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Martha Speaks; or, How Not to Dumb-Down Your Programming

May 18, 2009 Leave a comment

I spend a lot of time on this blog complaining. Like, a lot. Even when I review albums by my favorite bands, I seem to do nothing but disparage them. My reviews of U2, Metallica, or Tool‘s most recent albums are at least as much negative criticism as positive. But today… today I’m going to share with you something I whole-heartedly adore. But more introduction first.

As a stay-at-home dad (please, no jokes about being a house-husband; I deplore the term house-wife just as much), I watch a lot of children’s programming. A lot. Particularly on PBS, because we’re fairly poor and can only afford an internet connection. I’ve noticed there’s some trends in the genre, and the two major ones are:

  • Shows that assume children are idiots, and
  • Shows that assume children have brains.

As you can probably guess, I’m a bigger fan of the latter, with the former including things like Barney, Teletubbies, and Thomas the Tank Engine. These are, in my opinion, shows that exist to keep children quiet, to keep them docile and entertained.

Shows of the second type, the ones that assume children have brains, make up a painfully small portion of children’s programming. Sesame Street has long been a leader in this catagory, though I think the introduction of the “Elmo’s World” segment is a step in the wrong direction. Two other shows currently on PBS that follow in this trope are Curious George and Martha Speaks. Martha Speaks, in particular, is the one I’d like to talk to you about.

Martha Speaks is a cartoon show based on a series of children’s books of the same name. The protagonist, a dog named Martha (who I think might be a Corgi), speaks thanks to a freak occurance with a bowl of alphabet soup. The experience is impossible to reproduce in the show; other dogs try the same soup, with no effect. But past this incredibly preposterous premise—which is really no more preposterous than, say, a giant purple dinosaur in a classroom, or an anthropomorphized dump truck—the show works precisely because it lives within its own boundaries.

Note the use of the words “enumerate” and “elucidate” in a show aimed at kids.

Martha’s talking is seen as remarkable, even whimsical, by other cast members, but most people in the show are understanding enough to admit they don’t know everything and can accept bizarre situations. Even when Martha’s talking gets her into trouble or bad situations, most of the time, rational conversation and talking out problems become the focus of the show.

But the primary reason I like Martha Speaks is that Martha is a curious, positive character, and she is always trying to be helpful. She rarely gets in trouble without having good intentions at heart, and that is what makes the show endearing to me on a parental level. I am reminded that my daughter isn’t trying to be malicious when she does something wrong, she just forgets, or she’s trying to learn, or she’s trying to help. As it is with Martha.

From a technical level, the show is well-written. It rarely uses a big or new word without explaining it through natuarl dialogue (“No, ‘recouperate’ means to get better.” “Oh, I thought it was more like ‘Oops, I just recouperated all over the carpet.'”) The voice acting is top-notch, with Martha herself voiced by Tabitha St. Germain, and the rest of the cast culled from the Vancouver-based anime voice-over studio The Ocean Group. Considering the production studio that produces the show is also responsible for Curious George, I’m not surpirsed by the quality of the show, and I understand it’s been picked up for a second season. I can’t wait.

Also, the animation, for appearing to be mainly Flash-based, is surprisingly emotive and accurate for conveying mood, emotion, and the like. I find myself laughing at Martha’s facial expression almost as much the dialogue.

Finally, the reason for my love of the show is because it’s one of the few kids shows that my wife and I can watch after an hour of Family Guy and American Dad on Sunday nights and see a crossover in joke sophistication. People badmouth those two shows a lot, but the humor in them (generally) comes from situation more than individual joke/punchline formula. I’m not saying that Family Guy or American Dad is high-brow humor all the time, but when the shows are on-point, it’s hard to deny that they are the work of someone that knows how to make people laugh. The same can be said of Martha Speaks.

Yes, I just compared a kid’s show to Family Guy. Yes, I just said American Dad can be genius. Stop e-mailing me.

Anyway, when Martha Speaks introduces an episode with a sick little girl, and it spirals out of control to include chimney sweeps, a pizza delivery guy, the police, and the fire department, and the whole thing works, you know it’s the work of someone that knows what they’re doing. And, most importantly, they don’t pull punches. They don’t dumb down the show because they assume children are dolts. That’s a message that should go out to every producer of children’s television: treat your audience with respect and they’ll respect you back.

