Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin

Apart from “The Simpsons”, I never thought much about television growing up. I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in cable and that also didn’t believe that a functioning roof antenna was a necessity. Therefore, the TV I knew as a child–beamed into my family’s 80s era Trinitron’s bunny ear antenna–was limited to statically impaired versions of PBS, FOX, Chicago’s old UPN Power 50, NBC, ABC, WGN, and on a good day CBS, depending on wind and humidity.

PBS was forced on me by my mother as being the only channel worth watching it being the Brussels sprouts of television for a boy in grade school. FOX provided “The Simpsons,” the only show my father allowed my sister and me to enjoy every Thursday night much to my mother’s dismay, but also unleashed a plethora of mind-numbing pre-reality TV reality shows with snuff as the central themes. Titles like “When Animals Attack 3,” “World’s Deadliest Swarms,” “When Stunts Go Bad,” “Cheating Death: Catastrophes Caught on Tape,” and “World’s Scariest Police Shootouts” provided more than enough reason to censor our intake of television other than PBS.

UPN was the network for trash TV–re-runs of the A-Team, syndicated Montel Williams, silly Saturday morning cartoons, WWF Wrestling absurdities, etc. NBC’s “Seinfeld” was a show I didn’t truly appreciate till after it began syndication post-its heavily scorned swan song finale.

My parents did, however, bring us up on a multitude of different films, schooling us on all genres and snippets of film history. My father’s early seminars on horror films began with the early Universal monster movies–Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon–and ended somewhere between Freddy Krueger and The Re-animator, a film that although full of dark humor, shouldn’t be shown to a boy in middle school.

We were screened foreign classics, contemporary blockbusters and sleepy indies. It got to the point that our TV was merely a vehicle for the handful of VHS cassettes we would rent every weekend. The content of its broadcasting failed to garner any interest for most of my adolescence.

Today the timely phrase being passed around the “water cooler” and the blogosphere is that we are living in a new “Golden Age” of television.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times recently ventured outside of his role as chief film critic to comment on the rising quality of serialized television being made today and how film as a medium is losing its creative edge. His article entitled, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?”, while primarily focusing on the film industries’ struggles at the box office, does eventually get to the heart of this belief. It raises an interesting question about televisions role in the motion picture arts: is television the better medium for storytelling in this new environment?

Ask anyone interested in this topic and most will tell you that this wave of quality television programming–shows that broke away from the conventions of the previous television mindset and took risks that film could never accomplish–began with HBO’s landmark series, “The Sopranos.”

On a good Sunday night it was true that “The Sopranos” aired episodes that provided more intrigue as well as good old fashioned entertainment than most films being released at the time.

Here was an original series that revolved around a vile human being who we as viewers couldn’t help but love and relate to. The notion of making the anti-hero the hero was a big step for modern television, though in reality it didn’t solely start with David Chase’s Jersey mob opus.

HBO’s prison drama, “Oz” premiered a year before we watched Tony Soprano enter his shrink’s office for the first time on television. That show only found a niche audience but managed to remain on the air for a six-season run. It is this series that truly revolutionized what I see as television’s new wave.

Like “The Sopranos,” “Oz” trumpeted the rise of the anti-hero. The inmates at the Oswald State Correctional Facility came from the dregs of society¬–murderers, drug dealers, rapists, neo-Nazi hate-mongers, and so on. Still the series managed the feat of making the characters intriguing, no matter how horrible their actions might be. It also took an otherwise boring and fairly routine setting (the inside of a prison ward where not much goes on) and created a world as intricate as anything you might read in the halls of epic literature.

What it did well was parade the average nobody and still draw in the audience. It is this idea that is the root of this so-called golden age.

Sure someone like Tony Soprano is a larger than life kind of character but at his core he’s just another guy trying to make a buck in America. The show draws us in close enough to relate to his everyday pains but also shows us the monstrous side creating a very complicated relationship between the viewer and the protagonist. But let’s move beyond “The Sopranos” to the other major shows in the past decade where this Golden Age has been blossoming.

Take HBO’s post-“OZ/Sopranos” lineup: there’s “Six Feet Under,” which, generally speaking, took a suburban family of undertakers and made their lives captivating; “The Wire” used a dying American city as its protagonist, focusing on its social institutions for intrigue and creating memorable characters out of crack addicts, narcotics officers, drug kingpins, school teachers, beat reporters and stevedores, the forgotten side of society; “Treme” chronicles the lives of everyday working Jazz musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans; and even “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” based on the improvisations of real people put in fictionalized settings, furthered the notion that nothing can be everything.

Today two of television’s most talked about and riveting series, AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” follow this now tried and true formula: take otherwise ordinary individuals and uncover the intrigue.

“Mad Men” is flashy with its period piece costumes and historical winks and nods, but at its core it’s still a television show about advertising executives and copywriters working in a Manhattan office, which on paper doesn’t scream successful television.

“Breaking Bad” follows the downward spiral of an average high school chemistry teacher in a seemingly average part of the country (the series somehow takes an otherwise forgettable Albuquerque, New Mexico and makes its setting fascinating) entering a world of crime.

What’s most striking about both of these series, which came from a network known for syndicated classic films rather than quality television series, is that ten years ago they probably would never have found a home on the air.

For the longest time, original television series were limited to a set content standard that revolved around the idea that singular episodes tell a story from beginning to end. A “Law and Order” cop catches a case, goes through the motions to solve it, and eventually closes said case. A sitcom follows a group of characters living in the surreal version of reality it is trying to emulate, aiming to grab a certain amount of laughs between each commercial break. The best word to describe television throughout most of its existence is routine.

Sure there were exceptions to the trap of routine along the way but most were short-lived moments of greatness or shows that started strong but slowly depreciated over time.

“Twin Peaks” was incredibly original for its time and managed to draw viewers into the otherwise boring setting of a sleepy Pacific Northwest town, but its spike in popularity and mysterious nature ultimately led to its premature demise thanks to a network pressure to appease the masses and the premature departure of David Lynch during the series’ second final season.

Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” was rooted in cyclical routine but had layered storylines and character arcs that were perfect for garnering a cult following. Though it suffered from possibly too much layering of conspiracy theory related webs and was on the air for far too long.

With HBO’s slow-burn foray into original programming, television was suddenly treated as a place to give visionary writers and filmmakers all the time they need to truly tell the story they wanted to tell. For the first time ever, television creators weren’t limited to 24 or 48 minute brackets of time to tell a story. With HBO great storytelling was no longer held back by censorship or notions of “bad taste” (and really, who is to say what is deemed ‘bad taste’ these days with daytime talk shows and reality TV).

The ways we as viewers soak up television has also changed how the medium has transformed over the years. Advertising no longer dictates what we watch on TV since technological advancements allow us to avoid the advertising methods of yesteryears all together.

DVD enabled us to soak up entire shows in small amounts of time, following more closely the details and buildups that one often misses with week-to-week viewing schedules. The Internet allows for shows to be experienced uncensored and sans commercial breaks and even allows shows to venture outside the realms of simple episodic television by creating webisodes, online forums for discussion, and interactive websites to coincide with the storytelling.

