If I have a superhuman ability, it is almost certainly an extremely high threshold for children's television, particularly those shows geared toward preschool children: Franklin, Little Bear, Dora the Explorer, The Backyardigans and Wonder Pets, just to name a few. Some of these (Franklin) I merely tolerate, while others (The Backyardigans) I actually enjoy watching with my son.
Over the past couple of years, I've noticed that Kyle cycles through the shows he likes. His enjoyment of Blue's Clues remains fairly constant, but whether he likes The Backyardigans one month and Wonder Pets another is entirely a matter of whim.
About a year ago, Kyle was on a Wonder Pets kick, and I was being exposed to a high level of guinea pig, duckling and turtle antics. Something inside me snapped; I began to consider an alternative explanation for the trio of helpful animals living in their little schoolhouse. What if, I thought, the whole thing is just the fever-dream of a guinea pig who is the test subject of a laboratory experiment?
The notion percolated in the back of my mind for a while and at some point I realized that, one way or another, I needed to get it out. So I sat down and wrote the beginning of a Linny (or Lynny, as it turns out) the guinea pig tale. Not long after I began, the winds of change blew through the International House of Johnson and Wonder Pets gave way to something else and without the regular exposure to Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too, my mind wandered elsewhere and the story was abandoned.
I have no plans to return to the beleaguered guinea pig, but I present the incomplete tale here as a cautionary tale: this is what can happen when the adult mind comes under the assault of children's television.
03 MARCH, 2006
"The phone is ringing," Dr. Selig murmured. "I know, Walter; I can hear it. Unfortunately I'm a little occupied at the moment. As are you." He tapped the side of the syringe a few times, then slowly depressed the plunger until a thin stream of clear liquid geysered from the tip of the hypodermic needle. "Besides, that'll just be Nick calling to tell us they've decided to turn down our grant application. Again. Now, if you'll move your finger just a little...yes, that's excellent."
The needle pierced the shaved skin at the base of the guinea pig's skull and Dr. Selig injected what he suspected would be the final dose of the serum into the little mammal's brain stem. A moment later, Walter returned the fidgeting rodent to its cage. Returned to the familiar bed of wood shavings, the guinea pig seemed content to sit motionless, peering out at the lab. It would have looked like any of a million other such animals living in similar cages in the bedrooms and living rooms of houses all across the country, were it not for the color-coded nodes that marked the location of nearly three dozen subdermal implants in the rodent's head, spinal column and appendages.
Dr. Selig stripped off his latex gloves and dropped them into a nearby trash can. "Go ahead and run the connectivity check," he said. "I'll be back in an hour. I trust you want your usual?"
Walter nodded. "No celery this time," he said.
Dr. Selig sighed. This conversation was becoming a tiresome ritual. "I'll tell them," he said, as he always did, "just like I've told them a hundred times before."
"How hard is it for them to understand that some people like Buffalo wings without celery?" Walter asked, just as indignant today as he was last Friday when it was Dr. Selig's turn to pick up lunch.
"I'll tell them," Dr. Selig said again. "You run the connectivity check."
The lab ran a predictable lunch schedule, and there was no one more predictable about lunch than Walter. On Monday, everyone brought lunch from home and Walter ate his leftover lasagna cold. On Tuesday, Josh—the lab's other intern—would run to Happy Burger and Walter would invariably order a bacon cheeseburger with no pickles. Wednesdays meant Dr. Oxley taking orders for Mexarito's, Walter mangling the pronunciation of "quesadilla" when he ordered. Thursdays were the only days when Walter wasn't likely to complain about a botched order, as it was his day to venture out to the House of Ming for Chinese food, and he always made sure there was plenty of duck sauce for his eggroll and that his General Tso's chicken contained no vegetables. Vegetables as a rule were shunned by Walter, but green peppers especially he held in high contempt.
Later in the afternoon, when they sent someone to Dairy Queen for their weekly ice cream treats, Walter would order a turtle sundae with no pecans. Anyone daring to argue that a turtle sundae prepared without pecans was simply a caramel-and-chocolate sundae would be loudly rebuked by Walter, and everyone in the lab had long since learned that it was folly to argue with Walter where food was concerned.
Dr. Selig shrugged off his lab coat, then turned around to survey the lab. Dr. Oxley was out for the day, trying to drum up some more funding in the vain hope of keeping the lab running for another three months. Josh was multi-tasking, as usual, his phone cradled on his left shoulder while he wrote something on a yellow legal pad, pausing occasionally to run a finger over the touchpad on his laptop.
Walter was crouched in his chair, elbows on knees, peering into the guinea pig's enclosure. Dr. Selig wondered briefly which of the two mammals—the placid guinea pig or the wide-eyed, neurotic intern—was more intelligent, then cleared his throat. "Walter," he said, pointing to the computer terminal that processed the data feeds from the wireless sensors implanted beneath the guinea pig's dermis. "Run the connectivity check."
Walter swung the chair around and began tapping at the keyboard. Satisfied that the intern was following his directive, Dr. Selig left the laboratory, bound for Little Airplane Wings, an establishment that claimed to have "better Buffalo sauce than Buffalo!"
An hour later, the guinea pig was munching away at one of the unwanted celery sticks from Walter's lunch. Though there was no outward indication, the chemical cocktail Dr. Selig had injected was working its magic: simultaneously inhibiting the rodent's ErbB4 receptors and GABAergic interneurons. The former affected her cells' ability to process Neuregulin-1, while the latter inhibited expression of parvalbumin, the combined upshot of which was severe, chemically-induced schizophrenia.
