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Post 80- Whatever Happened to Julia Stiles?

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My friend, Josh Delman (Editor in Chief of the fabulous but short lived humor periodical, The Eastern Review), recently propositioned me to answer the titular question of this post, so after hours of meticulous research, this is what I have come up with:

Julia Stiles broke out into the mainstream with her widely acclaimed performance in 1998’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Just how acclaimed was she? She walked home that year with an MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance and the Chicago Film Critics Award for most promising actress of the year and film critic Adina Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post, even called her “a young, serious looking Diane Lane!” If praise like that doesn’t make phones start ringing at CAA I don’t know what does. (That was a joke. But her acting chops were appealing to both teens and adults.) Julia spent the next few years racking up the Teen Choice Awards, appearing opposite such heartthrobs as Freddie Prinze Jr., Josh Hartnett, and Sean Patrick Thomas (who she appeared with in 2001’s major hit Save the Last Dance). That film (which won her more MTV Movie and Teen Choice awards as well as a Rolling Stone cover) gave her actual clout in the industry and she used it to get a small but pivotal and money-making role in the Bourne Identity franchise, a fun part opposite William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin in David Mamet’s State and Main, and a meaty dramatic role opposite Stockard Channing in 2001’s The Business of Strangers. But in the mid 2000s, she started to fizzle. Mainstream flops like Mona Lisa Smile, The Prince and Me, and A Guy Thing seemed to demonstrate that she couldn’t handle comedy or light material. She still got some nice paychecks from the Bourne movies, but she herself was no longer bankable (and had been usurped by the likes of Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman), so she turned to the stage, and went to college. She graduated from Columbia University in 2005 with a degree in literature.

In 2004, she performed in London in a revival of Mamet’s Oleanna opposite Aaron Eckhart, (in 2009 she reprised this role on Broadway opposite Bill Pullman). I happened to see that production in LA before it went to Broadway and can vouch that Ms. Stiles was extremely effective and a magnetic performer. She also spent the mid to late 2000s doing smaller and more serious dramas like Edmond (2005), The Omen (2006), and The Cry of the Owl (2009).

In 2010, she followed the path of many talented actresses looking for work and went to television where she starred on the sixth season of Dexter and was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe for her performance. She has also became a new muse of playwright Neil LaBute, appearing in short films that he directed and a new film he wrote called Seconds of Pleasure, and almost appearing on Broadway (opposite Dane Cook!) in LaBute’s play Fat Pig, but the show was cancelled due to financial trouble. It seems Ms. Stiles is has been keeping extremely busy as of late, with three movies coming out in 2012 and at least two currently in pre-production. The biggest profile picture is David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Handbook, in which she stars opposite Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, and Chris Tucker in his first non-Rush Hour role since 1997. The other films are smaller, but seem to have great casts and directors.

So what happened to Julia Stiles? It’s the classic case of intelligent, strong, classically trained actress-turned teen queen-turned flopper-turned legitimate actress again. I see her emulating Maggie Gyllenhaal or Michelle Williams and perhaps becoming something close to Gwenyth Paltrow over the next few years in terms of film choices (serious work on stage and screen mixed in with the occasional paycheck flick). She’s not going to be as big as Anne Hathaway, Reese Witherspoon, or Amy Adams, but she’s a talented, bright actress who is also into charity, so I imagine she’s happy.

Josh, if this wasn’t enough and you really want to know exactly what Julia Stiles is up to, you can follow her blog: http://juliastilesblog.com/.

Post 78- America Was Watching ABC!

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First, watch this:

Amazing, right? Did you feel the waves of nostalgia wash over you? I sure did. I’m going to be discussing each clip in order so prepare to go back and re-watch it again and again! Let’s get cracking!

1. The cast of The Wonder Years. I think it’s clear throughout this promo that Fred Savage is the happiest kid who ever lived. He is so filled with glee I almost forgot that there was hardly an episode of The Wonder Years where he got to smile. Sure, occasionally he kissed Winnie Cooper, but those instances typically followed with her saying, “I can’t. I’m dating the taller football player.” Or, “My brother just died in Vietnam.” The Wonder Years was a great show and very real, but depressingly so. The Arnold Family took the fun out of dysfunction. Kevin Arnold’s (Fred Savage) brother Wayne was a violent asshole, constantly beating Fred up, his sister was a drugged up hippie who rarely acknowledged his existence, his dad was an emotionally detached alcoholic—an unsuccessful, fat Don Draper—and his mom was miserable, lonely and depressed, trapped in a loveless marriage. But at least Kevin had Paul, right? Right? Frankly I’m surprised this show lasted six seasons. Not because it wasn’t quality, it certainly was, but because it was so dark. If this show was on TV today, it would maybe be on FX, certainly not on glossy ABC.

2. Who the hell is that creepy guy in his pajamas pounding his fists together eight seconds in? How did he make it in this super happy promo?

3. Of course Bob Saget is that happy! He may have been “held back” comedically in the 90s, but he had two hit shows and was becoming a multi-millionaire!

4. Why is Roseanne surrounded by six, fat Asian Roseanne children? This is becoming a bad acid trip.

5. Tony Danza—whatever it was that you did, people loved “it.”

6. Even back then Neil Patrick Harris had a great voice. But from the looks of it, a different nose…

7. You know who else enjoyed the 90s? The cast of Family Matters. You know who is not enjoying the 2000s? The cast of Family Matters. Why did they make Steve Urkel wear those giant prop glasses? What zany photographer had that idea? Side note: How come current sitcoms featuring black families can only be on BET, from the mind of Tyler Perry, or cartoons (The Cleveland Show)? Another side note: How pissed off were the show’s writers when the Steve Urkel broke out? “We wanted to write a family sitcom about an African- American working class Chicago family, and now we’re being forced to write gags for a creepy, voyeuristic, accordion-playing freak who ruins everything.”

