Tag Archives: tv

The Baron of Monte Cristo (and other sandwiches): A reflection on self-belief

I believe in belief.

Whatever you want, you can have it through unbridled belief in self. “The only prophecy,” you may sometimes hear me say, “is self-fulfilling.”

I had a friend in college who dreamed of being a Sesame Street puppeteer. Had a pretty focused desire for it, in fact. Any decent guidance counselor might have told her at some point, “Gosh, that’s a rather narrow career aspiration. Have you considered other jobs where you can work with your hands? Loom operator, perhaps?” Of course,  she eventually landed the job at Sesame. Which just goes to show you: Sometimes you get the puppet, sometimes the puppet gets you.

The patron saint of self-belief is probably Mark Borchardt, the filmmaking force of nature who is the subject of the documentary, “American Movie.” This is how Roger Ebert described Borchardt, the movie superfan:

If you’ve ever wanted to make a movie, see “American Movie,” a documentary about someone who wants to make a movie more than you do. Mark Borchardt may want to make a movie more than anyone else in the world. … No poet in a Paris garret has ever been more determined to succeed.

Borchardt works two jobs, writes in his car, shoots on the fly, and has seemingly no idea how impossible his odds are. What does he get for his ignorance? A screening of his movie (and the documentary about him) at Sundance, just by believing in himself more than anyone else believes in him.

But that was so 1999. Ten years later, my new poster boy for self-determination, for dreaming  a dream and never giving up, is this guy:

The car's name is Purplesaurus Rex. P-Rex for short. Seriously.

That would be Baron Ambrosia, a Bronx local-TV personality profiled today in the New York Times. He’s a self-appointed restaurant critic, scraping together spare resources to shoot a weekly public access show best described as “restaurant review meets telenovela.” The story of “Bronx Flavor” is too much fun — simply, Ambrosia (real name: Justin Fornal) saw the need for a campy, hot-blooded gastronome who does genuine reviews of eateries while spinning some absurdist theater along the way. The episode “Friend or Pho” pits the baron against both Vietnamese food and his recurring German nemesis; in “Joe Bataan Stole My Girlfriend,” his lordship battles a legendary salsa dancer while seeking the perfect roast of pork shoulder, all in the name of love.

Watch any episode at the Bronx Flavor site. I was just ingesting the “Quantum of Chimi” episode that focuses on a renowned, neon-clad chimichurri truck that serves the Bronx, and now I’m damn famished—and surprisingly well informed about concocting the perfect chimi. Times reporter Melena Ryzik writes:

Flashy production numbers aside, at bottom “Bronx Flavor” is an effort to educate and entertain without pretension. And Baron Ambrosia, a self-described “quaffer of culinary consciousness,” is like Anthony Bourdain crossed with Ali G… “He doesn’t rest, he only feasts,” goes his theme song, performed by a guy named Opera Steve. “How will he soothe the savage beast? Bronx Flavor!”

Of course that’s how his theme song goes. That’s how mine was going to go, but he took it first.

I really envy Baron Ambrosia. He found the baron-shaped hole missing from the world and he’s filling it with gusto. According to the Times, he’s winning hearts and minds across NYC — or at least amusing them. And for some people, that’s ambrosia enough.

SPECIAL FRUGALITY BONUS

Another reason I like Baron Ambrosia is his attitude about putting on a Barnum-sized circus with a Bozo-sized budget. Writes the Times:

Figuring out how to shoot each episode, he said, is “like pulling a heist.” But, he continued: “You don’t let your budget write your script. Just because I have no budget, don’t be like, ‘Oh, I can’t climb the Brooklyn Bridge, I can’t drive a car off a cliff.’ You can do anything! You just have to write it down, say ‘I’m going to do it’ and then figure out how the hell it’s going to get done.”

