Category Archives: Now Airing

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

Welcome to Night Vale Logo

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

Critical Hit Major Spoilers Logo

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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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.

How to Make Today a Great Day

Netflix Now Streaming

With 104 days at your disposal, what sort of adventures and activities could you come up with to keep busy? For most of us, work or tv or books or video games would consume our time, cementing us to our couches and chairs. We wouldn’t take advantage of all the adventure and excitement that the world holds. The Disney X D show Phineas and Ferb explores this idea of making the most of each and every day, turning 104 days of sitting in front of a screen into 104 days of exploration and imagination. With three seasons and a full-length movie on Netflix, anyone can and should spend time watching how these creative kids spend their time.

 

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Before delving too deeply into this review, I should point out that, yes, this is a cartoon, and one originally aimed at kids. However, Disney is masterful at making cartoons for kids that appeal to adults too. The company knows that the parents are going to be dragged into watching whatever the kids are watching, so small jokes and references are added into most Disney cartoons. Phineas and Ferb takes that to an even higher level. Many of the jokes are ones that kids would never get without explanation, ones that adults will find uproariously funny. So, even if you think that cartoons are for kids, and that you won’t enjoy the show, give it a chance. You may find the show funnier than you imagined. Each episode of Phineas and Ferb follows a pretty standard formula. Without commercials, the runtime of each episode is around 23 minutes, broken into two parts. Sometimes a storyline will take the whole 23 minutes, but most episodes have the two separate stories. Within each story, there are three intermingling plots.

 

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

 

The first revolves around the titular characters, Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, step-brothers who are inventive and mechanical geniuses. The pair are not content with just sitting lazily around, they have to be building something new or else they get stir-crazy. These inventions often defy logic, explanation and physics. The science of the world seems to bend itself backwards in order to accommodate the brothers. Also included in their story for the episode are their three closest friends, a bully named Buford, a nerd named Baljeet and Isabella, the leader of the local Fireside Girls troop (think Girl Scouts meet Navy SEALS).

 

Linda and Candace Flynn

Linda and Candace Flynn

 

The next story involves their older sister, Candace Flynn, and their mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher. Candace is spending her summer caught between trying to “bust” her brothers to their mom – her version of tattling and getting them in trouble – and trying to pursue the boy she likes. Linda tries to keep her daily life going despite all the interruptions by her daughter, and she never manages to see the crazy contraptions that her sons build, much to Candace’s dismay. Over time, Candace begins to believe that there’s a mysterious force at work that is plotting against her, ensuring that their mother never sees what the boys are building. More often than not, though, it’s just the work of an evil scientist fighting his nemesis.

 

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

 

The third plot line centers on the family’s pet platypus, Perry. While it’s weird enough for a family to have a pet platypus, this particular platypus also happens to be a secret agent named Agent P working for a group known as OWACA – the Organization Without A Cool Acronym. OWACA utilizes unusually smart and strong animal agents to combat evil; though the animals are talented, they cannot speak – they are just animals, after all. Perry the Platypus spends his days fighting Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an inept evil scientist scheming to take over the Tri-State Area. Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a new device – which he calls an “inator” (as in “forgetinator” or “turn everything evil-inator”) – that complements whatever painful backstory he has in mind that day. The fight between Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz follows roughly the same formula each episode: Dr. Doofenshmirtz traps Perry in an overly elaborate trap, gives his backstory monologue, begins to activate his machine (which invariably causes whatever the boys are doing to escape the notice of their mother), and then Perry escapes, blows up the machine (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at the same time) and flies back home, where he resumes his secret identity.

In the course of these three interwoven stories, there is always at least one musical number. The music is original to the episode, and the songs are often catchy enough that you’ll find yourself humming them days later (one of the most popular songs can be found below). Disney even released a cd of the top songs from the first season, well worth a listen. The songs are usually either funny or touching, sometimes both, and the stellar vocal cast that the show has gathered performs them to perfection. In fact, the musical numbers have earned the show four Emmy nominations, an impressive feat for an animated show.

 

 

One of the best features of this show that separates it from other cartoons is how it deals with the characters. Most cartoons – especially ones aimed toward children – will give the main character some sort of flaw that lasts for exactly one episode, and that they must overcome in order to beat the bad guy and resolve the story. Phineas and Ferb doesn’t do that. The characters have remained fairly stable since the beginning. Major changes in character are due to long-term story arc changes or due to outside forces such as one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s devices, not some personal failing that suddenly surfaced just in time for the character to learn some important lesson.

The language used in the show is a key factor in its appeal to adults. Now, by that, I don’t mean to suggest that the cartoon kids are doing their versions of the “Seven words you can’t say on tv.” Rather, the show does not talk down to the audience, either the kids or the adults. In fact, at times the show’s use of words may be beyond what a child could handle. Words such as sesquipedalian, techno-mimetic and septuagenarian have all appeared in just the last few episodes that I re-watched. The show managed to work them in seamlessly, too. Sesquipedalian is not an easy word to use in a punchline, but Phineas and Ferb found a way.

 

Final shot of the musical episode "Rollercoaster: The Musical!"

Final shot of the musical episode “Rollercoaster: The Musical!”

