Downton Abbey: Season 1

DowntonAbbeyWhen my wife and I were dating, she asked me if I would watch Pride and Prejudice with her. I figured I owed her, since she previously watched the original Star Wars trilogy with me, so one night we sat down in front of the TV, popped Tape 1 of P&P into the VCR, and I soon found myself immersed in the world of the Bennet Family. It was a strange place, with giant houses, big poofy dresses, and weird dances that did not look like any fun at all.  But I appreciated the quality and craftsmanship of the acclaimed miniseries, and even though I had to watch it a couple of times to figure out what was going on, I did come to enjoy it on I guess what you would call an intellectual level.  It wasn’t my usual cup of tea, but the depiction of Jane Austen’s classic literary characters was outstanding.  And the dialog…good gravy.  The dialog.  If Star Wars Episode II is the steaming chumbucket of movie dialog, Pride and Prejudice is a bowl of fine turbot.

But I digress. This review isn’t about Pride and Prejudice, it’s about Downton Abbey–the show that is, in many ways, the spiritual successor to its Jane Austen counterpart.  Set in early 20th century England, the show follows the exploits of the residents of the titular dwelling as they work out relationship issues, deal with class struggles, and uncover secrets and hidden revelations about one another that (gasp!) threaten to tear the family apart! And if all this sounds a tad like daytime soaps, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But what makes the show so compelling is the point of view from which everything is presented.  In a nod to Gosford Park, much of the show does not actually focus on the high-class Crawley family who reside in the Abbey–a house-slash-castle so big it practically makes the Marland Mansion look like a low-rent duplex.  Rather, the main plot of many episodes is actually about the servants and other proletariat who keep the house running so smoothly.  There are territory fights, backstabbing, allegiances formed and rent asunder, and even new technologies like electric lighting and the telephone that throw servant life into a tizzy.  And amidst all of this, the servants must keep the water boiling and the food cooking lest they be thrown out in search of work elsewhere.

Lord Grantham and Carson, the head butler, discussing issues of utmost importance like the color of the draperies in the drawing room.

The overall focus of Season 1 is similar to many period pieces set in a similar time and location: a vast sum of money, along with a great deal of property, must be passed down to a male heir.  And, as fate would have it, no such heir exists for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as his three children, daughters all, remain unmarried.  So of course a male relative must be unearthed lest the entail be be parceled out to unknown third parties.  And in the spirit of these kinds of dramas, Grantham’s eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) mopes around feeling sorry for herself while refuseing to attach herself to just any old chap and insists on waiting for the right man to come along.  Will she ever get married? Will the other daughters find husbands first? Will tea be served on time? Dear me, it’s all so very much to take in. I feel a spell coming on…

The genius of Downton Abbey lies in its juggling of these first-world problems with the various plights of the servants below, who are constantly struggling with genuine issues that regular people can relate to.  John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Grantham’s new valet who served with him in the military, is constantly at odds with Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), two scheming and conniving servants who will seem to stop at nothing to get him thrown out and into the streets.  Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the overeager and overbearing cook, is slowly losing her eyesight and can’t afford medical treatment.  Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the butler in charge or running everything behind the scenes, has a shameful past he is trying to keep secret.  The servants are far from one big happy family, and often quarrel and squabble while Thomas and O’Brien revel in slimy scheming.  It’s a stark contrast between the ironed newspapers and formal dinners of the Lords and Ladies whom they serve, and a fantastic cross-section of life rarely seen in period dramas.

Necklace or post-medieval torture device? You decide!

That’s not to say that life is all sunshine and roses for the Crawley family either, just different. The problems and conflicts of the servants and their masters intersect throughout the show, adding a great deal of depth to the characters in the process.  Lord Grantham can be pragmatic and tough as nails, but also humble and compassionate. His meddling mother Lady Violet (Maggie Smith, who delightfully steals almost any scene she’s in) is firmly aristocratic while also showing signs of humanity and genuine concern.  There’s also a compelling political element at work as well, with the onset of women’s rights, rumblings of the first World War, and other events that help the dealings of Downton Abbey feel very much connected with the world at large.   Some subplots border on syrupy melodrama, particularly the fallout from a particularly poor decision Mary makes regarding her interactions with a visiting Turkish diplomat, but overall the show sets a high bar for entertainment and consistently, though not entirely, reaches it and more. Icing on the cake comes in the form of exquisite camera work that consistently captures the grandeur of the residence and nearby countryside, while liberal use of handheld techniques accentuate the cramped, claustrophobic servants’ quarters. Downton Abbey doesn’t quite reach the level of polish attained by its Jane Austen forebear, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling period piece created in the last decade.


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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.5

Battlestar Galactica Season 2.5One of the challenges when doing serial television is that the plot always has to move forward.  It’s sometimes difficult to put things on hold and explore characters or issues in isolation from the main story arc, especially when the entire premise for a show is based on an overarching plotline.  Of course the main draw of serial television is that it always gives viewers something new to look forward to: how will this get resolved? What will happen next? Will they make it out alive? Or, in the case of shows like Lost, there’s always the hope of finding out answers to deep-seeded questions.  Battlestar Galactica straddles the line between episodic and standalone, with the constant threat of the Cylons looming like a shadow over the remnants of humanity while single episodes are also devoted to tangents that go deeper into the character side of things.  Season 2.5 continues all the threads set forth in Season 2, though in a bit of a departure there are also a couple of episodes that could feasibly stand entirely on their own and have virtually nothing at all to do with the Cylons.  It culminates in a two-part finale that throws caution to the wind and takes the series in an entirely new direction altogether, setting up some major changes in the plot for both humans and cylons.  In short, Season 2.5 in many ways lives up to the promise of the show when it first started.

