Saturday, 16 June 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

If I had to choose a candidate for the most disappointing sequel of all time, it would probably be Ocean's Twelve. More so than Jaws 2 and even Batman and Robin (the 1997 film), it was one big letdown. What made it worse was that this profoundly bad movie was made by the same people who had made the fantastic original, Ocean's Eleven (itself loosely based on the 1960 Frank Sinatra vehicle of the same name). It was for that reason that, despite what looked to be a very good film from the trailers, I approached Ocean's Thirteen with some trepidation. Fortunately, I had no reason to be worried.

Director Steven Soderbergh and his ensemble (ranging from Don Cheadle to Elliot Gould) are back in top form. The cast and crew describe the movie as "the one we should have made last time" I can tell you upfront that it is indeed the movie that Ocean's Twelve should have been. While Ocean's Twelve gave short shrift to Soderbergh's gifted cast, focusing too much on Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt), every member of the cast gets his time in the spotlight in Ocean's Thirteen. Particularly good are Carl Reiner as con man Saul Bloom, who pulls off his best impersonation yet, and Don Cheadle as Cockney explosives expert Basher Tarr, who must again accomplish the impossible. Welcome additions to the cast are Al Pacino as wonderfully over the top villain Willie Bank, who cheats Reuben (Elliot Gould) out his share in a new casino, and Ellen Barkin, his assistant Abigail Sponder, who proves once and for all that "women of a certain age" can be sexy. Indeed, it is Willie Bank who sets the plot in motion, with Danny Ocean and his crew seeking revenge on the traitorous casino owner for not only double crossing Reuben, but causing him to have a heart attack.

What makes Ocean's Thirteen all the more better is that it is thoroughly a throwback to the old caper films of the Sixties. From its opening credits to its closing credits, it invokes the spirit of such movies as Topkapi and How to Steal a Million. Like the caper films of old, Ocean's Thirteen does away with exposition and gets us into the action as soon as possible. At the same time Ocean's Thirteen has a complex plot suitable to the archetypal caper movie (which I am sure will be a source of complaint for many of today's critics). Best of all, this is a movie that knows not to take itself too seriously. After all, in any good caper film we expect the heroes to be shrewd, devious, and fun loving.

For some time I genuinely feared that caper movies were a lost art. It seemed that the last significant number of truly great caper films were made in the Seventies, with very few being released since then (the fairly good Sneakers from 1992 being an example). With Ocean's Eleven Steven Soderbergh proved that truly good caper movies can be made. And with Ocean's Thirteen he proves it can still be done.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Hardee's Invites More Controversy with New Commercial?

Today I saw a rather interesting advertisement in our local newspaper. It was from the owners of the local Hardee's restaurant stating that they found the latest Hardee's commercial for their patty melt extremely offensive (they put that in bold letters at that). They were encouraging people to either call or email CKE Restaurants Inc. (who own Hardee's, called "Carl's Jr." in the extreme Western United States) expressing their displeasure at the commercial.For those of you who have not seen the commercial, it features a blonde clad in nothing but a white shirt rolling around with a patty melt to narration consisting almost entirely of double entendres. It opens with the words "Patty melts for you..."

Doing a search on the World Wide Web I didn't find a lot in the way of controversy over the commercial, although I think that is exactly what could be brewing for Hardee's. I found a few blogs and even newspaper commentaries in which people complained about the commercial. And it has even attracted the attention of the American Decency Association, a Christian group based in Fremont, Michigan dedicated to advancing "public morality consistent with biblical Christianity."It also seems to have attracted the attention of Donald Wildmon's American Family Association. I rather suspect it won't be long before this brewing controversy attracts the attention of the major media outlets.

Of course, this is not the first time that Hardee's has invited controversy with their commercials. In 2003 Hardee's debuted a commercial which featured a comely young woman eating one of their burgers while riding suggestively on a mechanical bull to the tune of Foghat's "Slow Ride." Watchdog groups such as the American Family Association protested the ad, and it is referenced among those in which the American Decency Association feels Hardee's "used sex to try to sell their product." Later in 2003 Hardee's started an ad campaign on television that featured Hugh Hefner and some beautiful young women promoting the variety of the fast food chain's menu with plenty of double entendres. The commercial attracted the ire of Donald Wildmon's American Family Association and similar groups.

Of course, their most notorious commercial was the one debuting in May 2005 which featured Paris Hilton in a swimsuit soaping down a Bentley before eating one of Hardee's burgers. The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group based in Los Angeles, referred to the commercial as "...basically soft-core porn." Other watchdog groups (including the American Family Association, as might be expected) expressed similar sentiments. In fact, many newspaper and magazine articles asked the question of whether the ad was too hot for TV.

In February of this year Hardee's debuted a commercial for their Buffalo wings in which a young man watched as a scantily clad waitress provocatively wiped down a table. This commercial didn't seem to provoke as much controversy as the Paris Hilton ad, although it did attract the attention of the American Decency Association, who list it among the various commercials in which they allege Hardee's has used sex to sell their product.

