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Books & Commentary & Movies & Television 31 Oct 2010 07:38 pm

Halloween 2010

I had fun marking Halloween with my high school students this year. In my AP English Literature and Composition class, we finished our reading and study of Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s maybe/maybe-not Victorian ghost story. I also read the class Cherise the Niece, a weird, rhyming picture book about a little girl whose aunts tend to turn up dead.

In AP Language and Comp, I read the class one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, “Fever Dream,” about a boy who is convinced that his scarlet fever is taking over his body, one limb at a time. Creepy stuff, especially for a confirmed germaphobe.

Students in Film Studies continued their viewing of Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho, while my freshman classes, in the midst of studying Edgar Allan Poe, were treated to the very first “Treehouse of Horror” episode from The Simpsons, the one that culminates in James Earl Jones’s narration of “The Raven.”

Good stuff, all. Still, having Halloween fall on a Sunday is a bit of a downer. Halloween night should be all about reading and watching scary stuff, but the thought of a workday following fast on the holiday’s heels sucks the creepy vibe right out. Bummer.

Commentary & Television & education 26 Sep 2010 11:49 am

Waiting for Mr. Kotter

kotter

As the new television season gets underway, networks have missed the perfect opportunity to piggyback on the country’s newly minted education obsession with a remake of “Welcome Back Kotter” for the high-stakes testing era.

Surely you remember beleaguered Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs. Comedian Gabe Kaplan played Kotter, who returns to his alma mater to teach a baker’s dozen of incorrigible students, including Vinnie Barbarino (“Up your nose with a rubber hose!”), Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (“Hey, Mr. Caaar-TEAR”), and the uber-annoying Arnold Horshack (“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” with hand thrust into the air). Kotter is regularly hassled by clueless Vice Principal Mr. Woodman, who dislikes both Kotter’s unusual teaching methods and the subhuman Sweathogs.

In the updated version – informed by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the federal government’s love affair with charter schools at the expense of public education, and one-sided documentaries that paint teachers themselves as little better than adult Sweathogs – we find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In this new version, Kotter is still perpetually in danger of losing his job, only this time it’s because he has failed to improve his Sweathogs’ test scores in various target demographics, which include students from impoverished homes, students from specific racial and ethnic backgrounds, and students with special needs. Now when Mr. Woodman bursts into Kotter’s room in the middle of class, he’s waving spreadsheets, raving about “value-added” and “adequate yearly progress” and crunching numbers based on formulas that nobody outside of John Maynard Keynes understands. Audience laughter ensues.

In one episode, some of the Sweathogs apply at a swank new charter academy funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, they are denied admittance because the academy fears their scores will adversely affect their reputation in the community. The Sweathogs return to their original high school, which the charter school has cherry-picked for its best and brightest, thus perpetuating the self-fulfilling prophecy that public schools are stuck in an irreversible downward spiral. In a cameo appearance, Melinda Gates is hit upon by John Travolta’s Barbarino character and flees the school in disgust, blaming Kotter for his lack of classroom discipline.

In another installment, Kotter is temporarily replaced by an Ivy League graduate of Teach for America, whose résumé consists of a six-week crash course in educational theory. Applying a strict business model to the classroom (because it worked so well on Wall Street a few years ago), the new teacher realizes a modest increase in test scores. However, like most Teach for America candidates, she leaves after her two-year commitment, just at the point where, according to most studies, her teaching would become as effective as an experienced educator’s.

Kotter is rehired, in time to be asked to serve on a special panel to explore solutions to the nation’s educational woes. Fellow panel members include politicians, millionaires, and politicians who are millionaires. Kotter is removed from the panel when the other members realize he has actual classroom experience. He is replaced with Oprah Winfrey. Her appointment makes no sense, but it does give her a chance to say, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” for the audience’s raucous applause.

The next week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invites Kotter and his fellow faculty members to a special showing of “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary about American public education that demonizes teachers’ unions. Afterward, Duncan has Mr. Woodman threaten to fire the bottom ten percent of teachers, based solely on test scores (because idle threats are the optimal way to motivate people to do their best).

