Saturday, October 16, 2004

Have No Fear...Underdog is here!

On October 3 of this year it was 40 years ago that Underdog debuted on NBC. For those of you who don't know, Underdog was a funny animal parody of Superman and other superheroes. In reality, Underdog was humble, lovable Shoeshine Boy. When trouble called, he would rush to the nearest phone booth and become Underdog. Like Superman, Underdog could fly, possessed incredible strength, and was invulnerable to most weapons. Unlike Superman, Underdog's strength depended on his "super energy vitamin pills," which he stored in a ring on his finger. Also unlike Superman, Underdog was incredibly clumbsy. Underdog almost always talked in rhyme, even though Shoeshine Boy did not.

The closest thing to a romantic interst Underdog had on the show was Sweet Polly Purebred. Like Underdog, she was an anthropomorphic dog. She was a TV reporter for TTV (also the name of the company that produced Underdog). In true Lois Lane tradition, Sweet Polly was always falling into the clutches of villains and required Underdog to rescue her.

And there were plenty of villains for Polly to be rescused from. Underdog's archnemesis, Simon Barsinister, was a mad scientist with a voice like Lionel Barrymore. He developed all sorts of sinister gadgets, from a Vacuum Gun to a camera that can turn people into pictures. Riff Raff was a gangster and an anthropomorphic wolf. Among Riff Raff's schemes was having one of his henchmen impersonate Underdog. Underdog also faced an array of other villains throughout the run of the show, from Overcat (a superhuman cat from another planet) to the Electric Eel (a villain who could generate an ernormous amount of electricity).

Underdog was created by Joe Harris (who also created the Trix Rabbit). The show was produced by Leonardo-TTV, a company founded in 1959 to produce King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, the second cartoon made specifically for television to debut on NBC and the first cartoon to air in colour on NBC. The company went on to produce Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, a cartoon which sought to educate as well entertain. In the end, however, it was Underdog that had the most success. It ran two years on NBC before moving to CBS, where it ran another two years. Underdog then moved to NBC where it ran another five years. In the end, Underdog spent nine years on the networks. It then went onto a successful syndication run. Currently, episodes are available on both DVD and VHS.

A mark of the cartoon's success was perhaps the Underdog balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a part of the parade for nineteen years. The show also generated an enormous amount of merchandise, from T-shirts to drinking glasses to comic books.

I have fond memories of Underdog. To this day it remains my favourite TV cartoon of all time. It is unfortunate that it isn't seen much on television anymore. At any rate, as long as there is VHS and DVD, I suspect Underdog will be around for a long time.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Dystopias of the Eighties

It seems to me that there were more cinematic dystopias in the Eighties than in any other decade. For those of you who do not know the meaning of the word dystopia, I suppose I should provide a definition. The word dystopia refers to a work of fiction portraying an imaginary place where people live in a dehumanised state, either because of oppression, a skewed moral and ethical system, deprivation of basic human needs, or yet other reasons. The word dystopia can also refer to such an imaginary place portrayed in a work of fiction. Most dystopias are set in the future, although a few have been set in the present day. The classic dystopias are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Other examples of dystopias are A Clockwork Orange (both the novel by Anthony Burgess and the film by Stanley Kubrick), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and the classic TV series The Prisoner.

Anyhow, from 1981 to 1990, it seems to me that Hollywood produced more dystopic movies than at any other time, save perhaps the early Seventies (when such films as Rollerball, Soylent Green, and the various Planet of the Apes movies hit the screen). It was a film released in 1979 and made in Australia that may habe foreshadowed the dystopic movies of the Eighties. Mad Max featured Mel Gibson in his first major role as a law enforcement officer in a world overrun by criminals. The movie was a major hit in much of the world and became a cult favourite in America. It was followed by two sequels: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

As far as Hollywood and the United States is concerned, however, I believe that the trend towards dystopias began in 1981 with the release of Escape from New York. Directed by John Carpenter, Escape from New York portrayed a United States so overwhelmed by crime that New York City was evacuated and transformed into one huge prison. Unfortunately, for the President of the United States, Air Force One crashes in the city and the President finds himself held captive. It is into this city filled with criminals that Snake Plisken is sent to rescue the President. Escape from New York portrays a government that is generally oppressive and a city that is not simply overwhelmed by crime, it is pretty much the habitat of criminals. Escape From New York was very successful and continues to be a cult film to this day.