8.  Growing Pains cast. You could do no wrong in my book.

9.  There goes happy Fred Savage again!

10. I don’t know what this show is where Tom Bosley (Happy Days’ Mr. C) plays a priest, but I want to watch it.

11. Why would they use the take where the news anchors crack up? (Just kidding. It’s to humanize them.)

12. Hey it’s the token bearded red-head! The Jesse Tyler Ferguson pre-Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Actually that’s Timothy Busfield, West Wing’s White House reporter/oft-lover of CJ Craig, Danny Concannon.

13. Where do these casts get these props? Why is Mike Seever (Kirk Cameron) holding a magnifying glass?? When has Growing Pains ever used a magnifying glass??? Who on that show would even need one? There must have been an episode where Ben becomes a junior detective to figure out who keeps taking his cookies, and then Mike Seever tells him not to worry about cookies since the rapture is coming and to pledge his love for Christ before it’s too late.

14. Cartoon Beetlejuice. Why is he the only cartoon featured? Weren’t there others?

15. Bob Saget featured again. America loved Bob Saget! His direction for this second little clip: Go like you’re going to eat the apple, but right before you take a bite, look at it like you suspect it’s been poisoned.

16. Classic Peter Falk! “I’m an actor, not a monkey. Get the fuck outta my face.”

17. It’s Alyssa Milano back when only creepers thought she was hot.

18. Now Roseanne is dancing with fat Asian Roseanne children in front of a fake Hollywood sign.

19. Apparently there was a cowboy show on ABC. No recollection of that one.

20. Why are all the clips with these two weirdos (1:21) always sped up? You can barely register who they were.

21. I imagine the Tom Bosley priest show featured him going on lots of adventures with nuns. Lots of fun to be had there.

22. The Full House dads sure had a great time on screen. It’s cause they were getting so much pussy off-screen.

23. TV SHOW ROLL CALL:

Baby Talk! The co-creator of Everyone Loves Raymond used to work on that show which was a spin-off of the Look Who’s Talking movies. But instead of being voiced by Bruce Willis, the baby was voiced by…who else, but TONY DANZA! For those of you counting at home, Tony Danza now has TWO shows on ABC in 1990. Of course the network execs would want the baby to talk like a thick New Yorker. And because John Travolta didn’t do TV anymore, to play his part they got…Scott Baio. It’s a real shame this show didn’t last more than…wait. 23 episodes? It lasted almost a full season?! Ok. Never mind. This show was given more than a fair run.

Cop Rock! I like how for in this clip they didn’t even show cops. They show a gospel choir. This show tops the unintentional comedy scale. A precursor to Glee, it had it’s own riginal music with such gems as, “Be Careful Out There.” There’s so much comedy in this song it requires its own post.

Gabriel’s Fire. James Earl Jones as a psychotic baseball player? This clip reminds me an awful lot of this one.

Going Places- Just judging by the title and one second clip I’m guessing this is a modern day Laverne and Shirley perhaps? Two women. Going places. Doing some research it has come to my attention that this Heather Locklear show was about the production staff behind a zany talk show. But with only 19 episodes, I guess no one got anywhere.

Married People- Fighting over what seems to be a jar of peanut butter and yelling at each other. “That’s Marriage!” I guess couples were too busy doing that, that they couldn’t watch this show.

America’s Funniest Part II- Was that just more clips? Clips that didn’t make it into the show? Like the Godfather Part II, was it better than the original? Only Bob Saget knows.

Enough with the fat Asian Rosennne children!

More Saget, more sped up wackos, more exctiment all building up to the finale…

AN OLSEN TWIN! The linchpin of the entire ABC lineup. “Watch ABC because we have The Olsen Twins!” Ending this promo with a shot of “Michelle” really indicates the Olsen’s value. Michelle was ABC’s crowning glory. She epitomized all that is good and fun and wholesome and lovable. They made sure not to even sneak a shot of her earlier, making this last shot that much more grand.

(Sigh.) I miss the 90s. But honestly, not that much. I’d rather watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or 30 Rock then any of this crap.

Until Tomorrow–

Post 74- Arrested Development Is The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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The Impact of Arrested Development on Current TV Comedies

Arrested Development (Arrested) is widely considered to be one of the best television comedies of all time, or at least the best comedy ever canceled. Enough has been written about how brilliant and ahead of its time it was, so I’m not here to wax poetic. What I do want to discuss is its impact on the current television comedy landscape. Though it is no longer with us, the posthumous popularity of the handheld single-camera style of Arrested with it’s callbacks and call-forwards, wacky sensibility, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke speed, and world and self awareness is evidenced in primetime now, on several viewer intelligence respecting shows including Modern Family, Community, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

FORMAT-THE MOCKUMENTARY

Arrested can be viewed technically as a vérité-style[1] mockumentary, with its use of a hand-held camera, continuity, third-person omniscient narration, and complete “world access” by which I mean the narrator could cut from the “present” action to anything else, including “archival Bluth footage,” other television shows (Fox News), and newspaper headlines (“Tony Wonder: Born and Bread in the USA[2]”). Though Christopher Guest films and the original UK The Office can be credited with popularizing the mockumentary genre, Arrested subverted it, taking out the “talking heads” (moments where characters are interviewed) and creating a world where the characters don’t know that they’re being filmed, thus making moments where the fourth wall is broken that much more jarring and funny. There are a rash of current TV comedies that employ the mockumentary including NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, ABC’s Modern Family, and in a sly way, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother.

The Office and Parks and Recreation adhere more strictly than Arrested to the mockumentary genre, in that they are single, handheld camera shows where characters know that they are being filmed, there are talking heads, and typically an episode is continuous and presented in real time. That is, there are rarely[3] any cutaways to events that happened independently of that episode’s fixed time sequence. Furthermore, there are moments in these worlds that the camera crew does not have access to.[4] These two shows are also not narrated or typically[5] scored with music (unlike Arrested), However, both of these shows are presented in the same vérité style as Arrested, with more naturalistic, seemingly improvised performances, and provocative camera work. By provocative camera work I mean that, unlike in a multi-camera show like Friends, the camera has its own personality and makes specific choices to zoom in or out to try and elicit a reaction. It should also be noted that the talking heads in The Office and Parks and Recreation achieve the same goal as Arrested’s narration—they explain plot points, character motivations and episode morals (i.e. what the protagonist learned). Often, The Office and Parks and Recreation run a talking-head monologue as background narration over events at the end of an episode, summing up plot and illustrating the lesson events in the episode taught the protagonist and consequently, the viewer.

