Thursday, August 30, 2012

Great shows from the past three years

My grandmother passed away six hours ago and in honor of her, I will refrain from capitilizing mid-sentence or punctuating show titles . Rest in peace Sylvia Konheim.
We all have our own take on what's great and what's not. The mainstream critical community (aka people who's blogs have actual human readers: not me) seem fairly clustered together in loving shows like misfits (blah), community (got off too a decent start but became coopted by self-indulgence, imo), breaking bad (yes), louie (?!), parks and rec, archer, mad men, friday night lights (never seen it), dexter, bob's burgers (good but not great) and enlightened. I vary with the critics on a number of these.
To let you know where I stand, here's my list of shows I find engaging, ambitious, admirable from a creative standpoint and often groundbreaking. I will limit it to the last 3 TV seasons beginning in the 2009-2010 season. I've already written about a number of these so I might add a sentence or two here and there:
30 Rock, NBC-The series boasts very sharp writing and incredible sharp jokes and has been consistent on those two fronts even as the novelty of its humor has worn off.
Alphas, SciFy Channel
American Dad, Fox
American Horror Story, FX
Archer, FX
Better off Ted, ABC
Big Bang Theory, CBS
Boardwalk Empire, HBO (just saw my first episode. Opinion hasn't been fully formed but definitely top 25 material for sure)
Breaking Bad, AMC
Dollhouse, FOX
Family Guy, Fox
Flight of the Conchords, HBO
Futurama, Fox
The Guild, Internet
Hell on Wheels, AMC
Hotel Babylon, BBC
In Treatment, HBO
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX
Lillyhammer, Netflix
The Office, NBC
Once Upon a Time, ABC
Onion News Network, IFC
Modern Family, ABC
Parks and Recreation, NBC
Party Down, Starz
Portlandia, IFC
Suburgatory, ABC
Sit Down Shut Up, Fox
Unsupervised, FX
Wilfred, FX
Admirable Close Calls:
Terra Nova, Fox
Bob's Burgers, Fox
Burn Notice, USA
Running Wilde, Fox
Royal Pains, USA
US of Tara, Showtime
New Adventures of Old Christine, CBS
Ladies #1 Detective Agency, HBO
Looney Tunes Show, Toon Network
New Girl, Fox

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Looking for References in Futurama


Note: I did not expect this blog entry to come out looking like a lesson plan. It just worked out that way.
 
“Futurama” is (at least in my opinion) a highly intelligent TV comedy that makes use a lot of external cultural references for jokes as well as for other purposes. Its sister program, “The Simpsons”, also uses this too which is significant to me because I noticed it’s the only way I’d actually watch the show. The show’s characters and world in general have worn so thin for me over 20+ seasons that the only two episodes I’ve bothered to watch in the past ten years were because they were spoofs on The Departed and The Social Network. Thus, external references keep shows interesting in a way beyond the established world and its characters.

The exercise here when watching Futurama is to look for external cultural references as they relate to a previously created source (what I believe is called “intratextual”) or some other aspect of society and they need to be specifically attached to some source.

These are jokes that require significant cleverness of the writer and effort and discernment on the part of the viewer. When one gets the reference, there is a subsequent reward as if solving a mini-puzzle that enhances the joke. For example, the TV show Futurama has, by some coincidence, writers on staff who have pHd’s in mathematics and they occasionally throw in mathematical riddles. It’s highly rewarding to be subtly given a mathematical riddle in the plot and then solve it to gain a reinforcement of the plot. There are two such examples at 9:00 and 10:16 of the Futurama episode “Free Will Hunting”: I believe the joke at 9:00 is that he’s reading the digits of Pi after the 3 because Bender says “Delivery for ‘14757378927464148’ but I think Pi is 3.14159. The second, (n+1)st national bank, is something I have NO IDEA about, but I’m sure it would be rewarding to know.

Some objectives in closely studying the references for an episode would be 1) Determining the degree to which cultural references comprise the overall humor of the episode 2) Identifying the purpose of each cultural reference: Does it provide a quick sight gag, does it contribute to a larger humorous motif or overall joke, does it help build the world, and/or does it help move the plot along? 3) Looking for patterns of the sources (as in external to culture or another source) 4) Analyzing the effectiveness of the joke

For example, I will take you through this watching process from 9:58 to 14:40 of the Futurama episode “Free Will Hunting” which comprises five scenes.
To give you a recap on the first 10 minutes of the episode:
Bender is acquitted of a series of crimes because his lawyer (who is, of course, a giant rooster) has argued that Bender can’t be held guilty of a crime because he has no free will. Bender is devastated to found out all of his actions are preordained and while making a delivery on the evil robot homeworld, he flees from his delivery duties to embark on a soul searching mission to resolve this internal conflict.


