Some games I played in
2012
(television)



M*A*S*H

Jan ~ July

The parents and I had watched Frasier the year before, and were looking for something to fill the gap in our evenings. We picked up M*A*S*H on a whim, and I had no idea what to expect from it. I'd heard of its reputation as an acclaimed comedy in American TV history, but like a lot things, you never hear the "how" or the "why". The idea of a comedy set in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War would have been a little bewildering to me... if I hadn't enjoyed it so much right from the start.

It might sound like a hospital drama or a grim war story, but what carries the show so well is its fantastic ensemble cast. You've got the talented slackers Hawkeye and Trapper; the scheming ne'er-do-wells "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Frank Burns; the easy-going Colonel Blake and his hyper-competent sidekick Radar; and that's before it starts expanding. The characters are brilliant to watch, and even without the war as a backdrop, these characters would be fun to watch in any kind of clique.

Part of why they're so fun are their performances, and Alan Alda really steals the show in that regard. He's fast-paced, he's zippy, he never misses a beat... and not just with snappy remarks, he's great with physical comedy. He's a real hold-over from the age of vaudeville acting, and seeing it in action, I can't get enough of it! As a character, Hawkeye is intelligent, he's talented, he's funny, he's lighthearted, and he's got a strong moral code. I enjoyed him a lot, but knowing Alda wrote, directed and served as creative consultant for most of the show, it can be a little hard to take him seriously at times... especially when he's performing daredevil surgery and having the usually stand-off-ish Houlihan falling for him a little too often.

Frank Burns is a loveably-unloveable character, like a strange prototype of Arnold Rimmer. Where that character had a faint air of sympathy due to his lousy childhood, Frank just finds more and more ways to be despicable, and it's somehow endearing. The one moment you almost feel sorry for him is after Margaret's Marriage, watching her leave on a helicopter, leaving him with no one who could tolerate him.

All of the characters are good and contribute in some way, though the roster does change every few seasons. What's terrific is no matter how ingrained they are, the loss or replacement of a character is always a refreshing way of mixing things up. Radar was a vital part of the team, and early on I thought, how could they have M*A*S*H without him? But by the time he came to leave, they'd done all they could with him, and his absence gave less prominent characters like Klinger and Father Mulcahy some boots to fill and time to shine.

Of the replacements, my favourite of them would have to be Charles Emerson Winchester III. He's snobbish, pompous and egocentric - it's like Frasier Crane suddenly stepped into the Korean War! He's a snooty jerk with an ego the size of Boston, and on occasion displays some amazingly ignorant remarks to his colleagues, but there's a heart to the man. He's got a strange relationship with Klinger that alternates between patronising him and being surprisingly amiable, and despite being an antagonist to Hawkeye and Pierce, appears to spend a lot of time in relative enjoyment in their company. And for all his snootiness, he can do wonders when it comes to helping people, from spending a full night administrating care to Turkish soldiers in an old hut, to teaching a pianist how to play with only one hand.

Despite the theme, the first few seasons are a lot more casual, so to speak - full of light-hearted frathouse stories, such as stealing and replacing the colonel's desk, holding a boxing match, raffling off a nurse... all sorts of silly stuff. Perhaps a bit crass, especially given the nigh-rampant skirt-chasing going on. Hawkeye and Trapper are almost never seen without pursuing any woman that walks by. It's a very breezy and lighthearted start, and always makes for a good laugh.

As it goes on, it gives room for the characters and the environment to breathe, to open up and develop, and that's what brought the show to life for me. For all the laughs and shenanigans, seeing the more human side of these characters and the predicament is very heartfelt. Coping with being in a country far, far from home in a conflict they never wanted, even if it's never addressed in an episode, always adds a certain pathos to everything you see.

There's stacks and stacks of stories addressing the plain ol' shittiness of war, and plenty about the effects of it, such as the characters' isolation and depression... but thinking about it adds a certain melancholy to even the jolliest of episodes. Seeing the characters playing poker, pulling back brewskis, it's fun and entertaining to watch them, gut you think, wow, these characters may never go home again. The series doesn't slam the feeling into your face constantly, but it's always there, and makes every little moment, be it comedic or dramatic, that little sweeter. I'm a sucker for comedy-drama.

I especially loved the stories that dealt with interacting with the Korean people, because it really emphasised the turmoil and culture shock both sides were facing. There are great stories to be told even without a common language; there's a poignant one where Hawkeye is captured by a Korean soldier to make him try and save his dying comrade, performing surgery at gunpoint. The soldier appears threatening, but only out of desperation for the soldier's life. The wounded soldier doesn't survive, but the two solemnly join and bury him together.

Admittedly there are some fantastic stories and some terrific laughs, but there are some episodes you watch, then later ask yourself, "did I really watch that? Did I really watch a story where Klinger talked to ghosts?" There are three hundred-odd episodes, so some are great and some are, well, not so great. I'd be hesitant to call any particular one a dud.

Ultimately, loving the series so much is why it's hard to think back on M*A*S*H. We positively blazed through its eleven seasons, watching anywhere from one to four episodes a night. Even the finale we rushed through - we stuck it on when we did because there was just enough time to squeeze it in before another programme started. And it was a fantastic watch. A brilliant, heartfelt end to the series. All the applause in the world.

... but we hadn't the time to reflect on it. They rushed on, and I was left thinking, did we really finish this? Did we genuinely squeeze three hundred episodes into six and a half months? I felt awful because of it. We had been living and breathing this show for so, so long - we'd gotten so attached to Hawkeye and B.J. and Potter and all those lovely characters, and even that fascinating setting. You really followed the journey of the 4077. And to just stumble upon the ending like that was kind of heartbreaking!

