Blaster, who was front & center in the promo ads prior to the film's theatrical release. There is room for a sequel, especially since "G-Force" spent 2 weeks atop the box office charts. If there is a quibble, it's the fact that Disney blew a golden marketing opportunity that sat right in front of them. Guinea pigs make great household pets (I should know--my girlfriend has one), and Disney could've appealed to pet owners by offering them the opportunity to bring their guinea pigs in to see the movie for free with their owner's paid admission.

Grade: A+.

Edit: 4/11/14: In case you missed it, here's the trailer:


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Privacy: an endangered species

It used to be that gossip columns in the newspapers and supermarket tabloids were reserved for TV & movie stars promoting their next project(s). In the last 30-odd years, that has changed, and the environment in this regard is getting worse.

Today, our society has been conditioned to learn every minute detail, no matter how irrelevant it may actually be, about every celebrity, be they an athlete, musician, or actor. Scandal sells papers and boosts television ratings, but it still gets old awfully fast. In the case of the ongoing imbroglio over golfer Tiger Woods, it took the sudden death of actress Brittany Murphy to knock Woods off the front pages of the New York tabloids. More relevant news, such as the President's health care reform package, or the ongoing war in the Middle East, doesn't sell enough copies.

But now, it's a case of "what hath Tiger wrought?". It's being reported that TMZ.com, founded by lawyer-turned-television personality Harvey Levin (The People's Court), is mounting a spin-off site dedicated to sports. Given all the pro & college athletes in trouble with the law in recent years, this was bound to happen, but it shouldn't. It's bad enough that TMZ.com and its ilk can't go a day without reporting something, no matter how minor, about what Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan are doing, for example, but now they'll chase down any number of athletes already accustomed to tabloid micro-scrutiny. Their justification is that being a professional athlete, much like an actor/actress or musician, makes that person a public figure, and as such, the public has a right to know what's going on. There's a limit to that, but that limit is being pushed further and further away, until that line is completely blurred out of existence. At that point, no one is safe.

It's as if George Orwell's vision of "Big Brother" watching everyone, as chronicled in 1984, is being fulfilled, step by step. Where, then, do we draw the line that separates respect for privacy from an overly obsessive need to satiate "public curiosity"? Andy Warhol once said that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Truth be told, not everyone wants the spotlight on them, and would rather take the Greta Garbo approach, preferring to be left alone. And, yet, one gets the feeling that may not be a viable option much longer.

Arnold Stang (1918-2009)

Another piece of childhood is gone with the passing of actor-comedian Arnold Stang at 91.

Stang co-starred with current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (billed at the time as "Arnold Strong") in "Hercules in New York" in 1970, but prior to that, Stang had built quite the resume in radio, movies, & television. Stang was a second banana to humorist Henry Morgan, and also appeared on radio & television with Milton Berle. Baby boomers will remember Stang as the voice behind Top Cat, Hanna-Barbera's feline send-up of Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko persona, and as Herman in Famous Studios' Herman & Katnip series of theatrical shorts. Stang also played second banana to another cartoon icon----Popeye the Sailor, in a series of shorts during World War II.

In addition to "Hercules in New York", Stang's film credits included "Man With The Golden Arm", opposite Frank Sinatra, and Stanley Kubrick's ensemble comedy epic, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", in which Stang and Top Cat castmate Marvin Kaplan (later of Alice) owned a service station that would be totally wrecked by Jonathan Winters. Stang's last film, that I know of, was "Dennis the Menace" (1993).

Rest in peace, Arnold. You will be missed.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Classic Christmas Cartoons: The Top 10

This is, understandably, a follow-up to the top 10 list of Christmas songs posted a couple of days ago. I encourage you to offer your own selections if you disagree with this list.

10. Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964). Based on Johnny Marks' song, this Rankin-Bass (Videocraft) entry expands on the story told in the song, explaining why Rudolph was shunned by his fellow reindeer. 45 years later, it's still an enduring classic, and established Rankin-Bass' success formula for their Christmas specials.

9. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973). It's a simple premise. A young bear cub (voiced by Tom Smothers) decides to put off hibernation to discover Christmas, and travels to the big city. Radio icon Casey Kasem narrates.

8. Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (1970). Another Rankin-Bass special based on a song. This one tries to explain the origin of Santa (Mickey Rooney) in the simplest way possible.

7. Frosty the Snowman (1969). Rankin-Bass put aside their usual "animagic" animation process and opted for traditional line animation for this entry. The special marked its 40th anniversary earlier this month, and the theme song, sung by narrator Jimmy Durante, has gotten its fair share of airplay on the radio.

6. The Town That Santa Forgot (1993). Hanna-Barbera produced this one for cable & syndication, but I didn't know it existed until I found it on Cartoon Network a few years later. A spoiled brat named Jeremy Creek sends Santa a list so big (How big is it?) that Santa is forced to bypass the child's namesake town to fulfill Jeremy's selfish desires. Narrated by Dick Van Dyke.

5. Beavis & Butt-Head Do Christmas (1996). I'm not a big fan of the MTV series, but this was actually one of the dim duo's best. Parodies of "It's a Wonderful Life" & "A Christmas Carol", plus Butt-Head dresses as Santa to answer "viewer mail" with Beavis dressed as a reindeer. Series creator Mike Judge (King of the Hill) outdid himself with this one.

4. The Little Drummer Boy (1968). From Rankin-Bass (who else?) comes this tale of a shepherd boy who travels to Bethlehem to play his drum for the Baby Jesus. The 1958 song by the Harry Simeone Chorale provides the soundtrack for this classic, which would see a sequel produced 10 years later.

3. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). A union of three diverse icons. Based on the short story by Dr. Seuss, narrated by movie legend Boris Karloff, and produced by the inestimable Chuck Jones for MGM. The Grinch could've gotten away, but upon hearing the people of Whoville singing carols in the face of adversity, the miserly hermit found it within himself to return his loot. I think I understand why the live-action version with Jim Carrey nearly 35 years later wasn't received as well.

2. Christmas Is.... (1970). A simple tale of a boy and his dog discovering the true meaning of Christmas. Sadly, this has not seen a lot of airplay in recent years, except maybe for airing on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The first and most beloved of all the "Peanuts" specials. For a lot of us, it is the first time we would learn about the birth of Jesus, as Linus recites a passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. Also, the soundtrack produced a pair of classics, "Christmas Time is Here", and "Linus & Lucy", the latter of which would be used in several other "Peanuts" cartoons.

Honorable mention goes to the various interpretations of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", aside from the Beavis & Butt-Head parody noted above. "Carol" has been adapted many times over the years, most notably featuring Mr. Magoo (1962), the Jetsons (1985), and, in homage to Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge, Fred Flintstone essayed the part himself in a Bedrock theatre production (A Flintstone Christmas Carol, 1994). I await your feedback.

Brittany Murphy (1977-2009)

File this under "gone too soon". Ms. Murphy appeared in films like "Clueless", "8 Mile" (w/Eminem), and "Just Married", and lent her voice to Luanne on the recently concluded Fox series, King of the Hill. She passed away earlier today reportedly due to cardiac arrest. There is already speculation that drugs were involved, but nothing at this writing can be confirmed to that end.

Ms. Murphy's only other voice work of note was in the movie "Happy Feet", for which she also recorded two songs for the soundtrack. Her next film will be the thriller, "The Expendables", due in the spring of 2010, and was reportedly working on a film with Nicole Kidman at the time of her passing.

Rest in peace, Brittany. You will be missed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Classic Christmas Music: The Top 10

The classic Christmas songs we've come to love have been recorded by many artists through the years, such that I think it's easier just to pick the songs and not any particular artists, just to avoid any unnecessary argument. Picking 10 songs is hard enough, but we'll try to get through this.

10. Feliz Navidad. The title, of course, is Spanish for "Merry Christmas", and the best known recording of this bi-lingual carol was done all the way back around 1970 by Jose Feliciano. In fact, aside from a cover of the Doors' "Light My Fire" and the theme to Chico & the Man, "Feliz" is Feliciano's signature song!

9. Christmas Time is Here. Composer Vince Guaraldi wrote this song for A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, and it has become as much an iconic Yuletide piece as the special itself. One of the most recent covers was by the Christian group MercyMe just a couple of years ago.