The patty melt commercial seems to be the latest in a string of Hardee's commercials in which they seem as if they are provoking media watchdogs on purpose. Indeed, their responses to media watchdog groups over commercials in the past is not quite what I would expect from a fast food chain.Using sex to sell products is nearly as old as advertising itself, and so are the protests such practices sometimes invite. That having been said, it seems to me that usually when a company's commercial is found to be overly offensive by even a tiny group of viewers, that company will often pull the commercial. One example of this was a 1967 Noxzema Shaving Cream ad featuring future B-movie star Caroline Munro that was considered racy even by that product's standards (keep in mind this was the era of their "Take it off" campaign). A 1977 commercial for Dole Bananas featured a young woman suggestively taking a bite out of a banana to a Pink Floyd soundtrack. The commercial was considered so provocative that it was yanked from the airwaves. Some of you might remember the "Swedish bikini team" commercials for Old Milwaukee beer aired in 1991. After complaints, Old Milwaukee ended the campaign. Even Calvin Klein Inc., a company whose commercials have courted controversy from the very beginning, has pulled ads that many thought were too suggestive.

While other companies will pull ads at the first whiff of controversy, Hardee's responds to complaints in ways I wouldn't expect. In response to complaints about their Hugh Hefner ad campaign, CKE President and CEO Andrew F. Puzder stated in a press release "Who better to deliver the message of variety than Hugh Hefner?" and that they were "...appealing to an audience of young, hungry guys..." CKE Restaurants Inc. was hardly apologetic. In response to the Parents Television Council's complaints about Hardee's Paris Hilton campaign, Puzder was even less apologetic. He told the group to "...get a life." This is not quite what I expect from a company in the United States, where the customer is always right, even when he may be wrong. I guess no one can accuse them of not standing by their commercials.

It will be interesting to see if this latest Hardee's commercial does create a good deal of controversy. It has attracted the attention of moral watchdog groups such as the American Family Association and the American Decency Association, but then these groups often attack things in the media which the general public finds innocuous (over the years the American Family Association has attacked shows ranging from Cheers to Mighty Mouse: the New Adventures and movies ranging from The Lion King to Shark Tale). Even if somehow the patty melt commercial does generate controversy among the general public, given the company's history I can't see Hardee's pulling the commercial off the air or changing their advertising practices any time soon. And in some respects they really don't have much motivation to do so. Their sales seem to have been fairly good the past few years. Reportedly, the notorious Paris Hilton ad was accompanied by bigger sales for Hardee's and Carl Jr.'s. And it's not as if commercials for such male enhancement drugs as Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, aren't suggestive enough (not to mention they use terminology some people might not want young children to hear). For better or worse, television is filled with sex these days, especially its commercials.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Web Sites for Movie and Television Buffs

There are times when mass media historians like myself need a bit of help. Very few of us have the money to buy every single book necessary to our research (some of which can be on subjects that are obscure at best). And we don't always have time to traipse down to the local library and check out the necessary books. Indeed, if one lives in a small town many times the local library won't have the necessary books. This is where the Internet becomes an indispensable tool. As the case is, many of these web sites with information on movies and television will also be of interest to people other than mass media historians or pop culture buffs.

Perhaps the best known web site dealing with movies and television is the Internet Movie Data Base, better known simply as IMDB. I first discovered IMDB not long after I first got online in 1997. It was launched on October 17, 1990. IMDB originated from two different lists started in 1989 in the Usenet newsgroup.rec.arts.movies. Eventually Col Needham of Manchester, England would combine the two lists to create the earliest version of the Internet Movie Database. In the beginning IMDB listed over 10,000 movies and TV shows. It would grow even more in succeeding years, adding trivia, biographies, plot summaries, and so on. By 1995 it would become its own company, incorporated in the UK as the Internet Movie Database Ltd. Eventually it would be bought by Amazon in 1998.

IMDB is perhaps the movie and TV buff's best friend. It has been exceedingly rare that I have not been able to find a movie or TV show on the site. In those instances where I haven't, I have to wonder that I simply didn't try searching for the wrong thing. At times errors do crop up on IMDB, but it seems to me that these are often corrected very swiftly. My only complaint about IMDB is that their new look, which I really don't find appealing. Fortunately, they are allowing registered users to still use the old page design while taking feedback on the new one. With any luck, they'll simply stick with the old look.

Another website I have found particularly useful is Box Office Mojo. My best friend turned me onto it about three years (which says something since he tends to be the least Internet savvy person around). Box Office Mojo began in August 1998. Box Office Mojo is most useful in tracking the box office revenue of a movie. Over the last few years I have found it to be the most reliable site when it comes to learning about how well any given movie has done at the box office. Indeed, one can compare how well two different movies did at the box office. It makes it very easy to track box office trends. Box Office Mojo also features articles on movies, as well as reviews of movies.

