Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Logo Case Study: Gracie Films (I'll get over you, I know I will...)

I've already regaled you with the details of my early childhood exposure to The Simpsons (and, by extension, the Grace Films logo that tags along at the end of every episode), so I thought I'd open this case study with an anecdote from a much more recent point in my existence.  Earlier this month, I went to see the film Nocturnal Animals, and had the misfortune of being seated in the row behind three fellow cinema-goers who were being rude and inconsiderate as fuck. Patrons who tap away at glowing phone screens in the naive assumption that this can be done at all discreetly in a darkened auditorium have unfortunately become so commonplace that I've almost grudgingly learned to ignore them, but these three were certainly the first I'd come across who had the audacity to watch unmuted YouTube videos while the screening was in process.  About twenty minutes or so into the film, a man directly behind them leaned over and hissed in hushed but still very forceful tones, "Will you switch that bloody thing off?!  No, don't just lower it down a couple of inches and think that I can't still see it!  Turn it off!"  Forty minutes or so into the film, they apparently decided that he'd no longer mind if they whipped out their phones and resumed their disruptive behaviour, so he responded in the exact same manner.  I bloody loved this man.

Actually, I found the spectacle doubly cathartic due to an experience I'd had a couple of weeks prior when, during a Halloween screening of Train To Busan, a girl with the most unbelievably atrocious-sounding cough came and sat right next to me.  The screening was hardly a sell-out and there were plenty of vacant seats she could have chosen where she would have been able to minimise any potential disturbance she might have caused, but instead she opted to park her strep-ridden self at my side and, every two minutes, subject my ear drums to the sounds of the total phlegm orgy happening way down in the depths of her throat.  I put up with it for about ten minutes before I scarpered for one of those vacant seats myself.

Fresh from those two experiences, I suddenly find myself with a renewed appreciation for the "Shush Lady" from the Gracie Films logo.  She lives in a far quainter world, where the only disturbance she has to contend with is the indistinct chattering of her fellow movie theatre patrons, but one has to admire the proficiency with which she can command an entire theatre into silence with a simple shushing.  I salute you, Shush Lady.

Gracie Films was founded in 1986 by producer James L. Brooks and was so named as a tribute to the comedian Gracie Allen.  Their first production, and the first to feature the characteristic "shush" logo, was The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, although naturally that series is forever doomed to wallow in the shadow of the little devils it breast-fed, and nowadays the logo is primarily associated with that Tracey Ullman Show spin-off you've probably heard of.  Through that association alone, the Gracie Films logo has received exposure to kill for and now ranks among the most popular and widely-recognised of television logos.  Other Gracie Films productions to carry the logo include Sibs, Phenom, What About Joan? and The Critic, although odds are heavy that it's thanks to The Simpsons that you know this one.  (We'll be talking about The Critic - a flawed but nevertheless highly underrated series - in a lot more depth in 2017).

Personally I've always had a massive weakness for it.  Even back when the entirety of my Simpsons-viewing experience consisted of the measly six episodes my family had on VHS, this logo stood out as being pretty marvelous.  It's unique, quirky and charming, and on top of that there's something distinctly warm and comforting about its leitmotif.  I don't recall ever getting any freakiness vibes from this one either - unless you happen to have a thing about people appearing in silhouette form, then I don't see why you would detect anything at all sinister here.  The only variation which I could see proving reasonably frightening to some viewers would be the "Treehouse of Horror" variant, below, which includes the sounds of a woman (and presumed imminent murder victim) screaming, followed by a spooky organ version of the Gracie Films theme (over the course of the series, The Simpsons has had a heck of a lot of fun with this logo, and numerous variations have cropped up, my personal favourite being "Homer The Great" (2F09) of Season 6, where Carl's "Shut up!" is grafted onto the usual shushing).  If there's any general scare factor to be had from the logo, at least as it appears in The Simpsons, then it's in the startling contrast between the gentleness of the Gracie Films logo and the blaring, bombastic 20th Century Fox one that follows.

A few particularly observant folks have noted the similarity of the Gracie Films theme to the hook of the 1990 song, "The King of Wishful Thinking" by British pop duo Go West, which became a hit after being featured on the Pretty Woman soundtrack.  The resemblance is apparently so convincing that the Grace Films theme is sometimes incorrectly credited as deriving directly from the Go West song, although as you can see the dates don't quite add up.  Still, once you've made the (seemingly coincidental) connection, it becomes awfully challenging not to have those lyrics running through your head on encountering the logo.


Finally, you should check out the official Gracie Films website.  Not much there but an extended (and interactive!) flash version of the logo, but damn it, how on earth could you pass as pure a delight as that by?

Monday, 28 November 2016

The World's Most Self-Defeating Frasier End Credits Sequence

I've already spoken at great length about what is, to me, the absolute weirdest end credits sequence in the history of Frasier, so let's take a quick look at one which irritates the living snot out of me - that of "The Unnatural" of Season 4.  Here's an example of a closing gag that flounders because a tiny element in the presentation of the sequence manages to trip up the entire punchline.

Broadly, the episode deals with Frasier's anxieties that his son Frederick is on the verge of discovering that his father isn't perfect, but mixed in with all that we also learn of a harrowing incident from Roz's history.  As per Frasier's description: "I do recall a story you told me not long ago, about a young girl living in Wisconsin who wanted desperately for her mother to drive her to Chicago to see Bobby Sherman open a shopping mall.  But her mother was just too busy.  And so what did that little girl do that night? She cried herself to sleep on her little Bobby Sherman pillow."

