Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Simpsons

The chosen ones

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In his recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Osnos quotes one of the Facebook founder’s close friends: “I think Mark has always seen himself as a man of history, someone who is destined to be great, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term.” Zuckerberg feels “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen,” and in his case, it happened to be correct. Yet this tells us almost nothing abut Zuckerberg himself, because I can safely say that most other undergraduates at Harvard feel the same way. A writer for The Simpsons once claimed that the show had so many presidential jokes—like the one about Grover Cleveland spanking Grandpa “on two non-consecutive occasions”—because most of the writers secretly once thought that they would be president themselves, and he had a point. It’s very hard to do anything interesting in life without the certainty that you’re somehow one of the chosen ones, even if your estimation of yourself turns out to be wildly off the mark. (When I was in my twenties, my favorite point of comparison was Napoleon, while Zuckerberg seems to be more fond of Augustus: “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”) This kind of conviction is necessary for success, although hardly sufficient. The first human beings to walk on Mars may have already been born. Deep down, they know it, and this knowledge will determine their decisions for the rest of their lives. Of course, thousands of others “know” it, too. And just a few of them will turn out to be right.

One of my persistent themes on this blog is how we tend to confuse talent with luck, or, more generally, to underestimate the role that chance plays in success or failure. I never tire of quoting the economist Daniel Kahneman, who in Thinking Fast and Slow shares what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = Talent + Luck
Great Success = A little more talent + A lot of luck

The truth of this statement seems incontestable. Yet we’re all reluctant to acknowledge its power in our own lives, and this tendency only increases as the roles played by luck and privilege assume a greater importance. This week has been bracketed by news stories about two men who embody this attitude at its most extreme. On the one hand, you have Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale legacy student who seems unable to recognize that his drinking and his professional success weren’t mutually exclusive, but closer to the opposite. He occupied a cultural and social stratum that gave him the chance to screw up repeatedly without lasting consequences, and we’re about to learn how far that privilege truly extends. On the other hand, you have yesterday’s New York Times exposé of Donald Trump, who took hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire—often in the form of bailouts for his own failed investments—while constantly describing himself as a self-made billionaire. This is hardly surprising, but it’s still striking to see the extent to which Fred Trump played along with his son’s story. He understood the value of that myth.

This gets at an important point about privilege, no matter which form it takes. We have a way of visualizing these matters in spatial terms—”upper class,” “lower class,” “class pyramid,” “rising,” “falling,” or “stratum” in the sense that I used it above. But true privilege isn’t spatial, but temporal. It unfolds over time, by giving its beneficiaries more opportunities to fail and recover, when those living at the edge might not be able to come back from the slightest misstep. We like to say that a privileged person is someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, but it’s more like being granted unlimited turns at bat. Kavanaugh provides a vivid reminder, in case we needed one, that a man who fits a certain profile has the freedom to make all kinds of mistakes, the smallest of which would be fatal for someone who didn’t look like he did. And this doesn’t just apply to drunken misbehavior, criminal or otherwise, but even to the legitimate failures that are necessary for the vast majority of us to achieve real success. When you come from the right background, it’s easier to survive for long enough to benefit from the effects of luck, which influences the way that we talk about failure itself. Silicon Valley speaks of “failing faster,” which only makes sense when the price of failure is humiliation or the loss of investment capital, not falling permanently out of the middle class. And as I’ve noted before, Pixar’s creative philosophy, which Andrew Stanton described as a process in which “the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them,” is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts at the top, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted.

This may all come across as unbelievably depressing, but there’s a silver lining, and it took me years to figure it out. The odds of succeeding in any creative field—which includes nearly everything in which the standard career path isn’t clearly marked—are minuscule. Few who try will ever make it, even if they have “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen.” This isn’t due to a lack of drive or talent, but of time and second chances. When you combine the absence of any straightforward instructions with the crucial role played by luck, you get a process in which repeated failure over a long period is almost inevitable. Those who drop out don’t suffer from weak nerves, but from the fact that they’ve used up all of their extra lives. Privilege allows you to stay in the game for long enough for the odds to turn in your favor, and if you’ve got it, you may as well use it. (An Ivy League education doesn’t guarantee success, but it drastically increases your ability to stick around in the middle class in the meantime.) In its absence, you can find strategies of minimizing risk in small ways while increasing it on the highest levels, which just another word for becoming a bohemian. And the big takeaway here is that since the probability of success is already so low, you may as well do exactly what you want. It can be tempting to tailor your work to the market, reasoning that it will increase your chances ever so slightly, but in reality, the difference is infinitesimal. An objective observer would conclude that you’re not going to make it either way, and even if you do, it will take about the same amount of time to succeed by selling out as it would by staying true to yourself. You should still do everything that you can to make the odds more favorable, but if you’re probably going to fail anyway, you might as well do it on your own terms. And that’s the only choice that matters.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2018 at 8:59 am