Modern Family also adheres to the vérité-style mockumentary format, employing a handheld single camera, talking heads, and characters’ acknowledgment of the camera, however it is looser in terms of how it treats time and editing. While events in The Office and Parks and Recreation unfold mostly in real time, Modern Family, like Arrested, frequently flashbacks to events not occurring in the episode’s fixed time, typically to prove or disprove a point made by a character. For example, in Arrested, when Michael suggests that his father was keen on using a one-armed man to teach them lessons, flashbacks are introduced (by the narrator) to the audience to illustrate this. On Modern Family, flashbacks are shown in a slightly different context, but to the same effect. Mitchell may say in a talking head that he is a great listener, but flashbacks (to events not temporally related to the episode) will run of previous, independent events proving the contrary. On Modern Family though, often times the characters are privy to watching these flashbacks. It’s as if the filmmakers are showing the clips to them as well as to the viewer, so it is for the character’s benefit as well as ours. Of course, Arrested Development would take these flashbacks, or callbacks[6] much further. They would use multiple “flash-cuts” in a single episode, intricately correlate them to that episode’s action, and repeat certain ones throughout the series. Arrested also of course, pioneered the flashforward, which alluded to events that happened in the near future, but the audience wasn’t privy to yet. This includes foreshadowing references to Buster losing his hand, or Rita being mentally retarded, episodes before those plot points are revealed. Flashforwards are a risk because they essentially delay viewer gratification in a medium that values immediate viewer gratification. It rewards steady watchers and re-watchers, and in a way, punishes first-time viewers.

As a side note, this devices also makes it harder on the writers because it forces them to intricately plot episodes in advance, and gives them the challenge of ensuring that all the proverbial balls they’ve thrown in the air land successfully. It is a testament to Arrested’s brilliance that no other show has really come close, or even tried to achieve this level of intricacy[7]. Perhaps it was also this plot intricacy that alienated audiences. Arrested is not a show built for syndication. Unlike episodic shows such as Modern Family and The Office, a first-time viewer could not turn on a random episode of Arrested and understand what was going on.

The show that most closely imitates the desired effects of Arrested’s use of the mockumentary is How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). Though technically, HIMYM is a multi-camera sitcom (so it does not have that vérité style) and its entirety is a flashback, that is, a story told from the future, it still employs several Arrested mockumentary techniques. It employs an omniscient third-person narrator (well, technically a first-person narrator, but one who knows more than the lead character does in the episode’s fixed time), uses many elaborate flashbacks and flashforwards[8] in a single episode, and does not use talking heads or let the characters (the ones we see at least,) directly communicate to the audience. Because of this format, the characters on HIMYM act in a way similar to the characters on Arrested, that is, uninhibited by a viewing public. Even though the characters on The Office and Parks and Recreation act naturally, often times their behavior is impacted by the presence of the documentary crew. For example, Michael Scott, might be about to utter something inappropriate, but then he’ll look at the camera and try to alter his language. Ironically, HIMYM is the only Arrested-influenced show I’m discussing that employs a laugh track and occasionally films in front of a live audience. So while the characters on HIMYM are the least self-aware characters I’ve discussed because they are unaware they’re in a mockumentary, the actors on HIMYM are probably the most self-aware because they perform in front of a live audience.

TONE- WACKY AND ABSURD

In terms of tone, Arrested’s impact is felt throughout the mockumentaries as well as the other comedies mentioned earlier. Arrested created a wacky world with absurd, non-realistic characters and situations. Often times these absurdities are pointed out, but accepted nonetheless. Arrested did not invent the “absurd tone”, and in fact, has a lot to owe to cartoons like The Simpsons and sketch shows like Mr. Show. But it should take credit as one of the first live-action sitcoms to incorporate this specific tone. The shows that best emulate this tone are Community, 30 Rock and to a slightly lesser degree, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

A lot of a show’s tone is derived from its characters; their pace, the way they talk and the way they interact with their universe. Like many other comedies before it, Arrested followed a comedy form known as the “center and eccentrics.” In this form, the protagonist is a “straight man” who serves as the audience’s point of view, and is surrounded by a litany of “eccentrics,” or wacky characters who prevent him from reaching his goals. But compared to past shows, Arrested increased the level of eccentricity of its eccentrics to an unparalleled degree. While the supporting cast of Seinfeld, Cheers, and Friends had their quirks, no character comes close to the level of eccentricity of say, GOB Bluth (well, maybe Kramer.) Currently, main supporting characters on 30 Rock, Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and even Modern Family follow in Arrested’s footsteps. Jenna Maroney and Kenneth Parcell (30 Rock), Charlie (Always Sunny), Abed (Community) and little Manny (Modern Family) are a far cry from regular folks like Cliff the Mailman (Cheers) and Rachel Green (Friends).

As eccentric as its main cast was, the satellite characters on Arrested were even more wacky and unbelievable. Current comedies follow suit. Arrested has its Gene Parmesan, J. Walter Weatherman, and Ice the Bounty Hunter, while Community has its Dean Pelton (who is eerily similar to Tobias Funke), Black Rider, and Magnitude, 30 Rock has its Dr. Spaceman, and the hook-handed Dr. Andrew and It’s Always Sunny has its the MacPoyle family, Rickety Cricket, and Mac’s homicidal father. It is also testament to Arrested’s creative impact and eye for talent that character actors such as Craig Robinson (The Office), Ken Jeong (Community), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) all guest-starred on Arrested before becoming regulars on their own shows.

It is worth mentioning that at their core, many of the characters on Arrested were spiteful, prejudiced, mean-spirited people who tried to hurt each other. Of course, Archie Bunker and George Costanza paved the way for the TV executive/focus group-hated “unlikeable” character, but I do happen to think that for some reason, the characters on Arrested were just too unrelatable for audiences. Or maybe the audience was there, but just wasn’t alerted to the show. Nonetheless, characters like Pierce (Community) and the entire cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follow in Arrested’s footsteps, while more viewer-friendly shows like Modern Family and The Office took a different lesson from Arrested—they make an conscious effort to make their characters likeable[9].