Her left eye twitched. An electric impulse was picked up by the sensor implanted near her left eye and a small packet of data was transmitted wirelessly to a nearby computer, where the strength and duration of the impulse were committed digitally to disc, along with thirty-three other data points that indicated other electrical impulses or lack thereof. Her left eye twitched again.
"She's falling asleep," Walter said, his face so close to the enclosure that his breath fogged up the glass. "Do you think she dreams, Dr. Selig?"
Dr. Selig wiped a dollop of barbecue sauce from the corner of his mouth with a napkin and considered the question for a moment before answering.
"There's sufficient evidence to suggest that she does, Walter," he said, reaching forward to tap one of the jagged lines marching across the LCD screen. "She'll be entering her REM cycle shortly, just as you and I do every night. Her sleep patterns are similar enough to ours—including observable alterations in brain activity—that it's entirely reasonable to conclude that she does, indeed, dream. But you can rest assured that her dreaming, or the fact that she does dream, has nothing to do with what we're doing here."
The answer seemed to satisfy Walter, who continued to stare at the guinea pig as he would do for what seemed like hours at a time if Dr. Selig didn't find something else for him to do. This is what happens when you agree to hire your husband's empty-headed younger brother, Dr. Selig thought, glancing ruefully over at Dr. Oxley's empty chair and vowing for what must have been the ten-thousandth time to never again allow a colleague's nepotism to supersede little things like talent and qualifications. Still, it was Friday, and in all likelihood they'd have to pack up the lab on Monday when Nick managed to deliver the bad news about the grant application and Dr. Oxley similarly reported her failure to find another backer, so where was the harm in letting Walter stare at a sleeping guinea pig all afternoon? It would certainly keep him out of Dr. Selig's hair.
The guinea pig slept, unmindful of the voyeur looming beyond the glass, and she dreamed. On the nearby screen, unwatched by anyone in the lab, the lines that provided a visual indicator of the various electrical impulses in her brain grew more jagged as new neural pathways opened to compensate for those the chemicals had closed. The rodent's brain behaved in ways no one in the laboratory had predicted. Neurotransmitters that had been disabled by previous variants of the experimental serum were activated again, while those that had been functioning normally only an hour before suddenly went quiet.
The alarm went off while Dr. Selig was in the restroom. Walter had no idea what it meant, nor what he should do. He looked to Josh, who was still on the phone. "I have to go," Josh said quickly. "There's an animal in trouble." He fumbled the receiver onto its cradle and crossed to Walter's workstation. "What's going on?" he asked. "What's the problem?"
Josh, unlike Walter, had been hired based on those two little things Dr. Selig felt were more important than nepotism: talent and qualifications. It took him only a quick glance at the EEG readouts on the monitor to realize that something was going horribly wrong in the guinea pig's brain. He looked over at the animal's enclosure; she was sleeping peacefully, the rapid in-out motion of her breathing the only indication that she was alive at all.
"This doesn't make sense," Josh said, frowning at the readout. "She should be wide awake and thrashing like an angry badger. When was the last time you calibrated these sensors?"
"Yesterday," Dr. Selig said from the doorway. He crossed the lab quickly; if either intern noticed that the fly on his trousers was open they didn't bother to point it out to him. "I heard the alarm. What's going on?"
Walter stood mute while Josh explained that the guinea pig appeared to be having some sort of neuropathic seizure. "Except she's not," he said, confusion clear in the tone of his voice. "She's just...sleeping."
"Comatose seems more likely," Dr. Selig replied, "though these readings certainly don't suggest it."
Walter stared at the guinea pig, as concerned about her welfare as anyone in the lab but utterly incapable of doing anything to affect it. He looked at the half-eaten piece of celery, then over to the discarded remains of his lunch, the corner of the styrofoam takeout box poking out of the trash can, more convinced then ever that the vile stalk was not to be trusted. He leaned in close to the enclosure again, oblivious to the conversation going on just a few feet away. He saw the guinea pig's left eye twitch. Rapid eye movement, he thought, recalling his earlier conversation with Dr. Selig, and again wondered if she was dreaming.
Someone has to say it: Dora the Explorer is a complete ripoff of The Lord of the Rings.
- Dora is a short person from a fantastical land who is called upon to deliver an item to a faraway place. On her journey (or quest), she must overcome a number of obstacles and often encounters strange creatures.
- Frodo Baggins is a short person from a fantastical land who is called upon to deliver an item (The One Ring) to a faraway place (The Cracks of Doom in Mordor). On his quest, he encounters strange creatures and must overcome a number of obstacles.
- Dora is accompanied by a loyal companion (also short) named Boots.
- Frodo Baggins is accompanied by a loyal companion (also short) named Samwise Gamgee.
- Dora is often joined by companions of different species: Isa the Iguana and Benny the Bull, to name two.
- Frodo Baggins is joined by companions of different races: Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf, to name two.
- Dora is pursued by Swiper the Fox, a conniving-yet-cowardly thief who wants to steal something she is carrying.
- Frodo Baggins is pursued by Gollum, a conniving-yet-cowardly thief who wants to steal The One Ring.
- Dora is eventually joined by Diego, an animal rescuer who is skilled at tracking and outdoor survival.
- Frodo Baggins is eventually joined by Aragorn, a ranger who is skilled at tracking and outdoor survival.
- Dora must often solve puzzles using words and phrases in another language (Spanish).
- Frodo Baggins was unable to enter the Mines of Moria until the word "friend" was spoken in another language (Elvish).
