2.20.2006

Lost “One of Them”

Cool: Kate’s dad makes an unexpected flashback appearance as one of the soldiers involved in the POW capture of Sayid during the first Gulf War. Presumably, it was footage he shot of Sayid then that makes its way onto his recruitment office TV set for the "What Kate Did" episode flashback.

Cooler: Sayid’s torture skills were in part developed because of the U.S. military’s decision to force Sayid to interrogate one of his superior officers.

Huh? (tie): 1. In looking for the noisy frog, Sawyer and Hurley walk for what looks like miles into the jungle, which begs the question of what kind of superhero frog is this with a ribbit that can be heard on the beach from miles inland. 2. Locke and Sayid rightly assume that Jack will have problems with the torture of Henry Gale, so why not undertake that bloody mission after Jack’s gone? Why do it while he’s still in the hatch and able to intervene?

Best Line: “My name is Sayid Jarrah and I am a torturer.” – Sayid’s matter-of-fact introduction to new character Henry Gale, who may be an innocent wealthy adventurer who travels by hot-air balloon or may be an Other spy like Ethan and Goodwin. By episode’s end, Sayid is convinced he’s an Other, a possibility also suggested to the audience with a rather chillingly half-smirk from Gale.

Falling: Sawyer, who kills a tree frog by crushing it in his fist. When he said he wasn't a good person in the last episode, he wasn't kidding.

Battlestar Galactica “The Captain’s Hand”

Cool: The Colonials have given the battlestars nicknames – Galactica is the “Bucket” and Pegasus is the “Beast.”

Cooler: Baltar completely torpedoes Roslin during a press conference by announcing that he’s running for president against her. He may have the Cylons on his side, but it’s very possible that we have yet to see the truly dangerous side of Laura Roslin.

Coolest: It’s a compelling debate about whether or not to outlaw abortion in a scenario where humanity is facing extinction and every birth takes us one step closer to survival. What would you do?

Huh?: It’s a little odd that in trying to find the two lost Raptors, everyone stays on the Pegasus sifting through paperwork like Woodward and Bernstein. Why not, like, send out a Viper search party?

Best Line: “I need to go down there. You have the conn.” – Commander Garner ceding control of Pegasus to Apollo and essentially acknowledging that he has no place at the top of the command chain.
Rising: Apollo, who may not be a weak-kneed milquetoast after all. He takes confident control of Pegasus and manages to keep the ship safe long enough for Garner to make his Wrath of Khan-style sacrifice down in engineering, killing himself but repairing the ship.

Battlestar Galactica “Sacrifice”

Cool: The discovery of a growing hotbed of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who think the Colonial military is somehow in cahoots with the Cylons, which is a completely plausible wrinkle given the whispered rumors (and tabloid-style grainy photographs) of Adama’s meetings with Caprica-Boomer.
Cooler: It’s always good to see Colleen McMurphy-- er, Dana Delaney back on TV, here as terrorist ringleader Sesha Abinell. (Where do they come up with these names?)
Coolest: Unlike Adama and Tigh, Roslin was the only one seemingly willing to risk the consequences of not negotiating with terrorists... yet she was the only one who paid the price in losing Billy.
Best Line: “Billy, I can’t marry you.” – Dualla’s heartbreaking reply to Billy’s fumbling proposal. Once the terrorists take over the Cloud 9 bar, it’s easy to predict that Billy’s rejection must lead to a fatal sacrifice of redemption.
Rising: The writing staff, who’s cleverly employing movie clichés to form the spine of recent episodes. First we had the noir detective thriller, then the World War II-style ace pilot drama, and now a Die Hard-style hostage thriller complete with a shot of Apollo watching terrorists take over through a partially ajar door just as Bruce Willis did at Nakatomi Tower.
Falling: Starbuck, who must not have enough baggage to deal with so the writers now saddle her with the guilt of almost killing Apollo.

2.19.2006

Lost “The Long Con”

Cool: The complicated con Sawyer runs on hapless Cassidy in the flashback. She has no idea who she's dealing with.