Roz's childhood Bobby Sherman obsession is the subject of a mere one-off joke within the episode itself, but the end-credits sequence really capitalises upon it by having Frasier appease Roz with an array of Bobby Sherman-themed merchandise.  First he pulls out a Sherman LP, followed by a t-shirt, as all the while Roz becomes ever-more ecstatic.  Finally, Frasier steps out of the studio and returns with none other than Bobby Sherman himself, live and in the flesh.  Bobby, who clearly had no idea what he was getting into, is understandably startled at the sight of Roz, now in full teenybopper mode, and turns to Frasier for assistance, but he's already making a speedy exit from the studio, leaving Bobby at the mercy of the hysterical Roz.  End of sequence.

But Scampy, you say, isn't that actually a really hilarious punchline?  Why on earth are you being so down on it?  And true, I'm sure it seemed absolutely hilarious in rough cut form, but there's a reason why it flat-out doesn't work in the finished episode - namely, because the end credits spoil Bobby Sherman's cameo a good eight seconds before he actually shows up.  If you've just watched the entire episode, you'll know that Bobby Sherman has yet to appear, making it painfully obvious where the joke in-progress is headed.

This is a great example of a situation where an uncredited cameo might have worked wonders.  Perhaps they just weren't confident enough that people would believe that they'd gotten hold of the real Bobby Sherman.  Or maybe they were banking on the assumption that most viewers would be too invested in the sequence itself to even notice silly little things like cast credits.  I can't speak for anyone else, but personally my gaze could never help but wander downward whenever Frasier flashed that up t-shirt, my senses heightened to the fact that those exact same words were positioned right beneath it.  The episode as a whole I'm rather fond of, but dang, the hamfistedness here never fails to make me wince.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Party Animal"

Original air date: 21st July 1993

We're nearing the end of this Family Dog retrospective and I'm left wondering, if "Party Animal" is any indication, if the series was finally starting to find its feet as it entered its twilight.  Certainly, "Party Animal" is one of the stronger instalments in Family Dog's run.  Pacing-wise, it's a huge improvement over both "Call of The Mild" and "Dog Days of Summer" - the story consists of two distinctive halves which are paired up rather arbitrarily (the Binfords host a party and later on the house catches fire for reasons that are barely related), but it comes together convincingly enough as a cohesive whole, with very little filler that doesn't directly compliment either side of the narrative thread.  The tone also feels considerably less mean-spirited than earlier Family Dog episodes - oh sure, the dog still has a pretty shitty time of things and Skip and Bev exhibit some downright shameful behaviour during the climactic crisis, but there's a refreshing lack of intentional malice or outright scorn heaped upon our four-legged protagonist this go-around.  The episode's only really major flaw is in the climax, which despite offering up a much more dramatic third act than the majority of Family Dog instalments, is hampered by muddled and chaotic execution that quickly has the entire affair descending into confusion.

As for the house fire...well, take a wild guess at which family member is responsible for starting it.  Billy's brand of sociopathy treads ever deeper as the series continues, and we can now add arson to his ever-growing list of crimes against nature, humanity and society, along with tormenting his dog and sister and maiming local wildlife.  To be totally fair, Billy doesn't cause the family's house to burn down on purpose, but it is his newfound obsession with playing with matches and burning things inside his wastepaper bin that causes things to get out of hand.  Annoyingly, Billy also gets off scot-free for what must surely be his most horrendously destructive act in all the series (keeping in mind that he did no lasting damage to the bird in "Eye on The Sparrow").  Despite serving as a catalyst for the big dramatic climax, Billy is actually pretty sidelined for much of this instalment - he and Buffy get minimal screen time, which is a blessing because, as per usual, their material only serves to drag the episode down (in addition to setting the house alight, Billy gets a tiresome outburst about Matlock, while Buffy's biggest contribution involves running rampant and flashing her underpants at the party guests).

The episode opens with Skip feeling tetchy because it's the Binfords' turn to host the local block party and he isn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of having so many neighbours whom he secretly despises convening on his property.  The opening sequence is a pretty good one, with Skip declaring the home to be "private sanctum of familial purity", and the camera panning around to show various scenes of repugnance through different windows of the household, including Billy running raucous in his bedroom and Buffy watching some brain cell-killing children's show.  Finally, we pan out to the backyard, where our dog is honing his mauling skills upon a squeaky rubber hedgehog.  Looking up, he notices an ominous stream of black smoke pouring out from Billy's window and backs off into his kennel in horror but, on hearing the sounds of Skip and Billy wailing out in alarm, summons the will to go racing inside the house and ensure that his family is safe.  As it turns out, there isn't much (as of now) in the way of danger.  Billy had been playing with matches and, as Skip is at pains to point out, could easily have burned the place down, but it seems that this particular instance was just a false alarm.  The dog heads back downstairs as Skip lectures Billy on the virtues of common sense, prompting Billy to have that irritating outburst in which he claims to have been framed and tells his dad to alert Matlock.

Downstairs, the dog is delighted to find the coffee table adorned with snacks in preparation for the party and can't resist digging his nose into the chips and bean dip.  Bev has asked Skip to watch the dog, but he's now preoccupied with lighting up the barbecue in order to grill up the cholesterol-free soy-turkey and tahini burgers Bev has selected to serve the guests.  Initially,  this looks like little more than an excuse to get in another grousing from Skip about his wife's food preferences, but the barbecue actually proves crucial later on, in providing the link between the party and the house fire.

The dog, meanwhile, gets carried away in his snack food-pilfering and ends up knocking a bunch of dishes to the floor, prompting Bev to scold Skip for not keeping an eye on him.  Skip is about to banish the dog to the backyard and secure the pet door when he gets diverted by the unwelcome sounds of hour-early guests upon his doorstep.  This throws Bev into disarray as she hasn't changed into her formal wear, so she and Skip bolt upstairs and leave the convening guests to fend for themselves.  Meanwhile, the dog wanders back into the living room and finds himself the centre of adoring attention for a change, as the guests are quite happy to feed him chips and dip for their own amusement.

