our story thus far

I’ve been watching the new Doctor Who episodes. You know the one; season 5, 11th doctor. Matt Smith and Karen Gillian. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, nevermind; you’re not one of us, skip this entry. These episodes are several weeks behind in the US; in Britain they’ve been playing weekly since 3 […]

I’ve been watching the new Doctor Who episodes. You know the one; season 5, 11th doctor. Matt Smith and Karen Gillian.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, nevermind; you’re not one of us, skip this entry.

These episodes are several weeks behind in the US; in Britain they’ve been playing weekly since 3 April 2010, and are up to episode four (504 if you’re counting; Steven Moffat is insisting these are 101-104, not 501-504, but he’s full of crap and viewers are ignoring this affectation)).

Results are mixed.

I’m not going to do a detailed episode review; no major spoilers. But the ones we’ve seen so far are:

501 “The Eleventh Hour”
502 “The Beast Below”
503 “Victory of the Daleks”
504 “The Time of Angels”

I reviewed Eleveth Hour already; in short, it’s pretty terrific, and stands well against the middling episodes of the Davis era.

However, there’s a huge drop-off on the next two.

Beat Below is just ok; it’s weakly plotted, has a resolution that makes no sense, and is unevenly cast and written. It’s filled with classic moffat items like dead-faced robotic villains with Great Big Pointy Teeth, but here they’re not scary, and not really interesting, they’re just odd.

Victory of the Daleks takes a big leap further down. It’s really just bad. While it starts well (London during the blitz, with Daleks painted army green and acting tame and helpful), it quickly leaps into utter nonsense, with non-surprising twists. It introduces a ‘new’ dalek, which is another clear case of Moffat trying to put his own stamp on the show by chaging something iconic. He fails hugely here, however; the new Daleks are a mad mish-mash of original dalek and Ikea furniture. They’re candy-colored and stupid. The ending is awful; it makes no sense whatsoever. Watching this episode filled me with trepidation; it may be the worst single episode of the entire modern Doctor Who area (though it would have to fight with The Girl in The Fireplace for that honor – an episode which, tellingly, is also written by Moffat).

Time of Angels, though, is a huge redemption. It re-introduces a key character from an one of Moffat’s earlier episodes (Silence in the Library), and a villian from his most iconic run as writer, Blink. It’s well written, scary, well paced, and like Eleventh Hour, it stands well with the middling episodes of the previous era. It’s the first of two, the second one airing this weekend (in britain) as Flesh and Stone. I have high hopes of a good second part, given that the first was good.

So the score: two pretty good, one bad, one terrible. Which isn’t encouraging.

Moffat’s already making some big mistakes. The Davis era was profoundly respectful of plot, and also profoundly respectful of the show’s history, re-inventing only in very small ways. The innovations were in adding better writing, and a more modern way of telling stories. Moffat, on the other hand, is spending energy on changes for changes sake (those terrible candy color daleks, and a complete Tardis redesign that doesn’t really improve on anything). He’s not spending energy on insuring that his plots and characters move the story forward; like with Torchwood, he seems willing to allow individual writers leeway to fuck around with character motivations and behavior without an editorial hand. This leaves the episodes wildly uneven, and (so far at least) produced little in the way of arching narrative continuity over the season.

Sure, it’s early. I do expect growing pains. These first few may be experimental. But I feel a cold fear in my belly when I look at future episodes and see the name Chris Chibnall as writer on two (Chibnall was responsible for every single one of the worst Torchwood episodes, including the only one I had to turn off in disgust). IT tells me that while Moffat is a good writer himself, he’s not a good judge of other’s writing, and that’s the worst thing a show runner can be on a show with many writers.

There’s so very much to like in Moffat’s 11th doctor so far. Amy Pond is an excellent companion (though I ache to see her naked, which I’m NOT getting on this show); Matt Smith is absolutely a terrific Doctor, and the arching story line that’s building (a crack in teh fabric of the universe) has massive promise. But great shows, always, have to have great writing. And so far, on average, this season’s writing is just ok, and no better. They’re going to have to bring that level way, way up to make this work.

My fingers are crossed. But my expectations are dropping.

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The Elevnth Hour

I just watch the first episode of Matt Smith era Doctor who, The Eleventh Hour. In a word – excellent. I blogged recently about discovering the Russell T. Davis/Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant version of Doctor who. I happened to come in at the tail end of the run, so I had the pleasant ability to watch […]

I just watch the first episode of Matt Smith era Doctor who, The Eleventh Hour.

In a word – excellent.

I blogged recently about discovering the Russell T. Davis/Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant version of Doctor who. I happened to come in at the tail end of the run, so I had the pleasant ability to watch it all is a great stream, over a couple of weeks. I finished just in time to catch the grad finale of the arc, The End of Time.

It’s worth repeating; those four+ seasons, watched together, constitute some of the best television I’ve ever seen. great in all respects: writing, plotting, acting, casting. But mostly, it’s a triumph of a show-runners vision, because all the disparate episodes form one single, cohesive story told in fragments over five years.

The problem with all this, of course, is what do do for a fucking encore.

Normally what one would suggest is, don’t. No sequel, no encore. Tell a story with a finite end, make the end good, and leave it. Truly great stories have an end. But Doctor who has a constraint, in that the character is all but immortal, and the show, by it’s nature, has to go on.

Davis did what he could; he ended his doctor who, in a very definitive way. He told a story, and gave it a conclusion. Rose’s story was over, and with it, the 9th/10th doctor’s era concluded.

But the show itself has to continue, as the character must. And that leaves a very big problem for whomever comes after.

The good thing, for a long-time fan of the show, is that one knows this doctor, for good or ill, is just a stop on the way. Some of them memorable, some less so, but when the 11th doctor’s run is over, the long-time fan knows, there’s a 12th. This is a bit harder for those, like my daughter’s friend Kevin, who’ve now grown up watching the Davies-Eccleston-Tennant Doctor; yet even she (Kevin is a girl, despite the name) understands the mythology of the show.

All this let me come to this new Doctor with an open mind. Even after re-watching The End of Time, Tennant’s crowning moment, I was still entirely willing to like Matt Smith’s doctor, but also with appropriately lowered expectations. The recent trailers have been encouraging; Smith manages to convey both the appropriate level of whimsical silliness, and the air of power and sadness behind the grin. He looks like he’s capable of a fight (if less so than Eccleston, then more so than Tennant). He also has a sort of goonieness that neither of the recent doctors posses, but which harkens back to earlier versions. The trailers have been full of Daleks and Cybermen, explosions, peril, and memortable one-liners. Also, Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond, has an appealing look, if no evident personality one can get from the trailers.

