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My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Takes a Trip in the Sketch Comedy Time Machine

"The Popculturist Takes a Trip in the Sketch Comedy Time Machine":

I used to watch a lot of sketch comedy shows when I was a kid. The early 90’s were a great time for that genre — Saturday Night Live had one of its strongest casts during that time, and In Living Color debuted and launched the careers of stars like Jim Carrey and the Wayans brothers. And then there was The State, which I always thought of as the Velvet Underground of sketch comedy — relatively unknown to mainstream audiences but with a devoted cult following, and ultimately very influential on groups that came afterwards. To my young mind, The State represented the pinnacle of comedic achievement, and it became my yardstick for funny for years to come.

Mad Men and Me

One of Juliette's and my favorite shows--indeed, one of the only shows I still care about watching--is Mad Men. It's a wildly successful show, of course, both popular and critically acclaimed, and I like it for most of the same reasons that everybody else does. Still, you'd think that the fact that I have no particular nostalgia or longing for the 60's--nor any desire to drink and smoke at work or cheat on my wife--would mean that some of the appeal would be lost on me. There's another facet, though, that helps pull me in, one that's very personal and that I didn't realize until just last week.

You see, it turns out that Don Draper is just about the same age as my mom's dad. Sally Draper, his daughter, is almost exactly the same age as my mom. John Slattery's character, Roger Sterling, is just a couple of years younger than my other grandfather. And characters like Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, and Pete Campbell are right around the same age as my father-in-law.

Granted, the resemblance pretty much begins and ends with age. One of my grandfathers was a career Army sergeant, while the other came back from the war to become a farmer--neither of them led lives that were anything like the Madison Avenue life depicted on the show. My mother, unlike Sally Draper, was born in Italy and lived in Japan, Okinawa, and several places up and down the Pacific coast. And while my father-in-law was a New York businessman in his younger days, he was never the sort of ruthless son of a bitch that Pete Campbell is.

Nevertheless, I've come to realize that watching Mad Men makes me feel some connection to those people. I know so little about what my parents' and grandparents' lives were like back then, and I can't help feeling some sense of recognition when I see the world that these characters inhabit--even if only for the context of the historical events.

For Me, the Eighties Means Joel Crager and Michael Landon

It's funny how much of my memory of television in my youth has to do with shows I never actually saw. You see, for a lot of my childhood we didn't get TV service. We didn't have cable and lived in areas where the broadcast reception was terrible at best, so our only link to the wider entertainment world was the VHS tapes my grandmother sent us every six weeks or so. Mostly these were collections of Star Trek: The Next Generation or various offerings from the Disney Sunday Movie. One particularly memorable tape included a recording of The Ewok Adventure, and to this day, the opening title sequence of the ABC Sunday Night Movie throws me into a fit of nostalgia.

Since all of these tapes were recorded from broadcasts, they of course included all the commercials. Our first couple of VCRs didn't have remote controls, which, combined with my brother's and my natural laziness, meant that we ended up watching a whole lot of those commercials. As a result, some of my strongest memories of the mid-80s are of a gritty baritone voice telling me all about what was coming up this week on Hardcastle & McCormick, Jack & the Fat Man, Highway to Heaven, The Fall Guy, and Falcon Crest, none of which I've seen even a single episode of.

These days I rarely watch commercials, since the DVR makes it so easy to skip past them. Occasionally I leave the TV on while I'm working on something else--dishes or folding laundry--and then I'll let the ads play just because I'm too lazy to drop what I'm doing every ten minutes to pick up the remote. But for the most part, I only intentionally watch commercials during the Superbowl.

It makes me wonder what sort of incidental pop cultural impressions will be left in Jason's memory when he gets older. I wonder what we'll watch together, and what he'll only know by name. Who knows? By the time he's old enough for us to want to consume the same entertainment, TV as we know it may not even be a thing anymore.

Sitcoms After Friends

The other day I found myself thinking about television comedies--I'm not entirely certain why--and specifically about the dominance of Friends in the late 90's and early 2000's. It was this huge phenomenon, and although there were shows that I liked better and watched more religiously, once Seinfeld ended there simply wasn't any other TV comedy--possibly any show of any genre--that competed with it in terms of broad popularity and cultural impact. And as I thought about it, I realized that I don't think there has been any show in the post-Friends era that has really come close to the same level.

Mind you, there are some very popular and very funny shows out there. Modern Family is excellent, and shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory seem to have big followings. But all three of them still feel relatively niche, especially in comparison to Friends. The current show that I think probably comes closest is the NBC version of The Office, but even that feels more on a level with shows like Frasier or Everybody Loves Raymond, neither of which ever really got out of Friends' shadow, in my opinion, despite being pretty popular.