There are quite a few things going on at the Bindfords' party, so I'm going to break it down into a list of handy bullet points:
  • We're introduced to a few more of the unfortunate neighbours who have to share their local territory with the Binfords and whose lawns Skip apparently encourages his dog to shit on - there's a baby-talking obese couple whose names are never revealed and Bill and Leesha, the first African American characters to appear on the show.  Perhaps we'd have gotten to know these characters a bit better if the series had had more than just two additional episodes to go.
  • The Mahoneys are seen again for the first time since "Enemy Dog".  K-10 also has a small cameo at the start of the episode.
  • Vina, Al's ex, is at the block party, although only her feet are visible.  She gives a shout-out to Al and "his ugly dog Katie."
  • The guests at the party are having some tedious discussion about restaurant cuisine, while the dog scampers around scavenging dropped finger food from the floor.
  • During the conversation, some guy with a voice not unlike Homer Simpson's can be heard saying "Frog in the blender!" without context.
  • At Billy's suggestion, Buffy starts wandering around the party and flashing her underpants at the guests, shouting, "Free show!  Free show!"  It's every bit as inane as it sounds.
  • Meanwhile, Billy is outside beside the barbecue, picking out hot coals with the tongs and cackling menacingly and, uh-oh, that can't be good.  Thankfully, Bev finally gets downstairs at this point and catches him the act.  She also boots Buffy from the party and throws the dog outside, taking care to ensure that the pet door is locked this time.

The dog, however, has been thoroughly enjoying all the free food he's been getting from the guests and isn't so keen on giving up a good thing.  Happily, he's a resourceful little mutt and knows of another way to get back inside the house; namely, by slipping through the fence to the front of the house and using the family's car and basket ball hoop to hoist himself up onto the roof.  He then scrambles his way down through the chimney, although naturally Skip and Bev aren't too amused by the spectacle of a smut-covered dog landing in a crumpled heap upon their fireplace and blowing soot all over their party.  So out the persistent mutt goes yet again.  This particular scene looks suspiciously like your typical Family Dog filler, but establishing that the dog knows his way around the roof actually comes in handy later on.

Fade out, and when we rejoin the Binfords, in the early hours of the morning, we find the party long over, the living room deserted and the family in their respective bedrooms.  We overhear Bev asking Skip if he put out the barbecue and Skip responding that he entrusted that particular job to Billy.  Oh Jesus.  Remember how Billy seemed really, ominously keen on getting that burning coal earlier?  This particular sequence consists of a number of still, lingering shots around the darkened household, including close-ups of the unwashed party dishes, as we move on closer to Billy's bedroom and discover, to absolutely no one's surprise, that the little sociopath has concealed one of those burning coals inside his wastepaper bin.  Despite being in awe at Skip's dumbness, I have to give props to the effectively understated manner in which menace is built-up and sustained throughout this short sequence.

Unsurprisingly, the dog is the first one to detect the burning coming from inside the house and realise that something is terribly wrong.  The smoke alarm goes off, but Skip and Bev mistake it for the alarm clock and just try to sleep through it.  The dog attempts to run into the house and alert the dumb humans, but is thwarted by the lock on the pet door - meaning that, once again he must resort to his nifty little chimney trick.  Meanwhile, Skip finally decides to get up, figuring that it must be morning, but continues to drift in and out of consciousness, all while remaining painfully oblivious to the ominous cloud of thick black smoke floating right above him.  Finally, just as the dog lands on the fireplace with a noisy thud, so too does the penny inside Skip's brain, and by the time the dog makes it to Billy's flame-grilled bedroom, a panic-striken Skip is already attempting to nullify the problem with a defunct extinguisher.  Needless to say, it doesn't go in his favour.

Skip and Bev order the children to get outside immediately, as they attempt, in vain, to get the fire under control.  The dog's first instinct is to go with them, but he finds himself unable to abandon Skip and Bev, who, having failed to extinguish the fire, have turned their attentions instead to gathering up as many material items as they can carry in their hands.  All the poor dog can do in the meantime is stand anxiously by the door, wondering when common sense is going to take hold.  Finally, they look to be prepared to leave when Bev suddenly stops in her tracks and, in what may be her lowest moment in the entire series, refuses to go because she can't bring herself to abandon her carpet.

Her fucking carpet.

As Bev begins clawing at the carpet in desperation, Skip tries to pull her away and talk some sense into her.  "Don't you think I feel the same way about my lazy boy?" he asks, at which point he gets a flash of inspiration and decides to abandon his wife in order to ensure that his beloved chair his saved.  Yeah, I'm well aware that this scene is supposed to be humorous, but dang, these humans really aren't that nice, to their dog OR one another.  That's something I can't repeat often enough.

At this point the firefighters show up and it's here that the sequence unfortunately begins to unravel.  The drama and suspense goes out, and in their place we get a bunch of confusing and chaotic sight gags - notably, a firefighter holding up a sausage on a pair of prongs and looking totally lost in thought while two other firefighters just stand and gawk at him.  Whatever's supposed to be happening there, it's not conveyed very well.  I suppose that the point of all this simply is to show that the firefighters are every bit as incompetent as the Binfords - there's another firefighter who just walks around in random directions, pointing and crying, "Onward!", and alright, he is kind of amusing.  Caught between two highly incompetent groups of humans who are blatantly not going to resolve this predicament any time soon, the dog does everything within his power - namely, he heads back into the house and barks frantically at Skip and Bev in the hope that they'll give up on their material junk and just get out.  Bev seems entirely impervious to such efforts, however, for she insists upon pulling up a strip of the carpet and dragging it along with her.  Skip, who has finally managed to haul his lazy boy outside, hears the dog barking and attempts to go back for him, but is pulled away by one of the firefighters.  Bev makes it outside with the scrap of her precious carpet, but the dog, who has remained in the house far too long just to help these ridiculous humans, now finds himself unable to escape.

