Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Really, Really Good Eats.

The cooking show.  At one point in time, it was a standard of television alongside the game show, the soap opera and the sitcom.  It reached a sort of peak in popularity along with the rise of Food Network.   Though, with the advent of YouTube cooking demonstrations, the popularity of the television cooking show started to fade in favor of cooking competition shows. 

Though, of all the cooking shows on TV there was one that I thought stood out just on the virtue of being noticeably, enthusiastically different.  That show was Alton Brown’s Good Eats.

Picture originally from foodnetwork.com
The story of Good Eats’ creation goes that Alton Brown, then a cinematographer by trade, was in a motorcycle accident that left him laid up while he recovered.  During recovery he found himself watching a lot of cooking shows on daytime TV.  Finding himself dissatisfied with the cooking shows he was watching he started to formulate an idea for a different cooking show, even at one point writing down the names “Julia Child”, “Mr. Wizard” and “Monty Python” as examples of things to take inspiration from in his hypothetical new show.  A trip to cooking school and some hard work later, and Good Eats debuted.

But how do we describe what makes Good Eats good?  Well, let’s start with its efficacy as a cooking show.  Most cooking shows focus on a few different dishes arranged over some reasonably arbitrary theme.  Good Eats instead focused on one specific ingredient or dish and worked from there, approaching it with a sort of thoroughness that few other cooking shows managed.  Also, Good Eats tended to focus on certain well-known dishes.  Things like steak, chocolate chip cookies, Caesar salads, omelets, etc.  So, while it wasn’t exactly a simple show for beginners, it was a show that focused on everyday sort of cooking and eating.  In other words, if you wanted to take the most thorough, thoughtful approach to making something like meatloaf or mashed potatoes, Good Eats was a good place to look.  Maybe not every recipe was a winner or appealed to everyone’s tastes, but you had to admire the diligence with which they were presented.

Let’s step beyond the standard cooking show metrics, though.  Because a lot of what makes Good Eats so good and so memorable is about things beyond that.  I think we can break it down into three things: education, comedy and presentation.

The food science element is what a lot of people remember.  I actually find it a bit frustrating because that’s what people will often boil Good Eats or Alton Brown down to: “That food science show” or “that food science guy”.  But I can’t argue that it wasn’t a major part of the show.  It was on Good Eats that a lot of people found out what gluten was, or why popcorn popped or why meat needs a rest after cooking.  The scientific principles were always clearly stated and there were usually creative demonstrations to help viewers visualize them better.  Sometimes, he’d even have food scientist Shirley Corriher appear on the show.  The educational element didn’t end with science though.  Many of food’s historical and cultural elements would also be explored.  For those times, Alton had the help of nutritional anthropologist Debra Duchon.  Good Eats didn’t even like cutting to a commercial break without giving you some extra information, usually flashing some kind of factoid onto the screen right before the ads started.

Now, the part that I think really made Good Eats stand out was its comedy.  The show had a tendency to overflow with comical characters and situations.  What sort of characters and situations?  Well, in terms of characters there were Alton’s perfectionist TV sister Marsha, his evil twin BA, his neighbor Chuck, the Dungeon Master who shows him some of the more brutal cooking equipment he might need, his other equipment specialist “W” (a riff on Q from the James Bond series), Southern cooking specialist Colonel Bob Boathouse, the Mad French Chef, his own real life grandmother Ma Mae and my personal favorites the belching yeast sock puppets (see video below).

As for situations, there’s the time he tried to teach Dracula how to cook with garlic.  Or maybe the green bean casserole episode where he played an ancillary character in Chuck’s reenactment of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  Or the various movie parodies like Jaws (scallops), Mission: Impossible (poaching techniques) or Sweeney Todd (meat pies).  He even had his own Dickensian A Christmas Carol situation where he learned to make some less common holiday fare.

