No Cause for “D’oh!” The Simpsons Turn 30

By Tom Holste

Jan. 30, 2020

(Above image source: Imgur)

I’m really into posting about anniversaries of movies and TV shows lately, so I should probably post about The Simpsons, which turned 30 earlier this month. (There were animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show before that, and a Christmas special the previous December, but the first regular episode of the series aired on Jan. 14, 1990.)

Unlike some of the other shows, this one hasn’t gone away for a while so that any of us can feel nostalgic for it. I confess that I don’t watch the show regularly anymore; it doesn’t surprise me the way it used to. Still, it’s the only show from 1990 still on the air, and it’s the longest-running U.S. scripted program in prime time (recently beating out Gunsmoke). Hats off to the creative team for making something that’s stayed in the public consciousness this long!

People may not remember now, but the show struggled to get new episodes on the air at first. The Fox network, seeing the show as a risk, only ordered 13 episodes (including the Christmas special). When the show was a runaway success right from the start, they didn’t have enough new episodes to fill the void! They just had to keep rerunning the same episodes over and over again, and even had to delay the Season 2 premiere until mid-October when most shows premiered in September. I remember that, for several weeks, Fox ran advertisements in TV Guide with the characters joking about the lack of new episodes! Those ads came with a promise of the October premiere date.

At the time, I wondered if the show would survive the drop in viewer attention from people who got tired of waiting. Well, 600+ episodes later, I think it’s safe to say they recovered just fine.

Happy 30th, The Simpsons!

Simpsons-30th

“Sesame Street” is Brought to You By the Number 50

By Tom Holste

Nov. 10, 2019

On Monday, Nov. 10, 1969, PBS launched a new educational series. While the show would be for everyone, there was a heavy focus on, and concern for, inner-city children who often struggled academically. The show was designed to give them a helping hand so they would be better prepared for entering school.

Having performed multiple studies with children to see what kind of television they responded to, the researchers discovered that kids learned commercials with cartoon characters and catchy jingles very quickly. So they packed the program with animated “commercials” for numbers and letters, identifying them as the show’s sponsors (“This show was brought to you by the numbers 3 and 4, and by the letter H”).

The children responded to humor, so Jim Henson and his team (having slowly made a name for themselves on appearances on The Tonight Show and other programs) were brought in to make the kids laugh while the Muppets taught them valuable lessons. And to the researchers’ surprise, the show that kids responded the best to, more than any Saturday morning show, was Laugh-In, so their new program would model the bright visuals and fast-paced editing of that show.

Since their program would be targeted at the inner city, the cast of humans would be very racially diverse–a rarity even in prime time in 1969–to show that people of all different backgrounds could get along.

The programmers were hoping to make a difference in the lives of some children, and if they were really lucky, maybe they would even run for several years. Well, it’s 2019, and I’m happy to say that Sesame Street is still with us.

The show not only taught kids their letters and numbers, but also valuable life lessons. Characters grew older, fell in love, got married, had children, and the kids watching (usually through the perspective of the innocent Big Bird) learned how to deal with those changes. Perhaps most significantly, when actor Will Lee passed away, the characters actually mourned the death of his character, Mr. Hooper, in an honest and beautiful way.

In March of 2001, Sesame did a series of episodes where the street (loosely modeled on the streets in New York, where the show is produced) was struck by a hurricane. Big Bird saw rescue workers come and help deal with an unexpected disaster, and everyone in the neighborhood pitched in to help set things right. Six months later, 9/11 happened, and Sesame had an already-made week of episodes to rerun that would help kids cope with the events.

Elmo’s dad went off to war, and kids learned through him what it was like to have parents gone for extended periods of time. Oscar’s pet worm Slimey went into space. The characters once got stuck in a museum all night (before Ben Stiller made it cool). Elmo helped kids get comfortable with going to the potty. Characters have traveled to Hawaii, Japan, and China, among other places. And kids have learned right alongside them, being entertained along the way–and parents have enjoyed the journey as well.

So, here’s to all the people who worked on Sesame Street over the decades. Thank you for 50 years of humor, fun, and valuable learning. Thank you for “Bein’ Green” and “Rubber Duckie” and “C is for Cookie.” Thank you for Super Grover and Count von Count and Guy Smiley and so many other characters and moments that have made us smile. Here’s hoping for many more years of sunny days, sweepin’ the clouds away.

“GoT” Writers Got Out of STAR WARS

By Tom Holste

Oct. 30, 2019

(Above image source: Slashfilm)

In February of 2018, I wrote a blog post about the “Game of Thrones” writers being hired to write a new series of “Star Wars” movies. Now, surprisingly, they’ve stepped down from the project.