Unlike in mockumentaries The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and to an extent, HIMYM, the plots of 30 Rock, Community, and It’s Always Sunny are often not grounded in reality. While plots are continuous and carry over to subsequent episodes in these shows and Arrested, (for example, a character can be wheel-chair stricken (Community), lose a hand (Arrested), go missing (30 Rock), or get married (Always Sunny)), for the most part, many rules of reality don’t apply. Characters can get badly injured and not die, characters can go through ridiculous changes in one episode and be unaffected in future episodes. While shows like Modern Family and The Office feature real world problems like forgetting a birthday or offending a co-worker, Arrested’s plots revolve around the fictional town of Wee Britain or a photograph of a character’s genitals igniting military action. Similarly, absurd plots are carried over in Community, 30 Rock and Always Sunny. In Community[10], a small fort can built which subsequently becomes an entire network of cities. On 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan goes on the run from the Black Crusaders (a terror cell that assassinates black celebrities), and on It’s Always Sunny, Frank hides in a leather couch to spy on someone. Even on HIMYM, there are plots revolving around Robin’s past as a Canadian pop star. These aren’t your typical “boss is coming over for dinner” sitcom plots.

Americans liken television to comfort food. Most Americans like being able to turn on the TV, see the same people do the same thing, and after 22 minutes, feel a sense of closure, or a catharsis. That’s why Cheers was so popular and why Two and a Half Men is the highest rated comedy on television. Arrested was not comfort food. Each episode was full of surprises and open-ended plots that forced you to pay attention so you could get all the jokes and connections. In shows like Two and a Half Men there is a certain rhythm so you can tell when the punch line is coming, and then hear it hammered home. Arrested’s rhythm was different from anything viewers were used to. Punch lines and zingers delivered by Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) were often delivered under his breath, and in the middle of another character’s sentence. This different style is one of the reasons why it wasn’t popular and why shows like Community, which emulate that style, are not massively popular. I’m not saying necessarily that this type of humor is better or worse than the type on Two and a Half Men, but its unfamiliar, and Americans like familiar. Although I will say that now, thanks to Arrested, and probably Family Guy and videogames, Americans are currently more predisposed to “faster” entertainment. So again, maybe Arrested was ahead of its time.

PLOT DEVICES- MISCOMMUNICATION AND WORDPLAY

Arrested is notorious for it’s high volume of jokes, much involving wordplay. Whether the joke was a innuendo-laden Tobias quote (“Oooh, I can taste those meaty, leading man parts in my mouth!”), an observation from the narrator, (“Buster had been bitten by a loose seal”), or a off-hand remark taken incorrectly that subsequently drives the plot (Rita calling Michael a “pussy”), Arrested’s writing was so intricate and precise, that you know it couldn’t have been improvised. Similarly, the comedy writing on 30 Rock, Community and Modern Family is filled with wordplay and a high volume of jokes per minute. Case in point, everything Tracy Jordan says, and the conversation between Phil Dunphy and a man who saw Phil’s realty ad[11]. Phil thinks that the customer is asking about a house, but he is actually asking about Claire. The audience laughs when Phil says, “I think the carpet matches the drapes. I haven’t checked in a while.”

Miscommunication and misunderstandings are as old as comedy itself. But Arrested took it to another level entirety. While Friends and Seinfeld had six and four characters whose plots may overlap, Arrested overlapped stories of eight characters and developed these stories to Shakespearean levels. Over two seasons on Arrested, the lawyer Maggie Lizer (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) convinced Michael she was blind, then not blind, then pregnant, then faking a pregnancy, then actually pregnant, then not pregnant. Episodes of Arrested might even contain “fifty scenes.”[12] Post-Arrested, shows like Community and Modern Family are emulating these qualities, employing fairly large casts and interconnecting their stories in intricate ways, but to be honest, no one does it on the scale that Arrested did.

This is not to say that Arrested did not do physical comedy or put characters in wacky situations. This clip is probably the funniest moment of the series for me. But Arrested has a balance of written and physical comedy that shows like Modern Family[13] and Parks and Recreation emulate to great success.

AWARENESS/SELF-AWARENESS

Arrested takes place in the “present” where events in the real world exist in the show. It is laden with topical (at the time) references to the War in Iraq, the Abu Gharib prison scandal, and the Teri Schiavo case. In fact, most of the show’s overarching plot about George Bluth Sr. is that he committed treason by building houses in Iraq. Similarly, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Community, 30 Rock, and It’s Always Sunny take place in the present. They integrate current the current state of the US economy, popular YouTube videos, rapper culture, and references current bands, political leaders and trends. But lots of shows have taken place in their respective “present.” What Arrested pioneered was the degree to which it was reflexive, that is, it commented on itself. On Arrested, actors were acknowledged for their former roles[14], direct references to its television competition were made[15], commercial sponsors were acknowledged[16], characters mention act-breaks, and its own ratings struggles were integrated into plots. My personal favorite Arrested meta joke was replacing family lawyer Barry Zuckercorn (Henry Winkler) with Bob Loblaw (fellow Happy Days alumnus, Scott Baio), and having Bob Loblaw acknowledge on the show that it wasn’t the “first time he’s replaced Barry,” and that he appealed to a younger demographic. Some other of my favorite meta-Arrested moments occur in the season three episode, “S.O.B.s” when the pre-show (slyly desperate ratings ploy) promo for the show promised dramatically that someone would die in the ensuing episode) and that the ending would be shot live. At the very end of the episode it was revealed unceremoniously that a racist elderly woman in a restaurant was the character who died, and only the last moment of the show was shot “live,” after which Jason Bateman remarked that they’d have to repeat the scene for the West Coast Feed.

