Thursday, December 31, 2009

Culture Shock 12.31.09: Sherlock Holmes is a 21st century Victorian

For a man from Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes is keeping up with the times rather well.

Other long-lived fictional characters like James Bond and Superman now operate decades removed from when they first came on the scene. Bond has gone from the height of the Cold War to the messy world of post-Soviet espionage and international terrorism. Superman long ago traded up from Depression-era thugs to extraterrestrial menaces and mad scientists.

Holmes, on the other hand, rarely leaves the comfort of the late 19th century. There are exceptions, like a TV movie that brought the world's greatest detective to the present day and a Saturday-morning cartoon that transported Holmes to a far future where tweed and deerstalker caps are back in fashion.

Also, the BBC has commissioned a modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes to air next year. This series, titled "Sherlock," is the creation of Mark Gatiss ("The League of Gentlemen") and incoming "Doctor Who" producer Steven Moffat. If nothing else, it has an impressive pedigree.

Still, for the most part, writers who tackle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "consulting detective" realize Holmes works best in a world of gaslights and cobblestone streets, which makes updating him for today's audiences problematic, especially if you don't want to enrage Holmes purists in the process.

The BBC's 2002 update of Holmes' most famous case, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," infused the old formula with "CSI"-style forensics, with mixed results.

Director Guy Ritchie, then, deserves a lot of credit for doing, if not the impossible, then at least the improbable. He has turned Sherlock Holmes into a modern action hero while remaining true to the character.

Doyle's Holmes began as a brilliant detective but knew nothing about the world beyond his cases. Yet over time, Doyle revealed that Holmes was a man of many skills and talents, a world traveler who had learned martial arts and had once been an amateur boxer.

Still, Doyle kept Holmes' skill at fisticuffs largely offstage. Ritchie brings them front and center.

Ritchie's take on Holmes, brought to life with foppish flair by Robert Downey Jr., is dirty and disheveled — all the better to blend into the Victorian underworld. But he remains, first and foremost, a detective. Even though the plot of Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" revolves around a secret society that practices mysticism and the occult, it's Holmes' devotion to science and reason that carries the day.

The 2009 edition surpasses many of its predecessors on one count: It avoids portraying Dr. Watson (Jude Law) as a bumbling idiot, which was the portrayal of Holmes' faithful companion that dominated the Holmes films of the 1940s. Law's Watson is a full partner, even if he is usually an exasperated one.

The dynamic between Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson is a lot like the one between Dr. Gregory House and Dr. James Wilson on the TV series "House." And that's no surprise, given that House and Wilson are basically updates of Holmes and Watson.

Downey's Holmes is not the definitive Sherlock Holmes. The late Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes in the 1980s British TV series, still holds that distinction. But, against all odds, Downey and Ritchie have given us a Holmes worthy of the name — and a Holmes for the 21st century.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Culture Shock 12.17.09: 'The Venture Bros.' finds hope in failure

It isn't on in prime time, it doesn't feature any big-name stars and it probably isn't going to rack up Emmys, but "The Venture Bros." may be the best show on television.

The Adult Swim series wrapped up the first half of its fourth season Sunday with the long-awaited showdown between former Venture family bodyguard Brock Samson and newly competent supervillain henchman Henchman 21.

If you don't know who Brock and Henchman 21 are, or why their showdown is important, you should rent the first three seasons of "The Venture Bros." immediately. I'll wait.

On the surface simply a parody of the 1960s adventure cartoon "Jonny Quest," "The Venture Bros." has evolved into one of the smartest shows on television. I know this because there are at least three Web sites devoted to dissecting each week's episode. One thing is certain: "The Venture Bros." looks increasingly out of place alongside Adult Swim's other animated programs, which range from the endearingly sophomoric ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "Metalocalypse") to the irritatingly juvenile ("Squidbillies" and the latest seasons of "Family Guy").

Every episode is layered with cultural references that hide deeper meaning, and at the center of it all is the hapless, dysfunctional Venture family.

Dr. Thaddeus S. "Rusty" Venture was once a boy adventurer, jetting around the world with his scientist/adventurer dad, Dr. Jonas Venture. Now, thanks to the childhood traumas his father inflicted on him, Rusty suffers from both an inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur. He spends most of his time hatching schemes just to pay the Venture Compound's utility bills.

Rusty will never live up to his father's heroic example — although it's strongly implied his father wasn't quite the hero of legend — and he'll never stop blaming his father for all of his personal and professional failings.

Then there are Rusty's two sons, Hank and Dean. Hank is full of false bravado, while Dean is a hodgepodge of insecurities, and both are generally clueless. They haven't grasped, despite loads of evidence, that they're both clones. The original Hank and Dean managed to get themselves killed long ago.

As Rusty explains, "They are Hank and Dean. They have all the same memories. Same annoying tendencies. Same everything. Look, if you have a clumsy child, you make them wear a helmet. If you have death-prone children, you keep a few clones of them in your lab."

But with the illegal clone farm destroyed at the end of season 3, Hank and Dean now get to grow up — if they can keep from dying. And that can be difficult when your father is the target of various insane supervillains and your bodyguard has resigned, only to be replaced by a reformed supervillain who also happens to be a "cured" pedophile.

"Venture Bros." creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have said their show is ultimately about failure. But maybe that's not all it's about.

By trying to avenge the death of his best friend, Henchman 24, Henchman 21 has gone from being an ineffectual nerd to being the most feared henchman in the supervillain community. He's become the show's most unlikely success story. And it's telling that his role on the show is often to voice what the audience is thinking.

