The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sitcom Nostalgia

"Love...hate...we're a family, so what's the difference?"

I will never understand nostalgia for tripe like "Boy Meets World". I will never understand nostalgia for crap like "Full House". I will never understand nostalgia for a turd like "Saved By the Bell". Tell me you love Steve Urkel, and I will have murder fantasies about you. I have no fond memories of the TGIF line-up, or any other overly sentimental, corny bullshit that was being passed off as a situation comedy. Not one. You see, I was raised on comedy of a different kind, "Married... With Children" was my comedy. And, I know different strokes for different folks (Hey, "Diff'rent Strokes" was another awful show, but the Very Special Episodes are ironically hilarious), but... no, this show was objectively better. You can disagree, but you are wrong.

From what little I can remember about discovering this show, I had my TV on after I went to bed, and it just came back. My very first episode was one where a Peeping Tom was in the neighborhood and had peeped every woman except for Peggy, who was upset that she wasn't being spied on. So, after much whining, Al pretended to be the peeper which resulted in him getting his ass kicked for one of his few good deeds. Peggy got peeped by the real peeper and regained her self-confidence. It's even more messed up than it sounds. But, for me at the time, it was different and I loved it. I became a loyal fan, and doing research on when this episode aired, I had just turned eight.

So when I received the complete series on DVD for Christmas, I was ecstatic and I've already re-watched the first four seasons. When this show was pitched to Fox, it was titled "Not the Cosbys" as it was very much the anti-Cosby Show. Now, nearly twenty-eight years later, Ed O'Neill has a reputation as being a good, decent family man. And Bill Cosby, well.... yup.

I should not take for granted that everybody knows the premise so here it is. Ed O'Neill plays Al Bundy, a former jock who peaked when he played High School football (did you know he scored four touchdowns in one game? He'll never let you forget it), and now works a dead-end job selling women's shoes. His wife, Peggy (played by Katey Sagal), is a stay-at-home layabout who never leaves the comfort of her couch. Their daughter, Kelly (Christina Applegate) is the iconic dumb, troublemaking, easy, dullard blonde. Then there's the smart one, Bud Bundy, a creepy stalker pervert who is as lecherous as they come... played by David Faustino and yet still a much better human being than that piece of shit, Mako, on "Legend of Korra." And then there's the Bundy dog, Buck. Buck is everything he should be.

Then there are they neighbors. Marcy played by Amanda Bearse, a career woman at a local bank who is Al's sitcom arch-nemesis and yet has more in common with him than either would ever admit... while she seems like a straw-man feminist a lot, there are no good guys on this show, and Al is never portrayed as being moral or right in the face of her, either. Then there was her first husband, Steve Rhoades played by David Garrison. Like Marcy, he was a greedy, materialistic, successful banker... but that changed, as he slowly became more and more like Peggy. He was a great foil for Al, while actually developing as a character. But David Garrison left the show in season four and was replaced in season five by Ted McGinley as Jefferson D'Arcy. Did the show jump the shark then? Well, no. But I won't lie, I thought Steve was the better character. It was around this time the show became more of a live-action cartoon. It was still hilarious, but it wasn't quite the same. This isn't a complaint, though.

The great thing about Al Bundy as the lead was I sympathized with him while utterly disagreeing with many of his social views. I disagree with his viewpoint on everything, and I tend to agree with Marcy as I consider myself a feminist, and yet both are assholes. I think it helps that the show doesn't try to make Al some macho he-man hero, even if that's how he sees himself. We're meant to sympathize with him because of his situation, even if some of his views are backwards. In that, I think he is a very three-dimensional character. It's a hard balance, but the producers, writers, and Ed O'Neill did it.

This was the show that put the Fox network on the map before "The Simpsons" came along. It was black humor, it was raunchy, and it was hilarious. But it didn't become a ratings winner until it's third season when anti-obscenity activist, Republican activist, member of the Romney Clan, and all around imbecile, Terry Rakolta launched a boycott of the show that garnered nationwide attention. With that attention came higher ratings, and renewals, and success. The producers of "Married... With Children" would, for many years hence, send Terry Rakolta a gift basket around Christmas time thanking her for their success.

