Sh*t I Watch – The Walking Dead

*Note – at time of writing the show was in its mid season break. Now that I’m returning to the post the same season has finished and I’ve added a bonus paragraph!

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Greeting, Glancers! It was inevitable, wasn’t it? My love of horror, apocalypse scenarios, TV, zombies – of course I was going to watch The Walking Dead, and of course I was going to love it. And of course I was going to include it in the Sh*t I Watch series. It should be noted though that I have not yet read the comics, though I hope to some day once they are cheap or someone gives me more money or an apocalypse comes and I can wander in to Forbidden Planet and take them free of charge. That’s what we all really want to see and dream about when we watch a show like this – the complete freedom to go and do as we please, no job, no responsibility, no future, our only care being how to survive.

Not Right

I won’t get into why this sort of thing is so cherished by people suffice to say that it has always been something I’ve fantasized about from an early age; all the usual questions – which weapon to use, where to live, how to travel, who to trust, what sort of person you should be – a lone warrior wading through the wasteland and killing zombies as you go, a trader who moves between settlements passing on information and supplies, part of an elite military or rescue group, hoard yourself with your family and only sneak outside when absolutely necessary, a peacemaker and builder who tries to bring society back from the brink? The possibilities are both endless and endlessly cliched, but it’s so easy to lose yourself in daydreams.

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‘And then I’d steal their weapons and eat their children… good times’

For my part, I don’t think the perfect zombie or apocalypse show has been made, though I love so many movies, books, and games which base themselves around similar ideas. I Am Legend and The Stand are my two favourite books of all time; Romero’s Dead trilogy are among my most loved movies of all time; since as far back as I can remember, the stories I have been most drawn to have involved some sort of survival against the odds, either a journey back to civilization, or the survival against its breakdown – all going back to when I first read The Odyssey in Primary School, along with all the other assorted heroic journey myths. I bought The Zombie Survival Guide the first day it was released, having had it pre-ordered for months. I wrote a draft script for my own TV series based around a zombie apocalypse years before The Walking Dead was developed. If I’m ever walking alone (which is most days) my thoughts invariably drift to questions like ‘how would I escape if I was surrounded in this street’ and ‘what would be the best way to travel to and from the city from here’. I have gone so far as printing out detailed Google Maps of the places I’ve lived and covered them in coloured lines to signify borders and barricades to build,filling them with notes on where the best place to live would be and how to divide survivors into teams to move from house to house, building to building, street to street taking out corpses and barricading the area to make it as safe as possible. In short, I am not right. What’s cool (and disturbing) though is how many people are the same. If friendly conversation in a group somehow turns to this topic, there is always, always at least one other person who is similarly intrigued by the whole thing and has spent hours obsessively pondering. Hopefully all this has set the scene for why, even though I sometimes scream at the TV for how boring and repetitive The Walking Dead can be, I wholehearted love it and forgive its flaws.

Swallowed Whole

If you somehow don’t know, The Walking Dead follows a group (or groups) of survivors in a world where society has collapsed due to a zombie outbreak. In grand zombie tradition the reasons for the outbreak are never explained and our lead character, Rick, missed most of the initial carnage. Waking in a hospital days after the world has essentially ended, a la The Day Of The Triffids, 28 Days Later, The Stand, etc etc, Rick seems to be the last person alive surrounded by flesh eating ‘Walkers’. Over time we find out that plenty of people have survived, including Rick’s family, friends, and other assorted goodies and baddies. Each series sees new characters introduced, old characters slaughtered, and plenty of human drama offset by scares, action, and horrific and delicious violence. Where The Walking Dead scores more highly over other recent shows that I watch is that it makes me care about the characters – I love some, I despise others, and the ones I am ambivalent about usually don’t last more than a few episodes. The characters feel real and you can understand the actions 0f even the most crazed or most evil, though there have been plenty of moments where you are confident that a certain character would never behave in a certain way based on what we have previously been shown. There isn’t a lot of humour, and in recent seasons the atmosphere has become almost unrelentingly bleak and tense as beloved characters are killed off with or without warning, and every glimmer of hope is swallowed whole.

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Uh oh

There’s a valid argument that this show and other fiction like it fails to take into account that most humans are essentially good, want to survive, and understand instinctively that to survive we need to live in packs and work together towards a common goal. Too often in this sort of show are there people only looking out for themselves and who will terrorize and murder everyone in sight if they don’t bend the knee or simply get in their way. Whether or not this would happen in reality is hard to say – history has shown that we’ve only got to where we are today by forming societies and ensuring that those things which harm the group are punished, those things which prevent us from losing our humanity are cast out. But of course, the most interesting characters are always the outcasts, rebels, and misfits and there wouldn’t be much drama if we focused solely on rebuilding and avoiding the dead – we’re only happy when we’re filled with dread or grief. In The Walking Dead there are moments which show how our main characters wrestle with the notion of humanity, frequently turning into animals themselves to survive or get what they want. Several have come close to ‘stepping over the edge’ and therefore losing their humanity. The problem may be that each series there is a bad guy or bad element for dramatic purposes who rarely crosses the line into humanity – we know they are evil from the moment we see them and that there is no hope for them. To the show’s credit, it recognizes this fact and does its damnedest to try to make these bad guys more human, but as a smart audience we understand that the twain cannot meet, and that TV demands our characters to remain stalwart and true against the baddies.

Throwaway Evil

I can’t speak for what Negan is like at this point, but lets look at the ‘big bads’ we’ve had so far. We’ve had Merle – essentially a psychopath, lines blurred by the fact that he is the brother of another character, Darryl. We’ve had Shane  – Rick’s best friend and the man who basically takes over looking after Rick’s family. As the series progress he feels like he is losing control and influence within the group and wants Lori (Rick’s wife) for himself, eventually resorting to cowardice and malice and murder. We’ve had The Governor, a self-placed leader of a successful community who seems like a saviour on the surface, but is ruthless underneath  – there are few real attempts at blurring the lines with him until a few brief moments after the collapse of Woodbury where it seems he could be human after all, but these don’t last long. We’ve had The Claimers – roving bandits whose loose set of rules is that whoever ‘claims’ something gets to keep it – throwaway evil. We had the people from Terminus – inviting survivors to an idyllic place only to execute and eat them, again they seem nice on the surface but are killers underneath with little attempt to blur the lines. The best and most frustrating attempt to blur this line is with the Policewoman Dawn, who rules Grady Memorial hospital. She genuinely wants to build a better world, but she allows her need for control get the better of her – she believes in upholding the law, but allows her men to rape and steal and hurt, she essentially turns the hospital into a prison demanding the most useful people to stay and help. She is shown to have good intentions but is also shown to be too cold and doesn’t get the character development needed to make us question whether the things she did were for the benefit of society or not. After she is dispatched, a large group of survivors decide to continue what she planned, but supposedly without resorting to inhuman activity – I wonder if we’ll see them again.

(Update since mid-Season: Season 6 to me had a major focus on this blurring of good and evil, with Rick and the gang frequently being seen by others as being the bad guys, or recklessly dangerous to the point that us the viewers will have been hard pressed to disagree with such notions. There is not simply a sense of performing awful acts to survive, but rather that they are going out of their way to kill because there might be a threat. They have become so deluded by their own confidence that when Negan finally makes his appearance in the final moments, his group has toyed so easily with Rick’s group as to make them seem like amateurs struggling within an ever-tightening noose.)

There are plenty of other examples of more minor bad guys (again notably the Doctor at Grady who seems like a good person but is killing certain patients for his own survival) and those who are simply canon fodder. But enough talk of such things, lets talk about what we really care about – guns, swords, and gore!

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Yum

We may stay for the drama, but we came for the blood. The Walking Dead raised the bar for depictions of violence on TV and has superb effects throughout thanks to genre legend Greg Nicotero and his crew of wizards. There is so much work and love put into the practical effects, the make up, and even the CG, that it is a joy for gore fiends like me. Even the most static episode will have an obligatory chunk bitten from an arm or headshot etc, but we go truly overboard with all manner of kills, injuries, and gruesome creatures on various states of rot. The sets and locations are suitably barren and reflect an America sickened and on its knees, however I am getting a little tired of the same scenery over and over – those leaf strewn roads and those same forests. I’d love a little more variety, and that’s why I’d love further spin offs showing survivors from around America, from around the world – beach zombies, mountain zombies, a last stand around Chichen Itza, tribes or roaming survivors in Africa, Australia, all keeping away from the cities – and of course why not some cities themselves – a group of scared politicians or officials holed up in suburbia, or a bunker, or in a palace or millionaire’s mansion? I haven’t watched any of the spin-off show Fear The Walking Dead yet, but I understand it takes place in another US city and deals more with the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the outbreak. All I’m saying is that there is still room for other ideas and people and places before it all becomes too saturated and silly.

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While the dialogue is peppered with inspirational speeches it’s not exactly the most quote-worthy show. There is a lot of introspection and there are a lot of arguments. Nevertheless, the show is well written and packs in plenty of surprises and shocks, though it’s clear those are on the wane. There isn’t a lot of humour and there isn’t a lot of love – when there is it usually doesn’t last. The show follows in the tradition of Buffy and Game Of Thrones by placing a lot of its ability to scare the viewer into us knowing that any character can be killed off at any time. There have been some rumblings recently though that the show has lost its bite and is now too scared to kill off one of the key players – a Rick, a Darryl for example. We’ve seen several main characters apparently be killed only for them to be miraculously resurrected which has pissed off quite a few people. The show does still have a high death count, not just bad guys and zombies,  but recurring cast members. If you make it through a couple of Seasons as an actor you’re bound to feel both lucky and wary that your days are numbered. We know someone from the main group died at Negan’s hands in the Season 6 finale, but we don’t know who. There are plenty of disposable characters, but we all have our favourites. My main issue at the moment is that the format does seem to be running thin – survivors find a new place to hide and live, a new human threat emerges, the threat must be overcome, usually at the expense of the place they were living and a few new characters. Rinse and repeat. I was excited by the prospect of the road trip to DC as that gave the show a different direction, a different endgame and purpose, but it fizzled out. We know the show will have to end some time, and I’m not advocating some pleasant answer where a cure is found and they all live happily ever after. I do think there needs to be an ending though, before the masses lose interest and they wrap it up in a lazy way. I’d be happy watching forever of course, guns and gore and zombies and I’ll watch. Even if it’s Zombie Nation, and that show is balls.

But I’ve rambled on long enough. I need to go check the barricades and make sure the surrounding streets are clear before it gets dark. Because they mostly come out at night. Mostly. Let us know your thoughts on The Walking Dead in the comments section – your favourite character, kill, and of course what you would do if, nay, when the zombies come.