Of course, there are a few elements of Dora the Explorer that aren't ripped straight out of The Lord of the Rings...or are there? Let's consider:
- Dora has a magical backpack that contains whatever object she might need to solve a puzzle or overcome an obstacle. There's no magical backpack in The Lord of the Rings, but Dora's backpack sounds an awful lot like a Bag of Holding from the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game (which was around decades before Dora the Explorer), and everyone knows that Dungeons & Dragons is the King of All Lord of the Rings Ripoffs.
- Frodo Baggins is led by Gandalf, a wise old wizard who tells him which way to go and, ultimately, leads him into dire peril. Dora is rarely seen in the company of old men, wise or otherwise. True enough, but she does consult with a magical, talking map that tells her how to get to her destination, typically through waypoints that are fraught with peril (windy bridges, treacherous mountains, and the like). The Map may not be carrying a staff or wearing a pointy hat, but he definitely fills the "magical guide" role. ("Tell Frodo he has to go through the Mines of Moria, over the Fields of Pellenor and up Aman Amarth!")
I'm sure there will be naysayers; those who call this evidence "circumstantial" or "coincidental" and point out that "Nickelodeon" isn't really an anagram of "J.R.R. Tolkien". You know: nutjobs. But to the rest of you—those who can see Middle Earth in the unnamed South American country in which Dora resides—I extend an invitation to show me more. Peel the veil further back to expose more proof. What have I missed? What more is there?
- Monday, 29 December. The technician arrives at precisely 10:30am, slightly outside of the 8-10am appointment window. On the bright side, he is able to use one of the existing DirecTV coaxial cables I ran when I set up our entertainment closet.1 This means no additional holes in the house and a very rapid hookup; he's in and out in roughly half an hour.
- Wednesday, 31 December. The Time-Warner/Viacom debacle comes to light and I call Time-Warner Northeast Ohio to let them know that I am not at all happy about it. Thankfully, the two companies decided to play nice at the last minute.
- Thursday, 01 January. I notice that several channels, including most of the local Cleveland channels have video but no audio. I plan to call Time-Warner for service, but forget. I am also not thrilled to discover that our cable package does not include Noggin, BBC America, or most of the OnDemand features that the customer service representative pitched me when I made the initial installation appointment. Apparently in her eagerness to save me a few bucks on the television/digital phone/high-speed Internet bundle she eliminated the "Digital Basic" tier that includes the aforementioned features and channels.
- Tuesday, 06 January. The technician arrives a few minutes before 9:00am, well within the 8-10am appointment window. Unfortunately, he spends over an hour trying to get the phone jack in my office (which was there when we took ownership of the International House of Johnson, but never worked) connected to the rest of the house. Eventually, he installs a new jack and gets the phones up and running. While observing the technician's frustration, determination and ultimate triumph, I completely forget to mention the audio issue on the television.
- Tuesday, 06 January. Twenty minutes after the technician leaves, I'm on the phone with Time-Warner Cable technical support. My attempts to set up voice mail are unsuccessful, as following the instructions left by the technician results in only a busy signal.2 While on hold, I remember that I also need to get the audio issue resolved, so I cycle through the first 100 or so channels on the television and find that seven channels have no audio and in one case the audio is severely distorted. The person I eventually talk to resets both the voice mail service and the cable box, but only the voice mail issue is resolved. I make an appointment for Thursday morning to have a technician check the audio problem locally.
- Tuesday, 06 January. While verifying that we have long-distance service, I discover that dialing a "1" before the area code does not seem to work. I can hear the phone dialing, but I do not hear it ring or connect. Omitting the "1" before dialing long distance appears to resolve the issue, so I don't take it up with Time-Warner. I later learn that the calls dialed with the leading "1" were actually going through, but there was apparently no sound for either party.
- Tuesday, 06 January. Laura calls me at work in the afternoon to let me know that outgoing calls are working fine, but incoming calls have sound problems. By the time I get home from work in the evening, both this issue and the strange long distance issue appear to have resolved themselves.
- Wednesday, 07 January. Caller ID appears on our television when we receive a phone call. This feature, which takes approximately 24 hours from the time of digital phone service installation to be activated, may be the first thing that has worked correctly exactly when I was told it would, exactly as I expected it.
- Thursday, 08 January. Two Time-Warner vans converge on the International House of Johnson shortly after 10am, right on time for the 10am-12pm appointment window. After I explain the problem, both technicians immediately sieze upon the fact that SAP3 is enabled on the cable box. Once SAP is disabled, the audio issue is resolved.4 The second technician indicates that occasionally a software update on the cable box will cause SAP to be enabled.
My initial impression of the services is as follows:
- Internet. Nothing has changed here. We've been very happy with our 7-megabit connection, and I think Laura would rather be set upon by wolves than lose it. When she reviewed the promotional material for AT&T's U-Verse, she determined that we would have to downgrade our Internet speed and immediately ruled it out.
- Digital Phone. It's a telephone and it seems to be working like a telephone should (apart from the inital glitches, all of which have been resolved). I'm glad this service required a new cable modem, as the power connection on the old one was a bit dodgy.
- Television. The downside: DVR storage capacity and time-shift window are both significantly less than what we're used to. The former is 50 hours vs. 100, the latter is 30 minutes vs. 90. We've also lost some channels, but that can be solved with a $5/month upgrade if we so desire. The user interface on the DVR is a bit weird, too. On the plus side, the response time between remote control and DVR seems much better than the DirecTV unit.