Cooler: The suggestion that Sawyer may have had some genuine feelings stirring in his Grinchinan heart for sweet Cassidy.

Huh?: It was fun trying to figure out who was trying to make everyone think Sun had been kidnapped (was it Ana-Lucia? Jack?), but to find out it was just about Sawyer getting his hand on the guns so he could either A) tip the balance of power back to him or B) make sure people continued to hate him? That was the definition of unsatisfying. Another wasted episode.

Best Line: “I'm not a good person, Charlie. Never did a good thing in my life.” – Sawyer, explaining his world outlook and surely causing many female viewer hearts to flutter at the prospect of saving a bad boy like him.

Falling: Jack, who seems to be always angry these days. Didn’t anyone ever tell him you get more with sugar than with vinegar? Every encounter he has with another character seems designed to provoke and irritate. He couldn’t be more arrogant or brusque.

2.14.2006

Battlestar Galactica “Scar”

Cool: We learn here that Vipers all come equipped with on-board cameras that allow pilots to later study dogfights. It’s chilling here to watch Starbuck analyze footage broadcast by a Viper moments before it was destroyed and the pilot lost. This dovetails nicely with the episode’s overall theme of “death becomes a learning experience.” Just as reincarnated Cylon Raiders learn from each successive death, so, too, do the Colonial pilots learn from each other’s dogfight deaths. This is great stuff.
Cooler: Another melancholic moment comes when Kat adds to the 9/11-style wall of the dead a picture of the dead Viper pilot’s girlfriend (whose name sadly no one can remember) who herself died on the 12 colonies. Her picture had been in the pilot’s bunk, but with him dead, there’s no one left to remember her. And so she’s added to the nameless masses lost in the war against the Cylons. It's grim moments like this that remind one how far this reimagined series is from the toothless, disco action-adventure of the original 1970s series.
Huh?: This episode’s flashback-heavy, non-linear structure is too confusing to add to the drama as seems intended. It’s tough to figure out when we’re in the past and when we’re in the present.
Best Line: “To BB, Jo-Jo, Reilly, Beano, Dipper, Flat Top, Chuckles, Jolly, Crashdown, Sheppard, Dash, Flyboy, Stepchild, Puppet, Fireball...” – Starbuck’s poignant toast to fallen Viper pilots, contradicting her earlier tough-guy assertion that she never remembers the names of the dead.
Rising: Kat, who’s a great foil to Starbuck, perhaps because she’s just as cocky, insubordinate, and talented in a cockpit as Starbuck.

Battlestar Galactica “Black Market”

Cool: Though the show’s producers reportedly weren’t at all happy with this episode (the in-media-res open was supposedly one way they tried to strengthen it), the detective mystery conceit works pretty well, with Apollo playing the part of a Raymond Chandler gumshoe getting in over his head in a complex criminal underworld. He even gets attacked and threatened by the bad guys (“You tell Adama to let it go”).

Cooler: Do-gooder Apollo’s realization that there are sometimes shades of moral grays. He decides to let the black market operate as a necessary evil rather than trying to stop it, knowing full well no one can ever stop the demand for such a service. Then he bravely defends that choice to newly-irritable Roslin (see “Huh?” below).

Coolest: The implication that perhaps Zarek was pulling the strings all along, manipulating Apollo into offing Phelan so he could get control of the black market ring.

Huh?: President Roslin’s seems to have gained some edge since her miraculous cancer cure in the last episode. Note here her abrupt handling of Baltar in asking/demanding his resignation. That moment is satisfying in that it’s good to see someone finally taking Baltar to the woodshed, but it doesn’t ring true for Roslin’s character.

Good Line: “It’s hard to find the moral high ground when we’re all standing in the mud.” – Black market kingpin Phelan suggesting Apollo not get too high and mighty since he’s been known to regularly visit a prostitute.

Better Line: “Did you really expect some utopian society to rise from the ashes?” – Zarek explaining to Apollo humanity’s penchant for corruption and greed.

Rising: Apollo, whose cold-blooded murder of Phelan is the kind of thing we’d expect from Starbuck, not a clean-cut goody-goody like him.

