Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.
And the Jellicle Ball of the seas.
On a Boat
The centrepiece of this group trip to Europe was a week-long cruise through the western Mediterranean, hitting spots in Italy, Spain, and a bit of France. This was not my first cruise of the Mediterranean. It was my third, following two back during high school. (Yes, my high school had a Travel Club; yes, I was in it all three years; yes I got course credit for this; no, I’m not sorry.)
It was, however, my first cruise in [coughcoughcough] years, during which they made some advancements to cruise life, such as being able to take a shower while in port and not get tossed about the stall. It was also my first time aboard a cruise line not selected to fit the budget of a couple of dozen high school students. My last two cruises boasted amenities as lush as two or even three bars, and a movie theatre that might even have English languages movies more than once! Or maybe the only English language choice was Grease and you already didn’t like Grease very much and wow do you ever hate Grease now.
This time was… a little fancier than that. The moment I stepped onto the ship, I was in mild disbelief… this was an order of magnitude fancier than my high school experiences. The first thing I saw was not anything that belonged on a boat, it was a full entertainment district, a street with bars and restaurants and shops. This was like an all-inclusive resort that, if you went to the upper decks, you would learn was somehow on a boat.
Well… not exactly like an all-inclusive. It was a most-inclusive. There were several restaurants that were not included in the cost, even with our fancy drink packages*. There were wines that cost more than $13 for a glass, even more than $100 at the fancy wine bar. But staying clear of these places wasn’t hard. Hell, the pizza joint was included, and I barely ever made it there. The buffet for breakfast, the fancy formal restaurant for dinner, lunch on shore, a drink package to cover beers, non-premium wines, and basically any and every cocktail they had, and I had everything I could ask for**.
*Drink packages are, yes, one of the ways they try to drag some more money out of you, but I knew how much I was going to be drinking, so… I went with the one where every drink up to $13 was included, no regrets.
**Some of our party did tend to hit the buffet for a “pre-dinner snack.” One could have made jokes about eating two dinners, maybe something hobbit-related, but I was likely several cocktails in by then so shaming other people’s vacationing didn’t seem the way to go.
The only time the drink package let me down? The website said it would also cover unlimited milkshakes at Johnny Rockets. After several days, I decided it was finally time to get my milkshake… and found out that milkshakes were only included with a purchase of food.
BETRAYED. Betrayed, so I felt.
But still… this place had an entertainment district, multiple theatres, an actual park on our deck with yet more bars and restaurants, one of which we even went to, a casino that was hidden enough we never had to enter it… surely this place was so bursting with entertainment options I wouldn’t end up rewatching some musical I’d already seen twice and didn’t love either time, right? Right?
Okay, so, we should all know the drill by now, yeah? The Oscars are about to happen, and even though they’re a deeply flawed ceremony that tends to play to the sensibilities of an out-of-touch voting block rather than award films that will truly stand the test of time (see The King’s Speech, which is aging into a hard Jeopardy question and an obscure Office reference), and hand out acting trophies to people seen as “due” rather than deserving (Al Pacino losing for The Godfather Part 2 to Art Carney for a film nobody remembers, so Pacino had to win for Scent of a Woman over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and so on and so forth), they remain my little film-based obsession.
So here are the nominees for Best Picture of 2018, in the order I prefer them, this time with Hot Takes and, borrowing a page from this Twitter genius, out of context John Mulaney quotes, why not!
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
Premise: The rise to fame of Freddy Mercury, and to a lesser extent the other members of Queen.
Hot take: So we’re still doing these, huh?
The camera zooms in on Mike Myers while he makes a Wayne’s World reference. That’s not a joke. That is a thing that happens in this Golden Globe-winning movie that somehow isn’t a parody. The future is not what any of us hoped it would be.
Rami Malek does give a great performance as Freddie Mercury, he really does, but then that’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a biopic about someone generally loved designed to say “Look at how great he was” and win someone a Best Actor Oscar. I can’t say I learned anything about Freddie the person, I just watched Freddie the persona walk through all of the key moments* from him joining the band that would become Queen, to the moment of inspiration for some of their better known songs, to their entire Live Aid set.
Much like The Darkest Hour had nothing to say about Winston Churchill’s more controversial post-war political career, there’s also nothing about Live Aid’s famine relief money being spent on guns from the Soviets, because we’re just here to watch Freddie Mercury be great, not, like, interrogate the man and his life and his choices or anything.
Maybe if we start doing that, these endless biopics might serve a purpose, but for now… well, at least it was more fun than The Imitation Game. I almost said The Theory of Everything but actually that one was also okay.
*Save for signing on to write the soundtrack to Highlander. Who Wants To Live Forever is snuck into the soundtrack but that whole album is skipped over.
7. Green Book
Premise: Named after a guide book to help black people travel through segregation-states without Incident. Based on a true story which has been angrily refuted by family members of one of the characters, a famous jazz musician hires an Italian-American bouncer to be his driver and assistant on a tour of the segregation-era South, showing us how institutional racism affected this black musician…’s white driver.
Hot take: Two movies with black protagonists, the word “black” right in the title, and the frontrunner is a movie about a white man learning to be less racist because he has a black friend? Oh, Oscars, why you gotta be so white about everything…
So the main strength of this one has to be in the performance of the two leads: a wonderfully stoic take from Mahershala Ali as jazz musician Dr. Don Shirley, attempting to tour Segregation South while both black and gay, playing for people that will act like he’s a star but refuse to let him use the same washroom as them; and a nigh-unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen as the gluttonous, unpolished Tony Lip. Segregation South is played as cartoonishly evil, but is there really another way to portray it? Aside from that… we watch a man who tried to throw out two drinking glasses because black people drank from them witness how aggressively evil that sort of racism actually is, and become basically better, while Dr. Shirley learns that maybe he should lean into the stereotype and try fried chicken? Is that his character arc? I don’t know why I’m asking you, I’m the one who watched it…
Anyway, it’s… fine. It’s okay. I remember laughing a few times, if not at what, specifically. I was disappointed that Tony Lip didn’t go upside the heads of more racists, but I get it. You watch it, you enjoy it more than you’re bored by it, and then it’s over and you basically move on, largely unaffected, because either you know racism is bad, or you probably didn’t watch this one. I just remember a time when “It’s okay” wasn’t enough for an Oscar nomin– no, wait, turns out I don’t remember that time, I just wish it would hurry up and get here.
6. A Star is Born
Premise: Jack, a fading country singer, meets Ally, a songwriter who doesn’t think she has a chance. Their relationship launches Ally’s career, and delays Jack’s descent into self-destruction from alcoholism and pill addiction by, oh, several months, at least.
Hot Take: Any conversation about Hollywood being out of new ideas surely needs to include this one, right? This is our fourth time on the Star is Born roller coaster.
So once again our main strength here is in performances. Lady Gaga gives a stellar performance, especially in the key scene where Jack lures her on stage at one of his concerts to sing a song she wrote. The emotions that play over her face as she makes the choice to join him onstage, through to the elation at singing her song in front of a crowd of thousands. That scene is killer. From there, it’s just waiting for Ally’s push into actual music instead of country and Jack’s substance abuse issues to drive them apart, and wondering how bad it will be when everything hits a breaking point. Not… not the happiest ending, no it is not.
So… can’t say that the second half lives up to the first. Also the first half was a little troubling, because Jack’s pursuit of Ally was the sort of thing Me Too stories are made of, but I guess we were supposed to find it charming? I was busy trying to figure out if Ally was actually attracted to Jack or if she was too scared to walk away from a really uncomfortable flirtation.
It wasn’t as unhealthy as, say, that freak relationship from The Phantom Thread last year, or even Rocky Balboa’s first date with Adrian, but… Bradley Cooper’s my third or at least fourth favourite Alias veteran*, so I’d really like him to not be a creep, but he wrote that creepy-ass first date, and now I’m worried.
*He’s competitive with Kevin Weisman, but nobody can outrank Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber. Also it warmed by geek heart that he slipped two other Alias castmates into small but key roles.
Premise: An indigenous maid in early 70s Mexico works for a richer, whiter family. The family is falling apart, and her dirtbag boyfriend gets her pregnant and then vanishes faster than that Live Aid money disappeared into some Russian arms dealer’s bank account (callback joke! I am nailing this!), and then she gets to deal with all of that.
Hot take: I know Hollywood was just arguing that cinematography is a more essential part of film making than screenplay, but I don’t know, maybe tell a story?
That’s a harsh hot take, to be sure, but that is what hot takes are for, if I understand the term correctly.
This is certainly the most artistic of the nominees, so if it were to win, I could live with that. More than I could if it went to Green Book, I tell you what. The film, if I understand the discourse I’ve read since properly, is meant to be like memories. Most shots are from a single perspective: fixed but rotating cameras, inserting the viewer into the moment more fully than a lot of cuts and coverage would. And this is a very interesting shooting technique, more so, possibly, than Birdman’s faux-single take approach. So it’s well-shot, well-acted… it just feels a little narratively thin to me, and I am nothing if not a slut for narrative.
Probably worth watching, but if you watch it, don’t be on your phone. The visuals are as important as anything, even the dude doing martial arts with his dick flapping around.
I’m not kidding, that’s a thing that happens.
4. Black Panther
Premise: In the wake of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa returns to the secretly super-advanced kingdom of Wakanda to replace his recently departed father as king, only to face an unexpected challenge for both the throne and the role of Wakandan champion the Black Panther from the American cousin he didn’t know he had.
Hot take: Let’s not pretend that Disney didn’t throw their immense money and influence into finally breaking the “Super hero movies don’t get Oscar nominations” stigma.
Look. I’m not here to dis Black Panther, or complain how CG the third act is, or claim that it’s nomination is entirely based on Disney money, or any of the things that, I have to assume, primarily white comic nerds are doing in the wake of Marvel’s first black hero also being the first to land a Best Picture nomination. And it was never going to be Infinity War, because Infinity War broke a very simple rule… never show a man half a job. For all of its strengths, Infinity War is half a story.
Black Panther, however, is a complete tale, with an exploration of what a great nation’s responsibilities to the world might be, with a top-tier villain turn from Michael B. Jordan. If I were to name one Marvel Studios picture that deserved to make the Best Picture shortlist, yeah, I’d pick this one. In terms of superhero movies as a whole I would have backed Wonder Woman last year but that third act had some flaws, and not just in terms of CG. Logan certainly deserved more love than it got, but we’re here now.
Just remember, Marvel Zombies (a preferred term for hardcore Marvel fans)… this wouldn’t have happened if the Oscars hadn’t expanded the Best Picture category to “Up to ten” in the wake of the massive public uproar over The Dark Knight getting snubbed for that waste of time movie The Reader. So a Marvel movie was first to the podium, but DC changed the system.
3. The Favourite
Premise: Queen Anne (a delightfully batty Olivia Colman) rules England, but the worst kept secret in the palace is that her best friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is essentially running the country, and pushing it towards an expensive war with France. All of this is threatened when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the palace seeking employment, her family having been ruined by her father’s gambling. Abigail’s attempts to secure a place back in high society and Sarah’s ambitions for the country find themselves at loggerheads, as they compete to be, well, the Favourite. Right there in the name.
Hot take: Flip some genders and glamorize the rulers a bit more, and this would run for six seasons on Starz.
Well this one was a lot of fun. Abigail’s attempts to climb the ladder without getting whipped too much, Lady Sarah’s push for war, Nicholas Hoult as Harley, the Leader of the Opposition, trying to foil Lady Sarah, and an oddly engaging refusal to make any of these people 100% worth rooting for. Sure Lady Sarah’s harshness and Abigail’s sympathetic circumstances push you in a direction at first, but things don’t stay that simple for long. And yes, Harley wants peace and lower taxes and those are pretty good, but man can he be a dick about it.
