Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Shows I Have Invented But Which, To Date, Nobody Has Actually Made: The Sequel

Well, two years after my initial publicising of some long-held dreams of mine (see previous post), my tv-show-development ship has still not come in.  So here are some ALL NEW! ideas for shows.  If you're an important tv-type person, get in touch to buy these ideas off me while you still can!

Random Number Generator

Most of us have, at some point, turned on the television late at night/very early in the morning in the hopes for something to lull us to sleep.  Something mindless, thoroughly unlikely to engage us, yet to distract us sufficiently from whatever irritating thoughts can't be gotten rid of.  Until now, the default choice for such television has been home shopping programmes, but there's a problem with them: they're just too ridiculous, and while the prospect of a 45-minute infomercial for a revolutionary type of sponge might seem like just the thing to put one to sleep, the reality is that there's something compulsively viewable about that sort of broadcasting.

So here's my solution: random numbers (in white) appear against a black background, stay there for 15 seconds (which is longer than you think - it's longer than most story arcs on Glee, for instance) before being replaced by another random number.  (Whole integers only, thank you.)  A computer-generated voice reads out the number (once), but otherwise the show is silent.  I anticipate that this would become a hypnotic and addictive programme, enjoyed equally by the tired and the inebriated.  It's like Keno, only without the distracting gambling stuff.

Fun & Games With Existentialism

In this show, my overt attempt at critical praise and awards, drama and the blackest comedy freely intertwine.  Four friends are dying, all in different ways.  One has cancer, one has a mysterious and undiagnosed illness, one from a heart that is steadily declining and the final is dying, through some temporal trickery, after a violent attack by some random thugs.  (Each episode covers a couple of days for each of the first three, but only a minute or two for the last.)

Conscious of their own respective mortality, each of the four friends tries to deal with their looming death in their own way.  One draws on their deep religious faith, seeking solace in those beliefs ingrained since childhood.  The second is comforted by their unshakeable conviction that death is no more meaningful than life and that therefore dying cannot really be said to actually matter.  The third goes into deep denial, believing in nothing other than that by refusing to accept the reality of their imminent demise, they can stave it off indefinitely.  And the last panics, flicking week by week between different beliefs, philosophies and religions, seeking something they can believe in as they face the idea of their own death with horror.

Reflecting on life, death, faith, philosophy and friendship, Fun & Games With Existentialism combines heart-wrenching drama with pitch-black comedy.  Sure to be a hit with critics and discriminating viewers!

Play Home-School

Drawing on the recent trend towards parents removing their children from schools in favour of educating them at home, Play Home-School is based on the long-running and much-loved ABC children's programme, but with a 21st-century twist.  The presenters are endearingly ill-prepared and awkward in front of the cameras.  The show rarely starts on time and is regularly bolstered by transparent filler.  Arcane and discredited ideas are presented as irrefutable truths and some subjects are skipped over entirely.  Simple stories illustrate ever-relevant morals like the dangers of friendship or social skills of any kind and the importance of trusting in everything your parents tell you.  History is explained through ancedotes about great-great-uncles and their experiences and science experiments revolve around sand, water and salt.

Play Home-School may not teach your child everything, but it will teach them everything they really need to know!

TV Shows I Have Invented But Which, To Date, Nobody Has Actually Made

[This post was originally published as a couple of notes on Facebook in February 2010.]

So, most of what's currently - or has ever been - on television is pretty awful, I think we can all agree. But it doesn't have to be. Television, the form, is fine; it's the content itself that's the problem. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for shows that I think would be really good, if only someone would pay me lots of money to actually make them.

Police Cops

Ahh, the cop show - repository of more cliches than you can point a stick at. But for years, I've dreamed of another kind of cop show - one in which our heroes, the detectives and officers of some city police station, are simple, happy people who take their job seriously, but who are essentially mid-level bureaucrats. They are committed to their job, yes, but in the same way that you & I are (assuming that you & I have a job, and that we're reasonably committed to it). They punch in at 8am, and out at 6pm (or whatever). They're all happily married/dating, or single by choice. Those who are married have a couple of children whom they see often and get on well with. Two officers in our station are indeed dating, but they're both rookies, and the department's HR section is aware of the relationship, since they lodged the appropriate paperwork once it became clear to them both that this was a serious relationship.

