Nice little video from a Muppets Christmas special featuring a character named Emmet Otter. The video is from that show, while the audio is the version of the song performed by John Denver on a subsequent Muppets album.
Nice little video from a Muppets Christmas special featuring a character named Emmet Otter. The video is from that show, while the audio is the version of the song performed by John Denver on a subsequent Muppets album.
Update (April 16): Despite my generally negative review of Missing (below), I decided to watch another couple of episodes via video on demand. I have to say the show does improve in episodes 4 and 5. The son starts to act more like a hero and less like a baby. Ashley Judd is not called on to perform as many ridiculous feats of physical strength and skill. (There was something absurd about her racing around on a motorbike in an early episode.) The plot twists, though predictable, do make the story more interesting, and the increased use of flashbacks helps to flesh out the character of Becca Winstone. It's still not in the same league as 24 or Taken, but it's getting better. And the scenery is really nice. Incidentally, Missing is a limited-run (ten episode) series, and the producers vow that everything will be wrapped up at the end. I guess I'll stick with it now.
Recently I watched the first three episodes of the ABC primetime series Missing via my cable company's video-on-demand service. (You can also watch back episodes on the show's official site.) I'd heard some good things about the show, and I liked the basic premise. But after three episodes, I'm not particularly interested in going any further. I spent some time thinking about why the show didn't quite work for me, and although I doubt that anyone else cares about my thoughts on the matter, I figured I might as well post them here. After all, as I've said before, I have to fill up the blog with something.
Missing is essentially the movie Taken with gender reversals. In Taken, a father with a background in Special Forces searches Europe for his kidnapped daughter, dispatching a variety of bad guys along the way. In Missing, a mother with a background in espionage searches Europe for her kidnapped son, also dispatching a variety of bad guys, though without the savage panache that Liam Neeson brought to his role.
The ex-CIA mom thrust into this international adventure is Becca Winstone, played by Ashley Judd. Though the series features an excellent supporting cast, it's definitely Judd's show to carry. And right there we have a problem.
Having written a number of thrillers about kick-ass females, I have a certain affection for this genre. But it's not the easiest thing to pull off, especially on the screen. You have to believe, or at least sort of believe, that the woman can beat up or kill trained thugs and assassins twice her size. This usually works only if she's in undeniably top condition. When you first get a glimpse of Linda Hamilton's pumped-up biceps in Terminator 2, you're pretty much willing to believe she's capable of the over-the-top action scenes that follow. Jennifer Garner in Alias may not have been quite as menacingly steroidal, but she had the sleek, toned body of a natural athlete.
Ashley Judd, on the other hand, just doesn't look all that formidable. She doesn't appear to be in especially good shape; her arms lack definition, and she has a rather frumpy look. None of this helps to sell the idea that she can transform herself from dowdy hausfrau into lethal combatant at a moment's notice. During the action scenes, I mostly found myself thinking, I don't believe this woman could really do this stuff.
Other actresses might have pulled it off more convincingly. I could see Sharon Stone kicking butt in a show like this. Sigourney Weaver too, maybe. One reviewer suggested Maria Bello, a sensible choice. Even petite Holly Hunter has a fierceness and a wiry energy about her that could make it work. Judd just doesn't seem to have that kind of mojo.
Successful shows in this genre have generally relied on a gimmick of some kind to add new life to tired situations. The conceit that every episode took place in real time made 24 unique and placed interesting constraints on the writers. But there's nothing really new about Missing. It plays out in bland formulaic fashion. And unlike 24–or Taken, for that matter–you don't get the sense that all the usual rules of storytelling have been thrown out the window, that the hero can do outrageously cruel and violent things to get what he wants, that the line between good and evil is not entirely clear, and that all the characters except the protagonist are potentially expendable. In 24, you never knew who was going to get knocked off next. No matter how much emotion you might have invested in any supporting character, you knew that the show's producers were just crazy enough to neutralize him or her in a heartbeat. This created real tension, because you genuinely didn't know where the story was going or who might be next to die. None of this holds true for Missing, where you can feel entirely sure there won't be any dramatic shocks to your system. Jack Bauer's wife died in the final seconds of 24's first season. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that Becca Winstone's son does not suffer a similar fate.