We moved onto other shows, but I dug out the boxset for myself and watched the special features - the documentaries, the retrospectives, the cast reunions. They're great little extras, well worth checking out if you've got the set, but it's like... that's not enough! I was hungry for one last thing to give me that true, satisifed feeling of closure and conclusion. You live these characters for so long and you hadn't given them the time you appreciated. You almost want to go back and do it again. That kind of thinking is what led me on to AfterMASH... and, well, that's another wall of text in itself.

M*A*S*H was an outstanding watch. A really magical, endearing show, and definitely up there as one of my favourite TV shows. It meant a lot to me, and trying to find the words to express those feelings (these ones are barely adequate!) is partly why this article took so bloody long.

Red Dwarf

Jan ~ Apr
(series 6 - 7)

Dad and I began watching the series near the end of 2011, and we resumed where we left off: the end of series 5. I watch the series on my own so much, it's like a different experience sharing it with other folks! We both enjoyed it plenty; I dig the comedy and the character interaction, while padre was all over the sci-fi plots and low budget special effects.

Series 6 is still good material, and I'd dare say I'm actually beginning to warm up to series 7! And to think it only took over six re-watches. I don't think dad cottoned onto the changes of that season, as he didn't ask for any more after episode 5. Quite understandable. While I kind of enjoy it a bit more than I used to, the big laughs feel few and far between, and it lacks the tightness and punchy quality of the prior episodes.

I really should get back to doing those Red Dwarf reviews. I've wrote notes every time I've rewatched an episode, so besides spending an evening compiling my thoughts, I've no excuse, have I?

Peep Show

Jan ~ Feb
(series 3 - 7)

I'd watched series 1 and 2 on DVD a year or two ago, so catching up with the rest on Netflix was a real treat. This was when I realised the dire potential of losing entire days to Netflix!

The series follows the minds of Mark and Jez, two unlikely roommates and the increasingly pathetic decisions they make in their lives. It's a show all about cringe humour, be it simple social faux passes or outright lapses of sanity in the name of saving face. I shamefully admit at times to turning away from the TV because I couldn't bear to see the reactions to some of their screw-ups. It's not a show for some folks, and I'm probably on the fringe as it is.

It's a curious thing to like the show for, but the relationship between Mark and Jeremy was a lot of fun to watch. For all their petty arguments and great contrasts, the two of them do share a genuine friendship. A strange, wishy washy friendship, but they stand up for each other and are stilling to stick out together through their really, really worst moments. Shit like that just tickles me, y'know.

Sonic the Hedgehog (SaTAM)

Mar

Saturday Morning Sonic. It's always been a bit of an enigma to me. When I was younger, it was just this weird, moody cartoon that came on when I was looking for the version with Scratch and Grounder instead. And discovering the Sonic fansites of early 2000, there were so many shrines and dedications to the series, so much love and attention drawn to it. I think I had only ever seen three episodes of the show, so it was strange hearing and reading so much about it that I was oblivious to. So, a dozen years since I cared, here's Netflix to let me see what I was missing for a mere 7 a month!

Planet Mobius used to be a thrivin' ol' place, until Dr. Robotnik and his robotocizer came along and took over the planet, conquering the kingdom, turning the citizens into machines and forcing the survivors to establish resistance camps. As a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon, this was the last thing I was expecting.

However, it's got a rather unique, slightly dark atmosphere that makes the show stand out. It's got cuddly cartoon critters fighting robots in a nature versus technology theme, but it has this vague air that there's something more to it. The backdrops are gritty, there's an air of mysticism about it all, and the fact they don't always win, it's got this allusion of being more mature than other cartoons of the time. Whether it's actually a good cartoon is another argument, but it's certainly unique.

The first season is a fair watch, and has a more dark air about it. Only a couple of episodes stand out, but the novelty of a bright and colourful video game being twisted into such a strange, fairy tale war setting is quite something. It's also about the only time we see Sonic emote: he briefly reunites with his roboticized Uncle Chuck and is eager to bring him home, but has no choice but to leave him under the enemies' command, and sits tearfully on the train ride home. The thought of a cartoon mascot like Sonic crying is admittedly a bit silly when you think about it, but that episode managed to handle it relatively well.

The second season changes things up, but just goes a bit off the rails. The atmosphere is a lot brighter, lacking the sinister air that hovered over the previous adventures; Robotnik isn't quite as menacing, the antics are a lot more stupid. It tries to be a bit more fun, though the results don't hit the mark often. At the same time, it tries to expand on the mythos, telling us more of the history of the conflict, and mixing it up a little bit. Some of this works, and some of it falls pretty freakin' flat.

For instance, King Acorn, the former ruler, is said to have been trapped in "the void". Later, one of the Freedom Fighters' new allies gets sucked into "the void" before their eyes. What happened to them? What is the void? Will they ever make it out? It's a spooky, mystical sort of deal, and the viewer doesn't know what to make of it.

Then a whole episode is spent in there, and it's a big stupid crystal palace. It is so boooring. It's said to drain their life force or some sort of supernatural cobblers, but the fact this creepy portal just takes people to a palace where they sit around all day is astoundingly shitty.

This foray also introduces an evil wizard, Naugus, who isn't a fan of Robotnik, but isn't such a good guy himself either. He's not quite a villain, but he's no goodie either, he's just sort of an angry wizard guy. He'd be an uneventful villain if it weren't for him implied to be the new villain at the series finale, which is just a load of crock.

The series is about the conflict against Robotnik, who used to serve King Acorn, but rebelled and used his technology to take over the world. Darn near everyone has a personal vendetta against the man. Naugus? Fuck, who cares about Naugus? He sat in the void for a whole heap of time. Nobody knows who this joker is. He's also got an unbearably scratchy voice and one of the ugliest character designs I've seen. This is who they want to be the series antagonist?

