Friday, February 25, 2011

Stock Stereotypes: The Elegant, Cultured and Well-Educated Villain

Good News: I'm very close to being published on 

Since, I've been very interested in various stock characters in fiction, and when someone on a message board I frequent recently asked me which of several examples was the best "Elegant, Cultured, and Well-Educated Villain," I thought I'd take on the trope in general:

When someone recently asked me for a good example of an elegant and sophisticated villain, he was missing a key point: Perhaps making a villain elegant and sophisticated is more stereotypical and cheap rather than something to be admired and emulated.

If you make a villain elegant, cultured, and well-educated and nothing more, it ends up boring and familiar. Very weak movies such as Johnny English and The Avengers have introduced us to characters like these with little to no variation.

Portraying someone as overtly intellectual is just a screenwriter's prop to show us that they're smart or that they mirror qualities of the protagonist (presumably the protagonist is smart too) which makes them a more ruthless enemy.

Ironically, I think of these traits with regard to Hannibal Lechter's character as a weakness of the way the screenwriter(s) of Silence of the Lambs constructed him. Lechter is undoubtedly a great character but his penchant for listening to classical music before eating someone or entertaining people at a formal dinner party come off as over the top. Similarly, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) of Batman Begins Henri Ducard was never a very strong or memorable character and his somewhat philosophical soliloquies on why he should poison the city to expose humanity's underbelly was a case of telling more than showing.

Four of my favorites are Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, Wall Street), Magneto (Ian McKellan, X-Men and Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz, Inglorious Basterds) and Cal (Billy Zane) from Titanic. The first three don't jump out at me as being elegant, well-educated and sophisticated for the sake of being well-elegant, educated and sophisticated and they tell rather than show. Landa speaks many languages and is occasionally poetic and from there we see that there's more to the villain. Other than that, the writers don't go out of their way to show he's sophisticated. Similarly, Magneto might have some sense of refinement and knowledge but it's just organic to the story. If Gekko is enjoying the high-life it's because that's what people in his profession do, and if he appears educated, it's because intelligence oozes out of everything he's saying.

As for Cal, that's just a classical example which is executed very, very well. There's usually only room for one or two iconic performances in the mold before everything else seems stale. It also helps that his villainous character is organic to the era of history and he represents an old-money/new-money dichotomy which is a legitimate fear.

As for an example that I find very odd, Chirstopher Lee as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Even if Christopher Lee nailed the part, it would be hard to make it fit in place with some of the sillier and base characters with which George Lucas populated the Star Wars universe. If Hannibal Lecter was acting alongside the Muppets, it would be tonally awful. Same thing here. Another more nitpicky concern is that the cultural, elegant and well-educated are traits that are specific to an Earth-bound setting. If we read too much into the 't think it ever holds up in a fantasy world or galaxy far, far, far away. Cultural and elegant applies to perceptions of someone who has, for example, read Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I don't doubt that people in the Star Wars universe are well-educated and cultured, but for all we know, someone who's cultured and well-educated on Tattoine might be someone who sounds by our standards as if he's speaking in a cockney accent

Another interesting example is Henry Blackwood from Sherlock Holmes but this could apply to any villain from Victorian times and it reminds me of how we tend to assume people speaking with British accents are automatically more refined. I read Blackwood as disturbed. He might have sounded refined, but that's because he comes from Victorian times where everyone is refined. In order to fit this category, you have to be more refined than the protagonist or anyone else.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Examining Parks and Recreations' Sense of Place

A strong sense of place sometimes can play a big role in a movie or a TV show. In the cases of films such as "The Shipping News," "Fargo," "Oh Brother Where Art Thou," or "Junebug," I've even heard the setting be referred to by the film makers as a character within the story.

Among TV shows, "The Office" has a pretty strong sense of place as well. In the show's title sequence, the three external shots of Scranton- a graying two-story skyscraper, a historic main street clogged up in traffic, and a glamorous "Scranton Welcomes You" sign with nothing very glamorous behind it- reflect the particular shade of gray that most of the show's characters have resigned their lives to. "The Office" legitimately feels like it's set in a small Rust Belt city and it adds to the show with its exterior shots, its water cooler discussions about the Scranton Strangler, and Dwight's side businesses of hay festivals and bed-and-breakfasts.