The inside scoop on my thought process during this exercise:
The first scene relies on the cute visual gag of the way that the robot rush hour is extremely synchronized. This is an internal reference. It relies on people having seen a season 1 episode in which people have seen the robot planet and provides the reward of people identifying the scene from before.

The second scene provides what will be my first external reference for analysis. The external reference is societal and not intratextual (based on another movie, tv show or other work of art). In this case, it is a Swiss cuckoo clock which often features an elaborate show of preprogrammed dancing figurines in the same pattern that the cop chases the bank robber. This external reference is used to advance forward the plot notion of Bender fearing that his actions are all preordained and highly predictable like Swiss cuckoo clock figurines.

In the third scene, Bender visits a simpleton farmer who advises him: “Son, philosophy is for them’s that don’t gotta work for a living, but me I got a sick child to feed so…..” Now let’s analyze the joke:
It works as a cute inversion on the typical scene of the rustic farm, because the robot has been needlessly given the human characteristics of a farmer (i.e. speaks in rural jargon, dressed up in the clothes of a farmer). We would imagine an agricultural futuristic robot to be purely functional and not needlessly given human characteristics. There is also a visual gag that Bender passes by: A scarecrow made up of vacuum tubes and robotic parts of some sort.

These might both be references to something more specific but I can’t pick them out. In this case, I might have failed to identify a reference or there might be no reference there to begin with. Either way, I don’t count either as a reference.

The fourth scene is an internal reference to a funny scene in the original episode where Bender visits the robotic homeworld and the elders begin each sentence by saying “Silence!”
I am almost sure that there’s an external reference in the robotic council of elders to a Socratic council, but I am not well-versed enough in Greek history to know for sure. The show’s writers have encoded the reference with Greek style togas and wigs to help me decipher the clue. Again, the fault might lie with myself. The nature of the building where the elders reside might also be a reference to something (perhaps Kafka?) that I can’t decipher.

In the fifth scene, Bender visits a monestary to get enlightenment. The entire premise of a robot monestary is highly enjoyable but the question in order to count it comes down to “Is it a play on a specific monestary?”

I count three or four specific references and the first intertextual reference here:
1. The first and only intratextual reference in this passage is coincidentally based on the most popular text in history: The bible. The bible is commonly referred to as the “Good Book.” Thus in a futuristic society made up of robots, it’s rechristened the “whole ebook.” The joke is very well thought-through. In an automatic robotic way of thinking where things are either 1 or 0 with no middle ground, would not “good” translate into complete or “whole”?
2. The second is a play on binary code which is what robots and chants are played out of.
3. The third is Quaker State Motor Oil, which is the source of food. It is entirely a visual gag. It’s another simple transference of a cultural reference translated into a robot world.
4. I think the concept of a stained glass window is close enough. It’s a culturally specific concept and relates to medieval times and a specific style of architecture. In this case, it’s a world-building tool and a visual gag. Because the robots were founded by mom, then naturally the robots’ form of worship would revolve around mom. The joke is framed in a specific cultural frame of reference.

What references did you identify and how effective did you feel they were?

Now, on your own, watch the episode Viva Mars Vegas (chosen because it’s the last episode to air when this blog entry was written) and tell me which references you spotted, what they were based off, the concreteness of the reference and the nature of the reward you felt for getting it; the effectiveness as jokes and how the humor were employed; and what specifically the reference was used for. You can check which ones you missed (and therefore, measure your pop savvy) at the www.theinfosphere.org and I will soon post the ones I caught in the form of a highly subjective answer key:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

