Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp hits the right balance of high-concept stupid.
Few things are more tedious than over-explaining a bit of goofy comedy in an attempt to analyze how it works and put it in some kind of wider pop-culture context. One of those few things is the self-important “Am I the only one?”-style takedown of something, as if it’s a crisis of cultural degradation just because other people like something that you don’t.
I’m going to do both anyway, since Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is really neat. I don’t just think it’s funnier than the movie, I think it’s a lot smarter and even retroactively makes the movie better. Plus I think it may be the best example so far of how Netflix is really doing stuff that “normal” television can’t.
So yeah, to get it out of the way: I’ve never liked the movie. This weekend is the first time I’ve been able to watch it in full, and it was only thinking of it as preparation for watching the series that I was able to finish it. I liked the general concept behind it. I liked what they were trying to do with a lot of it. Paul Rudd is so innately charismatic that it’s impossible for him not to be entertaining in anything. But every time I’ve tried to watch it in the past, I’ve just gotten bored and frustrated.
To me, it feels like it treats being in on the joke as a valid substitute for actually making jokes. It looks like it’s going to be an absurdist non-parody of 80s summer camp movies, like Airplane! and Top Secret! were for Irwin Allen and World War II movies — where parodying the “source” material isn’t the point so much as using it as a jumping-off point for an absurd gag. But it’s made by people who’ve already seen Airplane! countless times and heard the gags and one-liners repeated incessantly over twenty years, so that even that is over-familiar. As a result, the fact that they’re not making the joke you’d expect becomes part of the joke. Surely this can’t be humorous.
But it does work, sometimes. It’s pretty much the same tone as Childrens Hospital, and that show is occasionally brilliant. The problems are that even at fifteen minutes, the show can feel meandering as it struggles to land a joke; and because it’s so far removed from wanting to parody its source material, there’s not much of anything holding it together. Apply that to a feature-length movie, and the effect is that I really wanted to like it, but it just felt flat. It often seems as if the fact that we all know what’s supposed to happen in this scene makes up for the fact that nothing really does happen.
I enjoyed the hell out of First Day of Camp, though, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d hoped the movie was going to be when I first heard the concept. This article by Andy Greenwald on Grantland covers a lot of what I like about it. He also articulates that preoccupation with being in on the joke, but he calls it “sitcomity” and is a lot more charitable towards it than I am. He might also have explained why the series works for me where the movie didn’t: I’m an unabashed fan of Arrested Development, and maybe that’s just a sign I need to have the high-concept-as-basis-for-lowbrow-humor spelled out for me explicitly.
But whatever reason, the high concept finally works for me. One of the implicit gags in the movie is that a bunch of actors in their mid-to-late 20s were playing teenagers alongside actual teenagers. Which on its own, especially when it’s presented without comment, is kind of funny. But when you’ve got the same actors in their 40s playing even younger versions of those characters, it’s hilarious. And then they take it a few steps farther, when Abby has her first period and becomes a woman, and when Lindsey goes undercover as a teenager at a summer camp even though she’s obviously in her mid 20s. (I actually respect even more that they’ve got Paul Rudd right there, and they still don’t even bother with the “he looks younger than he really is” joke).
Most of the “structure” of the series is built off that basic idea: paying off on jokes they started 15 years ago. Which makes it kind of a masterpiece of comic timing. Stuff that feels like it was probably the result of a random comment after a bong hit in the late 90s is now given an overly elaborate backstory and justification. Stuff that felt like a throwaway gag in the movie, or a desperate attempt to come up with a punchline for a scene, is stretched out and forced into the shape of an actual character arc. Even stuff that would’ve just been fanservice references to the movie (e.g. “Jim Stansel”) gets turned into sub-plot. It actually made me nostalgic for a movie that I didn’t even like all that much.
Plus, it looked like a ton of fun to make. They didn’t just get (as far as I can tell) every adult member of the original cast to come back, but they added what seems to be every single actor working in comedy (and/or Mad Men) today. The movie’s gotten a reputation over the years for being the first film for a lot of people who went on to become super-famous, so “he‘s in this, too?!” becomes itself a sort of call-back. I got the sense from the movie that it might’ve been more fun to make than it was for me to watch, but the series feels like they’re letting me in on the fun.
And the last thing that impressed me was how well it was structured as a series. I read a comment online from someone saying it was basically just a four-hour movie, but I don’t agree. All of the series that I’ve seen on Netflix and other streaming services have been too beholden to either broadcast TV or movies: either they’re structured exactly like a series that was intended to broadcast one episode per week, so binge-watching really does feel like an overload; or they’re structured like super-long movies somewhat arbitrarily broken into hour-long segments. First Day of Camp is the first I’ve seen that actually uses it as a storytelling device instead of just an artifact of distribution. That familiarity with how episodic television works becomes part of why the story’s engaging (which is part of what Greenwald’s “sitcomity.”)
The whole style of the series (and the movie, and every one of David Wain and Michael Showalter’s other projects that I’ve seen) is “punchline-averse.” It often seems as if they think the traditional structure of setup and punchline is such an obvious crutch that they’ll do anything they possibly can to avoid it. Including stretching a scene out for minutes by having the characters draw attention the fact that they’re not delivering a punchline (like with The Falcon’s final scene, or the embarrassed teenager having to stand through a price check on everything except the condoms and lube). It can sometimes feel 1990s-style reactionary: we’ll comment on how tired and overused this thing is, without really putting anything in its place.
But each episode of First Day of Camp has a cliffhanger ending, a cold open, or both. They force the scenes to end on a big moment, and even in something that’s deliberately and self-consciously not meant to be taken at all seriously, it’s exactly what’s needed. For one thing, it just helps the pacing: scenes can still have funny moments piled on top of each other and veering off in different directions, but it doesn’t feel like the whole thing is just meandering while waiting for something hilariously funny to happen. (Plus the pacing is just better overall: possibly my favorite gag in the entire series is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot to a sheet of paper on which someone has written “(PHONE) NUMBER”).
More than that, though, it feels constructive instead of dismissive and reactionary. It acknowledges that you don’t have to be genuinely, deeply invested in the dramatic developments of an intricately-constructed plot, but you can still be curious to know what happens next. And that, plus everything inherent to the concept of making a prequel to something you’ve already seen, meant that I did get invested. How were they going to take this ridiculous concept and pay it off? How would they get rid of this character who clearly wasn’t around by the time of the movie? How would they explain this setup that was directly contradicted later on? It doesn’t have to be meaningful or profound, or even make sense at all, for it to be satisfying to see how all the pieces fit together. It doesn’t have to be High Art, just basic storytelling.
Of course it’s possible for something to be so obsessed with working on an intellectual level that it’s not funny or interesting (see: this blog post). But you can also go the opposite direction, so averse to pretense and protective of being-stupid-for-stupid’s-sake that it just falls apart. For me, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was just smart enough to be hilariously stupid.
A lifelong DC fan tries to make sense of the new Netflix Daredevil series
What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!
Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.
For Mature Audiences
I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.
But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).
But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.
The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.
Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace
Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).
The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.
The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.
The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.
Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.
I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.
When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.
Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.
Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men
And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.
Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.
And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.
But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.
That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.
The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.
There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.
That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.
My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”
But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.
Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.
I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.
I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.
The Seduction of the Innocent
But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.
More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.
That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.
Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.
Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.
I’ve never seen anything combine satire and celebration as brilliantly as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
The best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way its premise is set up with an uplifting viral video theme song that’s abruptly cut short. Or how one of the “mole women” calls Matt Lauer “Bryant” and it’s never commented on. Or how Matt Lauer remarks that in 15 years, Donna Maria never learned English, and her caption says “These bitches never bothered to learn Spanish.” Or how the Today show producers shove the women out into New York City with gift bags, cheerily saying “Thank you, victims!” before slamming the big metal doors shut behind them. Or how Kimmy says “nukular” during her Today show interview, and then during her big Act 3 inspirational speech says she got “tooken” by a cult leader. Or how that inspirational speech is prompted by a rat in a New York trash can. Or how Jane Krakowski’s character has a refrigerator specifically for bottled water, and she casually tosses an unused bottle in the garbage after it’s been offered. Or how Kimmy dresses in the bright clothes of a middle-school-aged girl and it’s contrasted against every single other resident of New York, or how she runs wide-eyed into Saks Fifth Avenue and the only thing she’s chosen to buy is a pair of light-up sneakers.
What I’m saying here is that it’s got the best first episode of anything that I’ve seen in years. It’s like Lost pilot strong in terms of setting the tone of the series and getting me hooked. In fact, its ultimately uplifting message of indomitable spirit in the face of adversity was kind of lost on me, since I just went away thinking that I’ll probably never write a script that good.
I threatened to write a Slate-style think piece about how the opening theme of the show works on multiple levels to perfectly encapsulate the combination of satire and celebration that runs throughout the series. Then the show stole my thunder by making it all explicit over the course of the next few episodes. (Netflix means going from hyped-up first episode excitement to post-season-finale depression in less than two days).
For starters, it’s catchy as hell. I’d thought that it was just a reference to the Gregory Brothers’ viral videos, but was glad to find out that they were essentially referencing themselves. It gives a Gilligan’s Island setup of the premise of the series — four women released into 2014 after being kidnapped and held underground by a post-apocalyptic cult leader — but does it in the way that we hear about horrible stuff in 2014, through viral YouTube remixes of news reports. (“Also, look at these sunglasses I found. Unbreakable.”)
