Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Review of The Colony, Season 1

The Discovery Channel’s post-apocolyptic reality show is in the middle of its second season. I just finished the first.

The premise is compelling. A dozen highly-skilled engineers, mechanics and medical professionals are placed in a simulated disaster setting and expected to build what they need to survive.

The first season took place in an abandoned factory in downtown Los Angeles. The second is set in a small town devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The first step to enjoying the show is to stop worrying about “realism.” The colonists are given a perfect mix of raw materials and threatened by “gangs” that aren’t actually allowed to hurt them. In a real situation they would all be killed or enslaved in 48 hours.

But it’s not a zombie movie, it’s a stress test. It’s a social experiment designed to apply just enough pressure to keep everybody on their toes. The mauraders may be fake but the hunger, filth and dehydration are all quite real.

The show isn’t about torturing the volunteers. It’s about giving raw materials to a bunch of brilliant people and motivating them to build, watching them turn everyday objects into beds, showers, power sources and functional vehicles. It’s about the process of human invention.

Pampered products of the service economy will come away with a profound sense of helplessness and a profound respect for people who actually build things for a living.

The Colony shows us where our comforts come from. It peels away the layers of our modern society and teaches us how the components work. It really is an educational program, recommend for students of all ages, and for anyone who’s inclined to take modern comforts for granted.

Every fan of Atlas Shrugged should see this show. This is the real Galt’s Gulch, populated, not by moral supermen, but by ordinary people using knowledge and skill to improve their world. The finest minds in the building belong to a vegetarian peacenik who looks like Santa Claus and an epic level handyman with zero social skills.

In harsher conditions we might get a serious exploration of charity vs. self-interest but at this level it’s mostly just posturing. The social dynamics feel real enough — walking the line between annoyance and respect as the participants squabble, fight and second guess each other.

My favorite moment occurred early on as blue-collar handyman Michael squared off with engineers Vlad and John C. John C. and Vlad are authentic geniuses, while Michael is the penultimate example of the practical man who can get things done. The Colony needs all of them, but class distinctions get in the way. Michael feels he’s being dismissed because he doesn’t have a degree and goes on a rant about the arrogance of people with letters after their names.

The disdain is largely in his head, and he seems to get over it in later episodes, as shallow stereotypes are overcome by real respect. I paid particular attention to this moment because I think we’re going to see a lot more conflicts like this in the future, as the “service economy” loses ground.

America wasn’t built by people with desk jobs. For two centuries our greatness was fostered by people like this — people who built real things from real stuff — by engineers who found new ways to accomplish common tasks and by the craftsmen who made it all work.

These people deserve our respect, more respect than they’re getting, in an age when everybody wants to be a banker or a rock star. The Colony is a celebration of human ingenuity and hard work. The thugs may be fake, but the good guys are real.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 26, 2010 at 10:35

Posted in TV

The Doctor is Dead

Long live The Doctor!

My first exposure to Doctor Who was the 1996 TV movie by Philip Segal. It was a noble effort that ultimately failed to rekindle the series.

The real rebirth happened in 2005, under the guiding hand of Russell T. Davies. That era comes to a close tonight as Davies wraps up his assorted storylines and David Tennant ends his spectacular career as the Tenth Doctor.

Although the story premises are radically different, emotionally and mechanically Doctor Who is really the British Star Trek, featuring the same passion, the same nostalgia, the same conflicting storylines and the same epic fan wanks that characterize American Trek.

The Doctor’s storyline is so epic, so vast and so full of insane low-budget retcons, I never really had much interest in it, until Davies rebooted the series in 2005.

I can’t help but think of this as Doctor Who: The Next Generation, as Davies opened the door to new audiences, while respectfully paying tribute to the old.

And just like the eternal struggle between James Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, people develop deep attachments to the guy at the helm.

There is a marvelous generational tradition with Doctor Who that American fans have never really been able to experience before. There is a sense of ownership here, as fans claim this actor as my doctor.

Well, I’m proud to say David Tennant was my Doctor. Perhaps the first true international Doctor, as cable TV brought the weekly phenomenon into American homes for the first time.

Tennant captured the energy, the wit and the erratic sparkling genius of The Doctor and embodied, in many ways, the best traits of a generation.

I regret that I never got to see the wise mastermind Doctors of years past. But Tennant gave modern TV audiences what they wanted, and they wanted a Doctor in tennis shoes.

The new Doctor is even younger, but they say his performance has a peculiar ageless quality to it, as if the new Doctor really is an old man wearing a young man’s body. That premise really excites me, so I hope Matt Smith can pull it off.