Really, you could say that for any medium, but television (and, by extention, film) seems the most egregious offender of audience disrespect. It seems like they’re always saying “Here, we know you’re going to watch this anyway, so we’re just going to give you this garbage, and you’re going to like it, because there’s no other choice.” It’s why I don’t even really watch network TV anymore. When TV shows move away from substance and put more emphasis on how the show looks (say, Who Want to be a Millionaire vs. Jeopardy!) then you lose out on the actual potential television has as a mass medium. Rather than enlightening, television has moved to pandering, and that insults viewers.

Even when your viewers are three years old.

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DIGITAL RANT

February 4, 2009 2 comments

Hi. I’m Rick. I watch TV, and on occasion, I read the newspaper, or browse about on the intarwubs. I’ve been noticing something. On occasion, on network, broadcast television, they’ve been playing these “advertisments” or “public service announcements.” Surely you’ve seen them.

They say, essentially, that if you get network TV over the air (that is, not through cable or satellite), then you need to get a converter box for your current TV, or buy a TV with a digital tuner. You’ve had to have seen them.

Now, here’s the astonishing thing. Congress just finished passing an extension of the digital switchover date from February 17th to June 12th.

WHY?

The whole goddamned world knows that you can get a $40-off coupon to purchase a $50-$60 dollar converter box! And if you have cable, satellite, or a TV purchased in the last two years, you don’t even need one!

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY THAT WE HAVE TO ACCOMODATE THE 6 MILLION PEOPLE (they think) THAT ARE SO FUCKING LAZY THAT THEY PUT OFF BUYING A $20 BOX TO WATCH THEIR TV? IT’S BEEN COMING FOR YEARS! IF YOU DON’T GET SIGNAL ON THE 17TH, FUCK YOU. YOU DON’T MATTER. YOU’RE WASTING CONGRESS’ TIME AND TAXPAYER MONEY.

Update: I have included this. Says pretty much everything I said, except with less ranty-ness. Also, the 6 million figure is apparently households, not population. So the number affected is slightly higher. If, again, those numbers are to be believed.

Coddling Mommies in Sportscasting (with bonus rant)

February 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Back in the annals of the 1990s, there was a show called Sports Night. You may remember it, you may not. It was probably the best show on television at the time, and it featured a lot of acting-folk that went on to star in other shows, among them Desperate Housewives and The West Wing (and, um… Half-life 2).

The Aaron Sorkin-penned show was probably the first in what became the somewhat-unfortunately dubbed “dramedy” genre — that is, it was a drama, it was a comedy, and it was often both in the same line. The show was brilliantly funny, due to the great dialogue and the snappy delivery of the cast, but it also tackled some interesting plot and story territory. One story, in particular, was a short arc in which one of the female leads, Natalie (played by Sabrina Lloyd), is assigned to a post-game locker room interview, in which she was sexually assaulted. Not only was this episode huge from a story standpoint, it addressed the issue of females in sports reporting. Did they belong there? Should women be mixing it up in a man’s world?

Of course, we’ve come to the point where women are all over the place in sports coverage, from NASCAR pit reporting to NFL halftime coverage to Sportcenter analysis. They’re everywhere, and most of them are hot. In researching this post I found dozens, if not hundreds, of sites dedicated to the hottest of the hot female sportscasters. Just for contrast, the first hit on Google for “sexy male sportscaster” is, in fact, a blog link to the Top 10 Hottest Female Sportscasters. (I refuse to link to it. If you want to Google it yourself, be my guest.)

But you know what? I don’t really care how hot my female sportscasters are. I just want them to do their damn job without being overtly female (in a sexual or non-sexual way), just as I don’t want to see the men slapping each other on the back and downing beers and all that macho shit that The Guys do. But the most irritating and annoying offender — aside from the women that do coverage for NASCAR, with their low-cut “fire suits” — is the placating matron stance that some of them take in post-game interviews, especially for the losers.