Besides the cautious approach to storytelling, there are some predictable plot twists. At least I'm assuming that certain plot twists are coming our way. In the prologue of the pilot we see Becca's husband apparently blown up in an automobile ten years ago. But since he's played by a major actor, Sean Bean, we can safely assume that he wasn't really killed and that he will be back. Presumably he faked his own death for some reason, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he's involved in the son's kidnapping either directly or indirectly. (There is already a hint of this in episode 3, but it was obvious from the get-go.) We're also repeatedly told that Becca has been out of spycraft and working in a flower shop for a decade. The show's insistence on this point leads me to assume that it's a lie, and that, in fact, she has continued to work undercover all these years, though not for the CIA. I'm guessing this is one of the Big Revelations yet to come. (And really it should be, since otherwise her ability to jump right back into spy mode without missing a beat is even less believable.)
There's also a certain sloppiness to the writing. In a show like this, if it's played straight–as Missing definitely is–you have to get the little details right. But all too often the details seem wrong. As just one example, a character in episode 2 manages to uncover all the details of a corrupt police official's secret dealings on the cop's computer (conveniently the cop keeps all this damning info in one place), uploads all the files to a Wikileaks-type site, and apparently generates a huge amount of traffic–all within a matter of, I dunno, maybe fifteen minutes. Watching it, I couldn't help thinking that in real life it would take a hell of a lot longer to pull this off. It would've been more realistic for him to download the entire contents of the hard drive onto a backup drive and then mail the backup drive to the authorities. Is this a little thing? Yeah. But the little things matter.
Of course, big things matter too. And some of the big things in Missing are problematic as well. A couple of those things involve the kidnapped son, who corresponds to Liam Neeson's kidnapped daughter (played by Maggie Grace) in Taken.
Taken moves at bullet speed and gives us no hint of the daughter's condition until the climax. As a result, we don't have time to wonder if she's making any effort to escape on her own. Moreover, when we do eventually see her, we realize that she has been kept drugged throughout her captivity, rendering her pliable and helpless.
But the kid in Missing isn't drugged or incapacitated in any way; at least by the third episode, he is able to roam at will throughout a large medieval castle where he's being held prisoner. He's athletic, smart, and 18 years old–old enough to join the military. Yet he makes only the most halfhearted effort at escape. Mostly he just seems to be waiting for his mom to rescue him. His main effort at survival is to leave coded messages for her to find. There's something weak and childish about his apparently boundless faith that his mom will make everything all right.
This raises another problem. In Taken, when Maggie Grace tearfully embraces her father at the climax and says she knew he would come for her, it makes sense because she already knew he was a bad-ass with international connections and commando skills. But the kid in Missing has been kept in the dark about his mom's CIA past. As far as he's concerned, she's an ordinary suburban mother who runs a flower shop. So why is he so sure she'll track him down and rescue him? Does he expect a middle-aged widow with (as far as he knows) no knowledge of weapons, tactics, or espionage to track him to the villains' isolated layer and burst in with guns blazing? Sure, Maggie Grace expects Liam Neeson to do that–but he's freakin' Liam Neeson, scarred, tattooed, tough as an old boot, a guy who takes celebrity bodyguard assignments to earn cash in his spare time. For all the kid on Missing knows, his mom has never done anything more adventurous in her spare time than take a Pilates class.
Missing offers its share of pleasures, and I can see why some people would like it. It's filmed in attractive foreign locations–supposedly France and Italy, though nearly all of it is actually shot in the Czech Republic. The cast is good, even if I have my reservations about the star; the production values are high; the pace is brisk, and the frenetic action scenes are sometimes effective. There are worse ways to spend an hour. But to me, the whole thing feels a little bit too familiar, too safe, too obvious, and at times, too dumbed down and poorly thought out.
I'd really like to like this show. But I don't. Something just seems to be ... missing.
I was watching the Fox News Channel late-night program Red Eye the other night, when for some reason the topic of the is-ought dichotomy came up.
