Category Archives: TV Shows

Reading Video Games

VIDEO GAMES AND JUNK CULTURE

Having largely ignored them for most of my existence, I finally came around to video games a few years ago and have since been exploring the canon, mostly with an emphasis on things made before the year 2000. My interest was initially academic-I’ve been writing a long manuscript on the history of TV for some time and it seemed like any manifesto on the nature of TV that didn’t acknowledge video games was going to be woefully incomplete.

The attention paid to video games is odd in comparison to other 20th century mediums-whereas everything from cinema to broadcast TV to comic books eventually found a community of people willing to discuss them intellectually, not much on that front has been done with video games. And while this is pretty common in what’s still a fairly early time for a medium considered to be disposable or low culture, this doesn’t help somebody trying to write about them. Or rather, its fun and exciting in the sense that there’s so much to cover, but that nagging insecurity is still there that any salient points I get to will just work as forgotten stepping stones toward a more developed or advanced theory.

Video games differ substantially from prior mass media forms in numerous ways. Unlike other media, you by and large are not in control of the level of engagement you need to have to get something out of it. I can put an old movie on in the background and the movie will play whether I’m paying attention or not. Presuming the mixing was done competently, the only buttons I need to hit are to turn on the TV and DVD player and then hit play.

This need for engagement stemming from the initial distribution model of quarters for play time makes the medium both more and less mentally stimulating. On the one hand, every game that can be beaten is, on some level, a puzzle game-even something like Super Mario Bros mixes large amounts of strategy with hand-eye coordination. And even a game that can be beaten without strategizing much can always be beaten better in some way. In this sense, games require more active thought than most things. On the other hand, this thought is confined to the arbitrary parameters of something designed entirely for immersion-video games as a medium have been more resistant to a “realism” movement than any other medium I can think of. Obstacles are simple and unlike in real life, one is assured they can be overcome with the right answers, answers that relate heavily to other video games but don’t interact much with the world outside video games. Like Euclidian geometry they are a set of rules that are internally consistent but untouched by nature.

Another appeal is the simulacra of unfettered movement and unimaginable power without consequence-the appeal of a dream where one is flying. The body is both immobilized and immersed-the eyes, ears and hands are all actively engaged in an activity that punishes you for letting your mind wander. Tellingly, my girlfriend who has little experience playing games always describes her frustrations with their difficulty thus: “It feels like one of those dreams where I can’t get my body parts to do what I want them to.” At the same time, this flying dream appeal is necessarily limited by the complications needed to establish an effective psychological rewards system to encourage people to keep playing. I can run as fast as I want to, but if I touch the wrong thing I die and am reborn. The world of speed running then becomes one of layered dreams; the fantasy of escaping better, of a zen merger of the inherent you-game duality.

The need for near-constant interaction also limits the extent to which games can function in a didactic role the way films and literature and even comic books frequently do. It’s far more obvious and feels far more ridiculous when a video game is telling me about saving the environment than when I’m watching a documentary that’s literally just talking at me about the same things. No one has ever made a successful “game polemic” and understandably, no one really wants one. A polemic implies a person speaking (or writing or whatnot) and a person or persons listening and the polemic’s power comes from the speakers position as not being the listener. A video game works on a collapse of that dynamic. Unlike any prior mass media form, a video game implies a breakdown of the consumer/producer dynamic, as is evident from the enormous competitive gaming and streaming scenes.

What is especially fascinating about the breakdown in this dynamic is that suddenly enormous numbers of people who would balk at say an art film making them work to get anything out of it will staunchly defend the difficulty of a video game, and people who’ve spent their time learning to read other forms of mass media in depth will frequently avoid the medium altogether for the same reasons in reverse.

Like the other major artistic mediums to come out of the 20th century going back to jazz, its early development being shielded from academic consideration may have been for the best, allowing it breathing room to go in its own direction. Thankfully, relative to other 20th century media, most of the early history has been preserved in some form, usually a form that’s pretty easily accessible, especially if you’re willing to spend a few dollars on a console and a flash cartridge (a thing that looks and acts like a video game cartridge but reads its data from an SD card instead of a flashed rom chip or optical drive). While I’m sure there are games that are lost (a few SNES Sattel, and prototype games on unlabeled cartridges from the 80s and 90s seem to pop up every few months, that’s not a bad track record compared to the 90% of silent film and probably 98% of early TV (and 99% of the early internet?) that are completely lost barring the introduction of a time machine. This spirit of preservation in the retro gaming community is one of the things that sets it apart. The fact that the vast majority of games were home releases and not broadcasts or performances helps matters greatly. Software can also be preserved in 1:1 copies and with advances in FPGA hardware emulation it seems likely that the hardware itself can live on in a similar fashion, the soul of the machine transmigrating every few years to a different system on a chip. The rapid advance of flash cartridges and FPGA based clone consoles represent one of the most important advances in cultural preservation in recent memory, given the highly ephemeral nature of computing hardware.

