Sunday, September 30, 2012


I recently started my PhD program, and with that has come a dramatic decrease in my spare time.  This alone probably wouldn't be enough to kill the blog -- I maintained it through my MA year, after all -- but there seem to be an endlessly proliferating amount of demands on my time, and to be frank this blog isn't exactly setting the world on fire.  I've got a third of a post on Eureka Seven AO typed up, but I can't really be arsed to finish it, and I don't want to do the kind of half-assed job that I (or the creators of Eureka Seven AO) have been doing lately.

I may return sometime with a new format, or a new blog all together.  Or I may vanish into the aether of the Internet forever.  I'd like to thank all of the people who stumbled across this site looking for porn, my two loyal readers that may only be a figment of my imagination, and all of the television I grumbled about over the past year.  Sorry, guys.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mantracker 6-05: Priscilla & Colt

The dual trends of reality television and cable proliferation has produced a host of shows that manage to produce several seasons without the vast majority of the population being aware they exist.  Such is Mantracker, a Canadian[1] reality series that my too-complicated wildcard system happened to stumble across.  It's a cheaply-produced show, obviously formulaic, and on some levels laughable, but critics would be foolhardy to ignore the vast bulk of cable detritus, which taken together is a pretty significant cultural phenomenon.  So down the rabbit hole we go.

As much as I can gather from one episode, Mantracker is basically The Amazing Race (or, more accurately, extreme tag) crossed with the plethora of nature-based reality shows, with the titular mantracker (given a name in the intro but mainly referred to by "Mantracker" or "Tracker") filling in the role of grizzled host.  The format involves a team of "prey" travelling on foot across the wilderness, trying to evade the team of "Tracker" and "Sidekick" (yes, that's the actual name the show gives him), who don't know where they're headed but get to travel on horseback.  It's a basic one-off competition format, with the contestants either winning by reaching the finish line or losing by getting caught.  There's a bunch of extra stuff to attempt to balance out the asymmetric nature of the game, but that's the gist of it.

Of course, the fact that this chase takes place across wilderness -- in this episode the Canadian shield -- is crucial.  For one, the setting helps change the central metaphor of the competition from "tag" to "hunting", which is much more dramatic.  Moreover, the wilderness provides inexpensive beauty -- when the drama of the series fails, the opportunity to experience nature from the comfort of our sofa is enough of an appeal.  There are even a number of educational bits about local wildlife (possibly just there to justify government grants).

The natural setting also helps produce an ideology in which the show is meaningful.  "It's more than just a game," the overly-agressive narrator insists in the opening.  "This thing called Mantracker is a return to the animal instincts hidden deep in the human DNA."  It doesn't really get much more explicit than that, folks.  Mantracker positions itself as a return to something real -- the wilderness, life-or-death struggle, and biological imperative -- in contrast with the postmodern world.

This is a distinctly gendered discourse.  Priscilla is constantly portrayed as an anchor on her husband Colt, ranked (very scientific-like) as having less physical ability and being easier to capture, and the narrative of the episode goes on to confirm this.  On a broader level, the nostalgia for a time when trackers on horses were really societally important is at least in part a longing for a physical, masculine world where men could actually fulfill all the aspects of their traditional gender identity.

The narrative of the episode plays out cyclically: the prey come up with some plan or scheme tto fool the tracker, and we then cut to the tracker immediately figuring out what they've done.  Priscilla & Colt are portrayed in the time-honoured manner of minor villains, making half-hearted jokes about the tracker's age and scheming about leaving prankish traps for him, which the tracker interprets as nice gifts in one of the episode's more amusing interation.  The usual reality TV staples are all used in an attempt to create tension, ranging from confessional interviews to pre-commercial previews which make the upcoming events look much more dramatic than they actually are.  (In one egregious exampe, the preview suggests that one of the teams encounters a bear, which never comes close to happening.)

For all these tricks, though, there isn't much actual tension in this episode.  Whether it's the imbalance of the format or simply the weakness of these two particular contestants, Priscilla and Colt never really seem to have a prayer of winning.  The tracker basically finds them not far from the starting line and lets them get away, presumably because they need to fill up an hour with this chase.  Reality competition shows usually don't ask for much suspension of disbelief, as their format openly and obviously forces competition and drama, but this scene ruins any ideas that the narrative is not entirely predetermined.  On a slicker-produced show, I might have bought Priscilla and Colt's escape, but here it comes off as blatant manipulation, which kind of spoils the whole "survival of the fittest" aspect.  But that's the danger with reality television.  The producers may think they're in control of what really happens, or at least what makes it to air, but so often reality is in control of them.