Sh*t I Used To Watch – Saved By The Bell

Greetings, glancers! It’s time again for another narcissistic tumble through time as I force my memories upon unsuspecting web travelers like you.

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Look! It’s You!

Today I remember a cult kids classic which, for a few years, was a prerequisite of weekend viewing. Saved By The Bell was a classic of its form – a bunch of kids in some picturesque US school get up to weekly comedic escapades, making viewers feel a part of the action and giving us a vicarious bunch of friends we were glad to call our own. Saved By The Bell followed (mainly) six friends as they made their way through high school, growing up through all the teenage pains and tribulations, from peer pressure to romance, to temptation, schoolwork, sex, pranks, and more in between. The show was so successful that it led to a spin-off sequel series, two movies, and a second follow-up series which lasted even longer than the original. The show made stars of its cast, and in many cases it has been one of those instances where cast member will forever be known as the character the played, no matter what later successes they moved on to.

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I can’t say for sure when I first started watching Saved By The Bell and I was surprised when I saw how early the running dates were – with the series first airing from 1989 – 1993. What I do know for sure is that by the time The College Years aired I was already a big fan and watched each new episode of the College Years as they came to the UK, so presumably I watched the original from the time it was first airing. That likely explains why, even though I love it and have fond memories, I can remember so few actual episodes in their entirety. Now of course the show didn’t follow any sort of true arc and episodes therefore blend easily into one another, but I would have been younger than ten years old when I started watching.

I Don’t Like Sundays

So what did younger than ten years old me do on Sundays? I’ve always hated Sundays, with a passion. If Fridays were all about getting out of school, playing football and soldiers etc with friends, and if Saturdays were all about messing around, watching TV, going swimming, then Sundays were universally, inevitable depressing. Sundays in my house always featured some drab local radio talk show droning in the background, there was never anything good on TV until close to bed time, you were watching the minutes tick down towards school starting up again, and of course the whole day was based around waiting for Sunday School at 2 pm. That meant getting a bath or shower before hand, getting into hideous, itchy, scratchy clothes, being dragged down the road to a freezing gospel hall, and spending the next hour sitting among smelly, dim-witted, ill-behaved locals being told that I was born in sin and was going to burn in an eternal lake of fire. That was from 2 – 3 pm, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad had it been 10 – 11 so we could have had the rest of the day to look forward too. It was what it was though, and once 3pm turned around, I was out of there like Satan from Heaven, home via Page One – a local newsagent that stayed open on Sundays – where we would stop in and buys sweets. You see, if you answered questions correctly in Sunday School, you got money, so I would exchange my holy wares for whatever was most sugary and unhealthy as soon as possible – a cleansing ritual if you will. When we got home there was just enough time to catch some Italian football on Channel 4 before Sunday dinner was prepared. If we were lucky, some decent movie would be on before bed, or at the very least I could play with my toys in solitude before catching a You’ve Been Framed before lying down and preparing for another week of education.

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I’ve always commented on how my hatred of Sundays is intertwined with my hatred of Sunday TV – one didn’t cause the other, but like the serpent eating its own head – they are inseparable, without beginning or end. Shows like Land Of The Giants, Wurzell Gummidge, Lost In Space, The Waltons, those filled me with existential dread at an age when I didn’t know why I should hate such things. If someone told 8-year-old me that there was this show with talking scarecrows, or where people were trapped a million miles from home or were shrunk down to the size of crumbs, then I would have thought ‘amazing, sign me up’, but when I actually saw them on a Sunday, or knew they were coming on, I felt sick to my stomach. Even now the mere mention of these things depresses me. While for many years Saturday and Sunday morning kids TV wasn’t actually all that different, with Motormouth being shown on ITV on both days, Saturdays still had the far superior shows (and Saturdays also had something like Going Live or The Wide Awake Club too). You knew that Sundays would be made up of cheap knock off Disney shows sandwiched between political, topical, or religious debate, and if you dared flick over to BBC 2 you’d hit Ski Sunday or Songs Of Praise. At some point though, Channel 4 got its shit together and began showing decent TV, with Saved By The Bell right up there being the show everyone wanted to watch. Ironically, I can’t remember talking about the show with anyone aside from my brother, and it wasn’t until I moved out of Primary school (and The College Years started) that I found anyone else who watched it and was willing to talk about it. For a brief time there was something worth looking forward to on Sundays, the glossy, pastel-tinged perfection of California where everyone was beautiful, and school actually looked like fun.

Shenanigans

The show was born out of an earlier Disney experiment – Good Morning, Miss Bliss which featured Hayley Mills along with students Zach Morris, Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers, and Lisa Turtle, as well as Mr Belding. It wasn’t a success and a bunch of the characters were moved over to a new show which wanted to focus on the students and their school life. Joining Zach, Lisa, and Screech were Zach’s friend Jesse, love interest Kelly, and exchange student A.C Slater. Zach is your typical popular prankster, an intelligent slacker who enjoys scheming and messing around rather than actually studying and working. He’s head over heels in love with Kelly, the school’s perfect girl – charming, beautiful, popular, athletic, clever, but for much of the first season they are involved in a love triangle with Slater, the tough jock who eventually becomes Zach’s best friend. Slater has a relationship with Jesse, an interesting dynamic as Jesse is the opinionated freedom fighter of the group, fighting for various causes over the course of the series, none more so prevalent as feminism. Slater is the chauvinist of the group creating lots of funny sparring between the two. Adding some zany humour to the group is Screech, the slightly unhinged one, the nerd and weak otherwise loser who nevertheless is somehow part of the group and he has an unrequited love for Lisa, the fashion and gossip icon of the school. Add to the mix Mr Belding, the weary headmaster of the group, often a foil for the shenanigans, but someone who occasionally takes part in them, and you have the most famous group of school kids to ever set foot on TV.

Saved by the Bell

The show was of course filled with various forms of humour – slapstick, plot jokes, running gags, topical humour, but it also frequently broke the 4th wall. Any time something needed further explanation, or if Zach had a particularly strong idea he would shout ‘Time Out’ and essentially stop time so that he could speak to the audience. This sort of humour was not usual on Kids TV, and when merged with the likable characters and situations that kids could relate to, the show was a massive hit. It wasn’t all about the humour, as little by little we grew to know the characters, growing up with them and watching as they prepared to graduate. Bayside school became a second home as we watched the character meet by their lockers, while The Max – a little diner/cafe where they would meet after school was a pretty cool hangout the likes of which I always wanted as a kid. It was better than meeting at a friend’s house, a random street corner, or a field like what I had. To have a place with food, warmth, music, where all the kids cool and otherwise could gather together seemed like another world. Even though the show did deal with ‘issues’ it was rare to have a full-blown serious episode – Jesse’s addiction is the only famous example I can think of. But it did cover every other facet of adolescence, from being self-conscious over your height, weight, hair, skin, fashion, from dealing with infidelity, jealousy, pressure of being a star student, of being a sportsman, how to get a girlfriend/boyfriend, dating, studying, etc etc. Every week you knew the gang would get into some sort of scrape, and that there would be plenty of laughs watching them get out of it. The same basic format followed into The College Years, with some cast members dropping, and some staying on, but I’ll always be thankful that even though the series was cancelled, we got to see a happy ending in the Las Vegas movie.

Copy And Paste

The show was so popular that it could be said to almost single-handedly have put an end to Saturday Morning cartoons. Live action was suddenly all the rage, and a whole raft of imitators were put into production – California Dreams, Hangin With Mr Cooper, Hang Time, Sister Sister, USA High, Boy Meets World, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air etc all had something to owe Saved By The Bell. Naturally those shows varied in quality, with some taking on a life of their own and becoming important in their own right, and others simply being a copy and paste into a slightly different school or situation. I did watch them, as they tended to be a direct Sunday Morning replacement when Saved By The Bell ended, and while they were usually funny and distracting enough, they lacked the iconic characters.

Since the show ended, Mr Jimmy Fallon has managed to pull the cast(or most of them) together at two different times for a couple of amusing skits where they performed their old roles once again – you can catch these online and they’re pretty good fun. Aside from these, what else have the guys been up to? Mark Paul Gosselaar appeared in a variety of cancelled shows and bit parts and small movies before getting better roles in well received shows such as Franklin and Bash, Commander In Chief, and Raising The Bar. Tiffani Thiessen stepped from one juggernaut directly into another, joining the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 for four years before hitting a slump and eventually returning in the likes of Fast Lane, White Collar, and Jake And The Neverland Pirates. Dustin Diamond stayed with the show which made him famous, returning for The New Class before embarking on various other endeavours including celeb reality shows, wrestling promotions, as well as playing himself in various series. After various straight to TV movies and appearances as himself, Mario Lopez has made a name for himself as a TV host in his own right, hosting the likes of America’s Best Dance Crew, and The X Factor. Elizabeth Berkley aimed for movie stardom, hitting the limelight infamously in Showgirls and although time has reevaluated that film in a more positive light, Berkley has since garnered praise for theatre and TV work and appeared in works such as Any Given Sunday, The First Wives Club, and Step It Up And Dance. Lark Voorhies has had recurring performances in The Bold And The Beautiful, as well as In The House and a number of small movies, while Dennis Haskins has popped up in a bunch of minor movies and TV series.

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And yet, for all the work that the cast have went on to they will always be Baysiders to me –  something to look forward to on the day that I dreaded, something to enjoy before the routine of homework and church and knowing the school week was about to begin again, so eternal thanks from me to thee. What are your memories of Saved By The Bell? Were you a fan or were you one of those strange kids who didn’t watch it? Who was your favourite character, and which of the copy and paste shows did you also watch. Let us know in the comments!

Are You Afraid Of The Dark – The Tale Of The Super Specs

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Welcome back to the campfire, boys and girls. Come closer, the fire’s fine and we’re just about to tell another tale. Take a seat, there’s no point standing over there in the shadows by yourself. That’s it, get comfy. Today’s story is one of those good old harmless voyeuristic stories that boys love to think about – what would you do if you were invisible? What would you do if you could stop time but still move around? What would you do if you had X Ray Specs? Naturally the immediate answers are both perverted and criminal but as this is a kids show I don’t think we’ll be peering into crowds of young women to see what’s underneath, or camping outside the bedroom of the object of your desire. Here’s what we will be doing:

In a junky magic shop Weeds, a wimpy trickster, jokingly casts the spell of ‘Second Sight’ with the help of a DIY voodoo book. Some magic dust accidentally falls on MaryBeth, his more sophisticated girlfriend, and on a pair of ‘Super Specs’, guaranteed to give X Ray vision.

