Family Guy: Back to the Pilot

If, like me, you have given up on Family Guy, you probably didn’t bother to watch the Nov. 20 episode. The show has become really repetitive and juvenile. They even managed to F up Star Wars–their Return of the Jedi episode, “It’s a Trap,” was terrible. Here is a good article from 2009 about the show’s decline. Continue reading

American Gothic

Okay, it’s compare-and-contrast time. American Horror Story fans, meet American Gothic. I’ve been thinking there is a resemblance there, beyond just the title, and the recent addition of enigmatic Sarah Paulson to the cast of the former prompted me to finally write this.

Let’s start with the subject matter. Subverting the archetype of the happy American family has been done in practically every genre of entertainment, but works especially well for horror. The idea of evil lurking beneath the facade of normalcy may be what scares us more than anything. Continue reading

Dream On

“I’m sick of my generation being called the TV Generation. ‘All you guys did was watch TV.’ What’d you expect? We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV one Sunday morning. We were afraid to change the channel for the next 25 f***ing years.” – Dennis Leary

Martin Tupper, as the main title sequence of 1990’s Dream On demonstrates, is squarely within Dennis Leary’s “TV Generation.” We see the legs of a 1950s housewife as she plops her baby down in front of the black-and-white television set. Three different kids play the growing Martin, as he stares transfixed at the set over the years. Continue reading

That ’70s Show

That ’70s Show has recently started airing on TeenNick, introducing the decade when we didn’t know Vader was Luke’s father* to a generation that wasn’t born yet, so it’s due for a look. Also, star Laura Prepon has been cast in the forthcoming Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea, so in case you need a reminder who she is…

The official Episode 1.1, which aired in August 1998, is about Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) inheriting his parents’ Vista Cruiser. I’m convinced there was another first episode, an actual pilot, before this. Am I crazy? I remember the pilot as an episode about Donna’s (Laura Prepon) parents going out of town and a rivalry between Eric and Hyde (Danny Materson) for Donna’s affections. And Donna had a younger sister who was never seen again. It felt very pilot-y, like the writers didn’t quite have a handle on the characters yet. Even the opening sequence was a little different, possibly with a different version of the theme song. If anyone knows what in the world I’m talking about please leave a comment! Continue reading

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

The Fresh Prince of Bel-air hardly needs a pilot to introduce its premise. It’s all right there in the theme song. C’mon, you know the words: “Now this is the story all about how/My life got flip-turned upside down…”

The pilot opens exactly where the intro leaves off, with the ridiculous-looking Fresh Prince, who we know today as alien-and-zombie-busting Will Smith, standing on the columned porch of his Uncle Phil’s giant house, fresh (no pun intended) from West Philadelphia. When the door is answered, Will mistakes the butler, Geoffrey, for his uncle. Has he never met this uncle before? But point taken–Will has never encountered the sort of wealth that employs “help” before.

The Fresh Prince debuted in 1990 but the 80s were still hanging around like a neon fog. The garish colors, the bad sweaters, and the shoulder pads–dear lord, the shoulder pads–are everywhere. The show goes to such lengths to contrast Will’s colorful, goofball ways with the austerity of Bel-air as to be ridiculous. Will can hardly get through a sentence without employing slang like “def” and “dope.” He’s claims to be “street,” as evidenced (I guess) by a Malcolm X poster in his room. But the contrast is more one of pop culture meets high culture than one of poverty meets wealth. Even if it is always sunny in Philadelphia, I just don’t see this cheerful, neon yellow-clad teenager busting a cap in anyone’s ass on its mean streets.

Members of the Banks family parade in one at a time, offering the audience a chance to digest each one. Uncle Phil (James Avery) is a no-nonsense lawyer who wears suits, apparently, just to hang around the house. Aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert Whitten) is gracious and warm. Oldest sibling Hilary (Karyn Parsons) breezes in demanding $300 for a new hat to wear on as Save-the-Ozone celebrity bus tour. Little sister Ashley (Tatyana Ali), clad in a private school uniform is sweet and adorable, and destined to be the only one Will can immediately connect with. (Total side note: Karyn Parsons and James Avery will be reunited on-screen this summer in the new Transformers movie.)

