Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Strange New TV Season

The new fall TV season is only around a month old now, but it has already proven to be one of the more unusual ones in my opinion. Indeed, many of the developments during this season have caught me totally by surprise, and I don't think I am the only one.

Among the most unexpected things to have happened this season for me has been the success of Ugly Betty. The series is scheduled against Survivor on CBS and My Name is Earl and The Office on NBC. I really had no expectations as to how well or badly it might do in the ratings, but I fully expected it to come in third place to the shows on CBS and NBC. As it turns out, however, for the past few weeks it had been coming in a close second to Survivor and beating out both My Name is Earl and The Office. This only changed this week, when My Name is Earl managed to come in second place, although Ugly Betty still beat The Office. At any rate, it is the most watched new show on television. And I am still rather surprised by its success. Survivor has been a juggernaut in the ratings since the beginning, while both My Name is Earl and The Office are older, established, critically acclaimed shows. I didn't think a newcomer would do well against them.

Speaking of Thursday night, I am also surprised by the close race between CSI and Grey's Anatomy. I actually predicted that CSI would trounce Grey's Anatomy in the ratings. It appears I was wrong. Although it has been close--in Nielsen terms nearly a statistical tie--Grey's Anatomy has been beating CSI. This shocked me, as I thought most viewers would prefer the older, established CSI to the fresh, new, and, in my opinion, shallow Grey's Anatomy. I suppose I was wrong, although I still cannot see Grey's Anatomy lasting. Quite frankly, I think the show is pretty much a fad that will be gone in two or three more years.

While I have been surprised by the success of some shows, I have been surprised by the failure of another. Namely, the fact that Smith was the first new drama to be cancelled took me totally by surprise. While I did not expect it to be a roaring success, I certainly did not expect it to be cancelled after only two episodes. What shocks me so much about this cancellation is not so much how swiftly it occurred, but rather the fact that Smith was not doing that badly in the ratings. In fact, its ratings were pretty much average. Of course, perhaps CBS executives did not figure average ratings justified the high price tag of the show. Personally, as long as its ratings weren't bottom of the barrel, I would have kept on the air until it found an audience. Most shows that are decidedly different take a while before audiences discover them, and I think this would have been true of Smith

Not quite as puzzling as the cancellation of Smith is that the audience for Lost had declined from what it once was. The third season premiere was down 20 percent from the second season premiere. And this week's episode was down 10 percent from the third season premiere. I cannot quite explain why Lost is slipping, although it is possible that for some it was simply a novelty show and now they are tired of the novelty. At any rate, I thought the second season was as good as the first, and I don't see the show slipping in quality in its third season. Regardless of what others might do, I will continue watching Lost.

So far this season has had several surprises for me. And I can only wonder what will happen during sweeps next month. If sweeps is anything like the season so far, I am sure it will be something totally unexpected.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Animator Ed Benedict Dies

Animator Ed Benedict died in his sleep August 28 at age 94. He is perhaps best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera, although he had worked with many studios over the years.

Benedict's career began at Disney in 1930, although he would not remain there. For much of the Thirties he would work at Universal on Walter Lantz's Oswald shorts, with brief interludes at the Charles Mintz Studio and his own Benedict-Brewer studio (formed with Jerry Brewer). He returned to Disney in the Forties, working as a layout artist on educational and industrial films. He was credited with layout on "Make Mine Music," the Disney short which won the 1946 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Animation Design.

Perhaps the most illustrious part of Benedict's career occurred when he moved to MGM in 1952. There worked with animation legend Tex Avery on several shorts featuring Droopy. He continued to work on the Droopy shorts even after Avery left MGM. When former MGM animators William Hanna and Joe Barbera formed their own studio, he joined them. He designed the first characters for Hanna-Barbera (Ruff and Reddy of The Ruff and Reddy Show, as well as such iconic characters as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and the characters from The Flintstones.

