Monday, November 30, 2009

A different kind of hate crime

On November 20, 7 students at a California school were attacked by a group of 8 others. While that might not seem so weird, the motivation for the attacks is. Each of the victims were red-headed boys.

The problem starts with a Facebook posting promoting something called "Kick a Ginger Day", ginger being slang for redhead, obviously, and inspired by an episode of the Comedy Central series, South Park, which has entertained more than its fair share of controversy over the years. As of this writing, three of the 8 attackers were arrested and released into their parents' custody. 2 of the boys are 12, the other 13, and one imagines that the other five still at large at this time are around the same age. What the Police should consider, too, is pursuing the person who posted the initial "Kick a Ginger" message in the first place.

While it's seemingly easy to motivate a group of kids into attacking other kids for whatever reason, targeting those kids because of hair color, not skin color or religion or any other normal motivation for a hate crime, suggests a prank that has gone hopelessly wrong and spiraled out of control. You can bet that if/when the person responsible for "Kick a Ginger" is brought forward, that's what the defense is going to be, unless the person really is a few fries shy of a Happy Meal.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Dozierverse: What might've been

I was talking to a friend the other day at the supermarket, and he expressed his disdain over the current series Smallville, now in its 9th season. Not only does he not get the whole concept over the series, chronicling the career of young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) before he becomes Superman, but it bothered him that central characters like Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) had been written out of the show, and the producers had taken extreme creative liberties in creating their own version of the Justice League, as we've seen their takes on Green Arrow, Aquaman, Cyborg (of the Teen Titans), Martian Manhunter, and most recently, the Wonder Twins, in the last few seasons. It got me thinking.

A few years ago, I had acquired a VHS tape of the unaired Batgirl pilot from 1967 starring Yvonne Craig. The spin-off never got off the ground, and the "Dominoed Dare-Doll" was added to Batman for its 3rd & final season. In addition to the short feature were some network ads for NBC's Captain Nice and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and a trailer for 1975's "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze", George Pal's adaptation of the pulp legend. Also, there was a teaser for yet another William Dozier production, one that, luckily for us, never saw any airtime at all.

Six years before Wonder Woman was adapted into an ABC Movie of the Week with Cathy Lee Crosby (That's Incredible) and Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island), Dozier had tried a half-hour, comedy-adventure version designed along the same camp line as Batman, but infinitely worse. The fact that neither ABC nor NBC or CBS picked it up proves that what worked for Batman wasn't meant to work for the rest of the DC characters.

Undaunted, Dozier also tried to apply his formula to comic strip legend Dick Tracy. You've probably seen the title credits on YouTube or the full pilot, which I found on the Classic Television Showbiz blog. Tracy's theme song was composed and performed by the surf-rock group, The Ventures, better remembered for their awesome take on the Hawaii 5-0 theme. Instead of being closer to Green Hornet as a more serious crime drama, Tracy was also geared toward the campy Bat-audience, even going so far as to cast Victor Buono (King Tut on Batman) as the villain du jour, Mr. Memory. Apparently, Dozier believed that Chester Gould's cast of bizarre criminals (i.e. The Mole, Pruneface) would lend itself to be used the same way Batman's Rogues Gallery was used. As with Wonder Woman, network execs passed on Dick Tracy. Hence, Dozier's body of work on television consists solely of at least three series: Batman, Green Hornet, and the lone true sitcom Dozier ever made, The Tammy Grimes Show, with Batman being the most successful of the three.

You've heard of how actors are typecast. It's easy to assume that a producer such as Dozier was also typecast, after a fashion.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A coincidence of bad timing

One of the highlights of this week's WWE Monday Night Raw involved DeGeneration X (or, more commonly, DX) and Hornswoggle, a leprechaun character who has been a bit of a pest of late. However, those involved might've been better served waiting at least another week or two before going ahead with the skit they ran on Monday.

You see, earlier that day in NYC, a teenage girl was struck with a stray bullet while walking home from school, an innocent child walking into the midst of a dispute. I would say it was a drive-by, but the gunman rode a bicycle. With Raw at Madison Square Garden, this unfortunate, real-world incident had an effect on the DX-Hornswoggle angle.