The Binfords are huddled together mournfully on their front lawn, watching the firefighters hose down their burning house, when it suddenly appears to dawn on them that they're one family member short - Skip says, "The dog...", as if he's only just given consideration to the poor creature's existence.  This is played up as a sort of awakening moment, with the family suddenly seeing through their foolish materialism and remembering what's really important, but really, it makes no sense because Skip did indeed refer to the dog and attempt to go back for him only a moment ago.  Why is he acting as if it's only just occurred to him now?  This sequence was not terribly well-edited, I think.

Skip attempts (for the second time) to go back inside the house in order to retrieve the trapped dog, but has his path blocked by the chief firefighter, who tells him that it's too dangerous.  The fact that Skip is prepared to put his life on the line for the dog is, in itself, a huge step up from previous episodes where no one seemed to give a toss about the furry little bugger in the slightest, but still, maybe if the adults had been a bit more attentive and hadn't been fussing about their goddamned carpets and lazy boys, they could have ensured that everyone, dog included, was safely out of the house by now.  Bev asks the firefighter if he can send one of his men in for the dog but is refused - the firefighters are prepared to go into burning buildings to rescue children (maybe) but not pets.  If our dog's going to get out of this jam alive, it'll very much come down to his own wits and nothing else.  No change there then.

Fortunately, our dog is an ever-resourceful one.  After an attempt to scramble back up the chimney fails, he makes a desperate bolt toward the stairs and manages to avoid the flames by running up the banister.  As the house begins to crumble to pieces, the dog is able to get up through an opening in the roof and, for the third time this episode, gets out of an undesirable situation by navigating his way across the tiles.  He then leaps off into the bushes and flees, just as the entire house collapses on itself in a giant flaming heap.

The fire finally subsides and, amid the smoking rubble that was formally the Binfords' house, we see the smoke alarm hanging by its wires, making a last dying bleep as its battery life expires, which is a neat touch.  The chief firefighter then lights up a cigarette (erm, irony?) and declares that they were able to keep the fire from spreading.  Skip asks him what might have caused the fire, and is informed that they may never know, much to Billy's relief.  The evil little fucker is going to get off scot-free for destroying his family's house and nearly killing everyone in the process, in other words.  Oh joy.

The dog makes his way across the yard and finds his doghouse still standing and completely unscathed.  A stray flame is blown across and lands right beside it, but he extinguishes it quite casually by digging up a little dirt upon it.  I won't deny it - I absolutely love that particular detail.  It seems only too fitting that the dog should prove not only more competent than the humans in handling fires but that, after all the shit he went through just to protect a family who care more about carpets and lazy boys than they do himself, his house gets to survive the disaster intact.

At this point the firefighters all leave and Billy, for some reason, tries to go with them (for their axe, I suppose).  The family then notice the dog standing in the yard and Skip declares that he must have been out there the entire time.  Wow, I guess that no one really was paying attention earlier.  The only one who's not relieved is Bev, who's too upset about the house to be capable of feeling any positive emotion.  It's a pretty downbeat ending to the scene, with the Binfords huddling together outside what's left of their home, although mainly it just reinforces your dislike of Billy for what he's done to his family.

Fortunately, the Binfords' are able to rebuild their lives to the extent that everything has been completely reset by the end of the episode.  They get an insurance settlement that covers everything, including a new lazy boy (although I thought that Skip rescued his) and a new carpet.  At the end of the episode, the Binfords are holding another party in their newly-rebuilt house - a housewarming this time - and Billy is outside in the yard trying to light the barbecue again.  Fortunately, Bev catches him in the act this time and proceeds to ground him, while the dog sneaks off with his matches and has fun dumping soil upon them.  So yeah, Billy does get a comeuppance of sorts in the end, although it seems ridiculously mild in light of what he actually did.  I know that Billy's supposed to be, what, seven or eight years old, but he's old enough to learn a thing or two about taking responsibility for his actions - in fact, didn't he already take that very lesson in the sparrow episode?

Despite those closing reservations, "Party Animal" is an infinitely better-constructed episode of Family Dog than we're used to, one which adheres far more closely to the principles of Chekhov's gun.  There's very little detail which seems thrown in purely to kill off excess time, and some of the foreshadowing is pretty well done.  The Binfords are as stupid and unpleasant a bunch as ever, of course, but at least one doesn't get the impression from this episode that they actively hate and resent their dog, even if their negligence and shallow materialism leads to him being trapped inside a burning building at one point.  If ever there was an episode to demonstrate definitively that the dog is a superior lifeform in every regard to the humans around him, it's "Party Animal".  Given that, one suspects, this was always intended to be the central underlying "gag" of Family Dog, I have no qualms in declaring "Party Animal", which comes the closest to getting the tone of that gag about right, to be the most successful episode of the series.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The World's Weirdest Frasier End Credits Sequence

As the entire world goes to pieces outside, I'm making a desperate bid to hold onto my sanity by focusing upon the most genial distraction I can possibly call to mind - namely, the most bizarre end credits sequence in the entire history of Frasier.  It's odd, and yet its oddness is of such a low-key variety that it tends to slip beneath most viewers' noses, so allow me to shine some rare spotlight upon this sequence and ruminate on why it's such a curiosity of mine.

