Other Space

I didn’t binge-watch “Other Space” all in one sitting, but it only took me a few days to get through the eight-episode season of this quirky science-fiction comedy. I thought it was terrific, and I’m hoping against hope for another season. I don’t know if that’s likely, since creator Paul Feig (who originally pitched this show to NBC, years ago) is now better known for movies like “Bridesmaids.”

This isn’t for everyone. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “Red Dwarf” or even “Futurama” — a playful comedy which has some fun with science fiction tropes.

The thing that caught my eye in advance was the participation of not one but two veterans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Joel Hodgson plays a live-action role, while Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and one of the voices of Crow T. Robot) is the voice of another robot, named ART. The show also, strangely enough, has actors from two different AT&T advertising campaigns. Karan Soni plays the closest thing the show has to a central character, and he played one of those two technicians who appeared in several different ads about AT&T upgrading its network. (“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”)

Milana Vayntrub, meanwhile, is nearly ubiquitous (unless you watch everything by DVR and skip through the commercials) as Lily, the perky AT&T wireless salesperson.

Anyway, the show is set in an future where space travel has become sort of routine. There’s a space agency called the Universal Mapping Project, or UMP, but most of Earth has lost interest. There are still those with the itch to explore, however, including the cheery, eternally optimistic Stewart Lipinksi (Soni) and his hard-driven, ultra-competitive sister Karen (Bess Rous). Stewart, somewhat improbably, gets command of his own ship, with his furious sister as one of his crew members. But Stewart, Karen and their largely-incompetent, misfit crew have just begun their journey when they get bumped into an unknown alternate universe. They must find a way to stay alive — and keep from killing one another — until they can figure out how to get back home.

The whole ensemble cast is excellent, including the names already mentioned plus Neil Casey, Eugene Cordero and Conor Leslie. Hodgson seems to be having a ball as the ship’s somewhat-addled engineer.

It really is fun, if you’re any sort of science fiction geek, and I really do hope they get to make another season.

Here’s the first episode. You can watch others at the Yahoo! Screen web site or by installing the Yahoo! Screen channel on Roku and similar devices. (“Community” is also available there.)

bread head

My friend Sue Thelen was baking bread today, with a sourdough starter I gave her, and posted about it on Facebook. Something in her post reminded me of something I heard once – there are cooks, and there are bakers. Cooks tend to change and adapt recipes to suit their taste, their imagination, and whatever happens to be in the cupboard. Bakers, however, have to follow a recipe a little more closely. In many baked goods, for scientific reasons, a slight difference in, say, the ratio of flour to water can make a big difference. Bakers care whether they use bread flour, all-purpose flour or cake flour, and they know the difference.

I tend to be a cook, and I’m not the type to bake desserts or pastries, but I do love to bake bread, and I can generally stick to a recipe well enough for bread to turn out. I’m still amazed that I’ve been able to keep my home-grown sourdough starter alive for so long now.

Father Dominic Garramone, an actual Benedictine monk, used to have a show on public TV called “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic.” Yes, baking can be picky, but you can’t stress over it too much; Father Dominic used to say, repeatedly, “It’s bread; it’ll forgive you.” I’ve found that to be true. Even if a loaf of bread is a little denser than expected or a little softer than expected, it’s still usually good.

After I told Sue that earlier today, however, I had a less-than-forgiving moment tonight. I had reserved half of the bread dough from this past weekend, frozen it, and then thawed it overnight last night. I let it rise today and put it in the oven tonight. So far, so good; I now know I can safely freeze bread dough.

The trouble is that the rickety oven in my apartment does strange things sometimes, and I had the thermostat turned up a little too high tonight, causing the broiler to turn on, burning the top of the loaf before the center had even started really baking. I had to throw it out.

Sue’s loaves today turned out well, and since that was my starter I can at least take some solace.

I was happy that our conversation made me think of Father Dominic, by the way; I had no idea that he had a website, and a blog. There are some short videos, “Breadhead Minutes,” which apparently still run on some public TV stations (I haven’t seen them locally, but I may have just missed them).

Interestingly enough, my tech column in today’s Times-Gazette referenced Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network and the new relaunch of “The Screen Savers,” both of which feature another Catholic father who dabbles in television on the side – the likable and knowledgeable Father Robert Ballacer, a Jesuit priest. If the Wittenburg Door were still active, I’d be pitching interviews with both of them.

uncle walt’s archives

When the Disney Channel first went on the air, it was a premium channel, not ad-supported, although not every cable system charged for it. It was aimed at the whole family. Some offered it for free, as a way of boosting subscriptions. And it was originally conceived, in part, as a way of leveraging the huge vault of content the Disney company had acquired over the years, some of which hadn’t been seen in years.

As time went on, of course, the channel’s emphasis shifted, and now the Disney Channel is mostly about new content, some animated, some live action. There are several different channels, all aimed at kids — The Disney Channel is aimed slightly more at girls, while Disney XD is slightly more for boys, and there’s a separate channel for younger kids. But it’s kind of a shame that there’s no full-time showcase for some of that older material.