When Kotter points out that firing the bottom ten percent creates a (ital.) new (end ital.) bottom ten percent, and that it unfairly targets teachers (usually new and inexperienced) who work with the most challenging students in large urban districts, the audience boos. The very prospect that learning could be contingent on factors such as quality parenting and socioeconomic background is absurd; everybody knows public schools are solely to blame for all our nation’s ills. Besides, politicians have learned that blaming the same people you rely on for votes is ballot-box suicide; the teacher witch hunt is a much more convenient scenario, which is why they concocted it.

In a special episode, Kotter loses out on a merit-pay bonus by half a percentage point and must take an evening job working alongside some of his students at a local pizza parlor. He is so tired that he can barely stay awake, let alone be the dynamic entertainer-educator-innovator-surrogate parent-magician needed in the classroom. Meanwhile, the local newspaper considers running his students’ test scores on the front page, thereby exposing him to additional ridicule, all punctuated with a raucous laugh track.

I have more story ideas, but I doubt that more than half a dozen episodes of my proposed new “Welcome Back Kotter” would air before everybody finds something more interesting than education to worry about, like who the new judges on “American Idol” will be and will the nation survive this economic recovery. In that order.

E-mail chris.schillig@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter (cschillig).

Commentary & Media & Television & technology 16 Sep 2010 08:36 pm

Must-see TV

This week’s Alliance Review column, dated Sept. 16, 2010:

Once upon a time, if you missed a TV show, you missed it forever. If you’re over a certain age, this is the edict by which most of your boob-tube-related life was lived.

Growing up, I equated Tuesday night with “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” followed by my personal favorite, “Three’s Company.” John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt — I remembered all their names without Google, so indelibly were they etched on my prepubescent psyche — defined the swinging singles life and made me wish that I could one day live in a cool apartment complex where witty neighbors dropped by unannounced and all problems were solved in 30 minutes, minus commercials.

It was a real letdown when I rented my first apartment and lived next to a couple of nocturnal steelworkers whose fights were exceeded in volume only by their vociferous making up, and above a snarly old woman with curling chin hair and a penchant for coughing phlegm out her kitchen window. Mrs. Roper, she wasn’t.

Friday night meant “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Incredible Hulk” and, if my parents fell asleep on the couch before my bedtime, “Dallas,” with its heaping helping of oil, sex, intrigue, sex, high-pressure business deals, sex and sex. Who shot J.R. was the least of my concerns amid all that boudoir intrigue, I assure you.

But if I missed an episode of any of my favorites, there was no catching up — no YouTube or network websites, no DVR or season compilations on DVD. The only way I would see it again was if I caught it as a rerun later, but the chances of that happening were about the same as the odds of Phil Davison delivering a sane, sensible speech to the Stark County Republican Executive Committee.

Oh, sure, I grew up in the infancy of video recorders. Our first unit weighed in at about the size and weight of a manhole cover and featured a series of red-and-white switches under the front panel to record live TV. But these early devices were designed by people with advanced degrees in engineering exclusively for other people with advanced degrees in engineering; any recording of a show that you actually intended to tape was strictly coincidental. Despite my best efforts, I almost always ended up with something off Channel 17, the religious channel that my mom would make me watch whenever I said I was too sick to go to Mass.

Nowadays, the video recorder is as passé as charcoal briquettes and cursive handwriting. In its place is the DVR, which stands for Dummy-Version Recording. This means that even dopes like me can manage to record a TV show while out of the house doing something frivolous, like getting a surgical sponge removed from our intestines.

Unfortunately, as with all modern technology, the DVR has solved one problem by creating another: which unwatched shows to keep, and which to delete. This seemed like a ludicrous concern when I received my first unit, which could hold the digital equivalent of the Louisiana Territory inside its metallic innards. But by the time we swapped cable for satellite service a year later, we had populated all that space quite nicely, and anything new that was recorded meant an older show was taken off oxygen support and allowed to slip away.

