Pop Culture Bracketology

The wonderfulness that is March Madness is once again upon us, though I will admit that I am just not as invested this year as I usually am. Part of the problem is that my kind-of, sort of alma mater (if one year of graduate studies counts) the University of Connecticut is banned from participating in the NCAA tournament this year due to subpar academic performance. Having been a teaching assistant at the school during my brief tenure for a class that included players from the 1999 National Championship team, let’s just say I am not all that surprised.  Without my team involved, some of the bloom is off the March Madness rose.

I’m also at a disadvantage this year because I have not paid one lick of attention to college basketball this season, so I really have no idea who is good and who isn’t. Even when UConn isn’t facing sanctions I don’t watch nearly as much college ball as I used to; I’m far more invested in football (NCAA and NFL) now than I used to be and I just don’t have the time to keep up. I don’t listen to much sports radio anymore either, so I haven’t even caught cursory discussions of who might be a contender. So when I went to fill out my bracket this year, I was shocked that my nemesis Gonzaga was a #1 seed. How did that happen?

It is helpful that my legitimate alma mater (in that it gave me an actual degree) and current employer, the University at Albany, has made it to the tournament. They are facing Duke, which is not good luck for them, but at least it brings a little excitement to the area. Plus almost everyone hates Duke, so the Great Danes have a lot of people rooting for them to defeat the Blue Devils. I may or may not have convinced my boss that we need to take an extended lunch on Friday so that we all can watch the game.

So I don’t have a ton of confidence in my bracket this year – I just kind of guessed in a lot of places and checked Nate Silvers’ bracket to see who he picked for a few  games that I was really undecided on. There seems to be a lot of parity this year, so perhaps random guessing isn’t the worst strategy in the world.

 

Probably not a winning bracket

Probably not a winning bracket

 

Brackets, however, aren’t just for college basketball. I’ve noticed this year that all sorts of pop culture topics have received the March Madness treatment. It is a fun way to decide things – I’ve working on a bracket system to determine what affectations my friend Dan will assume. This all started with a discussion of pocket watches and culminated in my apparent determination to turn him into Mr. Peanut. So if college basketball just isn’t your thing, but you don’t want to be left out of incessant talk about the status of your bracket, check out these pop culture alternatives:

Fictional Presidents Tournament (No Ticket Sports)

Star Wars Character Tournament (Lucas Films)

Worst Celebrity Style (Go Fug Yourself)

Musical March Madness (MTV)

Tournament of Books (The Morning News)

Greatest Sci-Fi Show (io9)

Martini Madness (Slate)

Favorite Public Radio Show (89.3 KPCC)

March Musical Madness (Boradway.com)

2016 Presidential Candidates (The Fix)

Best TV Duo – nonromantic (Buddy TV)

90s Cartoon Characters (The FW)

Ultimate March Pop Culture, Food and Sports Bracket (Bleacher Report)

Hair Band Madness Tournament  (Culture Brats)

Middle-Earth Madness (The One Ring)

Swear Word Bracket (Deadspin) – outstanding!

Teen Movie Madness (Forever Young Adult)

TV couples (Zimbio)

It Girl Bracket (Nylon)

South Park March Madness (Screen Invasion)

And for the truly meta crowd: Battle of the Brackets (Salon)

And just because I love the show, here’s a Mad Men March Madness supercut – who knew the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were such basketball fans?

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Almost Vacation Edition

Just when I thought that winter might finally be behind us, Mother Nature decided that we needed one last storm (I hope!) to make things all snowy and white. I am not a fan. The only thing making this bearable is the knowledge that in less than a week I will be in Florida with some of my favorite people and watching baseball. The idea of sitting in the sunshine and not having to wear a winter coat make me positively giddy. Plus it has been five dark and lonely months since I last saw my beloved Yankees, which feels like a lifetime. I’m ready for our reunion. But never fear, dear readers – you won’t be without the blog while I’m away. I’ve got some posts ready to go up in my absence. I’m just that dedicated.

So while I dream of warm weather while I scrape ice and snow off my car, here’s your biweekly round up of some of the pop culture stories that you might have missed.

