Aug 262015

Hello one and all, and welcome to my final article as the writer of Channel Chaser. Yes, you heard right: it’s the last one. But before I go, I thought that I might try to tie things up with a bit of a reflection on why I talk so much about TV, and why this form of entertainment that everyone takes for granted these days means so much to me.

I’ve been watching TV a fair bit ever since I was little, but I only got really into it – what I guess you could probably call obsessed – during my college years. As hard as it may be to believe, I actually used to read a lot more of the time than I ever spent staring at a screen. Books were kind of my life growing up, and I still love reading to this day. But as with some many other things, life just gets in the way sometimes. Mostly it was schoolwork, and then my current job as a journalist. When you spend pretty much your entire day reading and writing, the last thing you want to do when you get home at night and have free time is sit down and read a book. Reading is great, but it really does require a certain amount of attention and brainpower, something I know I don’t always have to spare. So the less and less I read, the more and more I got hooked on TV.

I’m also the kind of person who gets hooked almost immediately once they see something they like. I’ve spent whole days just burning through entire seasons of shows if I’m enough into them to do it. I even do it when I’m not really watching: when I’m at home cleaning, cooking, or doing anything else, I almost always have the TV on and one of my favorite shows constantly running via Netflix or something similar. It’s really gotten to the point where I can quote most of my favorites like Doctor Who, Archer, MASH, and so many others almost line for line. It’s a bit embarrassing sometimes, but then I suppose we all have our hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with having an interest.


One frequent criticism I hear a lot about TV when compared to reading is that reading is an overall better and more productive way to spend your time. Why is that, you might ask? Well, most people seem to think the fact that when reading it’s up to you to conjure up a certain amount of detail in your mind – what characters look like, sound like, situations described on the page–automatically makes it more valuable because you’re exercising your mind, not just letting it rot and having actors do all the creative stuff for you. There’s no freedom, they say. There’s no substance. Watching TV just can’t give you as deep of an experience as reading a book can.

But I don’t necessarily think that’s true. In fact, the ambiguity of books in this way has always been one of the things that have bothered me most about reading. You read and interpret a character one way only to find the author had a completely different intention. Not that it makes your idea any less valid, per se, but it still casts a shadow of doubt on what you read and can change your opinion of the work as a whole. In TV, subtlety in this manner isn’t ever really a problem. What you see is what you get. I’m not talking about character development: a good TV series can do that just as well as any book. What I’m talking about is that since you can see all the people, places, and things on the screen in a very tangible way, it frees your mind to stop wondering about what this character would look like, sound like, or act like, and lets you enjoy the experience overall in a much more holistic way. It’s kind of like seeing the forest around you instead of focusing on each individual tree in turn.

Another thing I love about TV is the fact that different actors pop up in wildly different roles. Few things give me greater pleasure than seeing an actor I like from one show come into another and do something totally outside what I’ve thought they could do before. On the flip side, when I know a certain actor is really good at something, I look forward to new shows because I can hope that they are in them and predict what part they could possibly be cast as. It’s why every time I hear of a new show starring Nathan Fillion, for example, I can automatically assume it’s going to funny, it’s going to be odd, and it’s going to be awesome. Anticipation isn’t anxiety for me. Actually, it might be the most enjoyable thing of all.


Long, drawn out episodic television can also cover a lot of territory books just can’t. For example, I love comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, or Seinfeld because they spend most of their time not focused on simply moving a single storyline forward. Instead, they stop to acknowledge the fact that some of the most amusing things about life can be found in the minor, unimportant details, strange cultural norms, or pointless arguments. The sitcom style in general just doesn’t translate very well to the written word, and it’s in my opinion something no book could ever adequately copy.

And what’s the best part about television? It shows normal people there on the screen, most of the time playing very real, very believable characters, who experience things that to some extent we all go through. Visual components instantly make fictional people more relatable to the audience, and TV allows their characters to portray all of humanity at its best, and perhaps at its worst as well. It gives you something to aspire to, something to be proud of, something to think about, and it really says a lot about you as well. As strange as it sounds, you can tell a lot about someone by what their favorite TV shows are.