As you probably know, the is-ought dichotomy was first identified by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, who observed that it's impossible to derive a value judgment -- an ought -- from facts alone. The problem was largely ignored in his time, but has proved vexing to more recent philosophers. Many attempts have been made to bridge the gulf between is and ought. All have failed. There does not seem to be any way of resolving the dichotomy.
On Red Eye, one of the panelists suggested that the dichotomy posed no real problem by giving this example: "It is raining. Therefore I ought to take my umbrella." He then shrugged, as if to say: See? Solved it for you.
Red Eye is a pretty unserious show, which consists mostly of playful banter broken up by YouTube clips of funny animals, so I don't know if the brief discussion was meant to be taken seriously or not. But if this was a legitimate suggestion, it was mistaken. The example given does not resolve the dichotomy. The reason is that the line of reasoning presented includes a hidden step, which is implied but not stated. Let's restate the argument with the hidden step made explicit.
1. It is raining.
2. I prefer not to get wet.
3. Therefore I ought to take my umbrella.
Here we can clearly see that the ought statement is predicated on step two, a personal preference.
Now, no one has ever denied that ought statements can be derived from personal preferences. The point of the is-ought dichotomy is that ought statements cannot be derived from neutral facts. And that is indeed true. It is impossible to derive step three from step one without the intervention of step two.
In fact, virtually all ought statements derive from statements of preference, even if these statements are implicit. You can easily test this yourself by making just about any ought statement you can think of, and then identifying the preference that underlies it. The only arguable exceptions are ought statements based on instincts, such as the will to live. An instinct may be seen as only a deeply ingrained preference, or it may be seen as brute biological fact, depending on one's point of view.
Does this mean that all moral values are based on personal subjective preferences and, possibly, a few biological drives? That's the position taken by most contemporary secular humanists.
The alternative is that objective moral values unconnected to biology do exist, but that they are not derived not from empirical observations. Instead, they are derived from a deep, intuitive insight into the nature and purpose of the universe and/or its Creator - a precious gift, a pearl beyond price, handed down to the rest of us by a small number of gifted spiritual teachers. Of course, this takes us into the realm of mysticism and revelation, a step which is understandably offputting to many moderns, and which gives rise to problems of its own.
Still, if we are going to live in a world of objective moral values instead of mere subjective preferences and blind animalistic instincts, then the is-ought dichotomy tells us we must go beyond the limits of logic. Because logic, it seems, can take us only so far.
There's a lot of buzz about the AMC dramatic series Mad Men, so I finally decided to rent the first three episodes on DVD. The show is well acted and well produced, and certainly captures the look of 1960. It can be funny and smart, though the pace is rather slow. Overall, though, I found myself a little peeved at Mad Men, at least if I can judge the whole series by only three installments.
The problem I have with the show, besides the sometimes glacial pace of the narrative, is that it seems to be written by people who have no personal experience of the 1960s - young people whose whole idea of that era is derived from books and movies.
Now, I have only limited personal experience of that decade myself. I was born in 1960, and didn't start to pay much attention to the culture around me until the late '60s. Still, I remember enough to know that the show's depiction of this time in America's history is more caricature than reality.
Let's look at some specifics.
Smoking. On Mad Men, everybody smokes all the time. People smoke the minute they wake up in the morning. They smoke while cooking breakfast. They smoke on the commute to work. They smoke constantly at the office, and at restaurants, and everywhere else, and they keep smoking after they get home, right up until they go to bed. And if they wake up in the middle of the night, they light another cigarette. They live surrounded by swirls of tobacco smoke, like an everpresent curtain of gauze or - in group scenes - a sickly London fog.
Well, sure. It's true that in the 1960s, smoking did not have the stigma that it carries today. It's true - as depicted in the series - that pregnant women, or at least some of them, smoked. It's true that bars and restaurants and railroad cars could be dense with tobacco fumes.
But let's not get carried away. Most people didn't chain-smoke the way the Mad Men characters do. They smoked socially, they smoked more than was good for them, but they didn't smoke everywhere, all the time, in every situation. A doctor would not light up a cigarette while examining a patient, as a gynecologist does in one of the early episodes. And some people, even back then in those benighted days, didn't smoke at all.