- As a bonus, we've still got the DirecTV receiver connected to a single tuner, which gives us DirecTV service until 21 January, and there's a free HBO weekend beginning on the 18th. [↩]
- Apparently, despite the advent of call waiting and voice mail, there is still such a thing as a busy signal. I almost didn't recognize it at first. [↩]
- Secondary Audio Program. This feature allows television networks to broadcast in multiple languages simultaneously. In my experience, the Secondary Audio Program is typically in Spanish and accompanied by a "Simulcast en Español" banner at the beginning of a show. [↩]
- Apparently several stations simulcast absolute silence on the auxiliary audio channel, while WEWS in Cleveland broadcasts a heavily-distorted version of their primary audio. [↩]
That's what the Time-Warner Northeast Ohio customer service representative told me this morning. I think she was mistaking the irritation in my voice for fear. I've been a Time-Warner Cable television customer for all of 70 hours and already I've had to call customer service; this does not bode particularly well for our burgeoning relationship.
At issue: the Viacom debacle. As near as I can figure it, Viacom wants to wring more money out of Time-Warner for channels like Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV. Because apparently people still watch MTV. Time-Warner, naturally, doesn't want to shell out the dough, claiming that they'd have to (surprise!) raise their rates.
This morning, Viacom decided that negotiations weren't going to cut it, so they resorted to something akin to extortion: a crawl across the bottom of their networks imploring Time-Warner customers to contact their cable provider if they didn't want to lose shows like SpongeBob Squarepants when the ball drops in Times Square.1
At the International House of Johnson we do occasionally watch SpongeBob Squarepants, but losing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report would be a deal-breaker. We rarely watch anything else on Comedy Central, because 90% of the programming on Comedy Central is crap, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are pretty much the only two shows that Laura and I watch together.
The Viacom crawl is, in my opinion, hitting below the belt as far as negotiations are concerned. It's certainly not unprecedented, but it's kind of a dirty trick. Viacom is essentially threatening to take their ball and go home if Time-Warner doesn't play the game to their liking, but their crawl makes Time-Warner out to be the bad guy. According to one source, the price hike Viacom wants is triple the increase from their previous contract with Time-Warner, which translates (per Viacom) to roughly 25 cents per month per Time-Warner Cable subscriber.2 The crawl, quite naturally, fails to mention any of this.
But the crawl is effective. Laura asked me about it first thing this morning, as she's not at all keen to lose Nickelodeon or Comedy Central, so I thought I'd give Time-Warner a call. The number provided in the crawl was experiencing "technical difficulties", which I took to mean "a flood of calls from angry parents whose children want to watch SpongeBob tomorrow".
At this point, I know that Viacom is playing dirty, but I called Time-Warner Northeast Ohio anyway. I was greeted with an automated message assuring me that negotiations to keep the Viacom networks were underway and wouldn't I please just hang up because that's all they could tell me.
Unfortunately for Time-Warner, they're the new kid on the block as far as television providers in the International House of Johnson are concerned, and I was already annoyed to discover that having a digital cable box and subscribing to "extended basic" service is not the same as having "digital basic" service.3 Oh, and their installer was 30 minutes late on Monday.
So I waited on hold for a customer service representative. Poor Barbara got a bit of an earful as I explained that, should the Viacom networks disappear from my lineup, Time-Warner's reign as the television provider in my house would be a very, very short one. My DirecTV receiver is still active4 and my digital phone service has yet to be installed, so it's just a matter of who I call Monday morning to inform them that their services will no longer be required.
I'm not panicking, I'm just annoyed that—having been a satellite television subscriber for seven years with only two issues that I can recall—I switched to cable and wound up on the phone with customer service after less than three days.
UPDATE: Time-Warner CEO, Glenn Britt has issued a statement. Additionally, Viacom has allegedly threatened to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers from accessing their free online content, such as episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
UPDATE: It certainly appears that Viacom is planning to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers, if the pop-ups on sites like MTV.com are any indication. So, even though I currently put pennies in Viacom's pocket because I'm still paying for DirecTV, because my Internet access is through Time-Warner I won't be able to access free content on ComedyCentral.com. (I've seen the pop-up myself on that very site.) That's really playing dirty, Viacom.
FINAL UPDATE (01 January 2009): Well, it looks like Time-Warner Cable and Viacom have reached a "an agreement in principle", which means 13 million households can spend New Year's Day in Bikini Bottom after all. As an aside, if one of your New Year's resolutions was "no cable rate hikes", you're probably going to be breaking that one sooner than you expected.
- Happy New Year! [↩]
- Time-Warner claims that this could set a precedent for other networks to demand higher rates and result in a $30-per-year increase for customers. [↩]
- Translation: Our current service plan does not include Noggin (another Viacom network, the one that features all of Kyle's favorite shows), BBC America or the basic OnDemand features. [↩]
- In fact, the television was tuned to Noggin on DirecTV when Laura saw the Viacom crawl this morning. [↩]
Over the past two years, my young apprentice has been a source of amusement, joy, amazement, wonder and, above all, pride. He has also been a source of frustration, befuddlement, more frustration and, on occasion, disappointment. Not disappointment in him, mind you, but disappointment in myself; in my clear failings as a parent.
I have to believe that every parent experiences moments of fear, denial and confusion when their offspring makes a choice that goes against every tenet of their upbringing. When, as parents, we witness these blatant affronts to our values, the question that echoes endlessly in our thoughts must certainly be, Where did I go so wrong?
And so it is with my young apprentice and his preference for Joe.
Yes, Joe. Not Steve, but Joe.