Falling: Phelan’s henchmen, who just stand there after Apollo shoots Phelan in cold blood right in front of them. What kind of bad guys are these? Is it that they’re just so stunned by Apollo’s decision that they can’t react? It seems strange that not even one of them tries to kill Apollo in revenge. They even step aside so Apollo can have a private “moment” with his hooker girlfriend Shevon. Weird.

2.13.2006

Meg Ryan can be very scary

One Hollywood marketing exec ally of the Cheese Fry likes to use the adage "Sell it, don't smell it," which succinctly describes the willingness of marketing execs to do whatever it takes to get you into theaters whether the movie's good or not.

TomatoPatch.com underscores that adage with a clever trailer that sells Sleepless in Seattle as a Fatal Attraction-style thriller. Skillful editors can make anything look like... anything.

Lost “Fire and Water”

Cool: Hurley uses the term “tailies” to describe Ana Lucia’s new group of survivors (from the tail section), a term that seems to have originated in Lost internet fansites. A fun example of fandom influencing a show's writing staff.

Cooler: Sawyer gives romance advice to Hurley (“Your moment is now, hoss.”) about how to approach Libby.

Huh?: The only point to this episode seems to be to completely ostracize Charlie from the group. As admirable a goal as that may be considering how whiny and irritating Charlie can be, how the show accomplishes this is pretty bizarre what with Charlie’s religious visions and sleepwalking and his wild-eyed determination to baptize Aaron. In a show that’s over the top to begin with this, this episode was out there, man. It’s probably one of the show’s low points.

Best Line: “You hitting that?” – Ana-Lucia displaying the expected level of classiness in asking Jack about his relationship with Kate.

Falling: Locke, who’s fast losing his Zen calm and becoming really unlikable. First he gets all high and mighty with Charlie and his stash of Virgin Mary statues, taking over with an attitude very reminiscent of Jack at his most sanctimonious. And then he beats the hell out of Charlie for taking Claire’s baby. Yes, Charlie deserved rebuke, but Locke displayed an unproportional response here. Much of this is presumably driven by Charlie and Locke's shared feelings for Claire, who (alluring Aussie accent notwithstanding) is perhaps the least interesting and most dishrag-like character on the show.

Lost “The Hunting Party”

Cool: Obviously, it’s the moment when Jack, Sawyer, and Locke unexpectedly meet the Others in the woods.
Cooler: The Others know somehow that our heroes have found the hatch. Is there still a spy in their midst? Even better, the leader of the Others quotes Alvar Hanso, the funder of the Dharma Initiative, for the first time clearly linking the Dharma backstory to the Others. Are the Others remnants of that 1970s Dharma test?
Good Line: “You cross that line and we go from a misunderstanding to something else.” – the bearded spokesperson of the Others, whom Sawyer dubs Zeke, warning our heroes to stay on their side of the island, raising much speculation as to what exactly the Others are hiding on their side.
Better Line: “How long do you think it’d take to train an army?” – Jack to Ana-Lucia in the episode’s last scene, suggesting where Jack’s interests lie. This connects nicely with wife Sarah’s flashback assessment that Jack always needs “something to fix.” Now that Jack’s met the Others, it seems he views them as a problem that needs to be fixed.
Falling (tie): Michael (a mainstay in the Cheese Fry “Falling” list), who’s knocked out Locke and gone off looking for Walt with a stolen gun. Everyone saddles up to chase after him. Why don’t they just let him go? It’d be so much nicer for everyone without Michael’s constant wild-eyed ranting about how the Others took his son as if anyone could possibly forget that detail.

Falling (tie): Jack, whose reaction to the Others is strange bordering on annoying. These are mysterious, scary figures yet Jack is very cocky and aggressive with them, almost daring them to attack. For what purpose, other than to continue to embrace his self-imposed role as Fearless Survivor Dictator/Leader? If anyone on the island needs to take a chill pill, it's Jack.

Common sense vs. free speech

The Los Angeles Times' Gregory Rodriguez offers an interesting perspective on the recent turmoil over the Danish editorial cartoons depicting Mohammed:

MARK TWAIN once wryly observed that Americans had the great good fortune to enjoy the freedom of speech — and the good sense never to use it.