8. Silent Night. Martin Luther, the author of the Refomation, also penned this carol, which has been recorded by just about everyone, it seems.

7. Wonderful Christmas Time. Paul McCartney wrote this sometime in the 70's. Full of good cheer, a diametric opposite of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)", if you will.

6. Do They Know it's Christmas?. You all know this one, I'm sure. Recorded initially by the all-star vocal group Band Aid in 1984, it was written by Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats) to call attention to the starvation in Africa and other countries. The first of the Live Aid concerts followed 7 months later.

5. Joy to the World. Not to be confused with Three Dog Night's non-Christmas hit of the same name. This instead celebrates the birth of Jesus.

4. Oh Holy Night. Another carol that has been recorded by just about everyone over the years, but one of the best renditions I've heard was actually in an episode of Benson several years back, sung by series star Robert Guillaume.

3. Little Drummer Boy. For most of us, there are two versions that stand out. One is the classic choral version recorded by the Harry Simeon Chorale around 1958 that led to Rankin-Bass adapting the song into an animagic television special 10 years later. The other is part of a duet medley with "Peace on Earth" recorded by Bing Crosby & David Bowie for Bing's last TV special in 1977. Powerful stuff.

2. Jingle Bells. Yes, the lyrics have been parodied by children over the years, poking fun at Batman & Robin, but this is really about having fun at Christmas, though the sleds used now are self-propelled toboggans or snowboards.

1. Do You Hear What I Hear?. I have heard many interpretations over the years, from Bing Crosby to Whitney Houston. The message remains the same, another variation on the Birth of Jesus.

Discuss & debate, pilgrims.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oral Roberts (1918-2009)

Granville Oral Roberts, one of the first "televangelists", passed away December 14 at 91 after a lengthy bout with pneumonia.

Roberts was one of the prominent evangelists on Sunday morning television in the 70's & 80's, along with Rex Humbard and Robert Schuller, among others. Roberts began preaching in tent revivals in his home state of Oklahoma in the 40's before gravitating to radio & television. Roberts also used his ministry to solicit donations from viewers, and infamously claimed several years back that if he didn't raise a certain amount of money, that "God would call me home".

A vision from God led Roberts to build a hospital, which closed down due to lack of finances a few years ago. Oral Roberts University, meanwhile, is still active. In Genesis' video for their 1992 hit, "Jesus He Knows Me", the television studio set bore some resemblance to that of Roberts' television ministry of the period, all part of the context of the song, which also targeted disgraced evangelists Jim Bakker & Jimmy Swaggert.

It may have been a lot later than he first envisioned, but Oral Roberts has finally been called home. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MTV reaches back to the past----but not where you think

MTV's current schedule is chock-full of reality shows and short on music video content, the latter usually buried in morning drive time. Over the years, the channel has also had rerun rights to shows as diverse as Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Monkees, and The Best of Saturday Night Live. They even provided a secondary home to a syndicated drama from the 90's, Catwalk, about a struggling band trying to make it, trying to posit the series as their answer to Fox's The Heights. Both series had short shelf-lives, though.

As a means of trying to re-attract the viewers they've lost with their obsession with reality programming, MTV is reaching into its glory years of the 80's----by commissioning a pilot for a series based on "Teen Wolf".

You might remember "Teen Wolf". It was one of a string of movies that Michael J. Fox made outside of the "Back to the Future" franchise. Some were good, some not so much. The original "Wolf" spawned a Saturday morning cartoon as well as a theatrical sequel, "Teen Wolf Too", which had Jason Bateman (recently in "Extract") replacing Fox as the lead. What better way, then, to mark the 25th anniversary of "Wolf" by creating a live-action series. You know there will be a special edition DVD of the original movie released next year, even if it hasn't officially been announced (give them time). Tyler Posey (Brothers & Sisters) has been cast in the lead for the pilot, but it's clear what the other motivation is behind this project. MTV wants its share of the "Twilight" pie.

The marketing suits' reasoning has to be that, to paraphrase Samantha Fox (no relation to Michael) from over 20 years ago, even werewolves need love, too. The emphasis in the "Twilight" series is the same as it was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few years back. Mortal girl has the hots for a hunky, young-looking vampire, but unlike Buffy, there's also a werewolf in the mix, creating a most unique love triangle. In "Teen Wolf", the title hero not only gains lycanthropic powers, but becomes a chick magnet at the same time. See what I'm getting at?

