Thursday, April 29, 2010

Culture Shock 04.29.10: Syndicated TV now just game shows and judges

I totally dropped the ball on this one.

I hadn't realized that the market for scripted TV programs in first-run syndication had completely evaporated until a few weeks ago, when I read that "Legend of the Seeker" was the only such series still on the air.

And now "Legend of the Seeker" has been canceled, too. That means the only first-run syndicated TV programs left are game shows and shows about retired judges telling stupid people exactly how stupid they are.

Chalk up another victim of the ever-changing television landscape.

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when most of the TV programs I watched regularly were in first-run syndication. That's probably because I am a science-fiction geek, and no genre thrived in first-run syndication the way sci-fi did during the '80s and '90s.

The show that ignited the boom was "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

When Paramount brought "Star Trek" back to television in 1987, it bypassed the broadcast networks, opting instead to sell the series directly to local stations and split the advertising revenue. It was a daring move at the time, and it probably dredged up memories of an earlier big-budget sci-fi series that tried to make a go of it in first-run syndication, "Space: 1999."

Unfortunately, "Space: 1999" didn't fare well. Airing from 1975 to 1978, it was the most expensive TV series of its time, and it starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who were still well-known from their time on "Mission: Impossible." But "Space: 1999" failed to live up to its pre-launch hype, and only two seasons were produced.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation," however, was a ratings juggernaut. Its success led to a tsunami of sci-fi programs entering the marketplace, including its first spin-off, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Soon, the airwaves were full of syndicated SF, horror and fantasy programming.

Before he helmed the "Spider-Man" movies, Sam Raimi, along with Robert Tapert, produced "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and its even more popular spin-off, "Xena: Warrior Princess." J. Michael Straczynski created his ambitious SF "novel" for television, "Babylon 5." And the list of shows based on popular movie franchises seemed endless: "Highlander," "Freddy's Nightmares," "Friday the 13th: The Series" and "War of the Worlds."

Even "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry got back into the game, despite having died in 1991. "Earth: Final Conflict" and "Andromeda," both based on Roddenberry's unused notes, entered syndication in 1997 and 2000, respectively. And in a weird twist of fate, both enjoyed longer runs — five seasons each — than the original "Star Trek," despite being shoddy, poorly written and generally awful.

But the syndication boom didn't last.

Paramount started its own channel, UPN, which aired the next two "Star Trek" series. And the launch of UPN and The WB — now merged as The CW — meant there were fewer independent stations needing to fill airtime with syndicated shows. Also, cable channels began to invest in their own original programming, which included "Babylon 5" moving from syndication to TNT for its final year.

At the same time, foreign markets evaporated, cutting off a major source of financing for America's syndicated dramas.

There were no scripted shows left in first-run syndication when Raimi and Tapert decided to give it another try in 2008 with "Legend of the Seeker," based on the fantasy novels of Terry Goodkind.

Now "Legend," too, is the stuff of legend, and a once-important chapter in TV history has become a footnote.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Culture Shock 04.22.10: Carl Macek, the man who turned America Japanese, dies

You'll seldom see his name mentioned along with the likes of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones, but no one influenced animation during the past 25 years more than Carl Macek.

Macek, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing Japanese animation, or anime, into the mainstream of American popular culture.

He died of a heart attack Saturday at age 58.

Macek's animation revolution started in 1985, when he produced the 85-episode sci-fi epic "Robotech," a sprawling saga in which humanity must fend off three successive alien invasions that threaten to destroy the Earth.

Macek created "Robotech" by cobbling together three unrelated Japanese series, rewriting each so that it became one chapter in a multi-generational story. He edited out the brief nudity and mild profanity that was fine by Japanese standards but would never fly for a cartoon on American broadcast television. But what he didn't do was tone down the story.

As a result, "Robotech" was, at the time, unique among animated programs on American TV. Major characters aged over time, learned from their experiences and sometimes even died defending their home planet. "Robotech" was a cartoon in which war was real and violence had consequences. As a result, it gained a strong cult following that continues today.

Even so, "Robotech" wasn't quite popular enough for Macek to find stable financial backing for his proposed sequel series, "Robotech II: The Sentinels." So he moved on, co-founding Streamline Pictures along with animation historian Jerry Beck.

Streamline was one of the first companies to dub popular Japanese movies into English for release theatrically and on home video in America. Its films included "Lensman," the adult-themed "Wicked City," the apocalyptic classic "Akira" and director Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro."

It was the first time mainstream American audiences were exposed to anime more sophisticated than cartoons like "Speed Racer" and "Gigantor." Macek had opened the floodgates for what was to come, both good and bad. By the late 1990s, anime was a fixture on U.S. television, to the delight of children and the horror of parents who found themselves spending hundreds of dollars on their children's Pokémon cards.

Then in 2002, Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" — distributed by Disney — won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, besting the first installment in the seemingly never-ending "Ice Age" series and cementing anime's place in the U.S.

