Saturday, June 16, 2007

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Forbidden Fruit"

"Deep in the heart of the Amazon, the Butler family was exploring an uncharted river canyon. Suddenly, caught up in a violent whirlpool, they were propelled through an underground cavern and flung into a hostile world of giant prehistoric creatures, a world that time forgot. Now befriended by a family of cave dwellers, each day is an adventure in survival for the Butlers in...the valley of the dinosaurs."
-Opening narration from Valley of the Dinosaurs

In the autumn of 1974, American children had a choice between watching stop-motion dinosaurs on the live-action Sid and Marty Krofft spectacular Land of the Lost or cartoon dinosaurs on Hanna-Barbera's similarly themed animated series Valley of the Dinosaurs.

The similarities between the two programs are quite interesting. Both shows involve modern American families on inflatable rafts "tumbling" down dangerous bodies of waters and ending up in prehistoric worlds. On Land of the Lost, it's the closed pocket universe of Altrusia; in Valley of the Dinosaurs, it's merely a hidden valley in the Amazon. Both series also involve contemporary, 20th century technological man interacting with more primitive "natural" creatures, whether a Neanderthal family in Valley or Chaka's people, the Pakuni.

The first half-hour episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs aired on Saturday, September 7, 1974 and was titled "Forbidden Fruit." This episode was directed by Charles A. Nichols and the writing team included Peter Dixon, Peter Germano, Dick Robbins and Jerry Thomas. Interestingly, the story editor on Valley of the Dinosaurs was Sam Roeca, who later served as story editor on the third season of Land of the Lost. Talk about closed pocket universes...

Anyway, the Butler family consists of white-haired patriarch, John Butler, his troublesome and prone-to-mischief son, Greg (who likes to say things such as "jumping jeepers!"), hot teenage daughter Katie, and the protective mother of the clan, Kim. The Butlers have also brought along their loyal dog, who resembles Scooby-Doo (remember, this is Hanna-Barbera too...), named Digger.

The thematic leitmotif of Valley of the Dinosaurs involves the Butler's learning to cooperate, respect and live alongside a "mirror" human family of primitive cavemen, which includes patriarch Gorok, hunky son Lok, and matriarch Gara, among others. Tana is the little cave-person girl and Greg's playmate. The cave family even cares for a pet Stegosaurus named, I believe -, if I heard it right - "Glump." Each episode involves one family teaching the other family a lesson in tolerance and diversity. The differences in evolution don't matter, the show informs us as viewers; we can still be "good neighbors."

For instance, "Forbidden Fruit" involves the Butler family discovering a stash of delicious tree-growing fruit. However, the cavemen, led by Gorok, forbid the family from eating it. Why? Well, apparently, a local brontosaurus is quite adamant about devouring all the fruit itself. Still, Greg fails to honor this edict and steals a basket of the fruit, which results in the angry brontosaur assaulting the home of the two families, an expansive mountain cavern. The attack by the dinosaur precipitates a cave-in, and then a flooding of the habitat. The two families must then work together to siphon water out of the cave, utilizing bamboo chutes that happen to be on hand. Greg feels guilty for breaking the cave man law and finds a way out to warn the village about the dinosaurs.

In the end, order is restored and Gorok provides viewers with the lesson of the week. "We have laws and customs," he reminds the Butlers. "You know things we do not, and we listen. We know things you do not...and you listen." Indeed, Gorok. Indeed. This episode also features the cave man realization that "The Butlers...they are strange...but nice."

While we ponder these thoughts, below - for your viewing pleasure - is the opening montage and theme to
Valley of the Dinosaurs:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

TV REVIEW: Traveler

Network programming in the 2006-2007 season seems to have taken a cue from television history. Although there are certainly more recent "man on the run" series such as Fox's Prison Break to point at, it appears that at least a few programs this year are authentic children of that classic TV venture, The Fugitive starring David Janssen and Barry Morse. Hopefully, you remember the concept of that sixties series: a reputable doctor (Janssen) is accused of murdering his wife, when in fact the real culprit is the mysterious one-armed man. Pursued by an intractable policeman (the cliched character I term "the hapless pursuer"), the "fugitive" of the title is on the run each week, trying to clear his name.

In 2007, the late and somewhat lamented Fox series Drive falls under the category of Fugitive child. In that adventure, Alex Tully (played by Nathan Fillion), finds his wife not murdered but vanished, and he's the prime suspect in her disappearance. He's then basically corralled into a cross-country road race. The prize at the finish line is learning what became of his wife....and also clearing his name. Sound familiar?

The new series, Traveler, airing on ABC is even more deeply cast in the mold of The Fugitive. Only the narrative here has been cannily updated for our fearful, "War on Terror" epoch. To wit, the series opens with three Yale graduates, Jay Burchell (Matthew Bomer), Tyler Fog (,Logan Marshall-Green) and Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) playing a harmless prank in the Drexler Museum of Art in Manhattan. Only thing is their prank turns out to be the cover for a surprise terrorist attack organized - allegedly - by Will himself. There's a bombing at the museum, and video surveillance catches Jay and Tyler fleeing the scene; making them public enemy numbers 1 and 2. Now Jay and Tyler are wanted men, on the run from a whole cadre of hapless pursuers in the FBI. In this case, it's not Barry Morse playing the lead pursuer, but Agent Chambers as essayed by Steven Culp. Each week, Fog and Burchell attempt to clear their names and solve a little more of the mystery surrounding the bombing of the Drexler and their mysterious "friend," Will Traveler. This inevitably involves Lost-style flashbacks of the time Will, Tyler and Jay shared a house together on the Yale campus.