But before we get that far, we get a unique look at our campfire weirdos by daylight, as we open on Gary and Kristin messing around in Gary’s dad’s magic/novelty shop. You know the sort of place – usually only ever found in beach-side towns, only open during the summer months, and filled with all manner of pranks, gags, props, and toys from playing cards to whoopie cushions, from spiders petrified in sugar cubs to curling lumps of plastic shit. Gary explains that this is where he gets his ideas from while Kristen says that people have been saying his stories have not been scary recently. It seems he needs to up his game. And so we cut to Gary’s introduction  of a story about magic and the people who either believe, don’t, or should. Weeds (America) is an incompetent magician who has just started going out with MaryBeth and on their latest romantic outing have purchased a pile of crap for April Fool’s Day in a magic shop run by the sardonic Sardo. I’ve never understood why anyone would actually buy X ray Specs, at least other gags in these shops have a purpose. I’ve had many an hour of fun with fart gas, whoopie cushion, and in school we even had a bit of a sneezing powder racket going for a few months until there was some sort of medical mishap and someone got expelled. Pranks from that point on were more subtle, such as everyone swinging their ties over the left shoulder, or the good old ‘lock your class inside the gymnasium and set fire to it’ stunt.

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MaryBeth puts on a pair of super specs and seems to see a shadowy figure lurking in the background, but she takes off the specs and thinks no more about it. Weeds meanwhile makes his way around school putting drugs into the food of young girls – hilarious! He also puts one of those jumbo fists into a locker which flops out gently grazes the nasal area of another poor victim. The guy’s non reaction to this unfortunate event is similar to how your facial expression may change when you flip a page in a book, making it all the more bizarre when Weeds runs up, laughing and saying ‘you should have seen your face’. This time MaryBeth sees someone in a Burka when she wears the Specs. I do like the idea – it has a creepy vibe more close to something like It Follows or The Eye than They Live. The soundtrack has some strange moments too, with synthesized beats like a lighter Carpenter piece. Like many stories of old, no matter how MaryBeth tries to get rid of the specs, they keep finding their way back to her, and the more she wears them, the more she seems to see things that aren’t there. Or is the world when wearing the specs the real one? We embark on a creepy first person walk through her house where she is stalked by three black-clothes wearing spooks which seem to be getting closer to her the more she wears the specs. Curiosity aside, time has shows that these things cannot harm her if she isn’t wearing the specs, so the solution is pretty easy – don’t put them on, everyone wins!

MaryBeth goes back to Sardo, they work out that Weeds messed around with a spell which somehow got fused with the specs which is allowing some cross-dimensional banter. Sardo weasels his way in to helping the kids, and into their homes, and he begins to cast a spell to counter what has happened. Unfortunately the spell fully opens the gateway and the creatures flood through to our world without a need for a spec-wearing conduit before shit goes full Dali. We close on a twist ending and Gary wins back his crowd. It’s an interesting story that could have had more creepy moments if they’d focused on the main story instead of cutting back to Weeds and his escapades. Plenty of good ideas here though which should have any imaginative kid asking questions of their own reality and filling them with inspiration for similar stories.

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Lets take a look at the cast and what they have been up to. Eugene Byrd (Weeds) has had a very successful career, starting out in the mid 80s and working on hit series today. Before AYAOTD he had been a recurring guest on The Cosby Show and went on to star in Chris Cross before moving on to adult roles in movies and shows such as Bones and Arrow. On the flip side, Graidhne Lelieveld-Amiro (MaryBeth) only has one further credit to her name – a single episode of a TV series called The Mystery Files Of Shelby Woo. Long-term fans of AYAOTD will know that Richard Dumont’s Sardo is a recurring character throughout the series, coming back to another seven episodes over the years. Dumont has had a long career primarily as a voice actor throughout a string of cartoons starting in the early 80s as well as making his way over to Video Game voicing, in things such as Mysterious Cities Of Gold, Beyblade, and the Assassin’s Creed series. The rest of the performers in the episode have much smaller roles, including friends of Weeds and MaryBeth – Patty (Carol Anne Gascon), Katherine (Annette Bouzi), and Mark (Errol Tennenbaum) – none of these three appear to have another credit to their names. Without spoiling anything, in the twist ending we have three more performers – Paul-Emile Frappier, Tarah Anick, and Rachelle Glait. Glait would appear in an upcoming AYAOTD episode, as well as movies including The Day After Tomorrow and Who Is KK Downey while Frappier appeared sporadically in TV shows through the 70s – 90s including The Littlest Hobo and Goosebumps before dropping off the map. Anick does not have another credit to her name.

Overall then, a promising episode with a good premise and ending which doesn’t quite scare enough as it should, but should play a trick on younger viewers nevertheless. For more reviews, check here: Irish Freaks          Freaks Next Door            Freak Boy                 Graveyard Lurkers               Bark Bark Goose               Little Old Lady               Little Old Girl     Laughing Freaks                    Uber Freaks                        Grunties

Next up we’ll be staying in the world of magic with The Tale Of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Sweet Dreams!

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Are You Afraid Of The Dark – The Tale Of Jake And the Leprechaun

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Greetings, glancers – or should I say ‘Top of the morning to ye, ya blarney kissin’, spud cuddlin’ paddy’. No, I probably shouldn’t say that. I am of the Irish persuasion though, not via the good old ‘my grandfather’s cousin’s sister’s brother is from Cork’ but via the fact that I was born in, and currently live there. Not Cork, not even the South, but the war-torn, dreaded frozen North.

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This place

So, if I was patriotic in any way or, you know, a dick, I could claim to have some sort of affinity with this episode. But I’m not, won’t, and don’t. Enough of the confusing half sense half sentences, lets see what the episode blurb tells us:

Jake, a young actor, has landed the lead role in ‘Will O’ The Wisp’, in which his character is slowed turned into a lepreachaun. Errin, the director and actor playing the leprechaun, seems to take an intense interest in Jake. A new-found friend, Sean, reveals to Jake that the events in the play are coming true! In the final performance the audience is in for the show of their lives.

Our first meta episode it seems. We have an odd, emotional opening where Frank’s story is replaced by one by Eric. Eric’s grandfather has died, and Eric explains how he was from Ireland and always used to tell stories from his homeland. This scene gives a chance for the cast to show their acting chops, sharing a different vibe than they usually do – they all do a pretty good job (though the attempts at accents are pretty bad). Worse though is the Leprechaun hat Eric whips out. Now, I’m not an expert but that ain’t no Leprechaun hat. Have these people never seen a Paddy’s Day parade? Have they never been to an Irish town, city or airport? It’s impossible to go any tourist spot on this island without being bombarded by garish greens and fluffy top hats.

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Not even our toilets are safe

Our story begins with a campy Peter Pan/Robin Hood style fight. This is the story within the story. We’re introduced to a lecherous old Irish man (little girl, you should watch yourself around that one) who seems to be the main actor/director of some sort of play. Jake is our hero, a kid who wants to be an actor but it having severe doubts over his own abilities. So far, everyone watching is sharing those doubts. With zero warning we are suddenly in a different scene making it difficult to understand if this is part of the story within the story, just the main story, or some sort of hallucination – has Jake fallen asleep or been transported into a parallel universe?

Here Jake meets Sean O’Shaney (of course) who appears to be some sort of mystical… gardener? I don’t know, but he sells drugs and cabbages and crap and Jake wants to buy a specific list of ingredients for Erin – the director. Again we get a series of weird cuts and transitions to further blur the line between fantasy and reality, and somewhere along the line there is a creepy voice saying it wants the boy’s soul. Sean recognises that the ingredients have the potential for evil when used together and tries to save Jake. Because he’s nice?

Aside from the uncertainty between fantasy and reality, there is an unsettling and unfortunate peado vibe, especially in the scenes where Erin is trying to encourage and sooth Jake. And ‘erbs? What the hell is ‘erbs? There’s an ‘H’ in the word, boy – use it! In case anyone is confused by this point in the episode, Jake handily explains the plot for us just in time for him to unleash a ‘ilarious ‘ome Alone scream, just like Macualay O’Culkin. Up to this point everything has happened with an unusual speed, little or no actual plot, instead a series of loosely connected scenes. We finally get a little bit of tension as Jake and Sean creep into Errin’s room, but this is offset but Errin’s ‘ilarious exit when the fire alarm is set off. I mean, he just gets up and runs right past the alarm and out the door even though there isn’t a trace of smoke or fire in the enclosed space. Why didn’t he have a quick look around and turn it off? Why does it look like someone has stapled 12 wigs to his back? I thought Banshees were women who foretold death?

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Beer. Beer does this.

We make it to the final showdown where again there is a fair bit of tension. It’s a bit of a risky plan turning a child into a leprechaun during a live performance in front of his (never seen) friends and family. This all builds up to an action packed ending, even with the bizarre panning shots of the crowd. I can see why this scene would creep plenty of kids out, but it seems too little too late. More hilarious cuts and shots follow (no idea why the audience haven’t totally freaked out by now) but it’s overall a poorly executed story, rushed and filled with too much junk, disappointing all the more because of the emotional intro.

Before we part, lets take a look at the cast who made up this missed opportunity. Benjamin Plener stars as young Jake, by and large giving a decent performance. Quite a prominent child actor and voice actor in his teens, Plener vanished off the radar in 2004 and doesn’t have any further credits to his name. Aside from voicing in Sailor Moon and appearing as part of the ensemble of hit show Ready Or Not, he appears in a later AYAOTD episode and three episodes of rival shows Goosebumps. Falling off the radar in more conclusive, and tragic fashion are the other two leads – John Dunn-Hill as Erin and David Steinberg as Sean. Hill died just months ago after a career spanning six decades where he appeared in many TV series and popped up in the odd blockbuster – you may know him from Secret Window, Omerta, or Z-Cars. Steinberg passed away in 2010 after appearing memorably in Willow and guesting on shows such as Ugly Betty and Zoey 101. Two other actors get a credit here – Jennifer Seguin as Lucy (who I assume was the girl that Erin was creeping on) and Frayne McCarthy as Carl, who I don’t remember at all. McCarthy has appeared in a number of TV movies and shorts over the years while Seguin has over 50 screen credits as actor and voice actor in TV, movies, and videogames like Mona The Vampire, the voice of the Animus in Assassin’s Creed and Caillou as well as popping up in a later AYAOTD episode.

Let us know what you thought of this episode in the comments, and don’t forget to check my other AYAOTD reviews elsewhere on the site:

Nightly Neighbours     Captured Soul     Prom Queen     Hungry Hounds

Twisted Claw     Lonely Ghost     Laughing Dark    Phantom Cab     Dark Music

Next time up we’ll be living every teenage boy’s dream as we slap on a pair of X Ray Specs and head to town in The Tale Of The Super Specs. Sweet Dreams!