Even today, six years after the show ended, Friends remains a huge cultural touchstone. Along with Seinfeld, it's probably the sitcom I most often hear referenced in normal conversations, even more than shows that are currently airing.

But I wonder if that's the kind of thing that will last. When Jason is older, will Friends continue to be iconic, the way that I Love Lucy still is? Or will it be more a generational thing? Friends ended four years before he was born, and when I look back at shows that were popular shortly before I was born--shows like M*A*S*H or All in the Family--I don't find them particularly relevant to me. I am aware of their past popularity, of course, and I might even catch some references to shows of that era, but I'm not sure how much is due to a real, lasting cultural impact and how much is just because I have an interest in trivia and pop culture history.

Even the shows that I might have seen as enduring classics before, like The Cosby Show and Cheers, don't seem to really be much a part of the cultural fabric of people much younger than me. Try referring to someone as a "Cliff Claven" type in a conversation with a 20-year-old; I bet that more often than not you'll be greeted with a blank stare.

But maybe I'm way off base here. Maybe Friends was never as big a deal as I remember it being, or maybe there are a lot more shows from the past that continue to be a big deal now. What do you think?

Couples, Families, and "Mad About You"

Yesterday, Marc Hirsch of NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, took the opportunity presented by the DVD release of Mad About You's fourth season to delve into his memories of what he called "the perfect relationship sitcom." It's a good article that I largely agree with, and well worth a read for fans of the show, but what really got me thinking was when he talked about season four's position as the tipping point of the show.

Hirsch writes:

that time long ago when I claimed Mad About You was perfect? Was Season 4. . . . The quality of the show would get wobbly in about a year; once baby Mabel became a concrete entity, rather than a vague idea that existed as a single possibility among many in some nebulous future, the tone turned brittle and, worse, the focus shifted exclusively and irrevocably from the couple to the child. In short, it became a different show.

It's that part about the focus shifting from the couple to the child that got me, because the thing is: that happens in real life, too.

Anyone who has kids (or who has close friends or relatives with kids) knows what I'm talking about. Before you have kids, your relationship is about yourself and your partner. You talk about each other, do things with each other, and basically spend all of your energy and attention on each other. But then the first kid shows up and things change. Maybe it happens right away or maybe it takes a few months, or even years, but one day it hits you that it's been a week since you talked to your spouse about something other than your child

Maybe you remember yourself saying, "That's not going to happen to us. We're going to make time for each other and remember to be a couple." And maybe you have made time for each other and you are still a couple, but even then you eventually realize that you have to make time for each other, and that you're now thinking of yourselves as still a couple. There's just no way around it; having kids changes your focus.

And what's really interesting to me is that Hirsch says--and I agree--that that change is one of the things that killed Mad About You. Because as much as that show was about bringing you into Paul and Jamie's marriage and (like any good story) making you identify with the characters and build a relationship with them, ultimately what that relationship was based on was your interaction with them as a couple, and not as parents. And where that puts you is a lot like the position your friends without kids stand once yours comes on the scene.

You know that one, too, if you have kids. You have all these great people in your life who matter to you, but suddenly your child arrives and things are different between you and them. Now you have to be home early for your child's bedtime, and you can't go out to places that are too loud or too quiet, or otherwise inappropriate for kids. Even when you get together at one of your homes, you just can't give your friend the undivided attention you used to--one way or another your kid is going to interrupt you. Probably a lot. Maybe you feel the strain in trying to keep up the relationship, and it makes you sad. Maybe you're too focused to notice. I guarantee the friend notices.

When you add it all up, maybe Mad About You turned out to be even more perfect a relationship show than Hirsch realized.

The Pacific vs. Band of Brothers

Ever since I finished watching HBO's miniseries The Pacific a couple of weeks ago, I've been mulling over the reasons why I didn't like it as much as Band of Brothers. Not that I was surprised about that, mind you. After all, Band of Brothers is probably the best war series I've ever seen, and is one of my favorite shows of all time. Aside from which, in my previous experience, stories about the Pacific Theater of the war tended to be less appealing.

(It seems strange to use phrases like "favorite" or "less appealing" in reference to stories about real events, especially events that were, for many of their participants, life-altering and utterly horrifying. This is the vocabulary I have to discuss film and television, and I can't help but approach these particular works in the same way that I do any other sort of story, but it nevertheless feels inappropriate.)