If the series had sharp writing and original ideas, it's possible that something like this could float, but the series just kind of drifts along on a sea of "okay". The characters are "okay", but never memorable. The adventures are "okay", but rarely exciting. You tend to watch it just for the mood and atmos' rather than any of the guff that happens to these guys. The one episode I found to have strong writing was the pilot, "Heads Or Tails", though it chooses to focus on the brotherly relationship between Sonic and Tails. It's done very well, with amusing scenes and a great air of whimsy to it, but the series proper takes such a departure from its style that it almost feels like a wasted effort.

The backdrops look terrific, and carry the mood better than the writing or animation can. The animation is adequate at best. Series 2 aims for more expressive animation, and succeeds in a few cases, though its revised character designs act against it. "Heads Or Tails" has heaps of animation, all of it miles ahead of the rest of the series. It's constantly expressive; scenes where Sonic does little more than argue with Rotor, he's constantly flailing his arms or hopping on fence posts, it really carries his sense of attitude and energy better than the rest of the series does.

At the end of the day, I found it to be a very middle of the road show. Ambitious at times, but it lacked a certain something to appeal to me, and required more investment than I could ever muster for it. Geneva of Cartoon Book Club described the series as "baby's first sci-fi", and I think that's the best you could ever put it.

Further reading: I commented on the series finale in this blog entry.

Spider-Man: The Animated Series

Mar
(series 1)

I hadn't seen this in years, was intrigued by what Rage Quitter 87 had to say about it when he documented what TV he watched, and hey, it was Netflix. What had I got to lose besides hours of my time?

I'd forgotten what a swish production the show was, it's pretty impressive! The animation is very smooth, with dynamic cinematography and very clean and slick character designs. And it's so fast-paced! Each episode isn't even twenty minutes long, but it crams a lot in; action, dialogue, exposition.

The first episode is really commendable on how it serves as an introduction for all things Spider-Man in the first five minutes. Spidey's seen patrolling New York and saves a guy from crashing his car into the sea - he's your friendly neighbourhood dude-saving Spider-Man! It cuts to Peter Parker's homelife and work at the Daily Bugle, where we see the people who make his life a misery, and the only parental figure he's got left. Dude's got it hard-going. One of the girls from college follows him for a while, whom he describes as "the little sister I never had, or wanted." It can be a little breakneck, but it establishes everything so quickly and nicely, without the need for a belaboured introdump. An ordinary day in the life of Peter Parker is enough to establish all you need to know.

What really aids the show are its great voice actors. Whoever voices Spider-Man was the voice for Spidey, and you can see how he kept the role for so long - the man did a bang-up job. Ed Asner steals the show as J. Jonah Jameson, and Hank Azaria does a pretty good job of Venom as well, I couldn't even tell it was him! It may not have had the room for pathos and moments more modern shows use, but the voice acting alone could still carry whatever emotion was needed when neceessary.

Despite my praises, it is still a superhero show from the 1990s, and it hasn't exactly aged for adult watching well (surprise surprise). It's a toyetic boys show, for goodness sake. Buff dudes clashing fists for twenty minutes and encouraging you to do the same with the action figures, now on shelves. The episodes featuring the Spider Slayer had me cracking up, because it is such a commercial. It's like the producers saw the Power Rangers' Megazord and thought, "we can do that - no, we can do that three times! With spiders!" I know I thought it was cool as heck as a kid, but three robot spiders stacked on top of each other just has me tittering like a doofus.

Seeing adaptations of the comic book stories is pretty nifty, but the running time and rapid-fire pacing don't quite give it the room to breathe. It does mean that any time there's even a brief instance of drama, you tend to think more about it than the cartoon is willing to show. J.J. creates the Scorpion to battle Spidey, but after Scorp goes bananas and gets welded to the suit, Jameson's grief over this consists of him collapsing and basically saying, "I did the bad thing!", but you take more out of it than the show can convey. They can't explicitly kill bad guys, but the scene in the Venom Saga with Spidey threatening to kill Rhino, the big lug pleading for his life, comes across as genuinely spooky because the voice direction is so great. Spidey really sounds like he's at his wit's end.

I praise the show for cramming things in to its running time, but I can't say the same for the pacing. Some episodes handle it well enough, while others are so mind-bendingly fast that I literally cannot remember them. There was an episode with Mysterio in the first season, wasn't there? At times the episodes seem like jokes, a mockery of what a cartoon geared towards kids for short attention spans would be like.

I enjoyed the show, even if it was entertainment without merit. Perfect kids' stuff, though I dropped it after the first season in favour of other things.

Spaced

May

Bought this last year. I rewatched the whole series, but skipped the first episode. I simply haven't been able to rewatch that one, it's just so lousy. I was hoping the DVD commentary could make it bearable, but even that literally bored me to tears. It's necessary to establish the setup, I guess, but it tries way too hard. You don't miss much if you skip it, to be frank.

First episode aside, it's a good series! I fell completely in love with it the first time I watched it, as it was entirely new to me, and grew really attached to the characters, as sad as it is to say. There's plenty of fun and entertainment, but I was hanging on every action to see if these poor dopes would ever find happiness or not. I suppose trying to recreate that genuine attachment is difficult the second time around, particularly when you know it all works out for everyone.

Usually I rewatch a 'cycle' of DVDs - usually dumb sitcoms or barmy crap like The Young Ones or Bottom, where anything and everything is thrown in if it raises a chuckle. Episodic fluff, basically. Compared to those, it was a little strange watching something that tried to establish actual characters and the occasional drama.

