All posts by Ryan Howard

Currently working as a journalist in Fergus Falls, Minn., Ryan enjoys writing, reading a copious amount of books and over-analyzing various ABC science fiction series. He enjoys writing about a cacophony of topics, particularly movies, music and politics.
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Fall TV part 3: The Dudes and the Fairy Tales

On this, likely my final TV preview of the season (at least until mid-season replacements!), I’m tackling four shows, split into two categories: ABC’s hour-long, two-show block of “manly” television and the two hour-long fairy tale shows that debuted last week. All times are central.

Last Man Standing

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 7 p.m. Tuesday – Would Watch Again: Yes

This one’s been on for a few weeks now, but better late than never, right?

“Last Man Standing” is Tim Allen’s return to TV comedy, a response to the nostalgia that viewers – or at least ABC – had for his wildly successful run on “Home Improvement.” This time, however, Tim Allen’s character (his name is Mike, but I had to look that up) is relegated to a home with three daughters instead of three sons, and the crush of femininity causes him to frequently ruminate on rambling webcamera videos about the emasculation of the modern man. Also, he works for an outdoors supply company instead of a tool company. And there’s no Wilson.

My cynical description of the show notwithstanding, there’s a lot to like here. The pilot was much, much cleverer than I had anticipated, and it managed to reawaken my dormant “Home Improvement”-based Tim Allen feelings while glossing over my “virtually everything else he’s ever done”-based Tim Allen feelings. Turns out, he was good on TV where he failed in movies largely because he’s just really good at the multi-camera sitcom format. Metatextual script contributions from former “30 Rock” scribe and show creator Jack Burditt also liven up the proceedings with humor you don’t usually see in this kind of show (a Buzz Lightyear-related crack in the pilot comes to mind).

That being said, there is the underlying question of whether anyone needs a show like this, with Mike lamenting the downfall of the manly man while at the same time lowering himself to every ugly male stereotype in the book. Whether the show can rise above its concept and continue to operate as a typical, but funnier, family sitcom (and whether it can avoid the slide of diminishing returns it’s suffered since its first week) may be what keeps it on the air or shuts it down. That being said, it definitely has a better chance than the next show on the list.

Man Up!

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday – Would Watch Again: No

Apparently deciding that “Last Man Standing” wasn’t enough, ABC decided to run “Man Up!” immediately following. There are a few differences – “Man Up!” has a collection of bros compared to Allen’s lone wolf status, and “Last Man” has a laugh track where “Man Up!” rather unwisely decided to rely on home viewers’ mirth – but at the root of each show is the idea that men just aren’t what they used to be.

“Man Up!” follows the lives of family man Will (Mather Zickel), sensitive single guy Craig (Christopher Moynihan) and clueless misogynist Kenny (Dan Fogler) as they wander through various misadventures wondering how they can be “real men” in these modern, toned-down times. In the pilot, this consists of Will wondering what to get for his son’s 13th birthday while Kenny deals awkwardly with his shrewish ex-wife and Craig considers crashing his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.

This is all pretty joyless, with only Kenny’s subplot earning even a slight smile (even those small joys must be taken with a grain of salt, as Fogler is clearly doing his level best to mimic Zach Galifianakis’s

character from the “Hangover” films). And, while “Last Man” might eventually settle into a successful, if not traditional, zany family sitcom, the “Man Up!” creators are too tied to their underlying concept, and they’re unlikely to find much sympathy with such unsympathetic and unfunny leads.

Once Upon A Time

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 7 p.m. Sunday – Would Watch Again: No

Next on the list of creators who are too enamored by their show’s high concept are Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, creators of “Once Upon A Time.” Perhaps inspired by their participation in the seemingly heady (but ultimately airheaded) “Lost,” the two have created a show that merges the real world with the world of fairy tales in a way that is so esoteric that it almost defies a sensical description.

In one way, “Once Upon A Time’s” pilot uses a storytelling device similar to “Lost’s” sixth season, flashing between the realities of the fairy tale world (where all fairy tales reside in a collective kingdom, similar to the “Shrek” films) and our world. Many of the characters in the fairy tale world also exist in the real world, but most of them appear to be unaware of their fairy tale lives. The story hinges on the decisions of Emma (Jennifer Morrison), the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), as she is made aware of these other characters’ connections with the fairy tale world.

You see, it seems that the evil queen from Snow White’s tale cursed the rest of the kingdom to be without happiness, but the good guys managed to save Emma by putting her in a magic wardrobe, and for some reason Emma is 28 in the real world while none of the other characters seemed to have aged, and, and, and… Frankly, it’s exhausting, and it’s muddled, and none of the performances made me care enough to keep watching.

Grimm

Network: NBC – Time Slot: 8 p.m. Friday – Would Watch Again: Maybe

I’m in the minority on this one. From my perusal of critical consensus, it looks like “Once Upon A Time” is getting better reviews than “Grimm.” While your mileage may vary when it comes to execution, “Grimm” does have the one-up on “Once” by virtue of having an easily-explainable premise.

The show follows Nick (David Giuntoli), a homicide detective who starts seeing people temporarily transformed into monsters. After a particularly harrowing run-in with one of them, he learns that he is one of the last surviving descendants of the Brothers Grimm, able to see – and fight – all of the storybook monsters the macabre siblings wrote about.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for genre mashups, but the idea of a cop procedural/modernized fairytale show intrigues me, and the acting and writing was all right, for a pilot. My main question is how seriously the show is taking itself. The opening murder scene actually made me laugh out loud harder than I’ve laughed at most of this year’s new comedies, and then there’s the intentionally comedic bit later on when a Big Bad Wolf (yep) says that he keeps his bloodlust in check with the help of Pilates. At this stage in the game, it’s hard to know whether the show is playing its premise straight or with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Expect its hand to be tipped within a week or two.

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The Quest for Fall TV Glory – Week 2

Read Week 1 of the Quest Here. All times are central.

Sunday

Pan Am

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 9 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: Yes


By far the best pilot I’ve watched so far this fall, Pan Am manages to dodge most of the inevitable “Mad Men” comparisons by infusing itself with an emotion not commonly found on the perennial Emmy winner (at least, not yet – I’m only on season one): joy. Sure, the opening episode plays around with the social mores of repression (particularly inequitable gender politics), but that’s not the whole episode. Instead, the show heaps on some idealized nostalgia and oldies music to let us know that, for some people, anyway, the 1960s were a pretty good time to be alive.

The show focuses on four stewardesses (it’s OK to call them that, because, hey, ‘60s!) and two pilots that I imagine will all fly together throughout the course of the show (did it really work like that back then?). One of the flight attendants is played by Christina Ricci, but this seems less important if you’re just watching the pilot, in which she is something like the sixth important character. The team goes on a flight while you’re filled in on their backstories through flashbacks, which range from mysterious to adventuresome to people with family issues. It’s sort of like “Lost,” actually, except hopefully Pan Am doesn’t end in disappointment and stupidity.

You’d think it would be hard to blend the subtle to not-so-subtle sexism of the time period with the joy of flight, adventure, and new frontiers, but “Pan Am” does it effortlessly while managing to give us a good introduction to most of the main players and, most importantly, a compelling hour of television. Since there are elements of danger, secret agent drama, socialist agitation, family warfare and soapy love story all at work in the pilot, it will be interesting to see if the show decides to change its genres depending on who the major character is that week. I was not expecting to like this, but I was surprised by the depth of plot, acting and writing already on display. I’ll be back for more.

Monday

Terra Nova

Network: Fox – Time Slot: 7 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: Maybe years down the road if it becomes some sort of cult hit


“Terra Nova” is perfectly competent. It claims to be a science fiction show about a future race returning to the past to face “blank slate” arguments, political intrigue, family drama, and semi-acceptably-rendered dinosaurs. It is all of those things, and little more.

If you are really jonesing for a science fiction show right about now, there are definitely worse options than “Terra Nova,” in which a former cop kicked off the force for doing the right thing (yup) and his family travel to a utopia of 85 million years ago in an alternate reality – splitting equal time between trying to save mankind and just learning to get along. The science is better explained than on many shows, and the set-up of the premise is complete without being expository. Still, this was not something that I thought “I have to watch this every week!” about after the pilot’s credits rolled.

I think a big part of my dislike is some of the traditional drama tropes slipping in, like the ex-cop loner past for the lead character Jim (Jason O’Mara) and the latest in a string of insufferable teenage boys whose parents just don’t understand (Landon Liboiron, clearly cast to give non-interested teenage girls something look at). Beyond that, the mysteries were of passing interest but not too exciting, and the graphics were fine but below what some shows can do today. Granted, most other shows aren’t showing prolonged dinosaur fights, but I can live with that.

Wednesday

Suburgatory

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 7:30 (half hour slot) – Would Watch Again: No


Good going, ABC. “Charlie’s Angels” is the worst drama pilot I’ve seen this year, and now “Suburgatory” is the worst comedy pilot. I’m not sure who was asking for yet another mirthless, condescending take on life in the suburbs, but if it was you, well, here it is, I guess.