I’ve been waiting for weeks to see this new Doctor. So when a friend pointed me to a pre-US-release version of The Eleventh Hour, I simply couldn’t take the antipation any longer.

I have to say, it exceeded all my expectations.

It’s no surprise that the episode is well written; Steven Moffat, the new show’s runner, is the author of several of the Davies era’s most memorable episodes. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that Smith is terrific as the doctor, given all we know of the show’s casting history. Yet Smith manages to bring both a new energy, and a clasic sense of ‘whoness’ to the character. He doesn’t have Tennant’s Shakespearean sense of comic timing, nor does he have Eccleston’s tough-guy edge; but he has his own identity, and is appealing enough already that I want more.

From the moment he emerges from the TARDIS (crash-landed in a Gloucestershire garden), Smith inhabits the character. Both physically and verbally, he’s hysterical in an early scene, desperately hungry, yet with a ‘new mouth’ (‘like eating after you’ve brushed your teeth’, he says; ‘everything tastes weird‘). The bit concludes with the Eleventh Doctor calmly discussing time and the universe with a tween-aged Amelia Pond while stuffing himself with custard and fish fingers.

From there, of course, all hell breaks loose, and Smith adds new quirks to the doctor’s powers and character; he manages to look both awkward and heroic when he’s running, and has a spaced-out look most of the time. He has comically exaggerated features; less handsome than Tennant, he still manages to be completely charming in a daft way. His high forehead and just-a-bit-too-long hair, together with his tweedy looking dress, give him a sort of absent minded professor air, almost someone you can image teaching at Hogwarts.

When the new adult Amy Pond was introduced, I pretty much instantly fell for her. Red haired, fresh faced, with a scottish accent and an adorable little scar above her left eyebrow (which I think is a left-over from a healed piercing), she’s a bit damaged, and pretty much exactly my type. Promo photos do her no justice whatsoever (she looks much younger in the promos, and like a sort of a generic grunge-girl.) They don’t convey the sense of self-possession the character has, nor do they convey how pretty she is moving. They also don’t convey how adorable she looks when she’s introduced, in a kiss-o-gram police girl outfit (complete with working handcuffs). In a later scene, she declines to look away when The Doctor is changing clothes, and makes a sort of a yum face that cemented it for me. I completely love her.

As a Doctor WHo episode, it’s a good one. Maybe a great one, it’s hard to tell on one watching. I think it’s a better piece of TV then Rose, the Eccleston introduction, and Christmas Invasion, the Tennant introduction; neither one are truly great Doctor Who episodes, for all that they contain some of my favorite moments of the show ever. But I was completely without significant complaints; and immidiately wanted to look up clever quotes and screen grabs of interesting aliens.

I’m not just encouraged; I’m excited. This was good, in a lot of ways. And it has the look of a show that can carry on from where the previous team left off, forging new ground while not forgetting where they’re coming from.

Near the end of the episode, there’s a quick montage; several major Who villians (Daleks, Cybermen, SOntarans, etc), and then a montage of every incarnation of the The Doctor from William Hartnell to David Tennant. SMith walks through the tail end of the montage, saying I”m the doctor; and dammit, it looks like he really is.

Are you with me Doctor?

There’s a Steely Dan song – Doctor Wu. As is typical of Steely Dan songs, it’s about drugs, though it could also be about romance, or about something else entirely; The lyrics are elliptical, yet evocative. It makes you wonder what story is being told. Are you with me Doctor Wu? Are you really just […]

There’s a Steely Dan song – Doctor Wu. As is typical of Steely Dan songs, it’s about drugs, though it could also be about romance, or about something else entirely; The lyrics are elliptical, yet evocative. It makes you wonder what story is being told.

Are you with me Doctor Wu?
Are you really just a shadow of the man that I once knew?
Are you crazy? Are you high? Or just an ordinary guy?
Have you done all you can do?
Are you with me Doctor?

But my brother Ian and I didn’t sing it the way Donald Fagan wrote it. Because when we heard it, we heard it as “Are you with me Doctor Who?“, Much like John Barrowman’s take-off on The Wizard and I, which he sang as The Doctor and I.

Doctor Who has a way of creeping into other cultural areas. Even Shriekback has a reference to Daleks in a song called Hammerheads (“Our time has come, age of the hammerhead – This is our mission, to be the Daleks of God”).

The why of this is somewhat difficult to explain, if you didn’t grow up with The Doctor. The british, I suspect, understand this, but us yanks don’t, for the most part.

In america, Doctor Who is remembered as a bizarre, campy british show that we used to run across late at night on PBS stations. Primarily, we remember the iconic Tom Baker; wild eyes, wild hair, seventeen-foot-long scarf. Baker’s portrayal is relentlessly loopy, yet with a dark and gloomy level just below; he had a sort of whimsical grandeur, a mad-scientist air that balanced funny with steely-eyed serious.

It was a show that was easy to laugh at or hate. It was cheaply made, with effects that already looked ridiculous by the time it made a dent in the american consciousness in the late seventies. It was un-even in terms of writing and acting, and most of the dialog was so full of jargon and technobabble that it sometimes felt like it was in a foreign language. It also rarely made any logic sense, outside the universe of the show.

But it was also lovable. There’s something so cleverly inventive and goofy about it that it was hard not to be drawn in. And once you were in, if you were lucky enough to start with one of the better story lines, you tended to stick. Because while the writing was uneven, the show was always creative. It was always intelligent; thick with inventive settings, bizarre creatures, and whimsical characters.

One of the most interesting things about it was the depth of it’s mythology. By the late seventies, when PBS began showing the Tom Bakar Doctor (the ‘fouth doctor‘ in the show’s parlance), it had already been on for some fourteen or fifteen years in Britain. There were recurring villains, long-running partners (‘Companions‘), and The Doctor had already changed actors several times (using one of the show’s cleverest devices, ‘regeneration‘; a handy plot device when the the first actor left the show, which went on to become a key element of the character and ongoing story).

One of the things that differentiates rich, enduring sci-fi or fantasy is depth of background; the story behind the story. Lord of the Rings benefitted from Tolkien’s vast linguistic and historic work that never it page within the novel; Star Wars and Star Trek developed into cults based on universes built within, and then outside the narrative.

Doctor Who worked for the same reason; it’s body of myth supports it, even when it’s out on a limb in terms of content. Even when the dialog was terrible and the plots didn’t make sense, you knew you were in the middle of something that was building to mythic proportion.

All that said, I was never a huge fan of the original show. I loved it’s concept; I loved the wackiness and cleverness. But I couldn’t ever get past it’s carefree attitude towards logical plotting; its complete disregard for the inherent paradox of time travel. I also couldn’t get past its uneven scripting (I have, as you may know, and incredibly low tolerance for poor writing). I watched it, primarily, because my brother was absolutely hooked. Often I’d find him in the middle of a multi-episode marathon on a saturday night, and I’d watch while he explained the details I’d missed.

