May 27, 2013

Granite Flats

BYU-TV is BYU's satellite/cable outlet. When it's not broadcasting BYU sports and Mormon-specific religious events, it tries hard to be a generic, family-values, Christian broadcaster that anybody interested in generic family values would watch.

The programming includes reruns of syndicated "family-values" shows like Doc (with Billy Ray Cyrus), Wind at My Back (from Kevin Sullivan), old Disney flicks (and clones of same), and PBS-style science/nature shows.

It also creates original in-house content, some of which is surprisingly not generic and even pretty good, like American Ride, Story Trek, and Audio-Files. The latest BYU-TV production is a first, a scripted drama series called Granite Flats.

Here, though, they started with a good idea and executed it so clumsily that I couldn't stop being fascinated by the cinematic train wreck that followed.

Granite Flats is a period piece that takes place in 1962 at and around an army base in Colorado. The night Arthur and his mother arrive in town (his father, we are led to believe, was a test pilot killed at Edwards) he sees a comet [sic] falling out of the sky.

The next day at school, he's befriended by Madeline, the school's Lisa Simpson, and Timmy, the youngest son of the town's chief of police. Timmy's not a brainiac like Arthur and Madeline, but makes up for it with sheer gregariousness. The Scooby Gang is thus formed.

At this point, I was pretty sure we were in for a cross between Encyclopedia Brown and Mad Scientist Club, with a little Detective Conan thrown in for good measure. And indeed, they soon set off to track down the comet [sic] that Arthur saw.

Incidentally, that "comet" is indicative of an underlying flaw in the show. These kids understand complex trigonometry. They can build a metal detector out of spare parts. They darn well know the difference between a comet and a meteor. Alas, the writers don't.

The Scoobies are tracking it down when an explosion levels the motor pool shop on the base, killing a mechanic. Frank, a patient at the base hospital where Beth (Arthur's mom) is a nurse, rushes to help. He comes back with hands burned "turning off the gas." A clue!

That evening, in the best, most intense scene in the whole series, Sergeant Jenkins, the guy in charge of the motor pool, shows his son (Wallace) how to clean his .45 while rambling on about a firefight that wiped out his platoon in Korea and getting steadily drunk.

Wallace slips the gun off the table and is walking away with it when Chief John Sanders (well-played by Richard Gunn) and MP Major Slim Kirkpatrick arrive to question Jenkins about the day's events. Jenkins immediately confesses to blowing up the motor pool.

Jenkins's confession is good enough for Kirkpatrick but Sanders isn't convinced and wants to dig further. The kids resume their hunt for the "comet."

Meanwhile, Beth's boss skulks around the hospital like the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files, involved in a top-secret conspiracy that involves Frank. And future Al-Anon member Wallace gets taken in by one of the nurses at the army hospital.

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May 23, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (31)

Shuen (朱厭) means "red" + "detestable."

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May 20, 2013

TV season summary

With the 2012/2013 television season at an end, it's time to revisit a few of my earlier reviews. The yearly list of winners and losers makes for an interesting commentary about American popular culture.

Elementary improved greatly once Holmes and Watson got past the Lifetime Movie premise (stretching out what should have been pilot episode material for half the season). The question now is if it can avoid getting dragged down by the Moriarty arc.

The "omniscient enemy," as Kate describes it, is a cheat employed by unimaginative writers who aren't as smart as their characters. Alas, "superbad is superboring." It ruined Sherlock and The Mentalist (though the latter still got renewed, barely).

At this juncture, thankfully, Elementary appears to be doing with Moriarty exactly what Person of Interest did with Elias. If so, that's a good thing (though thanks to better writing and Enrico Colantoni, his Elias is a far more compelling character).

Mob Doctor got cancelled early on and deserved it. It was dumb from the start. If Moriarty is too devoid of good ulterior motives to be interesting for anything other than her looks, the Mob Doctor's Grace Devlin was too devoid of bad ulterior motives.

I'd hoped that Vegas would be CSI: 1960, with Michael Chiklis as a Donald Trump wannabee. When it turned into a soap opera and a Sopranos wannabee instead, I stopped watching. So did a lot of other viewers. It got cancelled after one season.

Incidentally, The Sopranos is one of those "high brow" shows I'm convinced people "liked" because they were paying through the nose for it. Call it the sunk cost entertainment fallacy. It was an excruciatingly dull show about thoroughly unlikable people.

This is true about a lot of premium cable content: second-rate stuff tarted up with cussing, nudity, and name actors. I don't object to attractive women taking their clothes off, but basic cable consistently does a better job in the plain old storytelling department.

I was happy to see that Last Man Standing got renewed. It's a grown-up version of Home Improvement. Tim Allen gets to play the smart straight-man instead of the klutzy butt of the joke. It may be the best thing he's done.

I didn't like Arrow and still don't. I've got nothing against vigilante shows but this one leaves me cold. The travails of the mega-rich don't much move me. I wanted to like Beauty and the Beast and never got into it. Both made the cut.


May 16, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (30)

The siege crossbow (床子弩) illustrated below dates to 12th century China. Based on its design, it's also known as a "three-bow crossbow," essentially an industrial-strength compound bow.

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May 13, 2013

True Tears

If I didn't know True Tears was produced by Bandai, I would have assumed it was a Kyoto Animation production, many scenes sharing the same "look and feel" as Kanon and Clannad, plus a similarly (de rigueur) eccentric character.