Well, I think it’s about time for me to go. I’d like to thank all my family, friends, and other readers who have supported me all this time, and hopefully will continue to provide me with love and inspiration in the future. It’s true what people say about real life not being a movie, or in this case, a TV show. But maybe if we took a look at some of our favorite characters and used them as examples to follow, we could take a few steps closer to it. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.


Channel Chaser is written by Kyle Robertson. You can check out more of his work on his website.

Aug 192015

Welcome back to Channel Chaser! Last year, some of you may have seen that SyFy released a mini-series called Ascension that was billed as a return to form for a channel that many, myself included, believe has lost its way. Instead of sticking to its science fiction roots firmly set in space sagas like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek, it’s become a joke of a channel more interested in reality TV and soap operas than genuine sci-fi adventure. So, naturally, when I saw Ascension pop up on my Netflix cue, a SyFy show actually involving space and sci-fi piqued my interest. And boy, am I glad it did, or I would have missed one heck of a ride.


First of all, I’d like to point out that Ascension, by all accounts, received pretty mixed reviews from when it was originally on TV. Let me be the first to tell you that is utter garbage. This is one of the best sci-fi series I have watched in quite a long time. And it’s not even a real series! While it very easily could have been, SyFy decided to instead make it an “event series” with six hour-long episodes comprising the entire story. I’ve never really cared for mini-series events like these because I always feel it’s such a waste to try and jam what should be several seasons of story into a few compressed hours. The show often doesn’t have time to breathe, much less develop itself, and Ascension certainly does have some of those problems. But this is one of the very few times where the ending of the series has left me dying to know what happens next, and a profound anger that SyFy didn’t see fit to continue this amazing show. What’s the deal with that?

Anyway, Ascension starts off with an incredibly interesting premise full of true, factual historical context. Back in the 60s, then-President John F. Kennedy had a dream of exploring space and putting a man on the moon. Another less-well-known ambition of his was Project Orion, a theoretical program to design a nuclear-powered interstellar spaceship. In real life, the project was eventually abandoned. But what if it wasn’t? The show takes us there, placing us aboard the starship Ascension as its crew of 600 people enters the 51st year of their mission to colonize Proxima Centauri. Having been launched in the 60s on the 100-year journey, the ship provides us with both the fascinating concept of the “generation ship”, whose inhabitants know only their grandchildren will actually see the new world, and a microcosm of the societal problems of the 60s, but enhanced with space-age technology.


Before I continue, I’d also like to warn you that spoilers lie ahead. Now this is probably something you’ve come to expect from my columns, and don’t say I didn’t warn you, but in this case, you might really want to stop reading now if you ever want to be surprised by this show. The ending of the second episode is a massive, M. Night-style plot twist that left my jaw on the floor. Not much can do that. And it’s only the second episode, for crying out loud! That’s when I knew for certain that I was hooked.

It turns out, though, that this entire premise is one huge, gigantic, inconceivably enormous lie. The Ascension in reality never left Earth: it’s confined to a secret underground facility where normal, contemporary people monitor the crew through cameras, control the fake ship’s systems, and essentially run their lives, all for the glory of science. The real mystery unfolds following the ship’s first murder since the “launch”, and the revelation that a little girl named Christa has developed strange psychic abilities. Apparently, while there are ancillary benefits like stealing technology created by the confined crew (many of the 20th century’s advances are implied to have come from them) and seeing how people will deal with a long-term space mission, the real purpose of Ascension is to try and artificially speed up human evolution through selective breeding, isolation, and genetic manipulation by a bunch of corporate suits on the outside. Add to that class warfare brewing inside the ship and tensions in management, purpose, and desires to expose the cruelty of Ascension to the public on the outside, and you’ve got a story that spins out of control frighteningly fast.


Ascension has all the elements that made fellow genre shows like Battlestar Galactica great, and I’m not just talking about shared actors (Tricia Helfer, BSG’s Cylon Number Six, is one of the main characters!). There’s plenty of space and science stuff to enjoy, but it’s primarily about the human drama both inside and outside the ship. On the inside, politicians and crew members struggle to better themselves in a world where class is a defining mark, sex is the preferred method of exchange, and every aspect of life is tightly controlled to the point that it drives most people to depression and some to insanity. On the outside, program director Harris Enzman fights to maintain the integrity of the grand experiment started by his father while also displaying all the negative qualities of a man obsessed with playing God over his Ascension captives. Granted, with how much is going on in this show, there’s not a whole lot of time for character development, which is one of the reasons that I’m not a fan of the mini-series format. But I feel that Ascension at least explores the humanity of every single one of its characters to the extent that it can in a limited time, and that’s good enough for me.


