PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

Three TV Shows Worth Watching

Rather than dwell on the negative, and spend a lot of primo blogosphere real estate tearing down the worst of what television has to offer, I thought it might be a good idea to mention a few things that TV is doing right. There’ll be plenty of time for hatchet jobs later. So here, in no particular order, are three great TV shows that you should be watching:

Smallville Thursday at 8 p.m. on the WB (WHCP, locally)

The legend and mythology of Superman is pretty durable. It’s lasted for nearly seven decades in comic books, with a major reboot every generation. It survived translation into the classic “Adventures Of Superman” TV show from the 1950s. Two really great, and two really bad movies in the 1970s and ’80s broadened the appeal of the Man Of Steel. There have been several cartoon series, some excellent, some horrid. And there was even the wretched “Lois and Clark” series in the ’90s, the less said about the better.

So when it was announced that the WB would do a new television series that would be a cross between “Dawson’s Creek” and Superman, fans of the Last Son of Krypton were skeptical, but prepared for a new take on the classic legend. This is a new take on Clark Kent’s high school years, with an emphasis on his destiny as the defender of the Earth.

Smallville has turned out to be the best live-action version of the Superman legend ever done. It’s taken elements of the classic versions of the story of the alien baby with super powers, and updated it to modern times, without losing any of the charm or sense of wonder of the original story that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave us in 1938. The foreshadowing is a key part of the appeal for fans of the comic book. There have been some brilliant moments where you know the writers and producers are paying tribute to a classic comic book story. And they’ve accomplished this without the use of the famous blue suit.

Even with the arbitrary changes to the comic book that Hollywood seems to be obliged by law to make, Smallville has proven to be remarkably loyal to the spirit of the book. The producers have added elements to the mythology that not only make perfect sense, but also weave Superman’s legacy of super-powered enemies into the show in a perfectly logical manner. The respect for the source material is one of the keys to the show’s success, and a real treat for comic book geeks like myself. This week, Aquaman shows up!

Smallville sports one of the most-talented casts in prime-time. Tom Welling is a perfect Clark Kent/Superman. Annette O’Toole and John Schneider bring a youthful vigor to his adoptive parents, Jonathon and Martha Kent, that has been missing in previous versions of the story. Michael Rosenbaum proves to be a talent to watch with his multi-faceted portrayal of Lex Luthor, who’s destined to become Superman’s greatest foe. The entire cast is impressive. It’s a mystery why Warners didn’t just decide to continue this series, with the same cast, in the Superman feature film. Sadly, they decided to go with a totally different approach with the currently-shooting big screen Superman epic, and it’s possible that Smallville may be sacrificed in order to not confuse the public.

Let’s hope that isn’t the case. Smallville, now in its fifth season, is showing surprising strength on its new night. In the key demographics, it’s ranked second behind “Survivor” on CBS. Smallville has been soundly beating “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Joey” and “Alias” on a regular basis. Any fan of Superman should be watching this show. Any fan of good adventure shows should be watching Smallville.

Good Eats Weeknights at 7 PM, and Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the Food Network

Shifting Gears, we have the coolest cooking show on TV, Good Eats. Host Alton Brown brings a quirky, informative quality to this cleverly produced series that goes beyond simple “how-to” cooking instruction to a full-blown “why does it work that way” method. Brown is like the cooking show successor to Mr. Wizard. He clearly explains the science of how to prepare and cook food, and you come away with enough knowledge to adapt the lessons to recipes that have nothing to do with the show you’ve just watched. You also come away entertained. Brown puts his pre-chef background as a cinematographer to work constructing a bright, fun half-hour show that’s as packed with comedy and pop culture references as it is with recipes. Even when he’s cooking something you find totally repulsive (seafood, in my case), you wind up watching, because the show is still informative and entertaining.

Good Eats is good television.

Rome Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

I got hooked on Roman history about 15 years ago when Bravo re-ran the old “I Claudius” series (originally on Masterpiece Theater). Since then, I’ve always enjoyed a good dramatic retelling of the days of the Ceasars. But there was always something missing. It just wasn’t a “real” Roman epic unless the actors all spoke with British accents. Blame it on Claudius, I guess. Rome finally fills in that missing piece. This is a wholly satisfying TV show.

There’s a reason that HBO’s Rome has been so critically acclaimed. It really is that good. It’s first-rate drama, impeccably acted, with intelligent scripts and feature-quality direction. Being on HBO, they’re free to depict realistic gore, sex and language, but that’s not the main reason to watch the show. This series, currently eight-weeks into a 12-episode run, is just about the best thing on TV. Forget the Sopranos, Rome is real Italian drama.