Where did I go so wrong? Did I not read to him enough in the first twenty-four months? Was I neglecting him in some manner crucial to his development? How can this have happened?
"Boo's Coos!" he exclaims. "Boo's Coos Joe!"
"How about Steve?" I ask, hopefully, poised to queue up "What Experiment Does Blue Want to Do?" or "Snack Time".
"No!" is his reply. "Boo's Coos Joe!"
So it is Joe that we watch. Joe in his orange shirt. Joe, whose real name isn't even Joe, but Donovan Patton.1 Joe, who can't even be bothered to draw in the notebook himself; instead, the clues simply appear in the notebook, then sing about themselves ("I'm scrunched up eyebrows!").2 Joe, who, at the end of each episode, sings, "Me and you and our friend, Blue" instead of "Me and you and my dog, Blue."3 Joe, who must, must, must somehow be responsible for the abomination that is Blue's Room.4 Joe, who isn't fit to sit down in the thinking chair and think, think, thi-i-ink.
Admittedly, we thirty-something parents are a little protective of our own precious memories, and the idea of our children latching on to some obviously inferior reimagining of our favorite childhood icon (e.g., Transformers Animated, Ruxpin: The Next Generation, any Star Wars film produced after 1983) chills us to the very core. But that does nothing to explain the bias I have with respect to the hosts of Blue's Clues. The show came along well after I had stopped watching Nickelodeon (apart from SpongeBob Squarepants) and well before my young apprentice started; I had never really watched it prior to becoming a parent, and by the time my progeny arrived Joe had been the host for four years.
Despite the fact that my bias does not spring from the fear that the kids today are trampling all over my beloved childhood, I am biased. Perhaps it is basic human nature: an inherent belief that change is something to be feared and the original will always, always, always be the best.5 I don't know; I'm neither psychologist nor social anthropologist. I am, I suppose, just a caveman, one who assumes a threatening posture and shrieks loudly whenever he hears Joe sing, "Come on in. What did you say? A clue! A clue!"
Therein lies the uncomfortable truth: there's simply no logic to my preference for Steve. I feel a surge of hope on those all-too-rare occasions when my young apprentice says, "Boo's Coos Steve! Geen Steve!" and a few seconds later, there he is: Steve in his green shirt. Steve, who somehow makes finding three blue pawprints a true adventure. Steve, who skidoos into a book or a painting like no one else can. Steve, whose true feelings for shy Miranda6 will forever be unspoken. Steve, who should never go off to college and leave poor Blue with his orange-shirt-wearing7 younger brother.
But all too soon it will be time for so long, and as Steve sings just one more song, I find myself fearing that the next time my young apprentice wants "Boo's Coos" he will once again demand to see Joe, and the dreaded question will once again spring to mind: Where did I go so wrong?
- Why the lies, "Joe"? What do you have to hide? [↩]
- More deception. Why do you even bother with the crayon, Joe? The whole thing is a giant farce with you. [↩]
- Because she's not your dog, Joe! She'll never be your dog! Blue will always be Steve's dog, and I'll bet that just eats away at you, doesn't it? [↩]
- She talks! Blue talks! From what bizarre alternate reality did the notion that Blue talking would be a good idea originate? Are the strange beings who inhabit this universe also of the opinion that Chilly Willy, Snoopy and Charlie Brown's teacher should speak coherent English as well? It's madness! [↩]
- Team Knight Rider? What kind of psychotropic pixie dust do you need to be snorting to believe that could possibly work? [↩]
- Magenta's owner, played by Shannon Walker Williams [↩]
- Joe also has a purple shirt, as well as a green one, but he is at his most duplicitous and untrustworthy when wearing orange. [↩]
Greg Howley wanted to know what shows are filling up my DVR, so I thought I'd spill my digital, MPEG-encoded guts.
- The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) It's probably not fair to lump these two together, but thanks to the technical foibles of DirecTV and/or Comedy Central, that's the way I record them. Both are consistently funny, but the big laughs recently have come from The Colbert Report. When a guest remarked that Stephen clearly knew his Sunday school, Colbert quickly shot back, "I teach Sunday school, motherf***er." The absolute wrongness of the statement had Laura and me nearly doubled over with laughter.
- Top Gear (BBC America) This is a show I wish I'd been watching for the past four (five? nine?) seasons. It's a car show that you don't have to be a car guy to like. Part Motor Trend, part Monty Python, part Junkyard Wars, all awesome. The most recent episode I watched featured one of the hosts, Richard Hammond, pitting a Bugatti Veyron against a Eurofighter Typhoon in a two-mile race. While Hammond drove the Bugatti from one end of a runway to the other and back, the fighter pilot took off, climbed a mile vertically, turned around and raced back to the finish line. Hammond described it as "the best race ever", and it certainly made for entertaining television.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man (Kids' WB) This just premiered last week, and I like what I see so far. As a Spider-Man fan, it's good to see old villains like The Enforcers, The Vulture and Electro re-imagined. Some might call it an assault on their precious childhood memories, but The Vulture's original costume was a cross between Cruella de Ville and Kermit the Frog, Electro had a giant electric starfish on his face, and The Enforcers (Montana, Fancy Dan and Ox) were rodeo hands.1 The first two episodes were very satisfying, and viewers familiar with the wall-crawler will quickly pick up on the fact that nearly everyone Peter Parker knows will ultimately become a villain. Apart from the overtly villainous characters in the hour-long premiere—plus The Kingpin, operating in the shadows and voiced by Keith David, if I'm not mistaken—Pete encounters Norman Osborn (who will eventually become The Green Goblin), Harry Osborn (ditto), Eddie Brock (destined to merge with an alien symbiote and become Venom) and Dr. Curt Connors (who, injecting himself with experimental reptilian goo, is already well on his way to becoming The Lizard).