He had a great five minutes at The End of Time and the his season preview vid looks great. I’ll miss David Tennant of course, but I got a bit tired of the Russell T. Davies Whoverse and I’m hoping Steven Moffat can give us a bit more Highlander and a bit less monster-of-the-week.

The io9 gang has high hopes for him and I think it’s definitely time for some new blood.

But tonight is hats off to Davies and Tennant and a fine start to 2010.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 1, 2010 at 22:11

Posted in TV

This is a job for Mythbusters

The minute that kid was found safe Adam Savage turned to his wife and said, “Oh god, Jamie’s gonna strap me to a balloon. If the producers call, tell them I’m sick.”

And here’s a quote from @MikeNelson on Twitter: “Science literacy matters: No one in #balloonboy story did the easy calculation to show that a 10-ft. balloon can’t lift a 60-80 lb kid!”

Meanwhile, back at the studio:

“How many Mylar balloons do we have in the shop?”

“Twelve, sir!”

“We’ll need more! And get me 50 garden gnomes filled with sand!”

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 16, 2009 at 07:53

Posted in Science, TV, Twitter

New on DVD: 'Parks and Recreation' is sly, subtle fun

Amy Poehler is the star of "Parks and Recreation" but she's not the best part of the show. Poehler turns her character, Leslie Knope, into the straight man and lets the plot swirl around her. The best jokes come in reaction to her, and often, at her expense. (Provided by NBC)

One of the best running jokes in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is based on a true story.

The show is set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind. – a place that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in an American small town. The city offices feature an elaborate wall mural that shows settlers slaughtering natives in a variety of hideous ways.

Parts of this wall are so graphic they have to paper it over with memos to hide it from schoolchildren. In the episode commentary we learn that after the show aired, the producers got e-mail from a viewer who saw a similar mural at a real town hall and had to cover up scenes of settler vs. native brutality for his wedding photos. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 11, 2009 at 13:22

Posted in DVD, TV

Some impressions from Lost, Season 1

I just started Lost Season 1 this week. Last night was the episode where they confronted Ethan. Here’s a quick summary:

JACK: Okay Claire, we need you to walk out into the jungle alone so the creepy madman can capture you again.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

JACK: I’m gonna take that as a yes. Now Locke and I are going to retrieve the guns that we really should have used the first time. Hey Sawyer, have a gun!

SAWYER: Already got one. Got all kinds of things back here — food, guns, three generators… Come back for lunch and I’ll have a complete Sizzler buffet.

JACK: Whatever. Just come with us.


WALT is trapped in an improvised shelter by the POLAR BEAR.

POLAR BEAR: Finally, some screen time. Roar! Slaver! Bite! Slash!

WALT: *cower*

MICHAEL: We’re coming son! Locke and I just have to navigate this improvised obstacle course!

POLAR BEAR: *reading script* What? Me again? ROAR!

WALT: Stay away from my dad! *stab*

POLAR BEAR: I am the Animal Incarnation of Fear, kid. You can’t just *stab* me!

MICHAEL: Stay away from my boy! *stab*

POLAR BEAR: What did I just say? Screw this, I’m gonna go try and eat the French chick again.


CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

CHARLIE: I won’t let anyone hurt you. Your total dependence and lack of personality feels like reciprocal love to me.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby! Wait…I remember… Hospital gowns and bright lights, an army of men chanting “Aaron!” as they march to war…

JACK: Oh lord, not again. Can somebody reset Claire?

CHARLIE presses a button on the back of Claire’s neck.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

JACK: Okay, reverse-ambush time. GO!

ETHAN: Do you like my creepy makeup?

JACK tackles ETHAN

ETHAN: I have the strength of five men but I am overcome by your Righteous Doctor Fighting Skills.

LOCKE: Jack’s got him!

ETHAN: Hey Locke, what’s up? It’s me, Ethan. Dharma company picnic, 1976? Me and Randall Flagg won the sack race?

SAWYER: You’re busted, pal. Hey Sayid, you got any bamboo shoots left?

ETHAN: Curses! Captured by the enemy! I’ll have no choice but to reveal all my evil plans, laying out cruicial plot points for the next five…

CHARLIE: Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

ETHAN: Ugh! Six bullets to the chest! My secret supervillain weakness! I die!

JACK: Charlie, what the hell?

CHARLIE: Television is a rough business, Jack. One premature plot reveal and I’m back to playing Victorian Thug #3 on Doctor Who.

