Sunday, March 02, 2008

TV: Recyling the tired and the damaging

It was a week of surprises, most of them bad. It started with our attending the Academy Awards Sunday evening and being required to grab our cell phones and text everyone we knew that host Jon Stewart was ripping off a sitcom in his opening monologue.

Jon Stewart: I don't know if you know this but if you want to find out our your stripper name at home all you have to do is take your pet's name and the street you grew up on. So that makes my stripper name Olympia Dukakis. Hope I’m not stealing that from anyone.

Oh, but you were Jon, oh, but you were.

October 1998, season one of Will & Grace. On Halloween, Karen and Jack go out and dressed as Body & Soul (David Soul). They encounter some drag queens.

Karen: Oh. Oh, that's cute. Is that a drag name? Oh, I want a drag name. Give me a drag name!

Draq Queen: Ok, sugar, here's how you do it. Take the name of your first pet and the first street you lived on.

Karen: Shu-Shu Fontana! Oh, it's cute. Honey, I -- Honey, come here. What would your name be.

Jack: Glen 125th.

The writers strike was over, right? So why was Jon Stewart reduced to raiding a 1998 episode of a sitcom for material? It was all so very sad. Just like seeing every major award go outside the country. We thought we were at that Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, but somehow we'd been transported to the Cannes International Film Festival. Apparently, in 2007, the United States produced no Best Actor, no Best Actress, no Best Supporting Actor and no Best Supporting Actress. Maybe the studios should all shut down?

A friend who should have had an acting nom, but didn't get one and so skipped attending, told us the next day he'd gone grocery shopping instead, in East LA, during the middle of the broadcast and thought he could run in and run out without being recognized. He'd assumed, wrongly, that everyone was watching. He said he ended up signing autographs for a half-hour. That didn't surprise us. Tired monologues and all the awards going overseas doesn't build interest in a broadcast.

Tired monologues?

Oh, yeah, he still dominated the news. Mr. Pretty Speeches. In Tuesday's debate, Mr. Pretty Speeches flat out lied and despite 'journalists' supposedly covering it, no one caught it. Barack Obama was not in the midst of a US Senate campaign when he gave his 2002 speech. He lied. It sounded better to say it and Pretty Words is all he has to offer so he went with it. Where was the press?

Sound asleep on PBS. Friday's NOW on PBS offered up Joe Trippi to critique the campaigns of Barack and Hillary Clinton. We found that about as useful as if they'd grab a non-semi finalist from the Miss America contest as she was eliminated and asked her to critique the finalists. About as useful and about as fair. Even less fair was a "web promotion" of a January report the program did. "Obama Smear?" They asked on their home page noting that "Barack Obama is once againt he target of a smear campaign circulating on the Internet. This week, a photo of Obama dressed in the traditional attire of northeastern Kenya while travelin there surfaced on the gossip and news website The Drudge Report. The alleged source of the photo is the Clinton campaign, though campaign officials vehemently deny providing the photo to Drudge. In January, NOW reported on earlier efforts to smear Obama and other candidates in the 2008 race for president."

We think it's really sad that PBS has sunk so low as to cite Drudge as a 'news source.' We think it's pathetic that a photo is being referred to as a "smear." Once upon a time, in a smarter America, the only way a photo was a smear was if it was 'doctored' or taken without the subject's knowledge. Barack knew the photographer was there, Barack consented to the photo being taken. Now that it's out in public, suddenly it's a "smear." Used to a smear had to be a lie. Saying John F. Kennedy was Catholic wasn't seen as a smear. These days, noting that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein leads the touchy-feely set to cry "FOUL!" A question for them: Who smeared? Was it someone noting his middle names or his parents for chosing to name him after his father? (He's a Junior.)

Don't expect to get any answers on that from PBS. Friday also saw Dr. Kathy return to Bill Moyers Journal and we again got interpretation. We honestly think this segment should be entitled: For Those Who Have Seen It But Are Unsure. Anyone paying attention was fully aware that Mr. Pretty Speeches dominated the segment, that John McCain and Hillary Clinton combined didn't equal the number of commercials of Obama's that were aired. Free advertising. And no critique. Thanks Dr. Kathy and Bill. What they couldn't show -- Obama's radio spots and, yes, "spots" because it was plural -- they yammered on about. Hopefully the Moyers program was reimbursed for the ad time they provided.

The week ended with Hillary Clinton making an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Apparently the last place where truth can be told. The show lampooned the soft questions and fawning Tim Russert and Brian Williams took part in as 'moderators' of last Tuesday's debate and Hillary walked on stage to joke about Amy Poehler's impersonation (with Poehler) and to open the show with the "Live from New York . . ." cry. Another moment of humorous truth involved a cartoon where Barack attempted to keep supporters Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton under wraps (Jackson himself has publicly noted this response). Remember that this is the second of four consecutive live and all new Saturday Night Lives in a row.

As the week ended, they provided the high points via sketch comedy and animation. Animation?

