I'm still trying to decide what is the bigger disappointment from NBC this week: That The Event is apparently all about (sigh) aliens, or that the network has commissioned a remake of The Munsters from Bryan Fuller (of the failed Knight Rider and Bionic Woman remakes) that is supposed to combine "Modern Family and True Blood." After The X-Files, the (new) Outer Limits, Roswell, V, three-quarters of Sci-Fi/SyFy shows, Invasion, Threshold, and two or three dozen more extraterrestrial-themed programs over the past 15 years, I feel like aliens are played out. But I really have no love for unwanted remakes of 1960s shows, especially when this one has been done before (The Munsters Today) and stands about zero chance of succeeding. I thought this is why Comcast arranged for Jeff Zucker's departure: to prevent debacles like this.
I have an idea: Call me, NBC. I'll give you a half dozen better ideas for half the price you're paying Bryan Fuller to destroy your network.
With the new television season upon us, it's time to take stock of what's new, what's old, and what's worth watching among shows possibly of interest to my readers. Here are my brief thoughts on new shows and returning favorites (or "favorites" in many cases):
NEW AND NOTABLE
The Event (NBC, Mondays, 9 ET): The self-proclaimed love child of 24 and Lost is superficially exciting and intriguing but risks becoming something of a souffle: rises spectacularly, looks gorgeous, but mostly hot air.
No Ordinary Family (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 ET): I have no idea. ABC isn't airing this superhero family drama until tomorrow, but it might have been worth plopping them down on Wisteria Lane to give Desperate Housewives a new direction.
Nikita (The CW, Thursdays, 9 ET): Unnecessary remake of an oft-remade property, Nikita is competent without being compelling, telling rather well a story I don't care about in the least.
Elvira's Movie Macabre (syndicated, weekends): The Mistress of the Dark makes fun of old movies, but if you've ever seen Mystery Science Theater 3000, you've seen this act (and these movies) before. And the film Manos: The Hands of Fate is painful to watch in any form, no matter how hard MST3K or Elvira try to make it palatable.
Chuck (NBC, Mondays, 8 ET): This spy farce started out as a 21st century Get Smart, but increasingly "serious" storylines and declining fun quotients are rapidly turning Chuck into The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Vampire Diaries (The CW, Thursdays, 8 ET): Fast-paced, smart, and sexy, the CW should send a few spare vampires over to 90210 to put those other CW high-schoolers out of their misery.
Fringe (Fox, Thursdays, 9 ET): What began as a poor copy of the X-Files finally became compelling in season two, and now in its third year the show's alternate universe has become a fun and intriguing sci-fi destination.
Smallville (The CW, Fridays, 8 ET): Really, at this point, it is what it is. But the good news is that with the show approaching its end, the new season at least has someplace to go and a reason to (finally) go there.
Supernatural (The CW, Fridays, 9 ET): After a disappointing seaon finale, Supernatural returned with a rather low-key but intriguing season premiere. If the new season lives up to the promise of more monster, less angst, it should be a fun ride.
Anything with dimwits using night vision cameras to look for "ghosts," "UFOs," or "monsters" (Every cable channel, every day, any time): It may be "reality" TV and among the biggest ratings draw for SyFy and Biography (and Animal Planet, sigh), but the producers and stars of Ghost Hunters, Celebrity Ghost Stories, and their ilk produce bad science in service of bad television. How anyone can watch this drivel, I can't imagine.
SyFy has a slate of "reality" programs that attempt to explore the supernatural and the unexplained, and the less said about the inept Ghost Hunters and its spinoffs the better. In the past, I had argued that SyFy's Destination Truth, a documentary series in which host Josh Gates searches for mythic monsters across (mostly) the Third World, was much less objectionable and in fact a rather fun hour.
Mostly this was due to the travelogue aspect of the show, with Gates describing the inconveniences and minor humiliations of traveling through the less developed parts of the world, such as his shock at discovering an electrical outlet in the shower of a Peruvian hotel room, or the ridiculous rental cars of most non-North American countries. I had the sense that Gates was in on the joke, and that no one involved took the elusive dragons, sea serpents, and other assorted monsters seriously. More often than not, in early seasons Gates concluded each investigation with qualified skepticism and plausible alternatives to the existence of mythical beasts.
But in recent episodes, something has changed. Ghosts are now featured as frequently as monsters, all the better to cross-promote SyFy propoerties. On the one hand, the mystery mongering has stepped up a notch, with the aforementioned Ghost Hunters stepping in to proclaim every electronic blip and bloop evidence of communication from BEYOND THE GRAVE. Skepticism has largely been abandoned in favor of proclaiming the likely existence of the the beasts. On the other hand, the producers must have noticed that the humorous travelogue was the show's biggest selling point. Now Destination Truth plays as bad comedy, with obviously scripted scenes and over-the-top silliness that would embarass Sesame Street.