When Greg Daniels' follow-up was announced as a show about the trials and tribulations of workers at a city parks department in Indiana, I expected that the show would have a very strong sense of place because he did so well with "The Office." More importantly, because the show is set in a city hall and its characters are in the business of maintaining a sense of place, the show depends on convincing us that Pawnee is important.

It dissapoints me to say that almost two years later, I really don't know very much about Pawnee at all and I wonder if the show itself has put much thought into what Pawnee is and what Pawnee isn't. Complaints that palm trees have appeared in exterior shots weigh pretty heavily on the anti-place side of the argument.

Let's try to answer a few questions:
Is Pawnee a stand-alone metropolitan area or a suburb of a larger city?
What's its size?
Is it a city with a historic downtown or is it part of a larger sprawl-based pattern?

I assume it is a stand-alone metropolitan area because Pawnee has its own newspaper or the newspaper would be named after the bigger town. Considering every interview we see is conducted by the same reporter comes to the department, it's safe to conclude that the newspaper is of the small-town variety (think under 100,000) that employs only one or two professional reporters. The town also has a couple dance clubs. I've lived in a couple small towns (both had populations of about 50,000) and they both had dance clubs converted from pedestrian mall store front space. That's not out of the question, either.

Then again, the town has its own TV station and TV morning hosts. I could understand public access programming, but TV personalities and Regis-and-Kelly clones isn't really much of a small-town vibe to me.

As for the downtown issue, I don't see any skyscrapers in the background. Then again, I rarely see exterior shots at all.

I also doubt the writer's knowledge of the state of Indiana when you consider that Anne and Chris' relationship was almost killed by his moving back to Indianapolis. Virtually, nowhere in Indiana is more than two hours away from Indianapolis. The show acted as if he was relocating across the Atlantic.

I posted this on an IMDB message board and got some good responses. Here are the three best:

Response 1:"Sometimes smaller towns can have decently sized city halls, especially if they're historic. I always imagine Pawnee to be a decently sized town, but kind of in the middle of nowhere (stand-alone metropolitan area), which gives it that small town feeling. Maybe I imagine it like this because I'm from Minnesota and I know a lot of towns that have the same sort of atmosphere.

I do think it's a pretty big deal that he's going back to Indianapolis, though - even a two-hour commute is kind of long for a newer relationship. And I think Leslie's main loyalty is to Pawnee, not to Indiana, although of course I'm sure she has some state pride as well. But perhaps the writers avoid making a lot of references to Indiana itself because they want Pawnee to feel more universal - you know, like it could be Anywhere, USA, so we can all relate. But I did think Donna's "The Last Supper" featuring famous people from Indiana was pretty great.

Small towns have their own newspapers! They're small and usually supplemental (i.e., people from the small towns get them as well as a larger newspaper from a more urban center), and they're HILARIOUS. Seriously. My grandmother lives in a tiny farming town in southern rural Minnesota, and I always ask to see the paper when I visit her - they include things like police logs (which are filled with "2AM: called to city park to investigate noise complaint. Found pack of teenagers. Sent teenagers home with warning.") and notices about local marriages and deaths and events. So it makes sense that Shawna with the Pawnee paper reports on the goings-on of the Parks and Rec department - that's exactly the type of stuff that goes into local small town papers.

I don't know what it's main industry is, but I think Sweetums might have its headquarters there, and if they have a harvest festival, they're probably near a rural area."

Response 2:

"It is a little weird RE: the size of Pawnee. It's apparently big enough to have a local television station with two locally produced morning shows, and has its own radio station. I've always felt like Pawnee would be around 20-30 thousand people, but such a small city wouldn't have all of that. I'm from a city about that size in Wisconsin, and we do have our own newspaper (actually, a very nice one; it was the first newspaper in the state that had an online edition), but not local television stations (and the one local radio station would be the college station). For the most part, though, this show could be set in my hometown. It's one of the reasons I love the show so much.

btw, 2 hours may not be much (Pawnee is in Southeastern Indiana), but that could suck for a relationship, pretty much seeing each other only on weekends.