He remained a dedicated fan for years; watching through Bakar’s regeneration into Peter Davisdon, and then delving back into the older John Pertwee and Patrick Troughton eras (and this was before video rentals were available; he tracked the show across PBS stations and watched it it the middle of the night, if he had to). I was aware of the show, until I moved out of my parents house; it was a constant on our tv.

And then I lost track. It went on, though, running through three more regenerations and eight more years, before it finally died a quiet death in 1989, a victim of passing time and it’s own declining quality. I think it lost it’s ability to be relevant in an era of CGI and action blockbusters, and tried to make up for this by getting sillier and sillier.

I was wholly unaware of of a 1996 attempt to bring it back (with Paul McGann as the eighth doctor). My brother died that same year, or I think he would have noticed and told me. And I was equally unaware of the 2005 revival, featuring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor.

It wasn’t until April 2007 that I noticed it, and then, only because my mother called me one day to tell me about a new show called Torchwood; a spin-off of the re-born Doctor Who. I think she’d forgotten that it was Ian who was the Doctor Who fan, not me. Still, I set my Tivo to record Torchwood; and loved it, when I saw it.

Only when I looked up Torchwood on Wikipedia did I realize that there was a whole new, re-born Doctor Who; but I ignored it, remembering the classic and not feeling any need to go back. I figured it was the same thing with new faces.

I missed out on something major, which isn’t all that unusual for me with great TV shows (I can barely think of one I picked up from the beginning; I always come in later with DVD rentals).


When Russell T Davies decided to bring back Doctor who after a a sixteen year hiatus, it’s very clear that he wanted to make a different kind of show.

I think in the years between the show’s demise and rebirth, it had become a bit of a joke. It certainly had here in the sates. So the fear was, I think, than a new version would be ignored or dismissed. I reacted that vvery way, and I think the producers who decided to bring it back feared audiences would react that same way. But Doctor Who is a british cultural icon in england, something several generations have grown up with. It’s a mythology they all know, fans or not. So what they bought back wasn’t doctor who as it had been; it was a child that surpassed the parent.

Whenever you delve back into the past for fodder for films or tv shows, you set yourself in a mine field. Sometimes we get attempts to bring something back just as it was, such as the first Star Trek films, which expanded on the original series without significantly altering it in tone or content. Sometimes film makers approach subjects with camp and satire; scooby doo, brady bunch, starsky and hutch. And sometimes they completely reboot as with the recent Star Trek, or with Mission Impossible. Some of those work incredibly well, some not at all, and most make little impact either way.

What’s hard though – and here, I’m trying to come up with another example – is to bring something back in a way that’s both true to the original, and better than the original. The only other examples I can think of are comic books; Alan Moore’s brilliant re-imagining of Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Chris Claremont’s 1970s X-Men.

Davies and company did it. They brought The Doctor into the 21st century. They brought it back intact, with all the mythos of forty years, with all it’s history, with all it’s sense of whimsy and melodrama. But they had tools the original never had; budget, and technology, and perhaps most important, a clear, focused artistic vision. For the first time, the aliens look cool, the TARDIS looks mysterious, ancient, and alien, and the other planets and spaceships look like, well, like other planets and spaceships. Sure, there’s still that vague edge of silliness to them, but here, that’s because they’re supposed to be a bit silly.

But the real difference isn’t effects, or a modern look and feel. The real difference is that Russell T Davis is a brilliant writer, and a brilliant show runner.

There are those people out there who can take a concept – no matter hod odd, unlikely, or silly – and make it sing. I can think of no better example than Joss Whedon; on the surface, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed one of the dumbest show ideas ever. But Joss wove it into something transcendent; dark, mythic; tragic destiny and romance, an almost operatic storyline, told with cheerleaders and wry humor. What Joss did should be impossible.

Russell T Davis and Joss Whedon seem to be some sort of soul brothers. Because what Joss did with Buffy, Davis has done with that absurd old warhorse, Doctor Who. He took the bits and pieces of something silly and moribund, and fashioned it into true art.

The very first moment Christopher Eccleston walks on screen, you know this Doctor is different. One of the things the old Doctors had in common were a variety of whimsical, archaic (and occasionally absurd) costumes. They were typically older, rather professorial men, with the air of mad scientists or eccentric wizards. Not so Eccleston; he runs on screen in dark, urban clothing, heavy shoes and a U-boat commander’s leather deck coat. With his craggy Manchester features, buzz cut hair and rough clothing, he looks more like a thug; like a british gangster from a Guy Ritchie film. This ain’t your parents Doctor, his look says. This is something else.

I watched the first episode – Rose – because my daughter’s best friend was obsessed. I wanted to know what captured her ten-year-old mind, and if it was more or less than than what I remembered. I was sucked in from the first scene, but that meant little, because the show opens with Billie Piper waking up, bed-headed and groggy. I was in love with her from the very first moment of the show. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler is one of those women who gets directly into my heart; some magical combination of actress and role that make up a person so real, you miss them when they’re gone, miss them like an ex-girlfriend or absent lover.

But it’s when Eccleston walks in with his thug’s appearance and his northern accent and says “I’m the Doctor, by the way – run for your life!” that I decided I wasn’t just in love with Billie Piper, but that I really liked this new version of Doctor Who.

I was not, however, instantly converted. I didn’t watch episodes in order; I walked in and out, watching bits and pieces of episodes as my kids and their friends showed me favorite scenes and explained in loving (and often incoherent) detail what was going on and who was doing what to whom.

It seemed a bit silly; I loved that they were watching it, but I never quite bought into the idea.

It wasn’t until the last couples of months that I went back and watched it all, in order. And I found, first, that one has to watch it in order, and second, that it’s incredibly good. Hell, not good, great.

Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who isn’t just a series. It’s a story arc that runs across four years of TV. Two Doctors, a half dozen Companions, a love story, far too many deaths, and the world saved countless times. But it’s ONE GODDAMNED STORY. Every episode is full of foreshadow, back-reference, and internal continuity. IT’s full of clues you won’t recognize until a second or third watching. Every small story along the way builds on what came before, and every relationship is defined by, or defines, other relationships. Some of the episodes are funny, some are deadly serious; but they form one continuous, romantic, tragic tale. And that’s the key to all of it, understanding that you’re not watching single episodes, you’re watching something on operatic scale. The story’s told with with humor; but like Whedon’s work, it’s gallows humor, characters laughing when they know everything is coming down around them sooner or later. This Doctor is has a dark, haunted, injured look to him; not just goofy and bizarre, but tragic. He knows he’s alone, knows he’s ultimately doomed, you can see it in his eyes.