It’s a satire of how we take people’s personal stories of horror and tragedy, and then repackage and commodify them as concern-tainment. Like Titus says later on in the series, it gives people the chance to see all the lurid details of a story, but also lets them feel good about themselves for being concerned and having an opinion. And it requires no effort apart from paying attention just long enough for the media to get fixated on the next story. It’s Ace in the Hole condensed to about 60 seconds.
But it’s not presented as cynical, inert satire; nor as a j’accuse! condemnation. It’s an auto-tuned pop gospel song, a celebration. Of freedom and children getting to enjoy their childhood and dancing dogs in suits and scenes from the musical Daddy’s Boy. And I like how the theme song just says “girls” and “females” and not “women,” not just as a shallow “take back the language of MRAs,” but as an affirmation that the idea of strength is much more powerful than any PC name-wrangling.
And all that stuff is in there because the series has the same sensibility as 30 Rock — smart and confident enough in its own intelligence to be unabashedly absurd without spinning off into irrelevance, and able to combine dark and silly without losing either. Plus, you need to watch with subtitles on to get all the jokes.
Apparently, the series was first pitched to NBC, and they liked it but didn’t know where or when to air it, so it went to Netflix. Even though I would’ve liked to enjoy a full season of hype, running on Netflix was likely the best choice as there’s no feeling of self-censoring going on here. 30 Rock was at its best when it kept the sitcom format as just the barest skeleton for a bizarre storyline or stunt-casting guest appearance, like Paul Reubens as a horribly inbred prince. The equivalents here are Martin Short as a mad plastic surgeon and Nick Kroll as a cultish exercise leader, and they’re still batshit insane but grounded in a theme: the ways women fall into the trap of feeling worthless or unsure of themselves.
Ellie Kemper is amazing as Kimmy Schmidt; she deserves an Emmy for her reaction shots alone. It would’ve been easy for the performance, like the show itself, to settle into a rut of “wide-eyed teenager” or “fish out of water” or “unsinkable Molly Brown,” but she encompasses all of it. Constantly. Her entire first-time-in-New-York sequence is limited to the first five minutes of the first episode, and then afterwards she’s a real character. (Whose entire frame of reference is 1999 teen girl culture and a post-apocalyptic death cult). The 30 Rock style of delivering side jokes is so established now that it can seem formulaic, but when Kimmy answers an unrelated question with “yes, there was weird sex stuff” it’s a jolt that reminds you of the darkness that’s behind every joke.
And speaking of 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski is essentially doing a variation of Jenna Mulroney, but there’s more depth to her character (Mrs. Voorhees, because this series is brilliant) than there was on a network sitcom. The series doesn’t have any interest in bringing Strong Female Characters, but includes women of various states of intelligence, self-destructiveness, and general competence. Carol Kane’s character may be the closest to a stock character that the series has, but her delivery sells it. Tina Fey’s guest appearance as a permed incompetent lawyer is the exact opposite of Liz Lemon. And really, Jane Krakowski never got nearly enough credit for mastering the 30 Rock delivery, which she effortlessly does here without the benefit of Jackie Jorp-Jomp or The Rural Juror.
(The only reason I don’t have more to say about Titus Burgess is that the role seems to have been made specifically for him. It’s impressive to be able to take a character that insufferably self-absorbed and make him sympathetic).
It may be corny to say so, but I think that airing on Netflix instead of broadcast TV was the best thing for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because it feels like it belongs in a new medium. It’s something that could only exist in 2015, a time that Kimmy insists on calling “the future.”
No wait, I got it: the absolute best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the flashback to the bunker when Cyndee was overcome with Hulkamania and Kimmy had to talk her down by pretending to by Macho Man Randy Savage. Oh yeah, brother!
How the Twin Peaks dream sequence brought about an unexpected but inspiring crisis of confidence.
I spent a few thousand words figuring the whole Twin Peaks problem, and that’s without even mentioning the Red Room. I was more interested in the more plot-driven, primetime-soap-opera aspects of it. That was the stuff that I’ve spent years being dismissive of, because I first watched the series in 1990 and could never make sense of it.
Re-watching the series now, in order, including the essential (and long unavailable) pilot episode, has helped me make sense of the series. Or at least, re-evaluate my memory of the series and my assumptions of what it was trying to do. All the bizarre, awkward, and disturbing stuff isn’t just a bunch of stylistic flourishes or weirdness for its own sake, but is there for a reason.
As I’m watching the series with a newfound understanding and appreciation of it, I get to the end of the third episode (helpfully named “Episode 2”). It’s Agent Cooper’s first dream sequence in the Red Room. It’s the most iconic image of Twin Peaks, the first thing that people think of when they hear “Twin Peaks,” even more than the title card, “damn good coffee,” and solitary traffic lights. It’s been parodied and referenced and “re-interpreted” dozens of times over the past 24 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted from it, while of course doing The Man From Another Place’s little dance. It’s revisited multiple times throughout the series, and all of its content is explained over the course of the following episodes as we learn more about Laura Palmer’s murder.
So I revisited this old, familiar scene, and it completely blew my mind. Enough to challenge some of the most basic assumptions I’ve let build up for years. And enough to inspire me to change how I think about creative works, both as an audience member and as an aspiring creator. Here are the two main ones, in Buzzfeed-style list format:
1. Stop being reductive.
Everything that dream sequence establishes for the narrative could’ve been accomplished a lot more quickly and easily without having to hire a designer or teaching a bunch of actors to speak backwards.
And doing it efficiently would’ve robbed pop culture in general — and television in particular — of some of its most indelible images.
In fact, the series did more efficiently deliver all the information from its dream sequence. It was serialized network television in the Dark Times before DVRs, so even something as bizarre as Twin Peaks was obligated to get the audience back up to speed each episode. It’s not as if the series was so enamored of its artistic vision that it ignored its own format.
And I’m not suggesting that there was ever actually the proposal: “Let’s ditch this whole thing and just have Cooper saying, ‘Diane I just had the weirdest dream.'” I think the problem of being reductive is more pervasive and more subtle than that. It happens gradually, often without our even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.
I’ve already got a tendency to treat narrative works as if they were puzzle boxes, or math problems. Break everything down to its basic components, then you’ve figured out what the artist was trying to say. Ax + By + Cz = Fargo. (Or, for that matter, “Twin Peaks is about nostalgia for something that never existed” or “Twin Peaks is Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place.”)
To make matters worse, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was coming off a brief (and mostly unsuccessful) stint as a film and TV major, which just enabled all the worst pick-it-apart tendencies. Sparse sets with ornate furnishings and the shadow of a piece of fabric blowing in the wind? I’ve seen Spellbound, thank you, and I know how movies and TV represent dream interpretation. Here’s what the scene is trying to accomplish artistically.
Plus, the scene seems to beg for interpretation. This is the climactic scene in the episode, and the breakthrough point of a murder investigation. Here’s what all the clues mean to the case. Here’s what the scene is doing narratively, which of course is the whole point of a murder mystery.
But the scene is stunning even to those of us who already know the solution to the mystery, and to those of us who’ve seen some of the works that inspired it. Not everything can or should be boiled down to a plot point or a visual reference. To suggest that there’s a “right answer” is, essentially, reducing artistic communication to telecommunications: the artist assembles a packet of “Important Meaning,” I process it and then acknowledge by blogging, “I get it!”
It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not a sudden insistence that everything be straightforward, non-challenging, and explainable. It’s a gradual process where our obsession with understanding art slowly takes dominance over our ability to just appreciate it. And in my case, at least, it was made worse by several years working to literally reduce stories down to a series of puzzles.
Screw the culture that turned “respect for the reader’s time” into “tl,dr.” Or “accessibility” into “complete lack of challenge.” Interpretation is fine, and even useful, but not if it’s presented as if it’s the single correct solution. And definitely not to the point where it reduces all media into Wikipedia summaries and, even worse, TV Tropes pages. It’s insidious, because it can feel productive, disguising itself as deeper engagement with and appreciation for media. But left unchallenged, it turns simply into the old problem of Cliffs Notes trying to substitute for the real thing.
2. Set a limit for compromises.
One of the best aspects of the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast is that it’s a reminder of how popular Twin Peaks was. I’ve always mis-remembered the show as some obscure cult classic, when in fact “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was as big a pop culture obsession in 1990 as “Who Shot J.R.?” was in 1980. [Ed Note: I’m 43 years old.]
To somebody who’s spent years insisting on a rigid division between “good” and “popular”, it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance. Not just this shit actually aired on primetime network television in the early 90s?! but here’s a weird dwarf in a red suit dancing and talking backwards, and not only was it not immediately canceled, but it became a hit?!
For Twin Peaks, it goes back to that notion of accessibility and awareness of its own format. Murder mysteries are inherently compelling. So are soap operas, and in fact all serialized narratives. It would’ve been easy for successful filmmakers to dismiss a TV soap opera as slumming, just because the standouts up to that point were Dynasty, Dallas, and a bunch of other competent series that never strived for much more than “entertainment.”
Instead, Lynch and Frost made something that didn’t just use its format to make a commentary on its format and its audience, but used the format to make all their bizarre fever dreams accessible to their audience. It’s a brilliant way to take what most people would consider a limitation, and instead turn it into a strength. (Two of my favorite examples in video games: Grim Fandango‘s use of low-poly skeletons against pre-rendered backgrounds, which was a concession to the technical limitations of 3D at the time but has aged better than most contemporary fully 3D games. And the low-poly characters in Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving are an essential part of its artistic design; having “higher fidelity” just wouldn’t be nearly as cool or memorable).