However, in preserving the experience, these also change the experience. Being able to pay $40 and have every Sega Genesis game at my fingertips is not the experience people who owned a Genesis when it was current would’ve had-games were very expensive, and having bought out peoples’ collections, on average the most intense fan of any given console still would only have 40-50 games at most unless they went on a buying spree when the stuff went on clearance. Games that seem to be difficult now were probably seen as having a good consumer value at the time since you didn’t want to pay $60 for a game then finish it in a day. This also added to the emotional attachment-to finish a difficult game brings that adrenaline drip of having accomplished something. You have to become familiar with each nook and cranny intimately or else you’re not allowed to move forward; in film you’re pushed forward in time regardless. It’s not that strange to attempt a video game level 15-20 times but its considered fairly strange to have seen any single film 15-20 times.

Games have a tendency to wander into what would be considered the extreme avant-garde in the film world. Making a film without content, a “pure film”, an obsession of the 60s structuralism movement, was achieved quite early in video games and with none of the attached friction. In the cinema, asking people to emotionally engage with geometric shapes devoid of context is seen as a challenge to the viewer and the norms of artistic consumption and production; in video games its just called Tetris.

And even in games that could considered to be at least somewhat closer to a traditional narrative, something like say Super Mario Bros, we’re still treated to a funhouse mirror version of the world ruled by what pleases the principles of industrial design. The introduction of consequences and a simple punishment/reward system makes it quite simple to suspend disbelief at a short plumber fighting over a girl with a deformed half-turtle half-dinosaur through a world of mushroom shaped things that either kill you on contact or make you grow to twice your size.

Like many former “low culture” media, there is a freedom that comes with a public’s inability or unwillingness to engage critically, and like prior “low culture” media, that capacity can be used for good or bad.

This makes games incredibly difficult to translate into film-the demands of each medium are diametrically opposed. The things that might make an interesting film tend to make a terrible game and vice versa.

Would I love to see a movie of Mario finally defeating Bowser and getting to be with Princess Peach only to discover getting the girl is the easy part-the true challenge is sustaining a marriage-that his true love was the pursuit and not Peach? Yes! Of course I would. There’s so much there. Mario seems like someone perpetually thrilled by conquest with no sense of the domestic beyond the pipes beneath a double decker ranch home.

Nintendo, if you’re reading this and looking to lose another $40 million dollars on a second Mario Bros movie, I would make that in a heartbeat.

But would I want to play a game based on that premise? No, I wouldn’t (though I suppose some of the more cynical among us might presume that’s the backstory to at least part of Super Smash Bros.). The video game understands that Peach is a MacGuffin.

THE ROOTS OF VIDEO GAMES

In trying to find what defines a medium in opposition to other mediums, its generally useful to go back to the maxims set out by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. Particularly salient here is his assertion that “the content of the new media is always the old media”-the content of early cinema mimics the stage play and the point where cinema comes into its own is almost always defined as the point when it breaks off from those roots.

So what is the “old media” that provided the basis for the first video games? The most obvious answer would be childrens’ games and casinos. The “?” boxes in Super Mario have that randomized reward thing going on like a slot machine. The other mechanics of the game resemble tag, much like Pacman and the hundreds of clones of Pacman out there like Devil’s World. Even a game as story and narrative heavy as Metal Gear Solid takes its basic mechanics from tag and tag’s weird nephew paintball, and the narrative, while skillfully constructed and quite thoughtful by game standards, still has to act primarily as a laundry line between situations where you’re playing tag with an imaginary gun; any substance to the narrative outside the experience of game play itself is gravy.

And then of course, the first 5 or 6 years of home consoles were dominated by what are called “dedicated consoles”, i.e. consoles with the games built in and no tech included to run other software-similar to contemporary “plug-n-play” devices like the SNES of NES classic editions that came out a few years ago. These consoles invariably contained simplified simulacras of tennis, ping pong, and other popular sports like hockey or basketball. Sometimes these weren’t even separate games but the same game with different transparent overlays you’d put over your TV to make it look more like ice hockey even when the gameplay is still identical to Pong. The earliest games then were defined by a combination of what was considered athletic leisure at the time and the severe limits of what early computers could do.

In the next generation beginning in the 80s, the lightgun game becomes very popular to the point many consoles included one as a pack-in. The most famous example is Duck Hunt-you take a plastic “gun” that shoots infrared light and it detects by the light bouncing back whether you shot at the TV in the right place. One wonders how the vibe in Graceland’s basement would’ve changed had Elvis lived to buy an NES console, being that he was probably the first person to pioneer using firearms in conjunction with CRTs. Maybe we would’ve gotten a hot pink Zapper.

Duck Hunt’s simplicity makes it a good one to analyze, though most of what I’m saying here could apply equally well to other early light gun games like Hogan’s Alley or Bill Barker’s Trick Shooting. Despite the more direct antecedent to the light gun game being mechanical pre-video game arcade machines that used guns that shot light (these date back to the 1920s), the gameplay of Duck Hunt is still centered around 19th and early 20th century ideas of bourgeoisie leisure-you go out with your faithful basset hound and shoot ducks or clay targets in the woods. The others take pains to resemble carnival shooting galleries. That the light gun was so integral to the normalizing of game consoles in the home is even more interesting when considering the first prototype ever made of a TV remote had the form factor of a pistol.

