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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Syfy Imagines MUCH Greater

Over the past decade, network television has pulled from two main sources to round out their fall season schedule.  Reality TV has become a hit with a large percentage of the audience and every year each network gives us more and more of this low budget, easy to produce programming concept.  The second avenue TV execs commonly look to utilize is the recycling of popular shows like Law & Order, CSI and NCIS, by way of the spinoff.  Even the spinoffs have spinoffs as in the case of NCIS which spawned NCIS: Los Angeles and was itself a spinoff of JAG.   All fun shows but not new ideas.

One of my favorite times of the year for television programming is the off-season for the big networks; usually in the summer.  One channel that captures a good portion of my attention during this period is Syfy.  It’s because Syfy delivers innovative, original programming on such a consistent basis.  With a strong stable of core shows like Eureka, Warehouse 13, Ghost Hunters and Battlestar Galactica, Syfy has created quite a buzz around the television industry.  Adding to that nucleus are the recently produced and acquired shows Caprica, Haven, WWE NXT and WWE SmackDown, all of which made or will make their debuts sometime in 2010. 

With many of the recent programming moves over the last year or so, it is clear that Syfy is trying to appeal to a broader audience and position itself as a more diversified cable channel by offering more than just science fiction with some of their new television franchises/brands.  Especially in the case of Syfy’s WWE programming which has a huge audience and could give the station more visibility and more eyeballs on its other programming.  By offering some of the most diverse content on television, Syfy has carved out a loyal fan base.

 The previously scrutinized decision in 2009, where the cable television network received heavy criticism for changing its name from “Sci Fi” to the current “Syfy” signaled a shift in the direction the station intended to head.  Overall, I think Syfy’s rebranding efforts have been a positive move on its part; it will strengthen the Syfy imprint in the cable television universe.  While it is intelligent to increase brand visibility and grow market share it is pleasant to see that Syfy has remained true to its origins and continue to be the home for excellence in the science fiction genre.  In fact, the core demo for the channel is still a younger, hipper audience of both genders who understand pop culture and have an appreciation for the technological world we live in today. 

I have always admired how odd and quirky many of the shows and characters are. Specifically there are two programs that encompass some of the best of Syfy; Eureka and Warehouse 13.  Both Eureka and Warehouse 13 offer a one-two punch of the same type of genre so stylistically if you are a fan of one, chances are, you will be a fan of both.  The shows have even had a few crossover episodes to bring that point home even more. They are lighthearted, science fiction, supernatural dramas, with a splash of comedy. 

Eureka is a show full of scientific geniuses who all have their oddities but the show does a great job in keeping them interesting, friendly and accessible to the audience.  Sometimes science fiction can get a bit too technical and leave the audience scratching its head, struggling through the vernacular in the dialogue.  Lucky for the non-scientifically inclined viewers, there is Jack Carter who represents an everyday man as the Sheriff of Eureka.  Jack reminds me of Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs, as both are put in uncomfortable situations every episode with experts in a field they know very little about.  Yet by the end of the show, they have walked with the audience step by step to solve their problems.  Both Carter and Rowe have held their own with the specialists in the field and finished the task at hand; whether that is saving the town from exploding to smithereens, or working as a cricket farmer to process bug poo to be sold as fertilizer. 

The special effects also add to the show’s charm.  For a cable station budget, Eureka does a nice job of incorporating CGI and other special effects; but you are never going to confuse it with a DreamWorks production, which is ok.  Whether it is the lighting bolts that shoot out of flying saucers, gigantic robots roaming the town, or talking houses that do little else than have a voice and some flickering light attached to a living room, Eureka brings enough of the science fiction elements in to play to satisfy the audience.  Combine that with the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest in British Columbia, Canada, where the series is shot and the viewer gets quite a few secondary visual facets that play well with the cast of characters and make Eureka a peculiar show.  The series has its season long story arc, but each show is also self-contained enough that you can join the program in mid-season and still enjoy what you are watching.  

