Monthly Archives: May 2020

On the Way to Buy Groceries

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Garwood, NJ May 2020

I am reminded of realities of some uncomfortable realities. I didn’t go to any protests today, not only because I’m afraid of Covid-19, but because they erupted so quickly I hadn’t mentally prepared myself to find one. When I read the news today, “oh boy,” and looked at photos of dozens of American cities in flames, the only thought I had was “well here it is, 1968 all over again. The only thing missing is the assassinations.”

But that’s not quite right. In 1968, the cities erupted because Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered, the former by a Palestinian who resented his support for Israel, the latter almost certainly by US military intelligence who resented his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In 2020, the cities erupted because George Floyd, an ordinary man, not a Nobel Prize winner or a former Attorney General, was murdered by the Minneapolis police.

So it’s not really a matter of “first time as tragedy, second time as farce” so much as “first time as tragedy, second time as a consequence of the first.” Martin Luther King was murdered by the United States government because he was a threat to the military industrial complex and the American ruling class. George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police because 40 years of neoliberal capitalism has created a society where many lives simply don’t matter, where racist cops have a license to kill.

I have no idea where the current crisis is going to lead us. Will it be the fall of neoliberalism? Or will we get out of the closet fascism? My bet is on the latter, but only time will tell. In any event, I recall the words of John F. Kennedy. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Colin Kaepernick lost his career because he protested against police brutality peacefully. He took a knee. We should have listened more closely to what he was trying to tell us.

I’d write in Genghis Khan

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I personally am sick to death of having to choose between white men.

On a more serious note, the choice in 2020 isn’t between George W. Bush and Hitler. It’s between George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan, between a neoconservative party of the Wall Street elite and a right wing populist party of  cultural conservatives and sun belt capitalists. I suppose Biden is slightly to the left of where Bush (a fundamentalist Christian) was on social issues, but honestly not that far left. He voted consistently for the Hyde Amendment when he was in the Senate. He wrote the Patriot Act. He was one of the architects of mass incarceration. Forget about socialism. Currently, the United States doesn’t even have a bourgeois liberal party, just two right wing extremist fronts for the oligarchs and the military industrial complex.

Genghis Khan/Subutai 2020: If you’re going to make me vote for a mass murderer, he might as well be the best.

Garry Shandling: Where Does TV End and Where Does Reality Start

Garry Shandling is probably the most hidden major player in the history of TV. No other person could claim equal amounts of influence on both Seinfeld and The Sopranos. The (post)modern age of TV begins when Showtime debuted It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1985.

The time was very different. IGSS was only the second original sitcom ever produced by a premium cable network after Showtime’s Brothers, a show that’s currently impossible to find but was the first sitcom centered around a gay protagonist. Both shows need to be pressed in decent numbers on DVD but haven’t (an amazing looking complete series box set of IGSS was released several years ago, but unless someone with $400 lying around wants to buy me a copy, I’m hanging onto my off-the-air copies from the original airings.) The effect on future shows of IGSS is incalculable-the only analogy I can think of is the impact of the 80s British invasion on superhero comics.

The central conceit of IGSS is that it’s about a guy named Garry Shandling. He’s a comedian. He has a sitcom on TV. He knows he has a sitcom on TV. He even talks directly to the studio audience. When he leaves his “apartment” sometimes he invites them up to hang out in his living room while he’s “gone” (re: walked over to the next set on the soundstage while we see the soundstage.) In a series of elaborate parodies, Shandling takes us through the history of scripted TV up to that point, with a short but hilarious detour into a parody of The Graduate. Nothing is sacred. There are no rules. Characters frequently discuss their own shortcomings or expectations as sitcom characters, not with any pretense they’re real people.

The direct addresses to the audience are the obvious precedent to the standup comedy bits peppered throughout Seinfeld. The anarchic tone and kid-who-just-got-a-bunch-of-toys-and-is-having-the-time-of-his-life feel is second only to Ernie Kovacs. The tone is generally cheerful and light. You get that infectious feeling of a person who doesn’t think they’ll necessarily get another chance to make something on TV-we’re just sort of following whatever thing Shandling thinks they might not let him do later.

The strongest seasons are the first two, predominantly because of this kid in a candy store vibe. The third season is the weakest as it indulges Shandling’s love of pre-Lenny Bruce comedians for a dire 3 episode sprawl toward the end, but the 4th makes a decent comeback and marries Garry off. Fascinatingly this is the only really or fake wedding ceremony Shandling would ever be a groom at. His true love was television and even that marriage was a rocky one.

Shandling is best known now for the HBO sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted pretty soon after IGSS ended. The two sitcoms seem about as unlike in construction as one can imagine, at least at first glance. The complete embrace of artifice in IGSS gives way to realism in the acting and cinematography. There’s no laugh track. The stationary 3 camera set up gives way to possibly the first ever single camera sitcom ever made. The cameraman is frequently going backwards on roller skates so as to capture people conversing up and down a hallway in a more naturalistic manner-in fact, any “walk and talk” shot you’ve ever seen on a workplace sitcom owes its genesis to Larry Sanders. The acting strives for realism. There’s a comedy of awkwardness, characters and moments that rejects the “we’re going to shove jokes into a chamber play” style of sitcoms that were…all the sitcoms until then. Give or take.