The show still holds up surprisingly well, and while the debut season is different (they were still finding the characters), it's never not funny. And debut seasons are usually hard. Even "Seinfeld"'s debut season was rocky, and looking at the first season of "The Simpsons", I am surprised it received a second.

It not only pushed the envelope, it often incinerated it. Like "All In the Family" before it and "South Park" after it, it was getting away with murder while often being the most cleverly written comedy on the air. It remains a favorite of mine, and well... unlike your nostalgia for that TGIF bullshit, "Married... With Children" was actually funny, then and now.

"Your mom’s the one who makes the pies for everyone in the neighborhood except those nice Bundys. Okay, Santa will leave you a pony under your tree. But if it isn’t there in the morning, that means your mommy chased it away and killed it."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

End of the Year Grading

Now, it's my annual tradition, I write-up and grade the TV shows and movies I watched in 2014, be they new or if I experienced them for the first time. I really, really wanted to see "Rosewater", but the nearest theater screening it was ninety minutes away.

I also can't help but feel I'm forgetting a few things. Aw well, I'll edit them in if I remember.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - Okay, Amazing Spider-Man 1 wasn't perfect, but it was a nice step up after the horrid Spider-Man 3. Well, we're back to Spider-Man 3. A decent cast in a horrible movie. This was truly the Joel Schumacher of Spider-Man flicks. Grade: F

Being There - This was made in 1979, but I watched it for the first time this year. Very funny movie starring Peter Sellers as a simple-minded gardener named Chance who just so happens to say what is interpreted by over-analytically people as genius by chance. See it if you can. Grade: A

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - A huge step up after the fun first Captain America movie, and a real game changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Great action, perfect casting, and a topical message that doesn't feel heavy handed. Grade: A

Frozen - You know, the grade I was going to give it right after viewing it for the first time was much higher than the grade I'm going to give it now. A cute, but very flawed movie that produced the most annoying song in the world, and a behemoth of hype that's resulted in me never wanting to see or hear this thing ever again. Just go the fuck away! Grade: C-

Godzilla - No, just no. Grade: F

Gone Girl - David Fincher brings us another incredible, stylistic thriller. Ben Affleck turns in a great performance as the lead (can people please stop whining that he can't be Batman) in a story that is so twisted and wonderful. Grade: A+

Grey Gardens - Based on the life stories of the eccentric aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis (both named Edith Bouvier Beale aka "Big and Little Edie") raised as Park Avenue d├ębutantes but who withdrew from New York society, taking shelter at their Long Island summer home, "Grey Gardens." As their wealth and contact with the outside world dwindled, so did their grasp on reality. Grade: A

Guardians of the Galaxy - This shouldn't have worked. This shouldn't have been as awesome as it was. A fun, intergalactic adventure with a lot of heart. Firefly in the Marvel Universe. Grade: A.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Flawed but fun. I enjoyed it very much, even though some of the flaws such as the bad pacing and the awful love triangle got on my nerves. But what it got right was so beautiful. Grade: B+

The Interview - Many people will like this one because it is stupid, ignorant, bad, and the whole derpy marketing for the 'Murica fuck yeah mentality. It's the perfect movie for idiots. Grade: F

The Lego Movie - I had fun with this one. I will admit, it was hyped up a little too much, so I wasn't blown away by it. But I enjoyed it. Grade: B+

X-Men: Days of Future Past - You know, I liked the movie a lot when I was watching it. When I think back on it, I still liked it a lot. But it's also a movie that, for some reason, I often forget exists. I don't know why. It's easily one of the best X-Men flicks (but the competition isn't that steep). I'd like to say it was because of lowered expectations, but I legitimately liked this movie. So why was it so unmemorable? Fassbender and McKellan were great. So were Stewart and McAvoy. So was J-Law. So was Dinklage. But, I'll probably forget I saw it again in a week. Grade: B


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - As I've said before, maybe it's not the worst TV series ever made but it's easily the worst TV series I have ever seen. Disgusting and repulsive. Grade: F-

Arrow - I wish I didn't come to this show so late. I've only seen the first two seasons, but I liked season one and loved season two. Grade: A