In typical Battlestar Galactica fasion, things start to go bad pretty quickly after the reunion of the Pegasus and the rest of the fleet at the end of Season 2.0.  Power struggles, military coups, and strained relationships are the name of the game as the fleet struggles to deal with a change of leadership and shifting political alliances among the various fleet ships.  This kind of political intrigue is actually one of the best things about the show, as a constant theme of fallibility is reiterated throughout several episodes.  Leaders, even the venerable Commander Adama, make mistakes even when they think they are doing the right thing, and it often costs valuable resources or even human lives.  This sets Battlestar Galactica apart from other science fiction shows in that actions have very real and lasting consequences, not neat little bows that are perfectly tied up at the end of each episode.  A couple of prominent characters meet their end in Season 2.5, and their loss does not come across as a cheap ploy to up the dramatic tension but seems like the natural result in a series of tough choices made by them or others around them.

Battlestar Galactica: Starbuck

Starbuck, fighting cylons and taking names.

One of my earlier criticisms of the show was that it often focused more on shock-and-awe rather than exploring characters and human issues, and a great many strides are taken to rectify this in Season 2.5. One particular episode, Black Market, explores some particularly heavy issues for Apollo as he comes to realize some harsh truths about the unvarnished side of humanity that flourishes even in the ragtag collection of spaceships and traders all struggling to survive.  Echoes of desegregation struggles and present-day cultural tensions are brought to light as well through the fleet’s struggle to accept Sharon, a cylon who becomes increasingly integral to the human remnant. There’s even an episode titled Scar that sheds an entirely new light on the cylons when we discover that even though they are essentially programmed computers, they have personalities and even the flying ship drones might be far more human-like than was previously thought.  Of course there are still what seem like requisite soap opera storylines with various characters hooking up, getting jealous, and retaliating, but thankfully these are severely toned down.

The series culminates in what is easily the most dramatic departure for the show yet, and the final two-part episode brings some incredible changes to the Battlestar Galactica we have grown to know so well. And it’s a good thing too, since the cylons-hunting-humans storyline begins to wear a little thin.  As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the problems with this kind of premise since things continually point to a culmination or climax, but should that point ever be reached the show itself might cease to have a reason for existing.  And the drastic change of events at the end of season 2.5 is somewhat of a bellwether for the show as a whole, keeping enough of the former storyline intact while allowing for sweeping changes in order to keep things fresh and new at the same time.


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Rating: 3.7/5 (3 votes cast)

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2

Battlestar Galactica Season 2.0A few weeks ago I reviewed Season 1 of Syfy network’s re-imagining of the 1970’s cult TV show Battlestar Galactica, and came to the conclusion that the show had a great deal of promise but was weighed down with a bit too much style instead of substance.  Thankfully Season 2.0 improves on many of the first season’s shortcomings, and while it still seems like a guest at Thanksgiving dinner relegated to the kid’s table, while desperately wanting a seat with the grownups, it is showing definite signs of maturity. Battlestar Galactica is built on the premise of eschewing convention and devying expectation. Many science fiction tropes are turned on their heads (doctors are no more able to cure diseases or repair limbs than their 20th century counterparts, communication happens via analog telephone, and people cannot be magically whisked from one location to another via magical teleportation beams), and difficult situations are not given easy answers followed by pithy platitudes in the closing minutes of an episode.  Characters make tough choices, and often not the ones we might expect.  Season 2.0 continues this tone admirably, but injects some much-needed characterization and humanity into things as well. It’s not perfect, but it’s a well done and very respectable sophomore effort.

My biggest criticism of Season 1 was that the show was light on characterization but heavy on explosions, and from the first episode of Season 2 this problem is addressed, though not exactly how I would have liked.  Commander Adama, arguably the best character on the show, is effectively out of commission for the first four episodes, which leaves the slightly-more-than-somewhat incompetent Saul Tigh in command of the entire fleet.  I appreciate the shift in focus here, as it allows viewers to get to know Tigh in a more meaningful and personal way and also see how difficult the responsibilities of commanding a ship can be.  Tigh is put into some really tough scrapes and has to make some difficult choices, and it is somewhat refreshing watching a less-than-stellar individual take command for a while.  There is also a healthy dose of politics injected into the series too, as the fleet begins to splinter with some ships following President Roslin on her quest to find Earth and the rest sticking with the military.

Battlestar Galactica Chief Tyrol

Chief Tyrol, who could give MacGyver a run for his money any day of the week.

The absence of Adama’s leadership is painfully felt in these early episodes, it speaks to the quality of the writing that the frustrations felt by the crew at Tigh’s lack of leadership are keenly felt by the viewers too.  The theme of Season 2.0 is that of divergence, as the fleet is split physically and ideologically, Starbuck goes back to Caprica to retrieve a talisman which is supposed to guide the fleet to Earth, and the crew of the Galactica struggles to adapt to changing leadership.  Lee Adama is forced to choose alliances that damage his relationship with his father, and I’m eager for the day when he will finally be given the chance to stretch his wings and take command.  It’s more about politics and relationships in Season 2.0, and thankfully, less about shocking viewers with gratuitous violence and sexuality.  Though these elements do show up from time to time, they are less overt and slightly more warranted in terms of the storyline.  There is also more in terms of creativity, like the episode Final Cut which strikes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series as it essentially follows a TV reporter who is given total access to the Galactica for one day. It’s an interesting concept and I appreciate the show’s willingness to take a risk with it.

Battlestar Galactica remains, if nothing else, a refreshing change of pace from the usual TV fare, though it’s still obviously trying to find its footing while stretching its legs creatively at the same time.  The characters are given more time to just be themselves in Season 2.0, such as the episode in which Chief Tyrol takes it upon himself to construct a stealth ship just to keep himself and his crew busy. Edward James Olmos remains a force to be reckoned with, while Starbuck continues to be the one we are supposed to like but doesn’t quite cut it.  Even though the Cylons are basically on coffee break for much of Season 2.0, the fear of their attacks is enough to keep things moving at a brisk enough pace overall.  And so while there is still room for improvement, Season 2.0 is an impressive sophomore effort and one that should be near the top of the list for any fan of science fiction.