But not everyone was pleased with Macek's efforts at the time. Purist anime fans criticized "Robotech," claiming it ruined three perfectly good Japanese series by combining them into one. And many disliked even more Streamline's policy of releasing only dubbed versions of Japanese films, rather than more faithful, subtitled versions.

What those critics failed to appreciate, however, was the financial environment Macek faced in the '80s and early '90s.

In order to place an animated series into weekday syndication, he needed a show with at least 65 episodes, and none of the three series he incorporated into "Robotech" met that number on its own. Also, anime was still this strange, new import from the Far East. Yet Macek was hoping to reach a broad audience, which meant making compromises.

Love it or hate it, his strategy was successful, and it helped create a market that would eventually make even the purists happy.

By now, an entire generation of Americans has grown up with Japanese animation, helping foster a new appreciation here for Japanese culture in general. And it all started with Carl Macek.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Culture Shock 04.15.10: New Doctor makes debut in Saturday's 'Doctor Who'

In Great Britain, the casting of a new lead actor in the long-running science fiction series "Doctor Who" is a monumental event. It's arguably second only to the crowning of a new monarch.

Fortunately, the first episode of Matt Smith's reign should put most fans at ease. The Doctor may be a new man, but his trusty time machine, the TARDIS, remains in good hands.

American viewers can see for themselves when "The Eleventh Hour" kicks off the new season of "Doctor Who," Saturday night at 8 on BBC America. And for newcomers to the series, who may be wondering what all the fuss is about, BBC America will air "Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide" during the preceding hour.

Simply put, "Doctor Who" is the longest-running sci-fi series on television. It originally aired from 1963 to 1989, when a hostile BBC controller and declining ratings did it in. Then, after a one-off TV movie in 1996, "Doctor Who" finally returned in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston ("Heroes") portraying the 900-year-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey.

Eccleston stayed on just one year before regenerating into the Doctor's 10th incarnation, David Tennant ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire").

Over four years and 47 episodes, Tennant redefined the Doctor for a new generation. And by the time he exited the TARDIS for good earlier this year, his incarnation of the Doctor had become the most popular since Tom Baker — the one with the toothy grin, long scarf and floppy hat — owned the role from 1974 to 1981.

Every new Doctor faces some bumps, and Smith is no exception. His tenure was controversial even before he filmed his first scene. At 27, he is the youngest actor to play the part, and he has the bad fortune to follow Tennant.

"The Eleventh Hour" begins with a damaged TARDIS crashing on Earth and the new Doctor still "cooking" after regenerating into his 11.0 version. But from there, Smith quickly finds his footing, and by the end of the episode, there's no doubt that he is the Doctor.

Smith's manic, quirky, yet authoritative performance echoes Doctors past — especially Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee — while leaving room for him to find his own voice in episodes to come.

He is aided by his new human traveling companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), a young Scottish woman whose life the Doctor inadvertently turns upside down when he runs into her first as a young girl and then again 12 years later, although only five minutes later from his point of view. Time travel can be a tricky thing.

Smith's tenure also heralds a new executive producer/head writer in charge of the show.

Steven Moffat ("Coupling") takes over from Russell T Davies, the producer who dusted off the show for the 21st century. But while Davies liked to tug heartstrings to the point it became tiresome, Moffat specializes in clever, fast-paced storytelling, with more than a dash of the gothic creepiness that marked the show's high point in the mid-1970s.

Moffat wrote most of the best-received episodes of the Davies era, including "Blink" and the Eccleston two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances."

With a new Doctor firmly established and the series now under the guidance of its best writer, there is no better time to ask, "Doctor who?"

The answer doesn't disappoint.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Culture Shock 04.08.10: The search for the worst movie ever

It's the Holy Grail of cinema, and like that Arthurian relic, it seems impossible to find. Yet that doesn't stop people from searching for the worst movie ever made.

According to the latest user rankings at the Internet Movie Database, the worst movie of all time is "Night Train to Mundo Fine," aka "Red Zone Cuba," a 1966 atrocity written by, directed by and starring Coleman Francis. This is the movie that proved John Carradine would appear in anything for a paycheck.

Like many of the films in the IMDB's Bottom 100, "Red Zone Cuba" found new life as an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," the TV show that turned mocking bad movies into an art. At No. 8 is "Manos: The Hands of Fate," the only film ever made by El Paso, Texas, auteur and fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren.

But is either film truly the worst? Possibly, but they're up against strong competition, in the same sense that limburger is strong.

In their 1980 book "The Golden Turkey Awards," Harry and Michael Medved announced they had found the Grail, 1959's "Plan 9 from Outer Space," written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.

"Plan 9" stars pro wrestler Tor Johnson, movie hostess Vampira and stock footage of horror legend Bela Lugosi, who died in 1956.