Sadly, the reviews of movies are my second least favourite part of Box Office Mojo. Resident critic Scott Halleran writes the majority of reviews for the site. I am not sure I have ever seen him give a good review of a movie (my best friend and I have joked about what his review of Citizen Kane might look like...I could picture him saying it was "pretentious" and that the plot was "too complex..."), leading me to wonder if he even likes movies. I am not alone in my distaste of Halleran as a critic. His review of the critically acclaimed The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had Box Office Mojo's users ready to form a lynch mob. My least favourite part of Box Office Mojo are its pop up ads, which somehow get around my pop up blocker on Firefox. I really wish they would simply do away with the pop ups and rely on banner ads alone.

Another useful site is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes was launched in 1998 and takes its name from the vaudeville practice of throwing rotten tomatoes at particularly bad performers. As might be expected from its name, the emphasis in the site is on reviews. Rotten Tomatoes features reviews not only from top critics, but even from lesser known critics from smaller venues (anyone here ever hear of the Palo Alto Weekly outside of California?). More importantly, it gives the common film buff a say, letting users rate movies and even post their own reviews. It is fascinating to see the contrasts between the opinions of critics and users at times. For instance, 87% of critics gave Brokeback Mountain good reviews, contrasted with only 84% of users. On the other hand, only 47% of all critics gave Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End good reviews, contrasted with 76% of users. Of course, Rotten Tomatoes doesn't just let users post reviews. In some respects it is the MySpace of film geeks. Users can create their own profiles and even post their own blogs (which they call journals). You can see mine here. I don't know ultimately how useful knowing the tastes of critics or even other film buffs with regards to specific movies really is, but the site certainly is fun.

Of course, most film buffs want to watch movies and TV shows as well as read about them, which means one must buy or rent the DVDs. The Internet lets one do this as well. When it comes to buying DVDs, I prefer Amazon to Barnes and Noble. While Barnes and Noble has a great selection, one cannot find used DVDs there whereas one can do so on Amazon. Of course, in some respects Amazon has gone down hill of late. They have done away with Favourites, which I always found useful in finding Recommendations. And they have implemented the use of Tags, which I not only find useless but downright annoying in that anyone can post them. I am hoping that user feedback might persuade them to do away with Tags and bring back Favourites.

Naturally, no film buff wants to buy movies he has never seen. It then becomes a good idea to rent them. Sadly, one cannot always find rare, obscure, or older films at the local video store. This is where Netflix comes in use. One can simply choose the movies one wants to see and Netflix will send them to you through the mail. One can also buy used movies at Netflix, which can sometimes be cheaper than Amazon or Barnes and Noble! I got my copies of Steamboy and House of Flying Daggers that way. There is also Blockbuster, run by the video store chain of the same name. I have never used Blockbuster, but my best friend did for a short time. He said that it was useful only if one had no video stores in one's own area (we do) and only wanted to rent the most popular films. When it came to rare or obscure movies, one might as well forget finding them on Blockbuster.

Anyhow, those are my favourite movie and TV show sites. I am sure that there are more out there, but these are the ones I rely on as sources of information and ways to buy or rent movies.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

The Fictions of Grunge

I am willing to bet that more fictions have arisen surrounding the rock music subgenre known as grunge than any other, save perhaps for emo (My Chemical Romance is emo...yeah, right...). For those of you who are too young or too old to remember, grunge was a music form that experienced a brief, but intense, period of popularity in the early Nineties. Its chief proponent was the Seattle band Nirvana (not to be confused with the Sixties British band of the same name).

Unlike many movements in rock music, grunge evolved primarily in one region of the United States. Although identified with Liverpool, the origins of the British Invasion can be found all over England, from Liverpool to Manchester to London. And while psychedelia is identified today with San Francisco, in actuality it evolved in locations as diverse as southern California to England. On the other hand, grunge is almost purely a product of the American northwest, with its epicentre being Seattle, Washington. The name for the subgenre, grunge, was coined by Mark Arm of the rock group Green River in the Eighties. Arm did not mean the term to be a compliment, the word grunge more or less being synonymous with the word dirt. In fact, he not only described the band's sound as "pure grunge," but "pure s***" as well. That having been said, the term was more or less fitting, as grunge was characterised by what is known as "dirty" guitar. That is, it depended heavily on feedback and distortion.

Grunge evolved out of influences from hardcore punk, heavy metal, indie rock, and garage bands. The punk band Black Flag was pivotal in the creation of grunge in the same way that the blues artists who toured England in the late Fifties and early Sixties were pivotal in the creation of the British Invasion. The band's 1984 tour (supporting the album My War) would have a profound influence on bands in Seattle. Other influences on grunge ranged from MC5 to The Pixies to Sonic Youth. In fact, not only did the lead singer of Green River coin the term grunge, but arguably the band became the first proponent of the subgenre. Even though Green River split up in 1988, before the mainstream popularity of grunge, several bands would follow in their wake.: Alice in Chains in 1987, Mother Love Bone and Nirvana in 1988, and Pearl Jam in 1990. Initially confined to the Northwest, grunge sprang into the mainstream with the success of the Nirvana album Nevermind in 1990.

