“Theme from ‘Shaun the Sheep'” – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 12

Album Art

Theme from Shaun the Sheep: Life’s a Treat

TV Sounds Unlimited

A Decade of TV Hits: 2000-2009

Genre: Soundtrack

God bless the Netflix Watch Instantly service. God bless the Roku box. God damn the Netflix Watch Instantly service. God damn the Roku box.

(In no particular order.)

Here I am, in my office. Which is also my home, which means it’s a petri dish for distractions, resting inside an incubator of lost productivity. With multiple computers, a bed, a sofa, a fridge, and every book and movie I own all within a short radius of my Swivel Chair of Journalistic Might, it was a miracle that I ever got anything done even before that particular service and that specific device entered the mix.

Now, Netflix is willing and able to send me just about any movie or TV show I want, mere seconds after it occurs to me that I’d like to see it. And the Roku is ready and waiting to pipe it directly onto the big HDTV in front of the soft, cozy couch. What can I say. Something’s gotta give, dear editors, and I’m sorry to say that it’s the work that I agreed to give you today.

Case in point: my fairly recent discovery of “Shaun the Sheep.” Those of you with exquisite taste will recognize the name. Shaun is the lamb that Wallace and Gromit rescued from their carelessly-efficient automated shearing and knitting machine in 1995’s Oscar-winning animated short, “A Close Shave.” The guys manage to pull him out of there in the nick of time, but not before multiple nicks of skin: the machine shaved him all the way down to the sheepskin.

“We’ll call you ‘Shaun’,” pronounces Wallace.

The first time I saw “A Close Shave,” it was in a theater with a full audience. It was the kind of joke that passes under the radar at first, but which results in a burst of laughter 1.8 seconds later.

(Think about it a sec. You’ll get it.)

Who knows how I learned that Aardman had spun Shaun off into his own series of TV shorts for the BBC? But I soon went from watching the teaser clips on the official website to finding the (inevitable) full-episode bootlegs that have been posted here and there…

(I’m embedding this one only because I’m so awesomely totally completely sure that it’s so completely and totally awesomely a 100% legal post, as far as I know.)

(And if I’m mistaken about that, which I’m not, I can only apologize for the behavior of Becca, my office assistant, who found this video and assured me it was legal and who will be sacked for having made such a terrible, terrible mistake. So if it’s actually illegal, go ahead and tell me about that right away, because she will be fired and she will lose her health coverage despite the fact that her kid was finally scheduled to get his ear reattached next week. I want you to promise me that none of that will stop you from telling me about it if this video violates an Aardman copyright.)

…and from there, I discovered that Netflix has 13 episodes of “Shaun the Sheep” available for instant viewing.

So.

That’s where the rest of my day went.

How have Aardman toons remained so consistently funny? I cringed a little when I first heard about the spinoff. Surely they were pushing their luck. Part of what makes “Wallace and Gromit” wonderful is the fact that we get these epic little movies only once every few years. Was there really Franchise Potential in this bit character?

Oh, boy…yes. Shaun’s farm is a well-planned-out ecosystem for situational comedy. The writers’ first Brilliant Stroke was to play by the same rules that apply to W&G’s world. Shaun and the other animals on the farm are animals. The sheep have sheep roles to play; the pigs play pigs; Bitzer the sheepdog is a dog. They don’t talk and they don’t walk around in human clothes.

(Except for that time when the sheep and Bitzer figured out that they could probably get a huge takeout order from the local pizza place if they could throw together a somewhat convincing Human costume and then present themselves at the counter for the pickup. Hilarity most assuredly ensued.)

I marvel at the craftsmanship of the both the animation and the writing. I wonder just how intricately this show’s world was mapped out beforehand. Or did it all evolve organically as the team worked out story ideas? Shaun’s farm is a rich field for storytelling and as near as I can make out, that’s because of its various factions’ multiple zones of conflict and opportunities for collaboration:

  • The Farmer wants the whole farm to run smoothly and efficiently, while still having enough free time to enjoy his simple hobbies and pleasures. Toward that end, he delegates to Bitzer most of the responsibilities of keeping the flock together and out of trouble. He represents the Dire Consequences that will result if things go badly.
  • Bitzer is responsible for keeping the Farmer happy…or at least, making sure that any messes are addressed before they come to the Farmer’s attention. So he’s often in conflict with the sheep.
  • Shaun is the strongest thinker of all of the sheep. He’s not necessarily their leader, but his obvious skills at abstract thought and his ability to link actions to consequences mean that he’s usually the first of the sheep to sense an opportunity and how to take advantage of it. He’s also the first to see a disaster coming and work out how to avert it. In the first kind of situation, he’s at odds with Bitzer. In the second, he’s at odds with the rest of the flock.
  • The Sheep act as a unit, mostly, and are usually oblivious to anything but their immediate situation.
  • The Pigs are simple, classical agents of Chaos, placed there by mischievous gods to make sure that any smoothly-oiled machine or carefully-considered plan goes haywire. Though they respect and fear the authority of the Farmer, via his assigned deputy, Bitzer.

Look, I’m going somewhere with this. Actually, it’s possible that I should be going to a whiteboard, to diagram all of this out. It’s equally possible that I shouldn’t think so hard about the dynamics between the characters.

What I’m getting at is that I love how the writers have set up a closed, dynamic system in which the roles are never completely fixed. In one story, it’s Shaun and the flock teaming up to put one past Bitzer. In another, it’s Shaun and Bitzer teaming up to prevent the flock from running so far amok that a problem gets completely out of hand and their collective home is placed in jeopardy. Sometimes — as with the pursuit of takeout pizza — Shaun, the flock, and Bitzer are all working together towards a shared goal: get pizza for everybody, without the Farmer finding out about it.

There’s a lesson here for anybody interested in telling a good story. Separating your cast into “good guys” and “bad guys” is an amateur approach. Your real goal is to see them as individuals with distinct goals. In any group, there are going to be those whose goals support each other and those who are going to be in conflict. The story flows from there.

(reads that back)

Damn, I would have made a terrific associate professor. That sounds like sharp, shrewd analysis of a literary construct, while explaining nothing and failing to enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the subject the least tiniest bit. This paper would definitely gotten published and I’d be one step closer to a state of professorial bliss known as “tenure,” a Latin word that roughly translates to “Everybody below my pay grade can just kiss my ***.”

Suffice to say: It’s a funny cartoon. It has animals in it and they do lots of funny stuff. You ought to watch it.

It also has a fab theme song. On top of its melodic strengths and overall catchiness the singer has a recognizable accent that I can cartoonishly emulate, and escalate, in the privacy and solitude of my office. It’s not The Proclaimers singing “500 Miles,” but it’ll do.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be blaming Netflix and Roku. It would appear that I can distract myself from legitimate, prosperous work using as little as one chopstick and a twist-tie from a loaf of bread. I’m like the MacGyver of productivity demolition. I suppose that’s something.

Listen to the Theme From Shaun The Sheep (“Life’s A Treat”) on Amazon MP3.

After spending about a thousand words complaining about how good I am at surrounding myself with distractions, I suppose I shouldn’t encourage you to provide me with more of them. Nonetheless, the above link is tagged with my Amazon Associates code, and that after you click it everything you buy on Amazon will result in my getting a small kickback from every purchase (in the form of Amazon gift credits). Which I’ll spend on more Bright, Shiny Objects.

Well, you’ll know what to do.

(Hey, if I made a fortune with these credits, it’s not inconceivable that I’d use them to buy three electric scooters and a good camcorder. I could destroy one of them in a “Will It Blend?” sort of thing, total the second one trying to replicate a stunt I saw on a “Jackass” marathon on MTV2, post the two videos to YouTube, and still have a third one left to zip around town on. Not that this should influence your decision-making in any way, of course.)

Weekend TV Double-Alert: Peter O’Toole and Bad Piloting

I’m going to suggest that you watch two things on TV this weekend. One of these recommendations is in your best interests and the other one is in mine. Does that sound fair?

Good.

Photo of Peter O'Toole from "The Stunt Man"

Turner Classic Movies is showing Peter O’Toole movies all day today. I’m confident that no further explanation is necessary and that you’ve already broken the news to your 18-year-old daughter that she’ll have to find somebody else to drive her to college this weekend. There isn’t a bad movie in the whole day’s schedule, which is to say: no, they aren’t showing “Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.”

Which is a real movie:

But I’m singling out “The Stunt Man,” which airs at midnight. It’s far and away my favorite Peter O’Toole performance and the movie itself is always a contender for my personal top ten favorite films.

It also presents me with a problem, each and every time I try to get someone to see it: I won’t tell you anything about this movie.