Next week: "That's the only connection I have between my Mom and I.  It's not a weapon!"

[1] This may help to explain my ignorance of this show, as I (like most Canadians) don't pay any attention to Canadian TV.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fist of the North Star 103: A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!

Okay, let's get this right out of the way: no episode of Fist of the North Star is as good as its title.  The amount of bold, over-the-top heroics suggested in sentence fragments and redundant exclamation marks is enough to set anyone's blood a-boiling, especially when screamed out by the hyperactive preview narrator.  The actual episodes usually pale in comparison, often seeming like the thirty seconds of awesome-looking moments from the trailer stuffed together with twenty minutes of stalling.  With next-episode previews affixed to just about every anime release, Fist of the North Star ends with that distinct soap opera kick: "that was terrible, and I need to find out what happens next."

I was exaggerating: the show's not terrible.  It's perhaps not the classic that certain spheres of anime fandom have built it up to be, but it has a certain charm that's mainly to due with the anarchic animation and larger-than-life characters and accompanying mythology.  It was also incredibly influential, which may make it a classic depending on your particular definition of the word.  Of course, not all influences are for the better.

Many of anime's distinctive stylistic traits were developed in the 60s and 70s as shortcuts to cut animation costs.  While some of these are reviled today (speedlines, anyone?), many have become cherished parts of the anime aesthetic.  Similarly, the shortcuts and narrative duct tape used by Fist of the North Star have become distinct traits of the shounen genre that it heavily influenced.  In particular I want to look at its economical way of portioning out story -- or, to be slightly more direct, its use of filler.

Shounen today is famous for its long battles that can stretch on for several episodes.  This episode's featured battle, between Raoh and Fudo, is only two episodes, as it isn't tremendously important and the standard of fight length had yet to be really established.  But whether two episodes or twelve, in most of these episodes there's remarkably little fighting going on.  In "A Challenge From the Devil!", for instance, the Raoh/Fudo fight doesn't' get started until three quarters of the way in.  In general in these episodes significant events happen at the start and the end of the episode.  This is not simply poor writing, but a factor of the format and economics of mass-market anime.  There's only so much manga to adapt, and said manga is usually incomplete when the anime adaptation starts.  So plot must be rationed, spread out amongst the constant grind of weekly episodes.

So what do you do when there's not enough plot to go around?  Flashbacks are one staple.  In this episode we have an extended flashback to Raoh's past encounter with Fudo, the only man to ever truly frighten him, as well as Fudo's eventual conversion into the gentle giant of the present.  This conversion was, of course, at the hands of Yuria, the idealized female figure who, as an object of desire, has driven this last arc.  Simply witnessing her kindness is enough to reform Fudo.  We're also reminded again that the young Yuria looked an awful lot like Lynn, furthering the idea that all of the significant female characters in the series (all 3 or 4 of them) are basically the same person.

(The perspective here is a great example of the grandiose overstatement inherent in Fist of the North Star's style, with characters like Fudo and Raoh being not only giants but also growing and shrinking at the whim of the animator.)

There's a kind of paradoxical nature to the recent flashbacks in this series.  On the one hand, any flashback establishes the primacy of the past as a way of understanding who the characters are today.  This logic works for both mythic (e. g. Fist of the North Star) and psychological (e.g. Lost) ideas of character.  When Fudo is forced to don his old battle armour again and become "the Ogre", it's the return of the repressed writ large and violent.  Kenshiro's new ability to channel the skills of his defeated foes also plays into this dynamic.

But at the same time these late-series flashbacks are a bit of a retcon.  Characters like Raoh and Fudo are ascribed motivations that have never been mentioned before but are suddenly all important.  At the same time as the in-story past is made more important, the past that we ourselves remember -- the past of the series -- has become less important and even cast as unreal compared to these characters' newly-established backgrounds.  This is the essential paradox surrounding retcons, both the obvious dimension-bending ones seen in superhero comics and the subtler ones seen elsewhere.

