Tube Stake: Programming Reviews by Seth Arenstein
• SATURDAY, JULY 7
DinoSapien, 1pm ET, Discovery Kids Channel.
This BBC Worldwide series is based on an interesting premise that is honestly executed and mixed with the usual clichés of horror movies and summer camp flicks.
The premise here is that dinosaurs might not be extinct. In fact, they’ve evolved over the years into creatures like Eno, a cute, wide-eyed critter who appears to be a cross between a rooster and a very large lizard. And Eno can speak, sort of, and he certainly understands Lauren (Brittany Wilson), an athletic teen who’s reluctantly spending the summer as a counselor at (oh, the irony) Dinosaur Camp. More irony? Lauren’s dad disappeared years ago during a fossil expedition in the Canadian Badlands. Her PhD mom runs the Dinosaur Camp.
Once Lauren bonds with Eno (the big guy hands the kid back the locket she’d lost), our star wonders whether all this dinosauring can lead her to her main quest, to find out the real story behind her dad’s disappearance.
Although the creators of the series, which mixes live, CGI and animation, say they wrote it to emphasize an unusual story of an empowered teen girl, younger kids will like DinoSapien for the dinosaurs, who apparently were painstakingly created by the same animators who generated the creatures for Spielberg in Jurassic Park. This time, though, the dinosaurs have evolved. As we said, Eno is quite adroit at what we would call human relations. Of course, there’s bad news, too: Eno is being tracked by a not-so-nice band of dinosaurs, who are expert hunters, and can roll themselves up like bowling balls to traverse large tracts of land quickly.
Pre-teens will dig DinoSapien for its nearly subliminal sexuality. In between running from dinosaurs, the teen counselors exchange wanton glances and discuss how much each of them has grown since last summer. The counselors are discovering the opposite sex. The implications of perhaps the greatest archeological find ever can wait a few minutes.
Assume the Position 201 with Mr. Wuhl, 10pm, HBO,
Actor/comedian Robert Wuhl, known on HBO and now ESPN Classic as ruthless sports agent Arli$$, follows last season’s faux college history lecture with a thoroughly enjoyable piece that’s pretty much along the same lines.
Mixing history, myth and current events, Wuhl, in front of college students, whacks at more than a few sacred cows, presidents and current celebs, but above all manages to be entertaining while educating. Wuhl’s lecture ostensibly is about American history, running the gamut from George Washington to The Titanic. In between he discusses Frederick Douglass, who was the first African American to be nominated to run for Vice President—by the Equal Rights Party, which nominated Victoria Woodhull to be president, in 1872. But he also manages to include Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, who, he informs us, may have fathered more than 100 children. "Who decided to name a condom after this guy?" Wuhl asks.
Among the other gems are bits about the facial hair of our presidents and those he (and others) judge to have been inept commanders in chief. But in all this fun education pokes its way in, like when Wuhl tells us about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s critical role in the election of Franklin Pierce. When the education is finished the historic trivia flows. Did you know that the mother of one our presidents and the wife of another is descended from the inept Pierce? And that Pierce was the first president to have a DUI? Don’t you remember the best teachers having educational games to play at class’s end? Wuhl does, and brings out a game he calls "Real or No Real," where he, and several comely co-eds, ask students whether or not historical figures like Chef Boyardee and Aunt Jemima existed. Hey, what about the Quaker on Quaker Oats? And how long did the Burger King reign? And are Mrs. Butterworth and her husband happily married? The mind boggles.
[Note: This special will be available on HBO On Demand, HBO’s VOD channel, beginning Monday.]
• SUNDAY, JULY 8
Science of Speed Eating, 9pm, National Geographic Channel.
For years, cable viewers have seen documentaries on the Shea brothers and their International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). Perhaps they’ve seen its contests carried for several years on ESPN, including the most famous: the July 4th annual event to eat Nathan’s hot dogs. This year’s winner, American Joey Chestnutt downed a record 66 dogs in 12 minutes to defeat six-time champ Takeru Kobayashi. Few realize, though, that the IFOCE holds 100 competitions yearly, with prizes topping out at $30K. There seems to be no limit to the size pro eaters can stretch their stomachs, or to the popularity of competitive eating.
