Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, May 25, 2002
      ( 5/25/2002 08:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GAP-OSIS – My posting about the new Gap music drew an email asking for the identity of the other song being played on the Coen Bros. Dennis Hopper/Christina Ricci pool spot. The song not by the Beach Boys is “I See the Rain” by The Marmalade, a heady pop classic from 1967 that can be heard on the first disc of Rhino’s Nuggets II box set. “Rain” was not a big hit, either in home country England or the United States, though the group would make one hit-wonder status a few years later with the more Bee Gees-like “Reflections of My Life.” To my ears, the earlier psych-pop single beats the group’s later hit on all levels.
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      ( 5/25/2002 04:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

IN PRAISE OF MONSTERS – On the heels of its disjointed series finale, X-Files post-mortems are popping up all over the place, so I thought I’d offer my own over-arching take on the series.

When The X-Files first premiered on Fox, I was not initially predisposed to watch it. The show’s initial promos primarily rang variations on its U.F.O. theme, which was not a big draw for me. A low-budget horror/s-f fan, I’d already viewed my share of govt. conspiracy flying saucer theories (Sunn Classic’s Hangar 18, for instance), and the prospect of even more of this sub-Close Encounters agitprop did not particularly thrill me. It wasn’t until I read about the series’ excursions into straight horror territory that I got interested: I can watch even the flimsiest monster flick and get enjoyment out of it. Even campy horror TV (c.f., Kolchak, The Night Stalker, which reportedly was an influence on Filesman Chris Carter) has its charm, so once I heard that the show worked that particular realm, I started watching.

And X-Files could deliver the goods when it came to scary monsters and super creeps. Eugene Tooms, the liver eater who could squeeze through anything. Fluke Man, the mutant worm. Virgil Incanto (a.k.a. “2Shy”), the fat-sucking vampire. Robert Model, the “Pusher,” the contract killer with the psychic ability to control you. Dr. Franklin, the warlock plastic surgeon. Leonard Betts, the living cancer with the ability to regenerate parts of his body. The William Gibson-created A.I. that did a virtual removal of Fox Mulder’s arms and legs. All prime meat for a horror junkie like myself.

To this regular viewer, the horror eps were the main reason to watch the show. Even the alien conspiracy chapters worked best when the writers infused ‘em with dread (the black oil virus was really just an updating of the Blob) – and in the early years, at least, they did this regularly. High school kids abducted in the spooky woods at night. Dana Scully’s impregnation at the hands of people or creatures that we never saw. The alien rebels with the sewn-up facial orifices. It was all sufficiently disturbing to get me following a plotline I’d first resisted, though eventually the increasingly Byzantine demands of the conspiracy plot got in the way of the creepy stuff.

Despite all the conspiracy folderol in the end, X-Files' last seasons still had a few good monsters in it. (The Indian beggar that could burrow into people’s bodies, for instance.) Even when the show seemed to be needlessly circling itself, the writers were capable of pulling back and – for the space of one ep, at least – giving me what I wanted. Whether working in the service of straight-on horror or pomo horror irony, the beasties were what made the show.

Fox has been releasing DVDs of The X-Files in season-by-season boxed sets, but if they want my money, at some point they should consider doing theme sets. A three-disc set of campfire stories (released just in time for Halloween, say) with serial killers and reluctant pre-cogs, skin-crawling cockroaches and prison camp voodoo, sideshow freaks and the inevitable lycanthrope (I’d even allow room for Chris Carter’s Frankenstein parody). That’s the way I wanna remember this show: Scully and Mulder, the low affect F.B.I. agents, aiming their flashlights into the dark to give us happy glimpses of unspeakable horror. ‘Til we meet again, guys. . .
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Friday, May 24, 2002
      ( 5/24/2002 01:45:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SMALLVILLE SCHOOL DAYS – Of Tuesday night’s big season finales, WB’s Smallville came a distant third in my house. Over the year I’ve enjoyed most of the episodes that I’ve watched – they’re formulaic (high school type gets mysteriously transformed by the lingering Kryptonite that permeates young Clark Kent’s hometown and country environs) but fairly crisp. I actually anticipate catching up on ‘em over the summer. But, bottom line, unless the suits at WB move the show to another night, I suspect it’ll continue to be an alternate selection at Chez Gadabout.

I’m glad to see the show’s a moderate success, however, and I was intrigued by the decision at DC comics to assay a Smallville-inspired story in one of its regular Superman titles as an apparent trial balloon for a future Smallville title. In Action Comics #791 (“The Invitation,” writer, Benjamin Raab; artist, Derec Aucoin), an invite spurs Clark Kent into remembering an episode from his high school years. Turns out to a Very Special Episode revolving around Clark’s decision to invite the school “fat girl,” Margaret Zabusky, to the high school prom: minimal superstuff; maximal "personal growth moments."