Kids WB. We're back to the lows. Teen Titans, in fact. We had no idea that the program was old. It's cancelled in fact. It ran primarily on the Cartoon Network and recently Kids WB decided to add it to the lineup. Watching this weekend's broadcast we had to wonder why?

We had wanted to review it for two reasons, at various times, we actually enjoyed the comic books and also because, in January, Geena Davis presented findings [click here for Sara Voorhees' "WMC Exclusive: Geena Davis Forum—Searching the Cels for Girl Mice and Ninjas" (Womens Media Center)] from Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Children in the Media:

Gender imbalance reigns across the media.
System wide, when females are presented they are shown in a hypersexualized way.
The highest concentration of this imbalance is in animated films and G-rated programming, where parents might assume their children are safest.

Those are serious issues and ones we've addressed before. The response to our February 2007 feature was a lot of parents e-mailing to say they hadn't noticed -- either because they weren't monitoring the TV when their children watched Saturday morning cartoons or because they didn't bother to register it when they watched with their children. A number of parents wrote in to say that they were outraged and had been for some time but didn't know what to do about. All agreed that it was ridiculous this late in the game that this was still a problem and all wondered what message was being sent to the children? For those who felt at a loss of how to effect change, we'd recommend you (a) continue addressing this problem in conversations with friends to raise awareness (as well as with children) and (b) visit Davis' institute.

Teen Titans is the big "add" to Kids WB (or, as we like to think of it, Boys WB) and there was no reason to add it. The series ceased production sometime ago. All the episodes had aired on cable but now they'll apparently all be unveiled week after week on broadcast TV. And it's not needed.

For those who remember Wonder Girl as a Teen Titan, forget it. The show focuses on a very late version of the comic book and, in addition, takes the Titans from late teenhood and early adulthood to the cusp of puberty. Which is why we wondered mainly about the panties?

Raven and Starfire, the two female leads, do not wear "panties." Their costumes have briefs. To emphasize their legs. Try to find briefs on the male leads and you're searching in vain even though Robin came to fame for many decades as Batman's brief clad sidekick. So why, especially when the characters are supposed to be so young (and aimed at seven-years-old and under) the need to sexualize the young girls by exposing their legs? That was especially a problem with the character of Raven and we'll get to that.

But let's offer up the basics. Teen Titans is a super hero team. They live in a big T shaped building with each other. The three male leads are Robin, Cyborg and Beast Boy. Those who know the comic book version where Starfire shows up are aware she's a mentor/leader. Not in the animated series. In the series, Robin is the leader. Robin is always the leader. And you really need to wonder why that is?

Second banana to Batman offered him some super power we missed? Or is it due to the fact that he's White? Cyborg is African-American, Raven is part human -- apparently White -- and part demon, Starfire could be termed White (she's 'voiced' blond) and from another planet Beast Boy is White and has his power due to being injected with monkey serum. So the 'pure' White born in the US is the natural leader? In terms of super powers, he's got the least of any of the five. Maybe we're missing something but that's how it played to us: Robin is White and male and therefore in charge.

Robin's also a bit of a smug prick in the series and that's when we started noticing that all the series really did was grab the five characters from The Breakfast Club and put them in costumes. Robin is Judd Nelson's character, Starfire is the pretty and chipper character played by Molly Ringwald, Beast Boy is the joking and self-esteem challenged Anthony Michael Hall character, Cyborg is the jock Emilio Estevez character and Raven's the dark Ally Sheedy character.

Which brings us back to her costume. When Raven's 'active,' you see her briefs. The rest of the time, like the Ally Sheedy character, she's basically covered. She wears what could be termed a shroud or cape with cowl. In Saturday's episode, she will be very upset that her privacy was invaded and cry of the villians, "They went into my room! No one should ever go into my room!" Yet, when she's 'active,' this same character's shroud parts to reveal her long legs and brief clad body. Apparently none of the males responsible for this series (Sam Register and Glen Murakami) saw it as problem.

They also didn't see it as a problem that the female characters do nothing active in the foreground but are mainly glorified extras shown from time to time during battle scenes.

Starfire will declare at one point that, "We must mend by the sharing of unhealthy junk food. I shall fetch them." That is probably the most action the character took part in the entire episode. Some who saw it may want to argue. In a battle with a trio of villians, Cyborg's sent hurtling into the air with a rocket strapped to his back and Starfire rushes after to rescue him. We've seen that before on Legion of Super Heroes -- also airing on WB -- where it's usually Lightening Lad or Superboy rushing off to the rescue. The big difference there is that the rescue is shown.

If what Starfire was doing was so damn important, maybe viewers should have seen it? Instead, they show up after the battle and Cyborg states, "I was half-way to Gotham City before Starfire zapped that thing off my back." Again, when the males do the rescuing, it is shown. Sending Starfire off to do the rescuing appeared to be about nothing other than getting her out of the battle scene.