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Rating: 3.7/5 (3 votes cast)

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Battlestar GalacticaI used to wonder why there were no toilets in Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise did many things, from negotiating alien diplomatic treaties to discovering new life forms to working out their own personal issues, but going to the bathroom never seemed to be something that concerned Captain Picard and his intrepid crew.  Or Kirk, Sisko, Janeway, and for the most part, Archer.  Instead the ships and vehicles of Star Trek were sterile, functional, and polished to a high-gloss shine, and never bothered with the more base human elements like waste excretion.  By contrast, Battlestar Galactica, and the starship central to the show that bears the same name, is full of bathrooms.  And that’s only the beginning.

It’s hard to review Battlestar Galactica without comparing it to other science fiction shows, since science fiction, like most forms of creativity, is inherently derivative.  Without Star Trek: The Next Generation there would be no Battlestar Galactica.  Without Star Wars to inject new life into the genre there would likely be no Next Generation. Without 2001: A Space Odyssey there would be no Star Wars or Alien. And so it goes, back to the original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s, the original Dr. Who, the original Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Metropolis, and far back still to the ancient roots of storytelling when men first looked up at the sky and wondered what else could be out there.  But like all good science fiction, Battlestar Galactica injects its own life and creative spin on a tried and true scenario, and though the results so far are somewhat middling, the show does have promise and I am eager to see where it goes in Season 2.

Battlestar Galactica Adama

Commander Adama, showing off his cheerful side.

The basic gist of the storyline, as outlined in the title sequence of every episode, goes like this:  The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan. When the show begins, the Cylons initiate said plan by laying waste to Caprica, the human homeworld, and the 12 planets that were colonized by humans.  Now the remnants of our race are left to struggle and survive in the midst of the vastness of space, a ragtag group of roughly 50,000 individuals spread out among several dozen spaceships.  The Cylons were designed to be artificial life forms, subservient to humans and useful for taking care of many aspects of life.  But in the decades since the Cylons broke away from humanity they have evolved and now appear to be some type of genetically engineered human/robot hybrids, many of whom look just like humans and who may or may not have infiltrated the surviving band of humans.  It’s an interesting scenario, though the are-you-human-or-are-you-Cylon concept wears thin fairly quickly. Fortunately healthy diversity of both characters and conflicts keeps things moving along at a brisk enough pace, even though the show often devolves into more of an explosion-filled daytime soap opera than I would prefer.

Battlestar Galactica, despite reportedly being made on the cheap, is an absolutely stunning realization of futuristic space life.  Everything has an incredible sense of palpable authenticity, from the small fighter craft to the massive lumbering cargo ships, and the set design looks concrete and functional.  The Millenium Falcon from Star Wars was famously described by Luke Skywalker as “a piece of junk,” but it was a spaceship with character and life.  Similarly, every inch of the Battlestar Galactica sets strive for that same level of realism, and when you see greasy mechanics struggling to overhaul a spaceship engine, a dirty mess hall with games of space poker going late at night, or a devastated planet with bombed-out buildings and hovels, it feels almost documentarian.  Space dogfights are exceptionally well done, and it’s a testament to how far CGI has come to be able to whip out scenes with dozens of ships blasting away at each other for a weekly serial show like this.

Battlestar Galactica Grace Park

Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, ready to kick some Cylon tail.

But for all the pomp and imagery of Battlestar Galactica, things are somewhat lacking in the character department, which sadly is where the real connection of a show like this has to be made with the audience. There are a handful of individuals we are supposed to care about, like plucky young fighter pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), tough-as-nails Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos, standing and delivering like it’s going out of style) and his alcoholic sidekick Saul (Michael Hogan), empathetic but hard-nosed president Roslin (Mary McDonnell, using the same character notes Roland Emmerich gave her for Independence Day), Doc Baltar (James Callis), resident space hussy Number Six (Tricia Helfer), and a handful of others along for the ride too. But aside from a smattering of true character moments, most of the people here are window dressing who exist simply to ratchet up the dramatic tension.  Gruff old Commander Adama always does what has to be done…but what if thousands of lives hang in the balance?  What then? President Roslin has to maintain order, but what if people high up in the military might be (gasp!) Cylons!  What then? And Doc Baltar, an unstable man plagued by constant hallucinations of a Cylon temptress, almost becomes an exercise in self-parody by the end of the season when he is promoted to the role of vice president.  It’s as if no one around him has any idea he is not only wholly ineffective at his job, but entirely unstable and unreliable as a man.  And yet we are asked to believe his character trajectory in the same way that the action/drama show 24 asks us to believe that a president’s daughter can go from flunkie to Chief of Staff of the White House in the matter of a couple hours.

Battlestar Galactica Fleet

The visuals are amazing, particularly considering the tight constraints of a TV production schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there are some genuine moments of engaging character struggles, such as when Starbuck is stranded on a planet and Adama wrestles with the question of whether saving one life is worth putting many other lives in danger.  But science fiction is best when it examines human issues or gives us a lens through which we may view the human condition. Spaceships, lasers, aliens, hyperdrives…it only works if we are invested in the characters and they are examining issues that speak to us in the here and now. And when characters are tackling issues in bathroom stalls, hallucinating every time they appear on screen, and sleeping with each other as often and as casually as they might play a game of cards it’s hard to identify with them and, by extension, the show itself. To be sure, Battlestar Galactica is visually arresting and a lot of fun to watch, especially the fast-paced space dogfights and nail-biting chases through the streets of Caprica. But I can’t help but get the feeling the show is also a vehicle simply for generating Nielsen ratings, with an onslaught of sleazy how-much-can-we-gat-away-with-on-TV sex scenes, constant faux-swearing (the word “frak,” a facepalm-inducing substitute for another four-letter word, is peppered liberally throughout each episode so much that it’s actually comical), and episodes that seem to be more about pushing the envelope of televised violence and CGI wizardry than actually giving me a real, substantive reason to watch.

There’s a reason Star Trek has no toilets: they did not serve the story. Sure it would have been kind of funny or realistic to see Riker walk out of the men’s room from time to time, but Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts never let those moments happen at the expense of the story.  Battlestar Galactica, with its constant effort to portray realistic outer space life, sacrifices characters on the altar of spectacle.  Not all the time, mind you, but often enough.  I am hopeful for Season 2, however, and I also have to consider that many shows spend the first season struggling to find their footing. The overall plot is fairly interesting, with the idea of humanity struggling against absolutely overpowering odds and a relentless enemy, but so far the show reminds me of a fireworks display on the 4th of July: an impressive cacophony of light and sound, but ultimately somewhat hollow.