While like I mentioned earlier, The Office and the like are not afraid to make pop-culture references, undoubtedly Community and 30 Rock have come closest to matching Arrested’s amount of meta-commentary and self-reflection. On Community, for example, Malcolm Jamaal-Warner’s character came on the show wearing a Cliff Huxtable-esque sweater, and remarked that he got the sweater from his dad. Also, it seems that one of the purposes of the character of Abed is provide the voice of the cynical viewer who thinks, “I’ve seen this before.” Abed incessantly points out pop culture references and sitcom tropes that the show is currently adhering to.[17] 30 Rock also makes a lot of “in-jokes.” For starters, its show within-a-show, TGS, is on the NBC network, the network which airs 30 Rock. This device enables a lot of meta-jokes. For example, in one episode[18], NBC head Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) brings in Jerry Seinfeld to appear on NBC programming to raise the network’s ratings. I imagine Seinfeld was asked to appear on 30 Rock for the same reason. Similarly, when NBC-Universal was actually bought by the Comcast Corporation in early 2011, 30 Rock introduced a plotline[19] where a company called “Kabletown” bought NBC. As 30 Rock takes place in the world of show business, television, film and celebrity references are also rampant, with characters like Liz constantly likening moments in life to film and television plots.

The risk in constantly making these types of references is that it alienates audiences who aren’t as pop-culture savvy or Hollywood-literate. This is another reason why perhaps Arrested, Community, and 30 Rock have relatively small audiences.

CONCLUSION

All art is derivative and Arrested is no exception. Individually, each comedy element of Arrested was not groundbreaking. Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz is not shy in admitting his influences[20], which include The Simpsons, Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Sopranos, and I imagine The Larry Sanders Show, Woody Allen, and Zucker Brothers movies. But what makes art unique is the extent to which it simultaneously acknowledges and rejects previous forms and proceeds to apply the form in new, unfamiliar ways. Arrested achieved something special in that by fusing previous comic sensibilities together, it created its own entirely unique style and television series. While at the surface it seems like a typical sitcom (it was about 22 minutes long, it followed a three-act structure, it was on during primetime, it followed the happenings of a dysfunctional family), it is unique in the way that it rejected and subverted certain sitcom tropes. Part of this was because of purely creative decision making, and part of this was due to its precarious circumstance of constantly being on verge of getting cancelled. This external pressure certainly influenced its creative decision-making, which is what inevitably happens when you mix art and commerce. Some people say that it was a travesty that Arrested got cancelled, and maybe it was, but then perhaps we wouldn’t have such brilliant pieces of television as the aforementioned “S.O.Bs” episode.

Nevertheless, through a combination of a creative vision, well-trained and educated comedy writers, and extraordinary circumstances, Arrested Development became the most successful unsuccessful comedy of all time. It was an entirely original show, lightning in a bottle, and the likes of which we may never see again.[21] And though it only lasted on the air a short while, its impact is undeniably felt on television comedy today. It didn’t change America’s comedy tastes, (as relatively low ratings for Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Community indicate), but it did influence an entire generation of comedy writers and remains the gold standard to which every current and future television comedy will be compared. That is, until something even better comes along.


[1] Cinema vérité is a naturalistic style of documentary filmmaking which strives to reveal “truth.”

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_Destiny

[3] I say rarely because occasionally they do callbacks to events that viewers have not seen yet. For example, the opening sequence in “The Convention” where we are shown a montage of Michael enjoying his “Fun Jeans.”

[4] See: Moments where Michael closes the blinds to his office, the instance where Pam and Jim find out that Pam is pregnant (“Company Picnic”), the hug between Pam and Michael at the end of Steve Carell’s last episode (“Goodbye, Michael”).

[5] There are rare exceptions: Jim and Pam’s wedding and the end of The Office episode, “The Dinner Party,” which showed the three different couples leaving Michael and Jan’s dinner party, with the previously mentioned song of Jan’s assistant Hunter, playing in the background.

[6] Callbacks including character phrases such as “Come on!,” “I’ve made a huge mistake,” and the family’s various chicken dances.

[7] Arrested also used their epilogue as a sly call-forward. The narrator would say, “On the next Arrested Development” and scenes would play out that actually wouldn’t occur on the next episode. This was just a funny touch and a play on a television trope, and so far, no one has copied it.

[8] Though in a slightly different way. While Arrested would allude to things that would happen in the future, but haven’t occurred yet in the episode’s real time, HIMYM actually shows footage of future events.

[9] http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/05/michael_schur_showrunner_trans.html

[10] Community is especially unique in that its tone, genre and form vary from episode to episode. Some episodes are grounded, while other episodes conform to certain genres (Western, mockumentary, stop-motion animation, etc.) with the characters alternately unaware and extremely self-aware of these changes.

[11] Season 2, Episode 19; “The Musical Man.”

[12] Hurwitz, Mitch. And Here’s the Kicker. (2009)

[13] I have to think that the running Modern Family gag about that one bad stair in the Dunphy house is like Gob’s “C’mon!”

[14] For example, Fonzie and Happy Days references were abound surrounding Henry Winkler’s character and in one episode, a picture is shown of Charlize Theron’s character Rita before her plastic surgery; it is a picture of Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in the film, Monster.

[15] In one episode George Senior is called a “regular Brad Garrett” in reference to the fact that Mr. Garrett had beaten out Jeffrey Tambor for the Emmy that year.

[16] Tobias eats at a Burger King and says flat out, “This sure is a great restaurant,” to which the narrator reiterates, “It sure is.”

[17] In one Community episode that takes place in a single location, Abed remarks that they’re “doing a bottle episode.” A bottle episode is an episode of television that takes place in a single location.

[18] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1001572/

[19] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1635810/

[20] Hurwitz, Mitch. And Here’s the Kicker. (2009)

[21] Unless it becomes a movie.

Post 73- Character Actors…ASSEMBLE!

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Over the past few years a lot of buzz has been building over the heavily anticipated Joss Whedon-directed Avengers movie. The film stars all of the recent movie-incarnation Marvel superheroes: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It also stars S.H.I.E.L.D agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Yes. Cobie Smulders.

