Monthly Archives: January 2015

Podcast Roundup

Alternate Media Feature

 

In reviewing and commenting on media, looking solely at movies and television isn’t enough. There is such a variety in how people communicate thoughts and ideas that focusing just on the wide-spread, visual media leaves a hole in the global marketplace of ideas. This week’s media feature is on podcasts. As most will know, podcasts are regularly released audio programs, similar to radio shows, that can be downloaded and listened to offline at the user’s convenience. They can be a great source of news, thoughtful information or pure entertainment. Below are four recommended podcasts. Let’s take a look.

 

4. Freakonomics Radio

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The Freakonomics Radio podcast grew out of the best-selling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Now, it’s easy to look at a title like that and ask, “How could a podcast (or book) about economics be that interesting?” It’s a valid question. Most people who have ever had an economics course tend to remember a dry lecture by an ancient professor who just kept drawing lines on a chalkboard. What one wouldn’t remember from econ class is learning about how cheating in sumo wrestling can help predict cheating in classrooms, or how Roe v. Wade could impact crime rates in the 1980s, or how David Lee Roth is like the biblical King Solomon. While those topics wouldn’t be considered in the classroom, those are the types of topics covered in the books and podcast series. Economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner have worked together over the last decade to find the hidden connections in the world – all supported by evidence and data – and share their discoveries. This is a great podcast for people who want to expand their view of the world or for those who want to have more interesting things to say at dinner parties. Most episodes are between 20 and 30 minutes, and they’re a good way to wake up the mind during a morning commute.

More information about Freakonomics Radio can be found here.

 

3. Thrilling Adventure Hour

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The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast is a series of stories performed in the style of old time radio broadcasts. The podcast is recorded in front of a live studio audience once each month. Each recording session includes multiple stories that are then released over the course of the month to podcast listeners. Since there are many different stories that all are released under the heading of the Thrilling Adventure Hour, it is possible that listeners may find they enjoy some of the tales more than others. The most popular and most regular stories are “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” and “Beyond Belief.” Sparks Nevada is about a man from Earth who, along with his companion who is a native of the red planet, is in charge of upholding law and order on Mars. This tale has a dedicated storyline that must be listened to in the proper order, and it is packed with excitement and adventure and humor. Beyond Belief is about an upper class married couple who also happen to be able to see and talk with ghosts. Their drinking time is constantly interrupted by supernatural occurrences that only they can handle. The wit and sarcasm in this segment leads to constant laughter from both the audience and the listeners. Other segments happen with less regularity, but are often equally entertaining and full of adventure. Listeners learn what segments they prefer and can pick those out from the list of episodes. Most segments are about 25 minutes long and are good entertainment for relaxing or before bed.

More information about The Thrilling Adventure Hour can be found here.

 

2. Welcome To Night Vale

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The Welcome To Night Vale podcast is an ongoing story in the style of community radio. It’s released on the first and fifteenth of every month and tells of the happenings in a small desert town in the southwest of the United States. On its own, that may not sound so thrilling. And things in this town are pretty standard. From hooded figures outside a dog park that citizens aren’t allowed to enter to a vague yet menacing government agency working to control everything behind the scenes to a menacing glow cloud (ALL HAIL) that can control minds and that drops dead animals as it passes, life in Night Vale is just the same as it is anywhere else. Stories from small towns like Night Vale, Twin Peaks, Hemlock Grove and Derry, Maine, always seem to capture the interest of outsiders for some reason. Listening to the goings on and interactions between well-recognized town citizens in these small communities is just fun. The tales from Night Vale are heartwarming and bone-chilling all at once, and listening to love and rebellion and death and victory in 25 minute increments is a wonderful way to keep from sleeping at night.

More information about Welcome to Night Vale can be found here.