The writers cited a busy schedule with a number of shows they’re working on for Netflix, but one has to wonder if negative fan reaction to the final season of Game of Thrones (particularly the last episode) had something to do with it. (I haven’t seen it myself, so I can’t say anything about whether the rage is justified. But I did see lots of fans demanding the writers’ removal from the SW franchise in the last few months.)

Considering that Lucasfilm seems to have a revolving door of writers and directors, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. Still, the first movie in the new series was slated for December of 2022, which means that Lucasfilm will have to hire new talent fast, or that date will have to be cancelled while the company gets its bearing again.

Meanwhile, work on Rian Johnson’s proposed trilogy hasn’t come to a complete stop, but Johnson has been busy with another film (Knives Out), and negative fan backlash to The Last Jedi suggests that all parties involved might take it slow for fear of more audience fallout.

So, for the first time in several years, there isn’t a Star Wars film in production or with a release date (beyond Rise of Skywalker in December). That’s fine; I don’t mind if the franchise gets a bit of rest, although in this case, a “rest” still means new TV shows on Disney+, as well as new video games, comic books, novels, etc.

Zoinks! Scooby Turns 50

By Tom Holste

Sep. 14, 2019

On Saturday, Sep. 13, 1969, a new animated show premiered, called “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” The format was loosely based on a 1940s radio drama called “I Love Mystery,” while the characters were based on the teenagers from the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Added to the mix was a talking Great Dane — who, in the original concept, was named “Too Cool” and played a banjo! Ultimately, the dog would be named after Frank Sinatra’s jazz scat from “Strangers in the Night.” 

While the show hasn’t run continuously in its original title and format–the way that, say, “Simpsons” or “Spongebob” have–it continues to get reinvented every few years. Sometimes there are chases set to pop music. Sometimes there are celebrity appearances. Sometimes it’s a half-hour. Sometimes there are feature-length direct-to-video movies (there have been staggeringly over 30 of those produced in the last 20 years). Sometimes Scooby’s relatives show up, such as Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Dum or Yabba-Doo (I promise I didn’t make any of those names up). Usually, the ghosts are fake, but in some productions, the monsters are real (that’s my least favorite era, because I think it violates the core premise of the series. But I’ll get into that in a minute). But in one way or another, the franchise has endured.

Meanwhile, many of Hanna-Barbera’s other creations, such as the Flintstones and Yogi Bear, have fallen into relative obscurity. Why is that? What is it about Scooby that makes him last?

Here’s my theory: The world is often very frightening to children. Some of these fears are over legitimate things, but a great deal of them are actually over things that can be overcome. Part of the process of growing to adulthood is sorting out which is which. There may be people out in the street who behave monstrously, but there are no literal three-headed monsters under the children’s bed.

“Scooby” takes the embodiment of the children’s fears (monsters) and reveals them to be the frauds that they are. The child can relate to Scooby and Shaggy running away from the things that scare them, but also see that their fear is overblown and hilarious, especially if they’ve seen enough episodes to know how things are going to work out. Things that seem alarming have rational explanations, and the frightening creatures can be caught, exposed, and robbed of their power. 

While I don’t think such heavy thoughts were going through the minds of the people who created the show–I think they just wanted to do something that would make kids laugh while being mildly suspenseful–that seems to be the subconscious message of the show: “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”

Kids (and often adults) need to be reminded of that, and I think that’s why the show endures. 

Below are some of my favorite themes from the different iterations over the years. Happy 50th birthday, Scooby-Doo!

 

Star Wars: Loading the Canon

By Tom Holste

Mar. 13, 2019

There is a great disturbance in the Force.

Star_Wars_Heir_to_the_Empire

HEIR TO THE EMPIRE is legitimately great, but Disney now says it never happened.

An increasingly large (or maybe just increasingly vocal) number of Star Wars fans insist that nothing has been right in the franchise since Disney abolished the old Expanded Universe in 2014. For those not in the know, the Expanded Universe (EU for short) refers to all the non-film material that was created for the saga: the novels, comic books, video games and so forth.

And to a degree, I get it. I haven’t been very excited with a lot of the new books and comics, the few which I’ve bothered to read. If you don’t like the new stories, that’s perfectly O.K. But there’s a false narrative gaining traction in fandom, and I think it’s time to set the record straight.

This false narrative claims that there was only ever one canon from 1976 to 2014. (“Canon,” originally a term for scripture, is now often used to refer to any event that officially happened within a fictional universe. With Star Wars, the movies are clearly canon; C-3P0 and R2-D2 visiting Sesame Street, while entertaining, clearly isn’t canon. But novels, comics and video games tend to fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.)

EU defenders further say that the continuity was always internally consistent, that George Lucas was aware of and involved with every aspect of it, and that Disney cruelly flushed it all down the toilet despite Lucas’ objections just so they could cynically sell more books.

