Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation : "Grave Danger"

Season 5, Episodes 24 & 25
Original Airdate: May 19, 2005
Writer: Anthony E. Zuiker, Naren Shankar, Carol Mendelsohn (teleplay), Quentin Tarantino (story)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Executive Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Danny Cannon, Cynthia Chvatal, Ann Donahue, Jonathan Littman, Carol Mendelsohn, William Petersen, Naren Shankar, Anthony E. Zuiker
Cast: William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, Jorja Fox

We all have that one recurring nightmare from our childhood that still haunts, even after we age past the point where it should still influence us. Mine was playing alone in a cave, then falling through some loose rocks and being trapped below in a small crevice, unable to escape and doomed to spend the rest of my days there. It’s made me a smidge claustrophobic, even today (I don’t go into caves, no matter how stable they may seem). The idea of being buried alive is used often in film and television, usually to great effect. Think about “The Vanishing” or “Ghost Story” or “Buried” or the sixth season premier of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Vampirism hinges on a person being buried and then reanimated under the ground, seemingly buried “alive” and being born again by escaping their coffin. And yes, there’s the smashing (pun intended) sequence in “Kill Bill Volume 2,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who expanded on the concept to horrifying, harrowing extremes in “Grave Danger.”

It turns out that Tarantino’s detail-oriented, often over-the-top, stylistic direction and storytelling (he didn’t pen the teleplay, but wrote the story for the two-part episode) was a great match for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The story involves CSI Nick Stokes (George Eads) being kidnapped and buried alive by a madman who, at first, seems to be interested in holding him for ransom, but of course it becomes much more complex than that.

The first thing you notice as the episode begins is that the pacing is much slower than usual. When Nick arrives to investigate some intestines lying in a parking lot, the blaring music and quick cutting investigation scenes usually present is gone (there will be some later, however). Instead, the emphasis seems to be more on the tedium involved in this kind of detecting. After Nick is kidnapped, the story flashes back and we get almost a half-hour of straight character-development scenes, obviously unusual for a show that has been criticized for heralding the plot mechanics over its characters. It’s the writers’ way of introducing new viewers who showed up for Tarantino to the cast, sure, but it also subtly shifts the structure away from television and makes it feel more like a feature.

Really bad day at the office.
Anthony E. Zuiker, Naren Shankar and Carol Mendelsohn co-wrote the episode, and came up with some ingenious ways to complicate the seemingly simple idea of having a character stuck underground for two hours of screen time. First they reveal that the webcam feed is linked to a fan in the coffin, so when the CSI’s watch from the lab, Nick doesn’t get the air he needs. Next comes the gun in the coffin. Then the slow cracking of the glass coffin thanks to the gunshot. Then, most horrifyingly, the fire ants that savagely attack Nick. Finally there’s the fact that the coffin is attached to a bomb. Quite a complex MacGuffin, no? Miraculously, the writers pull off making each one of these complications seem natural within the context of the episode.

Meanwhile, above ground, the writers present us with some great character moments that feel like they have been building up for seasons. New viewers would still understand what was happening, but seeing Catherine (Marg Helgenberger) going to her father for help getting the ransom money plays differently for viewers who know about her difficult relationship with him. Then there’s the wonderful beat where Grissom photographs one of the fire ants and, since he is a fanatic when it comes to bugs, cracks the case and figures out Nick’s location. There’s also a beautifully written and acted moment where Nick is in the coffin recording his goodbyes on tape. Grissom watches the feed and, since he can read lips (his mother is deaf), understands Nick’s message for him. We don’t hear or see what it is, making the moment all the more intimate between them.

 If the pace of the episode started slow, by the end the suspense has almost become unbearable. The team finds Nick…but they can’t move him or get to him because of the aforementioned explosives under the coffin. We see Nick seem to literally lose his mind in the coffin and watch his friends desperately try to find a way to help him. It may well be the best sequence the entire franchise has ever produced.

As I stated, Tarantino’s rock-and-roll sensibilities mesh well with the show, with two notable exceptions. There’s a dream sequence where Nick begins to pass in and out of consciousness shot in black-and-white where he dreams he is being autopsied where the humor falls completely flat. It doesn’t fit in the series, but also hurts the tension of the episode because it comes out of nowhere. The second is out-of-left-field cameos from Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin. The pop culture nature of the beat makes it feel like something out of a Tarantino film, but the dialogue given to the actors is shockingly bland and limp, resulting in three wasted minutes and only one good line, from Curtis:
“Me? Dress up in drag? Who do you think you’re talking to, Jack Lemmon?”

If you don’t understand the above reference, I feel very, very sorry for you.

The problems are quibbles because the rest of the episode was so great. “CSI” is widely regarded as shepherding in the procedural show craze that still represents a majority of current television dramas (“The Closer,” “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Body of Proof,” “NCIS” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “CSI: New York,” “The Good Wife,” “Elementary,” “Person of Interest,” * gasp! * “Bones,” “Common Law”…I could keep going). The obvious counterpart is the “Law & Order” franchise, but “CSI” quickly created its own identity, which involved more montages with rock and roll. But though procedurals are often critically overlooked, “CSI” provides viewers with a very high standard that most comparable shows never attain. Think of the wonderful episode “Twoand a Half Deaths,” which sent-up the Hollywood system, or the entire Miniature Killer storyline, which also put one of the CSIs (this time Jorja Fox’s character) in mortal danger. Sexy people investigating sexy murders was never so awesome.

