The Reef Review, The “Spooky” Workers and TV’s Alcatraz

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st February 2012.

I’d like to thank everybody who washed their car or mowed their lawn over the weekend. Now it’s raining again.

I like to support Australian cinema as much as possible. Unfortunately this weekend I chose to watch The Reef, a humourless thriller involving two good looking couples, a yacht and a hungry shark. Can you guess what happens? Whilst beautifully shot in Queensland, the plodding storyline makes the 88 minute run time seem much longer. The bland characters were paper thin, making it very difficult to care as they are picked off by Jaws one by one. Just like the characters, all I wanted to do was endure the experience and make it to the end. None of the promotional material for the movie suggested a feel good film so I suppose I wasn’t deceived. After all, the uplifting tagline on the box was, “Pray you drown first.” If you want to see your favourite actors from McLeod’s Daughters and Underbelly become fish food then The Reef is definitely for you. Avoid if your holiday later this year is at the beach.

 

Speaking of scary movies, have you noticed that the Southern Cross Ten kiddie bedtime commercial starring The Workers has been reshot? A bizarre hybrid of The Wiggles, Hi-5 and The Village People, these children’s entertainers managed to film the creepiest goodnight jingle ever, complete with creepy death stares straight into the camera, toothy robotic smiles and horrible harmonies. Not surprisingly, a newly refilmed version of their ad appeared a few weeks ago. Gone is the weirdness. Instead, none of The Workers look at the camera at all, opting to sing to each other instead. So are they putting themselves to bed, or the kids at home? For my money, make kiddie entertainment come in the form of men in skivvies, fairies or singing and dancing clones. Leave occupational stereotypes for their teenage years when you put them to work at a fast food joint to pay for their Proactiv.

 

Have you checked out Alcatraz, the latest TV series from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, the production house responsible for head scratcher Lost? Starring Sam Neill (in boggle eyed, “you must eat meat” mode) and the rotund guy from Lost, Jorge Garcia, the series follows a team of investigators searching for the population of guards and prisoners who mysteriously “disappeared” from the famous prison island in 1963. As the inmates reappear in their former cells one by one and resume their former evil ways, the team have to track them down and work out who or what is behind this event. Whilst I am enjoying the show, I have some major problems with the storyline.

If the team’s HQ is underneath the prison on the island, why don’t they just close the tourist attraction? The prisoners will reappear in their cells and be caught immediately, instead of catching the ferry back to mainland to cause trouble. And why do we never see the team on a boat travelling to and from Alcatraz? If you’re not going to close the island, then why inconvenience yourself with a boat ride several times a day? Do they have to wait for the hourly tourist ferry each time? If Lost has taught us anything, only time and a polar bear will tell, perhaps.

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Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 07:31  Leave a Comment  
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“Jim from Neighbours” – The Busiest Actor in the World (perhaps)

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd January 2012.

A long time ago, in an Erinsborough far, far away, the beloved Neighbours character Jim Robinson suffered a major heart attack and passed away on screen, right before a commercial break. This was way back in 1993, when people actually watched Neighbours and on-screen deaths were rare. Most departing characters simply moved to Brisbane to live with Scott and Charlene.

After eight long years of service to Grundy Television, Kiwi actor Alan Dale was departing the soapie, and a regular income, with his dignity intact and no embarrassing attempts at singing to speak of. Well, there was the dreadful 1989 Christmas With Your Neighbours album but being a Christmas album, it was meant to be dreadful (I hope).

Typecast as “Jim from Neighbours”, Dale found it difficult to get work in Australia. With nothing to lose, he relocated his family to the USA where there was potentially a need for fresh faces in the mature actor niche.

The rest, as they say, is pretty interesting. “Jim from Neighbours” managed to overcome the spectre of Australian typecasting and went on to appear in almost every US television show going as the “serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide.”