So it’s nice that Disney now has a deal with Turner Classic Movies to occasionally showcase older Disney content, in a Sunday-night package hosted by Leonard Maltin. It’s been running tonight, with a mix of movies, cartoon shorts and Disney TV episodes. I just wish there was some way to see some of that content more often. I also wonder what Walt would think about the fact that, with all of the channels owned by ABC and Disney, this material has to find a home on someone else’s channel.

things snl ought to bring back

NOTE: I will be liveblogging the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary prime time special at this website Sunday night.

I have really enjoyed VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind,” a rerun of the vast majority of “Saturday Night Live” in reverse chronological order (except for a few themed programming blocks) over the past week or two, in preparation for the show’s 40th anniversary special on Sunday night.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I didn’t necessarily see all of these episodes during “SNL Rewind” – in some cases, I was just reminded of them) is that at certain points in the show’s history, they’ve been willing to monkey around with the format a little bit. Some of these variations were things I wish they’d revive – at least every now and then:

Onscreen graphics: I loved the little bumpers they ran during the original years of the show when going to commercial (“COMING UP: Is Roy Rogers Trigger-Happy?”), especially the ones where they’d zoom in on some unsuspecting audience member and put something on screen like “Won’t put out until the third date.”

Show-long running gags: As much as people malign the Dick Ebersol years, when Lorne Michaels wasn’t running the show, one thing they did well during that time was have fun with the format of the show itself. This included things like the extended coverage of Buckwheat being shot or the telephone poll over whether or not to boil and eat Larry The Lobster. They had an episode with multiple hosts. There was even a little of this during the show’s original run – such as the “anyone can host” contest.

The ill-fated first season of Lorne’s return – the one with Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack – included an episode like this, based around the conceit that SNL had brought in Francis Ford Coppola to direct.

Standup or specialty performers: Some older SNL episodes had not only a musical guest but a comedy guest. Andy Kaufman, Joel Hodgson and even Harry Anderson appeared on SNL this way. I don’t suggest that they get a different run-of-the-mill standup comedian every week, but the occasional unique comedy talent would be better than another iteration of “What’s Up With That?” or whatever running sketch they’re running into the ground this week.

Trying new things in general: The Ebersol years had – and I had forgotten this – occasional segments similar to Jay Leno’s or Jimmy Kimmel’s man-on-the-street segments. I’m actually not advising that they do this specifically, but an occasional piece of unscripted comedy, taking advantage of SNL’s New York City location, might not be a bad thing.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing in some quarters that says the show as it is currently composed is doomed – it’s no longer appointment television because everyone knows that if something really funny happens, you can simply go online and watch the clip of that individual sketch the next day. There’s been some talk that whenever Lorne decides to retire, the show will go with him. But I think they should at least see if new hands could bring a fresh approach, and a willingness to play around with the format. If that happens, people might feel the need to watch the show live again.

and so it goes

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was playing Linda Ellerbee just now on early-80s SNL. I had not thought of Linda Ellerbee in ages.

I remember in the 70s when SNL ran three Saturdays a month and the irreverent and ahead-of-its-time NBC News show “Weekend” ran the fourth Saturday, which actually helped alleviate SNL rerun burnout. Ellerbee, with her wry, very un-anchor-like humor, anchored it, and then later anchored the critically-acclaimed “NBC News Overnight.”

But what I remember her best on was “Our World” on ABC, a fascinating show produced by the news department which was sort of a weekly mini-documentary focusing on one year, or occasionally a shorter period, from earlier in the century. Ellerbee co-hosted it with Ray Gandolf. Nobody watched it, because it ran against “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights. It was relatively cheap to produce, and thus was basically ABC throwing up a white flag in that time slot, which they knew they weren’t going to win as long as Cosby was on the air. But the affiliates don’t like it when the network surrenders like that (see “The Jay Leno Show”) and the show was cancelled.

Gandolf usually opened the show (although Ellerbee opens it in the clip below) by saying “For the next hour, think of your TV as a time machine.” Then, Ellerbee got the last word, so that she could use her famous signoff from “Weekend” and “Overnight,” “…and so it goes.”

 

It was well done, while it lasted.

Ellerbee later went on to host a news show for children on Nickelodeon, which I’ve never seen. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it’s still on the air.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

It’s all been done

I have not gotten the chance to watch the new TV series “Gotham,” although some of my friends have praised it on Facebook.

The show is set in Gotham City, but without Batman – it’s set at about the time that young Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down. It follows young police officer James Gordon as he tries to keep his integrity while rising through the city’s corrupt police force, as well as showing or hinting at the origins for various other Batman villains.

The pilot was supposed to have been spectacular, although some critics haven’t been as impressed with the subsequent episodes.

I probably ought to check the show out, but I’m suspicious of the premise. To me, prequels like this end up  being kind of forced, especially when you know for certain where the characters are eventually going to end up. I was never a regular viewer of “Smallville,” but I had to laugh at the episode descriptions – apparently, every major figure in the DC universe eventually had a flat tire while driving through the same little town in Kansas. What are the odds?