“The Stunt Man” is best seen cold. If I describe the plot, if I describe Peter O’Toole’s character, if I even give you the genre of this movie ahead of time, I think I’ll diminish the your experience. It’s a brilliantly manipulative screenplay. Richard Rush has a keen awareness of how an audience watches a movie.

Read nothing about it. Tune in to TCM just a minute or two before midnight and leave the sound off, just in case Robert Osborne is wandering through his little fake library saying something unhelpful, such as the whole plot of the film.

Portrait of Phil PlaitOnward to the selfish recommendation.

My buddy Phil Plait shot a three-episode pilot for The Discovery Channel and the first show airs Sunday night at 10 PM. “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe” is an astronomy-oriented science show with the usual Discovery Channel spin: “if at all possible, shoot some video of the host in a blast shelter cautiously pushing a very serious-looking button.”

It’s all part of the very laudable goal of making science programming watchable. Real science is a lousy spectator sport. Even the most earth-shattering discoveries usually involve a graph with a spike right in the place where the math predicted it would be. If your mission is to communicate the significance of that spike to a lay audience, you might have to do some literal shattering of the earth. You need to blow some stuff up.

Phil’s science blogging has always been eminently readable and I whenever I finish one of his Bad Astronomy posts, I feel a little less dumb than I was before. Judging from the teaser, his TV show will be just as successful. The pilot episode talks about all the stuff in space that could collide with Earth, and the things we can do to prevent it.

(My suggestion: a series of local referenda banning asteroid strikes in individual communities. Look at Berkeley, California. They ┬áhaven’t been struck by a nuclear warhead even once in the years since they passed a resolution banning them from city limits.)

Watch the show and write your local congressperson.

I do want my friend to succeed, of course. But I’m also aware that if his show gets greenlit for a full-season order, I’ll also be one step closer to getting invited to a Discovery Channel Christmas party. Assuming that his wife can’t make it and he needs a new Plus One.

Wake to Scorsese

Promo photo from "The Apartment" with Shirley McLane and Jack Lemmon.

It disappoints me that the computers that are embedded in common household devices keep getting more and more powerful and yet it’s rare when a new toaster oven does something that surprises and delights you.

Okay, bad example. But you know what I mean. There was a happy accident this morning: I happened to wake up about five minutes before “The Apartment” started on cable. It got me thinking about my cable box. These days a cable box is a real computer with a real OS and a real developers’ kit, with a full network connection and everything.

And yet what does it really do, beyond changing channels and displaying an onscreen programming guide? I’d pay ten bucks for an app that let me tell the box “If there’s a Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon movie starting up between 7 and 10 AM, then turn on the TV, tune it to that channel, display the title of the movie on the screen, and play an alarm clock sound ten minutes before the movie begins.”

Actually, I’d even pay five bucks per month for it as a service. There’s be a whole list of things Worth Waking Me Up For; I’d keep adding stuff to it as I go. Over the years I’ve tried and failed to find a surefire alarm clock. I even wrote an app that wouldn’t turn off the alarm until I keyed in the square root of the number on the screen, to short circuit the “reach over and slap the ‘snooze’ button” gambit but I got around it via the simple expediency of sleeping through the noise.

But would I go back to sleep knowing that I was going to miss “Goodfellas”? The “Two Cathedrals” episode of “West Wing” or a “Reno, 911” marathon? No, no.

Let’s see. We need to refine this a little so that the cable box doesn’t wake me up unless it’s nearly time for me to wake up anyway. I bet the computer could get a good idea of my waking and sleeping hours from the remote activity; during late hours of the day, it can reasonably guess that if the cable box is asleep, then so am I.

So: the “wake me for a good show” window opens six hours after there’s no activity on the cable box. And the window closes at 11, when I’m out of bed anyway.

(Probably out of bed.)

I suspect that this feature would be a big hit with freelancers who make their own daily schedules and college students who never had any intention of attending their 8:30 AM English Lit classes in the first place.

The important thing with ideas like this one is to know when to stop developing it. If the cable box is keeping an eye on my sleep rhythms, all kinds of things are possible…including “Mom” modes in which you try to watch something at 2 AM on a Tuesday and it throws up a curt notice reading “On a school night?

If the thing you’re trying to watch is on Cinemax, it adds the line “…and you should really find yourself a girlfriend.”