I can tell I’m approaching brain-death when I’m too fried even to blog. So in that spirit, I’m going to offer a short post containing a few pop-culture heresies that will make my friends cringe, but which I nonetheless believe. It may not be fashionable to admit any of the following, but deep in your hearts, I suspect you harbor the same nagging feelings.
- “Friends” is funnier and holds up better than “Seinfeld.”
- Cargo pockets are useful, dammit.
- The remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) is better than George Romero’s original. (1978)
- The vast majority of grunge was repetitive, atonal crap. And nobody looked very good in flannel.
- NO, BATMAN WOULD NOT WIN IN A FIGHT WITH SUPERMAN. NO. JUST STOP IT.*
*I don’t care what Frank Miller thinks. I don’t care how much time you give Batman to plan. I don’t even care about that stupid Kryptonite ring. Yes, Batman is the smartest, toughest human being on the planet. Superman, however, is a godlike being from outer space. He could roast Batman to ash with lasers from his eyes while floating in orbit. Check out Mark Waid’s “Irredeemable.” The first thing the Superman character does is kill the Batman character. And it takes him about thirty seconds. True, he does take the Batman character out first because he rightly considers his former friend the greatest threat to him. But it’s not because of any physical threat. And the Batman character has to get his revenge from the grave, which doesn’t do him a lot of good. So, to sum up: Superman wins. Batman dies.
- Sleepless by Charlie Huston — Maybe the best book of the year, despite a shocking lack of vampires. My original thoughts on it are here, and you’d be doing anyone a favor by getting it for them as a gift. If you want to wait for the paperback, you even have a built-in excuse for being late: “Dude, sorry, but the book didn’t come out until Dec. 28th.”
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn — A master class on pacing, character and place, all contained in a fantastic suspense story about the sole survivor of her brother’s massacre of her family.
- Peanut Butter Snickers — I missed these, and they’re back. Man, now all I need is a McDLT and some Crystal Pepsi, and it is on.
- Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods — Spend some time inside the head of one of comics’ most intriguing writers.
- PvPonline — One of the best daily comic strips anywhere. Scott Kurtz has near-perfect comic timing, and best of all, anything you buy from his store has a built-in excuse as well. However, it’s well worth the wait. Also highly recommended: The Rack: Year One and Lydia.
- Everything Wondermark — I wore a Wondermark T-shirt to Comic-Con, and even die-hard geeks stopped me to say, “That is awesome. Where can I get one?” (For those who don’t know, a geek admitting that he does not have a T-shirt as awesome as yours is like eating his heart in more primal cultures.) So yes, check out Malki’s books, but really, get the nerd you love superiority in soft cotton form.
- Venture Bros. Season 4, Vol. 1 — Even better when paired with a Brock Sampson Action Figure. Hint, hint, hint.
- If you can’t manage any of the above, it’s probably enough to show up at your family’s place showered and reasonably attired, stay away from the spiked eggnog, and let your weird uncle talk about the UN troops occupying Topeka as much as he wants. And then you can say, “Merry Christmas, Mom,” and really mean it.
- If that’s too much to ask, get everyone you know a BLOOD OATH coffee mug.
- UPDATE: Oh, and if you want to help someone who really needs it instead of blowing cash on impulse buys in the long line at check-out, then I recommend a donation to Save The Children. Don’t put it in someone else’s name, though. Really, people hate that.
I am a fan of “The Simpsons” in the way the severely mentally ill are fans of anti-psychotics. Which is to say, it’s less a TV show than the thing that keeps the bad voices at bay for me.
All this week they’re doing “Classic Simpsons Week” at Splitsider, and it’s a perfect excuse for me to indulge my neurosis.
Even though “The Simpsons” has gone downhill in the past decade or so, I still keep injecting the episodes through my eyeballs into my brain. And there are bright spots that cause me to actually Laugh Out Loud, as opposed to just typing the acronym.
But if there’s a moment the show jumped the shark — if I had to name just one — I’d go with “The Principal and The Pauper.” The second episode of Season Nine, it was the first Simpsons ep to crumple all the accumulated love and goodwill of the show and toss it in the trash for the sake of a not-very-funny joke.