On top of that, I’ve got a deep-seated revulsion to auteur theory that’s so strong, I have a knee-jerk reaction to even innocuous interviews with “creative leads” as being repulsively fetishistic. I’ve experienced what it’s like to work on a project where egos are allowed to run unchecked, a couple of them where my ego was allowed to run unchecked. Plenty of “masterworks” are actually the work of dozens if not hundreds of people, and the people who most vocally defend the notion of the auteur are either the ones who are getting the credit, or aspiring to get all the credit.
Or the ones who are so far removed from the process that it’s a complete mystery to them. I have next to no understanding of how major film production works, so I’m often giving the Coen Brothers credit for Roger Deakins’s or Barry Sonnenfeld’s work (and sometimes, even Roderick Jaynes’s work). It’s pervasive, and it’s dismissive of the value of creative collaboration.
As a result of all of that, I’ve turned accessibility, collaboration, and compromise into a mantra.
Of course, it’s not all or nothing. No doubt they had to make a ton of compromises and concessions, both technical and artistic. And it’s still entirely possible to be so confident in your own vision that you’re completely insufferable. But the first part of knowing where to draw the line is acknowledging that there’s so much leeway that a line even needs to be drawn. That there’s no one right way to do it. That there’s plenty of middle ground between egomania and complete self-censorship.
Even if we’ve never had to deal with it directly, I think most of us are familiar with the idea of horrible feedback. The clueless network executive, the crass and venal marketing team, the vocal critic, the insipid client: it’s so common that it’s become a stereotype.
But I’ve started to believe that the stereotype has backfired, and it’s far more dangerous to set the bar as low as the worst possible example. To believe that anything other than useless feedback is constructive feedback, or that anything less than completely abandoning your “vision” is acceptable compromise. It’s dangerous because it’s a slow decline, a gradual chipping away at integrity — with the constant reassurance that it’s not “that bad” — enough so that what you once would’ve considered unacceptable is now taken as a matter of course, and the demands get more and more absurd.
Eventually, you get to take a step back, and it’s almost as if you’ve become a different person. A long series of gradual, “harmless” compromises have resulted in something that can no longer be called even a collaboration, because there’s no trace left of you. Everything you valued in the first place — the entire reason you decided to do what you do — has been de-emphasized if not outright lost. You’re just left with the question “why am I doing this at all?”
(Purely a hypothetical, of course).
Seeing the Red Room in 2014 was a reminder of the version of me that saw the Red Room in 1990. And inspiration to start un-learning all the stuff I’ve taught myself since then. To get away from the person who’d say what does this mean? or how could you possibly broadcast this on TV today? and get back to the one who just said this is awesome I want to make a living making stuff like this.
A new appreciation of Twin Peaks spins totally out of control into an analysis of The X-Files, my long-standing hatred of the 1990s, and the unsettling realization that the series actually makes sense to me now.
Recently I started watching Twin Peaks again, both because of the announcement of the new Showtime series, and because a couple of my friends have started a Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast. I’ve been realizing that it’s the first time I’ve seen full episodes, in order, since the show originally aired. (And I was a college sophomore).
What hit me first during the rewatch is how wrong I’ve been about the series, for years. I remembered it as being wildly uneven: some of the hands-down best scenes in the history of television, mixed in with a lot of painfully clumsy attempts at comic relief, long stretches of weirdness simply for the sake of weirdness, and a central plot that completely derails once its instigating mystery procedural is solved.
I’ve always thought of it as one my favorite television series, but it wasn’t until now that I appreciated just how good it is. (It probably helps that this is likely the first time I’ve seen it in order, without missing any scenes or episodes, something that was impossible in my distracted-college-student, pre-DVR days). It’s deeper than I thought, with the most obvious themes of the series being echoed and reinforced at every level. And it’s more cohesive than I ever realized: individual scenes and even entire storylines that once seemed superfluous now seem to fit in perfectly with those themes.
It’s not just that I didn’t understand it when I first watched it; I don’t think I could possibly have understood it. Not without seeing everything that came after.
Blue Velvet Meets Peyton Place
Both David Lynch and Mark Frost are quoted (in the same newspaper!) as describing Twin Peaks as “Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place“. Instead of doing any deeper Google detective work to find out which one of them actually said it, I’m going to leave it a mystery to myself. It’s a good reminder that the series was driven by two people, and not just the “typical David Lynch weirdness” that I’d always remembered.
(Incidentally: if you haven’t read Frost’s novels The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, I highly recommend them. Not only are they two of my favorite books, they’re essentially Mark Frost doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen six years before Alan Moore).
The reference to Peyton Place was lost on me at the time, and it still is, since I’ve never seen the series. I’m assuming that it’s mainly just a reference to the format, since Peyton Place was (at least according to Wikipedia) the first primetime soap opera.
But the first thing that jumped out at me, watching the series in 2014, is just how much of Twin Peaks shows that self-awareness of the format. It’s most obvious with Invitation to Love, of course, the soap opera within a soap opera. But that just makes it explicit. It’s an acknowledgement to the audience that they’re perfectly aware that it’s over the top, and they’re doing it that way for a reason. It’s a television series that’s extremely aware that it’s a television series.
Even when it first aired, I got some of the callbacks to earlier television series. I may be too young to get references to Peyton Place, but I did have access to Nick at Nite. So I assumed that Laura Palmer’s identical cousin wasn’t just a reference to soap operas’ fondness for identical twins, but the specifically implausible only-on-TV premise of The Patty Duke Show. And I understood that the fixation on a one-armed man as key witness in a murder investigation was a reference to The Fugitive.
With the casting, I assumed that Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story, and Piper Laurie from tons of stuff, were all meant to evoke the 60s. Basically, they were doing Quentin Tarantino’s schtick of establishing a time period via referential casting, before Tarantino did it.
Now that I’m a step removed from trying to follow the plot and just make sense of everything in general, I can see the “classic soap opera” influences in every scene. The score isn’t just the constant, ominous synthesizer drone I remembered (I spent basically an entire year of college with the tape of the Twin Peaks soundtrack playing on constant loop in my car) but segues into the flowery, melodramatic piano prevalent in soap operas. But in Twin Peaks, it’s not just “prevalent” but “omnipresent”; Donna Hayward and Sarah Palmer in particular are perpetually caught in the throes of melodrama. (Speaking of: I don’t know how much I buy Angelo Badalamenti’s account of composing Laura Palmer’s theme, but that clip is still delightful).
But as a survivor (mostly) of the 1990s, what surprises me the most is that this self-awareness no longer comes across as affected or distancing. Instead, it grounds the series and makes it seem all the more earnest.
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
My formative TV-watching years coincided with the 1980s transitioning into the 1990s. This was the age when entire series were re-purposed at the last minute to be dreams taking place in an earlier TV series or the imagination of an autistic child. So I’m blaming that as the reason I started to value “postmodernism” more than anything else. Being aware of the conventions and limitations of your medium meant you were smarter than the medium; you were actually making a commentary about art instead of just delivering commercial entertainment.
I admit that at the time, I absolutely loved all the winking at the fourth wall in Moonlighting. Now, it’s just insufferable.
The X-Files is often listed as a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, or at least a series that wouldn’t have been possible on network television without Twin Peaks. I was a huge fan of X-Files, and to be clear: I still think that the first three or four seasons are outstanding. But it is absolutely a product of the 1990s. And while it’s aged much better than Moonlighting, for instance, it’s still ultimately a victim of its own self-awareness.
Almost all of my favorite episodes of the series were by Darin Morgan, and they became my favorites mostly because they showed a willingness to break out of the limitations of the format and comment on the format itself. My absolute favorite — and still one of my favorite episodes of any television series — is Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.
The episode still works now, but it’s even clearer what the episode was doing when you consider the context in which it was broadcast. At the time, Fox was aggressively promoting — and even “aggressive” is understating it — a special television event showing actual footage of a genuine alien autopsy! Ads for the special ran constantly during X-Files because, hey, perfect audience for it!
What the executives at Fox didn’t realize (or worse, assumed everyone else was too stupid to realize) is that The X-Files was aimed — at least ideally — at an audience most likely to believe a “real” alien autopsy was bullshit. Jose Chung was largely a response to that. There’s live-TV style video footage of Scully performing an autopsy on the alien, before finding the obvious zipper. There’s an absurd appearance by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men In Black. At the end, excerpts from From Outer Space are read, recasting Scully and Mulder as essentially fan fiction characters of themselves.
The episode does such a good job of playing the comedy straight-faced that it’d be fine simply as satire or parody. But what makes Jose Chung a classic is that it takes the ludicrous deconstruction and spins it into a mission statement for the entire series. It’s an earnest re-assertion of the main themes of the series: skepticism and faith.
For all of its strengths, the series was by no means subtle about its themes: it wasn’t as interested in conspiracy theories, aliens, or monsters-of-the-week, as in the idea that belief in those things had become a new religion. It was stated explicitly, over and over again: Scully’s crisis of faith as a Catholic vs Mulder’s dogmatic “I Want to Believe.” “The Truth is Out There” as a double entendre for the series as both a showcase of the weird and an analysis of the human need for definitive answers to the unanswerable.
The X-Files would go on for several more years, and it would often make another attempt at striking that balance between earnestness and self-awareness. But the 90s won out, and sincerity lost. Later episodes would fail to stand up as anything more than self-parody.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Which isn’t just a long digression about an unrelated TV series; it’s support for my Grand Unified Theory about Pop Culture in the 1990s. Namely, that it was a blight on the entirety of western culture, one that we’re still only just recovering from. It made ironic detachment something that wasn’t just inevitable, but prized and sought after, a sign that we get it. And sincerity became either mawkish and maudlin or insufferably pompous.