- Transformers Animated (Cartoon Network) Here's where I turn hypocrite, because this new version of the Transformers is an assault on my childhood. Optimus Prime is (sometimes) a fire engine! And he has a mouth! You should know how I feel about Optimus Prime having a mouth.2 Ratchet, the Autobots' medic, has had a personality overhaul from the old comic book days, and in a recent episode, Soundwave, the coolest of the evil Decepticons3 was reduced to a bass-thumping, head-spinning, laser light-show, the kind used by wedding DJs or low rent discothéques. The Autobots hang around with Sari Sumdac, a young girl who has a key imbued with the essence of the Allspark. Sari uses the key to fix the Autobots after they scrap with the Decepticons, or to animate her father's robotic creations (such as the Dinobots4 and the aforementioned Soundwave, who was built to Megatron's specifications. Megatron, by the way, exists (for the nonce) only as a severed head, hidden away in Dr. Isaac Sumdac's laboratory until he can gather his Decepticon minions and build himself a new body. Performed by Corey Burton, the Decepticon leader has the best non-guest star voice in the series.
- Law & Order (NBC) Voted "Most Likely to Put Laura to Sleep", the original Law & Order is actually quite entertaining (though I do miss Jerry Orbach). Alas, my poor wife can't seem to make it all the way through an episode of the police/courtroom drama without drifting off into dreamland,5 which usually means that I see at least parts of each episode twice or more. Semi-interesting tidbit/filler: When Fred Thompson announced that he would consider exploring whether or not to announce his intention to possibly make a decision regarding a potential bid for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination, his character, Arthur Branch, disappeared from the show and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) became the District Attorney. Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) stepped in as Executive Assistant District Attorney (thank you, Wikipedia) and it took me a half dozen episodes to realize that Roache played Bruce Wayne's father, Thomas Wayne, in Batman Begins.
- Without A Trace (CBS) One of the most depressing shows I've ever watched, Without A Trace chronicles an FBI missing persons unit as they attempt to locate, yes, a missing person. They succeed more often than they fail, but when they fail, it's usually because the missing person is also a dead person.
- CSI (CBS) Oh, dear. I don't know that this is actually set to record. Excuse me while I correct that so we can get our weekly dose of forensic science and an entirely unrealistic expectation as to what can be done with a computer and some grainy black-and-white surveillance camera footage.
- Monk (USA) The second best detective show on USA (the best is the next bullet item, so just hold your horses) has the absolute worst theme song of any show currently produced for television.6 After eleven and a half years of marriage, Laura's hatred for Randy Newman songs has leached into me like so much hexavelent chromium into groundwater. Theme song aside, the obsessive-compulsive detective portrayed by Tony Shalhoub is very amusing to watch, but I can't look at Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) without thinking about the lotion, the basket, and getting the hose again.
- Psych (USA) I probably enjoy this show more than Laura does, but I'm still putting it on her list. The non-stop barrage of (sometimes rather obscure) pop culture references from my childhood is almost as entertaining as the concept of the show: über-observant slacker makes a living as a psychic, helping the police solve all sorts of strange homicides.
- MI-5 (BBC America) While watching Top Gear last week, we saw several advertisements for the new season of MI-5 (né Spooks) on BBC America. Laura thought it looked interesting, so I added it to the list. The season premiere was last night, but we have yet to watch it.
- Sesame Street (PBS) Children's television simply doesn't get more old school than Sesame Street. The show has certainly changed since I last watched it with any regularity, but I think I miss Kermit the Frog's fast-breaking news stories from fairy tales and fables the most. The story of why Kermit no longer appears on the show (except in the occasional older bit, such as "Do the Rubber Duck") is a bit convoluted, but I'm sure if Jim Henson were still around "green frog" (as Elmo used to call him) would still have his Sesame Street press credentials.
- Max and Ruby (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Ruby is a seven-year-old bunny. Max is her younger brother. Where are their parents? Who can say? Grandma shows up from time to time (often for her own birthday party; bunnies must age fast) and there are plenty of Bunny Scouts around, but mostly it's Max getting in Ruby's way somehow. This show annoyed me at first, but has really grown on me.
- Blue's Clues (Nickelodeon/Noggin) We prefer Steve to Joe, thank you very much. Steve actually drew in his handy, dandy notebook, whereas Joe's notebook is entirely animated. Sometimes, after I've found all three paw prints, I sit down in my Thinking Chair and think, think, thiiii-ink...about where to hide Joe's body. We will not discuss the travesty that is Blue's Room.
- The Backyardigans (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Quite possibly my favorite of the bunch, The Backyardigans features the adventures of Tyrone, Uniqua, Pablo, Tasha and Austin as they create imaginary worlds in their backyards. Each episode features several songs (showcasing a particular musical style), many of which are very clever and catchy, some of which are earworms, getting into my head for hours (or even days) at a time. "Racing Day" and "Mystery Lifeguard" both fall into this latter category.
- Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) Another of my favorites has become one of Kyle's favorites, too, much to Laura's dismay. Wubbzy is a frenetic, furry, fun-loving critter (voiced by Grey DeLisle, who also voiced The Wasp in the recent Ultimate Avengers animated movies) who loves his kickety-kickball. Widget (Lara Jill Miller, who played Sam on Gimme A Break!) is Wubbzy's bunny(like) industrious inventor friend, always building some fantastic machine ("The Sun-Blocker 3000!") that doesn't quite work as she expected. Walden (voiced by the incredible Carlos Alazraqui, who plays Deputy Garcia on Reno 911! and was the voice of the Taco Bell chihuahua as well as Rocko on Rocko's Modern Life) "is their friend, he's really smart; he knows about science and books and art". He's also the most level-headed of the three, though he has been known to cut loose from time to time. The show is Flash-animated and has an artistic style that appeals to me for some reason. I also like the music.
- Wonder Pets! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) If there's a show I wish Kyle would just suddenly decide to stop liking, it's Wonder Pets! I've already discussed my feelings about the show in some detail, so there's really no need to get into it now.
- Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! (Nickelodeon/Noggin) These two get lumped together because they're cousins and—like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report—the latter is a spin-off of the former. I'm not sure which Latin American country these two precocious youths live in, but they both have an unusual rapport with animals and an amazing satchel: Dora's backpack is actually a Bag of Holding, while Diego's Rescue Pack ("¡Al rescate!") has some sort of polymorph spell cast upon it.
Most of these were recorded during our free Showtime/The Movie Channel weekend. That I stooped to recording Cyborg 2 should give you an idea about the quality of fare offered on Showtime and The Movie Channel. Suicide Kings and The Prophecy were played back-to-back on IFC during a recent Christopher Walken mini-marathon.
- Suicide Kings
- The Prophecy
- The Man Who Cried
- Employee of the Month
- Cyborg 2
- The Man Who Fell to Earth
- The Descent
- The World's Fastest Indian
Fresh from the free Showtime weekend, DirecTV is dishing up another four days of premium channel goodness starting on Thursday, 20 March. This time it's HBO and CineMAX, and a quick glance at the schedule for Thursday and early Friday reveals several movies that I'd like to see:
- John Adams
- Notes on a Scandal
- The Last King of Scotland
- The Good Shepherd
- Okay, they still are, but The Vulture and Electro have both gotten a much-needed makeover [↩]
- To paraphrase B.A. Baracus: Prime don't have no mouth, Hannibal! [↩]
- I should point out that classic Soundwave is cool in robot mode. Alas, he transforms into a boombox from which a number of transforming cassette tapes—including Ravage, Laserbeak and Ratbat, who turn into a panther, a condor and a bat, respectively—are launched. This is decidedly not cool. [↩]
- Okay, a word about the Dinobots: who are these guys supposed to be fooling? They transform from giant robots to giant dinosaurs! Dinosaurs that look like giant robots! Props to Transformers Animated for actually creating a semi-feasible plot around their introduction (as animatronic dino-beasties in a theme park). [↩]
- Sam Waterston's voice is like warm milk to her, I guess. To me, he sounds forever on the hormonal rollercoaster that is the onset of puberty. [↩]
- Worst theme song ever? Firefly. Oh yeah, I went there. Bring it, browncoats! [↩]
Okay, so my DirecTiVo could only store 35 hours worth of programming and my new DirecTV DVR will hold about 100 hours. You know what? It was still a better DVR.
Oh, I'll tell you.
- I could skip to the end of a recorded program with the press of a button, and to the beginning with another button press. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you've got a handful of episodes of your kid's favorite shows, it would be nice not to have to fast-forward or rewind 10 or 20 minutes to start watching them from the beginning the next time. It's a DVR, not a VCR; I shouldn't have to rewind to get to the beginning, regardless of where I stopped watching. Oh, and if I accidentally fast-forward too far at the end of Top Gear and miss that last little bit of the show, I've got to start over at the beginning and fast-forward through 58 minutes I've already watched just to catch the last two minutes. Once the "Do you want to delete this program?" message appears on-screen, I can't rewind anymore, and that's just plain frustrating.
- The DirecTiVo was more responsive in general. The delay between when I push a button on the remote and when I see the desired result on the DirecTV DVR is sometimes measurable in seconds. Ridiculous.
- Speaking of the remote, the one that came with the DirecTiVo was a thing of beauty. It properly handled my television (including switching inputs) and surround sound system, all without having to switch back and forth between "DirecTV", "AV1", "AV2" and "TV" modes. Yes, I can control my DVD player in AV2 mode, something I couldn't do with the old remote, but it's a feature I'd gladly sacrifice for the ability to turn off the television and the surround sound with a single button.
- Still speaking of the remote, Laura hates the new one. Period. I can see why: the layout just isn't as simple as the old one, even the DVR controls are counter-intuitive.
- Anytime I was dealing with a list of channels on the DirecTiVo, I could always jump to the channel I wanted by simply entering it on the number pad. Not so on the DirecTV DVR. When I'm setting up a manual recording and the list of channels pops up, if I press 2-4-9 for Comedy Central, I first get channel 25, then channel 43, then channel 9 thousand-something. Ludicrous! And speaking of manual recording...
- Daylight Saving Time. I've got a one-hour manual record set up for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report Monday through Thursday at 11:00pm. The fact that I have to do this if I don't want the DVR to record both shows three times in a single day is a testament to the crappiness of the online guide for Comedy Central, but the fact that the DVR decided to start recording at 12:00am instead of 11:00pm after the time change on Sunday (despite the fact that the clock on the damn thing changed and the manual recording entries still show an 11:00pm start time) is just plain stupid. I just had to delete and recreate all four manual entries and I'm still not confident that it's going to work properly.
Extra recording space be damned. I miss my DirecTiVo.
