Are We Really Still Doing This?

I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am.

Since the beginning of the year, Head & Shoulders shampoo has been running a pair of commercials promoting their product as giving you confidence to pursue your dreams.

Said dreams seem to be of smooching.

And I’ve got no problem with that. Other people, however, find the commercials offensive. See, for example, this blog post from somebody who finds the spot featuring a couple with mixed loyalties–Steelers and Patriots–to be highly unrealistic.

More serious, though, is the reaction to the other commercial. Because–oh, the horror; oh, the humanity; won’t somebody think of the children–the ad features a pair of young women.

Who kiss.

On camera.

Oh, woe!

Predictably, the commentary has been horrified. On one blog–which I won’t link to, because why would I want to give it any publicity?–the comments are running 15-1 against the commercial.

As I said, that was predictable. I expected as much. What did surprise me was the nature of the complaints:

Procter & Gamble shouldn’t be politicizing commercials and I’m never going to buy their products again.

What does shampoo have to do with lesbians? Fire whoever approved the ad!

Sex has nothing to do with shampoo.

Gay couples kissing on TV should only be allowed after 8pm! And certainly not during a Disney movie!

And–my personal favorite–If I ran a commercial featuring Christian values, I would be harassed and mistreated!

All these years of homophobic mistreatment and marginalization, and nobody has managed to come up with a new complaint? That is what really surprised me.

I’m not going to bother with a line by line refutation. If you’re reading this blog, you know the counterarguments at least as well as I do.

But it doesn’t speak well of the mental acuity of the complainers that they don’t know the counterarguments and see no reason to find new reasons to object. Another triumph of imagination over reality, I suppose.

Anyway, you may be expecting me to offer P&G kudos for not pulling the ad. I do, but only to a limited extent. See, there’s a message in this pair of commercials that I don’t think P&G intended. At least, I hope the didn’t intend it.

Consider: In both commercials, it’s a woman who’s nervous about smooching the object of her affection. A kind of nervousness that can only be cured by Head & Shoulders.

And yes, okay, it can be read as “We’re all the same under the skin, LGBT or not, we all have the same fears and desires.”

But something in the way the spots play out come off a little differently to me. I’m reading them as “Only women are so unsure of themselves that they need to take refuge in a bottle.”

Does anyone else remember when H&S was marketed exclusively to men? Maybe I’m watching the wrong shows, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it pitched to men as a confidence crutch. (I’d love to be proved wrong–let me know if you’ve seen H&S ads aimed at men recently.)

For that matter, the ads I remember pushed the shampoo as a cure for what was standing between you and the job of your dreams. Not the love of your life (or your casual hookup at the football game).

It’s an interesting shift of emphasis. Does P&G think women don’t want to be upwardly mobile in the office?

Anyway, if you want to see this hideously offensive ad for yourself, try here. Just don’t let your kids see it before 8pm, or they might turn into lesbians. Or, worse yet, Democrats.

Out, Out, Damned…You Know

Since we were talking about commercials…

Unlike last week’s example, this is not a good one. Quite the contrary. But it is instructive. Warning: once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

I can’t embed it, so you’ll have to go here to see it. And, of course, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

I feel a little odd about complaining about this commercial, since it dates from 2013 and hasn’t aired since. But criticism knows no statute of limitations. And I really don’t know how this commercial got made.

Consider what goes on here. We’ve got the mother who’s totally incapable of managing her family. We’ve got the large family (and, let it be noted, the large minority family at that) of uncivilized brats, intent on the total destruction of the house. We’ve got the tired father who has to call in help to fulfill the basic function of his role (literally bringing home the bacon–or equivalent. What did you think I meant?)

Am I reading too much into the commercial?

At least the Jimmy John’s delivery man isn’t white. On the other hand, there is that wink. Because we all know that [insert minority of choice] are wildly promiscuous, right? (I could go on in this vein–consider the shape of a submarine sandwich, for example–but I’ll spare you the rest of it.)

What make the spot so vexing is that it has many of the attributes of a good commercial. It gets its message across. It’s not gratuitously insulting–the insults are there, yes, but as part of the message, not a separate attention-getter. There’s even a story there. A clean, simple story, much easier to follow than Casper’s tale about goat hooves.