The new DVR device has even more space, but I’ve filled it up to 90 percent of capacity in only a few short months. Now I’m left with the difficult decision of which shows to keep and which to jettison. A week’s worth of unwatched “Jeopardy” from last May? Gone to make way for “The Event,” whatever that is. An episode of “Secret Life of an American Teenager” that my daughter never watched over the summer? Save it — she might still want it. “Queen + Paul Rogers,” a concert that my wife accidentally set to record in perpetuity? We have five copies already, with more to come.

June was a big month for DVR at Casa Schillig, likely because it’s too nice outside to watch much TV. But it was also too nice in July, August and so far in September, too, so a bunch of oldies from Turner Classic Movies molder away on the service.

I hate deleting shows because it’s so final. Just because I haven’t gotten around to “Terror Train” or “Freaks” doesn’t mean I never will, especially with Halloween coming. It was a lot easier when I was a kid and we only had two VHS tapes to our name, which meant 12 hours max of recording time, instead of three days’ worth or whatever the embarrassment of riches is that we have today.

But it was easier still back in the time when you watched a show when it was first on or not at all. If you happened to be distracted by two beautiful roommates or your fun-loving neighbors at the same time as that first-run episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” — well, that’s what summer reruns were for.

Television 23 Aug 2010 06:54 am

Dollhouse Season One

 dollhouse

Months after we started, my wife and I finally finished watching season one of Dollhouse on DVD, just a few weeks before the second season is scheduled to be released. The show was a constant surprise, much more smartly written than many critics (and even fans) gave it credit for. Given the rather formulaic beginning, I never would have predicted where the season ended.

The initial premise is that the Dollhouse is a Los Angeles-based, high-tech brothel where hookers called “actives” are imprinted with memories to make them the perfect companions for the idle rich. After each “engagement,” their memories are wiped clean, and they return to a naive, doll-like state, wandering about an underground secret lair until they are contracted out again. The opening episodes are trashily enjoyable in this vein, especially one that riffs on Richard Connell’s “Most Dangerous Game.” Later episodes show dolls (both male and female) being imprinted with expertise in a variety of disciplines and farmed out to work as investigators, body guards, and midwives, to name just a few professions.

The star doll, if you will, is codenamed Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, known to most fans know for her role in another Joss Whedon-created series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but famliar to me from her starring turn in the underrated horror flick Wrong Turn. Echo is really a young woman named Caroline, who has traded five years of her life as an operative in the Dollhouse in exchange for commuting a jail sentence. When her time is done, so the series goes, she will have no recollection of the time she served as a doll.

Issues of free will, slavery and the ability of technology to outstrip morality soon come to the forefront, and the show quickly moves beyond the more prurient aspects of its premise to become a real sci-fi mind-bender, especially as Whedon and company introduce the idea of rapid switching of consciousness within the dolls’ bodies and the possibility of customers wanting their own consciousnesses imprinted into the dolls’ minds. A constant bogeyman throughout the season is Alpha, a doll who has gone rogue and become homicidal.

Strong performances abound in the show, especially Fran Kranz as Topher Brink, a lovable if amoral genius who programs the dolls before each engagement; Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard, an erstwhile FBI agent seeking to learn about the Dollhouse, which has attained the status of an urban legend in L.A.; and Amy Acker as Dr. Claire Saunders, the Dollhouse physician who serves as Topher’s conscience.

The show’s writers have a knack for coming up with character twists and scenarios that seem totally obvious after the fact, but which nonetheless startle upon first viewing. Truly, this isn’t a show that somebody could drop in and watch in the middle; like Lost, another show I’m terminally behind in watching (I’m still in the middle of season two), it rewards — and even requires — close viewing from the beginning. Unlike Lost, however, Dollhouse never captured a sufficient audience to keep it afloat. Whedon seems to have anticipated this by filming a coda of sorts, “Epitaph One,” which jumps the series ten years into the future and provides some closure.  

Still, the series survived a second season, which is scheduled for release on DVD this fall. Although it will likely take me another year to complete, I look forward to it.

Commentary & Television 19 Aug 2010 11:35 pm

(Bleep) is the word

 bleep

This week’s column from The Review:

Right up front, I must say that I don’t know (bleep) about “(Bleep) My Dad Says,” a new show airing on CBS this fall.