It’s the product of a generation that grew up completely saturated with popular media, which meant loving it but also being acutely aware of its cliches and its limitations. We wanted to talk about universal truths and issues of significance like faith, or the trials of coming of age, but didn’t want to get so close to it that we’d come across as too high-minded and pretentious about it.
It seems clear now that Twin Peaks pre-dated that (or at least avoided it). It’s still very much aware that it’s a television series, and spends a lot of time acknowledging its own format. But it doesn’t use it as an ironic defense mechanism or descend into self-parody. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction. Twin Peaks required absolute commitment from everybody involved to go all-in, without fear of looking silly, weird, or incompetent.
There’s not much in the series that’s muted or understated: everything is turned up to full volume. It’s an environment where the bizarre and unsettling are so commonplace that anything becomes possible. Even its most blatant winks at the camera — with Invitation to Love — don’t seem like mockery, but genuine affection. “We found soap operas so fascinating that we decided to make one.” Twin Peaks isn’t numb to any of the things it’s depicting. It feels everything.
(Wild at Heart is basically a feature-length exercise in this. Painfully sincere melodrama stretched as far as it can possibly go without breaking, and then a step farther. It’s an entire movie that goes to 11 and stays there. It’s possibly my favorite David Lynch movie, and I haven’t seen it well over a decade. I’m afraid to watch it again, in case I don’t like it as much as I remember).
One great example from Twin Peaks is a scene in which Leland Palmer, still going through a breakdown after Laura’s murder, shows up at an event at the Great Northern. He hears big band music start playing, which as we’ve already seen, triggers his memories of dancing with Laura as a child. He starts dancing by himself. Catherine Martell joins him, not out of any genuine compassion but to try and keep him from making a scene. When Leland finally breaks down and begins wailing, holding his head in abject misery, Catherine starts imitating him, as if it were part of the dance. Soon all the guests are taking part and laughing. The only one who recognizes the scene as a tragedy is Audrey Horne, who’s watching from a corner. She starts crying and the show cuts to a commercial break.
The dancing would be a corny gag, even if Airplane! hadn’t already done it. But what Twin Peaks does so brilliantly in its best moments is smashing together and subverting tonal opposites.
Since everything is turned up to full volume, it ends up creating something like feedback loops in tone: drama pushed so far that it becomes comedic, or comedy stretched out so far that it becomes tragic or unsettling. It’s kind of funny, in retrospect, to see Roger Ebert get so angry about the similar technique in Blue Velvet. Especially when you consider that Blue Velvet was a feature film marketed as provocative and disturbing, and just a few years later, the same tonal dissonance in Twin Peaks became a surprisingly popular primetime network television series.
It was insightful for Gene Siskel, in that same review of Blue Velvet, to compare it to Hitchcock. It is indeed manipulation, taking advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions of how cinematic storytelling works, and then using those preconceptions “against” them. In The Birds and Psycho, scenes go on longer than they should, the shots cut more quickly than they should, the camera gets closer to the actress than it should. It subconsciously contributes to that feeling of being trapped along with the protagonist. This isn’t right. It’s not just watching something horrible happen to someone else, it’s actually affecting you.
For years, I thought that was the end of it. It’s a clever directorial trick, a stylistic flourish that’s as arch and distancing as anything in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Rewatching Twin Peaks, though, I’ve started to believe it’s still self-aware and manipulative, but anything but arch and distant. It’s so surreal that it becomes “hyper-real.” And when David Lynch shows you these bizarre scenes, it’s the opposite of distancing; he’s actually inviting you to take a peek into the most personal and private thing of all: his dreams.
Just You and I
The genius of it is that it’s a way to elicit extremes of emotion in media that no longer allow for extremes of emotion. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that media works that we seldom feel genuine emotion from it. I’m a sucker for any TV show or movie; when it wants me to cry, I’ll bawl, and when it wants to me be scared, I’ll jump. But there’s always a sense that I’m crying because I’m supposed to be sad here, or I’m scared because the movie is giving me cues that I should be scared now. By breaking down and denying our most basic expectations about how scary scenes or funny scenes are supposed to “work,” Twin Peaks starts to elicit genuine responses instead of conditioned ones.
There’s the genuine pathos of that scene with Leland Palmer, where it turns farce into actual tragedy. As opposed to, for example, Laura Palmer’s funeral: that’s such an indelibly memorable scene from the series, but it’s more iconic than emotional. It’s so weird that it becomes farce.
Or the scene showing Killer Bob’s second murder. I’ve seen the series before, so of course I knew it was going to happen. And by that point in the series, we’ve seen pretty much all of the characters having extreme reactions to the most horrific sights they can imagine. And still, the scene is intensely horrific. Largely because everything in it is wrong. Why is there suddenly a spotlight there? Why does it switch to slow motion seemingly at random? Why is this happening now, when it seems like such a waste of a character? Why haven’t they cut to a commercial yet? How can they show this on network television in 1990? It’s all brutal and reinforces the feeling this shouldn’t be happening.
Or a brilliant scene when Donna meets Maddy in the diner. They formulate a plan to get Laura’s diary. Donna has started experimenting with the idea of being a “bad girl,” so she’s smoking and wearing sunglasses. Maddy’s decided she hates her glasses and breaks them, vowing never to wear them again. What’s brilliant about it is that I remember being frustrated by it in 1990 — I want to hear the plan; why is this scene so slow and stilted and awkward? Watching it now, though, it’s clear that the scene doesn’t care about its murder mystery nearly as much as it cares about its characters. They’ve both been affected by Laura’s murder — Donna tempted by the fact that Laura was more “experienced” than her, Maddy feeling frustrated at living in Laura’s shadow. But they’re so vividly teenagers. (Even though Maddy is supposed to be older, she’s established as kind of a sheltered nerd, a teenager in transition). They’re mired in affectations and insecurities. Almost childishly curious and fascinated by the bizarre: in a non-sequitur, Maddy tells Donna that Leland’s hair turned shock white overnight, and Donna responds simply with a fascinated “Weird.” They’re eager to start having adventures and more interesting, more adult lives.
At least that’s my interpretation. And I think the thing that so frustrated Roger Ebert with Blue Velvet is that when the usual cues are deliberately removed, it can be hard to tell what the actual intent of a scene is.
A great example of that is the scene in which James, Donna, and Maddy are suddenly together in Donna’s house, with microphones, recording a song for some reason. It’s so bewildering that it’s hilarious. Why are they doing this? Why are we seeing it? Why is his voice so high-pitched and weird? And then it’s interrupted when Donna has a fit of jealousy. Is this going to be yet another of Donna and James’s insufferably trite and maudlin romance scenes? Are we supposed to care? Or is it supposed to be funny?
Watching it now, I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” In retrospect, what they’re doing in that scene isn’t even all that weird; when I was a teenager, I occasionally got together with a friend and recorded stupid videos or songs, and we were every bit as sincere and awkward. And the song — once you get over the weirdness of James’s voice and start to appreciate it as “Roy Orbison-like,” — is actually kind of pretty. And the teen love triangle jealousy thing is “real” because when you’re a teenager, everything you feel is real and extreme and the most important thing in the world.
I think the scene is indeed intended to be funny. But it’s not mocking the characters; it’s showing genuine affection for them. It’s funny because it’s charming. They’re so earnest and so sincere about everything that being awkward is an unavoidable side effect.
And it suggests to me that getting hung up on what was the intent is missing the entire point. Your reaction shouldn’t be based on how this scene is supposed to make you feel, but how you genuinely feel. Which in my case, is nostalgic for the time when I was a corny, goofy, awkward teenager.
His Faithful Indian Companion
I mentioned the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast earlier, and I recommend it. It’s a great way to catch some details you might have missed, find out some background details you might not’ve known otherwise, or just participate in that scene was so cool style fandom. But the one topic on which I find myself frequently disagreeing with Jake and Chris is in that whole question of intent.
There’ve been a few cases where they called out a misstep, or an accident, or a quirk of David Lynch’s corny sense of humor, or a product of its being a network television series in 1990. My take is usually that it’s a choice that fits in so well with everything else that it has to be deliberate.
I’m absolutely not saying that Lynch & Frost were flawless, to the degree that Stanley Kubrick obsessives believe every single detail has meaning. (One counter to that is the fact that the series kind of falls apart once the murder is resolved. I’ve seen frequent accounts that Lynch & Frost’s hands were forced by the network, but that ignores the obvious: of course people are going to be impatient at interminable subplots with Andy & Lucy or Ed & Nadine when the question that’s driving the entire series has yet to be answered. How could creators who get audiences to such an uncanny degree still underestimate how much people would be invested in a murder mystery?) But I believe that while they’re not flawless, there’s a ton of stuff in Twin Peaks that was intentional, but I never gave them credit for it.
One example is the character of Deputy Hawk. In 2014, the character seems like a cringe-worthy stereotype from a more ignorant time. But it’s important to remember that in 1990, the character already seemed like a cringe-worthy stereotype, but from a more innocent time.