Grunge became extremely popular in the early Nineties. Bands from places beyond Seattle even adopted the sound. Silverchair sprang not from Seattle, but Australia. The popularity of grunge was even parodied in Todd Snider's "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" about a band that refused to play their instruments ("silence...music's original alternative"). Even though the fictional band was from Athens (I assume they mean Georgia), the "record guy" signs them only after they tell him they are from Seattle! Generally speaking, the more intensely popular a particular fad or cycle is, the sooner it falls out of popularity. Grunge was no exception. While part of this was no doubt due to the suicide of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain in 1994, I suspect most of it was due to people getting tired of the subgenre. Regardless, by 1996 grunge was passe. Today I suspect most people view grunge as being irreconcilably tied to the period of the early Nineties, much as most people view psychedelia as tied to the late Sixties. While these days power pop bands and even heavy metal bands might sound up to date, a grunge band would just sound anachronistic.

Even though grunge only enjoyed a brief vogue, a number of fictions sprung up surrounding the music form. There can be little doubt that some of these sprung up due to the subgenre's popularity. For that reason one of the most frequent fictions is that certain bands were grunge when, in fact, they were not. This is perhaps most true of the band Soundgarden. When Soundgargen initially came on the music scene in 1989, they were labelled "heavy metal." To me this was and still is entirely accurate. While their sound makes some use of "dirty" guitar, it sounds closer to classic heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and MC5 than grunge bands such as Green River and Pearl Jam. Indeed, the song "Big Dumb Sex" on their debut album for a major label, Louder than Love, is not only a parody of glam metal songs, it is pure heavy metal. Yet, somehow, after Nirvana became popular, Soundgarden retroactively became a "grunge" band, even though their sound had not changed very much at all. Indeed, arguably with each new album Soundgarden became even more of a heavy metal band! I suspect Soundgarden was labelled "grunge" for two simple reasons. First, they were from Seattle. In the early Nineties practically every band from Seattle or the Northwest was labelled "grunge," the exception being power pop band The Posies. I suspect given grunge's popularity, this was more a marketing ploy than anything else. After all, everyone knew that grunge was the "Seattle sound." Second, in the early Nineties heavy metal had largely fallen out of favour. With heavy metal albums failing on the charts in droves, it probably seemed like a good idea on the part of marketers to avoid the label "heavy metal" like the plague. For that reason the heavy metal band Soundgarden suddenly became a "grunge" band.

Another band that was labelled "grunge" when they were not was Stone Temple Pilots (also known simply as STP). In fact, Stone Temple Pilots wasn't even from Seattle, but from San Diego! The reason that Stone Temple Pilots was labelled "grunge" is that many of their early hits ("Sex Type Thing" and "Creep") did indeed sound like grunge. That having been said, even on their first album, Core, it was hard to peg STP into any one subgenre of rock. True, "Sex Type Thing" and "Creep" had a grunge sound, but "Plush" showed heavy influence from ragtime! In truth STP was a band like The Beatles or Queen who played with several different music genres. This became more evident as the band continued. "Interstate Love Song" shows influence from Jim Croce and has a Southern Rock feel. "Big Bang Baby (my favourite Stone Temple Pilots song)" shows influences from British artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie. "Down," from their fourth album, is very nearly heavy metal. STP was multifaceted in a way that Nirvana could never be.

Other fictions that were as prevalent as, if not more so than, labelling non-grunge bands "grunge" emerged not from the popularity of grunge but from the mainstream media's effort to fit Generation X into their own preconceived stereotypes. Perhaps the most common of these was that grunge was the chosen music form of Generation X. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, grunge entered the mainstream just as the oldest members of Generation X were about to enter their thirties and as the youngest members of the generation were entering their teens. In other words, it arrived rather late on the scene where Generation X was concerned. And just as I don't believe that Generation X can be stuck with any one label (most of us only seem to tolerate the label "Generation X"), I don't think it can be said that any one music genre can be identified with us. Members of Generation X listen to music as diverse as power pop to, as loath as I am to admit it, country. If one were to identify a music form as particularly belonging to Generation X, I would think heavy metal or power pop would be better choices than grunge. Heavy metal re-emerged in popularity just as many of us were entering high school and remained popular until the last of us were just about to leave our teens. And, quite frankly, I know more fans of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in Generation X than Nirvana. As to power pop, Cheap Trick and The Knack emerged in popularity just as many of us were leaving our teens. Throughout the years power pop artists from Matthew Sweet to the Fountains of Wayne have been popular with Gen Xers. In fact, arguably power pop had a more lasting popularity than grunge ever did. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Gen Xers don't like grunge (many of us do) or that grunge wasn't particularly important to Generation X, simply that it is not THE music of Generation X.