“Grave Danger” is available on the fifth season DVD of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” on Amazon Instant Video and on iTunes.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

30 Rock : "Believe in the Stars"

Season 3, Episode 2
Original Airdate: November 6, 2008
Writer: Robert Carlock
Director: Don Scardino
Executive Producers: Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels, Robert Carlock, Marci Klein
Cast: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski

Every television show can land a guest star, but only a few know how to use them. “Believe in the Stars” was produced at the zenith of “30 Rock’s” popularity (this is a relative term since, though it was always a critical and pop culture darling, it never lit up many Nielsen boxes) when some of the best popular and character actors out there were regularly appearing on the show. Oprah Winfrey was the special guest star here, and the next few episodes would feature Jennifer Aniston, Steve Martin, Elaine Strich and Salma Hayek in roles just as engaging and memorable as anything they could have found on film or stage.

Winfrey appears as herself in the episode, sort of. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) must fly quickly to Chicago to get out of jury duty (by pretending she is Princess Leia) before “TGS” implodes for the umpteenth time. Turns out she is seated next to Oprah Winfrrrrrrrrrrrrrey (and yes, her classic vowel elongation is poked fun of early and often) on the flight back, which of course triggers immediate and complete overshare, made all the funnier because I’m pretty sure everyone would do just about the same thing in the situation.

Though it got off to a rocky start, “30 Rock” quickly became one of the most consistently great comedies on television, and has remained that way since (its seventh and final season begins in the fall). The show is certainly an odd, eccentric duck even considering what other modern comedies have hit the air in the past decade. Part of this is because it carefully toes the line between screwball, emotionless humor and more grounded, heartfelt storytelling. The Jenna (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy (Tracy Jordan) stories and subplots often fly off into space tonally (Jenna decides to marry a prince so disfigured he has ivory hands, Tracy decides he wants to go into space…right now), but the friendship between Liz and Jack (Alec Baldwin) gives the show its heart, pulling us back and making us care no matter how crazy the shenanigans get. 

This episode is one of the funniest in the show’s history, with writer Robert Carlock supplying viewers with a steady stream of quotable quotes. Like this one:
Tracy: “I watched ‘Boston Legal’ nine times before I realized it wasn’t a new ‘Star Trek’.”

Or this one:
Jack: “Did you know President Bush’s approval rating was almost as high as 15 percent following the Olympics?”

Shut up! Okay, one more:
Jenna: “How can you defame someone who was arrested in three Chucky Cheeses?”

The Winfrey scenes in particular merit multiple viewings to even begin to even get all the gags. In the entire 21 minutes, there is only one (one!) joke that doesn’t quite land (a late one involving Kenneth that doesn’t merit being written here because the rest are so good). More than that, Carlock was brilliant in the way he bled Winfrey’s presence into the subplot involving Jenna and Tracy bickering over who has it harder in America, women or black men.

Both call Liz while she is on the runway to talk about how they are right. Tracy screams into the phone:
“It’s about race! It’s about being a woman! It’s about money! And being on TV! No one understands all that!”

At that exact moment, Oprah sits down next to Liz. Perfection. This being “30 Rock,” Carlock takes the battle to the extreme, putting Jenna in black-face and Tracy in white-ish face (with a hand-claw because they ran out of make-up).

The twist that comes later is that Liz was in a drug-induced haze and hallucinated that Oprah was a feisty tween (if only my hallucinations were half as fun), which gives the entire sequence on the plane another layer of humor. At first, it just seems as if Oprah is mocking herself (and, of course, she is), but the twist gives Carlock the opportunity for even more gags later when Liz remembers all the things she really Really REALLY should not have done (like showing her boobs or forcing wine on the girl). Because I love you, dear reader, I’m going to provide you with the genius word vomit Liz unleashes on “Oprah” the moment she sits down. 
“I’m trying to adopt a baby but my job is making it impossible because my work-self is suffocating my life-me. I’m Liz Lemon and I lost my virginity at 25. I saw the show about ‘Following Fear’ and it inspired me to wear shorts to work. It didn’t go great. Do you know Tracy Jordan? Meh, I took a pill earlier. I didn’t get my September issue of ‘O Magazine’ do you have the number for subscriptions? Haha, why would you? Blah! I eat emotionally. One time at summer camp I kissed a girl on a dare but then she drowned! Aaaand here comes some more stuff. I hate my feet, and one time I had a sex dream about Nate Berkus but then halfway through he turned into Doctor Oz. Has that ever happened to you?”

Tired from her monologue.
Any one of these lines would have been enough to make the show memorable, but schmushed all together into one fantastic monologue is enough to make the episode a masterpiece. But then there’s another yet to come, where Oprah sends up her “Favorite Things”:
“Here, try this. It’s salt water taffy from Rhode Island. I have so many wonderful favorite things this year. Sweater capes, calypso music, paisley tops, Chinese checkers, high heeled flip flops that lift your butt and give you a workout.”

