Category Archives: Television

Breaking Bad; or, the Superhero Uncertainty Principle

breaking_bad

I am several years late to the Breaking Bad party.  I tried watching it two years ago but lacked the fortitude to see how Walt and Jesse were going to dispose of the dead body and get themselves out of trouble in just the second episode.  But having spent the past three weeks catching up—I want to use the word “binging”—on Seasons 1 through 4 (so no Season 5 here), I’m struck by the ways in which the show—about how down on his luck high school chemistry teacher Walter White turns to cooking meth to provide for his family when he’s dead, having discovered he has late stage lung cancer—thoroughly borrows from, and just as thoroughly subverts, all of the stale ingredients of the superhero story to cook something new and powerful.

There’s the basic Superhero 101 stuff: Walter White has an alliterative name : Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, ad infinitum; he has a sidekick who is younger and physically smaller, Jesse Pinkman, whose own name is superheroic, although The Adventures of Pinkman may not appeal to the target demographic.  (Jesse also has a sketchpad full of superhero drawings, each, according to his late gf, a version of himself).  Walter has an identifiable vehicle (although, like Pinkman, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring—it’s an Aztec), a secret lab (with a 60s style Batcave entrance—a secret staircase behind a secret door), a disguise (hat and sunglasses count), and most importantly, a dual identity: Heisenberg, the nom de guerre he takes that, like Batman, reveals something important about who he is to the viewer but somehow not any characters—Batman’s legend of the bat flying through the window as a way to inspire fear; Heisenberg, as one of the key thinker in quantum physics but known in the popular consciousness for the Uncertainty Principle, which could have been the name of Breaking Bad itself.  And like Batman, Heisenberg has no superpowers, just his superbrain and whatever gadgets and plans the brain can come up with.

aztec car

But what BB really borrows from the superhero story is less the outer trappings than the inner workings of the dual identity conceit.  In a show obsessed with secrecy, it’s not surprising that Walter has more in common with Superman than the newest version of Superman himself (except for the good and evil thing, which I‘m getting to).  Instead, what Walt is hiding is neither the meth nor the money, but something that harkens back to the earliest symbolic and dramatic appeal of superheroes themselves: that there is something special, wonderful, and necessarily hidden about Walter that only he and his closest confidants—including the viewers—know about him.  The Walter that the world knows is a regular guy at best and a bit of a loser at worst. In devising a cover story for a multiple-day disappearance, Walter lays out what he knows he looks like to the world for a psychologist (and here I paraphrase from memory): having seen all of his peers surpass him and make millions, Walt now makes $44,000 a year, has a disabled teen-aged son, a baby on the way, and a terminal disease.  Ouch.  But secretly, he is fearless, awesome, and superhumanly capable—everything he is not on the surface.  He synthesizes the best crystal meth ever, improvises explosive and poisonous chemicals, charges his RV’s dead battery out of the pocket change lying around, and takes on and takes down crime kingpins.

Like Superman’s Clark Kent, the Walter White that the world knows, and who he used to be, becomes the hapless alter ego, the disguise of normalcy he wears for protection so that no one knows who he really is. Even Hank, his DEA brother in law, so often superheroic in his own cop instincts, cannot fathom that lame ol’ Walter is Heisenberg, just as Lois Lane, star reporter, cannot connect that Clark is Superman.  Despite staring them in the face, the notion is too preposterous to take, even when Walt jokes, on several occasions, that he is a super criminal. “Got me,” he says to Hank, who laughs, and to the audience, who laughs for entirely different reasons.

Heisenberg-e1316393225858

Which takes me to the other significant superhero trope that Breaking Bad appropriates: dramatic irony mixed with suspense.  That is, the audience, but almost none of the characters, knows all about Walter.  We know what Walt knows, which means that we can see how the tensions between his identities and secrets will play out.  It’s a great device that seems to have fallen out of favor—witness Man of Steel’s  jettisoning of the classic Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane triangle of dramatic irony, as well as the many excellent movies of the last decade—the Bourne movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and more—that use the what used to be tired trope of amnesia to reverse the very premise of dramatic irony (undramatic irony? Dramatic sincerity?).  Instead of knowing more than the characters, we know as little as they do and learn as they do.  It’s interesting and maybe fun, but it can be exhausting.

Yet even though we know what we know, one of the show’s addictive qualities for me is the suspense, even back to that second season 1 episode that almost put the brakes on the Bad for me. We know Walt is the smartest, most resourceful, and most desperate guy in the room. We know he has to get out of whatever craziness the particular episode focuses on—disposing of dead bodies, disposing of live bodies, getting out of a trap, luring someone else into a trap, breaking into one building, breaking out of another—and whatever Walt has now gotten himself into, he somehow has to get out of it.  Until the very last episode—sadly, coming up soon—we know that Walt somehow has to walk away mostly unscathed.  (Unlike in, say, Game of Thrones.) But again and again, we need to see how.  In a form pioneered by superhero comics, the show continues the best tradition of the serial narrative.  It has a larger, longer, season-wide arc that shifts and varies, but also a single-episode, smaller arc that never changes: Walt gets into trouble, Walt gets out of trouble, seeming to restore the status quo, but the getting out must somehow create newer, even worse trouble for next time. It’s 60s Batman with a meth twist.

