Tag Archives: TV

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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