And yet.

I can’t help but wonder if the current occupant of the White House has seen this commercial, and how he feels about Jimmy John’s food. Probably not greasy enough, given his apparent preference for burgers.

But I digress.

To the company’s credit, they have stopped running the commercial. They make a decent sandwich, too.

But the ad does too good a job of getting its hopefully unintended message across. I haven’t willingly eaten Jimmy John’s since I saw the commercial, nor do I plan to change that policy. I’m not militant about it. I don’t shame anyone for eating there. I don’t urge anyone to boycott them. I’ll quietly eat the food if it’s served to me. I just won’t willingly spend my money on any company tone deaf enough to have approved this ad.

Good Spot

Told you.
09-1

Moving on.

For all the time I spend complaining about bad commercials–ones that insult their potential audience, are more than usually deceptive, or just plain don’t get their message across–it’s worth remembering that there are good commercials.

What’s a good commercial? Yes, it has to sell the product without insulting potential buyers or raising the general level of panic, doubt, and uncertainty in the world. But I’m going to raise the bar here. That describes an adequate commercial.

A good commercial does all that, but in addition, it entertains. It makes you want to watch it again, not just because you were too enthralled to write down the toll-free number the first time, but because you genuinely want to watch it again.

They do exist. Case in point:

 

By any interpretation, it’s an adequate commercial. No people doing idiotic things for no apparent reason, no flashing lights or blaring sirens, and it sells the product.

Full disclosure here: I haven’t been paid by Casper, nor do I own one of their mattresses. But I have been planning on buying a new mattress sometime in the mid-term future. I hadn’t considered Casper, but after seeing this commercial, I’ve added them to the “worth researching” list. I’m not laying down money, not yet. But any marketer worth their salt will tell you a potential buyer is worth far more than a non-buyer.

The question, though, is whether it gets past “adequate” and makes it to “good”? And the answer is “Absolutely.”

Those hedgehogs are totally adorable, I want to rub the rabbit’s stomach, and I could watch the black kitten fall asleep a dozen times. Heck, I watched the ad three times before I decided to write this post.

Mind you, as a viewer, I could do without the goats. I see those hooves and “relaxing sleep” is not the first, second, or third thing I think of.

But from a writing perspective, that’s a good thing. A story–and have no doubt about it, a good commercial needs a story–requires conflict. How do we get from hard, scratchy hooves to soft mattresses? That’s the story. And, believe me, it’s no accident that the spot begins and ends with the goats.

Heh. I just noticed that the black kitten has a grain of litter stuck to his paw. Talk about putting real life situations into your advertising!

Casper. Good commercial. Good mattress? We’ll see.

SAST 13

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Short Attention Span Theater. Lucky Number 13! For those of you new to the blog, sometimes I do an SAST because I literally don’t have enough mental focus to write a full post on any subject. More often, it’s my way of clearing the blog’s to-do list of ideas that aren’t worth an entire post of their own.

I’ll leave it to you to decide, based on the internal evidence, which category this is in.

Ready? Too late, here we go anyway.

Perhaps you remember my handy theatrical guide to long-running news stories. For the record, the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch stayed in Act One for an incredible length of time before zipping through Acts Two and Three, bypassed Act Four entirely, and is now in Act Five.

I’m pleased to see that the Transbay Terminal mess isn’t following a similarly distorted trajectory. We got out of Act One in a mere five months, and we’re now solidly in Act Two. In mid-March, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority threw all the blame for the debacle on the various contractors, individually and collectively.

Naturally, by the end of the month, two of the three contractor had responded, saying in essence, “Hey, we did everything right. Take a look at the third contractor and the designer. They’re the ones that really muffed it.”

Putting on my QA hat for a second, I’ll just note that one of the jobs of the QA team is to point out problems with the design. It’s always cheaper to fix an error before it gets built. That’s true whether you’re talking about software or buildings. If the contractors had concerns about stress on the beams, why didn’t they raise them before construction started?

Anyway, I find it interesting that, so far as I can tell, the third contractor has yet to respond to the accusations of the TJPA and the other two outfits. Clearly, we’re not quite finished with Act Two, but we’ve got clear signs that Act Three is imminent.