The big question, then, is the moral one.  Aren’t superheroes the good guys?  Isn’t Walt really a villain, not a hero?  The bald head he decides to keep post-chemotherapy, not to mention the way that Brian Cranston is able to change his face from fake kind to real evil like it’s a special effect, puts him in firm Lex Luthor territory (sorry, Professor X).  It’s been the perennial post-Sopranos TV problem.  Walt is a lot like a combination of Tony, or the dad version of Nancy from Weeds, an regular guy version of Jax from Sons of Anarchy,  or, at times, Dexter.  And since my time is up, I’m not going to resolve the idea of narrative sympathy, subjectivity, or evil here (which I talked about a greater length for Game of Thrones anyway), as much as to say that it reminds me of a large-scale version of a dopey old Jerry Seinfeld routine:

I love these nature shows, I’ll watch and kind of nature show, and it’s amazing how you can always relate, to whatever they’re talking about. You know like you’re watching the African Dung Beetle and you’re going “Boy, his life is a lot like mine.” And you always root for whichever animal is the star of the show that week — like if it’s the antelope, and there’s a lion chasing the antelope you go, “Run antelope Run! Use your Speed, Get away!” But the next week it’s the lion, and then you go “Get the antelope, eat him, bite his head! — Trap him, don’t let him use his speed!”

But instead of a lion and the antelope, we root for whoever is on screen.  Go, Walt! Get away from Hank! Hank, you can get Walt! He’s right there! Walt, get away from Gus! Gus, kill the cartel guys who killed your old partner! Jesse, get back at Walt! Walt, stay away from Jesse!  We are simply suckers for the point of view characters, morality and uncertainty be damned.

Time: 80 minutes. Darn.

BONUS HOURMAN!  It’s been a while since a major show had a character named Jesse (which is my name.)  Dukes of Hazard, Full House, and Rick Springfield ruined my childhood, but Breaking Bad seems not to have had any effect, other than the weirdness of hearing my name so many times on TV. In Comments, feel free to post about your own experience sharing a name with someone or something famous or in the media.

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Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

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All Evidence to the Contrary, Showtime’s WEEDS Actually Has Something in Common with Real Life

 

After eight seasons, Weeds is over.  The show began well, with its premise of a young widow in a California subdivision who turns to selling marijuana to make ends meet.  Nancy Botwin fit the growing corpus of cable anti-heroes—sympathetic and striking characters whose behavior blurs ethical and moral boundaries and whose situations allow for subversive cultural critique.  For Weeds, that meant an update on Updike’s and Cheever’s soulless suburbs, hotbeds of hidden hedonism and hypocrisies, as well as forays into the ways in which post-Boomers are spectacular failures at parenting and nearly everything else.  It was funny and thoughtful, and Nancy, in her flowy dresses and high heels, Cheshire Cat smile on her face and plastic cup and straw in her hand, was a perfect portrait for audience ambivalence, often as repellant as she was attractive.

And then, over the next seven years, with the initial premise mostly run into the ground after the first few seasons, things happened.  A LOT OF THINGS.  A brief overview, with the likelihood that I’ve messed up chronologies and details, with props to Wikipedia as my cheat sheet:  the family is forced to relocate to San Diego, then Seattle, then Dearborn, then Connecticut, than New York City, than I think Connecticut again, before the very last episode, set in both the future and Pittsburg, if that’s not a contradiction. In the meantime, Nancy marries a DEA agent who dies, a Mexican drug lord who dies, and a Russian woman while they—Nancy and Zoya, the woman—are in prison.  Did I forget prison? Or that she was shot in the head and in a coma at the opening of Season 8? That she gets deeply involved with the California drug trade and Mexican cartels, former US military drug runners, the tobacco industry, and a Rabbi?  This is to say nothing of the many other characters’ own forays into crime, sex, drugs, and high comedy.

In other words, like many shows—and soap operas—before it, the show became bloated with both narrative and trauma.  Any one situation from any one season for any one character would have been potentially life-ruining, requiring years of therapy to even begin coping with the suffering .   Who gets over the multiple and escalating threats to her own life and family numbers, let alone the accumulating unnatural deaths and murders, that Nancy nonchalantly, breezily sashays around.  Even Tony Soprano suffered from panic attacks.  Yet Nancy, like a cartoon baby in a construction site, kept moving along, literally leaving a wake of devastation, including deliberately setting fire to Season 1’s original suburb, Agrestic.  The introduction to Season 8 self-mockingly underscores her dangerous shenanigans.

 

But it’s not the deaths and relocations throughout the years that have unnerved me.  It’s the disappearance of seemingly crucial main character after main character, who is then replaced by another seemingly irreplaceable character, so that only the core family—Nancy, hapless lovelorn brother-in-law Andy, and Nancy’s sons, vapid, handsome Silas and sociopathic Shane—has remained stable.  Frenemy Celia Hodes spent a few seasons as a main character only to disappear from the show as she disappeared from Nancy’s life, just as earlier, Celia’s own older daughter disappeared from the show out of narrative necessity or convenience. Sanjay was crucial to Weeds and Nancy, until he wasn’t and was gone.   Conrad? Heylia? The guy played by Matthew Modine? Caesar? Guillermo? Lupita? Jill?  Here and gone, invisible casualties in Nancy’s escalating, if metaphorical, narrative body count.

And yet, the same bursting at the seams plot-and-character accretion strikes me as a pre-Facebook, pre-Internet nostalgia for the days when we were indeed able to move, geographically, socially, and symbolically, and begin again.  The ruthless truth is that at every point in our lives, the people with whom we consider ourselves the closest—our best friends, family members, significant others, lovers, and co-workers, to say nothing of the dozens of casual acquaintances everyone constantly juggles—soon disappear, to be replaced by a new set, a new cast, and updated conflicts.

So much of Weeds was over the top, made for cable high concept and histrionics.  But in Nancy’s narrative amnesia and seemingly emotional invulnerability, we see an inadvertent truth: no matter how close we think we are to those who surround us, the only consistency in life is our immediate family.

And even then, for only eight years.

 

Time: 40 minutes.