And at the center of it all, a wonderfully deranged take on the Queen from the splendid Olivia Colman. Even if the other women weren’t on her level, she’d be worth it. Thankfully, they are, and while the movie loses a bit of steam in the last half hour, the whole trio make for an impressive battle of passive-aggression.
Premise: From the director of The Big Short, another fourth-wall-breaking comedy/drama attempting to help you understand a way in which American society broke recently: this time, the rise to power and the attempt to seize absolute power by Dick Cheney.
Hot take: The current president is a wannabe dictator with no leadership abilities and his vice-president wants to take money out of AIDS research and use it to torture gay teens, but sure, let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine…
The makeup effects to turn Christian Bale into old, crotchety Dick Cheney were certainly impressive, and Bale had Cheney’s character down pat, but young Cheney was less impressive. Bale never looked younger than 42.
My favourite moment in this movie comes as a young(?) Cheney asked his new mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we believe?” and Rumsfeld just laughs, and laughs, and laughs. This, to me, was the most important message of the movie, even more so than Cheney’s attempts to seize as much unchecked power as he could. It’s why I don’t trust conservative political parties. The modern Republican party, and more and more right-wing parties like them, have no values. No beliefs. They just want power, as much of it as they can grab, and to use that power to make themselves and their rich friends even richer.
Sure there’s entertainment in how they depict Cheney’s rise through the ranks, and they have a few fun Big Short-style “To explain subprime mortgages, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” moments. Also the narration works, provided by Jesse Plemons as a character with an unexpected connection to Cheney.
I also liked the mid-credit scene where they poke fun at how Republican voters are probably just going to dismiss the whole film as liberal bias and the country will remain divided. But if we’re talking biopics about the deep flaws in America that are more of a problem than ever…
Premise: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), first black police detective in Colorado Springs, decides to launch an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a white man over the phone, and enlisting Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take over the role for in-person meetings.
Hot take: And the only acting trophy goes to the white sidekick? Why you gotta be so white all the time, Oscars?
Hoo doggy. If we thought Green Book was unflinching in portraying racists as terrible people, check out what Spike Lee does. But while the dangers of the Klan are never understated, he also does enjoy making them look the fools. Something aided by a cameo from Alec Baldwin as… you’d just have to see it… Topher Grace as a seemingly-genial, easily-duped David Duke, and the inclusion of I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser, who has a gift for playing bad guys who are no less dangerous for being comically stupid.
Sure, Stallworth’s investigation didn’t exactly bring down the Klan, as the montage at the end of the movie of news footage from that long-ago year of 2017 reminds us that they remain a resurgent problem, but it is a tense and satisfying story just the same.
Anyway that’s all of them. There have been worse years, there have been better years… and yeah, there’s something uninspiring about being this middle-of-the-road, but I’ll be watching the show just the same.
In the summers of 1995-1997, I spent three amazing, magical, life-changing long weekends in Los Angeles. In October of 2018, once my memories of LA were old enough to get drunk there, I returned.
These are the stories of my return to the City of Angels.
And the moment of pure joy.
But First, a Prologue
There are moments. Simple, perfect, magical moments, moments you know are fleeting but will live on as treasured memories. Sometimes they sneak up on you, like the moment when Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher stepped through the doors of the Daily Planet to greet us back in ’95. Some you get to see coming. In the Heracles tour of 2004, when we reached Edmonton we started playing to full houses, which meant that the curtain call would involve about 100 people cheering for something I wrote, directed, and had just starred in, and man I devoured that rush each time.
That’s all you can do, really. Live in that moment as hard as you can. Drink in every detail. Savour every second of this perfect moment you’re given, for time’s arrow moves ever forward.
No I’m not done with BoJack Horseman references. No I’m not going to explain my BoJack Horseman references. It’s all on Netflix, you only think you have better things to do.
The Tour Begins
When we last left off, I was on my way to the Warner Bros. Studio, home of great memories from LAFF ’95 and ’96.
There was no chance this tour was going to live up to my previous tours. I knew that. Obviously I knew that. I wasn’t here with dozens of like-minded fans, something that was made clear to me when our guide polled our group as to what WB shows we enjoyed. “Who here likesFriends?” he asked us, receiving a round of applause and cheers. “Gilmore Girls?” Less applause but not none. “Big Bang Theory?” enough applause my eyes rolled. And then the one I’d been waiting for.
“WOO!” I reply. Alone. I look around at the silent tourists surrounding me. “Just… just me, then?” I ask. “Okay, but y’all are missing out…”
So no dozens of fellow fans. No camaraderie, as I don’t exactly excel at bonding with strangers. But more to the point, no pop-ins by the cast like in ’95, no producers doing Q&As like… all three years. (Even in ’97, the summer after Lois and Clarkwas cancelled, writer/producer Tim Minear, who you might know as the co-creator of Firefly, came to hang out with us at LAFF.)
But I could hope. Hey, I follow Lucifer’s Aimee Garcia on Instagram, they run into tours sometimes, and season four was mid-filming when I was there.
It did not, however, take us long to reach what was once known as Stars Hollow, home of the Gilmore Girls.
We saw the strip of grass, about ten or fifteen feet long, backed by trees, that doubled for Central Park anytime the Friends headed that way. Visiting Central Park itself a couple of weeks later, I did not spot much similarity, but hey, the illsion works.
Catering to My Interests
Another thing our guide asked about was who liked Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and I think we know my answer was “I do!”
Back in the 90s, I was on a very famous as the tour kicked off, the costumes for Batman Forever were proudly displayed. And I remember thinking “Wow but Robin’s codpiece looks bigger than it could possibly need to be.” This style of costume showcase has only expanded since then, as our tour stopped by a two-story reliquary, which I thought of as The Hall of Franchises Warner Bros is Choosing to Remain Proud Of, Despite Some Diminishing Returns on Recent Entries.
In other words, the DCEU and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts.
Yes, fine, Justice League underperformed, and 2 Fantastic 2 Beasts was a pile of world-building in search of a plot, but it was still super (sorry) neat to see all of the costumes and props from the DC and Wizarding World movies… also two costumes from an upcoming entry that might… MIGHT… not let me down.
I did not bother getting a photo of Cyborg’s “costume” from Justice League. That was not anybody’s costume. Ray Fisher wore a motion capture bodysuit and we all know it.
We also saw the Hall of Batmobiles, where I got to switch on the Bat-Signal.
All of this was fun and cool and put a smile on my face.
But it wasn’t The Moment.
In between Franchise Hall and the Batmobile Garage, we pulled over. Our guide was going to try to get us into a sound stage. Not just any sound stage, but Stage 16, the tallest on the lot, one of the tallest in the world. So that’s neat. He made no mention of what was in it.
A chant began in the back of my head. A focus of will, of hope, a plea to a universe that normally turns a deaf ear to my requests.
“Lux. Lux. Lux,” the chant went. Lux is, of course, Lucifer Morningstar’s nightclub on my beloved Lucifer. “Lux. Lux. Lux.”
As our guide confirmed that Stage 16 was good for a visit, I tried to brace myself for disappointment. It could be anything. Not Mom or… whichever reality show films at the WB, we passed those stages earlier. But it could be something from The Big Bang Theory, or All American, the only CW show I can think of that doesn’t film in Vancouver. That one certainly came up a lot. In fact the only cast member we saw on the tour was from All American, or so I assume, because even with the Halloween event taking over chunks of the lot there can’t be that many reasons someone would walk from a sound stage to a trailer dressed as a cheerleader.
I don’t know who it was. Don’t ask me. I don’t watch All American, I couldn’t pick the non-Taye Diggs cast members out of a lineup.
Anyway. While the guide explained the rules… absolutely positively no photography of any kind, if we’re caught taking pictures they’ll all but factory reset the phone to delete the photo… I kept telling myself not to get excited, and just appreciate wherever we end up. As much as possible. I do not care about All American.
But even as I did that, the chant continued, trying to will hope into reality… “Lux. Lux. Lux. Lux. Lux. Lux.”
We stepped through the door. My eyes adjusted to the light.
Didn’t even need to see the sign at first. I’d know that bartop anywhere. And those couches. And that balcony. The sign just confirmed everything, erased all doubt.
“So,” asked the guide, “Where’s my Lucifer fan?”
I responded with all of the calm and poise of Buddy from Elf being told Santa was coming out.
“Lux. This is Lux. We’re in Lux.” I was beaming as I surveyed the room, drinking in every detail. The guide described the filming process, how each scene is shot repeatedly from each angle, but I was just… being here. Being present. Savouring every second that I was in Lucifer’s nightclub, the room where Lucifer met Chloe, the very spot where Cain and Amenadiel fought, right near the spot where Lucifer caught his mother dancing on a table.
You live in the moment as hard as you can, for as long as it lasts.
The guide felt that the filming process would be best explained with two volunteers representing the actors, so he could describe how the lights and camera would be perfectly positioned for one of them, then they’d reset and film, say, the Chloe close-ups. I was volunteer number one, being the group’s Lucifer fan, and a girl there with her dad was volunteer number two. After explaining the lighting set-up, the guide turned to me expectantly and said “Action.”
I did the only thing that made sense.
I slipped into my best Tom Ellis impression, saying “Well, Detective, I hardly see how that’s relevant to the case. May as well relax and have a drink!”
I am… very grateful no cast member was anywhere nearby, because we shouldn’t be assuming that my “best” Tom Ellis impression was, you know… good in some way.
After that was the Batmobiles, and then the lot museum, with displays on how green screens work, clay models from Corpse Bride, costumes and props from Beetlejuice, Jack Warner’s phone book, all sorts of stuff from all sorts of WB projects…
But it was hard to top those few minutes in Lux.
Good day. Great day. Not even those mixtape pushers or the long drive back to Anaheim could compromise it.
And then I ended up watching Netflix or something instead of using the hotel pool. Look, in my defense, I’d been waiting since the previous June to finish off The People Vs. OJ Simpson. Given how little I cared about that trial when it was happening, I got weirdly into the TV show based on it…
I came for the nostalgia, but I received a gift.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the only thing I did that week inspired by a TV show I watched. We’ll discuss the other two next time.
My dreams get weird. Like, notoriously so. Let’s discuss.
Happy V. Scary, Dawn of Insomnia
I hate happy dreams more than nightmares.
See, if I dream that zombies have overrun the city, or to use a more frequent, more adult sort of nightmare, that one of my best friends died in a car wreck, I can usually wake up pretty easily, confirm that it isn’t true, and shake it off. Said friend is alive, the city is not overrun with zombies, Tom Cruise did not play the lead on Doctor Who for a season (that was the other night), easy to shrug off.
The problem is– actually the Doctor Who thing fell apart mid-dream, so that didn’t even wake me up. It was just a little weird.
The problem is– because I couldn’t think of his regeneration, that’s why it fell apart.
The problem is– look, the moment when a Doctor regenerates, even a short-termer like Christopher Eccleston or Scientology’s own John the Baptist, it’s a huge moment. One of the most memorable moments of their run, their last big speech before the role gets turned over, and the most recent regeneration that came to mind involved Peter Capaldi’s glorious Series Ten mane of silver hair, so there was nothing to do but go back to rehearsing my Five Doctors stage play… but I digress.
The problem is that I wake up from happy dreams just as easily, and when your dream featured getting the girl, winning the lottery, being pals with your favourite celebrities, it can be very annoying when your brain jolts you awake at the exact moment you get everything you ever wanted, and tells you that all of that was a lie. It can put you in a mood, give you an emotional meltdown in the shower, throw off your entire day.
