Lightning Round (Strike Three)

[continued from previous post]

This post has been broken in two so that the first part doesn't disappear if the rest of it can't get published right away due to technical difficulties. Who says lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice?

Representations of theobromine released into the public domain by their creators via Wikipedia
I've had this next tidbit on hand since my post on Apple's Dictionary app a couple of months ago. According to its Wikipedia entry, theobromine — a caffeine-like substance found in chocolate that triggers migraines in some sufferers (while, like caffeine, it may also help abate migraines in others) — contains no bromine but simply marries the -ine suffix "given to alkaloids and other basic nitrogen-containing compounds" with "Theobroma, the name of the genus of the cacao tree," a name that combines the Greek roots theo ("God") and brosi ("food") to give us "food of the gods". Chocolate is indeed, for many folks, exactly that.
You may have often heard of ambrosia referred to as "the food of the gods"; as it turns out, though, that's a less literal translation if not an improper one entirely — and not just because its earthly namesake, a chilled fruit-salad concoction laden with cream or yogurt, is anything but divine. While the first part of the word has long been said to come from the prefix a- (meaning "not") and the root brotos ("mortal"), making it "the food of the immortals" or perhaps "not the food of mortals" ["Nyah! That's for tricking Zeus into taking the carcass with all the fat, humanfolk! Can't touch this!"], ambrosia's own Wikipedia entry states that it may actually stem from the root that gives us the word "amber" (which, now that I think about it, I always figured it was related to, with the "food of the gods" tag being more description than translation in all that Greek mythology I read).
Image © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Television.
Just last week an exhortation to watch the imminent Friday repeat of Bones was added to this post. While it's come and gone from the airwaves, I still recommend checking out the rare encore from Fox — which has otherwise sadly benched Bones for the summer, although the show can be found in syndication and on cable — of the episode "The X in the File" at the Fox website, on Hulu, or via the TV Guide website.

Hart Hanson's loose adaptation of Kathy Reichs' popular crime novels has always owed as much to The X-Files as to CSI, despite its dearth of otherworldly phenomena, thanks to the pairing of Temperance "Bones" Brennan, the strictly rational forensic anthropologist played by Emily Deschanel, with FBI special agent Seeley Booth, the gut-following, Catholic former Army Rangers sniper played by David Boreanaz. Like many series, Bones' episode titles have a gimmick; Smallville's are just one word, Friends' always began "The One with / where ...", and Bones' follow the pattern of "The __ in the __" (like "The Woman in the Sand" or "The Killer in the Concrete"). "The X in the File" is an explicit X-Files homage that brings Booth and Brennan to Roswell, New Mexico, and from what I recall is as good a jumping-on point as you're likely to get in the fifth season of a procedural with progressively complex subplots and character arcs. Among the winks in the episode, which is more tongue-in-cheek than usual, are the casting of Dean Haglund and a still from the children's show Rocketship 7. Haglund was one of The X-Files' Lone Gunmen, while Rocketship 7 was a local children's show in Buffalo, New York, hosted by Boreanaz's father under the stage name Dave Thomas in the 1960s before he moved to Philadelphia and became beloved morning-show host and weatherman Dave Roberts at WPVI Channel 6; the elder David retired late last year, shortly before "The X in the File" first aired.

Image © 1974 DC Comics.

There was no more exciting instance of Donner und Blitzen during my childhood (reindeer included) than the bolt from the blue that transformed young Billy Batson into the red-&-gold-garbed Captain Marvel. Although not half as faithful to the comics as its 1980s cartoon incarnation, Filmation's 1970s live-action Shazam! on Saturday mornings was thrilling partly because it did indeed star real people, in advance of the prime-time live-action superhero boom that brought versions of Wonder Woman and The Hulk to our living rooms (along with less successful stabs at other Marvel characters and the non-comics-originating Six Million Dollar Man); while the plethora of network and syndicated animated series from Filmation and Hanna-Barbera featuring original and adapted costumed adventurers were welcomed with open arms, there was a unique thrill in watching Shazam! or reruns of the 1950s George Reeves Superman series and the 1960s Adam West Batman, no matter how different they were from their printed counterparts — even DC's concurrent Shazam! revival, which explicitly tied into the Saturday-morning show for a time, could only do so with broad strokes. Much of the electricity, no pun intended, was the speaking of that single word.