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Game of Thrones; or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bush

[Preface: Yes, spoilers for Season 1 and 2. But: I have not read the George RR Martin novels, so nothing about what might be coming up.]

Game of Thrones, my favorite TV show, was in the news last week, not for wrapping its second season on HBO, but rather because former President George W Bush’s head—or at least a likeness of it—was used as a prop in the background of a season 1 scene.  Which is what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you.

Separated at birth

The usual outrage followed, or at least the usual feigned outrage, as I’m not sure who was actually offended; an apolitical budgetary explanation on the DVD from the show’s creators emerged:  “George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice, it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around”; the usual corporate apologies ensued: “We were deeply dismayed to see this and find it unacceptable, disrespectful and in very bad taste.  We made this clear to the executive producers of the series, who apologized immediately for this careless mistake. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms”; and the usual consequences resulted: “all future shipments of the DVDs … removed [the image] from our digital platforms and [we] will edit the scene for all future airings on any distribution domestic or international.” Neither George W Bush nor George RR Martin has, as far as I can find, offered comment.  And of course, if the producers knew about it, um, ahead, then it was not a careless mistake.

But the Bush brouhaha for me illustrates just what’s so interesting about Game of Thrones.  At first glance, or based on the snapshots and trailers, Game of Thrones has all the signifiers of hardcore fantasy: for one thing, thrones! And the concomitant Lord of the Rings/Narnia/Star Wars slavish Anglo loyalty to crowns, monarchies, and bloodlines.  You’ve got your medieval motifs and Renaissance Faire fetishes of furs, knee-high leather boots, cloaks, and flowing hair. And then there are the women [rimshot].  Museum-piece weapons and warriors! And magic! And monsters! And little people!  And a kingdom called Westeros, which is not, as it turns out, a hotel chain.  Oh yeah, and there’s tons of nudity. Which is not what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you again.

Yet such a description seems all wrong, and totally missing the point.  Unlike much of the JRR Tolkien-inspired fiction upon which it seems modeled (including, it should be fairly stated, some of Tolkien himself), and unlike George W Bush’s most famous additions to Presidential rhetoric, Game of Thrones absolutely refuses to force viewers to be “with us or against us”; we cannot see the characters—most of the characters, anyway—as members of an “axis of evil,” or the heroes as do-gooders who prevent such evil from prevailing.  Despite the swords and sorcery, even the actual presence of both dungeons and dragons, GoT resembles HBO’s former flagships The Sopranos and The Tudors more than The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  We’re presented with heroes, but they’re more human than superhuman. But we also get our likable antiheroes; the only little person, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t a member of a mystical, magical race, but a human born with dwarfism, same as in real life, and his moral ambiguities, rather than boring nobility, make him by far the most interesting character. 

All the characters, then, behave like people, not symbols, archetypes, or avatars.  King Robert of Season 1 is neither good nor bad, exactly; instead, he’s an ostensibly decent man who has let power and boredom go to his head, easily and equally manipulated by his ambitious advisers and his own cravings for wine, women, food, and amusement.  The ostensible hero is Ned Stark, Robert’s old friend, brought in as his chief advisor.  In a different, more conventional fantasy world, Ned’s attributes of honesty, loyalty to friends and family, and old fashioned diligence, virtue, and common sense, would ensure his victory. But in Game of Thrones, what would victory even look like?  What, other than military brutality in a bygone war, really entitles Robert stay on the throne at all?  Ned himself has no claim for it—but more importantly, no wish for it.  Robert’s son, the angelic-looking, waifish pubescent Joffery—who gets the throne after Robert dies pointlessly and un-heroically in a hunting accident (or was it? Etc)—turns out to be the series’ worst monster: a cruel, capricious ego- and megalomaniac suddenly given all the power in the world.  And, of course, as a reward for his integrity, Ned loses his head—and, for him, worse, his good name—at the whim of the awful boy king.  

The scene, in the penultimate episode of Season 1, is, well, stark, and shocking, not because it couldn’t  or wouldn’t happen—see: “Tudors”—but rather because we’ve become so accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy movies that GoT superficially resembles.  We assume that the great male hero—as opposed to minor characters, bad guys, old mentors, or the hero’s family—is unkillable, especially when in GoT he was Sean Bean, the only name brand actor.  As Ned is rounded up, as the blade is coming down, I kept thinking that SOMETHING or SOMEONE was going to stop it, like the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible,  because the good guy, and the main character, can’t die.  But Ned wasn’t the good guy.  He was just A good guy.  The Manichaeism we’ve come to expect as the basic convention of a show that looks like Game of Thrones—that there will be good guys, and bad guys, and that the good guys will be really Good and the bad guys will be really Bad—preferably Pure Evil—does not hold, just as it does not hold in life.  George W Bush’s decapitation is symbolic after all. 

OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation, the “you never know who to root for!” politicking and shifting alliances both within the show and for the audience. So I’ll go one further.  Even more than Lord of the Rings on the outside and The Sopranos on the inside, Game of Thrones is indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which is indeed what the title of the blog refers to.  Best known for its humor and scathing satire of the early Cold War era, the film always sticks out at me for a different reason.  Once the premise is established—that a paranoid general (Gen. Jack T Ripper, ha ha) has deployed a B-52 to drop a nuclear weapon on the USSR—the scenes cut back and forth between the War Room of the President and advisors, and the plane itself, filled with the ethnically diverse crew full o’ moxie and gumption that was already a WWII film cliché in 1962.  What makes the film remarkable for me is that when we see the War Room, although everyone there is a buffoon, the conventions of movies dictate that we desperately want them to figure out a way to stop the attack, including the possibility that the US will shoot down its own plane.  If not, of course, the world will end. But when we cut back to the plane, the conventions of film dictate that we want this aw shucks motley crew to succeed and survive, because that’s what movies have trained us to want.  We can’t have both, though, and in the end, the little plane that could succeeds in its mission, despite all the obstacles.  It destroys the world. A happy ending.