It's a great cast and a very loveable set of characters, and although it's not a nonstop barrel of laughs, it's just a lot of fun watching them get up to their antics. You do feel for them when the going gets tough.

Further reading: The show got a quick mention in this waffle about movie romances.

Gunsmith Cats

May

There's some anime I've had kicking about for years, but simply haven't got around to watching. This is one of them.

Rally and May, a firearm-packing pair who run a gun store, are dragged into a gun-smuggling investigation, which quickly escalates into something more complicated, involving a corrupt police department, a Russian hitwoman, and gratuitous underwear shots.

The series plays out like an anime-ified rendition of your typical police movie, and obviously has a lot of fun playing to type. The plot, simple as it is, is slowly unravelled in a mildly engaging manner, characters and organisations throwing further wrenches in the mix. It's a purely adequate story for what it's aiming for, though my one concern is that Rally and May, the titular characters, don't exactly drive the plot in a major way. They're there for all the action sequences, and make an important discovery in episode 2, but everything else mostly falls into the hands of secondary characters - who I don't think are even present in the manga.

But the series hardly puts much credense in its story. Why would you buy an OVA for that? No, it puts all its energy into its action sequences, which are a heap of fun. Shootouts in criminal warehouses, high-speed freeway chases - if Hollywood movies have done 'em, Gunsmith Cats follows suit! The action is slick and gripping, and seeing the girls put their firearm and explosive skills to use in a variety of scenarios is a lot of fun.

From what I've read, the series is hugely appealing to detail-buffs, from its hand-drawn recreation of the Chicago area to its painstaking details regarding guns, cars, and the exact sounds they make. As someone who's never visited the United States and is too wimpy to even lift an airsoft gun, this is all lost on me, but I respect the level of detail.

It doesn't offer many surprises, but it's a solid watch with great production value.

Filthy Rich & Catflap

May

Another rewatch.

I'm a big fan of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson - if I'm in the mood for quick lowbrow laughs, any of their material fits the bill nicely. Filthy Rich & Catflap's not a bad choice, but it doesn't quite capture the untamed manic essense of the others.

It probably doesn't help that the focus is a little stifling. While The Young Ones and Bottom showed the inane, often surreal antics of aimless students and jobless louts, this one focuses on Richie Rich, a has-been (if that) TV 'celeb'. He clings desperately onto his past stardom, and does whatever he can to bolster his fame, often insane and/or depraved.

Although a fun all-purpose plot, the entire premise revolves around 1980s British pop culture, so not only does it render the whole show nigh-incomprehensible to foreign audiences, but the gags age worse and worse with each passing day. It is interesting to use it as a springboard to educate yourself about a bit of ye olde British telly, but you're still wading through a show that namedrops a long-gone snippet of pop culture in every other sentence.

Rik and Ade are on good form, but they lack the manic intensity of the shows before and after. The screechy rasping voices don't make listening to them much fun either. Nigel Planer as Ralph Filthy is easily the star; Rik and Ade do the same schtick they always do, but Nigel gets a new act as a depraved, lecherous, seedy ne'er-do-well who passes himself off as a talent agent. His desperate attempts for sympathy are always a laugh. Ralph is absent from huge chunks of every episode, which is admittedly a big shame, but it does allow you to appreciate him once he shows up.

As a Rik & Ade nut, it's nice to have if you've exhausted all their other material, but there's stuff out there that's stood the test of time better, surely. 'Sides, I still haven't seen the Bottom live shows!

Falling Skies

Jul ~ Oct
(series 1 - 2)

Aliens invade earth, wiping out the major cities, thinning out the humans and claiming the planet. The series follows school teacher Tom and his pocket of resistance, who alongside trying to build a community and survive, are trying to learn what they're up against and fend off the invaders.

It's a reasonable watch. I admit I watched it simply because my dad was interested in it, so this took up our movie nights for a good few months. It was a pleasant change of pace, at least, but a very middle-of-the-road show.

As an alien invasion story, it carried enough threads and plots to keep itself enticing for some time, which I had to appreciate. The aliens, dubbed Skitters, get up to all sorts of shenanigans, such as constructing strange structures in all the major cities, but a big plot point early on is the Skitters' use of children as slave labour or infantry. One of Tom's sons is "harnessed", and the drive to free him from the state without killing him is a major drive, and just when that seems to be all cleared up, more and more complications arise in both him and other children freed from the harnesses.

Alongside this, you got strife in the community, bandits out in the wild, people working with the aliens, a prophetic city that claims to have enough room and supplies for everyone... a lot of it felt a little too reminiscent of most zombie media, especially since I had read most of The Walking Dead the past year, but I had to appreciate that they were never short of plot threads.

The concept is played pretty grim, but being a Steven Spielberg production, it's got a healthy sense of optimism and community values. Although the characters are mostly soldiers now, they're all still regular people - teachers, doctors, parents, children. The first season really plays up the feeling of community, with everyone banding together in the school for the war effort; even the youngest kid, Matt, found ways to help out. There were plenty of dark moments, and plenty of really sappy moments, but the lighthearted moments were something to be appreciated.

The second season played it grittier, throwing everyone in a less pleasant environment, killing off the nicer folks, and making everyone get on each others' tits more often. A lot more distrust and a lot more military. It kept the show moving now that it didn't need to sit down and establish so much, but it just got so gloomy, man. It's only a terrible alien invasion, you guys. Turn those frowns upside down!

I wasn't digging the Skitters at first, but they're not bad. I can't look at them without thinking how they were designed with an exact prop and CGI budget in mind, though. Seeing them eventually team up with the humans at the end of season 2 was something I was long waiting for. There wasn't enough of that, for my liking.