Maybe, despite all of the failure in which "The Venture Bros." wallows, the show is really about giving hope to us all. And that's pretty deep for a cartoon.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Culture Shock 12.10.09: Another soap opera's bubble has just burst

Chalk up another victim of the changing demographics and economics of daytime television.

CBS announced Tuesday that it is canceling its long-running soap opera "As the World Turns," which has been a fixture of daytime TV for more than 50 years. The last episode will air in September 2010, giving the show's writers and remaining viewers plenty of time to say goodbye.

It's the swan song not just for a TV show, but for an era. Earlier this year, CBS aired the final episode of "Guiding Light," its longest-running soap, which started as a radio drama in 1937 before jumping to television in 1952.

Daytime soap operas are a dying breed, at least in the U.S. With the cancellation of "As the World Turns," CBS has only two daytime dramas left: "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." Both are safe for now. They're daytime's two highest-rated soaps.

Meanwhile, NBC's daytime schedule is in even worse shape than its fourth-place primetime lineup. "Days of Our Lives," NBC's sole surviving daytime soap, was flirting with cancellation, too, just a couple of years ago. The soap's producers even dropped two of their most popular and highest-paid actors — Drake Hogestyn and Deidre Hall — in order to cut costs.

Surprisingly, kicking John and Marlena to the curb didn't hurt the show's ratings. "Days" is now tied for second with "The Bold and the Beautiful" and is the only soap to increase its audience in 2009. (But I think my mom has stopped tuning in. You can't please everyone.)

That leaves only ABC with a full slate of daytime soaps: "All My Children," "One Life to Live," which could be the next casualty, and "General Hospital." And a full slate isn't what it used to be, with local affiliates pressuring the networks for more local time in the mornings and afternoons.

Time and technology aren't being kind to daytime dramas. The stay-at-home moms who once made up the bulk of soap viewers are a shrinking demographic. Add to that increasing competition from cable channels, TiVo, DVDs and soccer practice, and soaps are under more pressure than ever.

The decline in soap viewership doesn't come as much of a surprise. Most daytime dramas are virtually unwatchable, with ludicrous stories and dubious acting. Seriously, how Susan Lucci finally won that Daytime Emmy in 1999 — after 18 previous nominations — is a mystery. I guess the pity vote carried the day.

Still, that awfulness is sometimes a soap's greatest selling point. When I was in college, "Days of Our Lives" had a long storyline in which Marlena was possessed by the devil. This included plenty of "Exorcist"-style demonic growing and levitating-above-the-bed action. You have to admire a soap opera that's willing to go that far over the top. Every day brought some new horror-movie cliché, sanitized just enough for daytime's broadcast standards. Yes, it was a good time to watch TV between classes.

A few years later, "Days" even beat ABC's primetime hit "Lost" to the stranded-on-a-mysterious-island plot. Yet that brings up another reason why daytime soaps are fading. Most primetime dramas now have continuing storylines, which used to be mostly a soap-opera thing.

You no longer need daytime dramas to get your fix of large casts and complex, never-ending, incomprehensible plots.

When the last soap opera's bubble finally bursts, it won't matter. Everything is a soap opera now.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Culture Shock 12.03.09: Keeping the Krampus in Christmas

An old tradition that's seeing renewed popularity amounts to Christmas' own version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

The good cop is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, aka St. Nicholas, aka Father Christmas. He's the "jolly old elf" known for his vast, global surveillance system — which he uses to keep track of who's been "naughty" and who's been "nice" — and his knack for breaking and entering.

Everyone has heard of Santa. But probably few have heard of his partner, the "bad cop" in our little tale. He goes by the name Krampus.

A scary, devilish, goat-like fellow with long horns and a bad attitude, Krampus originated centuries ago in German-speaking areas of Europe, where he was especially popular in the Alps.

While Santa bribes children into good behavior with the promise of presents, Krampus keeps them in line with threats of punishment. Santa carries a bag full of toys. Krampus carries a bag filled with naughty boys and girls.

Christmas is rife with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, some of which, in different forms, go back to pagan solstice celebrations that predate Christianity's arrival in northern Europe. Evergreen trees, Yule logs and mistletoe come to mind.

Long before people used mistletoe to steal kisses from the unwary, the plant was best known for killing Baldr, the Norse god of light and beauty.

As years passed, these traditions became part of Christmas, as did, for a while at least, Krampus. But Krampus was perhaps just a bit too wild to settle down in what was becoming an increasingly Christian holiday season. As National Geographic blogger Marc Silver writes, by the 1800s church leaders had marginalized Krampus, making St. Nick a solo act.

By the time German Christmas traditions made their way to England, and later America, Krampus was no longer a major part of the festivities.

Anglo-American Christmas celebrations began adopting German customs like Christmas trees in the 1800s, after Great Britain had resorted to importing monarchs from Germany. German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria's marriage to the German-born Prince Albert.

By the time Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, Christmas looked much like it does now, with no Krampus in sight. Ebenezer Scrooge had to get by with three Christmas ghosts instead — or four, if you count Jacob Marley.

That, however, has started to change.

According to Silver, the Austrian state of Salzburg now has more than 180 Krampus clubs devoted to celebrating the long-lost Christmas figure. Most have sprung up in just the past 20 years.

Now, every Dec. 5, club members recreate the traditional Krampus celebration. They dress in ghoulish Krampus costumes and head out for a night of carousing, which sounds a lot like how adults currently celebrate Halloween in the United States.

Here in America, Krampus is still virtually unknown. And if he weren't, he would add a new wrinkle to the annual debate about the true meaning of Christmas.

But with the Christmas season now starting even before Thanksgiving, maybe there is room for one more Christmas tradition. You don't want to end up on Krampus' list, do you?