 

1. Critical Hit/Major Spoilers

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This entry is somewhat cheating because it’s two different podcasts on the same podcast network. However, both are shows of merit and deserve mention, and Critical Hit would not exist without Major Spoilers. The Major Spoilers podcast is a show that collects and talks about the big nerd news each week, movies and tv shows, but the particular focus is on talking about comic books. The group reviews and rates that week’s releases, and, as the title suggests, they don’t hold back on the spoilers. Given the geek revolution of recent years, there is usually a lot of news to cover, so the podcasts do run a bit long. However, the group is dedicated to their work and seem to have a lot of fun with it, so the show never seems to drag. It comes out every Tuesday, and it is a good way for listeners to catch up on anything they might have missed in the week. Critical Hit is a spinoff show from Major Spoilers that releases every Saturday. It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast featuring a group playing and discussing the Fourth Edition (and recently Fifth Edition as well) of the classic role playing game. The game has been going now for long enough that it has been broken into seasons, and this has given listeners a lot of time to connect with the characters. For anyone who has ever wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons but has never had the time or the social group to do so, this is a great way to get introduced to the game. Experienced players will enjoy experiencing the story and watching it develop, even those who have expressed dislike of the Fourth Edition system. Some may find that dislike melting away as they join in on the adventure and learn more about the gameplay. Again, the episodes run fairly long, but there is a lot of action and a lot of story, and the time commitment never feels like a burden.

More information about Critical Hit and Major Spoilers can be found here.

 

These are some of my personal favorites. Any readers who would like to share the podcasts they most enjoy, please do so in the comments section below. I’ll listen to them, and you may see your favorite in a future Podcast Roundup.

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Galavant…ing Around Quality

Hulu Now Streaming

 

The eight episode first season run of Galavant on ABC has only just ended, though with the promise of more to come. For four weeks, Sunday nights had an hour dedicated to a “musical comedy extravaganza.” At least, that’s what the commercials said. The reality is different. For every joke that landed, three missed. For every catchy song that could be hummed for days, there was another that just had to be suffered for the sake of getting through the show. The plot was formulaic and predictable, but that isn’t to say that it was unenjoyable; in fact, it was often amusing watching it play out. The real high point to the show, though, is the cast and the way that the actors portray the characters. The show even brought in a series of well-known guest stars to augment the regular players. While the cast and characters are the main reasons to sit down and watch the show, let’s take a look at the highs and lows that one should consider before watching Galavant.

 

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The first thing to consider in any “musical comedy” is the music. The show’s theme song, which is used with different words throughout the first episode and at the start and end of each week’s pair of episodes, is powerful and fun. It was a great way to start the series, and it’s the type of song that hooks viewers up front. Unfortunately, it also creates an expectation for the rest of the series that is never met. No other song in the season stands out nearly so much. There are others that are good, but when stacked up against how the show opens, they simply aren’t that memorable. Normally at this point, a list of what songs are good versus what songs are bad would follow, but Galavant throws a curve ball into that aspect of reviewing: the song styles vary. From doo-wop to drinking song to traditional Broadway number, there is no predominant song type. As such, opinions on which songs are the best are based on the tastes of the individual. The show does a good job of covering genres, so there is something for everyone. But the wide variety also means that everyone will have songs they greatly dislike as well.

 

 

A similar thing can be said about the comedy. It tries too hard to cover too many types of comedy, and so it both amuses and disappoints in turn. By far the weakest attempts at humor were the ones predicated on situational irony, mostly because the show was too easy to predict. If the audience knows what’s about to happen, there’s no laugh to be had when it does happen. Anachronistic jokes often fell just as flat; one character spends minutes trying to convince others that the idea for a zipper is a great plan, while his companions mock the thought. Having said all that, there are a number of one-liners and sarcastic asides in each episode that do hit home. The show may be inconsistent in its comedy, but when every line is intended as a joke, getting a laugh for even a quarter of them still makes for a decently funny show.

 

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With the music and the comedy out of the way, let’s look at the “extravaganza” part of the show, the plot and the characters. The show starts as a classic tale of an evil king kidnapping a fair maiden and a gallant knight riding to rescue his true love. Then the opening song ends and every part of that last sentence gets thrown out the window. Madalena (Mallory Jansen), the damsel in distress turns out to be quite a distressing damsel, choosing money and power over love and generally making hell the lives of everyone else in the show. The evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) turns out to be a pushover and a wuss who only wants to be liked, even if he has to invade neighboring kingdoms to accomplish that mission. And the brave knight Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse), the titular character, falls into a year-long depression, trading all his fighting skills and his sense of self-worth for kegs of ale, despite the efforts of his loyal squire Sid (Luke Youngblood).