The list is funny already, but later becomes even funnier when we see Liz and other “TGS” employees wearing the high-heeled flip-flops (which, apparently, do exist outside the episode). Carlock has written some of the best episodes of the series “Apollo, Apollo” and “Today, You Are a Man” come to mind), and seems to approach the series with a “no amount of jokes is too many” mentality, which suits “30 Rock” and its fast-talking cast wonderfully. At times it can feel like “Bringing Up Baby,” in the best possible way.

When I watch an episode of “30 Rock,” I never feel like I’m being talked down to. The dialogue is fast and furious, but it’s also smart. The plotlines are interesting even if you are over the age of ten, and it’s not afraid to throw in archaic references that you may or may not understand…because if you do it’s still damn funny. It’s the little show that could, and has already earned its place on the shelf next to other classic workplace comedies like “Cheers” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” All that and Oprah Winfrey? What more could you ask for in a show? 

“Believe in the Stars” is available on the third season DVD of “30 Rock,” on Amazon Instant VideoiTunes and is probably being re-run on Comedy Central right now-ish.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Mary Tyler Moore Show : “Chuckles Bites The Dust”

Season 6, Episode 7
Original Airdate: October 25, 1975
Writer: David Lloyd
Director: Joan Darling
Executive Producers: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns
Cast: Mary Tyler Moore, Edward Asner, Ted Knight

“Chuckles Bites the Dust” is a joke where everyone knows the punch line. However, in this case that doesn’t make it any less funny. In fact, knowing exactly what will climax the episode makes the first two acts that much funnier. The show’s writer, David Lloyd (who also coincidentally wrote the “Frasier” episode in my last entry), has pulled a hat-trick by making an episode of television funnier with every subsequent viewing, which is a near-impossibility.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was in its sixth season, but while earlier seasons (beautifully) balanced the work and home life of Mary Richards (Moore), after the departures of her neighbor characters from the show (both to their own lucrative spin-offs) the series tipped its balance into a full workplace comedy. Oddly enough, this reinvigorated the show creatively instead of seeming like it was past its peak. Many of the very best episodes, leading up to one of the greatest series finales in history, came in these later years, and this installment is no exception.

Of course, as the title suggests, “Chuckles Bites the Dust” concerns the death of the barely-seen network clown after he was waylaid by a rogue elephant at the circus after dressing up like a peanut. Seriously. But this revelation doesn’t come until about eight minutes in. Before that, most of the humor is surprisingly flat. Sue-Ann Nivens (Betty White) “gifts” Mary a hanging mobile of food and Ted is thinking of quitting the show because Lou won’t let him go to the circus. It’s all funny-ish, but the show has had much better gags, and there’s only one genuinely laugh-out-loud moment…when Sue-Ann tells Mary what she should do with the food mobile:

“Why don’t you put it in the bedroom? You need something to relieve the tedium.”

An actress at her peak of comedic powers.
But the moment Lou (Edward Asner) walks into the office to deliver the news of Chuckles death, the episode transforms into something great. I have absolutely no idea how Asner could have delivered the lines with a straight face, especially considering the audience reaction, but his delivery is priceless. Lou races onto set during a commercial and tells Ted (Ted Knight) that he has to improv the story…and we watch as Ted comes to terms with death live on the air, stumbling his way through half-memories of a man he barely knew. Watching his spiel is like watching a slow-motion car crash, only funnier and without the brains on the asphalt. It went a little something like this:

"Ladies and gentlemen, sad news. One of our most beloved entertainers, and close personal friend of mine, is dead. Chuckles the Clown died today from…from…he died a broken man. Chuckles leaves a wife. At least I assume he was married, he didn't seem like the other kind. I don't know his age, but I guess he was probably in his early sixties; it's kind of hard to judge a guy's face especially when he's wearing big lips and a light bulb for a nose. But he had his whole life in front of him, except for the sixty some odd years he already lived. I remember, Chuckles used to recite a poem at the end of each program. It was called ‘The Credo of the Clown,’ and I'd like to offer it now in his memory – ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’ That's what it's all about, folks, that's what he stood for, that's what gave his life meaning. Chuckles liked to make people laugh. You know what I'd like to think, I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”

The fact that the producers were comfortable enough and trusting enough to just put the camera on Knight (with a few cutaways to the cast in the newsroom) and let him ramble the monologue shows how much confidence they had in Lloyd as a writer and Knight’s charisma, and the scene alone would make the episode noteworthy. But there is still so much more to come…

Of course the ludicrousness of everything about the situation begins to creep into conversation. Murray (Gavin MacLeod) makes the first off-color joke, and Lou finally gives in and laughs. Lloyd gave Lou a very interesting, reflective, human moment as he considers gallows humor just before the jokes begin to fly full force.

“It’s a release. A defense mechanism, like whistling in a graveyard. You laugh at death, because you know death will have the last laugh on us.”

The episode didn’t “need” that beat, but it’s a release for the characters, making their laughter okay. Of course Mary is infuriated by all this, telling them how horrible they are being with their relentless laughter.

And then the funeral happens.