There are so many problems with this argument, I barely know where to begin, but let’s start anyway. (Spoilers ahead!)

None of it was ever canon. Otherwise, why call it the Expanded Universe in the first place? Admittedly, pre-Disney Lucasfilm is responsible for part of the confusion here, since they eventually adopted a tiered level of canonicity. “G-canon” was the primary source, anything created by George Lucas himself; “C-canon” referred to the recent comics and novels; and “S-canon” referred to secondary material like the old Marvel comics. EU fans point to the use of the word “canon” to prove their point, but the fact that “G-canon” trumped them all and could contradict them at any time meant that the others weren’t really canon, just as internally consistent as possible.

SW_Ki-Adi_Mundi

“What do you mean, Jedi don’t get married? I was married. . . in the comics!”

The movies frequently contradicted the other sources. At one time, the novels said that Luke’s “Uncle” Owen was actually Ben Kenobi’s brother in hiding, until the prequels came along and showed Owen to be Luke’s uncle after all. Boba Fett was a member of the Mandalorian Army, until Lucas decided that he was actually just a clone of his “dad” Jango Fett. Many of the early novels about the Clone Wars got contradicted by the later TV series that Lucas was more involved with. These examples, among others, indicated that the spinoff media was never that important to Lucas, and that the movies (and the later TV shows) were always top priority.

There was already an earlier break in the timeline. As noted in the earlier mention of “S-canon,” the Marvel comics from 1977-86 were contradicted once the new series of novels and comics started in 1991. (In fact, the term “Expanded Universe” was never used prior to that date.) Other media, such as the Ewoks and Droids cartoons of the ‘80s, were quickly ignored. Lucas himself struck certain characters and storylines from official continuity long before 2014, including a talking rabbit named Jaxxon (seen in the header image) and the infamous Holiday Special. Only one character created for spin-off media before 1991 ever made it into the later EU.

Lucas was never that involved. EU fans point to Lucas’ hatred of the character Mara Jade as evidence that he was keenly aware of the spin-off media. But if that was the case, why did he let her keep appearing, and even get married to Luke Skywalker? When she was finally killed off, why was Lucas surprised to learn that?

Mara_Jade

Lucas didn’t care for fan-favorite character Mara Jade…with what little time he spent thinking about her.

In 2005, when Starlog magazine asked George Lucas how he kept everything straight with all the novels and comics, he replied, “I don’t read that stuff. I haven’t read any of the novels. I don’t know anything about that world. That’s a different world than my world” (emphasis added).

How fans continue to insist that Lucas was deeply involved in the EU after reading that quote is mind-boggling to me.

Disney did not break into Lucas’ house and steal Star Wars from him. He sold the company himself. He approached Disney CEO Bob Iger about the sale, not the other way around. And I doubt he cries himself to sleep on the bags of 4 billion dollars that Disney paid him. (Yes, I imagine Lucas keeps the money in physical form and plays with it Scrooge McDuck-style.) Lucas could have stipulated in the contract that he didn’t want the EU to be written out of existence, but he didn’t.

There were a lot of bad stories in the old EU. Fan reaction to the Jedi Prince series of young-reader books was so negative that the books were eventually contradicted by later novels. And while fans say that Luke in The Last Jedi was written too dark and out-of-character, there was an EU story where Luke Skywalker fell to the Dark Side under a clone of the Emperor, and Leia had to rescue him.  (I actually liked that one, to be fair, but it doesn’t fit into the fans’ current “Luke would never do anything wrong!” narrative.) Fans also complained that the stories had gotten stale and predictable. It’s only been after the Disney reset that suddenly fans behaved as though every prior story was a flawless work of art.

Getting rid of the old EU didn’t help Disney sell more books. They could have easily kept telling stories at different points in the timeline without eliminating anything. They also make a profit off of sales of EU books. The old timeline was eliminated so that filmmakers could have a free hand when making the new trilogy, and to create an easier point of entry for new fans. Thanks to Disney, there is now one consistent canon across all Star Wars media.

Disney-Star-Wars

Okay, THIS moment isn’t canon. But it is adorable!

Again, if you don’t like the new stories, that’s perfectly valid. But I don’t think revisionist history is the way to make one’s point.

To be fair, I also think that Disney went too far in eliminating everything. There were a lot of stories they could have kept (maybe I’ll write another article about that). But at the end of the day, the important thing is whether or not the stories entertained you. If they did, then it doesn’t matter who says it’s canon or it’s not. But if they didn’t, then keeping them just so fans could say they “really happened” is pointless, because none of Star Wars “really happened.”