As I was saying, I tend to be less attracted to stories about the Pacific war. That may be in part due to some latent ambivalence about that part of the war, having had some small view of the Japanese perspective of the war through my mother's mother. My grandmother, for example, is still haunted by the loss of her brother in the Battle of Okinawa. Maybe it makes me uncomfortable to see someone that could be my relative presented as the other. Maybe I'm uncomfortable because the picture is inaccurate. Or maybe because it might be true.

Yeah, maybe there's something there.

But I think the greater part of it has to do with the types of stories I like to experience, and the types of stories that are told about the Pacific war and the European war. Stories about the war in Europe often highlight the heroism of the soldiers, the camaraderie of the men, or the particular genius or ineptitude of the commanders and their strategies and tactics. Stories about the war in the Pacific, on the other hand, are often about the awful conditions, the terrible isolation of war, and the alien and brutal nature of the enemy. These patterns play out in the two series just as much as in other movies, and everything from the writing to the combat scenes to the choice of source materials bears it out.

Band of Brothers is, at its core, the story of a community. The series begins with the formation and training of Easy Company in 1942 and follows the group through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, ending shortly after V-J Day in 1945. Things are difficult for them; some men are killed, while others are broken by the strain. Through it all, what comes through is the deep bond that's formed between the soldiers, and how they rely on each other to get through the war. Though the various episodes highlight particular soldiers or platoons, it always feels as though you are seeing different threads of the same narrative, and even now, nearly nine years after it first aired, I can easily call to mind the names of over a dozen of the men in Easy Company--Winters, Nixon, Speirs, Randallman, Guarniere, Foye, Webster, Lipton, Malarkey, Blithe, Heffron, Cobb--and looking over the list of characters on the IMDb page, I can place at least ten more from the names. The closing scene of the series is a montage of the men playing baseball together while the "main" character--Major Winters--tells a bit about what happened to each after the war.

By contrast, The Pacific is a story about individuals. Not all of the main characters are introduced at the beginning, and many of them never meet each other. They're all marines, but they're not all in the same unit, and over time some are rotated home while others come in as replacements. As the series opens, the men haven't yet joined up, and are largely separate from one another. As the series progresses, what becomes clear is that these men lived through a nightmare: unceasing rain, heat, and mud; disease and crushing fatigue; and a vicious, incomprehensible enemy. Nor do their comrades provide much support--indeed, one of the most interesting parts of the series is the weirdly antagonistic friendship that grows between Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge and his squadmate "Snafu" Shelton. The episodes flit back and forth between three central characters--Sledge, Sgt. John Basilone, and PFC Robert Leckie--whose stories are quite separate and rarely even touch. Aside from those three characters, I can only remember one or two others; the rest have faded into the mists of "supporting cast" in my mind.

I don't point out these differences as a complaint. The reason the stories are different is because the real life stories of the men involved were different. Each series draws most of its content from firsthand accounts, so if in one story we see friendships and heroism and in the other we see darkness and despair, most likely that's because that's what these soldiers went through. In many ways, it's probably even more important that we see the latter type of story, because we do no honor to our veterans by forgetting their tribulations. If I don't find one of the stories compelling, it's a failing in my own ability to appreciate it.

Having said that, The Pacific does have problems as a film, separate from my preference in subject matter. I think it all stems from the overwhelming success of Band of Brothers. Now, I believe that Hanks and Spielberg are honest when they say that there intention in making The Pacific was to get these stories out there and making sure they're not lost as the men who lived them die. But it's simply unavoidable that the creators of this series would look at the previous one's success and try to replicate it. And that's the problem: The Pacific is too self-conscious in its attempt to be successful. Rather than simply telling the story, it's as though the writers and directors felt that they had to constantly instruct the audience how to feel. They're constantly reaching for our emotions, which ends up feeling clumsy.

I keep coming back to this scene at the end of the second episode. Leckie and his platoon are finally relieved at Guadalcanal. Once they making it back to their ship, they head to the galley, where the cook's assistant tells them that there's no food, but he can get them a cup of coffee. He makes a passing remark about how tough they must have had it, to which one of the marines angrily responds by asking whether he'd ever even heard of Guadalcanal before. The cook's assistant gravely tells them that they've been all over the papers back home, that everyone knows about Guadalcanal, and that they're heroes.

I'm pretty sure that this scene was meant to bring home the marines' situation and to make us appreciate their heroism. For all I know, it may actually have happened. Either way, the cook's performance was so overly emotive, it ended up feeling clumsy. If I were going to feel that these men were heroes, I would have already felt that way from watching them in action. But as much as I respect and admire the real marines of WWII, after watching the first two episodes I mainly felt pity for the characters, not admiration.