Take, for example, last night’s post game wraps. In the Cardinals’ locker room — or maybe outside it, I couldn’t tell — NFL Network’s Alex Flanagan (I think) interviewed both coach Whisenhunt and quarterback Kurt Warner. The problem I had was the poor-baby, we still love you, it’s okay you lost tone she took with both of them. “Better luck next year,” her inflection was saying. Now, I realize that when you’re a 130-pound woman who’s dealing with 200-plus-pound, six-foot-tall men who just had their dreams for an entire season crushed by a miracle play, you’re going to be a little cautious. But these are grown men. Losing is part of the game. Ask your questions and get the hell out. Don’t try to coddle and coax them. Don’t be a mom. Be a journalist. You’re doing your whole gender a disservice by acting so stereotypically that you make some random dork on the internet complain about how he couldn’t even listen to your actual words because you coated them in so much saccharine that it was impossible not to notice.

I can’t seem to find a link for the interviews, either, either because no one cared about what they had to say, or because they were so damn annoying that the NFL didn’t want them to get out. I choose the latter.

Bonus Rant Section
For those of us in the Comcast-available area, we’re blessed with the unending ads for getting cable before the digital switch. But what really annoys me is their claim that you can get cable and whether the switch “without having to buy a new television.” You know what, Comcast? I can do that, too, I can BUY A CONVERTER BOX. The converters I’ve seen are $50-$60. With the government rebate coupon, that’s $20 or less. Drop in the bucket compared to cable or a new TV, and it works until my old TV dies.

Thanks for doing your part to intentionally mislead people. And the industry wonders why it’s taking people so long to adopt digital. Maybe it’s because of fucksticks like Comcast lying to make a buck off of people. Sure, gullible people should be harvested of their cash regularly, but there’s some people out there that are genuinely confused about how to go about the switch, and you’re not helping.

Of course, I anticipated this whole thing, and bought a TV with a digital tuner in it two years ago. Not because The Man made me, either, but because I actually care about the quality of the content I’m getting. I’d rather watch PBS all day in HD than two hours of a Lifetime movie of the week.

Dear Comcast: shut the hell up. Either give people their entire list of options, or don’t give them any.

Rants about Heroes (spoilers)

October 14, 2008 Leave a comment

So I’m going to try something quick and dirty this time around. I’m writing this on my phone, with the built-in qwerty keyboard, so I won’t be writing a novel here.

This week I’d like to talk about something that’s been bugging me quite a bit: Heroes.

When it initially appeared two seasons ago, the series seemed new and fresh. Even with its obvious indebtedness to Marvel’s X-Men comics, the show seemed to offer up action and gravitas and style in a way that was altogether different from anything before. But then something weird happened: people liked it. Characters suddenly became phenomena in their own right. “Save the cheerleader, save the world” ended up repeated by people who hated cheerleaders and people who hated comic books (and the world, I guess) alike. The show’s first season run was something mythic in television. The Big Hit.

And then there was that second season. The pacing, the new characters (I distinctly remember everyone I know and respect dubbing Maya and her brother “The Latin Wonder Twins” almost simultaneously), and the added twists seemed wholly unnecessary. The one thing I liked about the season is what eveyone else hated: Hiro’s Japanese subplot with Adam Monroe. It dealt with the one thing that is sorely lacking in comics but can be used to great effect in television–character development. But, Hiro notwithstanding, the season was a lost cause before the writer’s strike cut it short.

Series creator Tim Kring claimed that he’s listened to the fans and delivered a more active, kinetic plot. While I’d like to agree with him on that, I can’t. The plot for seaon three seems as convoluted and bizarre as any late-season X-Files episode. Characters with insanely cool powers that just appear from nowhere, only to die within ten minutes’ time. Characters that I never really cared about, like Claire’s birth mother, being given integral roles in the show. Characters I loved getting shafted. Everyone being reduced to a stock version of themselves. Claire Bennet. Is anyone surprised the she’s become a stock Angry At Her Parents Girl? (Also, how unconvincing is she as Future Claire?) Peter Pitrelli, the stock Brooding Hero?