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Are You Afraid Of The Dark – The Tale Of The Dark Music

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Greetings, Glancers. Now that Amazon are imminently going to hike their ‘DVD by Post’ prices, it may be time for me to cancel my subscription. As it’s a devious turn by them I may also cancel my streaming subscription, which means no more (legal) access to AYAOTD. And that means no more posts in this series, unless Netflix picks up the show. Then again, I can probably find most of the episodes on Youtube. My first post about AYAOTD was three years ago and I’ve only covered a few episodes since then, so I should have no complaints, but I’ll try to watch another bunch and get my thoughts down before I cancel my subscription.

Today’s episode features some of my favourite things – horror, obviously, and heavy metal. Lets take a look at the blurb:

Andy Carr and his family have just moved into their uncle’s old house, which they inherited. While helping his mum unpack, he descends into the creepy basement where he hears strange noises. Although his sister accuses him of being afraid of the dark, it is actually the Dark Music which makes his worst nightmares come true.

As soon as I read the blurb I thought the Dark Music was going to be some sort or experimental rumbling (the sort of which I make on my exceptionally worthless Youtube channel: Sorry) or generic heavy metal. I was right. But before we get there, the episode opens with the usual banter, this time focussing on hard lad Frank freaking out with Eric for leaving him to trudge through the forest in the middle of the night by himself. It’s that old trope that every tough guy character has a hidden, silly fear – it’s why there’s so little crime, war, hate in the world because behind every hard ass is a little sissy. While all this is fun and games, should kids really be wandering through woods in the dark by themselves? I know I did, so we’ll let it slide. It turns out that Frank is afraid of the dark, finally answering the question posed by the show’s title. Coincidentally, our protagonist Andy (a normal name, way to go America!) is also afraid of the no-light. In the spoken intro he seems like a good kid on hard times, with divorced parents (possibly absent – nope, there’s one hiding behind some boxes) and other assorted bad luck. However it looks like it has all turned out for the best as an uncle has died and left them a large suburban house. Everybody wins!

Andy crashes into the neighbourhood bully – you can tell he’s scary and bad because he wears skull t-shirts, has long hair, and loud guitars screech any time he appears on screen. I never grew up in America, but in my experience metal kids were the outcasts or the people who simply didn’t care what others were doing or thinking, and had no interest in interfering with them. I should know as I was one. I don’t think I ever met a bully or tough guy who knew anything about metal, and in my limited experience the bullies I saw were all entitled or naturally large or clearly had something not quite right with their brains. Anyway, he seems to be pissed because Andy and his family have moved next door and are related to someone he is happy has died. Maybe the uncle was creepy, or smelly, or an ISIS.

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ISIS were a pretty great metal band though

 

Speaking of vagaries, neither Andy nor his mother actually knew this uncle. Andy never met him and his mum last saw him when she was a child. So why would he leave his home to them? Were they his only remaining relatives? We get a brief look at Andy’s annoying sister and confirm that the acting in this episode isn’t great. The scene in the basement is creepy enough, moody, dark, quiet, and we get an old timey radio and half expect Orson Welles to come booming from it. When Andy finds a radio station with metal (is this the Dark Music?) a creepy locked door opens behind him and the least threatening voice ever wafts out from beneath two glowing red eyes. If a murderer had his blade to your baby’s throat and began to speak in that voice, you would kind calmly remove the blade from his grasp, take back the child, and usher him softly out of the house lest his face feel the wrath of your bruising slaps whose force would be greatly diminished by your giggles.

So not only does the uncle leave his home to relations he didn’t know, but he leaves them a Haunted House? That’s kind of a dick move. Did Andy’s mum (or her parents) perform some slight against the uncle that we’re not aware of. I’d only give a haunted house to my enemy.  Also, Uncle Niles? Did we hear anyone say his name was Niles before the Campfire Interlude? Are people actually called Niles? Is this him?

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Frank has done a runner from the rest of the campfire group, possibly to return in the form of a jump scare. Back with Andy, Christine, and oblivious Mom and we get an interesting scene of Andy inexplicably throwing his newspaper at the bully metal neighbour. I don’t think anyone would have that much on their mind that they would completely miss their personal bully sitting on the doorstep of the house they were delivering a newspaper to, but hey ho. At least we find out that the bully’s dad is Hulk Hogan, which probably explains one or two things.

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The Beetlejuice trousers are left unexplained

The kid playing Andy looks familiar, like an unbegotten twin of Nick Stahl. Another question – how did Andy get a paper round job when it looks like he moved in to the house the same day he was doing the job? Anyway, we get some more information on Uncle Niles – he miraculously became wealthy but was never popular with anyone due to his oddness. During this delightful reminiscence we see Andy’s less than incredible talent for art, and Christine’s bizarre girl gamer skills. That ain’t no Xbox she’s playing either. I have no idea what she’s doing with that game pad, but she doesn’t appear to be pressing any buttons and instead wringing it between her hands. This is followed by another basement scene with some truly epic guitar. It takes an exceedingly creepy turn though thanks to the appearance of a talking doll who wants Andy to come play with him. Experience teaches us that all talking dolls must be burned on sight.

It seems that for some reason music is causing, or otherwise linked to, spooky goings on in the basement and to the episode’s credit these scenes are generally very well done. Certainly a younger kid will be scared by these and even the target audience of the show should have felt some chills by the weirdo circus man/skeletor jump scare. I’m not sure what the message here is – music is evil? Andy works it out, gets fisted by the bully, and decides to take revenge by locking the bully in the basement. I’m not sure what the message here is – kill all bullies? Also, if I was in a basement and someone cranked up the metal I’d probably just start headbanging, not scream and run around terrified. At least not before the monsters came from the scary room.

We finally get a Hellraiser-esque resolution and a spontaneous dark ending (followed immediately by a kid friendly cop-out) before returning to the wraparound where Eric is left by the dying campfire, alone in the dark. FRANK JUMPSCARE!

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Wrong Frank

 

It’s an unusual episode in that it raises a lot of questions of which few are answered, it’s morally ambiguous for a kid’s show, and it tries to pack too much into the early stages without actually advancing the plot. It should really have been characters-spooky house-spooky things happen and get worse-we find out why-ending, instead of all the other crap. Having said that, it does the few basement scenes well, but needed to spend more time focussing on those and found a way to deal with the plot without the need for an annoying sister and neighbour.

As always, we end with a look at what the episode’s performers have been up to. Graham Selkirk is okay as Andy – I’d said before that the acting was poor in this episode and it mostly is. But everyone does their job with minimal fuss and without too much embarrassment. Selkirk’s performance here seems to be the only credit to his name. I often wonder what happens to these kids who presumably go through a gruelling, possibly luck-based vetting and audition process, to finally earn a spot, and then vanish from the face of the business without another single performance. The sister makes her second AYAOTD dark appearance, though here she is mostly invisible, ironic as her first appearance was as the Ghost in The Tale Of The Lonely Ghost. I remember she did well in that episode, and here she is convincingly annoying. She only has a few more unremarkable TV credits to her name. Rounding off the family is Kathryn Graves, whose appearance as the mother is her sole credit. I’m beginning to think the director simply picked random people off the street for this episode. Or maybe he was their uncle.

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Leif Anderson plays the bully, Koda (America) and has had plenty of work on a variety of TV shows and movies – nothing major, but has appeared in the likes of Storm Of The Century, I’m Not There, and On The Road. Ian MacDonald, as Koda’s dad has likewise had sporadic appearances in minor films which I’ve never heard of and the final two performers Fofi Tsatas and AJ Henderson as the Doll and the Circus Man respectively are polar opposites – Fofi has no more credits while AJ is a respected voice actor appearing in many series including The Mysterious Cities Of Gold, Young Robin Hood, Arthur and an upcoming episode of AYAOTD.

Let us know what you thought of this episode in the comments, and don’t forget to check my other AYAOTD reviews elsewhere on the site:

Nightly Neighbours     Captured Soul     Prom Queen     Hungry Hounds

Twisted Claw     Lonely Ghost     Laughing Dark    Phantom Cab

Next time around we’ll be making a mockery of my pseudo-heritage in The Tale Of Jake And The Leprechaun. Sweet Dreams!

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Sh*t I Watch – 35-sai no Koukousei (35歳の高校生) Back To School At 35

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s time for something a little different in the Sh*t I Watch/Used To Watch series as I talk about my love for the first J-Drama I’ve ever really watched. No Dropping Out – Back To School At 35 is as literal a title as you could imagine, as we follow a 35 year old woman who goes back to high school. Her reasons for doing this are briefly explored in the first episode, but her motives and her history are shrouded in mystery and it is only with each subsequent episode that we get a few tantalizing glimpses into why she does the things she does.

But before all that, why did I (and why should you) decide to watch this? As with anything, we’ll need to wander back down memory lane to my childhood. I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, but really this came about thanks to an earlier love of China. In my youth I was a big martial arts fan, and would watch any movie with nunchucks, fly-kicks, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and so on. When we went to the video store every week or so, my parents seemed pretty liberal about what we would select (as long as it didn’t seem like it would destroy us), which meant a lot of action movies, and whatever had a bad-ass cover. Man punching fist through wall? I’ll take that. Ninjas leaping around some high-tech fortress? Yoink. Anything that suggested a bloody tournament, fight to the death, or noble quest for vengeance? Mine, thank you. While all this led to plenty of ‘Don’t Try This At Home (until Mum and Dad aren’t looking)’ activities, it also gave me an appreciation for other cultures, and I was soon reading through my encyclopedias for sections about China, Hong-Kong, Japan and so on. Later I was introduced to Nintendo with my very first NES (then Gameboy, SNES etc) and I further realized that the world outside of my usual haunts, and of what I saw on terrestrial TV was much wider. Watching cartoons on TV I saw that most of the animators were Japanese. My favourite video games were Japanese. It made me wonder what else those guys could do – movies, books, TV, music. Flash-forward a decade and I was teaching myself Japanese, putting pics of the cutest Japanese actresses onto all of my DJ/CD carry cases alongside horror and heavy metal icons, and enrolling in a Japanese course at University to go alongside my major in English Literature.

