Muppets aren’t supposed to focus on ‘Now’

Muppets Now premiered on Disney+ July 31, and of course I had to check it out. Unfortunately, something about it felt off.

I appreciate the intent, and it certainly comes closer to the mark than the misconceived Muppet series on ABC a few years ago. But it’s just weird to watch the Muppets stringing together what’s essentially a collection of YouTube videos.

At first, it struck me as anachronistic. Perhaps the Muppets simply belong in the ’70s and ’80s.

But that’s not it. The Muppets are supposed to be theater folk, always just barely pulling together a show in a specific, solid place. A theater not only gives them a home, but it also makes them timeless.

A streaming-based show feels very current year. A theater-based show can be any and every year. The only thing dating a Muppet show should be the very special guest star. Kermit singing “Happy Feet” on the original Muppet Show entertained me in the ’80s, and I’ll never forget my oldest niece cracking up at the same sketch circa 2013.

Muppets are ageless, and in a way, they almost exist outside of time. Muppets Now has potential, but I’d rather they stick to the formula of the original series and aim for another timeless classic.

Speaking of The Muppet Show, why isn’t that on Disney+? And why didn’t the fourth and fifth seasons ever come out on DVD? The world needs classic Muppets.

Watching Disney’s earliest movies for the first time

I watched the earliest Disney movies recently. I was curious from the historical perspective, particularly after having read the excellent biography of Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. I’m about to spoil these movies, but you’ve had eight decades to watch them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): Walt’s labor of love, and a movie with massive cross-generational appeal when it was released. The animation is indeed superb, but I couldn’t get into the story, perhaps because Snow White never really triumphs at all. The last thing she chooses to do is bite into the poison apple. She doesn’t save herself. She never defeats the evil queen.

There’s really no reason for the queen’s failure. What are the odds that lightning would strike at exactly that wrong spot at exactly that wrong time? Or that seven dwarfs would want to look at a dead girl for several months instead of burying her? Or that Prince Charming would want to kiss a girl who’s been dead for that long? Some evil queens have all the worst luck.

Pinocchio (1940): This movie was far less successful during its initial release, but I found it to be more interesting than its predecessor. It’s incredibly dark at times. That Pleasure Island scene is a horror movie within a children’s movie. All those boys turn into donkeys and never turn back. They clearly know what they’ve become and retain the knowledge of who they were, but it’s too late, and they’re sold to perform slave labor for the rest of their lives. The movie has multiple villains, and none are brought to justice. As Pinocchio gets his happy ending, they’re all still out there, looking for their next victims. All I could think of was the catchphrase of Melisandre from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

And let’s not overlook Pinocchio’s death. He dies even more thoroughly than Snow White did. Though he can breathe at the bottom of the ocean, he’s evidently unable to breathe at the top, so he drowns to his death. We see him face-down in the water, dead. He’s eventually reborn better than ever, of course, but he has to literally die to become a real boy.

Earlier, we also see him getting high off a cigar. This movie pulls no punches. The kids of the ’40s were a hardy lot, and adults clearly didn’t bother hiding the fact that the night is dark and full of terrors.

Fantasia (1940): The perfect movie to have on in the background as you’re doing something else. Though an interesting experiment, it’s no wonder the format never caught on, and it’s no surprise that the best segment is the one with the strongest narrative. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is excellent. The rest varies.

Dumbo (1941): Dumbo is an even more passive protagonist than Snow White (if you can even call either of them protagonists). Other characters shun and humiliate him, and he just takes it. His mother sticks up for him, and she gets locked up for it. His mouse friend hypnotizes the ringleader into giving him a chance, but Dumbo is too hesitant to properly seize the opportunity given to him.

Poor Dumbo is trapped in a downward spiral until he accidentally drinks a lot of alcohol and wakes up in a tree, leading to the realization that he can fly. Then, like Spider-Man before Uncle Ben’s murder, Dumbo uses his super-power to pursue fame and fortune. The End.

It’s an odd movie. Pinocchio’s journey had a clear purpose—to teach kids life lessons through metaphor (and perhaps scare them straight). Cigars nearly make a jackass out of Pinocchio. Alcohol leads Dumbo to a breakthrough of self-discovery. The message is supposed to be about believing in yourself, but there had to be better ways to get there.

Also, Disney+ warns that the movie “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” “May”? Are they on the fence about the roustabouts and crows?

A Qualified Defense of Fuller House

Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.

I intended to watch only the first episode of Fuller House, treat it as a reunion special, and stop there. But the unexpected happened—whenever one episode finished, I found myself clicking on the next one.

Why? It’s not good. Critically speaking, this Full House sequel/spinoff is a bad show. It’s cheesy and predictable, loaded with unsubtle “wink wink, nudge nudge” references to its late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday, not loaded with any kind of original comedic style, and occasionally downright dumb. (There’s a wrestling episode whose climax is the height of ridiculous stupidity, or perhaps “nadir” is the more appropriate term.) The show’s 31 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes comes as no surprise…and yet, neither does its 81 percent audience approval rating on the same website.

fuller-house-01Despite Fuller House’s legion of faults, it’s actually kind of nice. It’s the television equivalent of catching up with old friends you haven’t seen since grade school. Sure, on the surface level, you’ve grown apart during the intervening decades, but you’re still peers with a shared history that leads to a sort of unconditional acceptance. A new show with new characters could never get away with all these flaws.