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Rating: 4.2/5 (5 votes cast)

Black. White.

From the philanthropist to the aspiring world-conqueror many have written of the value of walking in someone else’s shoes, and with Hollywood makeup, we can come closer than ever before. This fascinating reality show, produced by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler, debuted in 2006, and never had a second season. I can only assume this is because its ratings weren’t good; a number of critics did pan it, which is too bad. To be sure, Black. White. smacks of being polished, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is true reality caught on film, and how much is staged. It also must be noted that the experiences of six people, forced into a television schedule, don’t exactly qualify as a scientific study. But give Cube and Cutler some credit. This show, unlike many, was an honest attempt to contribute to the public consciousness with a hard look at race relations in America. As you can see by the length of this review, Black. White. succeeds at provoking thought and discussion.

We meet two families of three; a white family, the Wurgels, and a black one, the Sparkses, who have agreed to live in a house together for six weeks. They will probably spend at least three of those weeks in the makeup chair, because for many of their experiences, they will be trading races.  I was genuinely skeptical at first as to whether the makeup would fool people. However, later in the series, our subjects sometimes reveal their identities to people they meet, who are genuinely surprised. It seems the makeup really did do its job. The Wurgel “family” (actually a blended family, containing two professional actors) is composed of step-father Bruno, mother Carman, and daughter Rose. The Sparks family is made up of parents Brian and Renee, who are anxious about their son Nick, who doesn’t show the level of interest in his heritage desired by his parents. One recurring theme of the series is arguments between Nick and Brian about whether racism is something to be concerned about.

Rose Bloomfield/Wurgel


Rose in Blackface

A lot of our subjects’ activities in this show are self-directed; they choose what experiences they want to have as the other race, and what experiences they think the other race needs to have. One of the first things Brian does is have Bruno don his black makeup and take him out to walk through a predominantly white neighborhood as two black guys. He tells him to watch for things like people moving to the other side of the street or women grabbing their purses. He adds “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Rarely have two men demonstrated more different world views. As they go walking down the street, the dialogue goes something like this:

Brian getting into white makeup.

Brian: Did you see that? Did you see that?

Bruno: What?

Brian: They wouldn’t look at us! Did you see?

Bruno: No, sorry, I didn’t notice

(A minute later) Bruno: Okay, did you see that?

Brian: What?

Bruno: She looked at me! We had, like, three seconds of eye contact.

Brian: No, I didn’t see that.

They enter a store and begin looking at clothes on the racks. Sales people come over to help them. We hear Bruno in a voice-over say “We walked in there and I was helped right away. People were courteous … there was absolutely no difference between the way I’ve been treated as a white man and the way I was treated today as a black man.” We hear Brian in a voice-over say “Bruno thinks the sales people are coming over to help him, but really they’re coming over to size him up.” Remember, however, that this is quite different from what Brian predicted before they went out. He told Bruno “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Granted you’re getting a white guy’s perspective from me, but it seems like Brian really wants to see racism on the street and finds a way to do so. If servers serve him quickly, that’s racist, if they take their time, that’s racist; if people look at him, that’s racist, if people don’t look at him, that’s racist; if people get out of his way on the street, that’s racist, if people don’t get out of his way, that’s racist. I find myself wondering if anything could ever happen to Brian that would satisfy him that he wasn’t facing discrimination.

To be fair, Bruno takes Brian on an equally stupid odyssey to a “white” bar as two white guys, at which he attempts to prove to Brian how un-racist white America is. He asks patrons questions like “do you think black people are equal to white people?” and “would you consider marrying a black woman?” getting predictable responses. Having failed to indoctrinate Bruno the way he hoped to, Brian turns his attention to Nick. Nick says that he doesn’t perceive racism.  Brian gives him a series of directives like “Next time you go to the store, just … look around and you might be surprised that your black butt’s being watched.” In six episodes, we never see Brian in white make up after the second episode, except very briefly in episode six. At first, Brian was excited to become white, believing that it would induct him into the privileged class. Later, however, he appears to decide that life is easier as a bitter black man, and focus his efforts on making sure his son grows up as paranoid as he is.

Nick demonstrates the same inclination in his own way. He has to do something for the show most white kids never have to do: suffer through an etiquette class. Let’s face it, there aren’t many facets of main-stream American life that are all white anymore, so Cube and Cutler had to look to the wealthiest of American society to find things for the Sparkses to do. In between sessions, he vents to Rose that he is miserable posing in his white makeup, and that “I just wish I was black right now!” Eventually, Nick tells the class that he is actually black. You can see him relax as soon as people know. Even surrounded by white kids, he’s a lot more comfortable being himself.

Experiences like this serve to not only expose differences in how the races see things, but also differences between the genders. One night, Bruno and Carmen go to a country bar as a black couple. (Let’s face it, that is kind of like poking a hornet’s nest.) Afterward, they report very different experiences. Carmen says she definitely felt like she was viewed with increased suspicion. Bruno says “I was hanging out with the guys at the bar, I was playing pool with them as a black guy … nobody cared.” Perhaps this difference can be explained by what women and men generally want from social interaction. After Rose has spent several days as a black girl, she tells the camera “I’ve managed to pass myself off and be accepted, but I don’t feel like I’ve really connected with any of these black people on a soul level.” This is something no man would ever expect to achieve while disguising himself and pretending to be something he’s not. When a man disguises himself as another race, he’s thinking about pulling off the act so he’s not discovered. If the people he meets treat him with basic courtesy, he’s content. Women go into social settings wanting to form deep relationships (even when they’re lying to everyone about their race), and so they seem to be a lot more aware of racial tension. About two thirds of the way through the series, Carmen, having twice inadvertently offended Renee, breaks down, crying that she “can’t stand having to walk on egg shells all the time. I don’t want any more apologizing for who I am.” Despite the contempt Renee demonstrates for whites throughout the series, in private, she tells the camera about a desire to form a close bond with a white woman. After a couple of episodes, she gives up on Carmen and begins looking elsewhere, eventually forming a friendship with a woman she meets in a scrap-booking club.