Anybody familiar with Frasier will recall that the series always closed off each episode with an additional scene that played during the end credits.  Unlike Friends, which used a similar tactic, these sequences consisted entirely of visual narration and were accompanied by the show's signature ditty, "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs", performed by Kelsey Grammer himself.  Actually, I know a number of people who find the closing credits to Frasier to be inherently weird upon the basis of that song, what with its random and slightly confusing lyrics.  Why does Frasier suddenly reveal a strange fixation with two culinary dishes which isn't even hinted at in the series proper?  I'm not certain if I would have gotten it if not for composer Bruce Miller's explanation in the sleeve notes of the series' official soundtrack ("Tossed Salad & Scrambled Eggs and Other Frasier Favorites") - he was instructed "not to mention psychiatry, crazy people or radio, but to make it germane to the show" and the whole tossed salad and scrambled eggs hook seemed like an appropriately zany metaphor for conveying the chaos of Frasier's day-to-day existence.

Ordinarily, the end credits were a place to give closure to a subplot or to throw in an additional punchline to a gag from earlier on in the episode (an obvious exception being the season finales, which usually consisted of a "Thanks For Calling" sequence that listed all of the celebrities who'd guest starred throughout the season as callers to Frasier's radio show).  Occasionally, you'd get something a bit more non-sequitur, and certainly no more so than in the closing sequence to the episode "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" of Season 5.

"Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" is notable for being the send-off for Martin's long-term girlfriend Sherry Dempsey (Marsha Mason), who happens to be one of the series' most divisive characters - depending on who you ask, she was either a hilarious foil to the Crane boys' snobbery or an unbearably obnoxious character who'd already worn out her welcome by her second appearance.  It also shows an unusually ugly side to Niles, whose sole purpose here is to lead Frasier astray and then take no responsibility for his actions once the damage is done (in fact, this is the closest that Niles comes to being the out-and-out villain of any episode).  The brothers learn from Daphne that Martin is hiding an engagement ring in his underpants drawer and all three of them are a little testy at the prospect of him getting hitched to Sherry, whom none of them have ever gotten along all too swimmingly with.  Niles takes it upon himself to hire a private detective, just to see if there's any dirt to be dug up on Sherry - initially, this is not to Frasier's taste, but he eventually gives in and the brothers discover that Sherry has a long history of failed marriages.  They decide to discreetly impart this information to Martin, but naturally things don't go to plan - it transpires that Martin was already well-aware of Sherry's past and he's pissed off to learn that his boys have been snooping around behind his back.  It also turns out that Martin has decided to break it off with Sherry, because he realises that the two of them have very different ideas about where they'd like the relationship to be headed.  Frasier, misreading the situation, further screws up in his efforts to intervene with the break-up, but by the end of the episode, Martin seems to have forgiven him and the two of them share a nice bonding moment as the story fades out.  Oh, and Eddie barks at a wooden fish during the end credits.  That's where the weirdness comes in.

The weirdness of this sequence rests, primarily, in how overwhelmingly arbitrary it is.  The scenario itself is a fairly banal one (which I suspect is why most viewers don't really tend to notice it at all), and yet it seems so disconnected from anything that's gone before it that I can't help but get a little hung up on what it's doing there.  As with most things that I get particularly or unreasonably hung up on, inevitably I've wound up developing a whole lot of affection for this sequence; if you were to ask me about my favourite end credits Frasier sight gag, I wouldn't hesitate to pick out this one, all because it's such a bewildering oddity.

End credits sequences focusing extensively or exclusively on Eddie actually could be a bit more surreal or experimental than most, but they usually had some clear logical connection to the the events or themes of the preceding story, and frequently contained parallels with Frasier's own most recent predicament.  One of the earliest closing sequences to feature only Eddie, "Beloved Infidel" of Season 1, showed the dog alone in the apartment, and rolling around rampantly on Frasier's couch.  This is a direct continuation of a running gag in which Frasier naively believes that he's trained Eddie to keep off the couch, when in actuality the devious little cur has simply learned to jump off the instant he hears Frasier approaching.  In an episode where Frasier also learns of a disturbing historic incident that forces him to reevaluate his perspective on his parents' marriage, the image of Eddie secretly rolling his parasite-filled hide all over Frasier's luxury furniture also conjures up feelings of contamination and of unpleasant realities threatening to encroach something idealistic and pure - not least, Frasier's assumption that the Eddie menace is containable.  Clearly, Frasier does not live in the world that he's long assumed he does.

For a more surreal example, take "The Show Where Diane Comes Back" of Season 3, which rounds off with a sequence in which Eddie upsets Martin by devouring his socks (actually, Eddie isn't so much "devouring" the socks as lying there and holding them impassively in his jaws - Moose, apparently, was a pretty impassive dog in real life and there are times when it comes through in Eddie).  This tiny snippet of Martin/Eddie interaction doesn't relate directly to anything that happens within the episode itself, but thanks to a small symbolic interjection, in which Eddie is shown in darkness with a thought bubble protruding from his head, reading, "I CAN'T HELP IT.  IT'S WHAT I DO," its inclusion here makes perfect sense.  It is a direct callback to Diane Chambers' play, the pretentiously titled "Rhapsody and Requiem", which used a very similar theatrical device (only sans the need for a thought bubble) for disclosing the inner thoughts and compulsions of its characters.  The emphasis upon the overruling influence of primal desires and instincts also fits in neatly with Frasier's own dilemma throughout much of the episode, as he spends the first half wanting to exact his petty revenge on Diane and the second hopelessly attracted to her, despite knowing full well that the two of them are not a good match.

The closing sequence to "The Impossible Dream" of Season 4 is weirder still, as is befitting for one of the stranger outings in Frasier's run. This is the episode where Frasier grapples with a recurring dream in which he's sharing a bed with fellow radio personality Gil Chesteron, and gradually comes to question if his subconscious is trying to tell him something about his sexuality.  By the end of the episode Frasier appears to have established that the dream doesn't stem from any latent sexual attraction to Gil but seems no more at peace with his subconscious (oh boy, Freud).  The end credits sequence suggests that Eddie too is greatly troubled by his own nighttime visions, which his case involve leaping up and down and being tormented by a plate of perpetually out-of-reach muffins upon the kitchen unit.  Eddie wakes up with a start, runs to the kitchen and starts jumping up and down in the same fashion as his dream self, but finally discovers that there are no muffins in reality and staggers back to the living room in defeat.