Teenaged redhead Tessa (Jane Levy) does her best sarcastic Emma Stone impression here as her dad (Jeremy Sisto), worried about her sexual activity, decides to pick up and move away from New York City to a more sanitary suburb. Tessa hates it there because everyone is prejudiced and materialistic and listens to crappy music and is obsessed with obtaining wealth, which “Suburgatory” seems to think is A). a completely original idea and B). something that only happens in the suburbs, as if New York City was a shrine of charity, humility and intelligence.

Beyond the silliness of the premise, the fact remains that skewering of the suburbs and materialism can be done in a funny way. See “Mean Girls” or the “Over the Hedge” film for examples. This, however… This is just bitterness, with a fuzzy ending tacked on to give viewers a place to hang their hearts. I usually try not to accuse the media of marginalizing people who are different from them, but it’s hard to think of this show any other way.

Thursday

How To Be A Gentleman

Network: CBS – Time Slot: 7:30 p.m. (half hour slot) – Would Watch Again: No
This is one I might give another chance in a fall when I didn’t have as many other leads. However, with five new shows I’ve already committed to watching for at least the first few episodes, “How To Be A Gentleman’s” amusing secondary characters can’t overcome its lackluster overall plot.

David Hornsby plays classy magazine writer Andrew, whose monthly column on gentlemanly behavior is upended when the mag is purchased by a new publisher in search of a sexier direction. He seeks guidance from Kevin Dillon’s dumb jock Bert, who comes off sort of like “Friends’” Joey but without the dash of sweetness that made Joey worth watching.

A few jokes land, but the main reason to stay is because of the stellar contributions of Dave Foley as Andrew’s boss and Rhys Darby (of “Flight of the Conchords” fame) as Andrew’s brother in law. Darby is particular is full of a weird, zany energy that’s lacking in the rest of the show. However, his semi-frequent appearances weren’t enough on their own to make me come back to the show’s “smart guy makes fun of tough guy, tough guy punches smart guy in the arm” brand of humor.

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The Quest for Fall TV Glory – Week 1

I love finding good TV, so I always look upon fall network premieres with interest. Nowhere else can you find as many half-baked ideas, but every so often you see a buried gem that just needs a little more polishing. This fall, I’ll be taking a look at all of the pilots I found even moderately intriguing (sorry to the three people who are interested in watching “The Playboy Club”), updating the article each week of the staggered premiere schedule.

Will I find a diamond in the rough, or will it just be rough? Keep reading to find out.

Monday

2 Broke Girls

Network: CBS—Time Slot: 7:30 p.m. (half hour) —Would Watch Again: Yes

Despite its horrendous title, “2 Broke Girls” is actually pretty entertaining, provided you go for its cynical brand of humor with a dash of updated “Friends”-style crass thrown in. Disclaimer: since I often fantasize about sarcastically berating people in the same way that show star Max (Kat Dennings) actually does on “Girls,” a feeling of catharsis probably pumped up a lot of the already funny jokes for me.

“Girls” is set in a crummy Brooklyn diner where the hard-scrabble, bitingly sarcastic and, yes, “broke”
Max works, doling out unfriendly-if-competent service and upbraiding anyone who treats her with less
respect than she thinks she deserves (the show will also probably be cathartic for restaurant servers for
this reason). She is joined by naïve fish-out-of-water Caroline (Beth Behrs), a formerly-rich girl who lost
everything when her dad was imprisoned for operating a Ponzi scheme. Sparks fly, worlds collide, etc.
You know the drill.

There’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong here. It’s a TV cliché, for one, and for another, shows
about sassy ladies can be incredibly tiresome if the writing and characters aren’t as clever as the shows
think they are. Happily, “Girls” mostly avoids this in its pilot, placing genuinely jagged dialogue in Max’s
mouth the majority of the episode while still establishing her as a real human being. It wasn’t perfect
(two bizzare and out-of-place racial stereotypes come to mind), but it’s worth seeing where it goes.

Tuesday

New Girl

Network: ABC—Time Slot: 8 p.m. (half hour) —Would Watch Again: Yes


“New Girl” just might soften my wife on the theatrical stylings of star Zooey Deschanel. While the indie-friendly Deschanel has always radiated an aura that she’s trying too hard to be alternatively cute, her just-as-cute attempt to portray a total doofus on “New Girl” shows that her persona isn’t a put-on – it’s just the way she is, and it can be pretty funny to boot.

“New Girl” focuses on Deschanel’s Jess moving in with three young men she found on Craigslist after she caught her boyfriend cheating on her. The three guy’s guys are entirely unprepared to deal with Jess’ mood swings and unanticipated forays into over-the-top nerddom, including perhaps the most specific Lord of the Rings reference I’ve seen on a network show not called “The Big Bang Theory.” In the pilot, the guys attempt to set her up for a rebound date in order to get over her ex.

Like “2 Broke Girls,” the show won me over despite its very sitcommy premise, thanks primarily to the
strength of the performances. Deschanel throws herself into the nerd personality, and the three guys
have an easy rapport that lends itself to some very chuckle-worthy moments. I’m curious to see what sorts of plots will develop from the premise, but there’s potential there.

Unforgettable

Network: CBS – Time Slot: 9 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: No


The latest in an interminable amount of CBS procedurals, “Unforgettable” is a standard cop show in
which a Strong, Weathered Female Lead (Poppy Montgomery) solves crimes and Takes No Nonsense
and of course Has A Past with the hard-nosed head (Al Burns) of one detective unit or another. The
twist? Montgomery’s Carrie Wells has hyperthemesia, a real (but rare) condition that allows those
afflicted with it to remember everything they’ve ever seen. There’s also the additional (unnecessary)
addition of a dramatic subplot in which the one thing Carrie can’t remember is the day her sister was
murdered, plus the revelation that Carrie’s mom has Alzheimer’s or some other memory-loss-inducing
illness.

Eh? Eh? See what they did there?

The leads are appealing, but only in a generic crime show kind of way, and, full disclosure, I don’t go in
much for these types of things in the first place. In terms of the actual mystery, I will just say that it was
done in a way interchangeable with most other shows of its ilk, at least as far as I could tell. Now, let’s
get to the hook.

As I was watching this, I was struck with a thought: how does remembering everything make you a
better detective? In the first episode, Carrie solves the crime only because (spoilers) the woman who
was murdered was a personal acquaintance, and she happened to see the murderer earlier in the
evening. And then she remembered it. Unless she is assigned to the special unit of detectives who only
solves crimes they personally witnessed, I can’t see her being much more of a help than a regular cop.

Plus, her memory scenes are saddled with the same unfortunate “enhanced reality” illogic that plagued the hypnosis episodes of “Alias.”

Wednesday

Up All Night

Network: NBC—Time Slot: 7 p.m. (half hour) —Would Watch Again: Yes, but only because of the two lead actors
There are few things I want to see more on network TV than “Arrested Development” alum Will Arnett
being successful. As the funniest character ever on perhaps the funniest TV show ever, Arnett deserves
better things than the mediocre films, funny guest spots and subpar post-“Development” Mitch Hurwitz
projects he’s been involved in since 2006. So when I first heard the news of his starring role in new-
parent comedy “Up All Night” with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph, I quickly placed it at the top
of my fall watch list.

The pilot left me underwhelmed, but there’s some potential here. Arnett and Applegate have real
chemistry as Chris and Reagan, and their easy-going but still sometimes frazzled relationship grounds
the episode. However, Rudolph, while occasionally funny, can’t always land her role as Oprah-style talk
show diva Ava, and the show just needs to be funnier overall.

That’s not to say there aren’t any funny bits, because there are, primarily in the nonchalant verbal
fencing between Chris and Reagan. However, a summer rewrite to make Ava and Reagan’s workplace
zanier (and worst of all, add in the loathsome Nick Cannon as a recurring character) is much less

engaging than the married stuff at home. It feels uneven, but I’m willing to let the writers and actors
find the right comedic balance before I make a final judgment.

P.S. I have now seen the second episode of this, and it is much, much funnier. Stick around for now.

Thursday

Charlie’s Angels

Network: ABC – Time Slot: 7 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: No. Absolutely not.

Sometimes, vapid entertainment is all we’re looking for. It’s why the “Transformers” movies are so
popular. That being said, the problem with the latest reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” isn’t that it’s vapid –
after all, it’s supposed to be – it’s that it’s just bad. Very, very bad.

You don’t really need a synopsis of this, do you? Three sassy ladies (with a hot young guy thrown in
for sexual tension) are ordered on semi-illegal missions of justice by a faceless commander who likes
voyeurism, apparently. The titular angels are played by Minka Kelly, Rachael Taylor, and Annie Ilonzeh.

The show is almost mirthless, and what attempts at fun times remain are token attempts at young
and sassy lady talk (mostly discussions of how many cosmos Taylor’s character has consumed or will
consume). It takes itself far too seriously for what it is. The worst part? The acting and writing are
atrocious. Like, really, really bad. There were actually a few times when I belly laughed when Taylor
recited a line.

Person of Interest

Network: CBS – Time slot: 8 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: Yes


This was a mixed bag, but it was a J.J. Abrams mixed bag, so that sweetened the deal. Abrams (the mind behind “Alias,” “Lost,” and “Fringe,” among others) produces this show created by Jonathan Nolan (writer of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies) about a man who knows when people will be involved in criminal incidents.