It is not that flashbacks are necessarily filler -- they can often reveal crucial information.  And in Fist of the North Star they reflect one of the main ideas of the series, a lost age of peace and prosperity ruined by degeneracy and complacency.  But they stop the narrative momentum of the series in its tracks, and interrupt the flow inherent to any good fight scene.  As the fights become talkier and more flashback-dominated, it becomes less of an action series and more of a series that uses fights as an inciting dramatic event but is basically not really interested in them.

Another key time-filling technique can be seen in this episode's interstitial action sequence with Kenshiro.  This is a familiar pattern for the fourth and final "part" of the series: while Raoh and the Goshashei have plot-relevant battles at the start and end of each episode, Kenshiro takes on minions in the middle.  These guys are basically the image of your average Fist of the North Star mook, a mixture of 80s countercultures that embody youth degeneracy.

There's a bit of a change to the formula of these battles, as at this point in the plot Kenshiro has been blinded and has to take on the bad guys without use of his sight.  This allows for moments of mortality, such as when the leader of the thugs in this episodes actually hits him.  But for the most part it's the usual exhibition of invulnerability and superman strength.  This was once, of course, the meat of most episodes, but now it seems as though Raoh has become the true protagonist (if not the hero) of the narrative, whereas Kenshiro is just a relic of the older story, a supporting character in his own show.

Of course, what fans deride as filler is not always a bad thing.  If we put prejudice in favour of serialized stories aside, the journey can be just as fulfilling as the destination.  There are great shows that are entirely episodic, and thus from a certain perspective all filler.  But at this point in Fist of the North Star we're just seeing conflicts and ideas we've seen many times before re-enacted again.  Worse yet, there is genuine plot advancement in the episode, which makes the redundant majority of its runtime even more aggravating.  So I would argue that the reliance on time-filling in what is, after all, not that complex a story is a flaw of Fist of the North Star.  But it would very quickly become a flaw of the genre.

Next week: "You haven't ignored the last of me!"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Futurama 7-13: Naturama

The anthology format is one that doesn't always work, especially for half-hour shows.  (Note that here I'm talking about episodes that are themselves anthologies of shorter pieces, not Twilight Zone-esque) anthologies of stand-alone episodes.  For instance, at this point when it pops up on The Simpsons it usually signals an indifferent space-filler (or maybe that's just any contemporary Simpsons episode).  But Futurama has always made this format something of a special event, usually a season-closer, recognizing in it the potential for unbridled play.

The Futurama anthology episode is usually the equivalent to the old comic book What-If stories, quite literally for the old "Anthology of Interest" episodes.  By exploring alternate universes and continuities, one can not only reveal more about the "real" universe of the story but also transgress the usual boundaries of the episodic format.  In "Naturama" the writers take particular delight in killing off regular characters and otherwise teasing alterations of the status quo that would never fly in the main series.

"Naturama" imagines the central characters as animals, a fairly hokey premise, but fortunately the various writers do more than cute-dog jokes.  Like the previous season finale, "Reanimation" has an ostensible gimmick uniting the three shorts (there it was a change in animation style) but also has a thematic undercurrent cutting through all of the stories.  Here all three are about love, in particular the hopeless and frustrating side of love, as well as the collision between personal will and the dictates of nature.

The first segment, "The Salmon", references the well-known but still bizarre mating rituals of the salmon, a natural metaphor for a fatalistic worldview if there ever was one.  The story uses the Fry-Leela romance, which has at this point become more of an occasionally-referenced myth than an actual plotline, and exploits all of those mythic associations.  Of course, graphing human romance (especially a star-crossed romance involving a love triangle with Zap Branigan) onto animal mating behaviour is specious anthropomorphism, but hey, that's the whole episode.

What's more interesting is the parts of the salmon lifestyle that aren't anthropomorphized.  When asked his name, Fry-fish replies "I don't have a name.  I'm a salmon."  Similarly, the short makes a lot of hay out of the actual sex act, involving the female laying eggs and the male jizzing on them.  The almost scatological and definitely bestial specifics of the act contrast with the attempt to overlay a very human romance narrative on it.  "The Salmon" constantly undercuts its central premise by pointing out how absurd that premise actually is -- a strange maneuver, but an interesting one.