60 Greatest Summer Olympian Heroes in History


A highly debatable (so let the debate begin! comment section open for business) list of the greatest Summer Olympians. This wasn't too hard to do because I'm an Olympics erudite and whenever the Olympics comes around, I always get into it and start reading books of past Olympics. These athletes are judged by how much of an impact they had on the sport and how much they inspired (i.e. a hometown favorite lifting up his country), the degree to which they succeeded, the sheer talent and athleticism they displayed, and the challenges they overcame.
  1. Jim Thorpe, T&F-Multievent, USA, 1912-An incredibly talented athlete in everything he did from baseball to football to every track event on the field. Spontaneously entered the high jump and placed 4th  while not fully rested from his other events.
  2. Jesse Owens, T&F, USA, 1936-Bested Hitler’s vision of the Aryan race, won the hearts of many including his German competitors. Long remained an ambassador to the sport.
  3. Michael Phelps, Swimming, USA, 2004-2012-Evidence is right there if you’ve been watching the past 4 years
  4. Carl Lewis, T&F, USA, 1984-1996-Dominant through four Olympics amassing impressive golds in 4 events.
  5. Mildred Babe Diedrikson, T&F, USA, 1932-Competed in events as diverse as javelin, hurdles and high jump, setting world records in all of them as well as the 100 meter dash. Also considered the country's best golfer.
  6. Mark Spitz, Swimming, USA, 1968-1972-Won every event he entered in Munich with a World Record after bombastically proclaiming he would beforehand. Might have won 8 if there was a 50-meter freestyle
  7. Dream Team, Basketball, USA, 1992-A legendary assemblage of the best stars in the world created the best team in history. Never had to take a  
  8. Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics, Romania, 1976-Reached perfection with a perfect ten
  9. Pavo Nurmi, T&F-Distance, Finland, 1920-1928-Extremely dominant over three games with events ranging from 1500 to 10,000 meters
  10. Al Oerter, T&F-Discus, USA, 1956-1968-Only athletics star to win a medal in the same event four times in a row. Never was the favorite, and had overcome such extreme pain from an accident in one of his Olympics that he had to sit down between throws.
  11. Abebe Bikila, T&F-Marathon, ETH-1960-1964-First African distance star. Won the Marathon twice barefoot.
  12. Greg Louganis, Diving, USA, 1984-1992-Became a global icon. Unbeatable in his event. He had one of the most dramatic dives in 1988 when he hit his head on the board in a flubbed dive, mended it up in stitches, came back the next day and won gold.
  13. Fanny Blankers-Koen, T&F, HOL, 1948-A mother who wasn’t even at her peak (she was 33 years old) when she won 4 events in hurdling and sprinting. Also held world records in the long jump and high jump
  14. Usain Bolt, T&F-Sprinting, JAM, 2008-2012-You probably already know about his great performances in the Olympics, but there's also his effect outside of it. His presence on the track circut saved a number of struggling international track meets from extinction and boosted attendance considerably 
  15. Larysa Latinya, Gymnastics, USSR, 1956-1964-Held the record for most medals before Phelps
  16. Dawn Frasier, Swimming, AUS, 1956-1964-First female swimmer under a minute in 100 m events, first swimmer to win same event three times.   
  17. Emil Zatopek, T&F, Distance, USSR/CZE, 1952-1956-Won both on the track and in the marathon  
  18. Bob Matthias, T&F-Decathlon, USA 1948-1952-At 17, he was the youngest track and field champion to date, which doesn’t even count the degree of difficulty for someone to win a decathlon
  19. Bob Beamon, T&F-Long Jump, USA, 1968-His jump in Mexico City bettered the world record by an incredible margin to 29+ feet. His record remained for 23 years.
  20. Alberto Juantaronema, T&F-Middle Distance, CUB, 2000-Won the 400 AND 800 (entered the latter on somewhat of a whim) which is far more difficult than a 200-400 double.   
  21. Michael Johnson, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1996-2000-Won the 200-400 double. His 19.32 matches Bob Beamon as the most drastic world record in track. A well-marketed machine.
  22. The Nichibo Girls, Volleyball, JPN, 1964-The pride of the Tokyo Olympics, they trained brutally trained 6 hours a day after work at a laundry factory where they had full-time jobs.
  23. Wilma Rudolph, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1960-Glamorous star and single mom overcame polio and scarlett fever with help from her supportive mom and 21 siblings.
  24. Kerri Strug, Gymnastics, USA, 1996-Golden girl of Atlanta wins for home team despite a broken leg
  25. Muhammed Ali, Boxing, USA, 1960-Boxing legend achieved most of fame after Olympics but showed off his brilliance and quick reflexes . Worth noting (at least by me, because I never knew it before) that he also showed great integrity by dumping his medal in the river (longer story than I have room to recount here)
  26. Florence Griffith-Joyner, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1988-Glamorous star of the Seoul games. Won a lot of events. She's idolized a lot today.
  27. Ray Ewry, T&F-Jumping, USA, 1900-1908-Won 10 medals in early Olympics
  28. Sebastian Coe & Steve Ovett, T&F-Middle Distance, GBR, 1980-1984-One of history’s most famous and productive rivalries led to the dropping of world records and one of the Games’ greatest comeback stories
  29. Cathy Freeman, AUS, T&F-400, 2000-Emotional win for Australian Aborigines resolved the dark history of her nation and was the Sydney highlight  
  30. Olga Korbut, Gymnastics, USSR, 1972-1976-Responsible for the transition of gymnastics from a sport of athleticism to a sport of beauty and grace
  31. Kornelia Ender, Swimming, E. Germany, 1996-Won three team silvers at the Munich Games in 1972 at just 13 years of age. Won 4 more gols and a silver four years later
  32. Haile Gabrielsalassie, T&F-Distance, ETH, 1996-2000-Had a couple of the most technically astonishing performances by a distance runner in an Olympic race