"That bitch is NOT laughing right now."
It’s fascinating to watch the funeral again. I wonder if audiences originally had a sense of what was coming, or if Mary’s inadvertent laughter took them completely by surprise. The gag has been reused so many times since (on lesser shows) that it’s hard to look at it with fresh eyes…and yet it’s still one of the greatest moments of television comedy. It’s all about Mary’s face and the range of emotions that hits as she begins to giggle. She’s furious with herself, then horrified, then angry – but the giggles keep coming. It’s a master class in comedic timing, and I have to wonder if it was done in front of a studio audience or if they used a laugh track for the day. The audience laughter is more muted and short than the situation deserves, making me think her facial expressions weren’t as visible or that a PA had his finger on a dial making sure Mary’s laughs didn’t bleed into the audience’s.

The reverend makes Mary stand and tells Mary that Chuckles would have wanted her to laugh. That his life was about laughter, and he would have been happy to make someone smile, even in consideration of his death. This is, of course, completely true and makes Marie start bawling. And the viewer is crying too, because at this point the laughter has begun to hurt. And you know that’s the sign of a masterpiece.

“Chuckles Bites the Dust” is available on Hulu Plus (ugh), the sixth season DVD of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on iTunes and on Youtube for free. You’re welcome.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Frasier : "The Innkeepers"

Season Two, Episode 23
Original Airdate: May 16, 1995
Writer: David Lloyd
Director: James Burrows
Executive Producers: David Angell, Peter Casey, Kelsey Grammer, David Lee, Christopher Lloyd
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jane Leeves, David Hyde Pierce, Peri Gilpin, John Mahoney

“The Innkeepers” is a classic example of a slow-burn sitcom episode, but transcends most others because its mechanics are so well-hidden. In many respects, the viewer doesn’t even know he is being set up for the explosive finale until the payoffs actually happen. This is because the clues are so well-hidden and because they are all draped in humor that actually works. In “The Wizard of Oz,” one of the classic lines is “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Here, we don’t see the man or the curtain because we are having too much fun watching the show.

The premise couldn’t be simpler: Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) decide to buy a restaurant. Their father (John Mahoney) tells them it’s going to wrong, and they don’t listen. Chaos ensues. If the idea of the brothers doing this sounds a little farfetched, the show’s writer David Lloyd must have known this, and spends an entire act making the purchase a realistic venture. After learning Orsini’s Restaurant is closing, the Niles waxes lyrical about how he had happy childhood memories there, and they decide to make one more family trip, complete with Daphne (Jane Leeves), to reminisce. They use logic to convince themselves to buy – after all, the eatery is in a prime location, and a head chef at a rival restaurant is unhappy there, etc. One could almost be convinced that this is a good venture (Frasier: “I’ve always wanted to own a four-star restaurant.” Niles: “What growing boy hasn’t?”), though Martin gets a few great zingers in before the deal is done.

We shift to opening night, and that’s where the show hits its stride. “Frasier” never talked down to its audience, though its characters often found themselves talking down to those they encountered, and here Lloyd ensured that every calamity felt natural and understandable, given the circumstances. After all, can you really blame Frasier and Niles for not knowing which swinging door is “in” and which one is “out”? And instead of allowing the situation to dovetail into some sort of rivalry between the brothers, which would have been so easy and done by most lesser sitcoms, there’s only one small beat where Frasier insists on a large soufflĂ© dish and Niles wants small, individual ones.

Now for the build-up to the explosive payoffs. In every scripted film or television show worth its salt, writers plant small hints as to what’s coming early in the episode so that when the payoff happens, it makes sense logically. Look at twist in “The Sixth Sense” as a perfect example of a dozen clues hidden logically in plain sight that take on resonance when the finale happens. Here, the set-ups are disguised well because they are in the form of jokes, and they all land, making you think that’s the end of it. The character of Otto is set up as a probably-senile waiter in the restaurant, and when Frasier and Niles take it over, they turn him into a valet because they don’t want to let him go. Frasier carries around a walkie to call down to Otto and have him drive the valet cars to the entrance, and every time he calls back “Who is this!?” We think that’s the punchline, and the fact that it recurs makes it even funnier because Frasier gets more and more desperate every time he speaks to Otto. It is never, ever, ever, ever implied that Otto should not be behind the wheel of a car. If that were even hinted at in a line, the twist of climaxing the episode by having Otto drive a car through the wall would have been spoiled. It’s funniest sitcom car crash in history, rivaled only by this one from “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And yet, as the car goes through that wall, it makes complete logical sense and is all the funnier because it is genuinely surprising.

The pacing of the episode is brisk and the director, James Burrows, pulls off some intricate, complicated choreography with the characters and storylines. It all looks so easy, but at one point he is juggling Martin at the bar, Frasier seating people, Roz and her date and Niles and Daphne self-destructing in the kitchen all at once. Burrows has won 10 Emmys over the course of his career, and is it any wonder? With the possible exception of William Asher, this man has given us more indelible comic television images than any other, hands down. Looking down a list of his credits is like looking through a slice of television history: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “NewsRadio,” Friends,” “Will & Grace” … and those shows are just scratching the surface.

The episode is also notable because it is a true ensemble act. No character is the main focus, but each one gets one of the major climactic pay-offs. The restaurant goes into a brown-out when Niles drops a toaster into the eel aquarium. Daphne grabs an eel by the tail and smashes it on the counter. Roz explodes the cherries jubilee. And Frasier facilitates (and watches in horror during) the aforementioned car crash. Any one of these moments is good enough to make the episode memorable, but together they make it great television.