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So, as briefly as possible, I’ve always had a love for Japan – starting off with entertainment and veering off into language and culture. I quickly found a number of like-minded souls who had varying degrees of appreciation for the same stuff I was into – some people loved the movies, some were obsessed with anime and/or manga, others with EVERYTHING. While I would still say that movies are my favourite, with books closely behind, I never really watched a lot of Japanese Television, animated or otherwise. It seemed too difficult to find, and too time-consuming, plus there are still a lot of misconceptions and raised eyebrows when people admit in their 20s and 30s and beyond to watching Japanese cartoons (where I’m from it’s hard enough convincing people you’re not a rampaging pervert for watching ‘foreign films’ or that you’re some sort of weird flag-burning anarchist for daring to expose yourself to something outside the cultural norm). Mostly I’m good with people thinking whatever they like of me, and I’ve never had a problem being the weirdo, but still Japanese TV seemed a step too far when there was still so much in the West I wanted to watch.

The temptation is always there though, isn’t it? Some of my favourite actors and actresses are Japanese, but for many of them there was a large gap in my knowledge of them because they appeared on TV as well as movies. More and more I saw rave reviews about certain shows and they sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d love. I kept seeing pop-ups for Crunchyroll on various pages I visited. One day, not too long ago, I gave in and decided to visit the site as it claimed I could watch for free. I began searching at random for shows I’d seen, some I’d heard of, and then for some of those actors and actresses. Lo and behold, results pages came back full. I selected a random episode and it began to play in full HD glory with subtitles. Converted. Hallelujah.

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Now, with so many shows out there I was a little overwhelmed. If you’re a regular reader here you’ll know or assume that I love lists. Before I do pretty much anything, I make a list. I started googling for best anime, best Japanese TV shows, best Japanese horror TV etc etc. While I was doing this, I happened to catch one show while randomly scrolling through TV shows – a screenshot of your typical Westerner’s expectation – a hot Japanese woman in a school uniform. Being a fan of lurid fantasy, I naturally clicked on the screenshot and read the blurb:

Heads turn and jaws drop as gorgeous 35-year-old Ayako Baba (Ryoko Yonekura) suddenly appears on the first day of Kunikida High. Her fabulous clothes and stunning figure set off a firestorm of speculation. Is she another one of those diva moms!? Or is she a new teacher!? Everyone is shocked beyond belief when they find out that Ayako is in fact a new student!

Before I (finally) talk about the show itself, that blurb did resonate particularly strongly with me (even though it is by no means a good description of the show). I may not be a 35 year old Japanese woman (yet) but I do have a recurring dream where I have to go back to school. I’m aware that this is your typical stress related dream – the more common one is of people dreaming that they have a big exam or test and that they’ve forgotten to study for it (even though they left school decades earlier). In mine I’m roughly my current age and for some reason me, and everyone who was in my year in school, have to return for one final year. It’s totally bizarre, yet uncommonly real – we all wear our uniforms, we all follow the same morning routine. It’s always the first day in my dream, and nothing different really happens – I saunter into the building via the side entrance I always took (I don’t even think that entrance exists anymore as the school had a massive redevelopment shortly after I left), and I always stand at the radiator near the canteen and wait for others to arrive, just like I did every morning in reality. Friends I don’t see anymore, and some that I do, slowly come in and join me and the usual chatter ensues. The dream rarely goes beyond this point, but when it does it always gets further stress related as the bell rings and I’ve no idea which class I’m supposed to go too. It’s interesting because I didn’t ever worry about stuff like that when I was in school, so why should it feature so heavily when I sleep? I’m not even sure I have anything in my life to be stressed about. Also, my sleeping mind does seem aware that time has passed and (even though I haven’t been back to school since leaving) it attempts to imagine the new rooms and corridors which have been built since the redevelopment. Discuss.

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Just another day at my former school

The show stars Ryoko Yonekura as the titular mature student. I don’t recall seeing her in anything else, but she does a damn good job here as both the weary focal point for bullies and incompetent staff, and as a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. The story opens with what appears to be the suicide of a teacher, then we get an intro which highlights the troubles of Japanese schools:

Modern high schools are degenerating into lawless wastelands. Vicious bullying. Absenteeism. Depression. Their lives completely at the mercy of the dreaded school caste system. Everyone is driven to exhaustion by playing their assigned role. These apply not only to students, but parents and teachers too. Perhaps, even to school pets in extreme cases. A cloud of darkness, impenetrable by hope. That may be the case, but that’s why we wonder what will a 35-year-old student experience in that endless void?

Ayako Baba is enlisted by a superintendent to infiltrate the school for vague and unmentioned reasons, aside from that she should see what life is really like for kids and staff in school. ‘Students these days have it really tough’ is a recurring phrase. As expected, the school members all think this is bizarre but take it in their stride and soon Baba-chan is doing her schoolwork and trying to make friends just like everyone else.

I haven’t completed the series yet (I’m over half-way), but each episode follows a roughly generic formula – something bad or unusual happens involving one of the students or teachers, and Ayako tries to resolve the problem. In doing this she makes a friends with some, makes enemies with others, and is seen as a nuisance by the faculty. Interspersed are scenes where she meets with the superintendent who appears to be giving her missions and requesting updates, as well as scenes of Ayako sitting alone in a small room, looknig through what seems to be a box of memories. For some reason these scenes make me uneasy and remind me of Audition. I don’t think that is intended – they are meant to be mysterious, but reflective.

So far the show has had some genuinely touching moments, especially when dealing with issues such as bullying and suicide. The show also has plenty of humour and lots of bizarre near breaking of the 4th wall. Certain characters are only there for exposition purposes, but it’s done in a knowing manner with nods and winks which are quite funny. I don’t know yet if this sort of thing is exclusive to the show, or a common feature of dramas. There has not been any romance yet – which is something I had used as an excuse to not watch Japanese TV – I’d heard of so many shows which seemed to just be awkward boy meets awkward girl and awkwardness ensues. If I wanted that I’d just close my eyes and remember my own past. I’ve also no idea how much of what is explored is accurate and how much is over the top. Bullying, peer pressure, cliques etc are always a part of school and suicide is something which is a serious problem in Japan and is disastrously common in my home country too. The cliques in the show are more clearly, obsessively defined than anything I personally encountered. There are three classes – top, middle, bottom basically, with each student assigned a ranking (and staff too). Those at the top are the rich and entitled, and appear to be in charge of the rankings. They essentially do what they want, make everyone else’s lives miserable, and have the teachers jumping through hoops. The middle kids are the generally regular kids just trying to do their work and get through each day, with a few aiming to please to get into the top class, and a few close to slipping further down. The lower class are the ones that everyone picks on. Somewhere however, there appears to be a headphone wearing person pulling all the strings, and they are not pleased with Ayako’s meddling.

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I have to say that I am enjoying the show so far. Maybe it’s because it’s my first, or maybe it’s because I can relate to it, but it is a well acted, generally well written, and entertaining (for me) show. I appreciate that only a little of the over-arcing story is drip fed in each episode, and I do feel like I am getting to know the characters in a short space of time. The upper class bunch seem like a sinister group of wasters, their only fun derived from inflecting suffering on others, while the other students have endearing qualities. Nana Katase is good as the gossiping teacher, while her real life (maybe) boyfriend Junpei Mizobata plays a bumbling, weak-willed but good-natured new teacher. There aren’t any bad or annoying performances.

I don’t have much more to add so far (I like the music), but from what I understand there is only 1 Season of the show, so it won’t take me long to get through the remaining episodes. It does feel like something which may get samey over a short space of time, but at the moment it’s pretty addictive. I’d recommend it if anyone is looking for a not too offbeat, not too serious look at high school life from a different perspective. If anything I’ve written sounds like it would interest you, then give it a shot – it’s on Crunchyroll and it’s free! Let us know in the comments if you’ve seen it, or if you think you’ll watch it in the future. And of course, if you have any suggestions for good TV shows, modern, old, Japanese, or otherwise, let me know!

Sh*t I Used To Watch – Gladiators

Awooga! We traipse down memory lane once more today, this time to revisit a seminal Saturday night Tele phenomenon.

Yep, Gladiators was a monster hit when it first was broadcast in the UK, creating icons out of many of the performers and people involved; John Anderson the referee, John Sachs the announcer, Wolf, Jet, Shadow, Warrior, Lightning, Saracen etc were people who would be spoken of in classrooms, playgrounds, and probably pubs and workplaces the following Monday. More than just a ratings monster, this saw impressionable kids like me wanting to emulate the show and setting up our own events at lunch-time in school or in the street and garden after school. Taking my favourite part of The Krypton Factor (already one of my favourite shows by the time Gladiators appeared) – the obstacle course – and expanding that into an hour-long format featuring different events meant it was always going to be a hit with me. It’s still surprising to me though that the show became such the phenomenon that it was with older audiences

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Maybe she had something to do with it

Yes, there were hotties and hunks all round, and there wasn’t really anything else like it on early nineties TV. Previously we had seen shows like It’s A Knockout and Challenge Anneka along with a variety of similarly themed shows (including one of my favourites, the epic Run The Gauntlet – which nobody remembers), but nothing which so brilliantly tested contestants to physical extremes against each other, but also against Gladiators who could have so easily crushed them if they so desired. The only truly similar show that UK audiences had was The Crystal Maze (which I’ll cover in a later post), but it was always a more clinical show about quick thinking and teamwork. What is remarkable is how few copycat shows appeared, at least in the UK. Eventually we had shows like Fear Factor, Knights And Warriors, Fort Boyard (Based on a French show from before Gladiators), and Battle Dome, but none of these were popular in UK. Today we have the terrible Wipeout and the embarrassing Ninja Warrior (a pale imitation of the Japanese original). We seemed to get more intelligence oriented than action shows – Record Breakers, You Bet etc. Anyway, enough of the listing of other shows, lets discuss Gladiators. Contenders, ready?!

Gladiators was a port of the US hit American Gladiators. I’ve seen bits of the US version, not as entertaining as the UK one, and the crossovers which took place over the years were low points for the series. The show, for anyone not aware, was set inside Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena in front of a large live crowd and pitting two groups of contestants against a series of grueling trials against the Gladiators – highly trained and athletic super humans. Some of the events saw the contestants racing each other to win, while in others the individual contestant was pitted against one or more Gladiators. The show was over the top, with that strong mix of violence and fun that strikes a chord with any pre-pubescent male, and everyone else in the country, it seemed. The contestants went through a strict selection process (seen in video flashback segments when introducing the contestants) to prove that they were good enough to take on the might of the gladiators. The strange thing is, that selection process must have been pretty crap as I remember some truly dreadful, unfit people getting on the show – my 10-year-old self could easily have beaten them in most events. I don’t really remember any muscle-bound freaks getting through as contestants, but for the most part the men and women were average people with some sort of interest in fitness or exercise, whether they took part in marathons or martial arts or had a physically demanding job.