Shandling reveals himself to be a triple threat-he can write, he can direct, and he can act well enough to hold his own with Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, no easy feat. Yet his romance with TV seems to sour over the show’s run. We start seeing moments of drama and discomfort as Shandling realizes he’s one of the few comedy writers who can convincingly write those sorts of moments. He follows characters and trusts they will be funny; he never sacrifices the truth of the character for a laugh. All of this is unheard of in a US sitcom to that point.

Yet, in the construction of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s clear Shandling’s preoccupations didn’t change, just his methods. The show, which follows the behind the scenes drama of a fictional late night talk show called The Larry Sanders Show, uses a combination of low quality broadcast tape and grainy 16mm film, making the scenes when Larry is on TV look vastly more polished than any of the shots of Larry in the office or outside world. In some sense, Larry Sanders is the closest thing you could have to a real life version of the Garry Shandling of IGSS-a man who lives on and for TV, whose life bleeds in and out of TV, a man who knows he’s on TV. Larry can’t seem to have sex without watching himself on TV during the proceedings. Strangely fictionalized versions of celebrities make frequent guest appearances for the first time on a sitcom even though this has since become a trope and was used by shows all the way from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Bojack Horseman.

Yet over the course of 6 seasons, the tone of the show sours and becomes increasingly dark and cynical. Shandling was probably getting worn down. Starring on, writing, and running a TV program for 10 years straight would get to anybody. He broke up with his real life girlfriend, the woman playing Hank’s secretary, around season 3. I’m imagining it wasn’t a smooth break up given that she’s replaced in the next season as Hank’s secretary with Scott Thompson from Kids In the Hall. The show nonetheless barrels on.

In making Larry vain and not particularly likeable and being powerful enough to be a dick, by having him get addicted to pain pills, etc etc etc, Shandling lays the groundwork for the HBO anti-hero 9 years before The Sopranos aired. And more importantly, Shandling lays out clearly the potential inherent in subscription TV-one has to remember the bulk of HBO programming at that point was stuff like Taxicab Confessions, boxing matches, 3rd run movies, and softcore porn. The idea that it was the place to make “prestige” TV would’ve been considered insane before then.

But when Larry Sanders ended, Shandling went into semi-retirement. He’d make talk show appearances occasionally, wrote and appeared in a middling movie about an extra terrestrial who starts dating, but didn’t do any TV writing for the rest of his life that I’m aware of. His last filmed project was a series of lengthy face to face interviews with the cast of The Larry Sanders Show for its DVD release.

In most peoples’ bodies of work, I wouldn’t bother talking about DVD bonus features, but these interviews resemble the DVD bonus feature genre in general as much as any of Shandling’s shows represented TV up to that point. There’s a lot of crying. There’s a lot of awkwardness. It gets deep. We see Shandling’s John Cassavetes streak that was hidden in plain sight all along. And he got to show the value only he could see in a seemingly disposable form one last time.

The Sopranos Finale Now

Note: if you’ve never watched through The Sopranos, I’m gonna be majorly spoiling the ending here, as per the title of the article. So go do that then come back.

There were two creators who essentially put HBO on the map as a place to get things besides boxing matches, second run movies and softcore porn. They’re Garry Shandling and David Chase. Both brought wholly new things to the TV medium but couldn’t have come from more different perspectives on it. Shandling took TV seriously as a place to create deep intricate work long before anybody else did and he did so out of a reverence for the medium, even if that reverence seemed to curdle over time.

Chase created great TV in order to spite the medium. Chase was getting even for not being afforded the opportunity to work in film. Ironically, in doing so he set the stage for TV to rise in social prominence beyond the feature film. He showed where TV was actually a more dynamic medium that had distinct formal strengths feature film didn’t. And in the time since The Sopranos aired, I can’t think of a year where more interesting things were going on in the feature film world than on TV.

The Sopranos, for being the supposed original epicenter of “binge TV”, isn’t actually that bingeable. This is one of its strengths. It meanders. It’s savoring the freedom afforded by premium cable because that freedom wasn’t a given at the time. Even though there’s a decent amount of “action”, it moves more slowly than any major show in the US TV canon besides maybe the original run of Star Trek. The “grand themes” that arise feel natural because they arose, like the “grand themes” in any work, as a continuity in the preoccupations of its creator.

I don’t envy him and his writer’s room however when it came time to wrap things up.

There’s a certain joy that comes in seeing a grand plan executed with intent and intricacy. But at the same time, this can lead to a show that feels like examining the insides of a watch-you’re impressed by how many purposeful little things can harmoniously share a small space, but whatever emotional impact is going to be blunted by the image of the perfect distancing you from the impacts of the real. A loose end makes a world seem larger and more mysterious, a Chekhov’s gun reminds me I’m in a theater.