Everything about The Pacific seemed to have that instructive quality about it, from the splintering charcoal pen in the opening credits to Tom Hanks' narration at the beginning of each episode, to the emotional swell of music when an important character was killed. Even the ending sequence, showing photos of the marines during and after the war alongside a bit of text explaining their lives, had that feel. And what it accomplished for me was to make me feel more detached from the story and characters, and a little irritated at feeling like someone was trying to manipulate me.

At the end of the day, though, I am glad that a series like The Pacific exists, because I do appreciate the desire to document and disseminate these stories while we can. And despite its flaws, The Pacific was still probably the best and most personally engaging dramatic treatment of the Pacific war that I've ever seen. True, it didn't live up to Band of Brothers, but I doubt there was really any way it could.

Finales

Sunday night, Juliette and I stayed up way past our bedtimes to watch the series finale of Lost. As I think anyone would have predicted, reactions to that show have been sharply divided, with some people holding it aloft as the new canonically perfect final episode and others complaining that it retroactively ruined everything about the previous six years of their lives. (I'm exaggerating, of course, but probably less than you might think.) For my own part, I thought it had its flaws, and it did seem to reveal how much less of the show was pre-planned than I thought at the beginning, but it was so emotionally satisfying that I don't really care about the rest. Indeed, I found myself getting choked up far more often than I would have predicted.

What's interesting to me is how, in our post-show discussion, Juliette and I almost immediately started comparing it to other show closers. I, for example, couldn't help but recall how frustrated and disappointed the ending of Battlestar Galactica left me, while Juliette mentioned how the feeling of sadness she had reminded her of how we felt after the last episode of Six Feet Under.

Now, a lot of shows have left their marks on my psyche, but when I stop and think about it, it's kind of surprising to me how few of their endings made any lasting impressions. Friends, for example, was one of the biggest pop culture phenomena in the past twenty years. I've seen every episode more than once, and references and quotations still surface pretty regularly among my friends. Yet I almost never think about the last episode. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation, possibly the most influential show of my young life, doesn't stand out much for its ending.

Contrast that with a show like Six Feet Under, whose finale I still can't get out of my head, five years later. The entire run of the show was filled with moments that were shocking or moving, or otherwise memorable, but when I think of that show, the first thing that always comes to mind is that ending sequence.

I have a feeling that Lost is going to be somewhere in between for me. The last episode will almost certainly stay with me, especially the last few seconds, but there are other parts of the show that stand out just as much. Time will tell.

So, what are some of your most memorable series finales? What are the closing episodes that moved you or frustrated you the most? For the sake of the discussion, we'll define "finale" to mean episodes that were planned and written to be the end, rather than the ones that merely happened to come right before the show was cancelled. We'll also leave out the endings to miniseries; Band of Brothers, for example, would be out.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Ernie Is a Jerk

For several months now, Jason has been pretty into Sesame Street. At first he only had eyes for Elmo, constantly talking about him and asking to see the same clips over and over again. But about two weeks ago his focus suddenly changed. More and more, he's been asking for Ernie. And Bert, actually, although it's only been a few days since he figured out that both characters aren't named "Ernie."

When I was a kid, I loved Ernie. He was one of my favorite characters. (The other was Grover, in part because my dad was really good at imitating his voice.) I still remember how hard I laughed at Ernie yelling "HEEEEERE FISHYFISHYFISHYFISHY!" Ernie was great--he was fun-loving and funny, and certainly more entertaining than his stick-in-the-mud pal Bert. Now, though, Ernie is, well... I kind of think he's a jerk.

I mean, seriously, here's a guy who makes a habit out of waking his best friend up in the middle of the night and then immediately going to sleep, so that not only does his friend not get a restful night, but he has to be alone through it, too. How upset would you be if your best friend woke you up at 2 AM in order to practice how he was going to wake you up in the morning? I'd be livid. And yet, every time Ernie decides to have a midnight jam session with his bugle, Bert just turns to the camera and sighs.

True, Bert can be kind of a grump sometimes. But wouldn't you be kind of grumpy if every time you sat down to read a good book, somebody came and not only interrupted you but invited a bunch of wild animals into your living room and then left them there for you to deal with? All things considered, Bert seems like a model of restraint.

So, I've reached a point in my life where Ernie is annoying and Bert is something of a tragic figure. And this is how I know I've gotten old.

