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Hitting the TV Jackpot: Powerpuff Girls Marathon on Cartoon Network

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 20, 2009

So once again, afternoon television is saved, thanks to…


To celebrate the birthday of one of our country’s greatest civil rights leaders, Cartoon Network naturally turned to a show about three upper-middle class white girls. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the ten-year anniversary of the show (allegedly, anyway–according to Wikipedia it premiered back in 1998), and apparently that was enough for CN to devote a day’s worth of programming to one of their first and biggest original successes. It’s almost hard to think back to the Girls’ original run, since that was in the prehistoric days before Adult Swim, the now pre-eminent block of the channel’s more experimental fare. But back around the turn of the decade, if you wanted to see cartoon fare that was somewhat more involving than Tom and Jerry, you had to watch in the middle of the afternoon, when Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls were on. And back in the days when my TV watching was still mostly oriented around music and movies, it was some of the only original TV programming that I actually made a point to watch–at least until I ran out of reruns that I hadn’t seen before and lost interest in the diminishing returns of the new episodes.

Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable show. The animation style was boundlessly energetic and creative, the show’s overtly cute, innocent tone impressively managed to avoid being either precious or patronizing, and the humor, while often slapsticky and simplistic, packed enough wink-wink references and subtle little genre twists that you never really felt stupid while watching. It was an undeniable sugar rush of a TV show, perhaps best in limited doses, but a safer bet than just about anything else out there to put a smile on your face for the duration. Unsurprisingly (and at the time, very annoyingly), the show was eventually co-opted by rave culture (or whatever the closest thing in America to rave culture was), who pointed to the characters’ beady eyes, relentless supply of energy and endless amounts of unadulterated positivity as evidence of the creators’ ecstasy use. Fair enough, and creator Craig McCracken has even stated that he was surprised anyone besides ravers and college students got into the show, but I never thought the show needed a subversive subtext to sell it to teens and young adults–sometimes, you just want to watch a show that doesn’t make you afraid to go outside.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said the show hadn’t aged much for me since I was first into it–somewhat inevitable for a show with a Bis theme song, I suppose. The episodes I used to think were riotous (like the great Meat the Beat-Alls, which packed about twenty-five Beatles references a minute but only made about a third of ’em make any sense) are now merely amusing, the episodes I thought were amusing are now merely interesting. But if nothing else, you’ve still gotta love a show with a cast of baddies like this one had–from classmates like bully Mitch (and his classic “MITCH ROCKS” T-shirt) and spoiled supervillain Princess (who actually looks a lot like Maeby from Arrested Development) to town terrorizers like monkey mastermindMojo Jojo (the one character whose presence automatically signalled a great episode) and femininely devilish Him (with that high-pitched voice, still one of the most legitimately unsettling characters in cartoon history). I’d even forgotten about the existence of the Rowdyruff Boys, the Him creations that gave the girls their evil male counterparts (and whose fights with the girls entire gender relations classes could probably be devoted to). The show could coast for a couple seasons just on the strength of that rotating supporting cast.

It’ll be interesting to see what Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Venture Brothers will look like in another five years. Guess we’ll see on MLK’s birthday in 2014.

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Hitting the TV Jackpot: Rush Hashannah

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 30, 2008

Daven or be cast out

Shana Tova, VH1 Classic. It’s hard to say exactly what was done to merit this occasion–aside from the fact that Rush is almost the same word as Rosh, and that VH1C seems to be unusually infatuated with the Jewish Holidays in general. But what they’ve done is to give us 24 hours of Rush (or to be more accurate, I suppose, six hours looped four times) to celebrate the New Year. Classic concerts, discussions with the band courtesy of house loser Eddie Trunk, and of course, plenty of Rush music videos. Now, if you’ve never seen Rush’s classic string of largely forgotten music videos, few thrills are greater–once you get past the relatively low key, mostly in-studio clips for “Limelight” and “Closer to the Heart,” there’s a cornucopia of gloriously cheesy and horrifically dated clips for their mostly forgotten mid-late 80s / early 90s clips. Here’s the three best that I saw:

“The Big Money” (1985)

An enormously gauche mixture of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” Culture Club’s “It’s a Miracle” and the graphics of the original Sim City computer game, it’s fascinating to think that there was no doubt a time when this clip was considered positively cutting edge–like the “Californication” of 1985. Song’s kinda nifty too, in a surprisingly ornate, Trevor Horn-ish sort of way. Rushopoly looks sorta boring, though–the properties don’t even have names or anything.

