Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Soap: The Granddaddy of Continuity Comedy

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 27, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

In this age of DVD box sets, Youtube, and Hulu, television fans finally have full and immediate access to their favourite TV series, even ones that have been off the air for decades. As good as current television often is, sometimes the most satisfying viewing can come from settling in front of the TV, or computer, and immersing yourself in a classic series. Last week, frustrated by the lack of innovation in this fall season’s new sitcoms (and with all due respect to the continuing efforts of William Shatner), I pulled a much-loved series off the shelf and looked back at it, for the first time in decades. The series that caught my eye this time was Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977-81.

Soap was prime time television’s first serial comedy. The brainchild of the production team of Susan Harris, Paul Witt, and Tony Thomas (perhaps most famous for creating the immensely successful Golden Girls in the 80s), Soap was a parody of daytime soap operas which wove together the serialized and often sensationalized narrative of a soap with the conventions of a weekly situation comedy. The result was like nothing television had ever seen before, and quite frankly, since.  I have always remembered the show fondly but, having watched it mainly as a kid, few but the most exaggerated details of it remained in my memory. What I recalled were the over-the-top characters, the zany situations, and, well to be honest, the ventriloquist dummy. What has surprised me in the past week has been the brilliant writing, the stunning comedic acting, and the depth and humanity of all of its characters. Some sitcoms don’t age well, while others become more impressive even decades after their original run. The best of them fall into two camps: groundbreaking ones which change the genre forever, thereby setting the stage for the success of many subsequent series, and other shows which are so startlingly original that they have produced no real successors. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971-79) falls firmly in the latter camp: though the show is largely credited for the sudden boom in ethnic sitcoms of the 70s, none ever approached the stark political frankness of the show that inspired them. Even today, almost 40 years later, any episode from the first season of All in the Family can leave a contemporary television viewer speechless in terms of the bluntness and honesty of its political content. I’m now convinced that Soap, despite its disarming lack of pretension and apparently narrow mandate, falls into that same category.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 14, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Together with his younger brothers, screenwriters Zack (now writing Rubicon) and Jed, and Jed’s then-fiancĂ©e (and now wife) Maurissa Tancharoen, the musical and the acting talents of Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory), and Felicia Day herself, Whedon filmed Dr. Horrible in just four days, with its cast and many of its crew working for free. With no marketing budget to speak of, originally posted online (in three, 14-minute acts) for free download and subsequently going on sale on iTunes and as a DVD, Dr. Horrible was a critical and commercial success by any standard. For media gurus, the summer of 2008 was indeed the season of Dr. Horrible. That fall, despite never having been broadcast on any network, it would go on to win an Emmy, and the “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” was even named #15 in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 50 Inventions of 2008’. Television, it seemed, would never be the same. Here’s how the story was being told: before Dr. Horrible, the major studios and networks could only see the Internet either as a vast delivery mechanism for their large and growing back catalogue of previously produced content or for web tie-ins for established series. The idea of studios producing new, original content for the web simply wasn’t on the table—more than enough money could be made by offering older and recent shows on sites like Hulu, Youtube, and on network websites. (In fact, this lucrative money stream—the majority of which never made its way back to these shows’ writers and creators—was one of the main sticking points leading to WGA strike in 2007.) But now, with Dr. Horrible leading the way, the Internet was suddenly revealed to be a wide-open landscape rich in creative and commercial potential.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Playing War: The Wooden Gun (1979)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Part coming of age drama, part political allegory, and part social commentary, Ilan Moshenson’s The Wooden Gun (Roveh Huliot in Hebrew) is a small gem. Set in Tel Aviv in 1950, it tells the story of a juvenile gang war between two small groups of adolescent boys. Against the backdrop of Israel’s first years, the story it tells is far vaster and much richer than it may first appear. With a small budget and primarily adolescent casts, this 1979 Israeli feature also dramatizes the striking differences between these young first-generation Israelis and their European-born parents, most of whom are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. Raised on the glories of war, soldiers’ honour, and nationalism, the boys have little sympathy for or understanding of the world that their families left behind in coming to the newly-created State of Israel. Between the distracted silence of parents and the unthinking (and often confusing) idealism of educators, the children don’t appreciate the dangers of real violence. The boys' world is no larger than the battlefields of the schoolyards and streets of their small neighbourhood, and the impotent efforts of their parents and teachers to contain their escalating violent activities only serve to isolate the boys all the more from the older generation. An early scene in the film offers a perfect snapshot of this confusion of values: their teacher, a war veteran himself, pauses to briefly admonish Yoni for his continued fighting with his peers, then turns without a beat and leads the rest of the students on a charge up the hill of a former battlefield, rat-tat-tatting imaginary machine guns at an invisible enemy.