The trend in super-hero movies these days is to cast well respected character actors (actors who play exceedingly eccentric or unusual characters) as the major villain. In Iron Man it was Jeff Bridges, in The Incredible Hulk it was William Hurt and Tim Roth, in the new Spider-Man it’s Rhys Ifans and brilliant In Treatment actor Irfan Khan, in Green Lantern it’s Peter Sarsgaard, in Batman Begins it was Liam Neeson. The better the villain, the better the hero.

Since The Avengers are arguably (no disrespect to the Justice League) the ultimate superhero team, the villains they fight must be the ultimate villains. After all, one  Avengers mantra is that they “fight the foes no single superhero can withstand.” I’m not sure who the Avengers are fighting in this new film. I believe it has not been released yet. However, the original comics have story lines featuring Thor’s Loki using the Hulk as a weapon, as well as a group known as the Masters of Evil. Which brings me to my main point. Which amazing character actors out there (who haven’t already portrayed big villains—leaving out Steve Buscemi, Gary Oldman, John Malkovich, etc.) would be believable as formidable opponents to Robert Downey Jr. and his team? Which actors are so badass and, following the recent trend, character-y, that you would believe that they could only be defeated by a team of the greatest superheroes alive? Who are the Avengers of character actors? Here are my picks:

Timothy Spall– What a weird looking guy. He has the market on menacing, mousy underlings (see: Harry Potter, Enchanted, Sweeney Todd) but has the chops to give you Winston Churchill (The Kings Speech), and Rosencrantz (Hamlet). I could see him as the rotund Puff Adder.

The Soup Nazi– To be honest, I didn’t even bother looking up his name, because that’s who he is. He’s the Soup Nazi. Forever and ever. He even appeared in an episode of Scrubs as The Soup Nazi. Can you name me another actor who appeared on one episode of a sitcom and turned it into a career? (Robin Williams starring as Mork on Happy Days doesn’t count.) Who does he play? Nazi scientist Baron Zemo, of course!

Stephen Toblowsky– This guy has done it all. Most recently appearing as former Glee coach/drug dealer Sandy Ryerson on Glee, he has made a career of playing irritating business types (see: Groundhog’s Day) and lite comic villains (see: Garfield). He would make an excellent super villain and would annoy the hell out of Captain America with his pompous attitude. Let him be evil genius, Immortus.

Wallace Shawn– This guy deserves the chance to strut his stuff on a mammoth scale. He excels at playing the nebishy, brainy nerds (see: Clueless, The Princess Bride.) But boy does he do that well. Watching him torture his perfect foil, Thor, using logic games, and just watching him divulge his evil plans to a held-captive Iron Man, would be delectable. Definitely Egghead.

Matt Walsh– Let’s get a little comedy into this Avengers movie! In the past decade, Upright Citizen’s Brigade founding member Matt Walsh has “secretly” appeared in every comedy film/television show released in the past 10 years, playing the loud, obnoxious oddball. (See: The Hangover, Children’s Hospital, I Love You, Man, Step Brothers). Obviously, he’d play the juggling Oddball.

Christopher Lloyd– Hollywood loves a comeback, and it’s about time that Christopher Lloyd return to his rightful place as the go-to eccentric. Let him give younger audiences a taste of what he showed us in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Pagemaster. He would rock the socks off as a super villain bent on destroying the world and driving Jeremy Renner insane. Let him play the dichotomously brilliant and destructive Mr. Hyde.

Conchata Farrell– Conchata is the take no guff, sarcastic, confident big ol lady best known for her roles in Two and a Half Men, Mr. Deeds and Erin Brockovich. A powerful woman who won’t take Robert Downey Jr’s sass or succumb to Chris Evans’ charm, she’ll play The Executioner.

Mickey Jones– He’s the big biker guy you’ve seen in everything from Total Recall to Lizzie McGuire. The man has more than paid his dues to the biz and is ready for more than just showing up in a bar fight. He can pull off The Wrecker.

Tommy “Tiny” Lister– With his one line as the huge prisoner on the boat in The Dark Knight (“Give it to me, and I’ll do what ya’ll shoulda did ten minutes ago.”) I knew that I wanted to see more of this guy. So let’s see more of him! Make him Thunderball!

Maggie Wheeler– Better known as the most annoying girlfriend ever—Janice from Friends—her siren call gives her more than enough credibility to destroy Scarlett Johansson and keep even the Hulk at bay. She’s definitely Man-Killer!

Until Tomorrow–

BONUS VIDEO POST!

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Post 68- KableTown’s New Fall Lineup

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I’m sorry I’ve been absent this past week (and will continue to be absent this upcoming week.) I’ve been working 18-hour days as a Production Assistant on a CW pilot entitled, Cooper and Stone. Hopefully it will get on the air as it is a really fun show set in Chicago! But while I have a free moment I will continue to delve into next season’s pilots.

NBC

PROMISING:

SMASH- Capitalizing on the success of Glee, this show, produced by Steven Spielberg and the writers of the Hairspray musical, and written by acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck, is about a bunch of characters trying to put a Marilyn Monroe musical on Broadway. It stars Will and Grace’s Debra Messing (ok…), Anjelica Huston (she’s legit, though I fear her role will be similar to Cher’s in Burlesque) and American Idol superstar (that was a joke) Katherine McPhee. The Hairspray guys will provide the show with original music, and I’m sure there will be lots of Glee-style merchandising tie-ins. I think that there are frankly too many talented people behind this project for it to fail miserably. And I like Broadway musicals so I’ll probably give this show a chance.

REM- This show, created by Kyle Killen of the short-lived, but critically acclaimed FOX series, Lone Star, and 24’s Howard Gordon is described as an “Inception-style thriller centering on a cop who wakes up after an accident to find he is living in two different realities.” It does not surprise me that studios are trying to capitalize on the public’s obsession with the “mind-fuck” genre, and I was pleased to find that Lucius Malfoy himself, Jason Issacs, was cast as the lead. But then I was less excited that Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) was cast as the other lead. But then I was excited again that B.D. Wong (Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles) is also in the pilot. David Slade (Twilight: Eclipse) is directing, which boosts its credibility. Not that I’m giving Twilight credibility, I am merely stating that when any director comes off of a movie that has made $300 million, he can pretty much choose to do whatever he wants. I will probably give this show a shot.