This man, Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson, aka Ben Linus of “Lost” fame), teams up with Jim Caveziel’s John Reese to stop these incidents before they happen. The methodology behind Finch’s knowledge is a little vague, so he and Reese don’t know whether they’re looking after the culprits or the victims – hence the show’s title.

Caveziel is a bit dry, and the first mystery was rather vague, but the execution was done with the classic Abrams mystery and flair. The action scenes were well choreographed and exciting, and there are hints of a larger story lurking around the edges that has me intrigued. However, the very best part of the show is Mr. Finch, who Emerson plays very similarly to the enigmatic Ben Linus, arguably the best part of “Lost.” Emerson imbues his role with the perfect amount of cool composedness and aloofness, and it is simply a joy to watch.

Now, we just have to hope Abrams stays with the show. A lot of his work has a way of falling off after he leaves the helm.

Whitney

Network: NBC – Time slot: 8:30 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: Maybe, if I was bored and I had watched all my other shows on Hulu.

I have a modicum of respect for star Whitney Cummings’ comedy; among her other work, she has been
the best Comedy Central regular on that station’s roasts as of late (it’s not OK for a family website, but
her joke about M. Night Shymalan at the Pam Anderson roast was the stuff of greatness). I was excited
for this show, but the best I can say about it after watching the pilot is, bless her heart, she’s trying.

Cummings plays aspiring photographer Whitney Cummings (creative, right?), who is in a live-in dating
relationship with Alex (Chris D’Elia). She is afraid of getting married, and she has a group of wacky
friends that she hangs out with, and that’s about it, really. It’s a classic sitcom setup, with less of a plot
and more of cast of characters who get into hijinks.

I chuckled a few times, but far too often it all fell flat. Cummings is funny, but she hasn’t yet found a way to have a dialogue with someone in a believable way. Right now, she sounds a lot more like she’s delivering a stand-up joke, and that doesn’t work when she’s supposed to be engaged in interpersonal communication. Some of the other actors do well (D’Elia in particular feels like he could be at home on a much better show), but the writing is often mediocre and the constantly tittering laugh track is annoying rather than encouraging. I’ll stick with the Cummings-produced “2 Broke Girls” instead.

Friday

A Gifted Man

Network: CBS – Time slot: 7 p.m. (hour slot) – Would Watch Again: No


“A Gifted Man” was perfectly fine, but I don’t think I’ll be dipping back into its world a second time. Its
premise is interesting, but it’s one I think would suit a movie better, as an open-ended TV show might
end up making it a little samey.

Patrick Wilson stars as Michael Holt, the world’s most brilliant neurosurgeon, and, frankly, kind of a tool. One day, he is visited by the ghost of his ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle), who wants him to do some unfinished business for her at a pediatric clinic for low-income families. Thus, he starts down the path to goodness, all the while struggling to rectify his man-of-science mentality with the fact that he’s having regular chats with a spirit.

The show’s writing and acting was pretty good, so if my description interests you, maybe you should
give it a shot. However, I have doubts about the legs of the premise. How long can the show go on, and
how can they make it go on? Either Holt’s ex has the most unfinished business of any person ever, or
maybe he starts getting visits from other dead acquaintances, or I don’t even know what. Whatever
does happen, I can’t see myself caring about this past the second hour.

That’s all for this week!

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Four reasons why you should read DC Comics this September

If you’re at all in tune with comic books, or maybe even if you’re not, you know that DC Comics, the folks behind Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and more, is undertaking a company-wide “reboot.”

If you’re a current reader, you know what the big deal is. If you’re not a reader or if you haven’t heard and you’re wondering why you should care, you’ve come to the right place.

Essentially, DC Comics is cancelling all of its current superhero universe titles (the DCU) as of this month. Next month, they’ll be introducing 52 new titles, slashing away at most of the continuity of the past 30 or so years and providing old readers, lapsed readers, and – hopefully – new readers with a fresh “jumping-on point” to following the goings on of America’s most iconic superheros.

I could spend the rest of the article selling you on comic books as an entertainment medium, explaining how the combination of still art and language is a unique art form with myriad storytelling possibilities. I could provide you with links to some of comics’ great artists to try to sell you on the stunning visual inventiveness of its top creators. I could point out that every good superhero movie you’ve seen had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is comic books.

But I won’t do that. Comics are pretty great, and I think most people could find that out for themselves if they gave it a college try. So instead, what I’m here to do is give you five reasons why you should start reading DC Comics in particular, and why you should do it next month.

1.    No prior experience necessary

If there’s one reason I’ve heard the most for why it’s hard to get into comic books, it’s the fearful continuity. Once you’re into comics, it’s great; reading a character with a rich history and tradition is part of the fun of the medium. But it can be very daunting for a new reader.

For example, did you know that Batman has had four or five Robins, depending on who you ask? Three Batgirls? At least two Batwomen? Or is it Batwomans? And that’s not even taking into account other Bat-themed vigilantes like Nightwing (a former Robin who has also been Batman), Oracle (a former Batgirl) and Huntress.

Sound confusing? Well, it is, until you’re into it.

What DC is doing with the reboot is allowing anyone to get into it. While some of the characters will still retain some of their past publishing history (for example, most of those Bat-friends aren’t going away), all of the stories come September will exist, for all intents and purposes, in a new universe free of the baggage of past actions and writer mistakes. You’re essentially getting in on the ground floor of a new generation of superhero stories, and you’re opening the book to the first page.

2.    Something for everyone

“That’s cool,” you might say, “but I’ve never been a big fan of Superman. Why should I read comics when I’ve never liked the Big Blue Boy Scout?”

That’s another great thing about this relaunch. DC is launching 52 new monthly books, and there’s a genre here to please just about everyone. The books are even split up into seven convenient categories: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Dark (for darker stories), the Edge (weirder stories), Justice League (traditional heroes who aren’t Supes, Batman or GL – folks like the Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman), and Young Justice (the same as Justice League, but with teenaged folks).

The divergence within these titles goes even further, resulting in truly something for everyone. Fans of traditionally exciting comic stories won’t go wrong with Justice League, written by fan favorite storyteller Geoff Johns and drawn by the dynamic Jim Lee. Those looking for darker fare bordering on horrific should pick up Batman or Swamp Thing, both written by the up-and-coming Scott Snyder. Fans of strong young adventurers can read titles like Static Shock or Blue Beetle, the latter about a Latino teen whose mix of snark and cosmic power have caused some to dub him “Spider-Man meets Green Lantern.”

What’s that you say? You want something wackier? Check out Resurrection Man, the story of a guy who gains new superpowers every time he comes back from the dead. Or how about Suicide Squad, in which the Joker’s girlfriend, a convicted assassin and a sentient hammerhead shark dole out rough justice as a black ops team?

And there’s more. You just need to find what’s right for you.

3.    Icons in the making

For the last several years, DC has trailed rival publisher Marvel (known for Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man and more) in sales. That’s largely due to the fact that Marvel has been able to control the narrative, and the publisher’s fans have helped perpetuate a very painful idea: that Marvel, “The House of Ideas,” is a fresher, more relatable superhero publisher, with a more grounded reality and cooler heroes.

That is, frankly, nonsense. All comics are prone to flights of ridiculous fantasy at times (and make no mistake, that can be a good thing), but saying that Marvel is more realistic and relevant because Peter Parker is a young man who worries about money is just plain baloney. This is the same universe that has room for a character like Howard the Duck and which recently unmarried Spider-Man and Mary Jane by having them make a deal with the Devil in order to save Peter’s aunt.

I’m not trashing Marvel, I’m just saying that their narrative of superiority has dozens of holes in it. One thing that doesn’t have holes in it, however, is the idea of many of DC’s characters as pop culture icons.
Everyone knows the backstories of Superman and Batman. Who doesn’t recognize Wonder Woman or the Flash, the Joker or Two-Face? September is your chance to get inside the legends and find out what makes these characters tick as they continue to make their mark on society.

You’ll find relatability, as Grant Morrison remakes Superman into a working class hero in Action Comics (hopefully, anyway, you never know with Morrison). You’ll find relevance, as Gail Simone and Ethan Van Scrier present a unique take on the nuclear threat in the Fury of Firestorm. And you’re sure to find great stories, as creators from all corners of the new DCU strut their stuff and display their own unique styles.
It’s going to be an exciting time, as what’s old is made new again, reforged for the next generation of readers.

4.    Easily accessible

So maybe I’ve got you thinking. Maybe you’d be willing to give this whole comics thing a try, except for some outside reason. Perhaps you don’t have space to keep a bunch of comics lying around, or you don’t have the money, or you don’t live near a comics shop.

DC is trying to cater to you.

The publisher is (mostly) holding firm in its $2.99 price cap promise, making a year-long read on a certain book (and remember, you can jump in and out of these at any time) cheaper than many magazine subscriptions (and better looking, too!). Plus, with websites like comixology.com allowing you to subscribe to comics through the mail or to pick up at a retailer, getting your hands on comics is simple.

Not a fan of keeping a bunch of funny pages around the house? Well, DC will also now be selling digital copies, for use on the computer, tablet or smartphone, on the same day as the regular issue hits stores. These versions also often cost less than their print counterparts, making it even cheaper to keep up with continuing storylines (although for my money, I’ll still take the better looking print format).