That being the case, we may find ourselves watching a bold theatrical experiment, with multiple acts being staged at the same time. If the gimmick works, we might even find ourselves watching Acts Three, Four, and Five simultaneously.

I expect rapid developments in the play come summer. Remember, the terminal is supposed to reopen in June; we can expect a large PR push to convince commuters that it’s safe. That’s almost sure to provoke a lot of finger pointing and the launch of the inevitable lawsuits and countersuits.

Moving on.

For anyone interested in our litter box experiments, we’ve settled on a new long-term litter plan.

We tried Sledpress’ recommendation of Dr. Elsey’s litter with the Formerly Feral Fellows, and it did work as promoted. There was some scattering, though not as much as with the Nature’s Miracle. It did well at controlling odor, and the dust wasn’t as bad as some of the reviews led us to expect. On the downside, it’s hard to find locally, and even allowing for the fact that we got an entire month out of one jug, it still comes out more expensive on a per use basis. Most importantly, though, it seemed as though the Fellows weren’t very enthusiastic about it. They used their other box, loaded with more conventional litter, more often than before we introduced them to Dr. Elsey.

The more conventional litter we tried out is SmartCat All-Natural Clumping Litter. It’s grass-based, clumps very well–I’d even say “frighteningly well” given the size of some of the clumps we’ve found, and does a decent job of controlling odors. We are getting more scattering than I’d like, but it’s at a manageable level. No litter is perfect, but this stuff seems good enough that we’ve converted all but one of the indoor boxes to it.

The exception is currently using up what we expect to be our final bag of World’s Best Cat, and we’re finding that the gang would rather use the SmartCat boxes than the one with WBC.

Finally, there’s this.

Regular readers are already aware of my feelings about the devil’s condiment.

I’m delighted to note that we now have scientific evidence to support my purely logical reaction to that stuff. Forget HoldThatMayo, Bon Appetit, and JSpace. While it’s nice to see fellow travelers, one can’t help but note that their appeals are based on paranoia, emotion, and prejudice.

That’s why it’s great to see the word from Popular Science that there’s well-grounded, firm scientific support for the contention that mayonnaise is eeevil.

Take cheer, my brethren. The battle will be long–I expect the pro-mayo forces to be at least as persistent as the anti-vaccination loons–but with Science! on our side, we’ll win in the end.

Tiny Ball

Hey, remember last season, when I said I hoped the Mariners would be better on the field than in their commercials? Oy.

If the same thing happens this year, the Ms are going to give the Orioles some competition for the title of Most Painful Team to Watch.

At least there are only four this year. If you’re feeling brave enough, you can watch them here. Or you can just read on and let me save you the effort.

Let’s start with the worst and save the–well, not the best, but the least bad–for last.

The only question about “Hanimal Fanimal” is whether it’s the bottom of the barrel or the leaky septic tank under the barrel. A couple of seconds of Mitch Haniger in actual game footage bookends this paen to clueless bandwagon fandom. Unfortunately, all the joy of the spectacular catch is sucked away by the relentless idiocy of the spokesperson for the folks sitting in the bleachers. If he’s the sort of person the Mariners’ front office want to attract to games, I’m glad I’ll be watching on TV. Maybe there’s supposed to be an unspoken message here–that Mitch is too nice a guy to shove the moron away and get back to the game. But if so, it’s as poorly thought out as the rest of the ad. Leo Durocher may not have said “Nice guys finish last,” but there’s some truth to the sentiment. At the very least, the game comes first.

“Moving Target” isn’t bad. It’s just cliched, repetitive, and forgettable. Okay, Mallex Smith is fast. We get it. Couldn’t you find some way to show that without falling back on the quick cut? And there’s poor Kyle Seager forced into being the deadpan straight man again, just like in last year’s “Flip”. At least this year, he’s not clueless. But can’t somebody give him a decent punchline?

Next is “SpeeDee”. It’s cliched and forgettable, but at least it’s not repetitive. Okay, Dee Gordon is fast. We get it. Yeah, they really went with “he’s fast” in half of the commercials this year. I rank this one slightly ahead of “Moving Target” only because of the parachute. Having it pop open before Dee crosses the finish lineplate is the only real spark of creativity in either of the “fast” commercials. I’ll admit, that got a small chuckle out of me.