The Sopranos is not an intricately designed show, just an emotionally honest one. Like a therapy session, it confronts things because they’re unresolved. It doesn’t force resolution as an orgasm substitute. If something doesn’t seem to want to resolve, they just…don’t resolve it. Where’s the Czech guy in the woods at the end of the episode “Pine Barrens”? Who knows. Who cares.

This comfort with a lack of resolution led to what I’m here to talk about today-the finale. It’s probably the most iconic TV finale ever aired. But it’s confusing. It doesn’t give you what you’ve been trained to want from an ending, and seems ambivalent about the idea of endings in general.

I’ll try to summarize it here. After a bloody turf war that seems poised to bring down the Soprano crime organization, we cut ahead to some unspecified time in the future. We watch the Soprano family members gather to meet in a cheesy diner. This takes quite a while. We’re watching Meadow attempt to park her car for longer than I’ve seen anyone park a car on TV without it crashing into something or exploding. Once they’re in the restaurant, an interior set we’ve never seen before, Tony tells us the onion rings there are great. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey comes on. In perhaps the single most Godardian moment ever shown on US TV, Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop–” and the show stops. Literally. There’s just black leader and silence.

Many people watching at home reported thinking their TV had died. Most presumed the ending was a bluff or a petering out-an admission that tying the whole thing up in a neat little bow was in fact impossible. Maybe it was.

I don’t think it was though. I think if we analyze the Sopranos ending the way we’d analyze a European art movie from the 70s, it all comes together pretty neatly for something as sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies as The Sopranos.

As Stan mentioned in his piece on the show, the primary conflict/theme is inter-generational differences. Tony can’t escape the overbearing shadow of his mother and father, his children can’t escape the fact their prosperous childhood was built on blood money. The thing that allows them all to continue on as they have forever is simultaneously what keeps them from breaking through to some sort of happiness.

In the final season we are repeatedly faced with changes of the guard; things moving forward regardless of characters’ wishes. In some sense, overcoming trauma is an act of positive forgetting. You don’t have memories, you clutch them. At a certain point that little voice in your head that sounds like Marie Kondo is telling you to let them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem; your identity is often tied up in your resentments. Sometimes you need a push.

In the case of Tony Soprano, the memory of his trauma is one and the same as his identity and personal code; in spite of his performances of power, he is entirely a product of his environment. As it is for many of us, his “big other” in Lacanian terms, the invisible imagined voice pestering him about what is and isn’t acceptable, are his dead father and mother. They’re the memory of the old country, heritage, the extent to which we are disallowed from self-invention from the outset.

Artie the chef, Tony’s comic foil, is allowed to come to actual peace with this-the last time we see him, even with his bandaged hand, he seems fine and is perusing the book of recipes he inherited. He’s allowed to take from the old world while living in the new one.

When Tony’s mother dies, Tony’s resentment is passed to his sister and Uncle Junior. When times get lean, Tony realizes on some level his commitment to the old ways is holding him back. When Tony sees Uncle Junior has lost all his memories and doesn’t remember who Tony even is, Tony suddenly feels fine selling the old egg store to Jambha Juice. Seeing Uncle Junior has gone completely senile is Tony cutting his ties to the past, killing Christopher is him cutting ties to its continuance-the past’s future if you will. And the meetings with Jambha Juice underscore just how little relevance the way of life we’ve followed throughout the entire series had. A new set of kingpins, with vastly more money and the power to just take more money legally, will make the Italian mob irrelevant. The new lieutenants and capos are lawyers and executives. The new world will reign regardless of what Tony does. The criminal syndicates to beat now aren’t a bunch of elderly Italian guys in New Jersey, but the politicians waging an illegal war in Iraq-the irony of AJ being gung ho to join the military. He’d still be killing people so crooks could collect money, he’d just be doing it outside the family, for an organization that values snitches.

Throughout the show, we see all the horrific ways the sausage gets made so that this family can sit in average-ness at a generic diner. The mob family is no longer around, only the immediate nuclear family. The cycle of horror will continue, but the way of life of the old country is dead.

Maybe on some level Tony even realizes that if his kids succeed in the way he wants them to, the old country will be lost anyway. Meadow’s taking about as whitebread a third generation immigrant path as you can take in the finale. They were Italians but they’re Italian-Americans now.

Might as well enjoy some onion rings…

 

 

 

 

Oz: The Actual Prison is Your TV

One of my favorite TV series of all time is the short lived Canadian sitcom Twitch City. The show follows the life of a man named Curtis, who literally never leaves his apartment and watches TV all day. We’re confronted with the infinity mirror of us sitting on a couch watching TV where a guy on a couch watches TV of another guy on a couch watching TV in the starkest terms imaginable.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Curtis discusses an episode of Gilligan’s Island. I’ve never actually seen the Gilligan episode, but apparently it involves a very fake looking octopus monster attacking the cast. Curtis points out that the thing trapping them all on the island isn’t the fake looking monster. The reason they’re acting afraid of the monster isn’t the monster. The thing trapping them on the island is us. They act afraid for our benefit. So long as we keep watching, Gilligan can’t leave the island.