The question that arises though is whether or not this influx of television is a good thing. Are we watching too much television? Is this yet another distraction in a long list of sectors of popular culture drawing us away from the outdoors, away from the great books, or more traditional pursuits of knowledge? The answer to this depends solely on the viewer.

I for one am enamored by the wave of quality writing and film making coming out of the truly great series on television (and to be fair there is still a lot of crap out there). While film is far from the state of irrelevance, it’s hard to deny that television, as a visual medium, gives artists more room to stretch their ideas. The depths to which “The Wire” took viewers and the messages it managed to spread through its five seasons and 60+ hours of storytelling is unprecedented in the filmmaking world. The show took its cues from great literary devices (beautifully structured character arcs, multiple points of view, and even contemporary, well-respected authors) and created its own world, with all the highs, lows and complications that make reality so intriguing.

On the other hand, there is the notion that we as consumers rely too much on the media. A creative spree is always a good thing but as a viewer it’s difficult to decide how to spend one’s time. Between the great novels to read, films to screen, albums to listen to, journalistic endeavors to be privy to, and now television series to soak up, it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to just be.

It’s hard to say if this wave of original television will reach a tipping point, or at the very least, a moment when there just isn’t anything of worth to watch. Until then it surprisingly comforting to know that there are a number of upcoming original series and returning shows to look forward to. HBO’s prohibition era gangster epic, “Boardwalk Empire,” the return of “Breaking Bad” after it’s season three cliffhanger, AMC’s zombie gamble series, “The Walking Dead,” a second season for David Simon’s New Orleans’ love note, “Treme,” and most likely some surprises along the way.

Television Review: Breaking Bad

Television Review:
Breaking Bad
Created by Vince Gilligan
The Complete First Season
AMC, Episodes 1-7

Shows like AMC’s surprise hit Breaking Bad beg the question, where else can television take viewers? 

Ten years ago it might seem absurd to believe that an audience would actually reserve time out of their daily grind for a show revolving around the cooking and dealing of Crystal Meth. Then again the same could be said about any number of mind boggling reality shows being churned out every year (how bout’ the short-lived 2008 dating series Farmer Wants a Wife, which is fairly self-explanatory). 

In the rapidly advancing television arena that gave viewers anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, or the testosterone fueled series Rescue Me, the mind numbingly complicated Lost, etc. etc. a show focusing on a flawed but empathetic family man cooking up meth is somehow not only tolerable but viewed as riveting dark humor. 

This is not to say there is something morally outrageous with a show revolving around a detrimental drug like meth, since one can find drama in just about any branch of life. What is most surprising about Breaking Bad is just how desensitized the modern viewer has become to the once risqué. Ten years ago meth was nothing more than scary new designer drug from the Pacific Northwest that was cheap to produce and reeked havoc on the human body and psyche. Today, besides being a creeping national epidemic, it’s the subject of an Emmy winning series on the American Movie Classics network.

The strength of Breaking Bad lies in its protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranson), an unassuming, average 50-year-old high school Chemistry teacher living in suburban Albuquerque. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn of Deadwood acclaim) is pregnant with an unplanned child, his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy and if life couldn’t get any more complicated, White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Cranson is the most unassuming choice for White. Prior to this series he was best known for reoccurring roles on Seinfeld as the slimy dentist Tim Whatley, and as the dopey father on the dysfunctional family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In Breaking Bad he remarkably morphs into a tragic character coming to grips with his upcoming demise, his run of the mill lifestyle, his past regrets and his financial obligations to his family.

His character belongs in the same family as American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, Jeff Bridges’ character in Fearless and the protagonist of Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru. Like his cinematic brethren, White’s character has recently awakened from the slumber of his routine life and decides to risk it all, live it up, or, as the title puts it, ‘break bad’. 

After discovering the cancer plaguing his smoke-free lungs and learning about the big bucks in the meth game from his DEA brother-in-law, White seeks out help from a former student he once flunked, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). When the series pilot commences and concludes (the show’s sharp editing is worth noting) the ill-matched duo has been cooking up inside a R.V. in the middle of the desert, White is stripped-down to his everyman white underwear and he is toting a handgun as the sirens approach from the distance.

The meth lab scheme that White proposes to Pinkman is both a sign of desperation (he needs to save up a lump sum of cash for his family’s future) as well as White’s way of letting loose during his potentially final months on earth. In one of the season’s best moments White erupts in a family intervention aimed at coaxing him into chemo treatment and spells out exactly how he wants to live his life. When the show wants to be sentimental, White’s true to life cancer realities get the job done. 

White’s chemistry background remains mysterious throughout the first season. We learn that he was once a brilliant and prosperous mind at CIT but somewhere along the way strayed off this fruitful path and now lectures to detached high school students for just shy of $45K a year.  

He knows his way around the substances needed to concoct the highly potent, highly addictive pipe fodder and seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the dangers and anarchy of chemistry. As the series unfolds its clear that there is a little hell-raiser lurking behind the eyes of this average Joe. 

To this end the show is also very much a tutorial of some of the more curious outlets of basic chemistry in the same way House M.D. enlightens viewers with viruses and diseases. It’s not surprising that Breaking Bad’s most memorable moments are found in the various make-shift labs that White and Pinkman set up or when the two get creative with their scheming (a darkly comedic gross-out moment involving a corpse, hydrofluoric acid and an unstable porcelain tub is the kind of scene that will either turn viewers away or permanently suck them into the mayhem).

Despite the series’ somber storyline, Cranston brings a level of welcomed dark humor to the role. His witty banter and sarcastic outlook on his predicament pairs well with White’s underused intellect and bottled up rage towards the life he’s chosen. His interactions with the naïve Pinkman, a thugged out, wannabe player who is also in desperate need of more character development, showcase some of the show’s finest writing. Then there’s the larger than life Latino drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca (played with gleeful exuberance by veteran character actor Raymond Cruz) who gives viewers a hell of a cliffhanger during the season finale.

Breaking Bad’s first season, a meager seven episodes, is not without its flaws. A great deal of time is spent detailing the production and business side of White’s meth trade, however, little attention is reserved for the drug’s societal effects. White manages to cook up an extremely pure batch of “glass,” which according to a character can keep you high for days, however, the series fails to show the users who are filling White’s wallet. Programs like HBOs The Wire, which to be fair belongs in its own category of television series, succeed by channeling all sides of the drug war. In its first season Breaking Bad takes a timely social issue like meth abuse, brings it to suburbia but fails to show the bigger picture. For anyone privy to crystal meth’s effect on this country, it is widely known that it is hardly a petty drug.

Besides being terribly addictive (addiction is ripe for dramatic television), meth remains one of the most physically harmful drugs available, one that few are able to successfully recover from. That this side of Breaking Bad is still a mystery (after all the show’s is currently in its second season) is an aspect of the series that is fairly bothersome and irresponsible.