Oh, I know it’s based on a book of the same name, which in turn is a spin-off of a website or a Twitter feed that purports to share blunt wisdom from somebody’s father. Or maybe it collects blunt wisdom from everybody’s fathers, homespun nuggets like “Don’t eat yellow snow” and “If you don’t shut up, I’ll cut out your tongue.”

I have no intention of watching the show, first because it stars William Shatner, a breathy and bombastic actor whose delivery makes me want to puncture my earlobes with roofing nails, and second because despite having a full slate of satellite channels, I watch little television.

But if I were watching, the last thing that would upset me is the word (bleep) or the shift-key stand-in that CBS is using in the actual title. This is why I’m not a member of the Parents Television Council, which last week sent letters to more than 300 companies, asking them not to advertise on the show because of its name.

According to PTC President Tim Winter, quoted in the Huffington Post (the Wikipedia of news), “Parents really do care about profanity when their kids are watching TV.” He then goes on to qualify the statement by noting that only “something like 80 to 90 percent of parents” care. That leaves me in that 10 to 20 percent who don’t give a (bleep).

Suppressing (bleep) has a long tradition, one that is rooted in the Norman Conquest of 1066 (betcha didn’t know you would be getting a history lesson), when those marauding Normans attempted to supplant vibrant Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with more genteel — at least to our modern ears — Norman French. It’s a prejudice that continues to this day.

Take George Carlin’s infamous Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, which have since morphed into the equally infamous Seven Words You Can’t Say on Network Television, as they are used quite freely on premium cable channels. Not only can these words not be uttered on free TV, they also can’t be written in a family newspaper. However, I can use some of their French-derived equivalents — urinate, defecate and fornicate — with impunity. At least one of the remaining four I can describe more clinically (”breasts,” instead of the one-syllable word Carlin uses), but I can’t even tiptoe around the remaining three for fear of offending Beatrice Bluenose, one of the paper’s oldest and most conservative subscribers.

(The newsroom was very concerned about Ms. Bluenose last month, when on National Rain Day I attempted to warn people to “wear their rubbers,” a dictionary-sanctioned reference to boots that was nonetheless greeted with such disapproval from my colleagues that I excised it from the finished page.)

The point is — what is the difference between urination, defecation and fornication and their blunter equivalents? Why is it OK, hypothetically, for Dr. Oz (speaking of another show I seldom watch) to discuss defecation clinically, but not OK for a primetime show to use a more common term for humorous effect? Can we not recognize the medicinal effects of laughter and agree that (bleep) is as appropriate in comedy as “defecate” is in medicine?

For that matter, why is it OK for the Cleveland Zoo to feature an exhibit called “The Scoop on Poop,” but scandalous if they would advertise “The Skinny on (Bleep)”?

Yes, I know the PTC is concerned that society is becoming coarser, and that little kids (the lowest common denominator of all entertainment, apparently) might spew out the actual word — horrors! — instead of saying “bleep” when talking about the show, but only after they’ve finished talking about how many people they killed in their latest videogame venture. Because you know that CBS is targeting the 10-and-under crowd by casting the septuagenarian Shatner in the lead.

Besides, nobody who’s been on a playground has ever confused it with polite society.

I consider references to (bleep) as less an example of society’s coarsening and more of an opportunity for the next generation to reclaim its Anglo-Saxon roots, when men were men, (bleep) was (bleep), and William Shatner’s most important line was “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Comic books & Television 18 Aug 2010 08:06 am

Who(m) do you love?

In the eternal battle for pop-culture geek supremacy (Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Twilight Zone vs. Outer Limits, and so on), two questions reign supreme:

 

veronica-betty

Veronica or Betty? Veronica Lodge (left) is the spoiled, rich heiress and Betty Cooper is the middle class gal with the heart of gold. Both duel perennially over freckle-faced Archie Andrews (center) — and all three seem intent on contracting meningitis by drinking from the same cup.

 mary-ann-ginger

And …  Mary Ann or Ginger? Mary Ann (left) is the down-home country gal, and Ginger, the sophisticated movie star. Neither is particularly interested in Gilligan (center) from the venerable TV show, Gilligan’s Island, and to be fair, he never seems to pursue either of them, leading some to speculate that he’s chasing that cougar, Mrs. Howell, or — more radically — he’s into the Skipper.