Great advice! His “realistic idealism” mirrors that of other filmmakers like Joss Whedon and Robert Rodriguez (no slouches in the Big, Crazy Dream department). I’ve already enthused about Rodriguez’s behind-the-scenes film school extras on his DVDs. For Whedon’s part, he provides loads of inspiration on the “Firefly” DVD commentaries. He actually seems to enjoy the limitations of smaller budgets, insisting that they force you to be more creative. His commentaries on those discs are full of tricky reveals about how he cut corners and cheated your eyes without compromising much, if anything, in terms of story or effects. Insightful and worth the time to listen.

UPDATE: Check the comments section for the most embarrassing typo I’ve ever admitted to in public. Once my friends find out about this, they may never look me in the eye again.

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Termination for Terminator?

As a follow-up of yesterday’s post about the fall TV schedule, here’s a well-written commentary from CNN’s Josh Levs about Fox’s on-the-fence series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

“Save this Terminator”

I’ve never watched the show, but have seen the three Terminator movies, which descend in chronological order from “brilliant storytelling” to “also something you can watch.” But I’m intrigued by something Levs says:

“The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is just really good TV — the kind that you want to believe can last.

Yes! That’s it, that’s a much better way to express what I was trying to say yesterday: Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I want to think the long-form storytelling format of television can be used to produce stories of lasting significance. And Levs makes a pretty good case for why “Terminator” qualifies:

Without clobbering you with messages, (executive producer Josh) Friedman gets you thinking — about people whose secret struggles you can’t know, about living with trauma and moving forward, about the strength and fragility of teenagers, and about the otherwise impossible things parents manage to do to protect their children… Friedman might be the best storyteller on TV right now. He packs episodes with twists you don’t see coming but make sense in retrospect. He changes up his style, drops lead characters for entire episodes, uses biblical references left and right and delivers dialogue that’s simultaneously believable and eloquent.

Wow. That’s exactly the kind of thoughtfulness I look for in a TV show, and it sounds like T:TSCC delivers in spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs. It also sounds like the first season ends in a whopper of a cliffhanger, so fans are anxious for it to continue. (This is Fox, after all, which pulled the rug out from under the forever-fantastic “Firefly,” leaving behind just 14 episodes of TV perfection.) And even though it means certain heartbreak, I’m going to catch up with “Sarah Connor,” too, even if it means ending with a question mark that will never get resolved.

Because unless we show TV we like good food, she will only feed us Twinkies.

Lena Heady as Sarah Connor. The show is about her, for cry eye, but Levs faults Fox for basing its marketing on the robotrix played by Summer Glau, which skewed the viewing audience toward squeaky-voiced Xbox teens.

Lena Heady as Sarah Connor. The show is about her, for cry eye, but Levs faults Fox for basing its marketing on the robotrix played by Summer Glau, thus skewing the viewing audience toward squeaky-voiced Xbox teens.

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Avast, Wasteland!: Fall ’09 TV schedule

I am perpetually behind on the TV shows I watch because I almost never begin watching one until people whose opinions I trust tell me that a show is truly worth my time.

Television, more than any other medium, provides iron-clad proof of Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” My wife is so resistant to falling for the 90% trap that she lunges for the off button whenever a new show threatens to sneak past our barriers and suck us in with promises of “But my characters are sooo interesting” and “Baby, I promise I’ll be here for you forever.”

(You know how networks start their shows immediately on the heels of the previous program, without commercials, in order to get you hooked on the plot barb of some new episodic series? Yeah, my wife is like a media sniper for that trick. She keeps her finger on the trigger; immediately after the “scenes from next week’s show” and before the first word of the following program, she’s picked off the TV and silenced its siren song.)

I often rely on my former colleague Kat Achenbach to let me know the skinny on good TV. For this autumn, she clued me in to this constantly updating Entertainment Weekly scout report of the fate of current shows. More than just a useful dead-or-alive guide, it’s an interesting (and sometimes depressing) study of what networks and, in turn, we value. It ain’t always flattering.

“Kings” and “The Unusuals” already have one foot in the meat grinder? Really? The pretty, pretty “Dollhouse” not attractive enough? Ugh.  I wish I had stuck with this Joss Whedon show and championed it more, because it was certainly smart enough, and God knows TV could use more smarts strutting across its stage.