“The Innkeepers” is available on the second season DVD of “Frasier,” Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus (ugh), iTunes and Youtube.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer : "Hush"

Season 4, Episode 10
Original Airdate: December 14, 1999
Writer/ Director/ Executive Producer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head

Television is supposed to be a visual medium, and yet it consistently seems like you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of support for that statement on the air. Plopped in our living rooms as a replacement for radio, during the ‘50s, many shows were originally broadcast live, meaning there was barely any camera movement or location change. Multi-camera sitcoms didn’t help matters in terms of visual invention, at least not until “Sports Night” came along. You could see the actors, sure, but the spoken word was still the key. Flash forward to today, and that still seems to be the rule. Because of budget constraints, most television shows are stuck in courtrooms, crime scenes and apartment buildings. Reality shows shake their cameras and make everyone look like a clone of Lauren Conrad by using the same filters. As a writer and lover of fantastic dialogue, this doesn’t bother me (love ‘ya, Aaron, Amy and David!), but you still have to stand up and applaud when a creator allows you to experience television storytelling in a new way.

Going into its fourth season, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had become famous for the snappy dialogue and excellent characterization that was spearheaded by show creator Joss Whedon. Also for never being nominated for any major Emmys. Maybe Whedon was complimented one too many times on his snappy dialogue. Maybe he had just caught a Charlie Chaplin marathon on Turner Classic Movies. Or maybe he just sensed that the fourth season of his show wasn’t connecting like the others, and decided to throw out the rulebook.

“Hush” represents the peak in quality for a show that was regularly excellent. Despite doing something so off the beaten path, it still manages to completely embody the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” viewers tuned into every other week. Buffy was still Buffy and the tone and humor was in line with what we always expected. But by getting rid of dialogue, Whedon underlined that he didn’t need the banter to make the show special. It already was.

Whedon opens the episode with a dream sequence, complete with a little blonde girl who sings a song about the monster-of-the-week. When a show goes out of its way to craft a horrifying song about its creatures (called The Gentlemen) and then puts the lyrics into the mouth of the creepiest being on the planet (those with young blonde girls as children will certainly back me up here), you know that the show is going to go for the throat. I did not mean that last part to be a pun, but I’m going to go with it.

The teaser and first act are filled with all the usual witty witticisms, though purposefully a little more stale than usual. This is to underline that words can be used as a means to block communication as often as it is used to embrace it. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Riley (Marc Blucas) talk, talk, talk instead of actually admitting their feelings. Anya (Emma Caulfield) is angry with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) because he won’t put a label on their “relationship.” My beloved Tara (Amber Benson) is completely unable to speak in her Wicca group because everyone else is talking about things that don’t matter. And then the Gentlemen arrive, open up a box and everyone loses their voice.

The initial realization of the mass mutism (I think I created a word there) is brilliantly written and staged. Buffy and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) have a panicked conversation in their dorm room where you can almost…almost tell what they are trying to say by lip reading. Xander panics and tries to call Buffy, only to realize the moment she picks up the phone that neither can do anything to communicate that way. Riley is almost killed because the elevator to the military compound needs voice recognition. And there’s a fantastic beat, so simple to describe yet ingenious in execution, where a random student drops a bottle and the viewer jumps out of his seat. All of this is set to the fantastic music of Christophe Beck, who makes the affair feel like a classic Universal horror movie. There have been a few other television episodes that used a lack of dialogue as a storytelling technique (“The Twilight Zone” episode “The Invaders” comes to mind), but never like this. In fact, dare I say that no other show in the history of television could have pulled this type of storyline off successfully in the way this episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did? I think I do dare.

Yes, there is some dialogue sprinkled into the episode, most notably when the characters watch a news program and when Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse) uses a machine that verbalizes what she types. But these beats feel like network notes more than something that creatively blossoms from the situation. But for the most part, Whedon creates a purpose for his lack of words. Buffy and Riley embrace their relationship in a way they could not do when they could speak. Xander beats up Spike (James Marsters) after misinterpreting a situation with Anya, proving that he cares about her. Tara proves stronger than expected when she connects with Willow. And all the while we get genuine belly laughs out of the situation. Buffy gets the eyebrows of her friends raised when she makes a questionable motion in her chair at the Scooby summit, and later gets angry with Giles’ drawing of her because the hips are too big. Gellar’s performance in the episode is really a revelation, able to perfectly switch gears from humor to pathos to fighter in an instant.

And did I mention the episode is genuinely frightening? Though there was a lot of suspense to be found in the best episodes of “Buffy,” it wasn’t exactly known to cause the same goosebumps and generate the same scares shows like “The X-Files” and “The Night Stalker” did. But here the Gentlemen and their straight-jacket-clad minions are scary as hell. They look like a skeleton that has grown skin, if that makes sense, and their make-up design is an obvious tip of the hat to Lon Chaney’s make-up in the original “Phantom of the Opera.” It feels like a lot of time (and the budget) went into crafting the monsters, their lair and their method of transportation (floating a few inches over the street), and the result is a villain for the ages.