Finally–and not a moment too soon–we’ve got “Arts & Crafty”. Props for a decent pun and for giving Felix a decent punchline. The moving stadium roof makes me laugh, even on repeated viewings–I love the implication that Yusei Kikuchi knows the King is about to rain on his hard work. Unfortunately, the “It’s crafty” line just doesn’t quite work, leaving the ad about two-thirds of a joke short of brilliance. “Craft” does have additional meanings that could have been worked in to send the bit in a whole different direction. “It’s not just craft, it’s witchcraft.” Eh, maybe not. Have the stadium transform into a boat, thus alluding to both watercraft and Mariners. Better. Not perfect, but better. Seriously, with months to think about it, this commercial could have been fixed.

Call the tally a triple, a sacrifice bunt, a weak pop-up, and a three pitch, no swing strikeout. In the right order, that’s one run anyway.

May this be the year the Ms play betters the standard set by their commercials. Because if it’s not, this will be a long season–and not in the good way.

I’m Back

And I’m back. Did–no, on second thought, I won’t ask if you missed me. If you did, I’ll be mortified at denying you the pleasure of my company for two weeks. And if you didn’t, you’ll be mortified at having to admit it. So let’s just not go there and save us all the embarrassment.

Taking the time off was definitely the right move. Not having to fit blogging around a work training schedule, holidays, and family time simplified my life enormously. I’m still on a training (read that as “variable”) schedule, but everything else has settled down enough that I think I can get back to blogging on the usual Tuesday/Thursday/Friday plan. I’ll worry about possible changes to the blog posts once I’m done with training and have a more predictable work schedule.

No, I didn’t get much fiction writing done over the break. But I’m ready to get back to that as well. As soon as this post goes up, I’m starting the second draft of Demirep. Unlike many authors, I enjoy revising. Finishing a first draft is a rush, but sometimes the actual writing is a slog. Rewriting is almost always easier, because I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. Fewer false trails means faster, more enjoyable writing.

Moving on.

There’s progress on the Bay BridgeTransbay Transit Center. The repair plan has been made and approved. Not a whole of detail has been released yet–it sounds like there will be more after the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board meets on Thursday–but the gist is that steel plates will be attached on the upper and lower surfaces of the vulnerable beams.

Standard disclaimer: I’m not a structural engineer. That said, the fact that the plan calls for reinforcements to be added to both the Fremont Street and First Street beams suggests to me that the tests found nothing wrong with the metal–that the problem is more likely to be design or construction. I’m looking forward to hearing more, including the estimated date for reopening the Transit Center, which will depend in large part on how long it takes to find a source for the reinforcement plates.

Moving on again.

Actual employment that requires leaving the house does mean I’ll have less time for television. That may be a problem come baseball season–though, as I’ve said before, I find having a ballgame on in the background helps my writing–but at this time of year, it’s arguably a good thing. Yes, the latest seasons of Worst Cooks in America and Kids Baking Challenge* started this week, the former on Sundays at 9:00 and midnight Eastern, the latter on Mondays at the same time. Which is, by the way, very nice scheduling for those of us on the West Coast: 6pm and 9pm fit very nicely around dinner and bedtime. (As usual, those of you in other time zones get the awkward scheduling.)

* Shouldn’t that be “Kids'” with an apostrophe? It’s a competition for, i.e. belonging to multiple kids.

But I’m having doubts about WCiA. It’s a cooking show, supposedly. But it seems as though each season we see less cooking, and the antics of the competitors are getting more predictable. Both, IMNSHO, are the result of competitors being chosen for their personality traits, rather than their willingness to actually learn to cook.

We’ve got the wacky ones. We’ve got the one with a crippling lack of self-confidence. The annoying fan of one of the instructor chefs. The one whose mother still cooks all his meals. The model (and, goddess help us, we’ve got two models and a bodybuilder this season). The one who thinks sugar is a universal ingredient and the one who thinks the same of capsaicin. And, of course, the one who thinks her cooking is just fine and doesn’t understand why her relatives forced her to go on the show.

The producers think this will lead to wacky hijinks. The point they’re forgetting is that arguments aren’t story. Nobody wants to see watch people snapping and snarling at each other. We want to see the contestants successes and, yes, the failures that don’t threaten to fill the set with flames. It’s their growth as cooks that’s the story.