During that battle, Robin will disappear into a hole in the ground. What's the message of that moment supposed to be as Starfire turns on the only other female, Raven, yelling, "He's got to be somewhere! So go there and look!" Really, what was the point in having one female turn on another. And what was the point of having Beast Boy smooth things over? Beast Boy was present when Robin disappeared so why isn't Starfire yelling at him as well?

There's a message that's being sent repeatedly and it's not a minor thing.

It's not a minor thing that, week after week, primetime's Family Guy on Fox makes a joke out of Meg who, if you believe all the characters on the show (including her own mother) is the most butt-ugly thing to ever grace the planet. (In one episode she will get a makeover and become a pop star. In all the rest she is ugly and fat despite the fact that no viewer should see her as either.) She will be asked if she plans to lick up puke, she will be laughed at by her father and mother. It will happen over and over and the point is never, "These people are damn rude to Meg." The point is ha-ha. Stewie, Brian the talking dog and her overweight brother Chris will all engage in Meg bashing in episode after episode. One ha-ha will include a boy in need of an excuse not to go out with her rushing off to shoot his own kid brother and coming back to explain that he can't make it because he has to attend a funeral.

Chris is grossly overweight and that's a hinderance in only one episode (apparently he gets one where he's uncomfortable for Meg's one where everyone finds her desirable). He doesn't want to take his shirt off at the swimming pool. That's the only time his obesity is ever seen as a problem. When he's beginning a relationship with his teacher (voiced by Drew Barrymore), it's not a problem. His father's (male) friends don't refer to him as a dog or make jokes about his looks the way they do Meg. You have to wonder where the idea that this was a message to send out came from? But you can certainly see it play out in what passes for coverage of the presidential campaigns, can't you?

When we were on this topic last year one (thankfully only one) e-mail came in complaining that, basically, "These are cartoons! It doesn't matter!" Cartoons -- even when allegedly aimed at adults -- are children's viewing and that's who they attract in large numbers. What message are young children being indoctrinated with -- boys and girls -- when they see this sort of thing over and over? We'd also wonder what effects it has on the supposed adults but, again, we think we've more seen the effect in the current actions of our modern day press.

Cartoons, where characters are not bound by gravity or any other mortal constraints, seem to be very happy transmitting stereotypes. The Simpons took live action stereotypes fromt he fifties TV shows and has been on so long (too long) that it's now the pattern for all the animated primetime cartoons except King of the Hill. In terms of daytime and primetime, count up the number of (male) talking dogs and then count up the number of active females -- humans -- and tell us that there isn't a problem.

Now it's too late for 'improvements' for Teen Titans -- the show ceased production in 2006. But it turns out that it's also too late for Kids WB. Fall 2008, it will be no more.

Variety reported last fall that CBS and Warner Bros (owners of the CW) had decided to drop the lineup and will instead farm the time out to animated product to 4Kids Entertainment:

Kids' WB! repped the last inhouse Saturday morning network block to air original kids' fare. Once a staple of the broadcast nets alongside daytime and latenight, the webs mostly eliminated the timeslot by the turn of the decade. ABC now runs repeats from the Disney Channel, while NBC, CBS and Fox have already farmed out the timeslot to outside licensees.

Our thoughts immediately went to Johnny Test, the only show on the lineup we enjoyed (we loved it) in 2007 or this year. It's competing, in Canada where it is produced, for a Shaw Rocket Prize as "best Canadian television programming for kids under thirteen" and is one of three nominees and the only one that's animated.

We thought our reaction perfectly captured the sorry state of animated, broadcast television today. Hours of programming are about to disappear and the thought of that didn't bother us in the least. Our only thought was, "Not Johnny!" There's a reason for that. The show is funny, it offers action and plots. The characters are engaging (and well drawn and voiced) and the females don't wait to be rescued. (Johnny's sisters are scientists.)

It's a sign of how awful animated programming on Saturdays has become (what little there is) that only one show would produce a panic. 4Kids Entertainment is currently responsible for what airs on Fox Saturday mornings so you can check out those cheap looking shows to get an idea of what the CW will be offering this fall. Kids WB premieres The Spiderman next Saturday in a hour long special and, parents, if you watch with your kids, they'll probably stand a better chance of being among the 500 who will win the free toys offered. It's a contest that requires you to identify things from the broadcast -- we believe it's the villains but aren't sure. When we called an aquaintence working for Kids WB he told us "I don't work there anymore. They laid all of us off. There are probably six people working for" Kids WB "right now and that's it."

We asked his opinion of the change and he said it makes any kind of pressure that much harder because parents would have to pressure the CW which would then have to pressure 4Kids Entertainment. "It's basically starting from zero," he explained, "if pressure doesn't come quick." CW will be leasing the time to 4Kids Entertainment and sharing the ad revenue. If this were a typical animated cartoon, right about now all the females would vanish. If we do that, you can kiss good-bye any chance of the fall 2008 - spring 2009 cartoon programming on CW. Window of time, that's all we're saying. And that the fallout from the damage will continue for years. If you doubt it look at the attacks on women today.
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