Meanwhile, Carmen has given up on Renee and goes into the world looking for a “black friend that can help me connect to the black community.” She eventually meets

Bruno and Carmen at a black church.

talk radio host Deanna. After a few visits, Deanna takes Bruno and Carman around her neighborhood as a mixed couple; Bruno is in his black makeup; Carmen looks white. She takes them through a park where a lot of black guys are hanging around beating on drums. Carmen says in a voice-over that “I definitely had a sense that I was not wanted in that neighborhood, and, gradually emerging, a sense of actual fear for my safety.”

For his part, Bruno says “I’ve felt more tension and perceived more hostility here than I have as a black man anywhere else. That was the most evident display of hate that I’ve experienced.” Deanna explains “That’s because you’re perceived as a black man coming into this black community with a white woman. You’re perceived as a sell out.”

Carmen eventually breaks down crying. Deanna asks her “do you realize this is everyday life for people like me? You can pop in and out in a day, but my skin will never change.” The show seems to be making a point here about how, even in black makeup, white people can’t understand how black people feel, because they can take off the makeup. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, while Carmen looked white, Bruno still looked black. In order to get either of them to feel real racism, Deanna had to take both of them to a black neighborhood. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with a black friend, who was anxious over the fact that his fiancé (now his wife) was white. A bunch of us were hanging out at Village Inn, and he was worried about the crap that his future kids would take from all-black kids if their skin was the wrong shade. In frustration he commented, “Chris Rock is right when he says black people are the most racist people in America. Black people do not like white people, they do not like Asian people, they do not like Native American people … they don’t even like black people that they don’t think are ‘black enough.’”

Black. White. doesn’t exactly generate a lot of optimism for race relations in America. It gets downright painful to watch sometimes, as Bruno, Carmen, Brian and Renee can’t seem to let go of petty offenses. As tempers flare and hatred percolates, one of the surprises is that Rose and Nick become fast friends, even while their parents progress in animosity. I started to wonder if racial problems wouldn’t just disappear if everyone over 20 just left the planet.

The two families actually manage to have some positive interaction in the final episode. As if to apologize for what they’ve put them through, the producers and camera crews back off, and Bruno and Brian begin to shoot hoops in the park. Renee and Carmen go for a nature walk. The tension eases palpably. Brian and Bruno both say that they have reached a mutual respect. Renee says that she has “forgiven” Carmen. Carmen comments “We don’t all have to love each other, but we can respect each other and let each other be.” Maybe that’s the most important lesson of the whole show. Unless and until the races are willing to sacrifice everything that makes them who they are – not entirely desirable – racial consciousness and, therefore, “racism” will probably never just disappear. That’s no reason cross-racial friendships can’t occur (as they often do). But they’re not going to occur through racial reconciliation conferences or lots of “Kumbaya” singing, and certainly not through disguises and shouting matches. They will occur, if at all, the same way all friendships occur: through people simply being themselves and finding things they have in common. Programs like Black. White., even when they have the best of intentions, need to back off and let this happen. It can’t be orchestrated.

In summary, I have to tip my hat to anyone who was involved with Black. White., if only because it could not have been an easy experience to get through, especially for those on camera. It took a lot of guts and patience from our six heroes, and from the makeup department, no doubt. It delivers a powerful, and mostly seemless narrative of a most intruiging (and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented) social experiment. I forced me to spend some time reflecting on things I hadn’t for a while.

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Man v. Food (Season 2)

Man vs. FoodMaybe it’s the excessive amounts of food I’ve been consuming this past week, thanks to various Christmas parties at work along with snacks that people have had around the office, but I think it’s high time I reviewed Man v. Food, Season 2.  The first season was a pleasant surprise, and I appreciated host Adam Richman’s unpretentious enjoyment of American cuisine.  Season 2 is in many ways just what one would expect:  more of Season 1.  But that’s not a bad thing at all.  The blue-collar premise of the show is pretty simple:  Richman visits diners and eateries around the country in search of good grub and doing his best to conquer the nation’s most (in)famous food challenges.  Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t, but it’s always a fun ride.

The basic gist of each episode remains roughly the same:  Richman travels to a particular city, such as Charleston, South Carolina, Boise, Idaho, or Tucson, Arizona, and visits three famous local restaurants in order to sample their food.  He doesn’t seek out fine dining or haute cuisine,  just good food recommended by the locals.  It’s still unclear just how the show’s producers select the venues for Richman to visit, but they do a fairly solid job of finding some of the famous local haunts in each location and staying away from more mainstream places.  It’s not quite Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but it gives viewers a good idea of some good off-the-beaten-path joints.  Of course there’s always the main event in each episode:  the food challenge, which always takes place at the final restaurant.  There’s plenty of teases leading up to the main event, but the first two thirds of each show are plenty interesting even without a challenge.  Richman keeps things light and fun, often talking with restaurant patrons and joking with the wait staff while talking about the food he’s eating.  Some of the adjectives get a little overused (how many ways can you say “delicious”?), and every now and then it’s clear that Richman trying his best just to be polite even though the food is clearly not all that great.  But to be fair, the guy does come across some weird concoctions, and they can’t all be scrumptious.  His visit to Harold’s New York Deli Restaurant was probably the low point: the sandwich he sampled was literally two pieces of bread with about ten pounds of sliced deli meat in between them.  Yawn.

Of course the highlight of each show is the challenge, and in many ways the ante was upped from Season 1.  There was the usual slew of artery-clogging concoctions like gigantic burritos, pizzas, and entrees, not to mention a couple extraordinarily spicy meals like the “suicide six wings” challenge, which once stopped Richman after just one wing.  But in order to add some welcome variety to the mix, there were some truly inventive and creative challenges too.  One had an entire restaurant taking part in bringing down a 190-pound burger, another was a food triathlon in which Richman and three teammates had to bike, swim, and run their way to victory while consuming massive quantities of food at each stop, and there was even a Man v. Food Live during which Richman had to finish a 48-ounce steak in 20 minutes.