The captain in charge of the station is well-respected by both his/her subordinates, and by the big brass at police HQ (or whatever it's called). This is because s/he has neither been a political appointment, nor an unruly headkicker. They just get the job done effectively, a task made easier by the mature and professional approach of everyone else in the station. None of the cops has a drinking problem - although several of them get together on Friday nights for drinks & dinner at a nice but casual restaurant nearby. (Spouses/partners often attend too.)

Watch throughout the thrilling first season as the young rookie detective is accepted well into the unit! He humbly learns from those who've been doing the job since he was in short pants, and in turn also helps them take advantage of recent advances in computer technology! Follow the on-going story of the cynical older detective, who falls for an entirely stable new girlfriend of approximately his own age, and be swept off your feet as he proposes in the season finale! Watch as the detectives solve cases calmly, methodically and without getting personally invested! Look how none of them ends up investigating a crime apparently committed by their ex, or long-lost school friend!

[Yes, the title needs work, since it's currently a Simpsons reference. Other than that, though, doesn't this show sound like a breath of fresh air?]

So You Think You Can Paint

Lots of people, statistics show, sing in the shower/while driving/when cooking, and they're well catered for in the modern television environment. Plenty of people also dance like nobody is watching, but also sorta wish someone was, and most of the tv schedule is about these people. Ditto for cooking - once something people did because otherwise they'd starve, now an almost-entirely competitive activity. (According to a confidential source, 10% of all meals prepared in Australia this week will be done for the camera.)

So what other popular hobby enjoyed by the masses can be made into a television game show, I asked myself. And then I answered myself, The Visual Arts. But 'So You Think You Can Visual Art' makes for a title too clumsy and grammatically troublesome even for commercial television, so we're going to generalise to just Paint. All the visual arts will be represented, though - painters, sculptors, origami-makers, installationists, quilters, photographers, film-makers, graffiti artists, and those people who make things out of twine.

The great diversity of contestants is what makes SYTYCP so exciting! Rather than forcing contestants to try things outside of their chosen field, each week everyone is set a theme for the next round. (Note: might need to spread the show out in production, to allow everyone to actually do their thing for each round. Show it weekly once it's finished, though.) Thus, one week the theme might be Childhood, the next week it could be Red, and so on. Expert judges - along with a popular celebrity more recognisable than the average art critic, but not a sportsman or former model - will offers comments each round, before it goes to a popular vote as per in those other shows on which this one is loosely based.

Finally, a television show for all those who can't sing, dance or cook, but who still want to prove to the country how talented they are!

The Law Is An Ass!
(Unlike the first two, both of which were the product of much thought over an extended period, this idea is fresh & new. Which is code for: not-entirely-thought-out.)

It's Wallace & Gromit meets Mr Ed meets... The Practice.

In this animated show, we follow the trials (pun intended) and tribulations of a small but determined law firm staffed entirely by horses. (Their opponents, as well as judges, juries etc, are all human; clients are both animals and humans.) Combining heartfelt drama, exciting plot twists, good-natured humour and the occasional office dalliance, The Law Is An Ass! combines everything you've always loved about legal dramas with the noblest of all beasts - the talking, anthropomorphic horse.

Throughout the first season, the scrappy law firm of Caufield & Sons struggles to gain acceptance from the human-dominated legal community. Young firebrand attorney Star fights to have the courthouse modified for improved equine access, while older associate Misty deals with trying to establish herself in the profession while also raising two foals. The firm's head partner, Abercrombie, faces the toughest decision of his life when asked to represent local farmer Mr Jones, accused of selling beef which is, in fact, horsemeat. Whatever the case, Caufield & Sons act with dignity, honesty, and plain old horse-sense, and become the most sought-after legal representation in town.

Yes, the show exists only because of its name... but then, that's true of most television.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Re-reading Project 2012: Emma

The second entry in my re-reading project for this year is Jane Austen's Emma.  Like A Suitable Boy, I've read Emma multiple times before (twice, I think, compared to the half-dozen of ASB), but not for a few years.  In this review, I will be a little bit spoiler-y, so proceed with caution if you've not read it but don't want to know what happens.