“Time Stand Still” (1987)

Aimee Mann! I can’t imagine what Rush did to ingratiate themselves to the singer/sonngwriter/domestic abuse activist, but here she is in their one-time technical marvel of a video (presumably) for “Time Stand Still”. Look at the way they’re all sort of floating in the air! Magic, I tellz ya! Nonetheless, it’s one of the better post-classic period Rush songs–still got that sort of jangly power poppiness I love about “Limelight” and “Spirit of Radio,” and it’s nice to know that girls still technically exist in some part of the Rushverse.

“Roll the Bones” (1991)

Rush enter the 90s, and decide that the most graceful way to do it would be to keep the Horn horns, add a funkier, Faith No More bass line, and climax with a, uh…rap. Yes, for their 1991 title track about the nature of chance and the pointlessness of attempting to understand life (“Why are we here? / Because we’re here / Roll the bones”), Geddy, Alex and Neil decide that to get with the kids of today, you need a rap along the lines of Macaulay Culkin’s turn in “Black or White,” and what’s the only thing cooler thanĀ  three middle-aged Canadian dudes getting down? Why, if it’s being rapped by a CG skeleton, of course! Wicked!! Victor, if you’re reading this, I think you missed badly on this one in your last two cred-heavy rap mixes.

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Hitting the TV Jackpot: Lifetime’s “Fallen Angels” Week

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 4, 2008

Not just for Ben & Jerry’s addicts anymore

What did High School Health classes do with their time before Lifetime, anyway? Without their steady diet of hot button Teen Issue movies, I can’t even imagine how the hours in my Health would’ve been filled out, but I’m pretty sure the alternative wouldn’t have been nearly as informative, eye-opening and blissfully entertaining. Date rape, alcohol and drug addiction, domestic abuse, general sluttiness–no affliction was too great for Lifetime to cover in their unambiguous, slow-mo-heavy, and greatly censored trademark style. They were pop culture oases in a class otherwise filled with awkward generational gaps and illness-wellness continuum-type exercises.

So imagine my joy after scrolling through TV with some friends today and coming across what appears to be just the beginning of Lifetime’s “Fallen Angels” week. What exactly is meant by “Fallen Angels” is not made clear, especially since the screen advertising the special oddly features what appears to be a bunch of fashionista mechanics swarming an empty airplane in a hangar (I know, right??) But in general, it appears to be a week of basically nothing but High School Health movies–female-focused ones, I suppose, which means we might not get a shot at the largely masculine classic Internet Porn cautionary tale Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life, but on Lifetime, you know it’s gonna be chicks 90% of the time anyways, so any further description of it as such is fairly redundant.

And man, has it been a treat thusfar. Today I saw Death of a Cheerleader (alternate title: A Friend to Die For), featuring Kellie Martin as a loser whose attempt to friend-seduce an evil but popular cheerleader (Tori Spelling, naturally) backfires somewhat when she ends up stabbing Tori to death, and No One Would Tell, featuring Candace Cameron as a high school darling who falls for the wrong guy, a paranoid workout and wrestling enthusiast that beats her, chokes her, and eventually kills her (Fred Savage, naturally). There’s no surprises to be had here–the title + thirty seconds of viewing and you’ve already figured out the plot of the entire movie–but there’s not too much more enticing on a wasted day of TV watching than a couple of these bad boys back-to-back.

The main reason for this, of course, is not the ridiculous plot contrivances–like how the reason the Cheerleader Killer has a knife on her to gut Tori is because her sister loves eating cucumbers in the car. It’s not the imminently quotable, horrifically overwrought dialogue exchanges–like when a goth girl in Tori’s class, embarrassed about a humiliating poem written Miss Spelling had read aloud about her, exclaims “I COULD KILL YOU, STACY LOCKWOOD!!!” It’s not even the jaw-dropping, “Were the 90s really that long ago (and/or was I really that out of touch with fashion in High School)?” wardrobe selections–Candace Cameron’s supply of truly scandalous turtlenecks, or the overwhelming general trend of female-worn overalls.

The best thing about these movies is how they serve as nexus points–either on the way up or on the way down–for just about anyone who was ever anyone in the TV universe. Besides Life Goes On‘s Martin and Beverly Hills 90210‘s Spelling, Death of a Cheerleader featured roles big and small, pre- and post- 15 minutes, for James Avery (Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince), Terry O’Quinn (John Locke on LOST), Valerie Harper (the titular Rhoda), Christa Miller (Jordan on Scrubs), and even a turn from film That Girl Marley Shelton (Planet Terror, Pleasantville, Valentine, The Trojan War, and most notably, Wendy Pfefercorn in The Sandlot). Meanwhile, No One Would Tell finds room for not just Full House‘s Cameron and Wonder Years‘s Savage, but Eric Balfour (Milo on 24), Justina Macahdo (Vanessa, Rico’s wife on Six Feet Under), Michelle Phillips (One-time pop star and many-time primetime soap mainstay), and even a closing monologue from 90s daytime phenom Sally Jesse Raphael. Watching these movies with fellow pop culture nuts ends up being like playing a particularly tearjerking Where’s Waldo? book, seeing who can spot the inevitable once-and-future-A listers amidst the seas of C’s, D’s and F’s.