I had a fair time watching the show, but it always felt to be lacking something. The characters were a bit too drab to stand out. The action was a bit too bog-standard to wow. I felt cynical acknowledging it, but the show felt very 'budgeted', like everything was designed to be "good enough", but nothing more. There could only be so much development in each episode, and the finale episodes littered with dramatic events still felt to be holding back. Even when it came to dialogue, it felt it could've been a lot snappier. The show lacked punch.

After finishing the series, we tried the first episode of Terra Nova, a sci-fi show about a family joining a community on a new, primeval planet. A different premise, yes, but a lot of the same flaws from Falling Skies seeped through, in that it felt strictly designed to be "good enough" and nothing more. An adequate usage of forty five minutes, but never incredible.

It was an entertaining watch, but purely middle of the road. Not so bad I'd throw it away and never watch it again... but at the same time, not many draws to make me want to revisit it. I guess if there's nothing better on TV, but there's so many better things outside of TV, isn't there?

I think I'm trying to say it's not bad, but shit if I can tell anymore.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aug

Another rewatch. This was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, and I've seen it so, so many times I know it nearly inside-out. That said, watching it again with the intent to review it at the end of the year gave me a chance to approach it a bit differently. Previously if I just needed some old, familiar chuckles, I'd whack on Hitchhiker's Guide. It's like an exercise in reacquainting myself with old gags.

It's a fun series. Being made in 1981, it's a rather ropey production; some gags fall a bit flat, and the special effects aren't going to impress anyone, but I think the old-fashioned, off-kilter vibe works well in its favour. The sets are obviously sets, but their obvious falsity and the beautiful matte paintings give an appropriately out-of-this-world feeling. The dodgy special effects used to represent abstract visuals make it that more charming, I'd say. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe is so perverse and demented that I can't imagine it as anything slick. Seeing sparkling green tinfoil costumes just seems so appropriate.

Having watched it so many times, it's amusing to finally put some effort into piecing together the chronology of the story, and what utter nonsense it is:

Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect escape from Earth before it's destroyed to make way for an interstellar bypass, are chucked into deep space and picked up by the second surviving human and Ford's two-headed relative using an Infinite Improbability Drive in a stolen ship, where they stumble upon the mythical planet-manufacturing planet, learning that Earth was a machine funded by the mice to discovery the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but get blasted by police enforcers and propelled forwards in time to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where they then steal another ship that crashes into the sun, but not before teleporting to a ship manned by incompetent middle men, which crashlands into prehistoric earth, where the dawn of man is then doomed to be replaced by telephone sanitisers.

It's a crock, isn't it?

It's offbeat, but it's delightfully quirky and funny, and translates quite well from radio to television; the format of seguing between the story (flimsy as it is) and excerpts from the Guide gels well together. Oddball fiction like that has a dicey chance of translating to other mediums - for instance, I've only experienced Discworld through dodgy radio and video adaptations, and it only convinces me that it only works as a book - but Hitchhiker's Guide survives the translation well.

My only beefs with the series lie in Trillian and Marvin. Trillian, despite being the second surviving hman, doesn't actually contribute an awful lot, and isn't as developed as the other characters. I think Douglas Adams lamented this in the special features, admitting there wasn't much of a written role for her besides to show off that garish red onesie.

Marvin is an amusing character in a written story, but in the TV show the pace grinds to a halt every time he speaks. It plays into his theme, sure, but I guess after so many rewatches it's something I can live without. I actually skipped the last half of episode 2 simply because it's split between exposition from Trillian and Zaphod, and Marvin droning on to Ford and Arthur. It's an amusing sequence, but it's fifteen minutes I can do without experiencing another time.

Hitchhiker's Guide is a comedy - silly, off the wall, with no attempt at taking itself seriously. But that said, I just love the final episode for its incredible bittersweetness. There's still plenty of gags, but the characters' realisation that the new Earth is already doomed to the Golgafrinchams and their telephone sanitisers - it's a ludicrous concept, but the melancholy realisation that it's all futile just hits me so hard, man. When I'm in the mood for some good downer vibes, I just stick that final episode on, rest of the series be damned. I remember that one more than any of the others!

And the fact the series ends on that note (with no continuation until the books restarted the story) just makes it even more melancholy. Marvin is abandoned, left hurtling into the sun. Trillian and Zaphod are teleported to parts unknown, possibly anywhere in the universe. And, of course, Arthur and Ford are trapped on a prehistoric earth with no future. The two of them walking away, making small talk to the sounds of Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World, and that last shot of the Guide drifting into space... it just gets me! It's beautifully bittersweet, and a great way to end the series.

Friends

Aug ~ Dec

After ploughing through M*A*S*H in seven months, the folks and I started watching Friends... and blew through it in five. It satisfied a curiosity to watch the entire series from start to finish, I suppose, but I think coming into this immediately after a show I'd grown so attached was an iffy personal choice. At least we didn't prolong it.

One thing I have to give it credit for is being a 'true' ensemble show. The series we'd watched so far did focus on a large group of characters, but one of them was still in the central role - M*A*S*H had Hawkeye, Cheers had Sam, Frasier had guess who. The six characters in Friends might not get totally equal screen or story time, but you'd be hard-pressed to single out one of them as the starring character. It's a neat novelty, at least.

The characters were all fun, though whether they were "likeable" was another matter. It didn't help that from episode to episode, you never quite knew how the characters would be presented, or their relationship toward one another. Sometimes they'd be looking out for each other in intimate and meaningful ways, and other times one of the group would be the designated walking joke. Ross was a fun character - when he was "goofy dorky older brother" Ross. More often than not, you were saddled with "neurotic insufferable lovebird" Ross. That Ross was substantially less fun.