This interesting and sometimes humorous documentary employs science to study what goes on inside the eaters’ insides. Since most of the pro eaters are relatively thin, including Sonya Thomas, the so-called Black Widow, who weighs in at an un-hefty 105 pounds, it seems that these people are either genetically able to consume mass quantities or they can train their stomachs to do so. Sonya, profiled in this special, indeed trains with food regularly. She also works out aerobically for two hours daily. While the scientists aren’t definitive, it seems the eaters’ training of their stomachs is crucial. And, believe it or not, studies of these eaters may help medical science improve its understanding of heartburn and indigestion.
• MONDAY, JULY 9
Greek, series premiere, 9pm, ABC Family.
Please, ABC Family, change your name already. This send-up of college Greek life is tame by cable standards, but includes plenty of drinking, hetero and homosexual sex and a touch of violence. What we don’t see much of is students being students, although in the pilot episode classes haven’t yet started. Still, do the students at fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University ever crack a book? With all the partying, drinking and lovemaking, would they even have time for Plato or Chaucer?
But Greek is a well-paced dramedy thanks to some good writing and strong acting by an ensemble led by a bunch of talented unknowns (well, remember, it’s basic cable). And like many television series about college, the campus is beautiful and the student body’s student bodies are gorgeous, with the exception of the geeks. There’s not a case of acne to be found on the glowing skin of Greek’s leading players. Heck, the co-eds are such a mixture of beauty and athletic prowess, even Hayden Panettiere (of NBC’s Heroes) as Claire would have a bear of a time making the cheerleading squad as a freshman, although her regenerative powers would be helpful after a night of partying.
A potential problem with Greek occurs at the end of the tonight’s episode. It surrounds the questionable judgment of Casey (Spencer Grammer, yes, Kelsey’s daughter), an arrogant sorority upper classman with an adorably geeky freshman brother, Rusty, played effectively by Jacob Zachor. Casey is dating the big man on campus, Evan (Jake McDorman). While young Rusty is pledging Evan’s Omega Chi Delta, he inadvertently catches the big man about to enjoy the pleasures of the freshman flesh, a dark beauty named Rebecca (Dilshad Vadsaria), the daughter of a famous senator. Rusty informs his sister, whose reaction is to drink, shoot pool and bed down (but for one time only) with her former squeeze, Cappie (Scott Michael Foster), who heads the zoo fraternity Kappa Tau Gamma. By the way, these actions are not what we meant when we referred to Casey’s questionable judgment.
Spielberg on Spielberg, 8pm ET, TCM.
One of the tests of a retrospective like this is whether or not the viewer feels compelled to see or see again the films excerpted in the program. The answer here is a resounding yes.
TCM maintains its strategy of producing few but high-quality docs with this delightful piece that is nothing more than an extended monologue by Steven Spielberg. It’s also nothing less. That’s because the acclaimed is a humble and (refreshingly) honest critic of his work. He’s also a willing conversationalist and fine raconteur. The story about how he entered the television business, literally through the bathroom door, is a gem. Ditto his “wager” with George Lucas, who bet Spielberg that Close Encounters would make more money than Lucas would on Star Wars. Spielberg took the bet. “I’m still making money from that,” he laughs.
It takes a confident person to admit that after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws, “I thought I was made of Teflon, that I was invincible…that anything I put up on the screen would be successful.” The flop 1941 put an end to that way of thinking. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me," he comments. “I was humbled…I sobered up” from that immediately, he says, turning quickly to his next picture, which was rewarded by the failure of 1941. As a result, Spielberg says he prepared feverishly for that next film, a little project called Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As you might expect, the documentary is interspersed with terrific clips from Spielberg films, many aided, as the director rightfully acknowledges, by the evocative orchestral soundtracks of the great John Williams. As an added treat, it’s followed by two Spielberg classics: Jaws (at 9:30pm ET) and Close Encounters (at 1:30am ET, so set your DVR.)
The Bronx is Burning, 10pm, ESPN.
As you’d expect from the title, there’s a fair amount of heat in The Bronx is Burning, the 8-part series that begins tonight after ESPN’s Home Run Derby (8pm ET) and whose seven subsequent episodes will be seen Tuesdays at 10pm. Unfortunately, the initial three episodes generate little of the fire we’d expect from hotheads like former Yankees manager Billy Martin (portrayed by John Turtorro) and owner George Steinbrenner (played by Oliver Platt).
Although the initial scene shows Turturro’s Martin engaging in the infamous dugout shoving match at Fenway with his superstar, Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata, familiar to viewers of FX’s Rescue Me), at nearly all other times the manager seems to keep his temper and language in check. During the first three episodes, Turturro, who’s been made up expertly to look like Martin, portrays the man as a mischief maker more than the loud-mouthed, drunken brawler we expect.