Benedict was a talented animator who had a huge impact on American pop culture. Never mind Tom and Jerry, for me the best MGM cartoons were those featuring Droopy, many of which Benedict worked on. And while I don't think the quality of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons can quite compare with the work done at MGM and Disney, he did design many iconic characters in American animation. Indeed, he was the layout artists on one of my favourite animated series from the Seventies, Hong Kong Phooey. While I am saddened by his death, I think it can be said that he had a long and very successful life.

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Beowulf and Grendel

There have only been a few times I have been genuinely surprised at what I find at our local WalMart. Yesterday was one of those times. The last thing I expected to see on its DVD racks was Beowulf and Grendel, a Canadian/Icelandic co-production adapting the classic poem. Naturally, as someone with a keen interest in Old English literature and ancient Germanic culture, I had to buy it and watch it right away.

Beowulf and Grendel is loyal to the bare bones plot of the first part of the poem (in which Beowulf arrives to help King Hrothgar of Denmark with the monster Grendel), although it does depart from the poem in several respects. The movie strips away the Christian colouring of the poem, making the movie to a large degree more historically accurate than the poem itself (in 5th Century Denmark, Christianity was little heard of, save as a religion practised by such other peoples as the Franks and Romans). It also humanises both Grendel and Beowulf. Grendel is still monstrous, a hulking humanoid which the Danes and Geats call a "troll (as accurate a term as any, given the poem refers to Grendel as an "eoten," a term cognate to Old Norse jotunn, "giant")," but he has a motivation other than sheer blood thirst for killing Hrothgar's men. Beowulf (played by Gerard Butler, perhaps best known for Phantom of the Opera) is still suitably heroic, but a hero who sometimes doubts his own heroism and questions the rightness of his actions. The movie even has a good deal of humour (which is present in the original poem, at least if one can read the original Old English....). None of this robs the original story of its power, but rather makes it a different sort of story--one that is in some respects more human and which, I feel, the Angles and Saxons who heard the original could still identify with.

Indeed, what makes Beowulf and Grendel even more marvelous for aficianodos of the Dark Ages is that it could well be the most accurate portrayal of life among the Germanic peoples ever presented on film. Indeed, while other films (such as The Vikings and The 13th Warrior) only give lip service to the ancient Germanic religion (often getting things wrong in the process), Beowulf and Grendel not only gets it right, but makes it clear that religion played an important part in ancient Germanic life. Indeed, Beowulf and Grendel is the only film in which I have seen an accurate portrayal of an ancient Germanic blessing! For that matter, the clothing, the weapons, and the architecture are all authentic.

Of course, all of this would be for naught if not for strong performances. Gerard Butler is entirely convincing as Beowulf, the hero who sometimes doubts he is indeed a hero. Stellan Skarsgard does a great job as Hrothgar, the king who is at the end of his rope. The performances are greatly aided by the direction of Sturla Gunnarsson, who has a true gift for the camera. The landscape (Iceland standing in for Denmark) is truly stunning and Gunnarsson makes good use of it. It is hard to believe that most of Gunnarson's work was in television!

That is not to say that Beowulf and Grendel is not without its flaws. Given that it is an international production, there are at times a dizzying arrays of accents in the film. There is Gerard Butler and Rory McCann's slight Scottish brogues, Stellan Skargard's slight Swedish accent, and Sarah Polley's Canadian accent (she has come a long way since Avonlea). At times this can be a distracting, especially when one would expect the Geats and Danes to all speak with the same accent (at that time history those particular peoples would have spoken Old Norse)! I also think the confrontation between Beowulf and Unferth could have been handled better, although given that had they used the exact text in the poem they may have been accused of ripping off The 13th Warrior (which was based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which also drew upon Beowulf for inspiration), I suppose I can't blame them.

Regardless, Beowulf and Grendel is a fine picture, one that is moving, beautiful, and even authentic to the era in which it is set. Even if one does not love Old English literature, ancient Germanic culture, or ancient myths, I rather suspect any movie lover would enjoy this film.