Watching the show on DVD made me realise how much continuity there was between episodes. when Monica gets fired, she remains unemployed for the next few episodes, for instance... and the bloody Ross and Rachel relationship needs no mention. I can see where it would be appealing, and early on the relationship had some vague hint of acceptability about it, but as the seasons rolled on, it seemed more and more like a prop for killing time. It didn't mean so much back in the day when Channel4 would just air random episodes out of order, but seeing a third of an episode dedicated to the group talking about Ross and Rachel's relationship got old real fast. When a show can no longer write an engaging relationship and instead has other characters tell you how attached you should be to this subject... well, "lazy" is one word.

The humour itself is fair enough, some ol' fashioned mid-90s white person laughs. There are some great one-off jokes, but not so much when it comes to memorable storylines. It's easy to see why the series used its idiosyncratic naming pattern for each episode, as one isolated moment is usually all you would remember from some eps. Would you believe the one with the couch in the stairwell isn't actually called The One With The Couch In The Stairwell? Jeez, what priorities have those guys got?

What was intriguing to observe was how soon, or how late, some of the show's popular trends began appearing. The show was quick to establish the family of nearly all the characters, and "we were on a break!" debuted a season or two in, and so on. The only one that took its time to show up as Joey's "how you doin'?", which only began to crop up in season 4, and only sparingly.

... I guess the fact I'm just talking about random little aspects and less the show itself is telling. It was nice to see it in full, and there were certainly a number of laughs, but it was just fluff. Not a bad show to idly catch on television, but not what I'd prefer to dedicate my evenings to.

Cowboy Bebop

Aug ~ Sep

Well, this was long overdue.

What can I say that people haven't said for fourteen years already? The production values are amazing. The voice acting is superb. The animation is great. The music is terrific. The variety of themes and alternating focuses between episodes is seriously commendable, and makes it a very refreshing watch. It follows a formula, but it never feels like episodes are carbon copies of each other.

It's a good anime.

Only upon watching it did I realise this was made by Sunrise, the folks behind Escaflowne - yeah, that pile. It is amusing to note the similarities, though, particularly both shows "appeal to as many demographies as possible" niche. It's got swank-ass space ships, great characters, rich environments, heaps of backstory... you gotta like something about it! Escaflowne, meanwhile, felt like a mad pitch to have one element that worked, but couldn't even manage that.

Although a show with continuity, each episode is very self-contained, and remained great during one-off rewatches. The variety of genres from episode to episode, from gritty crime drama to melancholy soul searching to happy-go-lucky treasure quests, it always made for entertaining watching.

... except for Spike's backstory.

Every time it delved into his backstory, I was just bored to sleep. I kept wanting to praise the show for not "being so anime"; the show certainly ain't exempt from it, but Spike's time in the crime gang was just dripping in anime. Pretty boys being angsty and moody and psychopathic just felt so trite for a show that was so fun. Spike's just a goofy Lupin III homage, right? What place has he got in contrived mobster bullshit?

That's really my only gripe, and they're easy episodes to skip. If the years and years of critical acclaim and reruns and goodness knows what else haven't clued it, it's an anime worth watching!

AfterMASH

Sep ~ Oct

It really broke my heart to see M*A*S*H end. I'd grown so attached to the characters and the setting, and knowing that we rushed through eleven years of content in a mere seven months felt absolutely criminal. There's gotta be more M*A*S*H out there, right? There's gotta be...!

AfterMASH is set in late 1953, after all the boys from the 4077 have returned home. Potter, disinterested with retirement, becomes a surgeon at a local veterans hospital, aided by Father Mulcahy, Klinger and a bevy of new faces, and the old antics begin anew... allegedly.

Even for folks who've never seen M*A*S*H, you may know this show as a frequent fixture on such lists as "worst TV shows of all time". And, when summarised, it's not hard to see why - let's take three minor characters from an ensemble cast, make them the stars, put them in a veteran's hospital and try to make a comedy out of that! It has no reason to work, and I'll be frank, it doesn't. The show has a few moments of value and merit, but it feels like a poorly thought-out addendum than a pleasing continuation.

M*A*S*H had a lot going for it, from the classic characters, the excellent writers, the talented actors, and even the setting added so much to it. How many other comedies can you name set outside a warzone? The war was vital to the show; the characters were dragged together against their will, dumped in a completely foreign country and left picking up the pieces from a conflict they disapproved of. Whether the episode was a comedy or a drama, being set in a genuine conflict gave everything a certain pathos that's hard to simulate in any other setting. Cheers would be a lot different if you never knew if Norm would make it back to the bar or not.

AfterMASH cannot capture the same vibe. It's pleasing to see the characters again, but coming back to the States and taking place in a hospital isn't anywhere near as exciting or unique. The military rule of the original could be a source of comedy or drama, but there's not a lot one can milk from a hospital environment. It gets tiresome just seeing them pacing down endless white corridors - and it seems the writers felt the same, as later in the series they'd find any excuse to take the cast to a bar instead.

Speaking of locations, we finally see the home lives of our characters for the first time. We're finally introduced to Mildred Potter, and get to see a lot more out of Soon Lee and Klinger's married life. It's actually very sweet, if a bit sappy at times. When the hospital winds Potter's gears too much, Mildred serves as his voice of reason, and Soon Lee serves as Klinger's new objective - no longer looking for a Section 8, he's looking to care for his wife and their expecting baby!

There's a lot of new faces, and being a hospital, more keep passing by or popping in. Mike D'Angelo, the hospital administrator, is the resident face of opposition, a selfish guy concerned only with his reputation and the hospital's image. He's a cheery, happy-go-lucky guy, faintly reminiscent of Colonel Blake in his mannerisms, and makes for an amusing (if long-winded) opponent for Potter. His secretary, Alma Cox, is very much a female Frank Burns - snooty, snide and uses her position and Mike's to make life troublesome for everyone. She, too, is a fun character, and makes a mark for herself as Klinger's rival.