Pride & Prejudice is probably most people's default choice for their Favourite Austen Novel, helped of course by the excellent (& faithful) BBC mini-series a decade or so ago and the actually-pretty-good movie a few years later. And certainly it's a hard one to argue against, but personally I've always had a bit of a preference for Emma, for the following reasons:

1) The title character.  Austen apparently set out to create a less-likeable central character*, and certainly Emma can be a little unpleasant, especially to modern eyes. Her early obsession with taking on the socially unfortunate Harriet and setting her up with a respectable young man at the expense of Harriet's (returned) feelings for Robert Martin comes across as hopelessly patronising, assuming she knows better than Harriet whom she should marry.  (Of course, by the standards of their society, she's right - Mr Elton or Mr Churchill or Mr Knightley would all be very advantageous marriages for Harriet. And two of them also would have made pretty decent husbands too, had they shown any interest in her.)  Yet what makes Emma an appealing character is that she learns from her mistakes - after the awkwardness resulting from her efforts to matchmake Harriet with Mr Elton, she takes a much more passive role in hoping for the best for Harriet.  Emma also does have a genuine affection for Harriet, as well for quite a few other people in her life.  She's sometimes thoughtless - both in her matchmaking and in a particularly cutting remark she makes to Miss Bates late in the novel - but she also feels bad about these and recognises without hesitation when she has erred.

2) All the other characters. For a novel named after a single character, Emma does a remarkable job of filling out its world.  There's an extensive cast of well-drawn characters in Emma's life - her family, her friends & associates, and even some people she doesn't like.  Admittedly all we ever know about Robert Martin is that he is an excellent young man who loves Harriet, but that is actually probably fairly accurate in some ways.  There's no reason Emma would ever know him as anything beyond that - she knows him exclusively from reports from Harriet and Mr Knightley, and they both like him.  But elsewhere Austen provides some wonderful characters, including the twin comic pieces of Mr Woodhouse (permanently worried about the health of everyone, including being shocked that someone might even consider opening a window at night) and Miss Bates, surely one of the most annoying but accurate characters in English literature, with her never-ending run-on sentences, starting on one topic but diverting herself constantly before any theme is fully expressed.  Frank Churchill is an appealing male lead for most of the story, appearing (to draw a Pride & Prejudice comparison) like the best characteristics of Bingley and Wickham combined.  Better still is Jane Fairfax, who allows Austen to hit a beautiful but rarely-expressed character note: most of us know someone we feel like we should like, but we just cannot, without even perhaps being able to say why.  That's exactly how Emma feels about Jane, and it's a neat point for Austen to make (and one, incidentally, which helps us identify with and like Emma).

The only false move here is Mrs Elton, a one-note, thoroughly unlikeable and unsympathetic character.  Insincere, snobby, with a massively inflated sense of her own worth, Mrs Elton is far too broadly drawn - especially since she plays such a prominent part in the novel - to be believable.  For story purposes she had to be objectionable to Emma, but I think Austen overplays this point here.  Against that, I will note that her awfulness does allow for my favourite throwaway line in the book:

'Mr Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton's beginning to talk to him'.**

3) The subtle reveal of the romance.  Again, to refer to Pride & Prejudice, this is a point in Emma's favour - from the start of the former novel, it's clear that Mr Darcy is the male lead and therefore the ultimate partner of the female lead Lizzie.  Emma does a much better job of providing some plausible alternatives for its main character - including the unlikely but oft-expressed option that she will not marry at all.  But for most of the novel, Mr Churchill is seen as a possibility for Emma, even if she seems to go off him after their initial (seeming) mutual infatuation.  On this re-read, I was quite surprised at how little a role Mr Knightley plays in the first half of the story, and how suddenly their romance seems to bloom (or, more accurately, how late in the novel each realise that's how they feel).  The result of this is that it's quite possible to read most of Emma without trying to pick who - and how - Emma will end up with, which makes the late reveal much more satisfying.  (A minor quibble here which will make sense only to those who know the story very well: I can't help but feel that she should have received the letter from Mr Churchill before Knightley's declaration.  Austen could have made something of Emma reading that Churchill felt free to flirt with Emma because he could tell she didn't care, perhaps making her stop & realise that soon she really would be the only unmarried person in her circle, and that maybe Knightley woudn't return her recently discovered feelings because he too saw her as someone without any romantic feeling at all.  But that's just a thought I had, and clearly Austen had other things in mind with Churchill's letter and Emma/Knightley's responses to it.)  There's also a neat way here in which, in more subtle terms that Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Knightley will be good for each other - he can provide for her the grounding she sometimes needs, and she can help him see the better side of people than he probably would otherwise.  It's no coincidence, although Austen doesn't slap us in the face with this, that each of them are seen to be better people - nicer to those around them, more tolerant of people they previously hadn't liked - because of the other.  Knightley is not just an improving influence on Emma; she does the same for him.

