Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Office: Jumped the Shark...or Has It?

I'm a big fan of the U.S. version of the Office.  At one time, the show was probably the funniest comedy on television, and it's still among my favorites.  But the very special combination of Jim and Pam's wedding plus her pregnancy (not to mention a different actress playing Pam's mother) raises a troubling question.  Has the Office jumped the shark?

Some say I throw around that phrase too freely.  And while there's a grain of truth to that charge, it also reflects a disagreement about what jumping the shark entails.   I don't believe a show must experience an extended period of decline before jumping the shark.  For me, the phrase describes that moment when you know a show has passed its peak and will never be as good again.  Heroes jumped the shark with its anti-climactic showdown in the Season 1 finale, which was the best season of that show by far.

Besides, I actually do believe the Office has been slipping for some time.  The show has always struggled to come up with enough quality material for hour-long episodes like Jim and Pam's wedding.  And the departure of talented writer Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous of Fire Joe Morgan) to helm Parks & Recreation has only exacerbated the problem.  No surprise, therefore, that Parks & Recreation continues to improve in its second season, while the Office falters.

All that said, I have to raise an alternate possibility I haven't seen discussed.  It's possible that Jim and Pam's wedding episode was a deliberate parody of shark jumping.  The big clue to this possibility is Pam's prudish Memaw, who was played by the same uncredited actress who also played Michael's Nana in the episode Dream Team.  Another quintessential jump the shark moment is "same guest actor, different role."  I can't help thinking the writers slipped this in as a subversive wink to fans like me who might be worried the show was jumping the shark.

What do you think?  As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Friday, October 9, 2009

FlashForward: A Murder to Thank

I was a little disappointed by most of last night's episode, but it picked up steam near the end.  The part about the crows dying was really creepy.  I actually don't think it relates to the pole-shift theories.  For one thing, as we've discussed, a pole shift would be immediately obvious to anyone with a compass or GPS.  For another, it wouldn't explain the localized crow deaths in Ganwar, Somalia. 

But such speculations are on the right track insofar as they focus on electro- and geomagnetic forces.  I suspect who or whatever caused the blackout was inspired by  Nikola Tesla, whose scientific discoveries formed the basis of modern MRI technology. Tesla claimed to have discovered a new type of longitudinal (as opposed to transverse) scalar electromagnetic wave.  He built an enormous tower on Long Island called Wardenclyffe, which he hoped would wirelessly transmit electricity to a receiving tower across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, Wardenclyffe was never completed.  Late in life, Tesla further claimed to have unified the fields in a dynamic theory of gravity. He never published his claims but they nonetheless spawned an entire pseudo-science called electrogravitics. Proponents believe that gravity is really the force of longitudinal electromagnetic waves affecting space-time in the fourth dimension.  My hunch, as stated in a previous post, is that the blackouts are a side effect of someone using this (pseudo) science to time travel or affect probability.

I think the kid saw a Tesla tower in Somalia --  my first thought was of the Prestige.  Anyone know if Ganwar is a highly geomagnetic location like Colorado Springs, where Tesla built his lab?  As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bored to Death: Brotherhood of the Traveling Coat

In Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, a madeleine cookie triggers a wave of involuntary nostalgia in the narrator.  For me, it was the coat Jason Schwartzman wore in a recent episode of the entertaining new HBO series, Bored to Death.

I was transported to my time after college, when I lived and worked in Washington, DC.  It was the kind of group living situation that's so common in the District.  A random assortment of strangers -- besides me, there was the professional juggler, his girlfriend the trapeze artist, Ralph Nader's beleaguered administrative assistant, and the private investigator -- all sharing an enormous row house in Adams Morgan.

We threw the best parties with kegs of good beer, food the PI made from scratch, and plenty of room to dance.  After one of these fetes, someone left behind a corduroy coat identical to the one Schwartzman's wearing in the picture.  It sat in our closet for a month or two, while we waited for the owner to retrieve it.  When nobody did, I claimed the coat over the objections of the AA, who coveted it himself but was just too short to wear it well.  Or so I insisted.

I took the coat when I moved to Cambridge, MA, where it completed my daily ensemble of blue jeans, black turtleneck, and Vasque boots.  I can still remember the reassuringly large buttons.  The tricky pocket with a hole that allowed small objects like pens and change to fall into the lining like vents in a car.  The compliments it elicited -- one woman (sadly, not Olivia Thirlby) said I looked like a sexy acoustic rocker in that coat.

My ownership ended some time after moving to New York, NY.  I remember losing several of the buttons and finally trading the coat in for something sleeker and blacker -- this was, after all, New York. Beyond that, I can't recall its final disposition.  But I'd like to think someone else -- maybe even Schwartzman himself -- recognized the coat's hipster appeal and rescued it for Bored to Death.

Speaking of which, I should probably say a word about the show.  The highlight for me thus far is clearly the chemistry between Schwartzman and Ted Danson.  Schwartzman, who can sometimes be too smarmy and precocious, strikes the right notes here as a struggling writer turned detective with a weakness for white wine and pot.  And Danson is flat out brilliant as his bored rich boss who keeps finding excuses to make Schwartzman come over and smoke him out. 