Margaret is intelligent, sensitive (we see her reading – shades of the Trench Coat Mob – Catcher in the Rye) and headed for college early: a fairly familiar high school loner figure, though smart enough to avoid the most obvious clichéd behavior. (When Clark sees her standing on a bridge by herself, he assumes she’s contemplating suicide – when actually she’s just thinking of promising life changes ahead for her: “Hell, it’s a bridge, Clark. Can you think of a better metaphor?”) The story ends tragically, anyway – something I don’t recall occurring on any of the TV episodes – without any specious Kryptonite subplots gumming up the works either.

In its own small way, the comic book Smallville is more “realistic” than the series. Raab’s script is sentimental and more than a little condescending toward Margaret (when Lana Lang announces that she and Clark have been voted Homecoming King and Queen, the script descends into drippiness that almost makes you wish there was a bucket of pig’s blood in the rafters). But its heart is in the right place. I can’t help wishing, though, that Derek Aucoin were fully up to the task of fluidly depicting a young fat woman in all of her story moments. (Aucoin’s art beats cover guy John Paul Leon, who dodges the challenge by drawing Margaret average size!)

Comic book Smallville blends the TV show with current DC history: Clark isn’t Superboy, but, unlike the WB series, Pete Ross is not black either – and we’ve been mercifully spared the TV series’ irritating gal reporter. Ma and Pa Kent look like they always have in the comic books: which is okay, even if I do think that Annette O’Toole is an immensely watchable actress. I’m not sure if an ongoing comic book series can be sustained within the limited parameters established by the TV series (Clark can’t show his powers to anyone who’ll be able to remember what they saw by story’s end), but then I’ve had my doubts about the viability of an ongoing network show with this premise, too.

Certainly not the worst thing that's been done to Man or Boy o' Steel over the years, though I'm still betting that a comic book rendition of the tubeville Smallville won't last as long as the WB series. . .

ADDENDUM Back in September, yours truly did an overview of the then-current Superman comic book plotline. The piece reflects some of the critical confusion that arose in the wake of 9-11, but also contains, I believe, a legit take on the character's present comic book incarnation.
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      ( 5/24/2002 06:30:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LAUGHING ON THE BRINK OF APOCALYPSE - Because I was in a Hampton Inn the night of its finale (one that did not get UPN on its cable service, dammit!), I didn’t see the two-hour Buffy finish until this morning. As a result, many of the net fast draws have already beaten me to the big revelations (I would like to go on record as having beaten Stephanie Zacharek in recalling the evil vampire Willow, however). My tardiness won’t stop me from writing about the ep, of course.

Among all the dramatic finales that I’ve witnessed this season (24, Angel, Boston Public, C.S.I., E.R., Enterprise, The Practice and – most especially – The X-Files), the two-hour capper to Buffy, The Vampire Slayer towers above 'em all. I’ve raved in the past about the obvious planning that goes into this series season by season: not only does the show have full seasonal story arcs that are consistently built upon from episode to episode, but details are often planted in one season that hint at what’ll be happening down the road. Yet this tight approach to plotting is meaningless if you don’t care about the characters that are all wrapped in the plots.

One sign of how much you care about the main crew on Buffy is the intense feeling of relief I know I felt midpoint when Anthony Head’s Rupert Giles shows up. The show’s mentor/father figure for five years, Giles left at the start of this season (presumably to England, where he’s been involved in his own half-hour adventures). His departure added to the frightened waywardness everybody else in the show (audience included) seemed to feel the entire season. Soon as he appeared in The Magic Box to face down ultra-Wiccan Willow, you couldn’t help but feel that everything was finally back in place.

The moment that made the show for me, that showed how beautifully the show’s writers have considered all that they’ve been doing, was a scene that followed between Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy and Giles. After telling him what a hellish year that she’s had, Buffy gives Giles a brief synopsis of all the big events (Willow’s addiction, Xander’s abandonment of Anya at the altar, sister Dawn’s shoplifting, money troubles and the slayer’s dangerous dalliances with the vampire Spike). And after one good beat considering all she’s told him, Giles breaks into hysterical laughter. The moment was so sudden and affectionate and close that we and Buffy started laughing along with him.

That laughter capped the season better than the well-played showdown between the Willow and fellow Scooby Ganger Xander. (For all his panicky antics around marriage and commitment, Nicholas Brendan's Xander may’ve become the most mature character this season – who’d have thunk it?) With its bang-up season finale, the series has finally made that definitive bumpy turn from great-fantasy-show-about-adolescent-angst to great-fantasy-show-about-adult angst. Can’t wait for next season. . .
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Thursday, May 23, 2002
      ( 5/23/2002 09:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE FATAL MILKY WAY – C.J.’s budding romance with her secret service bodyguard got snuffed on the season finale of West Wing last night: thanks to one of the cheesier urban clichés in the TV playbook. (Any time a cop enters a convenience or liquor store, you can pretty much guarantee he’ll run into a robbery in progress.) Soon as Mark Harmon’s character went into the store for that Milky Way bar, I started aiming mental darts at Aaron Sorkin for resorting to this contrivance. I’m sure Sorkin was striving for a high-impact season finish comparable to the presidential motorcade shootings that concluded season one, but it was no go.