I’ll be tuning in intermittently throughout the week, assuming I can get around to forgiving myself for missing Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandals premiere. Maybe I can even catch a half-hour of She’s Too Young before the week’s out if I’m lucky.

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Hitting the TV Jackpot: VH1’s 40 Most Softsational Soft Rock Songs

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 25, 2007

“Ted, if I ever catch you producing anything but smooth music, I’ll quit singing forever”

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. I’m just thankful that VH1 finally shed the lame “Awesomely Bad” tag for this countdown, meaning that instead of ten irritating talking heads clammering about how hilariously ridiculous! it is to use the phrase “Wang Chung” as a verb, the commentators on VH1’s 40 Most Softsastional Soft Rock Songs actually displays a great deal of reverence for its subject–guarded and slightly sarcastic reverence, but reverence nonetheless. And given the recent critical validation of the genre, thanks in no small part to the hilarious Yacht Rock shorts produced by Channel 101 a few years back (whose creator, J.D. Ryznar, and fictionalized host, Hollywood Steve, both appear as commentators on the VH1 show), clearly the stars were in allignment for the genre’s classics to receive some much-deserved canonziation.

That said, it’s still a sorty of tricky subject to handle, since a lot of the songs on this list really aren’t that good. In fact, the top three–Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Styx’s “Babe” and Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”–are all songs that would have me reaching for the dial if they came on the radio. But I can’t really find fault with their placement on this list, since even if there is no technical dictionary definition for the term “Softsational Soft Rock,” it’s hard to imagine any way of explaining the word that didn’t use those three songs–even if there’s absolutely no question in my mind that The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” (#8) and Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” (#5) are infinitely superior pieces of music. Like I said, it’s tricky.

To their credit, VH1 do a pretty good job of keeping the terms consistent–even if their definition of soft rock is a little broader than I probably would’ve stretched it (once you’re into Olivia Newton-John and Roberta Flack territory, I think you can pretty much forget about the Rock part and just call it Soft Music). Every song on the list is the kind that reflexively relaxes you into such a state that you don’t even realize it when you start singing along. Even some of the songs I normally wouldn’t have the time of day for had me smiling when put in a context like this.

My one main issue with the list, outside of some petty selection grievances (“A Horse With No Name” instead of “Sister Golden Hair,” “Mandy” instead of “Weekend in New England,” and a whole list of exclusions that I’ll get to later) is that it doesn’t quite have the balls to match the Softsational sounds of today against the classics of yesteryear. The most recent song on the list is Extreme’s “More Than Words,” from 1991, but what about future Soft Rock standards like Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” or Evan and Jaron’s “Crazy for This Girl”? The legacy of smooth lives on, and I feel like it would’ve been some hot shit to have seen Dido and John Mayer rubbing elbows with Anne Murray and Cat Stevens on the list.

Of course, 40 already isn’t nearly enough songs to really give any genre its proper due, and Soft Rock is no exception–here’s another 40 songs, using the same standards and timeframe as VH1, I was miffed that they left out (bold = particularly egregious exclusion):