INTRUIGING:

WONDER WOMAN- This is perhaps one of the most high-profile pilots of the new season for numerous reasons. One, Wonder Woman is one of the best-known comic book characters who has yet to recently appear in a movie. She is still a moneymaking symbol of female empowerment, appearing on t-shirts, lunchboxes and other merchandise, and has much more name recognition than heroes like Daredevil and Ghost Rider. The Matrix producer, Joel Silver, tried for years to make a Wonder Woman movie, hiring at least five writers, Joss Whedon among them, to write a draft , but nothing ever made it past that stage. This EW article explains in detail the reasons why. But now, NBC has signed off on a David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public) penned script and is shooting a pilot. Different from the Lynda Carter starring, campy 70s TV show, this script finds Wonder Woman/Diana Prince not only as a crime fighter in LA, complete with invisible jet and lasso of truth (which sounds silly as I’m typing the words), but also as a successful cosmetic company exec trying to balance all the different elements of her life. I’ve spoken to some insiders who’ve read the script and they have said it was absurd and terrible, but I am definitely going to give it a shot. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) has already been cast as the titular star, along with Austin Powers’ (!!!!) own Elizabeth Hurley and Cary Elwes (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Princess Bride, Saw).

17TH PRECINCT- The logline for this sounds extremely silly—“Sci-fi drama set in the fictional town of Excelsior, where magic and supernatural elements rule over science”—however it has Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore behind it, and he’s done more great things with the sci-fi genre as anyone around. So while I might not watch this show, I’m sure it has promise.

RECONSTRUCTION- This show, that I doubt will make it to air, is a period Western which revolves around a solider from the Civil War who settles into a Missouri town during the Reconstruction period. This is an intruiging premise, and I’m glad NBC is investing money into a historical drama, but this show seems like it’s a better fit for cable where it can be content with a smaller audience. If even Deadwood can get cancelled on HBO though, I just don’t’ see this show going anywhere.

PLAYBOY- This show—which happened to be shot in Chicago, and stopped traffic because for two weeks a bunch of “bunnies” were walking around street sets—is another high-profile pilot due to its subject matter. It is a historical drama set at the famed Playboy Club in Chicago in 1963. Think Mad Men with more sex, but with network TV standards (like no nudity). (*UPDATE. Apparently there will be nudity. ) Can you figure out what that means? Me neither, but it stars Amber Heard (Drive Angry, Pineapple Express) and promises to be sexy, like Playboy. The director, Alan Taylor, actually did a lot of work on Mad Men, so that’s good. I’ll check it out. What the hell.

NOT FOR ME

A MANN’S WORLD- Created by Michael Patrick King (Sex in the City) and starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice), this show revolves around a straight Beverly Hills hairdresser in his fifties trying to stay relevant. Much like Don Johnson is. Nothing about this show interests me. But it will be interesting to see how Michael Patrick King writes for non-women/non-gays.

GRIMM- This show, produced by Sean Hayes (the new Three Stooges’ Larry) is another dark, fairy tale show much like Once Upon a Time, but this one happens to also be a cop drama (really) set in a world where characters created by the Brothers Grimm (Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel) exist, and a detective who “starts to see humans as beast/animals discovers he has a mandate to protect ‘humans’ from the beasts.” This just doesn’t seem up my alley. And the creators/writers aren’t anyone I care about. So I’ll probably miss this one.

ARE YOU THERE VODKA? IT’S ME, CHELSEA- This adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s book stars Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) as the titular star, an “alcohol loving” (drunk-ass), “oversexed” (slutty), “waitress” (waitress). I don’t like Chelsea Handler, because I never laugh when I watch her show, and I thought her gig as VMA host was a bust, but apparently women love her, and her “proud to be a drunk-ass slut” ways. I think this show will be successful, but I will probably not watch.

There are a few more I have to write about, but I have to go to sleep as I have to be on set at 5:30 AM tomorrow.

Until Tomorrow—-

Post 66- What’s The Next “According to Jim?”

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Whether you knew it or not, we are smack dab in the middle of pilot season right now. Pilot season occurs from January-April every year and is the time when new shows for the fall are being strategically planned out by networks. What is a pilot? A pilot is a single episode that typically serves as the series premiere of a television show. It is one of the early stages in the development of a television series. Typically the development process begins when a writer or producer pitches an idea to the networks. If the idea gets a green light, the network will commission a script to be written by the series creator or a well-known writer. Out of the 300 or so pitches that are given, about 50 are given commissioned script offers and out of those around 10-20 are given money to produce an actual pilot. The pilot must set the stage for the entire series by introducing characters, a tone, the concept, and a sample story line. Think of a pilot therefore as a testing ground to see if the series has potential.

In the next couple posts I will discuss the most/least promising pilots for each network based on their creators, concepts and casting.

ABC

PROMISING:

Charlie’s AngelsThis is a reboot of the popular 70s series and Diaz/Barrymore/Liu flick, taking place in Miami. Thankfully there is no subtitle like, “Fuller Throttle.” This show is promising to me because the concept is a no-brainer—3 hot chicks go on missions/kick ass and the creative team behind it is Alfred Gough and Miles Millar who created Smallville, a great show near and dear to my heart. The angels have been cast with Minka Kelly being the only real name of the bunch, but after checking out the first released photo, it seems they all have the necessary requirements to fulfill the roles. Robert Wagner (Dr. Evil’s Number 2) is providing the voice of Charlie, with Shia LaBeouf’s annoying Mexican friend from Transformers 2 taking on the role of Bosley. This bit of casting seems to be the weakest link, but I guess you would be annoying too if you were chased by giant robots and had to listen to Shia and Megan Fox squabble for hours. Overall, if they can get some good story lines and ramp up the sexiness, there’s no reason why this show can’t find an audience.