The second short, an obvious take on Lonesome George featuring the Professor as the eponymous turtle, is more of the cute-animal story one would expect from the overall episode premise.  Other than Mom's sourness, the characters here only visually resemble their Futurama incarnations, and the story at large is an uneasy mixture of sentimentality and dark-humour cynicism.  It's a perfectly fine seven minutes of television, but other than a few lines about parasites and lifespans it lacks that alienating dynamic that interests me most about this episode.

That dynamic returns in spades in the final segment, which again deals with a strange mating process -- that of the elephant seal.  (Incidentally, one has to compliment the Futurama writers for not only being able to dig up these bizarre biological corner cases but using them to create further jokes and not just chuckling at the idea of seal sex).  Bender is reincarnated as a "beachmaster", keeper of a massive seal harem, which is a divergence from canon Bender -- who isn't interested in lust any more than any of the other sins -- but one that allows him to retain the characteristics that make him appealing.  The Amy/Kif romance is also interpreted into a new form whilst retaining its essence, the beta-male-makes-good storyline.  If anything, it becomes more impactful in a setting where the term "beta male" is not a metaphor.

The story itself is filled with strange ambiguities.  Amy is treated as genuinely in love with Kif, but gleefully joins in every pile on Bender.  Kif heroically challenges Bender to a fight, and is promptly squashed.  At the end bender is still content in his throne, although the beta males have secretly impregnated many of the females.  There's nothing revolutionary about a story where neither good nor evil wins, but there's usually a message, whereas here there's just unpleasant things happening.

The Phil LaMarr-voiced narrator assures us at the end of the second segment that "nature is horrific, and teaches us nothing".  It's comically overstated, but in the end that does seem to be the main take-away from "Naturama".  As much as we may wish to ascribe human characters or motivations to animals -- George is lonesome, the salmon long for their home, the beachmaster is slothful and indulgent -- ultimately only a mixture of biology and raw chance rule.

This is not an especially new idea, with the idea of nature as meaningless violence going back at least to Hobbes.  The general acceptance of evolution means that it's a fairly widespread idea.  What "Naturama" points out is the way in which we attempt to elide this view through narrative, whether it be ascribing human characteristics to our pets or the full-scale anthropomorphism of a Disney movie.  It does this by constantly calling attention to the ridiculousness of its own narrative conceit, a surprisingly bold movie for a show as long in the tooth as Futurama.

Of course, it does leave us with one final question: is this realm of random violence and meaningless endings really all that different from the one we humans live in?

Next week: "I got rope, I got duct tape, I got a tazer..."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wilfred 2-10: Honesty

The first season of Wilfred was substantially foused on Ryan's relationship with Jenna.  Not only is Jenna the impetus for the entire series, being the one who asks Ryan to look after Wilfred, but many first-season episodes were driven by Ryan's attempts to get close to Jenna or split her and Drew up.  In the second season, however, she's taken a bit of a backseat, to the point that it began to seem that every episode started with Wilfred explaining how Jenna was on vacation.  This was largely beneficial to the show, as Jenna doesn't really have that much comedic potential and the possible scenarios surrounding her were more or less exhausted in the first season.  But when she returns in "Honesty", not as a supporting character but a major one, it does feel as though Wilfred has returned to its roots.

This is actually the kind of episode that feels as though it should have been much earlier in the season, dealing with the fallout of the first season finale and not the barely-mentioned events of the second season thus far[1].  It relies heavily on knowledge of the cascading series of disasters that closed out the first season, which are a bit cloudy in even my memory.  On the other hand, this does fit into this season's overall arc of Ryan making amends and inching closer to becoming a normal human being.

The impetus of the plot is Jenna's attempt at regaining her journalistic credibility, but this quickly is transferred over to Ryan's own personal neuroses.  The genuine favour she asks of him would involve him talking with his father, one of Ryan's prevailing hang-ups, so of course that doesn't happen.  But Ryan's failure to overcome this fear for the girl he likes leads him into a guilt-driven attempt to fabricate a story, which naturally spirals into absurdity.