There's no exact timetable for when MTV will put "Wolf" on the air, but if I'd venture a guess, it might be around the time "New Moon" is released on DVD and/or Benicio Del Toro's take on "The Wolf Man" hits theatres, whichever comes first. Knowing MTV, they'll play "Wolf" into the ground like everything else, because they can't be content with airing it in just one time slot. That's their idea of heavy rotation these days.

It's just too bad they couldn't think outside the box and reimagine "Wolf" with a female lead. It'd be something different, but then MTV wouldn't get much love from the critics for doing that. Then again, MTV doesn't get much love nowadays anyway. It's like Paul Simon said some 40 years ago, if you're an MTV suit. Any way you look at it, you lose.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What is the limit on stretching "reality"?

I gave up on MTV a long time ago, after they stopped emphasizing the "M" (Music), in favor of a growing line of "reality" shows, the rationale being that "reality" shows are cheaper to produce, and, in MTV's case, easier to recoup production costs via multiple airings per week. It wouldn't be on the MTV family of networks if the channel didn't insist on shoving it down the throats of its viewers.

That brings us to the controversy surrounding MTV's latest series, Jersey Shore. On the surface, it's just another of MTV's cookie-cutter "reality" programs about 20-somethings. If you believe the negative press that has accompanied Shore since the pre-launch hype began, there's more to it. See, in the eyes of Italian-American focus groups, Shore represents a lot of negatives, chief among those the use of the prejorative, "guido". The cast of Shore doesn't see anything wrong with calling each other "guidos". To their generation, it's a compliment. I guess no one taught them the meaning behind "paisan", which is Italian for "friend". Two advertisers have already agreed to pull their advertising from Shore, bowing to pressure from the focus groups. That's nothing new. We see that all the time. Every time something remotely controversial is hyped, activist groups like the PTC jump on it, usually sight unseen, whining and complaining.

Naturally, the controversy has drawn the curious to the show, like moths to a flame. In the long term, however, Jersey Shore is just another disposable short-term series that will be replaced in about a year by something similar in format. That's just the way it is at MTV, and by this time next year, Shore will be a distant memory, a footnote in MTV's nearly 30-year history.

It kinda makes one long for the days when MTV's idea of non-music programming included reruns of Monty Python's Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gene Barry (1919-2009)

He exuded class, dignity, & elegance in his television work. That is how most people will remember Gene Barry, who passed away Thursday at 90.

Barry made his television series debut as a physical education teacher on Our Miss Brooks before landing the title role in the Western series, Bat Masterson, in 1958. 4 years later, Barry landed what would be the definitive role of his career, starring in Burke's Law, which was inexplicably rebooted as Amos Burke, Secret Agent in its final season when ABC & Four Star decided to repackage Burke as an American James Bond. Barry then starred in the anthology series The Name of the Game (1968-71) and the British series, The Adventurer, before settling into a lengthy string of guest-star gigs. Burke's Law was revived in the 90's by CBS and producer Aaron Spelling, who'd produced the original for Four Star, but lasted about a year and a half before exiting, this time for good.

Barry had worked in movies before transitioning to television, most notably in "War of the Worlds". However, he would not be able to make a transition back into films because of his being typecast as a television star, something that probably wouldn't be a problem today.

We'll soon see if cable networks like Sleuth or TV Land can put together marathon blocks of Name of the Game or Burke's Law in memory of Barry. There aren't too many in Hollywood today that can emulate or match Barry's class & dignity on screen. He will be missed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why I gave up comics

It's been over a year and a half since I actively collected and read comic books. Oh, sure, I actually bought a couple of items, plus some freebies, during Free Comic Book Day back in May, but that's been it. After more than 40 years of reading comics, I had decided that I had to step away. There were a number of factors involved.

1) Too many "events". To borrow a line from 3rd Bass' "Pop Goes the Weasel" (1991), comic books have become too much of a "complex structure like a pyramid". Marvel & DC, for example, build everything in their core lines around a specific "event", expecting the faithful readers will shell out the extra dough for every crossover chapter to the storyline, even if it means buying a book they ordinarily wouldn't be caught dead reading. I know. I made that mistake when DC first issued Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985-6. Of course, back then, the books were cheaper than they are now, so it was easy to get roped in. In today's economy, not so much, unless you're willing to max out your Visa card.