Harry Shearer, who voices Seymour Skinner (and many other characters), has said he didn’t know what the hell the writers were thinking when they decided Skinner wasn’t actually Skinner, but someone named Armin Tamzerian. Many fans agree. Showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein defended the episode as “an experiment,” and have said that it’s not really meant to be taken as canon.
There’s an argument to be made about what constitutes the “real” continuity of the fictional lives of a bunch of cartoon characters, but frankly, it’s the effect on the franchise itself that’s more interesting to me.
Todd VanDerWerff of the Onion has a great essay on the two types of sitcoms: the anything-for-a-laugh sitcom, which uses the characters as joke delivery vehicles, with little or no concern for their long-term development; and the character-driven sitcom, which tries for laughs based on the people and the stories rising from their cramped little worlds. Think of it like this: Type 1 is “30 Rock.” Type 2 is “Community.” (That’s at the high end, of course.)
Up until “Principal, “The Simpsons” was a Type 2 sitcom. Even as surreal as it could get — the man falling off the bridge while in line for Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie who screams “I regret nothing!” on his way down – I’d argue its core was always the interactions between the family members. This provided some of the best laughs, but also the genuinely touching moments.
Then, with “Principal,” the show shifted gears into a Type 1 show with such a lurch that its transmission was left in pieces all over the asphalt.
Whatever the intention behind the episode, it broke the show. After “Principal,” the series was a Type 1 sitcom — and that’s something that just does not have the same kind of vital, beating heart as character-based fiction to me. Any interplay between Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie is just another gimmick now. It’s nothing that arises from a sense of them as a family. It’s simply what needs to be done to wrap up the plots and jokes in time for the credits.
You can go from a Type 2 to a Type 1 sitcom; it happened after too many seasons on “Cheers.” But once you break the heart of the story like that, you cannot go back to being Type 2. It would be like Charlie Sheen’s character suddenly asking his mother why she never loved him on Two and a Half Men.
I watch Type 1 sitcoms the same way I read plot-driven novels or watch special-effects tentpole movies — to see what happens. I rarely ever watch them again, because once that question is answered, there’s no reason to go back for more.
But with shows like “Firefly,” “Sports Night” and “Venture Bros.,” I replay them again and again, and not just because I missed some of the jokes while I was laughing. I catch new stuff, see scenes in new ways and discover little hidden meanings in the margins.
Yeah. I need to get out more.
But look back to “The Simpsons” 100th episode and you’ll see what I mean. Another Skinner-centric story, “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song” — written by Oakley and Weinstein, by the way — shows the principal getting fired from his job due to Bart’s dog getting loose in the school’s ventilation system. He and Bart actually become friends in the outside world. Of course, everything has to go back to normal at the end of the ep, but it’s not done in the ham-fisted, meta-commentary way of “Principal.” Instead, Bart places a “kick me” sign on Skinner’s back when the two hug after Skinner resumes his job. And Skinner puts a sign on Bart that says “teach me.” It’s an undeniably sweet moment.
And it’s one that the show could never pull off today.
I still love “The Simpsons.” But it’s never going to feel like that again.
Today is Bram Stoker‘s birthday. The man who modernized the vampire myth and created the gold standard for vampire stories was born on Nov. 8, 1847. Why not celebrate by getting a loved one a vampire novel? Or perhaps some vampire apparel?
In other news:
- I would never subscribe to so-called men’s magazines like Maxim or Playboy. But from the images Mark Frauenfelder has been posting on BoingBoing, I would be first in line to buy True Men Stories magazine.
- LA Times journo fesses up to screwing with his neighbor over parking. Not sure if this is the sort of thing you want to advertise on your blog. (Via LA Observed.)
- Really interesting, well-written take on the BBC’s new version of Sherlock Holmes at the Awl.