So far this is par for the course.  This is the basic comedic machine of the series: Jenna (sometimes replaced by Kristen or Amanda) incites Ryan to action, usually through guilt, and his errant attempts at making her happy are inflamed and made both absurd and disastrous by the intervention of Wilfred.  This is a very traditional sitcom structure, and its absurdism and dark comedy Wilfred is a very traditional comedy, right down to the moral of the week.  While you would never see a plotline involving the main character pretending to be a deranged cat murderer on, say, The Cosby Show, the underlying beats of the story -- for instance, the moment where Jenna thanks Ryan for his attempts to help but only aggravates his guilt for creating the problem -- are pretty similar.

That moral of the week is a little skewed here, however.  On the surface the story reinforces the preschool lesson about honesty being the best policy -- Ryan and Jenna finally come clean about their respective misdeeds, and it ultimately leads to a better relationship and less guilt.  What's more, this honesty also allows us as an audience to see the characters in a new way, in particular Jenna's admission that she was consciously manipulating Ryan throughout the first season.  This isn't really novel -- the hot girl who takes advantage of the weird guy with a crush on her is a well-worn one, probably driven by the tendency of screenwriters to be frustrated weird guys -- but it does suggest a sense of interiority that was absent from Jenna before.

But there's still a great deal of deceit that goes on and remains uncorrected at the end of the episode.  Jenna still has no idea that when Ryan looks at her dog he sees a foul-mouthed Australian in an animal suit.  If we look at illusion as a kind of metaphysical deceit, then Ryan still has no idea whether he can see Wilfred honestly, and Wilfred himself is a cauldron of deceit and tricks (as Ryan argues early in this episode, Wilfred lies to him all the time).  On a smaller scale, Jenna ends the episode without ever learning about Ryan's connection with the cat kidnappings or that Ryan never called his father.

So what's the take-away here?  Is the lesson that deception and illusion are wrong except for when they work out for the best, a la A Midsummer Night's Dream?  Is it just haphazard plotting undercutting the alleged larger message?  Neither explanation really satisfies me.

Rather, I think this reflects on Wilfred's idea of morality, which is probably most closely akin to Catholicism.  Honesty is not, in this episode, telling the absolute truth about everything.  Rather, honesty is about confession.  Ryan only can be honest by admitting that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness.  Many other episodes of Wilfred follow the model of confession -- Ryan at first denies that he's doing anything wrong or suffering from any kind of sin (past episode titles: "Avoidance", "Anger", "Pride", "Fear"), and is healed by admitting his weakness in the episode's conclusion.

The Catholicism comparison also highlights why guilt is such an important driving device.  (This might come off as a joke, but I don't really mean it that way.)  Wilfred is the human (er, canine) embodiment of guilt, the voice in the back of your head always suggesting that you aren't living your life according to the moral code that you believe in.  This would explain the sometimes contradictory nature of the show's "lessons" -- guilt can get you no matter what you do, and there can even be paradoxical guilt over the failure to embrace new-age morality about putting the past behind you and living life to its fullest, which Wilfred advocates in the episodes where he isn't hounding Ryan for past misdeeds.  So maybe Wilfred isn't the figure of unrivaled id that he's usually taken for, but a strange kind of conscience (a superego, to go all Freudian).  If this is true, it's a conscience that is, perhaps like real consciences, constantly unsatisfied.  But the series suggests that maybe this kind of thinking can lead to positive results after all.

In this episode, everything works out because of Ryan's one act of honesty.  Now knowing what she experienced, Jenna is able to use that experience to sell a potentially hokey "investigative report" on pot candy.  The deceit that Ryan formerly embodied is transferred to the inanimate stick of candy.  (Its deceitful, destructive high is carefully separated from and contrasted with the open, inhibition-lowering pot that Ryan and Wilfred smoke at the end of almost every episode.)  Jenna regains her job, Ryan regains her friendship, and things inch closer to, if not a happy ending, at least the basically stable first-season status quo.

But of course, there are Ryan's still-unrevealed deceits, his inability to confront his father, and his potential insanity.  Wilfred's central characters only progress through two steps forward and one step back.  But that is, the show suggests, enough.

Next week: "A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!"

[1]This along with Jenna's general scarcity this season is enough to make me suspect that there were some scheduling issues with Fiona Gubelmann, although I have no idea what else she has going on.