I think it’s another case of the series being self-aware without self-mockery. The wise but taciturn Native American, second in command to a white hero, with a deep connection to nature that makes him an excellent tracker, is absolutely, unquestionably, a cliched stereotype. Even older than The Magical Black Man. But, I’d point out, so are the beautiful and popular blonde white homecoming queen. The detective with preternatural skills of observation and deduction. The sleazy, cigar-chomping businessman. The ruthless Iron Lady. The kindly and practical country doctor. The ditzy blonde secretary. The donut-loving cop. The buffoonish deputy. The spoiled rich girl and the teenage sexpot. The beautiful, duplicitous Asian temptress. The arrogant young quarterback. The biker bad boy with a sensitive side. The suburban housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The charming psychopath ex-con. The good girl from the perfect American suburban family, and plus she solves mysteries. The widow with a telepathic connection to the prophetic visions of her log.
Okay, not the last one. But the rest are all stock characters.
And when combined with the search for the one-armed man, the identical cousin, Invitation to Love, the various affairs and love triangles, the score’s tendency to veer into The Young and the Restlessness, and the cliffhanger filled season ending, it seems like I’ve got this whole thing completely figured out.
It’s a series of references. A Kill Bill-style pastiche of A Bunch of Stuff From Past Decades That We Love. Then stretched out, twisted, and subverted to be grotesque versions of the elements we recognize. Because it’s supernatural horror. It’s two seasons’ worth of the same theme as the opening scene of Blue Velvet: the horror that lurks beneath pristine, perfect suburban America.
Like I’ve said since 1990: Twin Peaks is a surreal murder mystery told in the format of a primetime soap opera.
Not What They Seem
Except it’s not.
Watching it now, I see that none of my assumptions about the series quite fit. There are too many earnest moments for it to be an ironic deconstruction. There’s too much affection for its characters for it to be a grotesque subversion. There are too many genuinely funny moments for the stilted hijinks of Andy and Lucy to be just comic relief. And the traffic light shows up too often for it to just be some pretentious art school thing.
Instead, I’ve started to believe Twin Peaks was a prime time soap opera that used a murder mystery as its instigating event. The callbacks to television cliches aren’t just self-aware references, but actual nostalgia. And all the stuff that I’d thought was superfluous — the “filler” material between the iconic scenes and the investigation into the murder — now seem to fit perfectly.
The theme of Blue Velvet, of darkness lurking under the facade of normality, definitely runs throughout Twin Peaks. It’s baked right into the premise of murder in a small town. It’s reinforced by all the soap opera subplots of affairs and scandals and love triangles. The show makes it explicit after Laura Palmer’s murder is solved, when a bunch of the investigators meet in the woods to discuss “the evil that men do.” The series then repeats it with its various symbols of duality and “doppelgangers.” Laura had a dark side that ran counter to her public persona. Killer Bob is the Mr. Hyde to the murderer’s Dr. Jekyll. The owls are not what they seem.
And it’s an idea that’s fine, but it feels a little too easy. It’s an idea that’s been repeated so many times that it feels like photocopies of photocopies getting less and less insightful or challenging with each version. Apart from Blue Velvet, I can think of The Stepford Wives, Pleasantville, and American Beauty just off the top of my head. (In order of descending quality). Each of those comes across as a challenge. And frankly, a fairly adolescent, just-got-out-of-film-school challenge. Everything you think you know about perfect, small-town, white America is a lie, and I, the artist, am here to expose it!
That sentiment doesn’t quite fit with Twin Peaks, though, since it’s got a sense of morality that is clear cut and — weird to say in reference to anything about Twin Peaks — even old-fashioned.
This is a universe where pure evil not only exists, it exists in a specific place, out there in the woods. And the Bookhouse Boys believe that they’re honor-bound to keep it at bay, as they have for generations. There’s an element of Tolkien-esque morality to that: good and evil aren’t abstract concepts, evil has an absolute embodiment, and there are men (only men, but still) honor-bound to defeat it.
But there’s as an element of Lovecraft that’s just as powerful, if not more so: the evil is out there, dark and unknowable. It’s right on the outskirts of what we can see, forever threatening to encroach on our feeble attempts at civilization.
I believe that that’s what the stop light represents. Before Twin Peaks, I’d never put any thought into the fact that stop lights cycle constantly, even when there are no cars around. Framing it by itself, in the darkness, on a (presumably) desolate road, makes it seem feeble and impotent. It’s a symbol of civilization, law, and order, but it doesn’t have any real power. We think of it as something that can keep us safe, but that’s just an illusion. It can’t stop anything that doesn’t agree to be stopped. So the light turns red out there in the dark, with no one there to see it, but evil still makes its way into the town.
Which finally leads to my interpretation of the entire series: it’s about our inevitable corruption and loss of innocence, and our nostalgia for a more innocent time that never actually existed.
The most iconic parts of Twin Peaks that I’d remembered over the past two decades turns out to have little to do with that theme. I’d remembered Audrey Horne as the impossibly sexy young woman who dressed like a femme fatale from a noir movie and could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue. I didn’t remember the scenes of her crying over Leland’s grief, or lying in bed praying for her Special Agent to come rescue her. I’d remembered Leland throwing himself onto Laura’s coffin; I didn’t remember his dancing with her to big band music. I’d remembered Donna’s attempts to be Nancy Drew; I didn’t remember her confession to Harold about skinny dipping with a bunch of older boys, or her attempts to be a bad girl. I’d remembered Catherine double-and-triple-crossing everyone; I didn’t remember her begging Pete to help her in memory of the way their relationship used to be. And I could never figure out how Nadine and Big Ed’s story fit in with the murder investigation at all.
It doesn’t. But it’s the most explicit version of that story of regret and nostalgia. It’s a bizarrely tragic story of popular teenagers who each settled and grew into adulthood regretting it. And then after the soap-opera double-whammy of an attempted suicide and a coma, Nadine regresses to her high school years. (And has super strength, because Twin Peaks).
That’s repeated over and over: with Catherine’s plea to Pete, Leland and his Big Band music, Ben and Jerry Horne remembering sitting on a bunk bed as kids and leering at a girl dancing with a flashlight. Dr. Jacoby’s obsessed with Hawaii, with his fake backdrop and fake sounds of surf on a PA system. It’s in Cooper’s fascination with Twin Peaks and its damn good coffee, to the point of telling Diane he plans to buy some property there. And Norma has Shelley as a constant, living reminder of what she used to be: a beautiful girl who got married too young (and to a total asshole).
Which leads to the teenagers. I’d always assumed that Donna and Audrey represented the good girl and bad girl aspects of Laura Palmer, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that Donna, Audrey, and Maddy were all fascinated by Laura’s dark side, not as tragic but as a sign of experience and maturity. Audrey acted out to get attention and simply because she could, but she wasn’t a bad girl. She was a romantic, who still believed she could handle anything that Laura could. Maddy was literally a wide-eyed innocent, but as she became a replacement Laura, she got to experience all the attention and devotion that Laura had. And Donna came from an aggressively perfect family (her sisters recite poetry at dinner parties and play piano like a prodigy), but always lived in Laura’s shadow.
Even Andy and Lucy’s story fits into this interpretation: they’re the most naive and “pure” of any of the show’s adults, to the point of being comical (and annoying). But Lucy gets bored with Andy’s pure-hearted goodness and invents reasons to get annoyed with him, going for an adventurous one-night stand instead.
And Bobby’s an almost entirely unredeemable asshole, but the show still portrays him as a stupid kid way in over his head as opposed to purely evil. He’s playing grown up, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he doesn’t appreciate how serious it is. His father categorizes it as normal teenage rebellion, and can still bring Bobby to tears by describing a dream in which they get along and respect each other.
It’s presented as a tragedy: while the adults are pining for something perfect that they feel like they used to have, all the teenagers are desperate to grow up. For most of the murder investigation (until we find out the horror of what actually happened), the story keeps reminding us that Laura Palmer wasn’t an “innocent.” To some degree, she went looking for trouble. The other kids knew that she was on drugs, but none of them seemed particularly scandalized by it. They treat it more like it was just a natural thing, the kind of experiences people have when they grow up.
It’s not just that there’s an evil presence in the woods, threatening to seep into the town and corrupt the children. The children are practically flinging themselves at it. And as illustrated by Shelley making the same bad choices that Norma did, it’s inevitable, and it’s cyclical.
The Man From Another Place
And, ultimately, it’s not real. That’s where the self-awareness of the television format comes back in, along with what I believe is David Lynch’s “earnest surreality.” The series is constantly reminding us that none of this is real. It’s bizarre, dreamlike, imaginary. Twin Peaks isn’t some magical village in the woods, untouched by time and uncorrupted by the outside world. It simply can’t exist.
Real cops don’t actually eat that many doughnuts or have dozens upon dozens of them perfectly spread out every morning. Real biker bars (I’m assuming) don’t have all the bikers sitting politely at tables or demurely dancing to slow, breathy Julee Cruise songs. Real towns don’t have so many secret passages and compartments. Real life doesn’t perfectly echo a televised soap opera. The podcast brought up a great example of how the show constantly blurs the line between diegetic music and background music. It often seems to use the standard conventions of television and then use them to draw attention to its own artificiality.
Very few of the performances — maybe Doctor Hayward? — are anything resembling “naturalistic.” Some of them are understated but still not “real.” Sheriff Truman is 100% the Old West Lawman, and Norma is the long-suffering soap opera heroine, a constant monotone of regret and perseverance.
And then, obviously, there’s the “everything else” of Twin Peaks, the relentless weirdness the series is known for. (It was popular enough at the time to generate several parodies, but it was clear at the time that people didn’t understand it enough to even parody it. I remember one in particular that ended with the town sign, and a gorilla standing in front of it holding a bouquet of balloons. As if that would even register on the Twin Peaks weirdness scale). Even when Lynch wasn’t aggressively Lynching it up, the show was developing its own language of oddly-paced scenes and non-sequitur insert shots. Why show the waterfall in slow motion? What does the traffic light mean? What are the owls supposed to be, anyway? Is this important? Are these clues? What does any of this mean?