He was Caleb Nichol, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide in the hit series that introduced the world to talent vacuum Mischa Barton, The O.C. After his character was killed off with a heart attack, he went on to star in Ugly Betty as Bradford Meade, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide. After his character was again killed off with a heart attack, Dale went on to feature in the brain bending Lost as Charles Widmore, a serious looking authoritarian figure with something to hide but no known cardiac history.

There really was no stopping “Jim from Neighbours.”

Whenever you switched on a television, there he was in a guest role. His credits are pretty much the contents of my DVD shelf. E.R., The X-Files and its spinoff The Lone Gunmen, Torchwood, Entourage, NCIS, The West Wing, JAG, Californication and The Practice have all been graced by the authoritarian and secretive presence of Alan Dale.

He was even the Vice President of the USA in seven “hours” of the rather silly but fun 24. As Jim (not from Neighbours) Prescott, an authoritarian VP with something to hide, he mistakenly placed President Palmer under house arrest, based on false evidence. Playing the third most powerful man in the world (behind the American President and Batman) may seem  an honour until you realise that two years later on the same show, Vice President Mitchell Hayworth was portrayed by Aussie ex-pat and “actor” Cameron Daddo.

Not limited to the idiot box, Dale’s career has also expanded to the silver screen. Last week, I popped the sci-fi vampire action thingy Priest into my VCR to find “Jim from Neighbours” playing his usual character, but in a silly robe, in eye popping 3D.

Most impressive to geeks everywhere, Dale was also cast in two iconic film franchises. He pops up as General Ross in the mediocre Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and plays the Romulan Praetor Hiren in the so-so Star Trek Nemesis. OK, so they weren’t the best films in the series but how many Star Trek and Indiana Jones movies have you been in?

He even has his own trading cards. That’s right, on ebay there is brisk trade in Alan Dale signature cards from his Lost, Star Trek and Indiana Jones and the Blah Blah Blah appearances.

Later this month, Dale will appear on Aussie cinema screens as Detective Isaksson in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This year, all Australians (and New Zealanders) should celebrate the amazing career of “Jim from Neighbours” and his remarkable body of work, playing the authoritarian figure with something to hide, since shaking off the stigma of typecasting way back in 1993 when Jim Robinson of Ramsey St met his maker.

TV: sometimes a decent ending is Lost

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th June 2010.

The long awaited finale to Lost has finally aired. After six brain busting seasons, dedicated Lost fans were decidedly mixed on the ending, which apparently closed many storylines, but not all. I say apparently, because I must admit that I have never seen a single second of Lost. Not because I don’t think I would enjoy it. I’m actually looking forward to starting on season one, episode one real soon. I’ve been avoiding Lost in fear that it would be axed without an ending.

As a fan of serialised television drama in general, there is nothing more gut wrenching than seeing your favourite characters disappear without a trace. After hours and hours of adventures, quests and trials and tribulations, the least a long running TV show owes its audience is a decent farewell.

The recent announcement of Flashforward and Heroes meeting their maker means that I can save myself the time and effort required to keep up with their convoluted mythology. With so many unresolved storylines, I can walk away from the mysterious blue hand markers and superpowered comic book characters knowing that I don’t have to care anymore that saving the cheerleader might also save the world.

Even more painful is when a series is cancelled on a cliff hanger. My Name is Earl concluded after four seasons with the words “To Be Continued” on the screen. Ouch!

Of course, great shows that only survived one season before getting the chop can still be enjoyed and mourned at the same time. Knowing that you only have fourteen or so episodes to spend with memorable characters can be a bittersweet experience but at least you haven’t outlaid hours of staring at the idiot box. The excellent but short-lived Joss Whedon show Firefly and Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks are well worth your time and do not end with cliff hangers.

A well written finale can be sad but truly satisfying. After eleven seasons and running longer than the actual Korean war, M*A*S*H bowed out with the superb two and a half hour Goodbye, Farewell and Amen. From its premiere in 1983 until it was surpassed by the 2010 Super Bowl, it was the most watched television broadcast in US history.