Drinking. The amount of hard liquor consumed by the characters in Mad Men could have kept Al Capone in business throughout Prohibition. The lead character, Don Draper, is almost never seen without a cocktail in his hand. He has a well-stocked bar in his office, and he and his colleagues miss no opportunity to pour themselves a stiff drink at any hour of the workday. At lunch they get even more potted, and if they go out for dinner, the booze keeps coming in an endless supply. On the rare occasion when no cocktails are available, Draper contents himself by downing half a dozen cans of beer, apparently without ill effect.
Draper and his friends drink so heavily, I'm surprised they can ambulate from one room to another, much less get through the day. Did people drink in the '60s? Sure. Did they drink all the time, to such obvious excess? I don't think so. The three-martini lunch is one thing; a twenty-martini work day is another.
Chauvinism and adultery. In the universe of Mad Men, it seems that all married men cheat on their wives, usually by pouncing on one of the "girls" from the steno pool. Marital fidelity is apparently unknown and certainly not expected. Women in the workplace are treated like slabs of meat; married women are uniformly housewives, who are treated as domestic servants and otherwise ignored.
Of course there's some truth in this, but things weren't quite that bad. I would wager that adultery was actually less common in the 1950s and early to mid '60s than it became later on, after the much-hyped "sexual revolution" loosened societal mores. Many men put a high premium on being a loyal husband, a good father, and a reliable provider. This wasn't just an act; it was the way they were brought up.
Nor did the typical husband necessarily regard his wife as a mere convenience. I can remember my father coming home at night and having long, serious conversations with my mother about developments in the office, in which he would solicit her advice about the best way to handle office politics and other problems. She was, in a sense, the power behind the throne. I don't think this was an unusual relationship. There was a saying back then: "Behind every successful man there stands a woman." Women's opportunities to advance in the workplace were severely limited, but they did at least find ways to advance their husbands' careers. Often the wife was better at seeing opportunities and getting her husband to capitalize on them than he was. Corporate advancement was a team effort; the wife was not ordinarily relegated to the role of Barbie doll - at least, not if her husband wanted to get ahead.
Sexual orientation. One character in Draper's advertising firm is a swishy guy who is obviously in the closet. His effeminate style of walking and talking make this immediately clear to the viewer. Yet we're supposed to believe that none of his colleagues can see through the ruse.
It's true that homosexuality was largely off-limits as a topic of conversation in that period. Either people didn't talk about it at all, or they used euphemisms like "confirmed bachelor." But that doesn't mean they were oblivious to the world around them. They knew perfectly well that some people were homosexual, and they could probably make an educated guess about which ones fit that description; they just didn't want to discuss it. I'm not saying this was a healthy situation; it led to emotional repression and needless suffering on the part of gays. The point I'm making is that, contrary to Mad Men, most people in 1960 were not naïve, clueless dolts.
And that gets us to the heart of my objections. Mad Men is a show written by young people about an era they never knew, and their attitude seems to include a large element of mockery and derision. In almost every scene, I can hear some smug twentysomething or thirtysomething scriptwriter whispering, "Look at these idiots. They didn't know smoking was bad for you. They didn't know liquor can cause health problems. They didn't think women had minds of their own. They didn't know there were gay people in the world. They were so stupid!"
Followed by: "See how much smarter, more worldly-wise, and enlightened we are?"
But let's think about this. Who exactly are the Mad Men generation? They're people who grew up in the Depression, defeated the Axis powers in World War II, then came home and built America into the world's leading industrial economy while staring down the Soviet Union. Tom Brokaw famously called them "the greatest generation," and while I think there's some hyperbole in that term, it's probably more right than wrong.
You can say a lot about these people, you can criticize them for attitudes and lifestyles that we now regard as misguided and antiquated, you can certainly make fun of their narrow ties and silly wigs, but I don't think you can say they were stupid, naïve, or ridiculous.
And that's why I'm not mad about Mad Men.
After decades of false starts, it appears that a movie version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is finally underway. Principal photography commenced last month. And yet the whole project is very odd. After years of rumors about a big-budget spectacle featuring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and other A-list stars, the production now going forward has a no-name cast, a TV director, a 5-week shooting schedule, and a paltry $5 million budget. All of which has inspired speculation that the movie is a mere placeholder intended to extend the producer's option (which would have expired in June if cameras hadn't rolled).