 

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Sid the Squire (Youngblood) and Sir Galavant (Sasse)

 

The show picks up a year later when a beautiful princess named Isabella Maria Lucia Elisabetta of Valencia (Karen David) comes seeking the mighty hero Sir Galavant to help her reclaim her kingdom from King Richard. Richard had conquered the land in order to find the fabled Jewel of Valencia, which he believed could buy him Madalena’s love. Isabella enlists Galavant’s help by lying to him, telling him that Richard had beaten Madalena and that Madalena longed for Galavant. Richard knew this story would draw Galavant to the castle so that he could be executed, and he threatened the lives of Isabella’s parents in order to motivate her to tell it.

 

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Luke Youngblood, Mallory Jansen, Joshua Sasse, Timothy Omundson, Vinnie Jones and Karen David

 

While Galavant, Isabella and Sid travel toward the castle and the waiting trap, Richard realizes that Madalena doesn’t respect him and never will until he proves he can be a strong person and a strong leader. He enlists the help of those around him – his personal bodyguard, his personal chef and the jester that his wife is openly cheating with – to teach him how to be a better man, though these efforts prove fruitless. Madalena, realizing that she wants power and wealth without the burden of Richard, becomes the evil bitch she feels she was always meant to be, orchestrating layers and layers of plots designed to leave her the sole ruler. The three stories finally converge at the castle, and the season finale leaves the audience less hanging from a cliff than rolling down a mildly sloping hill. It clearly sets up for a second season and leaves many dangling threads, but there is no impending doom or danger for any of the characters.

 

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The plot is fairly predictable throughout, but it is heavily driven by the interactions of the various characters, and the actors do a wonderful job bringing them to life. They are over the top caricatures, they fit standard tropes and they are deeply flawed, and these qualities make them a pleasure to watch. The three-story structure also allows a lot of guest stars entry into the show, whether as a wizard named Xanax whom Richard visits to help him relax (Ricky Gervais) or as a rival knight whose go-to response is “Yo mama” (John Stamos) or as a monk who has taken a vow of singing (Weird Al Yankovic). These quirky side characters add a lot to the show, and the audience’s excitement over their inclusion can help to cover up the somewhat haphazard storylines that incorporate them.

 

Weird Al Yankovic and Ricky Gervais in Galavant

Weird Al Yankovic and Ricky Gervais in Galavant

 

Overall, it’s not a bad show, but it’s not the great show it was touted to be. The first episode was fun and set up the story well, and the second was a good follow up. The excitement and novelty of the idea dies down near the beginning of episode three, but by then there is a sense of investment in seeing the characters through the remaining episodes. At that point, the remainder of the season is short enough that it ends before it gets to be too much to slog through to finish the story. In the end, it’s a fun waste of a few hours, and a few songs and jokes might stand out, but don’t expect too much from it.

Galavant just ended its first season on ABC and is now available for streaming on Hulu. It was created by Dan Fogelman and stars Joshua Sasse, Timothy Omundson, Vinnie Jones, Mallory Jansen, Karen David and Luke Youngblood.

The Political Thriller of the Year

Youtube Now Streaming

 

Tuesday night saw part six of a seven part miniseries that airs only one episode each year. The show was heavily plot laden with compelling characters – including antagonists who utilized the power of sitting still and silently as their primary weapons and the country’s favorite quirky sidekick, who forgot to unbutton his jacket while he was sitting. While the story was a bit meandering and had been heavily spoiled by previews in the weeks leading up to the air date, it had some humor and plenty of moments that will be discussed and argued about around water coolers for the remainder of the week. With the leading protagonist played by President Barack Obama, it’s time to discuss the 2015 State of the Union Address.

 

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The United States Constitution requires that the President “from time to time” report to Congress on the state of the union. This requirement has turned into one of the largest political events of the year, a set opportunity for the President to address a joint session of Congress and the American people at the same time. During the speech, the President discusses how things are going in the country – politically, socially, economically – and he lays out his vision of what can and should be done in the next year. Applause and standing ovations interrupt the speech every minute or so, at least from those in favor of whatever statement the President has just made. Many of the more partisan ideas touted by the President will result in half of the room standing to clap while those in the other half vie for the title of “Most Disgruntled-Looking.” Since seating is, for the most part, unassigned, Republicans and Democrats rarely intermingle in their seat choices, resulting in a clear line down the center of the room that divides the aisles. General procedure now explained, let’s move on to the specifics of tonight’s show.