With Robert and Ned gone, Season 2 has ratcheted up the title’s game of thrones even further, and as such, there is no fundamental morality, no belief system, or entitlement to the throne at all, only skill at playing the game, something that Ned, in his naïve goodness, didn’t realize, unlike the characters now.  But like Dr. Strangelove, each time Game of Thrones switches point of view, the audience can’t help but find some reason to root or support whoever we’re looking at, even though it must contradict what we had just felt before.  There is no With Us or Against Us, only the constant shifting of allegiances and sympathies.  And unlike Dr. Strangelove, there are not just two cuts or sides—like both typical fantasy series and HBO series, GoT is ridiculously complex in its multiple storylines, families, and subplots, and supporting characters.  Keeping track becomes an actual intellectual commitment.

Yes, this will be on the test

We become players in what turns out to be more of a role-playing game than TV show. Maybe it was more like Dungeons and Dragons than I thought

Except for Joffrey.  God, I hate that fucking Joffrey.

Time: after a good run, over again, at 90 minutes! Lots of fun finding images, though.

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Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 

Death

Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.


[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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(Ad) (Bad) (Cad) (Clad) (Gad*) (Lad) (Plaid) (Sad) Mad Men

Warning: check for elevator before stepping in.

Sometimes, TV is literature. Mad Men certainly is.

More than almost anything on the bestseller list, Mad Men lends itself perfectly to literary analysis—certainly the ol’ reliable high school English quinquepartite of Plot, Character, Symbolism, Theme, and Setting. Mad Men’s premise could have been a simple soap opera—the same boring story of a handsome man who is more than he appears, and his affairs, in every sense of the word. But instead, Mad Men has consistently, in the mantra of every fiction writing workshop ever, excelled in showing more than telling, using ambiguity, implication, narrative structure, and design to draw the viewer in, to force us to read closely. And for me what makes Mad Men great is that, like the best novels and poems, it evokes multiple, simultaneous feelings. The problems, and the pleasures, arise when these feelings seem to contradict each other, creating a frisson, a sense of ambivalence.

Jon Hamm’s acting can seem repetitive, as this Youtube montage nicely and funnily demonstrates:

But I think the clips also show the opposite: the “What?”s are distinct and surprisingly diverse, in different takes conveying interest, surprise, incredulity, annoyance, distress, anger, reluctance, dismissal, inquiry, dejection, or disbelief.

Even more complexly, look at Don’s facial expressions during the opening episode of Season 5, as his second wife Meghan dances Zou Bisou Bisou in front of him and his colleagues, during a birthday party that everyone except Meghan understood that he didn’t want.

In this scene alone, which went viral immediately after the show aired, we see, and ourselves feel, Don’s ambivalence: the complexity that protocol demands a happy and flattered husband—going by Roger Sterling’s and Youtube viewers’ comments, the obvious response—while at the same time, he is trying and almost but not quite succeeding in not looking mortified. Don wants people to see him as the active seducer, and he is visibly uncomfortable being made into the passive spectator—that is, in some ways, feminine object of seduction. Yet at the same time, as returning viewers know, behind closed doors, he likes pain and humiliation, being made the object. (Warning: link is steamy.) So: Don likes but is embarrassed by the dance because Meghan has confused Don’s ironclad distinction between public and private. And I wonder if viewers feel something like that also: the dance is funny but genuine, goofy and embarrassing but sexy, a gift from a woman who seems not to know her new husband at all but may in fact know him better than he knows himself. She  doesn’t care what other people think—and doesn’t want Don to, either. But he still does. Whew.

And to get all this, viewers need to remember and piece together dialogue and images from previous episodes, often previous seasons, in order to understand what we’re seeing now. If anything, this season has, like the best novels, married the form of the story with the content, so that, in one of the more overt examples, a recent episode centering upon Roger Sterling’s LSD trip is narrated out of chronological order, making the viewer feel the slight sense of something askew from the very beginning before realizing that the chronology itself is trippy.

Yet I think Mad Men’s setting has been its initial attraction. And the era—in Season 1, about 1960; by now, in Season 5, 1966, the year the Beatles’ Revolver was released—like everything else in the show, evokes mixed reactions from the viewer. On the one hand, it’s easy for us in our enlightened presentism to respond badly to the raging yet casual sexism, lazy knee-jerk racism, and stifling cultural ignorance. One of the best gags this season was the simple display of rampant smoking at the benefit for the American Cancer Society. On the other hand, it sure looks glorious, and I did not find myself disgusted by the constant drinking as much as nostalgic for it, despite that I never got to experience it (although I’ve found myself drinking more cocktails since I became a fan). Why else launch a whole Banana Republic Mad Men line?

Not pictured: cigarette, drink, mistress, real identity.

Or entice viewers with a Mad Men Yourself feature? The opening page asks you to choose “Suit” or “Skirt,” another example where the line between reality and synecdoche is blurred.

This is me on Mad Men. Vest and coffee are accurate. Face and hair less so.

And this cultural moment, 1960-1965, remains under-recognized. For Gen Xers and after, the 1960s has been synonymous with one year: 1969. Yet on Mad Men, we get to see that the supposedly radical moment, when the stodgy grey flannel suit ‘50s tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, didn’t happen overnight, or over a year. The way most of the characters on Mad Men understand their tumultuous time is the same way that we still do today—through the media, through the same images that the ad men traffic in themselves. For most of the characters, the seemingly transformational impact of riots, mass murders, or wars overseas comes to them through television, newspapers, and radio, background chatter, subtext that seeps its way into the text itself, not the times a changin’ as much as a perceived anomaly. As Roger asks, in typical Mad Men dramatic irony, “When are things going to go back to normal?”