More influential than Escape from New York was Blade Runner, released in 1982. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner portrays a corrupt world in which replicants (artifical beings who look human) are hunted down by bounty hunters or "blade runners." Dekkard (Harrison Ford) in one such blade runner, who must track down a particularly deadly group of replicants lead by Roy (Rutger Hauer). The neo-noir look of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep would prove very infuential, influencing films from Batman to The Crow. It also had a strong influence on the cyberpunk genre, not only in its appearance, but combining both science fiction and noir elements.

By the mid-Eighties, the dystopic cycle was well under way. In 1984 there was a new, British version of 1984, complete with theme song by Eurythmics. In 1985 there was Brazil, perhaps Terry Gilliam's best film. Brazil portrays the ultimate bureaucracy, in which failing to fill out the proper forms is a captial crime. The film centres on Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department of the Ministry of Information. When Sam attempts to correct a clerical error that resulted in the arrest of an innocent man, he soon finds himself accused of being an enemy of the state. Brazil is a visually stunning film. It is also a rich film with a complex plot and several levels of meaning. Unfortunately, because of this, it is not the most accessible film, which perhaps explains why it was not a hit. Regardless, it has remained a cult film ever since.

By the late Eighties, dystopic films moved away from the more philosophical bent of Blade Runner, 1984, and Brazil towards action. Loosely based on the novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bacman), The Running Man deals with an overly conservative and oppressive society where the top TV show is The Running Man, a game show in which convicted felons have a chance at freedom provided that they can outrun the "stalkers." The Running Man is essentially an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, although it definitely scores points for showing the dangers of media manipulation in the hands of a corrupt government.

John Carpenter returned to the dystopia genre the following year with They Live. They Live is one of the few dystopias set in the present day (American Beauty and Fight Club are two other examples). It presents a world in which an unemployed construction worker, Nada (Roddy Piper), discovers the awful truth--Earth was long ago invaded by aliens who have been running our world ever since. The aliens are responsible for capitalism, consumerism, pollution (to make our atmosphere more like their own), and just about everything that is wrong with our society. Although essentially an action film, They Live also operates as political satire, social commentary, and even as a thriller. It is a film that has often been underrated, although it has been a cult favourite since its release.

The close of the decade saw another dystopic action film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And while there is plenty of action in Total Recall, it would be a mistake to consider it simply an action film. Total Recall was based on the story "We'll Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick. The film centres on a construction worker named Quaid, who is fascinated by Mars to the point that he dreams about it. He decides to go to Rekall, a company which provides people with virtual vacations by placing false memories in their brains. It is then that Quaid finds himself on one big adventure, in which he may or may not be a secret agent named Hauser, working in deep cover on Mars. Total Recall effectively blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Is Quaid really a secret agent? Is Quaid simply a construction worker experiencing one long delusion? Total Recall deals with the question of what is real, and the effects of an oppressive and captialistic government.

There were many other dystopias released in the Eighties than these movies, but I haven't the space to list them here. It is hard to say why there were so many released in that decade. Perhaps the generally poor economy of the Eighties (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) led to a generally pessimistic attitude on the part of filmmakers. It is perhaps significant that many of the films (The Running Man, They Live, Total Recall) deal with economic issues to some degree or another. Of course, the problem with this theory is that the economy was even worse during the Great Depression than it was in the Eighties, yet films were generally optimistic in the Thirties. I suppose that perhaps movie makers were just going through a pessimistic phase.

Of course, dystopias have made a bit of a comeback the past few years. American Beauty, Fight Club, AI, and The Minority Report have all been released in the past few years. I only have to wonder if there will be more dystopias coming out in the next few years.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Superman's Dead

Christopher Reeve died Sunday from complications from a systemic infection. He was 52 years old. With regards to his acting career, Reeve was best known for his role as Superman in four movies. He also co-starred in Somewhere in Time alongside Jane Seymour and in Deathtrap with Michael Caine. He directed the telefilms In the Gloaming and The Brooke Ellison Story.