Last season the show spent so much time on personality clashes that the cooking seemed halfhearted. Even in the finale, the cooking competition seemed muted and the food wasn’t up to the standard set in previous years. If this season goes down the same path, I won’t be watching. Which would free up an hour a week for writing. Hmm.

KBC, on the other hand, is still a delight. The kids all have their quirks, but they’re not extremely exaggerated stereotypes. They’ve clearly all been working hard at their craft for years, they’re thrilled to be on the show, and they understand that stuff happens–forgotten ingredients, knife cuts, and bad days–and has to be dealt with.

And it’s obvious they’ve studied the show’s earlier seasons. They know what’s coming, and it was charming to see them literally fleeing in terror when the twist arrived in yesterday’s episode. And yes, though we’ve seen it before, it’s still nice to see them pitch in to help each other finish when time is short.

That’s an hour of potential writing time I’m going to sacrifice willingly every week.

Not a Train Wreck

Let’s talk about Ralph Breaks the Internet (to be referred to as RBtI henceforward, ’cause, you know, lazy.)

As usual when I talk movies, there are going to be spoilers. Don’t want to see the spoilers? Stop reading now and come back after you see the movie.

And, not to spoil the post, I am recommending it. Yes, you need a good high-level grasp of popular culture and internet practices. If you don’t see the humor in Disney princesses discussing their own tropes, this isn’t your movie. Nor is it your movie if you haven’t rolled your eyes at your favorite search engine’s attempts to guess what you’re about to ask it.

If you don’t have a favorite search engine, this is really not your movie.

You don’t need to have seen Wreck-It Ralph to enjoy RBtI, but it will help. There’s a fair amount of world building in the first movie that the second film simply takes for granted. But with a few exceptions, I suspect you won’t be considering RBtI at all if you haven’t seen W-IR.

Anyway.

So yes, it’s good. The jokes are mostly on point, and the pace is fast enough that when one joke does miss, there’s another one coming right behind it. There are plenty of cameos, background gags, and audio jokes to keep you entertained when the main story drags. Which it does a couple of times.

The Disney princesses are a high point in both of their appearances, and I loved the big race scene.

Sure, there are a few things I could quibble about–an eBay with no snipers? Nah! The biggest curb I tripped over, though, is the way the monetary thing was handled. I can live with the idea that BuzzzTube lets you directly convert likes to dollars. It wouldn’t work in the real world, but we’re aiming at kids, so okay, I suspend my disbelief. Where I fall down is on the exchange rate. Ralph’s first video racks up, if memory serves, about a million and a half likes, giving him a balance of $43. That’s a weird ratio. But if we take that as given, the numbers just don’t add up later. Sure, we don’t see all the videos he makes, but the ones we do see show similar like counts. Counting on my fingers, that suggests Ralph had to make something upward of 600 videos. And collect the necessary views in a limited (and apparently rapidly changing) amount of time.

That “spung” sound you just heard was the spring in my suspension of disbelief punching through the cylinder.

But it’s still a quibble, not a major flaw.

RBtI had a couple of significant missed opportunities. (This is the point where you should leave if you don’t want to see me wearing my writer hat.)

Remember how the first movie was Vanellope’s film? Sure, it had Ralph’s name on it, but the heart of the movie was Vanellope coming to terms with her glitch. W-IR got a lot of kudos for the way it handled that part of the story. Along comes RBtI, and that all goes out the window. Vanellope uses the glitch twice (once to evade capture, once to cheat in the big race). Then it blows up on her, taking down “Slaughter Race”. But the solution is just to reboot the server–it’s got nothing to do with Vanellope or what she’s learned during the course of the film.

Sure, this was Ralph’s film–his chance to grow–but it shouldn’t come solely at the expense of the other characters.

I don’t have a solution to this one, but then, I’ve only been thinking about it for a couple of days. The film’s writers had four years (I gather there wasn’t much discussion about possible directions for a sequel until 2014.)

The other missed opportunity is smaller and easier to solve. Vanellope’s “princess song”. Okay, yes, it was a great bit. Gosh, she really is a Disney Princess. I laughed as much as anyone else in the theater.