So You Think You Can Dance

I hate reality television. I've been hating it for years. Pretty much anyone who has been around me as I've sat through an episode of The Biggest Loser or Top Chef or American Idol knows that I hate these shows. They've heard me ranting about and Big Brother and The Greatest Race. And don't even get me started on Jon and Kate Plus Eight. I hate these shows. I had pretty much made up my mind that this was a genre that simply had nothing to offer me except irritation and outrage. It's with that background in mind that I announce my latest guilty pleasure: Fox's So You Think You Can Dance.

I've been examining what it is about this show that I like so much, especially given how much I dislike other reality programs. There's an easy comparison to American Idol--the two competitions have a pretty similar format with auditions, judges, and eventual voting by the public--but there are differences and I think they highlight what it is I like about Dance.

The most obvious difference between the two shows is the nature of the competition--one is about singing and the other is about dance. For me, though, what makes me like one more than the other is the quality of the artists. Indeed, I have a hard time even calling most Idol contestants "artists." I know that's a terribly elitist thing to say and many of you will disagree--and, truly, if you love listening to that kind of music, that's great and that's what you should listen to. I just don't find anything interesting or innovative about the kind of music that Idol contestants and even winners produce--it's mostly sugary, overproduced, extremely commercial, and very, very safe. (And before you completely dismiss me as a snob, I should point out that there are many pop artists I like, across a variety of styles and time periods.) These singers usually have good technique, but little to no artistry. Meanwhile, the dancers that stand out on Dance, that catch both my attention and the judges', are the ones that bring more than just technique to their performances, and despite the fact that I've only seen three episodes so far--and all of them auditions--I've seen a lot of really interesting stuff on this show.

Moreover, the level of professionalism displayed by the people trying out for Dance seems to be far, far higher than what you see on Idol, especially in the audition period. By far the majority of the dancers are people that have obviously spent a lot of time training, practicing, and perfecting their craft, even the ones that end up not making the cut. What's more, the ones that are cut, while they're often upset about it, have also show a remarkably consistent grace in accepting the rejection. Now, this isn't to say that nobody on Idol is hard-working and gracious, nor that there aren't sloppy or arrogant people on Dance, but by and large I haven't seen anything like the level of self-important, entitled brattiness in the Dance auditions that are the trademark of the Idol auditions.

Finally, there are the shows themselves--Dance just isn't mean like Idol is. You know what I'm talking about. The entire audition period on Idol is pretty much a freak show with a couple of standouts thrown in just to give some continuity when the next phase starts. And so much of what people know and love about the show is the judges. Obviously, Simon Cowell's thing is being an asshole and then acting like he's doing people a favor, but even Paula has told people that they just shouldn't sing. (I didn't watch this last season of Idol, so I have no idea what the new fourth judge is like.)

Contrast that with the judges on Dance. Even when their criticisms are harsh, they're still mostly constructive. And even when the dancer is terrible, you never hear the judges discouraging them from continuing with it if that's what they love doing. And they really know what they're talking about, too--every one of the judges on Dance has been a dancer and choreographer, and it shows in the way they talk about the performances. What's more, they understand and appreciate a wide variety of styles--in three episodes I've seen Nigel speak intelligently about ballet, modern, jazz, tap, locking, and breaking. You just don't get that kind of breadth with Idol.

All of this adds up to me actually looking forward to the summer TV season for the first time in quite a while.

The Little Couple

The other day, while Juliette and I were watching the season premiere of Jon and Kate Plus Eight1, a commercial came on for a new TLC show called The Little Couple. Like most of what's on TLC these days, it's a reality show, this one centered on the life and relationship of Bill Klein and Jen Arnold, who are--as you might guess from the title--little people.

I've been somewhat conflicted about shows like this--TLC runs another reality show called Little People, Big World centered around a family of little people. On the one hand, shows like this give these people the opportunity to show the world how normal their lives are, but I still can't help feeling like these shows are exploitative. But, leaving that aside, what struck me about this new show was the reaction I had to learning about the woman's profession. She's a doctor. A neotatologist, to be more precise.

Now, my initial response was to think to myself, "Good for her, that's really great that she was able to accomplish that." Overcoming adversity and all that. But then I thought about it a little more and realized that that's actually a pretty patronizing attitude. I mean, why shouldn't this woman be a doctor? Just because she's small doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with her brain.

I think it's important to examine the latent prejudices we have. I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded, accepting, equitable sort of guy, but obviously there are still areas where I could stand to improve, and the only way I can do that is if I'm aware of my shortcomings.

1I actually hate that show, but that's a whole other rant.

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