Warehouse 13 is another Syfy original that proves you can blend science with comedy and have a pretty entertaining hour.  Taking a page out of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Mummy movies, the episodes of Warehouse 13 center around the retrieval of an artifact (usually invented or created by someone famous in history past) that has now fallen into the wrong hands and is causing havoc somewhere around the globe.  Each show the writers get to pull from historical figures with the likes of Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, Ben Franklin, and Edgar Allen Poe and add to their mythology.  The premise of the show and the broad constructs that the show is based around, allows for endless possibilities for stand alone scripts and shows.  The ability to pull from any period in man’s recorded history is quite a full treasure chest of ideas to have at your disposal.  The introduction of the semi-regular character, H.G. Wells, hit the bullseye in season two.  The real H.G. Wells is often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction”, but in Warehouse 13, “he” is a “she” and it works perfectly under the ironic and imaginative parameters of the show. 

In 2010 when everyone seems to have some sort of smartphone or other hand held multimedia device, Warehouse 13 gets old school with some of its gadgets and brings to life several “historical” goodies.   The Farnsworth, invented in 1929, is an audio/video device that the agents use to communicate with one another.   Think of Skype on an iPhone, only in black and white.   Since Warehouse 13 at times resembles a sitcom, it is too fun of a place to kill people, at least in every episode.  Instead the agents use a Tesla Gun (electrical pulse gun) as their weapon of choice, which will only incapacitate their foe.  It is ingenious nuances like these that make Warehouse 13 so fun.   

In today’s world with the viewer having so many options on television it is extremely difficult for a station to jump out of the pack and assert its brand and product into the minds of the public.  Syfy has done just that.  With its fresh, original content, acquiring television properties with international brand awareness, like WWE programming, and continuing in its original tradition as the motherland of all things science fiction, Syfy will continue to receive accolades and viewer support.

Monday, September 20, 2010

True Blood: A Supernatural Series for Adults

True Blood has been the talk of the entertainment community, celebrity gossip websites, blogs, pop culture journals, fan sites and social media for the last 3 years.  While the series tends to push the envelope at times with its visuals always getting the majority of the coverage about the show and after having it parsed down and deconstructed in those terms over and over again, I have always believed that judging its value based on that criterion did a disservice in explaining why the show has been so successful.  True Blood offers the adult viewer a one-hour-a-week escape to get sucked (pun intended) into the wild lives of some extremely unordinary people living in a fictional small Southern town, while battling and overcoming their monsters, both internal and external.  The show will always have its sexuality and brutality, but to only see True Blood through that lens would be to miss the creative process and genius of the cast and crew. 

It is the core group of characters who really anchor the series.  With one of the most geographically diverse casts assembled on television, places like New Zealand, England, Australia, Sweden, and even the good ol’ US of A are all represented in an ensemble cast that is as assorted and distinct as any group of actors anywhere.  Each new season has its one major antagonist for the main characters to contend with, while the viewer is also given several diverging plots and twists which usually come around to connect to other storylines near the end of the season.  By cutting up the episodes in this manner the audience is given an opportunity to root against the key villain but also get to really know the psychology of the secondary characters, (why they do the things they do) and their struggles on a deeper level because they are in somewhat self-contained stories. 

There are constantly new characters who are introduced to keep things fresh and interesting; mainly out of necessity as True Blood has quite a high body count.  Fans will not be disappointed in getting their pound of flesh in this series.  Whether it is a 3,000 year old vampire with world domination as his goal, a Maynad looking for her husband, or a psychopathic human on a killing spree, the viewer is always left with the feeling that someway this collection of supernatural and completely average misfits from Bon Temps, Louisiana will find a way to prevail over the Big Bad and live to fight another day. 