The always engaging Oliver Platt, who looks nothing like The Boss, seems too nice as Steinbrenner, although his reputation as a meddlesome control freak comes through clearly. The side of Steinbrenner that’s somewhat new is his diplomatic side. In episode three, Steinbrenner seems more adroit at negotiating than Henry Kissinger, brokering a peace settlement between Jackson and Martin with a speech that sounds like it came from a Ronald Reagan movie.
But there is plenty to enjoy in Bronx, which not only tells the Yankees’ story, but weaves in the 1977 NY City mayoral election and the fear generated by the serial killer Son of Sam. Back on the sports side, ESPN tells a good story by revealing the motivation behind Martin’s enmity toward Jackson. And while we disagree with the portrayals, Turturro and Platt are always worth watching. Sunjata’s Jackson is terrific. He looks and swings like Reggie and reveals the complicated personality of the superstar/diva. And props to actor Eric Jensen and the makeup department, who have recreated the late catcher Thurman Munson perfectly.
• TUESDAY, JULY 10
Eureka, season 2 premiere, 9pm, Sci Fi.
Season two sticks pretty close to what brought this series success in its initial season as we learn more about this fictional town of government-sponsored geniuses: witty banter (much of it between Colin Ferguson’s Sheriff and Jordan Hinson’s Zoe), complex plots with lots of things—and people—burning (most of the trouble leads to the lab at Global Dynamics) and a slew of cool gadgets (ya gotta love the Sheriff’s “smart house” with its non-water showers and non-razor blade shaving system).
• THURSDAY, JULY 12
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, 3rd season premiere, 8 & 11pm, BBC America.
The first time I watched a screener of BBC America’s restaurant rescue series starring Gordon Ramsay it wasn’t marked with “UK Version—not edited for U.S.” Yes, that makes a difference. The British version of Kitchen Nightmares (Fox is producing a U.S. version with Ramsay this fall) doesn’t delete the intimidating chef’s language, which is as spicy as his cuisine. The board of the International Union of Longshoremen, which had invited Ramsay to cater a recent function, eventually had to rescind the invitation. The board feared Ramsay’s language would offend their rank and file. Yes, we’re talking longshoremen. Indeed, Ramsay’s liberal use of the F-word would make Tony Soprano blush.
On the other hand, Ramsay’s sharp tongue is genuine. The trice-Michelin-starred chef’s standards are high, he doesn’t suffer fools (or airs) and the former soccer player is passionate about what he does. Unlike other reality show personalities, Ramsay isn’t putting anything on for the camera. For that we must be appreciative. Still, it’s as much a delight to listen to Ramsay’s use of the Queen’s English as it is to hear another chef, Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse, regularly butcher English grammar.
But on to the cooking. It’s apparent that Ramsay’s producers are worried that his usually sound advice to troubled restaurant owners and chefs is getting stale for TV viewers. Most of the time Ramsay encounters the same old recipe: failing restaurants whose chefs are trying to be fancier than their training says they should be and whose menus are out of touch with their target clientele. More often than not, he finds dirty kitchens, poorly trained staffs and nearly empty dining rooms, whose few customers are waiting too long for tasteless food. His basic line is to return to basics. Reduce menus to a manageable number of items, don’t get overly fancy or ambitious, spruce up the dining room, keep the kitchen spotless and orderly.
This season, though, Ramsay does a few things that, we guess, are not genuine. To instill passion and guts into a British youngster trying to be a chef in Spain, Ramsay puts him in a ring with a red cape and has him fight a bull. A kindly 62-year-old British chef and inn-owner whose kitchen is cluttered with useless gadgets and heaps of unused crockery is hauled, along with his collection, to a junk yard where the stuff is reduced to scrap metal (and he’s almost reduced to tears.)
Fortunately these breaks from Ramsay’s F-in’ reality are few and of short duration, allowing the chef to dispense his tough love where he belongs—in the kitchen—without too much interruption. The result is entertaining and occasionally educational television. It also showcases his compassionate side, a quality that’s M.I.A. on Hell’s Kitchen, his popular (and even more profane) U.S. reality series on Fox that may mean a ruder and cruder U.S. version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is also simmering at Fox.
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All times ET/PT unless otherwise noted.