I don't know if this penny-ante project is the real deal or only a variation on Roger Corman's unreleased Fantastic Four movie. One thing I do know is that the director, Paul Johansson, is doing double duty by also essaying the pivotal role of Randian ubermensch John Galt.
Long before his involvement with Atlas, Johansson was a regular on One Tree Hill, a show I never watched. Today, reading some snarky comments about the Atlas movie, I came across a link to what is apparently Johansson's finest moment in the now-canceled series. Immediately upon seeing it, I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. I felt deeply connected to all living things, indeed to the beating heart of the universe itself. I understood the circle of life, the tragedy of mortality, and the ultimate meaning of the apparent absurdity of existence.
Deep in my soul, I knew I must do everything in my power to ensure that all people on Earth share in the life-altering and spiritually transcendent experience of watching this video. In fact, I now feel it is my mission in life - my destiny, if you will - to expand public awareness of this towering moment in television history. Quite simply, it is what I was put on this Earth to do.
First, I need to set the scene by explaining that Johansson plays a man with a terminal heart condition, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the donor heart that will save his life. He sits in a hospital waiting room (though one would think a man in such dire condition would be confined to bed), with a therapy dog for companionship. Tension is high. The stakes are life and death. This is drama at its finest.
What follows is an overpowering dramatic moment, surely the equal of the best of Shakespeare.
I now present the YouTube clip in all its glory.
I'm not sure if this Jay Leno routine is funny or sad.
Regardless, happy Fourth of July!
That's my reaction to the series finale of ABC's Lost.
I guess the showrunners weren't kidding when they said it was a spiritual show.
No, they didn't explain everything - in fact, they left a great deal unexpained - but I think that's just as well.
I'd still kinda like to know what the polar bears were doing on the island. I know they had something to do with the Dharma Initiative, but what? And what purpose did the numbers serve? And ... well, okay, they left most of the details unexplained.
But any explanation probably would have seemed silly anyway. Best to leave it to our imagination.
What they did instead was cut to the heart of the show, which was never the mumbo-jumbo mythology, but rather the emotions and soul-searching yearnings of the characters. And they did it in a way that, as you'll know if you watched it, spoke directly to the concerns of this blog.
Again I say ... wow.
And now it's over. So what the heck am I gonna watch next year?
As the six-season saga of ABC's Lost winds down -- or I should say, revs up -- to its two-hour finale on May 23, an interesting perspective is offered by the May 14 issue of Entertainment Weekly. In a cover story, "The Last of Lost," written by the always-perceptive Jeff Jensen, the subject of the show's most defining theme comes up. It's an issue surprisingly relevant to this blog:
Faith or reason. The epic adventure of Lost has pivoted on the conflict between these two worldviews ever since scientifically oriented Jack Shephard and mystically inclined John Locke first debated the validity of "destiny" in the finale of season 1. To the surprise of many, Lost has resolved this profoundly tricky and politically thorny argument by ruling decidedly in favor of faith. Season 6 has presented a metaphor for a culture of lost souls desperate for salvation, renewal, and, yes, answers. It ... is now ending with Jack's conversion from arrogant man of science to humbled man of faith....
"Spiritually speaking, it's a fantastic message and not something you see very often on a television show," says [Henry Ian] Cusick [who plays Desmond]. "Love as a subject -- as a spiritual concept. People don't want to talk about that. People think it's a little cheesy. But it's not cheesy at all. That's what we all strive for. Right?"
[Showrunners Carlton] Cuse and [Damon] Lindelof seem to think so. Both men describe themselves as "men of faith," tempered with a streak of reasonable man-of-science. Cuse, a Catholic and married father of three, says Lost is not about advocating a specific religion, but rather exploring issues central to all faiths: Community. Redemption. Damnation. For Lindelof, the creative journey of Lost has paralleled a period of time in which he has wrestled with the death of his father, married, and become a father himself. "If season 5 was the season where we said we had no shame in admitting we are a science-fiction show," says Lindelof, "season 6 is the season where we said we have no shame in admitting that we are intensely spiritual people, and that Lost is ultimately a deeply spiritual show."