In short, getting your hands on a comic book has never been easier, and DC is trying to help you get your money’s worth.

I realize that I’ve probably sounded like a shill for DC’s higher-ups at times during the preceding thousand words, but it’s only because I can get so excited about good comic books. As someone who only got into comics a few years ago, the whole thing is still fresh to me, and I’m still finding great new stories all around (my advice: use the library to find collected editions). It really is a unique art form, and as a lover of great fiction and a propagator of my media choices, I just had to share.

I’ll be hitting the comic shop hard in the next few months. I hope to see you there.

(Oh, and just in case you’re wondering which books are on my pull list, I’ll be reading Batman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Action Comics and The Shade miniseries)

Ryan Reynolds Green lantern

GooseRadio Review – ‘Green Lantern’

Before I begin, let me begin by saying that I’m more than a bit biased.
You see, I read DC Comics, enough so that I’m relatively well-versed on the lore of all of the major characters, including Hal Jordan. Who’s Hal Jordan? Why, he’s Earth’s preeminent Green Lantern and the subject of “Green Lantern,” DC’s latest blockbuster effort, which opened last Friday to critical panning and a thus-far tepid box office response (or at least tepid for what DC was hoping. $52 million is less than what “X Men: First Class” and “Thor” pulled in on opening weekend this year). I’m pretty well versed in the Green Lantern mythos, and I’ve even read “Green Lantern: Secret Origin,” the comic book from which the movie version begs, borrows and steals.
I guess what I’m saying is that A) I wanted the movie to do well, and B) that beyond the uninitiated kids who will go out and buy the toys and beg their parents for the comic books, I’m the kind of person the movie was shooting for.
Well, call me a sucker, but I loved it.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that it’s astounding cinema or that every line is pitch perfect or that every single plot point is developed just so, because that would be false. But it was good, inventive fun, and I don’t quite understand the bad rap it’s been getting.
The film begins by introducing the audience to the formidable Green Lantern Corp, the universe’s ultimate group of intergalactic peacekeepers. The spacefaring do-gooders have kept up their deeds of daring do for eons with the help of green power rings, fancy little devices that can conjure up anything you can imagine, provided you are equipped with an iron will. The rings also serve as decoders, flight suits, and artificial atmospheres, among other things.
That explanation is probably one of the reasons why Green Lantern has failed to achieve resonance with a lot of people. I can’t think of a single person who I’ve explained the idea to that hasn’t thought it sounded stupid.
Well, that’s because it does sound stupid. I thought it sounded stupid when I first heard of it. You just have to read it – or in this case see it – to understand that it’s actually kind of a neat concept, and even then that’s not enough for some.
Back to the setup. One of the Corp’s most respected members gets into a big brawl with Parallax, essentially the living embodiment of fear (fear being the Green Lanterns’ key weakness). He manages to escape, but not before taking a mortal wound. He travels to Earth, where he dumps his ring and his responsibilities on the human Hal, a devil-may-care fighter pilot who prides himself on being fearless.
I’ll leave the rest to the viewer. The film does a pretty good job of explaining itself, and it does so in a way that seems fun rather than talky.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
Again, I don’t really get the negative vibes people are giving to the movie. It’s a complex and quite frankly slightly ridiculous mythology, but so is “Thor,” and that didn’t stop the Tomatometer from giving everyone’s favorite Norse god a nifty 77 percent (as an aside, I found “Thor” to be passingly entertaining at best and mediocre at worst, but that’s for another day). There are scenes of villainous scene chewing, and foreign concepts are quickly introduced, accepted and thrown around, but hey, it’s a comic book movie.
Maybe that’s part of the problem.
The year 2008 was a watershed for comic book movies, as it spawned the two most influential – and in one case, absolutely the best – comic book movies ever made: “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man.” The two films were so different, and yet each was a very successful way of bringing a character from the funny pages to the screen. The problem is that now Hollywood and moviegoers think that those two ways are the only ways to do it.
In “The Dark Knight,” you got a very serious, grounded, and (I know, I know) dark look at what a superhero would look like in “the real world.” Most comic book films have followed this path to a varying degree since “Knight” came out, including the latest X Men films.

In “Iron Man,” on the other hand, you had a wink and a nod, almost an ironic treatment of the genre that tried, very hard and very successfully, to be above all the nerdy talk about continuity and purity and just be cool, while simultaneously recognizing that maybe comics themselves are a little silly. Among the practitioners of this method are “Kick A–” and, of course, “Iron Man 2.”
The point is that both of these methods of making a comic book movie, while certainly valid ways of doing it, leave out another option: making a comic book movie that actually, lovingly, embraces its roots.
It sounds so simple. After all, comics have been around for decades and have a rich storytelling history. But the paradox of the modern comic book movie is that while they’re raking in more money than they ever have, comic books themselves are looked down on in many circles as a juvenile pastime accessible only by ultra-geeks and manchildren. That’s not true, really, but that’s the perception.
“Green Lantern” is filmmaking via that third option. It loves that it has this strange, otherworldly origin, and it plays it up for all it’s worth. Nowhere is there any kind of attempt to make Hal’s ring constructs look gritty or down-to-earth, and nowhere is there any kind of nudging reference to how silly this all is (well, there is one comment about Hal’s mask, but I’ll let that slide because it’s hilarious). At one point, Hal makes his ring project two fighter jets that pull him about in some sort of stellar harness, and it’s just there, without any kind of self-consciousness. There’s just this sense of joy to all of the proceedings, this sense that the only thing the filmmakers were thinking was “This is so cool!” and apparently one of the only people agreeing with them was me.
It does help that I’ve read the comics, and I know that Green Lantern readers have responded much more positively to the movie that much of the rest of the public. I can honestly say that “Green Lantern” is one of the most true-to-the-source adaptations I’ve seen of one kind of a medium to another, and it’s exhilarating to watch the things you’ve seen on a comic book page come to life, exactly (or almost so) as you know they are supposed to be.
But I think the appeal can go beyond that. As the film was being prepared, DC higher-ups were touting it as a “Star Wars”-style epic, and while that is definitely something of an overreach, I understand the core concept of what they were trying to say. This is a tale that is heavy on mythology but also pretty accessible, with a pretty solid story of good vs. evil woven in among the flashy special effects and character beats. Ryan Reynolds was a solid choice for Hal, more so than I thought he would be, and he helps ground the movie (in a positive sense, that is) when things start getting a little extraterrestrial.
But above all, it’s just fun. It’s a sound and light show, with some decent jokes and a foundation that can spawn an overarching story, if DC greenlights the obviously expected sequel (an action DC may or may not take, now that the reactions are in). As I said, it’s not a perfect story, but if you drop your pretensions and let yourself go, you might just get swept away.
If you missed the opening, go see it this weekend. To paraphrase the tagline of another famous DC superhero, “You’ll believe a man can fly… and create glowing green constructs via a mystical power ring and the strength of his own will.”
It sounded catchier in my head.

falltvblurb

The Highs & Lows of Fall TV’s Week 1 – GooseRadio Review

Author’s note: This list would have been in earlier and been more comprehensive if not for an illness and a computer breakdown. Please accept the slightly shorter list.

Spring 2010 marked something of an oasis’ end for me, TV-wise. “Flashforward” fizzled, then was canceled. “V’s” acting, writing and production values all steadily declined. “Lost” was canceled (perhaps mercifully, after its terrible final season), and “Archer” and “Parks and Recreation,” two of the season’s funniest shows, have been relegated to mid-season debuts.

What was I left with coming into this fall? Well, I had the fabulous “30 Rock,” as well as a rotation of shows that I watched semi-frequently due to their declining quality, chief among them “The Office” and “Family Guy.” I decided it was time to go show hunting.

What you see here is a compendium of the shows I watched over the first week of the network fall TV season. Some are old, most are new. Some are good, and others are bad. I picked them based on how much they interested me or how much I expected to hate them. How many will I continue to watch? That remains to be seen.

Please note: minor pilot spoilers will follow. All times are EDT.

The Event

Network: NBC
Time slot: 9 to 10 on Mondays
Genre: Sci-fi thriller

“The Event” was scheduled to be one of the bigger debuts this year, as it benefited from a vague, “Flashforward”-like marketing campaign over the summer. It centers around an out-of-his-element young man (Jason Ritter) whose girlfriend has been kidnapped for reasons unknown. Much of the action takes place onboard a plane piloted by the girlfriend’s dad. He appears to try to crash the plane into a building where the U.S. President is located, also for reasons unknown.

Just before he does, what appears to be the titular “event” happens.

This show looks to be promising, with its relatively-likable cast, non-linear storytelling and tight pacing. However, I’m not sure if I’m ready to embrace the mystical and/or sci-fi events of the pilot’s final moments. Audiences have just finished six long years of “Lost.” I’m not sure we’re ready for another one.

Best part: Blair Underwood acts well as President Elias Martinez.
Worst part: They’ll have to be cautious to avoid looking too “Lost”-ish going forward.

Chase

Network: NBC
Time slot: 10 to 11 on Mondays
Genre: Action/thriller

The premise of “Chase” is as simple as its title: U.S. Marshals chase down wanted criminals. Unfortunately, the title and the premise aren’t the only things that are simplistic.