My Rating: 4/5

Let me be clear: it is a crime that SyFy let a show like Ascension fall through the cracks. While it had a pretty good run as a mini-series, I can only imagine the heights of greatness it might have reached had it been extended into a full run. There’s so many things left to explore and so many questions left unanswered by the end that it makes you beg for a follow-up in the best possible way. But I guess we can always hope that this sci-fi gem won’t stay inside its bottle forever.


Channel Chaser is written by Kyle Robertson. You can check out more of his work on his website. Check back every Wednesday for new articles.

Aug 192015

This anime season includes a pair of titles that feature some rather… unique characters. Both Monster Musume and Actually, I Am include a handful of normal humans, but the majority of their casts are made up of aliens, vampires, centaurs, and other fantastic creatures. When a pair of shows use monster girls as a primary selling point, there’s only one sane thing to do: pit ‘em against one another and see which comes out on top.

Despite its odd title, Actually, I Am is the more conventional of the two shows. It stars a vampire who’s trying to attend high school while concealing her identity and a human guy who can’t keep a secret to save his life. The cast gradually expands to include an alien, a werewolf, a devil, and a variety of other oddities, most of whom need the hero to somehow keep their secrets. The show has some rudimentary romantic elements, but it’s primarily a comedy. Thanks to some creative twists on old character archetypes, it can be quite funny when it puts its best foot forward.


Monster Musume takes a more unusual approach by adding elements of horror to an ordinary (if raunchy) harem comedy. The show’s female cast includes a lamia (half snake), a harpy (half bird), a centaur, a slime creature, a mermaid, and a spider woman, all of whom have at least some interest in dragging the hapless human male protagonist into bed. Monster Musume takes advantage of its solid animation quality to bring out the distinctly non-human features of its characters, adding a distinctly unsettling accent that clashes hilariously with its rom-com antics. Normally suggestive situations become struggles for survival as the main character is in constant danger of being crushed, trampled, smothered, dismembered, or otherwise killed by his amorous roommates.

Neither series is perfect, and Actually, I Am is held back by a consistent lack of confidence in its own narrative. Characters break up the flow of important scenes with constant, unnecessary internal monologues that explain the bleeding obvious. The show also has a tendency to be indecisive about its plot, wandering in circles instead of moving the story forward. Much of this title’s potential is squandered on episodic content that lacks the novelty and impact of its characters.


Monster Musume suffers from a more structural problem: it has absolutely no interest in compromising with its audience. The show is unapologetic when it comes to sexual content and uncomfortable situations. If you’re not willing to play by its rules, then there’s nothing for you here. This is the very definition of “love it or hate it” anime, and it’s a very guilty pleasure for anyone who happens to enjoy it.

While both shows have their good and bad points, Monster Musume is easily the more memorable of the two. That singular focus on following its own bizarre blueprint makes the show stand out from the crowd; there’s genuinely nothing else like it. Long after Actually, I Am fades into the hazy category of mildly interesting anime, we’ll still know what someone’s talking about when they mention “that weird show with the snake lady.”


This Week in Anime is hastily cobbled together by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime and manga on Twitter.

Aug 132015

Welcome to another edition of Channel Chaser! While I acknowledge that I may be a bit behind the times, last week was a landmark moment in television as audiences across the country and the world said goodbye to a comedy legend. I’m speaking of course about Jon Stewart, who had his final night on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show last Thursday.


It’s the second time in as many years that we’ve had to bid farewell to a beloved comedian on the network since Stephen Colbert left The Colbert Report in December, ending another great TV tradition. So this begs the question: with Stewart and Colbert, the two titans of fake news, now gone, what is left for their fans to do?