Although I did have to respect the effort my subconscious made into being a dick about it once.
In the late 80s, I was particularly fond of the video game Bubble Bobble. So fond, in fact, that my mother became convinced for multiple years that every game I was playing was somehow Bubble Bobble. Or maybe it was just an easier to assume that than keep track of them all? I don’t know.
For my younger readers, there was a time in video game history when the newest games (fine, other than PC games) weren’t available at home right away. New video games were found in places called “arcades,” where you’d play them on large machines for the price of a quarter. Or two quarters. Or eventually a dollar. It never got higher than that, though, on account of home consoles rendering arcades largely obsolete before the two-dollar coin could take hold.
Anyway, Bubble Bobble was a fun game about two friends turned into cute dinosaurs who trapped monsters in bubbles and then burst the bubbles, turning them into delicious treats, all so they could save their abducted loves from the king monster, which like all classic 80s arcade games sounds like word salad when described out loud, but was fun enough to play you’d risk dumping an entire week’s allowance into the machine just to make the next level.
So of course I was restless for the day to come when I’d be able to just play it at home. It wasn’t a graphically complicated game, not like the Don Bluth cartoon with a joystick Dragon’s Lair, or the photo-realistic Mortal Kombat that would come later. Surely my Nintendo could handle this one, and I’d finally be able to make it to the end.
Knowing this, my subconscious decided to have a little game.
The part of the dream where we got an actual full-sized Bubble Bobble arcade machine (the dream, back when, because you owned the game and a status symbol) wasn’t the mean part, no. That’s normal stuff. You want a thing, so in your dream you have it. Standard. Boilerplate. Waking up the second I start to realize this is, in fact, too good to be true, also standard. But that’s where things got different. The realization hit… no, this wasn’t really happening, I was just dreaming, wasn’t I? And so I was going to lose all of this.
“And so you are!” cried out a voice. “So let’s take it away NOW!” And a cyclone descended, sucking away Bubble Bobble and everything else nearby, and as the landscape was reduced to a barren wasteland, I woke up.
“Huh,” I thought. “Well played.” I mean, sometimes you have to respect the artistry.
Sometimes people ask me why I haven’t written a musical. I explain it’s because I am utterly unable to write music and can only barely manage parody lyrics to a pre-existing song. My dreams have been a little more successful than me, in that twice they’ve managed to come up with songs that stayed stuck in my head for years.
The first time must have been… damn, ten and a half years ago. I hate you, time. The nineties were the previous decade and the 80s were relatively recent, that was the DEAL, but you kept crawling forward and–
So, we’d just finished a production of a play called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, an unauthorized look at the teen years of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. The director (and more than one of the cast) were likely moving on to do Cabaret with a different company later in the season. I had a dream about that production shortly after the show, only in this version, the entire Dog Sees God cast was involved, and it was one of those “The play is happening in every room simultaneously, wander around” deals. Clearly the main room was the big draw, because almost nobody was outside watching Sam do her Kit-Kat-Girl number. That may also have been poor direction, because honestly, the big opening number was happening inside, nobody was going to miss that.
The big opening number was not, however, “Willkommen,” the actual opening number of Cabaret. It was a song my dream invented from whole cloth called “Geddamke Monsieurs,” which is a weird title, combining German and French words into one greeting okay this is going to take some explaining, isn’t it.
Yes, I know that “Geddamke” is not… [quickly checks Google] …is not an actual German word. This, like the tune, was an invention of the dream. “Geddamke” was a slang term, a Weimar Germany saying for men out on the town. A way of saying “Good luck, gentlemen,” or more crudely, “Go get ’em, boys,” that was exclusively used in situations where there were women to be courted.
A silly concept, this word. I think we can all agree that if there was a real German word for that, there’s no way it would be that short, it would be “Vielglücksindverliebtschwingschwing” or something like that, but it wouldn’t have fit with the tune.
I still remember that tune, by the by. A piece of it, anyway. Ten years later, I can still recall the actor playing Cliff belting it out, “I may not have been born with an awful lot, but I’m gonna use what I’ve got! Geddamke monsieurs!” Not the worst way to kick off a show.
The other tune was longer, yet somehow still simpler. I don’t remember the verses, but I do recall exactly what it was about. It was part of some sort of sorority girl luau musical extravaganza, on an outdoor stage surrounded by a pool. I feel like I wasn’t supposed to swim through the pool to find a better vantage point for the show, but that’s just another way my subconscious likes to mess with me. Put me in situations that agitate my anxieties surrounding breaches in protocol. Act out the voice in the back of my head that constantly asks “How bad would it be if you stuck your feet out on the stage and an actor tripped?” (Pretty bad)
Anyway, what’s stuck with me over the years is the chorus to this number. The ensemble was mostly off stage, leaving one female ventriloquist onstage with her dummy. She was doing a Harley Quinn bit, with the dummy playing the Joker role. This might have been somewhat inspired by a Cracked article I read about how the camgirl industry gets weird. The number was all about how the ventriloquist knew she’d never really befree of the Joker-dummy, even if it’s what she really wants. Their destinies are intertwined. They were, in the words of the chorus, “born together.”
“Born together, born together, baby we were born together…” This one still gets stuck in my head sometimes. Not hard to do, really, it’s a total of five words and about three notes. I suppose the impressive thing is that I’ve been able to remember not just the tune, but the tragic meaning of the song, like the secret meaning of an obscure German slang term. It would be enough to tempt me to try to write these snippets into actual musicals, if I had any idea how to do that. And, well… as I said… five words, maybe three notes. My subconscious might be a little better at songwriting than I am, but Lin-Manuel Miranda it ain’t.
Also, again… “Geddamke monsieurs?” I know the MC greets the crowd in three languages, but why is Cliff, an Englishman, using a German term if he’s talking to French people? If anyone was going to have a single word that means “Go get ’em” in reference to women, it’s the French.
I haven’t had recurring nightmares since I was a kid, young enough to sleep in a double-decker bus bed. Yes, you heard, double-decker bus bed. Not a race car. My brother had a race car, but I had a super sweet bus. Taller, cooler, less mainstream. Absolutely me. As I was–
Fine, yes, I inherited the car bed when we changed rooms in 1987, but I only slept in it until… erm… 1995. And summers and Christmases when my brother was back from Ontario until 1999ish. Shut up. It was covered in nostalgia.
So. Recurring nightmares. Only three, really, and one wasn’t a recurring dream, per se, and the other two weren’t exactly frequent. I had those two nightmares on two occasions each. In one, I was at the zoo, where a giant Frankenstein monster emerged from a large barn and started chasing all of the kids. The dream was the same each time, from the barn, to knowing the creature was coming, to all of the kids running away in a group shaped like a tennis racket (we thought it would help, because… reasons?), to finding it patently unfair that of all of these kids, I was the one Giant Frank grabbed. This was a common occurrence with nightmares growing up: I often wouldn’t realize how scared I was until I woke up, face flushed and heart racing. So it was with candidate number two: the zombie Fraggles.
I’d dream that I was in my bed (the bus), only to have zombified Fraggles (or one, at least) start crawling up the side, lurching towards me. I’d swat them away easily enough, thinking that if I acted like the Hulk I could keep them at bay. Again, these two dreams were identical, right down to calling them “Fickle features” in my best Hulk voice (it wasn’t great, I was under ten years old). “Fickle features” rhymed with their actual name… something creatures. I felt “fickle features” would demoralize them. Of course it would not. You can’t demoralize zombies, Fraggle or otherwise. Nor does swatting them away stop them. Each time I did, it came back. Unstoppable. Undeterrable. Inevitable. Therein, after all, lies the horror of Romero zombies. Not these modern fast zombies.
Although while both nightmares freaked me out, they didn’t cling to me like the time I dreamed that the Count was sucked through a wall into an alternate universe because of sinister numbers. He had one number (a seven, maybe?) that he was quite pleased with, but a bunch of other numbers appeared that terrified him, a rupture opened in the wall, he was sucked through, boom, I’m haunted by the image of the Count clinging to a bannister for dear life for years. All because he was targeted by, I don’t know, evil Numberwang.
But the zombie Fraggles and giant Frankensteins and evil Count-abducting numbers were but rank amateurs. There was only one figure of absolute dread, one figure who could turn any dream into a nightmare. A dream would be perfectly normal, say, hanging out on the set of the Supergirl movie, when suddenly my face would flush, my heart would beat loudly, and I would know. He was here. He had found us. My own personal Freddy Krueger.A spectre of terror known as the Thing.
No, not the classic John Carpenter horror movie monster. That would make so much more sense. No, not Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. We’re talking about the Thing from Readalong.
In other words, a beaver puppet who spoke in growls from a daytime TV short program in which a talking boot helps pre-school kids learn the basics of reading. Don’t bother looking for him, he’s basically un-Googleable, but by the time I could ride a bike I learned he was not exactly a figure designed to inspire terror in said pre-school kids so much as a love of literacy. So, fine, not most logical night terror.
You are making fun of the nightmares of a six-year-old, you get that, right?
Back in the bus bed days, my dream went to a test pattern. A still frame of my bedroom door open a crack, elevator music, and an announcement that the dream will resume in just a few minutes.
In university, a dream involved my friend group being pulled into a pocket universe by shadows. While getting my bearings, I saw my friend Tim had taken a job as a driver for a local gang. There he was, the least gangster person I knew, sporting sunglasses, a gang-colour ascot, and a backwards cap, driving a car of gangsters around with a giant smile on his face. “Huh,” I thought, “Tim’s blending in okay.” Upon hearing this, real-world-Tim thought this was the coolest dream he’d ever heard of.
The biggest way my subconscious is a jerk is by creating a dream in which I have superpowers, then refusing to let them work. It takes a sheer force of will to make the characters in my dreams play along and accept that they are, in fact, being shot with lightning.
There was an episode of NYPD Blue where Detective Sipowicz is visited in a dream by his recently murdered son and someone claiming to be Jesus. The dream provided a choice between revenge and forgiveness… Sipowicz chose poorly. Since then, if a deceased loved one turns up in a dream, I do not waste it. Just in case. My childhood dog has gotten a lot of posthumous cuddles in dreams.
When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.
These are mine.
Meet the New Boss
When we last left the drones of Dunder Mifflin, there was some uncertainly, before and behind the cameras, as to who would be taking over as the new manager with Michael Scott having departed.
The producers of MASH did kind of an interesting thing every time a cast member left. They would bring in a new character to fill the same basic role (Hawkeye’s pal, the CO, Hawkeye’s rival), but would reverse some aspect of their predecessor. Trapper John was as much of a womanizer as Hawkeye, BJ was devoted to his wife; Colonel Blake didn’t take the army seriously, Colonel Potter was career military; Frank Burns was enthusiastic about the military but only competent as a surgeon, Charles Winchester was apathetic about the army and Hawkeye’s superior as a surgeon. So did The Office go this route in season eight?
Yes and no.
The new regional manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch is Andy Bernard. And as I said back in part three, Andy is a cypher. He’s whatever the show needs him to be, which is why early season three Andy is barely recognizable as the same character compared to later seasons. And what they needed him to be in season eight was basically “Michael lite.” He keeps Michael’s need for acceptance, the need to be liked, but it’s toned down and its origins are made more clear. After a few seasons of hearing about how much more his parents loved his brother than him, we come face-to-face with it in Garden Party, as Andy’s family make their proper on-screen debut. To us, and to the other characters. This makes the redemptive moments when they reach out to and support Andy a little warmer, and rarely as unearned as some of Michael’s. On the flip side, however, Andy never really goes to the levels of cringe and idiocy that Michael did, meaning that while there’s no Scott’s Tots, the ceiling for his comedy is lower.