 

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President Obama’s speech did not contain any surprising elements, particularly given that the White House has spent the past weeks talking about what to expect from the address. Topics of note included: free tuition to community college for those willing to work for it; closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; raising taxes on the rich so as to ease the burden on middle-class families; reforming immigration; closing loopholes in the tax code; opening relations with Cuba; raising the minimum wage; defeating ISIL and terrorists worldwide; focusing on infrastructure development; continuing economic policies that have brought the country out of recession; climate change and energy alternatives; and the need for bipartisanship. One particularly high note in the speech was President Obama’s call for more civil dialogue and elevated debate between the parties. While the sentiment is truly meritorious, it might have had greater impact if it came in a speech that did not so often subtly (and occasionally overtly) insult Republican leadership and positions.

 

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Every word said in the speech is going to be parsed and rehashed in the next few weeks by pundits from both sides, but what deserves mention is the showmanship of the night, by both sides. President Obama is a powerful speaker, and he knows how to stir an audience. His speechwriters wrote a strong speech, and they knew what points needed to be hit to resonate with the American people. More than that, though, the speechwriters knew how to frame the points that Republicans were most likely to attack during their rebuttal. The Democratic members of Congress got an exhaustive workout during the evening, based on how often they were standing and sitting. The Republicans, on the other hand, had all individually found that one comfortable position in their chairs, and they were determined not to lose it. Even during scenes that focused on the President during periods of applause, the reactions of the separate parties could be judged based on the behavior of Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, both of whom sat behind the President. The points where Speaker Boehner did not clap or was reluctant to clap will give Republicans across the country a clear idea on the points they should argue with their Democratic coworkers in the morning. His lack of hand movement also suggests that many of the projects proposed tonight by President Obama are not going to pass the Republican-controlled Congress.

 

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The Republican response was delivered this year by Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa. She told stories about growing up poor, having to make it to where she is through hard work and determination. She spoke about her time in the military to highlight how important the defense of America is, and how important it is to stop ISIL. She spoke of the tragedy of the terrorist attack in Paris. And she did it all without emotion or intonation. The problem that Senator Ernst ran into was that her response was pre-written. She was clearly reading lines that had been worked and molded over a series of weeks, but that failed to actually respond to any points raised during the President’s address. The show would have been much improved if the party spokesman had been given talking points instead of a script and had been able to attend the event so that points from the address could be brought up and rebutted. While her military background and the fact that she’s a young, female, Republican Senator may have made her an appealing choice to represent a party that is often seen as being filled with only old white men, she was not the impressive speaker that the Republicans needed to counter the highly charismatic President Obama. Senator Ernst did as she was asked by her party, a noble endeavor, but she was simply not the right person for the job.

 

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Senator Joni Ernst giving the Republican Response to the 2015 State of the Union Address. Full transcript can be found here: http://nydn.us/1yJegRU

 

President Obama has one more State of the Union address to give, one that will help set the tone of the 2016 election year. He will be working with a Republican Congress for the rest of his presidency, which has caused many to already declare him a ‘lame duck.’ However, he is still trying to serve the citizens of the United States as best he can. On January 21, 2015 – the day after his 2015 State of the Union address – he is digitally hosting what is known as “Big Block of Cheese Day,” a chance for citizens to talk to White House staffers about issues that impact them, to ask questions and to give feedback about the state of the union from outside the capital.

 

 

The importance of the State of the Union address has been in question of late, but it is hard to deny the show quality of the event. Anyone who likes political dramas such as House of Cards, West Wing or even Scandal would enjoy the political intrigue at play. Those who don’t enjoy such shows will still find it entertaining and enlightening, and it may impact your vision of the country and its leaders. But, above all else, it is good television.

The 2015 State of the Union Address starred President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Joni Ernst and can be found in full on YouTube, and likely many other news websites as well. The full script will be posted online in coming days. The next episode will air live in early 2016 on every broadcast network and every cable news channel.

The Simpsons Serves Up a Stinker

Fox Now Airing

While many people are talking about the recently aired Simpsons episode penned by Judd Apatow, let’s take a moment to look back at the midseason premier episode. In 26 seasons of any show, there are bound to be a few episodes that drop the ball, but “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” was one of the worst in a long time. For a show that has always been an industry leader in terms of storytelling (there’s a whole South Park episode dedicated to things that The Simpsons did first), airing an episode like this one that substitutes disjointed jokes that are past their prime in place of a character driven plot is disappointing at best. Spoilers, such as they are, for the episode follow.