Then there’s just the way the show is presented.  Sure, the combination of comedy and cooking is unique enough.  However, the show was just shot in a different way.  The show employed cameras in cupboards, ovens, refrigerators and all sorts of unconventional places.  I chalk the idea up to Brown’s past in cinematography.  But Good Eats never felt like the typical cooking show where a host on a kitchen set was largely just shot from the same couple of angles.

The end result is what I can only describe as perhaps the geekiest cooking show to ever come on TV.
I’m not sure Alton Brown would appreciate my calling his show “geeky”.  The word hasn’t always been taken in as much stride as it is now.  However, I mean it as a compliment.  It’s reflective of the show’s unabashed willingness to be different.  Also, between the science information and Monty Python-esque gags, I wouldn’t be surprised if Good Eats appealed to a certain stripe of viewer.  And it’s a type of viewer that’s not necessarily known for possessing a lot of everyday, real world skills.  So, if Good Eats stopped someone from surviving on Doritos and pizza delivery, that’s definitely a win.

Now, the show’s been off the air for years, having gone on for about fourteen seasons and winning a few awards in the process.  Alton Brown has hardly been resting on his laurels since then, acting as host for Cutthroat Kitchen, writing a couple of books, creating some online video and headlining a few touring stage shows.  So, why am I writing all this about Good Eats now?  I mean, other than the fact that it’s my favorite cooking show?

Well, fans have been asking him if there’s some way he could bring back Good Eats for years.  Then, one day on his youtube channel he posts this:

Naturally, the fans went wild.  Later, he made a more official announcement at DragonCon:
Only Alton Brown could announce a new cooking show at a sci-fi convention and get a big crowd.
So, yes, Good Eats is getting a sequel series.  Kind of like how Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its Netflix comeback (actually, that’s an oddly fitting show to compare Good Eats too, if for no reason other than the presence of puppets).  From what we know, it’s called Return of the Eats and that’s about it.  But personally, I’ll be glad to see it make a comeback even if it doesn’t last all that long.  It’ll definitely be a nice change from all the cooking competition shows.  I never really cared for cooking competitions (Well, unless they’re in anime or manga form, but that’s another post) .
So, here’s hoping for some sound science, some good ingredients, a few laughs and that old Good Eats magic.  Fingers crossed.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Retro Gamer's Lament.

Guys.  I’m kind of mad and frustrated.  It’s about video games.

You may have heard about the Super NES Classic Edition.  It sold out in record time.  Just like the NES Classic Edition did the year before.  I didn’t try to buy one because I saw it coming and saved myself the effort.  But what I’d like to talk about is the extensive and sometimes ridiculous lengths you sometimes have to go to in order to play older video games.

I’m a bit of a retro gamer myself and I’d like to show you all the various ways I’ve attempted to be able to play retro games.  See picture below.

Crazy, right?  Old hardware and software, after-market consoles, plug-and-play devices, little working collectible arcade cabinets, compilation games and even card reading peripherals.  This doesn’t even show cell phone apps or virtual console downloads.  I’ve tried each of these things and they all have their own significant strengths and flaws.  The plug-and-plays are difficult to store and are limited in what games they carry.  The miniature cabinets and cell phone apps have awkward controls.  The after-market consoles don’t quite get the colors of the visuals right and rely on having working software, which is a problem in itself.  The virtual console downloads are arguably overpriced for a software download of an older game.  And as much as I loved my e-reader and cards back in the Game Boy Advance days, I’ll admit that the whole card scanning gimmick is actually kind of ridiculous.

And that doesn’t even cover emulators and roms.  Emulators are probably most people’s first choice for playing retro games.  An emulator is a program that emulates the workings of a video game console on a computer.  To play games on emulators, you need to upload a game’s rom (read-only memory).  Emulators and roms are big in the retro gaming community.  The reasons being that they’re usable on pretty much any modern PC, facilitate the playing of fairly authentic retro games, are easy to get a hold of and also allow for some flexibility in terms of what control scheme you use.  Some people have even been loading emulators onto small computers called Raspberry Pis in order to hook them up to their TVs.  There is a big problem with emulators and roms, though.  Emulators are great pieces of software, completely above board, and some like MAME (the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) are devised as a means of preserving and archiving gaming’s past for the future.  Roms on the other hand, are usually only attainable by illegally copying copyrighted video games and distributing them.