The violent protests that have erupted in the wake of the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad have sparked a profound debate throughout the Western world over external threats to, and internal limits on, freedom of expression. In both the United States and Europe, defenders of the newspapers that have published the cartoons have invoked the principle of freedom of speech as if it were an inviolable divine law that ought to protect them from all extremists. But the fact is, there is no such thing as free speech. Every time we open our mouths, write an article or draw a cartoon, we weigh the costs and consequences.

Because we live in an extraordinarily heterogenous society, Americans know this truth instinctively, if not consciously. Social etiquette dictates that we don't discuss religion or politics at a dinner party for fear of giving offense or inciting argument. Even before the invention of political correctness, we tended to be conscious of offending those from different backgrounds. Except for fervent racists, we generally don't share our thoughts and impressions about this or that ethnic or religious group in mixed company.

And then there's road rage. How many Angelenos have thought twice about honking at a wayward driver out of fear for their lives? While you have a right to yell obscenities at the jerk who cut you off on the freeway, you would most likely hold your tongue if you suspected the jerk would pull out a gun.

The sensibilities of newspaper editors are not all that different, although they're more concerned about losing subscribers and advertisers than their lives. Editors may think twice about the importance and newsworthiness of stories and opinions that are likely to provoke vehement reactions from ethnic, racial or religious groups in their audience. And when such articles are published, they generally receive greater editorial scrutiny and fact-checking.

Yet, despite all these self-imposed cultural checks and balances, many Americans still believe that constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech means that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, without incurring consequences. But the 1st Amendment doesn't protect you from an angry employer or vengeful fanatic; it simply prohibits the government from passing any law that abridges freedom of speech or of the press. And even that has its limits — libel laws, restrictions against speech that incites violence, rules against shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

If you say something intemperate, politically insensitive, sexist or otherwise offensive while at work, you risk both legal and social consequences. You could lose your job or, God forbid, your multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with a large soft-drink company. Or you could get a co-worker's fist in your face. For more than a decade now, I have been writing about race, ethnicity and immigration, and as carefully as I tread, I've gotten my share of violent insults and threats from all sides.

So far, only a handful of American newspapers have chosen to publish the offending cartoons of Muhammad. It's not that we believe in freedom of speech any less than the Danes, but we are infinitely more attuned to the tensions between that freedom and the realities of a diverse society.

After all, Denmark is a remarkably homogenous country, new to the multicultural realities that immigrant nations such as the U.S. and Britain have known for years. Eighty-five percent of Danes belong to the Church of Denmark, although few attend weekly services. Muslims account for only 2% of the population. That means the Jyllands-Posten cultural editor, Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Muhammad caricatures, is the Danish poster child for a dawning reality check.

Rose says he didn't mean to offend the small, powerless Muslim minority in Denmark but instead wanted to prove his own right to publish whatever he wanted, no matter what. He was rebelling against what he considered a growing climate of self-censorship in a changing Denmark. Even after violence erupted, he told an Italian newspaper that he was happy to have started a "useful debate." But when people die, it isn't "dialogue."

In a perfect world, you and I would agree to hate what bigots say even as we defend their right to say it. In a perfect world, we'd abide by what our mothers taught us: "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words (or images) will never hurt you." But we don't live in that world, and neither do the Danes.

There is no excuse for the horrifying, extremist Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons. But here in the West, even as we deplore belligerent victimhood in the Muslim world and defend the legal right to publish the cartoons in question, we should stop pretending that the freedom of speech is limitless.

2.09.2006

Battlestar Galactica “Epiphanies”

Cool: Turns out Laura Roslin was fired by the President just hours before the Cylon attack on the colonies. Does that make her ensuing emergency presidency somehow illegitimate? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Cooler: It’s a bit of cheat, perhaps, to have this last-minute rescue of Roslin with a miracle cancer cure borne of Cylon blood. Then again, it might be interesting to see how this plays out. How will she feel to be healed by the blood of the enemy? It's like a white racist soldier saved in the foxhole by a transfusion of blood from a black man.