And then you have the Big Sweeping Changes(tm). Hiro kills Ando! Ando kills Hiro! Hiro digs up Adam! Sylar’s not all evil! Peter’s not all good! Old Man Pitrelli’s still alive! Nathan finds God! Linderman’s still dead!

And THEN you have Noah, Anglea Pitrelli, Mohinder, and Matt Parkman. PICK A FUCKING SIDE, PEOPLE. I’m tired of your vacillating!

Oh, and The Big Problem. The Maguffin. The thing that unites them all into one plot: the visions of the impending doom of the future. Operation Impending Doom Three, if you will. First it was the explosion in New York. Then it was the virus. This time it’s the formula (how symbolically ironic is that?) with a bit of exploding California thrown in.

What this is all coming to–my point–is that plot, action, powers, all that is cool. But frankly, if I don’t care about the characters, I’ve stopped caring about the show. And really the only endearing character on the show right now is Mr. Turtle. And that’s because he’s a cute turtle.

All in all, Heroes still has places it can go. There are, at this point, dozens of characters just waiting to be fleshed out into real people. But like I said to my wife and my brother yesterday, Heroes is in a place now that it took Marvel almost 30 years to get to: a place where style is overtaking substance. Where the next buck is more important than the next story.

This show that combined the best elements of The X-Files, X-men, Watchmen, and dozens of other elements has finally turned into simply the sum of its parts, when it had the abilibty to be so much more. At the end of the day, I don’t want to help create a new character by voting with my text messages. I don’t want to read the online comic for information that I should get in the show. I don’t want a media empire to take my money. I just want a show that I can watch that has high-quality writing, acting, directing, and most of all, storytelling. Is it so much to ask from a show that used to promise those very things?

Categories: heroes, television, tim kring

Hunter S. Thompson Strikes from Beyond the Grave (sort of)

April 9, 2008 Leave a comment

One of the actual books (i.e., not a graphic novel or comic book or textbook) on my April reading list is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. I am currently on page 58, or the start of Chapter Five. Chapter Four dealt with the declination of media coverage that the Angels were getting, and their attempts to cash in on said coverage while it was hot. Eventually it got to the passage,

“But the deal fell through when the Angels offered, at $100 apiece, to terrorize any town that the TV people selected.”

Now, after the second read, it is obvious that the “TV people” in question were the producers of some mysterious television show for an unnamed network. However, I misunderstood it on the first pass. Therefore, I read it to mean the TV viewers. This is a pretty impressive proposition, and, at least in my mind, the next logical step in the evolution of reality TV.

No longer is it necessary to wait for the results of some poor bastard to do something on their own to get themselves kicked off a show. No more do we have to listen to Simon Cowell verbally do something we’d rather do physically (you know, destroy a person’s existence.) No, all we, the armchair voyeurs we are, would have to do is text–at a moderate fee–our vote for the U.S. town to next be ravaged by a chain-wielding gang of motorcycle freaks. It’s proactive destruction from the comfort of your own home. You could know that you played a small part in the decimation of an entire U.S. city. No longer would you have yell at the screen to tell them what you would have done or said… you can just say it, quickly and decisively, with your cell phone and the proper mindset.

Think about it this way: we thrive on destruction, pain, and misery. The popularity of such esteem-destroying shows like American Idol, gross-out shows like Survivor or the like, or the sheer voyeurism of Big Brother could easily be compressed into this one show. Interviews (or “raps”) with each member of the gang could be intercut, like The Real World.

So then, what we have, is really a show that has it all. Really. It All. It appeals to those basest, sickest urges that we have, the desires to kill and devour and destroy and rape and pillage.

All from the safety of our own homes.

Advertisers would flock to it. People would never turn it off. It would be The Running Man, but you could control who died. Well, maybe not who, but where. And maybe not where, but in the general vicinity. Maybe regionally. But there is nothing more globally saliva-inducing than death, destruction, sex, filth, and the puerile entertainment afforded by said behaviors. It’s rubbernecking without the pain of turning your head. It’s like watching a boxing match without having money on the line: you don’t really care who wins, but you know someone’s going to get fucked up bad.

It’s the future of network television, I swear.