HBO will be running mini marathons of the first eight episodes starting October 23rd at 8 p.m. The remaining episodes will air on the following Tuesday and Friday. If you have Charter Digital, you can also catch up with Rome using their video-on-demand service. The final four episodes start airing on October 30th.

A grand-sweeping historical epic with great acting and production, and also BRITISH ACCENTS — how can you go wrong? All roads lead to Rome, and all remotes should, too.

That’s three quality examples of TV at its best. Check back for more triptychs of terrific television.

Radio Free Charleston Memory

“What’s Wrong With The World”

Back in the very early ’90s, when I had my radio show, Radio Free Charleston, I came up for an idea for a spin-off public affairs show. The idea was that, since so many of the RFC/Charleston Playhouse crowd would wind up at the Southern Kitchen at 3 in the morning complaining about everything, we should record it, edit out the profanity and air it as a panel discussion show called “What’s Wrong With The World.” At the very least, it would help the station meet the public affairs content requirements of the FCC.

Looking back, a pubic affairs program that presented the viewpoints of young, slightly addled people in various stages of exhaustion and/or inebriation might sound like a train wreck, but I have a feeling that, had I managed to pull it off, it’s the kind of show people would still be talking about today.

They’d be talking about how insane and unintentionally funny it was, but it would have left a mark, or stain, or something.

Dog Blogging

I had a houseguest this weekend.

Meet my dog-nephew. His name is Dash, but I call him, “Doggiedogboydoggiedog-boydoggiedoggiedoggiedog.”

He is a good dog.

(In case you were wondering, this post was not ghost-written by a six-year-old.)

An Animated Childhood

Elsewhere here at thegazz.com, you’ll find articles about Wallace and Gromit I wrote with my partner in animation crime, Melanie Larch. You may be wondering how we know so much about the process of creating clay and stop-motion animation. The answer is simple… for most of my life, I’ve been an eyewitness to it.

I had the unique experience of growing up in a house with an animator. My older brother, Frank, started making his own animated films as a young teen in the late 1960s. Being five years younger meant that, not only was I likely to hang around watching him do this, but I was also pressed into service as something else to be animated. Yes, I was a child animation model.

It was better than getting beat up for not doing it.

Now, back in those days, Frank had to use Super 8 film to create his masterpieces. He experimented with all forms of animation. I was used to mimic the popular gas station commercials of the day that had pixilated humans scooting around like they were driving, only without cars. I ruined many a pairs of pants doing that. This technique is still being used for commercials today. In addition to little brother animation, Frank also tried his hand at using typing paper, Terry Gilliam-style cut-out animation, notebook paper, and clay.

It was tedious and expensive work. Film cost nearly $20 for three minutes, when you figured in the processing costs. This was before home video had revolutionized the home movie market. Back then, it was so rare for anyone to shoot home movies that people would actually watch them, as opposed to today, where more than half of the home movies shot on video are never seen by human eyes again.

Frank would work for weeks on some of his clay-animated films. He’d move the models, shoot one frame, move everything else again, and so on. It might take several minutes to move each model for each frame of film, and it takes 24 frames of film to add up to one second. So, there were many days where I would have to be quiet and still for hours. Loud noises or sudden movements could upset the models, which were often precariously balanced.

Frank managed to do some pretty impressive things with the limited resources he had available to him. There were cute alien cartoons, dinosaur fights, and the bloody ultra-violent finale to his “Mugger” series. I remember after the final shot was completed for that one, the set with the dismembered Mugger was left on display in the basement for weeks. Every time Mom did the laundry, she’d have to walk past the table with the little clay guy with his entrails strewn about. I think she eventually made Frank clean it up.

Aside from clay, Frank also made movies starring action figures. The epic adventures of “Captain X” spanned several films, and featured special effects ranging from scratches on the individual frames of film to the later years, when real pyrotechnics came into play. I still have film of my GI Joe Space Capsule getting destroyed. Somewhere in the basement, we still have a Latex-covered animation model of a monster for a film he did in college. Thirty years on, the latex smells just as bad as it did the day it was brewed up.

Anyway, these days Frank is using a new medium
for his animation. He’s pretty much mastered computer animation. He has done commercials, educational films and television shows, and is currently working on a movie, which stars IWA East Coast wrestler Mad Man Pondo. While he used live-action actors, all the backgrounds, most of the aliens, and all the vehicles and special effects are computer-generated. You can read more about REPERKUSSIONZ over at Frank’s production blog, here. Frank shot the live-action earlier this year, and expects to be working towards finishing it sometime next year.