The only dud to be found is Dr. Pfeiffer, seemingly the hospital's only doctor besides Potter. He's a young guy, too young to have seen combat, is inexperienced but looking to learn, with a comical fixation on food. For many episodes he's simply there, another face in a white coat, showing up only to employ some dumb food craving jokes. The man is actually a good actor, he really shines when he gets a good role, but since he gets nothing to do...

Potter, Klinger and Mulcahy are on decent form, but the fact of the matter is that none of them are starring character material. It's an ensemble cast of supporting characters. Potter does pick up Hawkeye's role a little, as the talented chief surgeon and constantly butting heads with the higher-ups over rules and regulations. Mulcahy is often left with little to do, though, and is lucky to get a token cameo in some episodes.

The big problem with the cast is that it's got no movers and shakers. M*A*S*H was coming down in characters who could conjure up a plot just by walking into the room. They were in a war, for goodness sake, they had a lot to get upset about! But in AfterMASH, everyone feels very settled in. Klinger gets in a tizzy over his financial woes, but does little to raise issues for anyone.

And this is the big problem for most of the show. Episodes just trundle along. You'll get a few jokes here and there, a plot if you're lucky, and then the episode just stops. There's no one to 'direct' an episode, to force up an issue that'll be the crux of an episode; it'll just glide along on the whims of conversations before finding a place to stop. Only a few episodes felt like they had a proper story to them.

The first standout show is episode 10, "Fallout", which is also the first one to play up a dramatic storyline. One of the patients is a soldier who was present at multiple A-bomb tests, and has gotten leukemia from the radiation poisoning. Dr. Pfeiffer is doing everything he can to help him, but Mike is claiming the radiation poisoning was not something that was inflicted while on duty, and thus should not be compensated. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer has been offered a cushy, well-paying job at another hospital, but the skills he's learning under Potter's aid are so much more valuable...

It's a surprisingly good episode. Not perfect, I'm hesitant to rank it with M*A*S*H's best episodes, but it's the best this show has to offer. The fact it's the first and only episode to really make use of Pfeiffer is great, and offers him some brilliant character development. The drama is excellent, there's a few decent laughs, and it's the first episode to have a message. It also makes practical usage of the characters after the war, rather than giving a stock hospital drama with liberal sprinklings of "gee, remember the war?"

There's one or two other decent episodes. Episode 13, "Chief of Staff", features a black nurse who's working for the first time in an integrated environment, and has to come to terms with it, while Potter's friends plan him a surprise birthday party, redecorating his office with all the trinkets from the 4077: his desk, his saddle, his paintings, complete with a reprise of the M*A*S*H ending theme. It's a really cute scene and especially nostalgic... even if it does remind you that you could probably be spending this time watching a good episode of M*A*S*H instead.

(one of the recordings even had an advert for Four Seasons, starring Alan Alda. It's sad that the commercial bumpers struck me with more emotion and nostalgia than the show did!)

The problem with the series is that it starts with a flawed concept, and takes its sweet time trying to fix it, and sometimes in the wrong way. Nine uneventful episodes go by before a dramatic storyline crops up, easily one of the few things it does well, but then it remains reluctant to do many more, settling for half-baked, light-hearted, forgettable fluff, manned by a very idle cast.

Near the end of season 1, Dr. Boyer is introduced... and he is the kick in the teeth the series needs. A young doctor, also a veteran, having lost his leg working in battalion aid. He's a top notch surgeon with an attitude problem. He's a gambler, a womaniser, hard to work with, constantly battling authority, and home to a variety of issues and insecurities. There's not many similarities, but he plays out like a darker version of Hawkeye, and is a truly engaging character. He's got depth, plenty of character development, and is always a great source of drama, be it from himself or causing it for others. David Ackroyd plays the character superbly well. Almost too well... he's wasted on this show! None of the characters can match up to him!

Season 1 ends on a cliff-hanger, with Klinger thrown in jail after roughing up a con artist housing salesman, while Soon Lee is about to give birth. The series doesn't end perfectly, but with the introduction of Boyer, it looks to be shaping itself into something a little more unique, a little more upstanding.

... unfortunately, season 2 ends up revising a lot of things. A couple of characters are dropped, some characters are revised, and overall it tries to play up the manic intensity more than before. Characters get uppity with each other more often, Klinger and the patients cause more mayhem, and it feels like a very forced attempt to recapture the chaotic, carefree attitude of the 4077.

Mike is gone, replaced by Wally Wingrat, a kooky, slimy, wormy kinda guy who always shows up out of the blue and gives everyone bad vibes - even Alma Cox! He's a kooky antagonist, if a little into cartoon territory - installing a suggestion box just to weed out unhappy malcontents, for instance. Mildred is recast and played up as a bit of a scatter-brained old woman, which is more suited to comedy, I guess, but the old Mildred and Potter's relationship felt very genuine and sweet. Soon Lee gets a wild, competitive edge at times, evidently to match Klinger's style of wild wit.

Klinger goes off the deep end in this season. In the first five episodes, he breaks out of jail, disguises himself in the hospital, ends up on the streets, gets taken to court, before finally being declared insane and taking to the hospital's mental health ward, where he then finds crackpot ways to milk that for as much money as possible. It's an attempt to harken back to the Klinger of olde - when that guy showed up, he was trouble! But the latter half of M*A*S*H and the first season of AfterMASH tries to establish Klinger's transformation, settling down with a family and trying to make an honest living for himself. Klinger's antics do garner a "to be continued" after every episode, but it also made me lost respect for the character. It's meant to be funny, but it's sad to watch.