Linked to the idea that grunge is the music of Generation X is the idea that Kurt Cobain, the leader of Nirvana who eventually shot himself, was the "voice" of Generation X. Let's make this perfectly clear. Most Gen Xers I know regarded Kurt Cobain as a very talented musician and songwriter. That having been said, we also recognised early that the man had more than his share of problems. Drug addiction, depression, and marrying Courtney Love (which my friends and contemporaries agree that no sane man would do) made him just about the last person in the world we would want for our spokesman. His suicide, not wholly unexpected, did nothing to dissuade us from that. I suspect that it was the media and not Generation X who named Kurt Cobain as our spokesman, largely in their ongoing effort to fit the whole generation into their own preconceived stereotype. Just as Generation X often resents being labelled, I also think that we can all agree that there is not simply one person who was the "voice of our generation." If there was, I rather suspect that person would actually belong to a previous generation. An argument could be made that John Lennon and Jerry Garcia were the voices of the baby boomers, even though they both belonged to the Silent Generation instead (they were born in 1940 and 1942 respectively). I think a better argument could then be made for Doug Fieger of The Knack, technically a baby boomer, as the spokesman of Generation X than Kurt Cobain. Indeed, I suspect "My Sharona" is more of a Gen X anthem than "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ever has been! Actually, if Generation X does have spokesmen, I suspect that they are from the medium of film rather than music. Both Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater have made films that appeal greatly to many Generation Xers and given us a real voice in the media when so many of others wanted to peg us as things we are not.

As I said earlier, I don't want to give the impression that I believe that Gen Xers hate grunge. Indeed, I am a fan of grunge as are many of my contemporaries and friends. I like several songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains (my favourite grunge band of all time). But I also believe that of all music subgenres more fictions have surrounded it than any other. Some of these were due to its sheer popularity (Hey, let's label this band "grunge" to sell more records!). And some of it was due to the media's effort to peg Generation X into some preconceived stereotypes (We all know that Gen Xers are a bunch of alienated slackers who get body piercings and hang out in coffee houses...). Regardless, these fictions have probably influenced the images many have both of grunge and Gen X ever since. I, for one, would prefer a bit of honesty when it comes to both.

Monday, 11 June 2007

The Greatest Series Finales on Television

Last night HBO aired the final episode of The Sopranos. Many articles have covered the series finale, before and after it aired. This will not be one of them. Instead, I thought it would be amusing to list what I consider to be the best series finales in the history of television. If you haven't seen these series, I have to warn you to proceed with caution. Here There Be Spoilers.

1. Newhart: In the history of television, Bob Newhart was one of the few actors to have more than one hit sitcom. In the Seventies he played Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley, surrounded by a number of strange characters (not all of them his patients) on The Bob Newhart Show. In the Eighties he played writer Dick Loudon, who moves to Vermont to run a small town inn, surrounded by a number of strange characters (nearly all of them his neighbours). Both series capitalised on Bob Newhart's gift as the perfect straight man to sometimes bizarre characters. And both had long runs--The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons, while Newhart ran for eight.

Of the two series, The Bob Newhart Show is perhaps the best remembered, but I have always insisted that Newhart was the superior of the two shows. Not only did it have characters as off the wall (and sometimes more so) as those on The Bob Newhart Show, at times it could take a turn to outright surrealism. An example of this is when Larry (whose brothers, "Darryl and my other brother Darryl," never spoke) mentions offhand to Dick that Johnny Carson pays their gas bills. Quite naturally Dick doesn't believe one word Larry has to say, until Carson himself shows up at the end of the episode to tell him that he does pay Larry, Darryl, and Darryl's gas bills! In another episode Larry had a near death experience and met God!

In keeping with a show that could occasionally be surreal, the final episode of the series, fittingly titled "The Last Newhart," was equally surreal. In that last episode a Japanese businessman bought the entire town to turn it into a resort and golf course. Dick and his wife Joanna (Mary Franm) refuse to go along with the whole scheme, leaving them the lone people of the town when everyone else sells out. Five years later, the newly rich townsfolk are now stranger than ever. George Utley (wonderfully played by the late Tom Poston), formerly the inn's handyman, wants to build a theme park dedicated to handymen. The Wayside Inn is constantly pelted with errant golf balls from the golf course. And Joanna has taken to dressing like a geisha. Larry, Darryl, and Darryl have all married women who talk a mile a minute, resulting in a historic first for the series--Darryl and Darryl speak (telling their wives in unison to "Quiet!"). From there things get even more out of hand than in the average Fawlty Towers episode. At last, Dick has had enough and announces that he is leaving for good. As he steps out the door, however, Dick is hit by an errant golf ball. He blacks out and the screen turns black.

It is a few seconds later that a light is turned on to reveal the familiar bedroom of Dr. Robert Hartley in Chicago. Beside him in bed is his wife Emily (played here, as in The Bob Newhart Show by Susanne Pleshette). Hartley tells Emily that he dreamed he ran a Vermont inn, surrounded by strange townsfolk, a dense handyman, and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. He also reveals that in the dream he was married to a beautiful blonde. Emily's interest is piqued when Hartley mentions the "beautiful blonde," Harley, realising he has made a tactical error, tells Emily to go back to sleep and adds that "..you should wear more sweaters (something Joanna wore quite a bit of on Newhart)." That's right, in the end the series Newhart was revealed to all be a dream!