Making the story complete, I also show up in the film for two brief appearances. I play a giant spider-legged creature. That’s me up at the top of this post. I don’t really have spider legs. It’s just my amazing acting ability. I also play a few hundred tree-headed monsters. Nearly forty years after first being used in one of Frank’s films, he’s asking me to share my incredible screen presence. I couldn’t turn him down.

It’s still better than getting beat up.

Art Blogging

Scape Number Four

The series continues.

Music Blogging

So I decided to attempt to write something Jazzy sounding. Despite using saxophone and marimba, it still came out sounding like soundtrack music to a bad suspense film. Listen for yourself to a Jazz Sketch.

I wrote this in July of 2004. Since then, I have recycled it through the wonders of Midi, and I’ve incorporated parts of it into one movement of my symphony. It’s in the “Anxiety” movement. The most striking feature of this tune is that it’s at least a minute too long. There really ought to be a prize for anyone who makes it all the way to the end.

But there isn’t.

Don’t even ask about the symphony.

Rise of the Ti-vangelicals

Once in a while, something becomes so ubiquitous that I get sick of hearing about it. I have now reached that point of burnout critical mass with TiVo, the subscription digital video recorder service.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with TiVo, it’s basically a hard drive in a rudimentary computer that is connected, via phone line, to a database that contains all the TV listings for your area. You can do some cool things with it, like set it to record a program every time it airs, or record one program while you’re watching another. You can do a few other things with it, but basically, you’re paying $10 or $12 a month for a machine that does the same thing that VCRs have been doing for decades.

How cool is it?

The die-hard TiVo loyalists will go on and on about how cool it is to fast-forward past commercials, or how nice it is that TiVo automatically records their favorite shows (even though it occasionally records the wrong programs or cuts off the beginning or end of a show). They talk about the days before they got TiVo as if those were the dark ages. In their eyes, TiVo is the greatest thing since sliced bread! They’ll never miss a TV show again.

To which I have to reply….Big freakin’ deal! I’ve been doing that for over 20 years with my VCRs, and I don’t have to pay a monthly service fee. Essentially, TiVo is for people who have been too lazy to figure out how to operate the timer function on their VCRs. Whenever I talk to these Ti-vangelicals they get a peaceful, spiritual glint in their eyes while they talk about how easy it is to record a show when they’re not home. I feel like I’m dealing with a lapsed Amish person who’s experiencing electricity for the first time. Where have you people been for the last quarter-century?

Watch this?

Last year I made the leap and bought a DVD recorder. One of my VCRs crapped out on me, and I lucked into a great deal and upgraded to a wonderful Panasonic model. Now, I never missed taping a show that I wanted to watch before that–and I tape obsessively–but the DVD recorder added the one feature that TiVo offered that I couldn’t duplicate with a VCR. I can now start recording a show, and then halfway through I can start to watch it from the beginning while it’s still recording. This is the major selling point for TiVO. It’s the big feature they hype in all their ads.

But you know what? In the 13 months that I’ve had the DVD recorder, I’ve never had any need to use this feature, even once. I haven’t decided which it is yet, but in terms of necessity, the “watch while you record” function is either a bell, or a whistle.

Now that Charter, my cable company, offers Video On Demand, the need for something like TiVo is even more questionable. I can choose any program from the movie channels and watch them whenever I want to. So I don’t even have to bother taping “Rome” or “Extras.” They can be summoned up at the touch of a button. Charter also offers a TiVo-like DVR, but it costs an extra ten bucks a month and isn’t much better than TiVo. I can do a better job with my various recording devices, and I don’t have to pay any extra for the priviledge.

What’s more bizarre about this phenomenon is that TiVo does some really horrible stuff, too. I mentioned that it can cut off the beginning and end of some shows. It also records shows that it thinks you might like.

Republicans are watching

Let’s say you record an episode of “Beverly Hillbillies” because it had an interesting guest star on. TiVo will remember that, and one day you’ll come home and your TiVo will be filled with dozens of episodes of Beverly Hillbillies. And TiVo keeps a database of what you watch, to allow it to do this. You just know that information will find its way into the hands of Republicans, someday.

Do you really want a record kept that shows that you watch “Saved By The Bell” and “Real Sex” back-to-back? Also, when you fast forward past a commercial, TiVo has developed a method that gives you a pop-up ad for the same product while you’re skipping the commercial. Pop-up ads? On TV? And people are paying for that?