White is clearly throwing caution to the wind since learning of his cancer and his actions are seldom those of a completely sane man, however, through Cranston’s refined performance and the little background info available, it’s safe to say White has a good head on his shoulders. To believe that he wouldn’t concern himself with the repercussions of his highly potent meth formula–both on his family and the drug using community–is the one aspect of Breaking Bad that is a bit hard to swallow and hopefully will be developed/remedied further on down the road.

Television as a medium has come a long way since the early days of three major networks, a handful of nightly newscasts, and the occasional prudent sitcom. There was a time when the riskiest moments on TV were live prime-time disasters (Elvis Costello going against the corporate grain on Saturday Night Live), controversial episodes (Seinfeld’s notorious “Puerto Rican Day Parade” turn for example), or the Godfathers of Reality TV, Cops and America’s Most Wanted. To think that in this day and age a gripping dramatic series about a middle age man cooking up Crystal Meth would be as engrossing as your average hour-long drama is yet another indication to the endless directions writers can take television, truly rivaling that of its more revered cinematic and literary counterparts. 

Breaking Bad is as gritty and risqué–censored language, blood soaked scenes of violence and even a bit of backside male nudity–as other envelope pushing cable network series like The Shield or AMC’s other golden child, Mad Men. The acting is polished and, in the case of Cranston, very surprising. At a paltry seven episodes, the series’ first season has a few glitches to work out, hopefully in the current second season but overall it is a unique shining light of a program amid an overly saturated market of bad sitcoms and mind numbing reality offerings. 

Band of Brothers Episode 1: "Currahee"

Episode 1: “Currahee” 

Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson

Written by: Erik Jendresen, Tom Hanks

Original Airdate: September 9, 2001

The most striking comparison between Band of Brothers and its shorter, elder brother Saving Private Ryan is the former’s focus on showing the journey this group of soldiers embarks on, from start to finish. Whereas Ryan opens with a gruesome punch to the gut, Brothers opens with our characters’ origin–in terms of The War, their pre-departure training.

Opening with personal interviews with a handful of living Easy Company survivors each telling their reasons for volunteering for the airborne unit (the use of real faces of this company is another brilliant technique that makes Band of Brothers so unique in the pantheon of war films) we instantly realize that the majority of the characters we’re about to spend the next ten hours with were more or less all there for the same reason. Unlike the war in Korea or future wars (our current predicament in the Middle East included) World War II united Americans to fight for a sole cause. Pearl Harbor showed the vulnerability of home turf and as a result men volunteered, often times (as was in the case with many airborne privates) in an outfit they knew nothing about. Many had no idea what the airborne division was only that it was an opportunity to serve and, as we discover, it paid $50 more than other outfits. One veteran perfectly sums up the national attitude of the times when he says, “We came from a small, small town and three fellows in that town that were 4F committed suicide because they couldn’t go. A different time.”

Currahee refers to a mountain in Georgia used as a training camp for American Paratroopers, the boot camp being the setting for Band of Brother’s first act. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of the finest and most underappreciated Vietnam War films, Band of Brothers spends its first hour showcasing the mental and physical preparation required to go to war. Basic training is more than just gaining physical endurance and learned battle skills. The rigorous nature of the training is more about preparing the mind for the utter horror the psyche is soon to endure. In Jacket Drill Instructor Hartman (played beautifully by a brash R. Lee Erney) appears at first as nothing more than an amusing caricature of discipline and routine. We later learn that his tactics, no matter how cruel or intense they may seem, are nothing compared to the true chaos of combat.

We meet Easy Company in basic training under the strict tutelage of Captain Herbert Sobel. The casting of ex-Friends player David Schwimmer as Sobel was scoffed at upon the series initial release and watching the first episode, which focuses primarily on his character, it’s easy to see why the choice was a bit odd. Besides physically resembling the real Sobel (as a quick Wikipedia search confirmed) Schwimmer is a bit distracting in the role–a superstar mug amidst a cast of otherwise unknown actors, many of whom are British. Like so many hit television stars Schwimmer will never be able to shed his pretty boy background and his presence is the one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar debut episode.

Sobel, while imperfect (as the viewer and the boy of Easy eventually find out), proves to be the right kind of tough when it comes to not only preparing the men for whatever might come their way but also bringing them together. He forces his men to run the extra mile and march at night while the other platoons are resting. Through his diligence the men become accustomed to dehydration, sudden surprises (as seen in a scene where the company, having just sat down to a heaping spaghetti dinner are summoned to run up Currahee mountain), and even a grueling crawling exercise through piles of rotting animal innards (an atrocious but as we know from Saving Private Ryan, a necessary routine).

As the episode progresses and we become aware of Sobel’s inefficiency in actual combat scenarios, we see the men of Easy bond in a manner that can’t be forced or taught. Sharing the common concern over their superior’s capabilities in the line of fire (and ultimately their survival), they join together in an act of mutiny to rid their company of its dead weight. Trust is a theme that resonates throughout the first episode and looks to be one that will carry through the series.

Sobel’s inabilities shed light on some of the stronger characters of the ensemble most notably Major Richard Winters (Damian Lewis), who early gains the trust of the men of Easy. His friendship with Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston, the only other truly recognizable actor in the ensemble thus far, of Office Space cult stardom) is also hinted to in this episode, a primer for what looks to be another reoccurring part of the series.

This first episode takes its time introducing the faces of Easy Company while also giving a glimpse into the time and energy needed to prepare for war, and more specifically jumping out of a plane (after all this story is about Paratroopers, a terribly dangerous outfit). The episode’s cliffhanger leaves Easy on a plane out of a base in England on its way to a Normandy invasion. What’s fascinating about the way the episode ends is the realization that no matter how much training these men have attained nothing will truly prepare them for what’s in their near future. We the viewer know this and from the nervous looks on many of the company, they do too.


–While David Schwimmer’s presence is a bit distracting his moments of confusion (while lost in a training exercise in the English countryside) and utter fear (seen during a parachute jump exercise) actually work thanks in part to his signature droopy-eye expressions. When he loses Easy Company, even though with high accolades for his training methods, you can see the desperation on his face. Respect and honor are what the commanders strive for.

–Schwimmer and Livingston are the most obvious faces but there are some pleasant surprises including Donnie Wahlberg who we catch brief glimpses of in Episode 1 but who will clearly become more of a prominent figure as the series carries on. Also present is one Kirk Acevedo, a terribly underused actor known among the HBO enthusiast circle as a memorable inmate on OZ but also for his role as a private in Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing Pacific WWII film, The Thin Red Line.

–Nice to see Brit Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz acclaim pop up as Sobel’s awkward right hand man. The ensemble so far has number of British acting leads, a casting tradition not at all foreign to HBO. 

–Including the episode’s prologue of interviews with the last remaining men of Easy was one of the best decisions Spielberg and gang made for this series. Much like Ken Burns’ recent documentary The War, hearing the story firsthand gives the viewer an entirely new perspective on just how monumental the War was. Americans stopping their daily routine and enlisting for a universal cause is something this country hasn’t truly seen since. After Spielberg made Schindler’s List he helped found an organization determined to interview survivors to hear their stories before they were all gone. It appears that he extended broadened this goal during the making of this series. While Band of Brothers is a dramatization anchoring each episode with these testimonials brings a human element to the story that very few traditional war films can ever achieve. 

