Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Netflix Challenge: Fame Costs Edition

Part of the problem with the Netflix Queue Challenge is the way I add things to my queue faster than I can watch them. And when those are long-running TV shows, I'm screwed. My friends at Extra Hot Great (which, by the way, I guested on last week and then forgot to post about here) added an episode of Friday Night Lights to their canon of great TV shows a few weeks ago, and the clips they played backed up the whole "it's not really about football" argument about the show, and convinced me that I should finally check it out.

Um, it's really about football. At least at the beginning.

I have such contempt for the culture being portrayed here that I can't get past it, even though the show clearly has its own mixed feelings about it. I certainly don't think playing football and taking it seriously aren't worthwhile. Nor are fandom or school spirit or hometown pride. But if high school football is the most important thing in the world to these people - and not just the players or the students or the parents but the whole damn town - I find that deeply sad. Why is there a radio talk show dedicated to criticizing hardworking teenagers seemingly 24/7? I understand that this is a real thing in many places, but I don't want to watch it. That even the likable characters are part of this, endorsing it, turns me off completely.

For a little while, I thought that wouldn't matter. I was incredibly impressed with the pilot, especially, believe it or not, with the football game that ends it. In under an hour, they did an amazing job of making me care about these people and understand the stakes for them, and the game itself was staged so that I - who have never watched a football game in my life - was completely wrapped up in and excited by it. That's no small feat. It didn't hurt that since this is old and I live in a pretty pop-culture-saturated world, I had a vague sense that something terrible was going to happen to Jason, which added to the tension, but I think it would've worked anyway.

I thought I was sold, but the next two episodes remained very much about football, and I didn't have the patience to wait around for Coach Taylor's wife and daughter to take on the larger roles I know they'll eventually have. And the way Jason's injury was treated (again, by the town, not the show) further turned me off. So after three episodes I decided I was done.

When I turned off FNL I poked around the instant queue for something else to kill 45 minutes with and found the TV version of Fame, which I'd forgotten was there. I loved this show as a kid, though now I couldn't tell you why. I remember watching it on weekend afternoons in syndication. Was it always in syndication? I didn't see the movie until years later, and while it's now one of my favorites, at the time I remember being annoyed by the actors who weren't the versions of the characters i was used to. Anyway, the pilot is a weird mishmash of rehash from the movie and new setup. It's not a sequel to the film, since it has characters who would have graduated mixed in with new ones, but it skips almost all of the setup for Leroy, Bruno, Coco, et. al., assuming we already know who they are. Much like in the movie, not much happens in the pilot, but it's a decent introduction to the world.

I watched two episodes, and was really surprised by how well it holds up as a TV show. There's a lot of "Oh, the 80s" sighing, but it doesn't suffer from the pacing problems I've come to expect from these things. I mean, it was never a very good show, but it hasn't gotten any worse with age (its or mine). It's exactly how I remember it. (Though having now seen the movie many times, it is interesting that, so far at least, Montgomery appears to no longer be gay.)

I also love how New Yorky it is. Artsy or no, you believe this is a real city public school. Lots of the kids have accents. They behave largely like kids. I feel like today this would all have been sanitized and autotuned away. And even though they shot mostly in LA, exteriors are really NYC, and I love looking at all those 80s buses, and subway stations, and restaurants and theaters that no longer exist. When they started renovating Lincoln Center a couple of years ago, the only thing I felt sentimental about was the replacing of the fountain, entirely because of how they danced around it in the opening credits of this show.

Watching old Fame reminded me of new Fame, the 2009 remake of the original film. It was surprisingly not terrible! I didn't expect much from it, but I like these sorts of movies usually, and the teachers are played by Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth (who never have a scene together, interestingly), Charles Dutton, and Megan Mullally, which was enough of a draw to check it out.

It's not an actual remake (Debbie Allen plays the principal, suggesting that it's more of a sequel…though IMDB says her character has a different name from her original one), but it's surprisingly faithful to the original film. It's set in a fake, run-down public school, instead of the actual current home of the School of the Arts (the exterior is a real school, just not that one, and not the old one either). Although the characters are new, all the broad strokes of the original movie are in place: Coco's brush with porn gets an update, there's a rap producer (instead of a synthesizer genius) studying classical music, and an inner city kid whose family doesn't know he's at PA (now he's an actor/rapper instead of a dancer). Everyone's shifted around but it's all in the right spirit. They even stop everything cold for a rendition of "Out Here On My Own." As everyone should.

The adults are as delightful as promised, especially Bebe, with her withering, dream-crushing looks in ballet class, and Megan as the tough musical theater teacher with a heart of gold. The movie is about the kids, but I'd have been perfectly happy to see an entire film about the teachers.

And of course I'm a total sucker for a big inter-disciplinary graduation number. It's no "I Sing The Body Electric", but I have a weakness for pop songs with string sections, and even moreso for ones with an inexplicable African dance break.


mcm said...

At some point in the last year or two, I watched 1980 Fame followed by new Fame. And while I agree that new wasn't totally sucky or anything, it just felt so... glossy. It didn't feel as much like a public high school. And those kids had WAY too much success, frankly - that particularly didn't feel realistic.

Adam said...

Interesting! It's been a while since I've seen the original, so I'll have to take another look. I guess also knowing the real school, the choice to use an older location stuck out to me as a deliberate attempt to make it look grungier (not that I've been inside Laguardia - it's not so new anymore and it may be plenty grungy!)

Alice said...

I agree with mcm.

I would have liked an update, I think, but I had so many problems with this remake:

The cool older kid they all admired? In the original they stumble on him working as a waiter, while he tries to get his big break. in the remake, he's a tv star.

TWO of the kids leave the school before they graduate to take professional jobs (I think). In the original, none.

And there were no gay kids!! Or at least none that were publicly identified as gay.

I totally agree with Roger Ebert's comments: Why remake Fame if you didn't understand what was so great about the original?

I think I've blocked most of the remake out, but I remember really disliking it.

Especially the "oh my god she's so talented and amazingness" of the Kay Panabaker character. Who we never saw act, except one horribly overacted monologue, and I think she got opening singing bit? Surely a singing major would get that. Doris was in the chorus in the original. Much more realistic.

Alice said...

Huh. I appear to be oddly passionate about the comparison of the Fames. Who knew?

Adam807 said...

Heh. I think most people agreed with you, Alice. Maybe my low expectations at knowing that made me feel better about it.

I think the guy being successful but a jerk (um, slash rapist?) also kind of works...though he was clearly a jerk before he got the gig, so it's not like fame changed him. I WAS also bothered by the kids leaving school. In the second episode of the TV show, there's actually a big deal made about how they're not ALLOWED to audition outside of school (though the faculty knows that everyone does anyway).

I think that dancer from Iowa was meant to be gay. I felt like they cut something from his arc, since, well, he barely had one. But then we were supposed to care about him towards the end.