Eddie's dream also contains the rather odd detail of the kitchen clock showing that it's 3:11 in the morning - odd, because we are technically supposed to be inside the subconscious of a dog, and I'm not sure why such a detail would make a lick of sense in that context.  The answer to that being that Eddie's dream sequence was a straight-up recycling job, reusing footage from the closing sequence of "Author, Author" of Season 1.  That one also ended upon a much more upbeat note for Eddie, as he actually did make off with one of the muffins.

That fish in "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do", though - what does it have to do with anything that happens in the episode itself?  Actually, "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" is a fairly atypical episode of Frasier in general, in that the focus is almost entirely upon Martin and Sherry's relationship and the Crane brothers' unease with it.  There's no subplot to speak of and Daphne, despite serving as a catalyst in a couple of key scenes, is given precious little to do.  The only scene that stands as a wholly independent gag with no really obvious connection to the main story involves Roz making a faux pas while trying to bluff her way out of a traffic ticket from a female police officer.  Even then, it feels like it was written in purely to give Roz some minimal involvement (although that's often the case for episodes in which don't involve Frasier's radio show - to put things into perspective, in Sherry's debut episode, "Dad Loves Sherry, The Boys Just Whine", Roz appears only at the very start of the episode to discuss the joys of being able to wear sandals again).  I can see why they weren't exactly spoiled for choice for end credits sequence material on this one.  Still, Eddie and that fish?  Where does that image even stem from?

Naturally, it's not quite as random as at first it might seem.  The wooden fish DOES show up within the course of the episode itself, although it's such a minor aspect of the mise-en-scène that you'd have to be particularly observant to notice it all, and even then odds are that you'd have long-forgotten it by the time we've reached the credits.  Myself, I had to go back and purposely look for the fish in order to pinpoint where it appears and attempt to make sense of that ending.  In the second scene, as Martin and Sherry are preparing for a party with some of Sherry's friends, we can see Sherry inserting cheese and olives on cocktail sticks into the wooden fish, which functions as a novelty hors d'oeuvre display.  Nobody ever references the fish, nor does the camera ever focus on it - it's a part of the scenery, nothing more.  There's nothing to suggest that Eddie feels particularly strongly about it either - for the entirety of the scene, he's facing in the opposite direction.

We could take a cue from the previous Eddie-centric endings and look for parallels or symbolism in the scenario that relate to the happenings of the wider episode.  My best suggestion would be that the conflict between Eddie and that fish represents the inevitable incompatibility between Martin and Sherry (Eddie is his dog, after all, and the fish was handled by Sherry and used as a prop at a party aimed primarily at Sherry's social circle - and yes, I'm definitely reaching with this one).  Given that the fish has been stripped of cheese and olives by the end of the episode, perhaps what we're meant to be looking at here is the aftermath of the party (which happens entirely off-screen), but there's nothing else visible in the scene to suggest it.  In the absence of any particularly compelling explanation, this may even be indicative of a deleted scene in which the fish was given slightly more focus; enough to make it suddenly being the centrepiece of the closing credits a bit more justifiable.

Or maybe the joke is that the fish, with its beady yellow eyes, is capable of intimidating even a champion staremaster like Eddie into losing his cool.  It still feels every bit as arbitrary a means of rounding off an episode about Martin and Sherry's break-up, but as an individual piece it suddenly gains a lot more clarity.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Logo Case Study: Misc. Mimsie

MTM Home Video 

Just to prove that not everything is doom and gloom down here at The Spirochaete Trail (and because, god knows, after two consecutive apocalypse-themed entries and another one about a dead cat, I could use a little lift myself), here's an MTM logo featuring Mimsie the kitten in healthier, sprightlier days (albeit posthumously, as Mimsie herself was four years deceased by the time this particular variant appeared).

After years of licensing their productions to other companies to distribute on home video, MTM Enterprises finally established their own home media unit in 1992 (round about the same time that International Family Entertainment were in the process of getting their hands on them) under the moniker of MTM Home Video.  Now whenever you purchased a VHS of Hill Street Blues or Newhart, you were treated to a brand new logo variant where, instead of just one insanely adorable dose of Mimsie mewing, you got two, thanks to the power of rewind technology (thanks to the power of freeze frame technology, you might also be able to pick out a few images of Mimsie for use in creepypastas).  I can see more than a smidgen of freakiness potential in the sudden switch to black and white and the high-pitch backwards squeaking during the rewinding portion of the sequence, but overall it's hard to get too unnerved when it's sandwiched between two heavily saturated slices of pure, unadulterated cuteness such as this.  Really precious.

 Carlton Your Doorman

MTM's only foray into a fully animated production was a one-off half-hour special dedicated to the perpetually off-screen doorman from their 1974 sitcom Rhoda.  To fans of Rhoda it would have been a fairly big deal as it provided the first in-person glimpses (albeit in animated form) of a character who in the series proper was only ever heard talking across an intercom (imagine if Frasier had followed suit and given Maris her own cartoon special after that series wrapped).  As in Rhoda, Carlton's voice was provided by Lorenzo Music, most famous for voicing Garfield in numerous 1980s TV specials and the 1988 series Garfield and Friends.

Carlton Your Doorman aired on CBS on 21st May 1980, picked up a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program and then promptly disappeared off the face of the Earth.  If MTM intended this special as a pilot for a possible primetime animated sitcom then nothing came of it (although it is fascinating to contemplate that an attempt was made to revive the genre long before The Simpsons pulled it off in 1989) and the special has apparently never been re-aired in the US (judging from the "Yorkshire Television" ident in the clip below, however, it evidently received an additional airing in the UK).  Carlton Your Doorman now enjoys something of a legendary status among animation fans, who regard it as a "lost" special (which in this case simply means that anyone who fortuitously happened to get the full special on tape isn't being very forthcoming in uploading it to YouTube).