Man vs. Food: Mally's

Seeing this in no way makes me want to eat a 190-pound hamburger. In fact, it's basically the opposite.

Even though some of the challenges were kind of silly (seriously, at some point just piling more and more potatoes onto a subway sandwich just gets kind of ridiculous.) it’s all in good fun and even when Richman loses he’s a great sport about it and makes sure the crowd, and TV audience, have a good time.

Some have criticized Man v. Food for promoting unhealthy overeating and gluttony, especially when obesity is such a major problem in this country.  Food Network host Alton Brown even went so far as to call the show “disgusting.”  I don’t see it that way, though. In fact, watching Richman attempt the massive food challenges is a way for me to live vicariously and enjoy, on some level, the thrill of the challenge without the unfortunate side effects.  Richman is an avid exerciser and maintains a relatively healthy weight by keeping a strict treadmill regimen, and I doubt anyone who watches the show would be inspired to overindulge.  If anything, watching Richman’s edible escapades has made me more aware of the food I eat and actually caused me to reconsider large portion sizes from time to time.  It’s enough that he does the challenges–I don’t need to do it too.  It’s fun enough just to watch him and enjoy it.


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The Real Wolfman

Man has not always been at the top of the food chain. Our lack of fangs, claws, etc. once made us a temping treat. Only in the last two centuries or so did our ingenuity give us the tools to consistently overcome the world’s top predators. Before that, humans huddled around campfires for eons, jumping at bumps in the night and teaching their children to fear the dark. Most of the time, the fear of fire would keep our primitive superiors at bay. However, there are many instances in history where a human settlement became little more than a buffet to a lion, a pack of wolves, or the Beast of Gevaudan.

The Beast of Gevaudan (pronounced je-voo-DAN) lived, killed, and died in southeast France in the disturbingly recent 1760s. It fataly mauled and mutilated 102 people, most of them women and children. It was hunted by hundreds and shot at by dozens, many of whom were sure they had hit it, but this only seemed to increase its boldness. One cannot study this period without sensing the terror peasants must have felt, cowering in their homes as the Beast walked unchallenged through their villages. But the most frightening thing about the Beast? Nobody knew what it was.

George Deuchar

Enter the History Channel. This story has long been a source of fascination for crypto-zoologists, because whatever this creature was, it left 102 bodies behind. Ergo, it couldn’t have been a hoax or a myth. So it only makes sense that the History Channel would enlist the talents of crypto-zoologist Ken Gerhard to investigate the mystery. Why they paired Gerhard with Jersey criminal profiler George Deucher is less clear. Deucher is sort of the Dana Scully of the pair; the hard-bitten, no-nonsense skeptic. For most of the film, while Gerhard insists the Beast must have been some previously undiscovered animal or mutation, Deucher is equally adamant that it was a human serial killer. How he plans to identify this killer, however, is beyond me. One of the tricky things about crime detection is that the trail goes cold fast. It’s hard to catch a murderer a few weeks after the killing, let alone 240 years. I’m sure the man is good at his job, but it would seem Deuchar was included less for any particular expertise than for the sake of having a skeptic voice in the cast of characters.

Most of the way through, the film progresses about like you’d expect, with the cheesy reenactments that we’ve come to expect from documentaries, and the monster-cam effects that we’re used to from B-grade horror films. We see a lot of retellings of documented instances where the Beast killed. Humorously, we see the same four or five actors die over and over. These are interspersed with Deuchar and Gerhard’s visits to sites in France and arguments between them about

what the few bits of evidence they have mean. For instance, Gerhard reads an excerpt to Deuchar from one scholarly compilation

Ken Gernhardt with a statue of the Beast

of sightings. It says that one man said he heard the Beast “laughing.” He then shows Deuchar some footage of hyenas in Africa. The sound they make resembles a human laugh. His argument: laughing sound = laughing hyena. The only question is how did one get to France. This is a classic crypto-zoologist explanation, known as the out-of-place-animal.  Deuchar retorts “when I hear about a killer laughing, to me that means one thing: human serial killer.”

Realistically, the Beast could not have been a human. Too many people saw a quadruped animal, including some who were attacked by it and survived, often in broad daylight. Doubtless, the witness accounts include some embellishments. One man said he saw the Beast walk on water. Witnesses also reported the Beast to be as big as a horse. None-the-less, I don’t think there can be any doubt that there was a real, unknown animal involved.

But in its exploration of what the real animal was, The Real Wolfman betrays the problems that plague many documentaries: fast assumptions and a rush to meet a deadline. To support his hyena theory, Gerhard leads Deuchar to the Caves of Sarlat in the Gevaudan province, where the Beast was said to prowl. There they appear to discover cave paintings of over-sized, prehistoric hyenas (the editing is a bit rough here and it’s hard to tell if our detectives are seeing what we’re seeing or if this is recycled footage from somewhere else). Deuchar asks “So do you think one of these was still around in the 1700s?” Gerhard replies “Well, give me two months and a shovel and I might find evidence.” What he doesn’t say, but we all hear, is “… but we need to finish a TV show here. We don’t have time for that.” Too bad. On their way out of the cave, they find the skeleton of a goat. Gerhard says “It looks like some predatory animal drug it in here for a snack.” Deuchar pipes up “Like a human.”