Photo taken by Sean Waugh for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's
National Severe Storms Laboratory

My close personal stalker Joan Crawford wrote about surviving the surprise Canadian earthquake recently, and among the comments on her post were exact opposite reactions from my blogging buddy Teebore and his friend Falen on their childhood and adult reactions to Mother Nature. I'm among those who tended to be awed into nervousness if not terror by thunderstorms as a kid but now revels in them (despite the literal headaches they often bring), with of course due respect to the rare but real damage they can do and total compassion for those seriously afflicted by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, et al.

There were thunderstorms aplenty in Wildwood, the small seashore town where we lived year-round for my first eight years and spent many summers thereafter. During bad ones my grandfather would calm my sister and me down by, if we were at the house, taking out the requisite volume of the family's World Book Encyclopedia and explaining the phenomenon in simple scientific terms; if we were out, he would similarly try to remove the mystery by recounting the facts in his own words and point out that the only place safer to be during a thunderstorm than a building was a car, because we were sitting on rubber tires. That last part made leaving the car deadly frightening because anyone stepping onto the ground while holding the car door would be completing the circuit when the tires couldn't, although to their credit I think either he or my mom made a game of running out of the car into the house, store, or restaurant as quickly and safely as possible.

And while I was having fun with an old canard in the opening lines of this post, lightning really does have the same probability of striking something again that it had of striking it the first time — unless, one assumes, that object was destroyed. Grandpop, meanwhile, appears to have been right about cars being relatively safe during thunderstorms but wrong about why.

Lightning Round (Strike Two)

Are you one of those people who can't help but associate the Coast Guard admiral serving as National Incident Commander of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with the leader of Bill Cosby's Junkyard Gang?

Image © 2010 CBS News.

Whenever he's shown or even just mentioned on the news, I'm possessed by the nearly uncontrollable urge to shout, "Hey hey hey... It's
Thaaaaaaad Allen!" Google says I am not alone there.

Images © 1984 Filmation Associates and William H. Cosby Jr.

Quick momentum-killing note to those of you with little to no awareness of Cosby's 1960s stand-up or Saturday-morning TV in the '70s & '80s or, I guess, just general American culture: "Thad Allen" sounds like "Fat Albert" (and vice versa), the latter being the star of a long-running cartoon produced by Filmation that was adapted into a live-action film a few years back. Now get off my blog, Mr./Ms. Stick-in-the-Mud Fuddy Duddy!


I'm sorry. It's just that I have lingering exasperation over the fact that these "Lightning Round" posts were begun more than two weeks ago, yet my oft-referenced lousy Internet connection has been sapping my enthusiasm along with my actual ability to engage in online activity as surely as the humidity and constantly shifting barometer have been sapping my physical and mental energies. One post got published while I was visiting my dad, but it was excerpted from a much larger catch-all smorgasbord post that's been hanging around, constantly shifting, since comments on the Tonys were relevant and the Phillies were visiting the Red Sox. If my Father's Day Siteseeing survey and supernatural-summer Screen Savor reviews (more of which are on their way — eventually) hadn't been more time-sensitive, this might have gone up sooner, but now it probably holds the record for most-rehashed post in my queue; as it was, those other posts didn't exactly get published on schedule, the latter taking so long that I couldn't even in good conscience backdate it to when it was supposed to go up.

So this post is heavier on kvetching and lighter on anecdotes or other potentially interesting content than it was at first pass. The whole "Lightning Round" thing was initially just a cute double entendre playing on the fact that it was a collection of quick hits on various topics actually composed while thunderstorms danced through the area. Some of the topics were callbacks or follow-ups to previous posts that had accumulated, while others, as noted above, were reactions to more current happenings; some, like the quip that led off the previous "Lightning Round" post, more-or-less occurred to me as I wrote.

Date and copyright holder of strip unknown

The above is an example of the latter. When I was in second grade, visiting the third-grade classroom during Reading (as it was a small school with no breakdown of students into groups by ability), we had workbooks that featured a character called Uncle Funny Bunny — whom an old owl in the forest, hard of hearing, called "Uncle Fuddy Duddy". Jerry Beck has examples of an Uncle Funny Bunny comic strip at the Cartoon Brew blog, including the above, culled from elementary-school magazine Weekly Reader — but it doesn't look at all like I remember it; of course, the differences could easily be due to different creative teams or editorial bents and/or the fact that the Uncle Funny Bunny material I remember was long-form stories done specifically for the workbooks we used, although I can't find any images online to back up my recollections.
[to be continued]

Vampire Weekend

I watched the premiere of The Gates last Sunday, and caught up with the off-season repeats of The Vampire Diaires as well.