The casting is uniformly great; not just the major parts (Eccelston for some season, then David Tennant for three) but the smaller ones as well. And like HBO and Showtime shows in the US, Davis and his group of writers and directors get absolutely phenomenal work out of the actors by giving them terrific scripts, and then giving them room to really act. Tennant is a truly gifted performer, with range beyond what anyone could imagine and a shakespearean sense of timing (He gets more out of the word “…Well…” than most actors get out of a whole script). But actors like Catherine Tate, John Barrowman and Freema Agyeman also turn in performances that always seem more than one would ever expect.

To be sure, the show isn’t perfect. It’s inherently somewhat silly; it requires a vast suspension of disbelief. Any story based on time travel sets itself difficult territory; time travel is a mine-field of paradox and logic flaw. Doctor Who solves this by applying a few in-show ‘laws’ about interfering with time-streams and and ‘fixed points in time’ that can’t be changed. But primarily, they solve it by simply ignoring the issue (to the point where the almost break the third wall, characters saying “because it’s more fun this way!” when asked the hard questions about why they have to solve a problem the way they do).

It’s also somewhat uneven. There are many writers and directors involved, some of who stand out in terms of brilliance, and some not. They push boundaries in terms of story telling, and sometimes get out on thin ice in terms of believability or character behavior; but even the weakest episodes feature superior acting, and (usually) clever dialog. Even when they get somewhat absurd, they’re still incredibly well written. And every single episode moves the greater story along in significant ways.

I’ve now seen the entirety of seasons 1 through 4; the key story arc is over, in all it’s dark, tragic, romantic glory. Davis era as show runner is over, as is David Tennat’s tour as the doctor. The only thing left me are the four ‘special’ episodes (technically still season four, but really, they’re a mini-season, like the 3rd Torchwood series). When I finish those, I’m done with it. And it feels not unlike when I finished Sandman; that same sense of admiration and loss. Sandman, of course, came (to me) with years of popular admiration, so I expected it to be all it is. This, however, caught me entirely by surprise. Because I’d grown up with the old, and seen plenty of the new; I’d watch two seasons of Torchwood. I thought I knew what this show was, what it was all about. I knew Daleks and Cybermen and The Master. What I didn’t know, though, was Russell T Davis. Because he’s what makes this different.

There’s a new series coming; but it’s almost entirely new. New show runner (Stephen Moffat, writer of some of the new Dooctor’s best episodes, like Empty Child/Doctor Dances, and Blink), a new doctor (Matt Smith), a new Companion (Amy Pond); there’s even a new logo. But it’s not, in any significant way, the same show. It’s a whole new thing, a rebirth not just for the Doctor, but for the story, for the entire show.

One can only hope that, like the character himself, the show can be re-born yet again to be new, and the same.

what the hell is wrong with Dexter?

Watch out, there be spoilers ahead . Ok, caveate: I think Dexter has always been vastly over-rated. It’s one of those ’emperors-new-clothes’ deals – has a rep for being all sorts of things it isn’t, like great, edgy, dark. They’ve somehow created the aura of these things without ever having to actually deliver. But Dexter […]

Watch out, there be spoilers ahead .

Ok, caveate: I think Dexter has always been vastly over-rated. It’s one of those ’emperors-new-clothes’ deals – has a rep for being all sorts of things it isn’t, like great, edgy, dark. They’ve somehow created the aura of these things without ever having to actually deliver.

But Dexter has always shown potential. It has cast going for it, and a strong concept, and a great setting (it’s one of the few shows set in Miami that actually look like Miami, at least how I think Miami looks). The problem has always been that it doesn’t know what to do with what it has.

The core of the idea is simple; A serial killer who’s been trained as a vigilante, channeling his urge to kill. He’s Batman meets Son of Sam.

The theme of the show, when it started, was that of an alien, an outsider. Dexter’s attempt to fit in by hiding in plain sight, by pretending to normalcy. It’s classic werewolf/vampire territory, where the monster may hide in plain site, all the while knowing he’s a predator feeding on humanity. It’s rich, if somewhat staid, territory; and then angle they’ve put on it (serial killer as hero) is pretty original (we’ve seen the opposite many times; the heroic vigilante who’s really sort of a criminal; but here it’s flipped – it’s criminal killer directing his crimes at other worse criminals).

The trouble is, someone (someone at showtime, maybe, or the show runners Cerone and Phillips) decided that they need to make Dexter more likable. And that’s where the big pitfall is. Because they’re already there, thanks to Michael C Hall’s performance (he really just can’t be anything BUT likable, no matter how he’s presented, like Mickey Mouse in a Darth Vader costume).

In the first season, they managed it all pretty well. Dexter was a wry and funny narrator, and Hall played him brilliantly, completely inhabiting the awkwardness of a man faking ‘normal’, copying those around him for reactions. The surrounding cast helped (Jennifer Carpenter is fantastic as Dexter’s sister, for example, playing the other side of the confused and socially awkward coin). Sure, there were problems; mostly with plot, but we can blame the book for that ( Season 1 is lifted mostly from Darkly Dreaming Dexter), though there’s a glaring casting problem with Lauren VĂ©lez as Maria LaGuerta (she can’t act her way out of a paper bag).

One of the best devices in season 1 was Rita (Julie Benz), who’s introduced as a pathetic, neurotic basket-case; a perfect ‘beard’ for dexter, because he doesn’t care about her at all, and she’s so damaged all she needs from him is that he seem to care about her (something Dexter learns to fake well enough to keep his cover). She’s sad and deeply dislikable, which is exactly what she needs to be (since Dexter is using her, and doesn’t care at all about her).

While season one’s the plot devices are weak and improbable, and the writing is uneven, on the whole it works. The effect is sort of light weight and melodramatic, but with enough real high points to make it all work.

This start to go wrong – very badly wrong – in season two.

One of the key points we’ve learned about Dexter is that he’s brilliant; almost super-human. Strong, quick, dangerous, with a monster’s mind behind the seemingly mild-mannered disguise. He doesn’t make mistakes; he’s only threatened when he meets a mind as dangerous as his own. Yet, Season 2 opens with Dexter ‘exposed’ by his (we see in season 2) really, really stupid way of hiding bodies (wrapped in fucking plastic bags, and dropped into shallow water on a reef – the worst sort of rookie mistake, and not something anyone with a clue would do, let alone a police forensic investigator). It’s the worst sort of cheap plotting move, and doesn’t follow at all with the character we’ve seen through season one.

So we have our first big weak plot mistake; the smart guy acting stupid. Weak. We then add in a really stupid sub-plot where a fellow officer (Doakes, hugely over-played by Erik King) stalks Dexter; again, weak. Entertaining in a small dose, but an absolute slog as a season-long arc, because it depends on Dexter acting stupid.