As much fame as Reeve gained from playing Superman, he perhaps achieved even greater fame following the unfortunate horseback riding accident that paralysed him in 1995. He became perhaps the best known spokesman for spinal cord research.

I must say that Reeve's death saddens me greatly. It is not simply because I enjoyed his performances in the Superman films and other movies, but rather because I admired him for his courage. Following his accident, Reeve had to undergo months and months of therapy before he could even breathe for long periods without a respirator. He went on to go before Congress regarding better insurance protection against catastrophic injury. He lobbied for spinal cord research. And he continued with his acting career. He appeared in the TV remake of Rear Window and episodes of Smallville. He even took up directing.

From my point of view, Reeve showed enormous resolve in the face of an injury that would have forced many others to simply give up. In doing so he served as an example for others who suffered spinal cord injuries. While many will remember Reeve as Superman from the movies, I will always think of him as a superman from his courage and resolve in the face of a catastrophic injury.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Trends and Cycles

There was a time when I could predict most trends and cycles in telvision, movies, and music. I knew when Excalibur and Dragonslayer both came out in 1981 that a cycle towards sword and sorcery movies was beginning. I anticipated the so-called Second British Invasion that took place in the Eighties, when such British groups as Duran Duran and Depeche Mode dominated American music charts. That having been said, however, I think that I may well have lost my touch. As the years have gone by, I have found myself unable to anticipate most trends and cycles.

A perfect example of late is the cycle towards legal dramas that has been going on for years. I thought that it had ended last season, even going so far as to state such in this blog. After all, Ally McBeal was long gone and The Practice had been cancelled. I realised that more legal dramas were debuting this season, but I figured that they would be cancelled in a matter of weeks. It appears I was wrong. Boston Legal (originally titled Fleet Street) has been racking up good ratings--it ranked in the top twenty last week. Alongside America's Top Model, Kevin Hill gave UPN its best ratings on Wednesday night ever. It seems that legal dramas are going to be with us for a while.

Another example is the whole cycle towards reality shows. I thought that it would have ended with last season. But this season will see more reality shows debut than ever before. What is more, many of these shows still perform quite well in the ratings. Survivor still generates huge ratings for CBS, while Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition are top shows on ABC. I personally believe that the cycle may be nearing its end, as there is often a glut of such shows in any particular cycle right before that cycle ends. It happened with the Westerns of the Fifties and the spy shows of the Sixties. Unfortuntaely, given my track record in predicting trends of late, I may well be wrong.

I am probably even less accurate with regards to changing music tastes than I am television cycles. For years now I have been predicting the fall of hip hop, but one look at the music charts prove my predictions were premature. It seems that while New Wave, heavy metal, and alternative--all genres of rock--were the music choices of my generation, Generation Y has elected to ditch rock 'n' roll altogether for hip hop. It seems that more often than not these days, when a teenager drives by with his or her stereo blaring, that stero is more likely to be playing LL Cool J than Velvet Revolver.

I can only assume that I have reached that point in my life that most people reach--the point where one is totally out of touch with the young people in America. Since so many cycles and trends in the entertainment world are determined to a large extent by youth, I have somewhat lost my ability to anticipate trends. After all, having nothing in common with the young people today, I have no real means of predicting what will appeal to them. Indeed, just as many old folks couldn't understand the appeal of Iron Maiden or Star Wars, I can't understand the appeal of Nelly or reality shows.

Of course, I haven't totally lost my ability to anticipate cycles and trends. With the success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the continued success of the Law and Order shows, I realised that there would be a cycle towards police procedurals. But, then again, both Law and Order and CSI are shows that appeal more towards "older" people (as in twenties and thirties...).

At any rate, I cannot say that I am distressed at being out of touch with the youth today. Although I might joke about my age at times, I really don't mind growing older. But I am somewhat distressed at my inability to anticipate cycles and trends. As an amateur historian of pop culture, it is somewhat disturbing to lose the ability to predict what will be popular next...