Primarily, Traveler has two elements in its favor. The first is that as Americans we indeed dwell in the age of paranoia, and so this new series may be reminiscent of The Fugitive, but it's The Fugitive on steroids. Specifically, series creator David Digilio makes trenchant use of current events to make viewers acutely aware that Burchell and Fog are in deep, deep trouble should they be caught. To wit, these suspects can be classified as "enemy combatants" by the Federal Government, and therefore need not ever even be brought to trial. They can just be "disappeared" and sent to Gitmo forever, never to be seen or heard from again. No charges even need to be brought. Back in the 1960s, Janssen's character at least would have been granted a trial, a fair hearing. Here, the fear and paranoia of the post-9/11 age grants a new kind of immediacy to the time worn The Fugitive premise. These men on the run are guaranteed no quarter, no protection of civil rights as American citizens...nothing. As the protagonists on the show realize, the U.S. Constitution has been "shredded" in favor of security measures designed to "protect us." But what if you're accused of a crime and really are innocent? Humorously, the series also posits a President Shears running the country as our Unitary Executive. And "shears" after all, are what you use to cut a "bush," aren't they?

Traveler's other main "plus" is its pace and speed. This series powers through its running time each week like a runaway train, hardly leaving one time to catch his or her breath. The first episode featured a stunning chase across Manhattan rooftops, with FBI agent Marlow (Viola Davis) in hot pursuit of Fog. The second episode, which saw Burchell and Fog fleeing to "Elysium," the "off-the-radar" home of Tyler's rich but corrupt father, Carlton Fog (William Sadler) included a nighttime car chase that was beautifully edited and harrowingly paced. As an action show, Traveler's credentials are pretty much unimpeachable. One must never forget that this is a "chase" show, and such, it succeeds.

What doesn't work so well for Traveler is almost high-school the level of the writing, which stops to remind audiences at every turn of what just happened on-screen. The audience is granted a quick montage of events that just occurred, or that occurred recently, in case a viewer left the television for a potty break or something. Worse, the flashbacks all end with an important turn of phrase, like "what was Will doing down here?" Then, as we return to the present, that very phrase is repeated, just in case audiences missed it the first time. Short attention span is a problem, certainly, for some people. But for the rest of the audience, this constant rehashing of obvious plot points is not only unnecessary, but somewhat insulting. Traveler isn't the only serial this season that has resorted to this device: the canceled Kidnapped starring Jeremey Sisto utilized the exact same technique. And it was just as annoying there.

Secondly, the two series leads on Traveler - Matthew Bomer and Logan Marshall-Green - virtually redefine the term callow for modern audiences. They are impossibly good-looking, buff and heroic. But they don't register as real people...more like fraternity jocks. At times, when Traveler isn't very, very careful, it plays like the CW's Supernatural: two good-looking guys on the road dealing with "monsters," there real ones, here governmental ones.

The two-dimensionality of the leads on Traveler creates other problems for the series. For instance, it is virtually impossible to believe that agent Marlow, who positively exudes competence and intelligence, would not be able to catch these guys, especially given the resources of the FBI. I mentioned before "the hapless pursuer" cliche, and that's exactly what it is; and Traveler already suffers from it. By allowing the heroes to escape captivity each and every week, the writers of the series only succeed in making the villains look stupid and incompetent. The problem with that is that after a few instances of good guys evading the bad guys, the audience will start to take that victory for granted, and characters like Chambers and Marlow will lose their, teeth, looking ridiculous in the process.

Still, there's much potential to appreciate in Traveler. There's an interesting subplot about Jay's girlfriend, Kim Doherty (Pascale Hutton) and how she is forced to deal with the unwanted celebrity of being a terrorist's girlfriend. Remember how after (the still-unsolved...) Anthrax attacks following 9/11, John Ashcroft and his Justice Department named a professor at some college a "person of interest" in the case and then never bothered to clear him, or charge him? Kim lives in much the same pickle here, and again, it dovetails nicely with current events. This is the terrain where Traveler succeeds beyond expectations: in plucking elements of our national uncertainty about "War on Terror" tactics to generate a real conspiracy, suspense-trip. I hasten to add, it looks like the conspiracy here originates at the Department of Homeland Security.

At this point, it's too early to know for certain if Traveler is merely an action-packed summer treat, or a series that - between the action scenes - speaks importantly and cogently to our times, and will ultimately serve as a cultural time capsule.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Theme Song of the Week # 3: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Muir on the Allan Handelman Show!