We’ll never know for sure what the Beast of Gevaudan was, but, based on what I have read from the time, there are a couple of theories worth taking seriously. One thing we can be sure of is that it was no wolf. Many wolves were killed in the hunt for the Beast, yet the attacks continued unabated. What’s more, this rural shepherd population dealt with wolves on a regular basis, and the wolf had been a symbol of evil across Europe for centuries (just read a few fairy tales). A wolf killing people would not have mystified the locals. Likewise, it seems that French peasants would have recognized a bear, had one been the Beast. And with world exploration well under way by this time, they most likely would even have recognized a great cat had they seen one. A mutation has been suggested by crypto-zoologists, and cannot be totally discounted, but it should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of mutants die in infancy. Obviously, this thins the list of known large predators quite a bit, but, as Sherlock Holmes would say, once we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I think the hyena theory is plausible. As noted, prehistoric hyenas once roamed across Europe, and were larger than today’s. While they were supposed to be extinct in 1764, it would not be the first time, or the last, that a supposedly extinct animal was found alive. Failing that, it was fashionable for European nobility to collect exotic animals. One could have escaped. A hyena (above) would match most of the witness descriptions of the Beast very well, with reddish-brown, flecked or striped fur, a pig-like muzzle, and an arched back with a fringe of fur. Finally, this species would probably not be recognized by the average Frenchman in 1764. There is another most interesting, and credible, explanation I have read from a crypto-zoologist. He proposes that the Beast may have been a mesonychid, a species of hoofed predator that once roamed Europe, but supposedly went extinct around 5000 years ago. A number of witnesses said the Beast had hooves; sometimes a hoof on each toe. The mesonychid’s hooves had developed a split design that made them function more like claws. Looking at the picture (right), you can see how a mesonychid would fit descriptions of the Beast as well, and would have puzzled any witness (who lived long enough to puzzle) as to what it was. With the world being sparsely populated, and no mass media to speak of, an unusual animal could have migrated a great distance through rural Europe in those days, even killing the occasional human, without being noticed before taking up residence in Gevaudan.

Toward the end, The Real Wolfman really falls apart. The pair has found a fair amount of evidence to bolster Gerhard’s hyena theory. Out of nowhere, and maybe out of jealousy, Deuchar espouses a new theory of “a man, killing with an animal.” He asks a wolf expert if a wolf could be trained to attack on command. The wolf expert says he does not think that could be done. They then show an interview with a zoologist who works with hyenas. Looking slightly surprised at the question, he says he SUPPOSES it MIGHT be possible to train a Hyena to attack on command, due to the level of intelligence they exhibit. Where this theory came from is beyond me. They hadn’t found any evidence to support it, and it isn’t necessary to explain anything. But from there, Deuchar, at least, is on the hunt for evidence of a human trainer behind the Beast.

The official story of the Beast’s death is that a hermit named Jean Chastel, a Protestant outcast whose son had been jailed on suspicion of being a werewolf responsible for the deaths, had his bullets blessed by a Catholic priest and went out to hunt the Beast on June 19, 1767. He was charged by the Beast in the company of several witnesses and slew it with one shot. (One shot, of course, was all anybody had back then.) Upon being opened, the creature’s stomach was found to contain human remains. Being unable to identify the Beast as any creature they were familiar with, Chastel and his companions put it on a cart and began the long trek to Paris to show King Louis XV, who had promised a reward. However, this was southern France in August, and the carcass reeked unbearably before long. Needless to say, they didn’t have any cameras, and were apparently not equipped for taxidermy in the field. Somewhere along the way, the remains of the Beast were lost to history. The other problem was that, officialy, the Beast had been dead for 2 years. Louis had dispatched Francois Antoine, his Leutenant of the Hunt, who had killed an unusually large wolf. Antoine had  been given a hero’s welcom in Paris, and the matter had been closed. When the attacks in Gevaudan continued, and the peasants again begged Louis for help, he hadn’t wanted to hear it. Chastel never did recieve a reward. However, he is now considered a national hero.

At a coffee shop in Paris, Deuchar, having pretty much accepted Gerhardt’s hyena theory, argues to Gerhardt that the only way Chastel could have killed the hyena is if he had trained it. He believes he has found a motive in that “Chastel had a chance to go from from outcast to hero.”

What case they have against Chastel is completed back in the U.S. Deuchar invites Gerhardt to the shooting range where he and his cop budies hang out. In France, someone told our detectives that Chastel used silver bullets when killing the Beast, a story they seem to have accepted at face value. Deuchar has had a friend cast some silver bullets. It should be noted these are bullets of a modern design, to be fired from a modern rifle, not the musket balls Chastel would have used. Deuchar has a marksman fire three lead bullets, then three silver, at a man-shapped target. He isn’t able to be nearly as accurate with the silver as with the lead. Announcer Jonathan Adams then explains that the rifling in the gun can’t dig into the silver as well because it is harder than lead. Therefore, the bullet doesn’t spin, reducing accuracy. Next, the marksman fires a lead bullet, then a silver, through two bricks of ballisitc gel. The gel is meant to simulate the effect of a bullet on flesh. The lead bullet fractures and spreads out on its way through the gel, causing massive “tissue” damage. The silver bullet, being harder, retains its shape and makes a slim, clean puncture (although it also punches further into the gel). Deuchar argues to Gerhardt that, if Chastle had managed to hit the hyena with a silver bullet, it’s very unlikely he could have inflicted a killing shot, unless the hyena had been trained. Gerhardt muses “It’s possible the use of silver bullets at that time had more to do with superstition than actual science” (Duh.) “so you might be right.” Deuchar tells the camera “silver is lousy ballistic material.” Adams takes over. “… so how did Chastel manage to kill the Beast with a single shot? Because it was a trained animal. It knew Chastel. It obeyed him.” So there you have the veteran big city cop’s case against Chastel for 102 counts of murder: Silver is lousy ballistic material. Therefore, the Hyena of Gevaudan was trained by this impoverished hermit to kill women and children. Wait a minute.

The story of Chastel killing the Beast may simply be a folktale. Why didn’t Chastel take the Beast to the nearest taxidermist? If he couldn’t afford it, surely someone would have paid for it, in celebration of the monster’s death. Couldn’t Chastel have promised a share of the king’s reward? None-the-less, the attacks stopped, so something must have happened to the Beast. This version seems to have more support than any other.

