When character actor Stephen Tobolowsky was a guest on the /Filmcast, a podcast which (as some long-time readers might remember) I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in myself, I remember being shocked at his level of preparedness: for his first show he watched several movies as research just to be able to offer as much to the conversation as possible, and he was both candid and conversational in regards to the subject at hand. I will admit to not knowing much of Tobolowsky’s work heading into that appearance, but his enthusiasm for that simple podcast gave me a great deal of respect for the man himself.
On its own, that would be enough to recommend his own podcasting project, The Tobolowsky Files, which is entering its second season this week. The podcast, produced by /Filmcast host and friend of the blog David Chen, is a series of stories about “life, love, and the entertainment industry;” it’s a new outlet for his enthusiasm, as he takes hours out of his week to write and record these stories for us to enjoy. The stories are reflections of his personality, hilarious but also able to delve into more emotional territory, and there is a genuine honesty about the podcast which completely erodes any sense that he is simply reading a script. These podcasts are not so much performances as they are expressions of emotions, and the result is a really great way to spend roughly a half-hour of your time each week.
However, I had expected to be entertained: I knew Stephen was a gifted storyteller (he produced a movie, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which is built around this ability), so of course he can spin a good yarn. What shocked me, however, was that this podcast has become an extended serialized narrative, turning his past into an ongoing story which has me more involved than I could have imagined. I figured I would enjoy episodes talking about his time in the entertainment industry or his experience on Deadwood or Glee, but I did not expect that I would get sucked into his past, terrified of being spoiled about how certain stories about life and love end.
And that’s something I never expected from a podcast: a true triumph of storytelling from a master of the art form, and something that lovers of narrative storytelling should certainly be listening to.
April 15th, 2010
If you caught last week’s episode of Survivor, you could have written the basic plot of this week’s episode: the preview for “Survivor History” very clearly laid out the narrative stakes, right down to the seemingly ludicrous plan that was laid out by J.T. following the reward challenge. It played us a series of clips of past decisions, focusing on the history of stupidity in the game of Survivor. Of course, it was a selective history: while they focus on Ian sacrificing himself for Katie in Palau, James getting voted out with two immunity Idols, Jason believing his obviously fake Idol to be real in Micronesia, and Erik giving his immunity to Natalie in the same season, they don’t include decisions like Colby taking Tina to the end of Australian Outback.
This is because while they want us to believe that Survivor has had some stupid moves in its past, which is a factual statement, they don’t want us to realize that Survivors do stupid things every week, and sometimes the effects are subtle, and sometimes the stupidity is not entirely clear. While they want to lump in this week’s “stupid” move in with those other mind-numbingly idiotic plays, I would very argue that what they term “Survivor History” is the result of ignorance more than stupidity, and that difference makes it a strategic misstep more than a scenario of self-destruction or anything similar.
And, frankly, I’d argue that there’s a larger and less logical mistake later in the episode, demonstrating that while the basic thesis statement of “Survivor players can be stupid” may be spot on, their use of examples could use some work.
April 8th, 2010
After the recent exit of Boston Rob Mariano, I was convinced that Survivor’s twentieth season was headed off the rails. Rob was basically single-handedly keeping the fairly over-matched Villains tribe in this game, and his exit signaled that Russell Hantz, a good Survivor player who is unfortunately convinced that he is the greatest of all time, now had control of that side of the game. And while I respected Rob, and enjoyed seeing him try to bring together a rag tag group, I don’t really want to see Russell’s ego run roughshod over the game from this point forward.
So when everyone on the Villains tribe is desperate for a merge at the start of this week’s episode, I’m right there with them: it’s not that I want them to be protected from the inevitably challenge defeats in their future due (partially) to Rob’s absence, but rather that I want the game to shift into a new form of gameplay that regains a sense of unpredictability and shuffles around alliances and the like. And so when that merge doesn’t happen, and the teams are back to competing against one another, I felt like this episode was going to be a complete chore.
Instead, it turns out that even though the merge proved to be wishful thinking, the merge nonetheless remained so on the mind of every single player that decisions, conversations, and strategies were all designed with it in mind. So while the merge will have to wait until next week, it already shook things up enough to keep me interested in this game even with Rob sitting on the sidelines.