If the show chose to focus on the original adults, then this probably would have felt like nothing more than a cheap rehash, and it would have gotten old very quickly. From what we see, none of them have changed since the ‘90s. Danny’s still got a clean streak. Jesse’s still vain. And Joey’s still clinging to his man-childness.

But the focus wisely shifts to the girls who have grown up since the original series. Yes, it’s absolutely contrived that the premise is a gender-reversed version of the original show, with recent widow D.J. raising three boys with the help of sister Stephanie and best friend Kimmy, and yet it feels appropriate, even without youngest sister Michelle. (I certainly can’t blame the Olsen twins for not wanting to re-utter their old catchphrases that pre-date their memories. The show has a little too much fun picking on them about it, though.) Continue reading

Doctor Who Series 9 Ranked From Worst To Best

(Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.)

SPOILERS ahead.

My previous ranking of every modern Doctor Who episode had become out of date…until now. Series 9 wrapped up earlier this month, and this year’s Christmas special was the last new episode until probably next fall. Time for an update.

I’ve inserted the new episodes into the overall worst-to-best rankings, which debuted in four parts early this year:

I’m Sorry, I’m So Sorry

Are These Good Episodes?

These Episodes Are Cool

Fantastic!

But if you just want to focus on the newest season, I’m including the Series 9–only list below (same text I’m inserting into the full list). Note that this was a more serialized season than previous years. It featured a mix of conventional two-parters (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion) and episodes that directly continued into each other while each maintaining its own flavor (The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent). The episodes in the latter category are separately ranked because their different flavors merit individual attention.

This was an excellent season on the whole, a big improvement over the past few years, with no real clunkers in the mix. But, as always, some are better than others.

Again, SPOILERS!

Continue reading

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Worst to Best

Originally posted at Smash Cut Culture.

The Internet clearly doesn’t have enough lists, so here’s another.

Many have attempted to rank the movies comprising the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fewer have dared to add the four complete seasons of MCU television and Netflix series into the equation. I shall somehow rise to this challenge to ensure the Internet does not experience a shortage of lists. This was not easy, Internet. I swear, the top six were all neck-and-neck, and it came down to a photo-finish.

This ranking is from worst to best, not horrible to great. I’ve enjoyed all of these to varying extents, and the “varying” is what I’m measuring. None are bad. Conversely, none are works of towering artistic genius either. But it’s all damn fine entertainment worth revisiting.

SPOILERS ahead.

So, with that warning out of the way…

Here…we…go! Continue reading

Super Comics: Hawkeye #1-5 (2012)

Hawkeye-Clint-Barton-Kate-Bishop-Trick-ArrowsNew post at Smash Cut Culture!

After the first Avengers movie came out, Marvel wisely promoted Hawkeye into a solo ongoing series. It’s not the first time this has been attempted, but the series that launched in 2012 is easily the most successful and critically acclaimed outing for a lone Clint Barton. Well, not entirely lone.

The series only lasts 22 issues before getting a reboot with a new creative team, and there’s nothing wrong with stopping while you’re still ahead. The place for readers to start, of course, is the first trade paperback, My Life as a Weapon, which collects Hawkeye #1-5, (plus a superfluous Young Avengers Presents #6, which is okay but we’ll just ignore it here).

These short stories show how delightfully entertaining comic books can be when they’re not muddled with intricate continuity or crossovers or big events.

As the intro says, “Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, became the greatest sharpshooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.”

Read the rest here, please…

Every modern Doctor Who episode ranked from worst to best, part 4 of 4: “Fantastic!”

And here we are at last—the top 25 episodes of modern Doctor Who. If you missed the earlier installments, you can start at the bottom with “I’m Sorry, I’m So Sorry,” then progress up through “Are These Good Episodes?” and “These Episodes Are Cool.” Or, if you want to focus on the positive, see below.

Remember: Spoilers!

Without further ado, Geronimo!

“Fantastic!”

The TARDIS comes equipped with blankets for when you visit winter.

“On the bright side, we now know the TARDIS has blankets. Unless this is the dream.”

#25 Amy’s Choice: A dream-based episode where the stakes feel real. The set-up is intriguing with the characters not knowing which of the two realities is the dream, and it’s all grounded by a strong emotional core. I’m not sure how Amy fell in love with Rory back in these pre–Hitler-punching days, and that does mar the episode just a tad, but great stuff otherwise.

#24 Last Christmas: Another dreamy episode, but a totally different one: Doctor Who does Inception, guest starring Santa Claus. It’s one of those ideas that could easily have gone so wrong and yet somehow finds the sweet intersection of Christmas and sci-fi.