Tackling the ‘Band of Brothers’

A Different Time: An in-depth dissection of HBOs Band of Brothers miniseries

Steven Spielberg was on to something when he signed on to direct Saving Private Ryan. Craft the grittiest and most realistic World War II film ever made. To this day the film’s stomach churning opening scenes at the peek of the Normandy invasion remain some of the most startling pieces of celluloid ever made–a gritty, in your face cinematic experience that captured the true horror of warfare like no other film before it. It’s as if Spielberg filled in the now infamously lost Robert Capa D-day photos–the shaky camera, the soiled lens, the utter chaos of first couple hours of the invasion.

Saving Private Ryan as a whole, however, suffers from its lack of human emotion and personal perspective. While the film follows a company along its mission to seek out Private Ryan, the film never truly allows us into the minds of the characters or let’s us feel the true emotion of camaraderie, of triumph and loss–to this extent even though the film has a skilled ensemble of actors the characters lack back stories and building character arcs. While differing in its account of the war and its scope, the ten-part miniseries Band of Brothers is very much the well-needed extension to Private Ryan, focusing less of its attention on the brutality of war and more on its emotional toll.

Based on the true experiences of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment also known as ‘Easy Company,’ chronicled in Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name, Band of Brothers is quite possibly the most epic war film ever produced.

It makes sense that Spielberg and crew (including Ryan star and producer Tom Hanks) chose HBO as the vehicle for their ambitious miniseries. Created on the heels of the network’s newfound success with its original series, films and documentaries, not to mention the wonderful award winning miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (of which Hanks also produced), Band of Brothers was too big for basic television. The censorship of primetime television wouldn’t suit the story’s need for authenticity. Advertisement breaks would distract viewers from the series’ flow, and a project of this breadth would call for creative independence, an appropriately epic budget, and above all the time and patience needed to get the job done. HBO is notorious for its artistic integrity, unrestricted content and persistently advocating for quality over ratings. 

Following in the footsteps of past HBO series and films, Band of Brothers was also the perfect match for the DVD niche market–a sprawling ten hours that could be savored piece by piece every Sunday night or inhaled in a more concentrated viewing schedule (the latter providing a more in-depth experience in regards to following complex storylines and tackling large character ensembles).

After discovering most of HBO’s flagship series on DVD (never until recently having access to the paid cable service) I missed Band of Brothers initial airing back in 2001. I steered clear of its censored basic cable, commercial heavy syndication on The History Channel and only until recently picked up the series on DVD. Rather than review the series as a whole I thought I would carefully pick apart the series chapter-by-chapter, episode-by-episode. As is the case with most miniseries of this nature some of the best moments often end up being the most forgotten tidbits–a short interaction between two characters or a bit of back-story perhaps–with this in mind a more in-depth look at Band of Brothers was in store. 

True Blood, Sucking the Life Out of HBO One Episode at a Time

ImageRemember the slogan, “It’s not TV, It’s HBO?” Well up until this past spring this marketing ploy actually rang true. HBO has long been the trendsetter of original series that break all boundaries and push audiences’ perception of what television is and should be. Unfortunately thanks to the culminations of the network’s most beloved quartet of series–Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and most recently The Wire–and the premiere of some less than desirable new original series the Crown Royal of premium cable programming is in threat of losing its edge over the best of the rest.

HBO’s newest contribution to Sunday night is True Blood, an overly erotic vampire drama set in the Bible belt Deep South. Created by Alan Ball, the brainchild behindSix Feet Under and the scribe of American BeautyBlood had the potential to be HBO’s saving grace, the new series to present the exciting future for the network. Sadly the series, which is currently ten episodes into its twelve-episode first season, has failed to match the brilliance of HBO’s past flagships series and remains yet another dud for the struggling network.

True Blood was at one point one of the more intriguing projects in the works at HBO mainly because after the success of Six Feet Under it’s difficult to imagine Alan Ball not delivering another hit series. After Deadwood creator David Milch proved that follow-up shows (John from Cincinnati) can also bomb, the niche vampire premise started to sound more and more worrisome. Then again pitching a show about a family of funeral home owners probably sounded equally as questionable when Six Feet Under was first proposed.

The main problem plaguing True Blood, which is one-part hokey throwback to pulp vampire novels (the show is based on a semi-popular series of books), one-part modern allegory for social discrimination (a bit of a stretch), and a dash of Lostesque intrigue and cliffhangers thrown into the mix for sensationalism, is the series lacks any meaningful substance. With the exception of possibly the mysterious main vampire lead Bill (played by rather convincingly by newcomer Stephen Moyer) the main characters are either too shallow to give a damn about or are simply begging to be explored in more depth.

Anna Paquin’s starring character Sookie has a mysterious gift that sets her apart from the living and brings her closer to the undead, still the show would rather focus on her budding (and overly erotic) love affair with Bill than anything else. Her horny brother Jason, who’s butt naked more than half the time while onscreen, appears to be nothing more than a pretty face to further the shows no-hold-barred eroticism (the link between vampires and sexuality are pushed to the limit on this series). The show has given Sookie’s best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) a bit of a side story involving her alcoholic/possessed mother but her onscreen time is distracting from the show’s main strengths.

ImageAs for the show’s aforementioned strengths Alan Ball does a pretty good job bridging the gap between classic vampire iconography and modern times. The show’s main premise is that ever since the Japanese have concocted an artificial blood cocktail (a substitute for the real thing) called True Blood, vampires are suddenly able to “come out of the closet” so to speak, thus trying to fit in a society of the living. The show is littered with fascinating little tidbits about the cultural acceptance/rejection of the vampires and there is clearly links to gay rights throughout the show as Alan Ball is himself an outspoken advocate for equal rights for homosexuals.

Another strength revolves around the myth of vampires being driven by a hunger (addiction) to human blood. True Blood gives this classic vampire mythological theme a 180 twist with vampire blood (called V on the show, a play on ecstasy) serving as a hardcore psychedelic drug for humans to dabble in enhancing just about every human sense and pleasure. In one recent episode two V fiends seek out a shut-in middle-age gay vampire to capture and drain to feed their growing addiction to the stuff. Clever, to say the least.

Then there are the snippets of a vampire rights coalition working to gain the same rights and social status as everyone else. During the show’s pilot one spokesperson even appears as a guest on HBO’s own late night political talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher.

These few moments of brilliance show that Alan Ball is close to nailing the show’s full potential as a sly social statement featuring vampires but sadly he chooses to focus the show’s attention on the routine horror elements of the series. Rather than expand on the political aspects of the story, mainly that of a minority trying to fit into society the show seems more concerned with blood, unnecessary sexuality, and shocking episode cliffhangers, about the only element keeping viewers coming back for more (that and a brilliantly edited opening credits segment set to a raucous Southern rock tune “Bad Things” by Jace Everett).