March 24th, 2010
Survivor has done episodes like this one before: by sending both teams to tribal council, it means that a single hour becomes packed with wall-to-wall strategy, which is usually when the game is at its best. And, accordingly, “Banana Etiquette” delivers shockers from both the Heroes and the Villains, cramming together one of the most ridiculous tribal councils in Survivor history with one of the most low-key of the season.
The difference, though, is that the presence of two tribal councils means that the editing of the episode played a largely role than usual in terms of guiding the audience to particular conclusions. While the “Villains” drama was just a wondrous stage comedy from the word go, and would have been entertaining regardless, the final “shocker” with the “Heroes” was entirely based on keeping the audience out of the loop in regards to their thinking. It was only surprising in that we had been given absolutely no intention of where things were going.
By comparisons, not even the “Villains” knew how their tribal council was going to end, and that’s the kind of drama that Survivor can’t manufacture.
The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films comes together every year to recognize the best in genre entertainment (in both film and television) at the Saturn Awards. This is, at least in my view, a noble endeavour, and the awards have offered a space where shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like The Dark Knight have been awarded deserved prizes that may not have been awarded at the Emmys or Oscars thanks to what is considered a bias against genre entertainment in general.
The problem is that, over time, the Saturn Awards have stretched the meaning of genre so far that it legitimately has no meaning, welcoming both genuine confusion and some outright derision based on some of their categories. The sheer volume of nominees and the rather ridiculous range of categories means that this year the Saturn Awards skew dangerously close to the Oscar while simultaneously veering dangerously towards an opposite and unflattering direction, while on the Television side their definition of what defines as genre may be the most confounding awards show process I’ve ever confronted, as demonstrated by this year’s nominees.
Rather than seeming like a legitimate celebration of science fiction, fantasy or horror, the Saturn Awards read like an unflattering and at points embarrassing collection of films and television series which reflect not the best that genre has to offer, but rather a desperate attempt to tap into the cultural zeitgeist while masquerading as a celebration of the underappreciated.
“It’s Getting the Best of Me”
February 18th, 2010
I don’t know if Mark Burnett and his fellow producers are really excited about the direction that Survivor’s twentieth season is heading in, or if they’re actively concerned about it. What’s interesting about the Heroes vs. Villains premise is that, in Survivor, the tribes are only rarely within the same space, so the rivalry the title implies doesn’t really materialize in most of a single episode. Sure, over time the rivalry between the two sides will grow, but in the short term the show shifts away from that narrative to the systematic deconstruction of both tribes.
On that front, I think the show should be glad that early on the titles of hero and villain are slowly shifting away from their typical classifications, as it means that more of each episode will be particularly engaging. However, the clash of various ego has gone so far this time that I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to fully reclaim that broader feud, the internal divisions growing too larger for one side to group together and pretend that they are any sort of team under any sort of pre-determined classification.
And I don’t know if Mark Burnett wanted that part of this game to go off the rails quite so quickly.
“Slay Everyone, Trust No One”
February 11th, 2010
Every season of Survivor is effectively the same as the one before: the players might change, but more often than not they bring nothing new to the game that hasn’t been seen in some form before. For every “twist” the producers have tried to throw into the game, it all ends up being the same in the end, which isn’t really a problem since the game is at its most compelling when it finds itself in familiar territory. Because we know what’s happened before, and because we have no idea whether the players involved know what’s happened before, we get to watch them walk in the shoes of the players who came before, either triumphing where they failed or tripping up where others succeeded.
What’s interesting about “Heroes vs. Villains,” the twentieth season of the show, is that it simultaneously reduces the game to a simple battle between good and evil while creating a game structure that is without question the most complex the show has ever seen, layered with subtexts (previous alliances, previous rivalries, personal experiences, etc.) that stretch back far into our memory of the show’s early seasons in a more overt way than ever before. By bringing the tribal competition to the surface, along with the binary that often emerges between those the audience loves to hate and those the audience wants to see go to the end, the show is creating the ultimate mind game: they are forcing characters with more emotional and gameplay baggage than ever before into a game which threatens to rigidly define them, ignoring the various subtexts in such a way that they can’t help but surface the first time anyone dares mention the word alliance or whispers about how successful some players have been in the past.
The result is Survivor at its most confident, pushing all the right buttons and getting some all-time great moments, some substantial comedy mixed with some engaging drama, and enough introspection to quite literally sink any other reality show that wasn’t build for just that sort of psychological inquisition.