Images TM & © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Photo: Steve Dietl.

The Gates, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC after the similarly hyped summer series Scoundrels, barely kept me locked in. As a guilty pleasure to screen on a hot, lazy night, well, it's more guilty than pleasure — not quite the melodramatic mash-up of Desperate Housewives and Twilight those making it might have hoped for, but probably engaging enough to keep anyone who enjoyed Eastwick coming back for its limited run.

The pilot has a former Chicago police detective, Nick Monohan, relocating his family to a planned community called The Gates. He's the new police chief of this private, protected, picturesque exurbia, naturally trying to rebuild his career and family bonds but stirring up controversy on Day One by getting suspicious about a missing person last seen at his new neighbors' house. Those neighbors, Claire and Dylan Radcliff, are vampires trying to assimilate for the sake of their daughter, and they're not the only ones in town with secrets: The popular herbalists, rivals who respectively run a day spa and medical practice, appear to be witches; the Monohans' son Charlie rubs football star Brett Crezski, a closet werewolf, the wrong way when he starts spending time with Brett's girlfriend Andie Bates, whose charisma (says ABC's promo material) may not be entirely ordinary.

While I didn't remember a single one of those characters' names, in fairness to The Gates my head for such things isn't what it used to be — and I did run a mini-marathon of The Vampire Diaries for myself right after the Gates premiere. The best-known cast member is probably Rhona Mitra, whose TV work includes stints on Boston Legal and Nip/Tuck; the rest of the ensemble is peppered with folks you've seen around the tube, like NYPD Blue's Chandra West, 24's Marisol Nichols, or utility player Frank Grillo (trust me, you know his face – and not just because he looks like Bones star David Boreanaz morphing into CSI supporting player Alex Carter). And it does seem to be an ensemble, despite the marketing push featuring Mitra, but the split focus on home life and high school felt as hodgepodge as the half-hearted injection of supernaturalism into soap opera. Mixing adolescent angst with parental and professional problems can absolutely work, as evidenced by the likes of Gilmore Girls or Once and Again; similarly, black-magic brooding has served as an apt background for serial sudsiness since the days of Dark Shadows if not the hot-blooded (for Victorian England) original, epistolary Dracula. Yet such tension on not one but two axes (indeed the plural of "axis" — thanks, wherever you are, Mr. Wolk) made The Gates feel faintly all over the place, particularly since the Monohan family, our entry into its occult environs, are apparently the unwitting Cousin Marilyn on the block.

So I guess what I'm saying is that The Gates, while making me mildly curious about where some of its storylines might lead, mostly reminded me of other shows. The Vampire Diaries did the same, but with more focus and more style.

Images TM & © 2009 The CW Network LLC. Photo: Quantrell Colbert.

I gave up on Vampire Diaries after its premiere last fall, which some friends and trusted reviewers have since indicated was a mistake. The CW has blessedly kept its elders' largely lapsed tradition of straight-through summer repeats alive, however, so I've been taping it Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET (along with Life Unexpected at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; meanwhile, if you've taken my advice and begun treating yourself to Supernatural on DVD, you should be recording the latest season 9 p.m. Fridays so you don't have to wait for it to hit stores in September). Given that I'd recently devoured the enthralling first season of True Blood via Netflix when Diaries premiered and I couldn't help but compare it to the fangtastic Buffy the Vampire Slayer (lauded here less than a fortnight ago), I decided not to set myself up for disappointment.

The good news is that, four episodes in, The Vampire Diaries has turned out to be at bare minimum the kind of frothy diversion that The Gates wishes it were — although, to be fair, I've only seen as much of The Gates as I did of Diaries when I decided my plate was full enough without it last fall. Developed with Julie Plec by Kevin Williamson of Dawson's Creek fame from a series of prose novels (not previously on my radar, unlike the source material for the Twilight films and HBO's True Blood), it appears to borrow as much from Creek as from Buffy, with lots of Smallville in the mix as well. Since I've never actually seen Creek or read the Diaries books, I can't say how much of what we see on the screen is original to the novels as opposed to coming from Williamson's creative staff or an impetus to follow the general WB/CW template.