Over the course of the last several weeks, Hornswoggle has been wearing DX clothing, specifically a cowboy hat similar to the one Shawn Michaels wears, and a "DX Army" t-shirt. Triple H had warned Hornswoggle a number of times about gimmick infringement, but the leprechaun wouldn't listen. About three weeks ago, Hornswoggle was served with a "cease & desist" order from DX. He ignored that, too. The core of Hornswoggle's character now isn't so much that he's a leprechaun, but rather, as announcer Michael Cole succinctly put it, a "petulant child".

And that brings us back to Monday at MSG. After Hornswoggle had caused Chavo Guerrero, Jr. to lose yet another match, furthering their seemingly endless feud, DX called Hornswoggle out to the ring. Forgetting that they had conferred an honorary membership to Hornswoggle two years ago, Triple H & Michaels feigned giving him full membership, and, then, in a scene similar to when HHH turned on Michaels 7 years ago, the "Cerebral Assassin" booted Hornswoggle in the gut, and hit his finisher, the Pedigree. The crowd, understandably, booed, but not with any real venom. It might not have been the reaction DX was looking for headed into a triple threat match vs. WWE champ John Cena at Survivor Series on Sunday---we don't know for sure---but given what had happened earlier in the day, the last thing the fans at MSG wanted to see was a child-like character being assaulted.

We do not know for sure if anyone in WWE was aware of what had happened to the young woman while preparing Raw for broadcast. If they were, a case could have been made where they could've waited at least another week or two before having DX "punish" Hornswoggle, if you will, for his ignorance. In fact, I didn't even know about the shooting until reading the paper the next day. Once I did, I was able to better gauge the audience reaction.

Vince McMahon has often been accused of lacking class, tact, etc., but this time, while the usual suspects (i.e. Phil Mushnick) will rip into him for going through with the skit in light of the shooting, I don't think McMahon can be held accountable. If he didn't know about it, and decided to go through with the skit as planned, well, at the end of the day, he comes across as innocent as that teenager who was shot, and the media hounds will be villified for finding fault where it doesn't exist. In the end, there is no one to blame.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ken Ober (1957-2009)

This one is a stunner. I saw the headline on Yahoo!'s front page a short time ago, and of course, I needed to read the article. Ken Ober, the genial MC of MTV's seminal comedy-game show Remote Control, passed away Sunday at 52. No other details have been made public at the present time.

In addition to making Ober a star, Control also launched the careers of actresses Kari Wuhrer (who was one of Ober's sidekicks during season 2) and Alicia Coppola (who replaced Wuhrer, then moved to the short lived Fox series, Against The Law), and actor-comedians Denis Leary (Rescue Me), Colin Quinn, and Adam Sandler. Post-Control, Ober tried his hand at acting, landing a role in NBC's first attempt at adapting the movie "Parenthood" for television, and did some commercials. Control would not be the end of his game show career, though, as Ober also hosted Smush and a revival of Make Me Laugh, both for Comedy Central (though he left Laugh after the 1st season), and a sports-themed game for Fox Sports Net, the title of which escapes me at the moment.

In recent years, Ober has worked as a morning radio host in Los Angeles, and turned his talents to producing, working on CBS' New Adventures of Old Christine and Comedy Central's now-defunct Mind of Mencia. He also reunited with Colin Quinn, serving as a producer and occasional panelist on Quinn's Comedy Central talk show, Tough Crowd.

One wonders if MTV will even be bothered to honor Ober with a marathon of Control. With MTV's programming now largely non-music related, we'll soon see. Rest in peace, Ken.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Edward Woodward (1930-2009)

Most of you might remember Edward Woodward for either films such as "The Wicker Man" or the popular mid-80's series, The Equalizer. Woodward passed away earlier today in London at 79. Woodward's last film to date was 2007's "Hot Fuzz" with Simon Pegg, among others. What I didn't know until reading about Woodward's passing in Ivan Shreve's Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog was that Woodward was also a recording artist during the course of a 60-plus year career in show business. Not sure if any of his records were ever released here in the US, even during his Equalizer days.

Let me also take the time to note the passing of noted sitcom writer David Lloyd, whose many credits include Frasier, Cheers, & The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for the latter of which Lloyd wrote the legendary episode, "Chuckles Bites the Dust".

Rest in peace, gentlemen. You will be missed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On DVD: Sherlock Holmes (1955)

A few months back, I bought a bargain basket DVD collecting 3 episodes of this mid-50's series, produced in France. As a Holmes fan going all the way back to my school days, I thought this might be a good addition to my collection.