KATE: I don’t have any lines in this scene. I’m just here to provide an unrealistic standard of female beauty. Oops, my t-shirt is stretching across my chest again! Why does that keep happening?

ABRAMS: Cut! I love this job.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 20, 2009 at 10:15

Posted in Humor, TV

Life without cable

It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you don’t want cable and you can’t get good reception with your new digital rabbit ears, there is another option.

I haven’t used my television in six months, but I’ve been able to keep up with my favorite shows on the Internet, free of charge, through a variety of Internet services.

Most networks offer on-demand streaming of their current programs now, available on the Web 24 hours a day.

You can’t see every episode from every season, but most popular shows are available, even from smaller networks like Adult Swim and the CW.

Just go to the network’s home page and look for “Full Episodes.” Some sites claim to offer aggregation services and TV on demand, but for most programs, the network sites are more reliable.

Some of these pages will require flash upgrades and the installation of special plug-ins, but you only have to install them once, and the quality can be quite good.

You’ll need a fast Internet connection and a large monitor to enjoy them, but there are a surprising number of shows available, if you’re willing to watch them on your computer.

The standout service is called Hulu, a joint venture from NBC and Fox, available at http://www.hulu.com. Hulu requires a fast connection and the latest version of flash, but it offers the best selection and the best user experience of any network.

I can go on Hulu right now and watch the last five episodes of “Heroes,” the last five episodes of “30 Rock,” the last 10 episodes of “24,” or the last five episodes of “The Office,” full screen, with limited commercial breaks.

I can also go back in time and watch old favorites like “Buffy,” “The A-Team” or “The Facts of Life.” I don’t know anyone who would need 74 complete episodes of “ALF,” but if you want them – if you think puppet-driven sitcoms reached their peak in 1989 – Hulu can hook you up.

The show “ALF” is written in all-caps because “ALF” is, in fact, an acronym for “Alien Life Form.”

I want to be sure and mention this because the correction would just be too sad:

“The name of the ’80s television show ‘ALF’ was misspelled in Michael Duff’s column on Friday’s B-1. ‘ALF’ stands for Alien Life Form and should have been capitalized. The A-J regrets the error.

“Also, in our reference to the 1986 program ‘Small Wonder’ the character known as ‘Vicki’ was actually named V.I.C.I. – an acronym for Voice Input Child Indenticant. The Avalanche-Journal is aware that ‘Indenticant’ is not a word and was never used in real science, even in 1986.”

There is a danger when you go back to watch television programs from the distant past. Not a physical danger or a technological danger, but a kind of spiritual danger that I need to warn you about.

Let’s take, for example, “Knight Rider.” I remember being astonished and offended at age 14 when a teacher at school told me that Knight Rider was a children’s program.

Nonsense, I argued. The drama, the nuance – the subtle statements on identity, memory and man’s notion of self – how could a mere child appreciate these things?

I wish I’d been smart enough to say that, but the truth is, at age 14, the sight of David Hasselhoff in a goatee, driving an indestructible talking TRUCK was pretty much the coolest thing in the world.

I never cared much for KITT (the Knight Industries Two Thousand) but was enthralled by the notion of KARR (the Knight Automated Roving Robot) and Goliath (the giant indestructible truck.)

Hulu doesn’t have the original “Knight Rider,” but I was able to find the new show and see that KARR had returned for the 2009 remake.

And this is where it gets ugly. The shows that we love in childhood are loved in a very specific context, glazed with novelty and fairy dust, with their rough edges smoothed out by memory and time.

The opening credits of “The A-Team” may stir your heart and transport you back to junior high, but after the third time you see the guys escape from a fully equipped tool shed, the nostalgia starts to wear thin.

You can still find standout episodes of “Time Tunnel” and “Hill Street Blues,” but few shows can survive the passage of time.

Obviously, watching TV on the Internet is not for everybody. A few companies have taken stabs at it, but we haven’t found an elegant way to move the computer into the family room yet. The “sofa factor” is a big deal, and until we find a way to browse the Web comfortably with a remote control, TV on the Internet will be an option for videophiles and people wasting time at work.

Still, we have to give these companies credit for making a legal viewing option that is faster, easier and more convenient than piracy.

I hope Big Radio is taking notes.