CIA got you pushing too many pencils
CIA got you pushing too many pencils

The contestants were split in two groups in each episode – two men and two women, and the overall series was a set of knockouts with the winner of each episode progressing to the next round until the grand finale – acting as the last episode in the series. There were usually five or six events in each episode, usually the same for men and women, and each episode always ending with The Eliminator – a deadly multi-feature race over obstacles – whoever finished first won the episode and progressed. In each of the prior games, the contestants would compete to win points – whoever had the most points upon reaching the Eliminator would get a head-start – half a second per point I believe. The head start didn’t always make much of a difference – sometimes you would have someone with a five or ten second lead, but the chaser would overtake them on the dreaded Travelator – a jog machine set on a slope right at the end of the course which saw the downfall of many a contestant. The biggest humiliation was failing after several attempts on the Travelator and either giving up and not finishing the course, or having it slowed down to allow the exhausted runner to struggle to the top.

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But before we get into the final round, lets talk about the main events. Over the roughly eight year run of the series, we saw many many events, some were regular favourites, some were random oddities. As the series and years progressed, the events got more outlandish and spectacular, but also suffered from a lack of ideas – the most loved events come from the peak of the series in its first three or four years. In the early years, most episodes featured Duel – a Contestant versus Gladiator fight high off the ground involving pugil sticks with the Contestant trying to knock the Gladiator off, or more commonly, simply surviving a battering for thirty seconds. This round was usually the one just before The Eliminator. The women’s matches were never that exiting (aside from the pervy perspective) while the men’s event was only truly great i the early days when Shadow was the regular Duel Gladiator. He would almost always destroy the Contestant, physically and mentally, and I’m not sure how any of them were able to return to normality after such an emasculating mauling. Once Shadow left, Duel lost its spark (though Nightshade joining as the female equivalent provided some interest).

Challenge TV - where memories are zombified
Challenge TV – where memories are zombified

Other regulars in the early days included The Wall, Hang Tough, and Atlaspheres. Atlaspheres was typically the first event, seeing both Contestants and two Gladiators being locked inside individual giant metal caged balls – in a time limit the Contestants had to try to manoeuver their balls (ahem) over some special glory holes (ahem ahem) in the ground to be awarded points, while the Gladiators attempted to shove them about. This was always an exciting starting point to the show, and there was always the threat of injury or a closely contested battle. Hang Tough was (perfectly described in Wikipedia) an aerial game of chess – a one vs one, Contestant vs Gladiator battle of strength, stamina, speed, and strength and one which I dearly wanted to play with Jet. You had to swing from chain to chain over an open-pit to get from your side, past the Gladiator, to the point that the Gladiator came from. If you met the Gladiator on your way, they would wrestle you off the swinging chains to the ground, wrapping their legs around your body and tugging until you couldn’t take any more (ahem). Masters of this round were Lightning and Saracen. Getting to the opposite side was the rare ultimate victory, but if you managed to get into the scoring area in the middle of the pit, and held on till the time ran out, you would earn some pints too. Always an exciting round, (though it always annoyed me when as Jet hardly ever did it) this was the one which most kids tried to emulate on their nearest tree or Monkey Bars. I believe I remain undefeated. The Wall was a simple race up an artificial climbing wall. The Contestants would race each other, but after a five second head start, they would be chased by a Gladiator who would attempt to pull them off the wall. This one sometimes became heated, with people getting kicked and tugged in ways they felt was against the rules – John Anderson frequently had to step in to defuse the situation.

My favourite event was Danger Zone – one which became less frequent as the show went on. It involved the Contestant running through a variety of obstacles and zones while the Gladiator fired Tennis Balls at them from afar – if you got hit, you were out. The twist was that the Contestant could fight back –  in each zone there was a weapon which you could use to try to hit a target and defeat the gladiator. Each zone had a timed limit before exploding so you had to hide, compose, fire and run in ten seconds, all while avoiding being hit. Make it to the end of the course safely and you’d get some points too – great stuff. There’s not enough time to talk about all the events, but there were many I enjoyed – Gauntlet (Contestant runs through a narrow alley filled with Gladiators who try to snap your spine), Pendulum (Contestant climbs around a giant ball suspended high in the air while Gladiator attempts to steal your flag and snap your spine), Pole-Axe (a race up a giant spinning totem where the winner gets to hit a button and snap the loser’s spine), Powerball (another four person event crossing rugby and basketball where Contestants try to throw balls into hoops whilst avoiding having their spines snapped), Pursuit (a mini-Eliminator where you were chased by a Gladiator), Skytrak (Contender’s race upside down in a figure 8 track attached to the ceiling while Gladiators give chase), Swingshot (Bungee Jumping Basketball), Tilt (a tilting tug of war) etc. Most involved possible spine snaps.

So, so many snapped spines

The Eliminator, as already mentioned, was a final race between contenders with no Gladiator involvement – although it changed slightly over the years it largely remained the same. It started with a series of jumps and climbs followed by what looked like an impossible mid-air handlebar-arm-cycling thing which people frequently messed up as if they had never been given a chance to practice on it. We then had a large net climb followed by a spectacular zip-line drop to the ground, before a wobbly balancing act and up the Travelator for a rope-swing over the finish line; I wish every day started and ended with this, and that my school had installed something like this – I would never have been off it.

But what about the Gladiators themselves? In a watered-down version of Wrestling, each Gladiator had their own vaguely distinct personality though this rarely went beyond ‘I am the best at X event’. The only true pantomime performer was Wolf, who would regularly get pissed off if contestants defeated him, if a decision went against him, or if someone in the crowd looked at him the wrong way. He even had his own chant, with the audience booing, hissing, and singing ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ whenever he went on a strop. This all created a rather unique atmosphere as this was mostly not a scripted show where winners and results were not predetermined. It was entertaining nonetheless, and maybe wouldn’t have worked if other gladiators followed Wolf’s lead. The show blended these pantomime moments with brief clips of the contenders who talked about themselves, their family lives etc in an early introduction to reality TV. Then you also had the two presenters (yes they would change after a while but I’ll only cover the originals) ex-footballer John Fashanu, and ex-Swede Ulrika-ka-ka Jonsson. They both did well in their roles, becoming household names in the process. But where are they now? Fash is still involved in football, both behind the scenes and occasionally in front of the camera in various reality shows. Ulrika of course featured heavily on one of my all time favourite shows Shooting Stars, and went on to star in various public scandals and celeb relationships, as well as the occasional reality TV show. Similarly, many of the gladiators have appeared in reality TV shows, as guests on game shows and panel shows, some in panto, others taking on completely new jobs etc. As for the Wolfman, he continues to cage fight against people half his age and run a number of gyms.

Michael van Bolton

With the show being such a huge success, we saw special editions of the show – an ill-advised return a few years back, a kids version, cross-nation team versions etc. Although the show began to feel tired after a few seasons, it remained a vital part of my Saturday night routine, like so many others. I would head out to the Swimming Pool where we had special Saturday night rights to the pool (don’t ask), stop off at Edit’s on the way home for a pastie/fish/sausage supper, then watch all these shows and hope that Blind Date wasn’t on. Good times.

I can’t end without mentioning the epic music – the show had a fist-pumping, silly, rousing anthem suitable for any 80s action movie. Remind yourself of it here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8xj-Cr-J8w. That’s the entire song, the show opened with an edited (better) version but the whole thing is worth a listen. Many of the events had their own music too, each one fast paced and exciting and designed to get the blood swirling – and most are pretty memorable. Not that the music was responsible for or integral to the show’s success, but if you happened to switch channels and catch the intro I’d say there was a decent chance you’d stay on that channel to see what all the noise was about. For fans, it’s part and parcel of the show’s charms – nostalgic or otherwise.

Oh yeah, just one more thing. Remember this?

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Look closely. No, not there, dirty boy. Look at the man. Look at the face. Yes, it’s Wolf himself! Before donning the pantaloons and chasing stringbean humans around futuristic arenas he was beheading trolls and canoodling with wenches in a fiery wasteland (or posing for Spectrum game covers).

There you go, another one bites the dust. Do you have any fond memories of the show? What was your favourite event, and who was your favourite Gladiator? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

Are You Afraid Of The Dark – The Tale Of The Nightly Neighbours

Greetings Glancers! Today’s tale of the macabre deals with two of the sexiest v-words of them all – Vampires and Voyeurism. It’s a story that borrows heavily from movies such as Rear Window, Fright Night, and The Burbs, but can it hold a candle up to those classics?

Lets take a look at Amazon’s blurb on the episode and see if anything sounds familiar: Emma and DayDay Toll have some new neighbours who seem a bit out of the ordinary. The eerie family, a couple and their anemic-looking son wear only black and are never seen during the day. A workman informs the kids that they are from Transylvania.

So far, so clichéd. So, once again we have a dynamic duo with a bit of sibling rivalry thrown in for good measure – AYAOTD staples – I wonder if the parents will be scarce. Naturally, we have an inexplicable character name in DayDay (America). I jotted down notes about this episode months ago, and when I saw ‘DayDay’ I assumed that the auto-correct had flipped its shit for a second and converted something like ‘David’ into this monstrosity. I should have known… I should have known.

Reading the blurb, it’s another episode that I didn’t recall seeing, although when I watched it some minor things sparked vague memories, such as the actors involved. With a shrug of our shoulders, let us commence with the review.

We open, as with most episodes, on our campfire losers sharing some banter. In these few moments we learn quite a lot about the individuality of each character, but they raise an interesting question which I have often pondered over – why do we tell scary stories at night, or why do scary stories feature night-time so heavily? The answers are obvious and true – we have an innate fear of darkness, it’s often more scary when you can’t see what is (or might be) in front of you, and darkness lends itself beautifully to atmosphere. A hush falls in the night as you listen to a lone voice telling a spooky tale – there is nothing else to see in the surroundings, the only thing to focus on is the voice and the story, and the only distraction is your own imagination. However, as far as horror movies and TV shows go, the vast majority of stories are conducted at night-time – with the most frightening moments, and with conclusions most often coming once the sun has gone down or the light has been extinguished. When I was young, experiencing my first horror films from between my fingers, or cautiously over the top of a book, I always dreaded the moment when night would fall; that was the moment I would take a sharp intake of breath and tense my body, as I knew something horrible was sure to come. What Kristen says though, should surely also be true – if a story is truly scary, it shouldn’t matter when it is told, or whether it happened at night or day. If we look at the true horror stories of our lives – most occur during the day, from terrorist attacks to traffic accidents, to losing sight your child in a crowded place or visiting a loved one in hospital. There are only a handful of supernatural stories on the big or small screen which take place mostly in sunlight, and it’s always been my wish to create something terrifying which takes place during those hours we traditionally feel safest – where can we hide if we are just as tormented by things that go bump in the day?

Here?
Here?