The Simpsons has followed a fairly regular pattern in recent years. The first few minutes are joke heavy, leading into a setup for the “meat” of the episode. The plot heavy middle has fewer jokes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are wittier and more likely to make viewers think for a second. The end generally goes for either heartwarming or a solid ending joke. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” tried hard to follow this pattern, but it forgot the funny start, it forgot to stick the ending, and there is less“meat” in the middle than there is in a Krusty Burger.

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The reason that most of the jokes didn’t measure up is that they seemed both dated and recycled. It almost seemed like the episode wanted to be a clip show, given how many references there were to older episodes. The beginning segment featured a family vacation to “Diznee Land,” a parody park that first appeared in season two. The kids were doing an “Are we there yet?” routine that was funnier in the first few seasons than in the 26th. When they finally get to the park, what follows is a series of jokes that have been made about Disneyland since 1955. The lines are too long. The prices are too high. Bag checks are tedious. It’s too hot. Everything is merchandized and given a kitschy name. The most unique joke came in the mockery of the “It’s A Small World” ride, where the song threatens Bart’s life if he tried to leave the ride. That was the only joke that elicited a laugh in the entire episode.

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The middle of the episode begins when the Simpson family finds a new ride that no one else is on titled “Rocket to Your Doom.” The ride is a trap set by Kang and Kodos, who are making a rare appearance outside the Treehouse of Horror episodes (which Homer notes, saying, “But this isn’t Halloween!”) As the family hurtles towards Rigel Seven, two more famous jokes from past episodes get rehashed. Homer opens a bag of chips in zero-gravity, which leads him to try floating around to catch them, like he did during his time as an astronaut. However, Bart and Maggie continually beat him to the chips, a callback to the episode where Santa’s Little Helper has puppies that like to eat Homer’s chips before he can enjoy them. It actually gets obnoxious how many times Homer’s famous catchphrase of “d’oh” is used in this 30 second joke.

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Once they arrive on Rigel Seven, and after a series of ill-conceived and ill-executed bodily function jokes (Rigelians give birth, then seconds later, those birthed give birth, and so on, but there seems to be an ending point after four continuous births? Their river is made from the drool of the dead, but the dead are dumped in halfway down the river?), the Simpsons are put on display in a zoo. A Rigelian with a doctorate in humanology comes to make sure they are comfortable, mistaking many aspects of human culture and biology. When Lilo and Stitch scoops you on a joke, don’t use that joke.

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The humanologist tells them that one of them is going to be ceremonially eaten, and Homer is, unsurprisingly, chosen. Homer is on stage to be eaten when a teleport tube materializes around him (and gets stuck, in a gag that has been used on the show more times than can be counted). He is rescued by rebel Rigelians, peace-loving hippies who just want to learn about earth’s achievements and party. They offer him a way back home, but Homer won’t leave his family on the (literal) chopping block. He returns to the ceremony just in time to join his family in being eaten, but a section of his ass poisons the Rigelian queen when she eats it. The family is released (after Kang tells them that everyone should forget this happened), and spends the end segment mimicking the original Star Trek.

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Having Kang remove this episode from canon may have been intended to excuse the disjointed nature, an attempt to say that this was just meant to be whimsical, not a serious episode. But most of the episodes aren’t serious, and almost never does anything carry from one episode to the next (except character deaths outside of the Treehouse of Horror episodes). Expanding the background of the Rigelians, particularly Kang and Kodos, could be a great story. In each of the 25 Treehouse of Horror episodes, the viewers have gotten to learn a little more about our favorite aliens. Spreading the stories out, focusing on them once each season, has worked. That’s more time and focus than most of the hundreds of Simpsons characters get in a season. This episode was not necessary, not engaging, and not funny; yet, it still pulled in the highest ratings of the night. The ability to win ratings should not leave writers complacent and willing to put a half-assed episode into circulation.

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I am not holding this episode up as an example of declining quality in the show as a whole. One bad episode does not denote a pattern. However, this episode was just that: bad. Lazy writing and old and boring jokes combined to make an episode that should not have aired. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, who hope the rest of the season will wash away this bitter pill.

The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, stars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer and airs Sunday nights at 8/7c on Fox.