Written by Michael B. Duff

February 20, 2009 at 18:34

Posted in Columns, TV

Post-award interview with Peggy Olson and Carri Bugbee

michaelduff: @peggyolson is crouched in a stairwell at the #shorty awards, so we’re gonna get started. Peggy, feel free to use more than one tweet.

peggyolson: Will do. Unfortunately, the music is so loud here at the hall where they held the Shorty Awards, I can’t hear myself think.

michaelduff: First off, congratulations, on your big night. How does it feel to be getting an award?

peggyolson: It feels amazing. There were so many people here at the awards show that wanted to meet me, I was surprised.

michaelduff: Were you nervous on stage?

peggyolson: No, I wasn’t nervous at all. But was surprised that the crowd hushed when I walked on stage. Didn’t expect that.

michaelduff: I have to ask, what did Peggy Olson think of MC Hammer?

michaelduff: (Ha, that one made her think!)

peggyolson: A reporter asked to take my picture with that musician and later said that I was more popular tonight than the musician was.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

February 12, 2009 at 01:59

Posted in Best Of, Culture, Journalism, TV

Live interview with @peggyolson after the Shorty Awards

The winner of this year’s Shorty Award for
did her best work in 1962.

Her name is Peggy Olson, and she is not entirely real.

The “real” Peggy Olson is a character on AMC’s Mad Men, played by Elisabeth Moss.

@peggyolson is a Twitter account run by a fan of the show, one of a group of fans who decided to impersonate characters from Mad Men and post in character on Twitter — a kind of grass-roots promotion that galvanized AMC’s audience and took the Internet by storm.

Unfortunately, not everyone was comfortable with the idea of fans taking on the roles of copyrighted characters. Concerned about liability issues and the protection of their intellectual property, AMC shut the project down, only to recant a few days later, after an ugly fan backlash.

On the show, Peggy Olson is a rising star at Sterling Cooper — an innocent learning to swim with ad-industry sharks, a cautionary tale for women in business, and an unlikely pioneer for women’s rights.

So does a fan pretending to be a fictional character deserve to win an award for advertising?

@peggyolson has never sold an ad, but her Twitter campaign is one of the most innovative promotions ever devised for a TV show.

Mix these things together and you get a figure who can represent the past, present, and future of advertising, all at once.

But who is @peggyolson? Where did the campaign start? Why did she choose Peggy? Where do the fan and the character overlap? And what has she learned from the experience?

Find out Wednesday night after the awards, when I chat live with @peggyolson and her real-life counterpart.

Peggy has agreed to step out from behind the curtain and answer anything we can throw at her.

Send your questions to michael.duff@lubbockonline.com or Twitter them to @michaelduff. Be sure to follow @peggyolson and @michaelduff after the awards so you can see both sides of the interview. Peggy will be switching to another Twitter ID after she reveals her real name.

The award ceremony will start at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Peggy will be joining me after things wrap up, probably after 10 p.m. in New York. That’s 9 p.m. here in Texas.

I’ll be tweeting live about the awards until she arrives.

Written by Michael B. Duff

February 10, 2009 at 08:18

Posted in TV

Why the Seinfeld Microsoft ads aren't funny

Bill Gates circa 1983When the big guys get it right, I have nothing to write about.

Good ideas, smart marketing, successful product launches — none of this is funny.

But when the big guys get it wrong, totally spectacularly wrong, it makes my little black heart go thump.

Microsoft has just launched a new ad campaign — a $300 million ad campaign to promote Windows, or something. I assume the ad is selling Windows, but I’m actually just guessing. This commercial is so bad, it ends up looking like a public service spot for leather shoes.

In the ad, Jerry spies Bill getting poor service at “Shoe Circus” and rides to the rescue. Bill gets some shoes and Jerry launches into a vague joke-like ramble that advocates wearing shoes in the shower.

“You’re dressed, and you’re clean!” Jerry says, with a stale whiff of self-parody. Feel free to pause for a moment and grab your sides. I’ll wait.

It’s one thing for an ad to fail, all right? Anybody can take a chance and get it wrong. What makes this failure so epic is that it takes no chances, plays it utterly safe and still manages to get it wrong.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 18, 2008 at 17:29

Posted in Microsoft, TV

'Mad Men' fans strike back with online manifesto

Looks like the Mad Men Twitter brigade is fighting back. Or maybe they just got tired of incessant interview requests and decided to answer everybody’s questions at once.

Mission statement from We Are Sterling Cooper.com:

Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it’s not going away. We’re your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets cancelled we’ll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don’t treat us like criminals.

And that’s how you spank a giant, clueless corporation. Nice work, guys.

For those who are just tuning in:

First I spent 800 words praising AMC for their innovative marketing campaign. It turns out to be a fan project, and the giant clueless corporation invokes copyright to shut them down.

The characters are back on Twitter now, but I haven’t seen any kind of explanation from the company.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 28, 2008 at 13:43

Posted in TV