It’s a moot point though, as our episode concerns itself with those Vitamin D dodgers of the undead – vampires. Vampires, sexy as they may have once been (before they became all Sparkly and mopey), are governed by strict rules, none more so than the fact that sunlight kills them. But what is more dangerous – a bloodsucking demon that can only attack under certain conditions at certain times, or a person with an over-active imagination, someone prone to paranoia and mistrust, and with a will to submit to their possible delusions and hunt down their own truth whatever the cost?

Ironically, our story begins with one of the greatest scenes in horror cinema, and one which takes place during the day – the attack on Barbara and her brother in Night Of The Living Dead. DayDay (sigh) is watching it, when he is interrupted by his annoying older sister Emma. She berates him for being like their dad and watching TV all day instead of getting out into the world and making a difference. Our Emma seems like a firebrand, reeling against white bread routine and middle class suburbia, wishing for something or someone interesting to enter their lives. And just like that, new neighbours move in – at night, mysteriously clad in black, poised together like some off-the-books military organisation. As Emma and Dayday discuss, the newbs turn in their direction in unison – scary times! And with the space of four seconds, where Dayday announces that they’re definitely going to stay away from these new neighbours, they go over to say ‘Hi’!

We’re only a few minutes in so far, but it’s nice to see a decent pair of young actors again – the show continues to get better with regards to the performances of the youngsters. But look, it’s the mother! She’s bound to put in a strong display of acting qua- no – wait, she just backed away from the camera, knocked over the Postman, and disappeared, howling ‘I’m late’ with glee. So, no parents in this one then. That was some slapstick fun though. The mailman does say that he has already met the new neighbours – the same day he picked up an odd illness which has been making him tired and sick. Hmm, could the neighbours, from THE UKRAINE, possibly be involved? We get a mini epic of time passing while Emma becomes increasingly suspicious. We get our first truly creepy moment when the boy next door introduces himself, a genuinely creepy shot of him appearing in the background, complete with an equally creepy ‘hello’.

A bit like this

No sooner have we rid ourselves of that, we are next subjected to a nightmare sequence with a little too much of a pedo-vibe than we would have liked as the daddy next door slinks his way, BOB style into Emma’s room, across the floor, and onto her bed. Thankfully this is followed up by a dual melee attack of Dayday’s entire bedroom wall conveniently being painted as a map of the Earth, and Emma proclaiming that Ukraine is near all those places with ‘ania’ in their name, like Transylvania.

Captain Obvious is here - I'llllll get iiiitt!
Captain Obvious is here – I’llllll get iiiitt!

We flick back to the Campfire losers for a quick round of ‘who’s the most annoying’, with Kiki being the winner again, before Emma readies herself to entire the neighbour’s house. To the show’s credit we get a nice throwback to Rear Window as Emma prowls through their basement while the neighbours get invited into Dayday’s house by his useless mother (who looks like a cross between Carrie Fisher, and someone who is not Carrie Fisher). This is all quite tense, features odd music, and even some bizarre Leone-style close-ups of Dayday. It’s pretty funny too, the incredibly hammy accents and puns, though this is offset by vampire mom being hot. Dayday’s mum gives a strange performance, like an American, sleazy, Hyacinth Bucket.

In good old Lost Boys fashion, the kids arm up and return at daylight to dispatch of their neighbours. When disturbed, they decide to hide in the worst possible place, under a tall, narrow table where it would be literally impossible for anyone to NOT see them. Come on prop team, you couldn’t have found a more suitable table? Or thrown a piece of cloth of the top of it? It’s the most ridiculous moment in an episode full of them. Anyway, it all ends with a twist and WHAT THE BALLS WAS THAT NOISE COMING FROM THE BOY’S MOUTH!?

Unknown
Unknown

Another decent episode then, nothing too spectacular, but quite entertaining. Lets have a look at what the cast has been up to before and since this episode was created, starting with Emma, played by Suzanna Shebib who has the same odd lispy way of talking as Graeme Millington did in The Tale Of The Prom Queen. She gives a watchable performance, but according to IMDB she only has four other credits to her name – three other minor TV series in minor roles, and in Billy Madison as ‘High School Girl’ back in 1995. Young Dayday (Noah Godfrey) fairs marginally better, also gaining five credits but having a longer role in Babar. Harriet Dove played their mother in what appears to be her only screen credit, possibly meaning they pulled her off the street for a quick couple of scenese and slipped her a fifty. Two minor characters appear – the delivery man (Mark Camacho) and the frail mailman (Johni Keyworth). Keyworth has appeared in a number of never-seen tv movies, series, and done some work as a voice actor in equally unseen shows, but more importantly he is another who is set to appear in a future episode  –The Tale of The Thirteenth Floor while Camacho has appeared in many many shows and movies. He was President Nixon in Days Of Future Past, has voiced many videogame characters, and acts as Oliver in the long running cartoon series Arthur. He is also set to return in a future AYAOTD episode – The Tale Of The Shiny Red Bicycle. 

That only leaves us with the vampires – Mum (Francoise Robertson), Dad (Carl Alacchi), noise boy (Johnny Morina). Morina it seems was once an up and coming star thanks to an appearance in Kids Of The Round Table. However, it looks like he only made a few more films I’ve never heard of, including one with AYAOTD’s very own Kristen. Alacci is a fairly recognizable actor from over 70 movies and series including Omerta, The Day After Tomorrow, and 18 To Life. Oh yeah, he also appears in a future AYAOTD episode. I recognize Robertson from Sliders and SG1, and she has also appeared in multiple other series and movies, like Battlestar Gallactica and We All Fall Down.

So, another episode down. next up we treat ourselves to some METAL in The Tale Of The Dark Music. Until then, sweet dreams!

What did you think of this episode? Let us know in the comments, and check out the previous reviews here:

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-captured-soul/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-prom-queen/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-hungry-hounds/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-twisted-claw/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-lonely-ghost/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-laughing-in-the-dark/

https://carlosnightman.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/are-you-afraid-of-the-dark-the-tale-of-the-phantom-cab/

Sh*T I Watch – Breaking Bad

In this series of posts, I’m going to talk briefly about some of my favourites TV shows of yesteryear, and some which I’m watching at the moment. In ‘Sh*t I Used To Watch’ I’ll reminisce about some TV shows that I used to watch, from my childhood up until roughly the time I graduated from University – by and large these will be shows that I haven’t watched since that period, or have only caught a small numbers of episodes of. In ‘Sh*t I Watch’ I will talk briefly about the shows I’m watching at the moment, and will deal with both current series which have not yet been cancelled or completed, and those which I am catching up on having missed first time around. I’ll try to post one of these each week, but as regular Glancers will be aware, my regular posts are fairly irregular. Some of the shows in both categories which I’ll talk about will be ones you should all be familiar with, while others will be extremely niche and I can only imagine about three other people will have ever heard of.

Breaking Bad. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word against it, and those who watch it inevitably praise it. Well, all that’s about to change folks! Don’t worry, I’m not going to sit here and say that Breaking Bad is crap – it’s clearly not. It is an often excellent show with always superb performances, it tows the line between gripping tension, brutal violence, offbeat humour, and depicts its characters with a maniacal realism. But it isn’t without some faults, most of which are minor, subjective, and petty at worst, and I’m going to briefly talk about those below. But first, bear in mind that I have not yet finished the show – I’m almost at the end of Season 4 – which has taken me maybe two years to reach, so I don’t have much more to watch – NO SPOILERS!

Breaking Bad’s first series was an entertaining blend of humour and drama with two interesting characters who you wanted to root for, but also screamed at for dumb decisions. Season 1’s biggest failing perhaps was the lack of interesting supporting characters – with the exception of Hank no-one else really felt important or worthwhile (although Jessie’s assorted mates provided some decent light relief). Later seasons have rectified this by bringing in a more layered cast of characters, each with their flaws and plus points, and even characters not used to great effect ni the early days begin to show their worth. I do feel though that the addition of new characters has been at the detriment to the plot – we’re basically going through the same moves now, with Walt and Jessie getting up to some dire escapade and just barely avoiding death or the law or worse. Each Season has its own arc, but at its core it’s still about getting rich off drugs and not getting caught or killed in the process. That doesn’t mean that the show is not worth watching, clearly it is, just that it doesn’t engage or excite me as it did in its early days. The stakes are higher, but somehow the drama is less intense.

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The show’s strength having said all of that is its writing. There are few shows which can compete with the writing of the characters in Breaking Bad. The conflicts within and between each character are multi-faceted, and the likes of Walt and Jessie are given exceptional dilemma and dialogue. The show, again highlighted in its early days, is written with a scientific precision and it is again one of a very small number of series which makes you feel smarter just by watching. On the flip side, the show is not afraid to go deep into the dark, seedy side of drugs, abuse, and the criminal underbelly. It tows the line between the glossy side of drugs – the money, the feeling, the experience, but never shies away from the fact that someone somewhere is being killed, tortured, or abused by making, selling, or taking these narcotics. The dialogue though is only as strong as the person delivering it, and with Breaking Bad there is a stellar cast who are so good they risk being typecast themselves. Even the bit players, or those who are important for a few episodes are stellar. While lacking the Hollywood names of shows which would come after, Breaking Bad is definitely one of the shows which heralded in this New Golden Age Of Television, where the best writers, actors, and directors realised they could give better performances, tell greater stories, and reach wider audiences on the small screen.

One thing which the show gets a lot of praise for is its music; not for me though. Too often are there pointless musical interludes or unnecessary blasts of sound or songs. These pieces are more often than not irritating and, well, crappy. Sure it can be argued that they set the scene for the border war area, but for me they get in the way, add nothing, and could be easily replaced by a more traditional score. Something more petty which bothers me is the emptiness of the setting. This looks like a dead America, lifeless and barren. I’m sure this is all deliberate, and understand that I’m not taking about the deserts employed in Season 1, but rather the town and suburban areas. This is a personal thing which in no way detracts from the show, but it gives me some feelings I can’t quite put into words – something akin to depression, the same feelings I see in the autumn countryside where everything reeks of death and useless expanses of land decaying.