We also see Dexter suddenly working to try to keep Rita, who is suddenly no longer pathetic, weak and damaged, but drably likable and sweet; which doesn’t work at all because they’ve just finshed making her kind of hateful. They try to make a complete character about=-face that makes no sense at all, AND blows out her reason for being there. Dexter tells stupid lies (drug addiction? Are you kidding me? What’s this, a ‘Friends’ episode?). They try to justify this by telling us Dexter actually cares about RIta rather than to be using her as a beard; another nonsensical switch.

Sure, there are some good points; Frank Lundy, wonderfully played by Keith Carradine, and Lila (Jaime Murray) , the most appealing character in the show for the first few episodes (though predictably, as soon as she’s revealed to be a sexual wildcat, she then has to also be revealed as a psycho, in standard TV type casting of sexual women as crazy, pathetic, or mean).

The ending features a really bad deus ex machina device, and leaves Dexter resolving to not kill anymore and to be a nice guy, which isn’t the least bit in character, and pretty much blows out the reason we’re here, to see the hero serial killer. When dexter doesn’t kill, he’s both out of character, and boring.

Season 3 fairs a bit better; Dexter actually has a decent opponent; Jimmy Smits as ADA Miguel Prado, who chews up scenes wonderfully, if improbably. But we’ve already gotten used to some improbability; like 24, if the show is well written and well paced (and well cast), we have to ignore little problems like logic. Unfortunately, to balance the far better villain, we get a really, really stupid plot device; Rita is now pregnant, and Dexter decides to marry her. Sure, this arc comes from the book, but they’ve thrown away most of the rest of the books by now; why keep this one, Particularly when the books are reputed to be terrible. They’ve already made Rita aan annoying (and inconsistent) character, why drag her along more, and shoe-horn dexter into scenes that don’t fit with his serial killer nature? Oh, and wait, he’s not not really killing. Why? I can only assume it’s the producers trying to make him likable (really, he may be a killer, and crazy, but look, he’s not really crazy and doesn’t really kill!)

Overall, the season works, but despite it’s failings; it’s clear the writers don’t really know who the characters are anymore, and it’s clear Dexter’s now a serial killer in name only; he’s now just a weird dude who talks to himself, and has a hobby of vigilanteism.

I had hopes that season two was the anomaly; that they’d started to get this show back on track. I was wrong.

Season four had promise; John Lithgow as another serial killer (wow, they’re thick on the ground in Dexter’s universe). Lithgow can do a lot to salvage bad material; he’s really, really good. And to his credit, he’s the only thing that works about season 4. He’s frightening, and completely convincing.

Unfortunately, that’s vastly offset by the fact that the show runners have clearly thrown out any character continuity, and have decided that filler is a crucial plot device.

What seems like two full thirds of each episode is dedicated to a dreadful and stupid plot line with LaGuerta (yes, she still has a job, but god knows why, it’s certainly not due to any acting ability whatsoever), and Angel Batista (David Zayas). Now, Zayas is an extremely appealing actor, but he’s acting opposite a waxy lump, and he’s given truly awful dialog. Worse (or almost as bad, it’s hard to decide), the plot between these two characters (an illicit affair between superior and underling) is full of bizarre ideas, like a threat of a perjury charge for a statement that had nothing to do with a court (wow, you’d think someone in the writer’s room would know what perjury means, or at least check a wikipedia to see). Everything these characters do is boring, stupid, illogical, and badly acted (because Velez’ terrible acting brings down that of everyone around her, she’s like a talent black hole).

Added to that, we get a truly pointless side plot about Rita kissing a neighbor (as if Dexter would care at all), and various other Rita nonsense. It seems like each episode it an hour and three quarters long, with only about 20 minutes of that featuring plot movement with Dexter and Lithgow’s Trinity character. The show DRAGS.

I’m almost tempted to resort to a bullet list of stupid devices; at one point Miami Metro police put up a city wide checkpoint to screen for DNA so they can find Trinity. Well, sure, nevermnind that it’s unconstitutional, AND that any evidence is not admissible in court. To pay for this, they free up several million dollars by “working the books”. Wow, I should get them to come work my books, I could spend that money on something that might actually be useful.

Dexter, in another smart-character-doing-idiotic-things device, decides he has to study trinity because trinity is so good at pretending to be a regular guy (never mind that dexter has already been transformed into a regular guy, the ‘monster’ thing was jettisoned last season). Dexter assumes a fake identity (using a real person’s name that’s easy to track), presents himself in public all over the place with Trinity, meets Trinty’s family, and leaves his DNA everywhere. Nothing here makes a shred of sense.

Once Dexter has gotten all cozy with Trinity, his sense of empathy and moral outrage (wait, what empathy and moral outrage? Wasn’t Dexter a complete sociopath with no empathy? Oh, right, he got better) forces him to decide he has to kill Trinity. Of course, he can’t just lead the police to Trinity; no, Dexter has to do it himself. What happens when the police start closing in? Well, sure, he does the sensible thing and INTERFERES WIT THE INVESTIGATION, insuring that Trinity won’t be caught. Nevermind Dexter’s code, which was that he should only kill the ones who got away; Dexter actually insures Trinity gets away. So now Dexter’s completely off character track; Code be fucking damned, evidently. Yet Dexter still spends a good half of his screen time with ghost-dad, who seems not to know the code anymore either. Dexter is n o longer a serial killer at all, what he’s become is a vigilante, and a not-very-good one.

Typically, one of the most interesting characters in the show, Joey Quinn, is under-used, despite being caught red handed stealing money at a crime scene. This character is as complicated and mysterious as anyone on the show, yet they never explore who the fuck he is and what motivates him. His only real value this season is that he’s screwing a reporter (Courtney Ford as Christine Hill), (and THAT is only really rewarding because miss Ford spends quite a number of scenes naked, and has fantastic little titties) before she becomes another lame plot device (There’s a spoiler there, but it’s neither interesting for useful, plot-wise).

The whole last third of the season is a loop; dexter almost gets trinity, but then for some reason (usually because dexter does something stupid or gets interrupted by having to play hubby/daddy for Rita), does’t; on this goes for twenty or thirty episodes (or so it feels). It finally ends up where it should have been several episodes earlier, with Dexter seal-a-mealing Trinity and than killing him, while also being really nice to him for no apparent reason. It’s an event that feels weeks overdue, and when it happens, only Lithgow’s acting makes it anything other than a letdown.