But.

That song just didn’t work stylistically. Vanellope is caught between “Slaughter Race” and “Sugar Rush” and her song ought to reflect that in the musical as well as the lyrics. Sure, start it off with the stereotypical Disney Princess song and get your laugh. But then give us a nod to the “Sugar Rush” track from W-IR–even just a line or two–and then slide into a verse done as something you might find on the “Slaughter Race” soundtrack. Metal. Hip-Hop. Reggaeton. Something with a serious bite. Come back to the Disney Princess song at the end if you have to, but give us that explicit link to Vanellope’s past and future.

Okay, hat off.

The bottom line? Ralph Breaks the Internet: good, but not as good as it could have been.

SAST 12

Welcome to the twelfth production of Short Attention Span Theater. This installment is brought to you, not by hay fever and inconveniently draped felines, but by Like Herding Cats. I’m deeply enmeshed in what I hope will be the final revision, and don’t want to take the time to develop complete thoughts about much of anything right now.

Act One: Apple introduced new hardware earlier this week. No, not iPhones; that was back in September. The latest goodies-to-be are a new MacBook Air, a new iPad Pro, and a new Mac Mini.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about the laptop and tablet. I’ve never used a MacBook of any sort, and while the iPad Pro sounds like a nice bit of gear, it’s way to rich for my wallet–and massively overpowered for my tablet needs.

That said, I do appreciate Apple replacing the iPad Pro’s Lightening Port with a USB-C port. One less bit of proprietary gear, and more access to existing third-party hardware.

As for the Mini, I’ve got mixed feelings there. I’ve got an original Mac Mini around here someplace. It’s not in use because its power supply has wandered off, but it was a nice piece of kit in its day. I’m glad to see Apple hasn’t killed off the line, but I’m sad to see that they’re changing its emphasis.

The original point of the Mini was to bring in non-Apple users. As such, it was cheap. Cheap to the point of almost entirely forgoing the usual Apple markup. It seems, however, that Apple has decided the Mini has attracted all the Windows users it’s going to, and so they’ve decided to make it a more “professional” machine.

In case you didn’t realize it, in the tech industry, the word professional means “more expensive”. As such, the price has gone up $300. It’s still a good deal for the price, but it’s not as good a deal as it used to be.

Act Two: Our darling president’s latest threatpromise has been getting a lot of press, as usual. No, not that one. No, not that one either. I mean the one about wiping out birthright citizenship.

All the hysterical responses to the effect of “He can’t do that! It’s unconstitutional!” are missing the point.

First of all, “unconstitutional” is what the Supreme Court says it is. If you believe the current lineup of justices is a threat to abortion rights, why would you think they’d be any less of a threat to citizenship?

Secondly, Trump doesn’t care whether he can “do it”. It’s a distraction. Just the latest of many. When was the last time you saw any news about Russian interference in the upcoming election?

Third, nobody can actually stop him from issuing a proclamationan executive order. He may well go ahead and do it, on the theory that even if it doesn’t squeeze past the Supreme Court, it’ll be tied up there for months, leaving everyone scared–the administration’s preferred mental state–and providing the Republicans with the chance to spin the battle as “Democrats are soft on immigration.”

Third-and-a-halfth, if there is an executive order, you can be sure it’ll be written to exclude children whose parents are from countries that aren’t on Trump’s shit list. Because there’s nothing the administration would like better than than to divide the opposition by carving out a block of people who are going to feel like they dodged a bullet. Those are the ones who’ll be shouting the loudest about how Trump’s not such a bad guy after all…

Act Three: We end this production on a cheerier note.

The Austin Lounge Lizards are still doing their thing, thirty-eight years down the road (only eighteen years less than the Rolling Stones!)

Maggie and I went to last night’s show at the Freight and Salvage* in Berkeley. The band’s had a line-up change since the last time we saw them, which suggests that it’s been too long since we last went to one of their shows. It happens. The current group seems solid, though.

* Temporarily renamed the “Fright and Savage”. Though we were disappointed to see that the e and l on their neon sigh were left uncovered.

Granted, there were a few rough edges here and there, but to be fair, it’s probably been two decades or more since some of those songs were on their setlist.