They do find some Andy-specific things to play with, though. For instance, a cold open which reveals that every day at 5:00 Andy signals the end of the work day by trying to lead the staff in a rendition of Closing Time by Third Eye Blind Semisonic. Andy doesn’t have the same relationship with Dwight that Michael did, but has a much closer relationship to Darryl than Michael ever could have had. And there is still the lingering “When will these two nuts get back together” plot with Erin, whose ending should have been triumphant but is just kind of… there. Overall, however, promoting Andy meant they didn’t have to worry too much about creating a new manager-staff dynamic, as Andy slid into Michael plots pretty easily. Especially towards the end of the series, when… next time, next time.
They did go a whole new direction, however, with Andy’s boss.
Reign of California
You know what the dumbest part of the season seven cliffhanger is? The fact that we have to be told who the new manager is at the start of season eight means that the Documentarians took their annual vacation while the new manager was being picked. Jim said “We’re going into this room and we’re not coming out until we pick a new manager,” and the Documentarians looked at the clock and said “Ah, geez, our flight’s in two hours, just catch us up in September.” Just… I know the Documentarians haven’t really been a big part of the story lately, but narratively that’s just weird.
Anyway, as Jim explains in the obligatory “How we spent our summer” catch-up talking head, James Spader’s Robert California was hired as the new manager, but after taking one look around at his new employees, he got back in his car, drove to Florida, and convinced Jo Bennett to give him her job as CEO of Sabre. It’s an entertaining build on the hypnotic quality he brought to his two scenes in Search Committee. But since The Scranton Branch Is Special (and because Robert owns a house there, and dislikes Florida), he spends half of his time working out of the Scranton conference room. Thus does James Spader not only join the ensemble, but he becomes the second of only two people to be added to the main opening credits (the first being Ed Helms, who was promoted to the opening credits… let me see… why, just after The Hangover came out, fancy that).
He’s not an obvious fit to the cast. Spader brings a very different energy than we were used to, and that’s precisely why he works. Robert California is unlike any VP, CFO, or CEO the Dunder Mifflin staff has ever dealt with, and he throws every person he interacts with delightfully off balance (save maybe Kevin). Spader’s gift for speech-making (wonderfully familiar to fans of Boston Legal) means he easily commands any scene he appears in, and the writers play into that. This is established right away, as Jim explains that when he’s in the office, he picks one staff member to lock in on for an “intense small talk.” As Jim puts it, “You just hope it’s not you. And yet, you hope it is you, too. It’s very strange.”
Andy spends the first half of the season desperately trying to curry favour. Jim is more intimidated by him than any boss or executive he’s had save for Charles Miner, the only one to actively dislike him. Dwight’s usual toadying tactics and Number Two self-importance are swatted away like biplanes circling the mighty Kong. When the show was struggling to adapt to a post-Steve Carell reality, Robert California kept things lively.
And then in the back half he disappears for six episodes, and everything begins to go wrong.
Another revelation in the “How we spent our summer” section? Both Pam and Angela are pregnant. And Angela’s “Senator’s Wife” smugness is cranked up to 11 as she notes how much bigger Pam’s become, calling them “Big Pregs and Little Pregs.”
And here’s what’s messed up about that.
Pam’s first pregnancy was a plot choice. Her second pregnancy was the producers writing actress Jenna Fischer’s real-life pregnancy into the show. Whereas Angela Kinsey (who plays Angela Martin/Martin-Lipton… they weren’t always super clever in devising character names) is wearing a prosthesis. So Angela spends the season passive-aggressively pointing out how much less weight she’s put on, and how much faster she loses it, and how much faster she’s back at work, and in doing so she’s making fun of Jenna Fischer’s real life pregnancy weight and maternity leave.
It just seems kind of mean. I’m sure Jenna Fischer signed off on it and everything, but still. Throw in the fact that Darryl’s plot in several episodes revolves around being attracted to Val, the new warehouse foreman, but is self-conscious about how much weight he’s put on in the last couple of years (rehab is a bitch on the ol’ waistline), season eight is a weird year for fat-shaming the cast.
When Angela’s baby is born “prematurely,” but comes out huge, it reveals that Angela got pregnant before her wedding to (State) Senator Lipton, and makes Dwight begin to suspect that Angela’s baby is a Schrute. I know what you’re thinking. Well, no. No I don’t. WordPress is not currently able to sense readers’ thoughts and email me a notification. I just know what I’m thinking, which is “What a great opportunity for Pam to shove some of Angela’s moralistic judgements about multiple lovers and getting pregnant out of wedlock” right down Angela’s throat. And you’re right, me, it would have been a great opportunity for that. But it doesn’t happen. At the very least, though, when Pam and Angela find out that they’re both planning to name their babies Phillip (Pam after her grandfather, Angela after her favourite cat, no she does not see the difference), Pam does not back down. Anyway, only Dwight and Angela (and the Documentarians) know there’s cause to think baby Phillip might be Dwight’s. The fact that the cameras are present when Dwight confronts Angela is played as a factor in her doubling down on denying the possibility.
Pam’s pregnancy leads to a new character being introduced: Cathy, Pam’s maternity replacement, who somehow sticks around after Pam’s back to work. Cathy… the second time I watched season eight (which took a while), I’d actually forgotten about Cathy. I don’t have the DVDs past season five, so I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that like Creed in season two, most of her material was cut for time. There may be all kinds of Cathy material in the deleted scenes. It might be funny. I don’t know. What I do know is that she’s in half of the season, but after her introduction in Pam’s Replacement, she fades mostly into the background for six episodes.
There’s a half-hearted at best romantic triangle plot going on, as her early appearances indicate she’s a little into Jim (paranoid and insecure, Pam allies with Dwight in an attempt to coerce Jim into admitting he thinks she’s attractive as well… it’s… awkward), and in the season’s major plotline, she starts making a play for him, but just like Pam and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, it’s never presented as a major threat. Jim’s devotion to Pam is unshakeable, so Cathy’s seductions fall flat.
Let’s talk about that major plotline, now that I’ve brought it up.
As the Michael Scott Paper Company was the centrepiece of season five (well, sort of, it did happen towards the end, not in the middle), the centrepiece of season eight is Tallahassee. Dwight, who had been after Robert California for a promotion, gets an opportunity… he is tasked to head to Florida to create and possibly run a chain of Sabre stores. To do so, he’s asked to build a team to bring with him. Dwight assembles his dream team of Darryl, Oscar, Angela, Phyllis, and Toby… only to be given the team of Stanley, Ryan, Erin, Cathy, and (due to gently demanding texts from Robert) Jim. Openly angered at first, Dwight comes to see this team’s potential to help make this project his path to greatness, but a couple of unexpected reunions are awaiting them in Florida.
The Sabre Store is being overseen by Sabre’s new president of special projects, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram, back for the long haul after having been rejected for the manager position. Catherine Tate wasn’t available for the start of the season, but once her Shakespeare run in London was done, the producers snapped her up. Dwight’s mission is to impress Nellie in order to be made head of the Sabre Store chain, but he has competition in a returning Todd Packer, last seen heading for Florida due to a prank Jim and Dwight pulled in an attempt to get him fired.
Nobody really expected Todd Packer to outlast Michael Scott. Or at least I didn’t. But he makes a good nemesis for Dwight. Cunning, vindictive, and super easy to root against. It certainly seems like the producers felt we would all be generally on-side with Dwight by now, but hey, every little bit helps.
There are… there are strong points to the Tallahassee arc. Stanley embracing Florida life is reliably amusing. (He drinks and parties hard enough that Jim comments “I’ve spent so much of my life telling myself ‘Please, don’t end up like Stanley,’ and now I’m wondering if I even have what it takes.”) Erin’s plan to never return to Scranton, due to heartbreak over Andy’s commitment to his new love Jessica, doesn’t seem like much on paper, but Ellie Kemper doesn’t know how not to be funny. Well she probably does, she could likely manage a dramatic role, I’m just saying she’s damn funny. The test launch of the store is a solidly funny episode, filled with references to a show I dearly loved, Chuck. (Chuck is the official sponsor of Sabre’s triangle-shaped tablet, the Pyramid.) When Jim learns that Robert California plans to scuttle the Sabre store (explaining to Jim that Sabre printers are too cheap and unreliable to sell to people in person), and that Dwight will go down with it, Pam guilts Jim into doing whatever is necessary to save an incredibly smug Dwight’s job… leading to a mighty amusing fight as Jim is forced to physically block Dwight from attending the pitch to the board, allowing Todd Packer to fall in his place. (The highlight? Dwight shouting “Jackie Chan,” attempting to run up a wall, and collapsing to the ground.) But there are problems.
First of all, the bulk of the Tallahassee arc falls during Robert California’s six episode absence. He only turns up in the last chapter, just in time to scuttle the store. And the quality of season eight is often directly linked to the amount of Robert California in the episode. And touching on his absence… this is only the second time the show ever visited Sabre’s seat of power (the first being earlier in the season), and the lack of Sabre management present feels like a wasted opportunity. Robert isn’t around, Jo Bennett is mentioned (primarily as Nellie’s patron and endorsement in this project) but due to Kathy Bates having her own show at that point is never seen. Even Gabe is missing more often than not, and season eight has enough problems without sidelining Zach Woods. The face of Sabre is Nellie, and she’s great because Catherine Tate has some game, but it would have been nice to get a better look at Dunder Mifflin’s soon-to-fall overlords (yeah, Sabre leaves with Robert California at the end of the season).
Second of all… I mentioned back in part three that when the office staff is split between two locations it’s a dicey prospect for the portion that’s getting the B-plots. In the Time of Two Offices, the Stamford gang did well with the B-plots. During the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, the Dunder Mifflin loyalist stories were hit and miss. During Tallahassee… I’ve seen this arc two, maybe three times… no, only twice… and I can remember exactly one Scranton plot off the top of my head. And the best I can say is “It had its moments.”
It’s not like Scranton is devoid of talent. Darryl, Pam, Andy, Kelly, and Creed are all still there. It’s just that they’re not getting much to work with. Because this point in season eight is when the writing begins to suffer.
Season eight isn’t anywhere near season two or three’s level. It just isn’t. But it’s not without highlights. Erin snapping at Kevin in the episode Lotto, for one… Dwight and Jim try to put it gently that an idea he’s pitching isn’t going to work, but when he doesn’t get it, she grabs him, and with more venom than we’d ever seen from her, hisses “You need to drop it, OK? They hate it. I like it a lot but they hate it so drop it!” and it is hysterical.
Season eight ends (over the course of several episodes) with Andy driving to Florida to win back Erin (Hey Andy, planes called to say “We exist, dummy”), Nellie usurping his job while he’s gone, Andy being fired/quitting as a result, and convincing a returning and newly rich David Wallace to buy the company from Sabre, which is circling the drain. Once David buys the company, Andy is reinstalled, but Nellie stays in Scranton as the head of special projects. I was going to make a longer section about this, but… this is the point when I actually stopped watching the show during its original broadcast. There’s really just not much more to say about it.
Sorry to keep harping on this, but Ellie Kemper even makes sadly pining for Andy funny. She’s not just gifted, she’s a gift.
Early in the season, Andy takes the staff (the willing ones, anyway) to Gettysburg, and tall, lanky Gabe is mistaken for an official Abraham Lincoln impersonator (despite lack of beard). Turns out this happens often enough that he has an audience-pleasing Abe Lincoln routine ready to go. It’s scenes like this that made me miss Gabe when he was absent for chunks of the back half. That and chiding himself for getting out-shmoozed at Andy’s garden party… “I can’t believe I didn’t think of toasting Robert. Get in the game, Gabriel! Why aren’t you talking to Stanley’s mistress?”