In the end, the show has managed to balance social realism with literary symbolism, which is usually the big turnoff for the average reader. (From many of my students’ course evaluations: “Does EVERYTHING have to mean something?” I wonder what they mean by that?) “Don Draper” is a seemingly innocuous, believable name, yet it is also the perfect symbolic, literary name for a character who has assumed the name and identity—even, self-referentially, this exact name—of another man. “Don,” as a noun, means a man of great importance; as a verb, to put on or dress in. A “draper” is a merchant who sells cloth; “drape” means cover, hand, arrange, or adorn. As viewers come to understand, “Don” dons Don and sells yarns, as he assumes and covers his original name and identity, Dick Whitman. And like his literary namesake Walt, Draper Whitman very well contradicts himself. He contains multitudes. And through Mad Men, we get to hear America singing.

* Gad: to move restlessly or aimlessly from one place to another: to gad about.

Time: OK, eighty minutes. Next time I SWEAR to keep it to an hour.

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Why Do Americans Care About Downton Abbey?

No goddamn second "W," people

 

Warning: Contains details from Seasons 1 and 2.  Look for a future post on the whole idea of “spoilers.”

You know a show has had a cultural impact when doing a Google search for the perfectly reasonable term “Downtown” (notice second “w”) prompts Google to say “Showing results for downton abbey instead of downtown.” Huh.  

My first impression of Downton Abbey was that it mashed up Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, pleasant enough but nothing that special.  It’s the familiar-to-Jane-ites tale of a family of wealthy daughters who risk being dispossessed of house and fortune unless the eldest can marry the new heir to the property, or at least marry rich. Ishiguro, writing centuries later, was also concerned about the butlers who remained anonymous and invisible to earlier readers.  Fair enough.

Two seasons crammed into less-than two months later, it’s still Sense and Sensibility and Staff, but I’m hooked and jonesing for Season 3. 

So: how exactly did a BBC via PBS costume drama quickly became what seems like the most talked-about show in television?

So far, at least a few critics seem drawn to the class question.  As Katie Roiphe says in Slate, “One might wonder why, at the precise moment that we are condemning class divides in this country, so many of us would develop a passion for a show like Downton Abbey; why suddenly lawyers, unemployed artists, stay-at-home moms, and assorted liberals find themselves glued to a drama about an English country estate a hundred a years ago where the entire staff of footmen and ladies’ maids lines up outside to greet a titled guest.”  But Roiphe’s analysis doesn’t take the show’s fictional status into account.  Lots of us—all of us?—are entertained by characters, scenarios, and depictions that are different from, even counter to, who we are in real life.  Do cops watch Law and Order? Did doctors watch ER?  Maybe, but it’s the regular people outside the subcultures who made those shows huge.  If anything, Roiphe gets it exactly wrong: OF COURSE the very people she lists are fascinated by the extravagant wealth portrayed.  KR contrasts viewers’ love the show with America’s current anger at the top 1%, but DowAb is a work of elaborate, intricate fiction, not a documentary on the real or contemporary or boringly wealthy.  

As a work of fiction, DA allows viewers to identify with everyone, not just the fortunate: the Crawleys, certainly, and our wishes that the titled could be as admirable as they often seem, plus of course our fantasies of wealth—even as we get to snicker over the ironed newspaper that begins the series or the dowager countess’s confusion over what a “weekend” is.  We get to be Carson, the butler, so fastidious, so dignified, and in his own way ironically the most powerful person in DA; Matthew, who really is the in-between figure for middle-class Americans to identify with, since he is the only Crawleywho has had to work for a living, and he’s both fascinated with and a little dismayed at first by DA’s opulence; and the rest of the staff, who have to work for everything but, as we begin to see, have dreams of their own.  The British setting adds another layer of distance: the English do not think of class in the same mutable way that Americans do, rightly or wrongly.  And the WWI-era historical time frame (more on that in a minute) cements the remove required for Americans to enjoy the show conflict and hypocrisy free.  It’s British Historical Fiction, and there are no overt heroes or villains (except, perhaps, the war itself, and, later, Carlisle a little), so it’s safe.  It’s better than safe—it’s fun. 

But there’s more to the show than class, so let’s examine the possibilities.

It’s the quality, stupid. That’s certainly the angle from PBS and Masterpiece Theatre (nothing says sophisticated like “-re” instead of “-er” in “theatre,” although sadly, the whole word, it seems, has been dropped).  Before DA even begins, we get the beautiful and talented Laura Linney introducing the show and the opening advertisement sponsorship (this is ad-free public television!), luxurious, sumptuous Viking River Cruises.   (Why does Roiphe think that the audience is primarily “unemployed artists… and assorted liberals,” anyway?  Because Republicans keep trying to defund PBS?)  The costumes, the sets, the details, and clothes are gorgeous, impeccable, and lovingly captured.  OK, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary has taken the show to task for its period-inaccurate idioms like “I am fed up seeing our lot get shafted.” (Interesting—coincidental?—that one of the chief examples of anachronistic slang is also the rare case of class resentment to sneak into the show, spoken by the sneakiest sneak, Thomas.)  But even for me, fretting about a few phrases is the costume drama equivalent of a superhero movie’s continuity error—nerdy nitpicking at best and belligerently  missing the point at worst. 

In any case, if it seems unfair to call the show Eye Candy, than let’s call it what it really is: Eye Caviar.  Expensive, posh, and symbolic of wealth.  But is it any good for you?  