One could argue that some shows need a season or two before they really find purpose and flow. A feasible argument for network television perhaps, but HBO has always held its standards higher. Six Feet Under is notorious for being the show that was renewed for a second season immediately following its captivating and universally applauded pilot episode. Likewise The Sopranos’ first season remains one the finest single season entities of any show out there. While Blood may have the potential for a turnaround, it has already proven to be rather sub-par compared to HBO’s previous trendsetting series.

The Sopranos will inevitably go down as one of most important series in television history. The advent of shows based on multi-dimensional characters that, despite their wrong doings, manage to captivate the audience paved the way for the gamut of most popular series today. Thanks to Tony and even earlier the inmates on HBO’s forgotten masterpiece Oz it was suddenly okay to sympathize and get sucked into the lives of the bad guys.

After Sopranos fever HBO was able to launch other hit dramas that pushed the envelope on how we soak up television. Six Feet Under took the stereotypical family drama and flipped it on its ass giving us one of the most intimate and shockingly truthful looks at a modern family who, although appear to be different, are surprisingly relatable. The network even managed to launch some fairly well-received niche dramas such as the Shakespearean Western, Deadwood, the Dust Bowl era Twin Peaksesque series Carinvalé, and the underappreciated history buff’s dream show Rome.

Then there was The Wire, the socially conscious, anti-cop show that was the last truly great series on HBO and without a doubt one the finest television series of all time.

True Blood currently leads HBO’s current programming lineup and looks destined to join the ranks of the network’s past mediocrities. There is the respectable but hardly hit series about Mormonism and Polygamists (Big Love) ready to start its third season. There was the failed spiritual surfing drama (John From Cincinnati) that followed The Sopranos’ fade to black finale. Last year an overly erotic (apparently a current HBO theme) show about relationships and intimacy (Tell Me You Love Me) premiered, a new five-night a week drama about a shrink and his patients (In Treatment) and recently a slew of comedy imports from abroad–the very British Little Britain U.S.A, and the Australian Summer Heights High, both which are for acquired tastes, lacking mass appeal–began airing.

Add this to, sigh, potentially more seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which officially jumped the shark around the fourth or fifth season, the consistently funny news talk show Real Time With Bill Maher and the entertaining but fluffy Entourage and you have the fairly uninspired future lineup for HBO.

With the disappointing True Blood about to wrap its uninspired first season it’s difficult to know what’s left for HBO? Will the network every truly be able to recuperate from the loss of its respected giants? Is it time for other budding networks (Showtime, AMC and FX come to mind) to take the reigns of the only television that matters?

It will be interesting to see where HBO is headed and which shows in the future (if any) can captivate a nation as much as The Sopranos or its other landmark series did during their run. Only time will tell whether HBO remains something new and exciting or really is just TV.

The Shield: Culminating a Masterful Series Run

ROOTING FOR THE BAD GUY: A Look Back at The Shield

It’s no secret that David Chase’s creation of Tony Soprano changed the face of television. The multi-dimensional anti-hero character was born the minute Tony first entered therapy, presented as both loving family man, and later as a brutal and greedy murderer. Throughout The Sopranos six season run creator David Chase developed Soprano into a complicated television archetype–always empathetic while being equally despicable. As we watched Tony’s inevitable downward spiral into paranoia, anger and (depending on how you view the show’s closing moments) his demise, we couldn’t help but feel compassionate for the man, despite his countless wrong doings. 

The FX original series The Shield, a fast-paced, gritty L.A. cop show, premiered on the heels of The Sopranos, and its countless other spawns, as a show focused around the world of another benevolent anti-hero. The main character, Detective Vic Mackey (played with equally balanced intensity and charm by Michael Chiklis) is the perfect dichotomy–a rogue and effective force against the troubles plaguing his surroundings who is also a dirty, selfish infliction on society. Yet despite constant reminders of his evil, or shall we say his questionable ways, the audience can’t help but root for the guy. 

The series is currently wrapping things up with its final 13-episodes seventh season. While it has a loyal following and has been well regarded by critics since its incarnation, the show remains niche.

To say The Shield is a cop show is taking the easy way out. Like HBO’s late masterful series The Wire, the inner workings of The Shield go way beyond the formulaic cops and robbers serial. At its core The Shield is a character study. It tugs at the recycled themes developed on the cop show–revenge, loyalty, and sense of duty–while also diving into the atypical and more human aspects seldom seen on a show of this nature.

Like Tony Soprano, Mackey is a loving family man, willing to do anything (legal or morally questionable) to ensure his family’s well being. In his job he is an effective enforcement tool, a brute of a man who lets very little stand in his way when it comes to getting the job done. Torture, deception, and murder, all serve as implements of successfully battling crime. 

He and his team of equally complicated but sympathetic Strike Team minions at first appear to be the superheroes of their district but slowly we get the full picture. Cutting corners and taking the easy way out both plague and aid the show’s characters with Mackey using his rampant ways to ceaselessly take down crime-lords while also thicken his wallet. 

ImageSimilarly to The Wire, The Shield also presents the bureaucracy of the war on drugs and the inner workings of the police enforcement agencies that make up L.A.’s fictional Farmington district (although, like The Wire this show could be set in any major urban backdrop as the themes are much larger than its setting). Mackey and his team are not the only pieces of a corrupt system, and are at times miniscule problems in the grand scheme of things. From the politically career driven police Captain Acevada (an equally fascinating character) to the revenge driven Internal Affairs agent in the show’s fifth season (portrayed beautifully by Forrest Whitaker, who is in many ways as corrupt as Mackey, the man he’s intent on crushing), The Shield has also managed to branch out over its run giving us one of the most convincing looking “cop shows” out there. 

This is not to say the show is perfect. Like The Sopranos (which was hindered by running one season too many) The Shieldhas had its low points, specifically with its fourth season, which brought on a convincing Glenn Close as the new operations major for the crew’s district, but ultimately played up a forgettable season long storyline. 

In fact the show’s finest moments were in its initial season, jumpstarted by one of the most exhilarating pilot episodes of any series in the pantheon of the genre, and the past two outings, which have returned to the show’s highlights. The introduction of Vic in the pilot depicts him as a rough but efficient cop and team leader. By the end a shocking murder changes our view of the character completely.

The stuff in between still manages to be one of the more thrilling reasons to tune in to late night FX, besting that of the more formulaic cop show offerings on the market, mainly the many Law and Order incarnations, the overly glossed C.S.I.family and every other mediocre police themed show come and gone in recent years. The minor characters each get their own development with the bookworm detective “Dutch” Wagenbach carrying the most entrancing minor character arc on the show. 

Watching Vic and his gang combat the harsh streets of urban L.A., while also battling their inner demons has been a treat over the years and as the current season begins to heat up there is an equal level of anticipation and sorrow for the show’s culmination. Like The Sopranos’ nail-biting final moments, the end of The Shield is already creating an troublesome dilemma–should Mackey receive the justice he deserves, no matter how harsh it may be or do we root for an escape from the deep hole he’s dug over this show’s run. 