The dialogue sounds as if it was written by a bitter reject from “The Fugitive,” and the acting is also nothing to write home about. Nor was the case the marshals work on anything unique. I don’t think this one’s gonna make it.

Best part: Not a lot of highlights here.
Worst part: Bad acting and writing sink this show.

Hawaii Five-0

Network: CBS
Time slot: 10 to 11 on Mondays
Genre: Cop show… in Hawaii!

“Hawaii Five-0” was one of the week’s biggest surprises for me. While lead Alex O’Loughlin was a little wooden in the series premiere of the 70’s remake, Scott Caan more than picked up the slack as the witty sidekick Danno. There was plenty of action in the first episode, and the writers surprisingly mixed in an ample dose of humor, too.

I am curious to see where the show will go, however. The first episode makes it look like there will be an ongoing storyline, but the impetus for the stars to form their special police squad is dead by the end of the 40 minutes. Will there be more counterterrorism cases, or will the team simply continue to exist as the harsher side of the law?

Best part: Scott Caan and a likable ensemble, including “Lost’s” Daniel Dae Kim.
Worst part: O’Loughlin needs to pick up the pace. With a show like this, the main character can’t be completely serious.

Raising Hope

Network: Fox
Time slot: 9 to 9:30 on Tuesdays
Genre: Hick-com

There are a few times when “Raising Hope’s” jokes hit. It’s not generally a very clever show, and it’s not one with the greatest performances, but there were a few times where I caught myself chuckling.

One problem with this show is that I don’t see it getting any more interesting than its premise: a guy in his late teens or early 20s who fathers a girl in a one-night stand is suddenly forced to care for the child after the mother is executed for being a serial killer. I mean, where do you go from there?

Best part: The writing, while not always funny, is very quick, so something different is always happening.
Worst part: While most of the characterizations leave something to be desired, the senile grandmother who forgets to wear a shirt is definitely the worst.

Running Wilde

Network: Fox
Time slot: 9:30 to 10 on Tuesdays
Genre: “Arrested Development’s” Mitch Hurwitz’s latest attempt to re-catch lightning in a bottle

That rather snide description notwithstanding, I quite liked “Running Wilde.” Sure, Will Arnett is basically playing a slightly more grounded Gob in this comedy about the romantic pairing of a poor goody two-shoes and a rich spoiled brat, but I don’t really care. I like Gob, and Arnett is good at playing him.

Let’s face it. This show, and probably every other show until the end of TV (except maybe “30 Rock”), will never be as funny or as clever as “Arrested Development,” the involvement of Arnett, Hurwitz and David “Tobias” Cross notwithstanding. Still, it is suitably quirky and fast paced, and Arnett is certainly in his element. I’ll keep watching.

Best part: “And that’s when dad bought me my first speedboat!”
Worst part: Mitch, take a clue from your terrible “Sit Down, Shut Up”: you can’t go making “AD” jokes again until your show is legitimately hailed as good.

Undercovers

Network: NBC
Time slot: 8 to 9 on Wednesdays
Genre: A family spy actioner with ample doses of humor. Think a cross between “Alias” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

I had mixed feelings about how I wanted to feel about this show. On the one hand, creator J.J. Abrams was responsible for “Alias,” one of my favorite TV shows. On the other hand, trailers for this show, about a married couple of former spies coming out of retirement, made it look almost exactly like “Alias: Five Years Later,” if such a show had ever existed.

Watching the entire episode does little to shake the feeling, but I ended up relatively enjoying it anyway. The action is taut, and Ben Schwartz’s turn as an adoring agent who has studied the husband’s moves is quite funny. I’m not sure if it has the legs to keep me interested, however.

Best part: Schwartz’s highly unprofessional agent is very good.
Worst part: It’s too familiar, and plus, it’s a J.J. Abrams show! Where was Greg Grunberg?

The Whole Truth

Network: ABC
Time slot: 10 to 11 on Wednesdays
Genre: Law drama with a twist

“The Whole Truth” is your typical lawyer show: you’ve got the new guys, the high-flying legal aces, the grounded ones, etc. The show wouldn’t stand out a bit if not for its (very effective) gimmick: it flips back and forth between the perspectives of the lawyers on the defense and the prosecution.

This is interesting for two reasons: one, it makes it so you’re not sure who will emerge victorious in a given case, and two, it makes both lawyers seem less concerned about who’s right and more concerned about who wins. Sure, it’s cynical, but it’s an often accurate view on professional life: it’s all about how you play the game.

Best part: Besides the premise, the flamboyant defense attorney played by Rob Morrow is fun to see in action.
Worst part: For all of its good, “The Whole Truth” remains a lawyer show. Haven’t there been enough of these?

$#*! My Dad Says

Network: CBS
Time slot: 8:30 to 9 on Thursdays
Genre: The world’s first Twitter-based sitcom

I didn’t expect this to be good, but I had to watch anyway. After all, William Shatner plays the lead, and it was based on a Twitter account. There are exactly zero other shows on TV that can make anything even remotely close to that boast.

That said, my expectations were met. Dismally. Shatner has his moments but the other three characters (his sons and a daughter-in-law) who appear are sappy and horribly-acted. ‘Nuff said.

Best part: “Why can’t anyone do a good impression of me?”
Worst part: Jonathan Sadowski’s Henry is bad, bad, baaad.

30 Rock

Network: NBC
Time slot: 8:30 to 9 on Thursdays
Genre: Reflexive satire of TV shows

Season Five of what is currently the best show on TV didn’t start out as swimmingly as the show’s best moments, but there were still good times to be had. As usual, the bulk of the show’s best humor was provided by the snappy dialogue between Alec Baldwin’s Jack and show creator Tina Fey’s Liz. Hearing those two snap at each other is like listening to beautiful, bitter music.

Matt Damon continues his Season Four finale cameo into this episode, entitled “The Fabian Strategy,” and while he’s not as funny as he was last season, he’s still pretty good. I’m curious to see where this season will lead, as it has more continuing storylines than any other so far.

Best part: All of the wonderful Liz/Jack exchanges, among them: “A middle-aged woman saying ‘Dude stuff.’ Is that on my sadness scavenger hunt?”
Worst part: The Pete/Jenna storyline was a bit boring at times.

The Office

Network: NBC
Time slot: 9 to 9:30 on Thursdays
Genre: Mockumentary

I liked “Nepotism,” this season’s premiere episode of “The Office,” a lot more than I thought I would. Though the show has had its moments over the last three years, I’m of the mind that the show’s first three seasons were the only ones in which the show’s brilliance approached anything close to consistency.

Like all of “The Office’s” best episodes, this one focuses on the dim-witted Michael, still played well by Steve Carell into Season Seven. While this story of Michael hiring his nephew is not one of the show’s greatest achievements, it’s been a long time since I laughed harder at “The Office” than I did at “30 Rock.”

Best part: “There are many different schools of thought on capital punishment.”
Worst part: The show remains, as it has since Season Four, too in love with itself.

Outsourced

Network: NBC
Time slot: 9:30 to 10 on Thursdays
Genre: Outsourcing sendup

“Outsourced” competes only with “Bleep My Dad Says” for the worst show I watched this week. The cast is nothing special, the premise (Haha! Cultural confusion) is both overused and underutilized, and the Indian stereotypes! Let’s not forget about the Indian stereotypes!

The show is about an American who travels to an American-owned call center in India to teach the employees the ways of American novelties. The show itself is about as funny as most novelties the call center sells: in other words, it’s not. Dump on a healthy dose of fly-over state hate and a surprising “aw, aint Indians dumb and naive” slant, and you have a show that will hopefully get canceled soon and replaced by “Parks and Recreation.”

Best part: Um…
Worst part: Besides the Indian-bashing, shouldn’t the show take place at night?

The Cleveland Show

Network: Fox
Time slot: 8:30 to 9 on Sundays
Genre: Animated comedy

I was a little surprised that this lackluster “Family Guy” spin-off made it to Season Two. I watched it as kind of an afterthought, but I’m glad I did. It was actually pretty clever.

The story of this episode revolved around Cleveland trying to get local rapper Kenny West (voiced by Kanye West) to settle down and lead a normal life. While it wasn’t anything approaching high comedy, I was amused, particularly by the shots taken both at West and (oddly enough) Barack Obama (until the end, when Barry himself shows up to lay down some smackdowns).

Best part: Cleveland’s weird rivalry with former classmate Obama, culminating in his Kanye-inspired dig at the president on live TV.
Worst part: The show still hasn’t managed to produce a half hour even remotely as funny as “Family Guy’s” best.

Family Guy

Network: Fox
Time slot: 9 to 9:30 on Sundays
Genre: Animated comedy

Last year was one of the worst for Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy,” but the most off-color man on network TV started to make up for his Season eight missteps with this year’s opener, “And Then There Were Fewer.”

One of MacFarlane’s best comedy weapons is his familiarity with and accurate portrayal of genre tropes, and that talent is out in full force with this murder mystery. The special hour-long episode is a little lacking in the jokes, but the meta-joke of the setting almost makes up for it. I’ll continue watching for now, especially since next week’s episode features voice work by Rush Limbaugh. Nice!