The adorable Thirlby, who plays Schwartzman's ex, has yet to be given much to do.  Same with scruffy Zach Galifianakis, who plays Schwartzman's best friend.  Still, the show is well written with a nucleus of talented actors and some inspired guest stars (e.g., director Jim Jarmusch).  Plus, Schwartzman's a brother of the traveling coat.  Will Bored to Death be a success?  Like a magic eight-ball, I say all signs point to yes.

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Monday, October 5, 2009

FlashForward: Was the Blackout Planned?

Let me preface this by saying I agree the blackout was a planned event.  But I've noticed some confusion about an interesting point I thought was made in White to Play.  When the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security debates with the FBI whether the event was planned, an FBI agent argues that it was because the probability of it happening at the top of the hour is 1/3600.  Demetri counters that natural events randomly coincide with the top of the hour all the time.  The Assistant secretary agrees with Demetri, but is eventually swayed by the existence of Suspect Zero.

I thought the message of this exchange was clear: there's no statistical reason to think the blackout was planned.  That's "all supposition," as the Assistant Secretary puts it.  Suspect Zero's behavior -- particularly the cell phone chatter -- is a different story, which is why the Assistant Secretary changes her tune upon learning of him.  Indeed, I remember thinking the agent's statistical argument was flawed and gave the writers credit for addressing what might otherwise have been criticized as a goof.

Many, however, interpret the scene quite differently.  They insist the statistical argument is sound and offer the following rationale.  The top of the hour is a marker of great significance to humans.  The chance of the blackout happening at this moment of significance is 1/3600 (i.e., 60 seconds X 60 minutes) as compared to a much higher 3599/3600 probability of the event transpiring at a moment of insignificance to humanity.  Ergo, the event was most likely planned.  Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's fallacious reasoning.

The problem is that the chance of the event occurring at any given second during the hour is 1/3600.  There's always a 3599/3600 probability the event will occur at some other second during the hour.  The only reason our minds notice this particular 1/3600 possibility out of the rest is that we attribute social significance to the top of the hour.  It's a mistake people make all the time -- e.g., when numerologists connect important world events with the number 11, or sports fans insist certain players are "clutch" in the postseason.

What do you all everybody think?  Like I said, I'm wide open to being corrected on this one, if I'm wrong.

Update: October 5, 2009

It occurs to me there's a better reason to suspect the blackout was planned. Planned events occur so often at the top of the hour that events of unspecified origin coinciding with that time have a greater chance of being planned than they otherwise would. It's a bit like why you always seem to end up in the longest line at the supermarket or the slowest lane on the highway. The more people who fall into a given category, the more likely you are to be among them yourself.  The argument is a variation of the Copernican principle, which distinguishes it from fallacies like the power of 11 or "clutch" performance.

To summarize, therefore, the blackout may well have been planned, but a natural explanation is still more likely and the 1/3600 vs. 3599/3600 argument is totally bunk.  As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Cleveland Show Does Not Rock...

Ever since FOX announced the Cleveland Show, I've wondered why, out of all the characters on Family Guy, they picked Cleveland for a spin-off. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I never found him remotely funny. I felt like Quagmire or Brian would have made much better choices.

No surprise, therefore, that I found the Cleveland Show similarly unfunny. After watching the pilot, though, I wonder if that's the point. Maybe Seth MacFarlane was being conservative and deliberately chose a weak character to limit the damage to Family Guy. The loss of a Quagmire or Brian could have been crippling to his flagship show. Cleveland, far less so.

The choice of Rich Appel to head the project also seems conservative. Appel has written and produced for some impressive shows, including the Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bernie Mac. But he has a reputation for playing it safe, which is death for a racial comedy. Such humor is inherently high risk, high reward. You can't be afraid to offend, or you get lame jokes -- like a wigger boyfriend named Federline Jones -- that offend anyway by virtue of their banality.

If there's a silver lining, it's the way the Cleveland Show has enhanced my appreciation for Family Guy. In a previous post, I dismissed the voice work on the latter, arguing it was the referential humor that really elevated Family Guy. In retrospect, I took that quality work for granted. The Cleveland Show has plenty of cutaways, too -- the Parton family gag was one of the few laugh-out-loud moments of the pilot for me. But the show still stinks because the character voices are so weak, particularly for step-brothers Rollo and Cleveland, Jr.

It's like they're not even trying, which raises one last possibility to contemplate. Some of MacFarlane's die-hard fans, the ones who insist his genius can produce no dud, claim that the Cleveland Show is deliberately cliched and awful. It's supposedly a satire of spin-offs, sort of like how the film Adaptation ends with a satire of bad action movie cliches. They claim the secret goal is for the show to be canceled quickly like Joey and other failed spin-offs of the past.

I guess that's possible...but I doubt it. I think MacFarlane got gun shy and sought to minimize his losses.  The result was this turd of a show.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Yes, I Have...

David Letterman's shocking revelation last night should be mandatory viewing for politicians and entertainers caught with their pants down:

Looks like Dave has learned a thing or two from Howard Stern over the years, because this was by far the most brilliant and honest live television I've seen in some time.