Sure, Comedy Central didn’t waste any time with installing The Nightly Show, starring former Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore, in Colbert’s vacant slot. And to be fair, Wilmore has done a very good job in differentiating himself from his predecessors and cultivating his own show and his own somewhat more straightforward and confrontational brand of humor. But it’s just not the same. I say this as a long-time fan of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I’m not trying to minimize the accomplishments of The Nightly Show. However, the fact remains that these shows thrive first and foremost on the personalities leading them, and Jon Stewart has a character unlike any other.

As many of you out there may know already, the plan for Comedy Central after Stewart’s departure is apparently to install South African guest correspondent and comedian Trevor Noah as the new host of The Daily Show. It’s an interesting move to make an international figure the new leader of the program, one that I can’t help but wonder if it’s based on the wildly successful run of John Oliver and HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Comedians with different nationalities poking fun at the comparative problems of the U.S. can be very funny, there’s no doubt about it. But you’d think for a guy who was going to be the new host, Comedy Central would make it more of a point to have Noah on more in a sort of transition period where audiences can get to know him better. Maybe even a once-a-week appearance to crack jokes at Stewart about how he’ll be taking his job. But instead, we’ve pretty much gotten silence from the Trevor Noah front, other than a handful of appearances on The Daily Show that stopped several months ago. I can’t help but be confused by the move, or lack thereof, and I hope Comedy Central knows what it’s doing.

But anyway, enough of my criticisms. We’re talking about a legacy here. And that’s exactly what Jon Stewart is leaving at The Daily Show: a span of nearly two decades where he was considered by many in America to be the leading voice of truth and champion of justice on television, more trusted than most network news programs by miles. Some of those programs, especially Fox News, have often taken Stewart to task for his mistakes (yes, he’s not perfect) and his stances on particular issues, particularly his self-avowed tendency to lean toward the left in terms of ideology. Bitter news anchors across the networks have tried to discredit Stewart in the eyes of the public because they know people like him more than them. And to be fair, they have something of a point. Knowing that he is trusted by so many people should make Stewart hold himself to some kind of standard of personal responsibility as a journalist.


But in the end, the joke’s on them because Stewart, as he himself has said many times, is NOT a journalist. He is a comedian, first and foremost, with a responsibility to absolutely nobody and nothing other than giving his audience a few laughs a night by pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy of our government and media. Granted, he is a deeper man and personality than most TV comedians because he does often express serious feelings on the issues, as well as bitingly accurate social commentary. But it’s not his fault people have come to take his word as fact: by all rights, they shouldn’t. People who say with pride that they just get their news from The Daily Show are, in all likelihood, just as misinformed as anyone who subscribes to only one source of news.

Much like media figures including Walter Kronkite and Edward R. Murrow before him, Stewart has developed a cult of personality that has made people trust him as a source of information. He didn’t start out to do it, and I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, but that’s what has happened. Nobody could have known when Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999 what a cultural touchstone and TV landmark it would eventually become. And it makes his departure all the more impactful.

The big question is, as the era of Jon Stewart comes to a close, what will happen to political satire and fake news programs like The Daily Show? Will they continue to influence as many people and from opinions and ideologies as they do now, or will they simply fade away without the popularity of such established hosts to support them? I imagine it’s the same debate that every generation has had over various entertainment issues at some point or another.

But my main point is, don’t remember Stewart as the patron saint of liberalism or the demon the right has made him out to be over the years. Forget the politics, and just remember the times when The Daily Show made you laugh. In a world where messed up, corrupt, and terrible things happen way more often than they should, humor is the one thing we can always rely on to make us feel better. And it just might help make the world a better place by doing it.


Channel Chaser is written by Kyle Robertson. You can check out more of his work on his website. Check back every Wednesday for new articles.

Aug 052015

Welcome back to Channel Chaser! I’m not sure how many readers will be familiar with it, but back in 2001, a comedy film called Wet Hot American Summer came out. It was mostly buried and got terrible reviews at the time, but it quickly evolved into a cult classic on the level of The Big Lebowski and similar films. But what does this have to do with television, you ask? Oh, yeah. Netflix made a TV show out of it.