And so it is with jumping the shark. Shark jumping can be accounted for in many ways-a change of writing staff, a budget cut, etc. But what we’re ultimately looking at are fictional things a la Meseeks that have passed the point of wanting to please us, have no meaning to their existence, and want to disappear but can’t because we won’t let them.

No show ever jumped the shark as dramatically as Oz, which started out as one of the best and boldest things ever shown on TV and ends with the worst series finale I’ve ever seen after 2 1/2 seasons of the worst scripted TV I’ve ever seen.

But let’s talk about the good stuff first.

Oz is noteworthy for many many reasons. It was the first hour long scripted drama that HBO ever aired and the first show to truly push the outer limits of what was allowed on premium cable vis a vis violence and sexual content. It was one of the only shows on TV at the time that spent a lot of time considering LGBTQ and black issues. It presented the most harshly critical indictment of US society seen on TV up to that point. Episodes have bizarre meandering structures uninhibited by advertisement-induced act breaks. All the innovations present in 90s cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street are explored in a new sandbox without rules. No Oz means no Sopranos, no Wire, no Deadwood, basically TV in the 00s is an entirely different beast without Oz.

My interest in Oz is primarily due to this transitional status. The premium scripted cable drama didn’t really come into its own until a year or two later with The Sopranos, so there are many points in Oz that stand as fascinating roads not taken-what 00s TV could’ve become in some alternate universe.

Foremost among these is the strangely stage-like monologing to the camera that bookends each episode. Prisoner Augustus Hill, confined to a wheelchair, talks about something that seems random but integrates itself into the themes of a given episode. These work, but its hard to imagine them becoming a trope of prestige TV at large even though Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions often serve a similar function on The Sopranos. But even that trope was largely discarded, and the number of scenes of people talking to therapists even in shows that ostensibly about mental health are minimal. For example, Bojack Horseman is almost entirely about depression, but the only two times we see an actual therapy session are both just winking jokes about The Sopranos.

But back to Oz. Oz is an incredibly difficult show to talk about I guess because it does sit between so many contradictions and transitional points. It’s stagey where the future of prestige TV was overwhelmingly cinematic, it’s good for a while then its terrible, it makes bolder political points than any of the shows that followed it but often does so artlessly.

While the initial draw is its place in the HBO canon, the show it most reminds me of is Degrassi. Like Degrassi, the show thrives when showing long term changes in personality and character. Like Degrassi, it takes place in an institution where a wide cross section of society interacts directly because they have no choice but to be there. Like Degrassi, it loves controversial subjects-it goes there. Like Degrassi, the protagonist is a building, not a person. Like Degrassi, the cast shifts in and out all the time and there’s no person you can presume is a permanent cast member.

It’s what I guess you could call “an institution show”. While many many shows take place in institutions, few of them are so fully confined to them. In Oz, this is exaggerated to the point that we never see the prisoners do any kind of outdoor recreation-it was a conscious choice at the outset. While Degrassi was never structured to have a star or primary protagonist, it didn’t start placing 95% of the action in the high school until later on. However, like Oz leaving the prison, when Degrassi leaves the high school it suffers a drop in quality (the college storylines in season 5-6 of Degrassi: TNG are godawful.) Unlike Degrassi, which peaked early but has generally been very good in spurts for ~40 years now, when Oz jumps the shark in the middle of season 4, it never comes back.

Unlike somewhat more balanced shows that came later, pretty much everyone is awful except for the prison psychologist(played by the miraculously ageless EGOT-er Rita Moreno, who’s 88 now and still regularly doing TV.) At a certain point, the lack of a foil mixed with the showrunner’s stunned disbelief HBO would let him show (insert literally anything that ever happened on Oz here) create a perfect storm of awfulness. By the end, the characters may as well all be named Itchy or Scratchy-they exist in a pointless cycle of stabbing and/or maiming each other, but with soap opera elements Itchy and Scratchy smartly avoided.

I don’t really blame writer/creator Tom Fontana (who wrote every single episode, a rarity for US TV) for that. He was handed a blank slate, and for 4 years his boundary pushing yielded results. He made a lot of the mistakes first, at least in this context. And they can be kinda fascinating for that reason-a mistake can carry a certain fascination in its freshness. Bad is bad, but most shows don’t give us one year of great TV, much less four.

The characters show a less than hopeful view of US society. Sex-addicted, well meaning but ineffectual warden Tim McManus is both sympathetic (for the most part) but also an indictment of incremental reform, of running an inherently rotten system in a slightly more humane way. The enormous and imposing Simon Adebisi is pure ambition with seemingly nothing under it-he takes what he wants; he seems to have no god beyond his own sensory desires. Political activist Kareem Said, the only prisoner where we’re never given a flashback to the crime he committed, exists as a foil to McManus-like McManus, he sees the way to make change as being through the inside, unlike McManus he’s not stuck in a sea of bureaucracy and can’t be distracted whatever female guards the prison hires. Said is as close as we get to an outright admirable character.