The end of Newhart works on more than one level. First, it was a parody of the final episode of the eighth season of the nighttime soap Dallas. In that episode, it was revealed that the entire eighth season of the series was a dream! This deus ex machina naturally infuriated many fans. Second, never before had an actor appeared as a character from a previous series on his current series. In some respects, then, the end of Newhart was the ultimate, self referential, television in joke. It would have been as if in the final episode of Gilligan's Island Maynard G. Krebs had awakened and then called Dobie Gillis to tell him about this dream in which he was the first mate of a boat that had crashed on an uncharted, desert isle... Third, there is a good deal of humour to be had in Robert Hartley apparently finding some appeal in Dick Loudon's life. Just why did he mention to Emily that he was married to a beautiful blonde? You have to admit, both Robert Hartley and Dick Loudon were darn lucky men...

2. The Fugitive: The Fugitive was in some respects a revolutionary series. First, it was one of the earliest "road shows"--shows on which a character or characters travelled from place to place. Second, it was one of the few series in the history of television with its very own McGuffin. The premise of the series was that Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Jansen) had been accused and falsely convicted of the murder of his wife. Fortunately, he escaped execution when the train carrying him wrecked and he was able to get away. Kimble was pursued by Lt. Gerhard (played by Barry Morse) at the same time that he searched for the man who had really killed his wife, the mysterious one armed man (the show's McGuffin). Kimble was on the move for two reasons, to avoid capture by Lt. Gerhard and to catch the one armed man and clear his name. The Fugitive was also revolutionary in a third way. Until that point, most shows ended as if they were not going off the air, with no special episodes that brought the series to a conclusion. The Fugitive broke with this tradition in that it had a definite conclusion in which the series was brought to an end.

After a successful four year run in which The Fugitive had won both ratings and awards, it was decided to bring the series to an end. In the two part, final episode of The Fugitive ("The Judgement" Parts One and Two), Kimble is finally captured by Gerhard. As Gerhard takes Kimble back to Indiana (fittingly aboard a train), Kimble persuades him to give him one more chance to capture the one armed man and clear his name. Following a trail of clues, Kimble and Gerhard trace the one armed man (named Johnson) to an abandoned theme park. There, atop a water tower Kimble has his classic confrontation with the one armed man. The one armed man confesses his crime and is about to throw Kimble from the tower when Gerhard, finally convinced that Kimble was innocent along, shoots him. Not only was it the first, definite conclusion to an American series, it was also arguably the most dramatic. Indeed, the climax of the overrated movie based on the classic series, The Fugitive (in which the one armed man wasn't even the chief villain!), was nothing compared to the climax of the TV show. The final episode of The Fugitive would remain the highest rated episode of a TV series until it was eclipsed by the November 21, 1980 episode of Dallas, "Who Shot J.R."

3. Cheers: Arguably, Cheers was the most successful sitcom of the Eighties. Oh, at the time The Cosby Show received higher ratings, but ultimately Cheers would outlast it in syndication and, arguably, in pop culture cachet as well. I don't think it was simply because I preferred the show to The Cosby Show, then, that I perceived more anticipation about the Cheers series finale than there had been about the final episode of The Cosby Show in the previous season.

In some ways Cheers was a deceptively simple show. It had begun as one of those romantic comedies so popular in the Eighties, with former baseball player and owner of the bar Cheers, Sam Malone (Ted Danson), intrigued by his new, pseudo-intellectual waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). As the series progressed, however, it became much more of an ensemble comedy, focusing on such characters as Norm (George Wendt) and eccentric postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger), particularly after Long's departure from the series five years into its run. Although starting out with bottom of the barrel ratings, Cheers soon became a top rated show and ultimately ran eleven seasons. It is easy to see why its final episode would be eagerly anticipated.

The final episode (a three parter titled "One for the Road") of Cheers was not what anyone expected, and throughout the episode it provided a red herring to what many thought would be the ending of the series. Namely, after Diane Chambers wins an award for a cable movie she wrote, Sam gets back in touch with her, resulting in her returning to Boston. The two reunite and for a time it looks like the series might end the way many thought it had--with Sam and Diane riding off in the sunset together. Indeed, they even go so far as to board a plane to leave together. The two of them soon figure out, however, that they may not be meant for each other. Diane then returns to California and Sam returns to Cheers.