Leaving loose ends is something I’ve also noticed, and while i haven’t finished the show to see if some of these are picked up on, to me it gives the impression of the writers trying to take a story or character in one direction but then abandoning that idea. I know that my two examples below aren’t the best as I;m sure they will be revisited, but as I’m writing this from the top of my head with no prior planning, you’ll have to bear with me. Jessie’s relationship with what’s her name goth girl – not necessarily set up to have the tragic ending that it did have, but at this point Walt has not had to answer for his crimes. Like I say, I’m sure this will come around again, but I get the feeling that this was set up to be a central conflict between Jessie, Walt, even the girl’s father – but that they decided to sweep it under the carpet. Similarly, Hank’s brief job down south where he witnesses a brutal turtle-related explosion, is all set up to show how scared and unhinged Hank is becoming but there is no pay-off or resolution. Some will argue that this lead to Hank’s beating of Jessie, but for me it again looked like the writers wanted to do something different with Hank then, for whatever reason, discarded the idea. Naturally both of these examples are covered up nicely but the rough edges remain.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5b _ Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

So, enough moaning. Good acting and good writing is usually enough to get me watching any TV show. The idea of this meek, dying, mid-life crisis, talent thrown away man becoming a drug king pin is the main reason for the show existing, and Walt’s transformation over time is brilliantly executed. From the subtle moments in the early episodes of him failing to lose his nerve, from his increasingly devious and desperate plans, to his eventual cold-blooded malice and self-serving violence and vengeance is arguably the best portrayal of one man’s descent ever filmed. Jessie’s changes have likewise been interesting, but more uneven – from drug-taking waster, to man on the street with connections, to Walt’s lackey, to reformed junkie, to efficient drug-maker and killer. I want to see what happens next to these two – Skylar was such a wasted opportunity that I don’t care what happens to her. With a better written wife, a more interesting character from the start, she could have created and become involved in more interesting drama, instead of being the paranoid, bored, boring housewife who goes down the tried and pointless storytelling technique of having sex with someone else – the show doesn’t know what to do with its women. Side characters like Saul, Hank, all have their moments and are more the sort of person the show needs to keep that spark as the series progresses. Again personally, the show never quite pulls me in enough that I feel I need to watch episodes in rapid succession, but after some time passes I do want to come back to it.

That seems like a reasonable place to stop. I’d like to go on a little more about the humour but for now I’ll say that the show has a fair amount of funny moments, whether it be silly slapstick, or simply the increasing ridiculous nature of the scrapes the characters paint themselves into. I could talk more about the violence, the realism, the smaller side characters, but for now I want to go finish the season and see what happens next as it has been a few weeks since I last watched an episode. Let us know in the comments what you make of Breaking Bad – are you a fan, or are you one of the crazed few who hasn’t been wrapped up in the love-fest? How does that Saul spin-off show shape-up? Inject your opinions below.

Sh*t I Used To Watch – Friends

In this new series of posts, I’m going to talk briefly about some of my favourites TV shows of yesteryear, and some which I’m watching at the moment. In ‘Sh*t I Used To Watch’ I’ll reminisce about some TV shows that I used to watch, from my childhood up until roughly the time I graduated from University – by and large these will be shows that I haven’t watched since that period, or have only caught a small numbers of episodes of. In ‘Sh*t I Watch’ I will talk briefly about the shows I’m watching at the moment, and will deal with both current series which have not yet been cancelled or completed, and those which I am catching up on having missed first time around. I’ll try to post one of these each week, but as regular Glancers will be aware, my regular posts are fairly irregular. Some of the shows in both categories which I’ll talk about will be ones you should all be familiar with, while others will be extremely niche and I can only imagine about three other people will have ever heard of.

So no-one told you life was gonna be this way? Either a question or a statement, the opening words of one of the most recognisable songs of the 90s spoke volumes about the show it appeared on – the all-conquering Friends. The show was about 6 twentysomethings living, working, and loving in New York and followed their various relationships and tribulations over 10 Seasons. It rejuvenated the stale sitcom format, launching the careers of its six main cast members, garnering rave reviews and massive worldwide audiences, and remains incredibly influential. On paper, the shows sounds like something I would never choose to watch; Lord knows if was only created and shown today for the first time it would be packed with too many smiling faces, reality stars, and a multitude of other reasons to not watch. When it first aired in the UK, I was 12 years old (arggghh) and it was a pretty big hit amongst certain groups of my peers. I remember a lot of people in school talking about it, and although most of the people who were talking about it were those whose opinions I didn’t care for, and although they made it sound much worse than it actually was, a few people whose brains I actually did trust also loved it. In short, I’m not sure why I eventually decided to watch it – I’ve never been one to give in to peer pressure, the show sounded rubbish, but for some reason I watched it. And when I did, I was hooked.

What people who haven’t seen Friends don’t realise is that it isn’t a simple, standard sitcom featuring unrealistically pretty people in unrealistic situations. While it was trendy, while the people involved are too pretty, and while many critics and fans did focus on the more shallow and less important aspects of the show, it was, and still is an incredibly well written show, and features exceptional comedic performances. Much of the humour is zany and offbeat, but not in the obvious way and not in the ironic way seen nowadays. It was a very slight touch – often only a single moment in a single episode. While I never really got wrapped up in the who’s dating who aspect of the show, the characters did grow on me quickly, and I did eventually want certain characters to end up with each other. The show played this card a little too often over the ten years, and a little excessively towards the end, but at its peak it was extremely good at being charming and making the viewer root for someone they loved.

Arguably my favourite funny moment of the show is something that no-one else would ever think of. It was in one of the first few episodes, and Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe appear to be having a sleepover on their balcony. The girls are a little tipsy while talking about relationships. Rachel leans forwards and her cushion falls off the balcony; there’s a beat, and the group continue their chat. For no greater insight into my personality – I’m laughing my nuts off thinking about it now, while you are staring at the screen wondering why that’s funny and thinking what the hell is wrong with me. As I continued to watch, I got into the swing of the dialogue, grew to love each of the friends, saw the highest of high quality of the writing, and even got drawn into the various love duels – one in particular.

Yes, in another time I may say I’m ashamed to say i got drawn into such things, especially as everyone else was talking about the will they, won’t they nature of Ross and Rachel, but for a couple of Seasons there it was wonderful. Even though Ross is a bit of a knob who almost falls into all those ‘Nice Guy’ tropes and traps, there is still something loveable about how inept he was, and it was clear for everyone that he was perfect for Rachel. This all peaks of course in The One With The Prom Video – a flashback episode where the gang find an old Video featuring their younger selves preparing for Prom. For some reason Ross really does not want to watch the video, but everyone else does. We assume for much of the episode that Ross is simply embarrassed about everyone seeing what a doofus he was, but the selfless act at the end leads to one of my favourite moments in the show. But before that, we get plenty of hilarious moments which the writers would revisit with lesser effect throughout the series – Monica’s weight, Chandler’s attraction to trends, Ross’s gradual steps from one strand of geekdom (and his music which is visited later to excellent effect) to another etc. As the Prom video progresses we see that even then Ross was infatuated by Rachel and is upset when he sees that Rachel has been stood up by her date. Upon his parents’ insistence, Ross gets dressed in his tuxedo to offer to take Rachel to the prom (with comedy stair-falling), but just as he is about to come downstairs to ask her if she will go with him he catches Rachel leaving with Monica and their dates – it turns out Rachel’s date was simply late; Ross is broken and the video is turned off. We see that this is why Ross didn’t want the gang to see the video, but as he readies himself for a comic backlash, Rachel approaches him and gives him one of the greatest kisses in TV history. Yay! Fade to black and end the series on a high! Ah, I’m tearing a little at the memory of it, and I still remember the feeling of joy now.

Aside from the main characters, the show had a large and varied cast of recurring characters – some excellent actors who would appear in a handful of episodes, or others who would continue to appear over the 10 Seasons – the various parents of each character, Janice, Gunther, Carol and Susan, Julie, Pete, Mr Heckles, Estelle, Emily – all of them and more felt like real people and not simple two-dimensional figures thrown in to serve some random plot. The show also drew the best of Hollywood as guest stars – Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, George Clooney –  the list goes on, and each made a lasting impact. The show was a cultural phenomenon and everyone wanted a slice. Arguably no show before or since has seen such adoration from fans and critics, and seen so many A-Listers falling over themselves to be a part of it.

The Simpsons has a claim to this of course, but roughly since its 10th Season the show has become a depressingly awful abomination
The Simpsons has a claim to this of course, but roughly since its 10th Season the show has become a depressingly awful abomination

Another favourite memory of mine is the double Wedding episode set in London. Rachel has rushed to London to stop Ross from marrying Emily and the series ends on a stinking cliffhanger. I remember that when this was first shown in the UK, there was a break between when this episode ended and when the new series began. I can’t recall what the delay was  – it may have been only a week, or it may have been a few months. Luckily one of my friends and me had RTE – the television service of the Irish Republic, which just happened to be showing the new episode of the new series that very night – just after the British broadcast ended. Remember that this was before all the internetting and Tweetbooking we have nowadays, so being one of a select few who were able to catch the new episode and get the resolution to the cliffhanger was a real coup.

Over time though I gradually lost my way with the show. The show began to re-tread similar ideas and I began watching other stuff. I would still tune in the odd time to catch an episode or two, but I didn’t like what I saw – there seemed to be a shift in the humour, the performances were too self-aware, and stories of the actors being paid ridiculous amounts of money all pissed me off. The show seemed to have hit its peak and wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t until after the show had officially ended that I returned to it. My girlfriend at the time (later to be my wife) had most of the Seasons on DVD so we had a bargain that I would watch all of Friends with her if she would watch all of Buffy. It was win win for me then as I already liked Friends  and was interested in watching it all again, and I love seeing people’s opinion’s of Buffy changing as they inevitably fall in love with it (took her until the 2nd Season like most people). It turns out that I was right and wrong about the final seasons of Friends – yes the show did become bloated, the actors did become overpaid, but the writing for the large part shone through. Although none of the major plots gripped me as much as the early season plots did, there were still a lot of highlights – Ross and his keyboard, Paul Rudd coming on board, and many other smaller moments, and there were some low points – Rachel and Joey’s relationship being entirely unconvincing and silly.

Nope
Nope

So, for a few years there in my early teens Friends became required Friday night viewing, with each episode being discussed with…ahem… friends on Monday morning. It’s been a few years now since I’ve watched any of it, but I imagine it is still as fresh as ever, and those pieces that may not be so fresh will be saved by nostalgia – funny is always funny if the writing and performances are good. The show is definitely seen as a watershed of the 90s, but it was so smart, and had such an easy and smooth transition between slapstick, satire, pathos, romance, and tragedy, that it’s quality will always ensure it will be watchable. Anyone who ignored the show for any of the reasons I give above, or any other reason, I would advise you to give the show a try – a brief run of episodes in order would be best to get accustomed to the characters and not what you imagine them to be. Some of the acting in the first series isn’t great, but that is greatly improved by the time Season 2 comes along and many of the gimmicks are dropped. It’s a quick and easy show to watch, and there’s bound to be something you’ll enjoy in there.

Did you watch Friends religiously when it was first broadcast, or did you come to the show later? What are your favourite moments, episodes, and memories of watching? Let us know in the comments!