Being named worst movie was the best thing that ever happened to "Plan 9." The film gained a cult following, as did Wood, who became the subject of Tim Burton's 1994 film "Ed Wood." But is "Plan 9" that bad?

I've seen worse, and so has everyone else who has gone on the quest for the Grail. Despite their flaws, most of Wood's films possess an endearing, earnest enthusiasm, which is more than you can say for most Hollywood blockbusters.

A new documentary, however, claims to have found the elusive worst movie ever. "Best Worst Movie" chronicles the cult following that has grown up around "Troll 2," a completely unnecessary sequel to the already bad "Troll."

"Troll 2" (1990) stars George Hardy, an affable, Alabama-born dentist who somehow ended up in an Italian-made horror movie shot in Utah. Hardy is back to drilling teeth in Alexander City, but he is scheduled to appear when "Best Worst Movie" screens Sept. 25 at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham.

Still, while "Troll 2" is an eye-gougingly abysmal waste of film that could have been better used filming a spoiled 8-year-old's birthday party, it's still probably not the worst movie of all time — not when there's "The Room," Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film about love and relationships, made with all the care and craftsmanship I put into that ceramic ashtray in second grade.

Oh, "The Room" is bad, but is even it bad enough?

Maybe Michael Adams has found the Grail. He is the author of "Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made."

Adams is on the right track. He devotes one chapter to the films of drive-in king Al Adamson. I don't think any of Adamson's movies is The Worst, but they're at least in the same ZIP code.

Meanwhile, my pick for the worst film ever is "Zombie Lake," a 1981 horror flick about undead Nazis who attack a small, European village.

Seen from underwater, the "lake" is clearly a swimming pool. The Nazis' zombie makeup is always coming off. And one of the Nazis has a young daughter, even though the film is set in the 1980s and he has been a zombie since at least 1945. "Zombie Lake" is a movie not even gratuitous nudity can redeem.

Ultimately, however, the search for the worst movie ever isn't about finding it. It's about the quest. As King Arthur's knights learned, it's the journey that defines you.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Culture Shock 04.01.10: You won't believe this column is not bacon

A Seattle-based distillery has taken the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups slogan "two great tastes that taste great together" into an entirely new realm.

It has given the world bacon-flavored vodka.

Check today's date. I'll wait.

Yes, it is indeed April 1 — otherwise known as April Fools' Day. But no, I'm not making this up. Feel free to Google "Bakon Vodka" if you don't believe me. I'll still be here when you get back.

Told you so.

And vodka is only the latest thing that people have discovered tastes better when it tastes like bacon. There are bacon-favored mints, bacon-flavored gumballs and — my favorite — bacon-flavored mayonnaise, available in both "regular" and "lite," for those diet-conscious lovers of fatty, bacon-infused egg products.

Recently, I even ran across a recipe for turducken — turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken — that adds a bacon wrapping, for that extra-delicious, artery-clogging kick.

Did you know that every time I say the word "bacon," British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver cries?

Seriously, if Oliver can come to America and lecture us for eating fattening, unhealthy food, then I think we should send Donny Osmond to England to lecture Brits about proper dentistry. I mean, I once heard a British actress say she had never flossed until she came to the United States. Obviously, some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Bacon.

Even stranger than bacon vodka is bacon ice cream. 3Chef and food writer David Lebovitz, author of "The Sweet Life in Paris" and "The Perfect Scoop," came up with the recipe for candied bacon ice cream, which you can find at his Web site, Five strips of bacon will make three-fourths of a quart.

And bacon-flavored ice cream is only the beginning. Last year, Time magazine published a story about bacon desserts. If you're feeling adventurous, the recipes are online at

But why just eat bacon when you can wear it, too? Sure bacon tastes great, but half of its allure is the smell. Wash with bacon soap, and you'll be irresistible to the opposite sex.

OK, so maybe bacon soap is a little extreme. Maybe you just need a bacon-scented air freshener for your car. In either case, I've seen both for sale online.

You can also buy bacon lip balm, bacon dental floss and even bacon bandages, which don't smell or taste like bacon, but they do look like little strips of bacon. Sometimes, it's the thought that counts.

For you vegetarians, there is bacon-flavored bacon that isn't really bacon. And for your dog, there's Beggin' Strips, which also isn't bacon, but your dog won't know that.

And now, a confession.

At this point, I was planning to make up a bacon story, fool you into believing it was true, then hit you with the customary "April Fools'!" But I can't do it. Each time I Google bacon and something else, it turns out the thing really does exist. Or, if it doesn't, someone has said it should, which means someone, somewhere has probably tried to make it. There simply is no end to people's love of bacon.

I even found a picture of a woman who was wearing a bra made of bacon. That gives a whole new meaning to the concept of edible underwear.

So, there is no April Fools' moral to this tale. If you're looking for that, I suggest you turn to the latest news out of Washington, D.C., where pork is a state of mind.