On top of those, of course, are all the other reasons why people still read Austen the best part of two centuries after she wrote - the wonderful writing, the way in which a social world was depicted (and, honestly, who cares if it's not accurate or representative? that's such a facile reason for disliking a work of fiction - like arguing that you don't like the Sherlock Holmes stories because some of the crimes were a bit far-fetched), and the endlessly entertaining characters and their romances.  Austen is not for everyone - a characteristic her writing has in common with every writer in every language - but to avoid her because you struggled through the first quarter of one of her novels in high school is to do a grave disservice to both yourself and one of the great writers.

* She would eventually succeed, intentionally or otherwise, with Mansfield Park and the detestable Fanny Price, English literature's least interesting lead character.

** I'm also very fond of 'There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs Perry drank tea with Mrs and Miss Bates, or when Mrs and Miss Bates returned the visit'.  Austen could be slyly hilarious, and I sometimes think of her like a grandma, outwardly pleasant, cheery and polite, but not fooled for a minute by those around her, and capable of making the odd cutting remark.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tea review: Twinings Australian Afternoon Tea

Tea flavour: Australian Afternoon
Tea type: Leaf (infused)
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "Full-bodied black tea designed for Australia".

Website description because the above is deliberately vague: a blend of "the slightly smoky Russian Caravan with the full bodied Irish Breakfast and then added the light Ceylon Orange Pekoe".

Twinings ran a competition last year, which I sadly didn't get to vote in despite being Australia's Most Trusted Tea Reviewer*, to choose a new tea based on blends created by five Australian celebrities of various types and degrees of worthiness. The winning one, as reviewed here, was created by Kevin Rudd.  (Details of the other four are here.  Most of them sound disgusting or laughably bland**.  Having tasted only one, the right winner was chosen.)

Rudd's name appears nowhere on the box for Twinings' Australian Afternoon Tea, commercially released in January 2012.  One can assume that this was deliberate, to keep politics out of the much more important business of tea-drinking, but it's a little odd that they ran a big promotional campaign to choose which celebrity's blend would be chosen, only to then leave said celebrity's name off the box.  (Or, alternatively, it could just be that there is in fact a law in this country which forbids the use of Kevin Rudd's name without speculating on his imminent challenge to return to the prime ministership and Twinings just wanted to stay out of that.  If so, well played, Twinings.  My respect for you continues to increase.)

Anyway, to the tea at hand.  As advertised, this Australian Afternoon Tea is certainly a full-flavour strength tea.  The Irish Breakfast predominates, but the after-taste shows the smokiness of Russian Caravan (which has grown on me still further since my review last year - I now drink have a tin of the loose-leaf version at work & often make myself a small pot of it mid-morning).  Between those two flavours, the Ceylon Orange Pekoe gets a little lost (as it is wont to do even when it's the only flavour in the tea).  It actually all works together quite well - the Russian Caravan is distinct enough to temper the Irish Breakfast while still allowing the latter's strength to be the tea's distinguishing flavour.  It's a warm-ish afternoon as I drink my cup & type this, and I can vouch that it suits the setting well.

Its slightly fuller taste stands it well against some of Twinings' smoother flavours (like the Prince of Wales or the Pekoe itself), but the inclusion of the Russian Caravan does give it a bit of softness compared to an unadulterated Irish or English Breakfast.  It also has a bit more of an obvious flavour when compared to something like their Traditional Afternoon Tea, which I sometimes feel just tastes like Strong Tea without any more notable flavour than that.

All that said, I suspect there will not be a huge public outcry should Twinings remove the Australian Afternoon Tea from the market (the box indicates it's a 'Limited Edition').  While it's quite an enjoyable drink, I doubt it is memorable enough to become anyone's new favourite blend.  I'll certainly drink the rest of my packet with pleasure - and probably buy some more when it's done - but, after a few cups over a couple of days, it hasn't really made an impression stronger than 'oh, that's quite nice' on me yet.  Nonetheless, the Australian Afternoon Tea is certainly worth a try if you enjoy full-flavoured black teas or drinks that make you feel vaguely nationalistic.