The subplot around the covert assassination of Abdul Shareef was convincingly handled, though – President Josh Bartlett going through the ethical dilemmas imbedded in his ordering the act. It was one of those moments designed to show how individual intelligence can sometimes be a burden on leadership: meant to contrast Bartlett with the more intuitive good ol’ boy style of James Brolin’s Florida Republican opponent. You can make your own real-life comparisons. But I’m betting that the Clinton Admin was wishing its attempts to get bin Laden had been as easily completed as the op on this show.
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      ( 5/23/2002 06:36:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BOBBY’S MOM IS A SLUT – Three-and-a-half hours on the road, and I know my mind goes places that it probably shouldn’t. So I’m driving on a southern Illinois highway, observing the start of serious spring roadwork, reading the faux kid warning signs.

I don’t know if other states have resorted to this ploy, but in Illinois the tactic of choice for the last two years has been to shame highway drivers into slowing down with signs purporting to be written by the children of construction workers. “Please slow down,” one sign pleads in legible, but childish bright green handwriting, “my mommy works here. Bobby.”

“Bobby” isn’t the only “kid” to have his signature on the fringe of highway road construction, but his mom sure gets around. Three days earlier, I saw another pair of Bobby signs outside of Kankakee: a solid five hours north of my most recent sighting. So either Bobby’s mom is the queen of construction, zipping through roadwork that would typically take weeks in Illinois – or a loose dame with no imagination when it comes to naming her progeny.

I know the goal of these signs (wonder what it cost to have ‘em designed?) is to humanize those forms we speed past on the road. But you'd think if they were gonna do this, they’d come up with a larger pool of names. Does the state of Illinois really want me spending drive time wondering if Bobby’s mom is an unfit parent?
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Wednesday, May 22, 2002
      ( 5/22/2002 07:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

24GONE CONCLUSION – Halfway into the final hour of 24’s first season/day – and it was clear the show’s dual climaxes revolved around honest men confronting Machiavellian women: Penny Johnson’s Lady MacHilary and CTU mole Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke). It explains why Dennis Hopper’s Victor Drazen was so subdued: the show’s writers were saving the big psycho moments for Nina – captured in chilling monitor-freeze after she’s just offed the hard-luck mole Jamie. Watching these ruthless women, you couldn’t help wondering if one of the show’s creators had just gotten through a messy divorce.

24’s world is no place to be married: neither Johnson’s Sherry Palmer nor Leslie Hope’s Teri Bauer came out well by the end of the night. I’m betting Teri’s finish’ll be used to fuel a revved and vengeful Jack Bauer next season. (Think: James Bond looking for Ernst Blofeld – after Blofeld’s killed Bond’s wife Tracy.) You’ve gotta give points to a show that has the chutzpah to risk ending its first season on such a downer note.
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Monday, May 20, 2002
      ( 5/20/2002 08:02:00 PM ) Bill S.  

ROAD WEARIER - On the road the next two days (but no place near as cool as Metropolis, Illinois), so I won’t be posting until after West Wing’s season finish. (Will C.J. Craig put the moves on Mark Harmon’s handsome secret service agent? I still recall his performance as Ted Bundy – should she trust him? And what about that visiting oil country diplomat/terrorist Abdul Shareef?) No doubt all will have been revealed by the time I’m back. . .
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      ( 5/20/2002 01:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

STARSTRUCK, BABY - Why do so many rock tribute albums suck? Driving home from my local mom-and-pop CD store with a copy of This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & The Kinks settled on the passenger seat, I was pondering this question. Jazz and easy listening vocalists have been putting out tribute albums for decades (think of Ella Fitzgerald’s landmark Songbook long-players) and produced some damn fine records in the process. Yet, when it comes to rock tributes, the duds outnumber the dream dates.

It could be an issue of the contributors’ musical proficiency – or lack of same – but that’s not the only factor. Most rock songs are known as much for their debut performance as for the songs themselves, so re-interpreters need to do more just sing the songs well, they need to own ‘em totally. That requires a level of commitment that can elude both the callow and professional.

A longtime Kinks fan, I couldn’t skip Rykodisc’s new tribute collection: even as the Voice of Experience shouted warning notes all the way home. As tribute discs go, Belong avoids the campiness of some sets – young musicians hiding behind irony because that’s the only emotional stance they know – and contains some surprisingly apt performances. (Jonathan Richman doing “Stop Your Sobbing”! Astrid Gilberto’s kid doing the bossa nova, “No Return”! Yo La Tengo assaying the droney raga-like “Fancy”!) I also enjoyed the remakes done by pop-rock faves, Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet: the kind of straight-ahead tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on either artists’ own albums. Weakest track: Lambchop’s creepy rendition of “Art Lover” (and I usually like creepy!)