As for state pride, there's Leslie's "Go Hoosiers!" moment (no, Go BADGERS), and the references to Bobby Knight and Indiana's love of basketball.

I have a good friend who's originally from Indiana (not exactly sure where, but it's a smaller town), and he speaks with a Southern-ish accent. He sounds kind of like Woody Harrelson did on Cheers (who is originally from Texas, though). I do wonder if the characters on this show should have an accent similar to my friend's."

ETA: I was going through the cast, seeing where they're from originally. Nick Offerman is from Joliet, Il, which is another perfect Pawnee-like town (but it would be, in my estimation, quite a bit bigger). Chris Pratt is from Virginia, Minnesota.

Response 3:
"I always envision Pawnee to be similar to a town/city like Grand Island, Nebraska. The similarities are really stirking. nebraska is a pretty big state where almost the entire population (2 million) lives in the southeastern corner of the state. So most of the state's population is crammed in to one area much like Indianapolis, Indiana. Lincoln (200,000 people), and Omaha (500,000) are both right next to each other in the SE corner of the state. the next biggest city in the state is only about (50,000) and it is Grand Island... A city which is born almost out of necessity because there are no other major population centers throughout the rest of the state.... so the state needed a centrally located midsized city located off I-80... and that's what grand island is, and i'll bet that's what Pawnee city is supposed to be. Grand Island is about 4-5 hours west of the major population centers in southeastern nebraska FYI, kind of like Pawnee is supposed to be (though like the op pointed out... they flubbed the size of indiana. this makes sense in a state the size of nebraska, but in indiana you can get pretty much anywhere in 2 hours. heck, you can get from indianapolis to columbus ohio in under 2 hours too.) Anywhoo, Grand Island is very similar to Pawnee. They're completely cut off from the other big cities in the state so they have their own little small media center with their own nbc affiliate station, a couple funny local talk shows on tv, their own radio stations am/fm, a little bit of a night life and a mall, a nice capital building, a newspaper, etc. etc.... and because they are like their own little stand alone mecca out there away from the other big cities in the state... they have a nice sense of civic pride."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Winter Shows Part II

My take on the new winter shows:

Mr. Sunshine, ABC-Mr. Sunshine has a lot going for it: Allison Janey, Nate Torrence, Matthew Perry, Andreas Anders, and the setting of a sports arena among other things.

I like what Nate Torrence and Allison Janey have done with their characters. Andreas Anders wears on me just a little bit but that's also because she has the misfortune of having to take that same winning screen persona and tweaking it for the fourth time in 6 and a half years (For those of you keeping score: Fall 2004-Joey, 2006-Class, 2009-Better off Ted, January 2011-Mr Sunshine) because that's just the nature of the TV industry. The same problem applies for Perry and James Lesure: I've seen these exact characters in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Las Vegas. As a result, I feel like I'm watching a show that exists within the same universe as those two shows where Matt Alvey quit show business and decided to manage a sports arena and Mike Canon quit the Montecito to join him.

As a result, the show struggles to define its own brand. It feels like a cross between Aaron Sorkin, Scrubs and a less colorful Wes Anderson film. If the show's going to go quirky, I hope we see more quirkiness out of Perry, Lesure and Anders. As it stands, Torrence and Janey are carrying the show and could become breakout characters if the show builds any traction.

One last little note: I liked that the pilot ended on a pretty strong note. It wasn't sappy but not meaningless either. We got the sense that Ben (Matthew Perry's character) would begin to reexamine his life a little but it wasn't going to be a drastic makeover.

Off the Map, ABC-I would estimate that, even though this is an exciting medical show that takes you to the third world, 80% of the show's content is entirely interchangeable with Grey's Anatomy. The focus is on interpersonal relationships, characters with chips on their shoulders trying to prove themselves, romances, and occasional medical emergency.