I already said that I don’t believe that this artificiality is some exercise in postmodern deconstruction, or some distancing attempt to make it clear they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t believe that it’s mocking its own characters or the viewer. And I also don’t believe that it’s some kind of satire or indictment, an accusation that everything we value is built on a lie, or that humans are all invariably duplicitous, or that television is nothing more than vacuous entertainment, or any of the other Statements on the Human Condition that Angry Film Students make by subverting traditional entertainment. So what’s left?
I say that it’s ultimately optimistic. Or, if optimistic is too strong, then at least non-judgmental. It’s saying that Twin Peaks isn’t a real place, but not in the sense that it’s fake, but in the sense that it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s like the place that Major Briggs describes to Bobby when he’s talking about his vision: it’s not foolish to describe it, but it would be foolish to believe that you could actually go there.
So Twin Peaks as an idyllic small town (“where a yellow light still means slow down”) untouched by the outside world can’t exist. Invitation to Love as a world of intrigue and drama we can safely watch from behind the safety of a TV screen can’t exist. The perfect, beautiful, generous prom queen universally loved by everyone can’t exist. And teenagers as pure, innocent creatures with limitless potential can’t exist. At least, not for long.
That in itself isn’t a tragedy. But we still treat it as if it were a tragedy, even though it’s inevitable. We tend to assume that innocence and purity are the same thing as “good,” but they’re not. Becoming experienced doesn’t make us evil or corrupt. We still have limitless potential for good, even after we’re no longer innocent. And it’s not just that it’s foolish to strive for something we can never have; it can be harmful. Laura Palmer was held up by so many people as a symbol of perfection that nobody tried to intervene and help her.
To bring the “golden age of television” references back in: for at least as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a persistent conservative sentiment of “pernicious nostalgia.” It says that everything was better back in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best all the way up to The Brady Bunch. The problem with that is two-fold: it’s not just foolish to pine for things that were never actually real, but things demonstrably weren’t better back then. I think that there’s some element of commentary on that, however subtle, in Twin Peaks‘s format as a melodramatic soap opera with callbacks to classic TV.
Incidentally: it’s probably too much of a retroactive re-interpretation to claim that it was completely intentional, but this also explains and helps exonerate the show’s shaky handling of race. In Twin Peaks, as well as Twin Peaks, the only non-whites are Deputy Hawk, a sexy but naive Chinese femme fatale and her cohorts, and then the bizarre inclusion of Mr. Tojamura. As the Psych parody/homage pointed out: there are absolutely no black people. Even the “exotic” foreigners who are so significant to the Ghostwood subplot are all Scandavian, as white as can be. The show was definitely aware of it, since Lucy’s sister mentions to Hawk her guilt over white people’s treatment of Native Americans (to which Hawk responds “some of my best friends are white people.”) So maybe it was a constant unspoken reminder that the “good old days” of television were in reality only good to a select few, and that this perfect little small town was never really perfect; it was whitewashed.
The character of Albert Rosenfield is brought into Twin Peaks (and Twin Peaks) as The Outsider, and we in the audience hate him for it. He’s abrasive, insulting, and abusive. He’s dismissive of this podunk town that Agent Cooper has inexplicably fallen in love with. He insensitively complains that the yokels’ insistence on tradition is getting in the way of finding a murderer. He says they’re insular and backwards. He gets punched, and we cheer it, because we hate him.
Several episodes later, Truman calls him on it again, threatening to punch him again for insulting the town and the people in it. Albert gives a surprising response, saying “while I’ll admit to a certain cynicism,” that “my concerns are global.” He explains his commitment to non-violence and non-aggression, and he says that it comes from a place of love. “I love you, Sheriff Truman.”
When I saw this scene at first, I assumed that it was just another bizarre one-off gag. Now, I’m wondering if it was something of a mission statement for the entire series.
I’ve already seen bunches of comments online that the point of the sketch is to make fun of socially awkward creepy guys who come on too strong. Anybody who’s spent any time in any geek-oriented field like comics or video games or physical games or existing as a human being is already familiar with the myth of the “Nice Guy,” the hopeless romantic whose shyness dooms him to a lifetime of unrequited love. What makes the sketch so on-point is that it shows how, even when we’re acknowledging it as a problem, we still concentrate on how it affects the guy. It’s just one more thing that women are expected to just deal with.
Believe me, I’m well aware how insufferable it is when somebody on the internet tries to explain a joke. But I’ve spent the last couple of days watching clips from Inside Amy Schumer, and realizing that they’re not just funny, but actually kind of brilliant. But I’d never bothered to watch it, not because I wasn’t aware of it, but because I thought I already knew exactly what it was.
The creepiest realization is that the reason I’d always dismissed it is exactly the kind of thing the show frequently makes fun of.
Red Bull and Slim Jims
I’m about to get to my mea culpa for being a Bad Progressive, but I’m not letting Comedy Central completely off the hook. They’ve done a lousy job of promoting the show. Not in terms of exposure — there’s been no shortage of promos for the show, and Schumer herself has been inserted into what seems like every single one of their Comedy Central Roasts and stand-up specials.
But the promos have made the show look essentially like Ms. Tosh.0. She makes a raunchy joke and then does a look how naughty I am! grin. I’d heard a mention of “feminism” here and there, but it looked like nothing more than another example of the vapid “women can make jokes about sex too and that’s empowerment!” flavor.
From the bits of her comedy routine I’d seen, I assumed I had that all figured out as well. I thought it was all just the surprise of seeing raunchy jokes coming from someone you wouldn’t expect, kind of like a female Bob Saget. (She even has a gag about finally having sex with her high school sweetheart that’s a lot like Saget’s joke about finally marrying his girlfriend of nine years). She’s a party girl, but she’s all edgy! And then the twist was her character of a ridiculously clueless, self-absorbed, over-entitled white woman… so kind of like a blonde, gentile, Sarah Silverman. Nothing wrong with it, really, I just felt like I’d seen it before.
Inside Amy Schumer has a sketch specifically about the series’s own marketing. A group of guys in Comedy Central’s target demographic are being asked about the content of the show and the ratio of sketches to interview segments, and all their responses are about Schumer’s appearance and whether or not they’d bang her. At the end, they’re rewarded with Slim Jims and Red Bulls, and Schumer considers it a victory because a couple of the guys said they would bang her.
It’s not exactly subtle. So it’s a little creepy to realize I’d essentially done the same thing. I’m not in the “would bang her” camp for obvious reasons (obviously, she’d need to have at least a 10% better dumper), but I still was basically dismissing Schumer based on her appearance. I’d thought that she was too pretty to be saying anything all that complex.
Liam Neesons Though
I can’t even use the excuse that my time is valuable or anything; I’ve seen entire episodes of Workaholics and Tosh.0. And they’re every bit as much the shallow, predictable “outrageous” comedy you’d expect. I’m wondering if that’s part of their (assumed) popularity, even: they’re easy to watch because they don’t take any effort. There’s nothing challenging about them.
But a lady-oriented sketch comedy show with a transgressive feminist message has to be didactic, though. You’re laughing, but really you’re learning about yourself, and life, and cat massage.
When Key & Peele was first announced, I wasn’t interested in that, either, for much the same reason. I assumed that it wasn’t “for” me. Even if I didn’t end up feeling like that one awkward white guy on stage at Showtime at the Apollo, I’d still feel like I was watching Chappelle’s Show. I’d be on the outside looking in. Sure, there was nothing telling me I couldn’t watch, but the show wasn’t really going out of its way to include me.
Which turned out to be total bullshit, obviously. Smart comedians can make their material relevant and universal. Key & Peele start from being movie nerds more than anything else — something I can totally relate to — and pull in satire and comedy about race and gender politics and never make it feel inaccessible, preachy, or alienating. They’re almost always more absurd than message-oriented, and it helped that Jordan Peele’s impression of Obama, plus their goofy East-West College Bowl video going viral, gave everyone an “in.”
That’s a message in itself, really. Take that mild hesitation and unease over “am I going to be able to enjoy this show without worrying whether I’m in the target audience?”, multiply it by every other show on every other television network, and then keep trying to make an argument that asking for more diversity in the media is unnecessary and the equivalent of introducing quotas.
All of that makes that Newsroom parody sketch the safest way to introduce people to Inside Amy Schumer. Mostly it’s a pitch-perfect parody of an Aaron Sorkin series, with the one line that delivers the real “voice” of the series: “and I realized: A woman’s life is nothing unless she’s making a great man greater.” Then there are jokes about finger-banging and a short bus, to make sure there’s something for everyone.
Tell Me What All My Remotes Do?
It’s not the best one, though. This sketch about sexting (after the street interview section) is so good; just about every second and every detail is brilliant, from the emoji to the romantic music to having it start and end with her eating plain spaghetti out of a colander.
Even when the premise of a sketch is relatively straightforward, it’s still smarter than it needs to be. A sketch where Amy negotiates over herpes with God is an extended riff on her Clueless Party Girl character, but it’s filled with little bits of brilliance. In particular, Paul Giamatti’s “I have got to stop making so many white girls,” and the completely unexplained older man putting his hand on the shoulder of Amy’s sister.