Nate transitions from Dwight’s lackey to warehouse staff. He remains reliably funny.
I’m-a mostly stick to big Robert California episodes here, since he is far and above the best part of this season. The List, the season premiere, is the best for establishing Robert and his impact on the office. Garden Party not only shows us why Andy is the way he is, but is one of the year’s funniest, thanks in large part to Dwight buying a book on how to throw garden parties that turns out to have been written by Jim. In Spooked, the final Halloween episode, Robert tries to learn the staff’s greatest fears in order to form the perfect scary story. And Mrs. California brings us farcical Robert, as Robert’s wife decides she might like a job at Dunder Mifflin, which Andy learns when Robert informs him she must not receive one, only to pressure him to hire her while she’s in the room. It involves a truly funny chase sequence when Andy tries to drag Jim into his tough spot, and Jim frantically tries to escape being involved.
<Heaves a sigh>
Not gonna lie to you, peeps. When I’m doing a rewatch, which happens a lot (as I write this I’m in late season three, it’s a sickness), when I hit Goodbye Michael I have to make a choice. Sometimes I stop there. Sometimes I power on. And sometimes I just skip to season nine.
Because there is, I promise you, there is worthwhile stuff in season nine, and I’ll make my case next time, but sometimes season eight can be a drag. So you can, if you want, skip the whole the whole damn year. The ninth season premiere will brief you on Dwight and Angela (in short, as of the premiere, he no longer believes himself to be young Phillip’s father), Andy’s dislike of Nellie might be a touch confusing but you’ll catch up. And Andy and Erin will be back together, but the sad thing is, for all he risked and lost to get her, that stops being a relationship we root for almost instantly, making the end arc of Andy, Erin, and Nellie feel kinda… irrelevant. Pointless. Andy making a grand gesture that is ultimately futile and self-destructive.
Guess he is the new Michael Scott.
Notable Guest Stars?
We have our third and final veteran of The Wire in Turf War, as Chris Bauer appears as a salesman from the Syracuse branch who quarrels with Dwight and Jim (and ultimately the recently fired Andy) over a big client of the Binghamton branch, which Robert closed while on a bender. The client? He’s played by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta.
Robert California’s son is played by future Kid Bruce Wayne David Mazouz, for anyone who still cares about Gotham. And his soon-to-be-ex-wife is played by Maura Tierney, from one of TV’s greatest comedy casts, Newsradio. They set up a possible and wonderfully awkward romance between her and Andy, but since she never makes a second appearance, it doesn’t go anywhere.
Josh Groban makes his first of two appearances as Andy’s younger and far more beloved brother, Walter Bernard Jr. After all, if Andy’s going to have a younger brother his parents would see as his better in every way, he’d better be a damn fine singer.
Not only is Jack Coleman back as (State) Senator Lipton, post-Tallahassee his fellow Heroes vet Sendhil Ramamurthy turns up as Kelly’s new paediatrician boyfriend, who Pam actively encourages her to choose over Ryan.
Wow. For the closest thing The Office has to Community’s infamous “gas leak year,” (when series creator Dan Harmon was off the show and the quality noticeably dropped) I sure had a lot to say about it.
Next time… how does it all end? Might need to cover the wrap up in a few goes…
When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.
These are mine.
The Time of Two Offices
The last two episodes of season two, Conflict Resolution and Casino Night, were game-changers. When Michael decides he can do a better job of conflict resolution than Toby (how can he not, in Michael’s mind, given that Toby is… gasp, shudder… divorced), he sets off a chain of events that brings Dwight and Jim’s rivalry to a boil, and begins to expose Jim’s feelings about Pam’s impending wedding. In the chaos, Dwight pushes Jim to transfer to Stamford. By Casino Night, everything seems back to normal… but Jim’s been offered the Stamford position. The episode ends with a kiss between Jim and Pam, and uncertainty as to what would happen…
A lot happened. But it all comes back to the same place. The Office’s third season begins by running to stand still.
Season three opens, and we find that Jim has, in fact, taken the promotion and moved to Stamford, while Pam called off the engagement at the last minute. Why? In Jim’s case because Pam turned him down twice, once before the kiss and once after. In Pam’s case… We don’t see the moment Pam leaves Roy, or the decision that prompts it (it happened during The Documentarians’ annual three-month break… with one exception, they never film over the summer), but the clues are there. Jim declared his love, then left for Connecticut, and in the wake of all that, there must have been a realization that Roy had never, in the last decade, loved Pam the way Jim did. And without Jim’s friendship to fall back on, the hollowness of her relationship with Roy couldn’t be ignored any longer.
The Time of Two Offices, Stamford and Scranton, dominates the first act of the third season, until an attempt to shut Scranton backfires, and Stamford comes to Scranton (as we all knew it must, Jim couldn’t stay in Connecticut forever). This won’t be the last time The Office finds its characters split between two locations, and it’s always a tricky prospect. One location tends to get the A-plots, and how well the second location deals with the B-plots kind of depends on who they’re left with. Now, during The Time of Two Offices, Scranton gets the A-plots fairly consistently (save for the Convention, in which a sales convention reunites Jim and his new boss Josh with Michael and Dwight), and they’re all pretty strong. Jim’s left to carry Stamford, but fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it alone… two new coworkers prove more than up to the task. Rashida Jones arrives as Karen Filippelli, who when he first arrives, manages to out-Jim Jim, and they develop a fun rapport that Jim and Katy never really had. Karen, as a match for Jim, has only one flaw… she just isn’t quite Pam.
As for the other.
Andy Bernard, aka the Nard-dog, played by Ed Helms, the fifth Daily Show veteran to turn up on The Office, and the second most important. Andy wasn’t meant to be a long-term addition to the cast. None of the Stamford staff were. Hell, of the five (six including Jim) who transfer to Scranton, three barely existed as characters before The Merger, save for some deleted scenes, so they couldn’t help but seem expendable. In the beginning, Andy was the new office foil for Jim, a kiss-up with an anger issue that became an irritant to Jim’s new life. Upon arriving in Scranton, his quest to climb the ladder immediately puts him at odds with Dwight, a rivalry that climaxes in Dwight briefly leaving Dunder Mifflin and Andy being sent to anger management.
The question for the producers was… what’s to be done with Andy Bernard? Ed Helms is definitely funny. And there was a sense that he could be an asset to the cast. But how would anger management treat him? Would he fake his way through, relying on his standard tricks of personality mirroring, name repetition, and never breaking a handshake? Would he still be his former, obnoxious self? Or would he return a changed man, having truly learned a lesson? Wisely, they chose the second path, and Andy becomes a permanent and welcome part of the ensemble.
But therein lies the problem with Andy Bernard.
Andy’s a cypher. His core is fluid. His character shifts depending on who the show needs him to be from season to season. The rest of the cast may grow more broad, more extreme over the years, but they’re still basically the same people. But Andy… Andy of season three is barely the same person as Andy in season nine. Or four. Or the end of three. Only three things about Andy are consistent over the years… he comes from wealthy parents that demonstrably loved his little brother more (like, aggressively more at times), he never misses an opportunity to remind people that he attended Cornell, and he loves acapella. Compulsively. Andy’s urge to sing, whether he knows the lyrics or has to resort to his signature “Roota-doo-da-doo,” has a hair trigger.
He’s also super bad at nicknames, but super committed to them once he’s assigned one. Jim eats a tuna sandwich on his first day in Stamford, and based on that alone Andy calls him Big Tuna for seven years. But only one other staffer has to deal with that, despite an attempt to name Ryan “Big Turkey.”
Fortunately, Ed Helms has the charm to carry Andy through the twists and bends. Even through his more abrasive period this year. But sadly for Andy the character, his days of being Dwight’s rival are not done. Season two featured a steady stream of Jim pulling pranks on Dwight, but Conflict Resolution brought that to a breaking point, and from here on in Jim pranks are saved for special occasions, or at the very least until they have something good. Also, Dwight was becoming more popular, so he needed a new nemesis… one he could beat from time to time. And on the rare occasions when Dwight gets a leg up on Jim, I at least find it awkward and unpleasant (Dwight pranks being crueler and more Machiavellian), so despite his efforts to the contrary, Andy was the better fit, and stayed in that role for a few more years.
Jim and Pam: The Illusion of Change
Will they/won’t they has a deadline. No way around it. If you pull the trigger too late, people lose interest (that’s what really happened to Moonlighting, whatever else you heard). Pull it too early, and you risk having too little payoff. That’s why it’s for the best that Daredevil hasn’t shown up in any other Marvel Netflix series… if they all meet too early, it won’t be a Big Moment when they come together in The Defenders. That’s… not entirely relevant to romance discussions, but it’s a shorter road to my point than starting a nine-part blog series breaking down Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother.
For Jim and Pam, there was no going back from Casino Night. Jim declaring his feelings permanently altered their relationship, for better (later) or worse (now). Even once Jim’s time at Stamford came to a close, there was no going back to Jim pining for Pam. Jim had moved to a new state to get away from that, and couldn’t let himself go backwards. But they weren’t ready to get those crazy kids together just yet. And so how do you move things forward without actually moving things forward? You flip the bitch.
Jim comes back to Scranton, and Pam’s surely super excited to see him… but he comes back already dating Karen Filippelli. Season three’s Jim/Pam plotline becomes a mirror image of season two’s: Pam pines over Jim, while being forced to watch him date another co-worker. And she even has, in a way, her own Katy: someone she ends up with when watching the one she actually loves dating someone else.
Love is a battlefield
A reviewer for the AV Club hit on a key theme for season three: an infestation of couples that shouldn’t be. Not all of them, of course. Dwight and Angela remain deeply in super-secret weirdly perfect love. Ryan and Kelly remain where we left them, with Kelly getting as attached as possible, while Ryan is simultaneously searching for the exit and pathologically drawn to Kelly. So… they kind of fit the profile.
Everyone else… Hoo boy.
Jim and Karen: Jim and Karen are the best bad match. Karen’s charming, they get along, they have decent chemistry. But Jim doesn’t love her. He still loves Pam. And before long, she knows it, which just makes her dig in harder, while trying to isolate Jim from Pam. I mean, I never found it easy to root against them… for some people, a relationship that 80-90% works is enough. But when the 100% match is right there, a few feet from your desk… being mostly good together just isn’t enough.
Pam and Roy: Jim ran from Pam and Roy by moving forward, taking a promotion and dating Karen. Pam runs from Jim and Karen by running backwards. At Phyllis and Bob Vance’s wedding, she finally gives into Roy’s attempts to win her back. Roy thinks he’s trying harder. He thinks he’s not taking her for granted. He thinks he’s paying attention to her art and other interests. But he falls short, time and time again. Sure, in Business School, he’s one of the only Dunder Mifflinites to come to her art show, and Oscar and his boyfriend didn’t exactly set a high bar, calling her work “motel art” because she lacks courage, which… yeah. It wasn’t bravery or tolerance for risk that made her stay with Roy or keeps her at Dunder Mifflin for over a decade. But when Michael shows up at the last minute, his genuine enthusiasm for her painting of their office building makes it clear how hollow Roy’s comments of “I looked at all of them” and “Your art was the prettiest of the all of the art” are. There is genuine support, which is what she gets from Jim, and finds from Michael at the art show, and then there is lip service, which is Roy’s attempts to play the part of dutiful boyfriend.
Also he brought his brother. How, Roy, how after ten years do you still think that Pam considers bringing your lummox of a brother along on dates is a value add? On their first date he did this. At the art show he did this. And when she wants Roy to accompany her on a group outing to Poor Richard’s (Dunder Mifflin’s go-to pub), he brings his brother. That’s… that’s not why that particular outing is a disaster that ends Pam and Roy as a couple forever and always (and not in a small way: Roy was an upper tier ensemble member, but basically leaves the show after the next episode), but it surely didn’t help.