The Prime of Miss Elizabeth Hoover

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Yesterday, as I was working on my post for this blog, I found myself thinking about the first time that I ever heard of Lyme disease, which, naturally, was on The Simpsons. In the episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” which first aired on April 25, 1991, Lisa’s teacher, Miss Hoover, tells the class: “Children, I won’t be staying long. I just came from the doctor, and I have Lyme disease.” As Principal Skinner cheerfully explains: “Lyme disease is spread by small parasites called ‘ticks.’ When a diseased tick attaches itself to you, it begins sucking your blood. Malignant spirochetes infect your bloodstream, eventually spreading to your spinal fluid and on into the brain.” At the end of the second act, however, Miss Hoover unexpectedly returns, and I’ve never forgotten her explanation for her sudden recovery:

Miss Hoover: You see, class, my Lyme disease turned out to be psychosomatic.
Ralph: Does that mean you’re crazy?
Janie: It means she was faking it.
Miss Hoover: No, actually, it was a little of both. Sometimes, when a disease is in all the magazines and on all the news shows, it’s only natural that you think you have it.

And while it might seem excessive to criticize a television episode that first aired over a quarter of a century ago, it’s hard to read these lines after Porochista Khakpour’s memoir Sick without wishing that this particular joke didn’t exist.

In its chronic form, Lyme disease remains controversial, but like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, it’s an important element in the long, complicated history of women having trouble finding doctors who will take their pain seriously. As Lidija Haas writes in The New Yorker:

There’s a class of illnesses—multi-symptomatic, chronic, hard to diagnose—that remain associated with suffering women and disbelieving experts. Lyme disease, symptoms of which can afflict patients years after the initial tick bite, appears to be one…[The musician Kathleen Hanna] describes an experience common to many sufferers from chronic illness—that of being dismissed as an unreliable witness to what is happening inside her. Since no single medical condition, a doctor once told her, could plausibly affect so many different systems—neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal—she must be having a panic attack…As in so many other areas of American life, women of color often endure the most extreme versions of this problem.

It goes without saying that when “Lisa’s Substitute” was written, there weren’t any women on the writing staff of The Simpsons, although even if there were, it might not have made a difference. In her recent memoir Just the Funny Parts, Nell Scovell, who worked as a freelance television writer in the early nineties, memorably describes the feeling of walking into the “all-male” Simpsons writing room, which was “welcoming, but also intimidating.” It’s hard to imagine these writers, so many of them undeniably brilliant, thinking twice about making a joke like this—and it’s frankly hard to see them rejecting it now, when it might only lead to attacks from people who, in Matt Groening’s words, “love to pretend they’re offended.”

I’m not saying that there are any subjects that should be excluded from comedic consideration, or that The Simpsons can’t joke about Lyme disease. But as I look back at the classic years of my favorite television show of all time, I’m starting to see a pattern that troubles me, and it goes far beyond Apu. I’m tempted to call it “punching down,” but it’s worse. It’s a tendency to pick what seem at the time like safe targets, and to focus with uncanny precision on comic gray areas that allow for certain forms of transgression. I know that I quoted this statement just a couple of months ago, but I can’t resist repeating what producer Bill Oakley says of Greg Daniels’s pitch about an episode on racism in Springfield:

Do you remember this? Something about Homer and Dr. Hibbert? Well, you pitched it several times and I think we were just…It was some exploration of the concept of race in Springfield, and we just said, you know, we don’t think this is the forum. The Simpsons can’t be the right forum to deal with racism.

He was probably right. But when you look at the few racially charged jokes that the show actually made, the characters involved weren’t black, but quite specifically “brown,” or members of groups that occupy a liminal space in our cultural understanding of race: Apu, Akira, Bumblebee Man. (I know that Akira was technically whiter than anybody else, but you get my drift.) By contrast, the show was very cautious when it came to its black characters. Apart from Dr. Hibbert, who was derived from Bill Cosby, the show’s only recurring black faces were Carl and Officer Lou, the latter of whom is so unmemorable that I had to look him up to make sure that he wasn’t Officer Eddie. And both Carl and Lou were given effectively the same voice by Hank Azaria, the defining feature of which was that it was nondescript as humanly possible.