I'm not entirely sure what my exact complain is: that it now takes the monsters too seriously, or that it is too silly, or both. A particularly egregious example aired this season when the team traveled to Kenya in search of an evil mythic beast locals insisted was not a lion. They described a hyena to a T, and video surveillance caught a hyena on tape in the area. The show spent money on the trip gosh-darn-it, and we will sit here pretending not to recognize a hyena no matter how obvious it becomes until we fill up the hour!
At any rate, I used to like Destination Truth quite a bit, but I can't recommend the new tone of intentional silliness coupled with enforced credulity in the face of facts.
Jon Nichols has a nice post about my Cult of Alien Gods on his Strange Horizons blog:
... the first few pages of the preface that grabbed me and I found myself reading all 20 pages right there on the spot, sitting in my living room with one shoe on and one shoe off, my work bag still plopped at my side.
Read the full post here.
The Hollywood Reporter asks "Are Zombies the New Vampires in Hollywood?" A wave of the walking dead are invading screens big and small, from AMC's new series The Walking Dead to big screen adaptations of zombie stories, including the Jane Austen-zombie mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the book of the same name. According to THR, zombies are poised to overtake vampires, but only if someone succeeds in making them "sexy" so that female audiences will come, watch, and enjoy.
I hate zombies. They are the least inventive of all the classic monsters, and the most limited and boring. The zombie takes its name from the Haitian voodoo practice of allegedly reviving dead corpses, but in truth the zombie as currently practiced is little more than a degraded vampire, with little relationship to Haitian lore, which involves a voodoo priest, magic spells, and walking corpses bound in service to sorcerers.
By contrast, the modern zombie is essentially a vampire without a brain. Both are risen corpses. Both feed on human bodies to sustain their unnatural existence. Both use their teeth as their major weapon. The differences between the two are traceable to the origins of the vampire story. The original vampires of European folklore were essentially what we would call zombies: rotting corpses rising from their graves, feeding on human bodies (not always blood--sometimes flesh, sometimes "breath"), and essentially mindless except for their insatiable, animal hunger. Only in the nineteenth century, with John Polidori's The Vampyre, the penny-dreadful Varney the Vampire, J. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, and of course Bram Stoker's Dracula, was the unattractive, repulsive, rotten corpse-fiend replaced with aristocratic, cultured blood suckers.
With vampires becoming objects of lust rather than terror in the twentieth century, suddenly phalanxes of zombies started marching across popular culture to return the risen corpse to its (un)natural state. However, the modern zombie lacks the Gothic gloom of the folkloric vampire, the sense of holy dread that ancient creature caused in the peasants who cowered in fear before it. The modern zombie is mostly canon-fodder, meat sacks to blow up to fill some visceral blood lust that stands in opposition to the feelings of terror and dread good horror is supposed to produce.
There was some depressing news about UFOs today. First, SyFy (formerly the SciFi Channel) has announced a new UFO-hunting TV series starring country musician Billy Ray Cyrus and his son, Trace. Together, the pair will span the country investigating conspiracy theories, aliens, and other unexplained phenomena. The show is to be called UFOs: Unbelievably Freakin' Obvious. From The Hollywood Reporter's Live Feed blog:
"The existence of paranormal phenomena is something I've always wanted to explore further," Cyrus said. "Getting the opportunity to take this adventure with my son, who has always had a keen interest in this area, is a dream come true. I hope this series can shine a light on some of the activities we have questioned, and the mysteries that have long inspired us."
If that weren't bad enough, the author of a new book attempting to "prove" the existence of UFOs wrote an op-ed on MSNBC.com attacking skeptics for attempting to debunk her. Leslie Kean, the author of UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record writes that organized skeptics are attacking her out of a misguided attempted to preserve "our familiar ways of thinking." Kean's book rests on a shaky foundation: that pilots and government officials are inherently more reliable observers than other people, and that their observations of lights and objects in the sky therefore prove, in the absence of physical evidence, that alien spaceships are sailing through our atmoshpere.
Specifically, Kean felt aggrieved that MSNBC's review by James Oberg was unfair because the space expert did not disclose his membership in the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. According to Kean, those who are skeptial of UFOs cannot legitimately review her book because they are not "unbiased" on the issue--a standard that would deprive the reading public of the kind of perspective and deeper understanding of a work that is the purpose of criticism. Without reviews from those whose views differ from the author, all that remains are puff pieces and unmitigated public relations--in other words, pure advertising.
Of course, that's what Ms. Kean and others like her really want, to write books on controversial topics without being challenged, to forward improbable theories without question, and the take in vast quantities of money from audiences who might never hear or consider that these theories and books are less than they appear. Oddly, this is also the idea behind Cyrus's new show on SyFy. So, MSNBC gave Kean free advertising to make up for their alleged "bias" against UFOs, and SyFy rakes in cash peddling theories that aren't true. Everybody wins, except of course for the audience, science, and truth.
There was a nice mention of my Skeptic article "Charioteer of the Gods" on the ArchaeoPop blog Tuesday in a discussion likening people who see aliens in ancient art to a humorous attempt to see a laptop computer in a Roman relief carving. Be sure to click the link to see the relief and how easy it is to imagine modern technology in completely unrelated parts of the past.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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