  • Today would have been Mister Rogers’ 85th birthday

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  • Christopher Meloni has been cast in a new pilot from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) based on the book I Suck at Girls.
  • Jimmy Fallon and Selena Gomez performed “Mario Kart Love Song” last night on Late Night:

 

  • I’m not sure that anyone was asking for it, but Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is getting a sequel (my guess is without Jeremy Renner).
  • If you’ve got nothing to do this weekend, MTV will be marathoning old seasons of The Real World. The Real World: Portland will debut on March 27th.
  • Safety Not Guaranteed director has been tapped for Jurassic Park 4. I really enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed – worth checking out on DVD. A sweet and quirky indie.
  • A Walking Dead/Homeland mash-up:

 

  • This dog does indeed resemble Samuel L. Jackson:

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  • The actor who played Captain Peacock on the British comedy Are You Being Served? has passed away.

 

  • The Funny or Die website is venturing into the world of feature films. Their first product is iSteve, a comedic biopic of Steve Jobs and starring Justin Long (which has got to be better than the not intentionally funny Ashton Kutcher version).
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s production company released a cool short film:

 

  • The blog Thumbs and Ammo has replaced all the guns from TV shows and movies with actors giving a thumbs up. The result is surprisingly positive.

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  • Check out this LEGO paper plane folding machine (it took 600 hours to build):

 

  • I didn’t understand a word of this “March Madness explained with Star Wars” video

 

  • You can watch the first three minutes of the new BBC America show Orphan Black online. The show debuts March 30th.
  • Sigh. I really didn’t need to stumble upon this website of pop culture tribute prints.
  • A Good Times movie is being developed. Not so Dyn-o-mite, though I bet J.J. Walker is available.
  • HBO has released a trailer for the second season of Veep:
  • Vampire Weekend has released two new songs: “Step” and “Diane Young.” Their new album Modern Vampires of the City is out May 7th.
  • Listen to a mix of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” and Daft Punk:

 

  • What every home needs – A Breaking Bad terrarium. I’m not kidding – I would put this in my living room.
  • Filming for the third season of the BBC’s Sherlock has begun.  A fourth season is happening as well. More Cumberbatch for everyone!
  • A Shining/Dumb and Dumber mashup:

 

  • Beyoncé has posted a new song on her Tumblr:

 

  • A new red-band trailer for Kick-Ass 2 has been released:

 

  • This is a good dad – a game developer hacked Donkey Kong so his daughter could play the game as a female character that rescues Mario
  • Whoa – Pete Campbell from Mad Men and Rory Gilmore are getting married (well – the actors that play them are, anyway)
  • Watch Usher and the Afghan Whigs perform together at SXSW:

 

  • I can sympathize with Hitler’s reaction in the video I linked to above – I love Google Reader and am very bummed that it will be retired soon. It’s what I use to keep track of all the links that I share with you in these roundups.
  • A new trailer for Despicable Me 2 has been released:

 

  • Cedric the Entertainer is the new host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
  • And finally – The Princess Bride meets Game of Thrones:

Some Thoughts on Bates Motel

Psycho is an iconic film; even if you have never actually watched the Hitchcock classic (though what’s stopping you – go watch it!), you most likely could describe the infamous shower scene and would recognize the musical score used.

 

Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother figure prominently into the psychology of Psycho, but the new A&E drama Bates Motel examines this mother-son bond more closely by showing what the Bates family was like when Norman was a teenager and his mother was very much alive. Well is debatable.

The chronology of Bates Motel is a little confusing; though the television show takes place before the events of the 1960 film Psycho, Bates Motel is set in the modern day. People have cell phones and iPads, yet the motel and the Bates family home have a distinctive vintage feel. I’ll admit that this isn’t exactly the show that I thought I was getting, but after watching the pilot I think that Bates Motel definitely has potential.

The series begins with Norman (Freddie Highmore) discovering his father dead under what appears to be somewhat mysterious circumstances; while Norman is incredibly distraught by this discovery, his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) seems fairly nonplussed about the whole thing. This is the first indication that things in the Bates home are a bit off. Flash forward six months and Norma has used the life insurance check to relocate from Arizona to California. She has purchased a motel and the accompanying residence that have been foreclosed upon in White Pine Bay and hopes that she and her awkward son can start a new life.