Perhaps I’d be less critical of any of these cuts if they’d shown up on the artists’ own discs. Taken out of the Big Tribute setting, simple covers can work as a recognition of the influences behind an artist’s work. Lumped together, however, the main thing they do is encourage you to compare and contrast.

Maybe I’m being slavishly fannish, but I’d argue that it’s the job of the performers here to convince me that I want to spend more than one time listening to versions of songs I can play any day in their initial incarnations. That only happens sporadically on even the best tribute collections, and while Belong is a good 'un, it still can't fully overcome the rock tribute curse.

The disc ends with an acoustic version of “Waterloo Sunset,” one of Ray Davies’ greatest songs, done by the composer with Blur frontman Damon Albarn. First time I heard it I fixated on the fact that Albarn’s falsetto was no match for the pristine pop harmonies Davies had coaxed out of his band in the sixties. Several replays later, I still can’t get beyond it . . .
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      ( 5/20/2002 10:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

DECEMBER 22, 2012 – Yuppers, we finally got the long-promised “Endgame” finale of X-Files: a two-hour farrago with snippets of flashback footage plus tons of awkward expository dialog sandwiched between two decent action sequences. (Nice to see a long-standing nemesis get vaporized.) Not the dumbest series finale – for that we still need to look to Seinfeld. But not the last-act mind-blower that devotees hoped writer/creator Chris Carter would pull out in the end either.

Carter’s solution to the “how do we justify going over nine years of series mythology?” question was to frame David Duchovny's Fox Mulder (returning after a year’s absence from the show – though he got included among the ep’s opening cast credits: if this were Buffy, his character would probably be dead now!) and present said mythology as testimony at Mulder’s pseudo-military trial. Not much in the way of new information was delivered, but it did offer a decent Alien Conspiracy for Dummies.

Fox promos to the contrary, the series finish did not completely wrap up the nefarious alien invasion plot. Ever mindful of the follow-up movie franchise, Carter has created a “new” alien threat – set to rear its ugly head in December of 2012, two or three Files flicks down the road. Hopefully, by then Carter and company will have weaned themselves of the sentimental writing that permeated last night’s Mulder/Scully dialog scenes.

But, hey, we also got to see the Lone Gunmen as ghosts, so the night wasn’t a complete loss.

I’ve got hopes for future X-Files features (I know I wrote in an earlier posting that I didn't, but like Fox Mulder I've decided to change my motto from "Trust no one" to "Trust everyone"!) Flick two should tell the tale: reportedly, it'll be a stand-alone horror story –a good thing, think I. One dark deadpan creepshow would do wonders for the life of this series, so let’s hope that the Files folks stick to their purported plans.
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Sunday, May 19, 2002
      ( 5/19/2002 03:25:00 PM ) Bill S.  

AD HOMINEM - Three months into the life of this blog, and I finally committed to springing the $12 to get rid of that ad hovering over my logo. Now that I look at it all on its lonesome, the top of this page doesn’t seem quite right somehow. Yeah, I’m not real good with change. . .
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      ( 5/19/2002 11:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BERG’S EYE CLOSES – Dave (“Lighter Side”) Berg was one of those Mad magazine fixtures that it was easy to underestimate. Though capable of producing sly individual character strips, his take on life was so particularly mid-sixties suburban that it didn’t always travel well into later decades. When I avidly read Mad as a kid, however, Berg was one of my favorite artists.

For me, much of Berg’s best stuff pre-dates his “Lighter Side” series (e.g., a look at dieting from 1961 – which anticipates trends like Overeaters Anonymous and the caloric labeling of food items). But for a time his “Lighter Side” stuff had the button-down wittiness of a good period stand-up skit. More humor than satire, Berg’s “Lighter” strips injected a slice-of-life element into the mag: whether you thought it belonged in a magazine whose earlier motto was “Humor in a Jugular Vein” is probably a matter of personal taste. I thought Berg fit in just fine.

Over the years, you could see Berg coasting – but no more than many of the other original mag’s writers and artists. Still, when National Lampoon did its notorious Mad parody with “The Lighter Side of Dave Berg,” the satiric assault seemed appropriate. Brutal, but droll.

With the news of Berg’s death, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his work getting a deserved reconsideration – if only for its ability to clearly capture the era his “Lighter Side” first illuminated. While the man may not have been “Mad’s Maddest Artist” by a long shot (we all know who that honor goes to), he was a solid cartoonist who regularly did funny work. For that, he deserves to be remembered. . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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