My picks, by the way, are Veronica and Mary Ann. What about you?

Commentary & Television 04 Jul 2010 01:38 am

Fireworks!

Holly and I are back from the Sebring fireworks, and they were among the best small-town displays I’ve seen in a long time. Fireworks and the Fourth always remind me of the opening of Love, American Style, which I watched in repeats as a kid back in the ’70s and ’80s. Apparently, it was the show that introduced Happy Days, at least based on the piece above.

Have a happy Independence Day!

Music & Television 26 May 2010 10:49 pm

Cooper on Idol

 

The coolness quotient on American Idol quadrupled tonight with the appearance of Alice Cooper along with the top twelve contestants. See it above, as long as the link stays active on YouTube, that is.

Movies & Television 21 Mar 2010 09:00 pm

Dracula meets Dark Shadows

 dan-curtis-drac

Dan Curtis was the maestro behind Dark Shadows, a soap opera remembered fondly for its mix of Gothic horror and standard afternoon fare. In 1973, Curtis teamed with writer Richard Matheson of I Am Legend, Incredible Shrinking Man, and Twilight Zone fame for this version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Although Jack Palance isn’t first actor I would consider for the immortal count, he turns in a fairly good performance here, punctuated by a lot of growling and hissing and the occasional scenery chewing. This is the first version of Stoker’s story to introduce the idea of the Count traveling to London in pursuit of the reincarnation of his lost love, a plot twist picked up later by Francis Ford Coppola in the ’90s and, by extension, a forerunner of today’s sexy teen vampire craze a la Twilight. I can’t blame that on Matheson, who handles the idea fairly well here. Palance is still an irredeemable scumbag, albeit one tragically in love with a dead woman.

Nigel Davenport is a more physical Van Helsing than previous incarnations (Peter Cushing’s turn as the professorial vampire hunter in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula being a notable exception), perhaps foreshadowing Universal’s abortive attempt to launch a series around a more athletic VH a few years back. (Hey, I liked it, even if most everybody else didn’t.)

Because this was a TV movie before it was recut for theatrical release in Europe, the special effects aren’t stellar, although the locations used go a long way toward making up for the deficit. The bare-bones DVD has a decent transfer, the European theatrical trailer, and two really short clips with Palance (who rambles on and makes little sense) and Curtis (much more lucid than his star).

I can’t say I’m in a hurry to pop this one back into my DVD player, but it is a mostly reverential adaptation with a few key twists that have secured it a footnote mention in vampire lore.

Commentary & Television 12 Mar 2010 07:36 am

What if ‘Idol’ judges gave everyday criticism?

logo-ai

Here is this week’s print column, dated March 11, 2010, from The Alliance Review:

Accepting criticism is hard.

Although we hate to hear negatives about ourselves, we love it when it’s directed toward somebody else, which might account for the success of “American Idol.” Season after season, smart-aleck, linguistically challenged judges offer criticism that is equal parts scathing, inane and point-on.

Maybe criticism would be easier to take if everyday situations were evaluated in the styles of Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi, and this season’s newbie judge, Ellen DeGeneres.

To wit, I offer the following everyday situations, “American Idol” style.

A bad job evaluation:

Randy: Yo, dawg, you know I’m a fan, but that was not good. Not good. You didn’t get the TPS reports done, dawg. I wasn’t feelin’ it, dawg.

Simon: If your job were an Olympic event, then your handling of customer complaints would be the equivalent of synchronized swimming while wearing concrete shoes. Utterly, fantastically horrendous.

Kara: What do you think Paula (i.e., Paula Abdul, former “Idol” judge who quit before the current season) would think about your job performance? Then imagine the opposite. That’s what I’d say.

Ellen: I like you. I really, really like you. But the way you come back from lunch late every day, that’s bad — that’s really, really not good. Really. But I like you. I do.
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