What Diaries definitely shares with Buffy is the creep factor of centuries-old men in youthful, hunky, paranormally powered bodies mooning over minors. The premise sparks from vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore's return to their hometown of Mystic Falls, Virginia, posing as their own descendants. Stefan arrives first, enrolling in high school and beguiled by Elena Gilbert, the spitting image of a woman from his past named Katherine; Damon has followed Stefan to toy with him, disgusted at Stefan's rejection of human blood and the indulgent life he could be living if he embraced the fullness of his abilities. Elena's parents recently died in a car crash that she survived, bringing her young aunt, Jenna, back to Mystic to serve as guardian for Elena and her brother Jeremy. Stefan and Elena bond in the graveyard one night over their respective losses, withdrawn natures, and soulful diary-writing, but Damon's manipulation and Stefan's own reticence to share his past with Elena keep their burgeoning relationship rocky. Jeremy is involved in a love triangle without any unearthly dimensions revealed to date, while Elena's attraction to Stefan worries her best friend Bonnie Bennett, who appears to have turned psychic, then pyrokinetic, and is disturbed after feeling death when touching Stefan's hand.

Much of the cast of The Vampire Diaries looked familiar to me, but that's mostly to do with my heavy visual association (one fine day to be the topic of its own post) — these actors resemble other actors I've actually seen, from Matt Czuchry clone Zach Roerig to Kayla Ewell, an Elizabeth Berkley doppelgänger with some Scarlett Johansson in the jaw, to Steve McQueen's grandson Steven R. McQueen, distracting in his resemblance to some mythical love child of Kyle Gallner, seen on Smallville as Bart Allen, and Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lost's Ian Somerhalder, who as Damon chews his lines with only slightly more restraint than his character chews his victims' necks, had the only face I recognized as his own. That old truism of the villain being more fun to play seems to hold here; Somerhalder gets to act the louche hedonist while Paul Wesley is stuck trying to smolder as self-disciplined Stefan and viewers try not to be distracted by how much he looks like Twilight's Robert Pattinson crossed with David Boreanaz in his heavy-browed Angel days (something that must have been entirely incidental to his casting) or, depending on the angle, Glee's Matthew Morrison. Nina Dobrev looks and sounds like a hot, teenage Rachael Ray (not that there's anything wrong with Rachael Ray the way she is right now, so don't pounce on me, Whatever They Call Rachael Ray Fans — direct your energy towards getting more appropriate pictures of her on the Internets); Dobrev's smoky voice, deep eyes, and genuine acting talent help her bring zest and believability to what could be a too-familiar role as the feisty yet vulnerable Elena.

The Vampire Diaires doesn't tread much new ground, but that may be part of its appeal. Damon Salvatore tweaks the Twilight franchise when he responds dismissively to a conquest asking him why he doesn't sparkle; he and Stefan would burn in the sun, but are protected by magic rings — more elegantly excusing their daytime excursions than the magic SPF-500,000 moisturizer that Claire Radcliff is shown using in The Gates (which must take hours to fully apply, since we never see so much as a spot inside her left ear sizzling). Diaries also decrees that a plant called vervain can thwart vampires' hypnotic powers and, in sufficient strength, physically weaken them, although it's bloodlust that makes their veins darken visibly through their skin in an echo of Clark Kent's exposure to kryptonite on Smallville.

Set amongst misty graveyards, forestry, and Southern architecture on the Eastern seaboard, the show has a gothic look in more than one sense, and in the handful of episodes I've seen the focus has already drawn away from school-oriented shenanigans to the complicated, connected past of the Salvatore family and Mystic Grove. The fourth installment ended with a promising turn that, capping as it did scenes set during the annual Founder's Day celebration, pleasantly echoed the intrigue of True Blood's Bon Temps, Louisiana. The acting isn't uniformly strong, and the soundtrack is usually either marketing predictable, generic pop rock or killing the mood with a bargain-brand Andrew Lloyd Webber synthesizer score, but the plotlines are drawing me in. While not straying far from what one expects out of a CW series titled The Vampire Diaries, it's at least giving the concept some bite.

[Update: After the first half-dozen episodes, repeats of The Vampire Diaires have jumped to much later in the season, but the DVD set is scheduled for release Aug. 31st and if you're really hooked you can always pay per episode via Amazon or ITunes.]

Siteseeing: Quick Hits

Among the many bookmarks that've been piling up awaiting a link-blogging post are the following, which my father should appreciate.

I was discussing some grammatical questions with him the other day, which led to a conversation on how hard it can be to look up stuff like that online.

Lightning Round (Strike One)

Do you feel bad for isolated thunderstorms?

Photo taken by Sean Waugh for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory.

I couldn't help but think of Glee
when that line popped into my head, thanks to my favorite character on the show: Heather Morris's Brittany.