Fate/Zero - My brother introduced me to this anime. So far, so good. A mediocre dub, but beautiful animation and a great concept. So far, Grade: B+

Game of Thrones - Yeah, this was a particularly controversial season, particularly the fact that they accidentally shot a rape scene. Whoops. But, aside from that the writing and acting has been as sharp as ever, and the game keeps changing. I look forward to seeing what happens from here. Grade: A

House of Cards - Kevin Spacey plays the most sociopathic, scheming politician ever... or Kevin Spacey plays a politician. Great acting, direction, sharp writing. Grade: A

How I Met Your Mother - I have to say I agree with the critics, this last season... particularly that final episode was blech. I understand what they were going for, but as much as I like the show, I really did NOT like Ted Mosby. So, Grade: D

Supernatural - It's ten seasons in and while the show isn't in its golden age anymore, it's not become even close to unwatchable either. The Demonic Dean plot didn't go as I would have liked, but that 200th episode was beautiful, and the characters are still fun to watch and the cast so charismatic. Grade: B

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

I saw this the other day, and rather than write my review right away, I decided to sit on it and see how I felt about it later. I liked it when I walked out, and I still like it today. I thought it was a big step up from the deeply flawed "The Desolation of Smaug". But was it perfect? Well, no. But that's what a review is for.

This movie still felt very bloated, because it was. But that bloat felt more justified than the last one. While there was still way too much, it didn't annoy me this time. It felt that the story itself was much tighter than the previous installment.

I don't like the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili, and I never will. I have no problem with Tauriel in and of herself. I think Evangeline Lilly does a great job playing her, so much so that when Kili died and Tauriel grieved over him, admitted that she loved him... I felt for her. And this was over a subplot that I hated, and I still felt for her. I'd still have much happier without the love triangle, but damn... well done, Ms. Lilly. That's the mark of a great actor. Well done.

The return of nuclear Galadriel kind of annoyed me, but I never liked that sequence in "Fellowship of the Ring". It was glaring, and it came out of no where. But, when I look at this and I think that future generations will be watching this in chronological order, suddenly that initial scene has more of a foundation, which benefits it. I'd still rather have not had either, but aside from Galadriel turning blue again, I liked the scene.

Finally, I thought the opening scene where Bard slayed Smaug was a great ending for "The Desolation of Smaug", but a poor opening for "The Battle of Five Armies". I think that scene should have been at the end of the previous installment. Hell, I'll go as far as to say that if Smaug perished at the end of the last movie, more people would have walked out of that movie satisfied. But I'm glad we got the scene, I used to joke that we'd have to wait til the Extended Edition of "Battle", to which I was told to shut up and not joke about that. But yes, moving that sequence to the beginning of this movie is a choice that I don't understand.

What did I like? Just about everything else.

The sequence at Dol Guldur where the White Council rescued Gandalf and faced Sauron and the Nine was something I've wanted to see when I read "The Quest For Erebor" in the appendices of "The Lord of the Rings" oh so many years ago. These beings on a higher plain dueling. I loved Sauron's design, and how powerful he was despite being unable to take on physical form. One more reason why I loved it? Because finally, finally, there's a response to the question "why not take the eagles to Mordor with the Ring?" Sauron would have spotted them and easily, EASILY, taken it back. The quest or Mount Doom had to be stealth. Also, Galadriel addressed Sauron as "Servant of Morgoth". That made me happy.

Thorin's descent was a little bit over the top, but melodrama has always been a part of these movies, and Richard Armitage sold it. His Thorin was perfect. This was the character I've known since I was five. His death scene and final words with Bilbo were perfect, as was his rage when he learned that Bilbo gave Bard the Arkenstone. This is a classic story of a fall and redemption. I also enjoyed his final battle with Azog the Defiler.

Martin Freeman's Bilbo shined more, this was as much his story as Thorin's. I was excited when I heard Freeman was cast, and my excitement was rewarded. Especially at the end when asked who Thorin Oakenshield was to him, and all he had to say was "he was my friend." Yeah. Powerful words, a powerful performance.