If it ended after the 8th episode of season 4, Oz would’ve been just the slightest step below the HBO trinity (Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos) in the TV canon. Its inherent structural deficiencies would’ve been less noticeable. But since they are, I’m just gonna end here with my number one complaint:

Whenever we see the correctional officers at their perch looking down on the prisoners, we see rows upon rows of Sony Trinitron monitors for a CCTV surveillance system. We see picture on these TVs. Yet somehow, somebody gets murdered almost every episode, sometimes multiple people, and there’s never any video evidence or suggestion video evidence might exist.

Maybe the Trinitrons represent us?

 

Hollywoo Babylon: Bojack Horseman and the End of TV’s Golden Age

One of the few silver linings of the otherwise atrocious situation we all have found ourselves in is that I was able to watch Netflix’s Bojack Horseman from beginning to end over two months rather than 6 years. Watching it as it came out, I appreciated the show but I don’t think the full scale of what was accomplished there came into relief until now.

During this article, when I write BH I’m talking about the show, when I write out Bojack Horseman I’m talking specifically about the character.

This review is gonna contain a lot of spoilers, and the show is very much worth watching. So if you haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back. The article will still be here.

Anyway, BH’s bizarre mixture of tones and techniques made for a confusing show at the outset. We have the tropes of the dark male anti-hero with a terrible childhood of Mad Men or The Sopranos (Breaking Bad’s largest formal innovation honestly was probably its complete lack of interest in Walter White’s childhood). There’s a long-suffering female character, Princess Caroline, whose relationship to the protagonist veers uncomfortably between relating to the protagonist like a lover or their mother. The protagonist then does bad things and we’re expected to explore perhaps our favorite conflict as a culture-how do we deal with people who we find personally likeable who do bad things, especially when that person is us?

But while engaging the tropes of the live action anti-hero TV drama, we’re also thrust into a brightly colored world filled with an enormous volume of background gags a la The Simpsons. We have things that begin to suggest parody or meta-criticism. The opening sequence, an animation of Bojack falling from a great height into his pool, is obviously supposed to evoke the opening of Mad Men while also evoking the opening of Sunset Boulevard. Yet at the same time, we’re looking at a cartoon horse, and, already being very familiar with the Mad Men opening, it feels somewhat ridiculous. Bojack’s sidekick Todd, voiced by the man who played Walter White’s sidekick Jesse on Breaking Bad, makes the initial impression of being a sort of riff on Jesse. Other examples of tonally diffused pastiche abound. By bringing all these self-aware elements into the tent, the show is very much a reckoning with the latest golden age of TV, what it actually all meant, and what that golden age has wrought.

The merger of animation absurdism with dark psychological realism seems like it shouldn’t work because on paper because the functional mechanisms of each would seem to clash. We take the darkness of the psychology of TV drama somewhat seriously because of the grounded tone of the programs right? Absurdist humor in that context would seem to suggest a lack of respect for the struggles of the characters and their trauma right?

This problem has tripped up many comedic and dramatic shows that have attempted to go into serious or dark territory-as a writer you don’t want to give the sense of disliking your characters especially when the audience is supposed to find them relatable. At best you need to leave them ambiguous, or as in the case of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, implicate and then scold the viewer for their relating to the protagonist. But then you have a different problem: scolding in a power fantasy tends to just underline the powerlessness of the person doing the scolding and powerful qualities of the transgressor. Both of those shows could be very funny, but the humor wasn’t an expected occurrence and as such is consumed by the viewer as gravy in between weightier things. We relate to the characters of Tony Soprano and Walter White in certain ways, but we’re never given much ambiguity as to whether they’re bad people or not-they’re both very much terrible people.

Depending on how the TV industry deals with COVID-19, we could be looking at the end of TV’s second golden age. If this is the case, then BH is the epilogue to this period; one could say the golden age of TV began with the debut of The Simpsons and it may have ended with the BH finale. And even if we do get another show that’s as good, I’m not sure any other show could summarize, reflect, and move forward from that period as brilliantly as BH. The world building of The Simpsons meets the dark psychology of the anti-hero drama; the cultural optimism of the 90s is put in relief with the US decline of the 2010s; the innocuous but wholesome values we all told ourselves we held weren’t held very deeply or adopted with much consideration. The promise of a utopia made out of domestic boredom with slight hiccups, the bill of goods sold by the 80s and 90s family sitcom, turns out to be a barely functional repression of the id. When Bojack sees his fictional daughter for the first time, he goes on a bender and has wildly inappropriate sexual relations with her. We escape into boredom but long to get in trouble. Generally we lack the resources to get into too much trouble. But Bojack Horseman doesn’t.