What is it exactly about TV that makes one want a gun so badly? Why did the inventor of the TV remote, forced to respond to the novelty of his discovery like it was a Rorschach blot,  immediately think “pistol”? Perhaps the threatening qualities of the new technology might be mitigated in the minds of viewers by the repeated ritual of their staring down their sets at gunpoint-what could better reinforce that the TV is your subordinate? Like Joe Pesci, you point and say “dance”-it dances and doesn’t ask questions. You are authority-you bring law and order to the living room. He who has the remote becomes the sheriff of the home.

The lightgun is also the simplest of all video game controllers. The relative simplicity of even the normal NES controller required 8 input buttons-the lightgun only has one. Even the classic Atari 2600 joystick still theoretically has a whopping 5 inputs by comparison (up-down-left-right-fire). While this accessibility factor doesn’t help me too much in my theorizing, it should be acknowledged. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and sometimes something is just fun and accessible for reasons of mechanics that transcend cultural context. The relative failure of consoles with far more complicated controllers like the Mattel Intellivision would support this.

The Intellivision controller also highlights how important understanding McLuhan’s maxim was in the dog-eat-dog world of early gaming. For those who’ve never seen one, the Intellivision controller most closely resembles a very very early mobile phone like you’d see built into the back of a limo in an old time movie. It’s a Rembrandt-brown rectangle with a 9 digit number pad. This number pad has weird mushy membrane buttons sort of like some electronic cash registers or a debit card reader/ATM. The directional control is a circular cardboard wafer you spin around with your thumb sort of like how you’d dial a rotary phone. But the old media the new media was feeding off of wasn’t the telephone. Nintendo understood that, Mattel presumably thought making the thing look old and muted would appeal to the largely untapped market of adults because it looked so little like something a kid could give a crap about. They were mistaken, and it died a slow lingering death. Furthermore, Nintendo knew the way to the adults was through their children, not by making them feel like they were running an errand at the bank. The woodgrain finish almost made the Intellivision look too serious and dignified-it looked as if it had a full time job and no time to have fun with the user.

And while I would argue the roots in sports and leisure activities of the past was the primary “old media” games cannibalized for their vessel, the urge to include or adapt aspects of narrative commercial cinema arose as soon hardware was capable of doing so. I’m not talking about game spin-offs of films, but rather cut scenes (which at their pinnacle are usually described in the game press as “cinematic”) and point and click adventure games which would usually contain the plot of something that could’ve been a movie, wrapped in sprites with token bits of movement. While most of these were released for PCs and not consoles, they were still an enormous part of the mid-80s game market and mark a departure from earlier forms of gaming; these represent games shedding the necessity of their being defined in the negative-i.e. “it’s a game (at least in part) because I can lose.” Playing something like Snatcher for the Sega CD or Treasure of Monkey Island or the dozens of other games done in that style, you’re forced to solve a few puzzles but there’s no real threat of dying, just the threat of stalling progress within the game. You’re mostly just pushed through the plotline as if a DVD had merged with its menu. The limited motion in the images also suggests early 20th century comic strips before the universal adoption of speech balloons, Choose-Your-Adventure books marketed at young adults and their early digital counterpart: text adventures which developed contemporaneously with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Both owe much of their structure to early tabletop roleplaying games like Alan Calhamer’s 1954 game Diplomacy and of course the various revisions of Dungeons and Dragons which even resembles computer processing through its use of unusually configured dice to add a mathematical element of chance and spontaneity to the game.

 

TOYS VS FURNITURE VS APPLIANCES

The earliest TVs most resembled vanity cabinets and were meant to be integrated into the home as attractive pieces of furniture. This was due to the fact that you needed a large volume of electronics to run a fairly small screen and needed to put them somewhere, but also due to the fact they rose to prominence at the same time as US home ownership skyrocketed due to the GI Bill and the post-war boom. But as time and tech advanced toward using smaller or integrated components, and TV ownership became a given of the home as opposed to a status object, the aesthetics of TVs drifted from display piece to functional object meant to be as invisible as possible. The ideal TV of the present moment would be all screen with no chassis; the power trip of the remote control no longer registers as such and feels more like another technological hurdle before doing something in a world overrun with such hurdles. With some power comes some responsibility, and who wants that when you’re trying to watch TV?

Game consoles however, didn’t quite have a furniture phase, having emerged too far past the home ownership boom. Some manufacturers thought they were toys and marketed them as such-Nintendo famously sold people on the NES console after the great video game market crash of 1984 by selling it through the giant plastic Trojan horse of ROB the Robot which made it look like a toy more than the video game consoles everyone was pissed at after ET for the Atari 2600 came out (along with a lot of other unplayably bad 2600 games.) The US version of the console, the famous “toaster” model, was redesigned from the Japanese version to more closely resemble a VCR.

Further emphasizing their unusual hybrid nature, while every other appliance made in the period of the game industry establishing itself and its norms would strive over time for fewer and fewer buttons, culminating in the eventual complete elimination of buttons from the Apple Iphone, game consoles trended towards more and more buttons and joystick components until the most recent generation where I think most of the companies realized that people are confused and frustrated by anything with more buttons than a PS2 Dualshock controller.