* I assume.
** Note to Kerri-Anne & John Kennerley: you don't need to put Earl Grey & Lady Grey into the same blend.  Note to John Williamson: if you put Lapsang Souchong into a tea blend, you should also remember to include toothpaste to get the taste out again.  And Layne Beachley: really? Why bother putting three light teas together and then adding Irish Breakfast? That's all anyone will be able to taste.  You may as well just have your 'special blend' include Irish Breakfast and water.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Re-reading Project 2012: A Suitable Boy

After I finished my F. Scott Fitzgerald reading/blogging project in December, I cast around for ideas for my next series.  I couldn't think of another author whose bibliography I wanted to work my way through - and nobody else suggested anyone - so I decided that this year I will re-read a bunch of my favourite novels and blog about them.  In some cases, I might find I like the book less than I thought I did, or I might appreciate different things to what struck me the first time around, and those would be interesting (for me, at least) to think about.

Re-reading is something I have a great theoretical appreciation for.  I think that the sign of a good book is one that you want to return to, and that you like more, or in different ways, to how you did when you first read it.  I also think that a lot of books - like a lot of movies and tv shows - actually improve the second time around. You can focus less on the Who-What-Where-When of the story and appreciate the telling more, notice details that you may have missed the first time around, and see how knowing the ending affects your reading (/viewing) of the beginning.

Against that, however, I have a huge pile of books I've not read at all, ready access to many more, a mental list of many books or authors I'd like to read and an account with the Book Depository.  So, in practice, I re-read much less than I would like to.

The first book in my 2012 re-reading project is in fact one I've read multiple times in the past (about four or five times, I'd guess).  I first read Vikram Seth's novel over a decade ago, when I was an undergrad, and I re-read it for the first time less than six months later - which fact is made more interesting because A Suitable Boy runs to 1474 pages in the paperback and took me about two weeks of solid reading to finish.  I don't really believe in allocating things as my all-time favourites, but A Suitable Boy is my standard answer when someone asks what my favourite book is.  Yet I haven't actually read it for a few years, so earlier this year I felt a desire to read it again.

A Suitable Boy, despite its daunting length, is a fairly straightforward novel.  Its main character is Lata, a 19 year-old girl in 1951 India. Her older sister has just gotten married, and now her mother thinks it's time to find a suitable boy for her youngest child.  But that's not it - A Suitable Boy has a huge cast of characters, and while Lata's story is the centre of the novel, almost as much time is spent with her new brother-in-law's brother, Maan, a warm-hearted but impulsive young man.  There are also separate but related stories about other members of each of Lata & Maan's families and their various friends and associates.  Along the way, A Suitable Boy touches on university politics, actual politics, literature and poetry, shoe manufacturing, families, rural life, religious tensions, cricket and India's national identity in the immediate post-colonial period.

That wide range of stories and characters is what makes A Suitable Boy more than a simple Pride & Prejudice re-hash in a different context (fun though that could've been).  Seth juggles all his elements perfectly, writing all his characters - even the unlikeable ones - which such warmth and empathy that we can spend consecutive chapters barely touching on Lata and her story without feeling like we're off the point.  All the stories and scenes are connected to Lata & her family, or Maan & his, even if neither of them actually appear there and even if the story has nothing to do with the ultimate question of whom Lata will marry.  As we move through this enormous book, meeting more & more characters (some central characters don't appear for the first time until 400 pages in!), Lata's choice for a husband narrow down to three boys.  Not everyone will be happy with her decision, but my most recent reading made me realise more clearly than ever before that it probably was the right one.

Returning to A Suitable Boy after a few years was like returning to a world I now know well.  Like the best long-running tv shows, A Suitable Boy's massive scope allows Seth to build an entire world and populate it with three-dimensional characters.  Parts of the novel are set in Calcutta and other real-life cities, but the bulk of A Suitable Boy is set in the fictional town of Brahmpur, which by the end of the book you feel to be entirely real.  Similarly, while some real-life Indian politicians appear, the fictional ones are so well-drawn that scenes between real and fictional characters seem completely plausible.  This is the rare novel which can be both heart-breakingly tragic and laughter-inducing hilarious.  We feel characters' joy, despair, indecision, anger, ambitions and friendship.

The warmth of Seth's writing, the scope of his stories and the wonderful characters will keep me returning to A Suitable Boy.