The television arena has always and will always have its share of garbage but lately, thanks to the no-holds barred attitudes of programs like The Sopranos, or its predecessor the equally unconventional Oz, television series have been able to serve as visual extensions of great literature featuring multi-dimensional characters. The Shield took the concept in a different direction. 

Tony Soprano is a hard-bitten criminal who also suffers from self-pity, yet he still manages to mesmerize the viewer. The drug kingpins on The Wire reap the benefits from a bleeding society but still we are burdened with empathy once we see the larger picture regarding society’s infrastructural woes. Vic Mackey kills and steals to get his way, yet we can’t help but root for the guy who, after all, is merely trying to support his family (this final season is already looking to show how Mackey’s questionable ways over the years have shaped his family’s dynamic), and continue doing what he was clearly born to do. 

The Shield’s creator Shawn Ryan has since collaborated on some other projects, as have many of its cast members still the series will be a career highlight. While the upcoming finale will most likely not carry the same popular culture weight as The Sopranos final episode, it’ll still be the culmination of a quality television program. It’s difficult to convince someone to jump into a show currently about clear the stage but for those who are tired of the predictable and rudimentary cop shows that most are used to seeing, The Shield is sure to deliver as a one-of-a-kind television experience.

The Best and Worst of Anthony Bourdain

It’s amazing how may people despise Anthony Bourdain. Whatever it may be–his giant ego, smug demeanor, and food snobbery–he seems to be one of the most polarizing television personalities working today. Foodies believe his culinary chops are overrated to say the least. Reality TV fans still can’t believe he helped vote off the promising young chef Dale on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and it’s safe to say Rachel Ray supporters (and there apparently are quite a few) fail to find any humor in Tony’s relentless ragging of the overly exuberant quick-meal vamp. Say what you will about the Anthony Bourdain persona, when it comes to travel shows go his series “No Reservations” is at the top of its game.

 “No Reservations” remains one of the only reasons to tune into the Travel Channel. For travel enthusiasts and globe trekkers alike, Bourdain has not only the coolest job around but also provides viewers with a different take on some of the world’s most familiar and unfamiliar destinations. Through his fascination with world history, varying cultural characteristics, and above all the culinary fabric of the world, Bourdain provides a fairly eye opening window into all corners around the globe. With the series well into its fifth season Bourdain’s had his share of successes and failures. With Tony’s raging ego aside and from a pure armchair explorer point of view, the following showcases some of Tony’s best and worst moments across the globe.

Best Destinations

1) Paris, France-It seems fitting that Bourdain chose to jumpstart “No Reservations” with a close and compassionate look at France, arguably the culinary Mecca of the world. Having years of classical French cooking training behind him Bourdain is perhaps a bit biased when it comes to the Parisian offerings presented in this episode. Still Bourdain argues that there has been a shroud of political and social negativity over France in recent years, which has made us forget just how wonderful France can be. By giving us a glimpse into the art of perfecting something as simple and pure as a baguette or embracing the hole in the wall neighborhood restaurants and cafes that give tourists a glimpse into real local cuisine, this episode is the perfect preface for the rest of the series. Bourdain’s message in a nutshell: when traveling one must put all preconceived notions aside and enjoy the many diverse cultures this world has to offer.

2) Vietnam-Bourdain calls Vietnam one of his favorite destinations. As a country with years of foreign influence in its culture and cuisine Vietnam still has a strong inner identity just waiting to be explored. Bourdain, along with a local friend and guide, tastes his way around the capital of Hanoi along with the picturesque Ha Long Bay. From the perfect bowl of Phó, a mysterious dish of porcupine to a shot of a locally made strong rice whiskey infused with fermented insects and animal carcasses, Vietnam provides viewers with all the gross out moments that audiences love while also showing the cultural importance of traditional cooking ingredients and techniques.

3) The Pacific Northwest-Bourdain has done a number of episodes on U.S. soil but none were as eye opening and unexpected as his tour through Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Bourdain believes that the Pacific Northwest is an area concentrated with creative culinary artists who, with a bountiful selection of fresh food and resources at their disposal, are able to work their magic among fellow masters. He dines on a rare Puget Sound seafood delicacy, enjoys the tasty but insanely wrong donuts at Portland’s wild Voodoo Donuts, and finishes the episode with a look into the Batali family’s acclaimed Italian salami and sausage store. Pair this episode with Tony’s adventures in Vancouver, Canada and you get a fascinating look at one of North America’s treasured regions.

4) Korea-Here’s one of many episodes devoted to one of the underrated, yet to be discovered regions in the world. Coaxed to Seoul by one of Bourdain’s production assistants, Nori, a Korean native, Tony and crew show a side of South Korea that most people don’t realize exists. From the bustling outdoor markets serving up all kinds of curious treats to a farm in the country that specializes in the historic Korean staple condiment, Kim Chee, Bourdain finds a new favorite destination.

5) Peru-Perhaps it’s the lure of Machu Picchu, quite possibly one of the most beautiful sights in the world or maybe it’s the mystery surrounding Peru’s ancient past. Whatever it is that draws Bourdain to this small Latin American country the payoff is worth it. From the snowcapped mountains, the steamy jungles and the bustling cities. Peru seems to have it all. The examination of traditional ceviché still remains one of “No Reservations” most mouth watering onscreen moments.

Worst Episodes:

1) Romania-It’s a shame that the Romanian episode didn’t succeed in showing the true side of this ignored Eastern European country. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the country’s unforgiving dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu Romania has been on the rise and is slowly becoming a tourist hotspot. Transylvania, the dominating Carpathian Mountains, the Iron Curtain time capsule capital of Bucharest, Romania should have made for an interesting show. Instead Bourdain, along with a heavily intoxicated Russian travel guide (also featured in the past Russia and Uzbekistan episodes) visit some of the more cliché and tourist hotspots of the country like Dracula’s Disneyesque castle attraction. Bourdain himself claims the episode went horribly wrong.

2) Las Vegas-It could be argued that Bourdain’s pseudo Gonzo tour through Las Vegas was supposed to be a tongue and cheek affair. Sent by some food magazines to cover some of Vegas’ world renowned restaurants, Bourdain and companion spend the majority of the episode showing how truly tacky the city of lights really is. While some cannot stomach watching Bourdain swallow tripe, testicles or other nasty bits it could be said that Tony scarfing down $.99 deep fried Twinkies and Oreos is an equally, if not more sordid spectacle.

3) Namibia
-This episode is famous for Bourdain’s ultimate gross-out television moment. After already dining on an omelet cooked in dirt and ash, the local tribesmen hunt and kill a wild warthog and eventually prepare Bourdain a tasty helping of grilled un-cleaned warthog anus. Even Tony can’t finish the serving. Nasties aside, this episode lacked eye-opening sights and was only aired once on the U.S. airwaves.

4) Uruguay– One of the most recent episodes to air is also one of the least compelling to watch. This edition introduces Tony’s quiet brother to the show as they head to Uruguay to retrace a distant family history. Sure the Latin American country is given a proper run through but unlike past successful episodes in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil, this small supposedly overlooked country remains just that for a reason. Oh and the brothers Bourdain come away empty handed in regards to retracing their family heritage.