Speaking of sad, Alma Cox is demoted from secretary to Potter's clerk, filling Klinger's old spot. Stripped of her power, she harkens even more to Frank Burns - clinging to power that nobody respects. She becomes a less detestable character, but her new interactions with Klinger, now that he's considered a mentally insane convict, become frighteningly uncomfortable. She sees him as a disturbed man, a dangerous person, and is scared to be around him. It's meant to reverse the roles, with Klinger unintentionally antagonising her, but implying that Alma thinks Klinger wants to rape her - as humour, I remind you! - is seriously uncomfortable on so many levels.

The worst bit about season 2 is by making these changes and injecting these storylines, you'd think they'd have a better idea of what they're doing this time. Instead, it seems to get more unstructured by every episode, be it more tweaks or changes to still introducing new characters within the last two episodes. Dr. Lenore is introduced, a psychiatrist, someone for Dr. Boyer to bounce off, be it him womanising her or her playing up his short temper. Pfeiffer has vanished by this point, replaced in the penultimate episode by Andrew, another painfully naive and inexperienced doctor with half the potential Pfeiffer had. And then they look like they're attempting to give random hospital staff more recurring scenes and personality, and...

At this point, it ends up feeling like two different shows. Potter and Mulcahy run on their own frequency; Klinger, Wally and the wives are played up for kookiness; meanwhile, Boyer and Lenore get lots of scenes and development together, going for a more dramatic angle. And out of all of them, Boyer is the only one worth watching.

The bottom line, is it worth watching?

On its own merits... well, you could watch worse. There's better stuff out there you could be watching.

To a M*A*S*H fan... I'd say no. It's a whole different ball game, and you won't find its kind of entertainment here.

To a complete M*A*S*H fanatic, an utter nutso who can't live without more M*A*S*H... well, it's an option! Just... just prepare to be disappointed. Drop it after season 1 if you must. Season 2 will only make you lose respect for the characters.

One Foot in the Grave

Dec
(series 1 - 3)

After finishing Friends, we were looking for something to tide us over until the new year when we started something new. It was a bit of a change from the happy-go-lucky American sitcoms we'd been so used to, but I suggested we give this another go.

I've watched One Foot in the Grave plenty on my own, but it's been a while since I've enjoyed it with company. After being forcibly retired at age 60, life doesn't get any better for the ornery Victor Meldrew, who seems forever caught in abstract farces and exaggerated inconveniences, and not always out of his own doing.

I've always enjoyed the show, and watching it in recent years has given me huge respect for it. I admit when I first got the DVDs, I found the pacing and direction of each episode to be rather random - it seemed to trundle along at an idle pace, with scenes that seemed almost pointless.

In actuality, the plot threads of each episode are always interconnected in some manner, running several stories at once that tend to drop elements into each other. Throwaway comments from early in the episode are almost guaranteed to have a follow-up of some sort later on. by It's very smartly written, and it's always great rewatching episodes to get a better idea of how these threads piece together. Even in this viewing, there were one or two little details I'd never picked up in my prior watchings!

The series is essentially a dom-com, but the great characters and sharp writing really make it rise above that. More importantly, its stories venture outside of pure comedy and into dark or melancholy territory, finding the time to explore these characters' lives beyond the surface. It's probably not the lack-a-daisical affair most viewers might be after (my mother was always a bit discontented with the downer episodes), but these little slices of melancholy are what makes it so outstanding, in my view.

We watched the first three seasons (and the first two Christmas specials), and finished the remainder of it in January of the following year. One of my personal favourite British comedies... and a bit difficult to actually review afresh like this. I've loved it for too long!

Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury

Dec

A Christmas short set after the events of How To Train Your Dragon The Vikings are having their first winter holiday with the dragons... only for them all to suddenly vanish! Hiccup ends up getting dragged along on the dragons' voyage, while the other kids figure out a way to make the festival as memorable as possible without their new pets.

Admittedly an awkward item to fit into this list. As a one-off short special, it can't count as a TV show, nor is it arguably a full-on movie. This list is way shorter than that one, though, so on it goes!

It's not a bad wee short. It's rather neat seeing all the assets and quality of a feature-length production being used in a twenty-minute short, with all the same voice cast and everything. Dreamworks don't short-change their direct-to-TV guff!

It's entertaining enough, and seeing more of the dragons taking part in the Vikings everyday life is rather sweet. The baby dragon business felt a bit overly cute, as if the deluge of babies in the Shrek franchise wasn't marketable enough. It's a fair enough special, ideal for the Christmas spirit and all that jazz, but nothing remarkable.

Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon

Dec

Another How To Train Your Dragon special. After his home gets inexplicably torched, Gobber and the kids set off in search of a legendary dragon that has supposedly been hounding him since childhood: the skeletal Boneknapper!

Now this is a fun one! It's a serious change of pace from the movie, as the pet dragons don't even come into play at all, but instead a highlight piece for all the characters, especially Gobber. Half the film consists of him telling tales of his previous encounters with the Boneknapper, all rendered in kooky, exaggerated 2D animation. It doesn't aim for drama at all, the whole thing's just a madcap romp-around.

My dad felt it was a bit of a cheat how half the feature is 2D animation, especially when how high-quality the 3D animation is, though I think the 2D animation was vital for this piece. Not only was it a pleasant change of pace, but the offbeat style goes perfectly with Gobber's offbeat storytelling, and the actual animation is of a slicker, faster style. I love both the looks, but given the madcap vibe of Gobber's flashbacks, I don't think the 3D could have captured the same insanity as it had.

It's pretty daft, and there's not much of an ending, but if you're going to choose one special to watch, pick this one.

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