I’m not necessarily criticizing the show’s treatment of race, but the unconscious conservatism that carefully avoided potentially controversial areas while lavishing attention on targets that seemed unobjectionable. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show that would have dared to employ such stereotypes, even ironically, on Carl, Lou, or even Judge Snyder, who was so racially undefined that he was occasionally colored as white. (The show’s most transgressive black figures, Drederick Tatum and Lucius Sweet, were so transparently modeled on real people that they barely even qualified as characters. As Homer once said: “You know Lucius Sweet? He’s one of the biggest names in boxing! He’s exactly as rich and as famous as Don King, and he looks just like him, too!” And I’m not even going to talk about “Bleeding Gums” Murphy.) That joke about Miss Hoover is starting to feel much the same way, and if it took two decades for my own sensibilities to catch up with that fact, it’s for the same reasons that we’re finally taking a harder look at Apu. And if I speak as a fan, it isn’t to qualify these thoughts, but to get at the heart of why I feel obliged to write about them at all. We’re all shaped by popular culture, and I can honestly say of The Simpsons, as Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road: “All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.” The show’s later seasons are reflexively dismissed as lazy, derivative, and reliant on easy jokes, but we still venerate its golden years. Yet if The Simpsons has gradually degraded under the watch of many of its original writers and producers, this implies that we’re only seeing the logical culmination—or eruption—of something that was there all along, afflicting its viewers years after the original bite. We all believed that The Simpsons, in its prime, was making us smarter. But what if it was just psychosomatic?

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

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Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?
Now here’s the tricky part…

“Homer and Apu”

On October 8, 1995, The Simpsons aired the episode “Bart Sells His Soul,” which still hasn’t stopped rattling around in my brain. (A few days ago, my daughter asked: “Daddy, what’s the soul?” I may have responded with some variation on Lisa’s words: “Whether or not the soul is physically real, it’s the symbol of everything fine inside us.” On a more typical morning, though, I’m likely to mutter to myself: “Remember Alf? He’s back—in pog form!”) It’s one of the show’s finest installments, but it came close to being about something else entirely. On the commentary track for the episode, the producer Bill Oakley recalls:

There’s a few long-lived ideas that never made it. One of which is David Cohen’s “Homer the Narcoleptic,” which we’ve mentioned on other tracks. The other one was [Greg Daniels’s] one about racism in Springfield. Do you remember this? Something about Homer and Dr. Hibbert? Well, you pitched it several times and I think we were just…It was some exploration of the concept of race in Springfield, and we just said, you know, we don’t think this is the forum. The Simpsons can’t be the right forum to deal with racism.

Daniels—who went on to create Parks and Recreation and the American version of The Office—went with the pitch for “Bart Sells His Soul” instead, and the other premise evidently disappeared forever, including from his own memory. When Oakley brings it up, Daniels only asks: “What was it?”

Two decades later, The Simpsons has yet to deal with race in any satisfying way, even when the issue seems unavoidable. Last year, the comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu, which explores the complicated legacy of one of the show’s most prominent supporting characters. On Sunday, the show finally saw fit to respond to these concerns directly, and the results weren’t what anyone—apart perhaps from longtime showrunner Al Jean—might have wanted. As Sopan Deb of the New York Times describes it:

The episode, titled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” featured a scene with Marge Simpson sitting in bed with her daughter Lisa, reading a book called “The Princess in the Garden,” and attempting to make it inoffensive for 2018. At one point, Lisa turns to directly address the TV audience and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu at the bedside with the line, “Don’t have a cow!” inscribed on it. Marge responds: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” Followed by Lisa saying, “If at all.”

Kondabolu responded on Twitter: “This is sad.” And it was. As Linda Holmes of NPR aptly notes: “Apu is not appearing in a fifty-year-old book by a now-dead author. Apu is a going concern. Someone draws him, over and over again.” And the fact the show decided to put these words into the mouth of Lisa Simpson, whose importance to viewers everywhere was recently underlined, makes it doubly disappointing.

But there’s one obvious change that The Simpsons could make, and while it wouldn’t be perfect, it would be a step in the right direction. If the role of Apu were recast with an actor of South Asian descent, it might not be enough in itself, but I honestly can’t see a downside. Hank Azaria would still be allowed to voice dozens of characters. Even if Apu sounded slightly different than before, this wouldn’t be unprecedented—Homer’s voice changed dramatically after the first season, and Julie Kavner’s work as Marge is noticeably more gravelly than it used to be. Most viewers who are still watching probably wouldn’t even notice, and the purists who might object undoubtedly left a long time ago. It would allow the show to feel newsworthy again, and not just on account of another gimmick. And even if we take this argument to its logical conclusion and ask that Carl, Officer Lou, Akira, Bumblebee Man, and all the rest be voiced by actors of the appropriate background, well, why not? (The show’s other most prominent minority character, Dr. Hibbert, seems to be on his way out for other reasons, and he evidently hasn’t appeared in almost two years.) For a series that has systematically undermined its own legacy in every conceivable way out of little more than boredom, it seems shortsighted to cling to the idea that Azaria is the only possible Apu. And even if it leaves many issues unresolved on the writing level, it also seems like a necessary precondition for change. At this late date, there isn’t much left to lose.