  1. Bryan Adams – “Heaven”
  2. Ambrosia – “How Much I Feel”
  3. The Bee Gees – “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”
  4. Lindsey Buckingham – “Trouble”
  5. Eric Carmen – “All By Myself” (only about 200000000000 times better than every Barry Manilow song)
  6. Cheap Trick – “The Flame”
  7. Climax Blues Band – “Couldn’t Get it Right”
  8. Paul Davis – “I Go Crazy”
  9. Double – “The Captain of Her Heart”
  10. The Eagles – “I Can’t Tell You Why”
  11. Walter Egan – “Magnet and Steel”
  12. England Dan & John Ford Coley – “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”
  13. The Fifth Dimension – “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All”
  14. Foreigner – “Waiting for a Girl Like You” (or c’mon, at least “I Want to Know What Love Is”)
  15. Bruce Hornsby – “The Way It Is”
  16. Michael Jackson – “Human Nature”
  17. Bob James – “Angela”
  18. Jefferson Starship – “Miracles”
  19. KC & the Sunshine Band – “Please Don’t Go”
  20. Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”
  21. Little River Band – “Reminiscing”
  22. Maria Muldaur – “Midnight At the Oasis”
  23. Frank Mills – “Music Box Dancer”
  24. Mr. Big – “To Be With You” (having “More Than Words” and not this just feels wrong)
  25. Nilsson – “Without You”
  26. Alan Parsons Project – “Time”
  27. Player – “Baby Come Back”
  28. Gerry Rafferty – “Right Down the Line” (“Baker Street” rocks a little too hard)
  29. Roxette – “It Must’ve Been Love”
  30. Todd Rundgren – “Hello It’s Me”
  31. Joey Scarbury – “Theme from ‘Greatest American Hero'”
  32. Smokey Robinson – “Being With You”
  33. Spandau Ballet – “True”
  34. Starbuck – “Moonlight Feels Right”
  35. Steely Dan – “Hey Nineteen” (too credible? Bullshit)
  36. Al Stewart – “Time Passages”
  37. Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
  38. Wham! – “Careless Whisper”
  39. Wilson Philips – “Hold On”
  40. Gary Wright – “Really Want to Know You” (or “Dream Weaver” if we’re going populist)

Now with soft rock and metal taken care of, I’m just hoping VH1’ll start doing some top 40s for genres in between. Altastic Alt-Rock, anyone?

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Hitting the TV Jackpot: Sopranos Season Three Marathon on A&E

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 28, 2007

You’re one in a million, you got to burn to shine

My brother and his girlfriend used to mock me for watching The Sopranos on A&E when I was living with them, since they owned all the seasons on DVD, obviously without commercials and without censoring (both of which A&E’s re-runs have in spades). But as any real TV fan knows, there’s a world of difference in watching something on DVD whenever you please and watching something as it airs on TV. When you actually choose to watch something that you could conceivably watch at any point in your life, there’s litlte excitement to it, but if you just happen to catch it on TV, the excitement of watching it without having had to select it yourself is infintiely more rewarding. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, trust me, you’re probably better off.

Anyway, for me, extended Holiday weekends are all about marathoning, and as I was finishing up the 2044 Essentials countdown on XM’s 80s alternative channel Fred (The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” narrowly beat out “London Calling” and “How Soon is Now?” for top honors, btx) I noticed that A&E was doing a run through the episodes of the third season of The Sopranos. They’ve been airing them twice a week for the last few months, and I’ve caught ’em when I could, but it’s still pretty nice to be able to watch a whole bunch of them in a row like this.

The Sopranos third season is sort of an interesting one. Unlike most of the show’s other seasons (with the all-too-large exception of the first half of season six), there’s really not that much that actually happens. The only through thread of importance that comes to a head in the season is the cautionary tale of Jackie Aprile, Jr., ne’er-do-well son of former Soprano boss Jackie and nephew to the recently deceased (by Janice’s hand, in what remains the series’ most stunning monet) Richie. His downward slide isn’t terribly gripping, though, and it’s not surprising at all–aside from season two’s idiotic duo of out-of-their-leaguers Sean and Matt, no character’s death was as obvious from the first moment he got ideas in his head than Jackie Jr.’s.
So without a really strong arc to anchor the season, what you get instead is a lot of wheel-spinning, character development and “what if?” scenarios. So Meadow experiences her first love and deals with a psycho roommate, A.J. attempts high school football, Christopher gets his button, Uncle Junior Tony deals with his mother’s death and gets a new goomah, and Dr. Melfi gets raped and toys with the morality of calling in Tony for revenge. It’s filled with episodes that don’t make as much of an impression as other seasons, but that makes them arguably more intresting to re-watch–I forgot that episode with Burt Young as Bobby’s cancer-ridden father going on one last hit even existed, for instance.

And that’s not to say that there aren’t any classic episodes in the season, either. “University,” which mainly focuses on the fruition and eventual dissipation of Meadow’s relationship with first boyfriend Noah and the story of Bing stripper Tracee, who ingratiates herself to Tony right before Ralphie (whose baby she’s pregnant with) beats her to death, is easily one of my favorites in the entire series. The scene where Ralphie kills her, after faking a seemingly sincere promise to take care of her and her baby, is still extremely harrowing, and the uncomfortability of the situation with Meadow and her roommate, whose freakouts drive a wedge between Meadow and Noah, will strike a chord with anyone who had a, um, difficult Freshman roommate situation (mine wasn’t quite so bad, but at least twice I heard him not-so-quietly sobbing about his ex while listening to Evanescene on his headphones).