Though the anime owes little other than the title (and the same writing team) to the visual novel, the story follows the structure of a visual novel (or dating-sim) more closely than Kanon and Clannad, which also evolved from dating-sims.

In the case of the latter two, the story quickly focuses on a single boy-girl pairing and explores the developing relationship, which is far more interesting and dramatically rewarding.

The running question in True Tears concerns which of the girls in Shin'ichiro's orbit--Hiromi, Noe or Aiko--will end up as his girlfriend. Although this creates enough tension to maintain interest, ultimately the choice is too arbitrary, and the stakes too low, to hit home emotionally.

In the end, it's the kind of series that mostly inspires me to think of ways to improve it.

The more compelling conflict is Shin'ichiro's desire to become an illustrator, which means not joining the family business. Whisper of the Heart strikes the right balance, subordinating the teen romance (though it's still very much there) to the artistic challenge Shizuku faces.

I would make Hiromi and Aiko his younger and older sister, respectively, and focus on his relationship with Noe, who has appointed herself his muse.

Hiromi wants to get out of this hick town; Aiko is happy to stick around; Shin'ichiro wants to figure out how to not be his father without rejecting his father. These elements are all there but are swamped by the dating-sim aspects, which get rather tedious after a while.

Like any normal teenager, Shin'ichiro's basic criteria for paying attention to a girl starts with the girl paying attention to him. Even smart teenage boys aren't that deep when it comes to romance. In this respect, True Tears ends up being very--and rather dully--realistic.

In fact, perhaps the most interesting thing about True Tears is how "uninteresting" it dares to be. There are no surreal or fantastical elements, not even as metaphors. And aside from Noe, who is odd but not outrageously so, the characters are incredibly normal.

True Tears is what Ordinary People would be if the people in Ordinary People were actually ordinary, and not Hollywood "ordinary." Shin'ichiro's mother is a lot like Mary Tyler Moore's Beth Jarrett, except, as I said, for actually being ordinary.

Watching True Tears, I imagine adults looking wistfully back at high school, though with the clearheaded recollection that being a teenager sucks. Not in any earthshaking way, but simply because most teenagers haven't figured out what they want to do with their lives.

And even when they do, they don't have the tools or maturity to do anything about it right then.

This essential truth ends up making True Tears worth watching for the sum of its parts; the "whole" is disappointingly anticlimactic. And as far as that goes, "disappointingly anticlimactic" describes the typical life of the typical middle-class teenager too.

Related posts

Whisper of the Heart


May 06, 2013

Too big to succeed

A comment in Robert Cringely's history of the first decade of the PC revolution points to this account by an IBM contractor during the development of OS/2. IBM's OS/2 was going to be the next Windows before Bill Gates realized that IBM was, as Clayton Christensen describes it in The Innovator's Dilemma, unwilling to "disrupt" its mainframe business. And so hobbled what was a breakthrough product.

Both Cringely and Dominic Connor describe IBM as a behemoth incapable of getting out of its own way. Or as I would sum up the problem: All big bureaucracies behave like big bureaucracies. It doesn't matter how pure their motives, how righteous their leaders, or how hardworking their employers. Managing large organizations is hard, one reason CEOs get paid so much money for doing even a mediocre job.

Another classic from the early high-tech era, The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks, addresses the fallacy that magical economies of scale can somehow solve all of society's problems. Brooks observes that throwing twice as many people at a problem doesn't mean it will get done twice as fast. Often it means that it doesn't get done at all.

This is not to say that small is always beautiful. There are very real economies of scale. But it's easier to launch a revolution with a small "band of brothers."

Marvel, for example, at Steve Wozniak's floppy disc controller that made the Apple II the first true personal computer, and the disc operating system he and Steve Jobs commissioned from another teeny-tiny company for a microscopic fee of $13,000. It's easy to forget that behemoths like Apple and Microsoft were once run out of not-metaphorical garages. A handful of people changed the world.

Governments as well are corporations, gigantic corporations, and every weakness inherent in the former is doubly so in the latter. Governments can deploy all the police powers available to the state to enforce their own cartels and monopolies, no matter how corrupt or inefficient, against any private-sector competitor.

The solution is federalism, which is less a political philosophy than a recognition of how the world--and human nature--works. All it really means is chopping the Leviathan into digestible pieces.

The invidious nature of "too big to fail" just doesn't come down to the pernicious political corruption it spawns. Why bother investing in people, plants, and products when "investing" in politicians yields a better return? More importantly, allowing oversized companies to disintegrate through the bankruptcy process whittles them down to a size that normal human beings can again begin to comprehend.

Related posts

The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30
Something Ventured

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May 02, 2013

Tonan no Tsubasa (28)

We find here a good example of ingrained class differences expressed in language. Rikou, Gankyuu, and Kiwa don't use honorifics with Shushou, but Shoutan (a middle-aged man) addresses a twelve-year-old using "sama," a high honorific, because he's reflexively placed her in the same social caste as his employer. Nor does Shushou object to this.

Youko, though, grew up in modern Japan and gets so annoyed at constantly being kowtowed to that she bans the practice. Rikou remarks about this unusual change to the accepted rules of imperial etiquette in "Kizan."

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