Of course, if The Simpsons were serious about this kind of effort, we wouldn’t be talking about its most recent episode at all. And the discussion is rightly complicated by the fact that Apu—like everything else from the show’s golden age—was swept up in the greatness of those five or six incomparable seasons. Before that unsuccessful pitch on race in Springfield, Greg Daniels was credited for “Homer and Apu,” which deserves to be ranked among the show’s twenty best episodes, and the week after “Bart Sells His Soul,” we got “Lisa the Vegetarian,” which gave Apu perhaps his finest moment, as he ushered Lisa to the rooftop garden to meet Paul and Linda McCartney. But the fact that Apu was a compelling character shouldn’t argue against further change, but in its favor. And what saddens me the most about the show’s response is that it undermines what The Simpsons, at its best, was supposed to be. It was the cartoon that dared to be richer and more complex than any other series on the air; it had the smartest writers in the world and a network that would leave them alone; it was just plain right about everything; and it gave us a metaphorical language for every conceivable situation. The Simpsons wasn’t just a sitcom, but a vocabulary, and it taught me how to think—or it shaped the way that I do think so deeply that there’s no real distinction to be made. As a work of art, it has quietly fallen short in ways both small and large for over fifteen years, but I was able to overlook it because I was no longer paying attention. It had done what it had to do, and I would be forever grateful. But this week, when the show was given the chance to rise again to everything that was fine inside of it, it faltered. Which only tells me that it lost its soul a long time ago.

American Stories #7: The Simpsons

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

By now, it might seem that there isn’t anything new to say about The Simpsons, but it’s worth emphasizing how much it depended on an accident of timing. When it premiered, there hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and it clearly bore the fingerprints of its most famous predecessor. It was a family sitcom designed more or less along the lines of the ones that had come before it—Matt Groening came up with the concept in the waiting room before a pitch meeting—and while its tone and attitude were new, its structure in the early days was resolutely conventional. If it rapidly evolved, this was thanks in large part to luck. Bit players like Apu or Principal Skinner, introduced for the sake of a specific gag, stuck around to be brought back for a few lines at a time because they depended only on the availability of a core voice cast, which meant that the population of Springfield naturally increased. The number of potential characters was as infinite as it was on a good sketch comedy show, with no limits on how many could appear in a single scene. As the animation grew more sophisticated, the writers began to see that they could literally go anywhere and do anything, within the limits imposed by the patience and ability of the animators. (The directors, who were occasionally overwhelmed, joked about being asked to draw “an elephant stampede in a hall of mirrors,” but they invariably rose to the challenge.) Instead of a series about a family, which is what its title still implied, it became a show about everything in the world, and early breakthroughs like Bart the Murderer expanded its scope to all of popular culture. Its network was content to leave it alone. And if it ultimately emerged as a work of art vast enough to form the basis of its own metaphorical language, it was because the medium had risen to meet the ambitions of its writers at that exact moment.

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons remain the greatest case study imaginable for what happens when a small group of smart people is given creative freedom within a form that imposes minimal constraints on the imagination, given enough ingenuity and intelligence. Yet the same elements that enabled the show’s success also contributed to its decline, which will last, in the end, for at least twice as long as its golden age. From the beginning, the cast and crew were predominately white and male, and its treatment of minorities is finally drawing the scrutiny that it deserves. Its producers engaged in a form of category selection in hiring new writers who looked pretty much like they did, which was both a symptom and a cause of the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole, and the result was an echo chamber, brilliant and dead, that seemed disconnected from anything but itself. There’s also a hint of the pattern of generational succession that you see in so many successful startups. The founding members tend to be weirdos like George Meyer or John Swartzwelder, who are willing to take creative chances in oddball projects like the magazine Army Man, but as the enterprise becomes more successful, the second wave of hires comes from Harvard, with talent that is conventionally accomplished but deeply risk averse. And the series today looks more or less like you might expect. It’s a show that continues to grow on a technical level—although its animation has also grown more conservative—but hasn’t advanced creatively in fifteen years; it settles for the kind of cleverness that plays well in the room but is unlikely to make an impression on viewers; and it has no real incentive to change. The Simpsons is still the best show ever made about America. But the most American thing about it might be its downfall.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2018 at 8:35 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

The conveyor belt

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For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

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