Bob's Burgers, FOX
-Is anyone else irritated by the growing trend that bad animation is making some sort of stylistic statement that ultimately enhances our viewing experience? Two of my favorite animated shows as of late have gone the South Park route of sloppy-is-trendy with regard to animation: "Life and Times of Tim" and this show. Nonetheless, Bob's Burgers is far weaker than the other shows on the Sunday night animation line-up which is going to doom it to unfavorable comparisons. I still like it, however. There's a lot to this show that's not particularly groundbreaking, but i do like the way the ensemble seems to bounce off each other. The three kids are all utterly oblivious to the wishes of their dad and there's a Malcolm in the Middle vibe with the frustrated parent character.

Retired at 35, TV Land-An old-fashioned system is never really out of date as long as audiences exist who grew up on that format. The main appeal of this show is George Segal who won this TV reviewer over on "Just Shoot Me." Jessica Walter is already on Archer so there hasn't been as much of a chance to miss her. The show had a novel premise and was solid enough in the pilot to keep me going. In the second and third episodes, however, the show drifted into pathetic. In focusing so heavily on the sex lives of the older characters, the show is trying too hard to be edgy and putting unnecessarily gross images in my head. The show also fails to answer the question of how the son doesn't seem to mind actively participating in his parent's sex lives as a wing man (for the father) or a buffer (for the mother). I was glad to see local TV star and short-lived SNL castoff Casey Wilson back on the airwaves although it looks like she's a guest star.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is there only room for one It guy from Britain?

Dave Chapelle once said that there's only room for one black comedian and that was Chris Rock before he came along. I'm just using this as an example, but it seems like public attention really only stays glued to one British guy at a time.

Jude Law was that guy from 99-04 with Talented Mr Ripley,

Paul Bettany with his 2 collaborations with Russell Crowe (ABM and M&C) and his career beginning to go solo with Dogville and Wimbledon gave him a run for his money.

Some people were pegging Orlando Bloom a successor in the hype for Elizabethtown and Kingdom of Heaven but he panned out.

Then it was Clive Owen with his GG win in Closer and then going on to star in (I believe) Domino and Children of Men.

Then Daniel Craig with James Bond in Casino Royale and picking up a pretty busy schedule over the next couple years with the sequel and Defiance.

Now it looks like Colin Firth with A Single Man and King's Speech. I originally was curious to know what might have happened if Bettany, Law, and Owen might have even been denied the starring Oscar-bait role for The King's Speech because they weren't hot in the now before finding out that that's exactly what happened. The film's production crew was considering Paul Bettany but the studio vetoed it because he wasn't as much of a star. Theory validated!

This, of course, is absurd. Not that long ago, Bettany had the second largest role in a Best Picture nominee (Master and Commander, 2003), had a prominent role in a Best Picture winner (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), and was tapped to become a star of his own in Wimbledeon. Meanwhile, Colin Firth was pretty much placed in movies to make Hugh Grant look more attractive to ladies (to be fair, this observation was first made on Saturday Night Live).

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Winter TV Show Update: Five Sketch Shows and Three New Shows

Click here for 10 Movies that should be remade.
My critique of various new TV shows:

1. With The Onion News Network, I thought it was odd that the pilot didn't put up the show's strongest material first. The first episode consisted of a 3 or 4-minute bit devoted to the guy who made the hand job and a white woman who will be tried as a black. The first segment is overly crude and the second is too oddly specific. Having seen and laughed at so many of their videos over the internet and you have to ask yourself how a creative time with such a higher rate of hits then misses can make such big mistakes in choosing material for its pilot.

The second episode got slightly better but the snow in New Orleans joke was overdone. The bits about congress forgetting how to pass a bill and escorts needed for women in the army were both hilarious but in two different ways: The former was more goofy and brash while the latter was a subtle bit of sharp satire that passed itself more as news. When the Onion writes a really memorable article or makes a really memorable video clip, it's the kind of thing you remember for days on end and tell everyone you know about. I also particularly enjoyed the bit on Martin Luther King's to make people sort of equal and have institutionalized racism rather than outright racism.

The show is smart to come up with a distinct format that runs from episode to episode. The anchor is memorably passive-aggressive and the guy working the infographic is clearly below her in the pecking order. There's also usually one running news story that the show goes back to two or three times; the closest thing they have to a motif. The anchor's passive-aggressive personality doesn't seem like it builds up towards a larger payoff. It's just a way to sprinkle the script with more laughs per minute and it's already run out of gas by the third episode.