Michael and Jan: No, you’re not remembering it wrong. Michael started dating his realtor Carol during Casino Night. Something Jan does not take well at all. She’d never admit to being jealous of Michael, or upset about being jilted by him, but there’s no denying that she takes a harsher management style with him at the start of the season. She’s demanding hour-by-hour accounting of how he spends his time, belittling him at every opportunity, and her friendlier interactions with Stamford’s Josh Porter show that it’s not just the way she operates.
Which is not to say that she operates sanely the rest of the time, as her attempt to lure Josh back to her hotel room in The Convention show.
No, all is not well with Jan. All has not been well for a while. If you read the signs, watch her progression from cold but professional in the first years to completely unhinged at the end of season three, it seems clear to me that Jan’s been in a downward spiral since her divorce. Her dalliance with Michael in The Client and his inability to let go of that certainly contribute, but there’s a lot of pain and anger driving her. And when she and Michael finally do get together after Michael’s off-putting over-enthusiasm tanks his relationship with Carol, leading to Jan taking her place on a trip to Sandals Jamaica, it is not a turning point. It is merely another stop on her journey to rock bottom. How do I know this? Her exact words. When she’s explaining why she’s decided to be with him post-Jamaica, she says her therapist has advised her to give in to her self-destructive tendencies. Exact words, self-destructive tendencies. And when they reveal their relationship to corporate in Cocktails, she sums it up as “Cons… I date Michael publicly and collapse into myself like a dying star.” For Michael, showing off their relationship at the CFO’s party is a moment of romantic triumph. For Jan, it’s an acquiescence to her fall from grace, as her dirty little self-indulgence has simply become her life.
On the more comedic side, the moments where she realizes Michael’s habits are becoming infectious are all funny, such as saying Michael’s signature “That’s what she said” during a talking head interview, only to get a haunted look in her eyes and mutter “Oh god.”
Like I said last time… Michael’s pursuit of Jan in season two was unhealthy at best, but his punishment is to finally win her as her downward spiral goes critical. Sure he tries to break up with her, but afterwards she does the one thing that is guaranteed to win him back. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the one thing she does is something incredibly superficial, and not “self-improvement” or “becoming sensitive to Michael’s needs.” But it does mean that when Jan hits bottom in the season finale, Michael “gets” to be there to catch her. His consolation after losing a major promotion is to have his incredibly toxic relationship move to the next step.
So really, that’s the theme for the whole season. Things that don’t mix being forced together, whether it’s exes who were better off split up, a relationship based on convenience over passion (for one of them, anyway), or two branches of a company that just don’t blend. Because sometimes you need to see what’s wrong in order to realize what’s truly right. And for our central couple, things are about to go very, very right.
For everyone else, season four’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
Another notable twist of season three: Jim the authority figure. Post-merger, Jim is made the office’s second in command in a far more real way than Dwight ever was. And Jim has an interesting reaction to authority… turns out he actually takes it a little seriously. Which gives a character reason for the diminishment of his pranks against Dwight. They don’t vanish, because birds gotta fly and Jim’s gotta prank people when they’re obnoxious, but he does do his best to cut back.
Branch Closing and The Merger, obviously. The fall of Stamford and Jim’s return to Scranton. Dwight and Andy’s first, most intentional rivalry peaks in Traveling Salesmen and The Return. Cocktails provides multiple turning points: Michael and Jan’s relationship turns sour, Pam and Roy’s reunion explodes, and Jim makes friends with CFO David Wallace. That one’s more of a subtle development, and causes less property damage than Pam and Roy’s, but it has an impact just the same. The Negotiation begins Darrel’s ascension as a more central character, as Roy makes his exit from the show. And of course Beach Games and The Job, in which someone is getting a promotion to corporate, and someone gets to be manager at Scranton.
Not a one. Yes, season three is broader than season two. Things are getting bigger. They have to, in order to accommodate Jan’s breakdown, Andy’s buffoonery, and Michael’s beach day contest to be his successor. But we’re still in the golden years here. The jokes are all landing, the chemistry and timing is into a good rhythm, and you shouldn’t miss out on Karen Filippelli. You’ll miss her a little when Rashida Jones leaves Scranton for Pawnee, Indiana.
Okay, maybe, maybe The Convict, when the staff learns one of the Stamford transfers is an ex-con, and things get awkward in a hurry. It’s the closest season three gets to season one cringe levels, and it isn’t my favourite. Also, it’s focused on a guy we met last week, so it’s hard to get too invested in why he leaves.
Notable Guest Stars?
If Andy Daly is someone you’ve heard of, and people who’s TV comedy tastes are a little more cutting edge than mine tend to have, he turns up as a Benjamin Franklin impersonator/educator Jim hires for Phyllis’ stagette instead of a stripper.
I feel I should talk about writer/producer Michael Schur as Dwight’s cousin Mose, but what can you say about that neckbearded oddball expect that he somehow manages to make Dwight’s life more surreal than it was, while still proving he’s the sane one in the house? Well, I suppose I could decry his cowardice for using a prosthetic neck beard in all but his first appearance, instead of growing it out like Community’s writer/producer Dino “Starburns” Stamatopoulos did, but come on, the man’s responsible for some of the funniest network comedies of the last decade. He didn’t want to have a ridiculous neckbeard for his handful of appearances. (Of the four writer/producers in the cast, Schur was the least fond of screentime, after Mindy Kaling/Kelly, BJ Novak/Ryan, and Paul Lieberstein/Toby in approximately that order.)
When we discuss season four, we’ll look at how a season shortened by a writers’ strike still manages to teach a lesson about “too much of a good thing.”
A pause in my deep dive into the furiously fast to talk about something that plagues us every holiday season.
I do like Christmas. I really do. The sense of togetherness, gathering with friends and family to make the coldest, darkest days of the year* into the warmest and brightest. I say this because it’s kind of obfuscated by two factors: a) I don’t really get into the Christmas spirit until the third week of December, and b) I hate the music.
*Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case enjoy summer, dick**.
**That was mean, I’m sorry. It’s just really cold this week.
Just… never got into Christmas carols. I would theorize that it’s because of my brief time in my elementary school choir, which from September until December was nearly exclusively Christmas carol-based, but that seems like poppycock. Aside from one somewhat embarrassing mishap singing on a department store escalator and one incident of fainting at a gig, something I had to be told happened later that day because it made so little impact on me, the sole trauma of my one semester in choir was giving up my lunch breaks. Not exactly deep wounds there. No, I’m pretty sure I just didn’t care for carols much to begin with, and being drowned in them for two solid months doesn’t help.
But there’s one carol in particular that takes way too damn long, and when you look at it, doesn’t make a lick of sense. No, not Jingle Bell Rock, though you could be excused for thinking so. Jingle Bell “Rock?” Maybe in the 50s it could be considered “rock,” but in 2015 it should be legally required to be called “Jingle Bell Old-Time Country Jamboree.” Unless it’s played by a death metal band. I’d allow that.
No, I’m taking about the 12 Days of Christmas. And if you follow along with me, you’ll see exactly why this “true love” giving you all these presents is a bad gift-giver at best, and a war criminal at worst.
“On the first day of Christmas–“
Gonna stop you right there, actually. How many of you out there actually understood what the hell “first day of Christmas” meant when you first heard this song? I couldn’t have been the only six year old saying “No, wait, back up, there’s only one day of Christmas, or at least only one when I’m getting any presents.” Okay, sure, in the UK, the Twelve Days of Christmas, or Twelvetide, is still a thing for some people. Some people. But in North America the whole idea was slowly killed by secular Christmas and Santa, and the rise of New Year’s Eve as a more popular holiday than 12th Night. Maybe the 12 Days thing was a big deal in 1780, when this bizarre pile of presents was first theorized, but today?
I get that we haven’t come up with a particularly iconic Christmas song since the Kennedy administration, but maybe if the traditions they refer to are dying, we can let a few of these go, is what I’m about to take a long time to say.
Now… what exactly has your true love decided to hand you between Dec. 25th and January 5th?
A partridge in a pear tree
Okay. Not super weird. A pet bird and a tree to keep it in. Although… it is winter. Like, super deep into winter. Not a great time to plant a tree, and that partridge isn’t going to want to sit in it right now. But assuming you have a lawn for the pear tree, and that it doesn’t die before it has a chance to sprout a pear, this… isn’t awful.
Let’s just establish something before we move on. There are two ways to take what’s about to happen. You can assume that this is the only partridge and pear tree combo that will be given out, or you can assume that every single day means a new partridge in a new pear tree, and that 11 out of 12 days will have fresh pairs of turtle doves, etc. I’m choosing to believe the former: that each item is only given once. First of all, because I think this list of gifts is weird and troubling enough as it is, and second, because the merciless pop culture critics over at Cracked have already broken down the financially crippling, feather-encrusted nightmare scenario that comes with assuming that each day you re-receive a fresh set of all of the gifts from the previous day, plus something new.
So this is your only partridge and your only pear tree. Just off the top of my head, partridges aren’t a very common pet bird, and pear trees are apparently hard to maintain and more than a little pungent, so I’d have some serious questions about this true love who assumed he/she had nailed the perfect gift.
Two turtle doves
Turtle doves aren’t exactly a low-maintenance pet. They need a diet of seed mix, fruits, vegetables, and gravel (for digestion). They need a bird bath and a well-designed cage. They need thirty minutes of exercise per day outside of the cage, which needs to be disinfected once per week. And they’re not even the prettier dove. If you’re picturing white doves, you’re way off.
This true love of yours better be damned sure you like birds, because they’ve just given you chores for Christmas. Well, for Boxing Day.
Three french hens
More birds. Great. Thanks.
According to my research, french hens are, in fact, the best chickens to keep as pets. If that’s what you’re into. And hey, free eggs? If you want? People might react oddly to being offered a partridge-egg omelette or a turtle dove frittata, but french hen eggs just sound fancy.
Still… still though. That’s six birds in three days. And weird birds. No parakeets, no parrots, but the uglier doves and chickens. Still, as long as we move on to proper presents soon, it’s not so–
Four calling birds
No? We’re still doing this? Okay. Four more birds. But at least these are songbirds. One could almost consider this a proper pet. Four at once seems like diving in with both feet, though. Ever cared for a songbird before? I hope so, because here’s four of them, on top of the hens, doves, and the partridge you already got.
At this point you’re going to need a full on aviary to keep all of these birds in. Probably a heated one, since not all of these are cold-weather birds. Certainly not the turtle doves. Not to mention it would be a place to keep your foul-smelling pear tree alive in late December. Why is this happening? Did you get, like, a bird statue from your grandmother, and then you put in on your mantle because it’s started to sink in that she’s not going to be around forever so you’d better start appreciating the hell out of her now? Then everyone saw it and assumed you’re totes into birds?
Five golden rings
Now we’re talking. Rings! Golden rings! Admittedly a lot of them. I mean, I probably wouldn’t wear five golden rings all the time. I once considered wearing a grad ring and a wedding band, then as a result had a dream where Liberace accused me of being a little too flashy, but hey, you do you. I know several people, male and female, who make multiple rings work, and it is your true love giving them to you, so it’s not horribly forward or anything.
And even if you only wear one or two of them at a time, at least your true love has stopped giving you birds.
Six geese a-laying
Oh god damn it. Come on now, when are you going to sit your true love down and ask them who could possibly need, or even want, this many fucking birds? Or this many types of bird?
