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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.
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.
Time slot: 10 to 11 on Mondays
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.
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.
Time slot: 9 to 9:30 on Tuesdays
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Time slot: 9 to 9:30 on Thursdays
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.