The final episode of Cheers is remarkable for three reasons. First, many had expected for the series to end with Sam Malone reuniting and maybe even marrying Diane Chambers. The series did not end so predictably. What is more it gave good reasons for Sam and Diane not to be together. Indeed, it is established that Sam's true love is not Diane, but Cheers itself. That the episode threw out a rather large red herring (for a time it looked like Sam and Diane might be together) made it all the more better. Second, the episode did not simply focus on Sam and Diane, but on the rest of the ensemble as well. Rebecca (who started out as Sam's boss, then became Sam's employee, and later his partner and best friend) is finally getting married. Dense bartender Woody has, believe it or not, become a Boston city councilman. Norm has finally gotten a good job as an accountant at City Hall. Cheers started out as a romantic comedy, but in the end it was very much an ensemble comedy. Third, the end of Cheers differed from the final episodes of many series of the Eighties and Nineties in that ultimately nothing earth shattering happened in the episode. True, most of the characters underwent changes during the episode, but in many respects life continued as usual. They would all continue to be friends. It is not too far fetched to assume that Rebecca's marriage failed (indeed, it was revealed to have done just that in an episode of Fraiser) and that Norm lost his job at City Hall (he never could hold down a job). Regardless, it was safe to say that they would all return to Cheers. While the characters seemed to be experiencing major changes in their lives, in many ways their lives were very much the same.

4. M*A*S*H: In many respects M*A*S*H was a bit of an anomaly. First, it was one of the few TV shows based on a movie to be successful. After all, who remembers Delta House (based on Animal House) or Ferris Bueller? Second, it was a show that in some respects defies classifications. Ostensibly, M*A*S*H was a situation comedy. Indeed, in its first season some of its episodes were not too different from other service comedies that had preceded it (The Phil Silvers Show, AKA Sgt. Bilko, and McHale's Navy). That having been said, it was not long before M*A*S*H would begin to feature more and more dramatic content. Indeed, M*A*S*H was the first show to actually kill off a continuing character (previously when a character on a TV show died it was because the actor playing that role had died). In the third season finale, "Abyssinia, Henry," Col. Henry Blake (played by Maclean Stevenson), returning home, died when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Arguably, after Combat the series became one of the most serious treatments of war to ever air on television. In this respect, perhaps the label "dramedy," coined in 1978 (but not in common usage until the Eighties) for shows that combined comedy with drama, was the best one for the show. Third, it was the only show ever set in the Korean War (all the other war shows have been set during World War II, the Vietnam War, or some other war entirely). It was perhaps because M*A*S*H was so unique that it lasted eleven seasons.

Naturally, the final episode of M*A*S*H was one of the most anticipated events of the 1982-1983 season. In an unprecedented move, the entire two and a half hour episode, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," was aired in its entirety on a single night. Summed up succinctly,"Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" covered the last days of the Korean War. That having been said, it was the most complex episode of M*A*S*H ever to air, with a number of ongoing plots. Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda) had finally had a nervous breakdown and was being treated in a mental hospital by psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freeman (a recurring character played by Allan Arbus). Sidney finally cures Hawkeye and he is sent back to the MASH 4077th just in time for the war's end. In the meantime, Major Winchester (played by David Ogden Stiers) takes a group of Chineese POWs who are also musicians under his wing. Knocked out by a mortar round while trying to save a group of prisoners, Father Mulcahy (played by William Christopher), loses his hearing. Klinger (played by Jamie Farr) not only proposes to Soon Lee (played by Rosalind Chao), elects to stay in Korea to help hear search for her parents. While in surgery, it is announced over the radio that a truce has been signed and the war is over. The various personnel of the 4077th then begin the process of packing up and saying their farewells. In the end, Hawkeye is frustrated by the inability of B.J. (played by Mike Farrell) to say "Goodbye," only to realise as a helicopter takes him away that B.J. has spelled the word "Goodbye" out on the ground in toilet paper. It was as if he was telling television viewers, "Goodbye," as well.

Not only was "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" the most anticipated television event of the 1982-1983 season, it also became the single highest rated episode of a TV series of all time. For 24 years, its record has not been broken. Besides the fact that M*A*S*H was then one of the most successful shows on the air, it is no wonder it got such ratings. It was arguably a great ending to a great series. Arguably, some of the plot lines seemed a bit contrived (namely, Father Mulcahy losing his hearing, for instance), but ultimatley it was a touching, sensitive, and logical end to one of the most beloved shows of all time.

5. The Avengers: Okay, "The Forget-Me-Knot" was not the last episode of The Avengers, but there are those of us who think it should have been. For those of you have never had the pleasure of seeing the series, The Avengers was a British series that centred around superspy John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) and his various partners over the years. In its first season Steed was technically not the primary character. That was Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry), a surgeon whose fiance had been murdered. In the course of the investigation he encountered a mysterious figure named Steed, who frequently calls upon Keel to assist him in his adventures. Initially a secondary character dressed in a trenchcoat (typical spy wear prior to the Sixties), he eventually became the series co-star and the familiar figure dressed in a suit and bowler, armed with his ever present umbrella. The first season was cut short by a strike and following the strike, Ian Hendry decided to leave the show. John Steed then became the main character on the show.