########## SPOILER BELOW ##########

And then we get the exceedingly obvious (and of course, improbable) twist ending. If you watch the show, you know what this is, and if you didn’t, well, tough shit if you ignored the spoiler warnings; Dexter comes home to pack and meet Rita in the Keys, only to find she’s just sent him a voice mail saying she’s a little late (note that the voice mail comes in RIGHT AS DEXTER IS STANDING THERE, which would be impossible). As dexter tries to call her back, you already know she’s dead.

And then we get a lovely scene re-creating DExter’s childhood blood-bath (which of course trinty didn’t know about, so it’s an ironic accident!), with Rita dead in the bath (which is filled with roughly five times the volume of blood a body actually contains), and baby Harrison sitting in a lurid blood puddle on the floor (looking more pissed than afraid).

The scene is supposed to have vast emotional impact; but the problem is, Rita’s the worst single character in a show full of train-wreck characters. She’s alternately annoying or boring. So her death has only one effect; possible reboot of the show without it’s dragging boat anchor of a plot device. This is a good thing, aesthetically (it looks cool), and plot wise.

Alas, this show is consistent only in it’s ability to disappoint and underwhelm. So I have absolutely no faith in the show runners ability to do something good here (my bet? We get my-three-sons dexter as the harried single dad; suddenly we have a sit-com setup where dear-old-dad thinks he’s a serial killer).

Ok, so I guess what the fans out there (and they are fucking legion) will say is, well just don’t watch it. BUt there’s the problem; I want to watch it. I just want it to be good. Dexter has one of the best, and most forgiving, ideas for any show out there right now. It’s really hard to go wrong with a serial killer-vigilante; it’s hard to go wrong with a wolf-amoung-the-sheep plot. You really have to do a pretty terrible job to fail a crop with that fertile soil. And the cast in generally strong; Hall, Carpenter, Carradine, Smits, Lithgow; these people are all really good actors, people who can go tie to tie with anyone on teevee.

It’s the richness of the ingredients that makes this so bitter; they have so much, and they turn in into such crap. It’s akin to what great chefs say about great ingredients; the chef’s job is simply to not ruin what he has, because its starts out so good. Dexter is like that; but the writers and show runners are akin to giving farm-fresh produce and kobe beef to Dennys. Everything comes out tasting like greasy hash.

I want this show to be good, because it could be. And I’m sick of [people acting like it’s there; we deserve better, and they’re capable of it. Shape the fuck up, Showtime.

Dexter

Ok, so you know there are some things you really, REALLY want to like? Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s the food that blows your mind, the book that changes your life, the movie you’ll see again and again, the tv show you buy your friends on DVD. And sometimes you try as hard as you […]

Ok, so you know there are some things you really, REALLY want to like?

Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s the food that blows your mind, the book that changes your life, the movie you’ll see again and again, the tv show you buy your friends on DVD.

And sometimes you try as hard as you can, and there’s just nothing there.

I just finished season two of ‘Dexter‘.

Now, almost everyone I know has asked me if I watch it. They all insist I’ll love it, that it’s exactly my thing. And for two years now, I’ve been meaning to watch it, anticipating a macabre, black story, violent, dark, gory and funny.

I had half season one on my tivo and lost it due to a mishap, and then figured I’d catch it when season two ran; then I missed season two for some reason. Finally, after several other shows, Dexter came up in my netflix queue. And I expected to love it.

I didn’t.

The thing is, I really really tried. Because there’s so much to love. Michael C Hall is turning in the performance of his career, and he’s got a strong (if wildly uneven) cast behind him. The writing shows moments of brilliance (or at least vast cleverness); Dexter’s monologs in season one are so clever, and delivered so well, that it feels like a thing of rare brilliance when we hear Hall’s narration.

The first couple of episodes show enormous promise. The premise is fantastic and perverse; the serial killer working as a forensic blood spatter analyst, and killing ONLY bad guys who’ve escaped justice. It plays with the notion of hero; is he batman? is the the punisher? or is he ted bundy with a badge and an elaborate ability to rationalize?

What’s wrong isn’t simple. The show has so many high points. But it seems to match every high with lows.

The best of the cast – Jennifer Carpenter, James Remar, Julie Benz, C. S. Lee, David Zayas, Mark Pellegrino, and in season two, Keith Carradine (and of course Hall) all turn in fantastic performances. Even some of the slightly off-peak performers – Erik King, Christian Camargo, Jaime Murray – are decent enough, and carry the roles, sometimes shining. The trouble is, they’re bogged down by awkward, wooden performances by actors like Lauren Vélez and Judith Scott. The bad performances wouldn’t stand out that much in a great show, but in a show that keeps reaching for mediocrity, they are a hugh problem.

And then there’s the writing. Now, some shows are terribly uneven from episode to episode because shows are, usually, written by some sort of round-robin. So one episode will be terrific, and one weak or clumsy. The dialog tells it; check out any recent season of CSI to see what I mean about alternating good and bad dialog.

Dexter is different. Scene to scene the writing will go from great (Dexter’s own internal monolog) to clunky and awkward, sliding randomly in between. In some scenes in the first season, it seems like different characters each have their own writers.

The real problem, though, is plot. Because the show never comes close to taking this fantastic idea and making it shine. Instead of a dark, avenging angel story, or a beauty and the beast story, or a super-hero story, or a monster-within story, we get a very weak cop show, with one incredibly clever character who talks a lot about how he’s a monster, but never really acts like one.

At first it seems clever; dexter’s notion of who he is, is at odds with what we see. But after a bit it looks like the writers are not doing this on purpose, they just don’t know.

The same can be said of the back-story with Dexter’s father training him, in effect, to be a weapon. It’s brilliant in concept; what he does is exactly what espionage organizations do, finding amoral but trainable sociopaths, and teaching them single-minded loyalty and all the skills of murder. Yet after we watch Dexter trained to be an amoral, heartless killer, he doesn’t act like one, he acts like a wise-cracking marvel hero with a secret identity.

I won’t spoil it for those who have not watched season one; I will say, though, that if you have not worked the ending out for yourself by the eighth or ninth episode, you’re just not trying, and if ANY surprise reveal actually surprises you, you are smoking too much fucking pot when you watch teevee.

The second season was widely rumored to be better. I held out high hopes. Because while season one was deeply flawed, it was also deeply clever, and peopled with good characters and some very appealing actors.

Alas, it’s like they took what worked and jettisoned it, keeping what was wrong. Then they added in stupid plot twists, retcon-like devices, and worst of all, made key characters suddenly start acting stupid.

The season arc is based around Dexter’s cache of bodies being found, and the man-hunt for an un-known killer. Trouble is, we’ve been shown and told that Dexter is fucking brilliant, the best of the best, so good he’s un-catchable. In season two we find he’s been stashing his kills neatly wrapped in bags, all the parts together, in fifty feet of gin-clear miami water, in an area where scuba divers often dive.