Check out my official Overlord Badge for The Secret Lair! It's another fantastic creation from Natalie Metzger, Secretary of Artistic Propaganda. There's more (and not just from Natalie), but I don't want to unveil it all at once. You may not be able to make out the details, but that writing implement in my shirt pocket is an official Dungeons & Dragons 30th Anniversary mechanical pencil. Yeah, that's how I roll.
In other news, my beloved DirecTiVo died over the weekend; one of the tuners decided that its alignment was Chaotic Good and channels above the 200 mark were made of Evil. When we attempted to watch one of these channels on Tuner 2, the response would be anything from a lost signal to a warm reboot.
DirecTV gave me a couple of options: lease one of their branded DVRs or get another DirecTiVo receiver. The former required a two-year commitment to the DirecTV service and a $20 shipping charge, while the latter would cost me $350.00 out of pocket. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of giving up my TiVo service, but every man has his price and mine happens to be right around $350.00.
When I got home from work today, the new receiver was waiting for me. One not-so-quick call to DirecTV customer service1 and I was up and running. The new2 DVR has about three times the capacity the old one did, but I'm already disappointed in the "universal" remote that came with it. Funny how we take little things like the ability to turn off both the television and the audio receiver with a single press of a button for granted.
Now my young apprentice and I are watching Max and Ruby on Noggin and (in theory) Scrubs is recording on the other tuner. Ruby is trying to get yet another damn Bunny Scout merit badge while Dr. Dorian and the rest of the gang at Sacred Heart are undoubtedly involved in some wacky shenaniganery that is (again, in theory) being preserved in all its digital glory for my enjoyment at a later time. Max wants a popsicle, but Ruby is too busy putting splints on dolls to pay attention to her younger brother; I swear, if there's a Bunny Scout merit badge for being a good elder sibling, Ruby doesn't have it.
It's been a couple of weeks and I have (in theory) had a chance to watch many of the shows I was looking forward to in early September.
Doctor Who. I think the season may have wrapped up, but I could be wrong. There are a couple of episodes waiting for me on the TiVo but I haven't gotten around to watching them yet.
Who Wants to Be a Superhero? Hoo, boy. Five episodes on the TiVo and watching them is feeling more and more like a chore, so I think I'm just going to delete them and move on. The first episode of the second season was way too much like the latter half of the first season for me, so I'm inclined to ditch this turkey.
Eureka continues to be the best show on SciFi. Excellent premise, awesome cast, decent special effects and consistently entertaining scientific blunders make it an enjoyable experience all around.
Torchwood. Yeah. I watched the first episode and it totally failed to grab me, so I didn't even bother setting up a season pass. Sorry, John Wheelbarrow fans, I'm not joining your ranks anytime soon.
iCarly. I haven't watched any more of this show. Really.
Journeyman started off with an excellent premiere; maybe a bit slow right at the beginning, but sticking through the entire episode was well worth it. There was a very nice twist in the last third of the show that goes a long way to distancing Journeyman from Quantum Leap, a comparison that everyone (including me) was making in advance of the premiere.
Bionic Woman wasn't too bad. I'm still a little worried about whether Michelle Ryan has enough presence to carry the show and the first fight sequence felt a bit herky-jerky to me—not to mention way off balance; Sarah (Katee Sackhoff) should have handily kicked Jamie's (Michelle Ryan) ass up and down those rooftops—but I'll stick with it a couple more episodes to see what happens.
Moonlight. I haven't watched the premiere yet, and as of last night there should be a second episode waiting for me. More to come.
Reaper was pretty good. The interplay between Sam (Andrew Airlie) and Sock (Tyler Labine) is a little too Kevin Smith for my taste (it felt an awful lot like Dante and Randall in Clerks) but I did enjoy Ray Wise as the devil and there was a nice Ghostbusters flavor to the final battle with the arsonist whose soul had escaped from Hell.
Heroes. I should really watch this; I don't know why I've been putting it off.
One of my many responsibilities as a parent is ensuring that the television programs my young apprentice watches are educational, wholesome, enriching and appropriate for his age (currently 20 months). As a public service, I present the first in a series of informative reviews of television programs geared toward preschoolers.
The Wonder Pets is one of Kyle's favorite programs, and it's not hard to see why: there's plenty of music, oodles of cute animals and more music. Parents (and corporate managers) will undoubtedly appreciate the core message the show consistently delivers: that cooperation and teamwork are essential in any problem-solving effort. On the surface, it seems like the perfect show for young children. A closer examination, however, reveals that The Wonder Pets is one unfortunate example after another of parental negligence.
Each episode begins with Linny (a guinea pig), Tuck (a turtle) and Ming-Ming (a duckling) relaxing in their schoolhouse home after all the children have left for the day. Their leisure time is interrupted by the phone ("the phone is ringing!"), a can-and-string contraption that alerts the trio to a baby animal in peril. Donning capes and hats and assembling the flyboat (a vehicle constructed from a Frisbee, some markers and various other bits), The Wonder Pets race to rescue the youngling from some horrible situation using ("what's gonna work?") teamwork and music.
Once the chick, kit, fawn, foal, cub, joey or calf has been rescued, the irresponsible parents arrive on the scene, probably returning from the local watering hole, brothel or cock-fighting ring. Oh, sure, there's the requisite gushing over how brave and amazing The Wonder Pets are, but rarely is there an explanation from the reprehenible parents as to why the children were left unattended in the first place. The best thing Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming (too) could do to help the baby animals in trouble is contact the local Department of Children's Services.
Coming soon: an intrepid explorer, a singing moose and a whiny turtle.