  33. Matt Biondi, Swimming, USA, 1984-1992-Won 11 medals and 8 golds. His times in the 100 meter and 50 meter freestyle would likely still be good enough to make the Olympic teams nearly 20 years later.
  34. Fu Mingxhia, Diving, CHN, 1992-2000-Won first Olympic competition at age 12, Won her first Gold at age 13, causing the Olympic committee to revise the rules  
  35. Hachim el Garrouj, T&F-Distance, MAR, 2004-After two failed attempts the best miler in history emotionally captured the 2004 1500 and topped it off with a Gold in the 5K
  36. Kristen Otto, Swimming, E. Germany, 1988-Went 6 for 6 in Seoul in her swimming events. 
  37. Mia Hamm, Soccer/Football, USA, 1996-2004-The team captain and driving force behind the wave of dominance in US Soccer in the Olympics and the popularization of it in her country
  38. Karoly Tasacks, Shooting, HUN, 1948-1952-Won repeat golds in his event despite having his hand maimed ten years earlier 1938. Persisted in Olympic dream for 12 years despite being declared ineligible in 1936
  39. Nikolay Andrianov, Gymnastics, USSR/Romania, 1972-1980-Won 15 medals with an all-around victory in 1976
  40. Johnny Weismuller, Swimming, USA, 1924-1928-Won 5 medals in 1924 and 1928, and also won a bronze for the 1924 water polo team. Later became Tarzan.
  41. Hannes Kolenheim, T&F-Distance, FIN, 1912-1920-A vegetarian bricklayer of extraordinary athletic prowess (he'd regularly cross-country ski 100 kilometers to reach town in his youth) won three golds in track in 1912 and followed it up by switching over to the marathon in 1920 and becoming one of only 2 people to win both. A national hero, partially because he paid it forward by training Alben Stenroos: The other Finn to  win a marathon.
  42. Nigerian Soccer Team, 1996-Half-fulfilled Pele’s prophecy of an African nation winning the World Cup before 2000
  43. Stefi Graf, Tennis, GER, 1988-Inaugural tennis star completed career grand slam at the games
  44. Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics, USA, 1984-Scored a perfect 10 in front of the home crowd
  45. Rafer Johnson & CK Yang, T&F-Decathlon, USA/TAIWAN, 1960, Two rivals from different cultures became great friends on the UCLA team and consulted the same coach for advice before medaling
  46. Edwin Moses, T&F-Hurdles, USA, 1976-1984-Had a 9 year winning streak that stretched over two Olympics and could have stretched three, popularized the sport. Also a leader off the track as well.
  47. Ian Thorpe, Swimming, AUS, 2000-The Torpedo was the pride of Australia. Won the most talented racing field in swimming history in 2004 (Phelps, von Hoogenband). Struggled a little with placement on this one because he did lose two big races in Sydney but many websites I consulted declare him at the top of best swimmers lists
  48. Betty Robinson, T&F-Sprints, USA, 1928-Plucked from obscurity when someone saw her running towards a school bus, was the first female track star. Healthily won her events at a time when the Olympic Committee was considering banning women from running in the Olympics. They banned it anyway for 32 years but her accomplishments still hold up
  49. Derrick Richmond, T&F-400, GBR, 1992-One of the most emotional moments of the Olympics where a man's defeat became a cause for celebration of the human spirit (see "Eric the Eel" as well)
  50. Alexander Dityatin, USSR, Gymnastics, 1980-Gradually improved through three Olympics and came to Moscow with one of the most dominant performances even outshining counterpart Andrianov
  51. Rowdy Gaines, Swimming, USA 1984-Was the best swimmer in the world in 1980 but missed his chance with the  boycott. Came back in 1984 in weaker shape but still pulled it together to win 3 golds. 
  52. Armin Harry, T&F-Sprinting, W. GER, 1960-This guy was seriously unreal. Called the "blitz" and often accused of cheating, he had a reaction time of 4 hundredths of a second whereas his competitors had a reaction time of 12 hundredths of a second.
  53. Kip Keino, T&F-Distance, KEN, 1968-1972-First African to break 4 minutes in the mile, won one of the greatest classical mile races ever and paved the way for other Africans to dominate. Spontaneously decided to run the steeplechase with little experience and won it
  54. Jennifer Capriati, Tennis, USA, 1992-Child progidy had the tournament of her life before burning out and sinking out of the world ranks for 8 years. She defeated Aranxta-Sanchez Vicario on her home turf and upset Steffi Graf at the finals.
  55. Sprydon Louis, Marathon, GRE, 1896-Won the inaugural marathon in under 3 hours, which wasn't bad for an event that had just been invented. His win was the only Gold for the home country and they were really counting on him
  56. Don Schollander, Swimming, USA, 1964-Recorded the most Gold medals (4) in Tokyo Olympics and broke 3 world records at age 18. Because of this and because he was heading to Yale, was named athlete of the year by ABC's Wide World of Sports and the AP.
  57. Peter von Hogenbond & Ingje de Bruijn, HOL, Swimming, 2000-2004-Both came on the scene strong for Holland in Sydney. PvH upset Ian Thorpe twice and beat Phelps in his only two losses in Athens. IdB won 8 medals and set 11 world records in 2000 leading up to 3 in Sydney, two of which still stand today 
  58. Oscar Schwan, SWE, Shooting, 1912-1920-Oldest medalist in history. 72 when he won Silver in Antwerp. Also won in Stockholm. Look at pictures of him and you'll see a very fun-looking grizzled old man  
  59. Misty May and Kerri Walsh, Beach Volleyball, USA, 2004-2012-Three-peated. Popularized the sport. Had a lot of fun
  60. Sergei Bubka, USSR/UKR, T&F-Pole Vaulting, 1988-First pole vaulter to top 20 feet. This is kind of a big deal (a seeming physical impossibility) because the pole is 20 feet long. Despite being highly dominant in his sport and winning every world championship, he strangely failed to medal in 1992 and 1996 so he loses points there.
NOTES:
-I have a soft-spot for athletes who missed their chance in one Olympics and waited four long years to come back and complete their goal and I have an especially soft spot for athletes in 1948 who waited 12 years to compete in an Olympics.