Best part: Peter’s awe at Derek’s Hollywood-sign-lifting prowess was pretty great.
Worst part: Not enough jokes. Also, is this canon? Because a lot of recurring characters end up dead or incarcerated.

That’s all I got, folks. What about you? What did you watch last week, and what did you think?

Photo Credits – www.collider.com, www.leadcastingcall.com, www.tvworthwatching.com, tvbythenumbers.com, www.csmonitor.com

Taking ‘Shelter’: Jars of Clay continues its slide

Everybody hits a rough patch. And I mean everyone.

It’s true, whether you like it or not. Sometimes the patches are short (Ronald Reagan hamstringing Gerald Ford, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the Minnesota Twins and June 2010), and sometimes they’re long (Barack Obama in 2009, Kate from “Lost,” the Minnesota Twins and Scott Baker). They happen to the best of us.

And they happen to the best musicians.

This is also true. Depending on your point of view, The Beatles were in the rough during parts of “Let It Be” and all of those tracks no one remembers on the second half of “The White Album.” Elvis had 1962-1967. Oasis had … well, most of their career, now, I guess. Anyway, the point is that as great as “Help!” or “Burning Love” or (less so) “Champagne Supernova” are, that doesn’t mean you can’t fall from grace – often deservedly so.

The trouble came for me when I had to admit that it’s happened to my band. And by my band, I mean Jars of Clay.

Known to some as the best band to play sporadically on CCM stations and to many more as “those guys who did ‘Flood,’” Jars’ debut and self-titled album came out in 1995 and went platinum, even garnering a fair amount of crossover secular success with its alt-folky sound. However, the band really started progressing as their fan base faded into a smaller but still devoted group.

During this time, the band proved their ability in genre-morphing, releasing among other things the darkly-tinged, lush power pop of “Much Afraid,” the quirky rock experimentalism of “If I Left The Zoo” and the rootsy, gospel-influenced “Who We Are Instead.”

The band regained some (but not all) of its past popularity with 2006’s “Good Monsters,” the band’s most unabashedly rock ‘n’ roll record to date. The album has since become a live staple.

Through it all, Jars proved that they had all of the qualities of a truly great band. They were musically inventive and original, able to change their style while still retaining the quintessential Jars of Clay sound. Perhaps most distinctly, they were capable of creating lyrics that are thought provoking, poetic, and far and away the best in the Christian market (and among the best in any market).

I say all of this to say that I was as excited as the rest when “Good Monster’s” follow-up, “The Long Fall Back To Earth,” hit the stands. Why shouldn’t I have been? The band was coming off of “Good Monsters,” which I recently listed (along with another Jars album) as the second best album of the last decade. Throw in a preview EP hinting at some electronica-influenced beeps and boops, and you had one excited Jars fan in 2009.

Then the album came out.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the album was terrible. It was just such a new experience for me to genuinely dislike a Jars song – and not one, but several. Even more jarring was that some of the album’s clunkers were packaged right alongside some of the band’s best work, and the fact that the band seemed most proud of some of the worst tracks.

It was like seeing Roger Ebert craft a poorly written, four-star review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. To me, Jars of Clay did not like, and especially did not write or play, bad music. It simply didn’t happen.

But it did happen.

Still, I was hoping it was just a minor flaw, a small blemish on what has otherwise been an excellent career. But I had my doubts, and those doubts increased earlier this year as Jars released the first two “Live at Gray Matters” EPs, featuring live studio versions of album hits. The first EP was all stuff from “The Long Fall,” including a truly bad, off-key rendition of “Don’t Stop.” The second was all from their first album, by now a retread several times over (I looked it up – the band has now officially released seven different versions of “Flood”).

Also earlier this year came the announcement that the band would be releasing a new album in the fall, titled “The Shelter.” While such a revelation would normally be accompanied by great joy on my part, the revelation was tempered by an announcement that I found puzzling: the band would be accompanied by a large number of CCM artists, including names like Mac Powell, Amy Grant, Sarah Groves and, perhaps most puzzling, TobyMac.

I am generally of the opinion that the current Christian contemporary music landscape is a brutal, barren wasteland, pockmarked only occasionally by small oases of talent, so this was not encouraging news.

“Out of My Hands,” the pre-release single, did little to assuage my fears. While the track has grown on me a little since I first listened to it, the collaboration with Mike Donehey of Tenth Avenue North is unnecessary, and Leigh Nash’s backing vocals only serve to hearken me back to the much better work she did with the band on “Mirrors and Smoke,” from “Good Monsters.”

Worst of all, it was just pretty boring. The music is not striking, the verse lyrics are nothing to write home about, and the chorus is repetitive and uncreative. It reminds me of nothing more than “The Long Fall’s” “Two Hands,” one of the worst songs from that effort.

So, it was with some trepidation that I listened to a pre-release stream of “The Shelter.” And, as much as it pains me to admit it, Jars of Clay has now officially hit the rough patch. And it is rough. In fact, “Out of My Hands” is probably the album’s best track.

One reason the introduction of this article is so long is that I’m not entirely sure how to actually review the album. How do you review an album when all the songs sound the same? When every track suffers from the same flaws?

The music is entirely mundane. It’s so unremarkable that it’s hard to even recall it. It just slips right out of your mind as soon as the song ends. Guitar riffs are nearly unheard of. The creative flair heard in past songs like “Goodbye, Goodnight,” “Closer” and “Work” is simply absent. The stuck-in-your-head artistry seen in tracks like “Dead Man” or “The Eleventh Hour”? It’s just not there.

There are a few moments where the band makes an attempt. These moments usually lie in the beginning of a track, most notably on “Eyes Wide Open’s” bluegrass intro or “Run in the Night’s” soft, eerie opening, but all such moments are either obliterated by sheer repetition or eventually drowned out by the song’s chorus.

And don’t even get me started on the choruses. Literally every single song is dragged down by its chorus, which is generally one or two simplistic phrases repeated ad nauseum. What is already inherently sketchy is made worse by the fact that so many guests are tacked onto each track that each chorus ends up degenerating into a sing-songy, faux-anthemic chant that serves as the track’s fade out.

Elsewhere, the contributors hardly fare better. Frontman Dan Haseltine seems barely present on some songs, and the other voices often feel thrown together, complementary styles be darned. It’s a sloppy, shockingly amateurish affair.

And then there’s the lyrics. The verses are OK, but only OK. They try for Jars’ former poetry without actually reaching it. Take this sample from the album’s opener, “Small Rebellions”:

“God of the worn and tattered

All of Your people matter

Give us more than words to speak

Cause we are hearts and arms that reach

And love climbs up and down the human ladder”

Can you see it? They were going for something there, but all I can muster is a “nice try.” This kind of almost-but-not-quite approach perpetuates the entire album – well, except for the choruses, where there doesn’t appear to be any effort of any kind. Consider these gems:

“Where You lead us

We will follow

Where You lead us

We will follow You” – from “We Will Follow”

“In the shelter of each other

We will live

We will live

(Never walk alone)

In the shelter of each other

We will live

We will live

(Your arms are all around us)” – from the title track

“No greater love

No greater love

Can you say there’s no greater love?

No greater love

No greater love

Can you say there’s no greater love?” – from “No Greater Love”

Now imagine these repeated three or four times over, and you have the ends of each of these songs. The whole album is like this. It’s painful.

If you’re reading this and have never listened to Jars of Clay before, I’m sorry. I may have put you off of a band which has spent most of its decade and a half in existence putting out great, great music. But such music is simply nowhere to be found on “The Shelter.” Nowhere will you hear the thought-provoking lyrics and musical versatility the band is known for, and for that, we’re all the losers.

And yet, Jars has still put out a lot more good albums than bad ones, and the superfan in me has to hold out hope that this rough patch is indeed just that: a patch, a stretch of bumpy road, something that they can pull out of as they continue to produce.

So, with that in mind, I’d encourage you to join me. When Oct. 5 rolls around, get on iTunes or Amazon.com or head in to your local Christian bookstore. However, instead of picking up “The Shelter,” buy an old Jars of Clay album instead. I’ll be picking up “The Eleventh Hour;” if you don’t have it, I’d recommend “If I Left the Zoo.”

It’s one small way we can show support for a good band that’s not doing so well right now.

Inception: Where does it stand and why does it matter?

I’m not here to tell you whether “Inception” is good or not. Nor am I here to tell you whether or not you should watch it.

That would be rather pointless by this point, wouldn’t it? You’ve no doubt already made your mind up about whether to see it or not, based on excessive Internet hype, copious advance reviews and recommendations far more trusted (and timely) than mine, and indeed many of you have likely already made a trip to cinema to check it out. My answers to “Is it good?” and “Should you watch it?” are irrelevant (that being said, however, “Of course it is” and “Absolutely you should”).

Laying aside my relative uselessness as a reviewer in this case, I found that I still wanted to write something about the movie. Should I write about what makes it good, or what kind of good it is? Nah, already been done. Should I analyze the cryptic need of some for others to share in their approval for the movie, or perhaps should I join them in criticizing the errant critics? Too late. Ebert’s already done it much better than I could here.