The interior of the domestic home is probably the most potent and evocative symbol in the TV medium. This is the case for a number of reasons, primarily because it is while situated in the home that TV most resembles a wavy and distorted Narcissus mirror of the physical conditions where we consume TV. Technical limitations led to most early TV being relegated to one or two backdrops, one of which was almost always a recreated kitchen or living room on a studio set. This living room or kitchen is generally far more clean, orderly, and unchanging than the living rooms and kitchens of our actual homes. This living room is missing a wall because it exists to be observed. No one actually lives there.

In BH we have two primary “house” locations that constitute the world of Bojack-#1 we have the place elsewhere that was never actually real, can easily be projected onto, and ergo is the place most favored by Bojack, namely the Horsin’ Around set. #2 we have Bojack’s actual home. To further bring this contrast home, the majority of instances where we see the Horsin’ Around set, we’re also treated to reverse shots of a drugged up Bojack sitting alone in his giant mansion.

Bojack’s own house is extremely symbolic. We have the shelter of the house itself, the pool (which, if we experience the water shortage issues I think we’re going to, is going to look more and more potent as a sign of hedonistic self-indulgence) and then a giant cliff looking out into the stars the show uses to represent the void. We’re given few symbolic markers of death throughout the show but numerous symbolic markers of nothingness. The nothingness is the scary part of both life and death. Death is not going to provide the narrative closure and catharsis we want from this narrative.

Whenever we’re shown the inside of any other house besides Mr Peanutbutter’s, its usually to explore some aspect of Bojack’s desire both to self-destruct and to return to the domestic simplicity of childhood he never got to experience. This is most notable in the storyline where Bojack goes to New Mexico and stays with the family of an old friend for months. He gets some taste of what a functional family feels like. But ultimately its not his family. He doesn’t really have a family. He can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of knowing he finally got what he wanted but its on loan. He self-destructs yet again and leaves because he wants to have control over the heartbreak of his inevitably having to leave anyway.

That this self-sabotage takes the form of trying to have sex with the mother and then the daughter suggests heavy Freudian overtones-that Bojack’s healing from his abusive mother, at least in Bojack’s mind, needs to take the form of both radical acceptance he’s never going to get and violation of society’s norms and rules as revenge for his perception society abandoned him. Or, as he tends to put it, “nobody cares about me.” In a nihilistic rejection of society comes a profound sense of loneliness and lack but also brief feelings of incredible yet fleeting power; you’re alone but you can do what you want in brief moments because in your own eyes the social contract has been voided. There’s never an actual sense of ease, but brief surges of feeling powerful by violating social codes give a fleeting and illusory sense of control. When, as in the case of Bojack, there is no normal to return to, no equilibrium to reach, this can be a tempting proposition.

If we zoom out and take a macro view, Bojack’s self-indulgent excess in the face of extravagant wealth and good fortune can be seen as a metaphor for the decline of the US generally. The collective we were on top of the world for a long time. Many of us were granted material comforts that in prior centuries would’ve only been given to kings. Yet we continue to squander what’s left of this windfall in self-destructive posturing, and feel miserable doing so. We can’t replace the things we never got from other people with objects. And I think that narrative has played itself out enough where we don’t genuinely believe it anymore. But we don’t have an alternative thing to replace them with, so we keep trying to make the objects do it like a cargo cult. If the US is truly the greatest country on Earth, then why is our most substantial domestic product escapism?

Bojack is beloved by millions but feels unloved. Bojack has all the possessions you could ever want but all he feels is lack. In earlier anti-hero shows, there was, amidst all the moral posturing, hints you could potentially have it all. Tony Soprano is never really happy, but he can indulge in food, sex, and recreational consumerism as much as he wants. Walter White was gonna die anyway, but before he goes he gets to live out his Scarface fantasy and redeem himself by killing Nazis. On the sitcom side, the most superficially similar show to Bojack ever made, You’re the Worst, featured a finale where the friend Jimmy has abused goes out of his way to make sure Jimmy’s happy, and depression magically cures itself and love conquers all with some technical differences from the standard issue fantasy. There are moments of reckoning, but a fear that too harsh a reckoning will alienate the audience. TV wants us to know it personally but not so much as it wants to be liked.

Genuine happiness in the midst of rampant self-indulgence is impossible, yet our culture’s go-to self medication for feeling unhappy is rampant self-indulgence. And at the height of US imperialism abroad, this was almost taken as a sign of pride-we’re unhappy, we work too much, but we have cooler stuff than everywhere else and the reassurance that, through privilege, things will generally be fine even if we aren’t happy. In some cases, misery and stress are seen as points of pride, signs that one is on the level. A stressed out person with a nice house is seen as admirable, a relaxed person on the verge of homelessness is seen as a leech.

The split final season of BH is the first TV anti-hero reckoning that has come since the US finally accepted it was in decline and it shows. A once arrogantly proud and powerful creature has run out of options; he looks forward at us with his back to the stars and the void. He’s still here, but the idea of himself is dead without any promise of rebirth, the rituals he used to comfort himself and assert control have lost whatever potency they had. His self-indulgence didn’t lead to excitement or adventure-it didn’t make life at least heightened if unpleasant. It just scared away the people who cared about him and ruined him financially. The prior anti-hero reckonings meet their own meta-reckoning.