Carlton, played by Alfonso Ribiero is saved for last. He’s something of a vertically-challenged Ken doll, representing the polar opposite of Will. When Will looks into a mirror and imagines his reflection to resemble Carlton’s, a turning point in the episode is reached, and the show’s conflict introduced. Will will not let himself be turned into a Banks.

The rest of the episode revolves around a dinner party where Uncle Phil is entertaining colleagues. It’s suggested that he’s not such a bigshot as he wishes to be–it seems neighbor Ronald Regan has turned down his dinner invitation. Will takes the party by storm, donning the suit pants and jacket he was given in combination with the world’s most hideous tanktop and a hat that I’m pretty sure I got free with purchase at a Wendy’s in 1988. Although we’re supposed to be rooting for Will, it’s hard not to be embarrassed for him in a Michael Scott kind of way. Sparks fly, naturally, and Uncle Phil is furious.

The final scene takes a serious tone that one might expect from a “very special” episode. Will and Uncle Phil find some common ground in their admiration for Malcolm X and learn you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s kind of sweet, and sets us up for lots of complications to last four seasons. After which the show was cancelled. Before being picked back up for two more seasons. So as ridiculous as it seems, the show certainly found an audience. We have to wait until episode 2 to meet Jazzy Jeff, though.

The X-Files

XFilesPilotLooking back at The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it’s almost impossible not to compare it to a hundred other shows to air since. As a huge Bones fan, I’m most inclined to look for parallels to that show, and many have been drawn. Yes there’s the female-skeptic/male-believer duo, which apparently, was unusual in 1993. But upon re-watching, the X-Files pilot strikes a tone that is all its own.

The pilot opens, as many crime shows do, with a murder. But this is not two drunk kids having a frolic in the woods when they stumble onto a body. Instead, we witness a scene that, if you happened to just turn it on at that point, you might mistake for the climax of the episode. The victim displays absolute terror as a bright light appears over a ridge and a figure emerges from it. Cut to the police investigating the scene. We are briefly introduced to a detective who recognizes the victim as a classmate of his son, class of ‘89. Only after the crime of the week is established do we meet our protagonists.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an FBI agent who is brought into the office of one of her superiors, where she is properly introduced to the viewer. She was recruited out of medical school to the FBI, where she has worked for two years. She is clearly a trusted member of the team, as they are asking her to check up on another agent with an established high-profile career who takes an interest in classified files. As she is briefed on her new assignment, a tall, silent man–who will later be known in X-Files lore as Cigarette Smoking Man–stands by…smoking a cigarette.

Scully heads to a cramped basement office to meet this volatile agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder is painted as eccentric, but he’s not Walter Bishop eccentric. In fact, with his boyish charm he could be described as a cross between Walter and Peter Bishop. Later, his celebratory reaction at realizing that he and Scully just jumped through nine minutes is reminiscent of Dr. Emmet Brown. He’s a likeable character, as is Scully, but the immediate tension between them feels forced. It’s understandable that he is defensive toward her; he believes she is there to spy on him. Her defensiveness isn’t so easy to understand. We can assume the writers are going to work up some sexual tension between the two.

Legend has it that Scully had a boyfriend in the original script, possibly increasing the stakes. here is a hint of sexual tension when Dana strips down to her underwear to show Mulder some bumps on her back, after which they sit around and talk by candlelight. The scene reveals some of each character’s vulnerabilities. But there is no witty, flirtatious back-and-forth; just two people getting to know each other.

As one might expect, this work has personal meaning for Mulder. His sister was abducted, he believes by aliens, as a child, and the record of the case was covered up. It’s predictable, but you have to have your personal connection. (Bones’ mom was murdered, Olivia Benson was raped, Kate Beckett’s mom was murdered, Veronica Mars was raped… I could go on.)