Instead, I’ve decided to look at how “Inception” will be looked at within Nolan’s canon. I’m sure this has also been done by now, but I have not read such an article and will heretofore choose to deny its existence.

Christopher Nolan, long before this point, has been recognized as a good director. To use the imperfect but supremely useful Tomatometer from Rottentomatoes.com as a bellwether for his critical success, his lowest rated movie is “The Prestige,” which is still sitting pretty at 75 percent.

However, Nolan’s quality notwithstanding, he’s famously recognized as a good director for two reasons: the modestly successful, time-flipping darling “Memento” and, of course, the high-octane, high-hyped and high-quality “The Dark Knight.”

It is both a blessing and a curse to have made movies like this so early in a filmmaker’s career (“Inception” is only Nolan’s seventh film, and he is only 39). Opportunities will certainly open up for you – the strength of “Memento” is undoubtedly a large part of why Nolan landed the Bat-films – but you’re also setting up legions of hard to please fanboys for undeserved adoration or vicious backlash.

“So what?” you might ask. “He made two really successful films. What’s wrong with that?” Well, nothing. But there are different kinds of success, and Nolan has already received the kind that could haunt him for the rest of his life.

This success, you see, is different than that lavished upon many other young, successful filmmakers today. To use Jason Reitman, a personal favorite, as an example, most people don’t spotlight one of his three films as a cultural landmark by which all other movies are measured. In fact, “Juno’s” box office success notwithstanding, there isn’t even really a clear favorite among the bunch. They’re just all three great movies, and Reitman lives with the traditional expectations afforded to a filmmaker of his experience and pedigree.

Nolan is different. In “Memento,” he made the indie movie just popular enough so that hipsters have a reasonably good chance of meeting someone who’s seen it, a veritable “I liked him before he went big” if there ever was one. In “The Dark Knight,” he made a massive beast of a movie that was the subject of unrelenting critical and audience fervor a year before it even opened, and somehow, unbelievably, it ably held itself up to those unreasonably high expectations.

In short, to critics and especially to the movie-going public, both films became not just art, but Art, and “The Dark Knight” became the Greatest Movie Of All Time to people who only watch box office smashes that have come out in the last 10 years. That’s not to say it isn’t good. I love it. Every single time I watch it, I feel like the news media during the Obama campaign: shivers tingle up and down my spine.

But you see what I mean. Every movie he will ever make from now on will not be judged simply as a movie, but as a Christopher Nolan movie. Many of his most devoted fans will rubber stamp everything he ever touches as wonderful regardless of quality (something I like to call the “LOST” series finale effect), while others will accuse him of going Oasis on them. “Meh,” they’ll say. “It’s not as good as ‘The Dark Knight.’” Or, if they’re an ornery bunch, “It’s not as good as ‘Memento’/‘Following’/‘Insomnia.’”

Both approaches are missing the point, particularly with a filmmaker as good as Nolan. The first approach is obviously flawed: past work is no guarantee of future quality (success, sure, but not quality). The second approach is also very trite, as Nolan has shown that he does not make the same movie – or indeed even the same type of movie – twice.

This is where many perspectives on “Inception” fail. In many reviews, as well as the advertising campaign leading up to the film, “Inception” is portrayed as an attempt to be the spiritual successor of “The Dark Knight” – the impressive visuals, the acclaimed cast, the Michael Caine, the tense music and the esoteric monologues all contribute to that effect. In other reviews, “Memento” is referenced, with those who hold the opinion most commonly citing “Inception’s” twisty turny plot (which is, contrary to popular opinion, not so much confusing as it requiring of your full attention).

The truth is that the film is not really like either. In fact, if I had to pick one of Nolan’s films to compare it to (regretfully informing you that I have not yet seen “Following” or “Insomnia”), I would say it bears the closest similarity to “Batman Begins,” in that it is fun.

Oh sure, there are some deeply embedded themes in the film about free will, selfishness and whether the ends justify the means, but they’re nowhere near as close to the forefront of the film as the themes of “The Dark Knight” were. And yes, the plot is … well, different when it comes to time structure, but not like “Memento.” It is very, very linear in its own way.

And it’s fun. Not a lot of Nolan films are that. “Memento” and “Insomnia” chill and thrill, “The Prestige” ponders, and “The Dark Knight” does have some genuine (albeit horrific) laughs when the Joker’s onstage, but even that movie plays its premise deadly seriously. Though the casts of both “Batman Begins” and “Inception” play their parts similarly straight (“Inception’s” Eames notwithstanding), there’s a sense of caper about them. One can’t help but thrill with delight as Batman first scares the living daylights out of the Mafia (“Where are you?” “Here.” “Ahhhhh!”), and the same can be said for Arthur navigating a dreamworld as the consciousness which contains it tosses and turns.

Ditch the high-minded expectations.As non-condescendingly intellectual as it sometimes is, “Inception” is essentially a slick, high concept heist movie with the goals reversed. As I said, there are serious underlying themes, moral quandaries and excellent performances, and the movie wouldn’t be half as good without them, but that doesn’t change the fact that the central conceit of the movie is a “how’d-they-do-that” explanation of a heist that takes place in only a few seconds of real time. It’s ridiculously cool, and the fact that Nolan makes these characters sympathetic and real and has come up with a truly original idea only makes things better.

In the end, my point is that “Inception” should stand, not in the shadow of “The Dark Knight,” but as yet another brightly colored feather in Christopher Nolan’s cap. Did I like it as much as “The Dark Knight”? No. But I didn’t have to.

It’s great just the way it is.

Not So Fast on MLB Instant Replay

There’s been a lot made this past week over June 2nd’s Perfect Game That Should Have Been.

I am, of course, referring to the Wednesday game between the Tigers and the Indians, in which Armando Galarraga pitched what should have been the 21st perfect game in 135 years of Major League Baseball. We’ve all heard the story: on the last out, veteran umpire Jim Joyce makes a bad call at first, and Galarraga’s hopes go down the drain. Tigers fans boo, Joyce weeps, Galarraga handles it well, the incessant drumbeat demanding that baseball allow instant replay begins once again, louder than ever.

In the end, I think we can all recognize that it’s too bad for Galarraga. I also think that, in the end, we can respect the two men for handling the situation with a maturity that few athletes and referees (and even fewer outside of pro baseball) would show. But I’m not going to talk about that.

I’m going to talk about how Major League Baseball and Bud Selig handled this just right.

Now, there is no love lost between Commissioner Selig and myself. I understand that people who own sports teams want to turn a profit, but his at-times cold, calculating view of baseball as business has often rankled me, particularly when he tried to drag the Twins to the contraction chopping block. This time, however, as Bud takes the heat from a public angry at his refusal to reverse the call, I think he’s 100 percent in the right.

This instant replay thing has been abuzz in some circles of the MLB for years. Tigers fans in particular have my sympathy on the matter, as Galarraga’s non-hit comes on the heels of a season in which Randy Marsh was quite possibly hit by a pitch that could have changed the outcome of the fabled Game 163. As much as incidents like this are briefly or not-so-briefly heartbreaking to fans of the on-the-outs team, people who advocate for the introduction of a comprehensive instant replay system into the game are missing the point: baseball is a different sort of sport.

Don’t get me wrong. Football, basketball and hockey all have their moments. But baseball… there’s just something about it. Something that sets it apart as the grand old American pastime, something that gives it that different feel.

I would argue that that something is a sense of “organic-ness,” a feeling that things are kept real and different and human. Think about it. Football players are relatively babied by referees, tape measures are pushed around, men in striped uniforms are constantly looking into a large box. Basketball is played in an utterly sterile environment, and all eyes are on the shot clock. The players who get noticed are the ones who can break up the routine.

Baseball is completely and utterly different. Ballparks, in addition to not following regulation size guidelines, have personalities; Wrigley Field, Coors Field and Fenway Park (with its malicious Green Monster) all feel intrinsically different, even if you’re just listening on the radio. Heck, even the forsaken Metrodome had that ugly Dodge ad that made it harder to hit a home run into right field.

Remember this?

Think about the drive to play on real grass or in the outdoors. No one cares when a football team plays in a dome. Think about the use of untimed innings instead of a cold, impersonal game clock. Think about the personalities. No other sport has a Ty Cobb, a player renowned for utter meanness and dirty play who is still, somehow, adored. No other sport has – no other sport could have – a Mordecai Brown.

Most importantly of all, think about the game’s human element. Coaches calling plays with goofy-looking signals. A. J. Pierzynski talking trash to hitters. A dominant pitcher staring a batter down. These are the things that we love. These are the things that make baseball baseball.

The umpires – and the lack of an instant replay system – fit right into this human element; they may, in fact, be the most important part. In a game so organic, a game so beholden to its humanity, it only makes sense that the game’s outcome be determined solely and completely by people: both the players making the plays and the umpires closely watching those plays.

Sure, they may make a mistake every once in a while, and sometimes, like for poor Mr. Galarraga, that mistake might be a big one (although it’s worth noting that if a perfect game wasn’t at stake, the call wouldn’t have been a very big deal). But one of the defining elemenst of humanity is its propensity to make mistakes. If we are going to have a game defined by organic-ness and defined by humanity, we must accept that such a game is going to be subject to human error – on the part of the umpires and the players too. After all, isn’t one of the most exciting times in baseball when a pitcher throws one wild?