Season 6B of BH also extends the exploration of the social values hidden in tropes back to the 1930s with an extended riff on the first ever romantic comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. In this movie, as in many 30s screwball comedies, a fast talking but extremely charismatic rogue is presented to a woman who’s engaged to a guy who’s nice enough but boring. In season 6B of BH we’re introduced to two reporter characters who are absurd caricatures of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. They act out riffs on various scenes from the film. Meanwhile, we’re given two romantic resolutions that stand as direct criticisms of the It Happened One Night values.

When Diane meets literal Chicago Bull and future husband Guy, I don’t think any viewers would say he’s actually that interesting or compelling. Honestly he’s kinda boring. But he’s stable and supportive. And Diane only escapes her cycle of self destructive behavior by realizing the thing that’s less exciting is better for her, and that she has to reject the thing hurting her (Bojack) even if she probably loves and understands Bojack more than she does Guy. To further underline this point, Bojack’s agent Princess Caroline, who begins the series in an extremely unfulfilling romantic relationship with Bojack, ends the series by marrying the least Bojack-like character on the series, Jonah.She begins the series thinking her only value is as a caregiver but eventually, like Diane, realizes it not an awful thing she needs someone to take care of her too.

A thing they tell you in therapy that isn’t discussed much outside therapy is that dysfunction is very compelling and exciting. Often moreso than the alternative. You know its bad for you but you feel almost bodily compelled to stay like when you accidentally touch electrical current. Your brain releases strong chemicals like adrenaline and conditions your supply on getting hooked into repetitions of the dysfunction. But like electrical current, there’s a lot pain and a large price to pay if you can’t pry yourself away.

The fact that our cultural golden age of TV production was so obsessed with redeeming or at least empathizing with awfulness and violence while exalting entertainment value as a moral value in and of itself was telling. And in denying Bojack the dramatic catharsis of death, thereby damning him to continuing to live with his mess, BH both stands as an all-time high water mark of the anti-hero genre and delivers its eulogy.

 

Will there be a new “bike boom?”

cycling

Westfield, NJ May 2020

Just about the only place I’m seeing long lines in my little corner of the suburban NYC hot zone is my local bike store. It’s easy to see why. All of the gyms are closed, and will be for the foreseeable future, so people are digging up all those old bikes from their basements and getting them repaired.

As Carlton Reid points out in his new book “Bike Boom,” the last time the United States saw a major resurgence of cycling was in the 1970s. Partly because of the 1960s counterculture and partly because of the 1970s oil shocks, everybody started riding bikes.

In Washington DC, there was a young Post staff reporter called Carl Bernstein – later to become half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pair – known as the “office hippie” and a “long-haired freak who rode a bicycle …”

“Many cyclists harbour fierce antipathy for what they regard as an automobile culture that is choking the nation with fumes, speed, noise and concrete,” he wrote in the Post in 1970. He went on to describe a “growing group of cyclists who regard pedalling as an almost political act and inevitably flash the two-finger peace symbol upon encountering another person on a bike”.

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jun/16/pedal-ins-patchouli-bikeology-americas-forgotten-1970s-cycle-boom

There were also plans in the 1970s to build a cycling infrastructure in the United States that would have rivaled that of Germany or the Netherlands, but sadly it never got off the ground. Like many good ideas that came out of the 1970s energy crisis, the bike boom turned out to be a fad. Perhaps it’s possible now, but I suspect people will go back to the gyms as soon as it gets cold (if they’re open).

The Eleven Most Influential Figures of Christianity Ranked in Order of Importance

1.) Plato (428-347 BC): Athenian Philosopher, the first intellectual to pioneer the concept of an immortal soul separate and above the physical body.

2.) Paul the Apostle (5-67 AD): Jewish/Greek epistolarian. Responsible for earliest known Christian writings. Developed the concept of “salvation by faith.” His arguments for the largely superfluous nature of the Mosaic Law laid the intellectual foundations for the spread of Christianity to Western Europe.

3.) Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD): North African, Berber intellectual who wrote a grand synthesis of the theories of Paul the Apostle and Neo-Platonism. Developed key Christian concepts like original sin and the trinity.

4.) Constantine the Great (272-337 AD): First Roman Emperor to declare himself Christian. Organized the First Council of Nicaea, which codified the main tenets of orthodox Christianity.

5.) Jesus (0 -33 AD): Syrian Jewish political activist and militant in the early days of the Roman Empire. May or may not have considered himself a Christian. Pioneered the concept of spiritual, as opposed to armed rebellion against state power. Early advocate of single-payer, free at the point of service health-care. No longer influential in the modern day Christian religion, at least compared to important American successors like Joel Osteen, Jim Bakker, and George W. Bush.