There is something unique about this pilot, however. The episode overall has the feel of a true crime television special, putting into a realm of freakiness above normal network drama. Opening with the subtitle, “The following story is inspired by actual documented events,” and then using typewriter text to denote times and places add to this effect.

The plot, which involves mysterious deaths of several former Oregoneon high school classmates, gets relatively complex. Personally, I find the casting of all these middle aged white guys with receding hairlines confusing; I couldn’t keep straight the detective, the medical examiner, and the coroner. That being said, the show really is story-driven. There are no shots of gorgeous bodies and scenery like in the CSIs or any slapstick, such as sometimes works into Bones or Castle.

The detectives more or less solve the case, only to learn that all the paperwork they file on it immediately disappears. The show ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man taking the one piece of surviving evidence and filing it away deep in the Pentagon archives. This scene sets up the show for a long time to come.

Perhaps the lines that best encapsulate where we’re headed are when Scully asks, “Do you have a theory?” to which Mulder answers, “I have plenty of theories.”

Reboot!

It seems like you can’t go a day without hearing about another upcoming reboot of an old movie or TV show. Currently, viewers of the small screen are speculating about new takes on Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Beavis and Butthead, Dallas, Miami Vice, Teen Wolf… there’s even been the threat of a Bryan Fuller-helmed Munsters remake.*

A pilot for a reboot has a unique task. There is the assumption that most viewers are already familiar with the property, and there is going to be a niche audience that is much more than familiar. The diehard fans are poised to critique every detail.  So what makes a pilot for a reboot successful?

There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to approach. At one end, the pilot could say to the viewer, “Forget everything you knew about previous incarnations of this property.” The story basically starts over, in the present day. V is an example. Viewers need not have a clue about the 1980s mini-series and following TV series. In fact, they might be better not having seen the original and having the whole lizard reveal spoiled for them.

At the other end, a pilot can dive in to a storyline already in progress. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles does this really well. We last saw Sarah and son John in 1991, when John was about 12 years old, so the show now has to bring us up to 2008, when it debuted. The pilot opens in 1999 and, staying faithful to the timeline set forth by the movies, John is introduced as a teenager. We learn in the opening scene Sarah is haunted by the same nightmares of worldwide destruction that we remember. In order to get us to the right year, the writers have the new Terminator, played by Summer Glau, bring the characters forward in time to 2008. If you’re actually new to this, it’s likely you just won’t care about these characters. It’s also likely you’ve been living under a rock.

On the lighter side, 90210 stuck with the timeline set forth by its predecessor, Beverly Hills 90210. The newer show had some fun updating viewers on the lives of characters we once knew, even bringing some of them back so we wouldn’t always be stuck remembering them with hideous hairstyles.

According to Ramon Rodriguez, who has been cast as Bosley, the new Charlie’s Angels is set to go in a new direction. However, the movies already took a big step away from the camp of the original series. So what, exactly, are they moving away from? And do we care? Does a show’s pedigree matter, or only that it’s good?

There’s still a long way to go with all of the aforementioned reboots, and no telling how much restructuring they will go through on their way to the airwaves—if they even make it that far. Then will each one be a 90210? Or a Melrose Place? Once they debut, fans will no doubt have their expectations well in place.

*Here’s an update on the Bryan Fuller Munsters remake, 8/11/11

Project G.e.e.K.e.R.

You’d be forgiven for having never heard of Project G.e.e.K.e.r., an animated sci-fi series that aired for just three months in 1996. And, you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking that the protagonist kinda looks like a worm; or that he sounds an awful lot like Philip J. Fry. Actually, the only two reasons worth watching this little show are that Doug TenNapel of Earthworm Jim fame created it and Billy West voices Geeker.