Star Trek: The Next Generation concluded with the well written All Good Things. Bringing back Q, the complicated villain from the very first episode, Captain Picard and crew came full circle in a series that actually may have surpassed the Shat-tastic original.

Seinfeld did something similar, except they brought back practically every memorable character from its nine season run. The final lines of the show are actually from the very first conversation of episode one. In nine years, nobody developed or learned anything. Perfect.

There have also been several clangers, which only served to kick sand in the face of their loyal fan bases.  Millennium, created by The X-Files’ Chris Carter, was axed in 1999, a year short of its namesake upon which its apocalyptic mythology was building towards. Can’t think of an ending? Just have the main character drive off into the distance in a yellow pickup truck. Thanks a lot Mr Carter!

Also frustrating was Quantum Leap’s finale. After 96 episodes of Dr Samuel Beckett leaping through time and rewriting history’s wrongs, fans hoped that “his final leap would be the leap home” as the opening narration of every episode reminded us. Of course, the final episode concluded with the words “Dr Sam Beckett never returned home”. Um, can I get those 96 hours back please?

Despite the volatility of the television marketplace, where ratings mean everything, I think all fans deserve the chance to say bon voyage or “till we meet again on DVD” to their favourite shows. Now if only I could find out how Doug Mulray’s Naughtiest Home Videos ended?

My column has jumped the shark

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 9th March 2010.

Have you ever been watching your favourite television show and thought that it didn’t seem to be as good as usual? There’s a good chance that it has jumped the shark.

“Jumping the shark” is a popular term used to describe a TV series that has peaked and has begun to decline. This is often when the creative forces behind a show have run out of ideas and are starting to use desperate measures to regain their once loyal viewers.

The phrase refers to an episode from the fifth season of Happy Days which was filmed in 1977. In this episode, to prove his manhood, Fonzi (Henry Winkler) jumps over a deadly man-eating shark, complete with stock footage, on water-skis. Looking ridiculous in his budgie smugglers and trademark leather jacket, Fonzi’s stunt is widely regarded as a sure sign that the popular TV show was beginning to decline creatively. Of course, Happy Days continued for many years following that infamous episode but it never quite had the same magic.

There are several indicators that a show has jumped the shark. Here are a few.

One of the lead actors departing from a series is a significant clue. Actress Valerie Harper left her eponymous 80’s sitcom in a dispute with the producers, who promptly renamed it “Valerie’s Family”. After threats of litigation from Harper, it was then re-renamed “The Hogan Family”. By this time, the audience had lost interest and the show was cancelled soon after. John Ritter’s tragic premature death in 2003 also brought an early end to his sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. It stumbled on for another 2 years as “8 Simple Rules” and his character was deemed to have died also from a heart attack between seasons.

Shows built around the sexual tension between characters also tend to lose their appeal and audiences once the writers make the mistake of having those characters marry or sleep together. This is another sign that a shark has been jumped. A great example of this is Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which was axed soon after its lead characters were married. Other examples include Moonlighting, Who’s The Boss? and The Nanny.

Bringing in a cute child character is another red flag that a shark is circling. Remember the little fat kid from Hey Dad? Annoying Arthur MacArthur, played by Sorbent ad child actor Matthew Krok, was added to the cast to ensure that the cute factor remained as Mr Kelly’s youngest daughter Jenny grew up. By the time the show ended a few years later, only Betty the Receptionist (Julie McGregor) remained as an original cast member. In fact, even the dad in Hey Dad abandoned the show before its eventual demise.

Complicated storylines which confuse viewers also tend to result in a drop in ratings, particularly when it becomes clear that a resolution may not be on the cards immediately. Whilst there may not be an actual jump the shark moment, TV shows with convoluted plots which move at a snail’s pace such as Flashforward, Heroes, The X-Files and Lost were certainly shining up their skis pretty early on for the majority of viewers.

Keep an eye out for these signs and you’ll be sure to know that your favourite show has jumped the shark and it’s time to change the channel.

Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 20:15  Comments (4)  
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