Game consoles, due to their general parameters not having been defined yet through repeated practice, also serve as a fascinating study in the economy of stuff vs. space, which has been one of the defining cultural issues of our time. In less than a generation, the indication of status moved from having stuff to having space, and notions of physical size or volume of an object correlating on a scale with perceived consumer value flatlined. Being  rich “the right way” went from Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu of boxed random stuff to Steve Jobs and his famously empty apartment, empty except for, of course, an incredibly expensive Tiffany lamp. In their time of flux, game console design went after both approaches with varied success-the NEC Turbografx 16 was so small that when a reissued “mini” version of it was released last year, they couldn’t get it much smaller than the original model. Toward the other extreme, the Atari 5200 infamously takes up more space than a full sized surround sound home theater amplifier despite containing not much more in terms of hardware than the 2600 did.

An analysis of the size of game consoles should also take into account hybrid abilities-while the first model Playstation 2 is enormous, it also played CDs and DVDs, so for non-audiophile consumers, despite its large size, the console actually saved space by sparing the person from buying a separate DVD and/or CD player. This integration of the home media center from a division of labor through things like component hi-fi systems to the current standard of “a TV with the cable box, internet and sometimes even gaming capabilities built right in” would seem to be a positive thing. Less physical volume of industrial production means less waste. But at the same time, it greatly increases hardware failure and makes it increasingly more and more complex to repair and salvage these pieces of hardware, increasing the quantity of eventual e-waste. Every Iphone X produced right now will eventually be unsalvageable e-waste because they’re designed to be completely proofed against user servicing down to putting in booby traps that will brick the phone if you make the slightest error try to do something as simple as changing the battery. This should be illegal and a massive issue, but doesn’t seem to be outside of right-to-repair circles.

Video games are also odd in that they thrive on constant format wars that would hobble most other industries. If there was an HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray war every 5-7 years, would people still be purchasing home videos or would consumer confidence be shaken to the point they’d take a tech downgrade in favor of market stability? This is a rhetorical question of course, as that was what happened when VHS and Beta went at it. Similarly, it should be noted that the cliche that pornography determines the outcome of format wars is less true than the rephrasing game console integrated components determine the outcome of format wars. DVD rose to prominence because of its inclusion as a feature in the Playstation 2, and like many people, my first and only DVD player until I got to college was my PS2 slim. Blu-Ray probably vanquished HD-DVD because Sony sided with Blu-Ray when they designed the PS3. Sometimes these integrated components were good enough to eclipse the systems themselves. I have a PS1 that I exclusively use to play music CDs because it sounds substantially better than my other more high end CD playback devices. My only tablet computer is my Wii U gamepad.

Moving forward, it seems more and more likely the game console as a separate device meant specifically to play games will probably phase out. This however puts console manufacturers in a good place, as it gives them the opportunity to expand and seize market share from other large sectors of the home entertainment industry. The tendency towards people living in smaller and smaller spaces on less and less money makes the obviousness of the appeal unbeatable. There will still probably be a few guys like me with hanging-garden-of-babylon level cord tangling behind their media centers, but we’re a dying a breed.

 

CONCLUDING STATEMENTS (FOR NOW) :

Video games, at least older ones, are less dangerous as propaganda vehicles than the commercial cinema since they require your conscious input; the subconscious elements in a film that reify ideology and norms aren’t rendered especially legible. You aren’t supposed to forget your social impotence through abstract identification with a figure of power the way Wilhelm Reich described the psychological appeal of fascism and, inadvertently, the appeal of cookie cutter Joseph Campbell style action/adventure narratives in the commercial cinema. Their consideration is necessary for any comprehensive exploration of TV as a vehicle or medium; the way they work creates incompatibilities and bugs with existing methods of criticism for more established media formats that will need to be patched in a later update.

They’re an enormous part of the culture that isn’t going away, and the longer theorists of pop culture ignore them in favor of a narrow focus on the things that more closely resemble prose literature in their construction, the further said critics will slip into niche irrelevance. The hardware gives a palimpsest history of the most important private space of the 21st century-the living room, and present fantasy and escape in novel modes that will further illuminate just how those tendencies work.

Undone Season 1 Review

The team behind the scenes of the instant classic Bojack Horseman have introduced their new show, an experimental series using rotoscoped animation to explore the line between magic and mental illness. There’s a lot to like here, though much like Bojack, it takes a while to get going and fully reveal its direction.

First, a summing up of the plot: A woman named Alma is in a car accident and her father, a theoretical physicist who died in a mysterious car accident in 2002, starts appearing to her in visions. In these visions he tells her that she has been gifted with incredible powers to not only travel through time, but to change it. He claims that his car accident was a murder and tasks her with solving the murder and going back in time to stop it from occurring. Over the course of the series we are also introduced to her sister, her mother, and her boyfriend, all of whom become increasingly worried by her behavior, which resembles the symptoms of schizophrenia.

The first and most obviously challenging decision the show makes is to never resolve whether or not Alma is in fact mentally ill. This ambiguity isn’t a new thing for TV and movies and in fact it resembles the repeated themes of another ascendant TV auteur-Bryan Fuller, creator of Wonderfalls and Hannibal, two other shows where individuals are possessed by visions that problematize their sanity and lead them places they otherwise would never go. In particular Wonderfalls seems like a clear earlier reference point-a woman who works in a gift shop at Niagra Falls starts to see and hear inanimate objects talking to her and telling her to do things. They lead her on adventures and ultimately she does good things by listening to the objects despite the fact we’re never told whether she’s ill or clairvoyant.