5) Into the Fire NYC-This was a special episode devoted entirely to seeing if Tony still has what it takes to work the line at his own New York restaurant Les Halles. Put in front of the stove for the dreaded weekday double shift this episode only adds fuel to the fire poked by foodies who question Bourdain’s credentials. In the end we realize that the life of a TV travel host has taken the high-octane, in the zone cooking chops out of Tony’s blood. 

Travel Channel In Need of Programming Change

(Taken from an article written for Starpulse.com)

The Travel Channel is one of Cable’s niche networks. Like its companions The Food Network, The History Channel, or even something like Court TV, Travel is aimed at a specific demographic–in this case those interested in exploring the globe. Like travel literature or periodicals like Outdoor Magazine, The Travel Channel is just another fix for those in the mood for some armchair traveling. Since its inception in 1987 it has produced a handful of stellar programs and introduced the world to televised poker (hard to say if this was a net positive), still twenty years later the network seems to be lacking in quality.

To be fair, like most cable networks The Travel Channel has to tackle the obstacle of providing programming for nearly 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Half the time the network falls on its own glut of original documentaries with titles such as, “Steak Paradise,” “Extreme Water parks,” “UFOs over Illinois,” “21 Sexiest Beaches,” “All You Can Eat Paradise,” and, well, you get the picture. The remaining time is spent airing and re-airing its staple series, the majority of which are overly produced fluff. There’s Samantha Brown, the overly exuberant host of such tame travel shows like “Samantha Brown’s Passport to Great Weekends,” “Passport to Europe” and “Samantha Brown’s Disney Favorites”, who is to the Travel Channel what the fluffy Sandra Lee is to The Food Network’s show, “Semi-Homemade Cooking.” Both show the lighter and easier side of their trade and both have about as much emotional charisma as cardboard.

 “Cash and Treasures” attempts to show viewers where to find booty in their backyards, however, the chances of said viewers actually leaving the couch and picking up the shovel are slim.

This year The Travel Channel introduced “America The Wright Way,” a short-lived series (currently in hiatus) following British TV traveling guru Ian Wright around the U.S. Wright, a veteran of the Mecca of all travel programs, BBC’s “Globe Trekker,” has a wining personality when taken in small doses. Here the Travel Channel execs seemed to have turned this well respected traveler into a clichéd caricature of the English.

“Most Haunted” is just one of many Travel Channel programs still clinging to the notion that viewers still want to watch so-called “officials” hunt ghosts and other paranormal activity. Spooky reality TV, which begs the question “are you a believer,” may have some fooled (after all the show is currently in its tenth season) but in reality is nothing more than sensationalist television about eerie buildings filmed in night vision.

Finally there is that “Bizarre Foods” guy, Andrew Zimmern, quite possibly the worst television personality out there. Zimmern somehow managed to get lucky in terms of ratings because people apparently can’t get enough watching another man eat foods unfamiliar to cautious Americans. His show came on the heel of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (who I will spend the remainder of this column discussing) and serves as a more extreme extension of seeking out the less desirable food groups that the majority of the planet eats daily. The problem with Zimmern isn’t so much the food (considering the Western world is a bit spoiled when it comes to what we consume) but rather his methods of delivery. Rather than simply describe the dishes like a normal person Zimmern insists on adding his own ridiculous commentary no hesitating to reiterate what bizarre bit he’s about to dine on. During a recent excursion to Beijing while chowing down on a deer’s nether regions Zimmern joyfully exclaims, “the penis is extremely chewy, very chewy,” most likely a television sound bite first.

While The Travel Channel seems to have struck out more in recent years there have been some successes. Global adventurer Jeff Corwin is the go-to man for all things Alaska and American West related and continues to provide informative windows into the unwavering natural beauty of the United States.

For those curious about the way things work, ex-“Cheers” cast member John Ratzenberger hosts “Made in America,” a quick 30-minute show chronicling how various everyday things are produced in this country. Ratzenberger’s is truly a niche program but fascinating nonetheless. 

 Arguably The Travel Channel’s best move in recent years was wooing Anthony Bourdain away from the Food Network in 2005 and giving him “No Reservations,” the networks one truly brilliant series.

The allure of Bourdain has always been his knack for the English language. Sure he’s a chef and food enthusiast first and foremost, but deep down he’s also a writer and to some extent a want-to-be poet of the culinary world. “No Reservations” combines his witty and unique way of looking at global cultural and culinary wonders with a determination to travel on and off the beaten path.

He’s covered places as remote and misunderstood as Uzbekistan, to more lively and well-known destinations, such as New York or Paris, always showing that despite borders and distances there is a global appreciation of food in its many varieties. While some consider Bourdain overly cocky or completely overrated with devout foodies labeling him a sell-out, his show is highly unique, always informative and eye opening, and currently the only reason to watch the Travel Channel. With the new season currently underway Bourdain has already taken viewers to the mysterious Southeast Asian country of Laos, a misunderstood Saudi Arabia and Colombia, and most recently to Tokyo, a culinary capital of the world, according to Bourdain.

The Travel Channel is in desperate need for a complete overhaul and a new lineup of programs. The world is a big place and there are so many opportunities to provide audiences with a window into what’s out there. Until the network unleashes its next hit we’ll have Bourdain and the many reruns of “No Reservations” to fall back on.



Surviving Survivalist Television

(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

At the age of 23 Bear Grylls was the youngest climber ever to ascend the summit at Mount Everest. Recently Bear drank his own urine for the amusement of thousands of television viewers. In 2000 Grylls traveled around the island of the United Kingdom on a jet ski. While filming in the African savannah Bear took a hearty bite out of a recently deceased zebra. In 2003 he led the first-ever unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic Arctic Ocean by boat. This past fall Bear skinned and disemboweled a camel then used the empty carcass for shelter.

Bear Grylls is without a doubt a self-professed adventurer. He’s also the host of Discovery Channel’s extreme survival show, “Man vs. Wild.” You can judge for yourself which of the feats mentioned above encompass Bear the accomplished outdoorsmen or Bear the over-the-top TV personality.

Then there is Les Stroud, the more refined Canadian super outdoorsman and host of Discovery’s other hit survivalist series, “Survivorman.” Stroud is less concerned with the flashiness of reality television, choosing technique and survival tactics over sensationalism. In terms of popularity, Bear’s got him beat. Let’s face it, we’re a culture obsessed with over the top drama.


To be fair both survivalist series are very similar in their intentions – send a man off into the wild solo and learn about the various survival techniques needed to brave the elements. The shows are highly informative, even though the chances of the average viewer being forced to climb inside a dead camel are about as slim as said viewer even seeing a camel outside of the comforts of a zoo. Then again, television has always been an escapist medium.

So which show is the more realistic? Which show is worth the viewers 45 minutes? To answer this question one must question what they look for in a television show of this nature?