After 1 episode, my opinion changed. Holmes, as played by Ronald Howard, comes across as a forerunner to a lot of the TV detectives that have come since, like Richard Diamond and Jim Rockford, for example. More jovial than normal, and sparring more than cooperating with Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. The episode in question, "The Case of Harry Crocker", has Holmes hired----after a fashion----by Crocker, a stage performer accused of murder. Much of the episode is spent with Crocker either evading or being captured by the police, and Holmes & Dr. Watson caught in the middle. This is not typical Holmes fare.

Edit, 1/28/17: Had to replace the video for "The Case of Harry Crocker":

I just couldn't take any more. Luckily, I do have a couple of DVDs of those Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce classics to reach for another day.

Rating: C-.

On the Air: "Family Guy" Presents Seth & Alex's Almost Live Variety Show, 11/8

Ever since Fox raised Family Guy from the dead a few years ago, it seems the network has bent over backwards to placate series creator/executive producer/star Seth MacFarlane. He now has two additional series on the network schedule (American Dad and the 1st-year entry, The Cleveland Show), and just for kicks, MacFarlane is given this half-hour special, bumping aside The Simpsons for one night. So, I figured I'd take a look and see just what the fuss was about that drew the PTC's attention.

The program opened innocently enough with MacFarlane and co-star Alex Borstein (ex-Mad TV) performing the Family Guy theme song while the more familiar opening from that series appeared on the screen. From there, it was an animated skit with the Griffin family loaded with sexual innuendos, followed by MacFarlane doing a cabaret number, a song taken from one of his favorite movies (though he didn't identify the film). Apparently, it had a World War II theme, as Alex interrupted three times to complain about the rude treatment the Jews got from the Nazis in WWII. Ok, so that's what the PTC had a problem with. Luckily for the rest of us, the better stuff was yet to come.

There were no real commercials. Instead, Stewie Griffin (MacFarlane, of course) queued up trailers for a pair of coming attractions from Warners, "Sherlock Holmes" and "Ninja Assassin". This after Microsoft had pulled out as a sponsor, to the delight of the PTC. In between trailers, MacFarlane presented a series of faux celebrity screen tests, including Bea Arthur (Borstein) auditioning for "Showgirls" and Gregory Peck (MacFarlane) testing for "Transformers". Silly stuff. Borstein scored big with a mimic of Renee Zellweger that actually sounded more like a more coherent cousin of Miss Swan (from Mad TV), and doing deaf actress Marlee Matlin covering Lady GaGa's "Poker Face". This prompted the real Matlin to make an appearance, serving up a receipt by doing a couple of jokes at Alex's expense. When she left, the Oscar winner (for "Children of a Lesser God") pulled off a tablecloth from one of the front row tables.

Referencing Family's past cancellations, MacFarlane then queued a pair of fake pilots "that never made it", including a Hill Street Blues parody that was another red flag for the morality police, and a Western starring Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement). That led to a series of jokes using shameless plugs for The Cleveland Show to censor swear words. Talk about throwing the new show under the bus! MacFarlane closed with a quick medley of songs using the voices of Peter & Stewie to cover, among other things, Elton John's "Rocket Man" (as Stewie) and The Trashmen's 1-hit wonder, "Surfin' Bird" (as Peter), which actually comes pretty close to a case of Peter/Seth lip-syncing the original song. As was the case earlier, footage from Family Guy complemented the songs. Another plus was musical director Walter Murphy getting some face time for the first time since, maybe, the 1970's, when he had a huge hit with "A 5th of Beethoven". (Yep, same guy)

On the whole, the show just flew by even quicker than any of MacFarlane's cartoons, and aside from the Jewish jokes and the FG skit at the start, there really wasn't a whole lot that justifies the PTC's whining.

 Rating: B-.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Morality Police are at it again

A few days ago, I had read on the Toon Zone message board that the Parents Television Council (PTC) had pressured Microsoft into pulling advertising from an upcoming Fox special starring Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. I just shook my head. Here we go again.

Since its founding in 1995, the PTC has made it its mission to bring traditional family values back to broadcast television. However, the methods they use amount to overzealous bullying when things don't go their way. The PTC boasted TV icon Steve Allen as an Honorary Chairman before his passing a few years back, and the current membership includes the likes of country singer-actor Billy Ray Cyrus (Hannah Montana) and----what a surprise---Pat Boone.