Most records from the time don’t say anything about Chastel using silver bullets, and this was probably a story that developed later, especially considering that the silver bullet is a relatively recent addition to werewolf mythology. (See Witchcraft and the Occult, Robert Jackson, 1995.) He probably used a perfectly ordinary lead ball, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to try having it blessed by a priest (assuming that part of the story wasn’t fabricated later for church propaganda). With the hundreds of men that hunted the Beast, it’s no surprise one of them was finally in the right place at the right time. Assuming Chastel did try a silver musket ball, and had the funds to obtain one, Deuchar’s accuracy test was flawed. Guns in 1767 didn’t have rifeling anyway, so that wouldn’t have been a factor.

Even Ken Gerhardt, on his own blog, later admitted,

“I am still not 100% convinced about the guilt of Jeanne Chastel. I mean, why didn’t anyone ever notice the hyena in Chastel’s care, with so much reward money being offered… and where did a poor outcast like Chastel acquire a rare animal in the first place? With so many eyewitnesses to the Beast, why didn’t anyone report Chastel prowling the area?”

You also have to ask, even if Chastel was such a monster, why did he keep killing children for three years, thereby increasing his risk of getting caught, and missing out on the reward? None of these questions are asked in The Real Wolfman, however. It seems that the element of the human killer needed to be forced into the History Channel’s explanation of the Beast to justify their inclusion of a cop on the investigative team. In the final scene, Gerhardt and Deuchar walk down the street, congratulating eachother. Deuchar says “It looks like we were both right, huh?” They seem oblivious to the seriousness of the accusation they have just levied against an actual historical figure with known living decendants. Seriously, if any such decendants happen to read this, it would be worth talking to an attorney about a libel suit. In summary, The Real Wolfman doesn’t deserve to be called a documentary. It’s just a lot of wild jumps to conclusions and groundless (and needless) accusations. I suppose I’ll give it a star for putting forth the Hyena theory, though it wasn’t the first work on the Beast to do so.

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Lost: Season 3

Lost Season 3Warning: this review most likely contains spoilers, depending on how much of the show you have seen. Read at your own risk…

The second season of everyone’s favorite Gilligan’s Island-meets-The Matrix drama left off with several unexplained questions and one doozy of a cliffhanger.  And though Season 3 addresses a precious few of the lingering issues, by the end we are left with even more unexplained riddles and lingering problems.  So much so that the show begins to walk a fine line between engaging drama and self-parody, as the near-ridiculous heights to which the drama gets ratcheted are sometimes too outlandish to be taken seriously.  But through it all is a solid yarn of character-based dramatic storytelling that keeps things from spinning entirely out of control, and keeps the interest level high enough to hold the interest of even the most impatient of viewers.

Whereas the first season was mostly exposition, introducing us to the characters, their backstories, and the island, the second season went a great deal farther into what was actually happening on the island.  We were introduced to the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch, the Others, and the mystery behind characters like the french woman was swept away.  But Season 3 takes things in a different direction, as the group of survivors is now fragmented physically as well as interpersonally.  Sawyer, Jack, and Kate are imprisoned by the Others, and the rest of the Oceanic 815 survivors get by as best they can without their leader while also trying to rescue their friends.  Much of the first several episodes deal with the Others, who become much more humanized and less like faceless evildoers.  In fact, if there is a theme to Season 3 it would be the pulling back of the curtain, as some of the mysteries about the Others are found to have perfectly normal and rational explanations.  Even the mysterious smoke monster becomes more understandable, and we learn of its limitations as well.

Lost: John Locke

John Locke, not taking "no" for an answer.

One reason the series has always worked well is that the dramatic tension is a natural extension of the characters and their situations.  In Season 1, we wanted to know who these people were and how they were going to survive.  Season 2 furthers this idea by introducing new conflicts and revealing more about larger issues like the Dharma Initiative.  But Season 3, partly due to the compressed time frame (the events of the entire season only span a few weeks’ time on the island), tends to fall back on some relatively cheap 24-like tactics to hold viewer interest.  Watching Jack engage in yet another shouting match with Ben, or having an endless stream of people being held at gunpoint unless so-and-so does such-and-such, or ending episodes with cheap cliffhangers tends to deviate from the spirit of the show.  It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and possibly a response to somewhat downward trends in ratings too. (The first episode of Season 3 had almost 19 million viewers.  By the end it was down to just under 14 million.)  What is a travesty, though, is the killing off of some characters, both long- and short-term, that started near the end of Season 2 and continues here as well.  Killing off a beloved individual just to up the ratings or stymie a case of writer’s block is cheap, and it’s sad to see Lost treading down this path.

One of the biggest issues I have with the show is how characters just never give a straight answer to anything.  It seems as though many of the conflicts, problems, and deaths could be easily avoided if Ben and his friends sat down with Jack and the survivors and calmly explained what in the world was going on.  Even the most simplest of questions are met with enigmatic answers followed by a quick fade to the title card or a commercial break.  I still trust that the writers know what they are doing, but there are a couple times when it seems like the reason Jack or Sawyer can’t get a straight answer out of Ben or Juliet is because the show creators don’t even know what’s going on.

Lost: Hurley

Remember Hurley's all-important "numbers" from Season 2? Neither do the writers of the show...

However, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right.  Ben emerges as one of the more complex and characters in recent television, and the exploration of what is really going on with the island becomes thoroughly compelling. Character flashbacks continue to add new levels of depth to Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, and the rest of the core gang, and Desmond’s penchant for predictions is pretty potent as well.  There is even one character who kicks the bucket right at the bitter end, but in a meaningful and perhaps even inspirational fashion.  The budget is clearly bigger than ever before too, which means we are treated to grandiose sets, large explosions, and a lot more sheer grandeur than before.  The downside to all this?  Some characters are left behind, and by the end of the season if we didn’t have the occasional group shot to remind us of the 40-odd people on the island, one would think the survivors were limited solely to a mere handful of misplaced good-looking mid-20’s SoHo dwellers.

Lost is still one of the best shows on TV, and its rich blend of science fiction, drama, and mystery remain almost as compelling as ever.  But a few cracks are beginning to show around the seams by the end of Season 3, and I just hope things improve a little for the next go-round.


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