For the true adventurers, “Survivorman” is hands down the most authentic look at what it takes to survive in a multitude of different scenarios. Stroud walks viewers through the basics like finding potable water, making fire, staying warm, hunting and gathering food where you would least expect it, etc. Each episode is based off an entirely plausible scenario of being stuck in the wild (canoeing accident, lost in forest, broken down vehicle, even an impressive episode where Stroud is on a raft in the middle of the ocean). To top it off Stroud is alone for a whole seven days without a camera crew (a luxury Bear so controversially benefits from). Despite this arguably more impressive setup, the restless viewer might find Stroud’s no thrills how-to lessons to be a bit trite.

Grylls falls at the other end of the spectrum – action, suspense, and the gross out element. Almost every episode of “Man Vs. Wild” begins with Bear doing a back flip of sorts from a plane or helicopter into his newest destination (seriously, even during a scene as simple as jumping six feet from a tree branch into a marsh, Bear finds it necessary to wow viewers with his acrobatics).

Man vs. Wild

Bear’s stern British narration voice makes even the simplest of feats seem to be life threatening. Above all, when this man takes on the wild he seems destined to look for the most extreme ways of surviving, rather than the simplest or safest methods. Sure, while you could technically spear a salmon and eat it while it’s still alive (as our Bear so fittingly does in an episode braving Alaska) why not just wait till it’s dead?

In one episode of “Survivorman” in which Stroud is stuck in a Georgia swamp, he shows viewers an old Native American technique for catching fish and frogs in a makeshift water corral trap. Whereas Bear Grylls seems solely concerned with putting his body through excruciating unpleasantness for the pleasure of the television audience, Stroud is more focused with informing us about the many survival techniques out there and the history of his given environment.

With a name as blatantly over-the-top as Bear Grylls it’s no wonder that the self-proclaimed survivalist/thrill seeker’s show has higher ratings. An extreme sounding name such as Bear or the even more ridiculous, Dog the Bounty Hunter is ripe for sensationalist reality TV, which is what the average viewer yearns for.

Television viewers these days enjoy watching people eat horrible things or live out excruciating situations from the safety of the living room. “Survivorman,” which was created before “Man Vs. Wild,” is currently on a hiatus from TV with a third season possibly in the works. “Man Vs. Wild” is still going strong, proving that no matter what ratings always prevail in the television arena. While “Survivorman” is without a doubt the superior program when it comes to the authenticity, Bear’s on-screen personality will always garner the most viewers and nails the entertainment draw of survival television.

A Healthy Serving of Reality

It’s hard to say when reality television officially transformed from merely a fad to a staple element of American television. Maybe it was when MTV launched its first Real World. Perhaps it came later with the success of Survivor and the many spin-offs that soon followed. American Idol certainly changed not only the television landscape but also the music industry but then again isn’t Idol nothing more than a flashier version of the Americana classic, American Bandstand

There was a time when I believed that the surge of “reality” programming that was sweeping all networks (I mean, even Animal Planet has a reality show starring a family of Meerkats), was nothing more than a craze that would eventually die down. Instead it’s become very hard to ignore. Much to my dismay I have officially become addicted a to a reality show and while it pains me to say it, I’m rather enjoying it.

I don’t know how it happened but I’m officially hooked on the gastronomic gala that is Top Chef. I’m not sure what drew me to this show. Perhaps it’s the fact that this season was filmed here in Chicago a features some local culinary personalities. Maybe I was desperately searching for something, anything to fill the void left by the recent culmination of HBOs The Wire, one of few shows that I actually watched religiously. Whatever it may be, I’m officially hooked and the side of me that once bashed all things reality is taking a break.

Okay, to be fair I still think the majority of reality TV is trash. Call me a hypocrite but despite my newfound pleasure in Top Chef there’s no denying some of concentrated crap that somehow makes it onto the air. I’ll never understand the allure of watching a has-been rap personality try to find love via a crew of crazy, fame seeking common whores (Flavor of Love), or a show based solely around the concept of Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired” (The Apprentice). 

I believe Bravo’s Top Chef is one of many niche reality shows out there and by that I mean it has a target audience. While the show is accessible to anyone clearly it is aimed at foodies, people in the industry and those who just like watching food cooked on TV (why else does the Food Network work so well?). Sure it’s over the top at times and it plays up the bickering and overly dramatic level of competition between total strangers but at its core isn’t it also a window into the lives of aspiring chefs crafting their art. 

Perhaps this explanation is nothing more than my justification for getting sucked into a reality show. Still I can’t help but think that whereas a show like The Real World or pretty much damn near everything on MTV or VH1 focuses on everything but real life people and situations, a show like Top Chef features people competing with an actual creative craft. If you look past the fighting and yelling between contestants or the cold and unremorseful lineup of judges the show is actually an interesting look into what goes into modern cuisine.

ImageThis past episode of Top Cheffeatured an eruption of bottled-up discontent from a couple of contestants following a cooking challenge. People were yelling, feelings were hurt, spatulas were flying, okay maybe not the spatulas. The sad part was as much as I hated watching the bs bickering I couldn’t look away. 

It seems like this is the biggest draw for reality TV. We as viewer enjoy watching people get mentally and physically abused. The sick side of us enjoys watching people get into fights (the Spike TV network may very well be based on this fascination–now the official home of shows beginning with the phrase, World’s Deadliest________). We enjoy the in-your face showdowns between strangers. It’s why The Jerry Springer Show remains one of the most watched shows or why viewers can’t help but root for the raging cutthroat bitch on a show like The ApprenticeIn the past people would blame violence on television and movies for hurting the national psyche but what about our obsession with watching people bicker and humiliate each other on national TV?  In any other setting someone like Simon Cowell from American Idol would be nothing more than an asshole or wanker on his native soil but behind the judge’s table he’s a star.

Above all though the biggest problem with “reality television” is it focuses on anything but reality. A show like Big & Rob, which my roommate was watching not too long ago, focuses on the life of a celebrity who is living in anything but reality (millionaire skateboarder blowing through his money in a West coast mansion). Shouldn’t true reality television be rooted in reality? 

Lately I’ve been drawn to The Travel or Discovery Channels, which both feature an eclectic lineup of programs that serve as windows into the rest of the world via the food, culture, sights, sounds, you name it. PBS had a reality show based on history highlighting how people lived on the American frontier. Alas these are niche programs whereas the majority of people would rather watch a bounty hunter named Dog tackle and taser a bunch of Hawaiian petty criminals. The Real World once had a show set in Las Vegas quite possibly the most surreal city in America. Even the major news media houses have become havens for pundit manipulation and hidden political agendas, giving the public a heavy dose of distorted reality.

Maybe true reality is just too boring or too depressing to soak in. Reality is working a 9-5 job. Reality is deciding between the many yogurts with fruit on the bottom at the grocery store. Reality is watching my cat figure out the best way to kill and dismember a roll of toilet paper. Reality is watching the disaster in the Middle East continue to unfold. Reality is deciding who will next lead this country. Reality is, oh hold that thought, the Top Chef judges are about to unleash all hell on a guy who cooked an extravagant but soggy corn dog!