Another obvious reference point is the Twin Peaks miniseries that aired a few years ago, particularly the final episode (spoilers ahead.) In the finale, Agent Dale Cooper somehow goes back in time thinking he can save Laura Palmer from being killed by her father but finds himself in a timeline with no Laura Palmer; his attempts to redeem the past by changing it does nothing; the chronology of time as experienced by the mind is non-linear. What happens in the future changes the past, or at least the imagined history-after all, history is, as it has famously been said, a lie agreed upon. But a lie must contain inconsistencies-a lie wants to live its own truth, and wants to do so in the present, where history must exist because no other moment can exist as anything besides recollection or projection.

Common to all these shows and many others, probably because of the frightening ambiguity faced by the US right now, is ultimately exploring our own uneasy feelings of being unsure whether we’re at the edge of a cliff or the top of a mountain and our lack of ideas what to do in either case. Alma’s trips into the past, slowly revealing details of her father’s own struggle with schizophrenia, don’t stabilize her or trigger catharsis. She just escalates the eccentricity of her behavior. The fact we open on the car accident also seems to suggest the two traumas-her car accident and the sudden loss of her father-are intertwined and that in fact she may be revisiting the familiar trauma of her parental loss to escape the unresolved trauma of her accident. At the same time, when she does travel into the past then references what she sees in the future, the accuracy of the details are confirmed.

The essence of trauma as a psychological phenomena is the confusion of the mind between the desire to “become whole” again, i.e. to revert before the moment of destabilization, and to move forward and grow, your only actual path that involves motion. In some sense, the experience of trauma and the repetitive quality that marks it could be rephrased as “the inability to accept the necessity of the present.” And in some sense, this inability to accept the necessity of the present implies the desire for non-existence, given that in order for things to be, that which has been must have been. Dale Cooper makes Laura Palmer not exist paradoxically by saving her; in the season 1 finale of Undone, Alma sits waiting for her (possibly imagined) father to emerge from Mexican ruins. In Undone, Alma’s sister tells her her problems and Alma simply replies that once she brings their father back from the dead, those problems and most of the things that mark her day to day life in the present will be erased. Alma looks excited at the prospect. Her symbolic act to access the truth of the moment of their father’s death is tossing her body at a mirror, breaking it-destruction of the image as symbolic suicide. Like many in the US right now, she’s not sure exactly what she wants but she knows it isn’t this.

The animation is well done but pretty textbook rotoscoping-people who’ve seen either of Richard Linklater’s two adventures into the form, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, will know what to expect here. At the same time, I think the dreaminess it adds to the proceedings justify the decision and make it seem at least like a progression more than strictly a reimagining of Fuller’s preoccupations. I don’t think Fuller is up to anything right now, maybe they should add him to the writers room. Him, Bob-Waksberg and Katy Purdy could form a TV super group and travel through time together exploring the nature of trauma.

The acting is uniformly strong. Bob Odenkirk turns in strong work here as the dead father which…there’re only so many ways you can say the guy’s a genius. The guy’s a genius. Rosa Salazar, who I don’t remember seeing in anything before this, does an exceptional job portraying Alma’s slow transformation into either a shaman or dangerously unstable individual, and does a particularly exceptional job conveying the unease that comes with those closest to you betraying your trust for fear you might hurt yourself. These situations are never portrayed as obvious-both sides are acting rationally given what they know.

The development of the plot makes it unclear where they could go from here; I look forward to the second season but when I try to think about what it could consist of once the season ending cliffhanger is resolved, I come up with a blank. But I guess that’s why they’re writing the show and I’m not.

Well worth checking out.

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.

 

After the Warming (1989)

This 1989 British TV show about the origins and consequences of global warming is so good I can hardly believe it’s not better known. James Burke is the Carl Sagan of environmental history. Just watch it. It’s well worth 2 hours of your time.

Building the Perfect AV Set-Up On a Budget Part 2: Video

Yesterday we went over my budget picks for an audiophile stereo set-up using the stuff I actually have around and use. I spent $123. Lets see if we can beat this on video! In this post I’m including video devices including TVs, DVD, Blu-Ray, VHS and file playback.

FLATSCREEN TV: Olevia 40 inch

I got this TV used for $35. It’s from 2006. If you have a 4K Blu-Ray player you could get a much better TV, but if like me you have a lot of older components and video game consoles this is an excellent choice. It has 2 inputs each for RCA, S-Video, VGA, and Component along with a single HDMI input. It only outputs 720p, but this also means that when it upscales lower resolution devices (my NES for example) they look decent. I have many things hooked into this including my PS2, PS3, Wii U, Dreamcast, Oppo DVD player, and Pioneer laserdisc player. It’s my primary TV.

If you need a lot of outputs and want a cheap big screen TV, anything manufactured around that period of 2005-2008 or so will have the most types of inputs and be very cheap now. As far as I can tell the Olevia is still working perfectly and I’m very happy with the picture.

CRT TV: Sony Trinitron WEGA 20 inch TV

Since I have a lot of older game consoles and an extensive collection of vintage controllers, VHS, and laserdiscs, a CRT is a no-brainer. It outputs low resolution formats beautifully as they were intended, and for gaming you’re playing with zero lag on original hardware. The fact its a later model CRT also means it can take HD input. The quality of the picture it outputs can compete with and beat most flat screens due to the patented Trinitron stuff and the deeper black values possible using tubes.

