April 27, 2013

Independent Lens: "Wonder Women!" Review

The truth is, I love PBS. When I was a kid, I was a PBS kid. And now that I'm grown, I suppose I'm a PBS grown up. Don't be deceived, your local public television station is not only the home of Antiques Roadshow, Lawrence Welk, and Sesame Street, it's also where you'll find fascinating documentary filmmaking on series like Independent Lens. That program's most recent episode was titled "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines". Broadly, the documentary looked at strong female characters in popular culture, using the timeline and character of Wonder Woman as a guide. I say broadly because, while I found this program fascinating, it only scratched the surface of some of the issues it discussed; It asked far more questions than it answered.

Source: pbs.org 
The film's subject worked well because the history of the character of Wonder Woman mirrors the history of women in America over the past 60+ years. She emerged during WWII, when women were entering the workforce, but her magic powers (and defined muscles) disappeared when the men came home. With the death of her creator, William Moulton Marston in 1947, and the anti-comic crusade of Fredric Wertham, Wonder Woman was buried beneath the comic heroes. That is, until the women's lib movement of the 60's and Lynda Carter's television heroine. At this point in the timeline, Wonder Woman's story morphs into the story of many pop culture heroines. In the documentary, that's when the heroine study gets a little loose.

For example: The film discusses both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Terminator 2: Judgment Day's Sarah Connor. Yes, both are strong female symbols in American pop culture, but they approach that strength in completely different ways. I would have liked to see a more thoughtful comparison of those two approaches. (At this point, I'll try not to get up on my soapbox.) Maybe it's the age difference, or the difference in genre, but Buffy and Sarah are practically polar opposites. Buffy is a strong girl, but in her miniskirts, her strength is designed to be sexy. Sarah Connor's strength is designed to be powerful. She's a strong person. And equality won't come until we stop telling girls that they can be strong, too. As if strength is something men are born with but women have to find. But maybe that's a topic for another documentary. (I said I'd try; I didn't say I'd succeed.) However, I do think it's phenomenal that Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, writes strong female characters, and ones who are respected by the men around them. You should watch his Equality Now speech. I think he's awesome. It's just that Sarah Connor's chin-ups in her jail cell made more of an impression on me when I was young.

Interspersed with the comic book history lesson were some fandom tidbits. Wonder Woman Day, a benefit  for victims of domestic violence sounds like a worthwhile event for a worthy cause, but violence against women is (and has been) a topic for another documentary. And because this one couldn't address the issue deeply, it left the viewer with significantly more questions than answers. The fact that women are more often the ones who need the hero(ine)s, on and off the comic book page, is a much bigger, more problematic issue and one that pop culture alone cannot solve.

All that said, this feature was engaging, important, and thought-provoking. And maybe it was supposed to make the viewer ask questions like the ones I have. You can (and should) watch "Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines" at PBS.org or through the PBS app through June 14.

April 25, 2013

Survivor: "Come Over to the Dark Side" Review

Survivor: Caramoan has had more surprising, unconventional, and record setting tribal councils than any other season, at least that I can recall. And I love it! It's made for a fascinating, sometimes upsetting, definitely classic season.

Last night's episode was both "delicious" and heartbreaking. Malcolm and Cochran were each my favorite player of their respective first seasons, which made it thrilling to watch them go head to head this season. They are two very strategic players with otherwise very opposite skills. These two (not Sherri) were clearly in control of the game, and it makes sense that they had one another in their sights. With Malcolm gone, so is Cochran's greatest strategic adversary. And there aren't many left on the island who realize just how pretty Cochran is sitting.

If you could declare a winner at the food auction, it was Cochran. Not only did he get an advantage in the immunity challenge, but a picture perfect peanut butter moment that caught even Jeff off-guard.
Source: facebook.com/survivor
Plus, Cochran had that precious emotional moment reading his letter from home. How cute was that? (I'm totally crushing.) Malcolm, on the other hand, got nothing but beer and nuts. But his mistake wasn't not finding the idol he paid for, his mistake was thinking he himself (and his bros) wouldn't need that immunity challenge advantage. But that was his second mistake in this game. His first was leaving "Stealth-R-Us." But I can't blame him for that. Besides, I think we're all grateful. Last week's tribal council will go down in Survivor history. Malcolm can be proud of a game well-played.

Cochran's getting a bit cocky himself, though. Since the title of this episode pays homage to one of my favorite movies, it's appropriate that this is what came to mind when Cochran declared himself a challenge beast:

I think I'm rooting for Cochran to win it all, and I think he just might. But in a season like this one, anything can happen! And I can't wait to see what happens next!

April 20, 2013

Rerun Review: "New Guys"

I didn't plan to write about The Office this week. First, because it was a rerun, and second, because I had every intention of blogging about Community. But everything that can or should be said about that borderline mediocre Christmas episode was already said in TV.com's review of the episode or in its comments section.