2) Overpriced comics. The average DC or Marvel monthly now sells for either $3 or $4, depending on which book it is. Archie Comics is trailing behind at $2.50 per issue, which realistically should be the industry standard, not the exception. IDW (Idea & Design Works) skews toward $4 or $5, and always has, largely because of licensing fees that the publisher has to pay.

3) Stupid editorial ideas. Take for example what Marvel did with Spider-Man. Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada decided that after 20+ years of marriage, the web-head wasn't meant to be that way, so he had Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson, an event unto itself in the late 80's, erased via a deal with Marvel's figurehead representation of the Devil. That's just one of the lame ideas that Marvel, formerly nicknamed "The House of Ideas", foisted upon the readers. Another one was clearly meant for shock value. The Rawhide Kid, a Western hero who'd been around since the Silver Age, was depicted as being gay in a poorly received miniseries. What Quesada is looking for, besides a few extra dollars at the checkout counter, is media attention. Let's not even get started with all the historical shuffling DC has done with someone like Hawkman. You think Rubik's Cube is challenging? Trying to make sense of "retroactive continuity" (retcon) would actually require a college degree and a private investigator's license.

4) It's not fun anymore. This actually ties into #2. I just can't shell out $3-4 per book on a weekly/monthly basis anymore. It got to the point where I finally said to myself, enough is enough. If they could roll back prices like Walmart and bring the standard cover price back to the levels they were 15-20 years ago, maybe I'm still in the game. I've had people try to tell me that I will get back into it. No, I won't. Not at this stage. It may be that the only time I actually indulge myself will in fact be at Free Comic Book Day, if at all. Coming up on 20 months and counting.

I will still check out comics-related blogs, mostly because that's where the fun is now, and read the solicitations of coming releases on the 'net, just in case there's something that might pique my curiosity, and that doesn't happen very often. I realize that comics has become big business, and as such, the bottom line at the corporate level is the motivating factor behind a lot of the "events" that are on the racks now. I can remember when I spent 12 cents for 1 book, and if it was a continued story, I couldn't get the next issue if the local distributor didn't deliver it to the corner store. That was the breaks of the game then. Today, I'd rather swim against the tide and hold on to the memories I have of simpler continuities and done-in-one stories.

On Stage: "King Island Christmas" (2009)

Over the years, I've had the pleasure of seeing a number of productions presented by the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI), presently housed at Russell Sage College. It had been a few years since I'd seen a NYSTI production, but with a buy 1, get 1 free coupon in hand, I took my girlfriend along for a matinee performance of this year's Christmas production, "King Island Christmas".

"King" is a musical whose story is told almost entirely in song, one number right after the other in rapid-fire fashion. There is very little spoken dialogue, and virtually the entire cast, as a result, is on stage the entire time. Based on true events in Alaska in the 50's, "King" tells the story of the island community awaiting the arrival of a priest to perform a church service at Christmas. Time flies by, figuratively and literally, as the production clocks in at a tidy, speedy 80 minutes.

To single out one member of the cast would be unfair to others, so I will simply say that everyone involved delivered a very strong performance. And despite the setting, no subtle references to a certain ex-governor who's currently peddling a book about her first brush with fame a year ago, among other topics. If you have a theatre group in your area is looking for a fresh presentation for the holiday season, I would recommend mounting a production of "King Island", based on the book by Jean Rogers. Grade: A.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Edward Fatu (aka Umaga)(1973-2009)

Just one week ago, the wrestler formerly known as Umaga was in Australia on Hulk Hogan's Hulkamania tour, wrestling on the undercard vs. fellow WWE alumnus Ken Anderson (formerly Mr. Kennedy). Using the name Uso, Ed Fatu won his last match with his signature finisher, the Samoan Spike.

Just 5 days later, Fatu was rushed to a Houston hospital after his wife found him in his chair, bleeding from the nose and unable to breathe. Fatu was pronounced dead Friday evening after suffering two heart attacks in the space of 24 hours. He was 36.

