December 2010

Holly's World!

Premiering January 23rd on E! Online network….the one and only….”Holly’s World” is coming to town to your television tube! Ready for some fun-filled adventure and excitement from the beautiful, gorgeous blonde beauty Holly Madison? The former ex-girlfriend of Hugh Hefner….is ready to share some fun excitement down in her favorite “Sin-City” town of Las Vegas! Not only is Holly going to bring excitement and pure “fun” to your television tube…but her good friends will be “tagging” along for the joyful ride! How fun and exciting is that??

Planet Earth Episode Primer

As a mini-series, Planet Earth works better as a cohesive whole than it does as individual episodes. Every entry has its high points and no segment really lingers for too long. That said, this episode primer is going to highlight a great moment from each of the 11 parts that capture the essence of the series in discreet scenes.


Comfort Tube: Planet Earth

Up until the 21st century, nature documentaries were low-key affairs. The most grand among them were the likes of Cosmos, but even then the topic necessitated a lot of imagination rather than raw footage. This changed when the BBC created Blue Planet, a stunning mini-series about Earth's oceans that pioneered the epic style made possible by a huge budget and modern video technology. Impressive as Blue Planet is, it pales in comparison to its successor, Planet Earth. This 11-part series is the most expensive nature documentary ever made, but every pence shows in the final product. When it launched in 2006, it was nothing less than a media event. After a sweeping success in the UK, United States, Japan and Australia, Planet Earth sold to 150 countries worldwide.

Frasier Episode Primer

Though it leaned on all of the same conventions of any other 90's sitcom, Fraiser had some subtle structural differences that set it apart from the rest of the crowd. Most notably it employed title cards in between segments, allowing viewers to focus on a particular theme for what basically amounted to each miniature act in a half-hour play. Frasier felt stagy in a good way, evoking the atmosphere of a theater experience with its wordy jokes and well-appointed sets. This also incidentally made the laugh track bearable. Never too ambitious but also far from mundane, Frasier elevated the sitcom genre, especially with some of its sharpest episodes.


Comfort Tube: Frasier

The creation of a spin-off series is a dicey proposition. Most attempt to squeeze a little extra profit from a beloved show by trading in good will for a quick and sloppy cash-in (re: Joey, among others). Others try to mine fresh stories from a small, under-serviced character. This has a higher rate of success, all things considered, but it takes a keen writer and an equally game actor to take someone from the sidelines to the center of a sustained story. The high-water mark for spin-off success is undoubtedly Frasier, the 11-season NBC hit that took a supporting character from an earlier, 11-season institution, Cheers, and gave him a whole new city to play in. Kelsey Grammer reprised the role of Dr. Frasier Crane, a pompous psychiatrist who was, himself, a tight knot of neuroses. Most of Frasier's stories in Cheers revolved around his tumultuous relationship with icy colleague Lilith (the inestimable Bebe Neuwirth), but Frasier finds him recently divorced and back in his home town of Seattle.

Columbo Episode Primer

For a show as formulaic as Columbo, it did have a few unusual elements. For one, most of its episodes were really TV movies, running around 100 minutes in length which translates to 2 hours in TV time. Also strange is the fact that its 10 seasons didn't run in consecutive years. There were 11 years between Seasons 7 and 8, while the 10th "season" was actually a series of TV movies that aired between 1990 and 2003. As such, Columbo never really carried a continuous plot, just a few bits of background and some personal tics for the title character. By thinking of Columbo not as a traditional TV series but as 69 individual movies starring the same main character, it's easier to see the stand-out episodes as great pieces of self-contained writing, acting and direction.


Comfort Tube: Columbo

The cornerstone of the procedural crime mystery is the unknown identity of the culprit. By not knowing the “who” of the whodunit, all sorts of plot twists, ethical quandaries and thrilling hunts are possible. So, what happens when the viewer gets to know who's to blame from the very first scene? Where's the story if there's no real mystery? Well, one of the most long-running, beloved detective shows approached the murder mystery format from this particularly confounding angle and came away with one of the greatest characters in TV history. That show and its character share one name: Columbo.

M*A*S*H Episode Primer

Over the course of its 11 seasons (10 1/2 if we're nitpicking), M*A*S*H had its fair share of gimmick episodes, except a lot of them played out as compelling, innovative experiments in the sitcom format. Some were especially stirring takes on old conventions (like the flashback episode format) while others pushed the series into an artistic realm that's exceedingly rare in sitcoms. The following are some of the most memorable, unusual episodes in the 11 years of M*A*S*H's run.


Comfort Tube: M*A*S*H

There was a joke in the mid 90's that there was always an episode of M*A*S*H playing somewhere on television. Indeed, the CBS dramedy about a medical unit in the Korean War is one of the most widely syndicated shows in history, perhaps because it's one of the most successful scripted programs in terms of sheer ratings. At its height, M*A*S*H consistently pulled in roughly 10% of all people in America on a weekly basis, averaging somewhere between 15 and 20 million viewers in a time when there were only around 180 million people in the country. Famously, the show's grand finale attracted a record-breaking 105 million viewers, meaning that on February 28th, 1983, more people in America were watching M*A*S*H than weren't. It took 27 years, a Superbowl and roughly 30 million more homes with televisions to best those ratings. Not bad for a TV adaptation of an already satisfying movie, itself based on a somewhat obscure novel.