So at the risk of redundancy (since my last post landed in Scranton), there were three things I noticed when I re-watched "New Guys" this week.

First, there was so much Jim and Pam foreshadowing/setup! Their general conflict this season is Pam's satisfaction with life versus Jim's dissatisfaction. In "New Guys," Jim sees a younger version of himself in Pete, and wonders if he's wasted his best years at Dunder-Mifflin. Pam, while attempting to talk Dwight off the roof, declares that she loves her life, even if it seems boring. The look on Jim's face in that first confessional with Pam said it all. She might be comfortable with nothing changing for a long time, but Jim's not. That's what leads him to accept the job in Philly at the end of the episode, the root of all marital problems in the season to come. But back to that first confessional interview: I missed, or had forgotten, that we hear a voice from behind the camera in that first episode of season 9. Was it Brian's voice? Even if it wasn't, this season was obviously carefully planned by this show's masterful writing team. It's coming together like a really good novel or a 5000-piece puzzle. Everything's falling into place.

This episode was also the beginning of Dwight and Clark's father-son bond. In my last post, I wondered what was going on with these two and the weird tractor rental situation. But ever since Clark was declared "Dwight, Jr.," the two have had their own special subplot. Of course, this was particularly evident in "Suit Warehouse," but it's been developing all throughout season 9. And the fact that Clark's introduction follows on the heels of Dwight's discovery that he did not father Angela's baby is reassuring. It makes Clark a lot less superfluous. He's actually central to Dwight's inward struggles.

The last thing I realized while watching this episode again was that Andy was a jerk before he left on his boat trip. Somehow, I'd gotten it into my head that Andy became particularly awful when he went sailing away from Erin, the office, and his grown-up responsibility. But the way that he treats Nellie in this episode is despicable, albeit hilarious. And this is a good thing, because it demonstrates a consistency of character. Remember, this is the guy who was sent to anger management. He's supposed to be kind of terrible.

I don't mind reruns, not when a show is as good as The Office. I can't express how sad I'll be to see it come to an end. 

April 16, 2013

The Office: "Promos" Review

After nine seasons, The Office has earned the right to be meta. Not in the hipster way Community is, but authentically meta. In "Promos," the Dunder-Mifflin crew gets its first look at themselves in ads for the show we've been watching all along. If you gave up on this show after Steve Carrell left, or because your DVR was full, you made a big mistake.

What I like most about The Office is how true it's been to its characters. For example: when reading the online comments about the promo Andy said, "I'm about to lose my FREAKING mind!" Did anyone else have a flashback to his looking for his "FREAKING phone!"? I was getting a little worried for the drywall! (Unrelated: Is that a Tamagotchi hanging on Andy's desk lamp?) Juxtaposing season one footage with season nine footage, we see both how the characters have grown, and how they're still who they always were. The Stanley throwback to Pretzel Day was a nice touch. The Office is even being faithful to the relatively new characters.  Acknowledging how unlikable Nellie was back in season seven, she says, "I thought I'd get more screen time as a villain!"And, well, she has!

Surprisingly, the only character they don't seem to be doing right by is Dwight. "The Farm" was apparently an attempt to start some sort of spin-off, but keeping up with that charade is so clearly the wrong ending for Mr. Schrute. If Dwight doesn't end up with Angela, it can't be because of a hot blonde farm girl who comes outta nowhere and may or may not be anything more than "tractor bait." I'm hoping that Angela's jealousy of Esther and voicemail confession to the Senator are setting us up a Dwight and Angela happily ever after.

And on the subject of soulmates, there was good news for Jim and Pam fans in this episode. When Pam went to visit Brian, we in the audience already knew the answer to her question about the secret footage, but her question about Jim? Pam articulated doubt about their future. For Pam, hope came from the past. While all the other characters were distraught over the secret footage, Pam found reassurance. Jim's changed. No question. And so has Pam. But The Office is true to its characters (and its fans), and the two of them will always be elskere. No trip to Florida, new life in Philly, or boom guy is going to change that. 

I'd love a DVD of it too, Pam.

Side note on the cameo appearance of Ryan Howard. Many of us here in Pennsylvania are glad The Office finally confronted the odd fact that one of the show's major characters had the same name as the famous first baseman. And ironically, though it doesn't look like "Athlead" is interested in Howard as a client, his real-life PR folks are getting him good gigs. Gigs it seems he deserves, as he does have pretty fantastic comedic timing.

Let's face it: There hasn't been a series finale in television history that was universally liked. So the most we can ask for is that the loose ends are tied, a happily ever after begins, and no spin-offs are attempted. The Office is, at least in part, on its way to giving us all that and more. Four episodes left...