The list of what’s wrong with that makes me grind my teeth. I am a better killer than that, and I’m just sitting on my couch.

It only gets worse from there. Dexter makes a list of stupid choices, and key characters suddenly change mid-season, whenever it’s convenient for plot devices. Dexter, it seems, can no longer kill, and the later, finds a twelve-step is enough to stop him from killing. This effectively neuters his character, AND is a 180 turn around from who he was in the first season.

Ok, there are high points. Keith Carradine as Frank Lundy could carry his own show; he’s that good, both actor and role. Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter’s sister Debra, chews up her role. She was a high-point in season one, and she runs with it, turning her character into a sweet, fucked up, sexually dynamic, foul-mouthed dynamo. She’s incredibly *real*, in that she seems so sweetly fucked up, that you want to love her, and she’s so goddamned sexy that you want to take her clothes off and love her a lot more.

And then there’s Jaime Murray as Lila. Ok, she’s not the best actress in the cast, not by a long shot. But she makes up for it, at least early on, because the character is so good that it works. She’s incredibly sexy, wild, crazy, intense, sweet. She is a character out of my own writing, and I was almost instantly in love with her, and all the more every time she flashed her pert little breasts. She’s just as hot as fuck, and I wanted to leap into the teevee and take her.

But of course, the season starts wrong and makes good headway toward really-far-wrong. Characters make stupid choices, police work is done incorrectly, dexter makes mistake after mistake (things that just don’t make any sense). Plot lines – like the new replacement Lieutenant and her cheating boyfriend – are just filler. And in the second half, things flip-flop with certain characters that make no sense, while being utterly, painfully predictable.

At the halfway point, I knew the ending. I kept hoping I was wrong, and groaning every time they made another ‘surprise’ reveal.

The trouble, really, isn’t that the show is bad. It’s that it is so close to being brilliant. Cast, characters, concept, half the dialog, all very good, some incredible. But it’s a fast car with no driver; no editorial point of view, no meaningful story arc, no clear idea of who these people are or what story is being told. It’s fucking amature.

It could have been amazing. It should have been, really. But it’s not. It just barely nails ‘good’.

I’m afraid to watch season three. I think it’s only Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter that will bring me back. He’s that good, and she’s just incredibly, sweetly fuckable.

Swingtown

I watched the premier episode of Swingtown last night. My first though is, wow, i wish this was on cable. I want to see these good looking people a lot more naked than they are. Because it’s a hot show full of hot people, taking about and having a lot of sex. My second thought […]

I watched the premier episode of Swingtown last night.

My first though is, wow, i wish this was on cable. I want to see these good looking people a lot more naked than they are. Because it’s a hot show full of hot people, taking about and having a lot of sex.

My second thought was, wow, this is CBS? It’s hard to believe a show in which couples swing, in which teenagers talk about having sex, in which people pass joints, snort coke, and gobble qualuudes, is on CBS. FX, sure; Bravo, sure. But CBS?

The thing, though, that makes Swingtown interesting on first viewing, isn’t that it’s sexy, or even that it brings swing/poly lifestyles into the mainstream view; it’s that the level of era detail is astonishing. It’s not just the 1976 cars and the fashions; it’s not just the colors of the kitchen appliances. It’s not just the hair. It’s the camera work; it’s the lighting. It’s the products on people’s shelves. The grocery store, down to the last detail (the kinds of shelves, the meat counter, the decor, the color palate of the products on the shelves) all looked exactly the way they looked when I was fourteen years old. And the show, visually, looks like the shows I watched in those days. A lot of the scenes, when paused, looked like magazine adds from the era; I kept picturing the ads in playboy from the early seventies. I was wondering what visual tricks they used to get it to look so seventies; era cameras and lenses? Or just clever post-processing of video? It was hard for me to even pay attention to who was doing what to whom, and I had to keep running back to study minor details like product labels; it was so damned accurate, it almost freaked me out.

But how’s the show?

I’m not sure, actually.

The cast is great; Grant Show (best known for Melrose Place) has found his look and era; he’s so completely right in his seventies shag hair and mustache, I’d tell him to never play a modern character again. Lana Parrilla as his wife is sexy and edgy; you want to fuck her a lot, but you never know what she’s thinking. Molly Parker (Alma Garret on Deadwood, though I couldn’t place that until I looked her up on IMDB) is fabulous (and hot as a readhead), though she has a habit of mumbling so badly I had trouble hearing what she was saying.

But the first three quarters of the episode seemed like an introduction of a list of stock characters; “hip swingers couple”, “hot stewardess”, “uptight neighbor”, “cokehead neighbor”, “hip young teacher”, “dangerous lolita with crush on teacher”. It’s well executed, looks great, and has an amazing sound-track, all period correct (though this is the one area where it’s not accurate, the people are all too white-middle-class to be listening to music that’s this hip). But the characters seemed all sketch and no depth.

That changes in the last fifteen minutes of the show. We get a party scene that looks like a playboy fantasy, with disco-dancing hotties in farrah curls, polyester, chest hair, coke, joints, and quaaludes. And suddenly the major characters and their lifestyles crash into each other, swingers seduce straight-but-cusrious new neighbors, coke-head mom joins orgy in the ‘playroom’ basement with coke dealer and pile of sweaty babes. Uptight old-neighbor gets a glimpse of ‘the lifestyle’ and freaks right the fuck out, while her husband sighs and visibly wishes. And all of this while “Dream Weaver” plays with gradual increase of volume. The editing is great, and teh storytelling suddenly kicks into gear, with very little dialog.

I can’t see how this show can work as a series; it should be a mini-series, and it should be on cable. It’s hard to take characters in a life-style like this and not use silly devices to drive the plot beyond a natural arc. And network teevee,I fear, won’t tolerate a show about happy alternative lifestyles, so we will have to get some expose of what swinging does to people and how they all wind up unhappy (after covert affairs between people who are in theory swinging openly). I want to see it say, yeah, they’re all bed-hopping, but that’s just the background, and it’s *ok*.

Still, it’s interesting to see something so overtly alternative on network teevee. It’s cool to see drug use back in the public eye in a realistic way, and one hopes this opens a dialog about relationship openness for a lot of people who may think about it, but be afraid to raise the issue. And to me, if it does that, it’s a good thing, all entertainment aside. Because I think our culture has a lot of absurd baggage built up over the idea of monogamy, and anything that gets people to step back and question it is a positive thing.

As to the show; you bet it’s programmed into my tivo. If it stays anywhere near as good as the last fifteen minutes of the premier, it’s a keeper.