After the triumph of “Hush,” which earned the only major Emmy nomination in the show’s history, for Best Writing, Whedon began experimenting much more often (usually to great success) in storytelling techniques. The fourth season finale related all the main characters’ dreams. The season five episode “The Body” remains the heart-wrenching examination of death in television (hell, for my money television and film) history. And then there’s the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling.” To be bluntly honest, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the reason I wanted to become a television writer, and this episode changed the way I look at storytelling. Any single episode that can do that is some kind of special.

“Hush” is available on Buffy’s fourth season DVD, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu Plus (ugh).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Battlestar Galactica : "33"

Season One, Episode One
Original Airdate: January 14, 2005
Writer: Ronald D. Moore
Director: Michael Rymer
Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Cast: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, James Callis, Tricia Helfer

The series premier of “Battlestar Galactica” had quite the trick to pull off. This was the beginning of a series follow-up to a 2004 miniseries, which was itself a remake of a 1978 one-season wonder that garnered big ratings but ultimately proved too expensive to maintain. It had to get new viewers up-to-date quickly and convince those who didn’t like the miniseries that it was still a viable, good show.

The original “Battlestar: Galactica” (note the colon) was basically supposed to be the television version of “Star Wars,” and was honestly quite fun. A race of robots called the Cylons have wiped out most of mankind, and the final survivors (led by the ship from the title) race into the darkness on the hunt for a planet of legend called earth. The remake retained that, and nothing else. When fans of the original saw the complete change in tone, style and…well…everything that the miniseries was, they were none too happy. It was darkness upon darkness, more akin to “Saving Private Ryan” than “Star Wars.” I remembered watching the miniseries then going on a message board (because back when I was a teenager I still went on message boards, whereas now I spend my time doing more constructive things…like blogging) and writing “Who gives a frak about whether all these assholes live or die? If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the show.”

I revisited the miniseries recently and, oddly enough, still feel like my initial reactions were pretty on-the-money. It seemed as if the creators went too far out of their way to make everything and everyone edgy, and as a result the characters were just not people you wanted to care about. But beginning with this episode, that all changed.

The series announced itself quite loudly with the opening credit sequence. Not the credits themselves, but what comes right after. We are treated to a short (just a few seconds) preview of scenes to come in the episode, small little pops of scenes and moments to get our tongues salivating. It’s as if the creators are daring you to tune out before witnessing what’s coming next.

Every 33 minutes on the dot, the Cylons discover the hidden fleet of humans, forcing them to make another jump into a different part of space, safe from the Cylons for another 33 precious minutes. As a result, no one has slept for over 120 hours. Writer Ronald D. Moore was wearing his characters down to their very core, pushing them further than they thought they could go. Simultaneously, he was (brilliantly) also wearing his wary audience down. These men and women who I had reacted so badly to in the miniseries were stripped down in front of me, pushing themselves in order to save everyone else. How can a viewer not immediately sympathize and root for them, given the circumstances?

What the premise of the episode also presents to viewers is consistent suspense. We knew that the Cylons were coming sooner rather than later, and after catching a glimpse of how run-down these people were, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think it could come apart at the seams. Every single scene involving the crew (there was a short subplot back on their invaded home planet), even the quiet individual ones, was underlined by that exhaustion and the inevitability of the next attack.

And there are beautiful, small scenes that help to create a foundation and mythology for the show. There’s a moment where Duanna (Kandyse McClure) tries to find out if any of her family survived, and becomes almost lost and overwhelmed in the bevy of photos and candles in tribute to those lost and missing. There’s another scene between Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Apollo (Jamie Bamber) where he tries to get her to take pills that will give her a rush of adrenaline. Though Starbuck raises her voice, the character development is subtle and wonderful, and those two-and-a-half minutes do a better job of illustrating who these two people are and what their dynamic is than anything in the original miniseries.

The episode does not give the viewer any easy payoff. It’s revealed that the Cylons are tracking the fleet through one of their ships, one that (probably) has over a thousand souls onboard. Apollo and Starbuck are forced to destroy the ship in order for the fleet to get away safely. The relentless chase might be over for the moment, but there’s no sigh of relief.

Stylistically, the series employs the dreaded “shaky-cam,” but I have to note that it is only used in scenes and sequences when it needs to be. Also, when it is, you can still tell what the frak is going on, something that woefully misguided directors don’t seem to understand while making their movies. Aside from “Saving Private Ryan,” the only two times I can honestly say I didn’t find shaky-cam distracting or felt it took away from the story was this series and “Friday Night Lights.” And that’s because both use it sparingly.

“Battlestar Galactica” was never shy about bringing up big questions, and here Baltar (James Callis) and Six (Tricia Helfer) have several conversations (probably one too many) about God. They talk about His existence, His intervention and His motives. Upon first glance, it might seem too on the nose, but if you put yourself in that situation, I doubt you’d have the time for subtlety in discussion.

Watching the episode again, I was struck by how many characters were there at the beginning…it almost feels like the television equivalent of a Robert Altman movie at times. And I was also struck by how many they had the balls to kill off by the end of the show’s run. Here was a show where they could legitimately kill off any character (except Starbuck, apparently, who gets to float away on a breeze) at any point, making every moment…every episode…count that much more. Shows like “24” made a point of killing off its main characters (except Kim Bauer) so you never grew very attached to anyone but Jack and Chloe, but “Battlestar Galactica” made sure you loved them and understood them before breaking your heart. Its characters became people beginning with “33,” and from this episode I was with them all the way to Earth and beyond.