Just 7 months ago, Umaga was feuding with CM Punk on WWE Friday Night Smackdown, and cut his first-ever promo. Fatu had essayed the role of Umaga as a silent, savage Samoan who let his actions do his talking for him. His former manager, Armando Estrada, had been shipped off to ECW before being released earlier this year, leaving Umaga without a mouthpiece to cut his promos for him, so the WWE creative team decided to experiment with the "Samoan Bulldozer". While it seemed to work, any chance Fatu had of challenging for the WWE World title evaporated when he was released in June after being cited for his second violation of the company's Wellness Policy. Rumors had Fatu heading to TNA, but he instead signed on for Hogan's Australia tour, which ended November 28.

A cousin to wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson (currently heard in "Planet 51"), Fatu had 2 tours of duty with WWE, first as Jamal, 1/2 of 3:00 Warning (2002-03), then as Umaga (2006-09), winning just the two Intercontinental titles in 2006 as Umaga. Fatu had also wrestled in the original ECW among his other stops during his career.

In an eerie coincidence, Anderson was also the last man to wrestle Eddie Guerrero before Guerrero passed away 4 years ago. Don't think that won't be played up in some corners of the wrestling media. It won't surprise anyone, either, if Phil Mushnick regurgitates his usual anti-WWE blather in writing about Fatu's passing. The sad irony is, it may not have been the usual suspect (drugs) that ultimately did in Fatu. Given that he was billed as weighing 350 pounds, one must consider that his weight may have also played a part in his passing, but that is something we can only speculate on at the moment.

Rest in peace, Edward. We'll all miss you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paul Naschy (1934-2009)

Just found out about this from Sam Wilson's Mondo 70 blog.

Naschy, born Jacinto Molina in 1934, is best remembered for his Spanish language treatment of classic horror movies like "The Wolf Man". I guess it can be said that Naschy would be the Spanish equivalent of horror icons like Vincent Price or Christopher Lee, but insofar as I know, Naschy never made a movie for American audiences with either Price or Lee or any of his other contemporaries.

While a new version of "The Wolf Man", starring Benicio Del Toro, is due to hit theatres in 2010 and is a remake of the Universal classic with Lon Chaney, Jr., it would be a good gesture to acknowledge Naschy's contribution to the lycantrhopic legend.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An era in Yankee history ends

Less than a month after the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series championship by dispatching the Philadelphia Phillies in 6 games, one of their most recognizable personalities officially closed a chapter in the team's storied history.

Public address announcer Bob Sheppard announced his retirement on Thanksgiving night, more than 2 years after he'd worked his last game at the original Yankee Stadium. Sheppard had been battling illness since the 2007 season, yet continued to work until it got to the point where he could not continue. Former Yankee broadcaster Paul Olden, who'd worked for the team during the 90's, assumed PA duties this year, unsure of whether or not Sheppard would return. After more than 50 years of welcoming fans into the hallowed Stadium, however, Sheppard conceded that his career had come to an end, and made it official, which of course merited a back page headline in the New York tabloids.

Even though Sheppard has not yet set foot in the new Stadium, his voice has been heard just the same. All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter, named Sports Illustrated's 2009 Sportsman of the Year on Monday, requested that a recording of Sheppard's introduction of him be played whenever he came to bat, a testimony to the respect Jeter has for Sheppard.

When the Yankees' NY-Penn League affiliate in Staten Island came to Troy to play the Tri-City Valleycats in recent years, someone associated with either team would do a incredible, spot-on mimic of Sheppard's distinctive voice for one inning. You'd swear Sheppard himself had made the trip. Sheppard can also be heard doing voice-overs for the YES network, but those bits were recorded when the network was launched 7 years ago. You have to believe that Sheppard will be honored by the Yankees sometime next year, including getting a plaque in Monument Park.

In addition to his work with the Yankees, Sheppard performed the same duties for the NFL's NY Giants for more than 50 years until stepping away from the mic at Giants Stadium following the 2006 season. I for one didn't realize this until a few years ago, when I could hear him while the game announcers were talking.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Yankees or their mammoth fan base campaigned to have Sheppard become the first PA announcer (I think) inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. To them, it would be a fitting coda to a distinguished career.