Well, it’s also the acting: Britain’s best, and not a single one of them is wearing a pointy hat and teaching wand waving or foolish incantations in this class.  But even leaving aside the lack of CGI, unlike much of what’s out there, Downton is clearly a show about, by, and for grownups.  There aren’t even any children ON the show, and, like her wedding, I don’t see Sybil’s future baby having much screen time either.   And while I loved seeing Matthew and Carlisle scrap, most of the acting is subtle, expressive, and understated.  The WWI trench scenes only underscored the usual quiet and equanimity—I found myself scrambling for the volume button each time the scene shifted from Manor to battlefield or back.   The overall refinement counts for a lot when so much American film acting is all physical and kinetic.  Maggie Smith’s many zingers would not be nearly as funny without her wry delivery.  She’s the show’s special effect.  

High/low, not just upstairs/downstairs:  But the real beauty of the show is that is seems like it’s supposed to be good for you. British, historical; no elves, no aliens.  But it’s really like those Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s granola bars—you can imagine that they’re healthful all you want, but they’re really fancy candy.  Downton Abbey: looks like homework, feels like a soap opera.  (Original betrothed to Mary [possibly!] returns after surviving the Titanic post-amnesia and burned beyond recognition? OK!)  The Onion, as usual, nails it: Watching Episode of Downton Abbey Counts as Reading a Book

The World War I Era:  For all the corsets and fretting about eldest daughters, we’re over a century from Jane’s World. Writer/creator Julian Fellowes (has there ever been a more British name?) has mentioned that the Downton time period—roughly 1890-1940—is a time of great upheaval, the making of the modern world as we know it.  He’s right.  But World War II is like The Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back—the sequel that surpasses the original in scope.  The lead up, war itself, and post-war era—especially the 1920s—is one of the most historically interesting times, yet, today, it seems under-examined.   Here, we see the end of Victorian England—the class stratification, the entitlement, the empire itself.  But it’s only historical hindsight that makes us so aware.  Like the wealthy passengers on the Titanic who drowned on the opening episode, the Crawley family has no idea that their urgent plight over the heir to Downton is like fretting about the deck chairs when the entire ship is about to go under. 

For Americans, thwarted romance never gets old: In the end, the center of the show is, of course, Matthew and Mary.  So while the set up steals Sense and Sensibility, the conflict, like every other rom-com, pilfers Pride and Prejudice.  The Youtube montage below is one of many fan creations that inadvertently helps explain both why and what makes DowAb special: because unlike many of its poorer Austen-American relatives, it never resorts to awful sentimental terrible musical montage sequences.

But even with the M&M engagement, don’t toss out your hankies or get your hopes up.  Downton has painted itself into a narrative corner.  As everyone knows, fictional courtships may be dreamy, but fictional marriages are a nightmare.  And Mathew and Mary are just in time for the seismic shift in gender attitudes of 1920s, the decade that saw the rise of iconoclastic Brits DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and Americans like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the most scathing literary critiques of marriage in history.  The story is supposed to end when the couple marries, or else we’re forced to watch their dissolution and misery.  The Season 2 finale—the snow, the proposal, the kiss, the hope for the future, the resolution of Matthew’s pride and Mary’s prejudice, the security of the Crawleys, should be the end.  It’s where Austen would have known to end it. 

Look for Julian Fellowes to invent reasons to keep his poor puppets apart even longer.  As everyone knows, 100% of marriages end in divorce or death. 

Time: OK, 75 minutes again, not including reading the other articles and links, which I did separate from writing the entry.  If I had more time, I’d have made it shorter.  Sorry.

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

[Previous blog on VH1 and heavy metal]

VH1 concluded the first season, eleven episodes, of Sam Dunn’s documentary on heavy metal, Metal Evolution.  The thing that impresses me most, even more than the obvious time, money, energy, thought, and love that went into it, is the thesis: Dunn is actually true to the title, reading the history of metal as a gradual process by which the music changed into different forms and subgenres over four decades.  The introduction (excerpted in the clip below) shows Dunn hard at work constructing his diagram of categories and hand-lettered band-name logos, using architect-grade pens, an X-acto knife, pushpins, and string, so that the resultant chart is a meticulous assemblage worthy of a lepidopterist,  cartographer, or serial killer. As he works, the camera flashes to a bust of Charles Darwin, and then later to a bookshelf highlighting The Origin of the Species.  Dunn clearly sees metal as deserving of a hagiographic, Ken Burns-style documentary, even as metal, unlike Burns’s jazz and baseball, is not a simple slice of Americana; like an anthropologist, Dunn traverses the globe, frequenting Britain but also hitting Germany, Denmark, Canada, Brazil, and more, all to catalogue the comprehensive metal diaspora.

[Clip: Ad for Metal Evolution series; about 1 minute in, turns into clip of anti-metal diatribe for some reason. Ah, Youtube]

Yet [channeling Carrie Bradshaw] I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the series went on beyond Darwin? [Smiling for not saying “evolve.”] 

Metal Materialism

 

I'm a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

Dunn uses the image of evolution to suggest change, but it’s clear that it’s not natural selection as much as the unnatural, invisible hand of the marketplace:  the 1960s and early 1970s are presented as a golden age of metal, only to lead to a bloated, decadent phase of arena rock in the late 70s. Which then led to the energized, revitalized New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM) 🙂  Which led to late 1980s glam excess and languor 😦  Which led to deeper, darker thrash 🙂  Which led to back-to-basics, punk-influenced grunge (:S [confused face]) Which led to Nu Metal (first 🙂, with Korn, then 😦, with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, with spelling 😦 the whole time).  In each case, it’s not exactly that the music got old as much as the target market did—record companies were always on the lookout to find the next big seller for the next generation, happy to dump last year’s act in favor of a new flavor, only to dump them, ad infinitum.