Only problem with the marathon? Incessant, largely unfunny commercials for Ocean’s Thirteen. I’m strongly considering refusing to see the movie in theaters in protest, and I was even one of the handful of people on this planet to actually prefer Twelve to Eleven.

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Hitting the TV Jackpot: The (White) Rapper Show

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 5, 2007

Channel surfing can be a gamble. Every once in a while, though, you hit three bars.

All right, I was skeptical–and there are still plenty of things I don’t like about it–but I can’t really deny the addictive pull of VH1’s latest CelebReality gambit, Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show. I caught a four-hour marathon of the first quartet of episodes last night after the Super Bowl (and Criminal Minds, which I actually watched to the end for some reason), and man, even though there were at least a dozen things I probably should have been doing instead (and tried to do simultaneously), when The White Rapper Show was on, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

So in case you don’t know the set-up, it’s basically 8 Mile meets American Idol, as produced by the channel that brought you The Surreal Life. So you’ve got ten white rappers from all over the country (including one UKer), who live together under one roof for an extended period of time (called Tha White House, lol), and through a series of competitions, one of them gets eliminated every week. They’re all competing to be the last one standing, for which they’ll win $100,000 and probably get a record deal or something.

This thing couldn’t be cast better if they’d tried (and I’m sure they did try, very hard, so good for VH1 I guess). You’ve got the cocky, annoying, already self-mythologizing leader guy (John Brown), the crazy fat party dude (100 Proof), the grilled-out southern Paul Wall-lookalike ($hamrock), and the overly politically conscious, white guilt-ridden backpacker (Jus Rhyme). Then, of course, there are the females, represented by the brazen, super-emotional fight-picker (Persia), the tiny, all-heart but none too bright white trash girl (G-Child) and the “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” ringer UK rapper (Misfit).

Constantly provided with alcohol to get the drama to a fever pitch (John Brown and Persia beef for no real reason, G-Child gets pissed off and wails on some stuffed animal, 100 Proof pisses in the sink), VH-1 clearly prioritize the show’s comedy aspects as heavily as its musical attraction. And comedy there is, in spades. Highlights thusfar:

  • Jus Rhyme’s need to constantly point out his status as Man on a Mission (“I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he says of one setback, “like ending white supremacy”), much to the annoyance of his fellow cast members
  • Persia randomly bursting into tears on the way back from a mini-golf game, after having to wear a chain bearing the phrase “The N-Word,” as punishment for her using the word in the previous evening’s festivities
  • Affirmative Reaction, now officially the second best black-stereotype-related game show in Cable history
  • John Brown’s poor ability to stand up to scrutiny for his “Ghetto Revival” company:

“So what is it your company do?”

“We revivin’, man, we revivin’.”

“Yeah, but what is it you revivin’?”

“…The ghetto?”

And of course, leading this group of ragtags and misfits is veteran white rapper MC Serch, formerly of rap group 3rd Bass (of “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “The Gas Face” fame). Never been much of a 3rd Bass fan myself (at least not on the basis of those two songs), but gotta say, Serch definitely holds it down as the host of the show. Luckily removed from all the in-house drama, Serch is sort of the Donald Trump of The White Rapper Show–smart, cold and authoritative, and even with his own two-word dismissal catch phrase (“Step Off!,” which is pretty good, though Dan Cortese should already have copyright on that phrase from his Mimbo role on Seinfeld). The guy makes sure that the show manages to maintain some semblance of hip-hop integrity amidst all the drama and ridiculousness. And cameos from a score of hip-hop legends–oldies like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz and Grandmaster Flash, as well as slightly newer ballers like Just Blaze and, uh, Everlast.

So far, two of the guys (emo-looking Eminem acolyte Dasit, who refused to write 16 bars on a subject without music, and prince clown 100 Proof, who fucked up what should have been an easy win) and two of the girls (Misfit, who more than lived up to her name and G-Child, who couldn’t quite pull it together in the clutch) have been dismissed, leaving John Brown, Persia, $hamrock, Jus Style, John Boy (the cast’s most innocuous member, who has seemingly evaded elimination every week by avoiding being on the losing team) and Sullee (talented but constantly on the verge of losing member who I’d still pick to go the distance). I dunno if it’ll have the same charm when not viewed in marathon format (The Surreal Life got me hooked on a Season 2 marathon, but Season 3 did not live up to the once-a-week challenge), but I’ll definitely be giving it a shot.

Oh, and expect me to be ending a lot of posts with “hallelujah, holla back” from now on.

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