As of now, the special survives in the form of tiny bits and pieces, including the opening clip below and the custom MTM logo variant, in which Carlton's cat Ringo is seen filling in for Mimsie.  The gag here being that Ringo is everything that Mimsie isn't - he's big, scruffy and violently-tempered, and to make matters worse he won't even meow on cue.  Damn cat indeed.


Side-note: should Carlton Your Doorman ever show up in its entirety, I'll happily review it.  I've been making the same promise about Fox's failed pilot Hollywood Dog (1990) for a while now.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Logo Case Study: Alas, Poor Mimsie

When the series finale of St. Elsewhere, fittingly entitled "The Last One", aired on May 25th 1988, viewers were hit with a double whammy of strange and unsettling surprises.  The first and most infamous of these was that bizarre twist ending involving Tommy Westphall's snowglobe, which gave rise to the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, when it suddenly became fashionable, around the dawn of the new millennium, to speculate that around 90 per cent of US television was nothing more than an idle daydream inside the head of a fictional child.

The nastier and, in my opinion, infinitely more fascinating of these surprises occurred after the story itself had ended, during the closing credits, where somebody had evidently figured that a particularly memorable way of hammering home the finality of that ending would be to kill off Mimsie, the much-beloved MTM kitten.  Hence, we have what may just be one of the most freakish, outrageously morbid end-credits sequences in television history.  Sweet little Mimsie, who'd previously always rounded off an installment of St. Elsewhere by appearing in a surgical mask, was here seen unconscious and hooked up to a bleeping electrocardiogram, while the show's regular closing theme played softly in the backdrop.  Admittedly, that announcer did take the edge off the sequence somewhat, talking over Mimsie's final moments in order to plug Eric Roberts in To Heal A Nation and Late Night With David Letterman, but he had quietened down by the time that distessing flatlining became audible, and stunned viewers watched in silence as Mimsie used up the last of her nine lives.

Actually, if word of mouth is to be believed, this wasn't the first time that Mimsie had met a disturbing end in a series finale.  Short-lived 1970s sitcom Texas Wheelers allegedly concluded with an animated Mimsie stepping out from behind a wagon wheel and being shot dead, although the evidence has yet to make its way to YouTube (in the meantime, I'd be tempted to dismiss it as an urban legend, although this Chicago Tribune article from 1985 seems pretty convinced that it happened).

Established in 1969 by Mary Tyler Moore and then-husband Grant Tinker as the production company for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM Enterprises selected Mimsie (in reality a rescue shelter cat adopted by Moore) as its mascot in a playful nod to the MGM lion.  A winning blend of wryness and sheer adorableness, the logo enjoyed a long and prosperous run over the following three decades, as MTM Enterprises expanded its list of productions/distributions and found ever-more charming ways of tweaking Mimsie's appearance order to personalise it for each show (for Hill Street Blues, Mimsie was decked out in a police cap, for The Steve Allen Show, the cat wore Allen's trademark glasses, etc).  It was a non-stop parade of all-out, irresistible cuteness (that alledged Texas Wheelers ending notwithstanding) so it's no surprise that when that St. Elsewhere closer came, everybody was left completely gobsmacked.  Whose particularly deranged idea was it to kill the little mewing angel?

Of course, the closing to St. Elsewhere didn't actually signal the end of Mimsie's career - her likeness continued to grace variants of the MTM logo well into the 90s, including the MTM Home Video logo that appeared on VHS tapes in 1992, until the company became defunct in 1998 - but Mimsie herself passed away in 1988, soon after that final episode to St. Elsewhere aired (she was 20 years old, which sure as heck isn't a bad age for a cat).  As deeply unsettling a stunt as that final St. Elsewhere variation may have been, there is something strangely poetic about the manner in which, by lingering extensively upon the last moments of waning life in an infirm animal, it encapsulates a sense of time sadly but inevitably running out.  I tend to think of it as less a morbid means of deliberately toying with its viewers' emotions than as a poignant reminder that all things must reach their natural end.  It's a total oddity, even by the standards of weird and disturbing media logos, but it's not without its elegiac merit.

To my understanding, the "flatliner Mimsie" variant isn't featured in re-runs of "The Last One", although some report it showing up on the official VHS release of the episode (if anyone who owns a copy would like to confirm this, it would be very much appreciated).  You can watch it in full without that pesky announcer here:

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A Short Vision (1956)

A Short Vision, the work of Hungarian-born animator Peter Foldes and his British spouse Joan Foldes, may just be the most most celebrated animated film of all-time upon the subject of nuclear apocalypse; it is undoubtedly the most notorious.  Even The Big Snit and When The Wind Blows, for all their merits, can't quite boast that they traumatised an entire generation simultaneously in a precise sitting.  A Short Vision did exactly that, gaining special notoriety when it received its US television debut on the May 27th 1956 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.  Sullivan introduced the film (then broadcast in black and white) as the Foldes' speculation on "what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped."  He advised that its content might be upsetting to younger children, reassuring them that they were "not to be’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated", a statement which I'm sure merely piqued the curiosity of the younger members in his audience.  Sullivan also warned about the grim tone of the film, which proved to be no overstatement - anyone who assumed that "animal population" and "animated" meant that they were about to see a bit of Porky Pig-style capering was in for one hell of a rude awakening.  Although many were inevitably distressed by the film, Sullivan was widely applauded for his audacity in screening it, and the response proved so overwhelming that the short was shown again on the June 10th 1956 broadcast of the show.  This time round, Sullivan was much more forceful in his warning that the film might not be appropriate for younger viewers, here flat-out suggesting that they leave the room while it played.  This article on Conelrad Adjacent provides an astonishingly detailed account of how the film came to be screened on The Ed Sullivan Show and of its subsequent impact.