The Lizards have tried out a number of things over the years–you can get damn stale doing the same thing over and over (Rolling Stones, anyone?)–including flirtations with folk, gospel, rap, and a few other styles that are currently eluding me.

The current experiment is with medleys, pairing (and sometimes tripling and quadling) selections from their back catalog with songs from across the rock and roll era–all in their inimitable bluegrass style. By and large, it works. I didn’t know the world needed a bluegrass rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” but now that we have one, I’m convinced we’re all better for the experience. (For the record, “Creep” goes very nicely with “Shallow End of the Gene Pool,” an instrumental take on The Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” and The Doors’ “When You’re Strange.”)

The current California mini-tour hits Winters tonight, Felton tomorrow, Culver City on Saturday, and winds up with an Election Night show in Houston, TX. Yeah, I know Houston isn’t in California–and thank all the deities for that–but that’s the Lizards for you. If you can make one of the shows, do it. Show some support for an American icon.

A Good Start

Jodie Whittaker has made her full debut as The Doctor in an episode of her own, and guess what? That’s right, just as after her two word initial appearance last year, the universe didn’t end! Not on either side of the TV screen.

Haters gonna hate. That’s a given, unfortunately.

But for the rest of us, those willing to give Ms. Whittaker and the show’s writers a chance, it was quite the satisfying experience.

I’m not about to declare “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” the greatest episode ever. Not even the greatest debut of a new Doctor.

But it handled all the expected set pieces for an introductory episode–The Doctor’s confusion, the unveiling of the new costume and key props, and the first signs of the character’s personality–smoothly. Better still, the episode’s story worked as a story, without gaping plot holes or random non sequiturs dropped in solely to move the story along.

And, best of all, did not rely on old, familiar–one might even say “tired”–villains. We’ve reached the point where bringing in the Daleks or Cybermen comes off as a sign that the writers don’t think their story can stand on its own. I’d love to get through the whole first Whittaker season without seeing any character we’ve encountered before.

But let’s back up to those set pieces for a moment.

There was a real potential for disaster in how The Doctor’s confusion about settling into a new body was handled. Focusing on the change of sex would have yanked the viewer right out of the story and made the episode all about that. Too soon. Save it for later, if ever. Looking at the reaction of old companions, villains, or (inevitably) Doctors could be fun and educational. But not yet. The writers acknowledge the change with a single joke near the beginning, another near the end, and leave it at that. Instead, we got a focus on things almost every viewer can relate to personally: memory loss, missing possessions (that “Where’s my wallet” panic everyone’s felt), and even a bit of the “OMG, I’ve got a test, and I’ve never even been to the class!” horrors. High marks.

The prop and costume reveals are taking a fair amount of flak. I’ve seen a lot of ridicule over The Doctor assembling her new sonic screwdriver out of local, twenty-first century components, none of which would even fit into the final product. Come on, people, you’re willing to accept the Tardis being bigger on the inside than the outside, but not the sonic screwdriver? (That said, I did like the suggestion someone made online, that the actual mechanism is a big block of electronics that The Doctor has to wear like a backpack, and the handheld bit of gear is just the remote. It’d be a great alternative to the joke they actually went with. But I digress.) And at least nobody is objecting to the actual look of the device–unlike the costume, which is, I completely agree, unattractive.

But I think the people complaining about it are missing the point. It’s a very unisex outfit–equally unflattering on men and women–that emphasizes that The Doctor doesn’t see sex as relevant to her mission. And it’s also a very clear signal that the writers don’t see the new Doctor as being at all about sex appeal. None of the previous incarnations have been–we’ve never seen a Doctor use sex to influence other characters or move the story along–and this one won’t be either.

Bravo, again.

And then there’s the emergence of The Doctor’s new personality and approach to solving crises. It’s clear that Ms. Whittaker’s Doctor will fall toward the frenetic end of the spectrum. As somebody who grew up with Tom Baker’s portrayal, I say “Bring on the frenzy!”

But, that said, it’s also obvious that she’s going to explicit about promoting compromise and choice, rather than conflict-driven, all-or-nothing victory. I’ve seen several commentators suggest that this is a sop to traditional gender roles (the old “female equals nurturing” fallacy) and it might be true to an extent.