Coolest: The show’s genius for exploring its premise from all angles is apparent again when we learn of an underground guerilla movement that demands peace with the Cylons. How exactly Royan Jahee and his followers expect to accomplish this remains unclear, of course. Extra points for Royan unwittingly working with an actual Cylon – Gina – to accomplish his pro-Cylon goals.

Huh?: How can Baltar continue to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? Seriously. Whatever happened to his vaunted Cylon test? How can he still be faking it?

Best Line: “I will not be responsible for the destruction of mankind.” – Baltar’s greatest moment, when he seems to finally align himself with humanity... only to swing the other way and supply the Cylons with a nuclear frickin' warhead when gets his widdle feelings hurt by Roslin.

Falling: Billy – Why’d you have to give Baltar the letter from Roslin before she died. It’s her harsh words (and blatant mistrust of Baltar’s abilities to lead) that led him to give the warhead to the Cylons.

2.08.2006

That's $66,000 a second

What’s $2 million buy you these days? About 30 seconds of TV airtime last Sunday.

The Best


1. FedEx – An instant classic. A caveman gets fired for using FedEx, even though it hasn’t been invented yet. Typical lazy-boss reaction. The spot comes with two extra jokes at the end: the caveman takes out his frustration by kicking a little dinosaur, then gets squashed himself by a big dinosaur.

2. (tie) Burger King and Hummer – These two spots are mesmerizing if only because they’re so fearlessly weird - like that deeply odd Snickers spot where a guy's called out at work for using Snickers bars for a toupee. Here, an elaborate Busby Berekley musical number with dancers wearing the ingredients of a Whopper is like a fry cook acid trip. And the disturbing union of two Japanese 60-foot-tall monster movie archetypes – the evil robot and the angry lizard – yields an unexpected baby: a red Hummer. Huh?

4. MasterCard – Dipping into 1980s nostalgia is a pretty familiar tactic at this point (the Cheese Fry thinks it heard Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” used in children's back-t0-school ads last fall), but recruiting actor Richard Dean Anderson to reprise his MacGyver personal to sell credit cards really is priceless.

5. Bud Light – There’s always a screwball beer spot and this is it: an employee’s decision to hide Bud Lights around the office turns the workplace into Lord of the Flies. Love the one guy punching holes into the drywall with his bare hands.

6. “Lost” – Another dip back into the 1980s pool, this one tweaking the lyrics to Robert Palmer’s hit so it sounds like he’s singing “Might as well face it you’re addicted to Lost.” Cheesy, yes, but it’s a clever valentine to fans of the show.

7. V for Vendetta – This buzz on this movie suggests it could be extremely kick ass. Consider yourself warned.
The Worst

1. Gillette
– “Are those scientists unlocking the secrets of quantum physics with the use of a particle accelerator, colliding blue and green energy?” “No, they’re making a razor with five blades.” “...Oh.”

2. Pepsi – The continued inexplicable anthropomorphization of Pepsi products continues. First we had the New England Patriots “drafting” a Pepsi machine and now P. Diddy is turning a Pepsi can into a hip-hop star. The "brown and bubbly" tagline sounds just like the kind of thing a 55-year-old executive would think is cool and trendy.

3. ESPN Mobile – For the first few seconds, it was kind of fun to see this guy on his phone being passed on the street by all kinds of sports activities, showing us what ESPN’s new service provides. But then the commercial goes on. And goes on some more, without a trace of humor, just smug seriousness as if they were selling something important, like a five-blade razor.

2.01.2006

"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Vice President!"

John Dickerson at Slate offers this critique of the self-congratulatory politicking of State of the Union addresses...

George Bush is being criticized for acting like a king as he asserts extraordinary new powers for his office. So it would be clever political theater if this week he delivered his State of the Union address on paper. He could emulate Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 mailed his speech in, arguing that the ceremony smacked too much of the British monarchy.

