Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Seinfeld

“Pretty clever!”

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The Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture concepts have you found to be ripe for everyday use?”

A few years ago, my wife and I went on a trip to Peru and Bolivia. It was meant as one last stab at adventure travel before kids—which we knew would soon figure in our future—made that kind of vacation impossible, and we’d planned an ambitious itinerary: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the salt flats of Uyuni. As soon as we landed in Cuzco, though, I was felled by a bout of altitude sickness that made me wonder if we’d have to cancel the whole thing. A few pills and a day of acclimation made me feel stable enough to proceed, but I never got entirely used to it, and before long, I found myself hiking up a hillside in the Lares Valley, my heart jackhammering in my chest like an animal that was trying to escape. To save face, I’d periodically pause on the trail to look around, as if to take in the view, when I was just trying to get my pulse under control. But what got me through it, weirdly, was the thought of Frodo and Samwise slogging their way toward Mount Doom: if a couple of hobbits could do it, then I could climb this hill, too. It was an image to which I clung for the rest of the way, and the fantasy that I was heading toward Mordor sustained me to the top. And later, when I confessed this to my wife, she only smiled and said: “Yeah. I was thinking of the Von Trapp family.”

We relate to pop culture in all kinds of complicated ways, but one of the most curious aspects of that dynamic is how it can motivate us to become slightly better versions of ourselves, even if such exemplars aren’t entirely realistic. (The real Von Trapps didn’t hike over the mountains into Switzerland: they took a train.) Yesterday, Patrick Stewart showed up on Reddit to answer some questions, and if there was one common thread to the comments, it was that Jean-Luc Picard had been a role model, and almost a surrogate father, for many viewers as they were growing up. Just as fairy tales, with their fantasies of power and destiny, allow children to come to terms with their physical vulnerability as they risk a greater engagement with the world, the heroes we admire in books and movies give us an ideal toward which to aspire. As long as we’re aware that complete success is probably unattainable—”We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” as Emerson said—I don’t see anything wrong with this. And such comparisons often cross our minds at the least dignified moments. Whenever I’m struggling to open a package, an image flits through my mind of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and I think to myself: “Bond wouldn’t have trouble opening a bag of pretzels, would he?” It doesn’t make what I’m doing any less annoying, but it usually inspires me to do something marginally more decisive, like getting a pair of scissors.

The Sound of Music

Pop culture can also provide ways of seeing our own lives from a new perspective, often by putting words to concepts and emotions that we couldn’t articulate before. At its highest level, it can take the form of the recognition that many readers feel when encountering an author like Proust or Montaigne: for long stretches, it feels eerily like we’re reading about ourselves. And a show like Seinfeld has added countless terms to our shared vocabulary of ideas, even if it was by accident, with the writers as surprised as anyone else by what struck a nerve. As writer Peter Mehlman says:

Every line was written just to be funny and to further the plot. But, actually, there was one time that I did think that a certain phrase would become popular. And I was completely wrong. In the “Yada Yada” episode, I really thought it was going to be the “antidentite” line that was going to be the big phrase, and it was not. That line went: “If this wasn’t my son’s wedding day, I’d knock your teeth out, you antidentite bastard.” The man who said it was a dentist. And no one remembers that phrase; it’s the “yada yada yada” line that everyone remembers.

Sometimes a free-floating line will just snag onto an existing feeling and crystalize it, and along with Seinfeld, The Simpsons has been responsible for more such epiphanies than any other series. Elsewhere, I’ve compared the repository of Simpsons quotes that we all seem to carry in our heads to the metaphorical language that Picard encountered in “Darmok,” and there’s no question that it influences the way many of us think about ourselves.

Take “Hurricane Neddy,” which first aired during the show’s eighth season. It probably wouldn’t even make it onto a list of my fifty favorite episodes, but there’s one particular line from it that has been rattling around in my brain ever since. After a hurricane destroys Flanders’s house, the neighborhood joins forces to rebuild it, only to do a spectacularly crappy job. It all leads to the following exchange:

Ned: “The floor feels a little gritty here.”
Moe: “Yeah, we ran out of floorboards there, so we painted the dirt. Pretty clever!”

Those last two words, which Moe delivers with a nudge to Ned’s ribs and an air of self-satisfaction, are ones that I’ve never forgotten. At least once a week, I’ll say to myself, in Moe’s voice: “Pretty clever!” The reason, as far as I can pinpoint it, is that I’m working in a field that calls for me to be “clever” on a regular basis, whether it’s solving a narrative problem, coming up with a twist for a short story, or just figuring out a capper for a blog post. Not all of these ideas are equally clever, and many of them fall into the category of what Frederik Pohl calls “monkey tricks.” But Moe’s delivery, which is so delighted with itself, reminds me both of how ridiculous so much of it is and of the necessity of believing otherwise. Sometimes I’m just painting the dirt, but I couldn’t go on if I wasn’t sort of pleased by it. And if I had to sum up my feelings for my life’s work, for better or worse, it would sound a lot like “Pretty clever!”

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

Community values

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The Community episode "Basic Sandwich"

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.

Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.

The cast of Community

As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.

As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.

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