What PTC President Tim Winter and his group are complaining about now is a special that hasn't even aired yet, but they're going by the reputation that MacFarlane has already gained for his triad of animated sitcoms (Family Guy, American Dad, & the first-year series The Cleveland Show). While I have not seen Cleveland yet nor have bothered with American Dad to this point, I have sampled Family Guy on occasion. Yes, the humor may often be sophomoric and crass, but the problem with the show I see is that the plotlines are lost in a steady stream of bad gags and jokes that have no coherence in relation to whatever passes for a plot.

In short, the PTC is doing what it does best. Piggybacking onto someone else's forum to renew their 15 minutes of fame.

A little personal disclosure here. Some 30-odd years ago, I was attending a Christian church in my hometown whose pastor decided to take a very public stand on pornography, which, he believed, had extended to network television programs such as Three's Company and Charlie's Angels. He smashed three television sets to put his point across. The pastor has long since left the area, but his message was not too far from the mission statement the PTC would adopt nearly 20 years later. I would later realize that if you got past the distraction created by the concept of "Jiggle TV", and paid closer attention to the story itself, the shows weren't so bad.

And that is where the PTC is making its mistakes over and over again. They've railed against crime dramas like NYPD Blue (language) and Without a Trace (graphic violence, I assume), even though neither of those shows are aired at a time when children could be watching. That has been the moral crutch the PTC has used more often than not, taking into account that at least 2-3 generations of youths have taken up smoking and coarse language at such a young age, creating a cycle that is increasingly difficult to break. If the PTC recognized that the things they're complaining about are within the context of a story, then they have nothing to complain about.

It's never a good idea to complain about something you haven't seen, and have only gone by hearsay (word of mouth). Then, you're defeating your whole purpose, because you're enabling the show(s) you're targeting to draw more attention out of curiosity. Me? I'll be reviewing that Fox special this weekend, and we'll see if the PTC's mercenary, premature actions were justified.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New York expands its "bottle bill"

We've been accustomed to paying an extra nickel per bottle or can for beer, soda, and energy drinks like Red Bull. Oh? You didn't know there was a deposit on Red Bull? Shame on you! I digress.

Beginning November 8, New Yorkers will be paying that extra nickel for bottles of water weighing less than 1 gallon. The Save-A-Lot supermarket chain, perhaps thinking way ahead of everyone else, has had the deposit in effect on all bottled beverages for quite a while now, which made them the only stores in New York to accept deposits on water, iced tea, & lemonade. Apparently, this confused some consumers, who would bring their empties to rival markets, thinking that if 1 store took them back, they all would. Not now, but soon, it would appear.

Bear in mind that for now, only water joins soda & beer in being returned for a deposit. In time, lemonade and iced tea will follow suit. Aside from New York, bottled water is returned in Maine, Hawaii, Michigan, and California. One has to assume that everyone else will follow suit in due course.

From an environmental standpoint, it's a huge positive, as it takes a lot of empty bottles off the streets. Yes, there are those people who don't see the benefits of bottle returns, which is why you see beer & soda bottles and cans still strewn in the streets, easily collected by local urchins looking for a quick payday.

However, the increase in the bottle bill has gone under-reported in some newspapers. The Record, my hometown paper, for example, practically buried the story, giving it next to no priority. The urchins will learn about it either via television or by word of mouth, but they have to wait for the newly labeled bottles to become available as of 11/8. Anything before then still won't net them anything---unless they go to Save-A-Lot. By this time next year, you have to assume that everything else (iced tea, lemonade) falls into line, and while it's going to create an increase in traffic at the bottle returns at the markets, it will also create---we hope---cleaner streets in our cities.

Roughly translated: to paraphrase the United Negro College Fund, an empty bottle is a terrible thing to waste. Let's all do our part.

Carl Ballantine (1917-2009)

Many thanks to Ivan Shreve at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear for the heads-up on this item. Actor-comedian-magician Carl Ballantine has passed away at 92. Best remembered as shifty Lester Gruber on McHale's Navy in the 60's, Ballantine incorporated magic into his comedy act on stage. He had intended to be a full time practicing magician, but apparently he didn't have enough talent to be up there with the likes of Harry Blackstone and other masters of prestidigation.

After McHale ended its run in 1966, Ballantine logged appearances on several other series, including The Monkees and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, while continuing to perform on the road. He was a tremendous talent, and earned his fair share of laughs on McHale.

Rest in peace, Carl. You will be missed.