And the disc does fill up, so you have to go through and delete shows every so often. If you want to keep a show, then you have to record it to a VCR or other outside device. One report says that 30 percent of the programs recorded on TiVo gets deleted without being watched. It seems to me that TiVo causes more headaches than it cures.

“TiVo” has become a generic term for a DVR (digital video recorder), which can’t be good news for the folks at TiVo. Every week or two a new article pops up in a trade magazine about how TiVo is doomed. Yet the Ti-vangelicals still run about, blathering about how “I TiVo’d this last night” or “I’ll be sure to TiVo that.”

Come on people. Say you recorded it, and get over yourself! It’s just a video recorder. You pay extra each month because you can’t figure out how to set the timer. We get that. Now move on.

Bush Watch: The Good One

I’ve always been drawn to music that has the air of obscurity about it. The less likely someone is to appeal to a mainstream audience, the more likely it is that I will become a fan. In 1978 I became a fan of British singer/songwriter Kate Bush after seeing her only appearance on Saturday Night Live. It took me months to track down her album (I finally found it at the Budget Tapes and Records in Cross Lanes). I’ve been a follower ever since, even though she almost had a hit one time. Her only brush with mainstream success in America was the top-40 hit “Running Up That Hill” in 1986. Even when she didn’t have a US record deal, I made it a point to get her albums. I, like many other Kate Kultists, am an obsessive Kate Bush fan and admirer. Tracking down all her music has been rather easy of late. Kate has taken more than a decade off to raise a family.

Now, after 12 years of her self-imposed exile, Kate Bush is finally releasing some new music. A double-CD collection titled “Aerial” will be released worldwide on November 7th. The lead single, “King Of The Mountain” debuted on BBC2 last week, and through the miracle of streaming audio, I was able to give it a listen.

It’s pretty good, mellow and in the mold of her 1989 album “The Sensual World.” My tastes run to her more experimental work, 1980’s “Never For Ever” and 1982’s “The Dreaming,” but as any Kate Bush fan will tell you, even lesser Kate is good music. The new song is not bad at all. It’s a dreamy surrealistic song about Elvis, with a looping rhythm and ethereal production.

While it’s a great song, I’m hoping that the Aerial CD will offer a little more diversity of style. Kate’s last album, “The Red Shoes,” was her most disappointing. It was hurt by a sameness that resulted in a lackluster album that probably convinced Kate that it was time to take her long vacation.

So hopes are running high that Aerial will be a major return to form. In addition to the import single available from Amazon, “King Of The Mountain” is available on iTunes. I don’t use iTunes, so you’re on you’re own in terms of finding it there. If you’re a die-hard Kate fan, it’s worth the effort. Of course, if you’re a die-hard Kate fan, you’ll spring for the import single anyway.

Twelve years is a long time to do without that angelic voice, so anticipation is high. It’s so nice to know that somewhere in the world, somebody named “Bush” is doing something useful and entertaining.

Photo Blogging

C-130 over Summers Street.

Great Escape from the Marquee Malaise

I’ve never made any secret of my intense dislike for Marquee Cinema on Corridor G. I don’t like the layout, the crowds, the thin walls, the sound system, or much of anything else about it.

So I was thrilled when I learned that we were getting a new multiplex in Nitro, just a ten-minute drive from my house. Mel and I have seen two movies out there, and I have to say, I’m delighted. The sound system is great, the movies are in focus, and get this, if you have to stand in line to buy a ticket, YOU CAN ACTUALLY DO IT INSIDE!

One of the things I hate most about Marquee is that you pretty much have to stand outside while waiting to buy tickets, rain or shine, heatwave or torrential downpour.

One thing I’ve noticed about Great Escape is that the crowds haven’t been too big. Now, as a person who doesn’t buy into that whole “movies are better if you see them with lots of people” claptrap, this doesn’t bother me, but as someone who likes to have a shorter drive to go to a theater that isn’t Marquee, I’d like to see more folks flocking to the theater. It’s like I have a choice between lamenting the size of the crowds, or watching the place go out of business. I’d like to see them stick around, so I’ll deal with larger crowds.

So what I’m saying is, get yourself out to the Great Escape in Nitro. You can wait in line inside, the service is better at the snackbar, and there are no stairs to deal with. Also, you don’t hear the movie that’s playing next door. It’s a first-rate operation.

I like Park Place, but I don’t care for the parking building, and this is even closer to me, so it’s Great Escape for me from now on. And they’re listed in the Gazz theater box listing thingy “Movie Finder,’ which is cooler than chocolate-covered robots!