And we have moved on from cute, small birds, too. Geese? Fucking geese? Geese can be aggressive, you know. These are not pretty birds to keep around the house. Or let into it. If you weren’t building an aviary before, you are now, and it had better have pens for the geese. And good luck hiring someone to build it for you on December 30th.
Before you suggest that you now have access to free fois gras, I’d ask you to consider whether killing and slaughtering your own geese, then dealing with judgemental glares from every vegetarian you know, is actually worth not just buying some in a store. Assuming you even know how to get proper foie gras out of a living, honking, hissing goose that your bird-crazy true love has dropped on your doorstep the day before New Year’s Eve.
Oh yes, and there’s all these goose eggs to deal with. Which means that these six geese might be extra aggressive, since they all just laid eggs and now here you are getting all up in their nests.
Seven swans a-swimming
SWANS? Swans. Forget what I said about geese being aggressive, because we’ve entered a new thing here. Swans will fucking fight you. Swans will knock you out of your boat, then make sure you never find land. Rowing races have been called off because of swan aggression, and rowing crews are basically tree trunks with smaller tree trunks for limbs.
Oh, and since swans are sometimes used to keep geese away from a property, it’s safe to assume that these seven swans a-swimming are going to have beef with your six geese a-laying, and that’s just going to agitate those delicate flower turtle doves, which–
No no wait, stop, shut up… seven swans a-swimming? What are they swimming in? There’s no way seven swans fit in any bathtub. I hope you have a pool, because if not, your Hitchcock-recreating “true love” just flooded something in your house. Your basement, your garage, your newly-built aviary, something just got turned into a swan habitat, and I’m willing to bet it’s not something you’d intended to be a small pond. But too late, everything you’d kept in your storage room is now under water and covered in swan shit. The good news is, you’ll be able to recover what’s left fairly easily, because the swans should be relatively cool until nesting season. The bad news is, it’s New Year’s Eve, and instead of getting ready to party, you’re dealing with a flood and twenty three pissed off birds because this psychopath you’re dating couldn’t be bothered to just get you The Flash on Blu-ray like a sensible person.
And it actually gets weirder from here.
Eight maids a-milking
Eight maids. Your true love has given you eight women. As a gift. Not to clean your house or anything… they haven’t signed you up for a cleaning service to deal with all the bird crap or the water damage from the swan habitat you didn’t ask for. No, these are milk maids. They milk cows, and according to the song (which we’ve probably been singing for five minutes by now), that is exactly what they’re doing. These eight maids are a-milking.
Your true love did not give you any cows.
Putting aside the person-as-gift problem for now (but oh will we ever come back to it), you have been handed criminals. These eight ladies are out there, in the countryside, sneaking onto farms and milking things, then presumably bringing their unpasteurized spoils back to you in your bird-infested house that I have to believe has been the subject of some noise complaints by now.
Happy new year. You are now running a gang of milk thieves. And since there isn’t a lot of overlap between “people qualified to milk cows” and “skilled cat burglars,” I don’t love your chances of getting away with this. A rancher, or worse, a factory farm is about to press charges against you.
Nine ladies dancing
So… now your true love has handed you nine dancers. We have dancers… being given as gifts. This… Your true love’s unorthodox gift plan has gone from a wacky, feathery nightmare to something horrible.
Let’s stop beating around the bush here. Your “true love” has stopped handing you increasingly large and potentially angry birds, and is instead giving you human beings as gifts. As pets. SLAVES. Your true love is a human trafficker. First, eight women who spend their nights stealing you milk, now nine women to dance for your amusement. Which, I guess, as far as women (probably eastern European or Asian) being offered “dance scholarships” in the west go, is less horrific than the usual. They may be slaves in a house overrun with birds and unpasteurized milk, but they actually do get to dance. That’s… something?
Oh, wait… is that why they gave you the rings? The five golden rings? Were they… were they supposed to be your pimp bling? Your true love was dressing you to be a pimp. Marinate on that. The only genuinely positive gift on this list is tainted forever.
Ten lords a-leaping
Oh no. No no no. It’s all becoming clear. I thought maybe your true love was just tapped into a terrible, terrible black market of human slaves and… mildly exotic birds, but it’s so much worse than that.
It is terribly, horribly, tragically easy to buy women. I assume there’s a way to do that on the dark web, something I hope to never, ever have to confirm.
Your true love didn’t just grab ten poncy-looking brits. No, these are ten lords. Noblemen. People who actually govern (when they choose to) in the UK. People with security and staff, people who would look for them if they went missing and turned up in somebody’s sour-milk-reeking slave mill and birdhouse. Kidnapping one noble takes work, and attracts attention. Grabbing ten? They’re either Kilgrave from Jessica Jones, controlling minds, or else your true love conquered a country. They marched in, seized power, rounded up ten of the ruling class, slapped them in chains, and shipped them to your house to jump around. Jump around. Jump up, jump up, and get down.
That may have been an inappropriate time for the House of Pain (they’re far from plain), but I thought maybe a touch of levity would help, given that you’re slowly learning that your true love is a goddamn monster.
Eleven pipers piping
Of course. Of course that’s next. What took so long, really? Surely those nine enslaved dancers and ten leaping lords could use some musical accompaniment. Let’s just kidnap a jazz band. Why not at this point.
Twelve drummers drumming
Sure. Come the fuck in. Drum up a storm. Somehow we’ve made it all the way to January 5th and the cops aren’t here, so bring in a drumline. It’s like a bird-poop-crusted Burning Man.
So let’s recap. What exactly has this true love of yours thrust into your home over the last twelve days?
Twenty-three birds, some of which are fighting, all of which are pooping, some of which have cages you’ve been neglecting to clean because of the chaos that followed, so I bet people are starting to get sick.
One hastily-constructed aviary to hold said birds. Hopefully. Which spared you nothing, thanks to…
One aquatic swan habitat, somewhere in your house.
No less thanfifty slaves. Eight of whom are constantly stealing fresh, raw milk and stuffing it anywhere that has less than five birds. Nine of whom are dancing to the music played by eleven enslaved pipers and twelve involuntary drummers, making enough of a racket to draw the attention of the authorities. And let’s not forget the ten lords who were taken either as part of a war crime, or as part of a series of kidnappings that are probably bringing someone’s special forces crashing through your window.
Merry Christmas. You have the bird flu, some sort of milk-borne infection, and you’re on your way to the Hague to face prosecution for crimes against humanity. All because you fell in love with a monster who thought paying for a year of your Netflix subscription wasn’t “flashy” enough. And every year, you get to hear people sing about how you ended up in this mess with smiles on their faces, because somehow they don’t see that none of this is okay.
I mean Little Saint Nick is a bad song, but god damn.
I remember watching Jon Stewart as the final guest of The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn, a show I’d only recently become aware of. Craig made his share of short jokes, but it seemed like a heartfelt handoff. Jon had a charm to him, and I wondered how the series would do under new leadership, with a new cast of correspondents.
I remember Indecision 2000, when the Daily Show with Jon Stewart really took off. The live election coverage, the confused frustration that they didn’t have a result to announce, and best of all, the next day’s episode, based around the idea that everyone had been covering the election for 24 hours straight without a break, and were nearing (or past) the breakout point.
I don’t recall what the segment was supposed to have started as (or what they claimed), but I remember Beth Littleford, one of the few remaining Kilborn correspondents, getting Jon and us hooked on Iron Chef with her coverage of Morimoto’s thrilling victory.
In 2001, I recall Topher Grace blowing off plugging Traffic to tell Jon all about this movie he watched last night, the Wild Wild West.
When Even Stev/phen, the Carrell/Colbert point counterpoint segment, did the best coverage of Elian Gonzalez. A role-play session into Steve Carrell’s issues with his own father leads to a powerful breakthrough, causing Steve to reverse his position and say Elian should be with his father, only for Colbert to turn on him, embody the angry father, and break his spirit completely. Even Stev/phen was always the best.
I remember being sad that Colbert wouldn’t be appearing on the Daily Show anymore, because he’d be busy on the Colbert Report, but loving his new show all the same.
Or the time when Jon Stewart got Crossfire cancelled by pointing out how it was toxic. Demanding to know why a CNN anchor wasn’t holding himself to a higher standard of journalism than a guy whose lead in was puppets making prank phone calls, only to be told “Well, you’re not very funny.” And replying, from his own show, “On Monday I’ll be funny again, and you’ll still be an asshole.
For years, when I worked down the road from home, I’d spend my lunch hours watching the Daily Show and as much Colbert as I could before I had to go back to work. I thrived on Jon Stewart’s take on the week’s events.
I remember the writers’ strike, when Jon (like many talk show hosts) reluctantly came back to work sans-writing staff so that the crew could still earn a living. Jon Oliver became his main correspondent, possibly (as he jokingly, but maybe seriously claimed) because if he walked the picket line with the rest of the writers, he could be deported. That may have been when Jon Oliver began to eclipse such past favourite correspondents as Mo Rocca, Vance deGeneres, Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, and others.
And I will always remember having the privilege of watching a live taping back in September of 2006: Jon talking about the time his older brother had to fire him from a department store before the show, asking Pat Buchanan how he can possibly believe latino immigration is a plot for Mexicans to take back New Mexico, or talking about the Shofar horn with Stephen Colbert. (“It’s made from the horn of a yak, did you know that?” “Tastes like it, Jon. Must be Jewish illegal to clean all of the yak out of that thing.”)
I haven’t watched the Daily Show on a regular basis in a while. But I always liked knowing that I could. That’s over now.
If you ever start a blog, there are some productivity-sucking pitfalls you should avoid. I may, in the past, have mentioned how long stretches of depression can make it hard to write anything: slightly more problematic than that is when you have way more writing projects than you have time for, meaning keeping up a blog becomes challenging as you have to pour your energy in another direction. Also it doesn’t help when Netflix drops Sense8 and the second season of BoJack Horseman in rapid succession. “I’ll just watch one Sense8 while I eat lunch,” you say. Poor fool.
Got lost for a second there, where was I?
Right. Anyhoo, with the first draft of my first ever pantomime script submitted for review, and the first few scripts of Writers Circle‘s second season knocked off (that is to say, the easy-to-write ones), I finally return here.
So, what’s been happening? Right, yes, superhero movies.
Marvel’s first flaws?
Critics everywhere were eagerly watching Ant-Man’s performance, because between the obscure character and the late-hour firing of Edgar Wright, everyone was champing at the bit to write their “Marvel’s first bomb!” articles.
Not me, though. First off, I’m not a critic, I’m some guy with a blog. But mostly I maintain their first bomb was Incredible Hulk; it’s just that when Marvel Studios was only two movies in, and two years away from their next release, critics didn’t care. This was 2008, and the big news in comic book movies swiftly became The Dark Knight.
Ant-Man is making Phase One (ie. Iron Man through to the first Avengers) money, which is fair, because it’s a Phase One movie: a perfunctory origin story. Its domestic gross will likely end up around the first Thor’s. Lower than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, higher than Captain America: The First Avenger. Respectable, if on the low end for the studio, certainly lower than anything else in Phase Two (Iron Man 3 to Ant-Man), but by no means a bomb. Ant-Man’s grosses aren’t a sign of Marvel’s inevitable collapse: they’re a preview of Marvel’s business strategy going into Phase Three. A big movie to earn the serious coin (as Age of Ultron did and Captain America: Civil War almost certainly will), a smaller movie to introduce a new character (like Ant-Man or next year’s Doctor Strange). The sequels and team-up movies will earn Marvel their big paydays, allowing for more modest hits featuring new characters. Even if Doctor Strange does bomb worse than Incredible Hulk, Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will keep the studio running.
So no, Ant-Man’s grosses don’t spell trouble for the Marvel machine. It’s Ant-Man’s villain that does that.