There's still time to give "Dollhouse" the love it deserves. Hulu it up and hulu.com!

There's still time to give "Dollhouse" the love it deserves. Hulu it up at hulu.com!

Kat is particularly despondent over the loss of “Life,” a smart cop show about a flatfoot who returns to the force after doing time in the joint for a deed he didn’t do. (As always, turn to Hulu to beat the networks at their own game, and find out for yourself what a good show “Life” is. Er, was.)

Segue, of course, to the lukewarm gruel that gets a pass: pseudo gameshows such as “Idol” and “Top Model” and “Bachelor”; law and crime procedurals as dry as cracked leather (“Law & Order” is still on the air? And “CSI: Wherever”?); teen soaps such as “Gossip Girls,” “90201” and “One Tree Hill”; noisome comedies like “Two and a Half Men” and “Family Guy.”

All this leaves me with a sort of jaded sigh about the things we reward with our love, and the things we kill with our neglect. And how my tastes almost never line up with everyone else’s. “Lost” is the only show at the moment that is both wildly innovative and wildly successful. Normally that kind of risk-taking, which excites me oh-so, is a one-way ticket to the ashcan.

I’ll leave you with this reflection from Kat, who loves TV more than I, and is still counting up the broken hearts she’s collected from shows that have wooed her before slipping off in the dead of night.

Stopping by Tivo on Pretty Much Any Evening

Whose show this is, I think I know,
It used to be lots better, though.
Will Nielsen see me stopping here
To watch this poorly-rated show?
The nets are fickle, rash, and cheap,
And I have loyalties to keep,
And hours to watch before I sleep,
And hours to watch before I sleep.

— Kat “Frost (Robert, not David)” Achenbach

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What once was Lost

It’s easy to find someone to trash Lost on the Interweb, such as: It’s an episodic mystery strung along over five, soon to be six, seasons. It has raised more questions than it will be able to answer. Some of its “mysteries” just feel like incomplete stories, some if its ins and outs feel contrived or just plumb drawn out.

I think these people also oppose hamburgers for being juicy and convertibles for being drafty.

Last night’s Lost (season 5, episode 11, “Whatever Happened, Happened”) is just one in a series of time travel episodes that make me want to clap my hands like a circus seal — and if you’d told me I’d one day write that line, I’d have removed your “Allowed to Talk to Me” privileges. Time travel is usually the world’s worst story bugaboo, a real logic meltdown … typically a sign of writers being out of ideas and so desperate for something Amazing To Do that they’re willing to snort any old plot device they can scrape together. “This is your brain; this is your brain on a time travel plot…

But the Lost guys know better. Not only do they stick it with a time travel story, but they keep the show my No. 1 TV highlight of the week by doing what they’ve always done. Here’s how:

1. Delivering on great character moments (that just happen to come 30 years in the past). Take Hurley. When he believes he’s changed the past, he starts examining his hands, explaining that he’s “checking to see if I’m disappearing. Back to the Future, man!” Thanks, Hugo, for keeping it real.

Hurley takes up palm reading.

Hurley takes up palm reading.

Or when Sayid, the world’s most lovable torturer, ends an episode (season 5, number 10, “He’s Our You”) by accepting his fate and shooting the bad guy — not just the bad guy, but the 12-year-old version of the bad guy. What a morally squishy moment, and a memorable one, too.

Or when that dying boy — the young Ben Linus, Lost‘s mercurial villain-instigator-puppetmaster — needs a surgeon to save his life, and the audience can see the great impending decision rolling Dr. Jack Shepherd’s way: Will he save the boy’s life or will he refuse to help? We all know Jack to be a goody-goody, so it comes as no surprise when he —oh, snap! Did he just refuse to save the life of a child? My tally of “Totally Awesome Surprising Character Moments on Lost” just got another tick mark. Which is, of course, the best tally to have.

2. Writing tight dialog. On-again, off-again, but-always-star-crossed love interest Kate seethes at the good doctor after he refuses to aid the dying boy.

Kate: I don’t like the new you. I like the old you…

Jack: You didn’t like the old me, Kate.