One of the major reasons that Wet Hot was such a notable movie in spite of its reviews was because it featured a crew of actors that at the time mostly weren’t very well known, but are today some of the biggest names in the industry: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, H. Jon Benjamin, David Hyde Pierce, and Elizabeth Banks. The setting was Camp Firewood, a bucolic little summer camp for kids in the backwoods of Maine. The film was supposed to be a spoof on the 80s summer romance genre, with a bit of nonsensical silliness thrown in for good measure. And most of it, as you may have guessed, was about sex. But in the interest of keeping this column family-friendly, watch the movie. You’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, the point is that Netflix decided to make an 8-episode online series that brings the cast of the movie back together again after almost 15 years to do… a prequel. Yes, that’s right. Actors 15 years older than the last time we saw them tell the story of the first day of camp at Firewood (as opposed to the movie, which took place on the last day). Still playing teenagers. And if that’s not funny right off, I don’t know what is.

Let me preface everything I’m about to say with the fact that even after repeated viewings, I’m still undecided on whether Wet Hot is a good or bad movie. There are undeniably parts that still have me snorting with laughter in spite of myself, but it’s just such a doozy of a film in terms of pure, unadulterated nonsense that I can’t really take a hard stance on it. So let me just say that I’m grading this from the standpoint of how well it ties into the original film, as well as how consistent the tone and storylines are kept. And from this point of view, the series Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp completely and totally nails it.

While the actors may be 15 years older, they apparently haven’t changed at all. Rudd, Poehler, and the rest of the Camp Firewood crew slide back into their old parts like trying on an old glove that still fits. We’ve seen some bad Netflix reboots in the past (yes, I’m looking at you, Arrested Development season four), but this is not one of those flops. It even expands on the original film in a few slightly meaningful ways, including an explanation of the Camp Tigerclaw rivalry, and a bit more insight into the characters, especially Rudd’s unsympathetic, selfish playboy Andy, who goes from a straight-up terrible person to the kind of guy you love to hate. Also, Elizabeth Banks, whose character Lindsay was given a very cursory part in the original film, gets a huge backstory as a secret reporter who plays arguably the most important part in the whole series. Now that’s what I call an upgrade.


And that doesn’t even count the other celebrity cameos, including Star Trek’s Chris Pine, Mad Men’s John Hamm, and the aforementioned H. Jon Benjamin (who appears as an actual person, not just the voice of a can of vegetables. Trust me, it makes sense. Well, sort of). Also, you can see Michael Cerra, Kristen Wiig, Bruce Greenwood, Jordan Peele, and “Weird Al” Yankovic strutting their stuff. Seriously, there’s so much star power crammed into this series that it’s clear Netflix was going to the wall on this one. And it pays off.

The old themes are back too, of course. A ludicrously exaggerated danger to the camp: instead of a falling piece of the Skylab space station, an illegal toxic waste dumping site on camp property and a vast government conspiracy to cover it up that nearly results in President Reagan wiping out the camp. The satires on stereotypical summer romances: a build-up that lasts through the entire series, or the movie before, only to be crushed at the last minute by the classic friend-zone move, showing that, as we all know, nice guys finish last. Come on, you know it’s true. And of course, inappropriately placed, but still awesome, period music.

If I had any one complaint, it’s that I don’t think the newcomer Kevin’s story got as much time as it deserved. I know it’s silly to whine about plot points in a show that really isn’t supposed to have much of one to begin with, but I just thought I’d put it out there. I feel like that storyline was neglected a bit while Coop and Donna’s train wreck of a romance was played up a little too much. This is especially true because there’s no indication that Coop and Katie, who as we know were a semi-item in the first movie, even acknowledge each other’s existence. It’s probably the one time that a possible tie-in with the film’s events is ignored completely. So how did Coop and Katie get to be friends again?

But the greatest news of all is that, if they really wanted to, Netflix could totally make another series out of this. Or two. Or more. You could just keep on going with an entire summer broken down into ridiculously packed individual days that fans would totally eat up. I can’t say I’d really object much, either.


My Rating: 4.5/5

Again, this number is purely based on how faithful the material is to the original, not how much I actually like it: the jury’s still out on that one. But for people who liked the original film, this short series is a slam-dunk success. All the pieces of the puzzle just slip right back into place, and in some cases even make the strange events of the film make a little more sense. Wet Hot definitely isn’t for everyone, but is it for you? I’d say there are definitely worse things you could do with your time.


Channel Chaser is written by Kyle Robertson. You can check out more of his work on his website. Check back every Wednesday for new articles.