But it’s not just market fluctuation as much as a deliberate assimilation of subversion.  Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.  Venture vulture capitalism not only absorbs the marginal into its mainstream; it profits from packaging and selling rebellion right back to the teens who invented it, until it’s all gone.  Then it moves on to the next form. This is not evolution as much as a business cycle, or, if you’re thinking generously Hegalian, a series of dialectical movements between conservatism and creativity, reformations and counter-reformations.  

Metal Poststructuralism

Don't be so Saussure

But what about the episodes I didn’t mention above, on Shock Metal, Power Metal, and Progressive Metal? They fall outside—or maybe side by side—Dunn’s partially chronological approach, a kind of concurrent evolution, so that each of these three episodes starts over again in the 60s, even as the first eight episodes were working their way closer to the present.  We can think of metal, then, in Roman Jakobson’s terms: syntagmatic—linear, forward moving, evolving, chronological, narrative—as well as paradigmatic—vertical, categorical, thematic, metaphorical.  Seeing metal as moving from roots to early metal to NWoBHM to glam to thrash to grunge to Nu metal is syntagmatic; seeing the previous episodes as representing the traditional narrative of metal with outliers in Shock, Power, and Prog is paradigmatic.   

Alternately, we can see all of heavy metal as a language system—the langue of heavy metal always consisting of loud, distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums, extreme vocals (whether screaming, high-range, guttural, or Cookie Monster), and rebellious attitude; the parole of metal comes from the specific utterances and subgenres.  The reason your grandma (or a nonfan) can’t tell the difference between any of these episodes is because they’re not native speakers of metal—they recognize only the langue but cannot decipher the particulars of the parole.

Metal Patriarchy

I would not even think about putting a funny caption here

Dunn in general is not looking at metal’s faults.  Fair enough. It’s his show.  Yet the glaring fact is that, over eleven hours and interviews with hundreds of musicians, producers, journalists, and academics, I counted only three women: a manager, a professor, and Melissa Auf der Maur, bassist with Hole and other groups. (I may have missed someone, I suppose). 

Maybe it’s just a numbers game—metal bands are mostly male.  But consider one of Dunn’s very un-anthropological forays into complaint: he is very clear about his dislike of glam metal and seems only to include it out of some fanatical completist’s OCD.  And why does he dislike glam?  It seems, in part, because he sees the groups as feminine, wearing makeup and spandex, although, again, Grandma would see most of these groups as effeminate.  Ugly androgyny and makeup a la Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, who even assume women’s names, is OK, but not stage makeup or names like Rikki Rockett.  And beyond looking like women—or, arguably, caring about their looks at all—what is glam’s other serious violation? It appealed to—GIRLS!  In fact, the one thing that all of Dunn’s defective eras in metal share—including his open disdain of Linkin Park—is that they had a significant number of female fans.  Dunn’s metal shop is a boy’s club.

(Not that glam isn’t also, paradoxically, a low point in lyrical misogyny.  Dunn is not particularly interested in lyrics anyway.  And unlike the other metal genres, glam has at least discovered girls in the first place.) 

Metal Heliocentrism

Revolution Number 9

Dunn seems to see the 60s as the Big Bang of metal creativity.  And the cosmological model may be better than the evolutionary one, as evolution implies not just change but change into a better form.  For Dunn, it’s clear that the subjects of his previous documentaries, Iron Maiden and Rush, represent the sun around which the other bands and genres revolve.  The introduction plays Maiden’s The Trooper, and these two groups still seem absolutely central to Dunn’s metal universe, rather than mere transitional stages in a larger evolutionary process of species improvement. 

Metal Psychoanalysis

Sometimes a circular saw codpiece is just a circular saw codpiece. Oh, wait. No it's not.

If Dunn can use Darwin and I include Marx and Copernicus, it’s only fitting that I end with the other world-changing thinker, Freud.  The introduction also flashes briefly to photos of Dunn’s childhood and his college degrees on the wall.  It’s hard to wonder whether this whole documentary filmmaker gig isn’t a chance to meet the idols of his youth—and, in some oedipal sense, surpass them.  Many of the former stars are now aging, overweight, bald, and way, way past their era of fame.  Dunn is in charge now, calling the shots and asking the questions, controlling—creating—the metal narrative.  And at what must be a height of about 6’5”, Dunn again and again towers over the rock stars.  The star-struck child returns, and this time he is the symbolic adult.   Power metal indeed. 

Forget metal evolution—Dunn has crafted himself as metal’s Intelligent Designer.

Time: Yeah, I’m over an hour on this one. Yeah.

 

Jesse Kavadlo

UPDATE 2/15/12: Read the follow-up to the part that got people talking: Women and/or Rock.

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That’s Against My Alignment: Peter Pan, Legolas, Link, and Finn

 

I missed my chance to get into Legend of Zelda when it first appeared.  And—heresy!—I’m more a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies than books. I did have two big Dungeons & Dragons years, when I was 11 and 12, before discovering heavy metal, which in retrospect wasn’t that big a jump.  And I’ve reread Peter Pan again and again—JM Barrie’s, not Walt Disney’s, little egomaniac, the one who brags about all the pirates he’s killed and thinks that “to die would be an awfully big adventure”—notions that would be sociopathic coming from an adult but seem naive, even endearing from a child.  And I’m really enjoying Adventure Time. 

Finn’s name was Pen in the pilot. Too close to Pan?

The similarities in description and appearance between Zelda’s Link, LoTR’s  Legolas, Peter Pan, and Adventure Time’s Finn are plain enough, even down to recurring greenleaf jammies (with Finn alone feeling blue).  Real-life Orlando Bloom stands on one end of the realism spectrum, and Finn—whose head is pretty much a Have a Nice Day button in a pillowcase—seems barely more than a sketch (and his flowing golden locks appear only once, as far as I know, as a kind of punchline).  Yet I’m more interested in what they suggest about the intersection between coming of age and morality, to say nothing of coming of age and mortality.   