For the second season Steed would be be teamed with two different partners, each appearing in different episodes. Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens), a single nightclub singer, proved to be the least popular of the two. She had no real crime fighting skills and was very much a typical female character in Fifties and Sixties American and British television. Steed's other new partner would turn The Avengers into a hit series and a cult series in Britain. Dr. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) was like no other woman to ever appear on American or British television. The widow of a farmer in Africa, she was a degreed anthropologist with a black belt in judo and an independent streak that was unseen in female characters prior to her first appearance in 1962. In her fighting gear she could be most intimidating: a leather outfit (in reality it was green, but it because The Avengers was then shot in black and white, it looked black on the screen) and leather boots. Capable of taking care of herself, Mrs. Gale almost never needed Steed to rescue her. With the series' third season, she became Steed's only partner.

At the end of the third season, Honor Blackman left the series to co-star in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. This was not the only change for the series in its fourth season. Previously shot on videotape, the series would now be shot on film. This gave the show superior production values to what it had before. It also received a new theme song, written by Laurie Johnson. Yet another change was that the series would air for the first time in the United States (it debuted on the American Broadcasting Company in March 1966). Still later it would be shot in colour. Of course, the biggest change was the introduction of Emma Peel. Initially British actress Elizabeth Shepherd (perhaps best known for her role in Damien: The Omen II) was hired to play Emma, but the producers soon figured out she was wrong for the part. The role then went to the relative unknown Diana Rigg. With Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, the character proved every bit as popular as Mrs. Gale, if not more so. Mrs. Peel was the daughter of industry magnate Sir John Knight and the widow of test pilot Peter Peel. She was trained in chemistry and was familiar with most sciences (she had a genius IQ). Like Mrs. Gale she was trained in the martial arts, although she was more inclined to use kung fu than judo. Unlike Mrs. Gale, she did not dress in leather, but preferred fighting suits of stretch jersey instead. She was every bit as independent as Mrs. Gale and was rarely rescued by Steed. The character was so named because the producers wanted her to have "Man Appeal" or "M Appeal." She certainly had that. Indeed, it always seemed to me that Steed was not simply attracted to her, but that he had been carrying a torch for her for some time...

By 1967 Diana Rigg had decided to leave the series and it was decided to replace her with another female partner (in this case, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson). The change would be made in the episode "The Forget-Me-Knot." Not only was "The Forget-Me-Knot" not the final episode of The Avengers, it was the first episode of the show's final season. The episode centred on an amensia inducing drug that is initially used on a suspected traitor and later on Emma herself. While Emma is under the effect of the drug, Steed teams up with Tara King, a spy in training, for the first time. By the end of the episode it is discovered that Emma's husband Peter Peel is alive and has been rescued. Emma decides to retire from adventuring to be with him. This leads to one of the most touching scenes in the whole series, as Emma tells Steed to "...always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds." As Emma is about to leave, Steed speaks her name, "Emma," in what I have always felt was a pained voice. This is significant as as it is the only time Steed addressed one of his married female partners by her first name in anything but special circumstances (he always addressed Mrs. Gale as exactly that). As Emma leaves, she tells Tara King that Steed "...likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise." As Emma leaves, Steed looks out the window to see that Peter Peel looks almost exactly like him.

In some respects "The Forget-Me-Knot" is a rather typical Avengers episode. The plot of an amnesia inducing drug does not stand out the way a sentient, alien, telepathic, man eating plant ("The Man-Eater of Surrey Green") or a revival of the Hellfire Club ("A Touch of Brimstone") does. And though it is not Linda Thorson's fault, Tara King comes off as rather goofy in this episode. Ultimately, however, it is that final interaction between Steed and Peel that makes "The Forget-Me-Knot" one of the most memorable episodes of The Avengers. Indeed, it confirms my suspicion that not only was Steed in love with Emma, but the feelings may well have been mutual. It is curious that Steed addresses Mrs. Peel by her given name, with a tone that sounds to me as if his heart is breaking. And it is even more curious that Peter Peel looks suspiciously like Steed. John Steed may have been very close friends with Cathy Gale. And he may have flirted with Venus Williams and Tara King (his two female partners who had always been single). But his one true love was Emma Peel. And who could blame him?

Anyhow, those are my favourite series finales of all time (although I'll admit that "The Forget-Me-Knot" is not really a series finale by American definitions of the term....). I am sure others will have their own. And one can only guess what ends lie in store for such long time series as The Simpsons and Law and Order. Whatever they may be, I'm sure they'll be interesting.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

30 Days of Night Trailer

The past few years have been a bad time for horror movies. With so many poorly made torture chic movies released, it seems there have been very few good horror movies made. Fortunately, it looks like that might change. This December will see the release of another adaptation (the first two being the films The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man) of Richard Matheson's apocalyptic vampire novel, I Am Legend. Before that, however, on October 19, 2007, a film adaptation of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's graphic novel 30 Days of Night. The concept of both the graphic novel and the movie is simple, yet starkly original. Essentially, vampires take over a small Alaska town where during winter the sun does not rise for 30 days.

The film's trailer was just recently released. And if the trailer is any indication, it might be a very good film. Just the change of pace needed from the last few years of torture chic.