6.) Mary Magdalene (Early First Century AD): Associate of Jesus. Early female Christian. Laid the foundation for the development of Christianity as an underground religion (heavily organized by women) in Pagan Rome.

7.) Charlemagne (748-814 AD): Founder of Western Europe. Extended the concept of Christianity as a state religion. His use of forced conversion (salvation at the point of the sword) brought Christianity to Northern Italy, Germany, and the Western Slavs. Rendered it largely impossible for the Umayyad Caliphate to extend its power into Northern Europe.

8.) Muhammad (571-632 AD) Arab merchant and religious leader. Solidified monotheism in the Near East and North Africa against paganism. Has, over the centuries, provided Christian state leaders with a militant “other” that eventually led to the Christian idea of Holy War, which, in turn laid the foundations for a militarized Western Europe and eventual world conquest.

9.) Hernán Cortés (1485-1547 AD): Opened the southern part of the Western Hemisphere, the birthplace of the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church, to the Christian religion.

10.) Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD): His protests against the corruption inside the Roman Catholic Church led to a revival of Christianity in Western Europe, as well as the important, and militant Calvinist faith (which eventually became key to the Christianization of North America).

11.) Francisco Franco (1892-1974 AD): Prevented the secularization of Spain, and in turn, of Latin America, by the militant left. Reestablished the idea of Christian state power. Paved the way for orthodox Christianity to emerge as a major factor in the destruction of the Soviet Union by his, largely unacknowledged, intellectual and spiritual successor Karol Józef Wojtyła.

The Killing Fields

killing-fields

Cranford, NJ May 2020

It doesn’t look like a death camp, but as of today, 39 people have died of complications related to Covid-19. We should look at the elderly as the canary in the coal mine. You can learn a lot about a society by what happens to the weakest and the most vulnerable. People in their 80s are going to die. There’s not much we can do about it, but they don’t have to die this way.

A High School English Teacher Grades Famous Writers

E. E. Cummings (B-) “Edward. You should a good deal of creativity and independence of mind but spelling conventions exist for a reason.”

Shakespeare (C+) “Bill. I really liked some of your work, especially the play about the failson who has a thing for his mom and the two young lovers but you tend to take it a little over the top sometimes and just out and out make up words. I’m only being so hard on you because I think you can do better.”

Mark Twain (F): “Mr. Clemens. We do not use the N word in this class. Please resubmit.”

Rimbaud (D): “Monsieur Rimbaud. We really don’t need to know about all the drugs you’ve done. If you want to start a punk band, start a punk band. This is high school.”

Victor Hugo (C+): “Victor. You show some potential and have some interesting stories but you consistently run over the word count limit. You can probably get away with it here but it’s going to hurt you when you get to college.”

T.S. Eliot (F): “Mr. Eliot. You’re not as clever as you think you are. We naive old Boomers have this little program called Turnitin. You have clearly plagiarized much of your ‘poem.’ Putting in footnotes doesn’t excuse it. Please see the Vice Principal. He will arrange a conference with your parents.”

Jonathan Swift: (D): “Ooo. Real edgy about eating babies. Get off the Internet and grow up. This is a class, not shit posting on 8Chan.”

John Milton: (B+): “Pretty good poem, if a bit long. But as my mother used to tell me, mixing politics and religion usually just leads to bad feeling. Next time try to find a more neutral subject.”

Emily Bronte( A-): “We all love the bad boys, especially when we’re young. But see your sister’s paper for a warning. They’re usually hiding something unpleasant in the closet.”

Samuel Beckett: (F): “Some of us are still waiting for the point Sam. Did you even read the instructions?”

Emile Zola (D): “I’m not really interested in your politics. Do better.”

Mark: (A-): “Absolutely terrific story about a poor boy who grows up to be a great teacher and spiritual adviser. Can the subaltern speak? You’ve proven that against the Roman Empire he can. I loved the imagery of the three crosses and that scene where he chases the money changers out of the temple. Terrific writing. But I can’t help but think you got a bit lazy with the ending. What? They kill him and then he just gets up and walks? Reminds me of a bad TV show where the screenwriter resolves the plot by saying it’s all a dream.”

Charles Bukowski (D): “I know you may not want to hear this but you’re actually a privileged white male. You got that unionized job at the Post Office and some better qualified person of color didn’t. Stop being so self-indulgent.”

Noam Chomsky (F): “Right. It’s all the media’s fault. How is that working out for our current President. Fake news. Fake news. And where did you get most of your examples. From the media, of course.”

Phillip Roth (A): “I liked the book about the Nazis taking over New Jersey but the one about the boy jerking off borders on sexual harassment. But I guess I better give you an A because if I don’t you’ll go whining to the ADL.”

William Faulker (D): “I honestly didn’t understand half of what you wrote. And much of it is borderline ableist and racist.”

Karl Marx: (C): “Lazy political writing. You ignore the intersectional complexity of our patriarchal and racist society to concentrate on class. You seem to have gotten most of your idea of what a proletarian looks like from a Springsteen album.”