Broadcast Television and Required Summer Watching

[I]t’s a different television landscape than we would have seen even ten years ago, and the traditional television seasons now find their borders challenged. We can thank many massively-popular reality television series with lower production costs for largely creating a genuine summer TV season.

Today in the Spectator Tribune, watch me throw television recommendations at you while I muse on the changes in the broadcasting process which have led to a an entirely different artistic landscape for the medium.

DVD Review: American Dad: Volume 7

American Dad is still at this sweet spot in its primetime tenure where the writers and actors have all found their voice, but the show hasn’t yet started to get stale. I said much the same thing when I reviewed the previous season’s DVD release, and I would say much the same thing about the season which is currently airing. Seasons five, six, and seven have all been of a consistently high quality.

The big change at the beginning of season six (which is what volume seven actually is; the skewed numbering is due to some weird partial-season releases for the first few years of the show) was the addition of a new regular cast member. Daughter Hailey marries her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jeff in the season opener. Also in that episode (which was episode 100), no less than 100 characters on the show were killed.

That’s not the only amibitious episode stunt, however. Following up on the previous season’s impressive armageddon/Christmas episode, “Rapture’s Delight”, this year’s holiday mini-movie involves a battle royale against Santa Claus and an army of bloodthirsty elves.

Other standouts include “Son of Stan”, wherein Steve is cloned and each parent raises their Steve their own way; “The People vs. Martin Sugar”, wherein Stan is determined to see Roger pay for the crimes of one of his many personas; and “I Am the Walrus”, which sees Stan compete against his son to maintain his position as alpha male.

The strength of the show is the diversity of its characters, and the unique chemistry found in each combination. Everyone from Stan, the titular “dad”, wife Francine, daughter Hailey, and son Steve get significant screentime, and are paired in varying combinations. Speaking for myself, at least, I never find myself disappointed when I see an episode will be focused on a particular character.

The show is a MacFarlane creation, and a close cousin to Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, but Seth has had little to do with it since inception, and its writing team has their own thing going. What’s interesting is that the original show concept was born of the Bush administration and was heavily about lampooning right-wing thinking, but has grown so far beyond this simple premise.

Stan Smith is still a CIA operative, a gun-toting Republican and has all kinds of hard-line opinions against real-world evidence and even internal consistency. But the show’s liberal Hollywood writers couldn’t help but fall in love with him over the years, and the series has seen him develop beyond his initial two-dimensional conception.

Over the years, Stan has learned to tolerate his hippie daughter and her stoner boyfriend, his gay neighbours and their adopted baby, different religious beliefs, even the ultimate illegal alien, the obnoxious Roswell escapee who lives in the family’s attic and couldn’t be more different from him but has somehow become his best friend.

The extras on this set are standard, including a number of featurettes, deleted scenes for each episode, and maybe half as many commentaries as episodes. Curse words and one or two bits of brief nudity are also present in the uncut DVD episodes, while they were censored in the broadcast versions.

The commentaries are, on the whole, a little weaker than those of the previous release. As with season five, actors, writers, and/or directors get in a room, watch an episode, and chat without much preparation beforehand or guidance during. This approach sometimes results in some very interesting discussions, but not always.

The more analytical commentaries from “The Institute for American Dad Studies”, comprised of three doctoral candidates in various areas of media studies, also fell a little flat for me this time around. A highlight on last year’s release, the commentaries on this DVD set were plagued by long silences when no one could think of anything to say.

Hey, it happens sometimes. But a strong season with a lot of solid extras still leave fans with little to complain about on this release.

(20th Century Fox, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

DVD Review: Bob’s Burgers: Season 1

Bob’s Burgers joined the Fox’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” line-up as a pilot in January of 2011. The primetime slate being so dominated by MacFarlane’s three shows (not to mention The Simpsons, which is approaching a quarter-century), it seemed to me that creator Loren Bouchard (a co-creator of the underrated classic, Home Movies) had a tough nut to crack.

But this quirky little show has proven a nice change of pace from the generally excellent, but inbred writing pool of Family Guy et al. While these shows are absurd, whacky, cynical, and often-times highly offensive, Bob’s Burgers can be quietly sweet even as it employs the sort of awkward, human humour that made the early seasons of The Office so disarming.

In common with that show (and Bouchard’s earlier Home Movies) there’s clearly a certain degree of improvisation in the dialogue, which is the base of most of the show’s humour. The actors involved each seem to have a talent for this, and it makes for a certain sense of realism that more tightly-scripted shows lack (which is not to say this is an improv show; it still follows a script).

Bob Belcher and family run a burger restaurant, which makes an excellent product, but barely pays its bills each month (it’s tough being a burger man in a seafood town, Bob laments in one episode). Bob is a somewhat world-weary, but cautiously-optimistic character, well-voiced by Home Movies veteran H. Jon Benjamin (who played Coach McGurk as well as Jason).

(Other voices I recognized from Bouchard’s earlier show include Mort the Mortician and Hugo the Health Inspector; comedians Andy Kindle and Sam Seder, respectively.)

Bob’s wife Linda is also precious and likeable, but it’s the three kids that make the show. Eldest daughter Tina (played by Dan Mintz), is enormously and hilariously awkward. A young girl’s budding sexuality is rarely explored for its comedic opportunities, while the nerdy pubescent boy is fast becoming something of a cliché. But this is a lost opportunity, as Tina shows us.

She falls in love with her martial arts instructor (“Sexy Dance Fighting”), has a crush on an entire minor-league baseball team (“Torpedo”), and draws a nude portrait of her dentist when she learns to paint (“Art Crawl”). In the first episode, she makes uncomfortable every person she meets with questions about a rash on her groin (which the health inspector writes up on his report as a violation: “rashy grill-cook”). A running gag is her complicated feelings about zombies; she admits they are dangerous, but she just “love[s] their swagger”.