Sixty years on and A Short Vision has lost none of its potency.  The film, depicting the movements of an unidentified object (ominously referred to only as "it") which appears "unnoticed and uninvited" in the night sky and unleashes all manner of horrifying devastation upon the Earth below, is still shocking, and leaves the viewer with a gut-wrenching sensation which lingers long after its final harrowing moments.  On an aesthetic level it's an absolutely gorgeous film, consisting of numerous striking and richly-detailed images (many of which are entirely static, with animation consisting of simple dissolves), the haunting beauty of its visuals counterbalanced by the ferocious bleakness of its narrative, in which a first-person narrator (voice of James McKechnie) relates his chilling vision of nuclear apocalypse.

As noted in the Conelrad article, Sullivan's synopsis of the film as being about the effects of a dropped atomic bomb upon "the animal population of the world" is a trifle misleading, as the actual content of the Foldes' vision is far broader than that, extending to the total annihilation of ALL life on Earth.  Nevertheless, the terrors of the impeding catastrophe are conveyed most extensively through the reactions of four animals whose nightly routine of eating and avoiding being eaten is interrupted by the threat from above.  Two nocturnal predators - a leopard and an owl - are so overcome with fright at the realisation of what is approaching that they release their prey - a deer and a rat, respectively - and the four of them take cover in mutual fear of something far greater than all of them combined.  It is in these simple, frightened creatures that the viewer attains the bulk of their emotional investment - the film has no use for anthropomorphism, but we have no trouble in empathising with their desperation as they attempt to flee from an approaching object that they intuitively know to be terrible, our sympathies mingled with the horrific understanding that their instinctive impulses will not protect them from a threat of this magnitude.  The leopard, owl, deer and rat signify the innocent victims of warfare, utterly helpless in the face of an impending disaster beyond their control and, indeed, their comprehension, while in the primal conflict between predator and prey, nullified here by the arrival of an external force that poses an equally devastating threat to both, we see echoes of the human conflicts that have presumably given rise the creation of "it", and of the fragility that unites all living beings, no matter what side they stand upon.  The uneasy truce between predator and prey in the face of total annihilation is a reminder that nuclear warfare is an enemy to all; in Sullivan's words, that "in war there is no winner."

By contrast, the humans of A Short Vision appear painfully oblivious to the aerial invader, the majority of them caught off-guard and sleeping soundly in their beds as it passes directly over them.  There is a definite sense here that human apathy or indifference has been a factor in beckoning "it" into being; even the minority of humans who have their eyes wide open to what is about to strike them - the "leaders" and the "wise men" - do so too late, and all of them, whether they have seen it coming or not, are now bound to the same gruesome fate.  In addition to conveying the inertia of a human population who would sooner shut out the threat than react to it at all, the images of sleeping men, women and children relate something of the basic vulnerability of the human body; in their motionless, unconscious state, these figures seem frail and defenceless, and this too arouses our sympathies and our horror.

The vulnerability of the human body is evoked to a more overtly horrific extent in the film's climax when the dreaded explosion finally occurs, giving way to its starkest and most notorious sequence - a close-up of a human face as it slowly disintegrates, the eyeballs liquefied and the layers of skin torn back to reveal the skeletal framework underneath.  A less bloody but equally shocking sequence shows a young woman who is catapulted rapidly through the processes of aging and decay, until she too is stripped down to nothing more than skeletal remains.

Many analyses, the aforementioned Conelrad retrospective and the BFI commentary upon the film included, like to make a point of the fact that, as the film itself technically makes no explicit references to nuclear war or weaponry, the entire notion that "it" signifies an atomic bomb comes down to pure assumption on the viewer's part.  Indeed, there is nothing in the film's dialogue to directly indicate that we are witnessing a nuclear attack (as opposed to the apocalypse in a more general sense, or even an attack from extraterrestrial forces), although the insinuation is certainly present in the mushroom cloud imagery seen during the explosion, and in the implication that humankind could have potentially averted disaster if it had acted more swiftly.  That we never get a clear, close-up look at "it" adds superbly to the menace it exudes; it is simply a dark, distant shape of no particularly discernible form (in the early stages of the film it seen to morph continuously from one shape to another) and it carries a convincingly ominous and hauntingly alien air.  We recognise intuitively (much like those animals) that "it" does not belong in this world, and that its very presence threatens to tear the natural order to shreds.  As animated antagonists go, "it" simply doesn't get enough accolades.

The most devastating moment of A Short Vision occurs at the very end of the film when, following the complete obliteration of life on Earth, we are suddenly teased with the vague possibility of renewal.  A small glimmer of hope appears to have survived in the form of a flame which continues to flicker when everything around it is gone - save "it" itself, that is, which begins to circle the flame and, in one of the film's most surreal moments, is seen to transform into a moth.  At this stage, the "it" suddenly appears a lot less menacing - no longer an indistinct, alien form but a familiar and pathetic little creature that seems oddly compelled toward its own destruction.  "It" flirts with the flame until it too is consumed and, with that, the flame finally loses momentum and peters out, leaving only oblivion in its wake.  It is a hauntingly understated epilogue, coming in after the dramatic spectacle of the world being annihilated before our eyes, illustrating the finality of the devastation and snuffing out any lingering hopes of redemption that the viewer might still have.  In is in this closing void of blackness, and not the images of gruesome bodily horror that precede it, that A Short Vision deals its most withering blow, leaving the viewer with a deadening sense of emptiness and loss, in mourning for a cartoon Earth which seemed so rich, so vivid and, above all, so powerless in the face of its impending destruction.