A week ago Friday, while shooting The House Between, I had the pleasure of being a guest on Allan Handelman's "Rock Talk" to discuss my Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia. I found this timing particularly appropriate since I was dressed "in character" that day in leather pants from the 1980s. Yep - my first rock radio interview and I was wearing leather. Awesome. You can check out Allan's site here.

Anyway, Allan asked great questions about the book, and his audience called in with a number of fascinating queries too. We spent over an hour on the air discussing rock movies and had a great time. My buddy Lee Hansen, who plays Travis in The House Between took me to task for not including The Adventures of Ford Fairlane in my book, and don't you know - one of Allan's callers asked about that very film. Damn you, Hansen!!!!!!

Still, it was a great time, and I want to thank Allan for having me on his long-lived and celebrated show.

Monday, June 11, 2007

TV REVIEW: Meadowlands

What's the best way to describe Showtime's new dramatic series, Meadowlands? Well, let's see: there's a touch of The Prisoner in the setting, some Twin Peaks-style eccentricities, the ferocity and violence of The Sopranos, and loads of kinky, psychologically-disturbing sex and sexual innuendo.

I don't know that I can write a better description than that. From the title of this new series, I assumed the program would involve a family escaping New Jersey, but quite the contrary, "Meadowlands" is actually an isolated little community in the UK, one populated entirely by ex-cons; men and women ensconced in the witness protection program. As the first episode opens, viewers are introduced to a family moving into the community, and a perfect yellow house there. The Brogans arrive at their "new life" with black masks on...a nice touch, since they aren't supposed to know the location of Meadowlands.

Aside from their legal transgressions, the Brogans have some personal issues. The father of this dysfunctional family unit, Danny (David Morrissey), not only has a sordid criminal history but a propensity for violence and dishonesty. "We can't have shrinks and doctors getting into our lives right now," he says at one point, indicating the secrets and lies at the heart of the Brogan clan. Danny's wife is the beautiful Evelyn (Lucy Cohu), and she immediately catches the eye of Meadowsland's unhappily married general physician, Dr. David York (Tristan Gemmill). David is married to caustic Abigail (Emma Davies), who spends her evenings giving head to the town handyman. But more on him in a minute...

Meanwhile, the two Brogan kids have their own set of "issues." Young Mark (Harry Treadaway) wears gloves at all times because his hands were burned in a fire. And - occasionally - Mark he likes to dress up in his sister's clothes and make-up. Mark doesn't talk much (or comb his hair much, either...) and in the first episode, he engages in some kinky voyeurism, watching his busy-body neighbor Brenda Ogilvie (Melanie Hill), strip down to her bra and panties.

Pretty Zoe Brogan (Felicity Jones) is a bit healthier than her messed-up brother, but undergoing a typical teenage rebellion, nonetheless. In Meadowlands - where everyone is a crook, however - that kind of rebellion is dangerous. To wit, upon arrival in the community, Zoe falls in love with a dangerous cat called Jack "Of All Trades" Donnelly (Tom Hardy). Handyman Jack (the guy having sex with Abigail...) offers to fix Zoe's plumbing for her and then informs her that he specializes in "tongue and groove," not to mention double entendre. When Danny finds Donnelly sniffing around his daughter, Jack says to Brogan that "if she's old enough to bleed, she's old enough to butcher!" That comment naturally precipitates a fight. Even though Jack and her Dad don't get along, Zoe comes to believe that she is the only person who can "save" Jack. That plan comes to an unfortunate end...

Other characters in Meadowlands include Brogan's "handler," Samantha (Nina Sosanya), who monitors the Brogans from a safe distance in a motel control room outside the community. And then there's my favorite character, the diabolical lawman of Meadowlands, Det. Bernard Wintersgill (Ralph Brown). He's one lawman you don't want to cross, as both Jack and Danny find out separately in upcoming episodes of the series.

Although Meadowlands is ostensibly "off the radar," and therefore "the safest place on Earth," it is a hotbed for interpersonal conflict. Why? Because everyone there "has a past" that he or she is trying to escape. In one episode, Danny believes he sees the man who was present at the fire that scarred Mark. In another episode, Danny is ruthlessly tortured and interrogated over the disappearance of a main character. In one installment of the series, there is a brutal near-rape followed by a bloody murder. It's not easy stuff to stomach, and yet the drama is compelling.

The Twin Peaks aspect of Meadowlands comes into play with some of the off-the-wall touches. There's a weird Meadowlands welcome for the Brogans, the Meadowlands shag, for instance. Another strange moment involves the introduction of Brenda's daughter, Jezebel (Ellie Smith). All the build-up leads the audience to believe she will be the most gorgeous young woman you've ever seen. The truth is...well, you'll have to watch for yourself.

A violent soap-opera with a wicked sense of humor and irony, Meadowlands is perfectly-positioned to fill in for The Tudors, which just completed its triumphant first season on Showtime. I won't claim Meadowlands is light viewing, however. It's twisted and terrific stuff, even if you need a scorecard to keep up with all the characters and which ones are cheating on whom. If you give the show a chance, I think you'll find the overlapping plots and carefully excavation of family secrets a worthwhile endeavor. Meadowlands premieres on Showtime, Sunday June 17th at 10:00 pm.