-Also, people who did great things when they were young or especially old.
-The list is US-centric and focuses on the sports which get the most Olympic coverage. Part of the criteria is about impact and you can impact culture and inspire more if people are watching you on TV. In some cases, the volleyball team in Japan or the shooters each broke out of the bubbles of their sports to have a great impact. -There are a lot of swimmers in the 90's who all drift together in my memory and in their accomplishments: Janet Evans, Jenny Thompson, Summer Saunders, Amy van Dyken. It was really hard telling them apart. Perhaps, some of them are worthy

-I ran into a problem of how to rank certain people based on their performances in the Olympics verse outside of the Olympics. When in doubt (in sports like tennis, basketball or soccer), they always have to have done something especially notable in the Olympics. You also have problems of someone who might be notable in a sport that the Olympics were meant for like Sergei Bubka who didn't perform as perfectly in the Olympics as his record would expect

-Throw in some more suggestions. I might want to go to 100 and in the back of my mind have this idea to write a book on this.

-The book Complete History of the Summer Olympics and this website are both really big help:
http://sports.espn.go.com/oly/summer08/fanguide/athlete?athlete=9532


    Monday, August 06, 2012

    Old-Timey Reviews of 2 Tom Cruise Films: Valkyrie & Lions for Lambs


    VALKYRIE
    Valkyrie features Tom Cruise as star and producer of a true story about a group of German officers who made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler and launch a government coup over Germany in order to spare the country a more merciful surrender pact with the Allied forces. Despite a few setbacks, Valkyrie is a well-crafted political thriller.
    Chief among these setbacks is Tom Cruise, himself, which is somewhat of a disappointment because this man has taken a lot of beatings from the press and general public over the last couple of years and I'm usually one of his starch defenders. Cruise doesn't even attempt a German accent and doesn't really inject any personality into the role. It's ridiculously hard to suspend your disbelief and think you're watching anything other than some strange time travelling story of Tom Cruise playing himself inserted into 1944 Germany*. Fortunately, Cruise is surrounded by a really solid cast: Among others, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp (My Boss' Daughter, Get Smart), and Tom Wilkinson, fresh off his amazing performance in Michael Clayton last year. Wilkinson's character as a top general with loyalties to Hitler could have been someone you could have built an entire movie around.