The Justin Hammer test
Following Ant-Man, I came up with a new way to express my distaste in Marvel’s ability to write villains: the Justin Hammer test. It’s similar to the Bechdel test, which judges female representation by asking if a movie a) has at least two female characters, who b) have a conversation that c) is not about a man. It’s similar in that passing the Justin Hammer test does not mean you have a good villain, just like passing the Bechdel test doesn’t magically result in positive female representation. It’s about setting the bar drastically low in order to call attention to how many films still can’t clear it.
The test is this: if you replaced the villain of this Marvel movie with Justin Hammer, the evil industrialist played by Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2, would it affect the plot?
The success rate is not good.
Every Iron Man movie fails the test, because their villains are so similar as to be basically interchangeable (I could have called it the Ezekiel Stane test, but chose Hammer because he’s the shallowest of the evil arms dealers who hate Iron Man). Iron Man 3’s big “twist” was to reveal that the villain wasn’t Tony Stark’s comic book nemesis the Mandarin, but instead yet another evil arms dealer who wanted to steal Tony Stark’s innovations and sell weapons, and… that’s about the entire depth of their characters.
Loki passes, as no amount of scheming is likely to place Justin Hammer on the throne of Asgard, nor is Thanos likely to loan him the Mind Gem and an army of Chitauri to conquer the Earth. Dude probably has trouble even getting government contracts these days.
Winter Soldier’s Alexander Pierce… gray area. I could buy Justin Hammer as a high-ranking Hydra agent, certainly one who could get access to their Winter Soldier. Don’t buy him being given control of SHIELD, but then the idea that anyone but Nick Fury was in charge was new information at that point.
Guardians of the Galaxy passes. Justin Hammer has no opinion on the planet of Xandar, and as established, isn’t exactly on Thanos’ speed dial.
Thor: the Dark World passes, but only proves that passing the test doesn’t get you a good villain. Malekith was shit.
Ant-Man fails completely. Darren Cross is trying to steal Hank Pym’s creation in order to sell it as a weapon. Take out “Hank Pym” and plug in “Tony Stark” and it’s literally any Iron Man plot. Darren Cross isn’t just a bland, generic villain; he’s a bland, generic villain that we’ve already seen in at least three of their earlier movies. And with arms dealer Ulysses Klau being set up as the potential villain of Black Panther, they seem weirdly committed to trotting out the exact same villain plot at least one more time.
This is what spells trouble for future Marvel movies. They’ve almost never been good at writing villains, but Ant-Man can make you wonder how hard they’re even trying.
Ultron show cracks
Let’s be clear: Age of Ultron did not fail. It made a crap-ton of money and most people who watched it liked it plenty. So nobody is talking about why Age of Ultron failed. But it did earn less than the original, and was less universally beloved, so people are talking about why it was a little disappointing. How after Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, it was a bit of a letdown. Part of that has to do with the fact that it can’t regain the “holy crap, they’re really doing this” sensation of bringing the characters from these five very different movies together for one adventure. But that being said, getting to skip the first movie’s second act of “Boy howdy, they surely don’t get along” and very little else, and go straight to the Avengers running around Avenging together should have carried us through that. The problem is, Age of Ultron was missing something else kind of key.
The first Avengers movie was the capstone of Phase One. It was the victory lap. Not only did the characters of the first five movies come together (albeit with a new actor playing Bruce Banner), the plot points and supporting casts of several films also played a role. Iron Man’s arc reactor, Captain America’s Tesseract, and Thor’s jerk brother Loki all came together to create the big crisis of the third act. It really was the culmination point of everything Marvel Studios had done that far, with the mid-credits reveal showing that something bigger was still to come.
The problem is that “still to come” is taking a little longer than we expected.
The mid-credit reveal of Thanos as Loki’s benefactor, as we now know, was not to set up the next Avengers movie, but to set up 2018/2019’s two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will serve as the big payoff for a decade’s worth of Marvel Studios movies, as everyone who’s dealt with a kind of bland villain trying to rule/destroy their world with an army of faceless minions and a magical space rock come together to fight Thanos, who will have an army of no-doubt faceless minions and six magical space rocks. So that is the big plan, as we’ve known since last year when they laid out their entire Phase Three roadmap at a special panel.
Which, you know, wasn’t necessarily because Warner Bros. had just revealed their plan for DC movies and was dominating the geek news, but, well, the timing is suspect.
But to return to my point, this puts Age of Ultron in an awkward position. How can it be the capstone of Phase Two when we now know that the real narrative push is leading to Infinity War? It can’t, not really. And a lot of its drama and tension is drained by knowing that most of these people will be back in a year for Civil War. Age of Ultron wasn’t a victory lap for Marvel Studios: it was just another cog. Forced to spend a chunk of its screen time setting up future movies by revealing that Loki’s sceptre was another Infinity Stone (which just adds to the appearance that Thanos is really, really bad at his job, but that’s another rant), creating the Vision to wield it, and having Thor go on a vision quest to make it super clear that Thor: Ragnarok is going to be super important in setting up Infinity War, seriously you guys, don’t skip Thor: Ragnarok even though the Thor movies are the weakest ones.
At least that’s how I read the whole “Thor needs to go stand in a pool and have a vision” thing that ate up a surprising amount of the second act.
Marvel Studios is unquestionably popular, and the most consistently successful movie studio on the planet. They made themselves this by adhering to a formula, a formula that reliably produces hits ranging from “adequate” to “massive.” Some critics have become so enamoured with the Marvel formula that they lash out at any comic book movie that dares to break from it. Yes, okay, the Amazing Spider-man films deserve every dis they receive, and I have no reason to believe that Fantastic Four (or Fant-four-stic, as the title reads) is in any way good (a full hour before they get their powers? BOOOOOO), but the X-Men films have still been more hit than miss (and if they pull off Deadpool and Apocalypse, that shifts the needle considerably), Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy didn’t quite stick the landing but still holds up, and when you’re so enamoured with Marvel properties you actually believe Agents of SHIELD is better than Arrow or its superior spin-off The Flash, you need to step back and reassess.
Drifted from my point.
Fox is trying to keep the X-Men gravy train going, and based on First Class and Days of Future Past they’re not doing terribly, except when they give Wolverine his own movie.
Warner Bros. is trying their own thing, with a more serious tone (ugh) and less rigid control over their filmmakers. They have some rules, sure (or else why would they be on their second Wonder Woman director), but still less micro-managing. They’re aiming to be the studio of “auteur” superhero movies, like Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “Here’s our sandbox,” they say, “Come play in it.” Hidden message: “We wouldn’t have fired Edgar Wright.” Which, come on guys, we don’t know that, you fired Joss Whedon off Wonder Woman back when, we haven’t forgotten.
There are those who say the only “auteur” superhero movie in recent memory is Guardians of the Galaxy, which… maybe, but it still fit the formula a little too much to give it full credit.
Will it work? We don’t know. Their only entry thus far was the divisive Man of Steel, a qualified success at best. We’ll need to get through Zach Snyder’s Batman V. Superman and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (by which point there’ll likely be a Comicon trailer for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman to dissect) before we can begin to judge.
Yes, it’s true: DC’s approach removes the safety net Marvel’s formula has provided them (“I’ve never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but hey, Marvel movies rarely disappoint”), in that liking Suicide Squad is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy Wonder Woman. But on the flip side… Marvel’s formula is showing its cracks. If they can’t start writing better villains, or at least stop writing the same villain, and make some more movies that stand alone rather than as prelude to something else… I can envision people starting to get tired of it.
I walk on Stonebluff Road, only road that I have ever known…
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that our sound designer, Patrick Murray, is incredibly proud of his choice of ring tones for Becky this week. So there that is.
This was one of the last episodes written. Partly because it’s one of Keith’s, and Keith took his time producing scripts. Of course, at the time we were writing scripts, Keith had a full-time job, a wife, and two children*, and I had… let me think back, that was 2013, so… nothing. I had nothing. Nothing but time. Time, some rehearsals, and replays of the Mass Effect trilogy. So of course I could crank out episodes five times faster. “Nothing to do” is my superpower. I mean, I’m still going to make fun of him for not matching my output, but it wasn’t without reason.
It was for the best that Keith insisted on taking this one himself, because he took in directions I hadn’t thought of.
The basic pitch for this episode was “Becky asks Jeff and Zoe for help critiquing her friend’s terrible movie.” Seemed like a fun interchange that would get Zoe involved. Since we started breaking the season (“breaking” being an industry term for “figuring out what the hell we’re going to write”) within an hour of creating Zoe, I had some concerns about how to fit her in. We had the “Phil” episode (Deconstructing Phil), we had big episodes for Becky and Jeff, and I knew how to bounce those three off each other. Writing Phil/Jeff banter is second nature to me at this point. But how to ensure we were giving Zoe her time in the sun?
Keith took this episode. He was actually pretty insistent about that. And so it came to be that the premise of the episode, Becky’s friend’s movie, only ends up taking about a third of the screen time. The back half returns to the brewing Becky/Zoe rivalry we glimpsed last week. Only this week, Becky starts to get sick of Zoe’s shit. It was a bit of a left turn from the premise we’d set out, but it gives the episode some meat, which is kind of important this late in the season.
Also, it gives us another glimpse at the complicated relationship between Becky and her victim boyfriend Ted, as well as introducing the fact that he has a sister. That’s gonna be important in a bit.
*Don’t worry, he still has all of those things. Keith does okay.
The initial thrust of the episode, that of the titular Stonebluff Road, is a subtle commentary on something that writers everywhere need to be wary of: the dangers of getting stuck in an echo chamber.
Everyone likes to hear that they’re special and talented and wonderful. Why wouldn’t we? It’s a kick. Well, it’s a kick until your lifetime of insecurities and anxieties kick in and you wonder why this person keeps saying nice things about you oh god is it a prank are you being pranked find an excuse to leave–
Sorry. That got away from me a little.
The point is, that being surrounded by people who do nothing but compliment you and your supposed brilliance is like eating nothing but Cadbury Mini-eggs and Twinkies. It’s delicious, and great while you’re doing it, and then you die of malnutrition. Because while you were gorging on what you want, you weren’t getting anything you need. And what you need are people willing to tell you when you’ve screwed something up. And this is something Becky’s friend sorely lacks.
Call it a cautionary tale. Create in an echo chamber, and someone out there is reacting the way Jeff does.
Dawn of Super Fun Happy Good Times Week
This was the second of only three episodes that were shot in one go. And the first that actually took. Deconstructing Phil was the first, but needed reshoots; last week’s Favour For a Friend was third, because finding two days to cram the four of us into that car would clearly have been insane. Stonebluff Road represents the opening of the first and longest day of Super Fun Happy Good Times Week. Our merry band spent something like 13 hours in that room, shooting this and the bookend sequences of Love is Blind. It was also the first day that all four leads were in the same room.
That did happen… slightly ahead of schedule. Not, like, wickedly ahead of schedule, but by a few hours. No, wait, the schedule was right, but we were… possessed of an unwarranted optimism as to how fast we’d get Stonebluff shot. As such, Ryan’s call time was unfortunately premature. We were still hip-deep in Stonebluff by the time Ryan arrived on set. So for about half of this episode… probably the Jeffless half… picture Phil somewhere in the corner, staying out of sight, staying quiet, just hoping nobody notices him and drags him into this.
Shit. Why did we not just film that. Why did we not end the episode by panning over and revealing Phil at the table. Right, yes, because “Nobody notices me” is Zoe’s bit, and… the other thing that will become clear next week.
Ryan was a trooper about it, though.
Next week… Phil returns, and his banter with Jeff gets real as we ramp up towards the finale in Jeff’s Head.