Morris was brought in to teach the cast the choreography for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and ended up being offered the part of one of the cheerleaders who joined the glee club; at first she had no real character hook, but then the producers realized her pitch-perfect dim-bulb delivery of lines like the following.

"Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?"

"Sometimes I forget my middle name."

"I'm pretty sure my cat has been reading my diary."

Brittany doesn't have the only funny lines on the show by a long shot, just the best, and serves them up in the most brilliantly nonchalant way. The cold, hard virtual print above doesn't do her justice.

My Season One review of
Glee is one of many posts in the pipeline, but the short take is that the show is a total hoot with genuine emotion and generally great music that has mostly used the disparate tones I noted in
my review of the pilot to its advantage. While the early episodes are uneven, I wanted to alert folks who might've missed this improbable delight during its first run that Fox is repeating the season at 8 p.m. Thursdays; the pilot aired two days after the season finale and appears to already be gone from the show's website (even though newer episodes that aired longer ago are still there), but the second episode is up for another month and the third episode will probably be online after it airs tonight.

The Buffy Summer

A few weeks gone by, Nikki Stafford declared June to be Vampire Month on her pop-culture blog, Nik at Nite. The primary topic of conversation — which I'm observing a moratorium on naming — was beginning to eat itself, and she had fangdom on the brain for at least two good reasons: (1) ECW Press, where Nikki serves as an editor and which publishes her Finding [censored] books, has a True Blood companion coming out. (2) She was preparing to attend Slayage — an academic conference devoted to the work of Joss Whedon in general and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular. I think there was also something about The Vampire Diaries in there.

Group shot of actors portraying Buffy, Xander, Willow, Cordelia, and Giles from Season One, with the show's logo

I was surprisingly late getting into the adventures of Buffy Summers.

While I didn't see the movie when it came out in 1992, a dear friend of mine and her roommate were devoted to it as a cult-classic guilty pleasure, so one night they rented
it on videotape (a reference that is now the purview of the cultural anthropologist)
and made me watch it. I got a kick out of it, especially Paul Reubens during his exile from Pee-Wee Herman; Rutger Hauer could probably menace in his sleep, Kristy Swanson played good borderline-bimbo-with-breakout-potential, and I might even have appreciated the irony of Donald Sutherland as Buffy's mentor — his son Kiefer, see, had starred in The Lost Boys, perhaps the best teen-vampire flick of all time.

... in Translation

You may notice the "Lost" is

It's an inside joke of sorts, since I still haven't posted the rest of my
Lost series-finale analysis. Nobody may care to read it at this point — that's not false modesty; I'm certainly over thinking about Lost for now — but I'm nothing if not stubborn, especially when it comes to surmounting the obstacles thrown in my path by, in no particular order, my hinky laptop, hinky Blogger, my hinky Internet connection, my illness, and of course the brother-clucking grassmoles who compounded the previous problems for sport. Most items on that list have conspired to keep me from posting anything for a couple of weeks, chief among them my increasingly unreliable Wi-Fi, so I've been devoting the energy that I have to other projects. I've resumed writing posts for this blog recently, though, some of them timely, and I'll probably start seizing opportunities to publish them; they may be short or serialized and lack much in the way of graphics until circumstances change.

The exact title of this post was also the title of a
Lost episode, but that's coincidental to my purposes. Last night on The Late Show with David Letterman, Harry Connick Jr. discussed a recent trip to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and showed off a No Smoking ashtray — even more immediately funny than the one in that link because the base was white instead of clear glass. As I laughed I was reminded of the title of the David Sedaris book When You Are Engulfed in Flames, an essay collection in which Sedaris discusses trying to quit smoking in Japan; it was named for a chapter in an amusingly translated instruction booklet from his hotel room on what to do in case of fire.

That reminded me in turn of the list of similar
malapropisms posted in the language lab the summer I studied Japanese. They weren't even really malapropisms, just translations for English-speaking guests in non-English-speaking countries that were a little too literal or otherwise poorly worded, the way the title of the Sedaris book was not so much wrong as perhaps lacking the necessary directness. One favorite, hung on an out-of-service elevator, read "We regret to inform you that you will be unbearable today." Most of them were of a more adult nature, like "Please take advantage of our maids!" and "You may not have children in the bar."

What really makes no sense to me is why the hotel in Istanbul, which had already established that the room if not the entire hotel was no-smoking, had an ashtray at all, let alone a mind-screwing self-contradictory ashtray, but I guess it's nobody's business but the Turks'.