So, that’s the deal.  Usually the only ways there are to play retro games is to fiddle around with outdated technology, endure ridiculous gimmicks or break the law!  If you’re breaking federal law in order to play Super Mario Bros., there might be something wrong with this system.

You know what I’m waiting for?  The day that the home video game market is like the home video market for movies.  Think about it.  If you want to watch a movie from 20 years ago or more, it’s relatively easy.  Almost every movie or TV show is put on DVD as a matter of course.  There’s also no exclusivity.  Unlike dealing with the Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo video game systems which have their own console exclusives, you can play any DVD on any DVD player.  If you want to watch one of the Spider-Man movies which are produced by Sony, you don’t need a Sony device to do it.  There are very few unnecessary gimmicks or hoops to jump through in order to watch a movie on home video.  The problem is, as my brother (who’s more of a gamer than I am) rather passionately reminded me once, the market for video games just isn’t there yet.  And the truth is that there was a time when home video wasn’t there either.  During the early days of VHS, companies used to sell VHS tapes of movies for around a hundred dollars.  It wasn’t until they started running ads on tapes right before the movies that they started to become affordable (like this Diet Pepsi ad that was on the Top Gun VHS tape).  I  think the video game market will get to that point someday, but whether it’s 20 years away, 50 years away or 100 years away is something that I couldn’t tell you.

But what’s the big deal?  Why is retro gaming important and why do all these retro systems keep selling out?  Well, just respecting the medium’s past is part of it, but I think there’s more to the idea.  I can’t tell you for sure, but I think it may have something to do with the demographics of gamers and how the gaming market is evolving.  On the internet, it’s easy to see the gaming community split into two groups.  There are the hardcore gamers who are really into gaming and love having the newest games and the most up to date technology while investing a lot of time and attention into the hobby.  Then, there are the casual gamers who like mini games and party games and really like smart phone games that they can play on the run.  Basically, they like games but don’t get that invested.  Naturally, this is simplifying everything because nuance is hard to depict on the internet.  I think there’s a middle ground that isn’t getting credit.  A middle ground that I’m probably a part of.  Let’s call it the semi-casual gamer.  In this case, I’m talking about people who grew up with video games, who want video games as an entertainment option but don’t have the time or energy to make it a major daily pursuit.  These are people who can’t imagine not owning a video game console but probably wouldn’t buy all three competing consoles.  These are people who may choose to watch TV or surf the internet before playing a game but are still glad the option is there.  For people like that, retro games are probably pretty important.  Why?  Because retro games are a known entity that they can take advantage of when they do fit gaming into their schedule.  Playing a little bit of Mario, Contra or Street Fighter II is probably a lot more appealing than taking a chance on some new game they don’t know.  It also explains some of the continued popularity of Nintendo among adults.  Nintendo arguably makes games for a primary audience of kids, but they also provide a familiar product that adult gamers can get behind without doing a lot of research or taking a lot of risks.  I’d bet anything the NES Classic Edition and SNES Classic Edition pulled in a lot of these kinds of gamers.  The existence of this gaming demographic also says a lot about how far video gaming has come.  Imagine, video games have become such a major presence in some people’s lives that they’ve always got to be an entertainment option even if they’re not always first choice.

So that’s my deal as a retro gamer.  Too many hoops to jump through and a market that’s taking too long to get to the easy part.  But it will probably get there.
Of course, there’s also part of me that just wishes I could own my own ‘80s arcade complete with big, bulky arcade cabinets.  But that’s another thing entirely.