Fans of the web videos will also recognize some of the same features. There are the cheery morning hosts (think a female and male version of Kelly Ripa) who act cheery when they're not supposed to. In the last episode, one of the reporters covered a town stoning of a teenage couple who's annoyingly affectionate and decided to join in. It was a pitch-perfect sketch with a very subtle escalation from normality to insanity (that's the key to a lot of sketch comedy).

There's also the "In the Know" panelists which takes the same kind of skewed off-center perspectives that characterize the Onion and put them in round table debate form. The internet versions of this involve five people and usually run a minute or two longer which allows the sketches to fully flesh out and escalate. Unfortunately, the "In the Know" segments are too short to get to that level.

2. Onion Sports Dome-Unlike Onion News Network, I feel like Sports Dome hit the ground running when it aired. It's the same creative team as ONN and the same style of comedy, so if I had to come up with a reason why one works better than the other, Sports Dome follows and parodies a single format very closely whereas ONN is simultaneously parodying the McLaughlin Group, morning talk shows, the CNN news desk, Fox-style infotainment, and more which requires a more delicate balance. Also, Sports Center and the greater realm of sports reporting in this country is just an area of humor that desperately needed its void to be filled.

3. Portlandia Fred Armisen and Carrie Bowenstein's brilliant new sketch series has much more in common with the Onion's TV shows than I would have originally thought. Their material has already been tested out on people through the internet and they stay well within the lines of parody much of the time. Their target is yuppie culture which is most exemplified by Portland, Oregon. I already read Stuff White People Like and would have thought that there wasn't much you could do that hasn't already been done with this theme, but Armisen and Bowenstein have an even sharper eye. It's as if you're looking at the culture through a microscope with a higher power of magnification. The sketches also are very well-structured as stand-alone pieces. The two sketches with the feminist bookstore owners are examples of how well the annoying cashiers can keep the sketch's momentum going so well with a sort of circular conversation that gets funnier as it goes along.

4. Funny or Die Presents-This came out last year but I watched my first episode very recently and found more of the sketches missing than hitting. Come to think of it, that's very true of the website as well. It's a lot more die than funny. Additionally, it's often the case that when it's funny, it's specifically because of the presence of a celebrity. Funny or Die, the TV show, is devoid of celebrity cameos and highlights the show's inconsistency. I fully disclose that it's based entirely on one episode, but that was the pattern I was seeing.

And lastly, one show that's not new, but I wanted to use as a basis of comparison.
5. College Humor Show This TV series was from 2009 and failed after a 6-episode run but the website's video section is as strong as ever. From a sketch-writing perspective, is strong. Their sketches are sharp, well-structured, escalate well with twists and turns, etc. The website's staff is also prolific producing a volume of quality sketches on a weekly basis that rivals Saturday Night Live. That being said, I feel like for such a large cultural force, there's very little commentary about this comedic institution. There's probably over 1,000 times more commentary on the internet written about SNL's failures than there is for I'm not sure if I'm that person considering I'm going to limit myself to a few minutes on a work break, but....

Still, there are two key problems to College Humor as a brand:
1. They haven't expanded their budget. They still shoot sketches in their office and their attempts to expand outside of their office in select sketches usually don't convince you that they're in an authentically different place. Sketches shot in an office with little or no illusion that it's somewhere else are reminiscent of the Sweded production trend that came out of the movie "Be Kind Rewind." Ironically, if you look at the credits section, you'll see that they have a crew devoted to the production: The short films have directors, production assistant and even a DP so they seem to take themselves seriously as film makers.

2. With the exception of Jake Hurwitz and Amir Bluminfeld when they're making their Jake and Amir skits,'s Hardly Working series doesn't care about establishing characters. There are about 8 or 9 regulars to the collegehumor series and they all pretty much have the same character traits. Dan Geurwitch is slightly nerdier than the rest but that's only if it serves the sketch. Considering Jake and Amir were able to make strong characters, it's a shame that no one else really has that skill.

Coming up....
Retired at 35, The Cape, Off the Map, Bob's Burgers and Mr. Sunshine