The “Hello, M’Lady” sketch is brilliant for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the way the friend answers “Is that your boyfriend?” with “Fuck you, no,” without skipping a beat. The most brilliant aspect of it is showing that even “look at the poor pathetic losers” is giving more sympathy to the guys than to the women who have to deal with them. Romantic comedies teach us how unrequited love is so romantic and how you should just keep at it guys, and you’ll eventually win her over. What the woman actually wants? Irrelevant.
Extra double-plus brilliant is presenting it as a combination of dating app, Angie’s List, and Turbo Tax. First the app lists all the aspects of the woman that only the guy can recognize, and then it lets ladies take advantage of these “human hobbits,” ungratefully using them for things like helping a boyfriend move, or getting a free iPhone. That’s exactly how a lot of these guys think: self-obsessed while telling themselves they’re being selfless, and absolutely convinced that women exist to take advantage of them. It shows that this “harmless” passive-aggression comes from exactly the same place as outright misogynist aggression: the belief that women have something I want, and they’re keeping it from me. Even when “nice guys” convince themselves that it’s noble because it’s about romance and chivalry instead of sex, that’s bullshit because it’s really about something just as crass and base: power.
Meanwhile, the actual, not-imaginary women are left in the same place as always: powerless. “You can’t win.” And “it’s inevitable.” Just another chore to deal with because some guy decided to make you feel guilty.
That’s already a lot packed into one sketch, and then there’s the punchline that carries throughout the whole series: “Fuck it.” She’s not a victim. As long as she’s stuck with it, why not have fun with it? Ultimately it’s a comedy show, not a message show, and the savvy part is realizing they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Not Really JK
When somebody’s entire public persona is a character, it can be hard to tell what’s sincere and what’s part of the “satire.” I think it’s a lot braver to trust the audience enough — or more accurately, not be so hung up on the audience — to feel that you don’t have to draw the line for them. Male comedians don’t have to stress out about telling too many jokes about drinking or about sex, and they don’t have to keep winking at the audience to let you know they’re not really that racist, or they’re just kidding about being so self-absorbed.
There’s something implicit in Schumer’s comedy that turns every criticism into a kind of commentary. Anything you might be thinking about or saying about her, what is it really saying about you?
For one thing, she’s not explicitly playing a character; she’s just “Amy.” She’s not making the best life decisions, but she’s also not the one getting hung up on a reality dating show where the “prize” is a dude choosing among a pack of women to join him in the love tub. She’s the only one who’s getting what she wants, and what she wants right now are vodka and some curly fries.
The clincher is when the bachelor takes off Tiffany’s dress while creepily whispering “Congratulations.” When you see Amy riding off in a limo finally getting her curly fries and then leaning out the door to throw up, you’ve got to wonder who really is the “winner.”
And then you look at the YouTube comments calling her fat, or calling her a bitch, or making some sexual comment, and something magical happens: they’re rendered even more irrelevant than YouTube comments already are. When somebody owns every aspect of his persona, he’s unassailable. And when a woman owns it — you don’t get to make comments about my drinking, or having sex, or what I wear, or what I eat, or what I look like, because I’ve already commented on it — it’s the most frustrating and threatening thing for an insecure man to see. And that’s awesome. She doesn’t have to say what’s “real” and what’s not; it’s all real, and it can be tragic and frustrating and unfair but most often really funny.
A young female comedian is already starting out in an environment where hecklers are going to try to shit on her live set. TV executives are going to try and concern troll her into losing weight. Entertainment journalists and bloggers are going to talk about her responsibilities as a feminist. Some people in the audience are going to call her fat or ugly. Other people in the audience — including at least one well-intentioned but dense gay man — are going to say she’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Other comedians are going to announce that they don’t think women can be funny, in their own feeble grabs for attention. There’s going to be pressure to be highbrow but not so highbrow as to be alienating, and pressure to keep the politics out of comedy and just be absurd. And then pressure to split the difference, making funny videos that’ll go viral while still having a very special episode tackling some social justice issue.
Inside Amy Schumer navigates through all that and ends up with a sketch about sending a sext photo. It starts with the pressure that’s put on women to look sexy, then puts Amy through all kinds of abuse for the sake of making her look good, and then ends with a simple moral: “Just get fucked.” Said not as an insult or an objectification, but a simple reminder to get what she wants and enjoy herself. That’s not just naughty; it’s genuinely subversive.
Internet, did I ever tell you about the time I spent the better part of a decade watching a contrived, sentimental, raunchy, silly, and formulaic sitcom, and bawling my eyes out over it?
When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.
This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.
The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.
But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.
As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.
But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.
And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.
Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.
How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.
How I Fixed Your TV Show
At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”
Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.
To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.
It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.
Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”
Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:
This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!
Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.
It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.
How I Met Your Mary-Ann
I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!
A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”
But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”
It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.
The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”
They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.
The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.
Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.
And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:
But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.
He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.
More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”
How I Met Your Step-Mother
A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.
All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.
And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.
Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.
But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.
(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).
Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.
Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.
The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.
And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.
Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.
Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.
It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.
There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.
There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.
After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.
And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.
How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind
I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.
When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.
And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.
I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.
on a multi-million dollar multimedia and merchandising agreement. A bit of faux-populism is more valuable than any number of duck calls.
Whenever a TV celebrity says something offensive, there’s no shortage of coverage on the internet and jokes on Twitter. So I don’t really need to get into a tirade about all the obviously stupid aspects of the Duck Dynasty guy’s interview with GQ in which he talks about anuses and vaginas, compares homosexuality to bestiality, and says that black people were a lot happier before the Civil Rights movement gave them a sense of entitlement.
Except… except the whole thing is so densely-packed with absurd wrongness that even thinking about it for a fraction of a second reveals a dozen new ridiculous details foretelling the collapse of Western Civilization. For instance, it wasn’t until I was just now writing the sentence above that I made the connection and fully appreciated the absurdity of a hard-workin’ good ol’ boy just statin’ his mind in an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly.
But I can say what I personally find most offensive about it. It’s not the casual comparison of homosexuality to perversion, since that’s been going on for decades, and we’ve heard it plenty of times already. It’s not the bald-faced offensiveness of comparing the Civil Rights movement to entitlement, since that’s just a combination of the matter-of-fact racism I’ve unfortunately been hearing tossed around since I was a kid, plus the Tea Party-era attempts to disguise bigotry and classism as fiscal conservatism. It’s not really the hypocrisy of the A&E Network for profiting from a bunch of self-described “rednecks” who’ve been outspoken bigots, suddenly developing a conscience after four years, because come on: reality television. It’s not the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin calling for freedom of speech when a television celebrity is fired for making obviously racist and homophobic comments, after she was curiously silent when a television pundit is forced to resign after implying that someone should shit in Palin’s mouth as a means of pointing out how casually she’s trivialized the genuine horrors of slavery. And it’s not even the hypocrisy of anti-gay sentiment coming from a bunch of people who are even more fixated with beards than any gay man I’ve ever met with an actual, openly-acknowledged beard fetish.
Persecutin’ ‘n’ Manipulatin’
No, the most surprisingly offensive thing to me is this Facebook update from Sarah Palin. Now, to be fair, I have to give Palin some credit for her remarkable evolution over the years. When she was picked from obscurity to be a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, she was clearly out of her element, a local politician thrust not only into the ruthless world of Washington politics, but the national media. But instead of fading into obscurity, she fought to establish herself as a vapid media opportunist, and then a laughably dismissible clown, before finally coming into her own as a full-fledged live-action cartoon. And in her carefully-constructed Facebook update:
Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
she actually writes out “hatin'”.
The attempt to equate freedom of speech with freedom from consequence? Please, that’s not even Bullshit 101. That’s Remedial Bullshit. When I think about how much time has been wasted over the years as smart people have tried to explain how the First Amendment works to people using their willful ignorance for political manipulation… we might’ve even found evidence showing that global warming is manmade, or discovered a vaccine that doesn’t cause autism.
The calculated use of “intolerant” in an attempt to throw back progressives’ own language in their faces, to suggest that it’s the people spewing out bigotry who are really the ones being persecuted? Yawn. Seen it. It’s been years since Ann Coulter lamented the intolerant society that would no longer allow her to call John Edwards a faggot. No offense, Ms. Palin, but you’re strictly amateur class when compared to that.
But the master stroke — and this, keep in mind, is coming from a guy who regularly types “y’all” in emails without thinking twice about it — is encompassing decades’ worth of faux-populist, faux-conservative, faux-Christian, faux-American media manipulation into a single apostrophe. It would be impossible to come up with a more perfectly false and hypocritical defense of not just Duck Dynasty, but the entire state of pop culture that allowed a show like Duck Dynasty to become so popular.
Just a Good Ol’ Boy, Never Meanin’ No Harm
Let’s all be clear, here: The Official Statement from the Robertson Family, complete with its photo of multiple generations of abandoned wives and children As Seen on TV, all united in their belief of Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech and freedom of religion, all devoted to their faith in the teachings of the Bible, standing strong, Job-like, in the face of a society that has lost sight of the simple values of honest talk and brotherly love — that’s on a website currently hosting a pop-up ad for the Bank of America, special holiday hours for their store, and booking info for the entire family, with separate sections for the Wives and Teens, each with a glamour shot and a bio.
In other words, these sumbitches are crazy rich. Just like Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, and Paula Deen, and Dan Cathy. And acknowledging that these persecuted free thinkers have more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime isn’t an attack on the wealthy, any more than saying “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christmas. But it does make the “simple gifts” schtick awfully hard to swallow. It’s Boss Hogg trying to pass himself off as Jed Clampett. “Lemme jus’ head on down to the cement pond and record the latest social media video promoting our line of greeting cards.”