The main characters are an assembly of absurdity and it’s so very wonderful and refreshing to see.  All archetypal character boundaries and borders are destroyed.  The heroes are as defective as their evil counterparts and the dilemmas they face and overcome don’t necessarily make them better people; they only serve as a spotlight on their flaws. The outside world might only see a waitress, her dim-witted brother or her miserable best friend, but we the audience know better.  We know that a drug dealing, short order cook can be the most flamboyant man in the history of the world only to transition into a character straight out of Boys N the Hood if the situation calls for it all in one scene.  You will not find any characters with more breadth and depth to them then those of True Blood.  And I didn’t even mention the vampires. 

Along with the cast, the scenery of the show has the ability to transport the viewer into this fantasy world.  Most of the exterior scenes are shot in Louisiana; the swamps, lakes, trees and moss give it a grunginess that is hard to duplicate on a Hollywood set.  Having the authenticity of the natural landscape distinguishes it on the visual medium from the commonplace big city look that we see so often of shows shot in Los Angeles or New York.  And then there is the darkness.  The horror genre has always thrived on using pitch black situations as a sort of abyss or void to convey isolation of a character.  In True Blood, that feeling is always present because the majority of the show takes place at night.  

How many of us are regularly up from dusk to dawn?  How many times have we been to the South, let alone one with such a diverse ecosystem as Louisiana?  All of these peripheral elements that make up the landscape, scenery and time of day of the show help add to the viewer suspending disbelief and believing in a place where there are vampires, werewolves, shape shifters, fairies and more. 

As someone who has always been interested in different forms of communication, especially words, my favorite part of the show is the dialogue.  In my mind it is what established True Blood above every other television show or film about vampires.  Who talks like the people from Bon Temps?  The lines seem very authentic for the actors that recite them; and add a bit more to the realism of the situation, once again helping the audience delve into the fantasy.  Characters routinely use triple negatives in a single sentence and to say some of the language is a bit course, would be an understatement.   Combining the grammatically incorrect speech and salty language with the Southern accents and dialect gives the audience a very raw look at the way we might believe a portion of America’s underclass would speak if these wild scenarios were in fact real.  Nobody from a small, poor town in Louisiana is going to speak the King’s English, especially if their family is being hunted down by vampires trying to torture and kill them.  I appreciate the fact that the show does not try to trivialize itself and its deadly-serious storylines by catering towards a PG-13 audience with its dialogue. 

Of course what is a show about vampires without the one thing that vampires base their whole existence on?  The viewer is always reminded about the underlying theme of the show in almost every scene:  Blood.  The color red is routinely contrasted with the dark settings in which the majority of the show takes place.  It might be a couch, shirt, lipstick or the real thing; blood red is everywhere.  Whether its vampires going after human blood or humans trying to save their own blood and to a greater extent their lives, in the end, it’s all about the essence of life and blood is the substance that keeps everything in play.  He who has it has the power.  Something similar could be said of our nation’s desire and consumption for oil (black blood) and the lengths some will go to in acquiring it.  I guess there is a bit of Russell Edgington in all of us; our politicians at least.    

Based off a series of novels by Charlaine Harris titled, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the popularity of True Blood has itself spawned another adaptation.  True Blood, the comic, debuted in July 2010.  The comic allows for alternate stories with the same core characters giving fans of the True Blood brand something else to sink their teeth into.  By using this new vehicle to deliver the story, the comics allow the writers to be even more creative in their story-telling and be able to do things not possible on the HBO series because of deadlines and budgets.   I’m sure more collectibles are also on their way for consumers who can already purchase DVDs, posters and t-shirts.  They even sell bottles of the Tru Blood beverage, for those of you who are in to that sort of thing.  Action figures, trading cards, board games, Halloween masks and fake teeth are not far behind.

More than ever adults need an escape from reality.  Along with the daily struggles of life that we all go through, we are also contending with wars, a failing economy and natural or manmade disasters.  It can be difficult to find an outlet.  True Blood offers just that.  The show is a visual, mental and emotional rollercoaster and once you get on, it’s hard to get off.