#23 Midnight: I wouldn’t want every episode to be like this, but this is a wonderfully tense change of pace, and one of very, very few Doctor Who episodes that could conceivably be staged as a play. All that repetition is unsettling, but it’s a good unsettling. Continue reading

Every modern Doctor Who episode ranked from worst to best, part 3 of 4: “These Episodes Are Cool”

Now we’re getting into the good stuff, and we still have the best stuff to look forward to. How lovely. For anyone just tuning in, I started this worst-to-best ranking of modern Doctor Who two weeks ago with the weakest episodes in “I’m Sorry. I’m So Sorry,” continued with the middling ones in “Are These Good Episodes?” and here we are now in the penultimate entry:

(Spoilers!)

“These Episodes Are Cool”

"Quick -- where's my ruby-quartz visor?"

“Quick — where’s my ruby-quartz visor?”

#50 42: What should’ve been a wonderfully tense, 24-style thriller winds up being merely pretty good. Trivia as security questions? What?

#49 Tooth and Claw: A decent romp with a werewolf, ninja monks, and Queen Elizabeth. Not an all-time classic, but kind of fun.

#48 The Vampires of Venice: One that falls squarely in the “good dumb fun” category. The plot about fish aliens wanting to repopulate their species (while coincidentally resembling vampires) is kind of so-so, but the episode’s high on adventure and the Doctor makes a memorable entrance at Rory’s bachelor party. Continue reading

Every modern Doctor Who episode ranked from worst to best, part 2 of 4: “Are these good episodes?”

And we’re back for more fun with numbers as I continue ranking every modern Doctor Who episode from worst to best. I scraped the bottom of the barrel last week, so now we move on to the middling episodes. That sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? Even though I’m being critical here and these are flawed doses of the Doctor, they’re perfectly entertaining ways to indulge in 45-minute breaks from the world, but maybe only if you’ve grown tired of re-watching the best episodes too many times. I’d still take any of these over much else we find on television these days.

Now remember – Spoilers!

“Are These Good Episodes?”

Wokka wokka!

Wokka wokka!

#75 The Bells of St. John: The introduction of the “real” Clara (Clara Prime?) includes great bits, including nice scenes with the Doctor and his soon-to-be-companion plus a brief trip aboard a crashing plane. The sexism with the monks isn’t so great, nor is the idea of presenting Clara as a mystery to be solved rather than a fully formed character in her own right. And the plot about people getting trapped in wi-fi is pretty basic.

#74 The Name of the Doctor: Some cool ideas, like the Doctor visiting his own grave (the one place a time-traveler is never supposed to go—aside from pretty much anywhere in his or her own past, right?) and some incredibly poor payoff—namely, learning that Clara’s many lives existed just to keep the Doctor safe. The story feels like it needed more fleshing out for everything to work properly. Great final scene with River, though, that addresses the troubling end of “Forest of the Dead,” even if it doesn’t fix it.

#73 Gridlock: I have a heck of a time buying the premise that people would spend years in traffic traveling meters per day. A little more world-building could have clarified why they’re desperate enough to resort to travel that’s slower than walking. But the ending is wonderful, especially when the Doctor tells Martha about Gallifrey. And it is fun watching the Doctor jumping from car to car while trying not to choke on exhaust. Continue reading

Every modern Doctor Who episode ranked from worst to best, part 1 of 4: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

doc10openingThe Internet likes a good list, doesn’t it? A nice comprehensive, frivolous ranking of a beloved something or other?

All right then. Let’s do this. Let’s rank every episode of modern Doctor Who from worst to best in four weekly installments: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” “Are these good episodes?”, “These episodes are cool,” and “Fantastic!”

I tried not to agonize over the exact rankings, because I wanted to be done this century, so assume a margin of error of plus or minus a few. If I did this a year later, the order would likely turn out differently. It’s all just my opinion, and I respect that you’ll likely disagree. (I know—how dare I rank that episode that low and that episode that high?) This is just for fun, a way to reflect on what’s been a great science fiction series overall.

I love Doctor Who even though not every episode is a winner, and I appreciate how hard it is to write for television. Both showrunners, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, have given us brilliant episodes, and both have been guilty of failing to rein in their excesses. Nevertheless, the show remains great on the whole, and I’m thankful for the many wonderfully entertaining hours both writers and their teams have given us.

But none of us are perfect. So in this first part, let’s get the misfires out of the way:

(Spoilers!)

Allons-y!

“I’m Sorry. I’m So Sorry.”

The Doctor as you never wanted to see him.

The Doctor as you never wanted to see him.

#97 The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords: It would’ve been much higher if I hadn’t separated “Utopia” from this three-parter. But no. That wonderful first part doesn’t deserve to be saddled with this train wreck. Both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have been guilty of mythologizing the Doctor, which is the wrong approach, but RTD gives us the most egregious example here. Martha travels the world convincing people to Tinkerbell the Doctor back to health, which results in a Jesus-like resurrection. No, people. He’s a runaway from a race of haughty time-travelers, not a Christ figure. And the Master’s insanity could be subtler.

#96 Love & Monsters: It benefits from an ELO soundtrack. And pretty much nothing else as our guest protagonist stalks Rose’s mother and a needlessly icky alien kills some nice people. And that girl’s really okay living as a cement face? Continue reading