- Just in case you were wondering: the rich are different. A Colorado district attorney has decided not to charge a money manager with a felony hit-and-run because he’s worried it might cause the money manager some difficulty in his job. No, seriously, that’s what he said: “Felony convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in Mr. Erzinger’s profession, and that entered into it.” Fortunately, being charged with a crime does not impact the job status of anyone else currently awaiting trial in Colorado’s fifth judicial district. (Hilarious side note: the DA’s motto is “The Office of the District will strive to always: Do the Right Thing, To the Right People, At the Right Time, For the Right Reasons.” By the way, this is the same DA who managed Kobe Bryant’s rape case. Just FYI.)
Today, I can watch most horror movies and laugh them off. In my teens, I saw all the Friday the 13th movies and rooted for Jason. But the ideas of Satan, of demons, and possession… yeah, that’s not funny.
My mom raised my brother and me as fundamentalist for a time. I’m not sure how much it affected him — he was seven or eight — but I bit down on it hard. I was a fervent, devout little believer. I had a Sunday School teacher who told us how the Devil once appeared at the threshold of her bedroom door. While this would make more sense once I finally read Freud, at the time, I believed in the physical reality of Satan; I believed in it as much as I did gravity or weather.
This had consequences.
My father did not go along with us on our trips to church. Which is why, perhaps, for reasons known only to himself, decided it would be OK if I watched The Exorcist with him when it was first broadcast on network TV. I was about nine. I don’t remember much about that night, except for the Vietnam-type flashbacks I get whenever I see the movie listed on the channel guide.
I was actually starting to get into horror movies — especially the cheesy sci-fi kind — when Satan struck again. I was 12 or 13, my church youth group got a lecture from an expert on “back-masking.” Randy, my best friend then and now, listened to Motley Crue and had a protective armor of sarcasm and irony. He knew it was bullshit. I didn’t. I remember all the blood draining out of my head, feeling nauseous, and leaving the room. One of the youth group leaders followed me to another classroom. I was climbing the walls. Here was this massive Satanic conspiracy, and everyone else just sat there. How could anyone rest when the Devil was infiltrating our brains? He tried to calm me down. Just as I was starting to feel better, however, he launched right into the entire spiel again, telling me all the hidden messages glorifying Satan in the works of even most innocuous groups. The example he gave was “Hotel California.”
Great. I was going to Hell because I listened to the Eagles. Seemed a bit harsh.
I got over it, eventually.
But as an adult, there’s only one book that I’ve actually had to put down (and then, put under another book) due to outright fear: Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil.
It’s a supposedly true account of modern-day exorcisms by a former Catholic priest, and it is unbelievably terrifying to a lapsed fundamentalist like myself. Martin is a talented and intelligent writer — for the most part, everything is delivered deadpan, with a calm acceptance that makes the subject all the more eerie. Satan and his minions do things that are vicious and quite tangible — this isn’t the namby-pamby kind of exorcism you’ll see in some churches, the ones where they wrestle with demons of obesity or gossiping or infidelity. These are monsters that lurk inside the eyes of real people, drowning all that is good and human in them. Martin writes that the primary motivator of these demons is hatred: they despise us for the simple fact of our existence.
Today I read and watch all kinds of truly disturbing stuff, both fiction and non-fiction. If it’s really great, effective story-telling, it will haunt me for a while, likeThe Mist (story and film) The Ring (which was partially filmed at my old employer, the Orange County Register; Naomi Watts is like, 19 inches tall in heels). Some movies key into my particular phobias and kinks so effectively that I can’t even watch them, no matter how fantastic everyone tells me they are (I’m looking at you here, Slither. Sorry.)
Obviously, I’m no longer a fundamentalist. And I don’t scare as easy as I used to. I don’t believe the line that Halloween is a demonic trick to sucker children into devil worship. (If you don’t like celebrating pagan holidays, I have some bad news for you about Christmas.) I’m currently in the middle of a bunch of research on Satanic cults and cult-related murders and conspiracies, which is probably why this is on my mind this Halloween. In my free time, I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, about a woman who’s the sole survivor of a Satanic massacre allegedly committed by her brother. While my research is gruesome, and Flynn’s novel is excellent, neither one gives me nightmares.
But if you think I will so much as touch Hostage To The Devil anywhere near Oct. 31, you are out of your freaking mind.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my copy under a couple more books.