Disney has, however, made the first step towards reaching out to disenfranchised fans, with the announcement that there will be a new comic book story set in the timeline of Marvel’s Star Wars from 1977 to 1986. If this trend continues, maybe the fans will calm down, and there can be peace and justice in the Republic…er, the fandom…once again.

Disney/Fox Sale: Quick Update

The deadline fluctuates for when the Disney/Fox merger deal will be completed. On Jan. 1, employees got a company letter with both the Disney and Fox logos on it. Then, for a while, complications looked to push the merger back to June.

Now, Variety reports that Disney has settled its legal issues with Brazil, one of the few remaining holdout territories, by agreeing to sell its stake in Fox Sports there. Assuming everything goes according to plan this time, the deal may be finalized as soon as the first week of March.

In such a case, the June release of Dark Pheonix would be the first Fox movie under Disney ownership.

(Photo source: Entertainment Earth.com)

 

Netflix Opens the Door to Narnia

By Tom Holste

Oct. 10, 2018

netflix-narnia-slice-600x200-Collider

(Image source above: Collider.com)

Last week, Netflix and the C.S. Lewis Estate made a surprising announcement: The late author’s Chronicles of Narnia book series is getting a fresh set of adaptations to be released on the streaming service.

In a sense, the news wasn’t that unexpected: Despite the good box office and positive reviews for the initial theatrical adaptation, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), the following films struggled to maintain an audience. The lukewarm reception for Prince Caspian caused Disney to end its development deal with the Lewis estate. The most recent entry, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (from Fox), sunk eight years ago already. So the notion of a reboot wasn’t out of the question.

In another sense, though, the announcement was surprising because the company had been working on the next theatrical film, The Silver Chair, for some time. Joe Johnston was brought on as the director in the spring of 2017. (Johnston’s previous work includes such family-friendly adventures as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Captain America: The First Avenger.) Johnston had been sidetracked when Disney asked him to complete the upcoming Nutcracker and the Four Realms after the previous director was fired, but it was reasonable to imagine that Johnston would refocus his efforts on Silver Chair once Nutcracker was finished. With the new announcement, however, it seems likely that Silver Chair has been shelved. When it’s adapted for Netflix, the producers will likely start from scratch.

Aslan_and_Lucy

Aslan tells Lucy not to despair as she waits ages to see the SILVER CHAIR movie.

This is a smart move for the Lewis estate; while I’m sad that I won’t get to see Johnston’s vision for Narnia come to life, the movie series had been flailing for some time. And Netflix is a service with a lot of quality original programming, including Stranger Things and Marvel’s Daredevil. A lot of people who wouldn’t pay to see another Narnia movie in the theater might give the new versions a chance since Netflix is taking a shot at it.

This is also a smart move for Netflix. Despite sitting near the top of the entertainment industry — it’s now more popular than broadcast, cable, Hulu or YouTube — the service has gotten into trouble in the past few months for certain shows and movies with objectionable content targeted to younger viewers, leading to online protests and service cancellations. Bringing a family-friendly series like Narnia to the service could stem the tide.

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If “Eleven” from STRANGER THINGS goes into the wardrobe and starts throwing centaurs around with her mind, though, that might be a step too far. (Image source: ComicBook.com)

On that same note, some within the Narnia fan base are concerned that the streaming service may want to inject unsavory content into the scripts for this franchise. While anything is possible, it’s worth noting that C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, is still actively involved in the production. Gresham has fought hard in the past to make sure that previous adaptations retain the tone and themes of the original stories, and even outright prevented certain productions from moving forward. I’m hopeful that he can continue to make his voice known.

Doug_Gresham

Douglas Gresham holds the keys to Narnia. (Source: NarniaFans.com)

One of the more puzzling statements in the press release is the assertion that the streaming service plans to develop movies and series around the world of Narnia. There are only seven relatively short, tightly-written books; how can those be turned into the sprawling “universe” described in the press release? It’s possible that some of the books with a more episodic nature (such as Dawn Treader) might be turned into miniseries while other entries might remain as films. One certainly hopes that Netflix doesn’t develop a bunch of pointless filler material, or that any additional content they create keeps in line with Lewis’ writing.

As for what order they should go in, I’m a firm believer that the best reading order is published order, since it maintains the surprises of the series when you get to the prequels. However, a small part of me hopes that The Magician’s Nephew (the first story chronologically) gets adapted first, as it’s one of the best books in the series, and it’s never gotten a single filmed adaptation. People already know Lion very well from multiple adaptations; not enough people have experienced Magician’s Nephew.

Glumpuddle-Narnia-Reading-Order

Of course there can’t be a fandom without some confusion about the timeline. (Image source: Glumpuddle, YouTube)

Nonetheless, after years of production delays, Narnia is moving forward again with one of the most exciting content producers out there. Here’s hoping for the best!