I picked this up for free on trash day. You probably could too. Check craigslist. Just be forewarned for larger sized screens they can get pretty big and bulky.

DVD: Oppo 970HD

I mentioned this player in the audio article but it’s also my go-to DVD player. It’s region unlocked, plays a multitude of formats, the picture quality is great and you have tons of ouput options+a built-in upscaler. If you own a lot of DVDs and don’t own another Oppo unit, this is an absolute no brainer.

BLU-RAY: Sony Playstation 3

If you can get your hands on an Oppo blu-ray player, get that. But for the rest of us, this offers an excellent playback solution, HDMI out, 5.1 audio, SACD playback, and if modded it will play PS1 and PS3 games from .iso images with a wireless controller. I paid $20 for mine with 2 controllers, though they’re usually closer to $45-50. They’re kinda bulky tho, so if you already own a blu-ray player and don’t have a burning desire to play PS3 games, you should probably stick with the one you own. My prior blu-ray player was a Sony BDP-390, which also offered SACD playback in a much smaller form factor and was $8 used. If you’re being space conscious, I’d say go with one in that line.

VHS: JVC Pro-cision

JVC invented the VHS standard and released tons of great players that can now be gotten for dirt cheap (I’ve never paid more than $5 when I haven’t grabbed one off the street.) Mine’s from the mid-late 90s and more recent is definitely better with these since it likely means less wear on the transport meaning it will work for much longer.

These are built like tanks, have a built in RF switch for really old consoles, and you can get all kinds of weird privately released stuff on VHS. Few things in life are more fun than having some friends over, drinking a few beers and going through random piles of off-air recording VHS tapes.

Mine has S-VHS playback, which is a higher quality spin-off of VHS that never saw any commercial releases. S-VHS playback is only really useful if you do commercial tape transfer service out of your apartment or something similar. However, the fact the deck includes it means 2 things-1) it was made toward the later end VCR manufacture when the bugs had been worked out, 2) it was at least a mid-range deck, possibly better. It’ll say something like “S-VHS Quasi-Playback” on the front. The normal player is highly recommended, S-VHS playback is gravy.

It should also be noted that with VHS, the quality ceiling is pretty low, so a VCR that outputs an interesting looking warm image will often be preferable for long-term cohabitation than something that puts out picture strictly by the books. Embrace the distortion.

LASERDISC:  Pioneer DVL-909

It also plays DVDs and since its close to the last model that was ever sold in the US, it’s less likely to suffer hardware failure in the near future than something manufactured in the 80s or 90s. I got an insane deal on mine ($25 since they hadn’t put stickers on at Goodwill), these can get very expensive otherwise ($350-400.) This is only a budget item if you get lucky.

However, the picture quality is great for Laserdiscs and it will play digital 5.1 soundtracks off them, which the vast majority of LD players will not.

Moving on…

VIDEO GAMES:  Nintendo Wii/ Wii U

If you’re only ever going to own one gaming console, I would say get an original issue Nintendo Wii with the Gamecube controller ports. Why?

1) You can get one with controllers used for $10-20 at most thrift stores since 100 million were produced. Look around and deals will emerge. The one I’m using currently I got in a tub with 4 Wiimotes, 3 Gamecube controllers, all cords and multiple games for $10.

2) They’re incredibly easy to softmod with an SD card.

3) Once softmodded, they can run practically every game ever made from the 80s and 90s. Mine has 50,000 games loaded.

4) You can use more controllers wirelessly with a Wiimote through adapters than pretty much any other system including PCs.

It’s a no-brainer. The Wii U is more expensive used (~$100), but I do like using the gamepad controller and it has easier controller compatibility with 3rd party stuff than the original Wii. You do lose the Gamecube ports tho.

VIDEO GAME SYSTEMS: PS2, PS3, Dreamcast, NES, Sega Genesis

This would be its own article. If you’re just a casual gamer, the Wii will probably fulfill all your needs. However, if you like the games for any of these consoles, it’s relatively easy to play them on original hardware without paying ridiculous prices for vintage cartridges and discs.  I’m not going to go into them here, but maybe in a future article.

STREAMING VIDEO: 8 year old Windows PC w/Wireless Logitech Keyboard and Mouse

Why reinvent the wheel? Just take an old PC and plug it into your TV. It will probably do a great job playing any video you throw at it so long as you’re not trying to run a 4K TV. A wireless keyboard and mouse are great remotes, and soundcards in most PCs in the last 10 years are capable of putting out excellent audio, especially when connected to an external DAC.

Anyway, I hope y’all learned something. I’m off to go play some video games.

 

Cobra Kai (2018): The Missing Father–The Missing Son

(The first season of Cobra Kai is free until September 11)

The Karate Kid, one of the iconic movies of the 1980s, is about two things, the missing father and the missing son. Daniel LaRusso, played by My Cousin Vinny’s Ralph Macchio, is a working-class Italian American from Newark, New Jersey. The son of a single mother who moves him, against his will, to Los Angeles so she can look for work in the computer industry, he meets the upper-class WASP girl of his dreams at his new high-school. Ali, played by Harvard student Elizabeth Shue, against all expectations, returns his affections, but Daniel has bigger problems than unrequited love. Johnny Lawrence, Ali’s ex-boyfriend, a hulking towheaded blond who’s the star of the local karate dojo, isn’t ready to give her up. Daniel is no coward. He bravely stands up to Johnny and his bullying, but he’s over matched, outnumbered, and, most importantly of all, has no father, either to protect him, or teach him how an Italian American Montague should deal with a gang of WASP Capulets who beat him to a pulp every chance they get.