Pan Am– A sexy soap opera taking place in the 60s jet-age about a group of pilots/stewardesses (I guess we call them flight attendants now) working at the iconic Pan Am Airways. Think that sequence in Catch Me If You Can. The premise is interesting, and it stars Christina Ricci in her first network television role, which to me gives it a plus. Also a plus is that Tommy Schlamme (Aaron Sorkin’s right hand man who worked on SportsNight, West Wing etc.) is producing/directing. Period shows are expensive for networks to produce, that’s why they mostly go to cable, but lots of networks are investing in period pieces this year (as I’ll get to later) so that gives it more of a shot of making it to series. If this series is more Mad Men than that god-awful Gwyneth Paltrow flight-comedy View From the Top, it has got a shot.

Once Upon A Time- Capitalizing on the recent obsession with updating fairy tale stories (which are public domain) by making them darker, this show is about Anna (House’s Jennifer Morrison), who is drawn into a town where the magic and mystery of fairy tales may be real and hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of her troubled past. Characters include the Evil Queen, Snow White (Big Love’s Ginnifer Goodwin), Rumpelstilskin (The World Is Not Enough’s Robert Carlyle), Jiminy Cricket, Prince Charming, etc. This show is promising because it has a good cast and an interesting concept, but if it cannot set the right tone and if the writing is weak, I probably won’t watch it. It also must find the right age bracket. If it’s too dark, it loses kids, but if it’s too precious, it loses teens and adults. At least ABC is taking a chance though. One less cop/medical/sexy neighborhood show is a plus.

Damage Control- This Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) show revolves around Kerry Washington (Ray, The Last King of Scotland) as the legendary Washington D.C. crisis management consultant Judy Smith, or a “fixer” with a dysfunctional staff. Also starring in this show is young black actor Columbus Short, Guillermo Diaz (Half-Baked and Weeds’ Guillermo), and Tony Goldwyn (the voice of Disney’s Tarzan and the director of Zach Braff’s The Last Kiss) as the President. This is promising because it has a diverse cast, and there aren’t enough political shows on TV right now so it might be able to fill a hole. Also, Ms. Rhimes has three other shows on ABC right now so the odds are that she’ll get a fourth.

Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23- Created by Malcolm in the Middle and American Dad writer Nahnatchka Khan, this comedy revolves around “June (Dreama Walker), an earnest, optimistic girl from the heartland, who is forced to move in with Choe (Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter), a sexy, unstable New York City party girl who has the morals of a pirate”. Also starring in the series, as a heightened version of himself (think NPH in Harold in Kumar) is James Van Der Beek. This show shows promise, not only because it’s being directed by Modern Family director Jason Winer, but also because I love Krysten Ritter and the Van Der Beek has successfully poked fun at himself in the past. See: Van Der Memes.

Suburgatory- This show is promising to me because it stars Cheryl Hines, Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk) and Clueless’ Jeremy Sisto in a comedy. The show revolves around a New York City teen who moves with her dad into a frightening suburb. This is not a horror show like The Gates, or a soap opera like Desperate Housewives, so I feel like it will probably be more along the lines of The Stepford Wives. Mocking the suburbs (not to be confused with Rocking the Suburbs, which is something only Ben Folds can do), when done well, (see: Weeds) is a ripe source for comedy.

LESS THAN PROMISING:

Untitled Tim Allen Project- This show, created by Tim Allen and 30 Rock’s Jack Burditt revolves around Tim, “fighting for his manhood in a world increasingly dominated by women.” So basically this is kind of Home Improvement 2.0. By the way, I’m a huge fan of Home Improvement 1.0. While Burditt no doubt is a great writer, and Tim is certainly a TV star, who has spurned offers to get back to television every year since Home Improvement was cancelled, I just feel like it’s hard for lightning to strike twice. Actors who leave a hit show and then return to television later are successful when they can reinvent themselves a bit (see: Ted Danson, Ray Romano, Matt LeBlanc on Episodes), not when they play the same type of character, even if that character was beloved (see: Michael Richards, Kelsey Grammar on his last two failures). Although there are always exceptions and I think American does love Tim Allen, he is much older now and doesn’t have the attention of the young adults. (You don’t see his face in Toy Story 3). If this show is a sitcom and Tim Allen plays a father who makes sexist jokes, I don’t see it making it. But if the show is something different and the writing is really clever, it’s got a shot.

NOPE

Partners. This show lost me at the logline which reads: “Cop drama centered on two female police detectives, Mattie and Jess, who also secretly happen to be half-sisters, which explains their intense loyalty to one another.” OH! That’s the twist. They’re HALF-SISTERS! Now you have my attention! Why they have to keep it a secret I can’t fathom. It’s one thing if one was a criminal and the other was a cop and they were half-sisters, but they’re on the same team. Plus, I don’t know what kind of drama begets from the complexity that is the half-sister relationship.  The cast is filled with no-names and the team behind it isn’t too compelling. I doubt this makes it to series.

Work It- The official description reads: Two out-of-work car salesmen, Angel and Lee, realize that in order to find employment again, they’ll need to dress as women to land jobs as pharmaceutical reps – inadvertently making them better men, husbands and fathers. So basically Bosom Buddies meets Tootsie meets Mrs. Doubtfire meets every cross-dressing movie ever. There’s no one worth mentioning behind this pilot, and god knows how they can stretch this half-assed tired idea over 22 episodes. Expect lots of period jokes, sexist humor, guys hitting on “guys,” high voices, and stupid wigs.

REALLY?

Poe- A show featuring Edgar Allan Poe as the world’s first detective, using unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston. Like Sherlock Holmes, but with Edgar Allen Poe. Why didn’t I think of that? Because it’s a crazy idea that seems to make as much sense as Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter. What? That’s going to be a movie? Coincidentally this is the second (?!) project this season to feature Edgar Allen Poe as an action hero. John Cusak is also playing him in The Raven, a thriller directed by Ninja Assassin’s James McTeigue. The creators and the cast of the series are no names (which isn’t a knock against it, but doesn’t help it either). All in all this sounds so crazy…it just might work! (But I doubt it will.)

STAY TUNED FOR UPDATES ON THE PILOTS ON THE OTHER MAJOR NETWORKS!

Until tomorrow—

BONUS VIDEO POST!

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