Invader Zim Episode Primer

Invader Zim was a truly unpredictable show. It used its science fiction trappings and willingness to go beyond weird to take any given episode in a unique direction. Sometimes that meant committing to a ridiculous idea until it was compelling, affecting or sinister, other times it meant taking a gimmick to its logical conclusion. Over the course of two seasons (and scads of unaired content), IZ created some unforgettable set pieces, quote-worthy dialogue and a few remarkable supporting characters.

Comfort Tube: Invader Zim

Nickelodeon's dark sci-fi cartoon Invader Zim is a fascinating piece of pop culture history and I simultaneously love and fear the prospect that it might return some time in the near future. Nickelodeon executives have finally accepted that there's a huge, if unintended, fanbase for the show as evidenced by its good DVD sales and unexpectedly impressive rerun ratings, so they've been batting around the idea of reviving the series lately. Since there are approximately 16 episodes more or less in the can that never aired or even made it onto DVD, and creator Jhonen Vasquez has expressed some interest in continuing his excellent work on Zim, a revival seems worthwhile. At the same time, I think reviving IZ would overshadow the cultural shift its original airing and subsequent cancellation represents.

Bill Nye The Science Guy Episode Primer

Bill Nye The Science Guy had a pretty consistent quality over the course of its five seasons. It didn't have a story that could change over time or even a shifting cast. From its very first episode it had a working formula that didn't really grow much (not that it really needed to). Bill Nye introduces a topic, uses some clever props to demonstrate its core principles, conducts a few experiments, keeps things moving with some quick cuts and inter-spliced footage, then closes everything out with a topical music video. Any episode would be a good place to start, but here are a few that stand out for one reason or another.

Comfort Tube: Bill Nye The Science Guy

Teaching math and science in America has always been an uphill battle. Our culture has a tendency to import a significant portion of our brain power, essentially buying scientific geniuses with a combination of money and social freedom. That's not to say that the United States doesn't have a respectable list of home-grown nerds and Nobel laureates, just that we don't really have a culture that gets its jollies from systems and logistics. If it's not entertaining, science gets overlooked in America. That's why TV has always struggled to deliver a good mix of fun and actual science content. Educator and performer Bill Nye has around 20 years of experience in the field of edutainment, though he's most famous for doing what scads of public school teachers have never been able to: Make science engaging for young people. Bill Nye The Science Guy is a 100 episode series that is likely responsible for a significant portion of the ascending American science community. Airing from 1993 to 1997, it captured the youth demographic with a mix of humor and pop culture savvy, but didn't skimp on the educational content to do so.

Friends Episode Primer

The strength of Friends is that it had a lot to work with. The cast was large but not unwieldy, making for plenty of room to weave plots together and pair regulars off with guest stars of every stripe. It had just the right number of sets, too few to be disjointed and too many to get boring. Most of the cast never had much range but they were never really asked to take on complex roles. It was a perfectly balanced show, at least in its first few years.

Comfort Tube: Friends

Earlier this week we took a gander at The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom that everyone assumes was an attempt to capture the essence of the ideal, modern life of America in the early 1960's but was actually a quietly subversive parody thereof by way of classic shtick humor. Today's feature, the flagship of NBC's golden era, Friends, is something of an inverted version of the same tack. David Crane and Marta Kauffman, fresh off the success of their HBO comedy Dream On, began formulating a new network sitcom with the fairly vague goal of being about young people in New York City. With NBC president Warren Littlefield, they cobbled together an early version of the show called Insomnia Cafe. The network executives, forward-thinking bunch that they were, had every intention of making a johnny-come-lately take on the grungy Gen X label. Crane and Kauffman managed to push some rewrites through that altered the show to be much less depressing (not to mention far less realistic). As it would happen, the angst of Gen X fell out of fashion around the time the renamed Friends hit the air in 1994. NBC, despite its own meddling, had an influential hit on its hands.

Law & Order Episode Primer

Dick Wolf's long-running NBC crime drama Law & Order was a wonder of interchangeable parts. Its cast changed drastically over the years and aside from Wolf himself as the producer, there was no consistent hand behind the camera. Instead of relying on one authorial voice, or even a stable of reliable writers, L&O became famous for employing freelancers of all varieties. One-time writers, directors and working actors made the rounds on the show, so much so that being involved with at least one episode of Law & Order became something of a rite of passage for aspiring TV professionals. This also meant that the overall quality of the show fluctuated wildly. Sometimes it was a riveting drama with a script that popped, other times it was pure amateur hour. Like a box of chocolates without the handy chart, Law & Order could be delightful or awful, but was usually predictably middling.


Comfort Tube: Law & Order

 

What a lot of people don't know about the longest running primetime drama in American television history is that it almost never happened. Twice. In 1988, screenwriting up-and-comer Dick Wolf had an idea for the ultimate police procedural he originally called Night and Day. Half of the show would focus on New York City detectives tracking down violent criminals and the second half would shift over to the District Attorneys prosecuting the case. After a little polish, the concept became Law & Order and Wolf began shopping it around to various networks. Fox passed on the opportunity, mostly because the network was still in its formative days when it wanted to be edgy rather than conformist (an environment where the likes of American Idol would surely never take root). CBS rejected a pilot they commissioned on the grounds that none of the actors were star-quality. By 1990 Law & Order finally had a home at NBC, where it would stay for the next two decades while popping out multiple spin-offs.

The Dick Van Dyke Show Episode Primer

Because so much of the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show came from the wall-to-wall shtick tradition of the classic variety show, the series had a tendency to pack as many bits into each episode as possible. It sacrificed tone consistency for outright charm. Not every sketch worked but none lasted so long that the promise of a fresh segment was ever absent from the script. Here are some of the best (and one of the worst) half hours TDVDS had to offer.


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