“33” is available on Hulu (for free, thankfully), on the first season DVD and Blu-Ray of “Battlestar Galactica,” and on iTunes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Twilight Zone - "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"

Season One, Episode 22
Original Airdate: March 4, 1960
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Ronald Winston
Producer: Buck Houghton
Cast: Claude Akins, Jack Weston, Batty Atwater, Rod Serling

I’m not sure whether or not I was in fourth or fifth grade, but one day in class we decided to have a “dramatic reading” of one of the stories in our English textbook. It was an old teleplay. This one. The boldness of the narrative and the bleak ending affected me deeply even then…even when it was only a bunch of ten-year-olds reading it aloud.

The quality and excellence of “The Twilight Zone” remain unsurpassed on television, even over half a century later. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen episodes that would be considered masterpieces. The recurring theme for the vast majority of episodes is isolation – isolation from society, from a familial unit…from yourself. And in using that as a foundation, series creator Rod Serling (who penned most of the series along with such greats as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) used science fiction to create thinly veiled metaphors for what is wrong (or right) in our world.

Though other episodes matched it in darkness or dread, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” feels like Serling wrote it with a rage that comes across in every scene. The only other episode that even comes close is “Deaths-Head Revisited,” where a Nazi captain revisits a concentration camp to be haunted into madness by his victims. We barely get a shot of the idyllic Maple Street (which seems lifted directly out of “Leave It To Beaver”) before Serling’s script begins turning the screws.

There’s a noise and a flashing light over the street, and soon all the residents realize the electric doesn’t work. Neither do their cars or battery-powered gear. A group of neighbors form in the hot sunlight, and a horrible, horrible child hypothesizes that it’s aliens causing it. Not just that, but they have probably sent one of their own ahead who is now living on the street. From that moment, every person on the street is a frog in a big pot set to boil.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad child.
I’ve seen the episode on numerous occasions, and however many times I watch it I can never pinpoint the specific moment in the show when the tides turn toward insanity. The dialogue is so well-paced and subtly built that you actually become immersed in the moment-to-moment interactions more than looking for specific ways the script ups the stakes. Is it the moment the car turns on? Or when the group runs across the street looking like a mob? How about when a neighbor accuses another of “staring too long at the sky at night”?

Once the ball is rolling, it isn’t long before the lynch mob formed by Charlie (Jack Weston) implodes by turning on itself. It’s Charlie’s fault because he shot a guy! It’s the kid’s fault because he started the whole thing! And so on and so forth…until the street descends into violent, savage anarchy. If that were the ending, the viewer would already be picking his jaw off the floor at the lack of any (any!) redemption for any character. But what makes the episode transcendent is that Serling adds a twist which brings another level of sickening awareness to the proceedings. The entire thing was caused by aliens, who did nothing but turn on and off a few appliances, sit back and watch humanity self-destruct.

Talk about a punch to the gut.

The reasons the neighbors turn on one another is because the others are “different” in ways that are utterly trivial. This is a veiled metaphor for any number of things: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, etc. His closing narration underlines this, and remains amazingly powerful in how blatant it is about the episode’s motives:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone…”

Hmmm…otherwise “good” people who inhabit a normal American street turning on one another for being “different” before descending into anarchy. Sound familiar? Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” borrows heavily from Serling’s structure in his film, using a blatant illustration of the shades of racism whereas Serling uses a very thin veil. There’s no point in arguing the merits and superiority of one or the other, but I would like to point out one thing. In Lee’s film, he allows for a scene after the mob and the destruction…a hint at possible recovery. There is none in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Only more darkness.

The director of the episode is Ronald Winston, who gives the affair the feel of a film. When the intensity begins and the neighbors turn into a mob, he begins to shoot the characters from the waist down as they walk or run, inherently presenting to us that they are no longer individuals but a group of faceless horrors. When he does show the characters in these moments, it’s in harsh close-up, all in the same position in the frame. In essence, all interchangeable save for their savagery.

In 2002, UPN relaunched “The Twilight Zone,” and during its one season on air it remade several episodes from the original, including “Eye of the Beholder” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” While they left “Eye” intact, they changed the “monsters” in “Monsters” to terrorists, and the results were uneven at best. The show also produced one excellent episode called “It’s Still a Good Life,” which was a sequel to the original series’ “It’s a Good Life,” with the original cast.

Perhaps because of the veil of science fiction, but more likely because of the excellent writing, “The Twilight Zone” simply refuses to age. Sure, many of the effects are cheesy and the budget constraints are obvious in places, but that matters little when the underlying storytelling is as impactful as a sledgehammer to the chest. And that’s exactly what watching “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” still feels like today.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is available on the first season “Twilight Zone” DVD, as well as for free in the Amazon Prime program. You can also purchase it on iTunes.