When I started growing my beard out last year, I heard enough cracks about Duck Dynasty that I watched an episode to see what all the fuss was about. (It’s been going on for at least four seasons, apparently). And it was, unsurprisingly, the biggest load of faux-populist bullshit I’d seen on television. It wasn’t even the orchestrated train wreck cash-grab that was Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; as horrible as that was, you still got the sense that everybody involved was aware that it was just a modern-day freak show, the money all but visibly changing hands and going towards a “college fund” that would eventually be used for medical bills, treatment for addiction, and psychological therapy.
No, Duck Dynasty was worse, because it was an hour of a bunch of people reminding the ever-present video cameras that they were nothing more than God-fearin’ simple folk.
Growing up in Georgia, I spent decades immersed in this crap. I’ve been to the studios of The 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL. I’ve seen countless hours of Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard. In college I lived in a house in which the Nashville Network played virtually non-stop, with the slickly-produced videos interrupted with interviews with the self-described rednecks and cowboys who weren’t no different from nobody else. Lately, I’ve been seeing videos in the mall food court that are practically indistinguishable from the ones I saw 20 years ago: add a steel guitar and some “haw haw haw ‘Merica” twang to a mass-produced pop song and all of a sudden you’re celebrating down-home values.
To be clear: I’d never, ever fault or criticize somebody for wanting to believe in all that. You’d have to be a real asshole to mock the most fundamental of good values while you’re condemning the manipulative people who are corrupting those values. It’s that manipulation that I’m criticizing.
I Will Always Love Dolly Parton
One of the most common reactions to this whole nonsense — apart from the depressingly predictable attempts to martyr a bigot with an “I Stand With Phil Robertson” movement — is “Well, who’s really surprised?” These guys are from the South after all. Of course they’re “Bible-thumpers,” and naturally they’d be racist homophobes.
Speaking as a southerner, I’m sick of people passing off their racist bullshit as part of their Southern Heritage. Speaking as a Christian, I’m tired of people passing off their own bigotry as being in any way Christ-like. These clowns don’t speak for me, and I want them to stop acting as if they do. Each time they’re caught doing something patently offensive, the response is always, always, that they don’t care much for “political correctness,” and they’re just saying what everybody’s thinking but is too afraid to say out loud. And each time one of these things blows up in their face, it should become clear that “No, you’re not saying what everybody’s thinking. You’re just an asshole.”
To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to a logical analysis of the objective merits of anuses vs. vaginas. But I am just gay enough to think that Dolly Parton is one of the best people there is. She has absolutely made a fortune out of taking the “simple Appalachian folk” concept and cranking it up to eleven. There’s no doubt that she built a multimedia empire — including not just some greeting card line but a theme park — based on basic values and humble beginnings. She’s unquestionably got a carefully-constructed public persona based on an accent, a body, and just the right amount of self-deprecation.
The difference is that there’s no bullshit there. In everything I’ve ever seen, she’s up front about how different her life is after all the hit songs, and the movies, and the money, and the plastic surgery. She says that she’s still got the same core set of values that she’s always had, but then she actually follows through on it. And even though she’d have every opportunity to fall back on feeble excuses based on her age or her upbringing or the place where she was born, she accepts everybody in her audience. She could totally get away with the “that’s just the way I was raised” excuse for bigotry, but for as long as I’ve been aware of her, she’s always been contemporary and always been inclusive.
It’s the difference between selling honesty and actually being honest. And the difference between “politically correct” and just plain “correct.”
So Sarah Palin is welcome to descend further into self-parody. And the whole Robertson clan can shove their redneck martyrdom bullshit up their own illogical anuses, and fade back into wealthy obscurity. Along with all the other aspects of the South that are better left forgotten.
There’s probably no stopping people from trying to turn a region into a commodity. If people are still dressing up as Centurions for photo opportunities around the Coliseum in Rome, thousands of years later, there’s probably going to be no end to “We’re po’ but proud” merchandise in my lifetime. It’ll be annoying and as authentic as a Cracker Barrel gift shop, but it’s ultimately harmless. What’s not harmless is trying to pull the worst aspects of the last 200 years as an inseparable and even noble part of it. I want to get to the point where, when somebody says he’s a southerner, you can’t make any assumptions other than his attitude towards gravy, sweet potatoes, and how much sugar should go into cornbread. (Answer: absolutely none).
An analysis of inequities of power, income, social status, and issues of representation in the popular media. “Holy shit, get a life”
After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.
Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.
And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.
The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.
I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.
Turning It Off And Back On Again
You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.
While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.
That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.
In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.
All of that leads me to two conclusions:
The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.
For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.
For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I’m assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.
Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.
The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).
That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.
The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).
Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.
“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?
So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.
How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke
And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.
A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.
Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.
And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.
What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).
A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.
What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.
Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer
And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.
I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.
And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.
In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.
Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”
Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.
All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.
Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.
American Horror Story: Asylum is either awful with a few moments of brilliance, or brilliant in its awfulness. Or both. Or neither.
This post is probably full of what could technically be called spoilers, but with something like American Horror Story: Asylum, it feels like warning about spoilers in a fever dream. With something that’s so incoherent that even the characters aren’t particularly changed or surprised by anything that happens — like, for instance, having a break-out attempt interrupted by zombie mutants — I’m not even sure if the audience is supposed to be surprised.
I’m not sure how any of it works, actually. It’s so similar but so far removed from camp that it’s almost like a transmission from hundreds of years into the future, once camp has evolved into something culturally different. Back when I watched True Blood, I said that it was shamelessly confident and over-the-top; AHS feels like a bunch of people watched True Blood and complained, “why does everything on television have to be so realistic and boring?” It’s like Axe Cop, if the writer weren’t five years old, but instead a twelve-year-old going through an extremely vivid puberty.
Or as if the producers got a bunch of writers together for a brainstorming session, and said “Mental asylum. Go.” And after a few hours of free-form idea association, as the producers were gathering note cards from every surface of the room, someone asked, “That was productive; how long is it going to take you guys to edit it?” And they replied, “‘Edit?'”
It’s crazy nuts is what I’m saying. I didn’t see the first season of the series, so I can’t compare the two. I started watching with season two, specifically because I loved the idea of an “anthology” series, where the story resets each season, and all the actors start playing different parts in a new story.
From reading descriptions of the first season, though, I think the basic idea is the same here: start with a pastiche of ideas from dozens of different horror stories (season 1: haunted houses and ghosts, season 2: B-movies and prison exploitation flicks), roughly assemble it into something resembling episodic television, and then leave the rest to a bunch of good actors being completely, absurdly committed to the material. (That’s another possible analogy: it’s like they made an entire series out of Ted Levine’s scenes in Silence of the Lambs). (Also, no pun intended with “committed,” but now I wish I had intended it.)
And also: do as much as you can with Jessica Lange, because she’s terrific.
As great as Lange is, though, I think you can pretty effectively sum up the entire American Horror Story: Asylum experience with Chloe Sevigny’s character. I admit I haven’t thought much of Sevigny one way or the other, but you don’t have to make any obvious references to Brown Bunny to acknowledge that she goes all-in. Here, she plays a sexually-liberated woman in the early 60s committed to an asylum after being branded a nymphomaniac. Over the course of this season, she’s: delivered a few speeches about the oppression of women; propositioned the evil surgeon in an attempt to get free; negotiated her way into an escape from the asylum; sacrificed herself (by fellating a guard) to help the others escape, right down to saying “go on without me!”; been captured and raped by the evil surgeon (who’s also probably a Nazi war criminal); laughed at his deformed penis in the midst of the aforementioned rape; woken up on an operating table to find her legs had been cut off; and now as a result of mad science experiments been turned into an immortal, cannibalistic mutant, who most recently asked adult Anne Frank to “please kill me.”
And she’s the B-story, by the way. I haven’t even mentioned the serial killer, the alien abductions and implants, the plucky young lesbian reporter wrongly committed and given shock therapy, or the nun who’s been possessed by a demon. It’s all thrown together and pureed into an exploitative pop culture mash-up, where scenes are smashed together so quickly that you’re never given time to realize that none of it makes a lick of sense.
Sevigny’s is the shallowest of any of the named characters, just barely made more complex than “chronic masturbator guy” or “head-banging woman” or “The Mexican.” She’s a character entirely formed from cliches and one-note motivations and laughably terrible dialogue. And yet, when you’re in the moment, it all kind of works — scene by scene, I’m engaged. She comes dangerously close to being around 2.5 dimensional.
Nuns, aliens, serial killers, mutant zombies, Nazis and Nazi hunters, lesbians, nuns possessed by demons, creepy aversion therapy hand jobs, snuff porn-loving mad scientists, shock therapy, bare-assed caning, corrupt monsignors, bakery sex with an axe murderer, phone calls from hit-and-run victims, thrill-seeking killers, and at least for a while there, the chance to see the guy from Maroon 5 getting stabbed over and over again. It’s what Sci Fi Channel movies aspire to be.
It’s a strange, other-dimensional construct, like a tesseract theorized by David Foster Wallace — something that exists solely to be watched, beyond the idea of whether it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s a show where a character is simultaneously Anne Frank and an insane person who believes she’s Anne Frank, and both realities are true, and somehow neither reality seems to be as shockingly poor taste as it should be. A singularity where the very concept of camp has collapsed on itself, leaving a mass of engrossing images that transcends any notion of good, bad, quality, exploitation, taste, or coherence.
Also there’s no way that Zachary Quinto’s character isn’t the Bloody Face killer. I called it last week, but I’m making it official now.