Meanwhile, youngest daughter, Louise (played by Kristen Schaal, and the only Belcher to actually be voiced by a woman), is a master manipulator and unrepentant prankster. She frequently takes advantage of both her siblings and her less intelligent classmates. My favourite exchange (so far) occurs between her and Bob in “Art Crawl”, when she bails him out of a debt with a hefty wad of bills she skimmed off of gullible art-buying tourists:

Bob: Where did you get that kind of money?
Louise: Shhhh. It’s Art Crawl.
Bob: Yeah, but where–
Louise: Shhh, shhhhhhh, shut your mouth. . . . Art Crawl.

The DVD extras are great. Various featurettes, including the original version of the show as pitched to the network, give a lot of insight into the thinking that went behind the genesis of this weird, burger-selling family. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the family originally had two sons and a youngest daughter, but the network asked for a change and Daniel became Tina. Dan Mintz, however, continued to do the voice in almost exactly the same way.

And every single one of the season’s thirteen episodes has a commentary track — in some cases two. We get to hear from writers, voice actors, and producers, in various combinations. Fans needn’t be disappointed that their favourite episode has no behind-the-scenes info in this DVD set.

Bob’s Burgers has proven a nice, understated addition to the Sunday night animated lineup, one whose often-subtler humour nevertheless causes me to laugh out loud more frequently than anything else I’m currently watching. And I like that it all comes from a good place.

Hated restaurant rivals and bitter ex-boyfriend health inspectors aside, one gets a genuine sense of love and support between the characters of this show: the sometimes frustrated Bob, the naive and awkward Tina, even the scheming Louise. It’s hard not to care about each of these characters, even as we laugh at their too-human foibles.

(20th Century Fox, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

I’m sure you’ve all watched Guy Ritchie’s second Sherlock Holmes movie. Where can you get your detective fix, now? I can help you with that.

In keeping both with his to-the-point writing style and the cultural expectations of the time, Conan Doyle did not much expound on Sherlock’s early life or psychology, and the detective himself rarely spoke of such things. The potential for interpretation is broad. . . .

While Robert Downey, Jr. portrays somewhat of a wise-cracking action hero, Sherlock‘s title character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is both intensely intelligent and coldly indifferent to the human element in his puzzles. . . . “I can’t be the only one that gets bored.”

Read about several of the most interesting film, television, and book properties to re-imagine the great detective recently in my article, The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes.

DVD Review: The Red Green Show: The Mid-Life Crisis Years

Acorn Media has been releasing the complete Red Green series in three season sets, from The Infantile Years to The Geezer Years, released this month. But it’s The Mid-Life Crisis Years that I’ve been revisiting over the last couple of weeks: seasons 10-12, which originally aired from 2000-2002. Each season in this set has a consistent look in its packaging and menu design. DVD extras are limited to some brief production notes from titular series star and writer, Steve Smith, but every episode is present and accounted for, and isn’t that what we really want?

Season nine marked the departure of writer and co-creator, Rick Green from his on-camera role in the Adventures with Bill segments, as well as a story-arc involving star Patrick McKenna’s character, Harold, getting a job in the city. As a result, neither of these actors are seen on-screen during season 10 (with the exception of the Christmas special, when Harold was in town for the holidays). Harold happily returns in season 11, though irregularly at first. Meanwhile, host Red Green (played by Steven Smith) interacts more with secondary characters, who became much more distinguishable to me as a result.

Just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about: Red Green takes the form of a faux low-grade cable access fix-it and men’s interest show, run out of the fictional Possum Lodge. Regular segments include “The Possum Lodge Word Game”, wherein Red’s partners humourously misunderstand every clue he gives them to guess the secret word; a brief monologue Red delivers on life north of 40, delivered deadpan but unerringly hitting its comedic mark; and “Handyman’s Corner”, where Red builds everything from home-made auxiliary window-wipers, to a method of cooking a holiday dinner inside a moving car. Unlike Tim Allen’s Home Improvement escapades, these creative Rude Goldberg contraptions do usually work, after a fashion (no doubt thanks to a talented technical team). Hopefully you don’t mind gravelly mashed potatoes.

The series has really hit its stride in these later seasons, with the contraptions getting bigger and better, though they’re still fresh and original. Each of the short, skit-like segments are consistently funny, and nicely break up the main story of each episode. In fact, said “story” usually takes up the minority of the total running time, but provides a nice continuity to an otherwise ADD format. These stories usually focus on some hare-brained scheme of lodge members (a season 10 episode has them entering a sausage-making competition) failing spectacularly by episode’s end.

It’s no secret that the average Canadian watches much more American television than the home-grown variety. Cultural pride notwithstanding, it’s generally difficult for our stuff to compete. But we have the odd gem, and Red Green is one of them.

After watching so many episodes in such a short time, what sticks out for me the most is that the show is so consistently entertaining while remaining family-friendly and completely apolitical. Anyone can sit down and enjoy an episode, and they do. For 15 years (not counting syndication), this has been the show that channel-surfing Canadian families would often settle on, to satisfy both the kids and grandma.

Never resorting to dirty jokes or profanity, rarely referring more than vaguely to pop culture, and set in a small town that could be almost anywhere in Canada, Red Green is not a show for conservatives or liberals, Albertans or Ontarians, old or young. It’s not even for men exclusively, or Canadians, for that matter. Septic suction segments notwithstanding, it’s good clean fun for anyone who wants to plop down in the living room and have a good time.

(Acorn Media, 2011)

Article first published as DVD Review: The Red Green Show: The Mid-Life Crisis Years on Blogcritics.