It is clear from the first episode that this is a series that is “inspired” by Psycho, but will tell its own stories as well. White Pine Bay may not be the sleepy town that Norma originally thought it was; there are dark secrets hidden in this town and an undercurrent of violence and depravity is simmering just below the surface. The newly named Bates Motel may house more secrets than the transformation of Norman from naïve teenager to cross-dressing serial killer.

What I particularly liked about Bates Motel is that while there are some slight nods to the future that beholds Norman, the show is very deliberate in how the relationship of Norma and Norman develops. There are examples of Norma’s controlling nature, but if you didn’t know who her son would grow up to be nothing seems THAT out of the ordinary. Plenty of people have slightly overbearing parents and don’t wind up hacking a woman up in the shower. Bates Motel is a much more subtle show than American Horror Story; both shows deal with troubled people, but American Horror Story is about as subtle as a heart attack. You immediately know who is good and who is bad and the fun is in watching the insanity play out. Bates Motel has a nuance to it that draws you in. Norma and Norman seem like fairly ordinary people and several times throughout the pilot you feel sympathy for both characters. Bates Motel is more like an onion – there are multiple layers to this relationship between mother and son and everything will not immediately be discovered. The intrigue is in seeing how things went so terribly wrong and the show is wisely going to take its time in doling out information.

The lead actors really make these two characters come to life. It would be easy to play Norman and Norma Bates as completely over the top, but both Farmiga and Highmore give quieter and restrained performances. Farmiga is no surprise – she was nominated for an Oscar for her fine work in Up in the Air and has been excellent in everything that I have seen her in. In some ways, she has the easier of the two roles as Mrs. Bates is something of a blank slate; we don’t know much about her from Psycho, so there is greater creative license. Highmore will be familiar to viewers from his work in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland and he does the role of Norman Bates justice. His accent needs a little work (Highmore is British), but he otherwise makes Norman a sweet and shy boy that you can believe is the early incarnation of the man that Anthony Perkins made so legendary. The two actors play nicely off each other and I look forward to seeing this relationship develop.

My only real concern is the concern that I have with all prequels: can they make the story interesting in and of itself, even if the viewer knows where everything is headed. The problem I find with a lot of prequels is that they seem superfluous; they fill in some blanks, but with the outcome preordained they tend to feel like they are just killing time until reaching the inevitable conclusion that everyone knows is coming. This is especially problematic for a television show that does not have a definitive number of episodes. I think that the strategy and structure set out in the pilot for Bates Motel is promising. By making the show about more than just the mental unraveling of Norman and by proceeding cautiously, the show may prove to be interesting in and of itself rather than just filling in the backstory. I’m curious if they can sustain this, but I like what I’ve seen so far.

Some other thoughts:

  • The show has an impressive TV pedigree – the executive producers are Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights).
  • Speaking of Lost, one of the Pine Bay sheriffs is played by Nestor Carbonell, who Losties will recognize as Richard Alpert.
  • I have to say, it was a nice change of pace for the show to not immediately make the popular kids at the high school into terrible people. I get that high school is lousy for a lot of people, but not everyone is a “mean girl.”
  • Interesting wrinkle in this version of the Psycho universe: Norman has a half-brother that is estranged from their mother. We don’t meet him in the pilot, but he does apparently appear in some episodes.
  • There is a sexual assault in the pilot that isn’t necessarily graphic or gratuitous, but viewer discretion may be advised.
  • Vera Farmiga is the older sister of Taisa Farmiga, who starred in the first and upcoming third season of American Horror Story. The Farmiga sisters obviously are drawn to some creepy stuff.

Though it’s only the first episode, I think that Bates Motel has set the table for what could be an interesting television program. It isn’t exactly the story that I thought that they would be telling – the modern day setting really threw me off – but in the end I think that they are taking this in a more compelling and sustainable direction. Making Norman and Norma Bates fairly likable and relatable people will result in the ultimate breaking point on the horizon being that much more fascinating and powerful.

Bates Motel airs on A&E Monday nights at 10 pm (ET). The pilot is available online and will re-air throughout the week.