There was so much in here that I enjoyed. Yes, the battle itself went on for maybe too long, but I enjoyed watching it. I enjoyed the politics of it all, I... well, I suppose I should go on about my overall feelings for these movies even though they are mostly over (not until the Extended Edition comes out!). Are these as good as "The Lord of the Rings" movies? Not even close. Are they comparable to the "Star Wars" prequels, again, not even close! They are much, much, much better than the prequels. These are good, fun movies whose biggest crimes are being no where near as good as their predecessors, and being way too bloated. But, you know what, "The Hobbit" as a book is also no where near as good as "The Lord of the Rings" as a book. Hell, when Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit", it wasn't even linked to the mythology he was creating. He didn't know until he had written the sequel. Would things have been different if "The Hobbit" was made first? Probably. Should it have been three movies? Probably not. But, in spite of all I wrote above about it being bloated, I still can't wait for the Extended Edition, because Middle Earth, both in the books and on screen is a place I love to spend my time in. The more time the better.

Thank you, Peter Jackson. Thank you for one more trip into Middle Earth. I suppose I'll have to come visit New Zealand for more.

A Legendary Finale!

That was beautiful! I laughed, I cried... it was an incredible run for an incredible TV show. We'll never see the likes of this again. Sure, there will be imitators, but it will never be duplicated. You can make an argument that it was the best show of its kind. Will those involved be moving on to greener pastures? Time will tell, but how do you ever top that? And....

Oh crap. I used a screenshot for the wrong show.

Let's try this again, shall we?

That was beautiful! I laughed, I cried... it was an incredible run for an incredible TV show. We'll never see the likes of this again. Sure, there will be imitators, but it will never be duplicated. You can make an argument that it was the best show of its kind.

I remember the premiere of "The Colbert Report" like it was yesterday. I had just moved to Winter Park, Florida, to attend school at Full Sail University. I was already a die hard fanatic of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" with Stephen Colbert being my favorite of the correspondents. I also remember wondering if this spin-off would work. Spoiler Alert, the spin-off did pretty well. I tuned into the "Report" every night for nine years, and I never missed an episode. And if I did miss an episode, I always made sure to catch what I missed at "The Colbert Nation", where the entire run of the TV show is archived. Hopefully permanently.

I met Stephen Colbert for the first and only time at New York Comic Con, in 2007 where he was doing a signing promoting the Tek Jansen comic book. We chatted for a minute and then I shook his hand. Behind me on line was legendary comic book author, Peter David, who wanted to show Stephen his cameo in an issue of "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" that he had written. This was well before Stephen ran for president in the Marvel Universe. But I've seen him twice since then, again when I attended a taping of his show, where his guest was Elliot Spitzer making his first guest appearance since his resignation as governor of New York. The evening ended with Stephen tossing a few Wrist Strong bracelets into the audience; my friend, Nick, caught one and was kind enough to give it to me. I wore it all day yesterday. The last time I saw him was when my entire family attended a taping of "The Daily Show" and we were lucky enough to be present for this magical moment. The entire chase scene can be seen here.

Stephen's entire farewell tour was bittersweet to me. Sweet because he was on his A-game, and it was hilarious. Bitter because I knew the end was near. When he not only made peace with the bears, but admitted that he had been wrong about them all these years, I knew it was truly over. But we had awesome moments, especially over the past two weeks. First was President Obama removing Stephen from his desk and delivering The Word himself; and when I wondered how that could possibly be topped, boom, in comes Smaug! And that's just the tip of the iceberg of nine years of magic.

Last night's show, I won't lie, I teared up a little. But it didn't go where I thought it would. His final guest was ominously announced as being Grimmy, who had already made not one, but two hilariously creepy cameos that felt like they were setting up the death of Stephen Colbert, at least as we know him. But no, Stephen Colbert is immortal because, while little has changed since he went on the air, the work he did will always be remembered. Raising millions of dollars for charity, his work to not only entertain but educate... he did more to show the American people what a SuperPAC actually was and why they are not a good thing than any of the major news networks. And then there was that time he got directly into the face of power and spoke truth. Okay, he did that way more than once, but we all know which one put him on the map. Despite his character being a "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot", the real Stephen Colbert often shined through, with his charity work, everything he did for our veterans, and his desire to inspire us to all be better toward our fellow man. He is a deeply religious man who teaches Sunday School, and his Sunday School students, well, I hope they know how lucky they are. When the real man shines through, we see a man who is being Christ-like and not just Christian.