Today, Jefferson would weep. Tuesday night, by tradition, the Senate sergeant-at-arms will herald the president's arrival as if Bush were riding in a sedan chair. Then as the president makes his way to the well of the House of Representatives, members of Congress will pat him and moon at him and shake his hand like children trying to win a prize. Many of them will have skipped dinner to position themselves on the aisle so they can be seen touching Bush in prime time. Leaders who command this kind of sucking-up are usually the kind the president singles out as candidates for regime change.

Since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson reversed Jefferson's practice and delivered the speech himself, presidents have been developing the constitutionally mandated report into political theater. In 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the address into prime time. This caused Republicans to insist on the first of the puny out-party responses. Now, we are left with a speech known for its outsized promises, tiresome applause interruptions, and flabby rhetoric.
It doesn't have to be this way. Many of the traditions that ruin the night serve no good purpose. They can be snipped out to shorten the speech and forestall the childish behavior politicians seem to think is also constitutionally mandated. Here's how we can get rid of the three greatest excesses weighing down the State of the Union.

1. Put your hands down. The president could enter the hall through a back door to duck the pre-speech petting. But it's not clear what might be done to stop members from interrupting his speech so often with their applause. In part, the press is to blame for this. We once treated the clapping as a serious gauge of support. After Kennedy's first State of the Union, the New York Times devoted a separate story to the topic: "Capitol statisticians reported that President Kennedy's State of the Union was interrupted thirty-seven times by applause from one or both sides of the center aisle. … In seven State of the Union appearances before Congress President Eisenhower scored as high as fifty-seven interruptions for applause. … His average was thirty three." If the press was going to take the clapping seriously, what were politicians left to do but get into an arms race?

Now there is clapping interrupted by speaking. The president's party cheers him like a pep squad. (Go Wildcats! Score that tax cut! MSA's are here to stay!) This in turn invites unserious behavior by the opposition. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid make theatrical scowls that can be picked up by the camera. Nothing says "vote Democratic" like an arched eyebrow while Bush is speaking. Members of the opposition applaud formulaically when they think it would be bad form to be noticed doing otherwise.

In addition to making the speech an interminable bore, the applause race creates the wrong kind of incentives for White House speechwriters. They have to keep that clapping coming, so the rhetoric gets overblown on all topics. Every line has to be a sunny one. In 1975 Gerald Ford said, "I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good." Today, this kind of candor is only useful for laughs at late-night speechwriting meetings.
2. Stick to the basics. George Bush has used his State of the Union addresses seriously. Each has had a sweeping policy initiative at its core—from a national commitment to fighting terrorism to a program for overhauling Social Security. He has also used the speech to unveil big surprises, like his $15 billion plan to combat AIDS in Africa.

But for every memorable line like Bush's declaration of an "axis of evil," there have been pages of throwaway sentences devoted to a laundry list of initiatives and pledges. George Washington spoke only 833 words in his first State of the Union, but presidents now typically clock in at closer to 5,000. This inexorable growth is the result of lobbying by Cabinet secretaries, legislators, and actual lobbyists, all of whom see it as crucial that the president mention their pet issues in his important speech, even if he does nothing but restate familiar bromides about it. There is little reason for White House aides to refuse; the president gets credit for boosting a program just by referring to it.

Here, presidents should follow the Carter model (there's something you don't hear often). Carter focused two-thirds of his 1980 address on the threat from the Soviet Union, and his discussion of domestic issues dealt almost exclusively with a demand for passage of energy legislation. Sticking to the big issues would also circumvent the wild spinning to put the best face on the budget Bush will deliver a few days later. That's where the true domestic priorities are spelled out in more specific language that often directly contradicts the rhetoric of the speech. In a fantasy world, White House aides would hyperlink the text of the president's speech to the line items in his budget.

3. No more living props. Ronald Reagan was the first to work audience members into his speech. In 1982, he publicly lauded Lenny Skutnik, a government worker who weeks before dove into the icy waters of the Potomac River to rescue victims of an airliner crash. That was a great bit of theater, but the exponential expansion of the number of "heroes" in the first lady's box has made the gesture as meaningful as a Hallmark birthday card. Like most of the tedious and repetitive rituals now associated with the president's big speech, the practice has become so formulaic that to simply drop it would count as inspirational spontaneity.