If umpires are stripped of their God-like authority, part of what makes baseball so fun to watch will be lost. No more calling balls and strikes from the armchair. No more post-game commiseration with friends. Perhaps most notably, expect to see few to no managerial spats with umpires, a tradition considered by many to be one of the sport’s most fun.

Most importantly, however, is the removal of that human element: the stripping of the organic, the automating, the sterilization of a game whose appeal stems from its personality and dirtiness. In many ways, the instant replay could become for umpires what performance enhancing drugs became for the players: a form of laziness, of letting technology or science take over where only human effort should be. We may hate an umpire, but that’s part of the game. I may hate the Yankees, but I’m glad they exist. I’m also glad that calls, even bad calls, are set in stone once the game is over. In his refusal to overturn Joyce, Selig was in essence affirming baseball in the way it’s always been played (a patent reversal, might I add, of his attitude toward the 2002 All-Star Game).

Other sports have cowed to misguided attempts at “fairness.” Strict salary caps, league-enforced dress codes, and regulations rule the day. All sports must have rules of some kind, obviously; it is the rules of a thing that define what is being done. But there’s just something about baseball. Something different. You catch glimpses of it in other places and in other ways – a winter game in Lambeau Field, a tongue-wagging, gravity defying shot by Michael Jordan – but never is it more evident than in buzzing atmosphere of a ballpark during a playoff run. Anything could happen.

Umpires are a big part of that. To make them less so would be to diminish part of the game that many fans wouldn’t realize existed until it was already gone.

Does “Iron Man 2″ Live up to its Pedigree? – GooseRadio Review

Superhero movies are an odd breed.

The modern era of the genre, which had its origins in Tim Burton’s oddball 1989 production of “Batman” and came into its own with the likes of, among others, “Blade,” “X-Men” and “Spider-Man,” has been as varied in quality as the quality of the comic book avatars the genre represents. Let’s use some notable members of DC Comics’ superhero stable as examples.

First, you’ve got your Plastic Mans – films intentionally designed to be camp, riffing on the inherent silliness of the whole superhero idea. Often not appreciated by those who call comic books “graphic novels,” the campy entries (see “Batman and Robin” and “The Spirit” for primary examples) fill a pretty hilarious niche for those willing to give them a shot.

Next, you’ve got your Captain Marvels – films that are just bad, sorry wastes of time and money. Whether they forget that stories need more than just special effects or boast a terrible script and mediocre acting (usually both), these are the movies that can be conscribed to the dump heap. See (or better yet, don’t see) the Fantastic Four flicks, “Daredevil,” and just about every incarnation of the Punisher.

This man = “X Men Origins: Wolverine”

Coming in third are the Green Lanterns of superhero movies – stories that are pretty good, if not for a few goofy, distracting elements. See the overabundance of villainy and outlandishness in “Spider-Man 3,” the over-the-top superpower lovefest that was “X-Men 3: The Last Stand” and the good-except-for-the-weird-asthmatic-child “Superman Returns.”

Finally, you’ve got your Supermans – Solid, admirable movies, modern day “classics” of a young genre. In most circles, this category used to be ruled by three films: “Spider-Man 2,” “X2: X-Men United” and “Batman Begins.”

In 2008, another class of movie was added to the mix.

Call this class the Batman of superhero movies – a rarity, able to dish out equal parts action and thought, elevating itself above the rest in its field. 2008 saw the first undisputable Batman of superhero films: “The Dark Knight,” a Christopher Nolan-directed triumph that will not likely be matched in its field for years to come.

However, 2008 also saw another superhero movie come out, one that’s a little harder to classify. First thoughts have it going straight to the Superman echelon, but there was just something about it. Something more. Something different.

No, I’m not talking about “Hancock.” I’m talking about “Iron Man.”

While it was no dark, brooding opus, “Iron Man,” the first title produced solely by Marvel Studios, brought viewers more than some dude in cool looking body armor; it brought them Tony Stark, industrialist, a protagonist brimming with unprecedented wit and verve, a rougeish charmer who, for the first time ever in a mainstream superhero movie, was more interesting as an alter ego than he was as a man in a suit.

As a story of a man with a futuristic power generator in his chest who then chooses to fight crime by wearing a pimped-out metal costume, it also looked pretty cool, too.

A cool $318 million domestic gross later, and Marvel’s studio launch was a success. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr., who played Stark as an oddly lovable narcissist, was well on his way to re-jumpstarting his career.

Superhero flick + Supporting Role in Ben Stiller Comedy + Detective = Revitalized Superstar?

Then again, I don’t need to tell you. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re wondering exactly what I was when I walked into the theatre: Does “Iron Man 2,” the new sequel, live up to the impish pedigree of its successor.

The answer? Well, yes and no. Either way, it’s still a movie to check out.

One of the most notable things about the first “Iron Man” is that it sought to juggle comedy, action and characterization all at once, during what was ostensibly a popcorn flick. It rather impressively succeeded, as exemplified by the first film’s three best scenes/sequences: the establishing “Tony Stark is a narcissist” sequences in the opening minutes (comedy), the village rescue and fighter jet escape (action) and the quiet trust and sweet dialogue shared by Stark and assistant Pepper Potts as Pepper is tasked with pulling a wire out of Tony’s chest (characterization).

“Iron Man 2” seeks to find the same balance, and it is a successful if less striking sequel for doing so, even following the same basic storyline: narcissistic man is shaken up by a problem, the problem motivates him to behave differently, he must overcome personal problems, as well as relational awkwardness with Pepper, to triumph, also there are two bad guys who wish for his destruction, and he must fight them.

In the first movie, these elements were carried out through the traditional origin story. This time around, the catalyst for Tony’s problems is that the palladium in the arc reactor electromagnet that’s keeping him alive is poisoning his bloodstream. He tries to keep this a secret by amping up his bravado, but it’s hard for his friends not to suspect something is amiss as he acts even more erratic and boorish than usual.

While Tony struggles to come up with a cure for his ailments, competing industrialist Justin Hammer (comically played by Sam Rockwell) joins forces with the devious and chilling Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke plays him as mad at the Stark family because he believes Tony’s dad stole the arc reactor technology from his dad) to make multiple better versions of Iron Man. Vanko, however, has ulterior motives: in both his regular guise and in his supervillain role as Whiplash (who, like the last movie’s Iron Monger, is never explicitly named), he wants Stark dead.

These plot points work much in the same way as the first movie’s do, even down to a corresponding three best scenes: one where Tony sasses off a senator during a Congressional hearing (comedy), another when he faces a truly menacing Whiplash as a grand prix race buzzes by (action) and finally, a surprisingly dark scene clearly meant to set up the portrayal of the comic book Tony Stark’s alcoholism in a future film (characterization). You’ll know that scene when it arrives; it involves, at one point, watermelons.

Indeed, the characterization actually trumps Iron Man’s first cinematic outing, as Downey Jr. showcases Stark’s personal problems in a variety of understated settings. We get the picture of a vulnerable, scared man who only sometimes succeeds in tricking himself into believing that he’s got it all together. Again, to see that melded seamlessly with action and humor is impressive, and laudable.

However, there are a couple of issues that make this movie not quite as good as the first. The first reason is that it doesn’t stand alone quite as well as its successor did. In the film’s middle act, there is a good bit of reference to the Avengers, with little to no explanation. It’s more or less assumed that you’ve either read the comic books or saw the after-credits scene from the first movie in which Nick Fury shows up and talks to Tony about joining Marvel’s resident superhero club. One sequence at the end of the movie is so unrelated to the rest of the story that it feels like an ad for the upcoming film, to say nothing of this film’s after-credits scene, which essentially is an ad for the upcoming “Thor.”

This can’t possibly turn out well, can it?

The second problem is attitude. The first “Iron Man” was cool, but it felt kind of scrappy. Iron Man was not that well known outside of the comic book world, and his introduction to cinema was handled accordingly: there was a charm to the proceedings, a hint of “I hope you like it” amidst all of the bravado.

This time around, when Stark gaudily flies into his technology expo and mugs “I’m back” to the screaming throng, you feel like it’s directed at you. “Iron Man” the franchise has evolved into something else – that kid in high school who was pretty cool, but who was made worse for the fact that he knew it and acted like it. It doesn’t defeat the film (as it does in movies like “Transformers”), but it does lower it a little.

Overall, however, what you’re getting is more of the comforting and satisfying same. More laughs, more ‘splosions, and more characterization of these newly beloved characters. If this kind of movie is your thing, go see it.

Or, as Roger Ebert said in his much less winded summation, “You want a sequel, you got a sequel.”

Addendum: The Iron Man films share one other odd thing in common, which is that both films’ best action sequences come in the middle of the film. The two finales both get rather long winded and at time feel tacked on for the fanboys, which is acceptable but unfortunate. Iron Man is most impressive as a superhero when he’s showing off his cool technology, not when he’s punching another metal guy ad nauseum. Both the final confrontation with Iron Monger and with Whiplash and Co. end up getting just a bit too Transformers-esque for me.

Hear another perspective on Iron Man 2 from Faith and Geekery’s Aaron White in our latest TWG Podcast.