Missing Link? [groan]

As a videogame character, Link is the least ambiguous.  After watching my kids play Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword and asking them a battery of increasingly annoying questions, it seems a pretty standard quest narrative.  While it looks more interactive than good ol’ Super Mario Bros.—which is culturally where my familiarity with video games ends—the plot, as usual, boils down to: Save the Princess.  In fairness, it looks like 25 years of progress has revised the plot a little—Link and Zelda are now looking for each other, rather than the straightup damsel in distress scenario.  But there’s still the jumping, the shooting and slashing, the accumulation of life and money toward the possibility of advancing to the next stage.  So it’s interesting that for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.  The kids are hooked, but this is surely someone’s version of hell.  Yes, the levels advance, but the methods of advancing seem limited to killing monsters.  This is not so different from Legolas, whose job in the film is also, it seems, to kill monsters, tally the points, and, like Link, look like a Pantene model in the process.

My hair wouldn’t look like that after weeks in the woods

On Adventure Time’s episode “What Have You Done,” Princess Bubblegum—whom Finn, needless to say, saved in the Pilot but with whom he has since had a more or less egalitarian relationship—tells Finn that he has to make the Ice King—a kind of cartoonish, buffoonish Saruman  voiced by SpongeBob—scream and cry.  Finn sees the request as cruel and uncharacteristic.  In what seems like a throwaway line, Finn says, “I can’t just beat up the Ice King for no reason.  That’s against my alignment!”  And with that, we see the sly, subversive morality at work that makes Adventure Time the true link—as opposed to Link—and legatee—as opposed to Legolas—to Peter Pan.

As geeks everywhere remember, in Dungeons & Dragons players chose their characters’ moral category, called alignment, as casually as they chose their accessories, another option of many, ethics as capricious option.  In the Basic version of the game, there were three alignments—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.  In retrospect, the choices are more interesting than I thought at the time, since they eschew the obvious binary of Good and Evil.  Alignment here seems more akin to how well and closely people hew to rules—which, given that D&D was, in fact, a game, seems fair enough. The Advanced version of the game, though, introduced more, and more complex, alignments, and thereby created more trouble.  You now had two categories, with one from column A and one from column B, Chinese menu morality.  The Category A remained Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, but now you had to add the B of Good, Neutral, and Evil.  This creates the possibility, first, of the redundant Neutral Neutral category, which seems to encompass only Switzerland.  But it also creates seemingly contradictory categories like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil.  

But anything was possible—a Chaotic Good character was Machiavellian, capable of breaking rules for the greater good, while a Lawful Evil character was law-abiding but in the service of dark forces.  As a kid, I never thought much about Alignment and just had the characters behave as I would, which was, obviously, Lawful Good. 

Yet the purpose of the game, as it borrowed from Lord of the Rings and as Legend of Zelda would eventually borrow from it, was to move the quest forward and advance to the next, escalating challenge.  And the only ways to do that, as it was for Legolas and would be for Link, were acquiring gold and killing everything in sight.  In D&D, nothing you fought could ever be innocent.  Only the characters—and the human players hiding behind those avatars—could be.  What Finn alone realized is that the world, and its concomitant quagmire of morality, is complex.  One obvious good, loyalty—here, following the orders of a trusted friend and Princess—directly contradicted another, equally obvious good, justice—not harming someone without known cause, even if that someone was a total creep like the Ice King.  Adventure Time, for all its often satirical, winking references to a post-Peter Jackson/George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg world of stories, nevertheless transcends its cartoon morality.

Carl Jung was pretty thorough in his archetypes, but he left out forest-dwelling towheaded swashbuckling perpetual-adolescents.  Taken together, they represent an interesting combination of Jung’s Hero and Innocent, a counterintuitive combination.  [UPDATE: see Comments section!] For Jung, the Innocent (or Child) must undergo an Initiation.  But unlike the folkloric tradition, these four blondes never move on; like their model Peter Pan, they remain youthful and ready to repeat neverending initiations—adventures.  By the end of “What Have You Done,” everything works out for Finn, and the moral universe makes sense again.  His Lawful Good remains untarnished.  Peter Pan is gleefully Chaotic, but against the unambiguous evil of the pirates, he is positioned as still Good.  But can Legolas or Link truly be called Lawful without any sense of legality’s labyrinths?  Morality, unlike games and archetypal plots, is rarely linear or sequential.  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then its mortar is moral certainly. 

No wonder these characters, despite whatever age they may be, all personify youth.  No wonder they never age.  No wonder there is never a final level, last episode, concluding installment.   It was easy for me to be sure I was Lawful Good when I was eleven, too.

Time: 60 minutes. This was a tough one to write, maybe because I don’t know these topics as well as previous ones.

UPDATE 1/31/12: I wrote a followup to this entry, about Link, death, and video games, called Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Video Game Characters.

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VH1’s Metal Fatigue

A typical '80s metal image

In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos.  Both late at night.  This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR.  To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone.  I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much.   Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes. 

It’s all too much, too late.

Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before.  The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet.  Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well.  The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right.  Which is to say everything wrong.  “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.

I get the end of the world angle.  This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness.  The videos?  Mere trickle down dystopia.  Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing.  Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.

But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power.  I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution.  But the song does not remain the same.  The images—the chains—do.  Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip.  But first they need to be tied up or tied down. 

I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones.  In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty.  Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.

The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way.  And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds. 

Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out.  For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on.   And life had much heavier things in store.  If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.

But I get to watch all the metal I want now.

Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes. 

Coming soon:  Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.

UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

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