Really, though, The Doctor has always been about making choices, trying to understand, and reaching accommodation with the “enemy”. Sure, it’s often been buried under fisticuffs, car chases, and us-versus-them paranoia, but it’s been there, right back to the first season and the Daleks’ first appearance.

If this year’s new Doctor had been male and delivered the same speech at the climax of the first episode, nobody would have blinked or called it a radical departure. It’s perfectly in tune with the spirit of the character.

Kudos a third time.

It could all still fall apart. But that’s true of any show. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, and all that. But I’m encouraged. Ms. Whittaker is off to a good start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where–and when–she goes from here.

Good Sports

With the baseball season winding down, as usual, I find myself looking for ways to justify that TV in the bedroom. The DVR is set to record whatever episodes of Chopped Junior it can find. The summer Kids Baking Championship just ended yesterday.

If you think you detect a pattern in my viewing, you’re right. I’m finding the cooking competitions featuring kids to be more to my tastes (sorry) than the adult versions.

It’s not that the youngsters are better cooks than the grownups. There’s some overlap, but the adults’ skills are largely more polished and their knowledge of dishes is broader.

The reason I prefer the younger competitors is simple good sportsmanship.

How often does a chef get eliminated on Chopped and storm off complaining about how the judges were wrong to eliminate her, or how the breaks just didn’t go his way? Far too often. Even the chefs who take elimination gracefully rarely shake hands with the other competitors or wish them luck.

By contrast, the kids always encourage each other. During the competitions, they share ingredients instead of hoarding them. When they’re eliminated, they get hugs from their opponents and often say they intend to practice and learn more so they can do better next time.

Sure, some of that positive interaction has to be staged. And when you’ve got six or eight hours of footage for each competitor, it’s easy to pick the best bits for the forty-five minutes that’ll be on the air.

But that’s beside the point. You’ll never see a chef on the grownup version of one of the Baking Challenges stop in the middle of the final round to give an opponent a hug and some good advice–or if you did, the recipient would probably do exactly the opposite, suspecting a trap.

It may be a carefully selected feel-good moment, but when it happens (as it did in last night’s show), the interaction still comes off as genuine. And who doesn’t need more genuine feel-good moments these days?

It doesn’t look like there’s a new kids competition on the fall schedule, more’s the pity. So, as usual, I fill the gap with anime. And I’ve found a show that hits a lot of the right notes–the same notes as the junior cooking shows.

Uma Musume: Pretty Derby (I’ve also seen it transliterated as “Umamusume”) is yet another in the chain of unconventional sports shows. Unlike last year’s favorite, Keijo!!!!!!!!, the sport actually exists. As you may have guessed from the title, it’s horse racing.

The twist is that the horses are cute girls, who perform idol songs after winning races.

Yeah, I know, but stick with me.

The songs aren’t really a major part of the show, at least not through the first few episodes, despite being significant in the world we see.

Where do the horse girls come from? (Note that I’m not using the term “pony girl”. If you don’t know why, I strongly suggest you refrain from googling it. There may have been some artistic inspiration there, but the show goes in a whole different direction.) In-world, it’s made clear that a horse girl comes from a horse mother, but nothing’s been said about the fathers. So if you want some uncomfortable speculation, you can indulge.

But that’s background. We follow a young woman, Special Week, who’s come to the big city to pursue her mother’s dream, that she become the greatest in Japan.

Sounds just like most sports shows, doesn’t it? Where Uma Musume shines is in where it deviates from the sport show tropes. Rivals are competitive, but the rivalry stays on the track. Special Week idolizes the horse girl who turns out to be her roommate, but Silence Suzuka neither becomes Special Week’s bitter rival nor her biggest supporter: she’s helpful, but not to extremes, and it’s obvious she has her own concerns.

And the creators have not only passed on multiple chances to insert fan service, but they’ve given the stereotypical girl/girl love story subtext a miss, despite the many, many opportunities the premise offers.

There are a few wrong notes here and there–Trainer’s habit of “checking his charges’ fetlocks” springs to mind–but the positives far outweigh the negatives in my book.

If you’re interested, the show is available on Crunchyroll. Even if you’re only mildly intrigued, swing by and take a look. You can try the first episode, and possibly more, for free.