How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, the Japanese American superintendent at the rundown apartment building where Daniel and his mother live. Morita, a former standup comedian who until the Karate Kid had been best known as “Arnold,” a minor character on the TV show Happy Days, quickly reveals himself to be, not only the best thing about the movie, but the best thing that could have happened to Daniel. Released in 1984 — a year that with the Soviet free LA Olympics was probably the most fascist year I remember until 2001 and George W. Bush — the Karate Kid is a surprisingly left-wing film, a Bernie Sanders movie in the age of Ronald Reagan.

Cobra Kai, Johnny Lawrence’s dojo, owned by the ex-green-beret John Creese, is basically a Hitler youth camp, a pack of little Aryan superman who snap to attention and yell “Yes Sensei” while Creese screams out “no mercy” and teaches them to fight dirty and “destroy the enemy.” Seriously, compared to John Creese, Gordon Geko was a liberal. Getting his ass kicked in Vietnam by the communists must have hit Creese hard. Miyagi, on the other hand, a karate master who easily beats up Johnny’s gang of tormentors all by himself, has much less to prove. During the Second World War, Mr. Miyagi served with the all Japanese 442nd Infantry Regiment in Europe, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He also realizes that he can’t simply protect Daniel from Johnny and his gang, that he has to teach the boy to be a man and stand up for himself. So he arranges a truce between Johnny’s gang and Daniel. Daniel will fight Johnny in the local karate tournament, but until that time he’ll call off the attacks.

We all know how the Karate Kid ends. Daniel beats Johnny in the karate tournament, and he and Ali go off to live happily ever after (or so we think) but that’s not really the point of the Karate Kid. While Mr. Miyagi is acting as Daniel’s ersatz father, and teaching him karate, we learn that while he was serving in Italy his wife had died in childbirth at the Manzanar Detention Center, a concentration camp in California set up in 1942, not only for Japanese nationals, but for Japanese Americans. Mr. Miyagi, who the movie subtly implies had lost his will to live — He did a terrible job  at the building where he worked. He had long given up maintaining his collection of vintage cars. — needs Daniel as much as Daniel needs him. We thought we were watching a movie about the missing father, but we were really watching a movie about the missing son.

If there was anything I didn’t like about the Karate Kid it’s how it didn’t follow up on its own leftist impulses. Screenwriter Michael Kamen and director John Avildsen, who also directed the first two Rocky movies, tease us with the wonderful premise of a Japanese American war hero and concentration camp survivor teaching a working class ethnic white from New Jersey to defend himself against a vicious gang of WASP bullies led by a Nazi ex-green-beret but the film seems to end on an aspirational note of personal achievement and upward mobility. Daniel realizes that his resentful accusations against his upper-class blond girlfriend that all she cared about were money and fancy cars were out of line and even cruel, but in the end they drive off together in a cool car anyway, a 1948 Ford Super DeLuxe Club convertible given to him by Mr. Miyagi as a reward for all the chores he had done around the apartment building. An Italian American from New Jersey “winning” the beautiful blond princess from her Southern California Prince Not so Charming? How ridiculously 1980s, if not downright sexist.

If Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film Creed, another film about the missing father and the missing son, had one flaw, it was how Rocky and Apollo Creed had already resolved their differences. Creed, who played Johnny Lawrence to Rocky’s Daniel LaRusso, had already completed his own redemption arc in Rocky III when he put aside his overweening pride in order to train his former antagonist in his own fighting style in order to beat Mr. T’s Mike Tyson-like villain Clubber Lang. So when Creed’s illegitimate son Adonis seeks Rocky out in Philadelphia to be his trainer, Rocky is more sad than angry. He’s a tired old man at peace with himself. He doesn’t need a son anymore than Adonis, a grown man in his mid-20s not a teenager, really needs a father. Coogler had a great idea, and Sylvester Stallone graciously agreed to star in his film, but Rocky comes off a little too much like a tired old man who had completely his journey than a man who needed redemption in the form of the illegitimate son of his long dead rival. Cobra Kai, the fourth sequel to the Karate Kid, succeeds where Creed fails.

We all know how Johnny Lawrence, and pretty much any White Anglo Saxon Protestant bully who grew up in Southern California in the 1980s and learned karate at a Nazi dojo owned by an ex-green-beret, would have ended up in real life. He would have become a cop. There’s plenty of high-paying work in Donald Trump’s America for fascist bullies. But Johnny Lawrence turns out to have had more character than anybody would have imagined. We know this because instead of joining ICE or the LAPD and spending the rest of his life happily beating up on “illegals” or gunning down black people, he becomes a down and out loser, a marginally employed handy man financially dependent on his emotionally abusive step father played by the 90-year-old Ed Asner. A couple of years ago when my parents were still alive and someone would accuse me of being a 20 year old incel living in my parents’ basement, I always had the perfect answer. “Nope,” I would say. “I’m a 40 year old incel living in his parents basement. So there.” Except for the incel part — he has an estranged ex-wife and son — that’s Johnny, a middle-aged man whose emotional development stopped in 1984 when he lost the karate tournament, and Ali, to Daniel LaRusso, now the millionaire owner of a chain of auto dealerships.