Oh yes, he often did have harsh words for those who purposely set out to harm others, as seen above and below.

I think, at the end of it all, the real lesson is exactly what Alex Trebek said: 

“All of life’s important answers must be in the form of a question.”

That's the lesson. That's what Stephen has been trying to do for all of us these last nine years. The world is a complicated place, nothing is black and white. There isn't one singular right. There are no easy answers, and don't accept them: not from the media, not from the government, not from big mega-corporations. Don't just follow your gut instinct, educate yourself, make an informed choice, and know that your informed choice might not be someone else's.

I'm going to miss "The Colbert Report" desperately. I want to say the television landscape will not be as bright a place without it, but it wouldn't be as bright a place if it never were. Good night, Stephen. I hope when you got home last night, the first thing you said to your wife was "well, I'm back."

That was fun.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On writing villains

"As for villains, I look for connections to the heroes, something that in essence makes the villain a dark mirror of the hero. If Batman is order than Joker is chaos. If Superman is strength, Lex Luthor is intellect. So I’m always looking for what it is that connects the villain and the hero; it doesn’t have to be a history, although obviously a backstory that connects them like Demona and Goliath is fantastic. It doesn’t have to be history but it has to be some, even metaphorical connection that makes the villain a good opponent.

Then the thing about characters, particularly Xanatos or Vandal Savage, Queen Bee definitely, and Demona; one of the things that I got tired of was stupid villains.I’m tired of villains who literally think “I’m the villain”, no one thinks that. Hitler didn’t think he was the villain, he never thought that for a second. He really was, but he never thought that so I don’t like that.

But I also don’t like, I’m tired of, it’s not like there aren’t dumb bad guys out there, there are plenty of them in real life. But I was tired of, from a fictional standpoint, of villains who in essence defeated themselves. Or when villains teamed up, one of the things that Brandon and I talked about at the very beginning of “Young Justice” is, we didn’t want bad guys to be defeated because they were infighting. We didn’t want a secret society of supervillains who, in essence, sabotaged themselves so all the heroes had to do was survive for twenty minutes because in the last three minutes you knew those villains were going to betray each other or get pissed off at each other and blow it. So one of the things we decided about the Light right off the bat was that Vandal, Ra’s al Ghul, Lex Luthor, Queen Bee, Ocean Master, Klarion, and Brain, that they got along. They each had their own individual goals but they had a common interest that was important enough to them that they would make allowances for their different points of view on certain issues but they would pull together as a coherent and cohesive unit to further their larger goals.

And the other thing that sort of bugs me about villains is I’m tired of petty villains. I don’t mind it so much if it’s a minor villain, like someone who’s working for the big bad guy, but the big bad guy who’s got his eye on the big picture, that notion of that guy who, when a flunky screws up he pushes him off a cliff, I’m so tired of that because what a waste of the resource. So one of the things we did, definitely with Vandal Savage, but this goes back to Xanatos more than Demona because Demona really did want to kill everybody, but one of the things about Xanatos was that he wasn’t wasteful. I was tired of wasteful villains so from Xanatos’s point of view, he didn’t set out to kill the gargoyles unless they were literally in his way for some specific goal of his, but in general he had no interest in revenge, he’s got a line where he says “revenge is a sucker’s game.” He had no interest in any of that because the gargoyles might prove useful later. And that was the same attitude that we had Vandal Savage take towards the team. People kept asking me “well if Vandal Savage knows Superman and Batman’s secret identities, why isn’t he just killing them?” Why would he want to? Look what he’s accomplished with them around. Look how he’s used them. He doesn’t need to kill the team, he doesn’t need to do that. He needs to thwart them in one manner or another, but killing them is a waste of a resource because from Vandal’s point of view, from David Xanatos’s point of view, everything is a resource. If you’re that smart, and your goals are that large, everything is a resource and you don’t waste it unless you absolutely need to."
- Greg Weisman