One thing almost no one has mentioned, and it surprises me, is that “Gotham” is not the first attempt at a Batman-free TV series set in Gotham City. That would be “Birds of Prey,” from 2002. I did see a few episodes of that (although it didn’t last very long).

“Birds of Prey,” based on a pre-existing DC comic book, takes place in a post-Batman Gotham City. Batman has had a final confrontation with the Joker, and it resulted in Selina Kyle (Catwoman) being killed by one of the Joker’s henchmen. Bruce Wayne, consumed by guilt and grief, disappears, and apparently the people of Gotham are too slow to notice that both Bruce and Batman disappeared from public view at about the same time.

“Birds of Prey” is about three women who try to protect the city in Batman’s absence, assisted by the always-loyal Alfred Pennyworth. Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, is vaguely known in popular culture for being Batgirl, as in the 1960s TV series. But in the comics at the time, she was a little older, confined to a wheelchair, and using the superhero name Oracle. (Batgirl returned to the print comics just recently, as part of a company-wide reboot of DC storylines.) Huntress (Helena Kyle) is Catwoman’s teenage daughter, and finds out in the first episode of the show that her father was the now-absent Batman. She has mysterious mutant-like tracking abilities. Dinah, the third member of the team, is a psychic and telekinetic teenager.

Helena Kyle, distraught over the death of her mother and the departure of the father she never knew, has begun seeing a psychiatriist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Quinzel is actually Harlequin, who was Joker’s right hand and now runs a crime empire of her own. (The character of Harlequin as the Joker’s assistant was actually created for “Batman: The Animated Series,” but was quickly picked up by the print comics.) At the beginning of the series, neither the patient nor the psychiatrist knows about the other’s secret identity. Mia Sara’s portrayal of Harlequin was easily the best thing about the few episodes of the show I happened to see.

“Birds of Prey” wasn’t a great show, but it had some interesting ideas. I just find it amusing that every review of “Gotham” gushes over the idea of Gotham City-without-Batman, not realizing that it’s been done before.

cinematic ramblings

The other day, when posting (as I often do) a Facebook update about some movie coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I made a passive-aggressive comment about not knowing if anyone paid attention to my classic movie recommendations. What I meant was that I can’t recall anyone ever posting “Hey, John, I watched ‘Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ on your recommendation, and I never laughed so hard in my life.”

Several people were kind enough to comment on my post, saying that they enjoyed my movie recommendations.

I enjoy introducing people to great movies they’ve never seen before. The high point of my adult life was the 2 1/2 years at Famous Televangelist University when I was in charge of the campus movies, and got to introduce my fellow students – some of whom had grown up in Christian-media-only bubbles – to things like “Casablanca.”

Anyway, later that night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and got to thinking. I’ve been wanting to do some sort of podcast but didn’t think I had a marketable idea. (I also don’t have the infrastructure to do a really professional-sounding, properly-distributed podcast right now.) Maybe I could turn my blithering about movies into some sort of podcast – I would scan the TV listings, in advance, and then do a little five-minute audio, once a week, calling people’s attention to some sort of classic movie, either on TCM or some other station or streaming service.

For a five-minute podcast, I could start by just uploading it to Soundcloud for a few months. If it worked out, and if anyone listened to it, I could eventually figure out some way to turn it into a real, properly-produced, properly-hosted podcast.

I can’t start it right now – I’m going to be pretty busy for the next month or two, between the horse show and the play I’m in – but I’m going to keep giving it some thought.

Lives up to the name ‘essential’

Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central, TCM will air “Metropolis” as this week’s episode of “The Essentials,” hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. TCM shows the latest restoration of the movie, released in 2010, and made possible by footage found in 2008 in Argentina. My brother and sister-in-law gave me this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

If you have never seen “Metropolis,” or if you’ve only seen the butchered print that existed before 2010, you really need to watch this, or set your VCR.

Even if you don’t like silent movies – and I have to admit, I rarely have the attention span to sit and watch a silent feature film here at home – this is the one to see. It laid the groundwork for so many other things, from “Star Trek” to “Blade Runner.”

The German expressionist classic, released in 1927, just a year or two before talkies became the norm, tells the story of a future civilization deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class lives in a beautiful city of art-deco skyscrapers and flying cars. (Many, many movie and TV art directors, for things like the Tim Burton-era “Batman” movies, have cited “Metropolis” as an influence on their futuristic urban landscapes.) The working class works underground.

Freder Fredersen is the privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the leader of this futuristic city. Maria is one of the workers, and has become the leader of a non-violent resistance movement, hoping for a “mediator” who can bring together the city’s two classes. When she breaks into the city’s pleasure gardens, Freder sees her and is smitten. He ventures into the subterranean world looking for her and is shocked at what he finds there.

Joh Fredersen, disturbed by his son’s newfound interest in the workers and worried because some workers have been found in possession of suspicious maps, turns to his old friend and bitter rival, a mad scientist named Rotwang, who has invented a lifelike android that can be used to disrupt the workers’ resistance movement. But Rotwang has his own priorities ….

Seriously, if you’ve enjoyed any modern science fiction movies or TV shows, you need to see this movie, which laid the groundwork for so many of them. These weren’t cliches in 1927 ….