I Love Lucy : "Hollywood at Last"

Season 4, Episode 16
Original Airdate: February 7, 1955
Writer: Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Pugh, Jess Oppenheimer
Director: William Asher
Producer: Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Jess Oppenheimer
Cast: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley

It’s a general consensus that, among all the classic sitcoms ever produced, “I Love Lucy” is the greatest ever created (sorry, “Seinfeld”). And though there are other amazing episodes and set-pieces created throughout the show’s run, “Hollywood at Last” is (for my money) the funniest, most thoroughly enjoyable…dare I say best?…from beginning to end. So, by using that logic, does this mean that we are looking at the greatest, funniest half hour of television ever produced? Lucille Ball called this her favorite episode, and I’m not going to argue.

The credits barely fade before we get a huge title filling the screen that declares we have arrived at “Hollywood at Last!” Yes, with the exclamation point and everything. Apparently it wasn’t only the characters who were excited. The Hollywood episodes reenergized the series in every possible way, and for its remaining seasons (and its continuation show “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”) the Ricardos and the Mertzes always seemed to be going…somewhere. First Italy, then Florida, then the move to the country, then Havana (in a flashback episode, but still), then Vegas, then Sun Valley, then Mexico, then Alaska, then a cabin in the woods somewhere, then Japan. Phew. And why wouldn’t they? We’d come to consider the Ricardos and the Mertzes our own family, so we were living vicariously through them.

The episode opens with the Ricardos and Mertzes being shown the suite Ricky was given by the studio while he shoots “Don Juan.” Everyone exits stage except for Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky (Desi Arnaz), and the writers find time for a really brief, sweet scene before the chaos begins. Essentially, Lucy tells Ricky how proud she is of him and how much she believes in him. The moment can’t be more than thirty or forty seconds, and it’s sad to think that little beats like this have been lost in the hectic nature of the modern sitcom. Now every scene, every moment has to be set-up/punchline/set-up/punchline. How much character development gets lost in the incessant need for a joke? There are so many funny beats in this episode, but the characters are still allowed to be people. They can look out their hotel window and point out sights without having to turn the phrase into a pun. Giving the audience the room to breathe between gags allows us to really engage in the big moments instead of losing them in the mix, and I must admit I miss that when I turn on network or cable today.

Of course, Lucy is almost immediately on the hunt for movie stars, and though Eve Arden has a brief (brilliant) cameo, the main attraction in the episode is William Holden, and they couldn’t have chosen a better first celebrity. He’s a magnificent straight man for comedy, so much so that I wish he would have done more comedies during his career. His subtle smile is the perfect reaction to Lucy’s shenanigans, and he’s at the center of not one, but two fantastic set-pieces.

The first is in the Brown Derby (which I would be able to see from my apartment if it hadn’t been torn down). Lucy is on the hunt and reacts in about the way we expect she would react, but then Holden decides to turn the tables on her. There’s a perfect comedy moment where Lucy turns to oogle Holden when Holden is already oogling her, and their noses barely touch in a near-collision. How many times did they practice that, and what happened if Lucy went an inch too far!? Holden turning the tables is a wonderful twist on our expectations for the scene, and any sequence showing Ball’s trademark eyes going wide in horror is worth a watch. The interaction between the two becomes something of a dance, one that ends with Lucy tripping a waiter and nailing Holden with an entire tray of pies. Hollywood at last, indeed.

There’s a nice scene between the madness that has passed and what is still to come where Ricky gets stuck in a very unbecoming suit or armor and seems very grateful to be able to clown around for once instead of just staring at Lucy in horror and/or telling her she can’t be in the show.

Ricky brings Holden home and Lucy does everything to stay away from him except barricade herself in the bedroom (“I’m fickle!” she exclaims while hiding herself in a corner), and finally decides her only way to get through the meeting is to use putty to elongate her nose, wear librarian glasses and put her hair up. Since this is her first day in Los Angeles, one has to wonder where she got the glasses and putty, but never mind.

Usually when a comedian has to make a quick change for a laugh he/she rushes offstage for thirty seconds then comes back on in drag/bad makeup/etc. Almost all sitcoms incorporate this, including “I Love Lucy.” “Hollywood at Last” does something very ballsy by having Ball actually adjusting her make-up during the filming, in front of the audience. After accidentally nudging her nose this way and that, she attempts to “fix” it on the couch next to Ricky and Holden. Holden is doing some product placement for “The Country Girl,” but all eyes are on Ball as she playfully tries to hide what she is doing right there on camera, which makes the payoff of her turning around with a nose that is at least six inches long all the funnier. You always get a bigger kick out of seeing magicians performing the trick in plain sight.

The first few episodes of “I Love Lucy’s” fourth season weren’t the best, but the moment Ricky heard the results of his screen test (episode 9), the show began firing on all cylinders. It actually turned the preparation for leaving into a beautiful four-episode arc with many memorable moments, especially one where Lucy monologues about a car accident. And then we get another three excellent episodes of them traveling across country (one of which, “First Stop,” will soon be appearing in this blog). After the comedic heights of “Hollywood at Last,” one had to wonder how the show could follow it up. But the next string of 18 episodes (which bled into season five) represented some of the best in the series’ storied run, with only one stinker (“Bullfight Dance”) in the bunch. Lucy had yet to steal John Wayne’s footprints, or hang off Cornel Wilde’s balcony, or get that infamous tan. I chose “Hollywood at Last” as an individual great episode, but you’ll find it impossible to watch just one.

“Hollywood at Last” is available on the fourth season DVD of “I Love Lucy” and on iTunes.