 

No show is perfect, though this one comes close. Apart from the pains of waiting for more episodes to go up on Netflix and the suspense of whether the show will continue to run, the only downside is in comparison to itself. The show has some phenomenal episodes, including two episodes that featured Disney’s recently acquired properties Star Wars and Marvel Comics. While there are no truly bad episodes of the show, some are weaker than others. This is mainly noticeable if you watch multiple episodes back-to-back in marathon style, though it can also be seen in the first few episodes of the series, while the show was still working to set itself up. Fortunately, there’s no real over-arching plot, so you can skip the early episodes and come back to them once you’re a devoted fan of the show.

 

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

 

Overall, I rank this in my favorite shows, so I recommend it to anyone of any age. I was introduced to the show by my 40-year-old high school physics teacher and my 22-year-old (at the time) best friend, independently of each other. I was resistant at first, thinking it to be a show for kids, and then laughed my way through the whole series. Multiple times. I’m even re-watching it as I write this review. There’s a lot of humor that will resonate with people of all ages. Give the show a try; watch two episodes, and if you’re not in love with it by then, you don’t have to watch any more. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be singing along to the theme song as you make the choice to start the third episode.

Phineas and Ferb is written by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and airs on Disney and Disney X D. Three seasons and the movie are available to stream on Netflix Instant.

God, the Devil and John

NBC Now Airing

With the winter hiatus upon us and a lack of new episodes until mid-January at the earliest, now seems like a good time to take a look back at one of this season’s newest gems. Constantine premiered late in the season in the timeslot vacated for Hannibal’s season break. NBC didn’t stray far in swapping out the two shows – they’re comparable in terms of blood, mystery and number of gnawed on humans. Production on Constantine’s inaugural season halted after only four episodes had aired. However, right around the time of the fifth episode, things started picking up. Viewership increased, ratings went up and the plot began to truly resonate with the audience. Unfortunately, because the show hit its stride after the decision was made to halt production, we may only get to see the 13 episodes already made before this show is gone. That is, unless it picks up more in ratings and viewership. So, here’s why your date night on Friday, January 16th should involve a date with your couch and an NBC show about a British detective… who hunts demons.

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Constantine – based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer series – centers on supernatural detective John Constantine and his companions as they fight the often referenced “rising darkness.” John’s core support team is his seemingly immortal friend Chas Chandler and the clairvoyant mystery woman Zed Martin, both of whom appear in the original comics in some form. Heaven’s support of the team arrives in the form of an angel named Manny, whose cryptic clues often frustrate John onto the correct path. How can a show get more interesting than when it has a spellcasting detective, a psychic, an immortal and an angel fighting evil? You add in a haunting backstory, powerful and threatening villains, and easter egg allusions to other DC properties.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Though the show is based on a comic book line, it’s not a direct port to the screen. John’s backstory in the show is from an arc that happened early in the Hellblazer run, but the detective’s introduction to the supernatural world happened differently in the comics and the show. Constantine opens with John in a mental hospital after a trauma from years before – the accidental casting of a young girl’s soul into Hell – finally caught up with him. The show has done a good job of building on this background with each episode while not rubbing it in the audience’s face. In these first eight episodes, John has teamed up with a number of others who were a part of that exorcism gone wrong, all of whom are dealing with the psychological damage in their own way, from drinking to drugs to joining a convent. Meanwhile, the mystery of Zed – who saw visions of John before they met and who is learning from him how to control her clairvoyant powers – is dangled tantalizingly both in front of the audience and in front of John himself, as Zed refuses to share any details about her past.

To counter such a crack team as this, the forces of evil moving against them have to be compelling and believably strong. While the show has started as a “monster of the week” type show, using the phrase “rising darkness” as a catch-all for the things going bump in the night, the individual villains don’t feel forced or out of place in this story. The only antagonist to show up more than once so far is a character named Papa Midnite, though his motives tend more toward personal gain and less toward outright evil. Papa Midnite is another character straight from the comics, and he’ll likely make more appearances in the back half of this first season. While remaining free of spoilers, it should be noted that the presumed cause of the “rising darkness” is introduced in the eighth episode, the cliffhanger episode that aired leading into the hiatus.

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

One thing that makes tv shows based on comic books fun is the connection to the source material. With such a rich and extensive history to look at, fans who have read the comics have the opportunity to speculate on what might happen next based on what they know of the characters and plotlines already. Not only that, but the linked nature the DC universe allows for other popular characters to show up unexpectedly. While we likely won’t see Batman or Superman or any of the other big names of the Justice League on the show anytime soon, there have already been some hints toward the characters Dr. Fate (his helmet was in the first episode) and Swamp Thing (mentioned in a message if you call the phone number on John’s business card). Jim Corrigan, known to DC Comics fans as the man who becomes The Spectre upon his death, showed up in episode five; his return as The Spectre was hinted at through Zed’s clairvoyant visions. While this does give a little extra treat to those in the audience who have read the comics, not recognizing these add-ins doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show at all.

Every show has its growing pains, but Constantine got them out of the way early. It has become a solid show that deserves more than one truncated season. With over 25 years of source material to draw from and a skilled cast to bring the characters to life, the only thing this show lacks is the dedicated fanbase and audience to keep it on the air. January 16th, the return from hiatus, will be a key night in deciding the future of this show. In the meantime, new viewers can catch up on Hulu and NBC.com. I highly recommend this show to anyone who is a fan of fantasy, science fiction, comics, horror movies or any good, character-driven dramas with witty and sarcastic humor.

Constantine stars Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya, Charles Halford and Harold Perrineau and airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC, at least for five more weeks.