The animation is after school quality. After school in the mid-90s quality. We didn’t demand much from our animated series until later in the decade when we started to see more of it in prime time, with shows like Futurama and King of the Hill. Futurama fans watching Project Geeker today may get a brief second of déjà vu; both pilots open with a voiceover by the main character (played by the same dude, you remember) pontificating, “The future…” before explaining things to the audience. (Of course, in Futurama, it’s a goof, as it turns out that Fry is explaining a video game. Have I mentioned that Futurama rocks?)

As with a lot of kids’ shows—I’m assuming kids were the target audience—the premise is explained fully in the opening so the pilot could just as well be any random episode. The plot of this one doesn’t matter. Something about a destruct sequence. The overall plot of the series is that an evil genius, Moloch (Jim Cummings, most recently of Gnomeo and Juliet), is trying to track down the AI he created. The AI is Geeker, or Project GKR, and he wasn’t quite fully baked when he was stolen. Now he is in the hands of a voluptuous cyborg whom he calls Becky but who calls herself Lady MacBeth (Cree Summer, of a million different projects including Dragon Age: Origins). Brad Garrett, who I didn’t even realize has done a ton of animation, plays a big talking Tyrannosaurus who hangs out with them. The trio runs around trying to escape the reach of Moloch, while Geeker shape-changes, getting them in and out of various scrapes.

What else can I say? It’s a kids’ show. There’s a lot of noise and color and predictable jokes. The bad guy talks like a Bond villain. Geeker is kind of loveable, though. He’s one of those unlikely heroes who succeeds by screwing up. Kind of like Jar-Jar Binks. Wait, I said loveable. I don’t know, it’s a weird show. In prime time it could have been edgier and echoed the brilliance of the original Earthworm Jim game.

Beavis and Butthead

MTV is going to reboot the 1990s animated series Beavis and Butthead, so it’s a good time to revisit the original. Beavis and Butthead got its start at Spike and Mike’s Festival of animation, which is no surprise; it’s weird and disgusting, and really edgy for a time when the edgiest animated series on TV was The Simpsons. The episode that aired at the festival, the pilot, was “Frog Baseball.” The episode labeled 1.01 on the DVDs now available is something different, apparently from about a year later.

The show, as it aired, interspersed short snippets of story with longer stretches of Beavis (creator Mike Judge) and Butthead just sitting on the couch commenting on music videos. The DVDs seem to contain only the in-between stories, which are pretty weak on their own, and not even that funny. (I’m guessing this is an issue with the rights to the music videos.) The couch sections were what made the show different and, dare I say, relatable, to anyone who grew up with afternoons that grew long and boring as summer vacation wore on, in the era when MTV played videos. Who doesn’t enjoy making fun of Milli Vanilli?

The “plot,” to use the term loosely, isn’t important in this pilot. It’s about, well, frog baseball, which is pretty self-explanatory. It gives us a chance to meet these two slacker kids who love blood and hard rock. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with the names AC-DC and Metallica. When the game goes well—well meaning bloody—the characters air guitar anthems like “Iron Man.” Butthead is the ersatz leader of the pair, and Beavis is even dumber than him, if that’s possible. The outdoor landscape is dried out and bleak, and knowing now that Mike Judge tends to set things in Texas… it’s probably Texas.

When they’re back home in front of the tube, nothing else in life seems to matter. There is nary a parent in sight and, in the pilot, we don’t meet any other characters at all. (Later there are various neighbors and classmates, including the inspiration for the spinoff Daria.) The slacker ethos pervades every aspect including the crappy animation. But, for all their apathy, B & B have strong opinions about music. They don’t articulate these opinions with any grace; stuff either sucks or rocks. If it really rocks it warrants lifting one’s hands in devil horns and headbanging. The animation quality actually seems to tick up a notch as the characters’ hair flies back and forth in heavy metal abandon. When, before 1992, did we see an animated character headbang? The videos alternate between terrible and what is now terrible but was then cool. If you ever liked Axl Rose, even a little, you can probably find something to like here.