DWTS

Last year, sometime early in the hockey season, some sales droid gave my boss four club-level tickets to a sharks game. The closer you get to the ice, the better hockey is, so of course I said yes. While we were there, the arena jumbotrons showing promos for the upcoming dancing with the stars *live* […]

Last year, sometime early in the hockey season, some sales droid gave my boss four club-level tickets to a sharks game. The closer you get to the ice, the better hockey is, so of course I said yes.

While we were there, the arena jumbotrons showing promos for the upcoming dancing with the stars *live* tour. The three guys I was sitting with, of course, sneered at the idea. Who would want to go to that?, by boss asked, with genuine incredulity. And I have to say, i kind of agreed.

It’s not that I couldn’t imagine being interested in competitive dance; it’s sexy, athletic, in a sense it’s artistic. But, you know, there’s just something that sounded incredibly cheesy about it.

A few months ago, while looking for Torchwood on BBC America, I caught a few minutes of a re-run first season DWTS. I was pulled in, predictably, by drop-dead-sexy women like Edyta Śliwińska and Cheryl Burke. And I was drawn in when I realized Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver ever to play football, was one of the celebrities. But dammit if I didn’t keep watching because it was good.

I’m a big figure skating fan; and this had just enough of that same appeal (technical skills, artistry, athletics, and sex appeal) that I was drawn in. I managed to get past the cheese, and with each week got a little more involved.

I admit it; I cared who won. I cared because because of my monstrous crush on ms Burke, and I cared because her partner really deserved to win.

I kind of figured, though, that I was done with it after that one re-run season. The whole thing is just too damned cheesy, too silly, and I keep swearing not to ever get hooked up in another reality show.

Only, the current season was just starting.

I told myself it was just to see Cheryl Burke. I told myself it was just to root for my man Penn Jillette. Only poor Penn and his battlestar-feet went home the first night. But you know, Kristi Yamaguchi was one of the stars in question, so I kind of wondered how a figure skater would do.

Yeah, I was hooked. And really, it wasn’t just because I’d kill a man just to lick the sweat off of Cheryl Burke’s back. I was hooked because I actually like the show.

There I said it. I confess. I like it. And I’m bummed it’s almost over.

*sigh*.

If I ever watch american fucking idol, someone shoot me, ok?

I see my friends on teevee

So it’s a singularly strange experience, seeing a person you know well, have known for years, a person you’ve seen go though a lot of life’s peaks and troughs, seen drunk and sober, single and married, with and without kids, a person you know very well, suddenly on TV.

There’s this show. It’s about people on an island, and they’re playing a game. And we’ll just call it Survivor And there’s a guy; and if you’ve seen my picture, and you’ve watched the show, you’ll be guessing already which guy it is, but we’re just call him Lex because it’s a pretty good name, and in fact, it’s his name.

So you’re used to watching a guy you know. Eating, drinking, talking, laughing, angry, upset, sick, happy. All the normal things we see our friends do.

And then one day, there he is on the tv screen.

Ok, so that’s a little weird. A little. But you get used to it.

And then suddenly, there he is talking to Regis fucking Philbin.

That, my friends, is where the line is crossed, from odd to completely surreal.

If you don’t watch survivor, I may lose you here. That’s fine. I love you anyway. Click on over to Orkut and see what’s up on your favorite groups, or fire up a blunt, crack a 40 and listen to eminem. Getcha next time.

Ok, now they’re gone. Who needs ’em anyway?

So I’ve been a big fan of this show since it started. I was down on the idea, and still am, of reality TV. It’s lame. And as a general rule I don’t watch it. There are exceptions, sure. But this Survivor thing looked cool from the previews. And I was hooked from the very first for one reason – it looked fucking great. Great camera work, great editing, all the technical stuff. That’s really what got me. The game – I wasn’t sure. The people all seemed a little annoying. But the look and the idea were cool. So I went with it. I got hooked. Became a fan of the game, and the show, and some of the players.

But it’s all so different when you watch a friend.

I don’t just mean the novelty. That, you can imagine. And it wears off for the most part, Regis aside. I mean – the game changes and the show changes.

Suddenly, you feel it. The misery, the hunger, the stress. When you care so much about who wins. When you care about the person, his kids, his wife. When you know you’re some of the people he’s thinking about out there in the wild places. When you know the expressions and body language and can read misery with a vividness impossible for the casual viewer.

I watched Lex go through starvation, dehydration, stress and terror in Africa. Watched it knowing how sick he was when he came home. Knowing he’d nearly died, knowing, just from seeing him (For he could say nothing that might reveal the game’s outcome) how much of a toll it had taken.

It hurt. It took the fun away, and made it hurt to watch. And watching him fail at the end – not him failing, but his illness and weakness causing his body to fail – it was like a body blow to watch it.

And then I could barely watch the show after. Because for all that it hurt, it was also as compelling as anything I’d ever seen on TV tat wasn’t real reality. So the next season or two; who cared? No one mattered to me. Once you’ve seen a person you love play the game, who wins and who loses seem unimportant. Yet you know they are feeling the pains and stresses, they have loved ones who feel as we do about our friend. So I watched. It’s still damned good TV

And then Lex went back again, for the All-Star show. And now it’s worse.

It’s worse because of all the reasons before; but now it’s personal. Personal because I know some of those people now. I’ve met a few. Know a lot more as friends of friends. But more, personal because they’re all friends with each other in real life. So it’s almost like watching old friends break up on TV for our entertainment.

Deeply surreal. Weird and painful and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But I don’t dare look away.

And this time, even more, there’s the surrealism. Because last time, no one knew in advance. This time, though Lex could never say, we all knew that this show might happen, and we’d talked it over, ad nauseum, with each other, with Lex, what would happen, how he might play, who he’d like to be with. All well hashed over. And we’re not watching him with strangers; it felt like watching a party I might have in my back yard, but on TV. Oh, but the food would be better at my house and we’d all be cleaner.

And then Lex was voted off. And we won’t talk about the whys here, whatever happened, he’s my friend, I love the man, and I stand behind how he played.
But again, I had to watch the face of abject horror as he realized what was happening, and I felt that pain, could feel him watching it with his family, and – almost couldn’t watch. It was reality TV made too real. It hurt.

And then he’s on Regis. Lex. Showing tattoos I saw him get, and talking to Kelly Rippa about how the tattoos where done.

It’s just – truly, truly odd. Too real. Regis Philbin is a tiny annoying man about six inches high in the TV. He’s not real. So how’s he standing next to all-too-real Lex?

It still doesn’t make much sense to me. But in a silly, giggling, stoned sort of way. Different than watching your friend suffer for a game and for america’s entertainment. Very different.

But it’s all still strange.

I can only imagine how strange it must be for Lex himself.

“Andy Warhol must be laughing in his grave”
–Crowden House, ‘Chocolate Cake’

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