Or take Sawyer, the con-man with a calloused heart. He’s been living comfortably on the island for three years, before his fellow crashmates return and things go to hell: A burning VW bus rolls out the jungle and crashes into a house.

Jack: What the hell happened?

Sawyer: Three years, no burning buses. Y’all are back for one day

It's the 70s. They were burning everything.

It's the 70s. They were burning everything.

3. Confronting the Audience Suspension of Disbelief Threshold head on. The Back to the Future exchange prompts Hurley and Miles to have a clever back-and-forth about the standard conundrums of time travel stories, thus winking straight at the audience and saying “Yeah, we know these stories are usually pretty preposterous. But we know what we’re doing.”

Plus that sort of pop-culture tennis match is the hallmark of producer Brian K. Vaughn, low-culture specialist and author of some of the world’s best comics. When he joined the show, you could see his Mark of Zorro everywhere.

4. Fastforwarding narrative at the just the right moment. The episode “La Fleur” deposits our characters in the 70s. Gives them some tense conflict with the creepy hippie Dharma Initiative. Sawyer does a little fast talking and … “Three Years Later” he’s head of their security, wearing a dorky jumpsuit, barking orders to Dharma underlings. When done right, that fastforward can be surprising and tantalizing; Alias was the last show to serve it up to me, and I ate it like a lasagna noodle then, too.

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Battlestar Galactica is dead; long live Battlestar Galactica

Mild spoiler alerts for the BSG finale, for those of you who care about such things.

After the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, (watched just this week — thanks, Hulu.com!) I turned to my wife and said, “That was almost anticlimactic.” No blaze of glory, no triumphant punctuation, no surprising twist. (Really, at this point, the notion of the “ancient astronaut” does not qualify as a plot twist.)

But the more I thought about it, it didn’t need to be impactful or surprising, it just needed to be perfect. I believe this series ended exactly the way it had to, with neither bang nor whimper, but with a soft sigh and a nod and rolled-up sleeves. No one gets exactly what he wants, not unless living among Lucy and the australopithecines is your idea of a good time. But if you’re on the run across all creation, having lost 99% of your species and, after losing about half of what’s left of that, you wash up on tribal, early human Earth, I suppose you’d better count yourself lucky.

And while I’m not positive 40,000 people would go quietly into a night of technology-free hardship (as our weary star-trotters do in the final minutes), I’m happy to believe, for the sake of all the characters I care about in the BSG universe, that this is exactly what they did, what they had to do. Again, that may not be splashy or uplifting, but it’s satisfying in the way that regular life is satisfying. “I got somewhere that’s better than where I was. I didn’t screw up. I did good.”

That’s kind of a messy, imperfect ending — which is, indeed, what makes it neat and perfect for this series. The Vancouver Sun thought this added up to “a new standard for bad endings,” but I just don’t see it. (The Sun‘s reviewer would have preferred to see everyone die in the big shootout at the midpoint of the finale. Wow, is hopelessness really so in vogue these days?)

What surprises me and makes me scratch my head the most is the reliance on divinity as a plot device. It’s one thing to, as BSG regularly did, inject your story with prophecy — that’s always a good plank to trot your story upon, nice and spooky and tantalizing — but the hand of God, or Gods (or It, as one character-in-the-know says toward the end) is really taking a leap isn’t it? Angels, apparently, have been characters of this show all along, in the form of invisible Six and Gaius. And then there’s Starbuck: Angel? Miracle? Reincarnated Cylon hybrid ghost? I’d sniff and dismiss her as deus ex machina … but in a show inherently about both deus and machina, I’d say it’s probably to be expected.

BSG got quite a “buy” from me in its earliest days. It impressed me with the depth of its characters, its struggles with morality and humanity, and its primal, man-on-the-run tension. Like any meaningful relationship, once you make a big buy-in, you’re in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. Where this finale felt a tad thin, I’m happy to pat in on the back and say, “You did good. You entertained me for a long time. You’ve certainly given me more than I gave you, so go ahead — ask a mild indulgence or two of me. I’m just in the mood to grant it.”

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