Can it be? Do I actually like a reboot of an iconic cultural property? Creed was OK. The Star Wars reboots are God awful, but astonishingly, the reboot of The Karate Kid, of all films, while it suffers from all the flaws of a low-budget TV series, is a complex, nuanced, self-aware, and deeply affecting masterpiece. I kid you not. I enjoyed the first season of Cobra Kai more than I’ve enjoyed anything in quite some time. If the end of the Karate Kid resolved itself just a bit too neatly, the beginning of Cobra Kai addresses all of the questions the original movie left hanging. Daniel, in spite of all of his worldly success, remains unfulfilled. There’s a deep hole in his life where Mr. Miyagi — who died on November 15, 2011, Occupy Wall Street eviction day of all days — used to be. Johnny has a wife and two kids. He’s a good father, a good employer, and generally a kindhearted man, but something’s missing, and not only Ali, who was written out of the plot when Elizabeth Shue declined to participate in the sequels. Ralph Macchio is now in his mid-50s. Quite honestly he could pass for 30, and even more interestingly, his youthful appearance isn’t necessarily a good thing. He comes off as a boy who never had the ability to grow into mature man, to take on the gravitas that comes with age.

William Zabka, in turn, who plays Johnny, looks closer to 40 than he does to his real age of 54, an unfulfilled man too angry to give up the physical vigor of his youth, slowly but surely being dragged down into the misery of old age, but kicking and screaming every step of the way, desperate to hold onto that moment when he lost his girlfriend and his karate title all those decades ago. His redemption arc begins when he meets Miguel, a working class 17-year-old Hispanic kid who seems an awful lot like a young Daniel LaRusso. When Zabka, eating a miserable slice of pizza in the parking-lot of the local mini-mart sees Miguel being tormented by a gang of rich kids who, except for being multi-racial and multicultural, resemble the old gang back at Cobra Kai in the 1980s, he does exactly what Mr. Miyagi did back in 1984, he beats the ever loving shit out of the little cunts, and gets pepper sprayed by the police for his troubles. Miguel, whose mother, like Daniel’s mother, struck out on her own — she describes her husband as having been a very bad, abusive man — has found the father he needs in the form of the emotionally stunted Johnny Lawrence. Suddenly we see that Generation Z has the same relationship to Generation X as the Millennials have to the Boomers. If the Millennials have translated the uneasy compromise the Boomers made with capitalism into cultural radicalism and political correctness, then it turns out that what the “Zoomers” really need is a dose of Generation X’s politically incorrect cynicism.

It’s Johnny’s bad qualities, his bigotry,  his macho, immature attitude, his lack of sensitivity that appeals to Miguel in the first place. Miguel, it turns out, is a good boy raised by women without any masculine energy in his life. He’s a nice kid who halfheartedly goes along with the ethos of the Millennial Social Justice Warrior but deep down inside he knows that somethings missing. Miguel’s high school is multicultural, multiracial, and politically correct, but it’s immediately recognizable as the same old high school we all knew in the 1980s, a prison house with a rigid social hierarchy of mean girls and bullies lording it over nerds and losers. In one of the show’s best, and most misunderstood, moments, Kyler, a rich Asian kid who’s dating Samantha, Daniel LaRusso’s daughter, has little patience for his girlfriend’s dad trying to get him to eat sushi. Daniel is being naively “orientalist.” When he asks Kyler where he’s from and Kyler responds with “Irvine” it’s a social justice “mike drop” moment. Kyler checked Daniel’s “white privilege” for him. “BOOM. THIS,” as they would say on Twitter. The scene has been widely praised by people who miss one very important fact. Kyler is one of the least sympathetic characters in Cobra Kai. His parents have achieved the “American Dream” but Kyler is basically a Brett Kavanaugh in the making. He is absolutely from Irvine and not from somewhere in Asia, but this is not a good thing. He embodies all of the worst qualities of any white preppy kid. Upwardly mobility, the writers seem to be saying, isn’t enough.

Yet it is very possible that in a future episode Kyler could become a sympathetic character after all. Kyler may be a little asshole, a bully, and a sexual harasser, but, like Johnny Lawrence, we have no idea what demons he may be struggling with, what kind of back story he has, or what future influences he may run into. Kyler in the end, might become the hero, and indeed that’s the best thing about Cobra Kai. Nothing is set in stone. Nobody is essentially good or evil. They’ve just had bad influences, good parents and inadequate parents. No social hierarchy is permanent. Cobra Kai, which in the 1980s, was an instrument of fascist repression, is now a disruptive, almost revolutionary influence. Bullied losers learn karate and become cool. Mean girls and popular kids get what they deserve. Some of them turn out to be not so mean after all. You can be redeemed by failure and condemned to hell by success. In the end we remember what the late Mr. Miyagi said all those years ago to Daniel LaRusso.

“There are no bad students. only bad teachers.”